Sunday, April 26, 2015

Taking It Out in Trade

I'd like to think that President Obama put his foot in his mouth the other day, when he compared Senator Elizabeth Warren's criticism of his Transpacific Partnership trade pact to certain Republicans' claims about "death panels" in the Affordable Care Act.  I'm putting it indirectly like that because Obama didn't name Sarah Palin in his remarks, leaving it to others to connect the dots, which they've obligingly done.

Obama claimed that Warren (and Bernie Sanders and other liberal critics of the TPP) are factually wrong about the TPP, even going so far as to say that they "can walk over today and read the text of the agreement. There’s nothing secret about it.”  This appears to be a lie.  Yes, Warren replied (along with her colleague Sherrod Brown), members of Congress can read the text (as can lobbyists and other corporate personnel), but the public and the media can't, because the text is classified. 

The implied comparison to Palin is of course miserably insulting.  If Warren's as stupid and dishonest as Palin, why did Obama appoint her as his special assistant and advisor on the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?  On the contrary, Warren is what is commonly called a "wonk," a studious and hard-working person with a strong interest in detail.  Palin is a sloppy, intellectually lazy person who sees no reason why she should be bothered with factual accuracy.  Warren might very well be mistaken about aspects of the TPP, but you'd have to be a fool to take Obama's word for it.  And this is ironic, isn't it:
"What I am averse to is a bunch of ad hominem attacks and misinformation that stirs up the base but ultimately doesn't serve them well. And I'm going to be pushing back very hard if I keep hearing that stuff," Obama told reporters on Friday.
It's the typical Obama response to his critics from the left: first mockery, then abuse, then threats.  I doubt it will hurt him; some of the faithful will get angry, since Warren is a popular figure among progressive Democrats nowadays, but if the anger gets out of hand, Obama will make some trivial, derisive gesture of apology or appeasement and all will be forgiven.

Friday, April 17, 2015

You Can't Always Get What You Want


By Cthulhu's tentacles!  I didn't think this shameful spectacle could get any worse, and then of course it did.  It's almost certainly not over yet.

I confess, I didn't pay much attention at first to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as it moved through the Indiana Legislature.  I don't know why; I pay less attention to state politics than to local, national or international politics, and that's not something to be proud of.  But as more and more people began drawing my attention to the bill, and the temperature of the opponents' rhetoric rose, I grudgingly took a look.

First I looked at the text of the bill itself.  I took for granted that "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" was intentionally misleading, a smokescreen like "Defense of Marriage Act" or "Marriage Equality".  People I knew were fuming that it would be a license for discrimination against LGBT people, and I wondered what such a law would look like.  Someone mentioned that there was a Federal RFRA too, passed during the Clinton administration.

As I'd rather suspected, the Indiana bill, like the Federal one, didn't explicitly mention sexual orientation or gay or trans people.  Both versions were weirdly vague, which I thought was worrisome enough.  The gist of the Federal bill, as well as of the Indiana version (I know, I know, but hold your horses -- I'll get to that presently) was that "Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability" and that any burden must be justified as "furtherance of a compelling government interest."  The point of the Federal bill was to protect small, marginal religious sects when their practices ran afoul of majority prejudices and laws.  The best-known example of this was peyote use by the Native American Church, but the RFRA was cited in other contexts too, ranging from conflicts over the renovation of a Roman Catholic church building that had been designated a historical landmark to the infamous 2014 Hobby Lobby case.

In 1997 the US Supreme Court overturned part of the Federal RFRA, "with respect to its applicability to States (but not Federally), stating that Congress had stepped beyond their power of enforcement provided in the Fourteenth Amendment."  Numerous states then passed RFRAs of their own, of which the Indiana version is (so far) the latest.  In some cases, court rulings provided similar protections at the state level.

That the Indiana bill didn't refer explicitly to sexual orientation doesn't tell us anything about its intent, of course; that's why I find its vagueness so worrisome.  What constitutes a "substantial burden" probably is constrained somewhat by case law, what the courts have ruled on the subject in the past.  But that's just what is being debated now: is it a "substantial burden" to require businesses to serve customers whose lives are at some kind of variance with the business owners' religion?  This is likely to be fought in the courts for years to come.

