Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lysistrata in Kenya

According to the BBC,
Women's activist groups in Kenya have slapped their partners with a week-long sex ban in protest over the infighting plaguing the national unity government.

The Women's Development Organisation coalition said they would also pay prostitutes to join their strike.

The campaigners are asking the wives of the Kenyan president and the prime minister to join in the embargo.

They say they want to avoid a repeat of the violence which convulsed the country after the late-2007 elections.

I bet you know what comes next:

But the BBC's Anne Waithera in Nairobi says the campaign is likely to meet stiff resistance from some men.

It did in Athens, too!

(image credit)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hope-alicious

Naomi Klein's column in the latest Nation, "A Lexicon of Disappointment," indicates that satire isn't one of her strengths. As the title suggests, it's basically a list of terms based on the root of "hope": hopeover, hopesick, etc. Not one of her better efforts.

To add to the fun, Klein's piece gave Katha Pollitt an opening for a blog post in defense / support of her guy. "All is not well in Obamafanland," Klein wrote. A "growing number of Obama enthusiasts are starting to entertain the possibility that their man is not, in fact, going to save the world if we all just hope really hard." I think Pollitt strategically misread Klein:

I have a lot of respect for Naomi Klein, but I think her own hopes for a mass radical movement are getting in the way here. According to polls, after all, Obama is wildly popular. A Harris Interactive poll released on April 7 found that 68% of Americans have a good opinion of him. That doesn't necessarily mean they approve of everything he's doing, but it means that a heck of a lot of people who didn't vote for him like him now. Is there any evidence that "a growing number of Obama enthusiasts are starting to entertain the possibility that their man is not, in fact, going to save the world if we all just hope really hard"? And by the way, did anyone over the age of 21 ever really believe this? That hope, an emotion, was going to "save the world," the way children clapping their hands saves Tinkerbell? Are Americans really such idiots? Hmmm, better not answer that.

It seems Pollitt realizes she wrote herself into a corner here. Did anyone over the age of 21 believe that faith in Obama would save the world? Well, yeah, though I'll concede that that belief seems to have been concentrated among the younger voters, the ones who got their first taste of electoral politics working for Barack. Like the student I quoted here, who said "For me, I think it's the idea of change ...", though maybe she doesn't actually expect real change to happen. Or the people in this video with their wishlists that Santa Obama was supposed to consult when he filled their stockings. Or the student who, confronted with Obama's actual positions during the campaign, told me that that he needed to have hope, and if he couldn’t have faith in Obama he might as well not vote at all.

Naomi and I must talk to different people. For example, I don't know anyone as stupid as the hopefiendish "Joe" who "actually believes Obama deliberately brought in Summers so that he would blow the bailout, and then Obama would have the excuse he needs to do what he really wants: nationalize the banks and turn them into credit unions." Think what you're saying, Joe! Had Obama intentionally put in someone he knew would fail, he would not only be a clairvoyant and a psychopath-- callously indifferent to the ruin of possibly millions of people-- he'd also be risking political suicide. Because had he first chosen a course he knew would fail he would not have the political capital to "what he really wants."
One commenter, beingalam at 04/20/2009 @ 8:18pm, responded neatly:

Note that hypothetical "Joe"'s reasoning is really not all that different from the "Obama is appointing establishment moderates to cabinet positions so that he can, under cover of establishment authority, really pursue an aggressively progressive agenda" line that was pushed by many liberal commentators when Obama was announcing his cabinet nominees. So I'm not sure that Klein is really all that off in terms of the characterization of Joe.

I agree, although "moderates" doesn't really describe Geithner, Summers, Gates, or Clinton. Maybe Klein's rather hamhanded attempt at satire failed to register on Pollitt's irony meter, or maybe being an Obama supporter has turned her irony meter off. She went on to finger the real culprits:
The only people I've found who've given up on him, who feel betrayed, misled, and foolish, are those leftists who didn't like him in the first place and voted for him in a weak moment as the lesser evil. They, predictably, went back to their cabins on Mt. Disdain before Obama had even been inaugurated.
This may be true among the people Pollitt knows, but it isn't always true. I voted for Obama as the lesser evil, but I don't feel betrayed, misled, or foolish; I knew exactly what I was voting for, but did so anyway so that Obama fans couldn't attack me as a Republican or a vote-waster when I criticized him. (And maybe we were right about Obama to begin with, unlike so many Obama fans?) Perhaps Pollitt is thinking of someone like Glenn Greenwald, who's become increasingly critical of Obama's embrace of Bush administration rationales for executive secrecy and arrogation of powers:
It is becoming increasingly difficult for honest Obama supporters to dismiss away or even minimize these criticisms and, especially, to malign the motives of critics. After all, the Obama DOJ's embrace of many (though by no means all) of the most radical and extremist Bush/Cheney positions -- and the contradictions between Obama's campaign claims and his actions as President -- are now so glaring and severe that the harshest denunciations of Obama's actions are coming from those who, during the Bush years, were held up by liberals and by Obama supporters as the most trustworthy and praiseworthy authorities on these matters.
As examples, Greenwald goes on to list the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Keith Olbermann, Senator Russ Feingold, Nancy Pelosi, and libblogger Digby, among others. No doubt Pollitt will manage to malign their motives; but maybe she just needs to get out more.
Pollitt protests:
Like everyone, I'm worried about the bailout, Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm appalled that he envisions no prosecution of those who set up the legal framework of torture and those who carried it out. And what about Bagram? On the plus side: he's been terrific on women's rights and reproductive rights here and abroad, made some excellent appointments (Hilda Solis at Labor), reached out to the Muslim world, opened communications with Cuba and Iran, said he'll close Guantanamo, declared an end to torture, and, with the stimulus, successfully challenged the notion that government spending (except on the military) is bad. He's made it less embarrassing to be an American. I think he'll make good judicial appointments. If another Katrina happened tomorrow, I think he'd handle it well.
I couldn't help noticing that the only "excellent appointment" Pollitt could name was Hilda Solis, who was indeed an excellent choice, but who stands out like a sore thumb in his Cabinet among the Bush holdovers and Democratic Leadership Council hacks. And it appears that Obama's support for labor ends with having appointed Solis; he seems to have lost interest in the Employee Free Choice Act, for example. Yes, Obama has done well on women's rights and reproductive rights here and abroad, though I think "terrific" is a slight overstatement. But Pollitt's other points aren't terribly convincing: they are mostly symbolic gestures ("said he'll close Guantanamo"and "declared an end to torture" while leaving other torture sites intact; "reached out to the Muslim world" while continuing to kill Muslim civilians; his openings to Cuba and Iran have been half-hearted at best, still laden with his predecessors' propaganda. As Mike Whitney wrote at Counterpunch yesterday:
Foreign leaders are clearly relieved to see the last of George W. Bush, and they appear to be willing to give Obama every opportunity to mend fences and break with the past. But Obama has made little effort to reciprocate or show that he's serious about real change. The emphasis seems to be more on public relations than policy; more on glitzy photo ops, grandiose speeches and gadding about from one capital to another, than ending the chronic US meddling and militarism. Where's the beef or is it all just empty posturing?
Dude! Barack totally shook hands with Hugo Chávez! Is that change, or what? ... "Less embarrassing to be an American" is still embarrassing. I remember the early 90s, when Pollitt lay into liberals who were excited by Bill Clinton's every burp; but if she was a Clinton partisan, she managed to hide it better then. Pointing to Obama's great poll numbers, fixating on the single token liberal in his cabinet, celebrating his symbolic send-a-message reach-out-and-touch-someone gestures -- these are not strong responses to Klein, especially granting how easy Klein made it for her.

