Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Summer of Love

Two nice bits at The Nation today.

First, avowed Obama supporter Katha Pollitt reassembles her exploded head long enough to criticize her candidate for his support of faith-based initiatives.
Obama may have given his initiative an inclusive-sounding name--the President's Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships--and he may insist that with proper oversight government money can go to religious institutions without going to religious purposes, like proselytizing. He wouldn't let churches discriminate in hiring for these programs or provide services only to their own (although the Supreme Court permits religious discrimination in church hiring, even for janitorial jobs). He says churches will have to obey their state's antidiscrimination laws, which would mean that in twenty states churches that consider homosexuality an abomination would have to hire gays anyway. It would be hard to overestimate the amount of bureaucratic energy required to enforce these provisions. Besides, money is fungible--a grant for the prison-ministry-that-never-mentions-Jesus frees up that many dollars for Sunday school or a new car for the Reverend.
Spot on. The cognitive dissonance must be hard to resolve, though. If Pollitt were to look at Obama's other policies with the same jaundiced eye, it might become unsustainable.

Second, Dave Zirin (from whom I’ve learned a lot about the politics of sport) points to threatening cracks in the cheery façade of the Beijing Olympics.
Athletes, activists and globe-trotting protesters are poised to raise a panoply of issues, including China's crackdown on Tibet, its support for the Sudanese regime and environmental concerns. The Communist Party has been forced to respond to this pressure cooker by opening a steam valve, announcing on July 24 that public protests will be permitted during the games inside three designated city parks. But as the Times reported, "Demonstrators must first obtain permits from local police and also abide by Chinese laws that usually make it nearly impossible to legally picket over politically charged issues."
On the minus side, we have an open letter to Obama, “Change We Can Believe In,” taking him to task for “troubling signs that you are moving away from the core commitments shared by many who have supported your campaign, toward a more cautious and centrist stance.” Among the signatories are Katha Pollitt, Barbara Ehrenreich, Gore Vidal, Walter Mosley, Norman Solomon, and Studs Terkel – all people who really should know better. I've become increasingly skeptical of open letters like this ever since I read Diana Johnstone's demolition of a typical one some years ago.

Given today’s brouhaha over Obama’s quite sensible response to the latest McCain attack ad, I’m more convinced than ever that the corporate media are an impediment to making sense of any presidential campaign. (Or about anything else.) I thought that this reaction to McCain's ad, by a former McCain staffer, was very good.

And at Salon, Glenn Greenwald wakes up and smells the coffee:

Here's what I learned today about democracy and ideology as a result of my debate with Ed Kilgore and having read the comments to the piece I wrote about targeting Blue Dogs:

  • If you believe in the Fourth Amendment, an end to the Iraq War, the rule of law for government and corporate criminals, a ban on torture, Congressional approval before the President can attack Iran, and the preservation of habeas corpus rights, then you're a fringe, dogmatic Far Leftist ideologue, the kind who ruined the Democratic Party in 1968 and wants to do so again. ...

I’ve chewed on Greenwald before for trying to push certain American realities beyond the pale. Maybe, instead of being shocked! shocked! that his views cause him to be labeled (the horror! the horror!) as a fringe, dogmatic Far Leftist ideologue, he (and others like him) should consider the possibility that being a fringe, dogmatic Far Leftist ideologue isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But as I’ve also pointed out before, and Greenwald seems to be figuring out only now, by these criteria most Americans are fringe, dogmatic Far Leftist ideologues. Or, as IOZ once put it, "To a Donkle, the margins are everyone else. It must get lonely."

Not that recognizing this really solves anything; but it might make some people less vulnerable to attack, less prone to retreat when someone calls them names, and that would be a plus.

Monday, July 28, 2008

They Don't Make Nostalgia Like They Used To

Sorry, still too busy to write at any length. So here are two videos (and yes, I know, if I have time to surf YouTube I have time to write about Noam Chomsky). One's by the Korean pop group Jaurim, one of my current K-pop favorites. A couple of years ago they put out a CD mostly of covers of 70s and 80s American pop, sung in English. So when I saw the title of this song, I hoped they were going to do the same with the 60s:



Alas, no. Great video, though, and a good song. Imagine Jaurim performing Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride."



I remember people commenting on the bass player's fashion choices even in the 60s. One commenter on YouTube says, "One guy looks like he's wearing a dress!" I can understand someone making that mistake in the 60s, but if it were a dress it would be a muumuu. It looks to me like a djellaba. Granted, the boy is trying to look fey in his closeups, but mostly he just looks stoned. Nice head nudging between him and lead singer John Fay, though, whose sexiness I didn't appreciate when I was a teenager.

And now I need to get back to reading Joanne Passet's Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeannette Howard Foster, which I'd like to finish tonight if I can.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Thousand Years From Now, This Photograph Will Be Meaningless...

... but in this moment, I find it funny. (via)

Busy day today, so I won't have any more to say until tomorrow or so.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Person Sitting In Darkness

The Korea Herald’s “Kaleidoscope” column has struck again. On July 23 it featured "Society respecting no authority" by Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the American Studies Association of Korea, in a thoroughly confused defense of authority against those who disrespect it. This is a motif that’s been getting a lot of play in South Korea lately, in reaction to the candlelight vigils, though of course it turns up everywhere else, including these United States. It’s a handy ad hominem, useful for distracting attention from the issues at stake, and its popularity is a good reason to subject it to some jaundiced scrutiny.

Professor Kim falls on his face right off the bat:

Recently, radical African-American scholars began vehemently attacking white American writers as racists. The allegedly racist authors include Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell. It appears to have become fashionable these days to shoot down major canonical writers who are historical pioneers of American literature.

Evidently Professor Kim is unaware that these and other writers and others have been criticized for their treatment of race for a very long time, and not only by ‘radicals’ (though I think Professor Kim is using that term simply as an expletive). Faulkner and Mitchell, besides, are no “historical pioneers of American literature”, and the label of pioneer hardly fits even the 19th-century Twain. Even if they were, it wouldn’t automatically put them above criticism. (Nor is Mitchell as canonical a writer a Professor Kim seems to think.)

Professor Kim then defends his triumvirate against the charge of racism with what he calls “well-known” facts – Mitchell’s donations to Morehouse College, for example, or that Faulkner “took African-American children to school, holding their hands and valiantly marching through the intimidating picket lines of white protesters. How, then, could he be racist?” I’ve had trouble verifying this specific claim about Faulkner. He did speak out against white racism with great courage – for a while. But in 1956 he retreated, urging blacks to “slow down,” prompting Martin Luther King, Jr. to comment that “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.” (King, like James Baldwin who also criticized Faulkner’s counsel, was no doubt one of those “radical African-American radical scholars” who so annoy Professor Kim.) Faulkner was ambivalent about race and about desegregation, and it does him no honor to try to erase his less edifying pronouncements.

Twain’s attitudes toward race, in his life and work, have also been much debated. I’m not going to try to settle the question here. What amazed me was Professor Kim’s authority for Twain’s moral purity:

Leslie Fiedler, who was Samuel Clemens Professor of English at SUNY/Buffalo, used to lament the recent academic trend of defaming Mark Twain as being racist. "They completely misread Huckleberry Finn," Professor Fiedler once told me. "Twain was never a racist. Au contraire, he sharply criticized slavery and racial prejudice in Huckleberry Finn." … [T]he radical scholars have not been able to read between the lines or uncover the underlying messages in Huckleberry Finn and Puddin'head Wilson. Yet, these militant scholars seem to unscrupulously repudiate anyone who they think belongs to the canon.