When I pointed this out, asking snarkily how many of the Indiana bill's opponents had actually read it, the reactions (basically "you think you're so smart!") indicated that they hadn't, but OMFG we have to do something right away, because this law will give Bible-thumpers a license to discriminate against LGBT people!

On this point I confess I was slow on the uptake.  It took me a few days of debate before I remembered that Bible-thumpers in Indiana (or anyone else, in fact) already have "a license to discriminate against LGBT people": Indiana's civil rights law doesn't include sexual orientation as a basis on which it is forbidden to discriminate.  Not only that, Indiana localities are not permitted to add anything to the state law's provisions in their own civil rights ordinances.  My liberal city, Bloomington, tried to do so in the 1970s, but that ordinance was overturned.  In the 1990s, West Lafayette and Bloomington tried another approach: they passed ordinances which forbade discrimination based on sexual orientation, but without any provision for enforcement.  The city would attempt to mediate complaints about discrimination, but there could be no penalties.  Those ordinances are still on the books, but they don't constitute any real prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Nor is Indiana unique in this regard.  Some people I knew began calling for boycotts of Indiana if the bill passed.  The first lives in Kentucky.  Kentucky already has a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and does not legally forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation.  The state government of Kentucky is currently fighting against the legalization of same-sex civil marriage there.  So shouldn't he boycott himself first?  Then my liberal law-professor friend said, half-jokingly I guess, that she wasn't sure she should visit her family in Indiana, she didn't want to spend money here.  She lives in Texas, which already has a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and no legal protection for sexual orientation.  As a law professor who specializes in civil rights law, she surely is aware of this.  (So far she has yet to say anything about the Indiana RFRA that betrays any intelligence at all.)  Before long some random person in Michigan issued the clarion call to boycott Indiana.  While Michigan doesn't have a state RFRA, it does have "RFRA-like protections provided by state court decisions," and permits discrimination based on sexual orientation; it also has a ban on same-sex marriage passed by popular vote ten years ago, but still in force so far. (The Detroit Free Press editorial I just linked to was one of the more sensible things I've read on this issue.)  This map, already out of date but still helpful, shows the thirty-one states that have RFRAs or RFRA-like court decisions.

Same-sex civil marriage is legal in Indiana, by contrast, and it seems that the RFRA was introduced as a sullen riposte to the activist courts that made it so.  (So there, too!)  I wouldn't be at all surprised if Governor Mike Pence, who clearly isn't the sharpest pencil in the box, was unaware that antigay (as well as anti-straight) discrimination was already legal in the state he governs. 

Now, it is true that the Indiana law has some important differences from the federal RFRA, and from other state versions, as discussed here.  They're clearly meant to make it easier for bigots to cite religious freedom to defend discrimination.  Again, however, none of these differences point to sexual orientation.  They are meant to defend all kinds of discrimination, even those that are prohibited by existing civil rights law.  And let me repeat: In Indiana and most other states, there's no need to cite religion as a justification for discriminating against LGBT people, since it is already legal to discriminate against us here.  What I find annoying about most of the Indiana RFRA's critics is that, first, they ignore this elementary fact.  Numerous people quoted Stephen King's line "Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act is gay discrimination, pure and simple. You can frost a dog turd, but it's still a dog turd."  Leaving aside King's evident confusion about terminology (it's antigay discrimination, not "gay discrimination"), the Indiana RFRA is not specifically about gay people.  My second concern is that in the hysteria over this law as a license to discriminate against gay people, its critics are overlooking other forms of discrimination that are at least as relevant in a Republican, heavily conservative-evangelical state.  If a good Christian shopkeeper wants to refuse to serve a woman in a hijab or other Muslim head covering because America's a Christian country so go back where you came from, for example, this bill would provide a cover for that refusal -- at least until the courts overturn it.  The second thing that disturbs me is that most (all that I've seen, in fact) of the fuss over the Indiana RFRA focuses on antigay discrimination, while ignoring its other implications.  This may be partly because so many LGBT Americans, being Americans, are quite comfortable with anti-Muslim discrimination, racism, sexism, and other areas where faith and the law may clash.  The campaigns for "marriage equality" and against the US military ban on homosexuals involved a lot of reactionary flag-waving and Bible-thumping to assure their fellow citizens that LGBTs can be good Republicans and Moral Majoritarians too.

