Saturday, May 31, 2008

In Another Country

I hadn’t planned to write about Korea while I was here, but things got interesting, and I haven’t seen anything about this on the sites I frequent. Korea means a lot to me for both personal and political reasons that are too intertwined to disentangle briefly here. I admire its passage from dictatorship to democracy, a story of which most Americans know nothing. A lot of Americans I talk to have trouble grasping that South Korea was also ruled by dictators for over thirty years, and some flatly refuse to believe it. “Where’d you get that propaganda?” one asked me irritably.

Even before I got here a week ago, I knew that a Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated between South Korea and the US, and that beef imports had been a major obstacle. After a scare in 2003, Korea had refused to allow beef from animals more than 20 months old, because it’s at greater risk for Mad Cow Disease. But then, abruptly, new President Lee Myeong Bak (derisively known as 2MB, or 2 Megabytes) caved in and gave Bush what he wanted.

Lee had won in a landslide over previous President Roh, and he was hailed in US media as much friendlier to America than his predecessor, which translates as more open to neoliberal programs and multinational corporations. Roh had if anything been too US-friendly, but Bush never liked him, probably in part because of Roh’s background as a human rights lawyer. Much of Korea’s public capital has already been sold off since the 1997 financial crisis, but as always the corporations want more, and President Lee is eager to let them have it.

Protests against US beef imports began with an online petition calling for Lee’s impeachment, signed by a million netizens on May 4. Candlelight vigils started by high school students have been going on nightly. Such vigils have been used often in the past few years, over grievances ranging from US soldiers who ran over two schoolgirls in 2002 to the government’s handling of a Korean hostage killed by Islamists in Iraq in 2004. This time the vigils have persisted for weeks, developing a carnival atmosphere as popular singers like Lee Seung Hwan have come to perform and express their support. Lee told the crowds, “In fact I’m very selfish. I’m here because I’m worried about my family, my friends, and my neighbors. I think you’re all selfish here. But if everybody shares this selfishness, it will do good for everybody, don’t you think?” (Damn, I've lost the clip with Lee in it; the singer in the clip below is Yoon Do Yeon, who explained that he'd been silent too long and thanked the young people for goading him into action.)


But the vigils have also become an irritant, and police have begun to push the protesters, who’ve pushed back. Yesterday the conservative English-language Korea Herald ran a stern editorial, accusing the protestors of breaking the law, inconveniencing the country, and picking on the police. A Korean friend told me that President Roh restrained the police in their dealings with protesters, but Lee will let them crack down. This is worrisome. Not only old Korean hardliners but US commercial interests and government have long wanted the Korean government to ‘do something’ about what they call anti-Americanism. (As usual, this translates as any criticism of American policies and conduct.) The editors accused the protesters of starting fights with the police, and ordered Koreans to shut up and stay home.

Last night about 50,000 protesters gathered in front of Seoul City Hall (the BBC says 20,000), then proceeded to the Blue House, the President’s mansion. Police arrested about 70 (update: 228). There are already plenty of cell-phone videos online from last night. Everyone has a cell phone, so everything is caught on video by the crowd and uploaded to the Web. The police are frustrated, which in the long run will be dangerous. But for now, they’re under surveillance as they never have been before. One newspaper said that the police are still in the 20th century, while the protesters are in the 21st.

At about 12:45 a.m. the police turned water cannons on the crowd, injuring about 65. (Welcome back to the 20th century.) This morning there are photos on OhMyNews showing police beating a demonstrator, but they were taken in daylight. My Korean isn't up to sorting out exactly when they were taken.

My own guess is that Mad Cow Disease, while a valid concern, is partly a symbolic tag for much larger ones. As in many countries, small farmers have suffered in Korea, leading to loss of farms and large numbers of suicides. Increased beef imports will only worsen their condition. The 1997 crisis gave the International Monetary Fund entrée to Korea; unemployment remains high, and inequality between rich and poor have grown steadily. The dictatorship was toppled in 1987 by a broad coalition ranging from the usual college students, labor unions and churches to middle-class citizens; the latter bowed out of activism when they won their immediate goal, no doubt believing that no more needed to be done. Now, with the economy still staggering, they may be returning to the struggle.

These events are part of the same global struggle that put Chavez, Morales, and Da Silva into office in Latin America. I imagine anti-“globalization” activists are already watching Korea, but what’s going on here deserves wider attention and support.

(Thanks to Soo for translations and help finding the video.)

Meet Me In Miami

I’ve been trying to avoid writing about politics and especially the US presidential campaign lately, but my mind apparently refuses to generate words about other topics. And then I found this link to this speech by Barack Obama, addressing Cuban exiles in Miami, eulogizing “our” common experiences:

These bonds are built on a foundation of shared history in our hemisphere. Colonized by empires, we share stories of liberation. Confronted by our own imperfections, we are joined in a desire to build a more perfect union. Rich in resources, we have yet to vanquish poverty.

Of course Obama won’t acknowledge that the US itself is the “empire” most relevant to the rest of the Americas, but to speak of a “shared history” in this context is insultingly dishonest. Masters and slaves, occupiers and the occupied, invaders and the conquered also have a shared history, but it should never be pretended that they are equals. And, especially in the Cuban exile community of Miami, that “shared history” includes a history of support and safe harbor for terrorists.

What all of us strive for is freedom as FDR described it. Political freedom. Religious freedom. But also freedom from want, and freedom from fear. At our best, the United States has been a force for these four freedoms in the Americas. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that at times we’ve failed to engage the people of the region with the respect owed to a partner. …

I suppose it’s unrealistic to think that Obama would acknowledge, before such an audience, that the US has consistently, actively fought democracy in the Americas. It would be interesting to hear some specific examples of times that “the United States has been a force for these four freedoms” there. Given the actual history, from the Spanish-American war to the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala, from Somoza and Pinochet and the Argentine generals to the latest overthrow of Aristide in Haiti, from the Bay of Pigs to the terror-bombing of Cuban airliners by Cuban exiles now living comfortably in Miami, to say “we’ve failed to engage the people of the region with the respect owed to a partner” is to riot in understatement. It’s reminiscent of Obama’s former advisor Samantha Power’s claim that when Indonesia invaded East Timor, the US looked the other way. (In reality, the US actively supported and protected the invasion for a quarter of a century, in a fine example of the “bipartisan” foreign policy Obama wants to emulate.)

After eight years of the failed policies of the past, we need new leadership for the future. After decades pressing for top-down reform, we need an agenda that advances democracy, security, and opportunity from the bottom up. So my policy towards the Americas will be guided by the simple principle that what’s good for the people of the Americas is good for the United States. That means measuring success not just through agreements among governments, but also through the hopes of the child in the favelas of Rio, the security for the policeman in Mexico City, and the answered cries of political prisoners heard from jails in Havana. …

So which is it: “eight years” or “decades” of failed policies? As far as the Americas go, Bush has done nothing notably new. But this is an election campaign, after all, so Obama must give first priority to targeting the Republicans, even if Democrats have never done any differently. And don’t forget that “top-down reform” here is a euphemism for military coups, torture, dictatorships, starvation, repression.

I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations. That’s the way to bring about real change in Cuba – through strong, smart and principled diplomacy….

Why, sure, the embargo has helped Cuban political prisoners immensely! And we know how committed the US has always been to freeing political prisoners, especially in Latin America where their jailers were trained in torture at the School of the Americas, and often supervised by American personnel to make sure the electrodes were properly attached. That’s why every Latin American dictatorship was placed under embargo by the US. … Sarcasm aside, and forgetting for the moment Obama’s own votes for the Patriot Act, which has given the US many political prisoners of its own (we should embargo ourselves), and given the vast numbers of political prisoners in US clients like Israel (embargo, anyone?) whose violations of political freedom don’t seem to bother Obama, the embargo of Cuba has weakened Castro very little, if at all. Even if I granted the US the right to dispose of governments at will, the embargo should count as a “failed policy” on its own terms. (This article, from a few years back, is still relevant.)