Professor Kim betrays his ignorance and selective reading here by citing Leslie Fiedler, the great Bad Boy of American literary study, in defense of authority and the canon! The maverick Fiedler is notorious for having argued in what is probably his most famous work, Love and Death in the American Novel, that the love between Huck Finn and the slave Jim was “homoerotic” – indeed, that “homoerotic” love between males was a dominant theme in canonical American literature. (Fiedler used the word “homosexual” in his 1948 essay Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” but later substituted “homoerotic,” denying that he’d meant to imply that Huck and Jim committed “sodomy.” More recently scholars, relying on a misreading of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men, have adopted the term “homosocial” to keep suggestions of sodomitical vice at, um, arm’s length.) Fiedler's thesis didn't go down well with most boosters of American literature -- calling Huck and Jim a couple of fags, how could he! And how could Professor Kim quote someone who makes such awful attacks on the historical pioneers of American literature?

But going back to Twain, I agree that he was opposed to slavery, though this was less controversial in 1885, when Huck Finn was published, than it was when the story took place. The trouble for Professor Kim’s case is that Twain was hostile to other established authority, especially religion and imperialism. Given Professor Kim’s following lamentation about the disrespect for authority that now characterizes Korean society (“Even North Korea does not seem to respect South Korea much”!), I shudder to imagine what he’d think of Twain’s blistering 1901 polemic against American imperialism and racism, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” The first time I read that piece, its tone and substance reminded me of Noam Chomsky:

Then They that Sit in Darkness are troubled, and shake their heads; and they read this extract from a letter of a British private, recounting his exploits in one of Methuen's victories, some days before the affair of Magersfontein, and they are troubled again:

"We tore up the hill and into the intrenchments, and the Boers saw we had them; so they dropped their guns and went down on their knees and put up their hands clasped, and begged for mercy. And we gave it them – with the long spoon."

The long spoon is the bayonet. See Lloyd's Weekly, London, of those days. The same number – and the same column – contains some quite unconscious satire in the form of shocked and bitter upbraidings of the Boers for their brutalities and inhumanities!

As Professor Kim’s op-ed rises to its peroration, it collapses:

Indeed, South Korea is currently suffering from endless demonstrations, frequent workers' strikes, and violent protests. People no longer respect the government, the National Assembly, or the police. Having lost its authority, the Lee administration is not capable of prosecuting those who organize demonstrations and conspire to overthrow the government. …

Many South Koreans either confuse authority with authoritarianism, or misunderstand authority as an inherited or unjustly acquired privilege. They assume that all authorities should be denied and defied, which is why Korean society always looks unstable and faltering. Unfortunately, that is precisely how foreigners perceive South Korea from the outside. We desperately need to restore the long-lost respect for authority.

I agree that many South Koreans confuse authority with authoritarianism -- President Lee's supporters defend his authoritarianism as authority. I guess I have to repeat that if the Korean people had slavishly respected authority in the past, the South would still be ruled by a military dictatorship. (And if you want to enforce respect for authority, the North still does very well in that department; maybe Professor Kim would be happier there.) Since Professor Kim refers to President Lee’s predecessor only as “the leftist Roh administration … [when] the Confucian decorum of respecting the authority of one's seniors and superiors was completely eradicated,” I take it he doesn’t have in mind the Right’s conspiracy “to overthrow the government.” Not all authority deserves respect and obedience in Professor Kim's eyes, it appears. And South Korea doesn’t appear “unstable and faltering” to this outsider. But then I’m one of those radicals who don’t recognize authority, who consider that the burden of proof lies on those who demand respect -- let alone obedience.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Tales of the Closet

Gwendolen. I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, mamma. [They rise together.]
Lady Bracknell. Pardon me, you are not engaged to any one. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself...
But on to other burning issues. A week or so ago (time does fly) a straight friend told me he’d heard that Queen Latifah had come out. It’s a mark of how out of touch I am with today’s popular culture that Queen Latifah was not high on my list of people most likely to. I asked him where he’d heard this, and he wasn’t sure, so I did a couple of Google searches, which came up dry.

Well, not exactly dry, except by my standards. Last December it seems there was a flurry of speculation in the tabloids that Latifah was “officially engaged” to a woman she’s been tight with for several years. “Officially engaged” was the giveaway, since “officially” in this context has all the force of “literally.” (As in, “My head literally exploded.”)

An engagement, like a marriage, is a public event. If Queen Latifah were really officially engaged, our little county newspaper would have chronicled the fact by last December at the latest. Of all the material I found from last winter touting the happy event, nothing pointed to an actual announcement of the engagement. All of it was basically gossip-column chatter, with no real sourcing.

But then I found another flurry of links from this summer. It was inspired by the overturning of California’s ban on same-sex marriage by the state Supreme Court, and all of it was rewarmed versions of the items from last winter. I could almost see the tiny gears grinding in the tiny brains: hey! now that it’s legal, maybe Latifah and her honey will tie the knot. … Maybe they will, but so far there’s no evidence that they will.

From what I read, Latifah has mostly not denied the rumors that she’s gay, except for a tiresomely routine evasion after she played a lesbian in the movie Set It Off. "It's insulting when someone asks, 'Are you gay?'” she wrote in her autobiography. “A woman cannot be strong, outspoken, competent at running her own business, handle herself physically, play a very convincing role in a movie, know what she wants—and go for it—without being gay? Come on.” Aside from the fact that it is not insulting to be asked if one is gay, she had a point. I was writing yesterday about Americans’ dislike of (or inability to comprehend) irony: I linked it to our Puritan heritage, which like the Christian tradition generally is hostile to theatre and acting. To be one thing yet pretend to be another is as bad as having sexual intercourse in a standing position!

There was a mild flurry some years ago when Will Smith chickened out of kissing a man in his first movie role, Six Degrees of Separation. (A stunt double was used for the dangerous scene.) He tried to blame it on Denzel Washington, who he claimed had warned him that black folks have trouble separating the actor from the role, so “Don’t go kissing no man.” Many years earlier, on her 1975 album Modern Scream, Lily Tomlin did a routine in which an interviewer complimented her on her courage for playing a heterosexual (presumably in Robert Altman’s Nashville.) “I’ve seen these women all my life, I know how they walk, I know how they talk,” Tomlin said. “You don’t have to be one to play one!” True: a fair number of homosexual actors have done it over the years. The joke was a wink to her fans who were in on the open secret of Tomlin’s lesbianism and her relationship with her producer Jane Wagner. But an open secret it remained for another quarter of a century.
Lady Bracknell. To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.
More recently, according to the gossip sites I saw, Queen Latifah has simply refused to discuss her personal life. That’s certainly her prerogative, and it’s a lot better than the denial. Could it have something to do with her apparent involvement with the woman the sites name as her girlfriend? She won’t confirm the relationship, but she won’t deny it either. Maybe now she can’t put the rumors down to her being a strong, competent, outspoken woman.

As Sarah Schulman wrote in 1990 during the big outing controversy,
As for the morality of dragging gay public figures out of the closet -- well, I'm not sure. What I do know, though, is that to call this an invasion of privacy is distorting and dishonest. Most gay people stay in the closet -- i.e., dishonor their relationships -- because to do so is a prerequisite for employment, housing, safety, and family love. Having to hide the way you live because of fear of punishment isn't a "right" nor is it "privacy." Being in the closet is not an objective, neutral, value-free condition. It is, instead, maintained by force, not choice. … The closet is not a right. It is something we want to make unnecessary, not claim and cling to.
I was struck by the report on one gossip site that “According to the National Enquirer, the couple are ‘planning an intimate ceremony with close family and friends.’” It occurred to me years ago that legal marriage would undermine so many closet cases’ argument that their love lives are nobody else’s business. Anyone can exchange vows, but it has no legal weight. If they apply for a marriage license, which is part of the process of getting legally married, their love lives will become everybody’s business, no matter how intimate the ceremony they have. Legal marriage is “private,” but it isn’t secret: it’s a matter of public record.