Which brings me to another flaw in the criticism.  Given the vagueness of Religious Freedom Restoration laws at all levels, their writers' intent is not all that important, but it can still be noticed and discussed.  Given the people who inspired and worked on the Indiana bill and who were present when Pence signed it into law, I don't doubt that enabling antigay discrimination was their intention.  (Though they'd probably be quite happy if it could be used against Muslims, Jews, Wiccans, atheists, and others.)  But the intentions of a law's framers don't determine much.

Take the the Equal Access Act of 1984 (via), passed during the Reagan administration to force public schools to allow students to use their facilities for prayer and Bible-study groups.  In those heady days, when the Christian Right saw Reagan as their Vindicator who would make the whole world bend the knee to Christ as they conceived of him, it's not surprising that the bill's sponsors and supporters dismissed concerns that it could be used by secularists and homosexuals and others they disliked.  But the EEA turned out to be the "single most important tool available"* to the Gay-Straight Alliances that spread across the US in the 1990s.

But look again at RFRAs: the Federal version was intended to protect minority religious groups, notably Native Americans.  It failed to do so.  First the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional as it applied to actions by the states, while sustaining it at the Federal level.  Then it turned out that Native Americans who used peyote in religious rituals were still running afoul of law enforcement, so the law had to be amended in very specific language: "the use, possession, or transportation of peyote by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremony purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion is lawful, and shall not be prohibited by the United States or any state. No Indian shall be penalized or discriminated against on the basis of such use, possession or transportation."

The authors of the Indiana RFRA learned from the failures of other state RFRAs. Its provision that government entities need not be involved to make a case for infringement of religious freedom, for example, was evidently inspired by a court's rejection of such a case involving a private business in New Mexico.  The Indiana bill attempts to plug that hole.  Whether the courts will accept this plug will have to be seen.  Again, the critics of the Indiana law ignored such issues until their noses were rubbed in them, and then they still preferred to focus on its nonexistent "license to discriminate against gays" aspect.

Some unexpected and unwelcome invocations of religious freedom have been turning up even before the Indiana RFRA was passed.  Some were meant seriously, others humorously, but they were no less educational for all that.  One example that got a lot of press was the "nearly nine-foot-tall bronzed statue of a Baphomet, a goat-headed idol seated on a throne before two children, which [the Satanic Temple] plans to erect in the Oklahoma Capitol."  I hope that creative interventions like this will proliferate, letting the Christian Right and the American public know just what a Pandora's box the RFRAs will open.  While the intention of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration act was certainly bad, the intentions of many of its critics are also suspect as far as I can tell.

Next: the backlash.


*Melinda Miceli, Standing Out, Standing Together: The Social and Political Aspects of Gay-Straight Alliances (Routledge, 2005), page 39.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

How Do I Make My Voice Do This?

I have my differences with Amanda Marcotte, but in general I like her writing.  Yesterday she wrote this footnote to a post on why people tell pollsters they believe in gender equality when they really don't.  One reason many (well, most) people deny that they are feminists even when they claim to believe in gender equality, Marcotte speculated, is "the American fetishization of individualism, which leads a lot of people to shun labels in an effort to show what special snowflakes they are."  At the end of the post she added:
This is a major pet peeve of mine. The irony is that there is nothing more basic than snootily declaring that you are above labels. In my long experience with this, I’ve learned that nothing tells you that someone is a boring, unoriginal person quicker than having that person declare that they can’t be fit into boxes. It’s actually hilariously counterproductive to the obvious goal of being perceived as a special snowflake. Genuinely interesting people realize that labels aren’t boxes, they’re descriptors. How can you be an actually interesting person if you shun all descriptors? That’s like calling clear a color.
Ooh, yes.  This is a major pet peeve of mine too, especially since I began to notice that most volunteers on our Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Speakers Bureau had begun introducing themselves by saying they "identify as" gay, lesbian, or bisexual -- or perhaps pansexual, or queer.  Every time I hear them say this, I think of the lines from "Rocky Raccoon":
Her name was Magill
And she called herself Lil
But everyone knew her as Nancy
(Firesign Theater alluded to the song soon afterward in their audio drama "The Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye":
Nick Danger: That cheap, tarnished piece of tin is worthless!
Rocky Rococo: Worthless?  Ha!  Not to Melanie Haber!
ND: Melanie Haber?
RR: You may remember her as Audrey Farber ...
ND: Audrey Farber?
RR: [uneasily] Susan Underhill?
ND: Susan Underhill?
RR: [triumphantly] How about ... Betty Jo Bialosky?
ND: [aside] Betty Jo Bialosky!  I hadn't heard that name since college.  Everyone knew her as Nancy.
But I digress.  Aside from the Constitutionally protected, Bible-based desire to be a Special Snowflake, this resistance to labels seems to be motivated by a wish to evade stigma.  People who reject labels like gay, lesbian, or bisexual often rationalize their choice by pointing to the negative stereotypes supposedly embedded in the words.  These are often fanciful.  Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, one of our volunteers explained to a class that he didn't like "gay" because it usually referred to "two white, cisgendered men together."  He preferred "queer," which has its own baggage, but doesn't mean much of anything.  But then neither does "gay."  Contrary to his claim, "gay"doesn't necessarily say anything about the gender identities or presentation of the people involved.  I believe he also misunderstood "cisgendered" to refer not to congruence between one's subjective sense of gender and the gender assigned to one by society (though he defined it that way when prompted for a definition, since not everyone in the class knew the term), but to one's presentation / expression as masculine or feminine. 