In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is a democratically elected leader. But we also know that he does not govern democratically. He talks of the people, but his actions just serve his own power. Yet the Bush Administration's blustery condemnations and clumsy attempts to undermine Chavez have only strengthened his hand.

This is a flat lie. Chavez is no angel, but he does govern democratically. His actions, including a great deal of social services spending, have served the people of Venezuela and in doing so have enhanced his power and status. But when he lost a vote, as he did in the recent referendum, he accepted it instead of dissolving the legislature as a dictator would do. When “the Bush Administration’s … clumsy attempts to undermine Chavez” went as far as support for a coup, the mass of Venezuelans revolted to bring him back. Either Obama has swallowed US propaganda whole, or he’s lying (as I think), but in either case he’s offering no change here. All in all, an appalling performance.

P.S. Avedon Carol at The Sideshow links to this post at Cab Drollery which calls for a "sane foreign policy" toward Cuba, and says we'll only get it if The Democrat wins.

Cab Drollery also thinks that the US is entitled to "remove Fidel", only (boo-hoo!) the embargo didn't succeed in doing so. She quotes some yammering goober who claims that the embargo only made Castro stronger, and provided him with "a convenient antagonist to help whip up nationalist fervor on the island" -- as though Castro were manufacturing a threat, in the same way that the US government has used him -- and mentions the poverty of most Cubans as if the embargo had nothing to do with that, as if it weren't one of the aims of the embargo.

The very fact that Obama wants the US to lead shows that he's not interested in anything but "top-down reform." Cubans and other Latin Americans don't need the US to give them their freedoms. What they need us to do is get our collective national foot off their necks.

P.P.S. This great comment on Obama apologists by saurabh at A Tiny Revolution (unfortunately I can't link to the individual comment, so I'll just quote it):

This is what I don't get about Obama supporters. If the guy never says all he wants to say, how do you KNOW what he actually wants to say? It's voting for a simulacra. Maybe what Obama REALLY wants to say is: "Greetings! I am Lord Xypto, from the planet Korg in the Ztrog Nebula! I have come to enslave humanity and harvest your rich supply of biliary fluids to nurse our spawn with. Starting tomorrow, you will all be chained to a funnel in a vomitorium. Muahahaha!!" But he can't say that, 'cause there will be people who won't be ready yet.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

You Gotta Tell Us You Love Us So We Won't Be Alone

I'm drawing a complete blank on what to write about today, so I'm going to post this review that I wrote for Gay Community News, but which never got published. There has been a flood of gay Christian material published since 1988, but whether it's put out by a small house, like the book below, or by a major publisher like Beacon or Harper, it almost always takes the same crypto-fundamentalist approach: if you interpret the Bible the right way, it will say what you want it to say. Disdain for non-Christian gays, or for gays who don't share Christian-Right values, is also common. So, twenty years old though it may be, this piece is still timely.

Things They Never Told You in Sunday School: a Primer for the Christian Homosexual

by David Day
P.O. Box
50421
, Austin TX, 78763: Liberty Press Inc., 1987
170 pp.
$7.95 pp.

When I think about gay and lesbian Christians I'm sometimes reminded of Mark 6:34, where Jesus pities the crowds who come to hear him, because they are like sheep without a shepherd. I don't believe that human beings ought to be sheep: sheep always seem to end up getting fleeced. (I prefer to be a goat: omnivorous, cantankerous, horny...but I digress.) But I can't help noticing that gay and lesbian Christians seem always to be milling anxiously around, looking for someone to tell them that they have a right to exist. And now as in Jesus' day, there's always someone who's more than happy to take up his crook and lead the flock off for clipping.

David Day is Pastor (from the Old French pastor, meaning shepherd) of Metropolitan Community Church of Austin, Texas. He has written a book called Things They Never Told You in Sunday School: a Primer for the Christian Homosexual. It's a good title, but misleading, for the book contains exactly the kind of things they taught you in Sunday school -- sloppy or outdated scholarship, semi-inspiring platitudes, (barely) unconscious bigotry -- turned to gay/lesbian Christian ends.

Day begins by warning against proof-texting, "the use of a single scripture that seems to pertain to a certain topic as proof of God's opinion concerning that topic" (31). People who proof-text ignore "the cultural setting of the original scripture . . . the original meaning of the language . . . [and] the overall messages that surround it and appear throughout the Bible" (31f.). This, of course, is what you are likely to be told at the beginning of any Bible class. As Day admits, "Even the most rigid Bible-pounding conservative preacher uses this approach to some extent" (35).

Day then proceeds to violate the principle he has just endorsed. He accepts the consensus of modern Biblical scholarship that the Torah was written in several stages long after Moses, and that the framework of Leviticus, in which Yahweh dictates his laws to Moses from the tabernacle, is a legend intended by its authors to lend divine authority to their prescriptions for Israelite life and worship. The Levitical laws, which include a prohibition of sexual acts between men, were written by "the priests of Israel . . . to guard their traditions against heathen intrusion", notably "the sexual practices of the Canaanites . . . [which] were deeply interwoven with idol worship. Their gods were sexual and were worshiped in sexual rites" (72). (This sounds like my kind of religion, but Day, like the Levitical priests, disapproves.) Day also believes that Leviticus emerged partly as an expression of what he imagines as the ancient Israelites' shock, while in exile in Babylon, at discovering "large-scale homosexual prostitution" there. "The male-male sexual activity that the Hebrews would have seen prominently displayed in Babylon would have been in the form of prostitution -- cult prostitution honoring a Babylonian God" (75).

Why this should have bothered the Hebrews is not clear, since Day thinks that male-male sexual activity had long been common among them (65). On Day's own assumptions, they would also have seen male-female ritual copulation "prominently displayed" in Babylon; why didn't this make them reject heterosexual activity as well? According to Day, ritual copulation had been practiced in the Jerusalem temple for around 300 years before the exile, so seeing the practice should have made the exiles more homesick than disgusted. And what is so intolerably nasty about ritual copulation anyhow? It was, Day says (like most gay apologists for Christianity), a common practice in heathen religions, as if this explained everything. But Israelite religion practiced rites which were practiced by the followers of other gods, such as animal sacrifice and circumcision; why not ritual copulation, especially in a culture which regarded itself as the bride of its God?

It's true that one way a group may define itself is by projecting evil onto other groups. Ancient Romans, for instance, prided themselves on not practicing ritual cannibalism or incestuous orgies, as the sect known as Christians did. Medieval Christians defined themselves by contrast with lustful Musselmans, or avaricious Jews who murdered Christian babies to use their blood for Passover matzohs. Modern Christians may define themselves against hypocritical Pharisees, bigoted fundamentalists, or amoral secular humanists.

These examples are meant to remind my readers that we need not, must not take seriously all of the charges a group levels against outsiders. Recently, a Biblical scholar named Robert Oden Jr. has shown that we don't know that ritual prostitution was common in ancient Middle Eastern paganism. See his The Bible Without Theology, (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. Oddly, thanks to stories in I Kings and the complaints of some of the prophets, we are fairly sure that it was practiced in Israel -- if, that is, the Hebrew word qadesh actually does mean "sacred prostitute."

