Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Fetishize Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar

A creepy Dan Savage column this morning.

Here's part of the first question.
I’m a straight white woman in my early 30s. In theory, I’ve always been into men of all races—but in practice, most of my exes are Latino and white. In September, I met this really handsome Chinese American guy, and I feel like he rewired me. I’ve been exclusively attracted to Asian guys since. I’m not writing to ask if this is racist, because I’m not asking these guys to, like, speak Korean to me in bed or do any role-playing stuff. We just date and have sex, same as my past relationships. But if any of these dudes saw my Tinder matches, they’d be like, “This woman has a thing for Asian guys.” Which I do, but it’s pretty new. Is this normal? Do people just change preferences like that?...
Here's the beginning of Dan's answer:
Here’s my general take on race-specific sexual preferences: So long as you can see and treat your sex partners as individuals and not just as objects—we are all also objects—and so long as you can express your preferences without coming across and/or being a racist shitbag, and so long as you’ve interrogated your preferences to make sure they’re actually yours and not a mindless desire for what you’ve been told you’re supposed to want (i.e., the currently prevailing beauty standard or its equally mindless rejection, the “transgressive” fetishization of the “other”), then it’s okay to seek out sex and/or romantic partners of a particular race.
There are okay things here, like "we are all also objects", and the prescription of treating one's partners "as individuals and not just as objects".  But there are problems.

For one, the demand to interrogate one's preferences "to make sure they're actually yours" etc.  Imagine how Dan would react if someone told a young gay kid to interrogate his or her preferences.   Couldn't being gay be just "a mindless desire for what you've been told you're supposed to want ... or its equally mindless rejection"?  (I was interrogated along these lines myself by heterosexuals when I first came out, in fact.)  And certainly one could demand the same of heterosexuals: are you sure your desires are yours, and not just what you've been told to want by the society, the media, et al.?

As for fetishization, that also characterizes mainstream heterosexuality, and mainstream homosexuality if there can be such a thing.  (Gay men are doing their best to make it a thing.)  Dan would cluck over it, but I don't think he's interrogated his own desires and discourse enough.  Once you start being suspicious of your or other people's motives for a pre-rational phenomenon like sexual desire, you'll find how deep the rabbit hole goes, because there is no bottom to the mind.  As I've discussed before, my own tastes in men have excited criticism from other gay men because I wasn't as excited by certain types as they were, and attracted to types they didn't like.  So, was I just "mindlessly rejecting" the norm?

It's certainly possible, and not uncommon, to treat people badly by objectifying them, but I don't think "fetishization" is the right word or idea for it.  I think there's a great deal of what we used to call puritanism in this interrogation of (usually) other people's desires: it involves a suspicion of desire and pleasure, especially other people's desires and pleasures: I like what I like because it's natural, you like what you like because it's your fetish, your paraphilia.  I've read, though I haven't checked it carefully yet, that some authoritative Christian divines postulated that the ideal, Edenic copulation would be done under control of the will, without irrational pleasure caused by the Fall.  (This distrust of pleasure is not only a Christian, or "Abrahamic" impulse, of course.)  Dan's Catholicism, even though he's left it behind, has not entirely left him.

But back to Dan.  He drags in an Asian American "writer and comedian whose work often touches on race and desire," and the guy helpfully piles on:
“It’s not uncommon for people later in life to discover that they’re attracted to something they’d never considered sexy before—full-grown adults are out here discovering they’re bi every damn day,” said Booster. “But she went 30 years before she saw one Asian man she was attracted to? And now this guy has ‘rewired’ her to be attracted only to Asian men?”
First, I don't think the lady said she'd never been attracted to any Asian men before.  Read it again: she's been "into men of all races" "in theory." Most of her exes have been white or Latino.  Since she's evidently dating around, I see no reason to suppose that she's never dated an Asian man before, let alone never seen "one Asian man she was attracted to."  (I've seen many men I was attracted to, but didn't have sex with because they weren't available for various reasons.)  But who knows?  We both might be reading too much into a query that doesn't answer every question we might like to ask.

Second, I take her claim that she's been "rewired" with a grain of salt.  She met the guy in question in September, six months ago.  Who knows when her letter was written, how long it sat around before Dan answered it?  Six months is a very short time, for an adult, to decide that her life has been permanently changed.  For comparison, Dan usually advises couples to live together for at least a years before they get married, because marriage is a big, quasi-permanent commitment.  And this writer is not even making a commitment.  No one, I hope, would criticize her if she starts dating non-Asian men again in another six months, or a year or two, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if she does.  My own tastes and desires have changed over the years, and I don't expect them to be permanent.  We hear a lot about the "fluidity" of desire and sexuality, but hardly anyone seems really to believe in it.

Dan's consultant is concerned that "she has shifted to exclusively fucking Asian guys and feels the need to write a letter about it. That feels like a red flag, and yet I can’t pinpoint why."  Well, maybe she feels the need to write a letter about it because she has experienced a seismic change in her attractions, which is interesting, and also because many people including Dan and his consultant would like her to feel uneasy about it, so she wants some reassurance.  I don't see any red flags in her letter myself.

What takes this particular column over the line from annoying to creepy is the second letter, from a white guy married to an Asian woman.  They have great sex, but she doesn't like to give blowjobs, and now the husband is fantasizing about getting a blowjob from a man.
How do I convince my wife to agree to this? She’s afraid I might like it; I obviously hope I do. There’s nothing I want more than to get head on the way home and then be able to tell her about it and fuck her later that night. How can I convince her to let me do this while also being able to tell her about it and be truthful?
Dan's answer focuses on an issue the writer hadn't actually raised, whether he would be bisexual or still straight.  This distracts him from what I see as a red flag, the writer's repeated wish to "convince [his] wife to agree to this" despite her anxieties.  Dan does at least say that if she says no and sticks by it, the answer is no.  I think he should have borne down a little harder on the husband's entitlement and even obliviousness.  As the first letter writer's experience shows, a good erotic experience can have a powerful effect on a person.  There is no guarantee that one hot blowjob from a guy won't lead this husband to want more of them, and as Dan would ordinarily stress, opening up a relationship increases the risks of STDs and other problems.  The wife's worries are well-founded.  (That she teased him about getting a blowjob from someone else before they were married doesn't change that.)  The trouble isn't that the husband is fetishizing anyone -- though fantasizing specifically about getting a blowjob from another man indicates that some of that is going on -- but that he's minimizing his partner's concerns and interests.  I can sympathize, Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd and all that, but Dan's take here lacks a certain amount of conviction.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

On the Shoulders of Settler-Colonialists

Here's a question: At what historical point do "colonizers" become "immigrants"?