Last summer Pollitt wrote hopefully, "An Obama victory could have big positive repercussions for progressive politics." Now she's reduced to insisting that he was the lesser evil, and scolding those on the left who aren't satisfied by him: "FDR didn't satisfy the left either," she sniffs. Be glad for what you have, Glenn and Digby and Russ and Noam! Surely, comrades, you do not want Bush back?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Love and Haiti

John Caruso had a good post last Sunday on US policy toward the elections in Haiti, which I didn't look at closely until today. But then I noticed his quotation from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's remarks at the Haiti Donors Conference on April 14:
CLINTON: The U.S. removed a military dictatorship in 1995, clearing the way for democracy. And after several years of political disputes, common in any country making a transition, Haiti began to see progress. And the national and presidential elections in 2006 really moved Haiti’s democracy forward. What the president and the prime minister are seeking is to maintain a strong commitment to democratic governance which will take another step forward with elections for the senate on Sunday.
These remarks were so blatantly ahistorical that I decided to look at the full text, to see if Clinton might have filled in the gaps in her history.

First of all, I'm sure you'll be pleased to learn that Secretary of State Clinton didn't limit herself to dry recitation of impersonal facts.
On a personal note, my husband and I went to Haiti for the first time shortly after we were married, so we have a deep commitment to Haiti and the people of Haiti. Our homes are filled with art from Haiti. We have friends who hail from Haiti. But it is not only my personal concern that brings me here today.
Some of her best friends are Haitians! Would you believe it? And she hailed the good example of "the defeat of slavery in Haiti which inspired slaves and abolitionists in my country, to the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who have emigrated to the United States and have strengthened us through their contributions in politics and business and health and education, in science, sports, and culture – the benefits of which I experienced firsthand as a senator representing New York, which has a vibrant Haitian American community." She didn't mention, of course, that Haiti was the original case of the threat of a bad example in the Western hemisphere, that the United States (which was still a slave nation when Haiti achieved its independence in 1804, and didn't want its own property to get any funny ideas) collaborated with Europe in crushing the Haitian economy. Or that the US invaded Haiti and occupied it from 1915 to 1934. Clinton did mention that
Not long ago, from the 1950s until the 1980s, Haiti endured a brutal military dictatorship. The U.S. removed a military dictatorship in 1995, clearing the way for democracy. And after several years of political disputes, common in any country making a transition, Haiti began to see progress --
It's a shame that Caruso didn't quote the first sentence in that paragraph along with the succeeding ones; it shows just how carefully, knowingly dishonest Clinton was. You don't have to read very closely to wonder what happened between the 1980s, when "Haiti endured a brutal military dictatorship", and 1995, when "The U.S. removed a military dictatorship ..., clearing the way for democracy." Aren't we wonderful? How would the poor benighted people of Haiti have been able to strive for democracy if the U.S. hadn't cleared the way?

Well, they might have done quite well on their own. Clinton did not mention the 1990 elections, in which the former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected President, a development which shocked not only Haitian elites, but the U.S. government, which had backed another candidate and naturally expected him to win. Aristide was deposed in September 1991 by a military coup and went into exile. After the coup,
the Organization of American States declared an embargo. Bush I announced that the US would violate it by exempting US firms. He was thus "fine tuning" the embargo for the benefit of the suffering population, the New York Times reported. [President Bill] Clinton authorized even more extreme violations of the embargo: US trade with the junta and its wealthy supporters sharply increased. The crucial element of the embargo was, of course, oil. While the CIA solemnly testified to Congress that the junta "probably will be out of fuel and power very shortly" and "Our intelligence efforts are focused on detecting attempts to circumvent the embargo and monitoring its impact," Clinton secretly authorized the Texaco Oil Company to ship oil to the junta illegally, in violation of presidential directives. This remarkable revelation was the lead story on the AP wires the day before Clinton sent the Marines to "restore democracy," impossible to miss - I happened to be monitoring AP wires that day and saw it repeated prominently over and over -- and obviously of enormous significance for anyone who wanted to understand what was happening. It was suppressed with truly impressive discipline, though reported in industry journals along with scant mention buried in the business press.

Also efficiently suppressed were the crucial conditions that Clinton imposed for Aristide's return: that he adopt the program of the defeated US candidate in the 1990 elections, a former World Bank official who had received 14% of the vote. We call this "restoring democracy," a prime illustration of how US foreign policy has entered a "noble phase" with a "saintly glow," the national press explained. The harsh neoliberal program that Aristide was compelled to adopt was virtually guaranteed to demolish the remaining shreds of economic sovereignty, extending Wilson 's progressive legislation and similar US-imposed measures since.

So, to claim, as Secretary of State Clinton did, that "the U.S. removed a military dictatorship in 1995," is fudging the truth just a tad. 1995 was the year that Aristide left office, having been restored to the presidency in 1994; could that have been what she meant by removing a military dictatorship? No doubt she knew her audience would know enough to fill in the gaps without making a fuss about them. It wouldn't do to acknowledge the U.S. role in keeping those dictatorships in place, and in suppressing Haitian democracy until it could be brought under the proper control, which meant supporting the 2004 coup which sent Aristide into exile again. Oh, and by the way:
Refugees fleeing to the US from the terror of the US-backed dictatorships were forcefully returned, in gross violation of international humanitarian law. The policy was reversed when a democratically elected government took office. Though the flow of refugees reduced to a trickle, they were mostly granted political asylum. Policy returned to normal when a military junta overthrew the Aristide government after seven months, and state terrorist atrocities rose to new heights. The perpetrators were the army - the inheritors of the National Guard left by Wilson 's invaders to control the population - and its paramilitary forces. The most important of these, FRAPH, was founded by CIA asset Emmanuel Constant, who now lives happily in Queens, Clinton and Bush II having dismissed extradition requests -- because he would reveal US ties to the murderous junta, it is widely assumed. Constant's contributions to state terror were, after all, meager; merely prime responsibility for the murder of 4-5000 poor blacks.
Does Secretary of State Clinton know these things? She surely knows about Emmanuel Constant, one of her constituents from her tenure as Senator from New York, whom she doubtless regards as one of those "hundreds of thousands of Haitians who have emigrated to the United States and have strengthened us through their contributions in politics and business and health and education, in science, sports, and culture."

And Clinton is, after all, one of President Obama's appointees, one of the team of rivals who might have their own views but nevertheless do his bidding and serve at his pleasure. Obama didn't have much to say about Haiti during his presidential campaign, as far as I can find. He knows these things, I'm sure; but I suspect his view of Haitian history is now as twisted as his Secretary of State's.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Poetry Friday - The Minister of Dreams

The Minister of Dreams

The future lies enwombed in dreams, as wheat
in seed. Indeed it dreams there like the child
who sleeps beneath its mother's heart, beguiled
by darkness and engulfed within her heat.
Just so, the future waits the midwife's hand,
the hand of one who has the wit to draw
it forth to light and hold it, dumb with awe,
that it may speak. For dreams I understand.
Since childhood I have dwelt among my dreams,
a shadow-dweller like the forest folk,
who only by such rays of light as broke
between the leaves could see at all. What seems
to be is truer than what is, and so
what is not yet is given me to know.

