Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sticks and Stones Will Break My Bones, But Names Will Never Hurt Me

Recently the philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek contributed an essay to the website of In These Times, a lefty-progressive publication. The title: "Why Cynics Are Wrong."

I'm not sure just which "cynics" Žižek has in mind. He begins by saying that he agrees with Noam Chomsky that "From a pragmatic-realistic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will just do some minor face-lifting improvements, turning out to be 'Bush with a human face.' He will pursue the same basic politics in a more attractive mode and thus effectively even strengthen U.S. hegemony, which has been severely damaged by the catastrophe of the Bush years." But then he draws back from the abyss and begins to scold. Obama's election, Žižek tells us, has, like, another dimension, y'know? "[I]t is a sign in which the memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its abolition reverberates; an event which now demonstrates a change; a hope for future achievements."
This is why a good, American friend of mine, a hardened Leftist with no illusions, cried for hours when the news came of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, fears and compromises, in that moment of enthusiasm, each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.
To which I think the only proper response is, "What do you mean 'we', paleface?"

In the end it appears that Žižek's cynics are those, whoever they were, who thought that as wonderful as it would be if Obama were elected, he totally couldn't be elected: "All the skepticism displayed behind closed doors even by many worried progressives (what if, in the privacy of the voting booth, publicly disavowed racism reemerges?) was proven wrong. ... In some sense, the unthinkable did happen, something that we really didn’t believe could happen." This is a marvelously blinkered picture of the discussion that surrounded Obama's candidacy on the left. (Some of us never thought that Obama was particularly dreamy to begin with.)

Maybe Obama's blackness was all Professor Žižek could see from his perch at the Institute for Advanced Study of the Humanities in Essen, Germany. As he says with charming unselfconsciousness, "The position of the cynic is that he alone holds some piece of terrible, unvarnished wisdom." But then there's this other bit which for me undermines all his gleaming, lofty historical pontification:
Arguably the most sublime moment of the French Revolution occurred when the delegation from Haiti, led by Toussaint l’Ouverture, visited Paris and was enthusiastically received at the Popular Assembly as equals among equals.
As far as I can tell, Toussaint l'Ouverture never set foot in the Popular Assembly. He spent the whole period of the Haitian Revolution in Haiti. He only went to France when Napoleon, having overthrown the French Republic, sent a force across the Atlantic that ultimately captured Toussaint through trickery, deported him and his family to France, and imprisoned him. He died in his cell a few months later, and although Haiti gained its independence, it remains under assault from Europe and the US to this day. (I've begun Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the politics of containment [Verso, 2007], but can only read it for short periods before I become too infuriated to continue. It's a long book, so finishing it is going to take a while.)

So I don't take Žižek's historical and philosophical hectoring seriously. Who knows what else he's gotten wrong? Certainly he has no sense of the criticisms that have been and still are being directed at Obama from the left. If it makes me a cynic to take those criticisms seriously, I can live with that; I've been called worse.

Solidarity Forever

Last night I finally watched Salt of the Earth, a 1953 (or 1954?) movie about a miners’ strike made by blacklisted Hollywood filmmakers against fierce resistance. (And I do mean fierce: Howard Hughes blocked development of the negative, and the lead actress, Rosaura Revueltas, was deported to Mexico, where she shot her remaining scenes illegally for insertion into the finished film.) I’d stumbled on the DVD at the public library a couple of years ago, and, always interested in political art, had checked it out. But the credit sequence turned me off with its overdone marching music over gritty footage of a poor woman working around her family’s shack, and I hadn’t been able to steel myself for another try.

Then I read a discussion with Noam Chomsky in which he praised the film:

CHOMSKY: Salt of the Earth. It came out at the same time as On the Waterfront, which is a rotten movie. And On the Waterfront became a huge hit -- because it was anti-union. See, On the Waterfront was part of a big campaign to destroy unions while pretending to be for, you know, Joe Sixpack. So On the Waterfront is about this Marlon Brando or somebody who stands up for the poor working man against the corrupt union boss. Okay, things like that exist, but that's not unions -- I mean, sure, there are plenty of union bosses who are crooked, but nowhere near as many as C.E.O.s who are crooked, or what have you. But since On the Waterfront combined that anti-union message with "standing up for the poor working man," it became a huge hit. On the other hand, Salt of the Earth, which was an authentic and I thought very well-done story about a strike and the people involved in it, that was just flat killed, I don't even think it was shown anywhere. I mean, you could see it at an art theater, I guess, but that was about it. I don't know what those of you who know something about film would think of it, but I thought it was a really outstanding film.

While I respect and admire Chomsky, he’s not known for his artistic sensitivity. Still, I agreed with his take on Hollywood’s treatment of labor issues, so I decided I should give Salt of the Earth another try.

Getting through the opening credits was still a trial. The bombastic music, by Sol Kaplan, was played by a full orchestra and was very Boy Meets Girl Meets Tractor if you know what I mean. Worse, it was very Hollywood: one thing that makes ‘classic’ Hollywood films difficult for me to watch is the music, which lays on emotion with a trowel and gets in the way of the films’ moving me honestly. (John Williams, the antichrist of today’s Hollywood soundtrack, is a well-known exponent of this approach to movie music.)

After the opening credits, though, the film was quite watchable. Based on an actual strike and using a mixture of professional and non-professional actors, including mineworkers and union organizers, Salt of the Earth tells how a mining community in New Mexico brought the mineowners to the bargaining table through solidarity and inventive tactics. What makes it startlingly fresh even today is that, first, the main protagonists are Mexican Americans, and they are played by Mexican Americans; and second, the miners’ wives insist on playing an equal role in the strike, with demands of their own. (Indoor plumbing and hot water, for example – radical!) I began to wonder if that obnoxious opening music might not have been meant ironically after all, the self-importance of machismo against the day-to-day labor of housewives and mothers, but I don't think the filmmakers were that self-aware.

Is Salt of the Earth preachy and didactic? Sure, but so were many Hollywood classics, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to It’s a Wonderful Life, from The Wizard of Oz to Gone With the Wind. After watching Salt of the Earth I looked up some online reviews through IMDB, and found that several of them complained about the film’s agenda and its division of the characters into good guys and bad guys. I particularly recall one writer who complained that Esperanza (Revueltas’ character, the wife of a miner and union leader) is always right, and her husband Ramón (played by Juan Chacón, one of the nonprofessionals) is always wrong. That’s not quite true – Ramón is right in the areas where he’s used to having competence, but not when he faces change as his wife and the other women start breaking out of the roles he expects; and Esperanza takes time to find her voice and the courage to use it. But again, the characters are no more two-dimensional than most Hollywood characters, then or now.

The acting also came in for slighting comments, especially that of the nonprofessionals – big surprise! I thought that the nonprofessionals were pretty good, and was surprised to learn in the closing credits (which identified the status of each cast member) that some of the characters, such as the Anglo union organizer, were not played by pros. Juan Chacón is a bit wooden, true, but no more so in my opinion than Humphrey Bogart, whom he resembles. Classic Hollywood acting isn’t known for its subtlety or its fluidity anyhow, and the director Herbert J. Biberman evidently managed to make his amateurs comfortable in front of the cameras.

There was also some sniping at the film’s shaky production values. But it should hardly be news anymore that expensive production isn’t necessary for a good movie. I wonder how many people who dismiss Salt of the Earth as cheap and shoddy, can still enjoy (say) low-budget slasher films, to say nothing of the Italian neo-realists. I suspect that the film’s politics are a stumbling block for many people, but since I share those politics, down to its feminism and antiracism, I found it refreshing.

