Thursday, August 6, 2020

Light Your Faith

There's a lot of weird religious stuff in my Twitter feed tonight.  I swear they're just doing it to drive me crazy.  I have no idea what "incendiary apologetics" is supposed to mean.

Then there was this one.  Elizabeth Breunig, along with Daniel Larison, is one of the less tiresome Christians on Twitter.  (The historian Kevin M. Kruse, alas, is becoming a bit more tiresome as time passes, but I'll go into that some other time; tomorrow is another day.)

I sympathize with her on the hatemail thing; that shouldn't be happening to her.  But hate is just Christian love.  And why isn't she anti-Catholic?  If the rapists "hate the faith," why did the faith protect them for so long?

By contrast, the SF writer Cory Doctorow (who isn't a Christian as far as I know), posted some good news.  I knew that the Satanic Temple has been doing good work against religious fascism in America, which Doctorow sums up in that thread.  I've noticed before the 1984 Equal Access Act, which was intended to give Christian groups access to spaces in public schools, ended up as a lever to force schools to allow Gay-Straight Alliances to form and meet in the schools.  I'd hoped that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would boomerang in the same way, and the Satanic Temple has found a way:

"A Satanic Abortion," Doctorow explains, "is a religious ritual that is totally indistinguishable from a normal, medical abortion, except that the participant says a few self-affirming words about her bodily autonomy.  Oh, also: the ritual absolutely forbids, as a bedrock matter of religous conviction, any waiting periods, the withholding of medically necessary advice, mandatory counseling, required readings, and unnecessary sonograms. Also forbidden: mandatory fetal heartbeat listening sessions and compulsory fetal burials. If you want an abortion and the doctor tries this bullshit, hand them one of these exemption letters explaining how the law doesn't apply thanks to the RFRA."

As a result, Doctorow says, "Now, the religious right could fight this. But if they win...they overturn the RFRA, and Hobby Lobby has to provide its employees with contraception and all the other theocratic exemptions go poof, too."  I don't know if it would work out so neatly, but it should.  This is what happens when instead of resorting to the preferred liberal tactic of throwing tantrums about the wickedness of the religious Right, you turn their methods against them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Our Childlike, Emotional Leaders: The Latest Episode

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, posted a thread on Twitter yesterday in which he blasted Donald Trump for botching the coup in Venezuela.  That's right: he doesn't object to the coup itself, or to interfering in the elections of other countries, he is just pissed that Trump failed to bring it off.  He doesn't seem to recognize the Venezuelan opposition's failure in the job; like them, he presumably thought the US would do the heavy lifting and hand the country over to them.  It's a remarkably petulant performance, and would be amusing if real people's lives weren't at stake.

Aside from calling coup frontman Juan Guaidó "charismatic," and thereby continuing the tradition of American male elites going all moist over brown-skinned strongmen, Murphy made an interesting admission:
Then, it got real embarrassing. In April 2019, we tried to organize a kind of coup, but it became a debacle. Everyone who told us they’d rally to Guaido got cold feet and the plan failed publicly and spectacularly, making America look foolish and weak.
It's remarkable because respectable US media have been working hard to deny that there was, or had been a coup against Maduro -- as they also have about the later coup in Boliva.  Mainstream US coverage of Venezuela has been dishonest and anti-democratic for years, so this is no surprise.

I'd like to know who Murphy had in mind as the "we" who "tried to organize a kind of coup."  Bipartisan support for a coup in Venezuela is not exactly a surprise.  Most senior Congressional Democrats were onboard for removing Maduro with Guaidó while distancing themselves from overt military action, and even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hesitated to speak out against American interference with other countries' politics.  By making a big deal of their opposition to an invasion, they could distract from their acceptance of the US' right to control other countries in other ways.  But Murphy has let the cat out of the bag: whoever "we" were, he's one of them.

Murphy tries to put all the blame on Trump, but some of it has to fall on "we," including him.  And he's no angel: he's been agitating for the overthrow of the Bolivarian government for some time, as in this January 2019 op-ed for the Washington Post, co-authored with the former Obama flunky Ben Rhodes.

It's no surprise that there was a lot of pushback to Murphy's thread.  Notable to me were the number of people who believed that if Biden is elected, everything will be okay.  In some cases they made it clear that they wanted to overthrow Maduro and were just angry that Trump had failed to do it because of Putin.  (Murphy also blamed Putin for Trump's failure to bring off the coup, though it's more likely, given Trump's notoriously evanescent attention span, that when Maduro didn't fall right away, he just lost interest in the game.)  Some were sure that Biden would be better in some undefined way, but this isn't likely: Biden also wants Maduro removed by any means feasible.  He has differences with Trump on Venezuela, but they're minor and technical.  A Biden administration will continue the strangulation of Venezuela; it's what Barack would wantCorporate media also have faith.

