Friday, June 14, 2019

Identity Poetics

This post on "Graysexuality" (via) turned out to be somewhat better than I thought when I first looked at it, but it still has flaws.

They begin with the first sentence: "Graysexuality is fascinating because we get to watch the process of a new orientation being constructed in real time." The writer is using "orientation" as shorthand for "sexual orientation," which it isn't.  "Sexual orientation" means which sex one is attracted to erotically; it doesn't mean any particular variation of erotic object choice, desire, or practice.  I admit that the term has been inflated to cover such aspects of human sexuality, but that's inaccurate, confused, and confusing.  If "orientation" were correct in this case, it couldn't be a "new" one, because orientations are supposedly innate, part of our biology and nature; it might not have been noticed or labeled before, but like America, it was there before some sexological Columbus "discovered" it.  And the territory covered by "graysexuality" does not appear to be anything new in human eroticism.

The writer also seems to think that "orientation" is the same thing as "identity," for the two terms are used interchangeably in the post.  (This is not uncommon, unfortunately.)  It's quite possible that a new identity is currently being constructed around "graysexuality," but that's a very different matter.  When the New York Times published a long article on the "down low" in 2003, it occurred to me that a new erotic identity might be abuilding.  Not "orientation," because men on the down low were either homosexual or bisexual in their orientations and behavior, but because some men were clearly using the term as an identity, distinguishing them from exclusively heterosexual African-American men and from gay or bisexual African-American men whose flamboyant self-presentation embarrassed them.  (See Terrence Dean's autobiography, which I discussed here.  He seems to have adopted "gay" as a label since then, however.)  There was an interesting contradiction in the use of "down low" as an identity, because it means "secret" -- or "closeted," in gay jargon -- and if some men were going to refer to themselves publicly, openly, as "down low," the term's meaning was going to stretch pretty far.  Imagine someone telling Ellen and her vast TV audience that he was closeted.  Once you've told the world, you are not closeted anymore, by definition, though I can imagine some people would try to claim otherwise.  As far as I know, though, "down low" didn't catch on as an identity, though like "closeted" it is still an attitude and a practice.

What is "graysexuality," then?  The blogger Ozymandias provides numerous definitions in their post.  Here are some, from the Asexuality wiki: graysexuals
  • do not normally experience sexual attraction, but do experience it sometimes
  • experience sexual attraction, but a low sex drive
  • experience sexual attraction and drive, but not strongly enough to want to act on them
  • people who can enjoy and desire sex, but only under very limited and specific circumstances
Similarly, some people who might technically belong to the gray area choose to identify as asexual because it is easier to explain. For example, if someone has experienced sexual attraction on one or two brief, fleeting occasions in their life, they might prefer to call themselves asexual because it is not worth the bother of having to explain these one or two occasions to everyone who asks about their orientation.
Gray-As may also append a gender orientation to the label, as in "Gray-heterosexual".
It seems to me that these criteria are probably too diverse.  Some people will recognize themselves in one or two but not the others.  Ozymandias gives other examples, to which this also applies.  And before long, we'll see more new identities being constructed, using one criterion and excluding the others.  Then there will be gatekeepers, self-appointed boundary cops excluding those who, they believe, aren't real graysexuals.  We've seen this already with "gay" and "homosexual," which cover too much ground for some people and not enough for others.  Is the guy who penetrates another guy "a homosexual," or is it only the guy he penetrates?  Is he homosexual if he enjoys being penetrated by other males, even though he penetrates women "avidly"?  Is he "gay" if he's never danced shirtless in a Pride parade?  Is a male who calls himself a woman, dresses as a woman, and seeks out male partners "gay," as such males classified themselves in the US until about the 1980s, or is he "transgender"?  "Transgendered" used to be acceptable, but it was replaced with "transgender," and anyone who uses the former can expect to be the target of vitriol.

Similar considerations apply to "lesbian."  Some women-eroticizing women reject the term because they associate it with two femme women performing erotically together for a male audience; some, because they associate it with uncouth working-class butches and femmes.  I read somewhere the writing of an early twentieth-century womanizing woman who distinguished between "lesbian," "tribade," and "sapphist" as specific erotic practices; a tribade, as the term's etymology implied, rubbed vulvas with her partner; I don't remember which was which, but of the other two, one practiced cunnilingus and the other used her hand.  Were these the 'true' meanings of the words?  Of course not: words have no true meanings.  The interesting question is how widespread these meanings were.