Never The Twain Shall Meet

The other day I quoted Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's critical take on those scholars who "implicitly ... underwrite the notion that 'homosexuality as we conceive of it today' itself comprises a coherent definitional field rather than a space of overlapping, contradictory, and conflictual definitional forces." This notion turns up often both in anthropological writings on sexuality and gender in "non-Western cultures," and in writings on history or literature in the "West".

For example, last weekend I read a paper, "The Romance of the Queer: The Sexual and Gender Norms of Tom and Dee in Thailand," by Megan Sinnott, in a collection called AsiaPacifiQueer: Rethinking Genders and Sexualities (edited by Fran Martin, Peter A. Jackson, Mark McLelland, and Audrey Yue [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008]). Rethinking genders and sexualities is a noble project, but as I've argued before, it's not quite as simple as invoking the names of Foucault, Butler, and de Lauretis. I haven't read the whole book yet, so let this be the first progress report.

Tom and Dee are, according to Sinnott (author also of Toms and Dees: Transgender Identity and Female Same-Sex Relationships in Thailand [Hawaii, 2004], English words (tom from "tomboy" and dee from "lady") that made their way into Thai culture sometime in the 1970s. Both in Thai society generally and among toms and dees themselves, "Tom and dee subject categories are not defined in terms of heterosexual/homosexual binary; they are not defined in opposition to heterosexuality," Sinnott declares (134), which isn't surprising since most heterosexuals do not think of themselves as heterosexuals; they tend to identify as men and women, with men assumed to be butch/penetrators and women assumed to be femme/penetrated, unless something goes awry.
Toms are typically understood to be masculine beings, who express their masculinity in their personality, dress, and sexual attraction to females. Most toms and dees I interviewed described dees as "ordinary" women (phu-ying thammada) who were normatively attracted to a masculine partner who could either be male or female bodied. Dees are described as being capable of attraction to males or toms. This description was borne out in the life stories of many of the dees with whom I spoke. Many (but not all) dees had had relationships with both males and toms, and considered themselves to be "ordinary" women who were currently involved with toms. The term dee includes, without distinction, women who consider themselves to be exclusively interested in toms and women who perceive themselves as possible partners with either males or toms. Therefore, "dee" is an ambivalent category, differentiating women who are sexually involved with females from women sexually involved with males, with the implicit understanding that dees are probably not exclusively attracted to toms, and not essentially of a different nature from women in general. In contrast, commonly among toms, dees, and Thais in general, tom is understood as a transgendered female, with a core, inborn masculine soul (cit-cay).

... Peter Jackson has analyzed the Thai cultural system as one based on the primacy of gender, in contrast to a Foucaultian grid in which sexuality, sexual object choice, and sexual preference are the primary categories of the Western sex/gender order. ... Sexuality in Thai culture is understood as an extension of one's gender; homosexuality is understood to be, in mainstream Thai interpretations, a result of psychological transgendering -- a man in a woman's body, or vice versa. For many Thais, including academics and psychologists, the western concept of "homosexuality" is interpreted in terms of the local concept of "kathoey." The term kathoey refers to an intersexed, transgendered, or transsexual person, usually male to female. ... From oral histories with people over sixty years old, I have learned that masculine women were known of in the past in rural settings. These women often had female partners and lived their lives as social men. While these individuals were called kathoey at times, people usually referred to such a masculine-identified woman as a "woman who is a man" (phu-ying thii pen phu-chaay). These masculine women, like toms today, generally were not "passing" as men. They were known to be physically female and did not claim otherwise. ...

Most obviously, toms and dees explicitly reject the English term "lesbian" largely due to its explicitly sexual associations "Lesbian" is understood to refer to two feminine women who are engaging in sex with each other. ...Toms and dees explained that they could only see this kind of sex as a possibility when it was a performance for a lascivious male audience. For Thai women, the sameness of gender that is implied in the term "lesbian" carries an additional stigma of explicit sexuality, rather than a gendered relationship [134-135].

Almost all of the toms and dees interviewed described sexual relationships as only reasonably possible between masculine and feminine beings -- men and women, toms and dees, kathoey and "men." Any suggestion of sexual relationships between two toms or two dees was described as bizarre and ludicrous [136]

One area in which toms and dees reverse normative discourses of sexuality is in the common practice of tom untouchability. Many toms and dees have described toms as unwilling to be touched sexually by their partners or to remove their clothes during sex. ... Dees, as appropriately "passive" (faay-rap), expect to reach sexual climax because they are acted upon by a masculine partner. Toms also generally expressed the belief that it was their duty to bring about a dee's sexual satisfaction.

Both toms and dees repeatedly expressed hilarity or discomfort with the idea of a same-gendered partner. The idea that toms could partner with toms and dee with dees clearly violated normative models of sexuality and identity [140].
All very interesting, and far be it from me to tell Thai queers how to arrange their sexual relationships. But there's nothing specifically Thai, let alone non-Western, about the gender/sex system Sinnott describes -- quite the opposite. The untouchable or stone butch is not only familiar from long history in the English-speaking world, she has become a motif in newer dyke erotica, starting with Joan Nestle's groundbreaking work on American butch-femme sexuality of the 1950s. (The image above comes from Nestle's blog.) So is the notion of the homosexual as a man trapped in a woman's body, or a woman trapped in a man's -- defined as such in the 1800s by the Uranian reformer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. It also is the basis for Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, and you can't get much more "Western" than Hall (image below from here). There's no reason why Thais should be familiar with this history, but a Western scholar like Sinnott should take notice of it.

In her influential book Female Masculinity (Duke, 1998), Judith Halberstam mentions that the 19th-century English diarist and sapphist
Anne Lister spoke in quite similar terms about her desire to touch her beloved without ever permitting her beloved to do the same to her for fear that it would “womanize” her too much. As we shall see in the next chapter, this particular version of female masculinity comes to be named “stone butch” within a lesbian vernacular in the 1950s, and as such it represented a privileged and ideal version of butch gender and sexuality among butch-femme communities. In fact, we could say that stonebutchness – Lister’s untouchability in the 1820s, Hall’s role as worshiper in the 1920s, the impenetrable butch in the 1950s – marks one particular historical tradition of female masculinity [102].

(In her paper Sinnott cites a later book of Halberstam's; it's hard to believe that she's unaware of Female Masculinity as well.)

Halberstam criticizes what she calls "the emphatic defense of modern notions of lesbianism" (109), which won't work because Hall and her circle were modern lesbians in the Foucauldian view, with modern ideas about sex and gender which, remarkably, look a lot like supposedly pre-modern or un-modern non-Western notions Sinnott describes. She also tries to explain Hall's apparent ambivalence about her body and identification with the male drag she used to cover it as "disidentification with the naked body," pointing out that in the early 1900s, "in Hall’s circle were many women who felt that their masculine clothing represented their identities. The new formed Women’s Police Service was filled with women who seemed to want to join up to wear the handsome uniforms" (106).