The corporate media covered the hearings Murphy referred to in this thread, but not his talk about his "kind of coup."  I suppose it's not news.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Ah, Yes! I Remember It Well

Here we go again.

A woman who won the primary to become the Democratic nominee for the Westchester NY District Attorney posted yesterday:

(Incidentally, she corrected her typos in a followup tweet.)  I'm glad she won, and I can believe that men told her to wait her turn and told her she was too ambitious.  I suppose she was alluding to recent harping over Kamala Harris's political ambitions and whether she should become Joe Biden's Vice-Presidential choice.  Of course she shouldn't, for reasons that have nothing to do with her political ambitions.

Among the comments Rocah received was this:

Aside from posting authentic Twitter gibberish, Ms. Walker remembers 2016 differently than I do.  What I saw in 2016 was that it was Clinton's turn to be president, that it was women's turn. That's not how it ought to go. I said then and I say now: we don't need a woman President or VP; we don't need another black President; we don't need a gay President. What we need is a good President. Those who say this now are told to wait, it's too soon for a good president, we have to be patient and vote tactically, we have to be incremental and accept a bad one who's not quite as bad as Trump.

Okay, I get it.  Cynical though I am, though, I don't quite understand why so many people can't just say that Biden's not Trump and leave it there.  They can't resist walking it back and trying to explain why he's good and decent and the president we need; when you point out that he's none of these things, they dig in harder.  Or better, here's how you win over undecided voters:

Friday, July 31, 2020

Three War Criminals, All in a Row

It's been entertaining to watch the various vultures squabbling over the remains of the late John Lewis. At the memorial service, Bill Clinton praised Lewis for being moderate in not Going Too Far as Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) did.  This set off predictable fury in the left Twittersphere, but really, did anyone really believe the overall spectacle was going to be anything but embarrassing?  Clinton doesn't know or doesn't care (you decide) that Lewis was pretty extreme; his address at the 1963 March on Washington had to be pared back by Movement censors / PR people to avoid troublesome excess.  And of course, Martin Luther King was always Going Too Far for the comfort of white moderates, and Rosa Parks continued Going Too Far for the rest of her long life.

Then the Right threw tantrums over Barack Obama's eulogy of Lewis, which they claimed "politicized" the sacred event.  Leftists and liberals derided them, pointing out that politicians' funerals are always political, except when Bill Clinton is there. The fun part is that when Clinton and Obama croak, right-wingers will forget everything they said about keeping the memorials apolitical, and liberals will be furious that the Rethugs are dragging politics into it. I hope I live to see it. 

But Obama ... I heard a couple of clips from his performance, and I don't know if I have the strength to watch the whole forty-minute thing, so this will have to do for now.  The first one included a denunciation of the use of tear gas and clubs against peaceful demonstrators, which Obama was perfectly comfortable with while he was President.  (The crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street looked very much like the ones we've seen the past several weeks.)  In the second clip I heard, he did a very poor impersonation of a fiery black preacher, evidently under the impression that such low comedy was appropriate for the occasion - and I guess it was, because liberals have been wetting their pants over his inspiring and articulate oratory.  Some of what he said was unexceptionable, such as restoring protection of voting rights; but his support won't help it happen, and I would hope that no one needs his advice to see it as important.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Variation on a Theme

Last week Representative Ted Yoho (R-FL) approached Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on the Capitol steps and attacked her for some remarks she'd made about crime at a town hall earlier in the month.  "You are out of your freaking mind," he said, called her "disgusting," and according to a reporter who was present, turned away and muttered "Fucking bitch" as he moved along.

Ocasio-Cortez criticized him publicly for his obnoxiousness, and Yoho took to the House floor to make the standard fake apology for such occasions: he denied having used the obscenity, claimed he was just so upset he hardly knew what he was doing, and flaunted his wife and two daughters as proof that he'd never use such disrespectful language.  Ocasio-Cortez deftly raked Yoho over the coals some more.

Something odd, though.  Yoho said he was offended because of his own experience with poverty, and accused Ocasio-Cortez of equating poverty with crime.  Here's how The Hill reported what she'd said:
During the event, Ocasio-Cortez was asked about gun violence in New York, which has spiked this summer as the nation's largest city — which was clobbered by the coronavirus — slowly reopens from a months-long lockdown.

Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, has long advocated for policies that cut police budgets and shift that funding to education, mental health and other social services. In her response, she stuck to that theme, suggesting the surge in crime stems from the economic hardship facing New York's poorest communities — and a failure of policymakers to fund programs aimed at leveling economic disparities.

“Crime is a problem of a diseased society, which neglects its marginalized people," she said during the July 9 event. "Policing is not the solution to crime.”
Right-wing media attacked for, as they saw it, justifying violent crime as the result of poverty.

On Monday, Ocasio-Cortez defended her position, saying she made clear during the town hall that she was referring to "petty crime and crimes of poverty."
Conservative media, she said, has purposefully taken her comments out of context.

"I say, 'Listen, I'm not talking about violent crime, I'm not talking about shootings. But when it comes to petty theft, a lot of these are crimes of poverty, and people are desperate,'" she said. "So the right wing cuts up this clip, per usual, in a very misleading way. ... They basically [want] to make it seem as though I'm saying people are shooting each other because they're hungry."
Fair enough, I guess, but the question she answered was apparently about a spike in gun violence this summer in New York.  It seems, then, that she dodged the question before her as disingenuously as Yoho tried to justify his outburst: "I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country." 

Further, it appears that she didn't hear his parting epithet until it made the news.  A sitting politician should know better than to let off steam near a reporter, but I wonder if Ocasio-Cortez' vocabulary is squeaky clean when she's alone and thinking about her colleagues.  If Yoho had said it to her directly, it would be a different situation, but it seems that Ocasio-Cortez and sympathetic media framed the story to make it sound as if Yoho had cussed her to her face.  In any case, throwing a tantrum at a colleague on the Capitol steps was bad optics, though in the old days Congressmen were prone to strong insults and fisticuffs in the Congressional chambers.  Boys will be boys.

But the point I wanted to make here was, one more time, that a lot of the lefty-liberal-progressive types who jumped to Ocasio-Cortez' defense use misogynist language like Yoho's publicly, on Twitter, all the time.  (So do the right-wingers, but one expects that of passionately Christian patriots.)  They're in no position to cast the first stone at Yoho.  I've been tweaking some such by addressing them as Representative Yoho when I reply to their frothing.  It hasn't diminished in the regions I frequent since this story blew up.  Nor has homophobic abuse.  But of course, it's different when the good guys do it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A Cautionary Tale

This morning Amazon, like the Hand of Providence, threw into my path a book by James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Pitchstone Publishing, 2015).  Everyone except for James A. Lindsay, I figured, and I was right.  According to the accompanying blurb the book is:
A call to action to address people's psychological and social motives for a belief in God, rather than debate the existence of God  With every argument for theism long since discredited, the result is that atheism has become little more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. Thus, engaging in interminable debate with religious believers about the existence of God has become exactly the wrong way for nonbelievers to try to deal with misguided—and often dangerous—belief in a higher power. The key, author James Lindsay argues, is to stop that particular conversation. He demonstrates that whenever people say they believe in "God," they are really telling us that they have certain psychological and social needs that they do not know how to meet. Lindsay then provides more productive avenues of discussion and action. Once nonbelievers understand this simple point, and drop the very label of atheist, will they be able to change the way we all think about, talk about, and act upon the troublesome notion called "God."
I'm sympathetic with Lindsay's approach here.  I've benefited from reading the literature debating the existence of gods, but I was already an atheist when I began reading it.  I became an atheist quite young, at around the age of ten.  I was fascinated by Greek and Biblical mythology, and one day my father told me that I should know that some people don't believe in God.  "Why not?" I asked. "Well," he replied, "they don't feel any need to."  I took my time absorbing this information, and I don't know exactly when I realized that I was one of those people, but I did.  After all, I didn't have much of an idea of what God was before; he was sort of like Santa Claus, of whose existence I'd been disabused some years earlier, or the Greek gods.  Learning what it meant to be an atheist took a lot more time and thought.  I'm still learning, but debating whether gods exist doesn't interest me any more than debating whether homosexuality is okay.

The trouble with Lindsay's stance is that it cuts both ways; we atheists, when we say we don't believe in "God," are really telling theists that we have certain psychological and social needs that we don't know how to meet.  Everyone does.  Human beings aren't rational creatures at heart; we can learn to use reason, but our needs and drives are pre- or sub-rational.  Does Lindsay realize that he's echoing, almost parodying, a popular Christian missionary line here?  I don't think so.  But it's also reminiscent of Almost-New Atheist Sam Harris's conviction that people who criticize American foreign policy are "masochistic," and need to have our eyes opened to the healing light he brings, that we may have life more abundantly (and Muslims have it less).