A funny thing about the people who say they reject labels, though: they are quite fond of labels, and use them freely about others and themselves. These Special Snowflakes object only to certain labels, which they carefully redefine so that they don't apply to them.  They often assume a linguistic determinism which holds that the meaning of words is somehow innately and rigidly contained in them.  I've pointed out before that although they complain that certain labels are too "narrow," the opposite is usually the case.  "Gay," for example, includes not only gender-variant sissies and tomboys but gender-compliant people; yet those who want it to refer only to the gender-compliant still find it difficult not only to avoid the gender-variant connotations of the word for others, but for themselves as well.  So, for example, people will refer to a gay as extremely gay to indicate that he is stereotypically effeminate.  I'm not sure what "extremely gay" could reasonably mean instead -- maybe someone at the 6 end of the Kinsey scale, with no heterosexual experience at all?  I believe most people would see such a person as simply gay, not extremely so.  There's also the ongoing disagreement over whether both persons who engage in same-sex copulation are gay, or homosexual.  It appears to be a straw-man accusation that some other people assume that both partners have the "same sexual orientation."

It's probably impossible to use language without using labels regularly.  (Some people like to dismiss language, but the dismissal doesn't seem to stop them using it, and taking it quite seriously when it suits them to do so.) The other day I was reading Christopher Ives's Imperial-Way Zen (Hawai'i, 2009), which is mainly about the role Buddhism played in the Japanese cult of war and conquest.  But among the issues Ives discusses is Buddhist, and especially Zen Buddhist concepts of reality:
This concept that nothing exists independent of other things or has any essence prior to or separate from its interaction with them has been given a popular expression by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “What we call a self is made only of nonself elements.  When we look at a flower, for example, we may think that it is different from ‘nonflower’ things.  But when we look more deeply, we see that everything in the cosmos is in that flower.  Without all of the nonflower elements – sunshine, clouds, earth, minerals, heat, rivers, and consciousness – a flower cannot be" [p. 75]
I agree that nothing exists independent of other things, and so on, but I don't think I agree that this interdependence means that "a self is made only of nonself elements" -- I think that's the reverse of the error that a self is made only of 'self' elements.  What are the nonself elements composed of?  Thich seems to grant more independent reality to "sunshine, clouds, earth, minerals, etc." than he does to flowers, but from their perspectives, they are selves, composed of nonself elements.  The flower is made up not only of nonflower elements but of flower elements, specifically those which lead us to notice it against the nonflower background.  What makes it "different" is not that it's made from nonflower things, but how those nonflower things are arranged and combined to make what we call a flower.  [P.S. See Bodhipaksa at Fake Buddha Quotes on this concept.]

So too, a lot of social constructionist writing de-essentializes certain concepts, such as "homosexuality," but leaves others essentialized: sex-as-bodily-configuration (male or female), for example, or sex-as-copulation.  And why not?  Without some elements taken as essences, it probably would not be possible to do any analysis at all.
 