This might be more convincing if it worked both ways, as shown in this anecdote from Annick Prieur's Mema's House, Mexico City: on Transvestites, Queens and Machos (Chicago, 1998, page 165):
This cheating [that is, deceiving their male partners by pretending to be female] might be interpreted as a game, a play. But if it is, the vestidas definitely are bad losers. Marta was picked up on the highway: 'It was dusk, it was in November in 1987. I'll never forget it. I wanted a lift, and nobody would stop. It's getting dark and more difficult to get a ride. Then a car stops, a green Datsun. The driver, he's very handsome, you know, all my respects, he asks me "Where are you going?" "Home." "Come on, I'll give you a ride." We talked, and I told him I'm a hooker. Then he stops there on a flat stretch, and says "Straight away, how much is it?" "That much, my`love." "O.K." I was flattered, because he was really handsome, with a mustache, and not a fake one. I started to touch him with my hand, and I didn't find anything! Then he says, "It's because I'm lesbian." Oh my God, take a leave! I got out of the car, throwing up, traumatized. Because he was a man with a mustache and hair on his chest. He was a little fat so he had a bit of breasts, but I never could have imagined he was a woman. So I say, just like I have fooled them, I was fooled that day. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth."
In other words, if clothes make the Mythic Mannish Lesbian (.pdf) would the "women who felt that their masculine clothing represented their identities" have accepted vestidas as their partners? If Radclyffe Hall had met a lovely woman at a ball, seduced her and found a penis between her legs, would she have accepted that for this man, his feminine clothing represented his identity? I rather doubt it, and I'm not saying that she should have. But I find it ironic that supposedly non-normative sex/gender actors should have such quaintly heteronormative, downright traditional ideas about homosexuality: two guys (or girls) together -- eeeeeeeuuwww! Gross! Queer! Prieur's vestidas, by the way, "comment with disgust at the sight of two mustache-wearing men kissing each other, seeing it as something 'abnormal'" (149), and queens around the world are revolted by the idea of two sissies having sex together, which they regard, significantly, as "lesbianism."

Which doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Even in Radclyffe Hall's England (and Paris, with its famous sapphic salons), there were competing models of eroticism between women. I daresay that in Thailand, toms and dees don't exhaust the gender/sex landscape for women; but same-gender homosexuality has the advantage (or disadvantage) of being socially invisible. Let me stress that I don't think that same-gender homosexuality is superior to, or more authentic than gendered homosexuality -- I just don't think that gendered homosexuality is superior either. They're simply different patterns, and scholarship which fails to take the different varieties into account isn't doing its job. To return to Eve Sedgwick's remark quoted at the beginning of this post, scholars need to be aware that historically, tom/dee relationships have been, and still are, part of "homosexuality as we conceive of it today", not some exotic Oriental prodigy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Owl Flies Free, For Now

Park Dae-sung, the Korean blogger known as "Minerva", was acquitted of charges of maliciously spreading false information on the Internet, and released from jail on Monday. I hadn't been following the Korean English-language news sites, so it was by chance that I saw a notice of Park's release in today's New York Times. (It was covered in the Los Angeles Times too, I see.) That's a blow to Korean President Lee Myung-bak's efforts to stifle dissent; his prosecutors say that they will appeal the acquittal, still hoping to keep Park behind bars. It's a nice bit of good news; the LA Times quotes Park's lawyer to the effect that he was surprised to find that Korean courts can still stand up to the government. I hope it's a good omen, not just in Korea but elsewhere.

Two other tidbits from South Korea. One: according to the Korea Times, Lee Myung-bak's approval ratings have climbed to 40 percent, up from 21.6 percent last June, at the peak of the anti-Lee protests over US beef imports. However, 51.7 percent of Koreans still disapprove of Lee, down from 54.4 percent in January.

Two, also from the Korea Times: conservative legislator Song Young-chun attacked pop singer Shin Hae-chul for defending North Korea's recent missile launch.
In a radio program Tuesday morning, Song criticized the singer. She said Shin should "be sent to the North and live under the Kim Jong-il regime.'' She said his recent praise of the launch was indiscrete [sic] and thoughtless. Shin immediately hit back at the lawmaker for "working for the Japanese emperor.''
Shin replied on his website.
"What I said was I would like to visit the North. I support North Korea, but I don't back the dictatorial Kim Jong-il regime and I've never praised it. Praising North Korea is a separate issue from supporting the government."

Shin said Song should work for the Japanese Emperor, in an apparent reference to her attendance of an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Japanese Self Defense Force in 2004.

The singer said, "While you were laughing and clapping before the Japanese force, my grandfather, who led the pro-independent movement in Osan, Gyeonggi Province during the Japanese colonial period and his fellows, cried out of shame in their tombs."
I found this exchange interesting because of the forthright way that Shin reacted to Song's Red-baiting; instead of merely covering his own ass, he went after Song's vulnerable spot. For those who don't know, Japan occupied and colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945, enacting draconian measures in an effort to wipe out Korean culture. There's still a lot of bad blood toward Japan among older Koreans especially, though much of it was diverted to anti-Communism and hostility to North Korea. After Liberation at the end of World War II, the US found its best supporters among Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese -- but they were anti-Communist, unlike many of those who had resisted the Japanese. This American intervention soon brought about the division of Korea at the 38th parallel and fostered conflicts that ultimately led to the Korean Civil War in 1950.

Here's a 1996 music video by Shin Hae-chul; the image of Park Dae-sung's reunion with his family, above, is from the Hankyoreh. (I've heard before about a tradition of bringing tofu to prisoners on their release; it's depicted in Park Chan-wook's film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, for example. That looks like tofu in Park's hand in the photo, and you can see his mother getting ready to hand it to him in the LA Times picture.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

In the Shadow of the Great Redwoods ... or Redrum, I Forget

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In the words of a great philosopher, "Wottan embezzle! Wotta maroon!" Does this woman actually speak for anyone but herself? She has a tattoo, she has a lot of gay friends. She wears black! I guess I should have voted for her father after all.

And why does Minority Leader (not this minority!) John Boehner consistently sound as if he's saying that "we'll shit thousands of jobs overseas" in this clip? Did ABC call him up for comment just so that viewers could giggle helplessly every time he says it? If so, it worked on me.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Please Master Order Me Down to the Floor

It appears that the Teabaggers (giggle snort) scored a moderate success with Wednesday's Tax Day rallies. The figure I've seen is 250,000 participants nationwide, which isn't bad unless you compare it to gay pride marches, antiwar rallies, immigration protests, and other demonstrations about marginal issues. And I still think that these rallies should be taunted as antiwar and other 'left' protests always have been: with catcalls and verbal abuse -- Dirty hippies! Get a job! Take a bath! Go back to Russia! The Teabaggers have tried to excuse their less than mind-blowing turnouts by pointing out that they keep scheduling these things on weekdays (and whose fault is that?); so those lazy bums who do participate should be denounced as the pinko shirkers they are. They should also routinely be described as "riots", "violent street protests," and the participants as "screaming," in the American tradition of viewing all demonstrations, no matter how peaceful, as violent.