And -- surprise, surprise -- I downloaded the Kindle sample of Everybody Is Wrong About God, and found that Harris is for Lindsay one of "the most prominent atheist writers of the beginning of this century, among them Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, the late Victor Stenger, and Jerry Coyne."  "Prominent" seems to be damning this pan-atheon with faint praise, I must admit, but Lindsay thinks that they have definitively brought theism low.  He says he will work with a "clarified position on the term atheism, one that speaks back to the meaning originally put forward" by Harris et al.  This is also odd: did they -- does Lindsay -- believe that there was no atheism before the twenty-first century?  From what I've read of their work, which I admit isn't enough, they were just following in the footsteps of much smarter writers.  David Hume, for one.  And far from what you might call post-theists, which is what Lindsay seems to be aiming for, they are very noisily anti-theist.

Lindsay also says that "we need to understand myth.  Myth doesn't just mean a misinterpretation of a phenomenon."  (Actually, it doesn't mean that at all.  I'll return to that point shortly.)
At the core of myth is a blend of misinterpretation, obscuring ignorance, and yet clear apprehension, but what is most relevant about mythology is none of these.  True, myths are built out of ignorance, often due in part to the complexity of the subject matter at their cores, and, true, myths are a kind of misinterpretation of that subject matter.  On the other hand, and importantly, also true is that myths encapsulate some degree of understanding of what they represent -- otherwise they'd be far less compelling than they are.  What is most relevant about myths, however, is exactly what makes them most compelling: myths are culturally relevant narratives that simplify complex or unclear phenomena and that speak to people at the level of their psychological needs.  Narratives of this kind, though, are exactly what religions provide for people, and it is therefore precisely this observation that illustrates why God, at the center of so many religious beliefs, is a mythological construct.
This isn't far from the view of a theistic apologist like Karen Armstrong.  The main difference is that Armstrong allows more understanding and knowledge to mythology.  But they're both wrong.  There's a lot of scholarly debate about just what myth is, and at best Lindsay is addressing only a subset of the material.  It's not even sure how much the ancients believed their myths.  Some scholars argue that at least some myths encode not ignorance, but knowledge about the world, perhaps to keep it esoteric.  But it ill becomes Lindsay to dismiss ignorance, since everyone is ignorant of more than they know, including Lindsay.  Indeed, "ignorance" and "superstition" are both religious concepts.  Especially going by the mythos of Modern Science, everyone today is an ignorant savage compared to those who will follow us in centuries to come.  He has, as far as I can tell from what I've read of the book so far, a rather backward conception of religion, as a bunch of silly stories invented to keep the rabble happy and controlled.  It appears that he hopes to fill the shoes of the elites who developed religion for that purpose in the first place.

Take the last sentence I quoted, which has the form of a logical conclusion but isn't one.  First, mythology is only part of any religion, and it's likely that ritual predates mythology.  People create narratives for their own sake, and only rationalize them afterward.  Mythology is a part of epics like the Gilgamesh cycle, the Homeric epics, and the Torah, but only part; and I wouldn't care to pontificate as to their purposes.  In Greek drama, which originated as part of religious festivals, the gods are used as part of the stories, just like the human characters, who are also mythological though not divine.  Myth is part of the backdrop of any human society.

Second, because human beings think narratively, mythic narratives aren't specific to religion.  It's a cliche that nations have their own mythologies, and the United States is no exception: Columbus, who defied superstitious belief in a flat earth to discover America; the Pilgrim Fathers, who fled persecution to build a haven for religious freedom in the New World; the Founding Fathers, who in their wisdom created a new nation devoted to freedom for all men; and so on.  (I know that these are ahistorical; that's the point.)  So does science, not just with heroic tales about the Patriarchs -- all male, naturally -- who defied superstition to bring Man the light of knowledge, of Thomas Huxley totally destroying Bishop Samuel Wilberforce over Evolution in 1860, of Watson and Crick cracking the DNA code by themselves, down to bold cowboy geeks inventing the computer in their garages without a penny of government money -- but with a mythology of the Scientific Method, which bears little or no resemblance to what scientists actually do.  But scientists believe in it, because it speaks to their psychological needs.  The myth of evolution as a linear ascent from lower to higher, dumber to smarter, is also popular among those with Faith in Science.  You might be able to get rid of religion, narrowly and tendentiously defined, but mythology won't be eliminated easily, if at all.

Unwittingly supporting my position, Lindsay declares a little later, "We saw the idea of racism collapse long before the culture started really catching on, a process lamentably still continuing today." This, lamentably, isn't true.  The idea of the oneness of humanity is actually much older and is found in some universalizing religions, but in the late 1800s the "idea of racism" moved from "the culture" to science, where it's comfortably entrenched to this day, along with the "idea of sexism."  Lindsay has degrees in physics and mathematics, but he doesn't know much about history.