Not long ago an undocumented friend told me that a coworker had called him a wetback.  He walked off the job for a day, his boss mediated, and the coworker apologized.  I don't know why the coworker chose to be insulting, and I was glad to hear that things turned out well, but I also wanted to ask him why he objected to the term "wetback," since it refers to undocumented Latin Americans and he is one.  In the same way, I reject attempts to "save" terms like "faggot" by redefining them so they only refer to self-evidently bad people, because I recognize that "faggot" as an insult is based on, indeed requires, the confusion between male sexual receptivity and "one who kneels and accepts the dominance of others."  I've upset some of my Latino friends by labeling myself a maric√≥n -- "No you're not!" they protest, but whether or not I fit every connotation the word has, I am one of those it is meant to stigmatize.

We are the people our parents warned us against, a Gay Liberation slogan of the early Seventies said.  I've said before that one reason why mainstream boy culture reacted with such fury to the emergence of openly gay people in the 60s and 70s was not just that we'd hijacked the innocent word "gay," but that we'd taken ourselves out of their control.  We had, in effect, hijacked not-so-innocent words like "fag," "dyke," and "queer."  As with "looking illegal," I claim these words as a statement of solidarity and a rejection of the cult of individualism Amanda Marcotte mocked. 

But, like the Palestinian queer activist quoted by Sarah Schulman, I'm not wedded to any specific term:
"I find it ['queer'] useful for the time being but I am not attached to it or any other term. I am happy to move along with language. I am not looking for a term to marry. When it comes to language, I believe in short affairs."
Or as Glenn Greenwald said about another kind of label:
I noticed very early on that people wanted to apply a label to you because, once affixed, they don't have to bother with the substance of what you argue any longer. If the label is something they like, they'll agree - if it's something they dislike, they can dismiss it without having to do the work ("oh, he's just an X - who cares what he says"?).

Beyond that, these labels mean so many different things to so many different people that they're now meaningless. If someone insists on applying one to me, I'm not going to fight to reject it, because I really don't care about the label. I'm interested in the arguments and the substance.
This is what I consider a constructive response to the misuse and limitations of labels.  It's not surprising that Greenwald's approach is resisted strongly in mainstream political discourse.  As Marcotte says, labels are descriptors, not boxes.  I think some people want to be put in boxes -- or at least, to put other people in boxes.  They want, in Sartre's words, the durability of stone, they want to exist all at once and right away; so instead of engaging with descriptors, they reject them in an endless quest for the perfect label that will define them perfectly, without ambiguity.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Go, Little Meme: Marriage Gravity and Viral Ignorance

I haven't bothered to check whether these memes contain authentic quotations from the men whose photographs they use.  What interests me here is that whether or not Tyson and Whedon said these things, some of their fans were happy to believe that they did.

Okay, I did look this one up, hoping for some context.  Who's "we"?  Tyson and his fans?  I can't find a source for it, so it may well be bogus, like this one probably was.  I did find this article, which I haven't read in full yet but it doesn't contain the quotation from the meme.  But again, what interests me is that it's popular among his fans, as something they agree with, so they take for granted that he must have said it.

Ignorance is not a virus, and reason won't "cure" it.  Ignorance doesn't have to "spread," because it's an inescapable part of the human condition.  What we know will always be limited, incomplete, and subject to revision, especially what we know about things much larger or smaller than human beings.   We will always be ignorant about some things, and I believe that our ignorance will always be greater than our knowledge.  The real problem, once again, is not that people are ignorant, it's that they know so much that isn't so.

I recognize that Tyson didn't mean "virus" or "cure" literally.  That's the trouble.  He's preaching, not sharing information.  He's a revivalist, and he's highly selective in his use of reason.  This meme is an altar call, the very opposite of reason.  Tyson's language shows that he belongs to the ancient religious tradition which teaches that if your spiritual eyes are opened, if you are awakened and enlightened all error will immediately fall away.  It isn't true, but a lot of people believe it, because they want to believe it; and of course it's very satisfying to believe that you are one of the enlightened elite, part of the cure, and the ignorant masses, with their myths and superstitions are the problem.  If anything should be cast metaphorically as a malignant virus, it's that belief.

Joss Whedon isn't a scientist, but he's every bit as incoherent as one.  Even if equality were a "necessity," that wouldn't mean it needn't be striven for -- as his penultimate sentence admits: we need equality, but we don't have it, so I would suppose we need to strive for it, "kinda."  But it's not a necessity, since human beings have managed to live without it for millennia.

