Monday, August 31, 2015

Mensa for Dummies

John Scalzi posted a grab of one of his tweets this morning:

It was prompted by the ongoing Sad Puppies vs. Social Justice Warriors "kerfuffles surrounding science fiction and its awards, there have been a couple of people (and their spouses, declaiming about their beloved) who have been slapping down Mensa cards as proof that they (or their spouse) are smart."  Scalzi explained, in his trademark style, why doing this tends to prove the opposite.  For example:
Your Mensa card does not mean you know how to argue. Your Mensa card does not mean you do not make errors or lapses in judgment. Your Mensa card is not a “get out of jail free” card when someone pokes holes in your thesis. Your Mensa card does not mean that you can’t be racist or sexist or otherwise bigoted. You may not say “I have a Mensa card, therefore my logic is irrefutable.”
Good enough.  The comments under his post are another matter, however.  They fell into two main groups. In one group, the commenter would mention that he or she had attended Mensa meetings, even joined for a while, and found the people in the organization to be mostly pretty nice people.  The other group declared that they'd never joined or gone to a meeting, but all the Mensa members they'd met were jerks.  I found this latter group fascinating, because despite their evident conviction of their own superior intelligence, they were making a fundamental logical mistake, one that Scalzi himself didn't: they were generalizing an entire group based on their experience of a few, probably unrepresentative, members.  Analogous stereotypes are "All the Christian fundamentalists I know are hypocrites," "Did you ever see a fag who wasn't effeminate?" (actual example), "All heroin addicts started out on pot, so smoking pot will turn you into a heroin addict."

(Just for disclosure's sake, I have never joined Mensa or gone to a meeting.  The Mensa members I know in person are quite nice and bright people, and the Mensa jerks I've encountered were all online, trying to establish their intellectual credentials by bragging about their IQ scores or their Mensa membership.)

Some of the discussion focused on IQ tests and SATs.  Several commenters pointed out the uselessness of IQ tests as a measure of intelligence.  One riposted:
IQ tests (what Mensa uses) are tests of aptitude. They are basically measuring how easily and quickly you will learn and absorb concepts of all types, and solve new problems. How accurate they are is almost beside the point because really they are irrelevant in most situations including arguments about topics.

How easily you could learn is not a measure of how much you know.
If two people sit down to learn a skill and one can attain expertise in 1 hour and the other needs 1.5 hours that is interesting. However if the first person never spends the hour learning the skill then the second person is absolutely the one you want around when you need that skill set.
IQ tests do not measure aptitude.  As far as I know, no one knows how to do that.  IQ tests mostly measure what you already know, or know how to do.  I last took an IQ test in high school, and I don't recall any part of it devoted to how quickly I could learn a skill; nor, from what I've read about the IQ controversies, has such an exercise become part of the test since then.

Similarly, the SAT, which was based on the Stanford-Binet IQ tests, was originally "called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, then the SAT Reasoning Test, and now simply the SAT."  The College Board. who owns the franchise, explains that it "tests the skills you’re learning in school: reading, writing and math. Your strength in these subjects is important for success in college and throughout your life," which sounds like what used to be called an achievement test.  It is not an aptitude test, and it's not even a very good predictor of college success, though that's its usual rationale.  This commenter's confident assertions are interesting; they seem to have no basis in fact, and I wonder where he or she got them.

Another commenter, a former Mensa member, wrote:
I studied rhetoric in school and my mom was a physicist; what I learned from this background is that the way to persuade people is to provide relevant and verifiable evidence.
I think this person may be confusing "is" and "ought."  I also value relevant and verifiable evidence, but I've learned to my disappointment that many, even most people, don't.  The way to persuade people in the real world appears to be to assert, as loudly as possible, that your opponent is fat or Republican or a libtard or a funditard or an asshole.  This approach is more "natural," and much easier.  It's also more effective, from what I see.