But nowadays, who cares? Lots of celebrities have come out publicly, so who needs people who lack the courage or integrity to do it, who choose (as Schulman put it so precisely) to dishonor their relationships? When Tomlin finally came out, she tried to put a good face on it, as did Rosie O’Donnell, by claiming that because ‘everybody knew’, or it was obvious they were gay, there was no need to say it aloud. But if everybody knew, why not say it aloud? (Nathan Lane did the same thing: “Look, I'm 40, I'm single, and I work in musical theater - you do the math!” But before that interview he’d complained because people did the math: “I didn't know I was supposed to make a public declaration. I didn't think anybody cared.” Girl, what planet were you living on? And don’t get me started on Janis Ian…)
Gwendolen. I am afraid it is quite clear, Cecily, that neither of us is engaged to be married to any one.
Cecily. It is not a very pleasant position for a young girl suddenly to find herself in. Is it?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Strike While The Irony's Hot

The anger of so many liberal Democrats at the New Yorker’s cover cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama was only to be expected, of course, especially the Obamamaniacs for whom hushed reverence before His Total Coolness is the only acceptable attitude. As the satirist Ellen Willis once wrote, “Humorless is what you are if you do not find the following subjects funny: rape, big breasts, sex with little girls.It carries no imputation of humorlessness if you do not find the following subjects funny: castration, impotence, vaginas with teeth.”

Humor isn’t really the issue, though. I didn’t think the cartoon was funny because I don’t like the artist’s style, and he didn’t do anything with the joke, but I recognized that it was satire and what it was intended to mean. The outrage was especially ironic because it tended to come from apparently white, educated liberals, the kind of people who look down on literalism and ignorance in their political opponents. For that matter, I’m sure many of these people must be, if not fans, then at least aware of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, South Park, and The Onion, the pillars of mainstream American satire. So their objections that the New Yorker cover was tasteless must be disingenuous. More likely, though, they’ve just chosen to forget that good satire is tasteless, offensive, and outrageous.

Most of them have heard, surely, of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, published in 1729, which advocated fattening Irish babies for the tables of English diners. Can you get much more tasteless than that? Maybe – in 1967 Paul Krassner published a piece in his magazine The Realist, parodying William Manchester’s tome The Death of a President; in one scene Jackie Kennedy discovered Lyndon Johnson copulating with her dead husband’s neck wound. Barbara Garson’s play Macbird! also mocked Johnson bitterly and tastelessly, casting LBJ as Macbeth.

At his Counterpunch site Alexander Cockburn wrote:

The editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, claims to be stunned and upset that satire has been confused with reality. … Either Remnick is being disingenuous or he’s really stupid. Anyone familiar with editing material for the internet knows that satire is always taken as literal truth.

Fair enough, except for that last remark about the internet: satire has always been indigestible to many people. Cockburn should know, having written and published a fair amount of satire himself, including a famous 1983 piece depicting Adolf Hitler interviewed by Andy Warhol. Notoriously, the popularity of Norman Lear’s sitcom All in the Family relied at least partly on viewers who admired Archie Bunker and didn’t realize that the program mocked him.

The singer-songwriter Randy Newman, whose best work is built on American politics including racial politics, has often been (mis)taken literally. Most singers who cover his song “Sail Away” change the line “Climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me” to something like “Climb aboard, little child…” – apparently unaware that the song’s narrator is a slave trader luring Africans aboard his ship. A few years later, his “Short People” (“got no reason to live”) inspired controversy and protest, giving him his first hit, to Newman’s amusement. I wonder what the people who admire “Political Science”, which calls for America to “drop the Big One” on an ungrateful world, think it’s about; judging from this YouTube video and the comments it inspired, at least some think he meant it literally. And most effective of all, his “Rednecks” enraged white liberals for its use of the N word and its indictment of Northern racism, and white Southerners for its negative stereotyping of white Southerners. (“College men from LSU / Went in dumb, come out dumb too.”)

The reasons why the New Yorker’s Obama cover enraged so many liberals are obvious enough (to me, anyway): it’s Just Not Nice to make fun of someone they like (not a uniquely liberal belief, of course), and it’s a cliché that Americans in general don’t have much of a feel for irony. As I’ve suggested before, the American distaste for irony may have roots in our puritan heritage, which doesn’t like ambiguity. But deafness to irony may not be quite the problem either. I think the same people who were furious at the New Yorker can follow satire when its target is someone or something they don’t like, as with Vanity Fairs parody of the New Yorker cover, which mocks John McCain as an old man with a walker and his wife as a pill-popper in sweatpants while the US Constitution burns in the fireplace. As satire, it’s about on a par with Rush Limbaugh’s infamous joke about Chelsea Clinton as the White House dog (which Limbaugh later pretended he didn’t mean). But the comments at the VF site are revealing: for one commenter “The important difference between this cover and The New Yorker cover is that the satire here is based on facts. Excellent!” But the New Yorker cover was based on the fact that many Americans believe that Obama is a closet Muslim; that fact was cited by many of the cover’s critics as a reason why it was bad. (But then, Obama fans didn’t react kindly to Naomi Klein’s earlier reminder that being called a Muslim isn’t a smear.)

[P.S. Rereading all this, I realized that the people who complained about Blitt's cartoon but liked the one in Vanity Fair really don't understand what satire is. They think it means something like "Hahaha! John McCain is old! Rush Limbaugh is fat!" Which means they are as dumb as any dittohead who thinks "Michael Moore is fat" is a devastating critique.]

At its most basic, satire can’t be fact; it involves stretching fact into caricature until it shows the horrifying reality on the other side of caricature. (Today The Nation weighed in with its own contribution, a cartoon which shows Eustace Tilley sitting stunned on the floor of the Oval Office, one eye blackened, his monocle smashed, and a bloody tooth on the carpet, while a grinning Michelle brandishes a sign saying “Get Whitey” – just kidding, it says “Round 2”. Barack proudly holds up the fist with which he decked the effete rascal, and with the other hand tosses the offending issue of the magazine into the fireplace. The Nation site touts the image as “Edgy, controversial, hard-hitting... and funny.” Haw, haw, haw. And does The Nation think this is a positive image of Obama for progressives?)

Because I refuse to split the world into good guys and bad guys, I also think that good satire should be double-edged: it should make the viewer uncomfortable, laughing and wincing at the same time. It’s not really odd that nominally Christian Americans prefer to ignore the beam in their own eyes -- that too is one of Jesus’ teachings that most Christians prefer to ignore – they’re just leaning harder on the sheep vs. goats Manichaeism of the rest of Jesus’ teaching.) That’s why in my satire of the Greek system, for example, I used the rhetoric of the antigay Christian right, to try on the perspective of a position I deplore; and why it was both depressing and gratifying to find that other gay people would thoughtlessly welcome seeing fraternity boys and sorority girls as if they were, well, queers. If satire doesn’t stir the satirist’s own anxieties a little, it’s not going far enough.

I can’t shake the feeling that for white liberals, anyway, Barry Blitt’s cartoon (probably unintentionally) touched a nerve: their own desire for a nice Negro politician who isn’t angry, won’t make them feel uncomfortable or guilty, a Magic Negro who will give them what they want without requiring that they change themselves. Remember that appalling video from earlier this year, with Obama fans telling us what they want to find under the tree this Christmas?

