Thursday, January 31, 2008

Donkey Season! Elephant Season!


Recently I saw a couple of comments on a LGBT-related website that brought back such memories.

First:

I suppose I wouldn’t mind feeling preached at so much if I shared the cynicism and despair pervading the sermon. Sure, I’d like to see the electoral college reformed, too, but with three strong (and yes, electable) Democrat candidates vying for the Presidency, is this really the time for liberals to complain it doesn’t matter who captains a sinking ship? Can anyone not wearing a Utilikilt as a matter of principle seriously think Clinton, Obama, or Edwards are interchangeable with Romney, McCain, or Huckabee?

I think it is time for a whole generation of liberals to grow up. It isn’t enough to just question authority. Sometimes, you have to become authority. Kucinich is a great guy and I get off on the idea of having a first lady with a piercing, but we need to win because I’m not ready to have President Huckabee changing the Constitution to define me out of the definition of family. We need to win, and that means a President that can govern the whole country, not just the minority of people who share my little subculture’s politics.

Second:
I’m a little fatigued with those elitists who think that the Dems are just rearranging the furniture when really such issues as ENDA (ya know some equal rights protections for queer folk), and climate change and global warming (ya know saving the planet, for real), and a few little crumbs to possibly provide homeless people with a place outside of the freezing rain and snow to get protection…

Yes, in the pure political worlds, the dems suck…..but in the real world where every little bit of change leads to more change, and perhaps hope for change, and perhaps energy to make more change..there’s a HUGE difference between when ANY Dem is running this country and ANY repub is running it.

“Elitists”? I’m not sure where that came from, except that we all know that elitists are bad, and anyone who criticizes the Democrats is bad, and therefore must be an elitist, Q.E.D. But in American politics, “elitists” more properly refers to the Democratic Leadership Council, the Democratic National Committee, and their Republican counterparts. One could add the corporate media to the list (they never will be missed).

But not those people who want to see the US out of Iraq, those who want to see Bush impeached, those who rated the Democrat-controlled Congress even lower than Bush last year: they (we) are a majority. We’re a majority that doesn’t register on the radar of the Democratic Party or the corporate media, but we’re here, and there's an election coming up. I wonder who is the “we” in the first commenter’s remarks, and why she thinks that Clinton or Obama in the White House will be a victory for “us.” I suspect that she identifies more with the Democratic Party than with the American people at large, or even with that “little subculture” and its politics.

I shouldn’t be surprised any longer, but I can't help wondering how so many GLBT people can have forgotten what Bill Clinton gave us between 1992 and 2000: DOMA, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (and increased numbers of queer military expelled), and the Communications Decency Act (fortunately struck down by the Courts) – not to mention NAFTA, welfare “reform”, an economic bubble that didn’t improve the financial condition of most Americans, and the undermining of the Kyoto Treaty (so much for “climate change and global warming”). And those are just the high points. Since the Democrats retook Congress in 2006, they’ve basically collaborated with Bush, supporting his increasingly unpopular war and refusing to do anything about impeachment (though at least a significant minority, and probably a majority of Americans favor it). These are not marginal, subcultural issues or concerns, and anyone who tries to spin them as if they were is collaborating with the Democrats, and ultimately, objectively, with Bush.

I noticed during the leadup to the 2000 Presidential election that Democrats weren't satisfied if I agreed merely that Gore was not as bad as Bush. I was not supposed to consider him a lesser evil, I must adulate him as the New Hope. I thought their hostility was interesting: is this how the politically savvy try to win over a reluctant voter? The same thing happened in 2004: those of us who were unenthusiastic about Kerry were vilified, not courted. (Other writers noticed this too; I’ll try to find some links.) So I take the comments I quoted above as the opening salvo in the 2008 election, even before this cycle’s uninspiring candidates have been finally chosen. Already the Democrats are trying to alienate voters who are genuinely critical of Bush and want an alternative, a choice. But if that's the way they want it...

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Easy Way Out

I'm going to take the easy way out today and make what should be an update into a post -- a short one at that. I'm in the middle of reading Amy Hoffman's An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News, and I have several posts in the works, and I haven't been getting enough sleep ... so I'm taking a day or two off from posting. But I'll Be Back.

First, thanks are due to the reader who gave me chapter and verse on several songs by Rufus Wainwright which are clearly sung to or about another male, I stand corrected: Wainwright does sing gay love songs.

I should have included a link to Queer Music Heritage in my music post too. I should also have mentioned Bronski Beat, the openly gay British group, whose lead singer Jimmy Somerville later formed the Communards, and had a bit part in Sally Potter's film Orlando; and probably Erasure as well -- also British. Add "Rough Boys" and Bowie, and Boy George, and the Smiths / Morrisey, and you have another question: why did so much of the interesting queer pop of this period come from the UK? And I use the word "pop" advisedly: openly gay or bi singers who put records (sometimes with gay content) on the charts.

This TV performance by the Communards is the very embodiment of my tagline, "Oh Mary, it takes a fairy to make something tacky." And while there's room in my universe for tackiness -- I can even celebrate it when it's as joyous as it is here -- I want more than that.

Monday, January 28, 2008

There Won't Be A Problem Till The Girls Go Home


I don’t make any claim to historical completeness in what follows; I’ve not mentioned numerous performers who’d be relevant in a complete discussion of queer popular music. I don’t follow music and journalism/criticism as I did before the early 1990s, so I’m not sure I’m right about the trend I describe; this is just how it looks to me. With that in mind….

For me personally, how little has changed for gay people in the US can be summed up in one question:

Where’s the gay popular music?

It may be a generational thing. I know from gay.com that gay performers are releasing CDs. The ones who get attention on gay.com are, of course, mostly young, male and photogenic. Whether their music is any good or not, I can’t say. More important, I can’t tell how much of it has gay content – that is, whether they sing love songs to other males.

We have some out gay and lesbian performers, but few of them actually sing same-sex love songs. Has Melissa Etheridge recorded any love songs explicitly addressed to women? I’ve heard some live recordings by her covering other singers’ songs, like a magnificent dyke version of “Piece of My Heart,” but her own material? How about k. d. lang? Has Elton John sung any lyrics addressed to a male since “Daniel”? Rufus Wainwright will talk about his life in “gay hell,” but can he record a love song to a cute boy? (This is a generational thing, I’m sure. I found Wainwright’s first album boring, hate his voice and his preening performance style, and refuse to spend money on his later work.)

I remember reading a joint interview with Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin, laughing derisively because their 1973 song “Daniel” had been interpreted by some people as “homosexual.” “Daniel” was included on the 1996 Love Songs compilation, which seems to concede that those people were right. Jackson Browne wrote some ambiguous songs of male friendship that I added to my own repertoire, like “Song for Adam”; I also appropriated his “For a Dancer,” whose subject isn’t gendered, but which always made me think of a gay male friend I used to dance with. In that vein there’s also Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” And I hear Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” as a love song to a man; that’s how it makes most sense, as Dylan’s most open-hearted and generous love song to anyone. Whether it’s “gay” is another question, though “Ballad of a Thin Man” surely is. (So blatant as to be almost invisible: “Jailhouse Rock” and the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.”)

Glam rock and genderfuck never interested me much. I was haunted and tantalized by a 1974 album on Apple, “Brother”, by two Dutch brothers, Lon and Derrek Von Eaton. The cover showed the two young men, shirtless, cuddled together. I never cuddled like that with my brothers.

Here’s the ironic thing: there seems to have been more gay/lesbian/queer pop music recorded and released on major labels in the 1970s and 1980s than there is now. Much of that music is admittedly problematic in terms of “positive images”: David Bowie’s queer songs often depicted (male) homosexuality as decadent, doomed, deadly. The same is true of Jobriath, or Gary Numan, or Mitch Ryder, the Ramones, or The Smiths. But often the songs were ambiguous and ambivalent: is Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” a positive or negative song? Ryder’s “Cherry Poppin’”? Others were simply matter-of-fact, like some of the Buzzcocks’s work and Pete Shelley’s witty, wicked “Homo Sapien.” For many gay people, just the fact that the songs had been recorded and released was positive, and the music was important in their coming out.