For example, this morning a liberal / progressive friend of a friend shared this meme on Facebook:

According to Snopes, Palin didn't say this and wasn't even on Hannity on that date.  I pointed this out in a comment on the Facebook post, exulting sarcastically that liberals aren't gullible or dishonest like Republitards.  Of course the person who'd posted was displeased -- she reacted exactly like the right-wingers I know react when I point out that they've posted something bogus, asking why I was on her timeline and getting indignant about my meddling.  Mockery is a very private thing, especially when you're posting it in public on Facebook.  One hears that social media are an echo chamber, that people want to engage only with people who share their politics; to a great extent that's true, as this person showed.  And I suppose we need places where we can find others who share our opinions and prejudices, but we also need to engage with people who don't, or the social and political changes this person hopes for will never happen.

Back at Scalzi's blog, the same commenter continued:
Anti-intellectualism is hardly the worst form of prejudice, but I know people who have been hurt. Also it’s like fat-shaming; we’re not a protected class and some people think it’s okay to show disrespect.
This lament was oddly off-topic.  The Sad Puppies clearly see themselves as intelligent, and intelligence of certain kinds as important and a sign of one's value.  They may well be anti-intellectual, since they associate what they call Social Justice Warriors with a kind of pointy-headed intellectualism that is widely devalued and mocked by people who think themselves intelligent.  "And let’s be honest — we all know someone who’s pretty book-smart and pretty life-stupid," wrote another commenter, providing an example of this distinction.  I can't recall where, but not too long ago I read something where the writer distinguished between being intelligent and being an intellectual.  I think of an intellectual as someone who works with more or less abstract ideas; an engineer or other scientist may be highly intelligent but no good at dealing with ideas, and dismissive of those who can.

As for the rest of his remarks: Being in “a protected class” doesn’t mean that others can’t “show disrespect” to you, nor should it. “Protected class” is a problematic legal term which means that the law will protect you from certain specified and more-or-less carefully defined forms of discrimination. But showing disrespect is fine, and hardly anyone really believes that it isn’t — except disrespect to themselves. For example, almost everybody wants respect for their religious affiliation, and discrimination based on religion is forbidden by Civil Rights law in certain spheres. But just about everybody has some religious class — liberals, fundamentalists, “Cafeteria Christians,” etc. — they love to mock and disrespect, and they’d be outraged if anyone told them not to. And the other part of the First Amendment guarantees our right to do so, as it should.

So sure, it’s perfectly okay to show disrespect to intellectuals, or to the intelligent.  It's not necessary to define bookish kids as a "protected class" to protect them from the bullying they too often face at school.  But kids who aren't "smart" also face bullying and contempt at school, including from their teachers, and they also need help from those around them.  If anything, they are probably more vulnerable than the smart kids: I know people who've been hurt.

I've mentioned before the graduate student I once knew who told me, sweetly and almost shyly, “I don’t say this to many people, but I think of you as my intellectual equal.” I thanked him, embarrassed, because I realized that though I hadn’t thought about it before, and don’t go around making such comparisons in the first place, I didn’t consider him my intellectual equal.  But, as Scalzi noted this morning, what he said revealed more about him than it did about me.

Credit where credit's due: I stole this post's title from another of Scalzi's commenters.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

There's Gold in Them Far-Out Hills

I've begun reading Gerald Graff's Literature Against Itself, originally published in 1979 but reprinted in 1995 with a new preface by Graff that I'm saving until I've read the rest of the book.  I like Graff, and have read several of his other books, but this is the first of his scholarly books I've gotten into.  It's dense, and will take me a while to read, but it's also very entertaining and quotable, including when Graff is quoting someone else.

For example, early on he quotes the critic Harold Rosenberg, who wrote in 1972:
Social and/or aesthetic far-outness is a public relations technique aimed at the presumed indignation of a stable middle class that ceased to exist four decades ago [2, footnote].
Graff also cites evidence that outraging the middle class was exhausted at least as far back as the 1920s.