All of these patterns of desire and behavior are much older than the contemporary American terms for them.  Even if you allow "orientation" as the equivalent of "identity," none of them are new, though many of them have been touted as new at various times. I have no stake in these disputes myself, I'm happy to be terminologically polyamorous, but I do expect people to use the terms they've defined consistently, and they mostly seem unable to do this.

Though I admit I wonder at times. Consider again "transgender," which is supposed to refer to having a gender identity at odds with the sex/gender one was assigned at birth.  It's about people's subjective sense of themselves.  So why do numerous academics, including trans academics, use it to refer to any and all gender variation, including visible behavior such voice, dress, body language -- what's known as "presentation"?  These may correlate with gender identity, but they are still conceptually or analytically distinct from "transgender" as it is officially defined.  (I might be trans by the official definition, for example, without modifying the way I dress, let alone seeking sex/gender reassignment surgery.  Or I might present myself in conventionally gender-discordant ways while still identifying with the sex/gender I was assigned at birth.)  The excuse I've seen is inclusion, but that's not valid -- especially since it's common for them to reverse course almost immediately, and fall back on the official definition.  That's equivocation, not flexibility.

When "queer" first gained traction as a reclaimed identity around 1990, there was considerable debate about whom it could include.  Was the heterosexually married Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, an important academic Queer Theorist, "queer"?  Could the straight women friends of gay men be queer?  Sure, why not?  I think that you can draw the line pretty much anywhere you like, as long as it serves some useful end in terms of thinking, discussing, or living.  The standards are, or should be, higher in professional academic discourse; in practice, as I've noted, they often are not.

It might be useful, for example, to distinguish between "label" and "identity."  Consider "men who have sex with men," which was invented during the peak of the AIDS crisis as a hopefully neutral label for the purposes of AIDS education.  It had numerous faults, among them that "sex" was not unambiguous: many people didn't think even of anal copulation as "sex."  But it was a label, not an identity; some men may have thought of themselves, "identified," as men who had sex with men, but I've never encountered anyone who did. A label can still be valid even if the person doesn't think of him or herself in those terms, perhaps to evade stigma -- consider "racist" for example, a label almost all racists try to reject -- or if it refers to a trait that isn't salient to his or her sense of self.  An example of this could be height: I am sixty-eight inches tall, but it's not my identity.

Another example is "monosexual," referring to people who relate erotically only to partners of one sex as opposed to "bisexuals" who relate erotically to partners of both sexes.  I am certainly a monosexual, but it's not an identity.  The word can be useful in discussion, though, and I can imagine situations where I might identify myself as monosexual, though it hasn't happened so far.

Ozymandias writes:
Indeed, we can see this with people whose experiences are equally far from the norm on the other side. A person with hundreds of sexual partners who’s had anonymous sex and who prefers to have sex two or three times a day might call himself “horny” or “slutty” or say he really enjoys sex; he will not characterize himself as having a sexual orientation related to being really really into sex.

Of course, this is very similar to the experience of gender-based attraction before the invention of heterosexuality. An ancient Roman man who is exclusively attracted to men might call himself a boy lover or say he doesn’t like women; he will not call himself “gay” and consider himself to be part of a group with all other gay men, opposed to all heterosexuals.
An ancient Roman man "will not call himself 'gay'" mainly because he speaks Latin or Greek, not English.  It's not clear -- scholars are still debating it -- exactly what linguistic, social, cognitive space terms like "boy lover" or "woman hater" (or their local equivalents) occupied or demarcated in their historical context.  In Japanese samurai male love stories, it seems that the Japanese equivalent of "woman hater" was used precisely to indicate that a man was interested erotically only in other males.  "Boy lover" and "woman hater" seem to have functioned as identities for men who preferred other men as erotic partners.  But in the 1950s and 1960s I used to see the English "woman hater" used in popular journalism to signify the same kind of males, males who would probably have labeled themselves "gay," "homosexual," perhaps "inverts."

