Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Burning Down The House



Famous last words: "We've got to do something." How many times I've heard this statement from defenders of this or that bankrupt, destructive, incompetent plan. It's a sign that the speaker doesn't really know what to do, knows that the course of action he advocates is indefensible, but wants to blunder ahead anyway, regardless of the cost (to others). It's a confession of incompetence and frustration, the fury of a three-year-old trapped in the body of a nominal adult. I heard it before Clinton's assault on Bosnia, from a liberal friend. (Innocent people are being killed? Let's kill a lot more of them! It may not be a perfect plan, but we've got to do something.) I heard it after September 11, 2001, from people of all political stripes who didn't really care which ragheads the US killed, as long as some ragheads died. (So maybe the hijackers were mostly Saudis, but let's invade Afghanistan -- we've got to do something.) I'm hearing it now from people who are furious that the House of Representatives rejected Bush's bailout plan for Wall Street. (So maybe it wasn't a perfect bill -- we've got to do something.)



(Whatever happened to the claim, so beloved of American reactionaries, that you can't solve problems by throwing money at them? Or maybe they don't hope that throwing money will fix this mess; maybe they just like throwing money at Wall Street.)

Not only must We do Something, We Must Do It Now. Thinking through the situation, trying to figure out what is going on and how best to respond to it, rather than panicking; trying to do something rational rather than irrational; all this is anathema. It's important, in this view, not to think, not to consider alternatives, not to try to foresee the consequences of our actions. Rather one should hurl oneself blindly forward, pedal to the metal, over the cliff.

I'm not sure I realized it was possible for Barack Obama to sink any lower in my esteem, but he has, by collaborating with Bush and defending his program:
Obama, campaigning in the western battleground state of Nevada, said he had talked with Bush, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other leaders Tuesday about resurrecting the recovery plan. He also sought to reassure the public, saying the plan had been "misunderstood and poorly communicated."

"This is not a plan to just hand over $700 billion of your money to a few banks on Wall Street," Obama told supporters at a rally at the University of Nevada at Reno.

Obama called for cooperation between Democrats and Republicans in a time of financial crisis.
Of course, it was precisely a plan to hand over $700 billion of our money to a few banks on Wall Street. But I might be being too cynical, if that is possible anymore; Paulson may simply have wanted to funnel the $700 billion into offshore bank accounts.

Chris Floyd has a good piece on his blog and at Counterpunch. (And if you're not worried whether an image is work-safe, see the photo accompanying Pam Martens's article there. [Oops; the image can be seen here instead. But you should read Marten's article anyway.])
Read the whole thing. Floyd writes:
The New York Times called the House vote "a catastrophic political defeat for President Bush, who had put the full weight of the White House behind the measure." But this is manifestly untrue. As everyone but the nation's media -- and the Democratic Party -- knows, George W. Bush has no "political weight" to use, or lose. Yes, he still retains the authoritarian powers that the spineless Democrats have given him with scarcely a whimper of protest (and often with boundless enthusiasm); but as a political force -- i.e., someone whose opinions and statements can sway popular opinion -- he has been a dead and rotting carcass for a long time. He is the most unpopular president in American history; and I can report from first-hand, eyewitness knowledge that he is thoroughly despised by some of the most rock-ribbed, Bible-believing, flag-waving, down-home, John Wayne-loving Heartland types that you can imagine. Even his own party -- a party fashioned in his own image, the Frankensteinian melding of willfully ignorant religious primitivism and rapaciously greedy crony capitalism that he has embodied in his twerpish person -- kept him away from their convention this year.

Nothing -- absolutely nothing -- could be politically safer than opposing George W. Bush. And yet the entire Democratic leadership, Barack Obama included, lined up to support a cockamamie plan proposed by this scorned and shriveled figure, a plan that was transparently nothing more than an audacious raid on the Treasury by Big Money hoods and yet another authoritarian power grab by a gang of murderous, torturing, warmongering toadies. This was the plan and these were the people that the Democrats decided to fight for.
I want to dwell on the stupidity -- it's not too strong a word, and probably not strong enough -- of supposing, as Obama clearly does, that George W. Bush has any concern for the welfare of the American people beyond the tiny minority he once jokingly called his "base." Or of supposing that even if he did care, Bush or the corrupt gang of thugs and fixers he has gathered around him have any idea how to advance that welfare, how to repair the tremendous damage they (and Clinton and Bush Sr. and Reagan before them) have done to this country. Or of supposing that most Americans nowadays consider it honorable to aid, cooperate with, or collaborate with George W. Bush in his schemes and programs. If there were a viable alternative to vote for in November, Obama has given us all the reason we'd need to vote for that alternative. Since there is no alternative, no one should have any illusions about the man as an agent of change. (I know, I know -- Obama may not be perfect, but we've got to do something to get Bush out of the White House.)

Just as a matter of personal history, I note that Barney Frank (via Avedon Carol, who has a number of useful links) is among the Democratic leaders who supported Bush's plan and are enraged that it failed. I remember when Frank was just a closeted Massachusetts pol (I followed his career through Boston's Gay Community News); now he's openly gay, and still a creep. It would be nice if this affair put an end to the notion that the Democrats are any better than the Republicans, but that would be too much to hope for.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fannie Mae Landed on Us!


Yesterday I had a phone conversation about the Presidential campaign with another old friend -- not the same one I wrote about in the previous post, but one I've known for almost as long -- that clarified something I'd evidently been confused about.

My friend (another ambivalent Obama supporter) explained to me that whatever Obama might actually stand for or believe, he has to come across in his speeches and in the debate with McCain as a "moderate": he can't be too harsh, too critical, he can't actually call McCain on his lies, or he'll be perceived as an Angry Black Man. So he has to take a "centrist" position, he can't go too far to the left. A little light went on in my head, and I realized what was going on, not just in my friend's mind but in the minds of many other Americans. My friend was confusing "moderate" political positions with "moderate" personal presentation, or "image."

So I tried to explain this to him. In the first place, of course, Obama is not going and has never gone "to the left" at all. He'd have to swing sharply to the left even to be a centrist. His positions, as I argued here yesterday and earlier, are significantly to the right of the majority of Americans. In the course of the campaign he has made this more and more explicit.

Obama's political success, however, depends on his image, that of a black man who doesn't want to make white people feel guilty or otherwise bad about themselves, who denies that white racism is deeply rooted in American society, who is hopeful and upbeat and optimistic and will bring about the change 'we' need without seriously inconveniencing any white people. I told my friend that I don't expect Obama to do a Malcolm X imitation (he laughed at this and quoted Malcolm's "Plymouth Rock landed on us" line); it's not his style and image that I object to -- it's his political positions, the things he says he will do, that concern me.

As I've said before, this is one reason I find it useful not to watch TV or video clips of Obama's performances: so that I'm not swayed by his manner, but can attend to what he's actually saying. This puts me beyond the political pale, I know. Most Americans, despite paying lip service to "the issues", really don't seem to care about anything but the personalities (as they come across in the media) of the candidates. (Or of anyone else: I've often encountered respectable academics, for example, who respond to the careful arguments of their colleagues' publications in terms of their personalities. One, for example, dismissed a book by saying that it sounded to him as if the writer were struggling with mid-life crisis.) Because Obama has diligently crafted this non-threatening affect, both his fans and his enemies see him as liberal, even far to the left. I have to suppose that for many people, that's what "liberal" and "left" mean -- and remember that I'm talking not about the uneducated people so many liberals love to despise, but about college-educated, often professional people, including media professionals who supposedly are qualified to guide our country through the twenty-first century.