So, what are these dirty reds screaming about as they riot in the streets? Aside from terms they don't understand, like "socialism" and "fascism," and complaints about the Bush-Obama bailout of the banks (which the left also criticizes) they appear to be having hissyfits about taxes. Okay, nobody likes paying taxes much, though I can think of many things that bother me more, not least because Americans pay lower taxes than most or all of the rest of the developed world. The Teabaggers keep complaining that they don't want to pay higher taxes, which is especially weird when you remember that Obama's very small tax increase is going to affect only those who earn more than $250,000 a year, and virtually none of the people who accuse Obama of taxing them to death earn that much. In a world of multibillionaires, it's easy to regard $250,000 a year as not that much, though it's roughly ten times what I earn, and only about 1 percent of the US population will be affected by the tax increase. Indeed, it's likely that these rioting Communist propagandists are, like me, going to pay less in taxes under Obama. That's leaving aside this welfare queen (from Atrios via IOZ), who paid no taxes at all last year and is now draping herself in the flag as she screams hatred of America in the streets of Syracuse, New York. (Cheap red-baiting, like cheap populism, is oddly arousing, and dangerously habit-forming. But I can stop any time I want! I'm in complete control! I am not an addict!)

"I don't want to see this country turn into a welfare, nanny state, where we stand in line for groceries, and we're in welfare lines, and in socialized medicine lines," Joanne Wilder said between gulps from the welfare teat. The term "nanny state" was of course popularized by Newt Gingrich when he was the congressman from Cobb County, Georgia, which (in those days, at least) received "more federal subsidies than any suburban county in the country, with two exceptions: Arlington Virginia, effectively part of the Federal Government, and Brevard County Florida, the home of the Kennedy Space Center. When we move out of the state system itself, Cobb County is the leading beneficiary of the 'nanny state.'" And Gingrich, according to a sycophantic AP story (from Sisyphus Shrugged via Sideshow), is currently poised to benefit from whatever political capital the Teabaggers manage to generate. To characterize Gingrich adequately would require the talent for invective of the late Hunter Thompson in his prime, back when he was calling Richard Nixon a cheapjack thug and a lust-maddened werewolf. As Avedon cautions, "It's the smell of 'New Nixon' - and, laugh while you may, but just remember that it actually worked for Nixon."

That's the baffling thing, and of course I'm not the first to notice it: the amazing altruism of people who basically renounce altruism when it comes to people like themselves, but are positively eager to make sure that the wealthy and powerful don't get a raw deal, even at their own expense.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Poetry Friday -- Newton and the Apple

Newton and the Apple;
or, Gravity

There must have been a Devil in the tree
he sat beneath, that toss'd him Knowledge down
(though not of Good and Evil, certainly).
The day would wane, and he still in his gown
would sit unmoving on his bed, his eyes
fix'd on the empty air, and never eat.
As people say, 'tis folly to be wise.
His Wisdom look'd like runes, imprinted neat
as any madman's scribble, meant to prove
how Up and Down arrange themselves, how Light
is made of colours, how the Planets move
through Heav'n. In imitation of the Bright
and Proud, he wanted to explain it all:
as if Men need instruction how to fall.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tortuous Logic

Under pressure from the ACLU, First Gentleman Obama has released four Bush-era memos that provided the legal rationale for "enhanced interrogation techniques." He has also issued a statement ruling out "prosecutions against those who had been involved. It is a 'time for reflection, not retribution,' he said."

As Chris Floyd notes, Obama's refusal to enforce the law is disturbing though hardly surprising. He quotes Obama's statement:
But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.
and points out that "the forces that divide us," according to Obama, "refers to those who are calling for the instigators and perpetrators to be prosecuted. They are the ones insisting on the disturbing, disunifying course of "laying blame for the past." But what, in the name of God, are America's 'core values,' if they do not include prosecuting people who order and commit the high crime of torture? ... For the Obama defense is nothing other than the Nuremberg defense: 'I was only following orders. I was given assurance by the highest authority that my actions were legal in all respects.'" Not to worry, though: Obama declared that "we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within [the memos] never take place again."

Attorney General Eric Holder explained
, "It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the justice department." Actually, as Floyd points out, citing Glenn Greenwald, this is a lie: those dedicated torturers "were told quite specifically by Bush's White House shysters that there was no guarantee that their actions would be considered legal by a court."

All this reminded me of something I'd read in Norman Finkelstein's Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso 1995, page 117):
"We shall never be rough or heartless where it is not necessary; that is clear," Himmler told an assembly of Nazi murderers at Posen. His lieutenants were exhorted to be "hard" but "not become hardened", and to "intervene at once" should "some Commander exceed his duty or show signs that his sense of restraint is becoming blurred." The SS leader even issued definite instructions forbidding his subordinates to indulge in gratuitous torture. An order of August 1935 laid down that "any independent, individual action against the Jews by any member of the SS is most strictly forbidden". Concentration-camp guards had to sign a declaration every three months that they did not mistreat prisoners. In autumn 1942, Himmler declared that, in the case of "unauthorised shooting of Jews", "if the motive is purely political there should be no punishment unless such is necessary for the maintenance of discipline. If the motive is selfish, sadistic or sexual, judicial punishments should be imposed for murder or manslaughter as the case may be". And he did on occasion actually have SS sadists punished. In effect, there were two distinct categories of murder: the Final Solution, which, however ghastly, was sanctioned by German's "historical mission", on the one hand, and the gratuitous torture of prisoners or "excesses", on the other. Against the other, according to Hohne, the "SS judicial machine [was] set in motion".

In his postwar memoir, Commandant of Auschwitz, the exemplary "ultra-Nazi" Rudolf Hoess underlines that he "never personally hated the Jews", indeed, that "the emotion of hatred" was "foreign" to his "nature." He reports never having sanctioned the "horrors of the concentration camps" -- by which he evidently intends, not the systematic mass extermination supervised by him, but the sadistic outbursts he claims to have "used every means at my disposal to stop". Hence, he continues, "I myself never maltreated a prisoner, far less killed one. Nor have I ever tolerated maltreatment by my subordinates". "I was never cruel, and I have never maltreated anyone, not even in a fit of temper."

Repeatedly, Hoess professes profound disgust at those SS guards who gratuitously tortured camp inmates. "They did not regard prisoners as human beings at all. .... They regarded the sight of corporal punishment being inflicted as an excellent spectacle, a kind of peasant merrymaking. I was certainly not one of these." He notes that his "blood runs cold" as he recalls "the fearful tortures that were enacted in Auschwitz." Unfortunately, he confides, "Nothing can prevail against the malignancy, wickedness of the individual guard, except keeping him constantly under one's personal supervision." Special contempt is reserved for the prisoner collaborators given to orgies of violence: “They were soulless and had no feelings whatsoever. I find it incredible that human beings could ever turn into such beasts. ... It was simply gruesome."
No wonder Obama's hero Ronald Reagan considered the SS thugs whose graves he visited at Bitburg in 1985 to be victims. Not only had they been victims of Nazism, "drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis", but they'd been demonized for following orders by vengeful lawyers and judges who refused to move forward with confidence, preferring to lay blame for the past, choosing retribution over reflection.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Never Can Say Goodbye

There's an interesting article at the BBC site today, headed "US Troops 'might stay in N Iraq'". That's hardly news, of course, the US is not eager to let go of all that lovely oil or to lose a major military base in the region.
Col Gary Volesky said his soldiers would stay in Mosul and other nearby cities where al-Qaeda remained a threat if the Iraqi government asked them to. ...

The US currently has more than 140,000 troops in Iraq, and combat troops are due to pull out of Iraq's cities by the end of June.

Under a recent agreement, they are expected to remain elsewhere in the country until the end of August 2010.

