Saturday, May 30, 2009

Yellow Balloons and Paper Airplanes

I didn't attend former President Noh Mu Hyun's funeral yesterday; it was already underway when I got moving late in the morning. Hankyoreh (the source of the photo above) says half a million people gathered at Seoul Plaza for the ceremony there. (There were memorials around the country, too.) When I went out, I saw televisions tuned to the funeral coverage in most little shops and restaurants, with people watching in each one. A lot of people reportedly took the day off to attend; those who couldn't, like small business owners, just watched at work. In the Express Bus Terminal I sat for a while with people awaiting their buses, watching the coverage on a TV there. On the subway I saw some of the yellow cardboard sun visors discarded. Yellow was Noh's campaign color when he ran for president, and it was all over the place at the funeral: yellow balloons, yellow placards with Noh's face printed on them, yellow paper airplanes thrown at the funeral cars. At a friend's house for dinner, we watched TV news; I'm hoping some of this footage will turn up online so I can post it here.

It's probably impossible to separate politics from the mourning. Former President Kim Dae-jung, who started Noh's political career, denounced the Lee administration for hounding Noh, saying that under such pressure he would have made the same decision Noh made. When President Lee approached the altar with a chrysanthemum, members of the crowd yelled at him, and the master of ceremonies had to call for calm. I could almost sympathize with Lee, despite his efforts to suppress unofficial mourning and contain the damage done by Noh's suicide to his regime; but if he and other members of his party hadn't put in an appearance at the funeral they'd have been attacked for that too. Still, he bears a lot of responsibility for his situation, and in keeping with the conservative dogma that people need to take responsibility, I can only almost sympathize with him.

(photos above from the Korea Herald)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Poetry Friday - In the middle of the night

This poem was also published in Ian Young's Son of the Male Muse.

In the middle of the night

Awake without knowing it
like the earth on the first day of time
slowly we begin to move
sliding over one another wordlessly
side rolling over side
like strata of earth and stone,
temblors resonating
through bone riding on bone

warm in the forest of covers
your beard nuzzles my chest
a great bear roaming in darkness
dozing off between
each shift of position
asleep without knowing it

Now slick as rain on slate
we slip through one another's sweat
swallowing hard
as wet waves of kisses come
breaking over our heads
falling back against the bed
and penis sleek
and smooth as a seal's head
rises alert and trembling,
the ceiling recedes
like the sea sky into depths of night

We strain into the air
into the rarefied heights of the clouds
breath coming hard/roaring past our ears
beating like the praying wings of birds--
suddenly light
leaping free of the earth's tug
we burst open like morning glories
in the hour before daylight

four a.m.,
through the dust on the window
a grainy photo of the sky
and it's snowing

February 6, 1978

Thursday, May 28, 2009

But Mom! All the Other Kids Are Going to School in Thongs!

Katha Pollitt has a good column at The Nation about the supposed Second Wave / Third Wave rift in feminism, between the supposedly sexless hippie chicks of the Second Wave and their supposedly riot grrls-gone-wild Third Wave daughters.

This division only holds up in a few cases, if at all, like Katie Roiphe and her mother Anne. In general, as Pollitt says,
it's chronologically off. If second wavers are those who made the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s and '70s, they are not the mothers of today's young feminists but their grandmothers. ... The wave construct obscures the perspective of women ten or even twenty years younger, like, um, me--in 1966, when NOW was founded, I was a junior in high school--or Susan Faludi (b. 1959), bell hooks (b. 1952) or Anna Quindlen (b. 1952).

The same thing happens at the other end. "Third wave" was indeed intended to define a new generation--it was coined by Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker's daughter--in 1992. The original third wavers, with their reclaiming of "girl culture" and their commitment to the intersectionality of race, class and gender are now touching 40; they hung up their Hello Kitty backpacks some time ago. Many, like Walker, have children: they are the mothers who, today's "young feminists" complain, use up all the air in the room, according to Nation writer Nona Willis Aronowitz. But the term continues to be used to describe each latest crop of feminists--loosely defined as any female with more political awareness than a Bratz doll--and to portray them in terms of their rejection of second wavers, who are supposedly starchy and censorious. Like moms. Somebody's mom, anyway.

Good stuff, and worth reading in its entirety. It reminded me, first, of similar confusion I've encountered about the gay movement. "Back in your generation, they were all activists!" some younger gays have told me. Not by a hell of a sight, unfortunately. I suppose it's not surprising that people believe such things, since by definition the people who turn up in old video clips about Gay Liberation were activists; and those who don't, though not all were closeted, are invisible. But the movement was the tip of the iceberg of queers in America, and I think that's still true, though probably the gay marriage issue has gotten more of us involved than ever before.

Pollitt's remarks also reminded me of this bit from a 1979 article by Joanna Russ, which I think supplements Pollitt's arguments nicely. It's this dynamic that the media try to exploit with the Second Wave / Third Wave trope:
Every women’s studies teacher, for example, knows the female student who comes into her office and announces defiantly that she’s going to get married – the world is still full of girls who think that heterosexual alliances with men represent a form of rebellion against sexless Mommy. How do these young women imagine their mothers ended up where they were? Yet the hope persists that heterosexual activity (a little wilder than stuffy Mom’s) will provide access to the men’s freer, wider world. Mother’s function as the forewoman who polices Daughter’s sexuality, in many American families, gives some color to this notion – that an alliance with men is an alliance against Mother – and yet these girls must have at least the suspicion that Mom made the same bargain. And surely they know that heterosexual alliance can’t confer membership in the men’s world but only a place (Mother’s place, in fact) on the sidelines. But they don’t. And so they end up married, leading the same life as Mother, or – if unlucky – a worse one with less bargaining power. And their daughters repeat the process.
(From her review of Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur, reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen [University of Liverpool Press, 2007], page 162.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Tent-Show Evangelist for Reason

I've realized, or decided, that I haven't taken enough pot shots at PZ Myers, but then in a certain earlier post my target was mostly Charlotte Allen. But when I looked again at Myers's rebuttal of Allen, I saw all kinds of things that confirmed that being an atheist (and a scientist!) isn't enough to make you rational.

Folks, we really have to sort out the party line first! Are we atheists "Brights," as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins would have it, and therefore superior to the credulous retarded Dulls, or are we boring ordinary folks as Myers would have it, Norman Normals just like you and me? (Dennett cautions, "Don't confuse the noun with the adjective: 'I'm a bright' is not a boast but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view." Sure it isn't a boast. Neither was "bolshevik." Neither is "orthodox.")

"Bright" rubs me the wrong way, much as "gay" annoys some older gays. But there are differences: "gay" was already a widespread ingroup term before we went public with it, while "bright" really does seem to be a conscious PR attempt to put a happy face on atheism. But just as a faggot is a homosexual gentleman who's stepped out of the room, a bright who has stepped out of the room will always be an atheist. And really, shouldn't a professional philosopher know better than to think that gays and atheists are hated because of what they're called?

I think that Myers sides with Dennett on this one, but with stunning rationality, he tries to have it both ways. On one hand, atheists are boring ordinary folks; on the other hand, for some unclear reason "in our books, blogs and media appearances, we challenge religious preconceptions. That's all we do."

Well, it's not quite all we do.
It's admittedly not exactly a roller-coaster ride of thrills, but it does annoy the superstitious and the fervent true believers in things unseen and unevidenced. We are also, admittedly, often abrasive in being outspoken critics of religious dogma, but it's also very hard to restrain our laughter and contempt when we see the spectacle of god-belief in full flower.

We witness many people who proudly declare that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, roughly 9,000 years after the domestication of dogs, 5,000 years after the founding of Jericho and contemporaneous with the invention of the plow. They cling to these beliefs despite contradictions with history, let alone physics, geology and biology, because they believe the Bible is a literal history and science text. We find much to ridicule in these peculiarly unreal ideas.
Now, as my readers (both of them) will know, I find much to ridicule in religion, as in many other areas. Nor do I see anything wrong with being an abrasive and outspoken critic of anything. I believe that most people enjoy abrasive and outspoken criticism of the right targets: for Charlotte Allen, it's atheists and snide Bible scholars. Most religious believers are quite happy to attack religion, as long as it's someone else's religion. Scientists are happy to attack each other. Republicans attack wimpy appeasing liberals, Democrats attack wingnuts who say "nukular." And most of them are united in deploring the lack of civility and empathy in today's world. Can't we all just get along?