There are probably other American feature films that have dealt well with political issues, but aside from Norma Rae and maybe Bulworth, I can’t think of many. Usually I look to foreign films for intelligent handling of politics, especially those of South Korean directors like Park Kwang-su or Lee Chang-dong. Salt of the Earth turned out to be much better than I expected, and I’m not surprised that it was suppressed in the US.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Poetry Friday - An Electric Blanket Is Not the Same as a Lover

An Electric Blanket Is Not the Same as a Lover

An electric blanket is not the same as a lover.
Oh you can wrap yourself up in it and pretend the gentle pressure
is the cradling arms and a cushiony belly and two loving legs,
and you can close your eyes and wet your lips
and imagine that the saliva belongs to someone else.
You can even put your hand under the pillow
and it will seem a little like the beautiful weight of another's head,
but wishing won't make it so, not in a year of lonely nights
(which are ten times as long as any other kind).

For an electric blanket is not the same as a lover.
It will keep you warm but no matter how high you turn the control
it will never be ardent or tender with you.
And when you wake in the morning, the lover you imagined your blanket was
will be gone, and you will have been abandoned.
It may not really matter whether you whisper your thoughts
into the warm pink conch of an ear
or the cold white weave of your pillowcase,
but those tiny threads will never whisper anything back to you,
not in a year of lonely nights,
which are ten times as long as any other kind.

--
Again, no date for this one, but it was probably written in late 1971 or in 1972.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tradition!

I do wish I could see this, but it will close on December 27, and I can't return to Korea until next summer. According to the Korea Times review from which the photo comes, "the Korean rendition, the latest revival of the original work, focuses on the relationships in the show and not Judaism", but I think there would be points of contact between two patriarchal societies facing change and oppression that make such an adaptation appropriate and interesting. (1905, when Fiddler on the Roof takes place, was also the year that Korea was forced to become a Japanese protectorate, leading ultimately to attempts to eradicate Korean culture.)

Things are looking fairly bleak in South Korea right now, though there was a momentary blip in stock prices Monday (US time) following a similar jump in the US stock market. But the won, the Korean currency, is at its lowest level compared to the dollar in eleven years, and the IMF has nlowered its predictio of Korean economic growth by almost half, from 3.5 percent to 2 percent. The Korean government still forecasts 4 percent growth, but the IMF has a way of trumping mere governments. According to The Hankyoreh, the source of the above photo, food banks are struggling as more people need food and donations shrink.

But hey, the Christmas shopping season has begun, in Korea as here! Santa Claus was at the mall last weekend, even before Thanksgiving; like American presidential campaigns, the shopping season (the Reason for the Season) starts a little earlier each time around. Notice the traditional Korean Santa Claus outfit in this photo from the Korea Times.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Stokin' Rage

David Ehrenstein is, like, totally pissed off, and I don't blame him. (Photo above ripped off from his Fablog post, I don't know where he got it.) That doesn't mean I don't have some disagreements with him, of course.

At this point I'm not even sure how substantial my disagreements are. So let's have a look; like some writer (Saul Bellow?) once said, I won't know how I feel about it until I write about it.

Ehrenstein is pissed off about the passage of California's Proposition 8. I've been mildly surprised by how un-pissed off I am by it. The enshrinement of discrimination based on sexual orientation in a state constitution is a disturbing development, after all. Maybe it's because I didn't choose this battle, and for years I've been listening to respectability-minded Homo-Americans yammer that we shouldn't do things that upset straights, like having Gays Gone Wild Pride Marches with half-nekkid people simulating intercourse in public and stuff like that. The thing is, the issue of same-sex marriage upsets straight people too. If we should be modest in public because of Teh Str8, then maybe we shouldn't try to get married either, because of Teh Str8. But when it gets down to it, advocates of marriage don't really care about upsetting straights -- they care about being upset themselves. Many gay people also object, for public-relations purposes at least, to public displays of buttcheek or mammary gland, on their own account.

But having written that, I must qualify it, since I know perfectly well that not all gay proponents of same-sex marriage want respectability -- many just want the legal perks that go with a civil marriage. They themselves may get down and dirty in Pride Parades, or at least know that it is possible to blow drunken kisses from a float and still want to file a joint tax return or share Social Security benefits. For such people, the issue is one of equal rights, though as I've said before, it's really one of equal access to special rights given to couples who register with the State, which I'm not sure I want to support, let alone advocate, since it turns singles or unmarried couples into second-class citizens.

What comes closest to bothering me seriously about the success of Proposition 8, aside from the aforementioned enshrinement of discrimination in the California State Constitution, is the ineffectual campaign waged against it, which apparently was run by the usual bunch of human-services professionals and diversity managers who've sunk gay-rights causes before. One problem with these professionals is that they are evidently most comfortable in a corporate environment, where people have few if any rights and where they can be coerced into going along with a diversity agenda. Anyone who's worked in such an environment will know the drill: posters, videos, employee training sessions, etc., with disciplinary action as backup. That's not an approach that's going to work very well to persuade voters in the voting booth. (It doesn't even work very well in GLBT corporate environments like large urban community centers, as Jane Ward shows in her book Respectably queer: diversity culture in LGBT activist organizations [Vanderbilt, 2008].)

Anyway, back to David E. First he tears into the openly gay director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) for saying in the L. A. Times:

“If you’re asking, ‘Do we take discrimination against gays as seriously as bigotry against African Americans and Jews?’ . . . the answer is, ‘Of course we do.’ But we also believe that some people, including Rich, saw Prop. 8 not as a civil rights issue but a religious one. That is their right. And it is not, in and of itself, proof of bigotry.”
As Ehrenstein says, "we" (it's unclear who "we" are) don't take antigay bigotry as seriously as bigotry against African Americans and Jews. (Hell, racism is still alive and well in white America, including white gays.) But then Ehrenstein goes on to say,

To speak of their hatred as a “right” is unacceptable. More imp[o]rtant you would do well to keep in mind that all homophobia is premised on the perception of our being weak and powerless and therefore neither willing or able to fight back.
I've already had some things to say about "hate." Both Condon and Ehrenstein are wrong. Bigotry is not "hatred," contrary to Ehrenstein, but even hatred is a "right." (Our Christian opponents claim that they love us while hating our sin; gay Christians don't even seem to go that far, though they also love to wave the word "love" around.) According to the principles of free speech and press, people aren't obliged to say or write or do only loving things -- indeed, these freedoms guarantee our right to be outraged and offended -- or else Ehrenstein's expression of fury would itself be endangered. Or "themselves" -- his blog often vents his rage at various targets, often quite hatefully, which is fine with me. But he feels, as do his opponents on the Right, that his expression of wrath and condemnation is just and righteous: it's okay when he does it, because he's the Good Guy; but it's not okay when they do it, because they're the Bad Guys. It's very dangerous to let the state decide whose righteous wrath is proper, and whose improper. I myself don't have any faith that it would decide in my favor.

