Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kill Them All, Let Yahweh Sort Them Out

[NOTE: I revised and extended the ending paragraphs later this afternoon.]

Daniel Larison did a nice job today of dissecting a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on the current Israeli blitzkrieg in Gaza.  He points out that the writer, one Thane Rosenbaum, "unintentionally endorses the logic of every terrorist group in history:"

On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations. At that point you begin to look a lot more like conscripted soldiers than innocent civilians. And you have wittingly made yourself targets.
As Larison indicates, Rosenbaum's argument would justify Arab "terrorist" attacks on Israel, whose citizens have freely elected a government that carries out attacks on civilians and thereby -- on Rosenbaum's logic -- wittingly made themselves targets.  As far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of Israelis are strongly supportive of what their government and their army are doing, thereby allowing them to set up shop in their living room as their base of operations.

Larison also answers a popular defense of Israeli violence that was often invoked in the NPR coverage I heard while traveling over the weekend (I added the bold type):
It may please Hamas to make use of these victims’ deaths for their own purposes, but that doesn’t absolve the Israeli government of its responsibility for causing those deaths. If Hamas benefits politically from these civilian deaths, and it seems likely that they do, it would seem obvious that Israel should not want to cause any more, and yet at each step over the last few weeks Israel’s government has responded with tactics that are guaranteed to continue killing many more non-combatants for as long as this operation continues. 
Of course, Israel also benefits politically from Israeli civilian deaths (though according to Rosenbaum, remember, there are no civilians), which would suggest that its enemies should not want to cause any more either.  It also indicates that the US government and corporate media should view Israeli exploitation of its civilians' injuries as they view Hamas's.  Of course that isn't going to happen; indeed, President Obama joins in the exploitation of the suffering of Israeli civilians.

The comments, as usual under Larison's work, are pretty good.  One person asked:
I ask this as a rather naive bystander, but: why is it that, on any given day, I can read The American Conservative on how Israel continues to kill more and more non-combatants (“running up the score”) and I can read National Review’s defense of Israel as being about the most careful regime in the world in terms of protecting non-combatants. What is the truth?
I don't see these two positions as necessarily contradictory.  An apologist for Israel could reply that if Israel weren't so scrupulous and careful, many more Palestinians would be killed.  (An apologist for Hamas could argue that they are even more careful, since rockets fired from Gaza into Israel kill almost nobody, civilian or military.  No one would take such an argument seriously, of course.)  Therefore, the apologist would continue, covering Palestinian deaths is a sign of the media's anti-Israel and indeed anti-Semitic bias, trying to win sympathy for these animals in hopes of driving Israel into the sea.  The problem for Israel is that they are clearly targeting civilians and civilian targets, such as hospitals, deliberately (though, the apologist would insist, they would kill so many more if Israel weren't such a moral exemplar), and this doesn't look good.  As another commenter pointed out, the killing of Arab civilians has been Israeli policy since its founding in 1948.

Another commenter wrote:
But the practical question is, what is Israel to do? Hamas deliberately installs rocket launchers in densely populated areas, it benefits politically from civilian casualties. We are witnessing a new form of warfare, where one side (Hamas) uses a horrific strategy of maximizing casualties among their own as an informational warfare weapon.  It works, too.
As I already pointed out, so does Israel, especially since any Israeli casualties will be trumpeted to the world as proof of Arab barbarism. When US media say that things have been quiet in Israel-Palestine of late, they mean only that no Israelis have been killed; Palestinian deaths are business as usual, nothing to see here, folks.

I suppose another practical question is what you expect Hamas to do. Gaza is, as we’re often told, one of the most densely populated areas on earth. Its government has no place to put defensive weapons except among the civilian population. Certainly Gazans have a right to defend themselves against Israeli violence — don’t they? And Gaza is under blockade, which is an act of war (as even the Israelis recognize if a blockade is directed against them); Israeli violence against Gaza is not limited to major assaults like the one currently underway. And that’s aside from the ongoing, daily violence and repression directed against Palestinians in the West Bank, and increasingly against Israeli Arabs in Israel itself. (Jonathan Cook’s 2006 book Blood and Religion is good on that subject.)

What I find interesting about this comment is that it changes the subject, which is typical among apologists for outlaw states (including the US — I remember the very same argument being made during the US invasion of Iraq). The article Larison dissected argues that it’s okay to kill (Arab) civilians, because they’re all effectively and morally combatants, which renders the question of Israeli scrupulosity irrelevant: Israel is completely in the right to kill civilians, because they're not civilians anyway.  (A recent error of attribution by ABC News showed this very effectively: given a photo of a family in their bombed-out house, ABC assumed that the suffering civilians must be Israelis -- but they were Palestinians.)

It’s increasingly difficult for many people to believe anymore that Israel kills civilians only unintentionally, as mere collateral damage, after the killing of four kids building sand castles on the beach, after the bombing of hospitals, and so on.  Israel (like any other state, to be sure) usually explains away these killings by claiming either that the victims were really terrorists or that the killers thought that they were shelling a militant base.  These explanations are routinely exposed as lies, but who cares?  There are no consequences for Israel.  The commenter's question is also irrelevant to the larger problem of Israeli violence against civilians, since Israel targets them directly and deliberately even when they’re not in Gaza. The argument is clearly offered in bad faith when Israeli spokesman make it, so it’s suspect when unofficial apologists make it too.

What do I "expect" Israel to do?  I expect Israel to stop its ongoing campaign of violence against the people it has displaced. to lift the blockade on Gaza, to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians, and so on.  I don't really expect this to happen, of course.  Israel has gone too far, too successfully, to stop now.  What does Israel expect the Palestinians to do?  It expects them to surrender, I suppose, and failing that, to die, with its assistance.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that the current atrocities will continue as long as necessary to guarantee Israel's security.  I don't see how this conduct can produce security for Israel except by exterminating all Palestinians, and that seems to be Israel's goal.  (Or as near to extermination as makes no difference: the US didn't totally wipe out its Indians, but it did kill them off to the point that they no longer posed any danger to US settlers.  Even that wasn't permanent. Israeli leaders may not have heard of the American Indian Movement, but they probably intend not to let any such potential for future resistance survive.)