On the other hand, I suspect that if Obama (or anyone else) did occupy a real "left" position purely in terms of issues and policy, he would be perceived as an Angry Black Man no matter how gentle and mild his presentation. Case in point: Martin Luther King, Jr., a consistent advocate and practitioner of nonviolence, nevertheless scared the living shit out of most white Americans while he lived. After he was safely dead, however, even the most reactionary whites reimagined him as Mr. Sweetness and Light, who never wanted to make white people feel guilty or otherwise bad about themselves, who denied that white racism is deeply rooted in American society, who was hopeful and upbeat and optimistic and sought to bring about the change 'we' need without seriously inconveniencing any white people.

(Bill Cosby can indulge in denunciatory rhetoric without being branded an Angry Black Man, probably because his polemic is directed at his fellow African-Americans, not against whites. His earlier -- Sixties and Seventies' vintage -- criticism of white racism has been forgotten, not least by himself.)

Another case in point would be Ralph Nader, who (from the few video clips I've seen of him) isn't particularly angry or threatening in his presentation. Certainly his actual positions are threatening to the corporate interests that dominate the US political scene, but personally he's not a raving maniac. His political positions, of course, are virtually unknown to most people, but they know he's just an egomaniac who cost Al Gore the 2000 election, who doesn't care about anything except making a public spectacle of himself at the cost of the well-being of the body politic and his own dignity. It's not surprising, I guess, that people would prefer to caricature people they disagree with in this way (though I don't see how they know that they disagree, given their carefully-maintained ignorance about the others' opinions), but it says something that they choose to do the same with people they like: if I like you personally, your opinions, whatever they are, must be good ones. What would good opinions be? Who knows? Only an angry extremist would even think about such things.

This morning I found the problem well-described by M. Ioz:

Consider our situation. Barack Obama won last night's debate by speaking clearly, fluently, and like an adult about things that were palpably untrue, while John McCain kept implying that I am his friend. Obama terrifies me: an intelligent, thoughtful, well-prepared, capably extemporaneous man ascribing a future holocaust to some sort of non-existent, fantastical, steroidal Iran; talking about unsanctioned cross-border incursions into Pakistan because we found bin Laden, or some such, and must "take him out"; warbling around about "main street" while, in a lawyerly, circumlocutory way signaling that he's ultimately going to get behind hundred-billion-dollar cash bailouts to institutions that ought to be dismantled, destroyed, scattered to the wind. He wants GM to make electric cars. He wants the American people to know that he will appear before them to make extravagant xenophobic declarations in order to assuage their insecurity about the rise of other competing economies. He does this all in a calm, perfectly reasonable manner, with a convincing boardroom demeanor, and judging by the reactions of my liberal friends, with whom I listened, this was basically pleasing to them.

McCain is of course out of his mind: forgetful, vicious, reactionary. And his ideas are even crazier than BO's, but there's a certain comfort in the fact that their insanity is laid so plainly and mercilessly bare by the grinning psychopath's delivery. He provides no quarter for those who want to convince themselves that by Killing People for Their Own Good we are not actually killing them, or that by suborning corporate malfeasance we are combating it, or that by desperately seeking to maintain the geography of radial sprawl and the automobile we are seeking "energy independence."
That pretty well sums it up. I'd only stress once again that if Obama didn't express those lunatic and highly dangerous opinions, but expressed sane and constructive ones in the same calm, well-modulated boardroom manner, he'd be denounced immediately by Ioz's liberal friends (and by the corporate media, and by the Democratic leadership) as a angry man, a crazed egomaniac wacko like Ralph Nader or, say, Noam Chomsky. But not to worry: a candidate who advocated sane and constructive policies would never get past the first few primaries. I have to conclude that Americans don't want such people in politics. Once again I'm reminded of the broadcast pundit who said after the 2004 Kerry-Bush debates that Americans don't watch the debates for the candidates' stands on the issues, but to get a feeling for which one they'd want to invite home to dinner. I don't know if that's true, but if it is, we're doomed.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Obama-McCain in 2008!

Things are looking somewhat better computer-wise, though I'm still working out a lot of things. For now, here's an interesting campaign ad that has been linked in various places:



When the Democrats' Great Satan appeared, though, a thought occurred to me and I looked for his birthdate. Nader is older than McCain. On the other hand, Nader's running mate is no Sarah Palin.

Anyway, this witty little clip is a depressing reminder that the current Presidential campaign is not about issues, not even about issues that matter to most Americans. One old friend of mine, who's opposed to McCain and wary of Obama (though not as wary as I am), protested to me that while Obama's not perfect, she and I are just atypical of most voters (true enough) and that what we want is not what most Americans want, so we should not be too critical or pessimistic about Obama. I was momentarily boggled by that, because it shows how well even aware and informed people are misled by the propaganda in which we marinate all day, every day whether we mainline the corporate media or not.

The fact is that most Americans want the US to withdraw from Iraq; most Americans want, if not a single-payer health care plan, at least something closer to one than the subsidy to the insurance companies favored by Obama; most Americans are skeptical of "free trade" as the term is used by McCain and Obama; most Americans want George Bush impeached. Contrary to the denunciations of "elitism" that come from most of the Democratic loyalists I've argued with, the real elitists are these two candidates and the party machines that are forcing them down our throats.

It's a home-game weekend in Bloomington, so the white American hordes have descended on the city once again. Last night I was hanging around on the street with some friends, and a passerby who'd stopped to buy a slice of pizza from a stand outside Rockit's Pizza suddenly threw a tantrum over a homeless man a few feet away. "Why doesn't he get a job at McDonald's?" the guy (white, about 40, probably college-educated, probably an IU alum) fumed. I suggested that the homeless man should be given a job as CEO of a financial corporation for $2 or 3 million a year instead; he'd surely be as qualified as the men who run them now. "But you have to have an education for that!" he blustered. I disagreed -- sure, they probably all have MBAs, but we see how well they've managed their businesses over the past few decades. The Angry Guy accused me of being an Obama supporter, which I denied: I don't like either Obama or McCain, I corrected him, and so he changed the subject back to McDonald's. But you know, dear reader, John McCain has never held a real job in his life (via), not the kind of job you have to apply for and be qualified for, and for which you might be turned down. He isn't qualified to do anything but marry money and accept corporate support, which of course he does very well. If Cindy dumped him and his corporate and party fans cut off the funds, McCain could easily end up sleeping in a box and begging for coins on the street too: "Disabled Veteran -- Please Help."

Speaking of Paulson's bailout plan, I wanted to quote too this wonderful comment by one of John Caruso's readers at A Distant Ocean: "The $700 billion may be a little high. Actually, once the oil starts flowing again, the bailout will pay for itself. I predict people on Wall Street will greet us as liberators!" As John said, Nice.

P.S. Not so Nice is this bit from a New York Times article on the bailout plans, linked derisively by Amygdala (who appends it to excerpts from another NYT article in which Aaron Sorkin imagines Barack Obama meeting Jed Bartlet of The West Wing; the article, also linked by Nicola Griffith, is well below-average stuff -- see Dennis Perrin's latest post for better satire):

[...] Under a so-called claw-back provision, the secretary would have the power to force companies to recoup previous payments to executives of companies involved in the program. And Mr. Frank’s plan would give broad authority for the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, to audit and oversee the program.