But Condon is also wrong. The word "bigot" first was used in contexts of religious disagreement, centuries ago, and most liberal Americans nowadays, at least, would agree that it would be bigotry to disenfranchise Roman Catholics or Presbyterians or Quakers or any other religious group because their beliefs or practices violated the religious standards of the majority. Yet in the past, such persecution was considered not only proper, but an obligation. And because of the respectability of religion, and the feeling that many believers have that religion should rule all aspects of their lives, racial and other forms of bigotry have been justified by religion. American white supremacists of the 1950s and 1960s had Biblical arguments to support their opposition to racial integration. (Those arguments were dubious, selective and self-serving, of course, but so are everybody's Biblical arguments. Believers don't base their positions in scripture: they pick and choose from scripture to support the positions they already hold for other reasons. [That's a slight oversimplification too -- sometimes people are struck by a scriptural passage that contradicts their prejudices, but I'd bet that on some level they were already ambivalent about their positions, which are based in real-world experience as much as in theology.]) Hence the racially-segregated Christian "academies" established in large areas of the US to evade school desegregation. Would a nice liberal like Bill Condon care to claim that these white racists saw Brown v. Board of Education and the 1964 Civil Rights Bill "not as a civil rights issue, but a religious one"? I rather doubt it. But they did. As was their right. It was also their right to build their segregated Christian schools, but not to demand to be subsidized with tax exemptions. They just did not have the right to impose their views on others, or to demand that their views be respected.

The occasion for Ehrenstein's tirade was the resignation, under pressure, of the director of a nonprofit music theatre in Sacramento, who had donated (as an individual, not officially) a chunk of money to the Yes on 8 campaign; and the calls for the removal of the Mormon head of the Los Angeles Film Festival, who'd also donated to the campaign. Condon was being critical of these developments, but as I have explained, his arguments don't work. Even if their support for Proposition 8 was based solely in their religious beliefs, it is still bigotry when it attacks the rights of other people (assuming for the sake of argument that marriage is a right). The real question, then, is whether people should lose their jobs because of their religious beliefs, no matter how loathsome those beliefs are.

The answer is probably no, and I'd guess that both of these men would have a case under civil rights law that they were discriminated against for their religious beliefs. (The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment because of an "individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin".) Boycotting Cinemark Theaters because its CEO donated to Yes on 8, whatever his reasons, is okay, just as it would be okay to boycott the LA Film Festival because it's run by a bigot. (Back to the corporate environment, though: if a corporation fires an officer because his or her religious beliefs caused the corporation to lose money through boycotts, that is probably legal under the strict letter of the law -- as would firing an officer who took any other public stand that hurt profits, like supporting gay rights.)

"We’ve taken names and we’re kicking ass", Ehrenstein crows in boldface. I've seen that tone of type before. It's about power (or not being "powerless", as Ehrenstein says), not about right or wrong. Whether I like it or not, disputes like this often come down to who wields the power -- but as the passage of Prop 8 showed, it's not obvious that gays do wield the power in California. And both sides can play that game, as "The Vote Yes Crowd Turns to Judicial Intimidation" and opponents of same-sex marriage take names and prepare to kick judicial ass, "threatening to lead a statewide recall against any and all justices on the CA Supreme Court that vote to overturn the outcome of the referendum (and thus re-legalize same-sex marriage in California)." Joe Moag, the writer of that piece, blusters and fusses about "hate" and other usual suspects, but that's how it goes in politics, and I'm not nearly as sure as Moag that the recall efforts would fail.

Next, Ehrenstein reprimands producer Christine Vachon for saying that she "can’t quite stomach the notion that you fire somebody because of what they believe. It doesn’t feel right to me." Ehrenstein ripostes,
Well being attacked by those who claim a Big Invisible Bi-Polar Daddy-Who-Lives-in-The-Sky is the ultimate moral authority and has condemned me to death, doesn’t feel right to me and a great many others. What also doesn’t feel right, Christine, is when you say
“Many straight people really don’t understand it’s a civil rights issue. . . We didn’t do our job well enough. We need to do it better.”
Honey I’m 61 years old and have been talking to straight people all my life. If they don’t understand by now they can go fuck themselves.
It’s really just that simple.
Hm, I knew I'd seen that tone of type before -- it's typical of right-wing, especially Christian right-wing tract writers, from the use of boldface down to the sloppy punctuation and the onward-Christian-soldiers braggadocio. You know, David, I largely agree with you. But many of the opponents of Prop 8 also believe in a Big Invisible Bi-Polar Daddy Who Lives in the Sky; just look at that one sign in your photo, "Would Jesus Spend Tax Free Dollars to Spread Hate and Injustice?" No one knows what Jesus would do, and anyone who claims to know is a liar, whether they're Yes on 8 or No on 8. I feel fairly sure that a sign like that isn't going to sway a voter in favor of same-sex marriage, any more than celebrity talking-heads in commercials or outspending the opposition is going to do it by itself. Christine Vachon is right. I'm almost as old as you are, David, and I know how frustrating it is that straights haven't understood yet, just as it's frustrating that after an even longer time, men don't understand and whites don't understand. And getting people fired for their beliefs isn't going to work -- it hasn't worked on the gay movement, after all. It only creates martyrs. It may make you feel better for a few minutes, but the bigots will find other jobs and the California Constitution will still be amended to make queers into second-class citizens.

It may be that what doesn't feel right to Christine Vachon and what doesn't feel right to you cancel each other out. Your fury seems to have blinded you to that. (Oh dear, someone stop me before I say that two wrongs don't make a right.) This has nothing to do with religion -- many atheists are just as obsessed with getting even as Christians. ("Forgive your enemies" has hardly won much lip service among Christians, let alone observance, but then the gospels' Jesus looked forward to casting his enemies into Hell anyway, so they haven't had a good example to go by.) It's sheer practical politics to bring about change by grass-roots face-to-face work. That's why the radical gay movement that inspired both of us rejected professionalism and expertise in favor of coming out, not just to other gays but to straights. And you're complaining because we haven't won in 40 years? Not to mention that most gays are still closeted and would rather hire other queers to do the work for them from above, at a safe distance. There's still a lot of work to be done.

Jaurim

It has been a while since I did a post on Korean pop music. Jaurim, an 'alternative' band with a striking female lead singer, had been on my mind, but I couldn't find enough video links by them that I liked enough to recommend. In particular, since I presume the people who read this are mostly, like me, English-speaking non-Koreans, I was looking for videos of some of the songs from their 2005 album of covers, Admiration of Youth. That CD contains interesting versions of a motley bunch of songs, ranging from Phil Collins' "Another Day in Paradise" and Neil Diamond's "Girl You'll Be a Woman Soon" to David Bowie's "Starman" and the Clash's "Lovers Rock." (I was misled a few months ago by their song "Magic Carpet Ride", which I hopefully mistook for Steppenwolf's song of that title.) So far I've only managed to find this live version of Ozzy Osbourne's "Goodbye to Romance":



Then there's "Carnival Amour", an amusing bit of cultural appropriation and gender-bending from their latest album Ruby Sapphire Diamond:



Finally, here's "Cheongchunyechan", the final song (and one of three originals) from Admiration of Youth (which I've also seen translated as Cult of Youth):



I dunno. Kim Yoon-a's voice is more interesting than those of a lot of pop singers, with some unusual colors that keep me coming back for more. On the other hand, I have their three most recent CDs, but feel no need to buy the earlier ones. Some people for whom I've played Jaurim's music really like it, so I thought it might be worth while to mention them here. There's a lot more of them on YouTube, including many live performances (and I think I may like them better live than in their studio recordings), and their CDs are easily available online or even at your local Korean grocery. See what you think.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Poetry Friday - Life in Your New Dollhouse

Life in Your New Dollhouse

Living in a dollhouse presents several immediate problems.
First, one is constantly bumping the head on the tops of the doorways.
Second, there is never enough storage space.
Third, the beds and the bathtub are far too short.
Fourth, one must reckon with the one wall which is missing in all dollhouses, which means:
a) no privacy
b) hell to heat in the wintertime
c) extremely vulnerable to theft.