I mostly agree with this, though immediately after I read it with approval, it occurred to me that there is still an American middle class, ready and eager to be indignant at the performance art of various political and media celebrities.  Ironically, given, the traditional association with this indignation with conservative and reactionary sectors of the population, today's cultivators of the ragegasm are mostly liberal, while those who feed their indignation are on the Right.  This was true even when Literature Against Itself was originally published; it hasn't become less true in the years since then.

A page or so later, Graff himself remarks:
Some scholars in this group [those who feel little affiliation with the literary or critical "vanguard"] applaud attacks on deconstructionism and other fashions as proofs that they need not bother to read the critics in question.  It would be self-deluding to pretend that in attacking "fashionable" ideas, one is not oneself doing something fashionable [3-4].
Of course this cuts both ways and up and down, as Graff goes on to note:
Both the "conservative" and the "vanguard"factions in current cultural quarrels use the word "fashionable" as a stick with which to beat the other side, yet both sides can substantiate their usage convincingly enough [4].
And that's just in the first few pages.  I'll be taking a lot of notes as I proceed.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Honor among Scholars

Over thirty years ago I began studying the New Testament and Christian origins, mostly on my own though I took a class or two along the way.  I began for several reasons. I wanted to write a definitive essay on why biblical teaching on homosexuality had no authority, and found that the backstory was too large for anything brief.  I was also reacting to the defensive arguments of Christians that I should judge Christianity by Jesus and his teachings, not by the interpretations or conduct of specific Christians.

This project turned out to be very rewarding.  It reaffirmed my atheism in a way that no writing by an atheist could have done, though I had read and continued to read writings by atheists.  I learned how to do research, and how to think historically and critically.  But I also learned that if I hoped to learn the truth about Jesus and Christianity, I was doomed to failure.  In the first few months I read several reconstructions of Jesus' career that at first seemed plausible enough.  After each one, I'd read another that effectively refuted the previous one, and offered another, initially plausible account of what Jesus and the early Christians were up to; and so it went.  One of the conclusions I reached was that it is probably impossible to produce a valid account of the historical Jesus.

This, I recognize, assumes that there was a historical Jesus.  I'm agnostic on that question, because the same difficulties that prevent our producing a reliable picture of the Jesus of history also make it impossible to say for certain that he did or didn't exist.  This is true of all history: certainty is almost never possible.  The best we can do is to sort out probabilities, even concerning fairly recent events and people where the documentation is much richer.  That's why I recommend Albert Schweitzer's The Quest for the Historical Jesus, originally published in German in 1906 and first translated into English in 1910, to anyone who's interested in this subject.  The bulk of that book is a survey of historical-Jesus research from the late 1700s to around 1900; Schweitzer showed what was wrong with all of the theories those writers produced, and then offered up his own reconstruction, which had flaws of its own but still challenges New Testament scholars more than a century later.  You won't learn what Jesus did say or do, but you may learn to be skeptical of the speculations or other claims about Jesus that you'll encounter -- not just from Christians, but from non-Christians and anti-Christians who are sure that the Bible is fiction but are mysteriously convinced that their opinions and speculations are non-fiction.  You'll also learn that almost all accounts of the supposedly real Jesus that are touted as something new are not only old, but were refuted ignominiously by Schweitzer a hundred years ago.

Recently I read Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret by David F. Watson, published in 2010 by Fortress Press, which has published many books I've found useful over the years.  It looked like this one might offer some new insights into the New Testament, so when I heard of it I went to the university library and checked it out.  And I did learn from Honor Among Christians, though nothing really earth-shaking.

Watson seeks to apply social science to biblical interpretation, in particular to the problem known to scholars as "the Messianic Secret."  That phrase applies mainly to the gospel of Mark, where Jesus tries (inconsistently) to maintain secrecy not only about his status as messiah but about some of the miracles he performs.  In 1901 a German scholar named Wilhelm Wrede published a book on this problem, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien [The messianic secret in the gospels], which wasn't translated into English until 1971 -- in time, luckily, for me to read it.  It had much the same impact on New Testament studies as Schweitzer's big book: it was upsetting to conventional piety, but it was too well-argued to ignore altogether.