But Mr. Paulson said that he was concerned that imposing limits on the compensation of executives could discourage companies from participating in the program.


If the companies don't want to participate, let them go under -- or, if that would do too much damage to the economy, the government can seize them and dispose of them and their executives as the law and the situation require. I think it needs to be brought home to the incompetents and criminals who have brought about this crisis that they are responsible for it, and they're not in a good position to lay down conditions about it now.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Freedom of Speech She Denies to Her Own People

Whatever It Is, I'm Against It has some brief quotations from the text of the speech Sarah Palin was going to give at the United Nations to protest the appearance there of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Does participating in a protest rally make her one of those violent left-wing wackos? Where were the police when these tree-hugging liberal Nazis were bringing chaos and terror to the streets of New York?) But Hillary Clinton withdrew from the rally when she learned of Palin's intended appearance, so Palin was disinvited. The rally went on without either of them.

The text of Palin's speech was released, and has been posted at Haaretz. It's standard US screeching, denouncing Ahmadinejad as a "dictator" and of wanting to be "an agent in a 'Final Solution' - the elimination of the Jewish people. ... On our soil, he will exercise the right of freedom of speech - a right he denies his own people." Given the repression and police violence against peaceful demonstrators at the Republican National Convention (which is not without precedent in the US), Palin really is in no position to cast the first stone.

As so many people have pointed out, Ahmadinejad is not a dictator. He was elected to office, and isn't even the chief political force in Iran. Granted, elections aren't always a guarantee of democracy; as Chris Floyd noted ironically,
I'm well aware that Iran's nominal democracy is highly circumscribed, with potential candidates rigorously vetted by unelected elites, pruning anyone who might seriously challenge the system, thus leaving voters with a very limited choice between safe, "serious" Establishment figures. I agree that it would be just awful to live under a system like that!

How strange it all is. Consider this fact: There is a Jewish member in the Iranian parliament, a legislature elected by universal suffrage for men, women and every ethnicity and religion. Is there a Jewish member in the Iraqi parliament, which was established and is maintained by American guns? No; but the American-backed Iraqi parliament has just formally condemned one of its members for the heinous crime of attending a conference in Israel. They lifted his immunity, which could be tantamount to a death sentence in the Hobbesian hellhole that the American invasion has created there. In other words, in Iran, a Jew can be a member of the government; but in Iraq, a member of government cannot even meet a Jew without official condemnation.

Is there a Jewish member of the Saudi parliament, a legislature elected by universal suffrage for men, women and every ethnicity and religion? Oh wait; the Bush Family's longtime business partners don't have one of those. Is there a Jewish member in the parliament of America's staunch ally, the authoritarian regime in Egypt? No. Is there a Jewish legislator in the kingdom of Kuwait, run by yet another gang of Bush Family business partners? No. In the United Arab Emirates, launching pad for U.S. military adventures throughout the region? No. In Libya, the Anglo-American oil barons' new best friend? No.

For Sarah Palin -- or for Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose speech would no doubt have been equally honest and subtle -- to denounce Iran as a threat to world peace, in view of the US' track record in aggression and terrorism, is ... well, business as usual. Or maybe I'm just missing the irony in Haaretz' article -- maybe the speech was their own satirical send-up of the wacky new Republican Vice-Presidential candidate. No one could actually have meant to utter such tripe, could they? Maybe Haaretz is the Israeli equivalent of The Onion.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Service Advisory

(Photo from The Hankyoreh: A Communist North Korean infiltrator in the pay of Kim Jong-il delivers a brutal Tae Kwon Do kick to freedom-loving ROK President Lee Myeong-bak. Democracy trembles.)

My laptop succumbed to a cola spill, so posting will be light to nonexistent while I work on replacing it.

There's an interesting article at The Hankyoreh, though, about the Lee administration's latest attempt to restore the ethos of more authoritarian times.

The Ministry of Unification demanded that the term “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North be described as a “policy of reconciliation and cooperation,” in public school history textbooks, one of a number of revisions suggested by the ministry.

"Sunshine policy" is the term used by former President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) for his policy of (yes) reconciliation and cooperation with the North. His successor, Noh Mu-hyeon (2003-2008) followed the same approach. So the Ministry's changes were a move to bring school textbooks into line with the new regime, and to rewrite history, just a little. The demands were met with criticism, which led to a very familiar kind of backpedaling:

As the controversy intensified, the Unification Ministry changed its stance, saying that both “sunshine policy” and “policy of reconciliation and cooperation” could be used in the textbooks. On September 21, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun said that rather than demanding the use of the official term, this was a request to use both the official term and the nickname together, with a phrase like: the policy of reconciliation and cooperation by the administration of Kim Dae-jung, which is also known as the sunshine policy. The ministry spokesman said there was no relationship between requesting to change the term and whether the current administration would fulfill the spirit of the sunshine policy or not.

The Korea Times reported this matter somewhat differently:

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology said Monday that it will "straighten the facts'' in history textbooks that allegedly promote the left-of-center viewpoint championed by the liberal government of the past 10 years.

The move comes on the heels of 3,732 requests from 19 government departments and conservative organizations to revise the content of the textbooks. ...

The ministry said the new history textbook will aim to give more pride to students rather than focus on criticism.

Among the changes proposed are moves to provide "
more positive appraisal of two controversial Presidents ― Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan emphasizing their economic achievements" rather than their brutal repression of dissent, and referring to the 1948 Jeju uprising as the "Jeju Riot." Other complaints have targeted statements in textbooks like:

"Korea’s liberation by the victory of the allied nations after World War II hampered establishment of our people’s new government," which could be considered anti-American, and that "'the 'Saemaul Movement' was used to justify the dictatorship of President Park Chung-hee." Also, contents such as "Too much liberty in economic market drives a bigger gap between the haves and have-nots" was requested to be revised.

"Distorted historical facts and misleading views in textbooks should be corrected. We expect publishers of the problematic textbooks to correct the books spontaneously," a ministry official said. "If publishers do not listen to our requests, we will enforce our legal authority."

Well, let's see. The first two quotations are true; I guess reality has an anti-American bias
. The third quotation is at least arguable, as Americans have seen in our own country.

Lee's administration is also trying to intimidate citizens to prevent further outbreaks of democracy in the streets:

With police launching an investigation of members of the “Baby Carriage Brigade,” a group of housewives who brought their children to the candlelight protests against U.S. beef, protests from civic groups, netizens and opposition parties are growing stronger. In particular, considering how the investigation is not against a few radical protesters but rather against ordinary housewives who used peaceful means to express their opinion, there is criticism that the police have launched the investigation to frighten people in order to “dry up the seeds of the candlelight protests.”

The three women who'd been called in for "questioning" held a press conference to protest the government's action.

Speaking at the National Assembly the same day, Eo Cheong-soo, the chief of the National Police Agency, announced he would review the cases of the three women for possible indictment on charges of child abuse. One of the women under investigation is suspected of using her baby carriage to block the movement of a police water cannon vehicle.

I'd like to see what that looked like. Maybe something like this?