The US is so obliging, aren't we? We want to withdraw our combat troops (which will leave plenty of troops still there to protect the US Embassy, train Iraqi troops and police, and do various other non-combatant things), but if the Iraqi government asks us to stay, what can we do? We're just too nice, that's our problem.

The thing is, as far as I can tell, the Iraqi government wants us out. So do most Iraqis, though it's true there are many who want us to stay, because they not only know that their government can't or won't protect them, it could be behind the danger to them (if they're Sunni, for example). But notice that casual reference to "a recent agreement." I suppose it refers to the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated at the end of Bush's second term, which provides a deadline for US troop withdrawals. From the BBC report you'd get the impression that the SOFA provides a time after which we can leave if we want to, rather than a deadline by which we're supposed to be gone.

Volesky "said the US military was conducting an assessment of the situation in Mosul after five US soldiers were killed in a suicide lorry bombing there on Friday." "If the Iraqi government wants us to stay we will stay," he told journalists in a teleconference. But there's nothing in the story which indicates that the Iraqi government wants them to stay; the attack on US troops indicates that the "assessment of the situation" has more to do with what the US government wants.

A sidebar to this piece took me to another article from a week ago, "Shia crowds decry US role in Iraq."

Tens of thousands of supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr have rallied against the US presence in Iraq, six years after Saddam Hussein's fall.

Protesters in Baghdad's Firdos Square carried pictures of the cleric and chanted slogans denouncing what they called the occupation of Iraq.

Six years ago, US troops reached the square and helped Iraqis pull down a statue of their former leader there.

You can tell these people were just a bunch of deranged radicals: calling the US "presence" an "occupation," how could they! Seriously, I hadn't realized there was any doubt that the US is occupying Iraq. I could see the BBC being queasy about words like "invasion" or "aggression," but I thought "occupation" was only controversial when applied to Israel's relation to Palestine.

The claim that "US troops ... helped Iraqis pull down a statue of" Saddam Hussein almost made my jaw drop. That story was exposed almost immediately after it first ran. In reality it was a carefully staged photo op, "the brainchild of of a U.S. Marine colonel, with help from a psychological operations unit" according to a US Army report quoted by the LA Times. Even NPR admits that it "was not the spontaneous event it appeared to be", so surely the BBC could do as much. That's the thing with propaganda, though: it never goes away, and the official media are always ready to use it again.

The BBC story goes on:
The protest comes two days after Barack Obama said the time had come for Iraqis to "take responsibility for their country", during his first visit to the country after becoming US president.
It wasn't the first time Obama had blamed the Iraqis for their problems -- it had been a leitmotif of his campaign speeches -- but it was no less insulting given the US refusal to take responsibility for its aggression, invasion, and occupation of Iraq, aided and abetted by Britain and its other accessories. But it's more than insulting; as Chris Floyd says, it's obscene:
The moral depravity of this stance is breathtaking. Invade a country for no reason, kill a million of its people, drive four million into exile, destroy its infrastructure, plunge it into civil war, abet its "ethnic cleansing," loot its wealth, put it in the hands of religious extremists, unleash disease, poverty and social breakdown: this is an "extraordinary achievement," says the progressive paladin. And now the Iraqis must "take responsibility" for the hell on earth created by their invaders.
But the good propagandists at the BBC don't let such thoughts enter their heads.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 1950-2009

The literary critic and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick died last night, after a long struggle (war?) with breast cancer. She was first diagnosed in 1991, says her friend Cathy Davidson. I never met her (and still kick myself for having missed a lecture she gave at IU, back in the 90s I think), but I've been affected by a lot of her work and admired her as far as one can admire a person one knows only through her writings and interviews. (See also Richard Kim's tribute to her.)

For example, in Epistemology of the Closet (California, 1990; reprinted 2008), Sedgwick wrote (44f):
One way, however, in which such an analysis is still incomplete -- in which, indeed, it seems to me that it has tended inadvertently to refamiliarize, renaturalize, damagingly reify an entity that it could be doing much more to subject to analysis -- is in counterposing against the alterity of the past a relatively unified homosexuality that "we" do "know today." It seems that the topos of "homosexuality as we know it today," or even, to incorporate as we conceive of it today," has provided a rhetorically necessary fulcrum point for the denaturalizing work on the past done by many historians. But an unfortunate side effect of this move has been implicitly to underwrite the notion that "homosexuality as we conceive of it today" itself comprises a coherent definitional field rather than a space of overlapping, contradictory, and conflictual definitional forces.

I don't know if I unconsciously remembered this or reinvented it when I wrote years later:
Too many people, including scholars, deny the eroticism even of unquestioned and overt genital contact between persons of the same sex. Accounts of sexual relations between fifth-century BC Athenian males, or oral copulation among New Guinea tribal males in the twentieth century AD, will be explained away with vague hand-waving to the effect that such behavior is not really "homosexual", or not "homosexuality as we know it today."

Who are "we", and what do we "know"? The criteria are rarely made explicit, but they seem to be stereotypical caricatures of 21st century urban American gay subcultures.
Like Michel Foucault, of whom she wrote critically at times, her work has often been misunderstood and misused. Her term "homosocial desire", for example, has often been used to try to erase homoeroticism from literary works and history. Well, she wasn't the easiest writer to read. But Sedgwick's important and very angry essay, "How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys", reprinted in Tendencies (Duke, 1994), can and should be read by anyone concerned about the welfare of young children who don't conform to standard gender demands. (The opening pages can be read here.) You don't have to be an academic to learn from her. Her death leaves my world a little poorer.

Chronicles of the Backlash, Episode Eight: Amazon Disappears Queer Books

I imagine anyone who reads this blog has already heard (via) about Amazon.com's seeming revision of their search engine and sales rankings to make GLBTQ books harder to find -- not quite making them disappear, but invisible to normal searches. One writer whose book had vanished got this stock response:
In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.
Among the material that been flagged as "adult" were some gay-themed young adult novels and children's books like Heather Has Two Mommies. This apparently happened only at Amazon US, not at the UK branch. And a few heterosexual works have also been reported flagged, such as Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Not unreasonably, there's been outrage, with people declaring that Amazon.com is dead to them now. One blogger at LiveJournal has suggested that it may have been the result of organized trolling: "It's obvious Amazon has some sort of automatic mechanism that marks a book as 'adult' after too many people have complained about it ... So somebody is going around and very deliberately flagging only LGBT(QQI)/feminist/survivor content on Amazon until it is unranked and becomes much more difficult to find." Amazon has tried to do damage control, claiming a cataloguing error, and when I did a general search for gay products just now (Monday night, 9:45 p.m. local time), I got all manner of flamingly gay material, so they may be fixing things. (I like this title: Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would: A Fresh Christian Approach. I've heard how Jesus loved us homosexuals...) On the other hand, as poesygalore said, a search on "homosexuality" still gives A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality as its first result, though the other results include more range than before; they've got their work cut out for them.