No one really knows what equality is anyway.  Amartya Sen wrote a useful book on the subject, Inequality Reexamined (Harvard, 1995), which pointed out some of the conceptual problems involved, but Noam Chomsky did a good discussion as well.

Nor is equality like gravity, which is not really a "necessity" either.  Gravity is a fact, but like equality no one really knows what it is either; scientists are still trying to figure that out.  Like many basic realities, everybody knows what gravity is until they try to explain or describe it.  Equality is different; rather like justice, or the Good, it refers to what isn't rather than what is.  Its very vagueness is useful, since people can advocate it without having to think very hard about what they mean by it.  But unlike equality, gravity is something that we needn't be bound by.  Many species have found ways to get around it, and human beings tried to do the same for thousands of years.  If we treated gravity the way Whedon wants us to treat equality, we'd reject the very idea of flight, let alone space travel.  When we're trying to get off the surface of the earth, gravity is our (metaphorical) opponent.

Notice too how Whedon loses track of his pronouns and their antecedents.  The "it" in "It is life out of balance" is presumably meant to refer to misogyny, but in context it points to "equality," which is not what Whedon means at all.

It appears that Whedon was talking about sexual/gender equality, though I suppose he didn't mean to exclude other areas.  And I suppose he was extemporizing here, so it's unfair to blame him for getting lost on the way to his thought; but in that case it's unfair to put his ramblings into a meme and send them, naked and unprotected, into the lethal vacuum of the Intertoobz.

Memes like these are part of the reason I've been in a foul mood lately.  I agree about the value of reason.  I think that equality is important.  But too many of the people who are nominally on my side on these issues are depressingly irrational.  I can't blame them.  I know the limits of my own rationality, and I know how hard it is to use reason, to ascertain facts, to talk about reality, to tell the truth.  But the popularity of people like Tyson and Whedon (and even of people like Noam Chomsky, who knows this and tries to resist it) just reminds me that what many people want is a Champion they can cheer for in the great gladiatorial arena, our guy versus their guy.  And it's largely accidental which side they're on.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Once You Go Gay, You'll Never Turn Away

Someone left a copy of Tuesday's Courier-Journal lying around in the library today, and the headline caught my eye.  KY: BAN ON GAY MARRIAGE IS NOT BIASEDKentucky Governor Steve Beshear's lawyer argued in a long brief filed with the US Supreme Court:
"Men and women, whether heterosexual or homosexual, cannot marry persons of the same sex" under Kentucky law, making the law non-discriminatory.
According to another box in the front-page article, Beshear's lawyer, Leigh-Gross Latherow, also argued that "Allowing only opposite-sex marriage promotes birth rates, 'ensuring humanity's continued existence.'"  On this logic it would be reasonable to ban celibate clergy or a religion like Christianity that exalts sexual abstinence, on the ground that such doctrines and practices hinder birth rates and endanger humanity's continued existence.  Does Latherow seriously believe that same-sex marriage will become so popular as to affect population growth?

The reporter, Andrew Wolfson, commented that the "Argument mirrors Virginia's against interracial marriage."  Since that argument failed to convince the Court in 1967, it probably won't be effective now; so why do Brashear and his lawyer think it will?

I'm mildly worried that some advocates of same-sex marriage will attack the argument from another position, using the born-gay view of sexual orientation as "status" to argue that we have to gay-marry because our genes make us, and you can't go against the Will of the Gene. I've pointed out before that the decision in Loving v. Virginia significantly didn't invoke a putative 'racial orientation' that compelled the Lovings to marry each other rather than partners of their own race(s); such an argument seems never to have crossed anyone's mind, despite the widespread racist belief that interracial liaisons violated not just religion but a fundamental biological mechanism that caused blacks to be sexually unattractive to whites.