“I would like to see a cleaner earth for my child that I’m bringing into the world very soon,” says one smiling young woman. “It’s time for change,” a serious young white man agrees, “I want a better future for my children.” “I would like our environment to be safe,” an elegant African American woman adds. “Someone to actually make a difference in my generation,” says a white man with close-cropped hair and what appears to be a bruised eye, wearing a bomber jacket and hoodie. “I would like to see us in a world without fear,” says a man with his arm around a smiling woman. “Basically, um, I just want the war to end,” says a young Latina who earlier assured the viewer that “Esto es nuestro America.” The expectant mother returns with “I would like the rest of the world to think highly of our amazing country.” Also I’d like an Xbox, a Hannah Montana DVD, and a Cabbage Patch doll, okay? … If I were going to satirize this video, I’d show Obama dressed in work clothes, shuffling and scraping as he pushed a broom, mumbling, “Yes’m, I’ll clean up the earth for you right away, ma’am. A world without fear, suh, comin’ right up!”

Blitt could have made his satire less ambiguous, by (say) showing Rush Limbaugh peeking through a window and being shocked by having his worst fears about the Obamas realized: like Omigod, they really do want to Get Whitey! Whether that would have appeased those who attacked the cartoon, I don’t know. But I think the real problem was that the cartoon aroused white Obama fans’ fear that in reality Obama is an Angry Black Man, a Jeremiah Wright, an anti-Claus who’ll leave a lump of coal in their stockings instead of a new iPhone, a pony, and world peace.

This has nothing to do with Obama’s actual policies, about which his fans prefer not to think very much. (But then, neither do his enemies.) He’s not a secret militant, very much the opposite: he’s a mainstream American politician, ready to uphold and sustain the Imperium. Their hatred of ambiguity extends to an inability to understand what he says he’ll do: if he says he’ll withdraw US combat troops from Iraq, they’ll fail to notice that he won’t withdraw support troops, and that the occupation will go on. As long as Obama can maintain the Santa Claus façade, flattering his fans’ image of themselves as enlightened and compassionate people who are fundamentally different from that awful man Bush and his dupes, they’ll ignore or explain away what he actually does; they want to feel good about themselves, not change the world – or themselves.

And, to confirm once again that reality outruns satire, a new piece by Nicholas Kozloff just appeared at Counterpunch. Kozloff, who wrote a decent biography of Hugo Chávez and just published a new book on political changes in South America, compares Obama’s views on Latin America with McCain’s. Funny thing, though: Kozloff says virtually nothing about Obama’s actual views, while giving McCain’s in detail. He says that

an Obama victory would take a lot of wind out of Chávez’s sail. To an extent, Chávez was able to leap on to the world stage as a result of U.S. misdeeds and imperial misadventures. The war in Iraq is enormously unpopular in South America, and Chávez has been able to raise his profile as a result of his long-standing criticisms of U.S. foreign policy. It is difficult to imagine that Chávez would have achieved the same degree of political notoriety had Bill Clinton been in office and not George Bush.

If he were to win, Obama would start off his administration with an enormous amount of goodwill in South America simply by dint of his racial origins. Many Afro-Latinos in South America—particularly in Brazil—would see an Obama victory in Washington as an enormously positive social step. …

Obama could capitalize on this goodwill by withdrawing troops from Iraq. The new U.S. president could then increase economic aid to impoverished South American countries or promote free trade deals with small nations such as Ecuador. Chávez has long decried the excesses of globalization, but Obama might be able to steal some of the Venezuelan leader’s thunder by negotiating separate trade deals that protect labor and the environment. In this way, Obama could put a break on ALBA expansion and frustrate Chávez’s international ambitions.

Kozloff says nothing about Obama’s declared intention to maintain the embargo against Cuba, or his hostility to Chávez, or his endorsement of Reagan’s foreign policy, or his support for Colombian terrorism (via), or his generally patronizing attitude toward Latin America, exemplified by his Miami speech of last May. (I dissected it here.) True, if Obama becomes President, he could withdraw troops from Iraq (though he doesn’t intend to end the US occupation entirely [via Chris Floyd), and he could win goodwill by adopting policies helpful to the poor in Latin America and elsewhere, or by giving everybody lollipops. But will he? Ignoring Obama’s known intentions, Kozloff offers only fantasy in their place.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cheap Trash

This blog hasn't been gay enough lately. Herewith, then, the last book review I published in Gay Community News, on January 27, 1991. It may not be enough, but it will have to do for now.

Costly Performances: Tennessee Williams: The Last Stage
a personal memoir by Bruce Smith
New York
: Paragon House, 1990
$19.95 hardcover
262 pp.

First there was Dotson Rader’s Cry of the Heart, in which Rader presented himself as Tennessee Williams’s only true friend in his twilight years, the only one who really cared about him; now we have Bruce Smith’s Costly Performances, by someone else making the same claim.

Bruce Smith, a marketing and public-relations person from Chicago, says he met Tennessee Williams in 1979. But Smith never quite explains how he met Williams. He says in the prologue that “the pages of this book open in 1979 with the advent of Tennessee's last big play”, but in fact the first chapter begins in Key West in January 1980, with Smith and Williams in conversation over after-dinner drinks. Williams was preparing for the production of Clothes for a Summer Hotel, which was to open in Washington D.C. and then move to Chicago. It’s certainly a marvelous coincidence that Williams should have met a PR man from Chicago who just happened to be in Key West at that moment; or was this perhaps a professional acquaintance that turned into genuine friendship? That wouldn't discredit Smith, but his vagueness about this and other matters makes me suspicious.

These suspicions were aroused again as I watched Smith working over director Gary Tucker, a director whom Smith judges by his ‘outrageous’ Chicago plays Whores of Babylon and Turds In Hell rather than by his later productions in Atlanta of two late and seldom-produced Tennessee Williams plays. Smith introduces Tucker as “a former minor league director of offbeat productions” and “a marginally outrageous theater presence”, one of “two new observers [who] had been brought to the scene” in Chicago.

Brought by whom? By Tennessee, it seems. According to Smith, Williams had seen and liked the Atlanta production, which Smith admits had been well-received; so it’s hardly surprising that “Tennessee felt at this time that Tucker had a sincere vocation with him in advancing the acceptance of his much underplayed later plays”.

But Smith is sure that “Tucker wished to capitalize on the decadence of Tennessee's late work and his much publicized life. He thought only to aggrandize himself through association with the Williams name. . .” (As though Williams's early work weren’t ‘decadent’!) Tucker had with him in Chicago a handsome blond named Schuyler Wyatt, and Smith knows that Wyatt was there as a “sex and drug kit” to draw Williams into Tucker’s “Machiavellian reign”, which “would effectively see Tennessee through to the end of his involvement with play production and insure the failure of all his dramatic ventures” -- including his ventures with Tucker? Some opportunist!

Tucker’s world, Smith told Williams, was “not my world, Tennessee. . . . It’s why that part of the gay world has such a hideous reputation. And, because it’s the most visible part of the gay world, it holds the entire minority back from gaining any real acceptance as a responsible social entity.” [76] There might be some truth in Smith’s assessment of Tucker; but it’s so entangled with Smith’s jealousy and vindictiveness that I found myself giving Tucker far more of the benefit of the doubt than he perhaps deserves.

Tucker isn’t Smith's only target, though. Smith’s portraits of Williams’s friends and theatrical co-workers reminded me of the sort of photographs you see on the cover of the National Enquirer: garishly overcolored and picked to be as unflattering as possible. Geraldine Page, for example, “made a beeline for our table. Acknowledging Tennessee with only a grimace, she addressed herself to me. I rose. With her hands still clothed in her gray woolen mittens she began pounding me on the chest. The ballet company turned its collective head in our direction, en pointe” [49].

Or Williams’s old friend Maria St. Just, with her “unfortunate hatchet face which, while it asserted quite aggressively that it would brook no affront to its dignity, at the same time it betrayed her inmost culpabilities. I’m afraid that the knowing concern of a friend one might have hoped to see traced into her features was hard lined out into blatant self-concern” [101]. It appears that while Smith was sharply suspicious of anyone Tennessee got along with, he was more than willing to join in his feuds.