There was also lesbian music, not just on Olivia and other small women’s labels, most notably Nona Hendryx, both as a member of LaBelle and in her solo work; and more recently Toshi Reagon. But the women’s music movement and festivals were important in giving exposure and space to women-loving women. Gay men preferred drag queens – men impersonating this or that diva, ventriloquizing their desire for other men through a female mask. It was Gloria Gaynor's version of "I Am What I Am," the draq-queen manifesto from La Cage aux Folles, that was played in the gay clubs; I'm not aware of any version by a male singer that was even released, aside from the Broadway cast album. (I'm not complaining because a woman recorded it; only that gay men evidently weren't interested in hearing it sung by a man.)

I’ve found that most gay men I’ve talked to about this are at best apathetic about hearing men sing love songs to men, and a surprising number are homophobically hostile. (When I’ve performed before gay audiences, the men’s faces would contort into disgusted grimaces when they realized I was singing gay material. I got a much better reception from straight audiences, probably because they didn’t realize what I was doing.) The gay male tradition involves identification with female actresses or singers, whether popular or operatic.

I was already out when this music appeared, so it whetted my appetite for more. At the time I took for granted that these beginnings would be followed by more and better. To my surprise, it was the opposite: the seventies and eighties were the high-water mark of queer pop music, and since then gay/lesbian material has been pushed back to the margins. This is at least partly because gay people don’t seem to be interested in it, but there actually was a backlash in the male pop music mainstream. Lester Bangs (who’d coined the term “punk rock”, maybe unaware that a punk is the kid who gets punked – fucked – in jail) called Bowie “the chicken-headed king of suck rock” (a great name for a band, I think). When the Ramones emerged in the 70s, the Village Voice celebrated their leather-jacketed scrawniness with a front-page tribute: They’re Not Queers. (Which didn’t keep them from recording the odd love song to boys. And I admit, I bought their first album just for the cover photo.) There was the whole “Disco Sucks” thing, and then hip-hop’s overt homophobia gave white – not to mention black – boys license to yell “fag” as much as they wanted. (It gave their misogyny free rein too.)

Yes, I know that gay people are a minority, quite a small one. But there are lots of niches in pop music. Does it matter how many people listen to klezmer, for instance? And homosexuality, construed as failed manhood and butt sex, obsesses straight males, especially the younger ones who are the main constituency of pop music.

I don’t demand constant overtness. I like ambiguous material, like Elvis Costello’s “Secondary Modern”, which may or may not be about a high-school boy pitching covert woo to another boy at a party: “But there won’t be a problem till the girls go home.” But I do also want overtness, by which I don’t mean necessarily sexual explicitness but rather unmistakable expression of love, romantic passion, what have you. (See Pete Townshend’s amazing, ambivalent, aggressive “Rough Boys”, from 1980.) The play Falsettos didn’t impress me much, but I was still thrilled and moved to tears by the sight of two men singing duets of love to each other. I want more; can I have a little more? Evidently not -- or, as Harvey Fierstein might say, Not enough.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tenny Dearest

Another of my book reviews for Gay Community News, from about 1985.

The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of
Tennessee Williams
by Donald Spoto
Little, Brown & Company, $19.95
410 pp

Tennessee: Cry of the Heart
by Dotson Rader
Doubleday, $16.95
348 pp.

I know this is going to sound odd, but Tennessee Williams really didn’t live that interesting a life. Oh, his life should have been interesting: he became rich and famous doing just what he wanted to do, writing plays that first-rate actors and actresses were eager to perform; he had many loyal and loving friends; pretty boys by the score flung themselves into his bed. That should be an interesting life to live, though not necessarily an eventful one once you’ve settled into it. It might, however, be rich in anecdote – who said what to whom, who went to bed with whom, who stomped out of the room in a huff – and therefore worth writing about. And in fact several books have been written about that life, including Williams’s own Memoirs, which was a best-seller so it must have been interesting, right?

But I beg to differ. Williams’s early life might legitimately concern us because of the role it was to play in his work, most famously in The Glass Menagerie, and because of the poor-boy-makes-good aspect of his climb to fame and fortune and recognition as arguably America’s greatest playwright. Once he became famous, however, he became much less interesting, for his life became divided between the hard work of producing his plays on one hand, and drug/booze-induced oblivion on the other. Much of the 1960s and 1970s he spent falling down, knocking things over, and passing out. This, of course, is precisely why his memoirs sold: the National Enquirer appeal of dropping all those names – Brando! Garbo! Bankhead! Davis! Taylor! – and of the horror stories of other names dropped – Seconal! Nembutal! Valium! Doriden! – along with the pursuit of what Gore Vidal calls “all those interchangeable pieces of trade.” What counted for America was that a famous homo even pretended to tell all; in fact, he told very little, but America is still so easy to shock. All Tennessee Williams had to do was acknowledge in print that he was ‘that way’, tell a few very mild stories, and America went all shivery inside.

But the memoirs are oddly flat. This is partly because the trademark combination of colloquialism and lyricism which animates the dialogue of his plays does not carry over into his prose. When speaking in his own voice Williams reminds me mostly of the style of someone like Billy Graham. (Random example: “Jack Warner may have dropped his fork but Frank didn’t blink an eye as he continued to stare steadily at the old tyrant.”) As a result the anecdotes he does tell are less effective than they should be. And there aren’t that many anecdotes. It has been reported that the manuscript was cut in half for publication; it could and should have been cut more. Too much of it consists of chatty rambling like: “I think I like Rex Reed. From the moment we met, we could talk to each other but I suppose I talked too much when he interviewed me for Esquire.

Now we have two new books on Williams, and I’m still puzzled. Donald Spoto’s The Kindness of Strangers is a good place to start if you’ve read nothing else about Williams except his memoirs: Spoto (author of a recent biography of Alfred Hitchcock) has interviewed lots of people, gone through Williams’s papers, and “consulted most of” the secondary literature. Occasionally he comes up with something startling, such as Williams’s friendship, in his shoe-factory days in St. Louis, with a fellow named Stanley Kowalksi (p. 44). But for the most part the book is strangely superficial: Spoto rushes breathlessly along, quoting a critic here and a friend there but never touching down long enough to let us have a close look at anything. What happened to all that research?

And there are odd gaps. In their biography, published just after Williams’s death, Shepherd Mead and Dakin Williams tell of a pseudonymous friend’s attempt to get Williams off the pills by locking him away in a house outside Los Angeles. Williams also alludes to this in his memoirs: he claims William Inge was behind it! Spoto has no mention of it at all that I could find, which makes me wonder what else has been left out. An adequate – let alone definitive – biography of Tennessee Williams has yet to be written.

For the National Enquirer crowd, there is Dotson Rader’s Tennessee: Cry of the Heart. I first encountered Rader’s work in the late 1960s, when he contributed to Evergreen Review. In those days he seemed to be a sort of poor man’s John Rechy, with New Left tendencies: a studly youth rambles around the country bestowing his favors on many a lowly queer and from time to time making revolutionary noises. Some of his ambiguously autobiographical pieces were later collected as fiction. Now Rader has shared with us his memories of Tennessee Williams – the backroom bars, the antiwar demonstrations, the shots from Dr. Feelgood, the falling down, the passing out – and I can’t help wondering how much of this, too, should be read as fiction. Rader says he took many notes during his friendship with Williams, with Williams’s knowledge and approval, and indeed toward the end of the book we are treated to long disquisitions on life and art by the Great Man. But some of what Williams told Rader was pretty definitely false, like the letter from Eugene O’Neill which Williams quotes at length a couple of times. Gore Vidal, who knew Williams when he received the letter in 1948, says in an article in The New York Review of Books that it was illegible: O’Neill had Parkinson’s disease. But Williams might well have told Rader otherwise, and would have been gladly believed.

Rader also complains that Vidal warned “me against filling Tennessee’s head with a lot of leftist nonsense he had no capacity to understand.” Tennessee was a politically committed man of the left,” Rader sniffs (p. 36). But later, when he recalls Williams prattling about Cuba to Dave Dellinger, he notes: “He knew about as much about Cuba as he knew about Upper Volta, about which he knew absolutely nothing” (p. 97); and later still, when Williams showed up for a 1972 Remember The War benefit wearing a Confederate uniform and seemed incapable of understanding the issues involved, “I was beginning to believe that perhaps Gore Vidal had been right about Tennessee’s political sophistication” (p. 106). A better writer might have played these scenes for comedy, but Rader is too glumly earnest to have a sense of humor.