However, living in a dollhouse also presents a number of advantages.
First, it is very easy to keep the floors clean -- every room in the house can be cleaned in five minutes or less.
Second, it is very hard to lose anything, since there is nowhere to lose it.
Third, maintenance of your dollhouse's exterior is very cheap; a gallon of paint should last you a century.
Fourth, and finally, if you are careful that your dollhouse is well situated, you should have:
a) no airconditioning problem in summer
b) eternal vigilance made easy
c) a splendid view of the Grand Canyon.

---
I don't seem to have a date for this poem, but I'm pretty sure I wrote it in South Bend in early 1971. I still like its surreal whimsy.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

In The Stars

In his column this week, Dan Savage advised a gay reader confronting an opponent of same-sex marriage to “continually emphasize that there's a difference between civil marriage rights and religious marriage rites.” There sure is, as I’ve pointed out here before, but I haven’t seen that difference stressed enough by the advocates of same-sex marriage. I suspect that many of them are not very clear about the difference themselves.

What’s at stake in the current controversy is civil marriage, but a lot of people have odd ideas about what comes with that package. As I’ve pointed out before, some of us think that a piece of paper will give them conventional middle-class respectability – that all married couples are nice suburban white people with a “papoose.” And this writer goes further (via Outside the Lines and the writer’s blog):

The campaigns against gay marriage reason that gays already possess civil rights, that we may procure civil unions. (When in history has love been civil?) And so we are relegated to using the technical term, Partner. It is a word with business connotations, and not romantic, certainly not spiritual inference. Husband. Wife. These are words we gay men and women long for because they signify the validity of choice: they are garlands of a ceremony in the interest of a sacred pursuit; they validate and defend a deep intimacy in the public realm; they are shield and banner.

I’d kind of like to put this guy into a cage with Orson Scott Card, and see what happens. He’s certainly not a lot brighter, or better informed, than Card. First, civil unions for same-sex couples have been as controversial in the US as marriage, so where does he get “we may procure civil unions”? As for the “business connotations” of civil unions, those apply also to civil marriage; there’s nothing sacred about it, so “husband” and “wife” can hardly be sacred or spiritual terms. What Miguel Murphy wants, he won’t get from a marriage license issued by the State and finalized at City Hall. Nor should he – the State has no business interfering in the spiritual or the sacred, and in this country it is forbidden by the Constitution to do so. (And just to be bitchy, I think he means something like “implication,” not “inference.” A poet who's so concerned about language should pay attention to such trivia.)

What Murphy wants, he’ll have to get from a religious ceremony of some kind, and as I’ve pointed out before, there is nothing to stop him from having one if he wants. For that matter, as I’ve pointed out to bigots who said they were willing to give us civil unions but not marriage, there is nothing to stop the partners in a civil union from calling each other “husband” or “wife” if they want to. Someone who wants a wedding doesn’t need a church, or even a minister, though he can probably have either if he isn’t picky about the denomination. Many churches won’t recognize a marriage between two men or two women, but that’s their right: they don’t have to recognize even heterosexual marriages that don’t conform to their doctrines. The State cannot and should not interfere to change this, though it can and should protect the freedom to have a religious wedding ceremony.

It’s hard for me to see what’s romantic or spiritual about arranged marriage, bride price, dowry, the virginity fetish (showing blood on the sheets after the nuptial defloration, for example), and other traditional features of heterosexual marriage. But people can and do sacralize all sorts of things – in the New Testament, for example, slavery is spiritualized as the relationship between the believer and Christ; that doesn’t make slavery a holy thing, let alone require that the State guarantee everyone a legal slaveowner.

I’m becoming increasingly uneasy about the whole marriage business anyhow. (And a business it is! But of course, Homo-Americans should have the right to spend $20,000 and up on their weddings, just like heterosexuals. Some of us are already spending that much on union ceremonies and the like, even without the blessing of government.) Sometimes I encounter gay people who say that the government should simply get out of the marriage business, but it always turns out that they still want the State to give special privileges to cohabiting couples – they just don’t want to call them “marriage.” I mean it seriously, though I’m not delusional enough to suppose that it could ever happen – marriage has too much prestige. I figure that once same-sex marriage has been legalized, most of its advocates will lose all interest in social justice issues. (The racist outbreaks by angry white gays after the victory of Proposition 8 support my view, I think. So much for the notion that belonging to a persecuted minority makes one more sensitive to the concerns of other persecuted minorities!) Health care, say, for people who aren’t married, or for the children of people who aren’t married, will not be their concern. As IOZ wrote, if these rights are human rights, why should you have to marry to get them?

Murphy concludes his sermon by quoting from Adrienne Rich’s poem “Origins and History of Consciousness”:

Of course, this can’t happen until our private choice, our relationship, is free to announce itself in public: “But we can’t call it life until we start to move / beyond this secret circle of fire”.

Given Rich’s critique of patriarchy in general and of the patriarchal State in particular, I wouldn’t assume that she was writing about state-sanctioned marriage in that poem. Nor do I believe that we can only announce our relationships in public if they are recognized by the state, or by religion; or that only marriage constitutes a public relationship. I’m out of step with most people on this point, I suppose, as on so many. I think that the state should be just and equitable, but I don’t think that my public and social – and private – life should depend on its scrutiny and recognition.

(Image from Brides.com)

Monday, November 17, 2008

An Expensive Proposition

So there were nationwide demonstrations against Proposition 8 last weekend. Isn’t that just a wee bit of trying to slam the barn door shut after the horses have gotten out? (No, I didn’t attend the local demo.)

I gather from Sherry Wolf’s fine article at Counterpunch that the opposition to Proposition 8 in California was run by diversity-management professionals who preferred to avoid any grass-roots work, things like “knock[ing] on doors and hold[ing] rallies and actions to publicly denounce the bigotry of the measure – though in a few cases, activists took the initiative to do so on their own. … Adhering to the false notion that the Democrats lost the 2004 presidential election due to the assertiveness of gay marriage activists, the heads of the No on 8 campaign avoided even using words like ‘gay’ or ‘bigoted.’”

It might be a good idea to remember some history. In 1978, California State Senator John Briggs introduced an initiative, which became Proposition 6 on the ballot, to ban gay men and lesbians from teaching. The initiative was so broadly written that it threatened the livelihood even of pro-gay heterosexual teachers, which was probably one factor in its defeat. But it was widely expected to pass: polls showed overwhelming support for the measure. Among the factors which prevented its passage, by a landslide, were door-to-door campaigning in San Francisco and possible elsewhere in the state, organized by San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk. (You can see some of the campaigners in action in this clip from the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. See also chapters 13 and 14 of Randy Shilts’s biography of Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street [St. Martin’s Press, 1982]; it’s a flawed book, written by a conflicted but openly gay reporter who covered the events it describes as they happened.) Milk was a controversial figure, but he was an aggressive and effective debater who wasn’t afraid to use the words “gay” or “bigot.”