However, there isn't any reference to "cult prostitution" in Leviticus, certainly not in chapter 18. The prohibition of males lying with males in verse 22 does not occur in the context of prohibitions of ritual activities: it is surrounded by prohibitions of certain kinds of sexual activity, including incest (very broadly construed, vv. 6-18), sex with a menstruating woman (v. 19), adultery (v. 20), and bestiality (v. 23). The sole exception is verse 21, which forbids dedicating (sacrificing?) one's children to Molech "by fire". So the explaining away of Leviticus 18:22 as a condemnation of ritual copulation involves lifting the verse out of context and explaining it in terms of a practice discussed only in a different part of the Bible.

Then Day turns to the New Testament. Against Leviticus, he cites the story of Simon Peter's vision from Acts (10:9ff.) in which Yahweh declares all foods acceptable to eat, thus repealing the dietary restrictions found in the Law of Moses. Does Day recognize that this story too is a legend, invented to legitimate the early Christians' abolition of parts of the Mosaic Law? He does not: he takes it at face value. For Day, the clean/unclean distinctions in Torah are "outdated concepts" which reflect "the ancient Jewish understanding of the ideal creation" (81); while the early Christians' rejection of Torah does not reflect the early Christians' concept of the ideal creation, but God's.

Day applies the same double standard to ancient Judaism's sexual norms: they are the result of "biological ignorance" and "ungodly sexism" (68), while the teachings of the apostle Paul contain "the word of God brought to us. . . . [O]ut of them eternal truths can be discerned" (102). And what makes David Day so sure that he knows an eternal truth when he sees one? How is he less bound by history and culture than Paul and the Levitical priests?

Day's discussion of New Testament passages relating to male homosexuality takes the same tack. "The same-sex activity would have encountered during his missionary visits [to Corinth] would have been associated with idolatry, pederasty, or prostitution, or sometimes all of the above. . . . Here, also, sex was glorified and nude statues of Apollo in various poses of virility 'fired his male worshippers to physical displays of devotion with the god's beautiful boys.' The society in Corinth was one in which sexual activity was routinely a part of worship. . . . In a city whose very name was synonymous with prostitution it is reasonable to think that Paul might address the issue of male cult prostitution" (108-9). The reference here to "physical displays of devotion with the god's beautiful boys" comes from something called The Apostle by John Pollock, published by a fundamentalist house in Wheaton, Illinois; not the most scholarly source. It sounds more like the prurient fantasy of a homophobe than an accurate account of Corinthian worship, though I must say that it sounds a lot more inspiring than most Christian services. Remember too that it's not certain, or even likely, that ritual copulation was actually practiced on this scale.

In Romans 1:18-22, the infamous passage denouncing men who burn with lust for other men, "Paul was talking about those who were involved in idolatry and thereby had the ownership of their lives given over to their passions" (125). This is bigotry. There is no reason why people who worshipped gods other than Yahweh should have been ruled by their passions any more than Jews or Christians were, and we have plenty of evidence of loving relationships, heterosexual and homosexual, from the Greco-Roman world. We also know of pagan writers who were disturbed by the exploitativeness of some male-male relationships -- and so does David Day, since he has read Robin Scroggs' The New Testament and Homosexuality, which quotes such writers.

If, as Day believes, Paul was so concerned about the ethical failings of male homosexual relations in the Hellenistic world, why didn't he do as he did with heterosexual relations -- encourage mutuality and love between the partners -- instead of condemning them outright? Since Day acknowledges that "It would be senseless to argue that Paul would not have considered same-sex activities between males unnnatural. ... Affection between men or male coupling was not the issue" (126), I don't understand why he bothers trying to defend Paul in the first place.

Day also cannot resist indulging in a little standard Christian theological Jew-baiting: "The Pharisees of Jesus' time believed that they were justified in looking down their noses at persons around them because they didn't abide by the rigid laws with which the Pharisees defined their own righteousness. ... God was not as impressed as they thought" (141). "Jesus came along," says Day, "and condensed all of the moral teachings of the ages into three little words, 'Love one another'" (141). Forget for the moment that the Pharisaic rabbis of Jesus' time had done the very same, or that like Jesus they found the command "Love your neighbor as yourself" in (of all places!) Leviticus. (Chapter 19, verse 18.) Forget that Jesus promised eternal torment to everyone who did not observe every jot and tittle of the Mosaic Law (Matthew 5.19, 7.21), as interpreted by the Pharisees (Matthew 23.3). I just wonder if God is as impressed as Day thinks by this unintentionally hilarious passage: "Those who criticize and hate homosexuals are contrary to nature themselves. God has made it clear that it should go against our spiritual nature to judge others. Bigotry is an unnatural act!" (98). Just who is being judgmental here? Or bigoted?

Reading Things They Never Told You in Sunday School did make me feel a bit sorry for gay and lesbian Christians. The more they strike at the Church the more hopelessly they stick in its dishonesty and hypocrisy. They will never be able to free themselves until they let go of their belief that if they can just interpret the Bible correctly, it will endorse homosexuality. It ill becomes them to denounce other Christians for selective Biblical interpretation as long as they are doing it themselves; though ironically enough, it is precisely this picking and choosing from the Bible that they have in common with other Christians.

There's a strong and unappetizing streak of self-pity among gay Christians. Their feelings are hurt, I guess, because no one else seems to agree that they're as wonderful as they think they are. They consider themselves superior to Christians who won't buy their particular distortion of the Bible, whom they regard as hypocrites, and of course they consider themselves superior to non-religious gays, whom they routinely characterize as loveless, promiscuous sluts. In a way, I suppose, it is unfair: other Christians get away with twisting scripture for their own purposes, so why shouldn't they? And why shouldn't gay Christians be allowed to claim moral leadership of the gay movement despite their self-righteousness and hypocrisy? The success of the Religious Right has set a very bad example for gay Christians, I'm afraid: what with religious nuts like Falwell and Robertson being taken seriously as political figures in this country, it's no wonder that gay Christians are babbling about spiritual renewal and thinking of themselves as the vanguard of homosexuality for the 1990s. The trouble with Things They Never Told You in Sunday School is not that it's unrepresentative of gay and lesbian Christianity; unfortunately, it's all too typical.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Cooperation, Not Obedience

I hadn’t planned to read Nicholson Baker’s new book , Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, but I’m beginning to think I should. Reviewing Human Smoke in the New York Times, Colm Toibin called it “a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism. He has produced an eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified.” “The debate about pacifism”? Where is that going on?

Katha Pollitt began her attack on the book in The Nation by declaring, “By the time I finished the book I felt something I had never felt before: fury at pacifists.” Damn, girl! Before I can judge her reading, I’ll have to read the book, but Pollitt’s wrath is mild compared to the New Republic reviewer, one Anne Applebaum (“a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Washington Post” -- not the greatest recommendation nowadays). Applebaum seems to be even more angry at the book’s form, which she uses as a springboard to rant at length on some of her (presumably) personal hobbyhorses, Wikipedia and “the contemporary cult of the non-expert, or rather the anti-expert: the bloggers who assume that the “ ‘mainstream media’ is always wrong, the Wikipedia readers who think that a compilation of random anecdotes is always preferable to a learned study, and of course the college students who nowadays prefer to get their news in emails from friends because it is too bothersome to read a newspaper.” Baker is on record as liking Wikipedia, so he’s fair game I guess.

In a display of typical mainstream media balance, Applebaum allows:

It is true that there are many excellent, well-educated bloggers, whose contributions to public debates are invaluable, and who have served to prod the establishment institutions of many professions to try harder. At the same time, there are also many bloggers who, without any knowledge or expertise whatsoever, believe their opinions must by definition surpass those found in the "mainstream media, " or the "conventional histories," simply because they are self-appointed "critics," whether right-wing, left-wing, or off the charts. The result of their efforts is that quality -- accuracy, truthfulness, learnedness -- is disappearing beneath the sheer quantity of random, wrong, and irrelevant information.