There are elements of secrecy in the other three gospels, as well as elsewhere in the New Testament, but it was Wrede's discussion of Mark that drew the most attention.  Briefly, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus drives out demons, who on their way out of their victims claim to know who he is, and he silences them.  Sometimes when Jesus does healings, he takes the sick person aside, or (as in the case of the daughter of Jairus), shuts himself in a room with only one or two other people (usually his chief disciples) present.  Afterward, he may or may not order them to tell no one about what he has done, though this doesn't work: despite his strictures, people will talk, and they do.  When Simon Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus tells him and the rest of the Twelve not to tell anyone about him until after he has died and risen from the dead.  Scholars had already noticed these and other details in the gospels, and debated what they meant.  If they were historically true, and until the late 19th century most biblical scholars took for granted that they were, they sought to explain why Jesus would behave like this.  Wrede argued that these details were not historical but were dogmatic or theological -- that is, Mark invented them to make theological or doctrinal points.

I read Wrede around 1990, and I noticed that much of what I'd read about his work was erroneous, as if often the case with controversial ideas. Some of the received wisdom about flaws in his argument, though, turned out to be about ideas that he considered but rejected. But I can't recall the details; I should reread The Messianic Secret sometime soon.  So I'm not sure about some of Watson's criticisms of Wrede, but I'll grant their validity for the sake of argument.  For example, I think Watson is correct that not all of the "secrecy" in Mark is necessarily related to Jesus' status as messiah, and that not all of it is necessarily secrecy.  He devotes a chapter to the language and concepts of secrecy in the ancient Mediterranean world, which is one of the best parts of the book.

The application of social science to this material is interesting too.  Watson argues that Jesus' culture, as well as others around the Mediterranean, placed a very strong emphasis on honor and shame.  Expectations about how a man should honorably conduct himself, how he should avoid shame, how he should react to praise, how he should treat his inferiors, and how they should respond to patronage.  So, Watson argues, when Jesus tries to keep his healings secret, he is deliberately going against the normal expectations of a great man, who would usually expect thanks and praise and the spreading of his fame for helping others.  Jesus wanted to overturn the normal conception of honor, by arguing that the great should be the servants of the less, rather than lording it over them.

This is all very well, but it's not exactly news, nor is social science necessary to see it.  Even if you know nothing about ancient Mediterranean culture, an attentive reader can see that Mark's Jesus (and not only Mark's) is going against the grain of his society.  He must continually squelch his disciples' competition for status among themselves, for example; he must tell people not to spread around the news of (some of) his miracles, though as Watson and other scholars have noticed, his efforts are doomed to failure from the start.

After all, if he didn't really want all that attention, why do the miracles?  They weren't part of the normal messianic expectations, which Jesus supposedly didn't want to fulfill anyway.  It can be argued that he had to do his miracles, because of his compassion for human suffering; but many of his miracles have nothing to do with that.  Some, like walking on water, look like mere showing off.  Some of his secrecy, such as his declaration that he taught in parables so that he would not be understood by his audiences, has no detectable relation to his culture of shame.  As Graham Shaw pointed out in The Cost of Authority (Fortress Press, 1982), some of his non-miraculous conduct was oddly provocative for someone who supposedly didn't want attention: "For paradoxically the refusal to conform to demands for public religious observance is itself intensely visible; so that the criticism of religious visibility acquires many of the characteristics of exhibitionism.  Repeatedly they attract hostile attention to themselves and their master.  Invisible spiritual religion thus proves to have a highly public face."  Early in Mark's story Jesus also publicly claimed the authority to forgive sins, which was hardly a stance of meek humility.