Israel's wars have not won it security, so Netanyahu's "goal of bringing a prolonged quiet to the area" is disingenuous at best.  But then, like those of his American counterparts, his lies never have any consequences for him. When Israel has gained prolonged quiet from Palestinians in the past, it has always ended it with new violence.  (And to repeat, its war of attrition against the Palestinians, through dispossession, harassment, and retail violence, never stops.)   Like an American hawk, Netanyahu claims that only military strength guarantees security, though it hasn't given Israel (or the US ) security so far.  Larison has written about this many times: no matter how much military might and action they get, hawks always claim that their country is weak and ineffectual, under constant threat, so more weapons and invasions are needed to instill fear in our (real, imagined, or potential) enemies.  The difference, for what it's worth, is that most Americans aren't hawks, while Netanyahu speaks for the majority of Israelis.  Endless war hasn't gotten Israel what it wants or claims to want, but I see no hope that it will try less murderous alternatives.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Beam Me Up, Scotty ...

I'm reading The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) by Paul Davies, a physicist and popular science writer.  I've never been a fan of his, but I hoped he would give me some idea of the current state of the scientific search for extra-terrestrial life and intelligence, and he is doing that. So far it appears that the current state of SETI is about where it was the last time I looked, a couple of decades ago, though Davies does have some intriguing ideas about where it might conceivably go.  Conceivably.  Maybe.  Hypothetically.

But right now I want to gripe about a famous quotation from Calvin and Hobbes, that Davies uses as an epigraph to chapter 4: "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."  Davies ascribes it to "Bill Watterson, cartoonist," but what the hell, I know that white people find it difficult to distinguish between a writer and the words he puts into the mouths of his characters, and I wouldn't be surprised if Calvin was speaking for his creator there.

What bothers me about the quotation is its nerdy contempt for all human beings except the speaker.  I've written before about this
misanthropic dismissal of human intelligence.  The most extreme case I can think of was someone on the first computer BBS I frequented, back in the mid-1980s.  He said that he didn't think there was such a thing as human intelligence; there might, he allowed, be such a thing as real intelligence somewhere else in the universe, but not among Homo Sap, and not on this planet.  That was interesting in so many ways.  First off, since he wasn't intelligent by his own assumption, why should anyone take him seriously?  We're all dumb here -- you're dumb too, or you wouldn't be here.  Second, "intelligence" is something that most of us ascribe to human beings, and to a lesser extent to other animals.  It has no meaning except as a trait human beings have, and until we actually encounter "intelligent" extraterrestrial organisms, we won't have a basis for comparison anyway.  It's sort of like saying that there's no such thing as human beauty, except that we human beings do perceive beauty in other animals, in plants, in inorganic things (from quartz crystals to the Grand Canyon), in natural phenomena like sunsets or the night sky.  I suppose that a human being could decide that no human beings are beautiful, that only seal-point Siamese cats or the Andromeda galaxy are really beautiful; but I would reply that while it's fine for him, I (like many other people) do find many human beings beautiful.  Beauty, like intelligence or goodness, is in the eye of the beholder.  If everybody is ugly, then nobody's beautiful; if everybody's dumb, then nobody's dumb.  Or at least, some are dumber than others.
Hand in hand with this attitude goes the assumption that if real intelligence comes along, whether extraterrestrial or computer-driven, the misanthropic nerd will get to be its BFF.  It's partly a religious fantasy as well as a racist one, of being Chosen and finally Rescued / Raptured from the inferior herd by the Truly Cool People from Outer Space, or Cyberspace, or Heaven, or what you will.

Thinking of this made me wonder, not for the first time, why so many people are so eager to know that there are other people -- preferably superior, though not so superior that they won't be super-nice to us when we finally meet -- elsewhere in the universe.  True, it would be interesting to know, though as Noam Chomsky pointed out in another context, Society is happily in ignorance of insignificant matters of all sorts.  (Yes, I consider the existence of extra-terrestrial life an insignificant question in the present state of our ignorance.)  One of the recurring themes is that it would be bad to be "alone," though again this doesn't seem like a very pressing concern compared to war, poverty, hunger, and disease on this planet.  Since human beings don't get along with each other as well as we ought, why do we need more species to not get along with?  It's like the desire to colonize other planets because we've about ruined this one.

Even if we do discover that there are civilizations in other solar systems or galaxies, it is extremely unlikely, to the point of certainty, that we would be able to communicate with them or they with us, let alone go for a visit.  Some people might find it comforting to know that there are other people in the universe, but at least as many would feel threatened -- despite the minimal, not to say nonexistent nature of the threat -- and would start trying to gin up concern about defending ourselves against the Andromedans.  Others would start collecting money to send missionaries to those poor benighted aliens who don't know Jesus.  As I say, I consider the question whether there is life in other solar systems to be insignificant, and I feel sure it's a distraction for most people who think it's important.

Then there was the quotation in the meme above, which was shared on Facebook by a former co-worker, newly retired.  The very term "common sense" always gets my back up, for reasons I've gone into before, but the meme made me giggle because, as I suspected, my friend had no idea who Robert G. Ingersoll was.  He was a famous 19th-century Freethinker, the most popular speaker in America in his day, known as "the Great Agnostic."  It's safe to say that his idea of common sense was very different from my former co-worker's, who's a mushy Cafeteria Christian with common-sense middle-American politics and attitudes.  She's a very nice person, but she wouldn't have gotten along with Ingersoll.  He was, for instance, a prominent abolitionist too, and while as a decent white American born in the middle of the twentieth century, my friend disapproves of slavery since it's a safely dead issue now, I doubt she'd have felt the same way had she been born in antebellum America.  I mean, slavery was just common sense in those days.