You know, Applebaum has picked a bad time to trumpet “the establishment institutions” of journalism. During the leadup to the Iraq War, the Washington Post and the New York Times functioned as propaganda arms for the Bush administration. This is not just the gripe of a disaffected anti-expert blogger: the Post and the Times have both admitted as much. And this was nothing new; the corporate media have been coasting on the Post’s Watergate coverage and the Times’s publication of the Pentagon Papers for decades now, to cover up their generally craven collaboration with the state. Thanks to the concentration of media ownership which left most American cities with only one major newspaper, conditions have probably worsened since the 1970s, when those last gasps of rebellion took place. But most of the mainstream media’s war coverage, before and since, has consisted precisely of a “sheer quantity of random, wrong, and irrelevant information”, most of it generated by “experts”: government officials speaking on and off the record, political scientists in the pay of mostly right-leaning think tanks, high-ranking military, and the like. It really is the most sensible course, when faced with mainstream media coverage of important political issues, to treat them with extreme skepticism.

Just for the hell of it, Applebaum lumps Baker in with Dan Brown, author of the dread Da Vinci Code, which I’ll certainly agree is one of the dumbest books I’ve ever read, though I don’t think that’s really Applebaum’s objection to it. What she means by expertise is really authority, the people who somehow know what’s best for us and whom we should obey without question. But why? It’s false to call Brown “anti-expert” – he appeals to an expertise based on conventionally serious scholarship that comes to unorthodox conclusions; his main character is an Ivy League academic, and one of the (inadvertently) funniest moments in that leaden book was when Sir Leigh Teabing impressed protagonist Robert Langdon with his ability to write the entire Hebrew alphabet from memory. (An intellectual feat which any Israeli schoolchild can probably match – it ain’t rocket science.) What enraged so many Roman Catholics about the book was its disrespect for Church authority, which is augmented by but not built on expertise: its scholars and theologians are servants answerable to the church, and with the resurgence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Wojtyla and Ratzinger it’s hardly a radical observation that their expertise is limited by the “establishment institution.”

Brown’s alternative Christian history is bogus, but so is much of the standard version. Outside of Catholicism, credentialed Christian academics who wander too far from mainstream positions can expect to be attacked, viciously and largely inaccurately, by their more conservative and conformist colleagues. One thing that struck me while I was studying early Christianity in the 1980s was how much sheer nonsense a mainstream Bible scholar could publish without real consequences. (Of course, picking each other’s work apart in journal articles is the fun part of being an academic.) Outside of academia, who even cares that a right-wing evangelical like D. James Kennedy publishes outrageous howlers in his apologetics? What counts is that he accepts the authority of orthodoxy. No one complains when a layperson like Anne Rice attacks the expertise of perfessors who don’t think the gospels are historically accurate, because she does so in the context of her return to the Roman Catholic fold, submitting to its authority. (It’s worth remembering that Jesus and the early Christians challenged the religious experts of their day without expertise, relying instead on the charismatic authority of the Spirit. And they were derided for it, dismissed as unlettered and rebellious – which they were. Ironically, the authority of the Church is founded on its founders’ rejection of authority.)

The democratic movements of the 1950s and later, which as Noam Chomsky says terrified rulers in the US and around the world, also refused to defer to duly constituted authority, and rightly so. The Civil Rights movement, for example, defied experts who cautioned against too-rapid change (that is, any substantive change at all) and urged African-Americans to be patient; after all, such people said in the mainstream media, it wasn’t certain that “the Negro” was ready for equal rights. (Male) experts also delineated Woman’s proper place, tut-tutted the crazy notion that homosexuals weren’t sick, and so on. Similar problems turned up during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when straight doctors, mostly ill-informed and often downright bigoted, were challenged by people with AIDS who developed their own expertise. (This example shows another side of the problem, as many AIDS activists were co-opted by the establishment.)

I, of course, belong to the 60s generation that attacked not expertise so much as authority, though some of us did confuse the two, because we’d seen expertise abused so much. Women and gay men challenged the authority of the medical and psychiatric professions to declare us sick and then hold out the offer of “cure.” When women did so, however, they set out to construct their own expertise: Our Bodies, Ourselves didn’t throw out medicine, only pointed out its masculist bias and argued that it should serve women rather than control them. There were psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who questioned the sickness consensus about homosexuality, but they didn’t control the discourse; gay men and lesbians decided that we would decide whose expertise to use.

Experts aren’t always wrong; they aren’t always right either. So how to decide which expert to believe? Applebaum wants laypeople to wait quietly while the professionals duke it out, perhaps assisted by a few exceptional but deferential critics who “prod the establishment institutions of many professions to try harder.” Professionals generally don’t take well to criticism by outsiders, no matter how well the latter have done their homework; after all, they don’t even take well to criticism by other insiders. They’re much happier if they’re in charge, which is humanly understandable but not acceptable. (See Nina Eliasoph’s Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life [Cambridge, 1998] for an exploration of this problem.)

I can relate somewhat to Applebaum’s distaste for people, not just bloggers, “who, without any knowledge or expertise whatsoever, believe their opinions must by definition surpass those found in the ‘mainstream media,’ or the ‘conventional histories,’ simply because they are self-appointed ‘critics,’ whether right-wing, left-wing, or off the charts.” But those people’s skepticism is justified, and again, laypeople who accept authoritative lies and obfuscation are no better, though authorities seldom criticize them. It may be that relatively few people are willing to make the effort necessary for an informed critique; what if anything can be done about that, I don’t know. But I’m sure the answer is not more deference to expertise and authority. We’ve already seen the results of that.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

My Wives -- I Think I'll Keep Them

Dammit, there’s too much to write about – that’s my problem. And instead of writing here, I’ve been writing long comments on other people’s blogs. That’s one way to procrastinate. (I even thought of putting in links to those comments, but nah.) I’m at the laundromat now, washing my fine linens to get ready for tomorrow’s departure, and that gives me a little time. I’ve actually been pretty productive today, running around buying some last-minute gifts, calling the bank to make sure my debit card won’t get blocked when I use it overseas, and so on. The final packing will be a breeze by comparison. So some relatively brief notes while time permits.

One of my co-workers has been reading a book called His Favorite Wife: Trapped in Polygamy, by Susan Ray Schmidt, about a woman who’d lived in a polygamous Mormon household; she’s also read Escape, by Susan Jessup, which Amazon has paired with His Favorite Wife – get a bargain on voyeuristic tales of sexual exploitation! “More ‘Favorite Wife’ Products” are lined up below. This genre appears to have been a growth industry well before the recent raid at the Yearning for Zion Ranch. I doubt that many Americans want to read lurid accounts of, say, Iraqi women and children blown to bits by American bombs; but they do, clearly, want to read about young girls forced to have sex with, and bear the children of, brutal older men. It isn’t that I support such coercion, and I’d recommend anyone interested to read the Muslim Hedonist’s blog for some serious writing about the costs women pay living in polygamous households, but I do wonder about the motives of the people who want to read about the shame, the degradation, the tears, the blighted lives of young girls who in a better world would be living in suburbia, watching Juno, and giving non-reciprocal blowjobs, as teenaged girls were meant to do. (Or going to church-sponsored Father-Daughter dances: “Something I need from dad is affirmation, being told I’m beautiful ... If we don’t get it from home, we will go out to the culture and get it from them.” I don't think you need to be a strict Freudian to find that worrying.) I’m wary too of the apparatus of state policing and control that’s now in charge of those girls and women, deciding whether they will see their children, deciding where they will go next and what they’ll do.