A common explanation for Jesus' quixotic secrecy, noted by Watson, is that he didn't want to come to the attention of the Roman authorities, who took a dim view of anyone who drew crowds in territories they controlled.  Again, if that was really his concern, why do the miracles, why preach publicly, why draw all the attention to himself while pretending he didn't really want it?  Supposedly, as I indicated before, Jesus was at odds with the normal expectation that the Messiah would be a military figure and a king in the mold of David; but instead of disavowing them openly, he played coy games with his audiences.  Was he or wasn't he a prophet, the reincarnation of Elijah, John the Baptist resuscitated ... ?  Jesus wasn't telling; you had to guess.

And, of course, according to Christian mythology, Jesus ultimately wanted to come to the Romans' attention.  He told his disciples that the prophets had foretold that the messiah must be betrayed, crucified, and on the third day rise from the dead.  (The prophets had also foretold a great military victory which would restore David's kingdom, extending its rule to the entire world, but Jesus supposedly wasn't on board with that part.)  Eventually he entered Jerusalem with great fanfare, violently disrupted the Temple Court in front of thousands of people (including the Roman troops), playing hide-and-seek with his enemies until they finally caught him. That was supposedly Judas Iscariot's fault, but what would have happened to Jesus' mission if he hadn't been caught?  He was supposed to die on the cross for the sins of humanity.  After the resurrection, of course, all pretense of humility on Jesus' part went out the window: he ascended to the right hand of the Father, resumed his status as the Second Person of the Trinity, and would eventually judge the quick and dead.  According to the New Testament, he would then become a military messiah; the conventional expectations were not really rejected, just postponed.

Watson doesn't do much better with Mark's conflicting and inconsistent narrative than his predecessors have done, it seems to me.  The "culture of shame" theme makes sense of some of the material he needs to account for, but not all of it.  I also think that Watson underestimates how important honor and shame remain in the modern West.  I haven't observed that modern Christians have any trouble understanding what Jesus was demanding of his followers by ordering them to be humble servants, though they do (understandably) have as much difficulty meeting those demands as Jesus' first followers did.  Twenty-first century social science isn't necessary to see how Mark's Jesus went against his culture's ideas of a good or great man's attitudes and behavior, because they are our culture's ideas too.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Is This Clip Really Necessary?

This article is a good example of bad punditry.  "If we watch the Virginia TV shooting is the suspected shooter 'winning'?" asks the headline.  First off, it seems to me that referring to the killer as "suspected" is over-scrupulous.  Even if he hadn't bragged about the killings online, he's dead by his own hand, so leaving out "suspected" or "alleged" isn't going to prejudice his chances in court.  Second, since he is dead, he's not going to "win."  He's not even going to enjoy the notoriety he sought and gained.

Myself, I'm not really interested in watching it. Whether the shooter "wins" or not doesn't interest me either.  (There are echoes here of the "If we do X or don't do Y, the terrorists have won" trope that became ubiquitous after 9/11.  It quickly became the target of well-deserved mockery; so should its use in this case.)  I'm more interested in asking those who do watch it: Why? I think the burden of argument lies on anyone who says I should watch it. Do they have any good reasons, as opposed to mere voyeurism?

Mary McNamara, the LA Times writer of this piece, is very high-minded.
Obviously murder is not entertainment, and it's difficult to believe that anyone would be viewing or sharing the videos for entertainment's sake. News outlets did not show the space shuttle Challenger explode repeatedly on a minute-by-minute basis, or the Twin Towers fall over and over again, for entertainment's sake.

We do not watch news reports in which police brutalize teenagers or armies level villages for entertainment's sake. We watch to see what happened. We watch because no amount of aftermath reporting or narrative reconstruction captures an event with more power and clarity than video footage.
I don't think McNamara knows why "we" watch this stuff any more than I do.  My own take is that I'm only interested in watching video of events that are contested, and often not even then.  I never watched the clips of the Twin Towers falling, for example, because there wasn't any doubt that they had fallen.  And when some people I knew told me I must watch them, they were explicit that they watched them, and wanted me to watch, to stoke their fury against the dirty Arabs who'd done it so that they could support Bush's call for vengeance against people who hadn't done it.  There was nothing in those videos that told me or anyone else who was responsible for the attacks or what should be done about them.  But they were spectacular.  It looks to me like the clips of the killing of Alison Parker and Alan Ward are being used for similar purposes, without a better rationale.