That's the thing about common sense: it may be common, but it's not very sensible.  I'm not sure whether the people (including the scientists) who are obsessed with knowing that We Are Not Alone have too much common sense, or too little, though so many of the arguments are couched in terms of common sense: the universe is so big and there are so many stars, there must be other planets and there must be people out there, it would totally suck if we were alone!  In a matter like this, there is no "must."  There's only evidence, and right now there isn't any.  I notice from Davies's book, which I finished reading over the weekend, that the proponents of SETI are still overstating what they know.  More on this later, I hope.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Saying No in Ways That Sound Like Yes

Thanks to Alas, a Blog, I found this curious essay at slacktivist.  The writer, Fred Clark, asks a useful question: The Biblical position on women's equality, especially in the churches, is still being debated after centuries, with no resolution in sight; so is the Biblical position on on homosexuality.
Given the apparent insolubility of those battles over clobber texts, it’s strange to consider that another similar argument — one far more heated and contentious — has simply vanished entirely. This was a fierce argument over biblical interpretation that split denominations and congregations, shaping and reshaping America’s churches, American culture and, ultimately, America’s Constitution. And then, abruptly, it just ended. It was settled, once and for all, and no credible person living today regards it as even slightly controversial.

I’m talking about slavery...
After summarizing some of the debate on slavery and the Bible from the 1800s, Clark concludes:
The dispute wasn’t resolved by exegesis or by theological argument. It was, rather, as Mark Noll wrote, “left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.”
That's cute, but it overlooks a few things.  Yes, it took the most horrific war in history up to that time, with 600,000 or so dead and many more wounded and maimed, to bring slavery to an end -- in the United States.  In England, by contrast, slavery was abolished in 1833 by act of Parliament without resort to warfare.  As this timeline from Wikipedia indicates, the US is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the abolition of slavery.  If Clark were serious about the biblical and theological aspects of slavery, a look at how they were handled in England and other Christian countries would be instructive.  (I notice that the next day, he posted about American exceptionalism, though I haven't bothered to read that one.  But his post on slavery is a textbook case of American exceptionalism: it's all about Us, and outside our borders no one has dealt with this issue at all.  I daresay he knows better -- but in this post he chose not to know better.)

Did the Civil War resolve "what in fact the Bible meant" about slavery?  It did not.  It would be interesting to follow the theological discussion of slavery in the US after 1865, and see just when biblical defenses of slavery were abandoned.  Although slavery was formally abolished de jure, it survived de facto in various forms, and white supremacy was defended on Biblical grounds well into the twentieth century. 

Still, as far as the US is concerned, the blogger is more or less correct: hardly any American Christian nowadays will defend slavery on biblical grounds, and most Christians try to ignore the biblical evidence, and explain it away if they must confront it.  (The same is true of secular rationalizations of slavery: I've argued before that drapetomania, a purported disease which caused slaves to run away from their masters, does not seems to have been proven bogus so much as abandoned in embarrassment.)

In sum, Clark writes,
That’s a huge, enduring problem for American Christianity. For one thing, it doesn’t offer any potential approach for resolving other theological and interpretive disputes. Opponents of women’s equality will continue to cite 1 Timothy 2:12 as authoritative proof that they are right, while advocates of women’s equality will offer alternative interpretations, but neither side will have the option of settling the matter definitively by burning Atlanta.

But the larger problem is this: We have concluded that some of our foremost and most influential theologians, pastors, and biblical scholars were utterly wrong about a monumentally important matter of biblical truth. Yet, because we choose not to explore why or how they were wrong, we are unable to learn from their grievous mistake. We have no way of knowing whether or not we are, in fact, repeating their mistake. We have no way of avoiding such a repetition.
Now, this confuses me.  Even if we could burn Atlanta, would it really 'settle the matter' of women or homosexuals in the church?  I don't think it would, and I don't believe that Fred Clark believes it either.  As he acknowledges, the question of slavery wasn't really settled but abandoned by American Christians; I don't think that's really the outcome he wants for other issues.

I'm especially confused by the claim that "we have concluded that some of our foremost and most influential theologians, pastors, and biblical scholars were utterly wrong about a monumentally important matter of biblical truth."  I can't tell for sure, but I guess he means that virtually all twenty-first century Christians now believe that slavery is wrong, and I guess he believes that he regards the contrary view as held by "some of our foremost theologians, pastors, and biblical scholars" is a "mistake."  Or maybe the mistake lay in letting the Civil War settle the issue of slavery: American religious thinkers and teachers abandoned their obligation to determine "biblical truth" for themselves.  But he seems to have lost the thread of the argument.

There are two separate questions here.  The one on the table, so to speak, is whether slavery is wrong according to the Bible.  There is no reason to think so, as Clark more or less admits.  The other question is whether slavery is wrong (or right, for that matter), regardless of what the Bible says about it.  I think Clark confuses the issues, and that's why the article as a whole makes little sense.

By "clobber passages" Clark means the parts of the Bible that treat slavery as morally unproblematic, an institution to be regulated but not abolished, and indeed a model for the relationship between the believer and Christ.  He also means the parts of the Bible that assume or explicitly endorse male supremacy, the subordination of women.  But these are not isolated passages which can be used to "clobber" critics who reject these practices and principles: they permeate the Bible from beginning to end.  (The passages relating to male homosexuality, by contrast, are relatively isolated, but there is really no Biblical material that counters them.)  This is relatively uncontroversial; no honest scholar would deny that the Bible treats slavery and male supremacy as unproblematic, and I've noticed that numerous gay Christian apologists admit that the Bible treats male homosexuality as a serious sin even as they try to explain away the problem ("clobber") passages.