At The Nation, one J. Goodrich gestures at some of the issues involved, and makes an interesting remark about the Amish. The Supreme Court ruled that “Amish children could not be placed under compulsory education past 8th grade, as it violated their fundamental right to freedom of religion.” Goodrich comments:

I doubt that it was the Amish children who pursued this case or that those same children were then free to have as much elective education as they wished once they had finished eighth grade. No, the decision was not about the children's rights but about the rights of a religious community to survive.

The first sentence is good, and surely true. The second I’m not so sure about. Do the adults in a religious community have the right to override its children’s rights to freedom of religion in order for the community to survive? Goodrich is correct that Wisconsin v. Yoder “was not about the children’s rights,” but what about the children’s rights? How do you decide whether an Amish kid really wants to get more schooling, or whether her parents and community are coercing her to quit?

I’ve written about this before, though, and I’ve wandered here. My first reaction to the subtitle of His Favorite Wife was “Trapped in polygamy, eh? What about the women who’ve been trapped in monogamy?” In the good old days women lost much of their legal personhood on entering into monogamy. Married women were less happy than married men and single women; only single men were less happy. This has changed slightly in the past decade, as more and more married women earn their own money outside the home – something they would not have been allowed to do in the past. Their husbands could forbid them to get a job, or keep the money they earned, and even if their husband was willing they would have trouble getting any serious work, beyond what might pay them “pin money.” Single women were assumed to be biding their time until Mr. Right came along, but they’d often be fired when they did marry.

There was also the double standard which treated a wife’s adultery as a much more serious offense than her husband’s. Men had, and still have, much more freedom of movement outside the home than women do; it’s assumed that marriage will not seriously affect men’s mobility, so it doesn’t. And after marriage, there are surely numerous reasons why widows and divorced women are generally less eager to remarry than divorced men and widowers. But it seems that a major reason is that they don’t want to be wives again. I recall reading a survey of sexuality among older people conducted by AARP, which found that older women wanted to have male friends (with whom they’d probably be involved sexually), but not to be married.

So, put together the (rather creepy, in my opinion) voyeurism about Mormon polygamy in the US with a corresponding lack of interest in the downside of normal American monogamy, and you can see that something interesting is going on. (Imagine a book called, say, His Only Wife: Trapped in Monogamy. Would my co-worker, who’s monogamously and apparently happily married, have that on her desk?) It ties in with the current same-sex marriage controversy, the assumption among its advocates that monogamous civil marriage is essentially a good thing that merely needed some fine-tuning reforms, and the popular rhetorical move by its opponents that legal polygamy will be the next step, which the advocates have trouble answering. Polygamy is a traditional, Biblical value, after all. If polygamy makes women unhappy and exploits them, so for the most part has monogamy.

(P.S. January 7, 2009 -- the original title of this post [My Wife -- I Think I'll Keep Her] always seemed a bit off somehow, and only today when I looked at it did I realize what it should be.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I'm A Travelin' Man...

Posting's been light here lately, and I'm afraid it will continue so for at least a few more days. I'm gettin' the hell outa Dodge on Friday, so right now I'm in the middle of preparations. I hope to do more writing once I'm settled into my vacation, but for now I'll give you a link.

Someone I know, I forget who, recommended the movie Charlie Wilson's War to me. I think the reason was political, to give me a better or more-rounded view of recent American history in Afghanistan. Or something. Here's some good writing on the film and the book it was based on, by Chalmers Johnson, with introduction by Tom Engelhardt. Choice excerpts:

What to make of the film (which I found rather boring and old-fashioned)? It makes the U.S. government look like it is populated by a bunch of whoring, drunken sleazebags, so in that sense it's accurate enough. ...

Neither a reader of Crile, nor a viewer of the film based on his book would know that, in talking about the Afghan freedom fighters of the 1980s, we are also talking about the militants of al Qaeda and the Taliban of the 1990s and 2000s. Amid all the hoopla about Wilson's going out of channels to engineer secret appropriations of millions of dollars to the guerrillas, the reader or viewer would never suspect that, when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, President George H.W. Bush promptly lost interest in the place and simply walked away, leaving it to descend into one of the most horrific civil wars of modern times.

Among those supporting the Afghans (in addition to the U.S.) was the rich, pious Saudi Arabian economist and civil engineer, Osama bin Laden, whom we helped by building up his al Qaeda base at Khost. When bin Laden and his colleagues decided to get even with us for having been used, he had the support of much of the Islamic world. This disaster was brought about by Wilson's and the CIA's incompetence as well as their subversion of all the normal channels of political oversight and democratic accountability within the U.S. government. Charlie Wilson's war thus turned out to have been just another bloody skirmish in the expansion and consolidation of the American empire -- and an imperial presidency. The victors were the military-industrial complex and our massive standing armies. The billion dollars' worth of weapons Wilson secretly supplied to the guerrillas ended up being turned on ourselves. ...

When imperialist activities produce unmentionable outcomes, such as those well known to anyone paying attention to Afghanistan since about 1990, then ideological thinking kicks in. The horror story is suppressed, or reinterpreted as something benign or ridiculous (a "comedy"), or simply curtailed before the denouement becomes obvious. Thus, for example, Melissa Roddy, a Los Angeles film-maker with inside information from the Charlie Wilson production team, notes that the film's happy ending came about because Tom Hanks, a co-producer as well as the leading actor, "just can't deal with this 9/11 thing."

Remember that Afghanistan (along with Iran and Pakistan) is on Barack Obama's wish list of countries to attack once he becomes President. Not that Clinton or McCain represent serious alternatives in that respect. I was browsing around today, and found a comment on another blog to the effect that the US was right to attack Afghanistan, because the Taliban had harbored the terrorists who attacked us. By this logic, Afghanistan would have been right to attack us, because we supported, with money and weapons, the terrorists who turned that country upside down, with terrible loss of life and general misery to this day. (The same commenter thought that it was good to bring down the Taliban because of their oppression of women, but he neglected to remember or mention that the Northern Alliance war/druglords, our allies on the ground in the overthrow of the Taliban, who control most of Afghanistan today are also Islamic fundamentalists who oppress women. Americans cannot bear very much reality ...)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Difference Of Talking Through Strength

This clip will probably circulate pretty widely (I got it from here, but it also was linked here), but let me help it along.

For a moment it made me think that I should watch TV news more, though then I’d have to lay out money for cable, and anyway others have made it clear how atypical Chris Matthews’s performance here was. One of Avedon’s commenters made a plausible guess as to why Matthews gave Kevin James such a deservedly hard time: “it seemed to me that Matthews was vetting the schmuck for future wingnut commentary usage, and found him wanting.”

I’m sure Susan Jacoby will take much satisfaction not only in James’s ignorance, as proof that Americans today are ignorant of history, but in Matthew’s recurrent references to 1939 instead of 1938 for the year Chamberlain went to Munich. Though odd, it’s a minor slip compared to James’s helpless thrashing around. When Mark Green urges James to read Richard Clarke’s book (Against All Enemies, I suppose), James counters with “The Path to 9/11”, a 2006 made-for-TV movie. Unsurprisingly, he gets its name wrong, calling it The Pathway to 9/11.

Matthews’s definition of appeasement -- “giving away things to the enemy, not talking to the enemy” – though not ideal, will probably work as a useful comeback to those who throw the word around carelessly today. At least it should help people to clarify in their own minds why it’s not only not appeasement, but proper and necessary diplomacy to meet with groups like Hamas and Hizbollah.

Besides, “appeasement” is a double-edged word, likely to turn in the hand of those who use it:

In Egypt, two days after Bush accused “some” of falling for the “false comfort of appeasement,” a reporter asked him if he does not “aim to do nothing but appeasing Israel.” He sidestepped that question (and didn’t acknowledge that his own incendiary word was being thrown back at him).