For that matter, as I indicated above, it's not clear what space "gay," "homosexual," or "queer" demarcate.  They are disputed, contested, wrangled over.  All three of them have become loan words to other languages, generally with some alteration of meaning.  And, of course, "gay" went from an in-group code word to a neutral public term to a schoolyard insult within a generation, to the extent that some younger gay men thought it had always been pejorative.

Returning to Ozymandias, I'd also like to know why people who have a lot of erotic partners shouldn't have an identity for their particular life/erotic pattern.  It's not as if they are considered the unmarked positive norm, after all.  Some people, of both sexes I think, have tried to reclaim "slut" for just that purpose.  "Promiscuous" can be and has been used for such people, but it tends to equivocate between being a descriptor, however badly defined, and a pejorative.  Or remember how the sex-advice columnist Dan Savage had a conniption over a reader who identified as a "poly," or a polyamorous person.  "Poly is not a sexual identity, PP," he scolded, "it’s not a sexual orientation. It’s not something you are, it’s something you do. There’s no such thing as a person who is 'a poly,' just as there’s no such thing as a person who is 'a monogamous.'"  But an identity is not a "thing," it's a self-labeling and if I say I am something, it's one of my identities.  (Savage backtracked later, after his readers criticized him.  Notice that he too seemed to equate or confuse "identity" and "orientation.")

I don't object to people defining themselves as graysexual, demisexual, or other identities that people have invented (and all identities are invented), since they clearly feel important to them, and I'm in favor of people defining themselves.  I am interested, however, in having contexts where these labels and identities can discussed and contested.  That extends, of course, to labels I apply to myself, such as "gay" or "fag."  Whether it's okay for men to fall in love with other men, to have sex with other men, to build communities of men-loving men, is one question; whether the origin myths and other rationalizations we have invented to support and justify our loves are valid is another.  I have my doubts about the discourse surrounding asexuality, just as I have doubts about the discourse surrounding gay men.  I've criticized, for example, the attempt by one advocate for asexual visibility to come up with an evolutionary basis for asexuality -- not because I'm an anti-Darwinist but because I reject the Darwinian fundamentalism of his argument, and because he showed a disturbing ignorance of basic aspects of human sexual biology.  None of which means that I reject people's right to refrain from sexual activity for whatever reason.

Once other people start using the term you've defined with such care, you lose control of its meaning and definition.  Not because they intentionally distort it: it will drift regardless.  That's the case, mind you, among academics writing for professional publication, where some rigor in language is to be expected, even if it doesn't occur in fact.  Move outside of that restricted space of discourse, and the sky's the limit.  When you enter the arena of public discussion at any level, though, you had better be prepared to justify your definitions and your arguments.

Which takes me back to the Asexuality Wiki's remarks about graysexuality vs. asexuality: some graysexuals, it says, might identify as asexual instead "because it is not worth the bother of having to explain these one or two occasions to everyone who asks about their orientation."  Again: neither graysexuality nor asexuality is an "orientation."  They are identities, and avowing an identity is supposed to inform other people of things about yourself that are important to you, if not to them.  "Not worth the bother"?

Who asks you about your orientation anyway?  Potential sexual partners?  When you've reached the point where it's going to matter, it seems to me that a potential partner is entitled to a fuller and more accurate account of where you stand than a one-word brand name.  As I've said before, if you can't give an accurate, honest answer, no classification system will help you.  If you're not talking to a potential partner, your orientation or the level of your erotic drive is not their business.  One of the really useful things I learned from the advice columnist Miss Manners is that you don't have to give detailed reasons why you're not going to have sex with someone, and there are many reasons besides asexuality or graysexuality why that should be.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Right to Be Silly, Part 2: Is It a Lifestyle Choice?

Owen Jones is a youngish gay left British journalist and the author of a fine book on class prejudice in England.  He's written and said a lot of things that I like, but he's a bit erratic, and yesterday on Twitter he linked to an article about a Brexit Party MEP, Ann Widdecombe, who has a long history of antigay bigotry.
The former Tory home affairs chief was hauled up on a 2012 article that defended "gay conversion" therapy, and said the "homosexual lobby" was stopping people who want to turn straight from doing so...