The question, then, is not 'what the Bible says' about these issues -- that's clear enough -- but what to do about aspects of the Bible that modern Christians can no longer accept as authoritative.  There are many of them, not limited to these three issues, and not all Christians today reject them.  But Clark seems to think that if we could just really understand what the Bible says, we could resolve these theological and interpretive disputes.  I think the English scholar and theologian Dennis E. Nineham identified the problem in The Use and Abuse of the Bible (Harper & Row, 1976, p. 205):
If I may quote Leonard Hodgson again, it must be on the understanding that quoted out of context he may seem to be saying more than he intended to; or should I say that he spoke more wisely than he knew?  'For too long,' he writes, 'study of the biblical writers (and, for the matter of that, of patristics, scholastics, reformers and the rest) has been based on the assumption that someone, somewhere, at some time in the past, really knew the truth, that what we have to do is find out what he thought and get back to it.'  It may be significant that this statement occurs in Hodgson's last book; for years he had been moving towards it.  My only doubt is whether even in the end he applied it with quite sufficient rigour either to Jesus or to the architects of trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy.
What Nineham is talking about here is the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which most people confuse with "literalism."  It holds that the Bible, properly understood, is without error, and that if there seems to be something wrong with the Bible, it's really the reader or interpreter who has gone wrong.  Very non-literal interpretation is necessary to get rid of the inconvenient material. No issue can be resolved with this approach.  If you start at your end point -- the conclusion you want to reach -- only those who agree about the conclusion will find your interpretation plausible, and your critics will easily show what you got wrong. That accounts for most of the endless debate Clark laments, I think. It also indicates why that debate won't end.

The philosopher Walter Kaufmann also addressed this issue a quarter century before Nineham, in his book The Faith of a Heretic.  (I'm quoting from the 1963 Anchor paperback edition.)  In a print debate with the philosopher Karl Jaspers, the influential Protestant scholar and theologian Rudolf Bultmann asked rhetorically: "He [i.e., Jaspers] is as convinced as I am that a corpse cannot come back to life and rise from his tomb ... What, then, am I to do when as a pastor, preaching or teaching, I must explain texts ... ?  Or when, as a scientific theologian, I must give guidance to pastors with my interpretation?" (quoted by Kaufmann, 95).  Kaufmann commented:
Up to this point, Bultmann had generally referred to "the Easter event," and students had debated just what, according to Bultmann, had happened at the first Easter.  Now Bultmann let the cat out of the bag, not only about one particular belief but about the nature of theology ... 

Bultmann, asked about eternal torture in a conversation, said that on that subject he agreed with Lessing.  He had every right to expect that a younger colleague, no less than a student, would proceed to the nearest library and begin reading through a set of Lessing's works, in search of the crucial passage.  After the first ten volumes, he could safely be expected to give up.  Encouraged by my American training, however, I asked: "And what did Lessing say?"  The great theologian hesitated, then allowed that Lessing had once said somewhere that if even a single soul were in eternal torment he would certainly refuse to go to heaven.  It would seem, then, that Bultmann disbelieves in any form of eternal punishment.  In his huge Theology of the New Testament, hell and eternal damnation are simply ignored.

This refusal to let one's No be a No is one of the central characteristics of theologians no less than of committed Communists.  One does not emphasize one's points of disagreement with tradition or the scriptures; instead one emphasizes points of agreement and sidesteps embarrassing issues by raising questions of exegesis.  As a consequence, the agreement among committed believers is, to a surprisingly large extent, apparent only ...

[An American Protestant theologian like Paul] Tillich, like [Reinhold] Niebuhr, shares few of [Billy] Graham's religious beliefs ... But, like Bultmann, they say No in ways that sound like Yes [95-97].
One of the first commenters on Clark's post wrote sarcastically:
Gosh, if only there were an all good, all powerful being who loved us deeply that could manifest itself and bring clarity to these sorts of issues. That would certainly help end a lot of arguments.
To which another commeter replied, apparently in all seriousness:
If only he had. But, he didn't clarify. He, in fact, made the law into a square circle that institutionized racism, sexism, and slavery and also commanded love and the golden rule. At no point does the bible even theoretically acknowledge a conflict. So, for biblical literalists, or at least those who believe God made the old law based on perfect morality, you're stuck trying to square that circle of being both loving and oppressive.
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If Jesus existed, was God made manifest, and was morally perfect, and wanted this clear, he had ample opportunity to clarify the evils of slavery, of making women into a second class of person, etc. At ,east according to the bible, he did not make use of that opportunity.
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So, yeah, it would have been nice, for Christianity, had Jesus clarified the matters.
From there the discussion turned largely into a debate about the historical reliability of the gospels, but that's not really important here.  I'm more interested in the fact that these people clearly want to see Jesus and the Bible as authoritative guides to morality, and they expect God's morality to agree with theirs, but it doesn't seem to occur to the second commenter that Jesus might not have bothered to "clarify" matters like slavery, not only because he agreed with the status quo of his time and place, but because he didn't see these issues as important matters of biblical truth. 

According to the gospels, Jesus believed that the Kingdom of God was "at hand," that is, it was going to be established on earth ("as it is in heaven") within the lifetimes of most of his followers.  (The rest of the New Testament is built on this assumption.  I'm not as informed on the "gnostic" scriptures as I am on the canonical ones, but they don't seem any more concerned with social justice, as opposed to individual spiritual purity, than the New Testament is.)  What mattered was not working for social justice but making oneself ready for the coming judgment, which would not be based on whether one owned slaves or allowed women to preach, but on other criteria that aren't spelled out coherently in the New Testament.  This doctrine is summed up in a well-known problem passage, "The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me" (Mark 14:7 and parallels).

These issues can't be resolved for modern Christians by biblical interpretation.  The Bible (leaving aside the absurdity of referring to the Bible as it were a person with a single point of view, but that's the convention) has no objection to slavery, the subjugation of women, the devaluation of homosexuality, and so on.  That doesn't mean modern Christians must agree with all of the Bible; no Christians ever have.  The problem, once again, is not "literalism" but inerrancy, and liberal, even radical Christians still can't seem to shake the assumption that the Bible, properly understood, has all the answers.  This leaves them closer in principle to fundamentalists than either faction wants to think.  Some Christian thinkers, like Nineham, James Barr and others, tried to move away from inerrancy, but most Christians continue to try to fine-tune it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Love Me, Love My Wisdom; or, My Mama Told Me You Better Shop Around

[Another one from my drafts folder; I'll have more to say about Plato at the Googolplex after I read more of it.]

Everybody does philosophy, if that word refers to asking questions about the Meaning of It All, and it does.  In that sense, every child is a philosopher, except that children have questions but no answers, and no idea how to get answers except to ask adults -- whose answers are often inadequate.  "Philosophy," then, means the process of learning to ask questions and evaluate the answers, both those given by others and those that one invents oneself.  One of Nietzsche's better aphorisms was "A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!!!"