I doubt Bush even recognized it. Not only has the US appeased Israel by assenting to its numerous land grabs and its acts of war and terror, but many countries have appeased the US, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it in 1967. Tony Blair could be seen as the Neville Chamberlain of his time, except that Blair actively collaborated with Bush instead of trying to talk him to a halt.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dewey Defeats Truman



If this article and accompanying video (via) weren’t on the Washington Post website, I’d think it was from The Daily Show: Dana Milbank intoning “It’s another exciting day on the Clinton campaign Death Watch” over the opening shot of a yawning bus driver, the “makeshift hackysack game … played with a crushed cigarette carton,” the airplane envy because Obama’s press plane is bigger than Clinton’s, Milbank trying to glare down an affable and very cute Mo Elleithee. “It’s been an entire week since Tim Russert declared the race over,” Milbank growls. “Yeah, y’know, a funny thing happens in these elections -- the voters get to decide,” Elleithee replies cheerfully. He’s right, too: it ain't over till the fat lady votes and the fat men make their backroom deals.

Milbank’s column, built around the Monty Python “Dead Parrot” sketch, is more of the same, down to the bored, supercilious tone. The impression he tries to give of lofty above-it-allness doesn’t come off. Even to someone like me who doesn’t like Clinton, Milbank’s eagerness (which he shares with his colleagues) to show who’s in charge of the news, and the campaign, and the elections, is impossible to take seriously. This is a parody, isn’t it?

In fact, the story is really about the press corps, not Clinton or the campaign. How can anyone take the press seriously on this? First they were assuring us that Rudy Giulani was going to take the Republican nomination, now they’re fawning on McCain, and of course it’s the press that’s been trying to sabotage Obama with the Wright connection and other irrelevancies. And these are the elite, national media – the “mainstream media” as they were being called till recently, but even liberal bloggers seem to have abandoned that term. I don’t read the corporate media much, and when I do, I’m constantly amazed at how stupid and arrogant they are.

(Sorry about the weird sizing of the video window above; the other size option crops out about a third of the image when it plays. Great work, WashPost!)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I Get Around

Another book review for Gay Community News, published in 1989 or 1990.

Memoirs of a Bastard Angel
by Harold Norse
New York: William Morrow & Co. Inc., 1989
448 pp.
$22.95 hardcover

I remember seeing copies of the City Lights edition of Harold Norse's Carnivorous Saint around in the 60s, but I think I was put off by the title, being uninterested in saints, carnivorous or otherwise. Later I read the Gay Sunshine interviews with Norse, and found them both interesting and amusing. Interesting because I hadn't grasped, when I'd read about W. H. Auden's American milieu, that Norse had been an intimate of Chester Kallman's; amusing because Norse could go from rhapsodizing about Moroccan boys' total lack of hangups about homosex ("the sex 'problem' as we know it does not exist" among them, he claimed) to griping about their annoying hangups about homosex: "three orgasms a week, no kissing, and you can't fuck them. . . .This is how they probably justify their masculinity to themselves -- by not allowing themselves to enjoy it too often." But when Love Poems 1940-1986 was published by The Crossing Press in 1986, I bought it (because I'm impressed by anyone who published gay poetry as long ago as 1940), read it, and enjoyed it. And when my editor offered me Norse's memoirs to review, I was glad to take the assignment.

Harold Norse is a poet, and a good one, but as a prose writer he's about on the level of the "as told to" people to whom celebrities tell their careers. (For example: "To say that I was not awed would be a bold-faced lie.") Moreover, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel contains so many amazing howlers that it seems barely to have been copyedited or proofread. Take Norse's comment on his rich uncle (please!): "A less unlikely Stalinist would be hard to find" -- I think he means "more unlikely" here, no? Most of the time, though, I was so dazzled by the parade of names through Norse's life that I didn't care how he wrote. He seems to have been part not only of Auden's milieu but everyone's. One night on the IRT he picked up a scared teen-aged Allen Ginsberg, riding into Greenwich Village to cruise for Whitmannic angels; he shared a Provincetown cabin with Tennessee Williams while the latter wrote The Glass Menagerie; he was an unrequited love of James Baldwin's, he went drinking with Dylan Thomas on his American tours, he was initiated into opiates by William S. Burroughs, listened to the Pan pipes of Joujouka with Paul Bowles, and worked out in a Santa Monica gym with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He did seances with Julian Beck and Judith Malina, invented cutups with Burroughs and Brion Gysin, and at Robert Graves's behest the Sufi teacher Idries Shah tried, unsuccessfully of course, to "cure" Norse of homosexuality. Anais Nin, the Duke of Windsor, E. E. Cummings, Paul Goodman, Leonard Cohen. . . the cavalcade of stars winds through Memoirs of a Bastard Angel like a conga line. (Unlike a lot of memoirs, by the way, this one has a thorough index, making it easier to track your favorite celebrity through Norse's life.).

There are a couple of chapters on the writing of poetry, based on Norse's correspondence and discussions with William Carlos Williams. In their first meeting Williams said:

Don't worry about how many feet a line must have! Who the hell cares? What people want, when they read a poem, is to be arrested immediately -- held by the words! Stopped in their tracks -- held by the words. Get their attention in the first line -- then hold it! The form can't do that. Only the words, the words in new, surprising combinations, can do it! You have to shock and surprise. They won't be interested if your words are used conventionally -- or if you have a riot of words. That's just verbiage. Garbage [215].

As a poet who has worked in both fixed and open forms, I must respectfully dissent. In the first place, questions of technique need not concern the reader but they had better concern the poet. Writing in fixed forms isn't necessarily more restrictive than playing music in 4/4 time: the regular meter, the measured lines give the artist something to play against, which creates tension and adds interest to the piece; the reader may not know how or why it works, but can still enjoy the result. I don't think any advocate of fixed forms has suggested that the words of, say, a sonnet don't need to grab your attention. Nor does the absence of fixed form guarantee interesting content: I've read a lot of seriously boring open verse. Which brings me to Williams's argument that poetry should "shock and surprise", which is analogous to prescriptions I've seen for other arts; the trouble is that shock and surprise only work the first time, or first few times, you experience a piece. The kind of art to which people return over and over again throughout their lives does something deeper than surprise them. Williams was probably a better exemplar to other poets than he was a theorist, as Norse concedes in his typically, charmingly inconsistent way: he is understandably contemptuous of academic criticism, but when Williams told him to work on his use of consonants, "I asked what he meant about consonants, but he never explained. He was hopeless on details. He failed miserably on the technical specifics in which the academics excelled" (231).

Memoirs of a Bastard Angel is not a book to read for its style or sensibility (like, say, Isherwood's Christopher and his Kind), but for its glimpses into American, European, and North African gay and literary life in our times. Just imagine that the garrulous, slightly boozy old man who sits down next to you at the bar one night and starts telling you his life story, turns out to have known and slept with just about everybody you've ever heard of -- and is a major American poet to boot. And maybe if enough people buy Norse's Memoirs, Morrow will break down and publish his Collected Poems.

P.S. 2008: In his ninety-second year, Norse is still alive -- at least, I couldn't find an obituary for him. Morrow didn't publish Norse's Collected Poems, but in 2003 Thunder's Mouth Press did. In the Hub of the Fiery Force: Collected Poems 1934-2003 is over 600 pages long, of which over 100 contain previously unpublished work. There's even a Myspace fan page for him, though it hasn't been updated in a while.