A couple of references to Smith’s father’s “certain ruin through alcohol” (162) make me speculate that when Smith is indulging in New-Agey rhetoric like “As the architect of my own life, my structures were conceived in an upward manner, toward the light” (75), he might also consider the term “co-dependent.” Perhaps his professed desire to create a “new, healthy Tennessee” -- provided Williams played by Smith’s rules -- had in it certain motives that deserve the same jaundiced scrutiny Smith applies to everyone else in Williams’s life; if so, they don’t receive that scrutiny. Bruce Smith is the light; all else is darkness.

Aside from being a nasty, depressing, self-serving and self-aggrandizing book, Costly Performances is incompetently written and edited -- much like Rader’s Cry of the Heart, come to think of it, or like the National Enquirer. Smith leaves no cliché unturned, no participle undangling. (“Born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911, St. Louis was the crucible of Tennessee’s creative life.” [2]) He wants to write a florid prose but doesn’t know the meaning of many of the big words he uses, also like Rader (whose name he misspells, as “Raider”, twice!). I’ll give him this much, however: somehow he seems to have got Williams’s voice, as I know it from interviews and other transcriptions, on paper. Most of the words put into Tennessee’s mouth in the book do sound like him, rather than Smith. But there’s little dish here that you couldn't find elsewhere; and to get to the subject of Costly Performances you have to get past the author.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Protest 73

(Photo of riot police at Protest 73 in Seoul on Sunday night by Yonghap, via the Korea Times.)

The Korean National Police Agency Commissioner General has threatened to take legal action against Amnesty International because AI's report on police violence during the candlelight vigil wasn't to its liking. Commissioner General Eo Cheong-soo claims that the report defamed police officers. AI countered that the police had interfered with their investigation.

The group also openly criticized the government for interfering in the research procedure. It alleged that the police did not allow [investigator Norma Kang] Muico to meet riot police officer Lee Gye-deok, whose request to be transferred to the military was rejected, and who was subsequently jailed in an alleged backlash.

One commenter to the article helpfully noted, "
Norma Kang Muico looks very unsexy." I'm so relieved to know that President Lee's supporters have their priorities straight.* The article is headed "Police Threaten Legan [sic] Action Against Amnesty" -- I wonder if the KT could use a competent copyeditor for their English edition, even if my politics aren't quite correct?

Despite the rainy season, the protests continue, with the police adding to the moisture with water cannon, according to The Hankyoreh, the source of the photo below:

*This comment reminds me of the time Larry King had some fashion pundits on to discuss Americans' view of Hillary Clinton, back when she was still First Lady.

Celebrity divorce lawyer and talk show host Raoul Felder was less forgiving to the woman at the center of the discussion, saying, "I don't know one good thing about her. She's got fat.... her legs are too short, her arms are too long.... If your legs are too short how do you evolve?"

As FAIR wondered, where are the discussions of John McCain's hips, or Rudy Giuliani's legs? Given the latter's apparent fondness for drag, this should have been an urgent question during this year's primary campaign. But don't mind me, I just wanted to save these links.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Greeks Had A Word For It, Part 4

And here is the third of my satirical pieces from the mid-1990s. It was inspired by a Smoke-In organized by Young Americans for Freedom, protesting the rules against smoking in classroom buildings. As I mentioned in the piece, YAF's advance publicity for the event neglected to mention that they were behind it; I've noticed that Christian groups also like to hide their sponsorship of superficially 'hip' recruiting events. YAF had also sponsored a Straight Pride Week at IU, another one of those ideas that defy satire, and which unlike Smoke-Ins have caught on to some extent among homophobes.

My own take on Straight Pride events is that they should be welcomed by gay groups, who should insist on participating to show their support for their straight friends and relatives. After all, they can't help themselves, and we should love them despite their aberrant butch-femme gender roles and repellent lifestyle. Since Gay Pride events nowadays are as likely as not to have straight parade marshalls from PFLAG, why shouldn't Straight Pride events get the condescending blessing of gays? But as usual, I digress...

The aside in my piece about being forced to supply campus space to homosexuals, where we'd have orgies in violation of the sodomy laws, was a slap at campus Right opposition to IU's GLBTQ+pi student office in 1994, not long before this piece was published. Someone, I think the president of College Republicans, had warned that such an office would encourage the practice of sodomy, in violation of state law. Indiana hadn't had a sodomy law on the books since 1977, but IU's "conservatives", or the national groups that supplied their talking points, hadn't caught up with that year yet. I don't know whether that particular College Republican later came out, but several of them did; it should come as no surprise that the campus Right was rife with closet cases, sucking on big stinky cigars being a popular form of displacement in those circles.

Ever since the Smoke-in at Ballantine Hall a few weeks ago, I have been thinking about this controversial issue. What follows are my own original thoughts, with no influence from any special interest or partisan political agenda.

The first thing is, I don't understand why these people have to flaunt their private practices in public. You don't see non-smokers doing it! What these people want to do in their own homes is their own business, but not in public. They just made fools of themselves and their cause, and set the cause of smokers' rights back by fifty years.

The IDS story revealed that the Smoke-In was sponsored by Young Americans for Freedom, a fact that was not on any of the flyers I saw publicizing the event in advance. Evidently this was a stealth action by a group which dares not even put its name on its publicity, so low is its status in the public eye.

And these people expect the University to provide them with enclosed space to indulge their dirty, self-destructive habit! I don't think so. Is this how the taxpayers' dollars should be spent? Is this the educational mission of a great University, to subsidize drug abuse? I suppose a few years down the road, when their damaged hearts and lungs begin to fail them, they'll be demanding the taxpayers to pay for their medical treatment. Well, what you sow is what you reap, in my opinion. Let them take responsibility for their acts, and if they want to poison their bodies, let them do it with their own money.

Though I must admit, I might consider government funding for special camps in which smokers could be segregated from the general population, shielding decent people from second-hand smoke and keeping bad examples out of the sight of children. These camps could be built near, or on, toxic waste dumps as a space-conserving measure. Or better yet, let the tobacco companies pay for it! In the camps they could have all the advertising they want, showing Joe Camel using all the wonderful gifts he got by collecting cigarette coupons, or beautiful models enjoying the pleasures of inhaling tar-laden smoke into their lungs. No medical facilities would be supplied, of course; the tobacco companies don't recognize any health hazards in smoking in the first place, and the sooner these people kill themselves off with their filthy habit, the less of a burden they'll be on society.

If we give special rights to smokers, next we'll have to provide rooms for heroin addicts to "shoot up." How about an official IU Crack House? Then all moral values will be gone, and we'll have to provide space to groups of homosexuals, so they can have orgies in violation of the sodomy laws.

I don't doubt we'll hear more from the militant flaunting smokers, if only because the IDS has given some of the more strident ones space on the Opinion Page to promote their lifestyle. Next, I imagine, they'll want minority status for smokers on campus. And after that, these spineless freeloaders will want affirmative-action programs to admit smokers to the University on a quota system. The remedy is clear: responsible student groups should lobby the State Legislature to cut university funding if such programs are initiated. I'm sure State Representative Woody Burton will be happy to come to Bloomington and explain why smokers, who are not visible as such nor born with their condition, are not a true minority, and deserve no special privileges. The Political Correctness movement is out of control, and must be stopped now!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Great Minds Think Alike

One reason I enjoy reading Hankyoreh is that they generally agree with me. Yesterday, for example, I wrote here that President Lee Myeong-bak thinks he's really former President Chun Doo-hwan. And today, Hankyoreh runs an editorial cartoon morphing Lee with Chun.

Cynthia Yoo has another review of the week's events at English OhMyNews, and there's another interesting article, translated by Yoo from another staffer's blog, on the protest against Lee's appointment of his crony Gu Bon-heung as CEO of the Yonhap cable news network (YTN). I'm gratified to hear that the major Korean web portals are resisting Lee's attempts to control political debate on the Internet, and that media organizations have condemned the government's punishment of MBC for airing segments (back in April and mid-May) skeptical of the safety of US beef.