But Ms Widdecombe today defended her comments and went further, telling Sky News science may yet "provide an answer" to the question of whether people can "switch sexuality"...

Ms Widdecombe suggested today that it would be wrong to "deny people the chance" to change if they are "discontented" with being LGBT.
Ah yes: advocates of conversion "therapy" have long pretended that they care about poor downcast gays and just want to give them a chance to be happy, as opposed to hateful gay activists who attack them.  There may be exceptions, but in most cases critics of conversion therapy do not attack those who want to change -- we attack the quacks who falsely claim to be able to change them.  Of course, in many or most cases, especially the very young, the patients are forced to undergo the "therapy," and people like Widdecombe take for granted that if homosexuals are unhappy being gay, the correct remedy is to turn them straight.  That might even be true, if it worked; but it doesn't.  Since it doesn't, the proper alternative is, first, to help the unhappy person learn to be happy, and second, to change the social pressures that cause or contribute to their unhappiness.

Jones's comment on Widdecombe was predictable, and was echoed by numerous people quoted in the Mirror article:
Ann Widdecombe suggesting "science may produce an answer" to being gay shows why the Brexit Party is such a threat: they are going to reopen debates about the rights of minorities which were supposedly settled long ago. We must fight them.
I agree that such people must be fought, but I was amused by Jones's remarks anyway.  The key word might be "supposedly": those debates were never really settled, for a number of reasons.  One is that bigotry may retreat, but it never goes away, and Jones knows full well that antigay bigotry is still alive in the UK and in Europe.  "Long ago" could only feel like the right term to someone as young as Jones.  Another is the appeal to science: gay people have been extremely excited about "science producing an answer" to the nature of homosexuality for a century or more, and like our opponents we have mostly gone with the wrong answers.  Though biological explanations of homosexuality are constantly being refuted, along with biological explanations of race and sex/gender, many gay people and our allies still find something very satisfying in the false (meaningless, really) belief that we were born this way.  And they cling to it no matter how often it's refuted, just as people like Ann Widdecombe cling to the hope that science will find a way to make us straight.

Oddly, Widdecombe seems to accept transgender and transsexualism: she tries to draw an analogy between scientifically changing a person's sex and changing their sexual orientation.
Asked about her 2012 remarks, she said: "I also pointed out there was a time when we thought it was quite impossible for men to become women and vice versa.

“And the fact we now think it’s quite impossible for people to switch sexuality doesn’t mean science may not yet produce an answer at some stage.”
The analogy breaks down when you remember that people adjust their bodies to conform to their gender identity because they want to, not because someone makes them do it -- that would be just as unethical as forcing people to change their sexual orientation, even assuming that it could be done.  It seems that she's willing to scuttle anti-trans conservatism in order to preserve her anti-gay beliefs.  If Widdecombe ever denounces forcible attempts at orientation conversion, I might take her more seriously.  I won't hold my breath.

Many gay people become furious when the failure of the born-gay paradigm is brought home to them, and they declare that if we aren't born gay then They could legitimately force us to change.  This isn't true, any more than sex-reassignment surgery can be imposed on people who don't want it.  It's common for both pro- and anti-gay people to claim that if we aren't born gay, then it is a choice (which is an invalid leap anyway), and we can't be protected by civil rights laws, which only cover immutable conditions; this is also false, since civil rights law also covers religious affiliation and marital status, both of which are lifestyle choices.

I don't know how many gay people would like to become straight, but I believe the numbers are not small, even among those who claim to be happy as they are with their gene-given sexuality.  I've mentioned before the self-proclaimed proud gay man who said that if it were proven definitely that homosexuality was a choice, someone would make a lot of money helping him undo that choice.  He said this publicly, in front of a class of prospective social workers, which was pretty remarkable for him to do.  No one attacked him, and I -- militant faggot though I be -- felt only sadness for him, not anger.  That depression, suicide, and substance abuse are still widespread among us are also indications that there would be a market for change if it could really be done.  I believe that a lot of declared gay pride is basically whistling in the dark.