The same goes for accusations of "arrogance." Yes, many atheists are pretty self-righteous. So are many believers. Believers do think they have the answers -- maybe not all of them, but the answers that count. Arrogance is not a quality that anyone has a monopoly on. Complaining about someone else's arrogance is usually a bit disingenuous.

The thing is, though, Allen was right on one point: a lot of atheists, including prominent ones, do play the victim card. Myers asks plaintively, if rhetorically, why Allen is "so mad at" atheists. (Charlotte, why are you so negative and bitter? If you'd just let Dawkins into your heart, he'd take the hate away.) In Dennett's "Brights" article, though he admitted that as a white professional male he has it relatively easy, he complained of being kept down by the Man, and of the courage it takes to "come out" as a Bright. Gag me with a spoon. But then, Christians love to play the victim card too. Even though they are an overwhelming majority in this country, they complain that they're being picked on by the godless secularists who won't let them pray in school, stone adulteresses, or burn faggots.

On the other hand, I don't believe that atheists are unpopular because of our arrogance either. Our arrogance is partly a defensive reaction to our unpopularity. And the accusation of arrogance comes partly from people who don't know how to answer our criticisms of religion, and don't want to be bothered in the first place, so they lash out. We can see this in other arenas, where inconvenient and discomforting arguments are met with accusations of "anti-American," "anti-Semitism," "anti-science." Or E. O. Wilson's delicious "Multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism." (He says that like it's a bad thing.) Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh couldn't have put it better. When you find yourself using the intellectually bankrupt debating moves of your opponents, and you don't even realize you're doing it, you're in trouble.

Myers's focus on the "literalist" young-Earthers carries some elements of class disdain, too. In this area he'd find that many believers are his allies. Respectable Christians have always looked down on the riffraff with their backward beliefs, their noisy enthusiasm, their speaking in tongues, and you don't have to be an atheist to oppose Creationism. Much of the disdain for the New Atheists comes from a similar source, I think: Dawkins and Dennett and Harris come off like tent-show evangelists, they enjoy outraging the devout as much as a street-corner preacher loves to discomfit the impious. (And as a former boyfriend of mine pointed out about the outdoor preachers who troubled the spiritual waters at IU some years ago, college students are still high-school students at heart, terrified of standing out in a way that would make them look foolish -- yet here is this guy who does it willingly, unafraid of being jeered at. Being made fun of is supposed to send you scurrying back to the safety of the herd, yet this guy thrives on it.)

Some of the New Atheists' critics fall back on paternalism: they don't need faith, but think of the simple folk, the lower orders who rely on religion to give them Hope in a heartless world. The New Atheists cruelly want to strip them of the support their faith gives them, the only thing that makes it possible for them to drag themselves through their drab little lives. This also turns up in the "atheist bus" campaign, which aims to liberate the masses from the yoke of religion.

But an atheist cannot stop at going after the ignorant masses, who only account for part of Myers's "majority of the population [who] are quite convinced that they have a direct pipeline to an omnipotent, omniscient being who has told them exactly how to live and what is right and wrong, and has spelled out his divine will in holy books." The rest of American believers include people who believe in Evolution (Darwin said it, I believe it, that settles it!) and a flat earth, vote Democratic, support gay marriage -- and they're sure that God agrees with them. Most of the gay supporters of same-sex marriage are probably religious, like most gay people, even if they claim that what they want are "equal rights" and the secular special rights that marriage gives. So here's a question: if someone believes that God wants gay people to have equal rights, or opposes the war in Iraq, do these religious beliefs suddenly become acceptable just because they happen to agree with the beliefs a secularist holds? (One thing I like about Katha Pollitt, despite my many disagreements with her, is that she has criticized liberal and progressive religion as much as the reactionary brands.)

Myers is a bit vague on this in his op-ed: he segues so smoothly from the young-Earth nutters to the larger body of theists that I still can't quite find the transition point. He seems to think that the nice liberal middle-class churches also foster "a bizarre collection of antiquated superstitions", and I give him points for criticizing the attempts to find God in particle physics, but if he really wants to make some noise in the L. A. Times, he should spend more time on the respectable, sophisticated, educated religion of people like Jim Wallis (whom he has criticized at his blog, I see), than on the fish-in-a-barrel Creationists that are his favorite target.

It's noteworthy, I think, that Myers responded to Allen's criticisms with rhetoric rather than reason. Why is she so mean? Why don't people like us when all we do is make fun of their stupid superstitions? (I've been accused of this latter one, but I don't think I complain because people object to my criticisms of their beliefs and opinions -- I complain because they don't show where my criticisms are wrong.) We're just like everybody else, except that we're not stupid credulous fools. I probably agree with Myers on principles and cases in most areas; but as a campaigner for unbelief, he's not very inspiring.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Yellow Ribbons

A few of the more than 1,400 yellow ribbons along the roadside to the late Noh Mu-hyun's home village, from The Hankyoreh.

There is increasing suspicion, and those suspicions are increasingly being voiced and printed, that the investigation of Noh on bribery charges was politically motivated. First, that the investigation began when Noh criticized the policies of his successor, current President Lee Myung-bak; second, that it was precipitously dropped upon Noh's death, which sent so blatantly obvious a signal that it's hard to believe it happened. It was imprudent, and perhaps arrogant as well, as though the prosecutors were sure that no one would connect the dots, or didn't care if anyone did.

Noh's funeral will take place this Friday. The Hankyoreh reports that 263 funeral halls have been set up around the country. A large-scale mourning assembly was scheduled for last night (the 26th) in Gwangju, and others are scheduled in Taegu and Busan tomorrow. Meanwhile, the police are still encircling mourning sites in Seoul itself, as President Lee tries to control and suppress public gatherings of any kind. I went to the City Hall area yesterday and found numerous areas staked out, subway exits blocked, and lines of police transports lining the streets.

I was going to take a picture closer up, but I got nervous about photographing the police at short range. I was standing closer to the buses with my camera, about to go ahead, when a little man in a "VOLUNTEER" vest came over and stood behind me. So I moved to the vantage point I used here. I'll go back before long and try to be a little braver.

P.S. OhMyNews has a good article on the mourning sites in Seoul, with links to slideshows like this one at Korean OhMyNews. The article says, among other things:
From the morning of May 25 to 1 pm on May 26, about 26,351 mourners paid their respects at the two government memorial centers; however over 150,000 mourners have attended the non-government centers at Deoksu Palace. Despite the relative ease and comfort of attending the government memorial centers and long hours of wait-lines at Deoksu Palace, citizens continue to gather at Deoksu Palace.
... and quotes a Mrs. Hwang at Deoksu:
"We came with our sister-in-law who is in her seventies but when she saw the police buses blocking the paths to the memorial centers, she kicked a police bus saying, 'If I only had the strength, I'd push this bus down.' So they [the government] think they can just set-up these memorial centers while still barricading Cheonggyechon square and City Hall square?"
Lines of mourners at Noh's home village, from The Hankyoreh.

Essentially Yours

In an endnote to an article* co-written with her partner of 20 years Nicola Griffith, Kelley Eskridge wrote:
For the record, I don't call myself a lesbian writer. I don't even call myself a lesbian. I live in a committed relationship of nearly twenty years with Nicola, and would crawl on my belly like a reptile to beg her forgiveness for having mad sex with Johnny Depp if I ever got the chance. And yet what's the point of correcting people? No, no, I'm not a lesbian! is defensive at best, and offensive at worst, and I don't feel either way about this part of me.
This sent me back to an interview** with Marge Piercy, conducted by her husband Ira Wood, where Piercy said:
Frequently when I go into a place, because I’m a feminist, people assume I’m a lesbian. I never question that silent assumption. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be a lesbian if I fell in love with a woman again.
There are interesting similarities in these remarks: the refusal to correct others' misimpressions, for one. But there are differences too: for Piercy, loving a woman makes one a lesbian, at least for the duration, whether or not one has loved or will again love men. For Eskridge, it seems that loving a woman for twenty years doesn't make her a lesbian, because she has loved men before and has never loved another woman.