I should mention Rader’s misogyny. He tells with relish of the time Tennessee arrived at his New Orleans apartment house to find that the young companion he had left in charge had taken on some lesbians as tenants. “Out, dykes!” Williams had screamed, complaining later that the boy had “allowed the place to be overrun with muff-divers”. If true, this story virtually destroys my esteem for Williams as a human being. Why do so many faggots hate lesbians? (And how did Williams know the women were lesbians anyhow? Did they leave their Harleys parked in the vestibule?) Rader also jeers that Tennessee’s mother (born 1884) “was anything but a liberated woman, disliking even the mention of sex and, when she engaged in it with her husband, she didn’t lie back and think of England, she screamed” (p. 63). It does not occur to Rader that some fault may have lain with Tennessee’s father, an abusive alcoholic who may have molested his daughter Rose; no, Rader is all sympathy for Big Daddy Cornelius, married to a “harpy.”

In addition, Rader can barely write English. He thinks that one “peddles” a bicycle down the street, that a main reason is a “principle” reason, that a person who hates to do something is “loathe” to do it, and he think that to perform fellatio on someone is to “fellatiate” him (I swear! page 80). When this book comes out in paperback, it will make good trash reading on the beach next summer. But it should on no account be taken seriously.

But do I think you should read Spoto’s book instead? No. Read Williams, and I don’t mean the Memoirs. Before I wrote this review I read all seven volumes of his collected plays, and I was dazzled, even by much of his uneven later work. The dialogue is as limber and sharp as his memoirs are sluggish and dull. The subject matter is often sensational, true, but there is often comedy as outrageous as the Grand Guignol. Williams’s life, especially his later life, was a drag. His art never is.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hey, You -- Out Of The Meme Pool!


I can’t see any good reason why Creationist or Intelligent Design research shouldn’t be done. It’s probably a waste of money and time, but so is most scientific research.

Science cultists rant and rave and tear their hair, but there’s no good reason for their wrath. Creationism and Intelligent Design are certainly religiously based, but they are not anti-scientific. In fact their concession that they have to present a science-like case is a surrender to secular science. It’s even remotely possible that some ID researcher will serendipitously make a real discovery. Weirder things have happened – that’s science!

Sure, the premises and motives of the ID research are completely bogus; so what? There’s a lot of secular research being done to prove – excuse me, demonstrate – that women can’t learn math, that men of African descent are biologically capable only of playing basketball and singing spirituals, that gay men are really women’s minds encased in male flesh, and so on. This kind of biological determinism has been discredited many times, yet its proponents don’t seem to have any trouble getting funding or publicity for their latest results. It’s also more harmful socially than Creationism or ID, being used to lend scientific respectability to all kinds of bigotry, and yet it doesn’t seem to rouse the same hysterical derision that Creationism does. My own criticisms of scientific racism in online debate have often been met with the argument that we should just let science run its course, and let the bad ideas and research fall by the wayside, as they assuredly will thanks to the self-correcting nature of science.

If it were up to me, if I were sitting behind a desk at the NIMH, would I provide funding for the next born-gay study? Probably not. At the very least, I’d return the proposal with some suggestions that the researchers correct their assumptions and methodology. But if that happened, none of this research would get done, because it is based on flawed assumptions and crummy methodology. As the biologist Ruth Hubbard wrote in Exploding the Gene Myth (1997, page 98, italics mine):

Given the publicity accorded to such studies, more research will undoubtedly be done on this subject. Molecular biologists are now soliciting participants from extended families with “at least three gay men or lesbians,” hoping to find DNA sequences they can link to homosexuality. In view of the complexities of doing accurate linkage studies and necessarily small size of the samples, such studies are bound to come up with plenty of meaningless correlations, which will get reported as further evidence of “genetic transmission of homosexuality.

I don’t think it would be a great loss if such research were strangled in its cradle, but hundreds of thousands of my fellow queers would be upset, because they are waiting for Science to prove, erm, demonstrate that we can’t help ourselves, we were born this way, we’re prisoners of our genes; and if we could just prove that, then Fred Phelps would like us and let us into his church.

Thousands of scientists would also be upset, because you're not supposed to deny funding to any research program, no matter how worthless, unless it's ... erm ... well, the wrong worthless research program.

Please note again: I don’t think Creationism contains even a grain of truth, but the same can be said of many beliefs and ideas that don’t have hundreds (thousands?) of websites dedicated to ridiculing them. There’s something about Creationism that really gets into the craw of secularists, much as the idea that human beings evolved from monkeys outrages Creationists. Richard Lewontin pointed out:

Neither the Vatican nor much of quite conventional Protestant theology demands that one take the story in Genesis 1 literally. Even William Jennings Bryan, famous as the prosecutor in the Scopes trial in 1925, when called as a witness for the defense, confessed that he did not much care whether God took six days or six hundred million years to create the world. Moreover, even the minimalist Christian position does not require the abandonment of the neo-Darwinian view of the mechanism of evolution. It is quite possible to argue, as some of my believing religious colleagues do, that God set the stage for evolution by natural selection of undirected mutations, but that He reserved the ancestral line destined to become human for special preservation and guidance.

What, then, is the source of the repeated episodes of active political and social agitation against the assertions of evolutionary science? One apparent answer is that it is the expected product of fundamentalist belief, which rejects the easy compromises of liberal exegesis and insists that every word in Genesis means exactly what it says. Days are days, not eons. But there's the rub. A literal reading of Genesis tells us that it took God only three days to make the physical universe as it now exists, yet nuclear physics and astrophysics claim a very old stellar system and provide the instruments for the dating of bits and pieces of the earth and of fossils spanning hundreds of millions of years. So why aren't Kansas schools under extreme pressure to change the curriculum in physical science courses? Why should physicists be allowed to propagate, unopposed, their godless accounts of the evolution of the physical universe? Something more is at stake than a disagreement over the literal truth of biblical metaphors.

He’s right, and it works both ways. It’s a popular trope in science circles that Science has dethroned “Man”: first Copernicus showed that We are not at the center of the universe, then Darwin showed that We are not the crown of creation (though we are at the top of the evolutionary ladder; see below). A lot of science cultists really get into the idea of punishing Man’s sinful pride, as much as any Grand Inquisitor. They still think that Man is pretty special, though, because He can do, like, y’know, Science, and strip Nature nekkid and probe her secrets, and someday He will have, like, total knowledge and total domination of the Universe!

In principle I favor teaching the conflicts between Darwinian evolution and Creationism/ID. I’m as opposed to Sam Harris’ demand that public schools teach “God Is Dead” as I am to the schools’ teaching any other religious position as fact; I think the most important thing schools can teach students is how to research controversies and make up their own minds.

Yes, I know that “teaching the controversy,” as they call it, has been co-opted by the Creationist Discovery Institute. But just because the Ku Klux Klan appeals to the First Amendment’s protection of free speech doesn’t invalidate the principle. (Have you ever noticed that the same people who attack the ACLU for defending free speech are the first to run to it for help when they get into trouble themselves?) But I’m with Gerald Graff: “I’m a believer in the pedagogical and civic value of bad argument. I think a culture of crude and crudely polarized debate is an advance over the Eisenhower era I grew up in, where conflicts were mushed over in a haze of evasive rhetoric.” The fact that so many people apparently believe that free speech doesn’t include bad arguments as well as good, offensive speech as well as nice speech, shows just how poorly educated they are. Hazing over conflict with evasive rhetoric is exactly what I see in most “diversity” education, however.

In practice, though, I doubt that most biology teachers understand Darwinian theory well enough to present it accurately. I know that a good many “reality-based” pro-science liberal types are not really Darwinians at all; rather, they are Spencerians, who believe in a linear, upward march of evolution from the lowly amoeba to Man. I’ve heard enough of them say that less-educated or less “intelligent” people are less evolved than their own superior selves, to be wary of just how well Darwinian evolution is understood by its advocates and supporters. While writing this post I found quite a number of science-related websites and blogs criticizing the March of Evolutionary Progress as a “myth,” but it wasn’t always so – as some of these writers concede. One even admits that St. Carl Sagan’s PBS television account of the glory of science “is at least suggestive of a branching process [instead of a Great Chain of Being], but it still does not fully drive home the diversity of life as it trails our own lineage primarily to the exclusion of others.”

In this clip, Sagan scrupulously mentions evolutionary branching, but his story is about Us and “who our ancestors were,” resulting in a linear narrative. That’s a feature of narrative and language, rather than of the theory, but it shows the pitfalls of trying to come up, as Sagan was, with a new Creation myth to replace the old one. (The same blogger links to an apparently similar clip – no longer available, alas -- featuring Richard “I Am The Antichrist, I Am a Scientist” Dawkins.) That famous image used to be Science; now it’s a Myth. How soon we forget.