P.P.S. 2009: Norse died on June 8, at the age of 92.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

You're Wright, I'm Left, He's Gone

“Jeremiah Wright,” said Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, “has been dominating cable news coverage like a missing white girl.” The way he and his writers chose to put that was revealing in itself. Does Wright control the white corporate media? Of course not. It’s the news media that have chosen to put him and keep him in the center ring.

I had an interesting exchange with an acquaintance once, who accused me of thinking that the corporate media were controlled, probably by the government. His belief is echoed in some ways by the media themselves, who try to represent themselves as controlled, not by the government (of course not! they are the independent Fourth Estate, the Press Militant, the implacable adversary of state power) but by public concern and by the news itself. If Jeremiah Wright was splayed all over the news for several news cycles, this was not the doing of the press, but of Wright himself.

The same thing happened during the Bill Clinton sex scandal of the late 1990s. I remember hearing a commentator say that Americans were obsessed with the Monica Lewinsky case. Even at the time, it wasn’t at all certain that this was true. As events showed, the Republican Party (with Democratic collaborators, most notoriously Joseph Lieberman) and the corporate media were the ones obsessed: public approval and support went to Clinton, not to his enemies.

Watching these anchors, pundits, and commentators in action with regard to Wright, it’s clear that they aren’t terribly bright. Maybe they think they’re just dumbing themselves down so as to condescend and pander to what they regard as the stupidity of their audience, but why should their bosses bother to hire people smarter than the job requires? People with any genuine intelligence might think, and have to be restrained – not by the government but by their immediate superiors. Better by far to pick the right tool for the job.

To be fair and balanced, though, let me address a posting by a right-wing blogger, a former publisher of The National Review and now co-blogger with such intellectual heavyweights as William Bennett and Michael Medved. Though William Rusher stands near the rightward extreme of the American political spectrum, what he says here could have been written by a liberal blogger like Digby, minus only the expression of Democratic and Obama-ite entitlement:

Wright told his parishioners (who could be seen in the background applauding his remarks) that the U.S. government had engineered the AIDS epidemic to kill black people, and worked up to a peroration in which he resoundingly rejected the slogan "God bless America." No, he thundered: The right view was "God Damn America!" His parishioners roared their approval.

Needless to say, when questioned by reporters, Obama wasted no time distancing himself from those sentiments. He not only disagreed with them, he asserted, but if they had ever been uttered in his hearing at a service of his church, he would have felt obliged to leave the church. The United States has its defects, but its virtues far outweigh those defects.

Now, Wright’s apparent belief that the US government engineered HIV to kill black people is probably unfounded, along with that “left brain / right brain” scientific racism, but it’s hardly a “hallucination” as Rusher calls it later in the piece. It’s known for a fact that the US government has experimented not with the lives not only of its black citizens, but of white ones as well, exposing unknowing persons to heavy radiation during atomic tests, giving LSD to unknowing civilians, sterilizing the “unfit”, and so on. While looking around the Web for material for a post on conspiracy theories, I found that it’s still easy to dismiss US government involvement in the drug trade, even though the CIA’s own investigation showed that the CIA had been supporting Contra drug smuggling into the US during the 80s. Plausibility is not proof, but Wright’s accusation is neither implausible nor paranoid.

It’s interesting that this is the only one of Wright’s criticisms that Rusher bothered to mention. I’d think that killing millions of innocent people in US wars of aggression would be worth a damn or two, but whether for reasons of space or of prudence, Rusher ignored everything else. I think that “The United States has its defects, but its virtues far outweigh those defects” is Rusher’s paraphrase of Obama’s response to Wright, but I’ll suppose that he’d agree with it since he grants Obama “a thoroughly balanced, sophisticated and sympathetic general view of the United States, in which hallucinations like Wright’s have no place at all.” It’s here that Rusher shows his basic agreement with liberals, though to his credit he refrained from some other epithets that liberals hurled at Wright, like “egomaniac.”

To be a respectable commentator on America, one must be balanced, sophisticated, and sympathetic – unlike Jeremiah Wright or Martin Luther King Jr. One must not merely balance its defects with its virtues, one must ignore those defects and vilify anyone who mentions them. Compare the liberal feminist (and now Obama supporter) Katha Pollitt, who wrote in a very controversial essay right after September 11, 2001, “I've never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World, but it is a fact that our government supported militant Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979.” Does anyone blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World, or is this another one of those attempts to distance oneself from those tacky Blame-America-Firsters? Not that it helps: to call it a fact that the US has ever done anything seriously wrong is to put oneself beyond the pale. It’s probably no more effective to challenge the Never-Blame-America-For-Anything types on their facts -- facts don’t interest them -- but it’s better than letting them set the terms of debate.

Rusher goes on to make one of those comments that show the limits of reasonableness:

I suspect that many whites are unaware of the social dynamics of certain black churches. Their members are devout Christians, but they suffer the inevitable routine indignities of being black citizens of an overwhelmingly white republic, and their churches are among the few places where the resulting frustrations can be expressed collectively and relatively safely. Every now and then, some black pastor (and some far more than others) will give voice to a bellow of pain that serves as a useful catharsis for such sentiments.

That is what I think happened -- perhaps quite frequently, over the 20 years in which Obama listened to Wright's sermons.

“The inevitable routine indignities of being black citizens in an overwhelmingly white republic”! Roll that line around in your mind for a moment – then spit it out. Rusher can’t bring himself to add “racist” to “overwhelmingly white republic”, no doubt because he considers racism to be “inevitable.” (That would undermine Obama’s 'reasonable' denial that racism in America is “endemic.”) Being riddled with 50 bullets, I’d say, is more than a mere indignity, but in Rusher’s overwhelmingly white republic, these things happen, and to a comfortable white man of my parents’ generation they’re nothing to get seriously worked up about. Comfortable white men of my parents’ generation and later generally aren’t as sanguine about the possibility that they might encounter routine indignities as the republic becomes less overwhelmingly white; hence the current resurgence of American nativism. Not satisfied with expressing their frustrations collectively in advance, some of them are abandoning (other people’s) safety and taking up arms.

To let these cathartic bellows of pain, as Rusher calls them, escape the confines of the black church, however, is something to get worked up about. Not because the videos were circulated, and made into a cause célèbre by the media, primarily to try to discredit and damage Obama; Rusher faults Obama for not “tackling his pastor about them head on.” But why? If they were merely cathartic outcries, then they merit no more concern than anything else said in a church – say, the demands for the blood of abortion doctors that are made from the pulpits of enough American churches to foster an effective support network for those who actually do the killing; or the fulminations against American “immorality” that explained AIDS, Hurricane Katrina, and the September 11th attacks as nothing but Yahweh’s judgment. Falwell, Robertson, and others of their ilk generally backed down when confronted; Wright, notably, has not, perhaps because he’s not an amoral hustler like his white Christian-right counterparts, but he really believes what he says. It’s an instructive contrast.

Wright should be confronted and challenged, but so far the corporate media and the liberal blogosphere haven’t done so. This is partly because they’re ill-equipped to grapple with actual American history, and partly because they are only interested in Wright for his relation to Obama, either as a monkey wrench in campaign or as a weapon to be used against him.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Is It Still Not Yet Time For My Painkiller?

I’d intended to post yesterday, but after work I ended up finishing Raymond Williams’s second novel Second Generation, originally published by Chatto & Windus in 1964. It felt so good to be cruising along through a book at a reasonable pace that I decided not to stop until I was done, just in time for bed. Second Generation is a fine novel, though not as good as Williams’s first, Border Country (1960), nor his third, The Fight for Manod (1979), which I just finished reading today. Maybe someday I’ll get around to writing more about them.