This morning on Democracy Now! a New Zealand Muslim scholar discussed, among other matters, the history of Muslim colonists there.  Apparently the first known Muslim colonists arrived in New Zealand in 1850, about a decade after the first British invasion force.  She didn't use those terms, of course; I believe (it's too early for the transcript to be up) she used the term "immigrant."

Yesterday someone posted on Twitter something to the effect that there are no "settlers," only "colonists."  I think this was meant as a comment on terms like "settler-colonialist society," used to describe countries like the United States, Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa, and New Zealand.  Apparently the tweeter considered "settler" a relatively neutral term, though I don't think that's the case in "settler-colonialist"), and "colonist" the hard word that speaks truth to power.  So I began wondering about the status of those first Muslim colonists in New Zealand. True, they weren't the initial shock troops, they followed in their footsteps as it were; but why, if the British were invaders (as they were), why were those who followed under their aegis seen as somehow legitimate, even innocent?

This is not, of course, to imply that the Christchurch massacre was justified because Muslims are invaders; very much the opposite.  (If I had meant to imply such a thing, it would mean that massacres of "white" settler colonialists in New Zealand and Australia, inter alia, would also be justified.)  As the DN segment made clear, many of the Christchurch victims were refugees.  But as many critics have noted, the "nation of immigrants" motto is problematic for settler-colonialist societies.  I raised the same question a couple of years ago about a Canadian Muslim college student who overlooked her own dubious status as a settler-colonialist polluting "sacred" First Nations soil.  She seemed to assume that she stood with the aboriginal inhabitants by virtue of being a person of color, though I doubt she'd thought that deeply about it.  She herself has massacred no Natives, but she stands on the shoulders of those who did.

What I am saying is that evidently at some ill-defined point, the non-Polynesian settler-colonialists in New Zealand, or their descendants, seem to have metamorphosed into a nation of immigrants who are entitled to welcome yet more settler-colonialists as immigrants to the land their ancestors stole.  I am genuinely curious to know what that point is.  There is a great deal of confusion about this, and I'll try to explore it further soon.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Who Wants to Be the Last to Go Bankrupt Before Medicare for All Kicks In?

Pete Buttigieg (it's not actually that hard to pronounce) has been getting attention from a number of people I respect, and from some I don't.  Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city I lived near for the first twenty or so years of my life and lived in for two of those years, so I'd heard of him before he decided to run for the American Presidency.  He came to my attention first because he's gay; getting elected to a traditionally Republican, Roman Catholic city like South Bend is an impressive achievement for a gay man, even a married one, even a veteran.  It recently occurred to me that none of the right-wing Christian frothers I'm friends with on Facebook freaked out when he was first elected, even though some of them live in South Bend.  How'd he do it?

Recently a lefty tree-hugger friend of mine, an IU alumnus but now resident in the Bay Area, linked to Buttigieg's recent appearance on Stephen Colbert's Late Show.  My friend was highly impressed by Buttigieg's performance; I was more concerned that a homophobic "centrist" Obama toady like Colbert found Buttigieg acceptable.  Then Glenn Greenwald began praising him, which I take more seriously.  Greenwald is temperate in his praise:
There are specific policy views expressed by I disagree with, but have been very impressed by him from the moment I began paying attention. I couldn't put my finger on why. Part of it was his heterodox thinking. But now I see the crux: he only speaks authentically...
As he links to Buttigieg's statement to South Bend's Muslims in the wake of the Christchuch massacre.  Fair enough, I guess, but this really just strengthened my doubts.  First, while he doesn't use the word, it seems that Greenwald is impressed by Buttigieg's charisma -- and he should know as well as I do the dangers of charismatic politicians.  There's an uncharacteristic lack of focus on Buttigieg's actual positions here ("I couldn't put my finger on why"), focusing on the claim that he "only speaks authentically".

To speak as authentically as I can, I'm not sure what that means.  Buttigieg's statement is fine, the kind of thing that any halfway experienced politician should be able to produce in his or her sleep.  That many such can't do so wide awake, with their staffs working on it at white heat, only means that the bar is pretty low.  (Compare this appalling screed by an Australian Senator to see how low the bar can go.)  Mayor Pete clears that bar, but it's not a sterling achievement.

Greenwald also wrote of Buttigieg's "heterodox thinking."  Heterodoxy is relative only to a respective orthodoxy, and I wonder which one Greenwald has in mind.  So I began looking for some of Buttigieg's specific policy positions, and found this interesting summary of his performance at a recent CNN town hall, reprinted in the Chicago Tribune from the Washington Post.  Notice that it's the work of Jennifer Rubin, a far right-wing writer, which makes her positive take on Buttigieg all the more disturbing.
He was asked about Venezuela. "Well, the situation in Venezuela is highly disturbing. And I think that the Maduro regime has lost its legitimacy," he explained. "That's why it's not just the U.S. but 50 countries that have declined to recognize the legitimacy of that regime."

He continued, "That being said, that doesn't mean we just carelessly threaten the use of military force, which is what it appeared the national security adviser was doing at one point, kind of hinting that troops might be sent to South America."