There's a piece at the Guardian which is even worse.  "The man who craved an audience, according to his colleagues, forced America to watch," writes Matthew Teague.  Funny -- I'm an American, and I didn't watch the original broadcast, which was on a local TV station, and so not seen by "America" until the national media picked it up.  I didn't see that either, because I don't watch TV news.  But if anyone "forced America" to watch, it was the national media.  It was their choice; no one forced them.  Anytime journalists claim that it's their duty to run with a sensational story of dubious news value, it's time to be skeptical.  Is it also news when the US government targets whistleblowers and journalists, by jailing them or by killing them, in order to suppress stories our rulers don't want told?  Not so much.  Remember too the "Collateral Damage" video released by Wikileaks, which I did watch.  Americans need to see it to be made to face what their government, their armed forces, and their tax dollars are doing; but our news media mostly weren't interested.  In general, US atrocities aren't news.

I have little patience -- well, none -- when people claim to be victims of the media, manipulated or even "forced" to watch them, their minds controlled, etc.  They have many options, which they mostly don't exercise.  Sometimes they (and I'm talking about liberals and progressives here) demand that the government control the media so they would have to tell the truth.  The government, of course, is impartial and would guarantee that We the People are protected from media lies.  It's telling that these bold critical thinkers are so willing to abandon their responsibility for informing themselves and give it to the government.

So, I haven't yet seen any good reason why I should watch the clips of the killing of Alison Parker and Alan Ward.  Í'm not persuaded that people want to watch such videos out of a disinterested desire to know what happened.  That doesn't mean that people shouldn't watch them; I only ask that they interrogate their own motives with the same skepticism they'd apply to the motives of other people.  I know, I ask too much. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

This Man Must Be a Self-Fulfilling Prophet

Why does this meme-maker write as though most of "2010's America" didn't support government-run healthcare, expanding Social Security, raising taxes on the rich, and all those other "socialist" programs and policies? Why do people who think that they're smarter than Republitards accept and spread the corporate media / Republicrat propaganda line that the US today is right-wing? Yes, there are people who want to eliminate social programs, but they are a minority. Often they are even a minority of Republicans.  To talk as though they represented America in this decade is not only dishonest, it's siding with them by taking their claims as fact.
 
And it's not as if there weren't many in 1930s America who opposed the New Deal. FDR had to work against a lot of opposition. Probably about the same proportion of the population. Much of the opposition that didn't come from the wealthy came from working-class whites who didn't want the New Deal programs to help blacks -- in other words, to prevent the enactment of any program that would benefit anyone beside themselves. This meme perpetrates historical ignorance, and worse, misinformation.  It also encourages liberals and progressives to believe that the obstacles to improving life for most Americans come from the vast majority of Americans, thus giving themselves an excuse for failure in advance.  As Whatever It Is I'm Against It wrote of their hero and role model, "It’s pretty much always Obama’s working assumption that he will lose any fight. And then, funnily enough, he does."

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Franker and More Celebratory

In my earlier post on Kate O'Brien's 1958 novel As Music and Splendour, I noticed that Emma Donoghue wrote in 2010 that it had "a tactful and inexplicit quality" and doesn't put "a female couple center stage and neither is written from and for an emerging lesbian community the way Patience and Sarah so clearly was."  As I wrote in that post, when I read As Music and Splendour (thanks to Donoghue's reference to it) I found it surprisingly blunt and forthright, and its female couple shared center stage with the other main character's heterosexual relationships.