Well, fine. People should label themselves as they see fit. And it's good to see how different people mean different things by the same word, so one should be alert to that possibility. (Recall, for example, that Thai 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 ... [as] a performance for a lascivious male audience.") But I was surprised by Eskridge's note, because in the body of the essay she had written that she's "never cottoned to essentialism. ... I find such things stupid and reductive, and I'm not partial to being reduced" (page 41). And insisting, for example, that one is not a lesbian because one isn't really a lesbian, despite a twenty-year relationship with another woman, is essentialism: she is saying that her nature, her essence, her being, isn't lesbian. There are evidently "real" lesbians in Eskridge's universe, but she's not one of them.

Eskridge's remark caught my attention because not long before, I'd overheard a gay kid complaining about something he saw in his Gender Studies class that "essentialized" all gay men as effeminate. I think he meant "stereotyped," though of course there's some overlap in the concepts. But as he kept repeating "essentialized," I felt a powerful urge to walk over to him and say, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

"Essentialism" is a tricky word, for all that it's bandied about so much. Some people have talked about coming up with a social constructionist understanding of sexual identity, but I think that project is doomed, because identity, saying "I am a ...", is essentialist. Most attempts I've seen to get around that problem mistake social constructionism for social determinism, the belief that we are molded and shaped by our environments (including the cultures/societies into which we're born), with the corollary that our real selves are something other than whatever our upbringing did to us. Sometimes social determinists seem to think that human beings have no nature, we are totally malleable in the hands of our parents and our societies. That's a much-disputed issue, and I'm glad I don't have to try to settle it here. Those who'd like to begin exploring it might start by reading Noam Chomsky's critique of B. F. Skinner in For Reasons of State (Pantheon, 1973), though much of it is available online, and / or Clifford Geertz's essay "Anti-Anti-Relativism", originally published in 1984 and reprinted in Available Light (Princeton, 2000).

But I want to try to stay with social construction / essentialism. It's popular to accuse social constructionists of believing that, for example, being gay is a "choice" rather than something we're born with. Aside from the fact that "born this way" and "choice" are not opposite concepts, social constructionism investigates the ways people try to avoid or deny choice, to believe that their customs are natural, in the blood, in the genes. Even if it could be shown (and so far, it hasn't been) that genes can drive men to engage in sex with other men, or women with other women, we have a complex system of understandings about the meanings of that sexual behavior. For example, is a man who only penetrates other men a "homosexual"? Many cultures would say No, only a man who is penetrated is a "homosexual." In a butch-femme lesbian couple, are they both lesbians or is only the butch the lesbian? The lesbianism of femmes has often been denied, including by lesbians themselves, including butches.

Although identity is essentialist, it isn't always believed to be inborn / genetic / biological. That I'm an American is part of my identity, because by historical accident I was born here. I'm not biologically different from people who aren't Americans. The same can be said for religious identity, political identity, and many other kinds. At the same time, people seem to find it difficult not to essentialize. Even academics, trying to avoid essentializing terms like "homosexual," "gay," or "lesbian" in favor of "same-sex," soon start loading terms like "same-sex" with all the essentializing baggage they're trying to leave behind. They write about "same-sex desires", for example, as though such desires were always erotic, or same-sex relationships or communities, forgetting that monastic orders and the military are same-sex communities. And just recently I read someone referring to "same-sex parents."

I believe all this is mainly a problem when we're trying to communicate with other people about such things. (Which means, a lot of the time.) Go back to Kelley Eskridge. Since she hasn't defined her term, I speculate that for her a lesbian is a woman who never has sex with men, or never wants to. The trouble is that by this definition a good many self-defined lesbians are not lesbians after all, and the same would be true for gay/homosexual men. Take the (in)famous figure of 10% for the proportion of gay people in the population, ascribed to Alfred Kinsey. Kinsey didn't use the word "gay," and 10% is the proportion of men in his research who were more or less exclusively homosexual in their erotic experience for at least three years of their lives. (Only 4% were exclusively homosexual in their erotic experience throughout their lives.) That leaves a lot of wiggle room, and it would seem that according to Kinsey, most "gay" people are significantly bisexual in their actual behavior. The poet Adrienne Rich calls herself lesbian, though she was married to a man in her youth, and has three sons. The poet W. H. Auden, though most of his erotic experience was with males and the central relationship of his adult life was with a male, had numerous sexual relationships with women. Not only are labels like "gay" and "lesbian" not determined by a person's erotic experience, they seem to be largely independent of it. I've often noticed that people deliberately seem to define problematic terms very narrowly so as to exclude themselves, and then they complain that the term is too narrow and excludes them. So now I'm wondering why Eskridge, who is a very intelligent and well-informed person, can be unaware that the term "lesbian", as it's commonly used, does not necessarily exclude her and her experience.

Besides, essentialism isn't a bad thing in itself: it's a tool we use to socially construct. It can't be eliminated, because then social construction would come to a halt. That's the other trouble (besides misunderstanding the concept) with the kid who was upset about essentializing. "Essentializing" isn't, or shouldn't be, a pejorative; it just refers to one way of looking at human society, as incomplete as social construction is. There's a funny bit in one of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City novels where Michael, an older gay man, is shocked that a young lesbian friend doesn't know who Sappho was. "How can you call yourself a dyke?" he asks her. "I don't call myself one," she replies, "I am one. I didn't have to take a course in it, you know." Both have essentializing views of what a lesbian is -- which is another way of saying that they rely on different social constructions. Two sides of the same coin, two poles of the same magnet.

And then Mrs. Madrigal, the series' resident oracle, reminds Michael that, eons before, she'd had to explain to him who Ronald Firbank was.

* "War Machine, Time Machine", in Queer Universes: Sexuality in Science Fiction, ed. Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon. Liverpool University Press, 2008, page 49

** Marge Piercy, Parti-colored Blocks for a Quilt. (Poets on Poetry) University of Michigan Press, 1982, page 313

Monday, May 25, 2009

Are You There, God? It's Me, Charlotte



The big news in Korea today is that North Korea has detonated what appears to be an underground nuclear explosion, much larger than the previous test in 2006. It's still a small blast by superpower standards, about 10 to 20 kilotons, or roughly the size of the bombs America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. President Obama, taking a break from killing civilians in Afghanistan and shielding known torturers from prosecution, denounced North Korea as a "threat to international peace and security" and a violation of international law. So, nothing special.

The other day Lisa Kansas at PunkAssBlog posted an item about an L.A. Times op-ed piece by Charlotte Allen. Allen, Lisa pointed out, had distinguished herself last year with a Washington Post op-ed fretting over Obama's popularity among women: "[R]eading about such episodes of screaming, gushing and swooning makes me wonder whether women -- I should say, "we women," of course -- aren't the weaker sex after all. Or even the stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailings and distraction by the superficial. ...I'm not the only woman who's dumbfounded (as it were) by our sex, or rather, as we prefer to put it, by other members of our sex besides us." (Notice that Allen doesn't cop to being dumb herself; it's only "other members of our sex besides us" who are guilty.) Ah yes, I remember it well; Allen's self-exemplifying complaint attracted some attention in the blogosphere.

Allen's new piece was a gripefest about atheists, especially the New Atheists who've been getting some media play in the last few years. She can't stand atheists, Allen says, "not because they don't believe in God. It's because they're crashing bores." (Obviously she's never been to an eight-hour prayer meeting.) Also, we play the victim card: Allen claims that in Sam Harris's online "Atheist Manifesto" he whines that atheists can't get elected to public office because of "[a]ntique clauses in the constitutions of six -- count 'em -- states barring atheists from office." But I can't find any mention of those clauses in Harris's piece; facts -- who needs 'em when you've got Truth on your side?