(It helped that the Briggs Initiative was opposed even by an arch-rightist and homophobe like Ronald Reagan. That made it safe for a cowardly Jimmy Carter to follow suit, as you can see in the documentary clip linked above. Interestingly, according to Shilts in The Mayor of Castro Street, “it was stars with huge gay followings like Barbra Streisand and Liza Minelli who would not take a stand on the issue, following the old Hollywood dictum that taking positions on controversial issues can hurt audience appeal and, therefore, cut profits” [244]. However, that “dictum” didn’t inhibit other celebrities, including Shirley Maclaine, Dennis Weaver, Paul Newman, James Garner, Cher, and Carol Burnett, from opposing the initiative.)

No on 8 should have learned something from the success of the opposition to Proposition 6 thirty years ago. Even though No on 8 had a lot more money than their opponents – $43.6 million against the bigots’ $29.8 million, again according to Wolf – they lost an important vote which now puts antigay bigotry into a state constitution. There’s been a lot of yammering among GLBT folk about African-American and Latino support for Prop 8, which is enabling the expression of some nasty and drearily familiar racism among white gays. So much for the repudiation of hate! Not to stereotype – there has also been effective refutation of anyone who wants to assign all blame (or credit) for the passage of Prop 8 to racial minorities. The Homo-American professionals of No on 8 deserve more recognition for their own failure; they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to dodge their responsibility by blaming African-Americans, and stirring up a white gay population whose longstanding complacency about its own racism needs to be criticized, not encouraged.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

O Caption! My Caption! Our Fearful Trip Is Done

(My caption, to Marleen Bariteau's photo.)

Another trope that turned up a lot during the 2008 Presidential campaign was the line that while the United States undoubtedly has many faults, its virtues outweigh its defects. (A variation was also applied to the Heir-Apparent himself: okay, Obama's not perfect, but we have to get Bush out of the White House! It could just as easily be reversed: Sure, McCain's not perfect, but we can't let a Muslim terrorist Socialist community organizer take over the country! Or: Sure, Bush isn't perfect, but we can't let the terrorists win!)

As an empty argument, it's hard to beat. I stumbled on it again this morning while looking through old posts for some link, and it occurred to me first to wonder if anyone has ever actually totted up America's defects and virtues, and how one would weigh them. Of course not. Even if it were possible, the people who use this argument don't care -- this is America we're talking about, people! Land where my fathers died, home of the Pilgrims' pride, from sea to shining sea. And then I realized what a monumentally dishonest and irrelevant evasion it is.

Leave aside the question of whether America's virtues actually do outweigh its defects. Suppose for the sake of argument that the US has only one defect -- killing two million Iraqis, let's say, to keep it current -- against all its many virtues. Does that excuse the killing of two million people? Does that mean that the killing can go on until the virtuous US decides it feels like stopping? Would anyone take such an argument seriously if it were deployed in defense of another country, especially one that was on the current American shitlist -- Cuba, or Venezuela, or Russia, or Iran? Would it have worked as an argument against the invasion of Iraq itself? (I know Saddam isn't perfect, but Iraq's virtues outweigh its defects.)

Would such a defense work in a court of law? Imagine a child rapist, or a serial killer, arguing in court that his virtues (devoted husband, loving father, minister of the Gospel, pillar of his community) outweigh his defects (a few violated brats, a few bodies buried in quicklime). So he's not perfect -- let's not allow a few hate-filled extremists to put this decent man in prison. Or imagine your doctor refusing to treat your diabetes or angina because your body's virtues outweigh its defects.

The Virtue/Defects line is an evasion by people who don't really know much, but they know what they like. It seems to be most popular among liberals, those who are used to being attacked as anti-American by their relatives and co-workers for their feeble and lukewarm criticisms of Republican presidents. They're vaguely aware that their position could also be attacked from the left, and they are anxious to differentiate themselves from what they'll happily agree are real America-haters. They're mostly ignorant of politics and current events, so they're vague at best about the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans, but, like their Republican counterparts, they're sure those differences are very great, with no middle ground, no shared positions at all. What they have is slogans and bumper stickers: Anyone but Bush. We've got to get Bush out of the White House. Hope. Change we can believe in. Yes we can. We've got to do something. It's too soon to criticize President Obama, of course he's not perfect but give him time and wait and see what he does.

This is not just about Obama, of course. During the Vietnam Era I argued with people who agreed that the United States was not perfect, but couldn't or wouldn't name anything wrong it had ever done. If we really want to bring about change, we're going to have set these evasions aside. That the US has virtues as well as defects can be assumed; whether those virtues outweigh the defects is irrelevant. The defects are going to have to be addressed and if possible corrected, without giving way to these increasingly dangerous distractions.

Autumn Leaves and an Old Car

This post is mostly an experiment with embedding photos. I took these today on my way to the supermarket, to show a Korean friend how my town looks in autumn.







On the way home, I saw this car, a Chevrolet from the 1960s, parked near downtown.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Poetry Friday - Dinner Scene


DINNER SCENE

We sat giggling in a purple cafe,
hands crawling like friendly pink spiders up
and down each other's thighs,
seeking warm dark crannies to snuggle into.
Nothing like body games played under a dinner table
to coax me out of my gray moods.
When my hand has touched down in Ultima Thule
and you press your thighs together on it like a molding press,
I like to think that my hand will melt in your body kiln and then cool there,
so that I'll be joined to you forever.

-- 25 January 1971

By the time I'd written this one I must have met the guy who'd be my Muse until I moved to Bloomington the following fall. Not that long, really. By "Muse" I mean something like the relationship May Sarton had with the women who inspired her poetry, as I understand it: the feeling was largely unrequited, its subject not really accessible, the relationship never consummated physically -- yet out of that frustration and pain came poetry. Or verse, at any rate. It seems to me now that I wrote my best erotic poems in those days, when I had no erotic experience at all, only fantasies and wishes.

A couple of years ago I saw the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethaku's film Tropical Malady, which contains a scene that could have come from this poem: the two main characters are watching a film in a theater, and one puts his hand on the other's leg. The other responds by gripping the first one's hand between his thighs and wrapping an arm around his shoulders as they both grin with pleasure and delight. Though the two are never shown having sex in the film, the scene makes the erotic current between them as clear as can be.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind Bars

I also hate cartoons like this one (via Jenny Crusie's blog, with links to more like it):

Yes, Barack Obama's election was a minor victory over American racism; I don't deny that. I never quite believed I'd live to see an African American President elected, and I figured that if I did, they'd be a reactionary like Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell. As I said before, I don't mean to rain on the parade of black and brown people who were understandably excited about Obama's achievement. What depressed me about the euphoria last week, among other things, was the self-congratulation of white Americans who overstated the significance of the event.

If you're going to point to a single black person's success as proof that America is a Land of Opportunity, why not point to Oprah, or Michael Jordan, or any number of other successful people of color? But Uncle Sam and the cartoonist who drew him are also muttering, "Pay no attention to the man behind bars -- hundreds of thousands of him. Pay no attention to the black children who are getting abysmally substandard educations in our apartheid school system. Pay no attention to the everyday racism that still permeates American society, not always expressed in lynching or a hail of police bullets, but it still degrades the quality of life of most African Americans. Focus all your attention on that One Man who managed to climb to the top; don't worry about all his brothers and sisters who are still on the bottom."

I'm not being picky picky picky here. Most white Americans still believe that blacks and whites have an equal chance of getting ahead in our society. I believe they thought so even when American white racism was more shamelessly explicit. I expect that Obama's election will encourage this perception.