These video clips from China in 1989 make an interesting comparison to Korea in 2008, especially given the conservative Korean and American hysteria about "violence", "anarchy," and "rioting" in the anti-beef import protests. This is what violence in the streets looks like, folks.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Poetry Friday - A Poem for the Person That This Person Is For

A POEM FOR THE PERSON THAT THIS PERSON IS FOR

I always hoped that I could seduce you by singing a love song,
opening myself up so wide that you would fall into my heart,
focusing on my delivery so tightly
that you would be waiting for me after my set
with readiness in your eyes.
And here you are indeed,
but only to ask for my autograph.

--April 27, 1971

Doing well in a writing contest boosted my confidence, and I continued playing around with form and voice. (I almost said "experimenting with", but that sounds more pretentious than even I am ready to be.) In the spring of 1971 I fell into another unrequited crush on a kid in the folkie circle I'd been hanging out with, and out of sheer frustration began coming out. I'd already been writing coded gay poems, and now I began getting a little bolder, not only in the page but in songs and performing. By the time I wrote this one, I'd already told most of my straight friends (I didn't know any gay people at the time), helped by the knowledge that I was leaving town for Bloomington in the fall. Whether it's any good I have no idea, having less confidence in my judgment of poetry as I get older, but thirty-seven years later I can still feel what it says.

A Man Going 'Round Taking Names


I’ve been reading William Anthony Nericcio’s Tex[t]-Mex: seductive hallucinations of the “Mexican” in America (University of Texas, 2007), and just finished the chapter on Rita Hayworth, baroquely titled “When Electrolysis Proxies for the Existential: A Somewhat Sordid Meditation on What Might Occur if Frantz Fanon, Rosario Castellanos, Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Spivak, and Sandra Cisneros Asked Rita Hayworth Her Name at the Tex[t]-Mex Beauty Parlor.” One of the leitmotifs of his text, you see, is the protracted and very painful course of electrolysis Hayworth (born Margarita Cansino) was forced to undergo by the movie studio to raise her hairline and make her look less “Mexican.” Before she was “discovered” by Hollywood, like America by Columbus, she had performed as a dancer in Tijuana with her father, who dyed her hair black to make her look more “Mexican.” Another leitmotif is the name change, adding a “y” to her mother’s maiden name (Haworth) so that movie audiences would know how to pronounce it.

So, I’ve been wondering about this obsessive focus on things like names. I realize, of course, what a minefield I’m tiptoeing into just by saying something like “things like names.” Is a name a “thing”? What other “things” are “like” names? And so on; even to acknowledge such questions is to adopt the manner of the style of academic writing Nericcio practices. He has a major boner for the late Jacques Derrida, whom I have not yet begun to read, and I often sensed, while reading “When Electrolysis Proxies for the Existential,” that Hayworth was just grist for Nericcio’s application of Derrida – that he was using her no less than Harry Cohn did, or her first husband Ed Judson, or her incestuous father, or her second husband Orson Welles. Nericcio is aware of this on some level, but that doesn’t keep him from doing it. In all of this he’s typical of his profession, though he’s more entertaining than most: a frothy, name-dropping writer, indeed something of an academic gossip columnist -- given to sometimes amusing and informative asides and digressions. There’s one, for example, involving a chat-fight among Derrida, John Searle, and Michel Foucault (pages 100-102), and a brief mention of fellow-scholar Rosario Castellano’s gruesome death that could have appeared in the National Enquirer (88), to say nothing of Cansino/Hayworth’s sexual abuse by her father (89).

But I, too, digress: I meant to talk about names. What with her brutal father and the tortuous regime of electrolysis, I’d say changing her name was the least of Cansino/Hayworth’s problems. Reading Nericcio you’d get the impression that only “Latins” were expected to assimilate their names; maybe he assumes that his readers would know how routine this was and is in the entertainment industry. But of course Jews had to do it too. To name just a few: Jacob Julius Garfinkle, Mendel Berlinger, Nathan Birnbaum, Allan Stewart Konigsberg, Betty Joan Perske, Bernard Schwartz, Issur Danielovitch, and especially interesting in this context, silent film star Jacob Krantz, who Hollywood figured would sell better as “Latin lover” Ricardo Cortez. (This pattern isn’t limited to actors, as exemplified by screenwriter, novelist and pseudo-philosopher Alisa Zinovievna Rosenbaum.)

Anglo goyim were put through the same meat grinder, not just of renaming but of cosmetic adjustment: Marion Robert (or Michael) Morrison, Virginia Katherine McMath, Ruby Catherine Stevens, Myrna Adele Williams, Norma Jeane Mortenson / Baker, Leonard Franklin Slye and Frances Octavia Smith, Frances Ethel Gumm, Archie Leach, Lucille Fay LeSeuer, and Roy Harold Scherer Jr. (More recently, the young American actor Kalpen Suresh Modi found that he got more work by shortening his Indian name to Kal Penn. And this sketchy Wikipedia article is a reminder of the different uses that pseudonyms have had, historically and cross-culturally.)

As a child of the Sixties, I must also cite the great riddlemaker Robert Zimmerman, a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota who entranced folk-music purists with his "authentic" performance as the reincarnation of Dust Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie -- before he changed masks again and became a gothic rocker, a country singer, a born-again Christian, and finally the institution Bob Dylan himself. On October 31, 1964, he told an audience that had grown restive at some of his newer, non-protest songs, "It's just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on."

I’ve noticed that a lot of people (including me, to be scrupulously fair) are intensely ambivalent about Hollywood. On one hand it’s the great maker of myths that shapes and inspires our fantasies and taught us how to dream, a cornucopia of imagination and glamour and spectacle; on the other hand it’s a narrow ambit of lies, with its small-town America that never was, its bigoted stereotyping of women, foreigners, people of color, and gay people. On the third hand, some would claim Hollywood as reality and role model. In the documentary The Celluloid Closet, Tony Curtis declares: “Movies are part of my life, part of everybody’s life. That’s where we learn about life. Watching Cary Grant taught me how to behave with a woman, how to get dressed at night, how to go to a restaurant and order dinner.” The Celluloid Closet is an especially vivid case of this ambivalence, exalting Hollywood as “that great maker of myths” only in order to complain that Hollywood was a bad mother who never really loved us.

Tex[t]-Mex, I think, is similarly confused. Insofar as Margarita Dolores Cansino wanted to get into Hollywood, she was entering a maze of mirrors as disorienting as the one she’d later inhabit in The Lady from Shanghai. One didn’t sign a contract with a major studio in order to fulfill oneself, but to lose oneself; not to express one’s true being but to be made over; not to become a human being but a star, the product of a huge commercial enterprise; to be redefined by that enterprise and fenced in by it (with all the constraint and protection the term implies); to have not a self but an image. Cansino would have had some idea what she was getting into, having appeared in numerous B-movie vehicles under her own name before the big boys took her on and took her over. It was a Faustian bargain.

It seems strange to me that people would demand authenticity, reality, integrity from Hollywood -- or from entertainment generally. There’s a reason why Puritans have always denounced the theatre, even apart from its historical association with lewd displays and prostitution: what offends them most profoundly is people pretending to be someone they aren’t, wearing masks, using fake voices and accents, parroting words written for them by others. Men pretending to be women, women pretending to be men. Often the artificiality is an end in itself.