The "victim" line is never very convincing -- the straights who profess to be bored by gays, protesting that nobody cares what we do in bed, but the love that formerly dared not speak its name now won't shut up; the whites who complain that they're tired of hearing about blacks' problems, don't they know that they've got their Civil Rights? And so on. PZ Myers, science blogger, generously supported Allen's case by writing a boringly earnest rebuttal, full of passive-aggressive sarcasm, which the editor mischievously printed. I'd like to believe that when he asked why Allen hates atheists so much when we're just ordinary boring folks, he was being satirical. (I've taken pot shots at Myers before.)

But Charlotte Allen, Charlotte Allen ... that name sounded familiar. Ah yes, the author of the tome The Human Christ: the Search for the Historical Jesus (The Free Press, 1998), which your Promiscuous Reader slogged through a decade ago. Katha Pollitt averred that Allen was "by accounts a good reporter on religion in a previous life"; but The Human Christ established her to be every bit as accurate and thoughtful on religion as she is on women and atheism.

First Allen offered a summary of Christian history, including choice bits like this:
Christians were also regarded, sometimes with good reason, as lunatics. Many were convinced that they world was coming to an end, and that Jesus would return in their own lifetimes. Paul of Tarsus devoted one of his letters to an unhinged Christian community in the Greek port of Thessalonica, urging them not to leave their jobs because the apocalypse might not be so close at hand as they imagined [page 45].
Among those who were "convinced that the world was coming to an end, and that Jesus would return in their lifetimes" was Paul himself, along with the authors of the gospels and several other New Testament writers. What Paul wrote to the Thessalonians was that they should not believe that the day of the Lord had come (2 Thessalonians 2.2). He assured them that it would come. The belief that Jesus would return in his followers' lifetimes (and therefore, in those of Paul's congregations) turns up in Mark 13.30, where Jesus assures his disciples that "This generation shall not pass away until all these things" -- Jerusalem circled by armies, the destruction of the Temple, the gospel preached to all nations, Jesus' return on clouds at God's right hand -- "are fulfilled." (The same saying appears in Matthew 24:34 and Luke 21:32.) Two verses later Jesus qualifies the prediction somewhat, by saying that only the Father knows the exact day, not even the Son, but this doesn't contradict the basic claim. ("I'll come to see you by the end of next week, but I don't know exactly what day" is not a contradiction.) If the early Christians were sometimes seen as lunatics, factors like speaking in tongues or worshipping a crucified man were at least as prominent for outsiders.

Allen should have known better -- the importance of what scholars call "eschatology" gets a lot of coverage by professional Bible scholars, ever since the great New Testament scholar (and Bach scholar, and humanitarian doctor) Albert Schweitzer established the importance of this theme in his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus, first published in 1906. It's far from her only distortion of early Christian history. But those "professional Bible scholars" are the rub for her. Most of The Human Christ is an attack on contemporary New Testament scholarship, which she represents as an attack on Christian faith. One could even say she whines about it, just like those boring atheists do about how they get picked on. For example, on the prominent German theologian Rudolf Bultmann:
In his treatise, Bultmann rather tendentiously maintained that a literalistic interpretation of the events narrated in the Gospels required a belief in an archaic physical universe, a three-decker structure with heaven on top, earth in the middle, and hell below. In so doing, he seemed to be making fun of the New Testament mindset at a time when faith in the Christ of the New Testament was for many the only locus of hope in a world that had turned into a nightmare [246-247].
This is a (willed?) misunderstanding in many respects. It's not exactly "tendentious" to point out that the New Testament writers all believed more or less literally in the triple-decker universe Allen describes here; it's mere historical fact. If an insistence on historical accuracy is "making fun of the New Testament mindset," then I guess accuracy must go (Allen clearly wouldn't miss it), but I think this is her perception, not Bultmann's intent: he was, after all, a Confessing Christian as well as an academic. Also, Bultmann's approach to the New Testament was in progress before the Nazis came to power, building on earlier scholarship from the end of the nineteen century: the first edition of his History of the Synoptic Tradition was published in 1921, a dozen years before Hitler's accession to power.

Allen then goes after "form-redaction criticism", as she calls it. Form criticism ("form history" would be a more accurate translation of Formgeschichte) was a tool used by Bultmann and other scholars to "classif[y] units of scripture by literary pattern (such as parables or legends) and ... [to attempt] to trace each type to its period of oral transmission. Form criticism seeks to determine a unit's original form and the historical context of the literary tradition." Redaction criticism, building on form criticism, "does not look at the various parts of a narrative to discover the original genre; instead, it focuses on how the redactor has shaped and molded the narrative to express his theological goals." Allen says:
The entire form-redaction movement was based on the assumption that people simply cannot transmit a lengthy story with any reasonable degree of accuracy, and therefore none of the layers above the bedrock aphorisms reflected genuine memories of Jesus. While those who study the telling of folk-tales and folk-epics in living oral cultures might beg to differ, the redactionists insisted that the Gospels were entirely fictional, with the exception of a few sayings of Jesus that revealed his historical personality.
The trouble here is that the gospels themselves are evidence that "people simply cannot transmit a lengthy story with any reasonable degree of accuracy": the discrepancies and contradictions in the gospels in their recounting of key events like the birth of Jesus, his baptism by John, his death, and his resurrection are well-known. Biblical criticism was an attempt to understand them, and if possible to minimize or defuse them. (The word "criticism" is a problem for many people: for most people it carries overtones of negative and destructive carping, but in academia it means merely analytic study of literary material. It appears to me that Allen never quite managed to grasp this, and still believes that "biblical criticism" means "trying to tear Scripture down.") Form criticism especially was built on what was known at the time about how "living oral cultures" preserved and transmitted traditions.

Still, thanks partly to Bultmann's influence, the Quest for the Historical Jesus was largely abandoned by New Testament scholars for a long time. Also, though, it was due to Schweitzer's success, which indicated that the Quest would lead to uncomfortable conclusions about Jesus and early Christianity. For Bultmann and other Christian scholars, the aim was to find truths and meanings in the New Testament that would be useful to ordinary twentieth-century believers -- to build up their faith, not destroy it.

But in 1959, the American scholar James M. Robinson called for a New Quest for the Historical Jesus in his book of that title (SCM Press, 1959). In 1971, with Helmut Koester he published Trajectories through Early Christianity (Fortress Press). Allen doesn't like the new quest any better:
Other scholars of the New Quest took up Norman Perrin's position that the historical Jesus was a countercultural figure and reconstructed a countercultural Jesus who thumbed his nose at authority. The most arresting such portrait of Jesus was that of Morton Smith, a history professor at Columbia University who had read Trajectories through Early Christianity. In 1973, Smith published a startling monograph titled The Secret Gospel, which recast Jesus as a kind of bathhouse shaman who had initiated his (mostly male) disciples by means of late-night baptismal rituals featuring nudity and most probably sex. To support his unusual hypothesis, Smith relied heavily on trajectory theory, contending that the church fathers had suppressed nearly all documents relating to this particular strand of Jesus-tradition [265].
I don't think that a "countercultural" Jesus is such an outrageous concept. According to the gospels, Jesus did "thumb his nose at [human] authority," flouting mainstream interpretations of the Torah, breaking with his family, and so on. If Allen doesn't like the word "countercultural," she needs to come up with a better one for Jesus' conduct. With her mention of Morton Smith, though, she really shines. The Secret Gospel (Harper, 1973) was not a "monograph" but a popularization of the research in Smith's actual monograph Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Harvard, 1973). I've addressed the prurient fascination of Allen and others with bathhouse shamans and nekked rituals before, so for now I'll just say that she distorts Smith's thesis as badly as she does everyone else's. As for Smith's relying heavily on trajectory theory, Trajectories was published in 1971, but although Clement of Alexandria was published in 1973, it was written and submitted to the press in the early 1960s. I recall that Smith occasionally referred to Trajectories, but in his later book Jesus the Magician (Harper, 1978). But hey, Morton Smith was so "avant-garde" (Allen's favorite putdown for scholars she dislikes) that he could be influenced by Trajectories through Early Christianity even before it was written!