... "I don't mean to disagree that we need to support democratic outcomes in that country. And so to the extent that sanctions can be targeted and can be focused on trying to bring about new free and fair elections so that there can be self-determination by the Venezuelan people, that puts in a government that I think has that legitimacy, then we should do our part not through force but through the diplomatic tool kit in order to try to bring that outcome about."
Rubin gushes, "That might be the best answer on Venezuela I've heard from any Democratic candidate — maybe the best foreign policy answer, period."  Really?  It looks to me like the standard "centrist" answer to questions about US interference in Venezuela, and it's anything but "heterodox."  Buttigieg disavowed "carelessly threaten[ing] the use of military force" (maybe careful threats are okay?), which the other Dems would agree with, while endorsing the use of sanctions to starve the mass of Venezuelans into submission.  The kinds of sanctions that might target only government elites would probably also affect the wealthy, right-wing creoles of the opposition, and that would not go down well.

As far as "free and fair elections," Venezuela already has them, and that's why the US wants to overturn them: they produce outcomes we don't like.  Buttigieg says that "the Maduro regime has lost its legitimacy."  First, it never had any in the eyes of the US government, its lackey states, and its tame media; nor did Chavez' "regime," which the US began trying to replace with more corporate-friendly authoritarians from the time Chavez took office.  Second, the most recent election Maduro won was certified fair by international observers; presumably Buttigieg, like the rest of the US mainstream, chooses to forget that.  Finally, the US' designated hitter Juan Guaidó has no legitimacy whatsoever: he has won no election, has no mass base, and only has a platform because of US support.  He also says he's "not afraid of civil war" and hoped to incite US military intervention by staging provocations at the border with Colombia.  Whether Buttigieg likes it or not, that's the "self-determination" he's calling for and supporting.  This is not a minor issue either, because it indicates what Buttigieg's approach to other official enemies (such as North Korea, Iran, or Syria) would look like.

Next Rubin quotes Butttigieg's position on Medicare for all.  He praised the Affordable Care Act, which he said "made a great difference."
"That's why I believe we do need to move in the direction of a Medicare-for-all system. Now, I think anyone in politics who lets the words ‘Medicare-for-all’ escape their lips also has a responsibility to explain how we could actually get there, because as you know, from working on this day in and day out, it's not something you can just flip a switch and do.

"In my view, the best way to do that is through what you might call a Medicare-for-all-who-want-it setup. In other words, you take some flavor of Medicare, you make it available on the exchange as a kind of public option, and you invite people to buy into it. So if people like me are right that that's ultimately going to be more efficient over time and more cost-effective, then you will see that very naturally become a glide path ..."
Ah, the "public option."  Again, that's hardly a "heterodox" position, any more than his gradualist "move in the direction."  Medicare itself was "something you can just flip a switch and do," both in the US and Canada.  Yes, it will take planning, but my impression is that the politicians who are spearheading the drive to Medicare for All are working on the planning and the details.  But it's not really hard to explain "how we could actually get there," since we could learn a great deal from Canada's implementation, not to mention the fact that we already have Medicare in this country for people 65 and older.  It's extremely popular with voters, as is the idea of a national single-payer system.  The basic infrastructure is already in place; it would not be a radical move to expand it.  I'd have a bit more respect for Buttigieg's gradualism if he balanced it by noting how much money and energy we waste on, say, the military.  Instead he went on to say:
"You know, we as a country pay out of our health care dollar less on patient care and more on bureaucracy than almost any other country in the developed world. And so it's very clear that we've got to do some unglamorous technical work. Actually, some of the benefits of automation could come in this sense. You think about how many hands have to touch a prior authorization sometimes. And the right answer to that should be zero, but we're not there yet. So we've got to do that, that kind of unfashionable technical work within (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) to make the system more efficient."
This is extremely misleading.  He may not have meant it that way, but in context Buttigieg gave the impression that the "bureaucracy" that runs up the costs of healthcare in the US is located within "the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services," so we need "to make the system more efficient."  I have no doubt that the Medicare administration has room for improvement, but it's hardly obscure that the wasteful bureaucracy that runs up costs so that too "many hands have to touch a prior authorization sometimes" belongs to the private insurance companies that Buttigieg wants to preserve until the Messiah comes.  A smart technocrat, as he presents himself to be, must know that. Again, there's nothing heterodox here, it's just centrist boilerplate.

I'm going to skip his remarks on impeachment, which are more safe on-one-hand/on-the-other hand stuff, perfectly compatible with the Democratic establishment.  Speaking of Buttigieg as smart technocrat, though:
"As to what Gov. (Mitt) Romney was talking about, look, we do need to work to make government more efficient. One of the things we did when I came in, in South Bend as mayor was — kind of a banned phrase around the county city building was 'We do it this way because we've always done it this way.'"

"We subjected everything we do to rigorous analysis, because at the city level, I don't get to print money. We legally have to balance the general fund budget. And if I want to do more, we just have to figure out a way to do what we're doing more efficiently or else we'll have to do less of something else. And sometimes that's the right answer, too.

"So I think that on-the-ground knowledge of how to get something done that I maybe began to get in the business community, but really put to work in public service at the local level, will be useful at a time when, frankly, in federal budgeting we're being told we can get something for nothing. And things that are completely unaffordable, like the tax cuts for the wealthiest, are being passed off as though they're worth just as much as things that if we ever do deficit spending would be a better use of it, like investing in infrastructure and education and the things that we know have a payback and will pay for themselves in the long run."
"We've always done it this way" is of course a stumbling block in private enterprise too, regularly attacked in books on management.  Wherever Buttigieg got his "on-the-ground knowledge of how to get something done," it wasn't "in the business community."  Beyond that, these remarks are standard centrist prattle about running government like a business, you can't get something for nothing, we have to balance the budget.  Many arguments can be made against these slogans, but the key point is that they are not heterodox, not bold path-breaking authentic proposals that no one has had the guts or imagination or passion to advance before.  Far from it: they're routine parts of every election cycle as far back as I can remember.