Back in in the mid-1990s, a gay journalist named Chandler Burr wrote an article, later expanded into a book called A Separate Creation, defending the position that homosexuality is inborn.  That in itself wasn't surprising, given the high profile of that position generally.  What shocked many of Burr's readers and reviewers was that he went on to argue that Science would eventually be able to modify our genes and make us straight, and he declared that on that happy day he would willingly undergo gene therapy, in order to conform to Society as a good person should.  I was wondering what became of him, and I see that not only has he become a famous perfume maven, but he's married to another man and has two adopted sons.  I guess he got tired of waiting to be changed.

But you know something?  Those people have a right to want to change, and as I've said for many years, I think the gay community would be better off if they could.  It can hardly conduce to anyone's quality of life to have so many people who are here because they feel trapped by their biology, who are miserable and often take out their misery on other gay people.  But Ann Widdecombe to the contrary, there is no reason to believe that science or any other institution will ever be able to change us.  We're here, we're queer, get used to it.  There are bigger problems in the world.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Right to Be Silly

So I was in San Francisco this weekend, and on Sunday I went to the Castro to meet an old friend who lives there.  I arrived early, and found a curious event in progress.

It took me a while to learn what was going on: it was fan-dancing, in connection with various Pride Month events.  A DJ provided music, mostly techno mixes of 80s standards such as Abba's "Lay All Your Love on Me."  (A longstanding guilty pleasure of mine, that one.)

My first reaction was "Oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to make something tacky."  I sat down to watch while I waited for my friend to show up.  It was blustery and chill in San Francisco this weekend, and the performers had difficulty controlling their fans in the wind.  All of them were middle-aged, including the woman who joined them soon after I arrived.  She was the only one who really coped with the wind.

As I watched I took pleasure in the sight of these older, mostly bearded men playing, seriously but lightly, laughing as the wind blew their fans over their heads from time to time.  I remembered, not for the first time, that the music and the pastime are old-people stuff now.  "Lay All Your Love On Me" was recorded in 1980, almost forty years ago!

It must have been tiring, but they kept going for quite a while; they were still at it when my friend turned up fifteen minutes or so after I got there, and for some time after.  They didn't draw much of a crowd, but those who paused to see were appreciative, some singing and dancing along -- including some family groups.  I noticed one little boy who stood stock still, watching warily but intently, while his father encouraged him to join in.  I expect that after they left, the boy relaxed, and opened up about it.  Some little kids did right there.  The amateurishness of the performance was part of its appeal: if they'd been a Rockettes-style precision line of drag queens, people would still have enjoyed it and danced and sung along, but I doubt the same fellow-feeling would have been there.  It's tacky, but it's also lovely, and I was charmed by these people having such uninhibited fun, exercising our Constitutional right to be silly.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Remember Why the Good Lord Gave You Eyes - Fetishize!

There's a lot of talk about erotic fetishization, usually across ethnic or "racial" lines, and I've written about it before.  While the term can apply to an actual thing, most often it seems to me to be in bad faith.  I think that "fetishization" now occupies the conceptual space formerly taken by "objectification," which also had its problems.  "Fetish" used to mean eroticized inanimate objects, usually because of their sexy associations: shoes, stockings, and the like.  It wasn't much of a stretch to extend the concept to the eroticization of physical traits (breasts, legs, hair, skin color), but for better or worse that seems to be within the realm of normal human sexuality.  It's almost never apparent where the line is being drawn between valid eroticism and fetishization, and there tends to be an indignant refusal to discuss the distinction.

As a writer, I've always been interested in how to write about bodies and sexuality without relying on objectifying cliches.  What surprises me is how many people don't even try: they embrace it.  It's okay to write or talk in praise of the desired person in order to excite yourself, but it's not necessarily going to excite the person you're courting, let alone your readers.

So I found this article intriguing.  It's hardly unique, but it's the first time I've come across such blatant intra-ethnic (or homoethnic?) fetishization online, rather than merely in print, so I can link to it for present and future discussion.  It might also be extreme -- though again, not unique -- in its blatancy.
The midday light against skinny musculature. Wide jawline converging to a chiseled point. Full set of teeth, the broadest smile. The torso and the hips and the groin a triangular continuity. Wanting to touch all his geometry.

What’s his name? He told me somewhere in our initial messages but I forgot. But can you forget what you really don’t care to remember to begin with?