One last bit from The Human Christ, which shows Charlotte Allen's historical sapience and deep spiritual concern for other human beings: on page 284 she remarks that "liberation theology suffered a mortal blow in the 1990 elections in Nicaragua when the people decided they did not want to be ruled by high-minded Marxists..." It would only be fair of Allen to mention that Liberation Theology, or even high-minded Marxism, was less a deciding factor in the 1990 Nicaraguan elections than a decade of economic strangulation and terrorist attacks by the US-funded Contras. But hey, history is bunk.

So, who cares if Charlotte Allen likes atheists? Not me. It's somewhat entertaining, but not very, to see her and PZ Myers engage in competitive posturing about who's the victim and who's most boring. Reminded me of Max Beerbohm's ballad in which two courtiers debate who is duller, the King or the Queen.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day

I was just walking out of Incheon Airport last night, following my hosts to their car, when one of them asked me if I'd heard the big news story. "Noh Mu-hyeon committed suicide today," he told me.

Things had unfolded in an amazingly short time. Early Saturday morning, the former president of South Korea had gone hiking near his home -- climbing up mountains is a popular pastime of the elderly here -- and then thrown himself off a cliff. He must have done it virtually in front of the bodyguard who was with him. At 9:30 a.m. he was pronounced dead at the hospital, and within a few hours the country was in mourning. It was reported that he'd left what amounted to a suicide note on his computer at home. In the early evening his coffin was brought back home and carried to the Town Hall by aides and family members. (Photo above from the Hankyoreh.)

Rather than quote the obituaries I've seen online, let me quote this article by the historian Bruce Cumings, which appeared in The Nation in 2003:
In December [2002] the South Korean people broke decisively with the existing political system, and the elites within it who date back to the Korean War, by electing Roh Moo Hyun. Roh is a lawyer who came up the hard way: Born into a dirt-poor family that could not afford college, he schooled himself in the law and passed Korea's notoriously difficult bar exam on his first try. In the 1980s, during the Reagan-supported dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan, Roh defended many human rights and labor activists at the risk of his own career and life. Amazingly, for presumably anti-Communist South Korea, his wife comes from a family that was blacklisted for decades: Her father was a member of the South Korean Labor Party in the late 1940s, a Communist party outlawed by the US Military Government that ruled the South then; he was arrested for allegedly collaborating with the North during the Korean War, and died in jail. Roh's sharpest break with the past, though, is his constituency. His election was boosted mightily by a burgeoning movement among younger Koreans against the seemingly endless American military presence in the South, conducted in successive, truly massive and dignified candlelight processions along the grand boulevard in front of the US Embassy in Seoul. Routinely labeled "anti-American" by the media, these demonstrations were in fact anti-Bush--like so many others.
After he left office in 2007 charges of corruption were leveled against Noh, primarily involving large sums of money allegedly given to family members and to Noh himself. This prosecution was what evidently led to his suicide. It's hard to sort it out: I'm inclined to suspect a political element in the investigation, as are many Koreans, since the Korean Right like its American counterpart is big on getting back at political opponents. It doesn't diminish my suspicions to learn that the prosecution will be dropped in the wake of his death. I have the impression that despite the accusations of arrogance and self-righteousness that have been thrown at him, Noh quickly realized that he wasn't a very good president. His only real political experience was a brief term as Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries under his predecessor Kim Dae-jung. According to a rather blatantly biased Wikipedia article on Noh, his biggest success in office was a "free trade agreement" with the US, a move that wasn't going to meet with much opposition from either the local Right or the US itself -- his main political antagonists -- and was almost calculated to offend his core constituency, since South Korea has had hard experience with "free trade" in the past dozen years.

Now it looks as though his death may galvanize opposition to Lee Myeong-bak's administration, despite the predictable calls for reconciliation. Lee has been trying to stifle dissent of any kind at least since last summer's candlelight vigils, which nearly brought down his government. It hasn't been as easy as he must have hoped -- the courts just threw out arrest warrant requests for some labor leaders he wanted put away, for example -- but while his opponents have the numbers, Lee has the guns. (And like our own President Obama, Lee wants to focus on the future, not on the dead past.)

Last night in Seoul, "mourners clashed with police who seized their makeshift tents and cordoned off the memorial altar with buses to prevent them from holding rallies," as the Korea Herald reported it. (Photo above is from the Hankyoreh.) Of course any assembly of people the government doesn't like is now illegal, but it's hard to suppress public mourning for a dead recent president. Lee, and Korea, may face a long, sad, painful summer.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Poetry Friday - Poetry Reading

This poem has confused some people, so let me provide some context. If you don't mind being confused, jump right in.

Since I was writing again, I began poking around the local / university poetry scene, attending readings and participating during the open-mike sections. I noticed that people who were waiting their turn to read would often talk to their friends while others were reading. Aside from the basic rudeness of this, I wondered if they thought anyone would be listening to them when they got to the mike. So I began speculating about the motives of people who perform, including me. (I tried to pay attention to the other readers, and learned a lot about bad college poetry by doing so.) There's certainly some exhibitionism involved, and that gave me the idea for this poem.

"Poetry Reading" has some things in common with this earlier poem and this more recent one. The first one also deals with ulterior motives in performers, and the second one also made some people in the audience squirm -- not so much, I think, because of their erotic explicitness (straight boys read work that was just as naughty), but because they were, like, totally gay. Some years later a friend I was visiting in another city took me to an open mike at a coffee shop. One kid read political poems with imagery like "Fuck Exxon-Mobil in the ass!" When my turn came, I picked up my guitar and sang some love songs to men, which caused uncomfortable silence at first. Talking about sex between men is fine as part of homophobic fag discourse, but not in a romantic mode.

From time to time someone would approach me after readings and ask if "Poetry Reading" was just an advertisement for sex. If it had been, it would have been a miserable failure, but then in those days the very concept of being openly gay read to many, straight or gay, as nothing but an advertisement. (I wonder what all the straight poets were advertising.) It struck me odd that people who were present either as poets or as appreciators of poetry couldn't grasp the metaphor announced by the title. And for the benefit of anyone who may wonder, the kinks listed in the metaphorical ad are poetical too.

Poetry Reading

GWM, 27, 5'8", 135,
well-endowed and sensitive,
seeks audience for oral stimulation
and fantasy.

Light s/m, no b/d, some scat and w/s,
no drugs, no smokers,
your pleasure increases my turn-on,
will answer all letters,
sincere only please.

(Gay white male, 27, 5 feet 8, one hundred thirty-five pounds,
well-endowed and sensitive,
seeks audience
for aural stimulation and fantasy.

Light sadomasochism, no bondage and discipline,
some scat and water sports,
no drugs, no smokers,
your pleasure increases my turn-on,
will answer all letters,
sincere only please.

18 March1978
29 March 1978

Incidentally, this is one of three poems of mine that were published in Ian Young's anthology Son of the Male Muse (Crossing Press, 1982).

Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder

I'm writing this in the Indianapolis airport while I wait for my flight to Detroit, and thence to Tokyo and ultimately Korea. Posting will continue sporadic until I get settled in, but if last year is any indication, I'll have a lot to say while I'm there. Vacations are nice for that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, I've restored the blog's original title. "Making the world safe for people", the current motto, occurred to me when I read a blog whose motto was "Making the world safe for liberals," which seemed a bit restrictive to me.

According to the Hankyoreh, members of the Korean Women’s Trade Union are picketing for a 1,000-won (about eighty cents) increase in the minimum wage. The article's title misled me: I thought it meant they'd already won the increase. Given that income inequality in Korea is increasing, an increase is probably needed. But violent riots like this one -- see the bloodlust in the foreground woman's face!) are just what Lee Myung-bak's government is trying to prevent by refusing to grant permits to large assemblies in urban centers. The excuse is that they might turn violent, which is valid enough, but that danger could be diminished by taking away the police's water cannons and not ordering them to attack the marchers. I know, I know, if we outlaw water cannons, then only outlaws will have water cannons...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Jesus Was Way Cool



A friend sent me the link to this CNN story on Bart Ehrman, who's becoming more and more well-known as a popularizer of New Testament scholarship. The title, "Former fundamentalist 'debunks' Bible" is misleading, not least because neither Ehrman nor anyone quoted in the article uses the word "debunks" about his work. He's a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his specialty is New Testament textual criticism -- that is, the study of the manuscripts that contain the oldest copies of the New Testament writings.