Then I stumbled on a reference to an earlier essay by Donoghue on O'Brien's work, which appeared in 1993 in Ordinary People Dancing: Essays on Kate O'Brien, edited by Eibhear Walshe and published by Cork University Press.  Donoghue's take on As Music and Splendour was quite different in that piece, much closer to mine.
What I find so satisfying about working on Kate O’Brien rather than on other lesbian novelists, quite apart from the quality of her writing, is her honesty.  She is explicit – not about sex (concerning which she has little to say) but about moral issues, decisions, hard words.  Reading the works of her contemporaries, even those as apparently “out” as Gertrude Stein, we have to struggle through euphemisms and code-words, layers of innuendo and ambiguity, all designed to protect the writers from embarrassing accusations.  Romantic friendships, especially in the girls’-school literary subgenre (a powerful example is Dorothy Strachey Bussy’s Olivia (1949), are often given a degree of intense eroticism that can only be called lesbian – yet nothing can be proved.  Whereas Kate O’Brien, on the two occasions when she writes about passion between adult women, calls it exactly that; no coyness veils her analysis of lesbian relationships.  She knows, and she makes her heroines acknowledge, that this is not romantic friendship but a quite different thing: something equivalent to marital love, though outside its social ‘order’; something punishable and costly, but often worth the price [48].
And:
As Music and Splendour (1958) is like Mary Lavelle in that the story unfolds far away from Ireland, but is much franker and more celebratory in its account of a relationship between two women.  Instead of playing a supporting role, the lesbian is one of the two heroines, whose stories are presented equally and in parallel.  Set at a safe distance in place (Paris and Rome) and time (the 1880s), As Music and Splendour nonetheless manages to create a modern Irish lesbian and give her a startling voice [50].
Much better.  I just realized that this essay was published in the same year as Donoghue's excellent historical study Passion Between Women.  Since then she has published a study of the poet(s) Michael Field, which I haven't yet read, and Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature, which I have.  I just looked again at Inseparable, which covers a lot of 20th century lesbian fiction as well as much older works, and I see that though Donoghue mentioned O'Brien and As Music and Splendour in it, she again got it wrong, lumping it in with The Well of Loneliness and The Friendly Young Ladies as a novel where the "generous" lesbian gives up her girlfriend to a man. Maybe it had been too long since she'd read either the novel or her earlier discussion of it.  With this 1993 essay, "'Out of Order': Kate O'Brien's Lesbian Fictions," to guide me, I'll be working through the rest of Kate O'Brien's novels.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Così Fan Tutte

I've been having frustrating computer problems, still not completely solved, or I'd have written here sooner.

A regular reader sent me a mail message recently, saying that he's "a LITTLE more in favor of [the] 'some people have always been gay' argument" than I am.  I found this baffling.

"Some people have pretty much always been gay" isn't an argument, it's a claim.  Depending on what it's supposed to mean, I agree with it.  That is, I think it's as certain as any historical claim can be that there have always been some people who were interested erotically only in their own sex.  There's documentation of that from many cultures over a couple thousand years, and I see no reason to suppose that it's not true at almost all times and almost all places.  I think it's also pretty clear that same-sex eroticism isn't limited to such people, that many people have had sexual experience with partners of both sexes in varying proportions.

What I don't agree with is the other claims some people make around this one.  It's not surprising, because most people bring cultural and personal baggage with them, myself not excluded.  There's no agreement what being gay, or being homosexual, or being bisexual, means.  I didn't exaggerate too much in my Gay Christians Say the Darnedest Things post, when I wrote sarcastically that because Leonardo had no Madonna CDs and (shame!) didn't go to Judy's Carnegie Hall concert, many scholars doubt that he was really gay.  In the first place, not all gay people are alike nowadays in the US, and I see no reason to suppose that that's a new development limited to the US.  Nor, of course, does it follow that because there have always been people who were interested erotically in their own sex, that exclusive interest is therefore inborn, or genetic, or biological, or whatever.