J, the name started with a J, so Jesus or José or Juan. One of those. I know what needs to be known of him: his body, the photographic parceling of chest, face, dick, legs, ass, that he sent me; tell me what that tongue can do, I ask him, and he responds in detail, poetic prose of the body; a video sent giving motion to the body in gravity, its rotations, its gyrations, its penetrations; my descriptions in text of what I will do to him, how I want to do it, how I need him to be when my body is on his, in his, indistinguishable from his.

Call me shallow, girl, but I like it how I like it.
The writer is queer, Latinx, working on his Ph.D.  That probably explains, not the bad writing itself, but the particular kind of bad writing.  I think I'd rather read the messages from his paramour, their "poetic prose of the body."

Notice "the name started with a J, so Jesus or José or Juan"; the author repeats it more than once later in the post.  If a white guy wrote like this, he'd be roasted, and rightly, for dehumanizing his piece of trade; this writer would probably argue that it's different when you're from the same barrio, but he overlooks his own privilege (a word that doesn't appear in the post).  He's not completely unaware of it, but only with respect to his mother and father, not to his sex partners.  I've seen this before in other writing by immigrant / outsiders, including gay ones; indeed, I've come up against the same class and education issues myself.  When the writer says "I am an anomaly," he's wrong, even as a queer "college-educated MexiRican"; the territory he occupies has often been explored, agonized over, written about for close to a century now.

Ah well, he's young, I wasn't any better at that age myself.  It's curious though, in these days when there's so much complaint about the way college education supposedly dwells on race and class and other such issues, that the writer's schooling apparently skipped that stuff, even in graduate school where it supposedly runs rampant.  Nor am I condemning him for fetishizing his barrio boys.  I'm just citing his post as an example of ethnic/racial fetishizing within his own community.  The person who linked to it on Twitter blocked me when I pointed it out.  That's not how you fix the problem, kids.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Remember Pearl Harbor! or, When in Danger, When in Doubt

I know we're doomed, but I do hate being reminded of it.  In large part I must blame myself for giving in to clickbait.

To begin with, let me say that I have read Marie Kondo's book but have not watched her TV series.  As an accumulator if not a hoarder, I look from time to time at books on de-cluttering, so when I saw The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up at the library a few years ago, I checked it out and read it.  The only notable things about it were that the author was not an American, but I supposed that was a selling point; and that Kondo is a paid de-cluttering coach, who comes to your house and helps you get rid of your excess stuff.  Other than that, her advice was about the same as any other author I've read on this subject.

A couple of months ago the socialist-feminist writer Barbara Ehrenreich set off a shitstorm when she posted a couple of mildly snarky tweets (now apparently deleted) about Kondo.  She suggested, for example, that the fact that Kondo works in her native Japanese rather than learning English indicates a decline in US imperial prestige.  Though I basically agree, I'd have put it somewhat differently, as a reflection of increased confidence by non-English speakers in our sphere of influence.  Ehrenreich also suggested that there's some Orientalism at work among Kondio's American fans, attracted by her winsome style (I believe Ehrenreich used the term "pixie-like").  Not having seen Kondo's show, I can't say for sure, but I find the suggestion highly plausible.  The response from Kondo's fans was a freakout: they accused Ehrenreich of demanding that Kondo learn English, when she was actually praising her for not doing so, and of Orientalism for detecting their Orientalism.  This response was, to my mind, the typical white-liberal, culture-of-therapy response to unacceptable statements: Oh how can you say such awful things you're a terrible person!!!  USA Today titled its piece on the brouhaha "In deleted racist tweet, author Barbara Ehrenreich attacks Marie Kondo."  That's how it's listed in the results of a search I did, and the URL indicates it was the original title of the story, but somewhere along the line "racist" was changed to "xenophobic."  I find this very significant, because in their coverage of actual racism by right-wing figures, corporate media almost never use the word "racist": they prefer euphemisms like "racially tinged," and even "xenophobic" is unusually direct in that world of discourse.