Anyway, the post I had been preparing in my head at work had to be revised. (About the persistence of discomfort with queerness among straight liberals, etc. I have no doubt that's true -- look at this quotation from a review of Thom Gunn's poetry that just happens to elide Gunn's homosexuality.) And there are other reasons to distrust Amazon. It's still not certain what happened, so stay tuned.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

Avedon has a good post on the current U.S. newspaper crisis at The Sideshow, saying this among other things:
One reason it's been so easy for the right-wing to attack the media as "liberal elites" is because the elite part rings so true when the news media spends so much time talking up concerns and goals that are common to no one you know, and tells you so little of what you need to know to prevent it from destroying your world. They're not going to make, "If you have a boss, you need a union," a headline on their front page.
I still wonder, though, why so few people seem to turn to alternative news sources. If the newspaper you subscribe to "spends so much time talking up concerns and goals that are common to no one you know," why not look for a publication that prints stories that do interest you? I'm not sure that Americans, as a people, have ever paid that much attention to the news, beyond the headlines, and the headlines are often misleading. I used to work with a man who would point out to me this or that alarming headline in the local paper; I'd read the whole story, and point out that the closing paragraphs contained information that modified, mitigated, or even contradicted the headline. But it never occurred to him to do the same thing; the next week he'd have another headline to try to scare me with. The information we need is out there, and it's not that hard to get, but people won't look at it.

It doesn't help that as the big corporations that run the newspapers demand that costs be cut by getting rid of reporters, the quality of the content is bound to drop. It's so much easier to write and print "lifestyle" pieces, for which there is a place, but those people who do want serious news coverage are going to get frustrated by the increasingly tabloid quality of what the papers print. (Elite pundits' fascination, not to say obsession, with lifestyle aspects of the Obama administration -- Michelle's shoulders, the White House puppy, the iPod for the Queen and the DVDs for the Prime Minister -- and their often expressed distaste for policy issues are a prime example of this problem.) Fewer people subscribe, and costs have to be cut more.

This story at the Indianapolis Star, one of the more conservative papers in the Midwest, ran on the front page of the print edition with the headline "Business vs. Workers." When I saw it yesterday at the public library I immediately thought, "Wait a minute -- aren't workers part of business?" That's the myth employers often want to put over on their workers, of course: we want you to see yourself as part of the X family -- for X, read Wal-Mart, Exxon, Bank of America, or Republic Windows and Doors. (There's good recent news about that last story, by the way: "The Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Friday that Republic Windows & Doors violated federal labor laws when it created another company in order to skirt bargaining with its union." Unfortunately the family is often dysfunctional, even abusive.) And it's true for those attending to the real world that a business can't function without people working in it, a lamentable fact that many employers wish could be changed. It was a mild shock to see a right-wing newspaper make it explicit in its lead story that the interests of owners and management are not necessarily those of most workers. That, as Avedon said, is why workers need unions. The bosses are organized, why shouldn't the workers be? You all know the premise of slasher movies: the besieged teens agree not to leave the group and wander off alone -- but they always do, and the killer picks them off one by one.

The Star story is surprisingly balanced, in the best journalistic sense. It ends with an interesting quotation from a construction worker in Kokomo who has
worked on such projects as Conseco Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium, professional sports stadiums for which lawmakers are considering a bailout. If lawmakers can help the wealthy users of those stadiums, he said, they also should help the people who built them.
You'd think so, wouldn't you? But that would be Class War.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Giving Sodomites a Bad Name Is So Gay

The other day I happened on an essay titled "What Teenage Boys Can Learn from the Movie 'Twilight'" at OpenSalon. The author, who calls himself Knightwriter, tells us that
One of the things that I have not been able to grasp in my ten years of gay-dom is the startling, and certainly disturbing, number of things that adult gay men have in common with teenage girls. Miley Cyrus, Zac Efron, 90210, High School Musical, American Idol, raising voices and waving arms when excited, use of the phrase “Oh My God” and melodramatic movies starring unrealistically stylized leading men/boys who behave like perfect third-sexed robots – meaning they do things that no human heterosexual or homosexual males actually do. Case in point: Twilight.

I watched “Twilight” with 3 of my gay male friends in their 40s last night. Our hosts were jump up and down, scream OMG giddy about this movie. They had pre-ordered it on Netflix. They had made a homemade but portable dinner that could be eaten in front of the television – lest a delayed start time inflict needless anxiety. When we missed the first line of the movie because the volume was too low, we rewound and started again. Just in case.
I'm not sure how many years of gay-dom I have (fifty-eight, since I was born? forty-six, since I entered puberty? thirty-eight, since I came out?), but one thing I have trouble grasping is the disturbing tendency of all kinds of people to stereotype themselves -- which is their own business, but other people as well? Forbear, girlene!

Of course I'm out of touch with most other gay men, so the fact that I haven't read the Twilight books nor seen the movie means nothing. Maybe every other gay man on earth is OMG giddy over the movie and its antihero. Still, I doubt that Knightwriter has polled the entire gay male population on this. I mean, aren't we also supposed to go ga-ga over female diva types -- Bette Davis, Judy, Eartha Kitt, Madonna? I know that many other gay men are OMG giddy over other male types and look-down-their-nose contemptuous of the twink type Knightwriter and his friends favor. I can't remember offhand who it was who said that when writers speak globally of "all Americans", they actually mean "me and my friends", but I suspect it applies here too.

Nor do all straight girls and women go for the type, though the popularity of shonen ai and yaoi manga -- Japanese comics which depict impossibly willowy adolescent males who fall in love and have hot, tormented affairs with each other -- should not be ignored. Still, when I see romance fiction for adult women on display, it seems to me that the Yanni / Chippendales musclebound type has not lost its appeal among American females.

The conclusion Knightwriter draws from his vast experience of the gay male and female psyches, and the advice he offers to teenaged boys, is no doubt just as sound:
All straight teenage boys listen to me. Don’t be fun, thoughtful, quirky or smart if you want to get the girl. Be a dick. But be a dick who can stop cars with your bare hands. And stare a lot. And look depressed. But be good looking while you’re depressed. ...
And so on. Reminds me of Polonius' advice to Hamlet (Be generous and open-handed, but stingy too). The first thing I'd want to point out to Knightwriter is that fantasies are not reality. The kind of guy who makes you swoon in a movie or a novel is not necessarily the kind of guy you'd want to meet, let alone bone, in real life. Lawrence Block let his aging detective Matt Scudder express this in one of his crime novels: the tears you shed while watching a movie aren't real tears, any more than the fear you feel while watching a horror movie is real fear. The same mood swings that fascinate you in a character on the screen would drive you crazy in a real person. Many teenage girls, and even some 40-something gay men, know this; others learn it in due course.

Okay, so what? Knightwriter has written a foolish bit of fluff that would fit nicely in the pages of a mainstream glossy magazine. The corporate media like conventional gender stereotypes, so of course they'll give space to a gay writer who declares that gay men are basically teenaged girls wearing the body of a man. (Or are teenaged girls really gay men wearing the body of a teenaged girl, like matryoshska dolls nested inside each other ad infinitum?) What really got my attention were some of the comments, especially this one:
This is an utter embarrassment; a perpetuation of a stereotype circa 1970 and "Boys in the Band". Please stop this. It's not fair to the normal gay guys just trying undo the damage of the limp-wristed-I-really-want-to -be-a-woman scourge.
Or this comment. Or this one. (It's not limited to this story: look at this comment at the gay.com sports blog.) If there's one thing that bugs me more than "the limp-wristed-I-really-want-to-be-a-woman scourge [!]", it's the I-really-want-to-be-a-man gay men who call themselves "normal." As I've pointed out before, the third-sex stereotype is enshrined in "sexual orientation science", on which many respectable Homo-Americans are willing to stake their claim for equal rights and full all-American normality.