(The image below of The Great Chain of Being comes from Dangerous Intersection, whose author erroneously assumes that only opponents of Science still think in those terms.)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Dialogue Is Hard -- Let's Go Shopping!

If religion is purely a matter of faith beyond reasoned debate, then who could object if believers participate in the public sphere? But when they do, there is no reason anyone should take them seriously, whatever their position may be. “The Lord wants us to do X” or “God says we shouldn’t do Y” – let them speak by all means, but then smile indulgently, as at the prattling of a child, and then return to serious discussion. These people have declared themselves irrelevant. They haven’t been excluded by wicked, narrow-minded secularists – especially in the church-ridden United States, where most public discussion will involve believers of some stripe – they have excluded themselves, by their own refusal to engage.

The first question to put to such believers is: “How do you know what God wants? This believer over here says that God wants the opposite. How do I decide which one of you is telling the truth?” I’ve often asked exactly this of gay Christians. Why should I take their version of Christianity more seriously than I take Pat Robertson’s or Pope Rat’s? If they reply at all, it’s usually along the lines of, “Well, I never said you should!” So why did they pipe up in the first place?

Part of the problem is that the level of public discussion, especially in the US, is so dismally low. Most people seem to think that all they have to do is state their opinion, and that’s that. But stating your opinion is the beginning of discussion. Someone else will disagree with you, and where you do go from there? Most people have no idea whatsoever, except perhaps to say, “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion! It’s a free country!” Many people take any disagreement at all as an infringement of their First Amendment rights. They confuse respect for their right to hold an opinion with respect for the opinion itself.

I’m not talking only about religious fundamentalists here, but about liberal Christians. Such people often complain that Christianity in America is being equated with ignorant, bigoted bible-thumpers who read Left Behind, not nice people like them. It’s true, fundamentalists tend to regard only themselves as Christians (except when they’re trying to inflate the number of self-identified Christians in the US); but then liberals tend to do the same. I’ve mentioned before the gay minister who said he preferred the term “Religious Right,” because he didn’t like to think of the Christian right as Christians.

Or the exclusion can be a little more subtle. When Barack Obama invited a self-styled ex-gay gospel singer to participate in his election campaign, he chided his critics in an interview in The Advocate:

Part of the reason that we have had a faith outreach in our campaigns is precisely because I don't think the LGBT community or the Democratic Party is served by being hermetically sealed from the faith community and not in dialogue with a substantial portion of the electorate, even though we may disagree with them.

This is a revealing statement. Obama was saying that “the LBGT community” is “hermetically sealed from the faith community” and “not in dialogue” with it. As though “the LBGT community” contained no people of “faith”! (And with Obama and the other Democratic candidates waving their cult affiliations around, it’s equally dishonest to say that the Democratic Party is sealed off from the “faith community” as well.) That’s what antigay religious bigots would like you to believe, of course, but it’s not so. It’s primarily the antigay “faith community” that is not interested in “dialogue” with the rest of the electorate; they simply want to lay down the law – not to argue with their opponents, but to preach to them.

But I say “primarily” because in general the progay “faith community” is not much more interested in dialogue. Remember the gay minister I just mentioned. Or Joe Solmonese, the head of the Human Rights Campaign, who said that “There is no gospel in Donnie McClurkin’s message for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their allies.”

For all that, the Human Rights Campaign fought its battle in press releases, not in action: “A vigil that was planned to protest outside of the concert included only about 20 people, almost all white, who held signs like "We are Here, We are Queer, we are voting next year," while across the street long lines of African-Americans, who seemed still dressed for church, waited to go into the event that started at 6 p.m.” But hey: dialogue is hard work, I’ll be the first to admit that.

There’s one other line that believers will use when they claim that they’re unjustly excluded from the public sphere: What about Martin Luther King, Jr.? Well, what about him? It’s true that King was a Christian minister, but one thing that struck me when I read a collection of his speeches recently was how little he relied on god-talk when he wasn’t giving a sermon. King didn’t need to. He had a perfectly good secular argument: full equality for people of all colors is guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment to the American Constitution. He didn’t have to argue for the justice of the principle. What he and the movement he spoke for demanded was that the principle be put into practice, against all the lies and evasions and fierce opposition of American whites. Hence the title of his book, Why We Can’t Wait, answering the claim that “you can’t change people’s minds overnight,” a claim that’s still being made to defend racism and other forms of bigotry to this day, fifty years later. Never forget, either, how many American Christians opposed racial justice on “faith community” grounds; some of those, like Jerry Falwell, went on to establish the Christian Right as a political force. Religious belief can’t settle these matters; believers who claim that their position “is just a matter of faith” are right that far; but religious beliefs, be they conservative or liberal, are simply irrelevant to social and political conflicts.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ecce Homo

I was very pleased to see that Avedon Carol linked to my post on Ray Bradbury. One of her commenters was not:
Bradbury's critic nails him. He repeats motifs, he gets details wrong, he doesn't like abstract art. Let's crucify the bastard! Of course, the critic seems to hate representative art, he repeats himself, and he gets details wrong, too, so get that second cross ready. In particular, he cites Bradbury being critical of a magazine honcho catering to minorities just a year before a critical segregation case, but even in the quote he uses, it's clear that Bradbury is using the word "minorities" to mean "niche audiences" -- cat lovers, dog lovers, that sort of thing.

I'm reminded of the Medved books on bad movies, where they whale away on everything, including movies that aren't really all that bad.
My primary target wasn’t Bradbury. I was twitting some of his fans who were shocked! shocked! by his opinions on minorities and other matters, as though they were recent aberrations – when in fact, those opinions also appeared in the book they claimed to love. No one expects you to remember every detail of every book you read, but if you’re a fan who’s read Fahrenheit 451 many times, you should have noticed those dismissive remarks about "minorities." They’re not just a passing detail, they’re spelled out at length in an important (if tedious) segment of the book. I have the same reaction to professed Tolkien fans who spell his name “Tolkein”: if you love him that much, you can at least spell his name right.

And of course, I don’t expect a hostile commenter to get details right either – such as the fact that, even in the quote I used, “minorities” means not only “niche audiences” but “Colored people [who] don’t like Little Black Sambo.” This part startled me when I read it too, because one of the things that had stayed with me since I read Bradbury as a kid was the episode in The Martian Chronicles where all the Negroes leave Alabama to go to Mars.

Before reading F451 last summer (and remember, I had not read it before), I reread The Martian Chronicles and The October Country. That chapter had the same soft-focus Norman-Rockwell sentimentality that suffuses a lot of the book. It’s touching, but as a cynical old adult I can’t help noticing that Bradbury’s Negroes are humble and long-suffering – they’d never pitch a fit over Little Black Sambo, and one way to make sure they never do is to ship them off to Mars. (I wonder now if that episode might have inspired Derrick Bell’s parable, in Faces at the Bottom of the Well [1992]) of an alien race offering white America a treasury of wealth and technological goodies in return for all ‘our’ black folks.)

I’m not singling out Bradbury for disparagement here. He's not really worse than most of American science fiction; the noble engineer Heinlein, to name just one other Midwesterner who struck pay dirt in the ore fields of space, is if anything even worse on race than Bradbury. The science fiction available to me as a kid was mostly the work of white males, and it imagined a future with few women and no non-whites. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, which I also reread last summer, imagined a galactic empire in which everyone was white and male, except for one or two walk-on females. (In We boys together: teenagers in love before girl-craziness [Vanderbilt UP, 2007], Jeffery P. Dennis showed how inadvertently queer Foundation is. That’s not to say that the notorious cockhound Asimov was gay, only that his hothouse all-male imaginary world left his characters no one to lust after but each other.) Despite his sexism Heinlein, as feminist critics discovered to their surprise, created better female characters than most of his male contemporaries: they might have been Vargas girls in appearance, but they were smart, competent, and played significant roles in his stories.

That began to change at about the time I was losing interest in Golden Age SF, in the late 60s. White women and black men – or rather, a black man, Samuel Delany -- began making an impression on the field. In the mid-seventies, some women friends alerted me to the work of Joanna Russ, Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Lynn, and others, and SF began to interest me again. Delany was joined by a few other black writers, notably Nalo Hopkinson and the late Octavia Butler. SF and fantasy now have more variety in them, though they are still dominated by white boys.