But that's by the way.  What got me started on this post was an article linked by some bookstores I follow on Facebook.  Published on the UK Independent's website (though at the end there's a copyright notice for the Washington Post), it extolled some "book hoarders who defy Marie Kondo."  Yeah, it's probably clickbait and shame on me for clicking through, but I thought I recognized a not uncommon pattern of reaction, not just in corporate media but in many people in other areas.
On an episode of her smash-hit Netflix special, Kondo advised a couple to edit their shelves, maybe get rid of a few. The Internet did what it does best: It went bananas. How dare she come for books! #TeamClutter, meet #TeamCensorship. Of course, there was a backlash to the backlash, with the expected explanation from Kondo that not all books gotta go.

The visceral reaction, even without the social-media hyperbole, was hard to ignore. Books are more than objects. They are filled with ideas, stories, versions of ourselves, memories. Bookshelves are like your wardrobe: they send a message. And the message these famous book-lovers shared with us is loud and clear: Books spark joy. 
Well, of course they do.  I have several thousand books myself, and I wouldn't really feel happy in a home that didn't have at least one wall lined with them.  But I never felt as I read Kondo's book that she was telling her clients, let alone me personally, to get rid of all of them.  Even the linked article says only that she "advised a couple to edit their shelves, maybe get rid of a few."  The problem for me is that books are the heaviest possession, taken collectively, that I have.  Like most renters, I don't own the stove or refrigerator in my apartment.  It's the books that make my upcoming move a daunting prospect.  If I had more money, I could hire movers to shlep them for me, but I don't.  I have to decide how far to "edit" my library, and even if I were the kind of person to pay a coach like Kondo, she could not make that decision for me.  I have to decide which of my possessions "spark joy," and there was nothing in her book that indicated that all my or your books have to go.

So where does this nonsense about "defying" Marie Kondo come from?  As if she went around to random residences, flanked perhaps by two armed Japanese grandmas, breaking down doors and bagging possessions for disposal while her victims stand by, wailing helplessly.  As if she even said that people had to get rid of all their books. Would anyone read her book or follow her show if they didn't have it mind to pare down their belongings?  Most ridiculous is that the bookstores that linked to the Independent article on Facebook are used bookstores.  That means they rely on people to "edit" their libraries for the books they stock.  Yet they linked to the article not to encourage people to sell them their unjoyful books, but to stir up panic that Marie Kondo will come for their books, as Obama in the minds of Trump supporters is coming for their guns.

Granted, the article is clickbait, and only one of the book lovers they interview even mentions Kondo, but as the Trump example indicates, paranoia that some evil figure wants to take your cherished stuff away is a real tendency.  So is the fantasy that the same evil figure wants to force birth control pills down your throat, or make you gay-marry even if you're not gay.  But so is the weird word-fu by which many people misread simple statements until they mean the opposite of their plain sense, or no longer make sense at all.  This particular example is harmless enough in itself, but it keeps the paranoia muscles toned up for other imaginary threats.  People aren't this stupid just over trivia; they are also stupid over things that matter.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Moral Exemplars

I want to post a slight revision to part of an earlier post that dealt with questions of what, if anything, happens to us after we die.  It won't affect my larger point, but I think it's worth bringing up.

That earlier post was inspired by the notice on Twitter of the death of an elderly Jesuit, James Schall, "a great, good, and holy man ... the best of men, and a good and faithful servant."  The name seemed familiar to me, but I couldn't think how, so I merely said that I'd never heard of him before that morning.  I was wrong, but it's not surprising that I'd forgotten him.

I've been meaning for some time to read The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest by John Gerard, a sixteenth-century Catholic priest who'd fled persecution under Queen Elizabeth I.  I don't remember how I first heard of it, but I was intrigued by the prospect of a glimpse into the mind of such a person, so I picked up a copy of the 2012 Ignatius Press edition at the library book sale.  I hadn't gotten further than the 2011 introduction, which lamented "the utter brutality of the English Protestants determined to stamp out the traditional faith of the English people" (x).

It was a fair enough complaint, but the writer was significantly silent about the utter brutality of English Catholics determined to stamp out religious dissent among the English people.  I suppose the writer considered Protestantism a novelty and therefore unworthy of toleration or humane treatment.  But then one would have to remember the utter brutality of Catholics around the world determined to stamp out the traditional pre-Christian faiths they encountered.  The mistreatment of Jews in Christian Europe is a prominent, scandalous example of such cruelty.  The writer must have been aware of this history; but only the martyrdom of Catholics by Protestants outraged him enough to mention.  "The list of English martyrs from this period is long and distinguished," as he remarks, but only Catholics count as martyrs for him.