"Philosophy" literally means "love of wisdom," but that doesn't begin to define what philosophy is about.  One of Merriam-Webster's definitions for "wisdom" is "the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand", which seemed odd to me at first until I considered the possibility that many people probably do think of wisdom that way, as something that people just have naturally, instead of something they acquired through hard mental work.  Which implies that other people just naturally don't have it.

Most of us, I think, want answers, and get impatient with the process of acquiring them.  If one teacher doesn't have the answer, they'll find another one, and it's easy enough to find teachers who peddle answers.  What's harder, for the big questions, is finding someone who has the right answerBut for many questions there are no right answers, which bothers most people even more.

And here I discover again what a naïf I am at heart: I believe that most people could learn to understand why some answers to big questions are wrong, why we find those questions so hard to answer, and why there really may be no right answers to them.  That's what I mean by doing philosophy beyond the mere asking of questions: learning to evaluate answers.  To be honest, I don't know whether most people can learn to do that very well, but I believe it would be worth trying.  I know, of course, that not everyone agrees with me.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away (Pantheon, 2014) looks like an attempt to make philosophy accessible to the ordinary reader; I"m not so sure.  In large part it's Goldstein's attempt to produce some Platonic/Socratic dialogues for the twenty-first-and-a-tenth century, and so far -- I've read the first dialogue -- I'm not impressed.  This doesn't speak so badly for Goldstein, because most such efforts that I've read have not worked well, but I hoped she might do better than this. As a professor of philosophy and a novelist she's eminently qualified for the project, but I'm having trouble getting a handle on what she thinks she's doing. The book's conceit is that Plato has somehow appeared in the present and is going on a book tour, beginning with an appearance at the Googleplex in California, described by his tour wrangler (or "media escort" as she calls herself).  Cheryl the media escort gets drawn into a philosophy lesson by her charge, and I think Goldstein makes Cheryl too clueless, with no idea who Plato is, why he wears a chiton and sandals, and the like.  But the exchange is about the issue I'm writing about today, namely the relation between hoi aristoi (the excellent, who are few) and hoi polloi (the many, who are at best mediocre).

Goldstein's Plato argues, as he did 2500 years ago, that it's proper to look to experts in how to live a good life, just as we look to experts in orthodontia to straighten our children's teeth, and so on.  I should probably qualify that: as Goldstein explains, there's no agreement as to Plato's actual views on this or any other philosophical question he wrote about.  People who've spent years reading and discussing him disagree on his views, though each is confident that they know them.  But the idea of deferring to experts in the good life has generally been seen as Plato's view, partly because he himself seems to have tried to train up a philosopher-king during his career (which indicates that he thought it would be a good idea), and partly because philosophers have often liked to think they were the experts he postulated.  I admit, though, that Plato may have had mixed feelings about the issue.  Even in the dialogues I've read (and shame on me for not having read them all), he sometimes uses Socratic questioning to lead to an impasse, the kind of no-answer I've mentioned here. I think that may very be the case with the idea of looking to experts on the Good. (Next reading project: the works of Plato.)

The trouble with looking to experts on the Good is finding them in the first place.  They disagree among themselves, often vehemently.  Plato seems to have dealt with this little difficulty by accusing his competitors of bad faith.  These are now known as sophists, and supposedly they were men who did philosophy for money and entertainment.
The Sophists held no values other than winning and succeeding. They were not true believers. They were secular atheists, relativists and cynical about religious beliefs and all traditions. They believed and taught that "might makes right". They were pragmatists trusting in whatever works to bring about the desired end at whatever the cost. They made a business of education and profited from it.
That's the standard line on the sophists, and it sets off my bullshit detector.  And not only mine -- some philosophers have suspected that the standard line is a caricature, rather like Aristophanes' depiction of Socrates himself as a sophist in The Clouds.  (Plato's dialogues were probably written partly as defenses and rehabilitations of Socrates, much as the gospels were written partly to defend Jesus against certain charges that had been leveled against him.)  And if Plato didn't believe every position he seemed to advocate in his dialogues, doesn't that mean he was not a "true believer"?  As for "pragmatists trusting in whatever works to bring about the desired end at whatever the cost", see Plato's doctrine of the "noble lie" in The Republic.

But even leaving the sophists out of it, modern philosophers disagree not merely on details but on basic aspects about the questions they study and debate.  Claiming that one approach or answer is motivated just to make money is intellectually lazy.  (Which is no doubt why such claims are so popular.)  To a great extent it's also irrelevant: if I say that 2 plus 2 equals 4 because someone paid me to, it has no bearing on the accuracy of the arithmetic.  (Nor, against another popular tactic, does it matter if I say 2 plus 2 equals 4 simply because I"m an asshole who likes to argue.  But then, being an asshole who likes to argue is virtually a necessary qualification to be a philosopher.)  So even if the sophists taught and argued in bad faith, the validity or invalidity of their arguments is a separate question; and the same applies to Socrates and Plato, that even if they were motivated by a pure disinterested love of wisdom, it wouldn't guarantee the validity of their arguments.  One of the first things you must learn in critical thinking is how to cut through the various kinds of obfuscation, deliberate or unintentional, in an argument to get at and analyze its actual core.

Yes, It Is So Gay

Back to The Tolerance Trap for a moment.  (That title annoys me; to someone of my generation, anyway, it's reminiscent of a Disney movie from the days when their live-action films were B-grade at best; or a Fifties sort-of sex comedy.  But maybe it's Just Me.)

I'm still bogged down in the introduction.  It occurred to me that, so far, Suzanna Danuta Walters hasn't actually quoted anyone who says that tolerance is the be-all and end-all of the gay movement.  I checked the endnotes too.  Maybe she will later, but I don't think it's unreasonable to ask that she give an example or two at the outset.  If "most gay people and their allies" are really putting tolerance first, at the expense of equality and rights, there should be plenty of quotations to choose from.  As I noted when I quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in the previous post on this book, "tolerance," "acceptance," "equality," "rights" and suchlike are part of the vocabulary of modern American movements for social justice.  To determine what role a given concept plays as a movement's goal, one must examine how it's actually used.  And as I also noticed, to claim that "rights" and "equality" have been sidelined by "tolerance" in today's gay movement is a bit silly at a time when "Marriage Equality" is so prominent a buzzword.