As with Latherlos' assumption that if same-sex marriage is allowed, it will spread through the population like a radioactive virus and humanity will cease to exist, the white racist belief in the repulsiveness of black people coexisted with its opposite: that the black male especially was primally irresistible to white persons.  Similarly, antigay bigots believe both that homosexuality is naturally disgusting, and mysteriously, fatally attractive: if it's not forbidden and demonized, everyone will go gay.  (Once You Go Gay, You'll Never Turn Away.)  One of the corollaries of the born-gay claim, usually invoked by gay Christians, is that heterosexual copulation is somehow "unnatural" for the congenitally gay, and vice versa -- except for jaded degenerate heteros who dabble in buggery or sapphism out of boredom or mere degraded wickedness.

And of course one of the problems with the idea of sexual orientation as a status is that it has no room for bisexuality.  If gay people should be allowed to be gay, and to marry each other, because we are trapped by our genes and compelled to do what most people would be disgusted to do, then shouldn't bisexuals be compelled to live and marry heterosexually?  The implicit logic is that if you can function heterosexually, you must do so, and homosexuality can only be tolerated if we (pitiful slaves to our gay genes) can get satisfaction no other way. The tantrums thrown by many gay people over the idea that homosexuality is a choice probably connect to the hostility shown by many gay people to bisexuals: either they wickedly refuse to be heterosexual when they could be, or they are closet cases who just pretend not to be 100% gay in order to avoid stigma.  If we allow bisexuals to marry, before you know it, we'll have to let everybody do it, and then civilization will collapse.  Despite both sides' stance of moderation and sweet reasonableness, lurking beneath their placid surfaces are beliefs of sheer gibbering wackery, barely held in check by the suits and mild tones.

And now I face a slight dilemma of my own.  What shall I say to friends in Kentucky who only a week ago were informing their Facebook communities that they would, alas, just have to boycott Indiana because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?   How can they expect me to visit a state like theirs, which explicitly and overtly is denying marriage equality to its citizens?  I'd like to think that their smugness will come tumbling down, but I know better than to expect it.  Tremble, O Bluegrass State, before my wrath!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Like a Prayer

Last Sunday's Doonesbury strip made an impression on me.  Mike Doonesbury and Bernie are reflecting on aging, and Mike says that the worst thing about it is being invisible, because a waitress didn't look at him.  Bernie points out that she probably wouldn't have noticed either of them when they were young.  "At least there was a prayer!" Mike expostulates.  Bernie doesn't think so; I think he's right.

Losing visibility as we age is a common complaint, and it seems to be worse for women than for men. The reason this comic strip got my attention is that as an older gay man who'd never been hot, I'd fully expected to become invisible myself.  This expectation didn't bother me all that much, since I'd never felt visible before, so I wasn't facing much of a change.  A few years ago, however, it dawned on me that it hadn't happened. If anything, I felt more visible.  People of both sexes and all ages noticed me, were friendly, smiled at me on the street.  I'd already noticed that Americans seemed to have become friendlier since September 11, 2001, but I'd still expected to vanish from most people's radar as I moved into my fifties.

It was a truth universally acknowledged when I made my debut in the gay male community that an older gay man -- anyone over, say, twenty-five -- might as well stop thinking about sex unless he wanted to pay for it.  I continued hearing this until I was well into middle age, and if I don't hear gay men saying it now, it's probably because I don't spend much time around gay men these days.  I'm not particularly concerned with sexual visibility in this post, though it's clear that sexual visibility is mostly what Mike Doonesbury and the female writers I've read on this subject are talking about.  As Bernie says to Mike, it's only because the waitress was hot that he noticed her not noticing him.  When I was in my mid-twenties, I knew a gay man about twenty years my senior who spent much of his time complaining that no one wants you when you're old and gay; I soon found out that he was making out more than I was.  I also noticed that he was pretty aggressive in his pursuit of attractive younger men, much more so than I have ever dared to be.  (The combination of low self-esteem and general social homophobia made me assume that taking any sexual initiative toward another male was a recipe for disastrous, shaming rejection.  I've gotten over a lot of that, but I still am not as grabby as this man was.  But it's why I'm derisive when some straight men assume that gay men -- let alone straight women -- don't have any anxieties or insecurities about their desirability.)

So, as I got older, I anticipated with the day when I would be Too Old to get laid.  I'm sixty-four now, and it still hasn't arrived.  Since my personal style, social as well as sexual, has always been to let somebody else make the first move, I've been pleasantly surprised to find that there are still people who will make that first move.  One reason I've stuck with this style is that, for me, it has worked.  That has always surprised me, because I can be truculent, combative, and cynical; I have a Bitchy Resting Face that age and gravity haven't ameliorated, and I've been told that many people find me intimidating.  But I've learned that at least as many people find me approachable, and I've even come to believe it.