So it becomes odd to insist, or even to suggest, that the studios should have let Margarita Cansino keep her father’s name, her natural hairline, her natural hair color. Should she also have been forbidden to play Anglos? I sympathize with those who have demanded that “Asians” should play “Asians,” and earlier the objections to white performers in blackface playing blacks, and nowadays there is controversy over straight actors playing gay or lesbian characters. There are social, political dimensions to these questions that I don’t mean to brush aside. But I still think that these criticisms ultimately lead to a cul-de-sac, a literalism that is at odds with the worlds of fantasy that art and entertainment are supposed to open for us. And if those of us who have previously been marginalized are allowed into the Magic Kingdom and given the controls, will the dreams and fantasies we create be any better?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Prejudiced In Favor Of Prejudice

It's been a long time since I thought open-mindedness was much of a virtue. So much depends on what it's supposed to mean. In heterosexual personal ads, it usually seems to be code for something like "interested in a one-man, two-woman threesome" or "willing to accept oral sex from a woman as long as she doesn't expect reciprocation."

On the ethical and political fronts, I think it was during the late 1980s that I began to notice increasing numbers of people who accused me (or others) of being closed-minded because I rejected long-discredited arguments for racism, sexism, or anti-gay bigotry. No doubt this was because I was getting older and had heard those arguments before, while they may well have been new to the mostly younger people who were offering them to me. Sometimes I'd encounter the half-serious accusation that I was "prejudiced against prejudice." After the first time or two I would simply invite my accuser to offer me some good reasons to be in favor of prejudice, which usually shut them up.

I do think it's important to be open to new evidence and arguments. The trouble is that I so seldom encounter new ones -- one of the pitfalls, not just of getting older, but of being a wide-ranging reader. In fact, when someone does have something new to say on important issues, even if I disagree with it, I'm genuinely pleased. But in the meantime I agree with Avedon at The Sideshow: "When it comes to being open-minded, I'd like to draw the line at trusting the views of people who have shown themselves to be consistently wrong." It is not closed-minded, even in principle, to dismiss worthless arguments you've heard dozens of times before.

But that cuts several ways. Avedon links to this blog post, which in turn refers to postings about "being opened minded and whether Democrats need to look at how they treat small town Americans. An interesting point about what it means to be respectful and willing to listen to others who have views that differ from yours was from EconTech who brought up the subject of why it might be dangerous to you to listen to someone who was factually wrong.
Thus, when I run into someone who is willing to believe that the universe is a few thousand years old, I recognize that they are incapable of making judgements based on evidence, and anything they say to me, if I listen to them enough, will begin to ring true. That I have good reason to believe their opinions more likely than not to be wrong, listening to them would be a mistake. A literal corruption of the mind that I, knowing this to be possible, should take action to avoid.
The blogger then draws a connection to the current election campaign:
That is why John McCain is running such an aggressively false campaign. The big lie works because when it is repeated so often it becomes true in your mind. It is this aspect that has caused too many Americans to "believe" Obama is Muslim despite all the evidence to the contrary. And it is frightening to realize that what the Republicans are doing could work its poison into the body politic enough to let him "win".
(Why are "believe" and "win" in quotation marks here? I'm rather closed-minded about people who can't do basic punctuation.) All very well, but of course Obama's campaign wants you to believe that Obama is a progressive who will bring about change, even though his record and most of his stated positions are reactionary. Contrary to this blogger, someone who believes that the universe is only a few thousand years old may be quite capable of forming judgments based on evidence in domains that directly affect his or her life. The age of the universe really is not of much importance to most people, and I haven't found that most people who hold that it is billions of years old have examined the evidence all that carefully either.

But given this blogger's judgments about people, what should I make of an Obama advocate who tells me that Obama will end the war in Iraq, when there is ample evidence that Obama means to maintain the US occupation there, accepts the Republican account of the progress of the war, wants to extend the war in Afghanistan, and possibly to Iran and Pakistan as well? What should I make of an Obama advocate who assures me that "Obama will help the Progressive idea" by listening "to what we have to say and not shuffle us off in a label box", but offers absolutely no evidence in support of this claim? Why should I trust Obama advocates who clearly have no idea what their candidate has said and done or what he stands for, but still demand that I vote for him because he'll make everything better?

I certainly agree that McCain is running a "false campaign" (which I take to mean a campaign built on falsehoods), and I don't want to see him and Palin "win" or even win the election. But I'm not so sure that Obama's campaign isn't false also. I see plenty of reasons not to trust him, and his supporters have done nothing to allay my concerns. I don't think that's closed-minded of me, but if it is, I think I can live with it.

As for respectful treatment of small-town Americans, I would first want to point out that I am a small-town American by birthright. Beyond that, the Daily Show, as usual, said it best.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Best F#@king News Team Ever - Small Town Values
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Big Mama

One of the most remarkable Korean music groups I've encountered is Big Mama: four women, all (I think) in their thirties, and all utterly ravishing singers. I can't remember whether someone recommended them to me, or if I took a chance on a CD I found online. Start with an intricate and witty music video for "Break Away" (note the surprise at about 3:05):



Follow with a live performance of "Woman". The sound level is a bit low, but the power of their singing comes through:



Then the video of one of my favorites among their songs, "Sori":



I think it's a safe bet they started singing in church:



There's a fair amount of other material by them on YouTube, too. Look 'em up.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Palin The Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush

I'd heard that Tina Fay would be impersonating Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, bless her heart, with Amy Poehler reprising her version of Hillary Clinton. (From Tennessee Guerilla Women, via Sideshow.)



Not bad, not bad at all, but it didn't have me exactly rolling on the floor. I'm a hard sell, I admit. I just prefer this bit of Fay's from last winter:



But here's something interesting, courtesy of my old friend Nancy: an anti-Palin rally in Anchorage drew over fourteen hundred people, making it (according to the blogger) "the biggest political rally ever, in the history of the state." Very good work, by grass-roots organizers too. It reminds me of something...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I'm Not a Sodomitical Brute, But My Wedded Brother Is!


Raymond Williams began his great book The Country and the City with a genealogy of nostalgia for a lost time when honest farmers could earn a living on their own land. Moving backward from the 19th century, he showed how each generation liked to imagine that it was uniquely corrupt and fallen; each poet celebrated the pure old yeomen of his childhood, who'd known freedom and justice in their day. But the poets of those yeomen's youth had written virtually the same laments, which Williams traced back to Vergil and beyond. I believe I could do the same with "innocent friendship": each generation believes that it invented sodomy and sapphism and smirking suspicion, imagining that its forebears celebrated spiritual comrades without having to defend them against accusations of such icky new practices.

One of the most astounding examples I’ve found of this was in an online review of the Disney animated feature The Fox and the Hound 2. Mike Pinsky of DVD Verdict wrote of the original cartoon, “In these post-Brokeback Mountain days, it is hard to see Copper and Tod's friendship—their playful wrestling, their longing looks at one another, their efforts to create satisfying relationships with other characters to substitute for their inability to be together—in a completely innocent fashion. But that is neither here nor there.” Is it? Pinsky was saying that because of Ang Lee’s successful film, he could no longer see the frolicking of two talking animals in a children’s animated cartoon as “completely innocent.” To quote Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, “That is – how you say – your neurosis.”

But it’s not just his neurosis. My guess, and right now it’s only a guess, is that a person’s ability to view same-sex affection as “innocent” depends on autobiographical and historical accidents, such as seeing a breakthrough queer film like Brokeback Mountain. But there doesn’t seem to have ever been a time when friends were safe from gay-baiting interpretations of their friendship. It’s well-known that the Oscar Wilde scandal of the 1890s and the increasing medicalization of sexuality, which happened at the same time, cast a pall on expressions of affection between persons of the same sex. Yet J. R. R. Tolkien was still able, in the middle of the twentieth century, to write about such affection while relying on his audience not to snicker and giggle too much. Maybe he could do so because he set his story in a galaxy long ago and far away.