"The legal penalties against Catholics lasted into the nineteenth century and some minor form still exist," he laments.  "The Church of England is but a shadow of its former self."  This brought me up short at first -- he seemed to be regretting that the Church of England no longer tortures or executes Catholics; but then I realized that he was referring to the Catholic Church of England, the only true faith, which isn't what it used to be.  (In general the writing in this Introduction is just that sloppy.)  True that -- as Berlioz once observed, now that the Catholic Church no longer inculcates the burning of heretics, her creeds are charming.  I don't see this falling away as a bad thing, but I'm not an elderly Roman Catholic who presumably never got over the heretic Pope John XXIII and his assaults on traditional faith.

It was only when I came to the end of the Introduction, which I'd decided to reread for its moral myopia, that I noticed the author's name: Father James V. Schall of Georgetown University.  I looked at my post from April, and behold, it was he!  I suppose Schall was not obliged to balance out his denunciation of the English Protestants with an acknowledgment of the contemporary cruelty of their Catholic countrymen, and I wonder if a hardcore Catholic publisher like Ignatius would have permitted it anyway.  But I doubt it ever occurred to him.

It occurred to me as I was mulling over this post that there's a lot of indignation in this country about "guilt" -- white guilt, male guilt, over discrimination and oppression that happened long ago (say, fifty or fewer years).  Most of this spleen seems to be vented by Christians, usually conservative Christian males.  Yet recognizing, repenting, and making atonement for guilt, both individual and collective, is a traditional part of Christianity and Judaism.  By their own standards, why shouldn't Christians feel guilt over the offenses they and their forebears have committed in the name of their faith?  Instead we get the saintly George H. W. Bush, who declared that he would never apologize for anything America had done ("I don't care what the facts are") and dear Joe Biden, who complacently declares he's not sorry for anything he's ever done.

Am I saying that James Schall was a bad man?  I still don't know enough about him to say.  What I'm saying here is that he evidently was "a good and faithful servant" to some of the less edifying tendencies in the past of his church, and that led him to forget, conveniently, matters that were relevant to his topic of persecution and martyrdom.  Catholic persecution of Protestants doesn't, of course, excuse the Protestant persecution of Catholics -- or the Protestant persecution of other Protestants, which was going on at the same time.  Such internecine violence is not unique to Christianity, but it does seem to be endemic to it.  That's what led to the rise of religious toleration in Europe: as I've said before, in order to end persecution of themselves, Christians had to forgo the pleasure of persecuting others.  Some Christians today are still nostalgic for those days of moral relativism, when you could burn someone else at the stake and be outraged if someone burnt you.  I suspect that Schall was one of these.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

May Day

For International Workers' Day, as it's known in most of the world, let me commend to you Park Kwang-su's 1996 biopic of the South Korean labor activist Jeon (or Chun) Tae-il, who in 1970 immolated himself as a protest against the oppressive and illegal conditions in the garment sweatshops of Seoul.

A Single Spark was my introduction to South Korean film.  A Korean friend, a student at IU, rented it on VHS from a local Oriental grocery to show me.  He told me it was important for me to see, and he was right. I'm very grateful for his guidance.  The videotape had no subtitles, and my friend interpreted for me -- not just the dialogue, but the history and politics, about which I knew little at the time.  I later learned that the film had been partially crowdsourced; if you watch to the end credits, you can see a long list of contributors.

Later, I read the biography of Jeon Tae-il that had inspired the movie.  It was translated into English by Jeon's sister Soon-ok, who after his death went to university and became a professor of Labor law.  The Korean original was written in the 1980s, during the dictatorship, and circulated semi-clandestinely.  The frame story of the film, involving a writer and his worker wife, is fictional, but on Jeon's life the story stays remarkably close to the book.  It remains one of my favorite films.  Eventually it was released on DVD in Korea, with some good extra features, but that, like the book, is out of print.  I'm glad it can still be seen on YouTube.