Somewhere I read that in his later years, Thurgood Marshall (another first, the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court) said that he could no longer in good conscience go around speaking to schools telling young black kids that if they worked hard, they could be the one black Supreme Court Justice when they grew up. And that brings to mind a sign that a friend of mine had on the door of her dorm room:

Sexual equality doesn't mean that a female Einstein gets an assistant professorship, it means that a female schlemiel gets promoted as easily as a male schlemiel.

By the same standard, the election of one African American to the White House does not mean racial equality.

One cartoonist who gets this is Garry Trudeau, an episode of whose Doonesbury I linked to last week. In that strip, a white American soldier in Iraq reacting to Obama's election exults, "We did it! ... He's half-white, you know!" A black soldier sitting next him smiles, "You must be so proud." A commenter at the site argued that it was reasonable for a white American to be proud of the achievement of Obama's white half. It would be, if the election of a white President were an event of any moment, but one thing we've not had in the United States is a shortage of white male presidents.

P.S. I just noticed that the cartoonist left out the barrier wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, let alone our many legal barriers to immigration, or even tourism. "See? This is the Land of Opportunity! So eat your hearts out, you poor huddled masses, and stay out!"

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In Praise of Hate

Some years ago, my university’s diversity managers did an ad campaign on campus built on the slogan, “Hate Doesn’t Discriminate.” Ads in the student newspaper, flyers on the bulletin boards, that sort of thing.

This is the sort of thing that feeds my distaste for the whole business of diversity management:* the professionalization, the sloppiness, the wholly unjustified self-righteousness.

Hate does discriminate, of course, if it makes any sense at all to speak of “hate” as though it were a person, an agent, instead of an abstraction. In fact, “hate” here refers to what used to be called discrimination, the allocation of resources, privileges and penalties based on “race”, sex, religion, sexual preference, and other hot-button markers. While there is what my high-school sociology teacher called a “halo effect” – prejudices tend to cluster – someone who “hates” people of color does discriminate between them and people of pallor; someone who “hates” Catholics welcomes Protestants. That’s what you call discrimination. Yet such an obvious howler was conceived by college-educated diversity managers and continued to appear around campus for a couple of years. And nobody laughed derisively, except me and a few other malcontents.

Hate is not necessarily bad, and I don’t think anyone really believes otherwise. But then I need to sort out what I’m talking about here. Like “love,” “hate” is a complex word. I love butterscotch ripple ice cream, I hate coffee; I love Heathers and Double Happiness, I hate The Joy Luck Club. I hate the person, whoever it is, who always parks their car so as to block the bike path from where I lock my bike at work. I hate bigotry – but that’s another abstraction, like “hate”, so maybe it would be more accurate to say that I hate bigots. (Or as Tom Lehrer once put it, “I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings – and I hate people like that!”)

As a personal emotion, hate is no more invalid than love, but no less problematic. What is called love is often just infatuation. People do awful things in the name of love, in personal relationships. “I’m just doing this because I love you.” “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” “If I can’t have you, nobody can.” Love brings misery at least as often as it brings joy, and is so often used to excuse a lover’s bad behavior that I can’t see why the word has such prestige.

And then there’s religious love, the kind of love that justifies atrocities on a large scale. The philosopher Walter Kaufmann pointed out many years ago, in his book Without Guilt or Justice, that over the gates of Dante’s Hell, along with the more famous “All hope abandon, ye who enter here,” are the words
Justice moved my Architect above,
What made me was divine Omnipotence,
The highest Wisdom and the Primal Love.
(That’s Kaufmann’s translation, I believe.) I wouldn’t agree that Hell has anything even to do with justice, but to invoke Love in its rationale is, as Kaufmann observed, as obscene as the words that were inscribed over the gates of Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work liberates.” I recall too that in a book on homosexuality and religion that I reviewed, one Jewish scholar pointed out that it wasn’t very compelling to argue that homosexuality is good because it’s Love, since so many terrible things have been done in Love’s name.

As for hate, it can be as shallow as love. I’ll concede happily that indiscriminate, impersonal hatred is not a good thing, but I feel the same way about indiscriminate, impersonal love – the kind of love that many modern Christians think is called agape. Personal hatred is, I submit, as necessary and valid as personal love, though like personal love it shouldn’t be given free rein. Haters, like lovers, had better think about the ways in which they express their hatred – which bigots seldom do. (I suppose that’s part of the fun of it.)

There are people I hate, much as there are people I love, sometimes based on long acquaintance and considered judgment, though sometimes I have experienced hatred at first sight. Though there are people of whom I’ve said that I wouldn’t piss on them if they were lying in the gutter on fire, I’m not sure it would actually be true except in the literal sense. If someone I hate were lying in the gutter on fire, I probably would refrain from pissing on them, but would get a fire extinguisher, call 911, and get an ambulance. If they died, I wouldn’t waste any tears on them, but my immediate reflex would be that someone in trouble needs help. That doesn’t mean that underneath the hatred there is really love; I don’t think love has anything to do with it.

I haven’t noticed either that people who prattle about diversity and love and the need for an end to hate because hate discriminates, are any less free of hate than anyone else. Indeed, they are big haters, as you will see if you listen halfway closely when they are talking about Bible thumpers and rednecks and trailer trash and Rethugs and the Chimp and the Village Idiot in the White House.** (Or about Ralph Nader – John Caruso has pointed out that many liberal Democrats seem to hate Nader even more than they hate Bush.) Nor do they seem to feel any cognitive dissonance about this, and I’m wary of anyone who exhibits so little self-knowledge, so much intellectual dishonesty about their own motives and expression. It seems to me that on some level, such people are just pogroms waiting to happen.

The philosopher Michael Neumann put it very well in an article on “respect” (another diversity management buzzword) that I’ve quoted here before. Substitute “love” for “respect” here, and the point is much the same:

Respect is not a duty; it is not even desirable in many cases. Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush.

You can hate anyone you like, but you can’t burn down their house, or drop bombs on them or impose sanctions that kill half a million children with starvation and disease. You can call them Bible thumpers or trailer trash or Rethugs, but if they turn around and call you militant flaunting homosexuals or limousine liberals or Socialists, you are not in a strong position to accuse them of "hate." Name-calling isn't productive, but sometimes it lets off steam and makes it possible to clear the decks and start dealing with the issues. I realize that’s a profoundly un-American position for me to take, but I’m used to being odd person out.

*Maybe I should say something about the term “diversity management.” I first encountered it in Vijay Prashad’s book Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity (Beacon Press, 2001), page 63:

The idea of difference management (diversity) seems to have largely usurped those agencies that deal with multiculturalism. In my estimation, multiculturalism emerged as the liberal doctrine to undercut the radicalism of antiracism. Instead of antiracism, we are now fed with a diet of cultural pluralism and ethnic diversity. The history of oppression and the fact of exploitation are shunted aside in favor of a celebration of difference and the experience of individuals who can narrate their ethnicity for the consumption of others. That the U.S. state adopted the liberal patina of multiculturalism to fend off an important challenge from the progressive and democratic forces is not reason enough to discount the power of cultural plurality, for multiculturalism opened the space for struggle against the conceit of cultural homogeneity (at the same time as the logic of diversity management quickly tried to close that space off, since it claimed to solve the problem by mutual respect rather than by the struggle to dismantle privilege). “A Multiculturalism that does not acknowledge the political character of culture will not, I am sure,” argues Angela Davis, “lead toward the dismantling of racist, sexist, homophobic, economically exploitative institutions.” The difference between antiracism and diversity management, then, is that the former is militantly against frozen privilege and the latter is in favor of the status quo.