The Korea Herald has run another American op-ed piece, "Where Did It All Go Wrong For Lee?", which begins by casually referring to "the ongoing violent protests in South Korea over imported beef from the United States." If it also referred to, say, the violent regime of Lee Myeong-bak, it would be a bit more balanced. But I looked again at Cynthia Yoo's article, and golly gee, there are violent protests going on in Korea now, as you can see in the photo below. The corporate media aren't denouncing them, though, because they're protests against Japan's claim of Dokdo Island as Japanese territory. President Lee has been making tough noises about Korean pride, and no doubt he hopes to boost his abysmal approval ratings by doing so.

Photo ©2008 Song Ju-min, from OhMyNews International.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Greeks Had A Word For It, Part 3

According to the Korea Times, "the candlelight protests [are] becoming a fading fad"; but I've heard that one before, just before they flourished again. (And OhMyNews continues to post great photos, like the one above.) The same KT article goes on to say that "the government seems to be getting bolder in what is shaping up as a war against the broadcast media." That will probably just make more trouble for President Lee, who seems convinced that he's really Chun Doo Hwan. Spraying water on peaceful demonstrators is one thing, but trying to strongarm the media is another; when even a corporate publication like the Korea Times is critical of the President, you know he's overreaching.

Back here in the Land of the Free (As Long As You Pay For It), people are still fussing over the New Yorker's Obama cover. Tom Tomorrow has resorted to posting a free lesson on satire for the clueless. And here's my contribution, another one of my satirical essays, the one which annoyed a full professor. The rhetoric this time came less from the Born-Again Christian Right than from Born-This-Way Gays and Lesbians, though as I've pointed out before, the two aren't that far apart.

CONFESSIONS OF A CONGENITAL ANGLOPHONE

After thinking about it carefully for a long time, I've come to the conclusion that I was born this way. I've spoken English all my life, ever since I was a tiny child. I can't remember a time when I did not speak English. So I just believe it must be in my genes.

Some people try to claim that language is "learned", but that's silly. No one taught me English. If you try to teach a child to speak, it will refuse to speak at all. I never had to learn English, it's not a choice, it just always came naturally to me. My parents both speak English, so it clearly is something I inherited from them. The latest scientific evidence backs me up: language is innate.

In high school and since, I have tried to learn other languages. (This was in the "Swinging Sixties", when people were trying to turn the world upside down, mixing races so you couldn't tell the boys from the girls.) Even after two or three years of study, I could only stumble along, consciously and clumsily assembling sentences from a list of memorized words and grammatical rules. That's not how I speak in English, which just comes naturally to me. This fact alone should be enough to prove that English is not learned. Any child is more fluent in its native language after three years. My attempts to change my language went against my nature, and were therefore wrong. God made me this way, and God doesn't make trash.

Which is why I've come to agree with the "English Only" movement. Teaching foreign languages in our schools makes English seem to be just one more "alternative" way of speaking, when I know it isn't. It's language. It's common sense. It degrades the English language to pretend that every complicated gibberish spoken by a bunch of foreigners is as good as plain, simple American. That's why this country's in trouble, if you ask me. A bunch of Politically Correct "multiculturalists" have taken over our educational system, and they're trying to make our kids talk "Spanish" and "Japanese" and "Russian" and lord only knows what all, forcing them to go against their nature and feel like there's something wrong with the tongue God gave them. If you ask me, it's a plot to confuse our children and make them feel inferior. It isn't right.

I know that some people claim to be "bilingual," but I don't believe in that. First, they always have a clear preference for one language or the other. Second, since we are clearly designed to have just one native language, it's an unnatural perversion to be "bi". I say these people should get off the fence and make a choice.

All you have to do is read the Bible story of the Tower of Babel, which shows that in the beginning we had only one true language, but Man rebelled, and the Lord gave them over to all kinds of foreign confusion. And what was that original true language? English, of course! I don't believe in these so-called "modern" translations. I'm not the first person to say that if the King James Version was good enough for the Lord Jesus, it's good enough for me!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Greeks Had A Word For It, Part 2

Since I quoted Ellen Willis yesterday as an example of what I consider good satire, I figured I should put my own efforts up too. Today I'm posting my piece on the Greek system, which ran in the Indiana Daily Student sometime in the mid-1990s.

A few historical notes: the quotations from the BEER Party, which actually ran a slate of candidates for student government that year, are genuine. (Reality often outruns satire.) The BEER Party spokesman quoted was also a writer for the IDS who'd published diatribes against the campus gay organization's 'radical' tactics such as chalking slogans on sidewalks. Woody Burton is a representative in the state legislature who had tried to block the establishment of a University office to support GLB (and later T) students, by threatening to cut state funding for IU. Right-wing students enlisted his help in their own crusade against the office, which was established anyway and is still flourishing. Burton had used some of the arguments I borrowed here, such as that gays aren't a real minority because we're not visible nor congenital, unlike blacks and Jews. And now, without further ado...

I'm well known as a fiery proponent of Political Correctness, second to none in my eagerness to force everyone to be more diverse. I want the curriculum to be saturated with ethnic writers instead of universal ones like Mark Twain, and I dream of the day when The Color Purple will be taught in more English classes than Shakespeare. I will not be content until every student is 51% female, 12% black, and 10% gay, lesbian, and bisexual. Even I believe, however, that the BEER party went too far when it let in the greeks.

Please don't suppose I'm a prejudiced person. I know that greeks have run for office in past IUSA elections, and some have been elected. Most of them have done their best to serve the student body without flaunting their lifestyle, which is as it should be. Being greek is a private thing, and if it's kept private, most students figure it's nobody's business but your own.

But the BEER party took greek involvement a step further, to disturbing extremes. In a letter circulated to campus greek leadership, BEER's greek campaign coordinator announced that greeks "are already working on an all-greek ticket for next year. We need this election to get our foot in the door." The agenda: to get "IUSA in the hands of greeks."

I like to think of myself as a moderate, tolerant person, but I don't accept this special interest group trying to ram its deviant lifestyle down my throat. Nor, in my opinion, will most people at IU. The BEER greek coordinator, an admitted greek, told the IDS: "Anytime anything positive is said about greeks it has to be shot down. People have a natural aversion to it. ... People are always going to have something against greeks." Even he had to admit that it's natural for most people to find the greek lifestyle unacceptable.

And not without reason. Many students are alienated by the way greeks separate themselves from the mainstream of the student body, living in segregated housing which is open only to greeks. Many are turned off by their radical, "in your face" recruiting tactics: marching around campus chanting silly slogans, chalking sidewalks, painting railroad bridges with bizarre, possibly occult symbols. Murky stories of wild, debauched parties from which outsiders are prudently excluded offend the sensibilities of people who have grown up with decent traditional values. And now they want to take over IUSA and get their hands on the students' money, giving special privileges to greek activities, using IUSA as a platform to promote their lifestyle? I don't think so.

Greeks are not a legitimate minority like African-Americans or Jews. The greek lifestyle is freely chosen, not a culture you are born into. There is no reason why greeks should have special rights at IU. Nor is it possible to believe that greeks are discriminated against, given the affluent-looking housing they occupy on Third Street and North Jordan.

Now that greeks have their foot in the door of IUSA, they will want more. We can expect the development of a Hellenic Curriculum to begin recruiting below the college level, featuring root beer bong parties, instruction in the Greek alphabet beginning in first grade, and even special children's books like Heather has a Big Brother and Wendell Worships the Porcelain God, all intended to make the greek lifestyle appear normal to young children.