I notice too that Walters keeps linking "tolerance and acceptance" as though they were somehow equivalent.  (So does the sociologist Michael Kimmel in his blurb for the book.)  It seems to me that they're more like opposites.  As Walters also writes:
It doesn’t make sense to say that we tolerate something unless we think that it’s wrong in some way.  To say you “tolerate” homosexuality is to imply that homosexuality is bad or immoral or even just benignly icky, like that exotic food you just can’t bring yourself to try.  
That’s not quite right, though.  Rather, it’s to imply that you think homosexuality is bad or immoral, etc.  Quite a few people still do.
You are willing to put up with (to tolerate) this nastiness, but the toleration proves the thing (the person, the sexuality, the food) to be irredeemably nasty to begin with.  We don’t speak of tolerating pleasure or a good book or a sunshine-filled day.  We do, however, take pains to let others know how brave we are when we tolerate the discomfort of a bad back or a nasty cold.  We tolerate the agony of a frustratingly banal movie that our partner insisted on watching and are thought the better for it.  We tolerate, in other words, what we would rather avoid.  Tolerance is not an embrace ...
(Oh? then why does Walters conflate it with acceptance?)
... but a resigned shrug or, worse, that air kiss of faux familiarity that barely covers up the shiver of disgust [4].
She has a point, of course; it's one that has often been made before.  (Walters quotes some rather famous lines from Jean Cocteau's queer novella Livre Blanc as an epigraph to the book, for example: I'm not willing just to be tolerated.  That wounds my love of love and of liberty.)  But I think she's missing the point of the appeal to tolerance in political and social life.  For one thing, it's about power, not morality: the less powerful asks the more powerful for tolerance.  As for acceptance, I'll return to that presently; remind me if I forget.

True, to ask to be tolerated is to accept, provisionally at least, a negative evaluation of one's condition, to concede that the persons from whom one is asking tolerance disapprove of one.  Sometimes that's the best one can hope for.  But it's not necessarily to agree that one's condition is bad.  Consider another case where toleration has historically been asked and counseled, namely religion.  It isn't realistic to ask for an embrace of unpopular religious beliefs and practices and affiliations, since one of the perks of religious belief in a pluralistic society is the right to look down on one's neighbor's religion.  We don't expect Catholics to embrace Protestants or vice versa, or Christians to embrace Jews or Muslims or neopagans or vice versa, or any of them to approve of atheists.  What we do expect and require is that people don't try to make different sects illegal, or discriminate in certain spheres against their members, or kidnap and forcibly baptize their children, or burn down their churches, synagogues or mosques with the congregations locked inside -- even though such treatment was claimed as proper and indeed obligatory in the days when people took religion seriously.  As I've argued before, today's religious freedom has made necessary (or perhaps been enabled by) a decreasing fanaticism, because in order to keep others from persecuting them, religious believers have been obliged not to persecute others.  You need not agree with your neighbor's beliefs, you may indeed abhor them, and you are free to denounce them privately or publicly, but you must tolerate his or her right to worship in peace.

While most people don't think of religion per se as a bad thing, like that nasty exotic dish you don't want to try, they still feel free to hate specific other religions, including other denominations or sects within the same main tradition.  Sometimes the bitterest denunciations arise from what seem to outsiders like trivial differences, but they aren't trivial to the principals involved.  (Remember that the young Israeli girls who were attacked by ultra-orthodox Jewish men for supposedly dressing like whores were themselves Orthodox, dressed much more "modestly" than most American girls their age; but that tiny difference was enough to inspire hateful fury, as if they'd said "nukular" or put an "h" where it didn't belong.)  In the US, formal religious equality and the prohibition of discrimination based on religion certainly don't require members of different religions to accept or approve or embrace or love each other; but they must tolerate each other.  The political philosopher Michael Neumann has written:
Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush.
I've quoted this passage to a number of people, most of whom don't seem to get it.  To many people it seems important to have someone of whom they think it's legitimate to beat them or put them in jail or drive them from their homes simply because of who they are.  They don't actually do this most of the time, for fear of getting in trouble, but they like to fantasize about it.  So tolerance in any meaningful sense is still, I contend, a worthwhile aim in many cases, and too often a utopian ideal.  I want a good deal more, or other, than mere tolerance, but it's certainly part of what I want, not only as a gay man but as an intellectual and an atheist.

Whether homosexuality is a case like religion, I don't know.  But when I was growing up, demanding to be tolerated was a good starting place for us: not to be attacked in the streets by police or other citizens, not to be fired from our jobs, not to be thrown out of our families, not to have our meeting places and businesses raided or vandalized -- just to be allowed to live our lives without government persecution was a radical demand.  Times have changed, but toleration is more than many gay people receive in the US to this day, as Walters admits.  She's very critical of what she says "most gay people and their allies" claim:
Most gays and their allies think that we have essentially won the culture wars and that gay visibility in popular culture is a sign of substantive gay progress.  Most gays and their allies believe that gay is the new black: hip, happening, embraced.  Most gays and their allies believe that if those who are anti-gay just got to know us as their PTA-going neighbors, they would love us.  Most gays and their allies believe that we are almost there, we can see the end of the tunnel, where a rainbow world of warm inclusion awaits us [4].
She then lists a number of stories that show just bad the lives of many American gay people still are, in contrast to what "most gays and their allies think".  But I heard those stories from the assimilationist gay movement Walters dislikes: the harassment, the bullying, the suicides.  "Most gays and their allies" may very well exaggerate for rhetorical purposes how much progress we've made, but they also, from what I see, stress how far we have to go.  I've argued before that the movement tends to romanticize gay youth suicide, and that the born-gay claim goes with a stance of suffering and martyrdom. (On the other hand, Walters seems not to have noticed that many anti-assimilationist gays claim that we were born this way too.  The claim itself is neither radical nor reactionary; it's just false.)