I think that says it very well. It's a topic I want to return to soon.

** Liberal vitriol, by the way, often brings out a revealing response among vitriolic conservatives: lurking beneath their denunciation of the libs' incivility, rudeness, crudeness, and bad manners, is the half-repressed awareness that the libs have, after all, only descended to the conservatives' level.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

No Honeymoon

I share Avedon's exasperation with people who
talk like Tuesday was the Inauguration rather than just the election. Watching the Beeb talking about Tuesday as, "The day an African-American became president of the United States," I was shouting at the tube, "No he didn't! He was just elected, dammit!" There are constant references to "President Obama" as if he actually was. It's as if there weren't several dangerous weeks to go."
She also corrected Alice Walker's mislabeling of the President as "the commander in chief of the United States," a mistake usually made by Bush supporters during his regime. I guess whoever has their guy in (or near) power is going to want to inflate his significance in this way.

I'm going to link again to Naomi Klein's important article on the bailout as pillage (and remember that Obama voted to put Bush's hands deep into the till). It reminded me, first, of the Republican claims in early 2001 that the outgoing Clinton administration had vandalized the White House
and Air Force One. Those claims turned out to be lies, of course, but as with so many Republican lies about the Democrats they should be taken as projection, foreshadowing what the Republicans will do as soon as they get the chance. Second, I began wondering idly whom Dubya will remember when it comes time for the traditional end-of-term pardons. Oh well, I guess we'll get to be surprised on that matter.

The danger doesn't lie solely in what Bush will do during the coming weeks, though. A good many people on the leftward end of the political spectrum (I know, such terminology isn't very descriptive of anything, but I haven't thought yet of a better label, and "left" is the word that is generally used by commentators) threw their support and energy and labor to Obama, wishing and hoping and thinking and praying that he'd grant some of their wishes. Without those people's strenuous efforts, Obama probably would not have won the election; while his campaign relied on traditional corporate-party sources of funds and other support, the "grassroots" elements (as they've been called) probably made the difference between victory and defeat: volunteers who went door to door campaigning, made phone calls, drove voters to the polls, and so on. The general attitude among party elites and the corporate media now is that, having done so much, those people should go home, shut up, and leave the running of the government to the professionals. The first sign that Obama shares this attitude was his appointment of Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff.

I've already heard some Obama fans say that it's too early to complain, that we should just wait patiently and See What He Does. Absolutely not. Admittedly, none of the people I've talked to have any idea who Emanuel is and why his appointment is a slap in the face to anyone who hoped that Obama's administration was going to be Different -- just as none of them knew what Obama's actual positions and concrete promises were before the election. This is politics as spectator sport, though few sports fans treat the decisions of coaches and team owners as uncritically as these Obama fans treat the running of their country by the man they supported.

Here's the crux of the matter: the right-wing Democrats, the party hacks, the corporate enablers and the corporate forces they represent are not sitting back to wait and see what Obama does. During the campaign they gave him money; they reacted swiftly to any hint that his policies, on "free trade" for example, would differ from theirs and forced him to backtrack, as if it were really necessary. (By contrast, when Obama did something that upset his progressive-liberal supporters, such as his vote for FISA, he dug in his heels and claimed -- often correctly -- that this was what he had promised to do all along.) Now they want to make sure that his staff and advisors are acceptable to them and their interests. In the real world of politics it is perfectly legitimate for them to do so, and it is also perfectly legitimate for Obama's liberal and progressive and left supporters to watch his every action closely and critically, and demand that his staff and advisors be acceptable to them and their interests.

It's perfectly legitimate, for example, to ask why the President-Elect's many foreign-policy advisors include so many people with records of advocacy for US state violence, aggression, and terror, and so few (any?) who object to invading Iraq on grounds other than "the enormous waste from excess military spending." It's legitimate to ask why a name prominently floated for Secretary of the Treasury is Larry Summers, a former Secretary of the Treasury for Bill Clinton, with a long track record of dubious and even vile positions? Have prominent left economists like Robert Pollin been consulted on policy or appointments? If not, why not?

It turns out I'm not the only person who's been wondering what will happen to the Obama campaign's legions of volunteers, virtual and meat machines alike. I never expected that the President, any more than his Establishment worriers, would want his organization to possess any real autonomy. But these supporters include those who said that once Obama was elected it would be legitimate to criticize and pressure him, and indeed that they would be among those holding his feet to the fire, and they need to start thinking about how they're going to do that. And the time to do it is now. Not after January 20, when Obama will have announced his Cabinet and other senior staff appointments and, gosh darn it, it will be just too late to do anything about them; when his first wave of executive orders and proposed legislation will already have been prepped for deployment; when, in short, the foundations of his first term in office will have already been laid. Anthony Arnove wrote at the Socialist Worker's site (and my only disagreement with him is that "the first day he takes office" is already giving Obama too much room to breathe):
The first thing to say is that there should be no honeymoon. The Democrats have held a majority in the House and Senate for two years, yet have continued to fund the occupation of Iraq, to allow warrantless wiretaps, to expand the military budget.

The Democrats can no longer use the excuse of Bush and the need to win the White House to continue to defy the widespread desire for change. That means we need to challenge Obama from the first day he takes office, with public protest and mobilization.

My not-so-ambivalent Obama friend asked me rhetorically the other night if the US had ever elected a left-wing President. I agreed with her that we hadn't, but I was wrong. As Avedon wrote at the Sideshow,

You know, we were told over and over that Obama was "the most liberal member of the Senate" (not true, but I'm sure lots of people believed he was really liberal), and the Republicans even insisted that Obama was a socialist - and yet the people elected him! So Obama has a mandate to be at least a screaming liberal, or even a socialist, right?

She's absolutely right. Obama is not a socialist or a screaming liberal -- not even a "progressive" as a commenter at another blog tried to tell me, but a "centrist" or in plain English, a right-wing Democrat -- but he was elected by American voters who almost certainly believed that he was one. (Similarly, though I'm boggled by the misperception of people who believe Bill Clinton was a liberal, that belief is usually a factor in their nostalgia for his administration, when as they believe, things were better than they are now.) The attacks by McCain and Palin and the media failed: American voters want "redistribution of wealth," downward for a change, and they'll be very disappointed if Obama doesn't deliver it. It may no longer be possible for critical voices to reach Obama, and it certainly will be impossible after Rahm Emanuel becomes his doorkeeper. But the time to try to reach Obama with news from outside the Democratic Leadership Council is now. There can be no honeymoon.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Poetry Friday - Song of the Signal Girl

Song of the Signal Girl

when its time to railroad
you must railroad
when its time to railroad
i will be ready

goodbye lovey
o the clouds are supported
at strategic points
by the tips of the skyscrapers
its nice to have met you
o the toes of the skyscrapers
are lost in mist
goodbye lovey
o the eyes of the skyscrapers
are lidded with frost
i won't forget you
o the skyscrapers shiver
in their thin new coats
of morning paint

a snap of my fingers
brings streetlights dancing
a clap of my hands
makes the sidewalks sing
a wink of my eye
blows down hurricane fencing
a tap of my foot
makes the doorbells ring

city was my cradle
city was my playpen
city taught my everything i knew

but the sun never rises in the city

Soft railroaders on your midnight trips
all i understand is love between my lips
and i want you there
with your javelin laid aside
to give me time to let me be your bride

--December 11-13, 1970

I'd been vacillating whether to post this poem or not. I feel vaguely embarrassed by it, though that is a reason to post it.