No, I don’t want to “crucify” Bradbury. He’s just not all that good, and never was. And his views on minorities in F451, whether cat-lovers or Colored, are unfortunately not antediluvian: they survive whenever someone gripes about Political Correctness. Bradbury was prophetic all right.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Cyclotron

Actually, this time my fellow atheists are making me laugh. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s an improvement.

Recently I thought I’d noticed an upsurge, on atheist / science sites, in protests that Science doesn’t offer certainty. No indeed, Science is humble and modest in its claims, and self-correcting too. When it makes a mistake, it admits it. Science doesn’t deal in proof, its findings are tentative. And so on; you know how it goes. Not wanting merely to gesture at unnamed culprits, or to pick excessively on just one person, I did a Google search to try to find some of the stuff I’d read. I found lots of goodies, including this bit from the biologist and atheist PZ Myers’s Pharyngula blog:
This is not about proof. Science does not use proof. We favor evidence, and the work consists largely of the slow accumulation of evidence in support of ideas, not magically potent proofs that establish an idea as unassailable. What we have on the atheist side is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the sufficiency of natural processes in generating phenomena that were once considered "obviously" the handiwork of a god — the steady decline of the relevance and support for the god hypothesis. At the same time, we see theologians like McGrath and pseudoscientists like those of the Discovery Institute trying to support their god/designer hypothesis with handwaving, sloppy logic, mangled evidence, and bald-faced assertions of unquestionable premises. Our side is growing in strength and has a solid foundation, theirs is a shambles. That's why scientific thinking will favor atheism.

Part of this is true enough. But something tickled my funny bone: Myers refers to “a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the sufficiency of natural processes…”. The verb demonstrate has several meanings, but as Myers uses it here, it means prove. He's a bit disingenuous about "proof" anyway -- one can prove a conclusion, as Webster reminds us, "by reasoning or evidence." Not just by "magically potent proofs that establish an idea as unassailable."

Myers is also a bit disingenuous about the history of science. Notice how he carelessly (or maybe not so carelessly) moves from “science” to “atheism”, as though the two were equivalent. I don’t think that Newton, Faraday, and other devoutly religious scientists thought they were trying to demonstrate the sufficiency of natural processes in order to rule out “the god hypothesis.” Next, his reference to “the slow accumulation of evidence in support of ideas, not magically potent proofs that establish an idea as unassailable” represents science as relying solely on induction as opposed to deduction. This is controversial, to put it gently. Much science works the other way around: a fellow like Einstein or Hawking or Newton works out some equations with implications for the real world, and then waits for experiments to back up his theory with evidence. As Paul Feyerabend, the scourge of scientism (but a physicist by training) pointed out (The conquest of abundance: a tale of abstraction versus the richness of being, University of Chicago Press, 1999, p 244):

Darwin's theory conflicted with the fact that life seemed to start in post-Cambrian times. Leading professionals, Murchison among them, inferred some form of creation. Darwin persisted: life did start earlier, but its traces had not yet been found.

Einstein's theory of special relativity clashed with evidence produced only one year after its publication. Lorentz, Poincare, and Ehrenfest withdrew to a more classical postion. Einstein persisted: his theory, he said, had a wonderful symmetry and should be retained. He gently mocked the widespread urge for a "verification by little effects."

Schrodinger's first wave equation was adapted to the most recent view on space and time (it was "relativistically invariant") but led to incorrect predictions. This is a very interesting situation: the "better" theory fails, the "inferior" theory succeeds.

Newton's mechanics could not account for the stability of the planetary system. Newton himself thought that God periodically put the heavenly machine in order. It took about 150 years until a reasonable solution was found -- only to be proved impossible a few decades later. Still, scientists did not despair. They chose a new approach which so far seems to do the trick.

Now look at this excerpt from an encounter – I won’t call it a “debate” – between the Rev. Dr. Richard Dawkins and Ted Haggard, as reported by the pseudonymous Richard Dalton, in South Park and Philosophy: Bigger, Longer, and More Penetrating, ed. by Richard Hanley (Chicago: Open Court, 2007), p. 43:

But once Haggard began rehearsing the slogans of Intelligent Design theory – that “American evangelicals fully embrace the scientific method” and “think as time goes along as we discover more and more facts then we’ll learn more and more about how God created the heavens and the earth…” – Dawkins could stomach no more.

“Scientific method clearly demonstrates that the world is four and a half billion years old,” he interrupted. “Would you accept that?”

Oops: “demonstrates” again. I don’t see much tentativeness there, do you? Scientific method said it, I believe it, that settles it! The odd thing is that, as I understand it, at least some Intelligent Design advocates do accept an old earth, as do some Creationists. Haggard doesn’t even pretend to be a scientist; he’s as much of an authority on ID as, say, a liberal Episcopalian minister would be on Darwin. Not that I have any sympathy for Haggard, but I do find it interesting that a dedicated atheist and rationalist like Dalton would be so impressed by Dawkins’s performance here. Scientists and their fans have their slogans too; Myers provides some familiar examples.

I’ve been reading popular science writing for most of my life, and I can’t remember seeing a lot of disclaimers in it about the limitations of science and scientific knowledge. It’s mainly the scientific critics of scientific overconfidence, people like Anne Fausto-Sterling or Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Lewontin, who point out those limitations, and they get trashed for being anti-science.

In principle, religious believers are supposed to be humble and modest too, recognizing their limits as finite human beings, sinners bound by the flesh, etc. In practice, scientists and religionists seem to stress their humble humanity only defensively, when someone calls them on their self-aggrandizement. James Barr has pointed out that despite their claim to recognize human sinfulness, fundamentalists are much given to the cult of personality, following their human pastors blindly and refusing to admit their fallibility. The history of religion doesn’t inspire absolute confidence in its truth claims, any more than the history of science does. But in both cases, the humble believer can transcend his or her human limitations by association with something bigger and wiser.

This is not to say that science is no different from religion. What I’m objecting to here is the misrepresentation of science by its self-styled defenders, many of whom are as ignorant as their religious (and non-religious) opponents, or who, like Myers, know so much that ain’t so. Scientists feel embattled, even besieged, nowadays, and not without reason: their authority, their claims to lofty disinterest, are indeed under attack from various sides. Worse, American scientists became dreadfully spoiled during the Cold War, when they could get virtually unlimited funding for any project they could pitch as a barricade against the Russkies. That arrangement came tumbling down with the Berlin Wall; the symbolic counterpart for American science was the funding cutoff for the Texas Superconducting Super Collider in 1993 after it overran its budget by about three hundred percent. A year later, the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson fumed, “Multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism.”

I don't see any reason why scientists shouldn't want proof and certainty; that some of them pretend otherwise is what makes me uneasy. Rather, I believe that scientists, like religionists, must be kept on a tight leash.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Something Toothless This Way Comes

I was something of a Ray Bradbury fan in my early teens, back in the mid-1960s or so. The Martian Chronicles, of course, then R Is For Rocket, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, S Is For Space, The October Country … That was, I think, a good age to discover Bradbury. At some point, though, I realized that Bradbury didn’t have that many stories to tell, though that didn’t keep him from retelling them, and that he relied too much on his “poetic” style and not enough on substance, so I began losing interest in his writing.

I seem to remember that I read The October Country, Bradbury’s collection of horror stories, in high school, after giving up on his science fiction, and I liked it more. I’m not sure when I tried to read Fahrenheit 451, only that I gave up after a few pages. And there I stopped.

Last summer, Fahrenheit 451 was chosen for a program in my city to encourage reading, and I began thinking it was time to read it myself at long last. I’d also heard that Bradbury had objected to Michael Moore’s adaptation (or co-optation) of his title for Fahrenheit 911, whether on political or intellectual-property grounds I’m not sure. Then I read on the web that Bradbury had upset some of his liberal fans (via) by praising George W. Bush. (Not exactly news – the article had appeared in 2001, two weeks before the Big One.) As with some other recent embarrassments, Bradbury’s fans blamed his thoughtcrime on his age and ill health. They couldn’t have been such big fans, for most of the idiotic things he said to Salon’s reporter were straight out of Fahrenheit 451, as I discovered when I finally read it. (For that matter, some of the relevant material was quoted in the Salon article.)