But at the moment I’m feeling strange about a comment by a blogger named Greg Laden, an anthropologist and biological anthropologist who’s done a very good job rebutting scientific racism.
The existence of Obamomaniacs who would not vote for Clinton were she the candidate has been greatly exaggerated. All Obmama [sic – a Freudian slip, maybe?] supporters will support Clinton and visa versa. …

There are Obama supporters who are absolutely foaming at the mouth at Clinton. They will go on and on (totally justified, by the way) about how Clinton is ruining the party, etc. etc. etc. But then if you ask them "OK, but if she's the nominee, who will you vote for" and they always say "Well, Clinton, she's the Democrat."

No amount of Democratic party politics will make Democrats forget that they are Democrats and that a Bush Third Term is not an option.
I disagree (and so, I suspect, would Avedon Carol). I don’t think that the Obama supporters would find it that easy to give up the (often misogynist) venom they’ve been hurling at Clinton, or vice versa. Particularly those starry-eyed kids who’re getting involved in politics for the first time, who’re dripping Hope all over the landscape – they’re the most likely to bail if their dreamy guy is denied the nomination. (And “denied” is surely how they’ll see it.) And if Clinton really is a “psychopath,” as Laden says, how in good conscience could he vote for her? Each side has denied the other candidate's fitness to be President, and the Obama camp especially has claimed not to be playing politics as usual. So much for that pretense, if they turn around and vote for an evil witch or an empty, inexperienced poseur in November, just because she or he is a Democrat!

And then there’s that “Bush Third Term” thing. I think Laden is not being literal here – he means a Republican in the White House will be a virtual third Bush term. It’s still inexcusable sloppiness to put it that way, especially given the Democrats’ support for Bush during the past eight years, right down to their present drive to give him more money to continue the US occupation of Iraq. John Caruso compiled a concise list of the blessings the Democrats wrought under Bill Clinton:
• Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dying from sanctions
• Corporate rights agreements like NAFTA, the WTO, and the MAI
• Bombing Yugoslavia for 78 days, without UN authorization
• US-supported ethnic cleansing in Turkey
• US-backed civil war in Colombia
• Bombing Iraq (continually, when you count attacks from the no-fly zones)
• The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act
• Record prison incarceration levels
• Bombing Afghanistan
• "Death by negotiation" for the Kyoto Protocol
• Endless corporate giveaways
• Permanent normal trade relations with China
• Executing the mentally retarded
• Bombing the largest source of malnutrition drugs in the Sudan during a massive famine
• Ending welfare as we know it
• Sending Haitian refugees back to Haiti, where they belong
• Etc, etc, etc.
And given Obama’s praise for Reagan and Bush’s foreign policy, his votes to continue funding Bush’s aggression in Iraq, his stated intention to keep US troops in Iraq and expand US forces to 100,000, Laden’s enthusiasm for Obama and his whitewashing of the Democrats seems not only out of touch with reality but somewhat sinister.
It is obvious in the United States that we need to replace the executive with a Democrat and add a few senators in the mix, in order to undo 8 years of Republican policy and replace it with four to 8 years of Democratic policy. This is because Democratic policy is better. Not great, just better. Also, Republican policy has a few elements that are truly evil, far more nefarious than anything the democrats have to offer. For instance, we really don't want to have a supreme court staffed entirely by yahoos. We are almost there now. Let's please not go all the way.
Come now, Professor Laden, you’re old enough to remember the Democrats’ predominant willingness to let Bush have the appointees he wanted, no matter how vile (Ashcroft, Bolton, Gonzales, etc.). Or their casual acceptance of his intention to use torture, or their support for his assault on civil liberties generally. (Obama, never forget, voted to extend the Patriot Act in 2005.) Literally speaking, there is not going to be a Third Bush Term, because Bush will leave office on January 20, 2009 no matter how the election turns out. But figuratively, all three candidates now before us are likely to continue Bush’s most destructive policies, just as Bush continued Bill Clinton’s worst policies. There's so much wishful thinking and convenient amnesia in Laden's post that it's hard to believe he's serious; the scary part, insofar as he's a nice middle of the road Obama supporter and a scientist/rationalist, is that he clearly is serious.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Son of Queen of the Darned

Another book review for Gay Community News, probably published in 1990 or 1991.

Holy Terror

by Steve Abbott
Freedom CA: The Crossing Press, 1989
$8.95 paperbound
141 pp.

Our story begins in 196-, with the narrator, a confused young Iowan named Armand Dupre, checking in at Inviolate Conception Abbey. Instead of the quiet asceticism he'd hoped to find, he is plunged into institutional politics and rivalries and romantic intrigues. After rejecting several advances by fellow novices and older monks, he falls blissfully in love with the beautiful Robbie. But their short-lived joy comes to a tragic end: Robbie is killed by the gnarly old Brother Theodosius. Armand goes over the wall; he saves money to go to Europe by teaching in a small-town high school for a year. In Paris he falls in love with the beautiful but dissipated film star Tomaso Bianchi, who eventually returns his love. But their life, lived in the fast lane, only narrowly avoids further tragedy in the Satanistic rituals of A., a rock star's consort. Our heroes flee, but return to their excesses until Tomaso nearly dies of an overdose of heroin; as soon as he is out of danger, Armand flees once again. He kicks drugs, takes up Zen, and after a final meeting with Tomaso (who has also gotten off drugs), returns to New York.

Holy Terror
is unevenly written, ranging from passages of real beauty to subliteracies like "his anger reached truly tendentious proportions", and the plot seems to wander, ultimately leaving off in mid-air. Its beginning in the monastery has no relation I can see to Armand's wanderings with Tomaso, except for a contrived and unconvincing moment during the Satanic ritual scene with "A.":
...While Tomaso stood frozen in shock I screamed "Stop it you witch! This is going too far!"

"Too far?"

A. looked around the wine cellar like she didn't know where she was and I felt a palpable wind fill the room and push against my chest. Then I heard an unnaturally deep voice spill from A.'s lips.

"NO, NO...NEVER TOO FAR!"

A gleam lit up her eyes that I'd seen only once before, a look so terrible I shall never forget it -- Theodosius! My blood turned to ice. I cried out the one word that linked these two experiences.
"ROBBIE!"

The entire room seemed to heave a sigh of relief as I heard a great flapping of wings like a flock of seagulls taking off. A.'s arms fell listlessly to her side. . . . Robbie had answered my cry.
[pp. 113-114]
But after that -- and the book continues for nearly forty pages more -- Robbie is apparently forgotten. Robbie's dead, that's all, and Armand moves on (though haunted by his memories, of course) to Tomaso, and then to New York and whatever happens there. ("But that's another story", pp. 140.)

On its back cover Holy Terror is mislabeled a Gothic romance. If that suggests to you, as it does to me, genre fiction (stormy seacoast, mansion whose mysterious brooding master cherishes unnamable secrets, etc.), forget it. What I can't quite decide is what is going on here. The author, poet Steve Abbott, says that Holy Terror was written from dream journals and that "No reference to persons...should be taken as factual" (but the appearance of a dissolute German filmmaker named "Fastbender" and a rock-star couple known as "K." and "A." belie this claim). I found his novel neither poetic nor dreamlike: it seems too realistic for gothic or poetic fiction, yet not realistic enough to be "mainstream." If I were going to assign it to a genre, I'd guess something along the lines of the glam-and-scandal roman à clef written by people like Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins. (If you want a gay Gothic, I think that Vincent Virga's 1980 classic Gaywyck is still in print.)

And yet I've read worse small-press gay male fiction than Holy Terror. Maybe Steve Abbott's second novel will be better. There's too much good gay fiction being published these days by the mainstream houses for me to be able to recommend Holy Terror in good conscience; but if you've read Robert Ferro and Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst and the rest and are hungry for more, you could do worse than spend $8.95 on Holy Terror.