I've read several of Ehrman's books, though not yet the new one, Jesus, Interrupted, that is evidently clinching its author's newfound notoriety. The first one I read was Jesus: the apocalyptic prophet of the new millennium (Oxford, 1999), which I happened on in a used bookstore; I wanted to catch up with scholarship on the "End Is Near" aspects of early Christianity, and Ehrman did a nice job on his subject, but nothing he said was new to me. But I went on to read his debunking of The Da Vinci Code (2004), his book on textual criticism Misquoting Jesus (2005), and Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (2006), his book on three especially well-known early Christian figures. Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code is especially worth reading if you've read Dan Brown's book (I have, with plenty of Dramamine at hand), seen the movie (I haven't -- there isn't enough Dramamine in the world), or read any of the debunking books by reactionary scholars Catholic or Protestant (so far I've read just one, Ben Witherington III's The Gospel Code: novel claims about Jesus, Mary Madgalene and Da Vinci [InterVarsity Press, 2004]). For Brown's fans no less than his critics, it must be hard to wrap one's head around the fact that someone like Ehrman would reject The Da Vinci Code's reconstruction of Christian history. Since Ehrman is not only a better historian but a better writer than Dan Brown, I'd strongly recommend that you read Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code if you have any interest in the subject.

I'd had the impression that historical-Jesus studies has been largely spinning its wheels for the past couple of decades, and Bart Ehrman's work largely supports that view. As the CNN story reports, "Some scholarly critics say Ehrman is saying nothing new." Well, yeah. He's a popularizer, not an innovator, and he's explicit about that. In the preface to Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, for example, he says that he's presenting "the view shared probably by the majority of scholars over the course of this century, at least in Germany and America" (ix), and he's right about that. In the introduction to Misquoting Jesus he notes that the text of the New Testament "has been a topic of sustained scholarship now for more than three hundred years," yet "there is scarcely a single book written about it for a lay audience -- that is, for those who know nothing about it, who don't have the Greek and other languages necessary for the in-depth study of it, who do not realize there is even a 'problem' with the text, but who would be intrigued to learn both what the problems are and how scholars have set about dealing with them" (15). While he goes on to say that he writes "based on my thirty years of thinking about the subject, and from the perspective that I now have," Ehrman's views are well within the mainstream of New Testament scholarship, though near the more "liberal" end of the spectrum. (I put "liberal" in quotes because it's not really the right word, but I don't know of a better one. "Skeptical"? "Critical"?) Even the most conservative academic New Testament scholars I've read agree in substance with much of what Ehrman says.

The only one of Ehrman's "critics" quoted by name in the CNN story,
Bishop William H. Willimon, an author and United Methodist Church bishop based in Alabama, says he doesn't like the "breathless tone" of Ehrman's work.

"He keeps presenting this stuff as if this is wonderful new knowledge that has been kept from you backward lay people and this is the stuff your preachers don't have the guts to tell, and I have," Willimon says. "There's a touch of arrogance in it."

Breathlessness and arrogance may be in the eye of the beholder. I don't agree with Willimon on any of his points. As my quotations from Ehrman show, he doesn't present his material as anything new, nor as something that has been withheld from laypeople. I wouldn't be surprised if many of his readers react that way, much as some of Michael Moore's or Noam Chomsky's do ("I'm so glad that somebody has finally had the guts to tell the truth!"), reading their own conspiracy theories into his work.

On the other hand, as far as I can tell it's true that most Christians (as well as most unbelievers) know little or nothing of what serious Bible scholarship could teach them. In his critique of The Da Vinci Code, for example, Ben Witherington III complains that we live "an age of biblical illiteracy, even within the church" (140); I agree, except that I'd substitute "especially" for "even." (In the same book Witherington asks rhetorically why "millions are buying tickets to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ if the miraculous heart of the Gospel is not believed by “most” Americans?" [143]. Uh, maybe because we live in an age of biblical illiteracy?) That's why it's important that a mainstream scholar like Bart Ehrman is writing accessibly about the subject. It would be good if his readers would then read other writers too, to understand that experts in the field (like any other), disagree with each other. I'd recommend James Barr's Beyond Fundamentalism (Westminster, 1984), or, what the hell, Witherington's The Gospel Code, once you've read Ehrman's Truth and Fiction. You won't have much trouble finding such books at your public library or bookstore. Compare them, see how they agree or disagree with each other. Witherington has written a long critique of Ehrman, but he's really much closer to Ehrman on the scholarly questions than he is to most lay Christians.

Read the Bible too, at least the New Testament; for one thing, as Bart Ehrman says, "he immerses himself in the Bible, though he doesn't believe in its infallibility, because it's the most important book in Western civilization." I've read it, and I wouldn't disagree. For another thing, you may be surprised at how different the gospels are from the bits and pieces you've heard read in church, or seen in the movie versions or other retellings. Back when Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ was churning up controversy, I told Christians who objected to it that if someone filmed any of the gospels verbatim, faithful to the text, many Christians would be offended by it, because the portrayal of Jesus in the Bible is very different from the way modern orthodoxies see him. How would you direct that scene in Mark where, when Jesus is arrested, there's a young man with him dressed only in a linen sheet, who escapes naked when the soldiers grab the cloth to try to stop him? Or the exorcisms? Or Jesus' refusal to meet with his family? Remember to cast someone "MiddleEastern"-looking as Jesus, not another of the endless string of Northern European goyim we get in most Jesus movies; we don't really know what Jesus looked like, but it's a cinch he wasn't a WASP. The trouble with The Last Temptation of Christ was that it wasn't really disturbing enough.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Taking a Wide Stance on Abortion

After an AP story about President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame University mentioned that a new Gallup Poll shows a (bare) majority of Americans call themselves "pro-life," I took a quick look at the Gallup webpage. I've often talked to people, including women, who called themselves "pro-life," but say that they believe the decision should be between a woman and her doctor, not made by the law. This shows the weakness of such labeling, and the probable pointlessness of posing the question as Gallup did. As far as I know, the position that decisions about terminating pregnancy should be between women and their doctors is exactly what "pro-choice" means. (If Obama wants to get the opposed sides to stop demonizing each other, he could try pointing this out. Not that I'm holding my breath.)

Just for fun, let's call this "taking a wide stance on abortion." Like people who insist that they aren't gay or bisexual while carrying on an active sex life with members of their own sex and condemning more honest gay people, a Wide Stance Pro-lifer gets to put on a show of morality, condemning immoral pro-abortion radical feminists, while tacitly adopting their anti-life position.

And just as I suspected, a good many of the Gallup Poll's "pro-life" respondents turn out to be taking a Wide Stance. Yes, Gallup found "51% of Americans calling themselves 'pro-life' on the issue of abortion and 42% 'pro-choice.' This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question in 1995."

However, "about as many Americans now say the procedure should be illegal in all circumstances (23%) as say it should be legal under any circumstances (22%)", with 53% saying that the law should permit it under certain conditions (presumably the classic exceptions of rape, incest, or to save the mother's life, but the fact that the question wasn't worded that way leaves the door open to other options as well). This means that at least some, and probably a good many of those who called themselves "pro-life" were willing to kill babies some of the time. (Do I need to close-caption this for the Irony-Impaired? If so, consider it captioned.) So there are a lot of Wide Stance Pro-lifers out there.