It is, I must tell you, a silly book. (Spoilers Ahead! … if you care.) The premise is that in The Future, firemen burn books. Reading is, if not forbidden, considered deviant, and books are contraband except for romance magazines for the ladies, trade journals for the gents, and comic books for the younger set. As science fiction it’s painful: the image of “the lapping pigeon-winged books [dying] on the porch and lawn of the house", while prettily poetic, founders on the reality that books don’t burn easily.

The Salon reporter gushed over the technological details:

There's interactive television, stereo earphones (which reportedly inspired a Sony engineer to invent the Walkman), immersive wall-size TVs, earpiece communicators, rampant political correctness, omnipresent advertising and a violent youth culture ignored by self-absorbed, prescription-dependent parents.

But there’s also a scene where the hero, Montag, has “his knee slammed by the fender of a car hurtling by at ninety miles an hour. He was afraid to get up, afraid he might not be able to gain his feet at all, with an anesthetized leg.” It would be a lot more than "anesthetized", it would be shattered. But a few hours later he's able to run on it. Yes, in Bradbury’s dystopian future automobiles careen down city streets – not expressways – at extremely high speeds. Unlike the noble engineer Heinlein, Bradbury felt no need to work out how this could be; as a poet, he felt no need to visualize it clearly.

We’re told that the US has “started and won two atomic wars since 2022!” The book ends with Montag on the run with a group of other men as another atomic war begins:

The concussion knocked the air across and down the river, turned the men over like dominoes in a line, blew the water in lifting sprays, and blew the dust and made the trees above them mourn with a great wind passing away south.

So, atomic bombs have been dropped on the city from which Montag is fleeing, with the assumption that many other cities are also being struck. Bradbury seems a bit vague about how that would work. Montag and his companions are knocked over by the blast wave, but there's not a word about heat or radiation. In short, these guys are already dead, long before they get to Saint Louis, their destination, which would also surely be gone anyway. Such a small detail.

Much of the novel is mere crankitude, nostalgia for an America that never was. Early on, Montag the fireman meets Clarisse, a sylphlike young girl, who’s been raised outside the system by her uncle but now has to attend the public schools. She says, “But I don't think it's social to get a bunch of people together and not let them talk.” But that is what school was about long before this book was written, not only in my day but in Bradbury's day and long before. There never was a golden age when school was about asking questions; Clarisse's image, "It's a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us it's wine when it's not”, is a reasonable picture of the rote learning and recitation that was traditional schooling for most of human history.

“And the museums,” Clarisse goes on, “have you ever been? All abstract. That's all there is now. My uncle says it was different once. A long time back, sometimes pictures said things or even showed people.” This is interesting, because it's archetypal philistines who condemn abstract art as degenerate and demand representations: the Nazis, the Soviets, probably the Red Guards. If anything, it seems that Bradbury is quite a Red Guard himself, wanting to place severe limits on what artists can do. But it hardly matters, because it's clear that there's plenty of representation on TV and elsewhere in Bradbury / Montag's world.

Bradbury mocks the absorption of Montag’s wife Mildred in her tv show, which sounds like a soap opera: “ ... what are they mad about?” he has Montag cry. “Who are these people? Who's that man and who's that woman? Are they husband and wife, are they divorced, engaged, what? Good God, nothing's connected up.” No doubt he'd say the same thing if he walked into the middle of a play by Shakespeare. How is Mildred's interest different from, say, the crowds waiting at the New York docks, anxious to know if a fictional character (Little Nell) in a print serial was alive or dead? Tolstoy mocked foolish women's absorption in novels too (not his own, though, I take it). Who are these people in Anna Karenina? It might even be that print is the culprit, because it made it possible to flood the world with Dickens and Austen and Grisham and Danielle Steele and Ray Bradbury.

“It took some man a lifetime maybe to put some of his thoughts down," Montag laments. Women don't write, of course; women in Bradbury’s fiction tend to be either suicidal, whiskey-tippling housewives like Mildred or vague neurasthenics like Clarisse. Not that the men are anything to write home about either. Most of the great writers Bradbury reveres ground out the product, like Bradbury himself. Scribble, scribble, scribble -- eh, Mr. Gibbon? And thanks to printing, the loss of a copy, or a hundred, or a thousand, is not necessarily the destruction of a book.

“School is shortened," his fellow fireman Beatty gloats to Montag, “discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies about all after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts? ... The zipper displaces the button and a man lacks just that much time to think while dressing at dawn, a philosophical hour, and thus a melancholy hour." Come now, buttons are for servants to fasten for us.

“With schools turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.” When did the schools turn out critics, etc.? It's intellectuals, by the way, who like abstract art, while a levelling society like this one would be more likely to fill its museums with Norman Rockwell, Keane children, and Elvis on black velvet. Bradbury's also ignorant of history: “Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says.” That's the Declaration of Independence, Ray. (I know – picky, picky, picky!)

Then there’s the part that Bradbury’s twenty-first century fans thought was the stroke-addled ranting of an old man, but which he committed to print in 1953. Beatty’s lecture continues: “Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, etc. ... The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! … You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred.” It's worth remembering that this book was originally published the year before Brown v. Board of Education. “... Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it! White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. [Neither do 'colored.'] Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.” And yet this piece of tripe is still in print after 55 years.

“But the public, knowing what it wanted, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines." And the science fiction pulps that published not Bradbury (who got into the slicks early on) but other sf writers. "... you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals." Again, Bradbury is vague on just who’s to blame here: is it the Public, the Gummint, or the Corporations?

But I think its incoherence helps Fahrenheit 451: in all the speechifying and pretty symbolism, there’s something for everyone to fasten onto. I liked Montag’s questions after his account of the two atomic wars: “Is it because we're having so much fun at home we've forgotten the world? Is it because we're so rich and the rest of the world's so poor and we just don't care if they are? I've heard rumors, the world is starving, but we're well fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we're hated so much?" Fahrenheit 451 is a mirror. It contains a gripe and a bitch about our decadent society for just about everyone; look into it and you’ll see your own complaints reflected back to you. The rest you can forget.

The final irony isn’t part of the book proper, it’s the “Note About The Author” at the end of the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition that I read. It mentions Bradbury's books in passing while dwelling on his TV and film credits:

Ray Bradbury has published some twenty-seven books -- novels, stories, plays, essays, and poems -- since his first story appeared when he was twenty years old. He began writing for the movies in 1952 -- with the script for his own Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. The next year he wrote the screenplay for It Came From Outer Space. In 1953 he lived in Ireland writing the script of Moby Dick for John Huston. In 1961 he wrote the narration spoken by Orson Welles for King of Kings, and the short animated film Icarus Montgolfier Wright, based on his story of the history of flight, was nominated for an Academy Award. Films have been made of his "Picasso Summer," The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Since 1985 he has adapted his stories for his own half-hour show on USA Cable Television.

For a famously technophobic author who told his Salon interviewer, “You can't have a civilization without that, can you? If you can't read and write you can't think. Your thoughts are dispersed if you don't know how to read and write”, Bradbury seems to have gone over to the Dark Side. If this were his Fahrenheit 451 future, he'd be one of the people grinding out the pap for those immersive TV screens, ensnaring housewives in their web of banality.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Devil Told You That!

My fellow atheists are such an embarrassment to me. Well, some of them.

I’m not a “relativist”: I very strongly think that Greta Christina is full of shit. I don’t think that one truth is as good as another: I think that her truths are definitely inferior. (On religion, that is: she’s good on some things, like sex education.) What I think is that she’s come up against an argument – maybe that should be in quotes, because it doesn’t amount to much – she doesn’t know how to answer, and so she’s throwing a tantrum over it, calling names like “postmodernist” and “relativist.” That sort of stuff won’t get you into Hell, GC. When I consider that abuse of one’s opponents is a hallowed Christian approach to controversy, it might just get you into Heaven.