Maybe Buttigieg is better than these remarks indicate, but again, he made them on his own, in a showcase where he evidently felt free to say what he thinks.  Contrary to Glenn Greenwald, I don't see a lot of exciting authentic substance here.  When my Bay-Area friend was upset by my skepticism toward this shiny new guy, I made it clear that I don't think he's totally evil, he might amount to something someday, but I really think he should at least run for a legislative office, state or federal, before aiming at the Oval Office. Much of the excitement I see over Buttigieg, like the excitement I see over Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, whom he resembles, is based on his presentation, his aging-elfin cuteness, his undeniable intelligence rather than his positions, which I think are ground for concern rather than celebration.  O'Rourke has been compared to Obama in his vacuousness, but thanks to his political history O'Rourke's unsavory record is there for scrutiny for those who care.  But many don't care: they'd rather daydream at their desks, practicing writing their married name in their notebooks (guys, Mayor Pete already has a husband).

Which brings up what is by now a familiar paradox: smart liberals who denounce Joe and Jane Sixpack for focusing on personalities rather than issues, generally have very little interest in issues but swoon over personalities.  If a candidate has no personality or a repellent one, no problem -- they'll work very hard to persuade themselves that he's really the most charismatic candidate ever!  Pete Buttigieg doesn't have that problem, he's evidently an engaging person.  Speaking seven languages, I admit, is a refreshing change from the monolingual Trump and Obama.  If you like a candidate, invite him to dinner, ask her out for coffee, paper your room with posters, but that is no reason to overlook his policies, let alone a reason to vote for him.  It bothers me, because it's so reminiscent of the rise of Barack Obama over a decade ago, to see this pattern repeating itself among people who really are smart enough to know better.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Born Free

I stumbled on a video clip from the Jimmy Fallon Show, featuring a couple of comedy characters invented and played by Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon.  It took me a few minutes to figure out exactly what was going on, but eventually I did.  (Here's an explanation for those who, like me, are not up to the minute on pop culture.)

At one point Ferrell's character announces emphatically that he's "single by choice," though he respects "a woman's choice not to want to go out with me."  Of course what he meant was that he's not single because no one wants him, it's his decision.  But what immediately occurred to me was that he, and I, and everybody except for conjoined twins, is born single.  Being in a couple is a lifestyle choice, being single is in our DNA.

Yes, I know, this was comedy, but I'm not analyzing Ferrell's character's claim as a philosophical position.  I'm interested in it as it refers to a popular motif.  One of many reasons why the whole "born this way" shtick annoys me is that it blurs distinctions that matter.  What, for example, does it mean to be "born gay"?  What proponents generally mean is "conceived gay," which is why they are still hunting the ever-elusive Gay Gene.  Or the Gay Epigene.

It's seldom stated baldly, but in many cultures, including the US until fairly recently, marriage has been not so much a choice as a duty.  Some might shirk it, and the call to celibacy could be a useful lever in doing so, but you had to have a damn good excuse: if not divine appointment then having lost one's testicles in the war or having had a hysterectomy.  Matrimony was just natural, you know? (Some of today's Christians are trying to claim that having a homosexual temperament constitutes a call to celibacy, much as Roman Catholics might find that an inconveniently unruly woman had such a call and so could be forced into a convent.)  Remember, the whole point of social construction theory is that what is called "natural," built into the structure of humanity if not of the universe, is in fact the result of human will and decisions.

Back in the old days, dating to the early days of the Modern Homosexual but still when I was scouring libraries for information about homosexuality in the 60s and 70s, the medical profession often distinguished between "situational" homosexuality and "obligatory" (I think that was the term) homosexuality.  "Situational" mean prison and other homosocial environments, where the other sex was unavailable by policy or stereotype.  The assumption was that once the inmates had access, they would revert to heterosexuality (though this was not always true).  "Obligatory" meant that because of inborn temperament or perverted upbringing, a person was uninterested in the other sex even when it was available, and so had to be an invert.  But this, it seems to me, is what "choice" actually means: I have access to members of the other sex, but I choose members of my own.  I could put it in Christian terms: like those who are "called" to celibacy, I am called to be queer, and single.  But that also means that I choose them.  People make all kinds of choices for all kinds of reason, and we are usually not required to explain why unless someone wants us to make others.  Rather than justify ourselves, we should make them justify themselves.

People who are bent on splitting themselves in half will continue to insist that their sexual desires and behavior are imposed on them, externally by Nature or internally by Gay Gene.  The reasoning resembles the endless regress of some of the the traditional arguments for the existence of God: everything has to have a cause, and when you get to the first cause it's either God or if you're a scientist, the genes.  (The biologist Susan Oyama has shown how genetic determinists have largely secularized the First Cause by assigning it to biology. That doesn't make it a valid argument.)  Maybe everything does have a cause, but we don't always know what it is, and maybe we never will.  Maybe the craving to assign causes is one of those limits of the human brain/mind, an itch that some people feel compelled to scratch unceasingly.  But not everyone does, and there's no reason why we should have to.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Stand By Your Man

I saw this last night:

So true! If Obama had embraced dictators ... no, wait, he did that. If he'd killed US citizens with predator drones... no, wait, he did that too.  If he'd joked about killing US citizens with predator drones... damn... If he'd supported coups against elected governments ... no, wait... If he'd cozied up to Wall Street... no ... If he'd, uh, packed his cabinet with corporatist neoliberals... if he'd deported record numbers of immigrants... if he'd given massive tax cuts to the rich when the economy was staggering after a major crash... if he'd sought to cut Social Security and other vital services in order to "lower the deficit" ... if he'd escalated and started wars of choice based on lies... if he'd suppressed whistleblowers... give me a minute...

Oh, I know, Rev. Dr. Barber isn't thinking of such trivia, nor are his followers on Twitter.  They're more interested in Trump's payoff to a porn star with whom he'd had an affair.  Which is not insignificant and I suppose it's true that if Barack Obama had done such things he'd have been attacked by the Right pretending to care about sexual morality even as they embraced Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and eventually Donald Trump.  But his fans would not have stumbled; they'd have stood by him, as Dem loyalists stood by Bill Clinton, and still idolize the serial adulterer John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Let's not forget Martin Luther King Jr., a major cockhound, or Jesse Jackson Sr.  White privilege should always be borne in mind, but I think it's a distraction here.