It also bugs me that so many gay people think that gay men who act like screaming teenaged girls somehow justify antigay bigotry. I mean, it's not like straight men ever jump up and down screaming in front of a television screen -- while watching a pro football game, say. It's not like commercial entertainment doesn't depict straight men stereotypically, as sex-obsessed potheads who watch movies solely in the hope that this or that starlet will bare her nipples in it; or good-hearted clods who can be tamed and domesticated by the right woman but never really, deep in their hearts, get the point of housekeeping or personal hygiene. (Dave Barry has made a cottage industry out of this latter model.) And it's not like commercial entertainment doesn't exploit the fascination of young straight males with the bodies of defined, oiled male bodybuilders in loincloths. (The official excuse for this is identification -- the little lads want to be those bodybuilders, not possess them -- but I think that's oversimple; one of the beauties of fantasy is that it can let us have things both ways.) I mean, wouldn't "equality" mean our right to be depicted in The Media as one-dimensionally as straight people are? A right which we seem already to have won, come to think of it. My real complaint about Knightwriter's piece is not that he deploys stereotypes, but that he does it so unimaginatively.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Poetry Friday - lestai

lestai

The rebels hang today, the latest round-
up having netted three. No easy time
we had arresting them, the sullen scum
who dwell in this unhomely, barren land
were helping them evade us. One appears
to think himself a priest of some sort. He
was charged by local law with blasphemy,
though treason is the crime that hangs him. (Wars
of liberation led by holy men!
You'd never find the like in any other,
saner land. Return me home, and soon,
to folk with sense!) Pilate didn't bother
much with it, just washed his hands and then
dispatched him to the hill known as Golgotha.

October 15, 1977

Lestai is the plural of lestes, the Greek word used by Flavius Josephus in his history of the Jewish War against Rome, 66-70, to refer to some of the rebels. It is also used in the Christian gospels, Matthew 26:55 and parallels, for the two men who were crucified with Jesus. I encountered the word in some scholarly book I was reading, which said that though Josephus (and his Roman readers) saw the rebels as bandits, brigands, thieves, the lestai would have used other words for themselves. As in any insurgency, their motives would have varied -- some probably were just petty robbers, but others seriously wanted to liberate their country from Roman rule. As in my earlier poem Règne Animal, I decided to look at a biblical story from the viewpoint of an outsider.

Let's Procrastinate, Let's Hurry Up and Wait

I've been unproductive lately, partly because of a nasty cold (or something) that for the past week has left me feeling like soggy cabbage, especially in the head. I think it's going away now, slowly, but I still haven't got much energy.

Then today I found this clip from videoblog IllDoctrine at PunkAssBlog:



It describes very well the push-pull, on-off struggle I have in writing anything, not just blog posts. When I was working on a (still unpublished) book project in the 1980s, it was the same. When I was writing poetry in the 1970s, it was the same. Jay's references to the haters within, though, reminded me of Anne Lamott's 1994 book on writing, Bird by Bird. I should probably reread it as soon as the soggy cotton batting drains out of my head, because it contains lots of practical mind medicine for dealing with the struggle of getting words out of the brain and onto the page. For example, Station KFKD or K-Fucked (pages 116-117):
If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one's specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn't do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything one touches turns to shit, that one doesn't do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on. You might as well have heavy-metal music piped in through headphones while you're trying to get your work done. You have to get things quiet in your head so you can hear your characters and let them guide your story.
Given the self-celebration that so much hip-hop involves, Lamott was letting her generation show in that dig at "the rap songs of self-loathing." And there was a time, in my yout', when I could have written anything except maybe poems while listening to Led Zeppelin through headphones. Her basic point -- you have to get things quiet in your head -- is sound enough, but Bach would be as much a distraction for that requirement.

So anyway. I feel a little better already.

Monday, April 6, 2009

More Popular Than Jesus Now

Oh, dear -- my fellow atheists are such an embarrassment to me sometimes. At The BEAST, there's this interview with "world-renowned philosopher genius" Daniel Dennett:
BEAST: Recently, Harris Interactive asked 2,600 Americans: “Who do you admire enough to call a hero?” Obama beat out Jesus for number one—

DENNETT: Oh, that's good.

B: That's change we can believe in?

D: I think so, yeah. I think that, actually, Jesus makes a fine hero. I've always thought that Gandhi was about right there. He says, I like your Jesus, it's your Christians that I have trouble with. In fact, we had some discussion of forming a group called Atheists for Jesus. Although, I think it's still problematic. Yeah, I think this is a good sign.

I can think of any number of people I'd put ahead of Obama, though I'm not sure I admire anyone enough to call them a hero. But Jesus? Remember, Dennett is one of the militant New Atheists, an evangelist for neo-Darwinianism and secularism. It takes a heap of reinterpretation to get Jesus into bed with Dennett's philosophy, and since he offers no explanation I can only speculate. Does he, like many liberals, think of Jesus as a bold critic of organized religion and overlook Jesus' own feverish apocalypticism, wonder-working, and authoritarianism, as the gospels depict him? Of course, we know almost nothing for sure about the historical Jesus, and that makes it easier for people to invent a Jesus congenial to them.

In much the same way, despite the vastly better documentation available about him, many Obama fans invent a Barack who believes what they believe, wants what they want, and will do what they imagine they'd do in his place. And mercy me, so does Daniel Dennett:
B: President Obama seems to be a smart guy. Do you think he truly believes in God or do you think he's pandering, and which is more frightening?

D: I suspect that he's like a great many people. He believes in belief in God. And that he believes that the belief in God can accomplish a lot of good, especially if it brings people together. And it's political, I think, in some ways and sidesteps problems. You know, we all want to pick our problems, and I think he's very wisely decided that there are other people that can—can and should—do the job of critiquing religious excess. He's got, actually, more pressing and important things to do. I think he's right.

Personally, against both Gandhi and Dennett, I have known numerous Christians I like better than the Jesus of the gospels (or rather the Jesuses, since the gospels differ, sometimes subtly and sometimes broadly, in the way they depict him). But all this reminds me of the exchange on God between Yossarian and Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (bold type added):
“ … When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It’s obvious he never met a payroll. Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk.”

Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife had turned ashen in disbelief and was ogling him with alarm. “You’d better not talk that way about Him, honey,” she warned him reprovingly in a low and hostile voice. “He might punish you.”

“Isn’t He punishing me enough?” Yossarian snorted resentfully. “You know, we mustn’t let Him get away scot free for all the sorrow He’s caused us. Someday I’m going to make Him pay. I know when. On the Judgment Day. Yes, that’s the day I’ll be close enough to reach out and grab that little yokel by His neck and--”


“Stop it! Stop it!” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists. “Stop it!”


Yossarian ducked behind his arm for protection while she slammed away at him in feminine fury for a few seconds, and then he caught her determinedly by the wrists and forced her gently back down on the bed. “What the hell are you getting so upset about?” he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”


“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”


Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,” he proposed obligingly. “You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is it a deal?”
I guess I'll have to extend the same tolerance to Daniel Dennett, both on Jesus and Obama.

(Image of Obama with unicorn and roses by Lukas Ketner.)