She cites the Daylight Atheism blog, who quotes a commenter:
But I have faith in the gospel and what it promises me, just like you have faith in your readings. Your suposed [sic] facts and my suposed [sic] facts, what makes mine so wrong and your so right. Are facts from the bible so different from the facts you read from magazines, books and websites....nope. It all boils down to faith. Until you can tell me that you were there from the beginning up until now, you dont really have facts of your own do you. Neither do I, I dont proclaim to like you do. Faith boys, we all have faith, faith in what is up to you. I think I will stick with the gospel on this one.
on which Daylight Atheist goes on to comment, incoherently:
Although this Christian believer didn't notice, what he was actually advocating was postmodernism and relativism. Just like the strawman academics whom conservatives love to hate, he was effectively proclaiming that there's no objective truth and no way to decide between competing worldviews, so we might as well choose whichever one makes us feel best.
Notice the weasel words in there which undermine DA’s claim: “effectively” proclaiming (not really proclaiming, just effectively) and better still, “the strawman academics whom conservatives love to hate” -- a strawman is a nonexistent position, so DA is saying that no one actually holds the position he’s attributing to the commenter – sounds pretty postmodernist / relativist to me. Besides, aren’t those “conservatives” generally conservative religious believers themselves? Why not let one of them attack the commenter?

Now, I imagine there are people who will claim, while waving vaguely at "postmodernism", that there's no objective truth and so we might as well believe whatever makes us feel best -- just as there are people who claim that the theory of Relativity proved that everything is relative, y'know? (Or atheists who claim that morality is for slaves, and that since there is no god, everything is permitted.) It's difficult to know quite how to deal with such claims, without falling into the No True Scotsman fallacy (those people aren't true postmodernists!). Few would hold Einstein responsible for those who claim that he proved "everything is relative", though maybe they should. But I have read enough postmodernist writing that I think I can say that DA is right: this is a strawman position. The academic postmodernists who have been attacked from left and right alike for supposedly undermining Western Civilization and the Enlightenment do not claim that one opinion or position is just as true as another.

And in fact, there’s nothing “postmodern” about what the commenter wrote. Theist apologists have been saying the same thing for many years. Back when he was still an atheist, Antony Flew wrote in God: a Critical Enquiry [1984, but except for a new preface it’s just a repackaging of his 1966 God and Philosophy]:
People with pretensions either to deep wisdom or to worldly sophistication will tell us that everyone knows that you cannot either prove or disprove the existence of God, and the fundamentals of any religion belong to the province of faith rather than of reason. They could not be more wrong. ..

The claim about the different provinces of faith and reason is presumably to be construed as implying that it is either impossible or unnecessary to offer any sort of good reasons …. If this is the correct interpretation – and unless it is, the claim would seem to lack point – then it must be regarded how enormously damaging to faith this contention is, and how extremely insulting to all persons of faith. For it makes any and every such commitment equally arbitrary and equally frivolous. They are all made, it is being suggested, for no good reason at all; and every one is as utterly unreasonable as every other. [ix-x]
Flew commenced his assault on theism by quoting the theologian Karl Barth’s dictum, “Belief cannot argue with unbelief: it can only preach to it!” Barth was no postmodernist or relativist either. If you haven’t read Flew’s God and Philosophy in any of its variant editions or titles, you should, if only to see how he answered Barth.

In my own response to Christianity, I took a rather different tack than many recent atheists. Christians argued about the “facts” of their cult (the word “faith” has become too debased to be applied there), just as DA’s commenter does. “Are facts from the bible so different from the facts you read from magazines, books and websites....nope.” The commenter has just let slip that he, like C. S. Lewis (who was no postmodernist or relativist either) believes that Christianity has “facts,” maybe even “objective” ones, as good as those DA reads from magazines, books, and websites. (I think that’s true, in fact, and I suspect it’s why DA and Greta Christina are so annoyed about it.) I spent a few years looking at those “facts”, and emerged from the experience with my atheistic “faith” renewed and strengthened. Except that’s not quite true either: what I established to my satisfaction was that Christianity is not true; that does not, in itself, prove that atheism is true.

Of course, it took a little more work than just stamping my foot and screaming, “The Devil told you that!” Which is what lobbing epithets like “postmodernist” and “relativist” amounts to. But it was also more interesting and more fun.

Now let me take apart the commenter’s argument, such as it is:
But I have faith in the gospel and what it promises me, just like you have faith in your readings.
It’s not whether I have faith in my readings, it’s whether I have faith in yours.
Your suposed [sic] facts and my suposed [sic] facts, what makes mine so wrong and your so right.
So you agree that your facts are just “supposed”, not real facts? Thanks. My “facts,” however, come from looking at your “facts.” I’ve studied the Bible. It’s false. That doesn’t tell me that any other religion is true, but Christianity is false.
Are facts from the bible so different from the facts you read from magazines, books and websites....nope. It all boils down to faith.
No, it doesn’t. I’m not relying on my “magazines and books” when I talk about Christianity; I’m relying on the Bible and what Christians say about it.
Until you can tell me that you were there from the beginning up until now, you dont really have facts of your own do you. Neither do I, I dont proclaim to like you do.
You don’t, eh? What are you doing posting comments on Daylight Atheism, then, if not to proclaim your “faith”? Not to argue with disbelief, that’s for sure, but to preach to it.
Faith boys, we all have faith, faith in what is up to you. I think I will stick with the gospel on this one.
That’s fine. (Which “gospel,” though? Christians have been at each other’s throats, often literally, for two millennia, over which gospel is the true one.) As long as you don’t try to impose your gospel on anyone else, we shouldn’t have any trouble.

As I said, it' s not much of an argument, but it is an argument. The commenter is making a case that Christian faith ("the gospel") is as valid as atheist "faith." He even believes enough in logic and reason to use them to make his case. Calling him "postmodernist" isn't a response -- it even concedes the debate. (I can't refute you, so I'll just call you names.) Granted, his stance is infuriating to missionary atheists who believe that every knee must bend and every head bow to them, but one of the risks of reasoned argument is that you can't force your opponent to change his or her mind.

It would be interesting to press this commenter on the divisions among Christians, or among world religions generally. (I’d also have to acknowledge the differences among atheists.) He really has no argument here, and we end up with “each to his own taste,” or at least gospel. So I’d want to press him on whether he really regards ‘sticking with the gospel’ so whimsically, as if it made no more difference than preferring chocolate to vanilla. It seems that he’s falling back on a position rather like Pascal’s wager, which as Flew also pointed out many years ago, isn’t very helpful. What if it turns out that the universe is really run by the gods of ancient Egypt, and they send Christians to Hell? What if Yahweh is boss, but he doesn’t like people who bet on his existence? I sometimes tell people like this commenter cheerfully that I’ll see them in Hell, since their position will (on Christian presuppositions) very likely land them there along with me, with Greta Christina and Daylight Atheist watching our torment from Heaven.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Sissy's Progress


Another book review for Gay Community News, published sometime in 1985.

The Journals of Denton Welch
edited by Michael De-la-Noy
Dutton,New York
380 pp., $22.50 hardcover

Maiden Voyage
by Denton Welch
(first published in 1943)
Dutton, New York
284 pp., $8.95 paper

In Youth Is Pleasure
by Denton Welch
(first published in 1945)
Dutton/Obelisk, 1985
154 pp., $7.95 paper

A Voice Through a Cloud
by Denton Welch
(first published in 1950)
Dutton, New York
256 pp, $7.95 paper

Browsing in a bookstore, I find, is a lot like cruising. One is looking, if not for excitement, at least for stimulation, an interesting new face, someone who might be worth getting to know better. And how does one decide? As often as not, by the cover -- how else? But that's only the beginning: next one reads the dust-jacket blurb, leafs through the pages to see if the first superficial impression is confirmed by indications of intelligence or character. Is this the kind of author I want to take home with me? Will I feel like kicking him out after reading him once? Or is there a basis for a long-term -- not monogamous of course, this is the twentieth century -- relationship?

While checking out the New Arrivals shelves in the bookstore under his apartment, the Promiscuous reader noticed The Journals of Denton Welch. Do wha? he wondered, and pulled the volume out for a closer look. He noticed the self-portrait on the dust-jacket (a classic wimp, just his type), read the blurb: hot young 1940s British writer, hit by car in 1935 (fractured back, kidney problems, TB of the spine, catheter, partial impotence), died in 1948 at 33. Well, the chronically ill were not ordinarily his idea of a good time, but then the word "his loving relationship with a young man named Eric Oliver" caught his eye. Another contact (in a lifetime tally of thousands, Dr Kinsey) had been made.

Once again, more slowly: the youngest of four sons, Maurice Denton Welch was born in 1915 in Shanghai to a well-to-do British father and American mother. His early childhood was largely spent traveling with his mother, whom he adored, until her death when he was eleven. After two years at a public school in England, which he hated, he ran away: no sooner had his relatives persuaded him to return to school for one more term than his father, still in China, proposed an extended visit to Shanghai. At seventeen he entered art school in England.