I think party loyalty and the personality cult that surrounds successful politicians are much more relevant.  In Obama's case, it's so effective that even George W. Bush gets to bask in his glory, his crimes forgotten and forgiven by centrist Democrats.  If we're going to talk about "Teflon," Obama's crimes and right-wing policies just don't exist for his devotees. They were largely ignored by the same elite political culture and corporate media that made Donald Trump a star. There is a double standard here, but it cuts both ways according to party affiliation or other commitments. And despite it, Trump has encountered much more effective principled opposition, in the streets and in Congress, than Obama did, even though the media especially are doing their best to accentuate the positive.  (I almost posted a link to the article there, but the title may have been changed.)  If Obama were a white Republican, I doubt William Barber would be as amnesiac about his record.

Barber expresses some good opinions elsewhere in his feed, including strong support for Representative Ilhan Omar, currently under attack by Democrats and Republicans alike for her criticism of the Israel lobby.  Obama, by contrast, was wholly subservient to AIPAC and cozy with Israeli strongman Benjamin Netanyahu.  (Netanyahu spurned him, though. Oh, the humanity!) It would be interesting if Obama were to defend Representative Omar, but it'll never happen; he prefers to boast (inaccurately, as it turns out) about his service to producers of fossil fuel.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Trouble Isn't that Curmudgeons Are Ignorant ...

I'm reading Edmund White's latest book, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading (Bloomsbury, 2018).  It's as well-written and engaging as I expected, and also as studded with White's customary misplaced animadversions on Society Today.

This one's my favorite so far.  Recalling his youthful absorption in East Asian culture and art, White declares:
Like most educated Americans of the period, I had an almost holy respect for other cultures. That was the main difference between the solemn, diffident Americans and the mocking, ethnocentric English—our cultural relativism is deeply rooted [53].
This isn't "cultural relativism" at all, however: it's cultural absolutism.  White doesn't think that one culture is as good as another, he believes that American has been weighed against Chinese culture and been found wanting.

I dug out the anthropologist Clifford Geertz' great 1982 essay on relativism, in which he quoted (among others) his colleague Robert Edgerton's complaint about "our inability to test any proposition about the relative adequacy of a society. Our relativistic tradition in anthropology has been slow to yield to the idea that there could be such a thing as a deviant society, one that is contrary to human nature."*

However, it seems that many anti-relativists are as confused about relativism as White is.  Geertz also quotes the very distinguished Melford Spiro (page 55):
[The] concept of cultural relativism . . . was enlisted to do battle against racist notions in general, and the notion of primitive mentality, in particular. . . . [But] cultural relativism was also used, at least by some anthropologists, to perpetuate a kind of inverted racism. That is, it was used as a powerful tool of cultural criticism, with the consequent derogation of Western culture and of the mentality which it produced.**
It's odd to conflate a concept with its misuse by "at least ... some anthropologists."  I'd expect a relative absolutist to deny them title to the concept, rather than cede it to them.  But this is a common theme in anti-relativist discourse, and it appears to be rooted in indignation that anyone should rank Euro-American culture below any other.  America is the norm against which deviant cultures are supposed to be measured, for heaven's sake!  Ironically, it's Spiro and Edgerton who are the real relativists here, criticizing cultural absolutists.

There's nothing wrong with White, or anyone else, finding features of other cultures that he prefers to features of his own.  I, for example, enjoy the varieties of bows that are customary in some East Asian cultures, from slight nods of the head to bowing deeply from the waist. (I've never been in a position where prostration would be appropriate, except in Buddhist temples.)  I enjoy doing it because it pleases the people I bow to.  But I know it makes a difference that I don't have to do it.  I don't have to worry, for example, about being beaten if I fail to bow, or bow incorrectly. I don't love every aspect of these cultures, and indeed am critical of many of their ways and customs -- just as I am of my own culture.  Nor do I consider these cultures superior to the West because of this custom.  It's a matter of temperament, an aesthetic judgment rather than a moral one.

I noticed that when White and his friends acted out certain details of Japanese culture, they played the roles of upper-status people, not servants or slaves.  Much of what he liked about the East was limited to scholars, priests, and rulers, not those who made their comfort and leisure possible.  When I read Tale of Genji, for example, I noticed that when the noble title character goes out into the rain to find a branch with flowers to send as a gift to some lady he hopes to rape, he is protected by oilcloth while his servant, who does the actual work, is not.  (White read a different translation than I did, but I think his failure to notice that Genji often coerced his lady loves into having sex with him has more to do with the rose-colored glasses through which he viewed Japanese culture than any significant difference in the translation.)  This isn't an unusual blind spot for those who romanticize other cultures, or even their own; how many Jane Austen fans identify with the servants in her novels, rather than the lovely, delicate young husband-hunters the servants care for?  (Jo Baker's 2013 novel Longbourn, which retells Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of a servant girl in the Bennet household, is a fine corrective.)

White also has some rather standard, but no less annoying for that, remarks about the American educational system; maybe I'll pick on those in another post.  I'm now about halfway through The Unpunished Vice, and while it's an interesting read, I think I'll take a break from it for a day or two.  Other books await.

* C. Geertz, "Anti-anti-relativism," in Geertz, Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (Princeton, 2000), page 56, quoting R. Edgerton, “The Study of Deviance, Marginal Man or Everyman?” in Spindler, ed., The Making of Psychological Anthropology, pp. 444–471.  The quotation from Edgerton is from page 470.

** M. Spiro, “Culture and Human Nature,” in G. Spindler, ed., The Making of Psychological Anthropology, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, pp. 330–360.  The quotation here is from page 336.