There is still hope, however, if concerned members of the IU community recognize this as a wakeup call. As Dan Quayle warned the 1992 Republican convention, we are being told "that every so-called lifestyle alternative is morally acceptable. That is wrong."

Multiculturalism and diversity should not go beyond the bounds of reason. It may be time to call in State Representative Woody Burton once again.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Greeks Had A Word For It

Fortunately, in the US we are able to focus on serious issues, unlike the flighty and inscrutable Koreans. (Captioning for the irony impaired: the preceding sentence was meant sarcastically, not to be taken literally. I do not consider Koreans to be either flighty or inscrutable.)

But seriously, folks, as I'm sure you already know, the hottest news item of the past few days has been the cover of the July 21 issue of the New Yorker, a caricature which depicts the Barack and Michelle Obama of the American Right (and not-so-Right)'s nightmares -- or maybe its kinkiest fantasies, who knows? He's dressed in Muslim garb, she sports a huge afro, an automatic weapon and bandolier. In their fireplace, an American flag is burning; above the mantlepiece there's a large portrait of Osama Bin Laden.

As satire it's a bit leaden, at least to my taste, but then the New Yorker has never represented the "edgy" or the avant-garde. The artist, Barry Blitt, has not impressed me before -- I thought his caricature of Iran President Ahmedinejad being foot-tapped by a guy in the next restroom stall was just fag-baiting, not interesting satire. The political cartoonist and satirist Tom Tomorrow has a good post on some of Blitt's other work.

But my goodness gracious, how the liberal blogosphere has reacted to the cover! I'm not going to give any links here. Just check out my bloglist: the people there have kept their heads, whatever they think of the cartoon, and they're as startled as I am by the general reaction to it. They've done the legwork and the discussion, if you want to follow up. It's not really surprising; so much of humor depends on whether one is the butt of it or not. And Americans don't get along well with satire in general; I think it offends our puritan sensibilities, but maybe I'll write more about that some other time.

I've had my own befuddling experience with satire. A few years I wrote a couple of columns for the student newspaper, in which I borrowed Christian-Right rhetoric and applied it to some unusual targets. In one piece I denounced (or pretended to denounce) the teaching of foreign languages as a secular-humanist, leftwing plot, and argued that bilinguals should get off the fence. (Little did I know how prophetic I was; consider the reaction Barack Obama just got for advocating the teaching of foreign languages in American elementary schools.) My editor told me she'd received an angry letter from a professor of French, enraged that I'd call bilinguals fence-sitters. In another column I denounced the fraternity system for its unnatural and radical conduct, warning that campus greeks were going to corrupt our children. That got me a threatening anonymous phone call (it was before I had Caller ID, alas), and a rebuttal by a sorority woman published in the paper, refuting me point by point. What bothered me, though, was the response I got from liberal and gay acquaintances, who took the piece literally and praised me for it: I'd shown those greek snots a thing or two!

With that in mind, I'm going to post here one of my favorite pieces by the late Ellen Willis, whose satirical writings no less than her serious political analysis taught me a great deal over the years. This piece, which appeared in the Village Voice on October 26, 1987, hasn't been reprinted as far as I know, nor is it available elsewhere on the web. Willis received a lot of angry mail for saying such awful things, but said she was bothered only by the guy who said he agreed with most of her analysis, though he thought her final recommendation (see below) was just a bit too radical. Anyway, see what you think of it:

STOP TEEN SEX: A MODESTY PROPOSAL by Ellen Willis

What else is new? The Schools Chancellor and the Board of Education President, those liberal do-gooders, want to make sex education compulsory and give out contraceptives in the high schools; outraged board members, parents, and bishops denounce this blatant promotion of Teenage Sex. The so-called compromise: no contraceptives will be dispensed, only prescriptions, and local boards can choose whether or not to teach baby-killing. Meanwhile, in New York City alone, some teenager commits a sexual act every two-and-a-half seconds.

Let's face it: everyone agrees that TS is evil, but no one has the guts to do anything about it. The liberals, of course, are hopeless. "We don't like Teenage Sex any more than you do," they whine. "But we can't turn back the clock. Sex is all over TV, in the streets, the schools, the parking lots, the closets and bathtubs of America." So, they argue, we should concentrate on preventing pregnancy and VD. Give 'em sex education, birth control, even counseling to help them "manage sex responsibly" and (God forgive us!) "have good relationships." And now our estimable Board President assures us that giving out contraceptives "tends to make youngsters less promiscuous and not more promiscuous." Sure, and if you put foxes in chicken coops they'll help sit on the eggs.

These boneheads miss the essential point: if you think you can't stop evil, that's all the more reason to punish it. Allowing teenagers to have sexual pleasure without paying for it through the nose violates the most basic principle of civilized society, to wit, "For every illicit sex act a baby, a disease, and a partner who hates you in the morning." (That goes double for girls. I'm all for equal rights, but a slut is a slut.) Conservatives understand this principle, but for some reason they're reluctant to admit it. Instead they blather on about the need to provide kids with moral values. They want schools to give lectures on chastity. Give me a break! Does anybody seriously think that if Nancy Reagan went around making a personal appeal to every high school kid in the city to just say no, the TS rate would go down one iota? Have lectures ever stopped your kids? Did they stop you?

It's time to move beyond toothless moralizing and merely negative policies like depriving kids of sex information and birth control; time, in short, to make war on TS. And the fact is, there's only one strategy that can work: making the very idea of sex so frightening that no sane teenager could enjoy it. I call this practical strategy "benign terrorism." Here are 12 suggestions for implementing it:

Define TS as child abuse. When an adult has sex with a child, it is called child abuse. Why is it any different when children abuse each other? Anyone caught committing TS should be tried as a child abuser. Pregnancy or venereal disease will of course be considered prima facie evidence of TS.

Start TS prevention at birth. Everyone used to understand that the best way to prevent Teenage Sex is to scare the shit out of children. But in recent years an unholy alliance of permissive doctors, secular humanists, condom companies, and pornography czars has obscured this basic truth with a relentless propaganda campaign. Parents have been told not to slap an infant's hand when it wanders down there, not to tell little kids to stop touching it or you'll cut it off (and older ones that they'll go blind or crazy), not to punish them for playing doctor, not to tell them sex is dirty and disgusting. We must counterattack with a high-powered media campaign designed to reach every parent with the message that the Victorians had the right idea. We must institute antisex programs in every school, nursery school, and day-care center.

Sex-segregate the schools. To prevent homosexuals from taking advantage of this reform, security guards should be stationed in bathrooms at all times. Teachers should observe students closely, and any students caught flirting should be branded "G" (see below).

Institute "pass laws" for teenagers. Under these laws, teenagers would be issued national identity cards, which they would have to carry at all times. They would be subject to a daily 4 p.m. curfew. In or out of the house they would have to be chaperoned at all times by a parent or other authorized adult. They would be forbidden to set foot in a car, since the automobile, from the teenager's point of view, is nothing but a mobile bed.

Register homosexuals and brand a "G" on their foreheads. The purpose of this measure is not to stigmatize sodomists but simply to alert parents, teachers, and others to when they need to be especially vigilant in supervising a same-sex group (as in sex-segregated schools, see above).

Institute random vaginal testing for the presence of sperm and the absence of virginity. The latter tests are sometimes unreliable, so no conclusions should be drawn before investigating a girl's history of athletic activity and tampon use.

Establish a special TS taskforce. Its duties would include running a 24-hour hotline to take TS reports; spot-checking cars, movie theaters, and apartment stairwells for illicit or unsupervised teenagers; giving out rewards to teenagers for informing on their friends, and to parents for informing on their children and their children's friends.

Bring back the chastity belt. In addition to the traditional model, designers are currently working on chastity belts for the mouth. (While belts are eminently worth trying, we should be alert to the danger of organized crime making huge profits from an underground lock-picking industry.)