Maybe Walters will manage later in The Tolerance Trap to reconcile these realities with her caricature of the movement in the introduction, but it's obviously false as it stands.  When she writes, "This book takes on the illusion of progress that is rooted in a watered-down goal of tolerance and acceptance rather than a deep claim for full civil rights" (3), I cannot take her seriously.  Is it a "goal of tolerance and acceptance" (again, notice the conflation and confusion of two very different goals) or a "watered-down" version that she objects to?  But she herself acknowledges that progress has been made, that things have changed -- for the better in many ways -- for gay people in the United States in the last four or five decades; it is not an illusion.  We still have a long way to go, and we don't really know what the goal is, what a good society will look like, but saying that change has occurred is not saying that we have won everything we wanted or needed.  An intelligent, informed critique of the mainstream gay movement is always needed, but Walters is attacking a straw movement here.

The subtitle of The Tolerance Trap is How God, Genes, and Good Intentions Are Sabotaging Gay Equality.  (Good intentions?  Oh noes!  We've got to get rid of those right away!)  "Equality" is as troublesome a word and concept as "tolerance," and it doesn't tell me much about what Walters believes the goal of the gay movement properly should be.  (That's leaving aside the detail that the gay movement already embraces "equality" as its goal.)  Many people confuse equality with sameness, just as Walters confuses tolerance and acceptance.  Political and legal equality, protected by Civil Rights acts, is a valid goal for a movement which demands social justice, but it's not the be-all and end-all any more than tolerance is, even if the Civil Rights laws are well-enforced, which they generally are not.  Civil Rights are themselves only a subset of legal rights, and what one can claim legally only a small part of what a person need to have a full, satisfying life.  Equality beyond that narrow domain is even less clear to me.

I've been wrestling for some time with the issue of marginalization.  Many people talk as though they believe we could have a society in which no one was marginalized.  I don't think it's possible, as a logical or an empirical possibility.  Remember this story about a student who blocked prayer at his commencement.  "'They just wanted to be able to attend their commencement without feeling like an outcast,' ACLU NC legal advisor Chris Brook said."  I suppose I sympathize, but the First Amendment doesn't guarantee you the right not to feel "like an outcast" -- rather the opposite.  Nor should it. I have the right to espouse and express unpopular beliefs, but I do not have the right to be agreed with.  As a social species, human beings are likely to regard eccentric or minority ideas or styles or behavior to be weird or uncool.  Some human beings like the idea of being different from the mass of "sheeple," though they often exaggerate just how different they are; others hate the idea of not being like everyone else, no matter how different they are, and there's no way to reassure them that they aren't different when they know (and everybody else knows) they are.

Whether a given difference is good or bad is a question for judgment.  Whether a difference should be tolerated or celebrated -- or excluded and punished -- can't be decided in advance: it can only be decided after consideration.  Walters recognizes this when she writes that "there are limits to tolerance -- as there should be.  Most of us are intolerant of brutal acts of random violence or equally brutal acts of state violence such as rape as a tool of war" (10).  This is, come to think of it, an odd remark: why only "rape as a tool of war" (which is a biblical value after all), and not the routine, official violence of shooting, bombing, and other destruction of life and property in war?  Maybe because many people are quite tolerant of state violence in war and peace, as long as it's directed at those who supposedly deserve it,

One proper function of a gay movement, like any other movement for social justice, is to advocate and argue for certain conclusions of these judgments: why tolerance, why acceptance, why celebration of our differences from the majority of from each other.  It shouldn't surprise anyone that as the gay movement grew, it aspired to mainstream positions and status.  (The professionalization of the movement seems to me at least as important a problem as "God, genes, and good intentions," with its attendant stratification and corruption.  It'll be interesting to see what if anything Walters has to say about that, since as Director of Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies and Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University, she's part of the phenomenon herself.)

I believe that acceptance is as valid a goal for the movement as equality, rights, and freedom from discrimination.  It must, of course, be distinguished from tolerance, which is also valid but is not the same thing.  There's been a great (though not total) increase in acceptance of gay people by families and American society as a whole, which has gone in hand with our increased visibility.  We stopped collaborating by pretending we weren't there, and demanded that our presence be acknowledged.   (Again, not all of us did this, and not all at once.)  Whether we brought this change about by our actions and speech, or whether it was a result of other changes like the changing status of women (also not complete), no one knows.  We don't know why or how cultures change, any more than we know why language changes.

It's also important to remember that different gay people want different things from their lives.  Some of us want to be included and valued by our families; others want to escape from them.  Some of us want to Be Like Everybody Else (even if we have some strange ideas about what Everybody is like); others are content to be different, to be outsiders or even outcasts, but you can't be an outsider without an inside to leave.  I don't think there's any one goal the movement should have; if we really want difference to be embraced, we have to embrace differences in the movement.  I'm curious to see if Walters has anything useful to say about these questions.  But she's off to a bad start.

Monday, July 14, 2014

What Is To Be Done?

[I'm trying to clear out my drafts folder; this one seems worth keeping.]

I sorta ran out of steam towards the end of "Dude I'm a Fag." Ever since the Sixties I've heard that those of us who criticize society shouldn't just criticize, we should come up with constructive, responsible suggestions for positive change! ("Withdraw US troops from Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan," for example, is too negative and critical. "Send more, better equipped troops until the Vietnamese/Iraqis/Afghans are ready to take responsibility for their own country" is positive and constructive.)

As you will no doubt have guessed, I'm not very concerned with being positive, constructive, or responsible. I am concerned with being practical, and I admit that it is not practical simply to say stuff like, "If more males simply refuse to play these games, and stop backing up the would-be Alpha Boys who play them, then 'that's so gay' will lose its sting." I know, I know: if everybody would just eat less, obesity would disappear. If everybody would ride the Peace Train, there would be no more war. Is that gay, or what? If it were that simple, we wouldn't be in trouble now, on any front.