Monday, February 25, 2019

A Great Hill to Die On

Now for unChristian's chapter on Homosexuality.

This passage encapsulates Kinnaman and Lyons's approach, not just to homosexuality but to Christian/"outsider" interaction and perception in general.
In our research, the perception that Christians are “against” gays and lesbians—not only objecting to their lifestyles but also harboring irrational fear and unmerited scorn toward them—has reached critical mass. The gay issue has become the “big one,” the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimension that most clearly demonstrates the unChristian faith to young people today, surfacing a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say our hostility toward gays—not just opposition to homosexual politics and behaviors but disdain for gay individuals—has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.
Let me begin by assuring the reader that unlike more extreme atheists, I do not hate Christians; I object to their lifestyles but do not harbor irrational fear and unmerited scorn toward them.  I know and love many Christians, some of whom I assume are good people.  I don't disdain them, I only oppose Christian politics and behaviors, and would like to help them, if I can.  That includes David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, whose painful struggle with Christianity is evident on every page of unChristian.  David and Gabe, it's not you, it's your lifestyle.  You can change.

Of course I don't believe that Kinnaman and Lyons would feel warmed by my welcoming words, though I mean them sincerely.  I imagine they'd feel patronized, and recognize that my insistence on my love and concern for them is only meant to distract attention from my principled rejection of Christianity.  My acceptance of them doesn't mean I accept their faith.  In the same way, it's not their surface conduct toward gay people that I, and I presume the young Christians and ex-Christians they surveyed, reject: it's their teachings about homosexuality.  (And about many other issues as well, but they're not my subject here.)

I'm not surprised that many of the young Christians Kinnaman interviewed put their objections to conservative evangelical Christianity in terms of hate and hostility, or in terms of opposition to gays and lesbians.  As Kinnaman admits, hatred and hostility have been hard to miss in Christian antigay campaigns.
Here is an example: one seventeen-year-old churchgoer described her experience bringing a gay friend to church. “The youth pastor knew I was going to bring him, and even though his talk really had nothing to do with homosexuality, he still found a way to insert ‘God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’ into his comments. I was sitting there, just dying. This happened more than once. My friend was at a point where he was interested in seeing what Jesus might offer, and the door was just slammed shut” [102].
It will be an uphill struggle for Christians like Kinnaman who profess goodwill toward us to convince us that they really do mean well.  I suggest that merely professing their good intentions and biting back the "Adam and Steve" jokes is not going to be enough; at the very least they're going to have to put more pressure on their leaders and peers to change their attitudes.  Lots of luck with that.

People do have a tendency to confuse opposition to someone's actions with opposition to the person him or herself, which presumably is why so many people told Kinnaman that Christians are "against" gay men and lesbians.  Kinnaman himself slips up on page 103: "Because of our opposition to homosexuals, outsiders cannot picture the church as the loving community of believers Jesus envisioned."  Much if not most of the time, the distinction is made dishonestly, because in practice the distinction doesn't matter.  I suppose there are a few heterosexual "unChristians" with LGBT friends or relatives who'd be reassured by Kinnaman's moderate tone, for a while at least, in some cases long enough to drift back into the churches they'd previously rejected.  I doubt that many gay people or many straight friends and relatives will fall for it.

It's difficult to figure out exactly what Kinnaman and Lyons think the place of LGBT people in their church should be.  For one thing, they and the commentators to whom they give space in unChristian tend to focus less on us than on themselves.  For example, the writer Sarah Raymond Cunningham, who informs us that "I have braved a few real-life conversations with homosexual friends" (113):
There were dozens of tangible traits I cherished about my friend, and I told him so. But—in a voice trembling with nervousness and compassion—I confessed I was afraid my friendship might seem insincere if I couldn’t affirm what he held to be a central part of his identity: his sexuality.

“As far as I can tell,” I gulped, “the Bible only introduces one kind of sexual union, and that is between a man and a woman. So, I have to believe this is the course that leads to the fullest life—the life the Creator intended for us.”

When I spit out these defining sentences, I worried all my friend could hear was Blah-Blah-Christian-Blah-Blah.  But he stared back at me kindly, so I continued...

I think the conversation changed me more than my friend, because it forced me to acknowledge parts of God’s will I sometimes overlooked. To accept that God doesn’t want me to do things even he does not choose to do—to control or hijack someone else’s freedom [113, 114].
It's as if what matters most is her, not her friend.  Given that "he stared back at me kindly," it sounds as if he was counseling her, not the other way around.  Perhaps that's how it was, and should have been.

I've run into my share of people like Cunningham, and I try to reassure them that I don't mind much if they can't "affirm" my homosexuality.  It's not really their business anyway.  But if they keep trying to negate it, if they can't let it fade into the background and attend to other traits or interests that we do have in common, we can't be friends.  That's only a problem if they see me not as a person, but as a notch on their missionary bedposts.  But if they do, and if they can accept that I don't affirm what they hold to be a central part of their identity -- their Christianity -- friendship is possible. 

Or consider Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei Church in Portland:
Recently, I spent a year with a guy who thought he was born gay. We spent time working through what I believed to be God’s design for him. I believe God’s design is clearly male/female union or heterosexuality, however, he concluded that God made him that way (homosexual) and wanted to embrace this lifestyle fully. Therefore, he left the church, but it was a healthy parting. I am not sure how you avoid this kind of messiness when building relationships and loving people who are struggling with sexual identification issues [116].
Here too the gay man fades into the background.  It's all about the "healthy parting" and the kinds of "messiness" a pastor has to deal with.

Third one's the charm.  Chris Seay, of Ecclesia in Montrose, Houston:
As I walked closer to the place where our church was positioned, I realized there were three transvestite prostitutes working on the street corner. I decided to strike up a conversation with them, which led to me going inside and bringing them water. They were thirsty, so I gave them something to drink [114].
That's the whole story.  I suppose I should be glad he didn't tell us that the three transvestite prostitutes were so moved by Seay's Christian charity that they joined his church and in a few short months had become linebackers for the Houston Texans; but as it is, they are just props in a story about himself, his compassion, his courage in going near three homosexuals, braving the peril of homosexual cooties. Just like Jesus. 