An aside. I could have sworn I'd heard somewhere that Nancy Reagan was a Wide Stance Pro-Lifer, saying the decision should be between a woman and her doctor, but I couldn't find anything to that effect on Google. I did find her notorious remark "I believe that if you have an abortion you are committing murder," but I also found this delicious passage from Lou Cannon's book Governor Reagan. "In an agony of indecision, Reagan lied to reporters, a sure sign he was under stress." Come now -- Reagan lying to reporters or to the nation was a sure sign his lips were moving.

Down So Low

This was one of my favorite songs of the late 60s:



I've never listened to it enough, though, so I've posted this live version from 1987 to remind myself. Linda Ronstadt did a decent version, which can be seen here. (I remember Lester Bangs saying in a review of Ronstadt's version that it was a good effort, but Mary Magdalene herself couldn't beat the original.) According to Wikipedia, Etta James also covered it; I must try to find that one. I'd like to hear Park Hyo Shin or Big Mama give it a try. I have always loved these big, throbbing, emotional voices, and songs of emotional meltdown that convey the experience as "Down So Low" does. (Or Eric Clapton's "Layla." Or "For a Thousand Days" by Lee Seunghwan -- sorry, the video is dreadful but it's a great song.)

I suppose one reason I haven't listened enough to Tracy Nelson over the years is that she herself never did anything else with the power of "Down So Low." It's a hard act to follow. I have several of her albums on vinyl, and while I always enjoyed listening to them when I thought to put them on, I never felt quite the compulsion to do so that I did with so many other people. But as this video shows, she's a great singer, still performing, still recording.

(Almost forgot -- h/t to Avedon.)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

An Instrument of the People's Will

After thinking about it a while, I'd decided not to read any more of Charles McCarry's novels. But one day I was at the library, and this big thick book caught my eye: Shelley's Heart by Charles McGarry. It looked new, and indeed had just been published by Overlook Press. So I sat down with it for a few minutes.

The premise had possibilities -- a very close Presidential election is stolen by tampering with the vote in a few key states. The loser, however, has Hard Evidence of the shenanigans, and confronts the victor on the eve of his inauguration. I thought, what the hell, and checked it out.

I hadn't looked closely enough, though: Shelley's Heart was first published in 1995; the Overlook Press edition is a reissue. In some ways that made it more interesting, not just a roman à clef cobbled together in the wake of the 2000 elections. As I began reading, from the first page I found some stray digs at the Sixties, but they were put into the mind of Franklin Mallory, the right-wing candidate from whom the election had been stolen. The narrator remarks as Mallory encounters the dean of the National Cathedral, a radical leftist who hates Mallory cordially, "In short, each believed that the other was an enemy of the people." That was a hopeful sign that McCarry had some sense of irony, so I continued reading.

On page 22, Mallory ruminates:
By saying things about the nature of American life that middle-class voters regarded as home truths but the intelligentsia could not bear to hear, he made enemies. But as the desperate effort to deprive him of power by stealing the election had shown, a plurality of Americans wanted him to run the country. Having sought election, he had no choice but to do as they wished.
What a noble fellow! Mallory is simply an instrument of the people's will, or at least of a plurality of the people, and who could ask for more? On the next page, we are told:
The radicals, Mallory believed, were a herd of demagogues driven by some primal instinct that had little to do with the mind. They were the Puritans of the present age, oppressing mankind in the name of their own moral superiority. How like they were to the earlier crowd (what, after all, was the difference between an Elite and an Elect?), except that they had not yet found their Cromwell.
The "radicals" here are, of course, the radicals of the left, like the Dean of the National Cathedral; Mallory does not seem to have in mind the radicals of the Christian right, who might just as fruitfully be compared to Puritans. Mallory, by contrast, only tells the "middle class" what they want to hear, which according to Webster is the defining trait of a demagogue: "a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power." (Hitler had a lot of appeal to German middle-class voters too, telling them what they "regarded as home truths but [what] the intelligentsia could not bear to hear, [so] he made enemies.")

So there I sat, on page 23 of a 558-page novel. I began to wonder if McCarry had noticed and intended this little irony, undercutting Mallory's view of himself and of American politics. I looked online for some reviews, to see if any mentioned a turn in the plot or a shift in the perspective. I didn't find anything very helpful, though I did learn that the novel proceeds to describe an attempted takeover of America by a cabal of left-wing rads who try to get a radical lawyer appointed to the Supreme Court.

I noticed that Christopher Hitchens reviewed the 1995 edition of Shelley's Heart in the New York Review of Books (only the first paragraph is available online, alas), back when Hitchens was still on the left himself. (I'd love to see Gore Vidal review it.) This blogger, who reviewed Shelley's Heart for Commentary, writes that “Although Christopher Hitchens sneered in the pages of the New York Review of Books that his fiction is written out of 'the self-pity of the American right,' McCarry is not himself a conservative. He describes himself, in fact, as a 'bleeding heart.'” Well, that's all right then.

The blogger also mentions that McCarry sees "the post-sixties journalists ... as the worst—because the most divorced from reality—of the ideological purists." (Which didn't keep post-sixties journalist Bob Woodward from writing a laudatory blurb that appears on the front cover of Shelley's Heart.) He goes on to report that in a later novel, McCarry "compared the Sixties counterculture to the Hitlerjugend, speculated that U.S. news media 'exercised many of the functions belonging to the secret police in totalitarian countries,' and described a 'politics of self-congratulation' whose partisans had merely to hear Richard Nixon speak to want to kill him." If this is at all accurate, then no, I don't think McCarry was aware of the irony in Franklin Mallory's view of American radicals. Back to the library with you, then, Shelley's Heart.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Poetry Friday - it is not

it is not

when all the world is in love
when all the world is in heat
heads bent to hear the music
of one another's heartbeat

and all the trees drip posies
for tomorrow and tomorrow
to walk on, a promenade of hopefulness

and the sun and the sky smile
on the lovers, on the families
on the babies with their creaky legs
and amazed faces

i will remain the instrument
the hermit, the jester, the monastic clown
who plays the wedding march
who scatters poesies at the marchers' feet

who blesses all the nodding couples
who blesses the future's bright mystery
who looks on the promised land from the mountaintop
and turns his back on it
lest he turn into a pillar of salt

September 10-20, 1977

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Down Memory Lane

I haven't heard this sort of thing in a while:
nobody cares about u and what u do in the bedroom... get a life!!
That's the complete text of an e-mail message I received today, with the subject header "ur so messed up".

If the writer doesn't care, then why is he reading my blog? Not that I have much to say about what I do in bed, if I recall correctly. Should I change that?

If he thinks that nobody cares about gay people generally and what we do in bed, he should think again. Why are so many straight boys, often the most flamboyant ones, so obsessed with faggots and what we do in bed? Why do they insult and tease each other with accusations of anal penetrability? Why were some of C. J. Pascoe's straight high school boys afraid to go to a dance with just one faggot in attendance? Why are so many conservative Christians more concerned about what faggots do in bed than about poverty and social injustice generally? Why did so many American states have laws criminalizing what we do in bed until the activist Supreme Court overturned them in 2003? And contrariwise, if heterosexuals think that people's sex lives are of no interest to others, why do they announce their impending sexual partnerships (often solemnized in church) in the press? Why do they introduce their sexual partners to you as their sexual partners ("my husband", "my wife") -- do they imagine that everybody else as obsessed with sex as they are?

If we ever reach the point where nobody really cares about other people's sex lives, then I'll be satisfied. We're still a very long way from that day, of course; meanwhile, the insistence that nobody cares about a person's or a character's sexuality rings hollow. And when equality comes, gay people (including me, if I live so long) will be every bit as reticent and discreet about our sex lives as straight people are.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Bastard Son of Dude, I'm a Fag



A couple of days ago I argued (or, if you like, pontificated) that gay people should embrace, rather than repudiate, words like "faggot" and "dyke." In the last analysis it isn't important to stop people from using such epithets, because they'll just come up with other words to take their place. This works both ways. Just as any word we claim for ourselves (like "gay") will be appropriated as tokens in the status games of masculinity, any word that Boy Culture uses in those games will include us in its meanings, because men who are penetrated by other men are the ultimate case of failed masculinity.