Lower the legal marriage age to 12, and make marriage compulsory for anyone who commits TS. These measures alone should go a long way toward solving our problem, since a wedding automatically turns Teenage Sex into Marital Commitment. However,

TS offenders whose partners cannot be found should be jailed until they get married or turn 21. Every offender is a serious danger to the entire teenage community. It is estimated that the teenager who gets caught will, on the average, have committed 384.5 previous offenses.

Impose the death penalty for contraceptive dealers who sell to minors. I know, I know, the Supreme Court, even under Rehnquist, probably isn't ready for this. First, we would need an effective educational campaign to make the public understand that TS is highly addictive, and that the birth-control peddler is guilty of nothing less than hopelessly hooking our nation's youth.

Now I come to my last and perhaps most controversial proposal:

Castrate second offenders. This may seem harsh, but facing up to the Teenage Sex crisis is not for the fainthearted. Let us talk frankly: the crux of the problem is male lust, for as we all know, girls are uninterested in sex until boys corrupt them. I would, however, exempt from this penalty any boy who has committed TS with a girl of bad reputation. For as we all know, a boy can only be as pure as the first little whore who gives in to him.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

(Cartoon from Hankyoreh. Click here for the English translation.)

I don't know if the candlelight vigils are still going on Korea; they've been eclipsed in the news by the shooting of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean border guard on July 11, and by the resurgence of an old controversy between Korea and Japan over the islets of Dokdo, which both countries claim as their territory. It must be a slight relief for President Lee Myung-bak to have other matters in the headlines. He still has his problems, though, like resistance to the appointment of his aide Gu Bon-hong as the new head of YTN, a 24-hour Korean news channel, but Lee's allies in the National Assembly are working to stifle dissent on the Internet.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Down The Memory Hole, Chapter 6,495

Avedon Carol at The Sideshow links to this article by Glenn Greenwald, in praise of the latest book denouncing the Bush Regime for its disregard of the Rule of Law, especially with regard to torture. On one hand, Greenwald's article is accurate enough, though I can't believe that either it or the book he's praising are telling liberals anything they didn't already know about those awful men in the White House and the awful things they've done. Greenwald even says at the outset that the book "reveals several extraordinary (though unsurprising) facts regarding America's torture regime." From there he goes on to a rote sermonette on the importance of obeying the law:
This is what a country becomes when it decides that it will not live under the rule of law, when it communicates to its political leaders that they are free to do whatever they want -- including breaking our laws -- and there will be no consequences. There are two choices and only two choices for every country -- live under the rule of law or live under the rule of men.
And so on, a smooth superhighway of platitudes with which few if any could disagree. (Though one might ask about the rule of unjust laws. I seem to recall, especially in the 1960s, a broadbased bipartisan denunciation of those Americans who broke the Law of the Land when it permitted racial injustice, aggressive war against small Third World countries: if we let Martin Luther King Jr. and his minions commit civil disobedience, what will become of the Rule of Law?)

On the other hand, Greenwald's article is a shameful whitewash of American history. The closest he can come to reality is this:
Yes, I'm well aware that the U.S, like all countries, was deeply imperfect prior to 9/11, and that many of the systematic excesses of the Bush era have their genesis prior to 2001. The difference (a critical one) is that what had been acts of lawbreaking and violations of our national values have become the norm -- consistent with, rather than violative of, our express values and policies.
"Deeply imperfect" -- you have to love that. Greenwald is talking here of multiple occasions of aggression, from genocide against the American Indians through the US invasion of Vietnam and beyond, to the legal killing of a million Iraqis by sanctions imposed by the US through the United Nations. And torture too, lots and lots of it. Noam Chomsky used to drive nice liberals to distraction with his remark that if the Nuremberg principles were followed, every American president since World War II, including Jimmy Carter, would be hanged. I keep referring people to Naomi Klein's great article on "Our Amnesiac Torture Debate" -- I'm sure I've posted the link at The Sideshow more than once -- which laid out how deeply rooted torture is in American policy. I can't see, for example, how the School of the Americas (founded under one Democratic President and moved to the US from its original site in Panama under another Democratic President), represents a mere imperfect act of lawbreaking and a violation of our national values when it has been an instrument of American policy for over sixty years.

Klein is scathing on liberals' refusal to admit the unpleasant reality of American history:
Does it somehow lessen the horrors of today to admit that this is not the first time the US government has used torture to wipe out its political opponents--that it has operated secret prisons before, that it has actively supported regimes that tried to erase the left by dropping students out of airplanes? That, at home, photographs of lynchings were traded and sold as trophies and warnings? Many seem to think so. On November 8 Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott made the astonishing claim to the House of Representatives that "America has never had a question about its moral integrity, until now." Molly Ivins, expressing her shock that the United States is running a prison gulag, wrote that "it's just this one administration...and even at that, it seems to be mostly Vice President Dick Cheney." And in the November issue of Harper's, William Pfaff argues that what truly sets the Bush Administration apart from its predecessors is "its installation of torture as integral to American military and clandestine operations." Pfaff acknowledges that long before Abu Ghraib, there were those who claimed that the School of the Americas was a "torture school," but he says that he was "inclined to doubt that it was really so." Perhaps it's time for Pfaff to have a look at the SOA textbooks coaching illegal torture techniques, all readily available in both Spanish and English, as well as the hair-raising list of SOA grads. ...
The terrible irony of the anti-historicism of the current torture debate is that in the name of eradicating future abuses, these past crimes are being erased from the record. Every time Americans repeat the fairy tale about their pre-Cheney innocence, these already hazy memories fade even further. The hard evidence still exists, of course, carefully archived in the tens of thousands of declassified documents available from the National Security Archive. But inside US collective memory, the disappeared are being disappeared all over again.
I don't believe it is impossible to condemn the crimes of the Bush Regime without acknowledging the crimes of its predecessors. I think that this determined amnesia lies behind the constantly repeated assertion that "we" must "reclaim our government" and "take the country back." I remember how liberals brushed aside criticisms of Clinton's bombing of Iraq in December 1998 with laughter. In the tunnel vision of the corporate media, the only criticism allowed to be voiced was the "Wag the Dog" theory, that Clinton was killing people in order to distract attention from his impeachment. (Or maybe -- broadcast pundits aren't known for their clarity of thought -- they simply mistook any criticism of Clinton's aggression for a "Wag the Dog" theory.) I've never seen Wag the Dog, but I thought its premise was a faked war, with no one actually killed or injured; which is certainly not what happened when Clinton bombed Iraq. That a real bombing could be construed as a fake one says a lot, I think, about the American media's concern for the lives of non-Americans. It's easy to think of US atrocities as evidence of nothing more than 'deep imperfection' if you don't believe that real people were killed by them.

To brush aside real American history, with its real toll of human life, in these terms, is dishonesty as flagrant as that of Bush's defenders. Greenwald is, from what I've read of him before, not totally ignorant, and he's trying very hard. But he's not trying hard enough, and the trouble is that he's so far from alone in his whitewash of the pre-Bush past. Why is it so hard for most of Bush's critics to condemn his crimes without brushing aside the crimes of his predecessors? Why do they think that it's necessary to lie -- and they do lie -- about the history of US involvement in torture and aggression? I suppose it's partly a fear that the existence of precedents could be used by Bush to exculpate himself if he were ever brought to trial (as if that would ever happen), but it seems to go beyond that. These people really cannot bring themselves to face what their government has done, and their hatred of Bush comes down to comparatively trivial partisan sniping, aggravated by a presidential election campaign. Most of them would defend a Democratic President who did the same things. The best that can be said for the Democrats is that most Republicans would be no better: even partisanship didn't impel the Republicans who hated and ultimately impeached Clinton to bring up and condemn his most serious crimes, which didn't bother them at all.