The next few years were extremely important for Welch. Unlike his father and older brothers, who were apparently quintessential English public school jocks, Denton was a quintessential English sissy: a willowy, prissy, high-strung artistic mama's boy, fascinated by antiques, old churches, dollhouses, and strapping young men. His first two novels, written out of his understandably painful and confused early adolescence, have established a picture of his weakness of which his later disability seems to most commentators merely the logical continuation. Yet it is clear that once he escaped from his father's and brothers' shadows and from the ambivalent schoolboy machismo of public school, Welch began (while remaining no less a sissy) to discover his strengths. It wasn't just that he did well in art school, for despite his recognized talent he wasn't sure he had found what he really wanted to do. Rather he began to strengthen his body with walking tours, and although living more or less on his own, he began to acquire the courage to be himself, even to realize that other people might be interested in him just as he was. 

These beginnings were shattered when, at twenty, he was knocked from his bicycle by a careless motorist. He never fully recovered. For the remaining thirteen years of his life he was often bedridden, frequently in great pain. The accident and his ensuing hospitalization are the subject of his last novel, A Voice Through a Cloud, which is as painful to read as it must have been to write:
I must have screamed again, for all I can remember is a shriek of pain invading my whole body. The shriek seemed to be following the pain into every limb. I was nothing but a shriek and a pain. I was sweating. Everything was wet. I was crying. Saliva dribbled out of my mouth.

In the middle of the furnace inside me there was a clear thought like a text in cross-stitch. I wanted to warn the nurses, to tell them that nothing was real but torture. Nobody seemed to realize that this was the only thing on earth. People didn't know that it was waiting for them quietly, patiently.

I felt that if I bore the agony a moment longer it would split my skin. It was such a growing and powerful thing; it would burst out of the tightness of my body....

But the moment [the nurse] pricked me so heartlessly, pushing the needle right in with vicious pleasure, I had faith; I knew that it was magic. It was like the Sleeping Beauty magic.... The pain did not abate at all. It was still there, eating me up; but in the hundred years' sleep it would die. It couldn't live for a hundred years. And brambles would grow and everything turn marble-grey. The dust would be as thick and as exquisite to the touch as moleskin; and there would be moonlight always {Chapter I, end}.
Once again Welch was in the power of others, helpless and dependent. His body, which he had begun to enjoy and trust, had failed him, even if not by its own fault. For the rest of his life he would mourn the strength and freedom he had found briefly, then lost. Even so, he made the most of his times of near-health: he resumed artistic work, walked and cycled when he could, and in 1940 began to write.

In 1942 he sold a story, "Sickert at St. Peter's", to Horizon. His first novel, Maiden Voyage, was published in 1943 with a laudatory foreword by Dame Edith Sitwell, who hailed Welch as "not only a born writer, but a very considerable one." Maiden Voyage was a sort of novel/memoir based on the teenaged Welch's flight from school and his holiday with his father in China. Welch's precise and vivid prose won praise not only from Dame Edith but from Elizabeth Bowen and E. M. Forster, among others, and the book sold well.Surprisingly, this account of a teenaged sissy who, between antique-shopping jaunts and satirical encounters with other Westerners in China, wanders about striking up conversations with and buying drinks for rough-hewn soldiers and sailors who attract him, seems to have drawn little homophobic hostility:
...As I walked between the bamboo groves, I stopped to watch a soldier who was carrying a bright red blanket. First, he shook it, then he threw it over a clothesline and began to beat it with a stick. He must have seen me through the fence, for, dropping the stick and lighting the cigarette, he ambled over to me and said, "Hullo, mate."

"Hullo!" I gulped, rather taken aback....

I thought for a moment; then I found myself saying rather primly, "Would you like to come to tea this afternoon? If you're at a loose end. I live quite near."

He looked at me soberly, through the separating fence. "What would your Mum and Dad say to a stranger?" he asked.

"I've only got a father and he won't be there," I answered {pp. 188f}.
Welch's second novel, In Youth Is Pleasure, drew more fire. Pervaded by an astonishing Gothic masturbatory teenage homoeroticism, the novel was almost too much for Welch's publisher. Indeed, considering such scenes as the following, in which the young hero, on holiday at a hotel on the Thames, meets a rather eccentric schoolmaster-missionary during a rainstorm, it is amazing that the book found a publisher in those days at all.
"Hold out your hands," the man said suddenly.
Orvil did so, and in a moment the man had tied them tightly together.

He threw the other end of the long cord over a metal strut in the roof and then began to pull.

In this way he hoisted Orvil to his feet and soon had him standing on tiptoe, his arms stretched to their utmost, his body, as it lost balance, eddying and turning slightly, like a corpse on a gibbet....


With the same surprise tactics, the man suddenly let go of the cord, so that Orvil crumpled into a heap on the floor. The man went up to him, quietly undid his wrists and offered his own. "Now it's your turn," he said; "you can tie me up exactly as you like." He seemed to be contrite after so much teasing {pp. 78f.}.
While working on In Youth Is Pleasure and the stories which were to be collected in Brave and Cruel (1949) and A Last Sheaf (1951), Welch had met Eric Oliver, the young man who was to remain with him until his death. He had also begun to keep journals. (When one considers that he was also writing and publishing poetry, painting, and doing illustrations for magazines, his productivity despite his illness becomes quite impressive.) An edited and expurgated edition of his journals was published in 1952; now an essentially complete version, edited by Michael De-la-Noy, has been issued in this country by Dutton, along with paperback reissues of Maiden Voyage and A Voice Through a Cloud. The journals are almost as well-written as his fiction, and reflect much the same interests, with a slight edge in frankness about Welch's sexuality. (Unfortunately, they are badly printed, with many typos, paragraphs skewed on the page, and at the top of one page--368--a line or more of missing text.)

It is not clear from his writings whether Denton Welch ever had sex with anyone, even before his accident, but lest any enterprising champion of cold showers try to claim (as Justin Kaplan did for Walt Whitman) that Welch only looked, never touched, I cherish the following remark from his journals (page 167): a correspondent complained that
Professorial people are cold. 'They talk about classical philosophy and then want to whip you into bed.' (This doesn't sound cold to me at all.)
Comments such as this suggest to me that Freudian readings of Welch's work, like those in Robert Phillip's homophobic Twayne English Authors Series study of Welch (1974), which understand his homoeroticism to symbolize decadence, corruption, castration, and the like, misrepresent Welch's intent. Despite his uncertainties about his personal lovability, he never expresses any doubts whatever about the rightness of his queerness; the question simply never comes up in his writings. Because of this his writings have hardly dated at all, indeed they still seem pretty daring. Maiden Voyage and In Youth Is Pleasure are not about a neurotic youth who fails to achieve heterosexuality; they make much more sense as portraits of a boy who has not yet achieved -- though he will achieve, and on his own terms! -- homosexuality.

Their imagery of the frustration and weakness of a sissy in a jock's world does not illustrate the failure of the sissy to measure up, but his quite reasonable alienation from a world hostile to him. (Like any member of a minority, he's not always sure whether he wants to belong or not.) In the stories about his art-school years these motifs are diminished or missing altogether, but the protagonist is still alone, a detached observer of the quirks of others. Not until A Voice Through a Cloud does Welch's artistic world admit other people as full participants, and even that novel never finds a satisfactory end -- partly because of the narrator's declining health, but mostly (I believe) because one character was still missing. A Voice Through a Cloud ends with the convalescent Welch and his housekeeper/companion Miss Hellier looking for a house to live in. But the right house had to have Eric Oliver -- the Friend -- living in it; and that would have been another novel, which Denton Welch didn't live to write.

All this, of course (reflected the Promiscuous Reader) had little to do with why Denton Welch's work was worth reading. Though it didn't hurt to find 1940s gay fiction in which fulfilment consists of finding Mr. Right rather than embracing the Masculine Role and heterosexual marriage, the fact that fulfilment must occur off-scene kept the books from being fully satisfying. While the Promiscuous Reader found Welch's eroticism excitingly diffuse and suggestive, he recognized that readers for whom eroticism means explicit descriptions of organs and acts would find Welch's work steamy but frustrating. Finally it was the combination of these factors with Welch's carefully crafted style -- eruptions of almost magical imagery into sharply observed descriptions of English middle-class life -- that made his fiction and his journals rewarding and worth returning to, and made their republication now something of an event in gay literature.