But everywhere I looked in European history, I found suspicion (or the fear of suspicion) of “innocent” friendship. From Catullus’ enraged poem defending the innocence of his kisses with Juventius (expressed, typically enough, in a threat to rape, anally and orally, those who had teased him, whom he in turn accused of being fags) to the assassination of Edward II (was he killed with a red-hot poker in his rectum for being a sodomite, or is that all a later rumor?), to the Ladies of Llangollen (were they innocent romantic friends, as they worked very strenuously to establish -- or were they, as Hester Thrale grumbled, a couple of dirty Sapphists from whom no woman’s virtue was safe?) Margreta De Grazia has shown (Shakespeare verbatim: the reproduction of authenticity and the 1790 apparatus, Clarendon Press, 1991) how late 18th century editors of Shakespeare’s sonnets suddenly recognized with horror that the Bard had written love poems to, like, a guy. Robert Tobin notes (in O'Donnell, Katherine; O'Rourke, Michael (editors) Queer masculinities 1550-1800: siting same-sex desire in the early modern world, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 30):

But in fact eighteenth-century readers objected to the tone of the more demonstrative male-male letters, suggesting that they were not completely innocent in their own era. Ann Louise Karsch's critique of the effusive Briefe von den Herren Gleim und Jacobi [Letters of the Messieurs Gleim and Jacobi] shows that the language of friendship was provocative in its own day: ‘There are too many kisses in this work to avoid slander, suspicion and mockery.’ Similar concerns greeted Muller's letters to Karl Victor von Bonstetten, which are monuments to the cult of friendship. They were so tender and intimate that their editor had to reassure readers that this friendship was ‘of the strictest, purest virtue’ and was ‘in every other respect identical to that friendship that produced the best and greatest things in antiquity.’

More recently there have been attempts to “defend” Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Willa Cather against suggestions that they had sexual feelings for their own sex. Whether or not they did so, the revealing thing is that the suggestions are seen as accusations.

The late Alan Bray's posthumously published The Friend (Cambridge, 2002) is a recent statement of the Great Homosocial Hope that bids fair to influence discussion of gay history for years to come. It's an account of sworn friendship or brotherhood in English history, structured around descriptions and discussions of the shared tombs of several pairs of sworn friends. Bray, a pioneering gay scholar, proposed to follow the evidence into the heart of same-sex love, boldly going where no modern historian had gone before, to try to solve one of the enduring puzzles of gay history: the amazingly effusive language and gestures that, in England a few centuries ago, could be used publicly to declare one's love for someone of one's own sex. Even with Henry VIII's draconian sodomy law fresh on the books, the Elizabethan period seems saturated with the public expression of men's passion for other men. Bray gave a great deal of attention to these flowery outpourings of love, which a few centuries later would be made only in secret, but were in their own day collected and proudly published.

Despite Bray's diligent efforts to minimize the importance of sworn brotherhood as a personal relation (as opposed to a social, religious, and political relation, which it is also – he’s much given to the false antithesis), his readings of his source material are generally sensitive; even when I disagree with him, his clarity makes it easier to spot where he went wrong, for the evidence he marshals virtually cries out against his interpretations.

Bray's opening salvo should evoke feelings of déjà vu by now: "The inability to conceive of relationships in other than sexual terms says something of contemporary poverty" (6). This is disingenuous, to put it gently. No one nowadays, as far as I know, conceives of all relationships -- not even all friendships -- "in sexual terms". Compare Nathan Shumate's equally hysterical "the modern lens, wherein every display of affection must be interpreted sexually," which I quoted a week ago. Bray's contemporaries and mine are quite capable of conceiving of non-sexual relationships, indeed of defending fiercely the chastity of the historical and fictional people involved in them, and of imputing the basest motives to those who read them erotically.

The fancy that Shakespeare and the Fair Youth were playing Hide-the-Weenie, however, was only part of what thrilled so many gay men who encountered these effusions. There was also the emotional aspect: not only did we have a history, but it encompassed more than mere furtive genital encounters. And then there was the public declaration of passionate love: not only did men love each other, they could declare that love aloud, publicly. They could even formalize their love with blessings and vows. These readings were often naive, mistaken, unhistorical -- but they were not malign.

Antigay readers, by contrast, want to separate sex and love in same-sex love. Not only must same-sex love be unaccompanied by genital contact, but same-sex genital contact must be unaccompanied by love, or by any kind of emotion at all. (Except perhaps for paralyzing guilt and suicidal self-loathing.) Those men (or women) who did commit 'sodomy' must have been the crazed degenerates they were declared to be by churchmen, cops, and judges, copulating brutally without any other human connection, because "homosexuality" hadn't been invented yet. (Bray, 186: "the conventions of friendship were set a world away from the wild sin of Sodom by the placid orderliness of the relationships they expressed.") This is made easier by the fact that so much of our information about sodomites comes from records of Church and secular courts, which focus on acts and ignore feelings, or from other hostile sources such as Juvenal's Satires and the caricatures of English mollies by freelance religious fanatics; but in some cases we possess love letters and diaries of those same sodomites, so we really do know better. It's understandable why bigots would prefer to ignore this material, but not why contemporary queers (let alone queer scholars) should wish to do so.

The issue is complicated by those who see a sexual relationship, especially between people of the same sex, as a dirty joke; but the proper response to such people is not to deny that sexual relationships occur -- to insist, as it were, that Frodo and Sam are so fit to eat with the hogs. The proper target for Bray's disapproval is not those folks who, however mistakenly, believe that Batman and Robin Did It, but rather those who deny that sexual love between two males or females can exist. I think Bray would have agreed with me on this point, but unfortunately in writing his book he fell back reflexively upon the bigotry of the Roman Catholic Church into whose vile and clammy embrace he had been "received" in 1985.

Let me throw down the gauntlet in response: It's entirely reasonable, given cultural mappings of the sexual and non-sexual in the contemporary US and Britain (which are no less valid than their counterparts in other times and places), for twenty-first century persons to be brought up short by accounts of men kissing each other, embracing, addressing passionate romantic language to each other, sharing a bed, getting jealous when one shows interest in a woman, and arranging to be buried in the same tomb. Such behavior, while not necessarily erotic in itself, is a marker of the erotic in US culture today. When a man and a woman behave like this, almost everyone would assume that their relationship is sexual. Everyone might be wrong, of course: a major part of the problem before us is the ambiguity of the erotic, both in life and in discourse.

Not only that, such behavior was a marker of the erotic in the past -- when it occurred between males and females. The inability to conceive of relationships between men and women in other than sexual terms is the historical, cross-cultural norm: hence chaperonage, purdah, and similar customs. In nineteenth-century England, an unrelated male and female of breeding age, left alone together for any length of time, invited gossip at least. No one seems to suppose that in the "Dark Lady" sonnets, Shakespeare was merely indulging in conventional rhetoric about a heterosexual passion that he didn't really feel. No, those poems are assumed to be transparently autobiographical, referring to a genital relationship replete with exchanged bodily fluids. It is the "Fair Youth" sonnets that are assumed to be "innocent", obviously intended to express no erotic feeling whatever -- unless they are appropriated for heterosexual use, in which case they are obviously erotic. (No one seems to have got in a snit over the [hetero]sexualizing of the "Fair Youth" sonnets in the movie Shakespeare in Love.)