After all, even a militant feminist movement let itself be slowed down and distracted by dyke-baiting, though there were noble exceptions who argued that feminists shouldn't be intimidated by accusations that they were lesbians. Mainstream feminists reacted by trying to purge lesbians from their organizations. To this day, women who try to distance themselves from feminism will fret about this and insist that they like men, for all the good it does them. Women in the military, "straight and gay, are accused as lesbians when they rebuff sexual advances or report sexual abuse. ... Lesbian baiting is a powerful tool to keep women 'in their place', not just in the military but in other societal contexts as well." As with fag-baiting, lesbian-baiting has little to do with a woman's actual sexual orientation or practice; but even many adult women with strong political consciousness have found it difficult to counter this move. Simple denial is not very effective, because a woman's heterosexuality is not the point; her willingness to be subordinate to men is.

Fag-baiting is one of the methods boys and men use to negotiate their place in male society. Sometimes it looks to me like a game of Musical Chairs: whoever can't unseat someone else loses and is the Fag. Stephen O. Murray wrote (Latin American Male Homosexualities [New Mexico, 1995], p. 55), "Topping other men (usually verbally or symbolically, but occasionally physically) is central to machismo, perhaps as important as maintaining the subordination of women. As [Roger] Lancaster [Life Is Hard (California, 1992, 236-37)] explained, machismo 'is not exclusively or primarily a means of structuring power relations between men and women. It is a means of structuring power among men.'" C. J. Pascoe shows that this applies among adolescent boys. One of the most striking passages in Dude, You're a Fag! recounts
just one of many instances from my field notes: two boys walked out of the PE locker room, and one yelled, “Fucking faggot!” at no one in particular. None of the other students paid them any mind, since this sort of thing happened so frequently. Similar spontaneous yelling of some variation of the word fag, seemingly apropos of nothing, happened repeatedly among boys throughout the school [59].
In a more sensible world, the boy who yelled "Fucking faggot" out of nowhere, at nobody, would be regarded as one views a derelict having an argument on the street with the voices in his head.

I'll Be Right There

While I'm at it, let me add another book I've read lately that I liked a lot: I'll Be Right There, Kyung-sook Shin's latest novel to be translated into English, just published in the US.  I was very impressed by its predecessor, Please Look After Mom, and I'll Be Right There is even better.  (Alert, for those who might be concerned: a possible Spoiler below -- not for I'll Be Right There, but for the recent Disney animated feature Frozen.)

I'll Be Right There follows three South Korean college students in the early to mid-1980s, when South Korea was still ruled by a military dictatorship, with tear gas wafting through the streets almost daily as police chase, beat, and kill dissidents.  It begins when Jung Yoon, the principal narrator, gets a telephone call from one of the other two, informing her that their beloved literature professor is dying.  Jung Yoon begins to recall her college days, when she first attended Professor Yoon's class and met the handsome Yi Myungsuh and the beautiful but mysterious Yoon Miru.  Gradually the three become inseparable; while there are romantic/erotic sparks between Yoon and Myungsuh, Yoon is intensely and physically fascinated by Miru and vice versa.  I don't mean to suggest that there are "explicit gay overtures" between them; what I find interesting is that Shin puts friendship, between women or between women and men, in the foreground in a way I don't see often enough in today's fiction.  The core relationship in the book is a triangle, but without competition or jealousy among those involved.

(The proliferation of Yoons in that paragraph might confuse some readers, not least because the publicity for I'll Be Right There puts the author's name in Western order, with her surname (Shin) put last, but in the text of the novel the names are in Asian order, with the surname first.  So Yoon is Jung Yoon's first name, but it's Miru's and Professor Yoon's surname.  Nor are Miru and the Professor related: in Korea there are many surnames, but a few (Kim, Lee, and Park) account for almost half the population, and Yoon is the eighth most common.  Until fairly recently, Koreans with the same surname couldn't legally marry, even if they were very distantly related if at all.)

By chance, I saw Disney's Frozen last night, for the second or third time, with a Mexican friend in his twenties who was delighted by it.  Frozen breaks with the convention that only erotic relationships count by making a heterosexual friendship (between Anna and Kristof) win out over a heterosexual romance (between Anna and Hans), but even more by reminding the audience that "love" doesn't only mean only an urge to copulate: the "act of true love" that breaks the deadly spell in the story's climax isn't between a man and a woman but between two sisters.  (I'm having trouble parsing the facial expressions on the sisters' faces, especially Elsa's, on Frozen's website, though: it reminds me of the looks butches used to give femmes on the covers of 1950s lesbian pulps.)  The interest between Kristof and Anna (which parallels that between Myungsuh and Yoon) is taken for granted, but not really developed, compared to other relationships that are at least as important.

Watching Frozen last night, I was struck again by how dark it is, with treachery, violence, and endless winter treated as real threats.  ("Oh -- I'm impaled!" says the magical snowman Olaf cheerfully when he realizes he's carelessly run onto a giant horizontal icicle.)  I'll Be Right There is even darker, set as it is against the backdrop of the Chun dictatorship.  Jung Yoon's mother, we learn early on, died of cancer just before Yoon entered college, and sent her to live with a cousin in Seoul to spare her.  Many more important people in the novel die by various kinds of violence, and Yoon herself is caught in the crowd when police attack a student demonstration with tear gas, driving them into a enclosed area to to round them up.  Yoon escapes, but many others don't.  Grief runs through the characters' lives, and if the overall tone is positive, its hopefulness is hard-won.

I'll Be Right There is well-written, and translator Sora Kim-Russell has done a wonderful job.  (It seems to me that the quality of translations from non-European languages has improved immensely in the past couple of decades.)  It's not only about grief and suffering; aside from love and friendship, it's also about literature as a broadening force for the intellect, and for the matter the rewards of living in the city.  I responded strongly to this passage from page 71, for example:
I made the right decision to learn about the city by walking around it.  Walking made me think more and focus on the world around me.  Moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, reminded me of reading a book.  I came across wooded paths and narrow market alleyways where people who were strangers to me shared conversations, asked one another for help, and called out to one another.  I took in both people and scenery.
I know many of the areas of Seoul that Yoon explores, so reading I'll Be Right There filled me with longing to return.  Someday.  I'll be right there.