Throughout unChristian the writers and commentators give the impression that homosexuals are something Out There, a kind of person they've never met before.  (The chapter following "Homosexuality" is "Sheltered," but I think that's the wrong word; "Closed" or "Hermetically Sealed" would be more like it.) You'd think the book had been written in the early 1970s, not the first decade of the twenty-first century.  "Despite widespread mobilization over the last decade, most Christians have become even more isolated from homosexuals," Kinnaman declares on page 106.  It may be true of the circles Kinnaman and Lyons and their commentators move in, but as Kinnaman admits,
Our research shows that one-third of gays and lesbians attend church regularly, going to churches across a wide spectrum of denominations and backgrounds, including Catholic, mainline, nonmainline, and nondenominational churches. Most gays and lesbians in America align themselves with Christianity, and one-sixth have beliefs that qualify them as born-again Christians. Most have been active in a church at one time, such as this gay man: “Sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile the ‘Christian movement’ I see in politics today with the kind, generous people I knew from my own days in the church. I remember the Christians I knew (and once considered myself) to be students of God, who wanted to serve him and spread his good news and message of hope to a needy world.” The bottom line: some gays are antagonistic to Christianity, but many are not [97].
It appears to me that Kinnaman is being disingenuous here, equivocating in a typically conservative-evangelical way.  He'd like the reader to suppose that the gays and lesbians in America [who] align themselves with Christianity" agree that homosexual behavior is sinful, and so do the "wide spectrum of denominations and backgrounds."  No doubt many do, but not those churches that offer union or even marriage ceremonies to same-sex couples, nor the couples who exchange their vows in those churches.

Going by those I've known, it's a safe bet that not even all those whose beliefs "qualify them as born-again Christians" agree that they are sinning when they have sex, in marriage or out of it.  UnChristian was published several years before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex civil marriage in the US, but American churches had been examining and revising their positions for decades by then.  Those gay people who still want to join churches have other options available to them than the brand represented by the writers of unChristian.

Because of the increased numbers of more or less openly gay people around, it takes strong determination for conservative Christians to avoid knowing us, or to pretend that they don't know us.  The rise of fundamentalist-run businesses and spaces since the 1980s might have made it easier for evangelicals to avoid dealing with outsiders, but since gay people are already Christians, we are already inside those spaces.  We are already in their families and workplaces and churches.  Even if we are immediately expelled upon discovery, they still have known us.  Perhaps they repress the unpleasant knowledge.

What, then, do Kinnaman and Lyons and their commentators have to offer to Christian LGBT people?  They are carefully vague.  Even the gay man given space at the end of the chapter, one Levi Walker, who reports that he returned to church four years earlier after "twenty years of depression, twelve years of drug addiction and dealing, and several suicide attempts" (117), says nothing about the kind of church he's in now, how it treats him, his place in it.  Walker's the kind of homosexual Christians like Kinnaman love: the drugs, the suicide attempts, the depression -- only AIDS is missing, but nobody's perfect.  The heterosexual commentators, as I noted, mainly talk about themselves and their spirituality, how they feel when they're stereotyped as "gay-hating bigots" (110), how they bravely had "real life" (as opposed to imaginary?)  conversations with homosexuals.

To their limited credit, no one in this book touts ex-gay ministries, at least not explicitly.  Maybe they're aware of what ineffective and scandal-ridden scams they are.  But it's fair to find in their ramblings a belief that change will occur once a homosexual joins a welcoming community, and if not that ...
As a church [writes Rick McKinley of Imago Dei], we have to hold to what Scripture says is true about the practice of homosexuality—the acting out of same sex relationships is a sin. However, we are wondering if it is possible to experience same-sex attraction but give yourself to living a celibate lifestyle. What if we could provide intimate Christ-centered community and accountability for him or her in that pursuit? We believe that community is the answer to everyone feeling loved and human [116-17].
Celibacy may be "possible" for a few, just as it's possible for a few to run a mile in under four minutes or scale Mount Everest, but it is not a realistic option for most human beings. Offering it as a solution -- to gay people, not to straights of course -- is not a good-faith approach.  (It's also Albert Mohler's bad-faith recommendation.)  As for experiencing same-sex attraction without acting on it, Kinnaman points out that "Jesus raised the bar beyond skin-on-skin contact and said even a simple thing like sexual thoughts can defile us [Matthew 5:28].  Our approach should embrace this high standard of sexuality" (104).  So Kinnaman's church, at any rate, can't even offer membership to gays on condition of overt sexual abstinence.

"It is necessary and appropriate for Christians to affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman," Kinnaman declares (105).  Appropriate perhaps, but hardly necessary, since the Biblical model was one man and numerous women, whether wives, concubines, or the odd harlot by the side of the road.  That's the original Biblical standard; the New Testament standard is that marriage is for weaklings who can't cut the mustard, either by self-mutilation (Matthew 19:12) or gritting one's teeth and abstaining from sexual life altogether (1 Corinthians 7).  Monogamy became the Christian standard not because of biblical teaching but because gentile Christians adopted Roman customs.

One would think it necessary and appropriate for Christians to affirm that divorce is not acceptable except under very narrowly defined conditions, but although Kinnaman and his commentators occasionally mention divorce as a problem because of our broken sexuality and our decadent society, they don't discuss its acceptance by evangelicals, both for themselves and their chosen politicians.  Ronald Reagan's divorced and remarried status didn't bother them at all, nor does Donald Trump's evangelical base mind his multiple marriages and divorces.  If they can overlook a lifestyle that was specifically prohibited by Jesus, perhaps they can (and probably will) learn to overlook the conflict between the Bible (though not Jesus, at least not explicitly) and same-sex sexual expression.