Finally, this language and behavior also signified eroticism between persons of the same sex. Even in times and places where loving friendship was celebrated, it was also suspect and had to be defended, generally with indignant huffing about people who insist on seeing everything in terms of sex, sex, sex. What Bray called "the inability to conceive of relationships in other than sexual terms", what Nathan Shumate called "the modern lens, wherein every display of affection must be interpreted sexually," is not a specifically modern phenomenon at all. It is probably as old as sworn friendship (which means, very old indeed), and rears its head just when such friendship is ubiquitous.

The language and behavior of "sexual love" and "spiritual friendship" are not identical, but they overlap considerably. Friendship often uses the language and gestures of erotic love. (The reverse is also true, but since this fact is generally used to deny the erotic elements of friendship, it is necessary to stress the erotic here.) Erotic love often uses the language of kinship, referring to the beloved as a sibling; nowadays among English speakers parental language is the norm: "baby" and "mama / daddy." Friendship also uses the language and gestures of parental love, and religion often uses all of them, including the erotic. Look at orthodox "spiritualizing" interpretations of the biblical Song of Songs. No one really doubts that its imagery is erotic, but for centuries the official line was that it was 'really' an allegory of Christ's spiritual chubby for his bride the Church, or Yahweh's for his bride Israel. (Isn't Israel supposed to be a guy? Is that gay, or what? Hindu scholars, it should be noted, have tried to `spiritualize' the erotic exploits of the god Krishna in much the same way.)

So this is where Bray went wrong. It's not that eroticism has been placed at the center of all human relationships, but that erotophobes have tried to exclude the erotic completely. As Mark D. Jordan wrote in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago, 1997, p. 175):

Most Christian moralists have regarded celibacy as the higher calling, the fullness of Christian response to God. Marriage was permitted, though not recommended, for the continuation of the species and as a concession to human weakness in the present day. But no such concession needed to be made for same-sex love, so the entire force of condemnation – including the surplus of force left over from the concession to marriage – could be brought to bear on it. The irrational force of the Christian condemnation of Sodomy is the remainder of Christian theology’s failure to think through the problem of the erotic.

Those of us who insist that the erotic has a legitimate place in human relationships are then, unsurprisingly, accused of being obsessed with sex. "To select one element as the substance -- or to discount others as mere rhetoric -- would be to fail to do justice to the plain insistence of these expressions, however confusing or conceptually difficult they may appear to us, half a thousand years later" (Bray, 83); but Bray himself selected the spiritual and social elements of sworn brotherhood as its substance, while discounting the erotic as mere rhetoric. Only erotophobes need to draw the line so sharply.

It won't work to claim that this language or rhetoric didn't signify (homo)eroticism at the time, because it did. We find the same poem by Shakespeare or Michelangelo, sometimes with troubling pronouns changed, used as an ode to same-sex friendship and as a heteroerotic lyric; or the attempted heterosexualization of Sappho, which included recasting her poems to girls as poems to boys; or, as with Walt Whitman, names blotted and pronouns changed in a private diary to make the object of his desire seem to be female. Perhaps this is merely a result of "the limits of language", as Bray says. But if it is, how interesting that those "limits" should be situated just here.

Some may wish to argue that context determined how these gestures were read: a man and woman kissing and embracing just naturally are erotic, while two men or two women doing the same just as naturally and obviously are not -- at least not in the innocent past, before modern sexual interpretations came along. If that were so, then we wouldn't get the misreadings and the expurgations. Indeed, the supposed "modern sexual interpretation" would never have arisen. But it is false, so obviously false that it constitutes further evidence of the erotophobic blinders through which Bray and others choose to peer at the world.

When someone assures you that a given passionate friendship was "of the strictest, purest virtue" and that the friends involved never even thought of sodomy or sapphism, the proper response is: How do you know? The burden of proof lies on the person who insists on universal exclusive heterosexuality against the evidence. Speculating that Edward II and Gaveston, or Frodo and Sam, or Bert and Ernie, might have been boyfriends, does not involve an "inability to conceive of relationships in other than sexual terms". Quite the opposite: it involves an ability to see same-sex erotic bonds as desirable. It also requires bucking the homophobic current and braving the righteous indignation, and vituperative fury, of straights and gays alike.

In his essay “‘My Beautiful Wickedness’: The Wizard of Oz as Lesbian Fantasy” (reprinted in Flaming classics: queering the film canon, Routledge, 2000) the film critic Alexander Doty wrote (52-3):

… after reading a draft of this essay, a feminist academic (speaking for herself as well as for a group of editors) was concerned that I “[did] not acknowledge that this is an appropriative reading – [a] move from a women-centered film to a lesbian film.” Well, (1) a lesbian film is also “women-centered,” just not straight women-centered, and (2) my move from reading Oz as straight-women-centered to understanding it as a lesbian narrative was an act of revelation, not of appropriation. I don’t see the process of queer interpretation as an act of “taking” texts from anyone. Just because straight interpretations have been allowed to flourish publicly doesn’t mean they are the most “true” or “real” ones. The Wizard of Oz is a straight narrative for those who wish it so. As I suggested earlier, if anything, I would now see straight understandings of Oz as appropriative.

Related to the issue of “appropriation,” the editor(s) also “would like [me] to discuss more directly the process of reading an externally ‘straight’ text as ‘queer’.” Oh yes, and while I’m at it, since my “reading will probably outrage many in the straight community,” could I “address that anger?” Well, I think I’ll address this kind of straight anger by suggesting that any offended straight address the heterocentrism (and yes, sometimes the homophobia) that is at the heart of much of the incomprehension, defensiveness or shock they register in the fact of gay, lesbian, and queer readings of popular culture. Oh, and they might also mull over the following, from Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian:

When it comes to lesbians … many people have trouble seeing what’s in front of them. The lesbian remains a kind of “ghost effect” in the cinema world of modern life: elusive, vaporous, difficult to spot – even when she is there, in plain view, mortal and magnificent at the center of the screen. … What we never expect is precisely this: to find her in the midst of things, as familiar and crucial as an old friend, as solid and sexy as the proverbial right-hand man, as intelligent and human and funny and real as Garbo.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Poetry Friday - Règne Animal

Having used up pretty much all of my GCN book reviews, I think I'll start posting some of my poems. I haven't written any for over 25 years; maybe digging them up and putting them here will jog the Muse. I wrote the first one forty years ago, when I was a senior in high school, and it was probably the first halfway good poem I wrote. It won me a second place in a regional-campus writing contest in my first year at IU South Bend, so that' s not just my opinion. I got the idea and the title from reading Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision, of all things; for some reason it inspired me to write about the Exodus from the Egyptians' viewpoint.

Règne Animal

I

This Yahweh is a devil, murmured Pharaoh,
holding his dead son’s body in his arms --
the little boy who would never wear the crown of the Two Kingdoms,
who would never again wade naked in sunjeweled waters
while the sun made his soft skin shine like gold;
the skin that now was pale and cold;
the slender limbs, once graceful as a cat,
that now stiffened as the grieving father held them;
the eyes, dark as a deer’s, now glazing,
until the father wept and closed them gently.

II

In the next room the women howled,
and scattered ashes in their hair, and tore their clothes
for the child’s soul that now prepared for its journey to the Western land.
Born of the gods he was, a god he was,
and gone to join his holy brethren.