"Retard" seems a likely candidate right now. I've written before about a gay kid I knew who said that wasting food in the dorm cafeteria was "retarded", though he was adamant that no one say "That's so gay" in his presence. The gay advice columnist Dan Savage, criticized by a reader for using "retarded" as an insult, promised to substitute "leotarded": "I won’t be mocking the mentally challenged, just the physically gifted. I will pick on the strong—and the limber—and not the weak." In honor of this derisive gesture by Savage, I'm going to follow his lead and rename this blog "This Is So Gaytorade" for a few days. Then I will not be mocking the heterosexually challenged, but defending a great sports drink -- though not, alas, capitalizing on the product placement. (To his credit, I should mention that for years Savage printed every letter asking his advice with the salutation, Hey, faggot! "in joking reference to this lively debate [among gays] about reclaiming hate words.")

But I digress. My reason for returning to this topic is to clarify something. Many people react to the idea that they shouldn't distance themselves from the safely disreputable by assuming that they're being told that they should change their style to imitate the safely disreputable -- for example, that if they embrace the word "faggot" they have to dance naked and drunk in gay pride parades or something. Rather, I want gay people to show some solidarity with the safely disreputable, by getting it into their heads that bigots don't care how often they go to church, how monogamous they are, how much money they earn, how faithfully they avoid Pride Parades, how consistently they vote Republican -- how normal, in short, they allegedly are. If you are gay, you're a faggot in the eyes of bigots, no matter how many pounds you can benchpress; if you're lesbian, you're a dyke in the eyes of bigots, no matter how skilled at needlepoint you may be.

The same attitude infects other minorities, of course. Many European Jews tried to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the beginning of the 20th century by publicly denouncing the stereotypical Jew with his sidelocks, frock coat, and degenerate feminine ways. They preferred to emulate their own stereotype of the butch, blond goy. Paul Breines wrote in his 1990 book Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry, page 141:
As a Zionist, for example, [Theodor] Herzl oversaw the founding of the first Jewish Burschenschaft, or fraternity, at the University of Vienna in 1897, its purpose, writes Arthur Koestler, later a member, being to demonstrate that “Jews could hold their own in dueling, brawling, drinking, and singing just like other people. According to the laws of inferiority and over-compensation,” Koestler adds, “they were soon out-Heroding Herod once more” – practicing dueling for hours each day, eventually becoming the most feared and aggressive swordsmen in the University.”
Not content with pointing out how assimilated they were, they agreed that the stereotypical hasid was despicable, eminently deserving of Christian hatred. I think it's safe to say that this attitude didn't delay the Holocaust by even a minute. Surveying a batch of 1970s pulp novels starring "a squadron of muscle Jews, the 'deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed' Jews for whom Max Nordau had called" (192), Breines comments,"One can be direct here: This is Jewish self-hatred masquerading as robust Zionism" (193).

To repeat: this does not mean that all male Jews should be narrow-shouldered, concave-chested shlemiels and yeshiva buchers (be still my heart!) -- that would be as one-sided as the opposite view, that none should be.

Just the other day, the gay site PlanetOut passed along the news that

In February, Skate Canada, Canada's Figure Skating Governing Body, announced a new Public Relations campaign to make skating in Canada look "tough."

Skate Canada is well aware that figure skating's image is seen as, well, gay and Skate Canada hopes to change that by focusing on the difficult aspects of figure skating such as strength, power, endurance...all the stuff that makes skaters sweat heavy!...

Skate Canada wasn't helped when two-time Olympic Silver Medalist, Elvis Stojko, went on a self-appointed mini press tour, speaking on behalf of what Skate Canada was looking for. Stojko told the Toronto Sun "If you're very lyrical and you're really feminine and soft, well, that's not men's skating. That is not men's skating, ok? Men's skating is power, strength, masculinity, focus, clarity of movement, interpretation of music."

Gay activists are up in arms, and Cyd Ziegler of OutSports.com told the PlanetOut writer, Aaron Harris, "To draw in the hockey fans, you'll need to have figure skaters hitting each other. They're two completely different sports catering to two different interests. There are other fan groups, like tennis or golf, who would be more likely to gravitate toward figure skating. Targeting the hockey crowd is just a waste of their time." Ditto for the US: "Hockey fans and kids who want to play hockey aren't suddenly going to gravitate toward figure skating because the men are more masculine."

The article produced a small frenzy in the comments section. While numerous commenters criticized Skate Canada, many defended it, saying things like

Maybe it'll send a different message to those in the "gay community" who associate gay with being feminine. ... So gay people (as a whole) should act and speak like other Americans (where boys act/talk like boys and girls act/talk like girls). Certainly there are those of us who are gay and the rest of the world would find difficulty in figuring it out and while the masculine and more traditional of us may be the silent majority it's the flaming sissies that make the headlines a vast majority of the time when prancing around in fairy wings in pride parades and idolizing every female pop singer that becomes the latest fad (and wants to be just like HER). The latter is the image that get's associated with GAY and it sucks frankly.

Or this:
So as far as I'm concerned we can sh#t can the "girl" acts and get comfortable with our "Masculine" side. I'm sick of Gay being code for weak and feminine. Let"s see some Gay men kickin ass!
Or this:
I'm Canadian and I 100% the "man-up" policy. This policy should apply to all gays everywhere! It's okay to be gay, but at least be a real man. If I wanted to date a femme, I'd be straight.
And much, much more. Most tellingly, I think:
... i always tell people its kind of an inside joke. I tell them "you know there's gay people and then there's fagots".
One can be direct here: this is gay self-hatred masquerading as assimilation and manly-manism. These guys agree that to be a sissy, no matter how athletic (and figure skaters, like ballet dancers, are athletes) is despicable, and antigay bigots are justified in hating them and wanting to drive them out of sight at the very least. Indeed, these commenters are explicitly and avowedly on the side of the bigots.

Is it because the kind of masculinity they espouse is a positive image? I don't think so; hockey players fighting on the ice aren't what I'd call a positive role model for anybody. Nor are the high school boys C. J. Pascoe wrote about, who feel that they're entitled (and obligated) to beat up sissies; who wouldn't go to prom if even one gay guy was at the event, lest their fragile masculinity be somehow compromised; who, "Walking between government and drama classes, ... yelled 'GET RAPED! GET RAPED!' as he rhythmically jabbed a girl in the crotch with his drumstick" (page 100). These are the alpha males, the leaders, the popular guys everyone looks up to. It isn't the flaming sissies with streaked hair and swishing hips who are harmful to others, it's the men who denigrate them, dehumanize them, harass them, beat them up, and even kill them.

If the only alternative to being "masculine" in those terms is to be a "stereotype" -- and as the PlanetOut commenters are enough to show, many men think it is the only alternative -- then bring on the eyeliner and spike heels. But I don't think it is; at least I hope not. Reading Pascoe's account of what she calls "the rape paradigm," or remembering the Speakers Bureau volunteer who tells how once a month, in his high school in the 1980s, the cool kids would wear t-shirts that read "SILLY FAGGOT -- DICKS ARE FOR CHICKS", I find myself asking a question I never thought would pass my lips:

Where were the adults?

Where were the adults when Pascoe's Ricky was being harassed and beaten up, or when Keith was jamming a drumstick into another student's crotch and yelling "Get raped"? (Standing back and watching it happen, she says.) Where were the adults when those t-shirts were being worn in the halls, classrooms, and cafeterias? (Doing nothing, or chuckling at the wit of it all.) Even the word "dicks," which I'd have thought a punishable breach of decorum, didn't bother the administration. Considering that political messages or other attention-grabbing slogans are verboten in so many school dress codes, I find it incredible; but antigay bigotry is uncontroversial and apolitical. Their high moral standards, their obsessive concern with a docile student body, can be forgotten for the right cause. Students often have to fight to start gay-straight alliances in their schools, because administrators fear they'll be disruptive. A school in Utah, I think it was, banned all student groups when a court ordered it to allow a gay-straight alliance to organize there. (Yes, it was.)

(P.S. Compare this current case.)

Before you can work on the kids, you have to work on the adults. Including the gay ones.