If the price of Everybody Is Wrong About God is marked down, I might try reading the whole thing, but so far it isn't promising.  As numerous people have said, including me: the trouble isn't that people are ignorant, it's that they know so much that isn't so.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Gentlemen Callers

This isn't the first variation I've seen on this theme, posted on Facebook by a gay male friend around 40 years old.  I have to remind myself that if social media had been around when I was 40, I probably would have posted such things myself. So let's imagine that I'm writing this to my younger self.

Actually, though, 40 was roughly when I realized that I wasn't really interested in a long-term committed relationship.  I already knew that the trouble (if it was trouble) lay with me, not with the men I met and dated.  I wanted someone to be there for me, but not all the time, just when I wanted him to be there, and that wasn't fair to him.  I knew some men who I wanted to be with more often, but not all the time, and probably not permanently.  It began to occur to me that I would be content if I had two or three occasional but ongoing partners -- the term Friends With Benefits hadn't been coined yet; "fuck buddies" had.  The trouble was that FWBs are hard to schedule: when I found several such a decade later, either I wouldn't see any of them for a month or more at a time, or they'd all come calling at the same time: feast or famine.  I also found that they had to be the ones who decided when to show up; if I invited them over, they'd get nervous.  But I realized I could live with that.

Sometimes one of the men I knew would drift away altogether.  He might move to another town, or get into a committed relationship, or just lose interest.  But before long someone else would find his way into my life.  I began to trust that I wasn't likely to be without willing partners for the foreseeable future.  Some of those FWB relationships went on for years, certainly longer than any attempted commitment I'd tried.  In some of them, the word "love" wasn't out of place, though it might have been if we'd moved in together.

Often I've encountered people who chided me, "What's going to happen to you when you're old and you're still alone?"  I pointed out that plenty of people get divorced or widowed: marriage, or even commitment is no guarantee over the long haul.  I didn't like the idea of someone staying with me out of guilt or fear; I didn't want to do it myself, so why would I inflict myself on someone else?  Admittedly, I have a greater tolerance for being alone than many other people, and conversely less tolerance for having company when I'd rather be alone, so the prospect of being solitary never terrified me the way it does other people.  I eventually realized that committed couples work out ways of getting time to themselves, they aren't joined at the hip 24/7.  For me, the amount of solo time I need is great enough that I preferred that it be the default: that I would rather be alone when I might have preferred company, than have company when I preferred to be alone.

But perhaps my chief objection to this meme is about the word "real," used as the opposite of "temporary."  I think my FWBs and one-night stands were "real."  Not only that, but I've had many nonsexual friendships that enriched my life wonderfully.  It was always a gamble, living in a college town with its transient population, whether I'd always find enough company to keep me going, but I did.  The words of Allen Ginsberg's psychoanalyst reassured me: "Oh, you're a nice person, there will always be people who'll like you."  I didn't believe that when I was 20, or 25 (me? nice?), but at about 30 I began to trust that I was likable enough: not to be smug about it, but to believe that I'd get by.  And so I have, though admittedly the current pandemic has thrown a wrench into the works.  Still, I know that it's not about me, and I'm doing all right, with enough friendly human interaction to warm my heart.

And anyway, we are all temporary.  Few long-term couples manage to die at the same time, which would be the best you could hope for if you demand that neither you nor your partner checks out ahead of the other.  And what does it mean to say that one shouldn't "entertain temporary people"?  How do you know that the person you've met will last for the rest of their life?  I've challenged some people on this point, and never got a convincing answer. "You just know" is the best they come up with, but I've learned as I observe their romantic careers over time that they don't know.  It seems to me that to find a serious partner you often have to audition many others who turn out not to be serious -- or you aren't serious about them; there's something very egoistic about this meme, as though one's own feelings are the only ones that matter.  Besides, the need to entertain people whose seriousness is unknown is proverbial: think of memes like "In order to find a prince you have to kiss a lot of frogs."

The only remedy I can think of is arranged marriage.  It works for some people, apparently, but I'll pass.  And I don't consider the men I've kissed over the past half-century to be frogs -- well, one or two, but in general they were perfectly fine people I just didn't want to spend the rest of my life with, or vice versa.  But that doesn't mean they were worthless, and the dismissive attitude toward ordinary humanity in this meme is disturbing.  If you aren't permanent, you're unreal, a waste of time.  The person who made this meme might just be projecting.