III

A devil, repeated Pharaoh as he looked out at the stars,
and these his people are poison in his kingdom.
For who but a devil would kill a Pharaoh’s son?
And what but poison would bring such a pestilence upon the land?
In all the houses of Pharaoh’s kingdom there was lament this night
many young bodies lay like wood effigies
while the wails of their parents rose around them.
Dreams were smashed like blown eggshells;
lives had been rewarded in brass instead of gold,
in tin instead of silver.

IV

Poison and a devil, murmured Pharaoh, his mind dark with pain.
The stars were small mean pinpricks in an eternity of blackness.
Rise, my people, rise, cried the demagogue, for we are freed from bondage.
And like maggots squirming in a corpse they rose.

1969

Head To Head

I wrote last month that my taste in men had evolved from the skinny boys of my youth to "short, stocky, even chubby Latino men with strongly Indian features." Two prime examples are above, though I admit I don't know how tall they are. (Photo via.) If only they had time to make love, not war, but alas...

Both Evo Morales (left) and Hugo Chávez (also left, but to your right in the photo above) have expelled the American ambassadors from their respective countries. Chávez claims that the US has been supporting a military coup against him; well, it wouldn't be the first time. According to the New York Times, "'When there is a new government in the United States, we’ll send an ambassador,' Mr. Chávez said, using an expletive to refer to Americans." Morales says that the US has been supporting terrorist groups in eastern Bolivia, which have blown up a gas pipeline among other things. This is also, unfortunately, plausible; the US has a long history of such behavior.

In addition to the provocation of expelling the US ambassador to Venezuela and recalling his own ambassador to Washington, Chávez is talking about engaging in joint naval exercises with Russia. Russian strategic bombers have already landed in Venezuela (in Spanish). This makes me a bit nervous, recalling how the US reacted to similar collaboration between Cuba and the Soviet Union during the Kennedy administration. The US is now so stretched militarily that Chávez might be able to get away with thumbing his nose at us some more; I hope so. But with the US already making bellicose noises at Russia for its humanitarian intervention in Georgia (I'm being just a wee bit sarcastic there, but see FAIR's take on the background), I can't help but worry.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In Loco Parentis, Emphasis On The "Loco"

I have a guilty pleasure to confess: I’ve been watching The L Word on DVD since the summer.

Actually, it’s now more guilty than a pleasure. I thought the first season was promising, but the writing has gone downhill since then as the producers try to cover every issue known to Lesbian, from artificial insemination to breast cancer to repressed memories of childhood abuse to FTM transitioning to Olivia Cruises. I’m now in the middle of the fourth season, on the eve of the DVD release of the fifth, and something interesting has happened, almost a breath of real life.

Shane McCutcheon (still my favorite character, by the way) was reunited at the end of Season Three with her long-lost father, who’d apparently settled down and fathered a son called Shay, now nine or ten years old. But things fell apart, and Shay’s mother deposited the boy literally on Shane’s porch, then disappeared, leaving Shane in loco parentis. Struggling with the responsibility, she enrolled Shay in a public school, where she met hot single mom Paige, whose son Jared befriended Shay. The boys were teased at school by other boys who said they must be gay since their ‘moms’ were gay; Shay and Jared defended their honor with fisticuffs, so Paige and Shane had to have a meeting with the Principal.

Shane was defensive in the scene, Paige confrontative. When the Principal suggested that Shay and Jared apologize to the boys they’d hit, Paige asked why the boys who’d teased them shouldn’t be required to apologize first. This is a public school, the Principal explained evasively, and we have a responsibility to the parents… No, Paige countered, you have a responsibility to make these kids into decent human beings. I don’t know how to talk about that, the Principal said sheepishly but also (was it my imagination?) a bit proudly. Well, then, said Paige, Shane and I will.

We next see them in a classroom with the boys’ classmates, two parents, and a facilitator (the teacher? he reads gay to me) who spews psychobabble about diversity and respect. The other mom in the scene objects to teaching nine-year-olds about the “gay lifestyle,” and from there the scene falls quickly apart, descending into sentimentality. It’s not that sentimentality or respect are bad things in themselves, only that some important opportunities were missed here. As one who has often dealt with such questions speaking to classes and other audiences, I desperately wanted to kibitz.

Our speakers bureau usually supplies panels to college classes, but even there we get some young parents who ask belligerently how they’re supposed to explain today’s greater gay visibility to their five-year-olds. They make it reasonably clear that they expect us to advocate showing their five-year-olds gay porn videos with leather daddies fisting each other, so they’re surprised when we ask them how they explain heterosexuality to their kids. (Do they tell them about lap dances, Reverse Cowgirl, and Pearl Necklaces?) If I were going to explain the existence of gay people to a young child, I’d say that it’s like their mom and dad: most of the time people fall in love with someone of the other sex, but sometimes a man falls in love with another man, or a woman with another woman. The belligerent parents don’t seem to like this answer --it’s not what they were prepared to hear, and it undercuts their prepared outrage – but so far I haven’t heard them offer any kind of rebuttal to it.

Even more important in The L Word’s situation, though, is that the only reason the “lifestyle” came up was because the belligerents’ kids were using homosexuality to tease other kids. I’d ask the belligerent parents in that episode how they thought such teasing could best be prevented: make them take some responsibility for their kids’ attitudes. Why not put them on the defensive for a change? The standard way of dealing with minority kids’ being picked on is education, demystifying the difference to try to get the majority kids to remember that the minority is human too. How well this works in practice, I don’t know – teasing and bullying, from what I can tell, generally have less to do with specific minority traits than with dominance games among kids. I’d also want to ask the Principal what sort of anti-bullying program his nice, upscale public school has.

Years ago, speaking in a dormitory, a panel I was on was asked what we would do, if we managed to become parents, when the Principal at our child’s school called to say that he’d been told that our little Johnny had two moms, or two dads. The questioner had that grim, aggrieved look that so many bigots have when they’re trying to confront us with reality and put us in our place. I asked him why he thought that gay parents wouldn’t already have talked to the Principal and their child’s teacher. He looked utterly surprised: apparently he’d thought that gay parents would just cower at home and hope that nothing too bad would happen. (That would be Shane’s stance, I think, because she hadn’t expected to have this responsibility for a nine-year-old and hadn’t had time to think it through; she’s not much of a thinker anyhow.) I don’t doubt that some gay parents would do exactly that, but not all of them. I told him that I thought becoming parents would have an interesting effect on a lot of gay people who still feel they have no right to exist: you can pick on us, but if you go after our kids, you can expect trouble.

I’ve seen similar questions raised with regard to other minorities. Once there was an online discussion (I’m using “discussion” charitably, of course) of “interracial” marriages and the problems their offspring would have: wouldn’t the kids get picked on? Well, kids always get picked on. It popped into my head to ask why everyone seemed to think that bigotry is a force of nature, and that biracial kids (or monoracial kids, or minority religious kids, or gender-nonconformist kids, or kids of gay parents) are illegal immigrants into American society, so nothing can or should be done to defend them. Being a bigot isn’t something you’re born with, it’s a lifestyle choice, and so (by bigots’ criteria) bigots are fair game for disapproval, harassment, and outright persecution. It’s really long past time for us to be on the defensive against bigotry. I’ve been saying for years that there should be no Safe Space for bigotry; I want a backlash.