That's not the same thing as believing I'm entitled to be approached.  I don't have to be liked by everybody, just by enough people -- and I suspect that "enough people" for me is a smaller number than "enough people" for many others.  I think that's what Mike Doonesbury and people are complaining about.  Since nobody, no matter how hot, really is liked by everybody, I speculate that they're upset because this or that specific person -- a hot waitress at Applebee's, say, didn't immediately slip them her phone number; then, like a kid, they immediately generalize "one person" to "everybody in the whole world," and "one hot person didn't desire me" to "everybody in the world hates me!" to "nobody is interested in older people, I might as well just die right now!"

I've learned from experience, and as I've gotten older I've learned to take more initiative: to smile at strangers, to offer conversation, to notice people.  Again, one requirement of doing so is recognizing that when someone doesn't pick up the thread, I should let them be.  I have a horror of becoming like the garrulous (but no doubt lonely) older man I once saw monopolizing the attention of a clerk (young, male) in a record store with endless technical discussion of this or that recording.  It's one reason I have this blog, where I can hold forth endlessly if I want, and no one is obliged to listen if they don't want to.  But it's certainly very satisfying to have found that I can give attention as well as receive it, and the world has become a lot more comfortable for me as a result.

I'm writing this not to boast, though lately I've been feeling all over again just how lucky I am and have felt a need to talk or write about it.  The next thought I have is why other people, people surely more attractive and socially competent than I've ever been, don't have similar experiences; or why, if they do have similar experiences, why they don't recognize them and prefer to wallow in self-pity.  Take Mike Doonesbury, fictional comics character though he is: he's had two attractive wives, one of whom he's still with.  Though he's fictional, he certainly has real-life counterparts. There's no reason why people should have an accurate self-image or an accurate accounting of how other people interact with them.  It might even be that some people get satisfaction of a kind from seeing themselves as invisible, excluded, shunned when they aren't.  But it makes me wonder, and not for the first time, how many of people's problems are of their own invention.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Take the BS by the Horns


Today while I was on my break at work, I sat in the wrong place, surrounded by conversations that distracted and annoyed me, but there wasn't another suitable place for me to sit.  It didn't help that I'm currently reading a novel that I'm very ambivalent about, which I may write about some other time.  That ambivalence made it even harder to concentrate.

Just a couple of feet away from me, two undergraduates were having an animated conversation about artificial intelligence and its implications.  "If you really believe in evolution," said one, "you have to believe that computers are going to get smarter and smarter until they're smarter than humans."  And so on, in that vein.  I gave up trying to concentrate on my book and spoke to them.  Computers, I told them, like culture, don't "evolve" according to Darwinian theory: they "evolve" according to Lamarckism, the transmission of acquired traits.  They acknowledged me, I shut up and went back to trying to read, though I continued to be distracted by their conversation.  The kid who'd talked about computers evolving said he knew about evolutionary psychology, and then chuckled, saying that he'd read a textbook.  His friend asked what his major was, and he replied Informatics, Philosophy, and something else.

I went back to work a few minutes early since I couldn't concentrate on my reading and couldn't give the kid the dope slap he so clearly needed.  It suddenly dawned me that Lamarckianism wasn't the proper way to think about computers.  The proper way was Creationism.  I'd remembered a science fiction story by James Morrow, "Spelling God with the Wrong Blocks," that I read about twenty years ago:*  Two science missionaries travel to a planet inhabited by androids, the product of an experiment many years earlier by some sociobiologists at Harvard.  The androids use Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man as sacred scripture, and accordingly believe that they evolved, like every other living thing.  The missionaries, scandalized, tell the androids that they didn't evolve, they were created.  Unwilling to tolerate heresy, the androids execute the missionaries.

The story is a satire, with numerous targets.  But how odd that I encountered a real-life devotee of the same cult, who believes that computers evolve like organisms, rather than being created like artifacts.  From other things I've read, I know he's not alone. Indeed, my university has harbored one of the cult's prophets.

*"Spelling God with the Wrong Blocks" can be found in Morrow's collection Bible Stories for Adults, Harvest Books, 1996.