The olive branch Kinnaman and his commentators hold out to potential gay converts is that everybody's sexuality is "broken."  "But there is not a special judgment for homosexuals, and there is not a a special righteousness for heterosexuals," writes Shayne Wheeler of All Souls Fellowship in Georgia (page 111).  Rev. Alfred Ells of Leaders Last Ministries chimes in:
And I would add this caution: I have counseled many more straight Christians than homosexuals. Many believers are dealing with significant sexual issues, from marital unfaithfulness to pornographic addictions and other things you would not believe. Don’t underestimate the power of sexual problems—gay or straight—to devastate even the best families and the best churches [118].
That, like the recommendation of celibacy, is not going to win many homosexuals for Jesus.  Heterosexuals are granted presumably unbroken sexual expression in marriage, but homosexuals are a "sexual problem" in ourselves, like "pornographic addictions or other things you would not believe," with no loophole.  Fewer and fewer people, gay or straight, will go along with this anymore, and since there is no real moral argument against homosexuality except a biblical prohibition -- but evangelicals are as ready as other Christians to ignore the Bible when it's convenient for them -- conservative evangelicals had better expect to see their numbers continue to dwindle.

Kinnaman doesn't advocate secular laws against homosexual activity, though he's not clear as to why; but he does claim that "laws provide significant parameters that determine Americans' behaviors, so lawyers and legislators should work diligently to pursue a biblical perspective that achieves appropriate goals" (105).  This is followed by his remark, quoted above, about one-man / one-woman marriage.  Apparently he hasn't heard of the First Amendment.  He concludes that "You change a country not merely by bolstering its laws but by transforming the hearts of its people" (106), but he and his ilk have failed, thankfully, to do even that much -- they have not, on the evidence of this book, even managed to transform their own.
Christians point out the importance of a father and a mother in child development and reject the claims that gay couples should be able to adopt. And, of course, I recognize that it’s offensive to homosexuals to say that a child needs both a father and a mother; it’s a difficult part of what Christians believe. However, though this is an important conviction, Christians have to avoid rhetoric that dehumanizes people, especially in interpersonal interactions. Our most important concern must be the response of young people to Christ, not merely what type of home they grew up in ... If the people of Christ attack, mock, and criticize a child's parents, the chances that the child will ever commit his or her life to Christ are diminished [106].
There's plenty wrong here, starting with the invalid assumption that gay people only become parents through adoption, and moving on to the assumption that if you can't offer an ideal (by Kinnaman's standards) set of parents you should not be allowed to have or raise children at all.  Children have been successfully raised by widowed parents, for example.  I've known children who grew up in households headed by two women, both widowed or abandoned by husbands, who turned out okay.  Children will also have an easier time if their parents aren't poor, or members of other despised minorities; but I doubt Kinnaman would want to take them away from their parents or tell them they should never have been born, no offense kids but your parents fail to meet our high Christian standards of Family.  Same-sex couples, as far as we can tell, do as well by their children as mixed ones; the absence of both male and female in the parent couple doesn't mean the kids won't have meaningful interaction with other adults.  But Kinnaman has evidently ignored all the research and discussion on this matter; if you have Scripture and Christian-Right publications, what more do you need?

I find myself wondering, though, just how he envisions Christians of his sort coming into contact with children of gay parents.  Certainly not because the parents attend his church?  Maybe he just visualizes such kids wandering into his youth coffeehouse or being brought to his church by friends.  (It's a trap, kids! Don't go in!)  He even seems to be aware of the harm done by bullying. But in the end, he sees them purely as targets for conversion, though it's not impossible or unlikely that they will already be Christians, attending with their parents a church that Kinnaman doesn't approve of.

It's easy to see, judging by unChristian and other handwringing writings on the declining influence of fundamentalist Christianity, why young people are staying away from their faction in droves.  (It shouldn't be forgotten that all denominations, including liberal ones, have the same problem, if it is a problem for anyone but them.)  I'm not talking only about their reactionary and harmful politics, but
about their lack of engagement with actual human beings.  Despite their talk about being confident and fearless in the Lord, they come across in this book as terrified of just about everyone, to the point that having a "real life" conversation with an outsider (or even another Christian with differing views) feels risky and brave to them.  They recommend listening to others, but there's little indication in their own accounts that they do so.  They have to force themselves to make outreach, which is their right but incompatible with their own missionary platform.  As a queer atheist who's worked and talked with a wide range of people who don't agree with me over the years, I had trouble at first realizing how disengaged Kinnaman and his collaborators are.

Whatever they're selling, there's a dwindling market for it.  (I noticed that one of the more successful ministries touted by the commentators is a coffeehouse in Washington, DC, which is still around a dozen years after unChristian was published.  The commercial front, not the evangelism, probably accounts for its longevity.)  That's no ground for complacency, because even small groups of fanatics can do a lot of damage to a society.

I kept thinking of the prominent evangelical Carl F. H. Henry's remark* that "A redemptive totalitarianism is far preferable to an unredemptive democracy; a redemptive Communism far more advantageous than an unredemptive Capitalism, and vice versa."  This implies what should be obvious from much other evidence: Christianity is about purity (doctrinal and moral) and salvation, not about social justice or ordinary human decency.  Sure, you can import a concern with social justice into your implementation of Christianity (many have done it), but it's not the core of Christian concern.  According to the Gospel, helping others is not an end in itself but a means to getting oneself into Heaven.  (Besides, Christianity is about the Kingdom of God, not the Democracy of God.  Its worldview is hierarchical, not egalitarian.)

As I've said before, I don't advocate the a priori exclusion of Christians (or members of other religions) from public discourse.  But their Christianity is independent of whatever of value they have to contribute.  (I feel the same way about many atheists, who are apt to inject their fantasies about "the visions of Bronze Age goatherds" and other village-atheist bullshit to derail serious discussions.)  As unChristian shows once again, even on their own turf conservative evangelicals have very little to contribute; at best they distract from the serious thought and work that needs to be done.

*In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, originally published in 1947.  Quoted here.