I know where it came from: I'd been listening to Laura Nyro, in particular to New York Tendaberry, and this poem was channeling her. The final stanza was probably inspired by "Gibsom Street", where she sings of sucking the juices from a strawberry a man had given her. Obvious fellatio imagery, though it now makes me think of Christina Rossetti's wildly oral "Goblin Market." I wonder if Nyro knew that poem, which is much better known now than it was then.

I'm not sure whether I wrote it before or after I saw her perform at Indiana University Bloomington -- there's a good chance it was soon after. She played in the university auditorium, with just a piano, which I sensed disappointed much of the audience who knew only that she'd written "Stoned Soul Picnic" and was expecting a full band. Some were fans, though: at one point a male voice called "He's a Runner!" from the upper balcony, but she didn't fulfill or even acknowledge the request. Her opening act was Jackson Browne, who, like her, was better known at the time for other people's versions of his songs -- he hadn't yet made a record of his own. I'd heard of him, but knew little about him, and was stunned when this beautiful hippie boy walked out on the stage with a guitar and began to perform.

"Song of the Signal Girl" seems very uneven to me now, at its weakest when it's most obviously Nyro. But there are some nice things in it. The first three stanzas still seem good to me. Maybe someday I should try setting them to music, and finish the poem/song according to its own inner logic, rather than as a pastiche.

(Image by Lawrence Housman from the 1893 edition of "Goblin Market"; via The Victorian Web.)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Victor, Spoils

I’m still sorting out my feelings about Obama’s victory. One thing I’m sure of: I’m very relieved that McCain wasn’t elected, especially with Sarah Palin as his Vice President. But “relieved” doesn’t equal “happy,” let alone ecstatic that Obama will be President. And a lot of people were ecstatic, though we’ll never know how many of them were confusing relief at the end of Republican control of the White House and Congress with ecstasy over Obama. The same grandiose rhetoric was all over the place today (via), and that depressed me even more.

The other day Kelley Eskridge posted a story on her blog. Told by Bono, who got it from Harry Belafonte, it involved Civil Rights leaders’ reaction to Robert Kennedy as his brother’s Attorney General. This would have been 1961 or so. Bono quoted Belafonte:
We knew we were in deep trouble. We were crestfallen, in despair, talking to Martin, moaning and groaning about the turn of events when Dr. King slammed his hand down and ordered us to stop the bitchin’: ‘Enough of this!’ he said. ‘Is there nobody here who’s got something good to say about Bobby Kennedy?’

“We said, ‘Martin, that’s what we’re telling ya! There is no one… There is nothing good to say about him. The guy’s an Irish Catholic conservative bad ass, he’s bad news….’

“To which Martin replied: ‘Well, then, let’s call this meeting to a close. We will re-adjourn when somebody has found one redeeming thing to say about Bobby Kennedy, because that, my friends, is the door through which our movement will pass.’”
(Hm. I really doubt that King would really have said “re-adjourn” when he meant something like “re-convene.” I wonder whose error that is?)

So, okay, I’ve been trying to think of at least one redeeming thing about Barack Obama. Not necessarily as a person – I am sure I’d like him if I ever met him – but as a Presidential candidate (and now, of course, as President). That he’s an eloquent speaker is immaterial – that just makes me more wary, frankly. He is, as far as I know, pretty securely pro-choice, and so the great Fear over Supreme Court Justice nominees that liberals have waved during the past several Presidential campaigns can probably be retired: as the older Justices finally lay their burdens down, it’s probably reasonable to hope that President Obama will choose sound replacements. And something else occurred to me while talking to a friend about this (actually, she drew it to my attention and rubbed my nose in it): Obama's courage in running for high office in what is still a dangerously racist country.

I expect we’ll see some incidents of white racist violence in backlash against Obama’s election, though I think the same would have happened (worse, probably) if McCain had won – the bigots would have taken a McCain presidency as a promise of impunity for their crimes. (And as Avram Grumer noted at Making Light, "I fully expect to get sick of hearing coded racial slurs in criticisms of Obama over the next few years.") McCain’s campaign deliberately stirred up his constituency’s worst attitudes, to the extent that McCain himself was booed by his own mob when he tried to get them to tone it down. (Some of that was audible in the responses to his concession speech Tuesday night.) McCain has a lot to answer for.

And this is really a side issue for me personally, but I recognize the importance of having elected our first President of visibly African descent. I’d always thought the first African-American President would be someone like Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice. My ambivalent pro-Obama friend, mentioned here numerous times before, is African-American, and he left a message on my answering machine today. His parents, he told me, who are in their eighties, were thrilled that they had lived to see the election of an African-American president. I can imagine how that must feel, and I'm really happy for them. Obama’s election is unquestionably a victory over American racism – but like every other such victory, it doesn’t mean the end of American racism. Our prisons will still be overstuffed with African-American males, African-Americans and other people of color will still be subject to special attention by the police, and so on. (And US missiles will still be shredding Afghan wedding parties, but that’s another issue.) Obama’s victory won’t affect any of that.

I’m also haunted by something I once read about the election of the first black mayors to major American cities (Ed Bradley, Marion Barry, Harold Washington) – that the local political machines only allowed them to get so far because the cities were in major trouble (political, financial) and the blame for their worsening condition could then be put on their black mayors, not on the white power brokers who were really responsible. Obama faces a similar crisis, only worse, and I don’t see any reason to believe that he knows how to fix it.

It's taken me some time to figure out why I don't feel right, as a person of pallor, about feeling triumphant about the election of America's first African-American president. I think it's because I've seen too many white people congratulate themselves for overcoming their own racism, when so much remains to be corrected. And there's also what might be called the colonialist or paternalist move, where Bwana gives himself too much credit for the natives' celebration, or appropriates colorful native garb or customs in order to feel diverse. Racism isn't (in my hubristic opinion) primarily a personal failing, it's a structural failing that sometimes expresses itself in personal attitudes of greater or lesser virulence. But in any case, while I concede that white Americans' attitudes have improved to the point where a black President could be elected, that only means that we've begun to catch up with the Third World, and as this writer points out, that women and ethnic minorities have become heads of state in such countries "does not prove anything positive about the status of those communities." Anyway, Obama's election doesn't feel to me like something that white people are entitled to use to feel better about ourselves or our country, not just yet.

So, what could cure my blues? So far the announcements of the new administration abuilding are not encouraging: Obama has asked Democratic Leadership Council party hack and attack dog Rahm Emmanuel to be his chief of staff, Larry Summers’s name is high on the list of choices for Secretary of the Treasury, and there is word Robert Gates will be kept on as Secretary of Defense – one of those bipartisan gestures Obama is so big on. Okay, okay, I know: to the victor belong the spoils. Besides, these people worked hard for Obama. They want to be respected and to continue to be involved in what he does. They expect to have a voice in governing. I know that some raw meat will have to be thrown in their direction. I’ll just be waiting to see what crumbs Obama is going to throw at the grass-roots supporters who played an equally important role in getting him elected. Noam Chomsky for Secretary of State, maybe? Amy Goodman as Press Secretary? I’m not holding my breath.
(P.S. I spent some time this evening adding some links and making some other revisions.)