Related to these notions, I believe, is the excuse often made for stereotyping, that "stereotypes have some truth in them" because some people do fit the stereotypes.  This line came up at the discussion group I attended last week in San Francisco, and I wish I'd thought to ask what now seems to me the obvious question: So what? What follows from it?  It certainly doesn't follow that everyone is obliged to conform to the stereotypes just because some people do.  That seems to be what is meant, however: that inside every gay man, however butch he may pretend to be, is a screaming queen trying to claw her way out, and that every self-styled bisexual is just a closet case who, if he were honest with himself, would have sex only with other males.  In his book on male prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, for example, Mark Padilla reports that local gay men told him:
“I hope you’re going to prove what we already know: they’re all closet cases [son unos tapa’os].”  This implies the existence of a deeper, more authentic sexual identity that is being actively repressed by the bugarrón, who fails to recognize his own fundamental sexuality and public mark himself in terms of his presumed same-sex erotic preference [33].
There are numerous ironies here, aside from Padilla's own frequent cluelessness.  One is that these Dominican gay men subscribe to a trade/queer model of male homosexuality, though (as always seems to be the case) with plenty of slippage.  If all the bugarrones dropped their pretensions and came out as flaming travestís, there'd be no tops to supply the all-important dick to Dominican gays.  As Padilla also pointed out of a Dominican bar's quixotic attempt to exclude bugarrones,
The policy was doomed to fail from the beginning. First, it seemed entirely incongruous with the erotic integration – and in many ways, the economic interdependence – of bugarrónes and gay-identified men. Local bugarrón-gay or bugarrón-travestí relationships frequently entail an economic arrangement in which the gay/travestí mantiene a su bugarrón (supports his bugarrón), an inversion of the typical gender division of labor in heterosexual relationships.  Further, despite the occasional tensions between them, bugarrónes still represent the erotic ideal for a significant proportion of gay-identified [Dominican] men, reflecting what [Stephen O.] Murray ... has described as the sexual system of “homosexual exogamy” in Latin American homoeroticism. Thus, in their attempts to “clean up” the bar, the owners of Tropicalia were planning to purge a primary source of gay men’s attraction to the business: bugarrónes. As many local gay men commented to me, “So, if they keep bugarrónes out, why would we go there?” [32-3]
In much the same way that many heterosexual men will try to get "nice" girls to have sex with them, in order to prove that all women are essentially whores, the Dominican gays, like the norteamericano tourists, will try to get bugarrones to dar culo, or give ass: if they succeed, they can scorn them, their stereotypes have been vindicated.  The aim is probably not to move toward a more "egalitarian" mode of homosexuality, where either partner may penetrate or be penetrated, but simply to validate their erotic cosmology.  So, as Annick Prieur observed in her study of Mexican vestidas, they despise those mayates (equivalent to bugarrones -- men who penetrate other men) who let themselves be penetrated, even when it is the vestidas who penetrate them. This connects to a fantasy entertained by some gay men, who insist that there are no straight men, that every man can be had if you go about it correctly.  Taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that every man is, at bottom, a bottom.) If these gays really succeeded, though, and exposed all bugarrones as closet cases who really, deep down, want only to be penetrated, who would penetrate them?

This is only a problem if you insist on eliminating the middle ground, but that is what people are doing when they stereotype: there are no differences, there is no variation, everyone is alike, even if they pretend otherwise.  It's not an empirical description but a principle that overrides observation and evidence, and can't be refuted because any observation that seems to contradict the principle can be dismissed as false consciousness, misunderstanding, or failure to grasp the essence that underlies mere appearances.  (So it's related to belief in biblical inerrancy: any seeming error is due to the interpreter's misunderstanding or lack of sufficient faith -- the Bible's lack of error is the first principle of interpreting it.)  It's true that some people can be found who fit any stereotype you like, and that's not problematic.  The trouble arises when the stereotype is postulated as the underlying truth about all individuals.

*The Caribbean Pleasure Industry (Chicago, 2007.)