Sunday, January 31, 2010

In Never Never Land


When I heard about the American Baptist missionaries who have been arrested for trying to take allegedly orphaned Haitian children out of Haiti, allegedly to a new institution in the neighboring Dominican Republic, I remembered an incident that occurred here in Bloomington in the 1970s. A local evangelical church sent its Sunday School bus around to some local playgrounds, including one near University married housing, where many foreign students lived. The idea was to invite children to come to its Sunday school, where they would be exposed to the Gospel and find hope of salvation. To the church's great surprise, many parents thought that they should at least be consulted before their children were whisked away by strangers. The church's leaders maintained their good intentions, their purity of motive, and plaintively lamented the outsiders' inability to understand that they only wanted good things for these children. Who, they protested, could object to a child's going to Sunday school?

It was hard for me not to see their defense as disingenuous. At the very least, if the children's parents -- and therefore the children -- already had a non-Christian religion of their own, they might very well object to their children's being taken away for indoctrination by Christians. The parents might just as easily have been Christians, though evangelicals often do not consider non-evangelical Christians (or even evangelicals of different flavors) to be Christians. The most obvious response to the church leaders' arguments, I thought, would be to ask them how they would react if the local synagogue or mosque -- or for that matter, one of the Roman Catholic churches -- had sent a bus to the local Christian schools to round up children for perfectly innocent visits to their institutions of spiritual instruction.

I'd still like to know how they would answer that question. I imagine they simply did not regard parents from competing sects as having any rights at all; as I remember it, they never did acknowledge that parents of other religions might have legitimate objections to what they were doing. Not that I think they were especially malicious -- I just don't think that people outside their church were real to them. (Readers may remember the time a Christian college student asked why heterosexuals shouldn't decide that homosexuals were not fit parents and take their children from them, so I asked her how she would feel if Protestants took Catholics' children from them on the same ground, or if mainline Episcopalians took evangelicals' children from them. Unable or unwilling to see the analogy, she became quite upset at me, accusing me of religious intolerance; so did the graduate student teaching the class in which our panel was speaking.)

Something similar seems to have been going on in the minds of those Idaho Baptists in Haiti. I'm sure their intentions were pure, and that's the problem: they were so pure in heart, mind, and spirit that reality never impinged on their mission plan. It's apparently been established that most of the children had living parents or other adult relatives who had not given up their claims on their children. The Austrian children's aid charity SOS Children's Villages told the Guardian that "According to a 12-year-old girl, she and her family had been told she was going to a boarding school in the Dominican Republic."

The Telegraph's religion writer, the amusingly named Will Heaven, splutters:
So, bearing this in mind, why don’t we listen to the version of events from the Christian group? Laura Sillsby, one of those being held in Port-au-Prince, said: “We had permission from the Dominican Republic government to bring the children to an orphanage that we have there.” And where did the children come from? “We have a Baptist minister here (in Port-au-Prince) whose orphanage totally collapsed and he asked us to take the children to the orphanage in the Dominican Republic,” she replied. “They accuse us of children trafficking. This is something I would never do. We were not trying to do something wrong.”
Of course we should listen to the version of everyone involved. Unfortunately, Mr. Heaven doesn't seem to be interested in listening to the children's version of events. Notice, too, how he refers to the missionaries' side as "the Christian" one. Most Haitians are Roman Catholics. The children and their families are Christians too. So why not listen to the other Christians' version of events?

The Associated Press also tried to divert attention from the real issues, with a story that reports parents in one Haitian "tent camp" saying that they saw nothing wrong with giving their children to foreigners, in hopes they would have a better life in America or Europe. Fair enough, but I don't see why the Baptists preferred to take children with living families who had not chosen to give them up for adoption, when so many other children and parents were (literally) going begging. The AP story admits, though, that "The church group's own mission statement said it planned to spend only hours in the devastated capital, quickly identifying children without immediate families and busing them to a rented hotel in the Dominican Republic without bothering to get permission from the Haitian government." Given the history of US interference in Haiti over the past two centuries, the group's lack of interest in dealing with the Haitian government seems high-handed, to put it gently.

And I'm sure that the good Baptists were not trying to do something wrong; the trouble is that they have a rather distorted version of what is wrong and what is right, as their conduct shows. They're members of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose record on many social issues leaves something to be desired. Back in Idaho, the senior pastor of the missionary's home church told the AP that they acted "because we believe that Christ has asked us to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world, and that includes children." Again, it seems not to have occurred to them that Haitians, as Catholics, would already have received the gospel of Jesus Christ; Baptists aren't terribly fond of Roman Catholicism anyway. Nor does it occur to them that they could bring the gospel to Haitian children without spiriting them away from their families -- but then, their families were Papists (or worse), and probably would have objected to their children's being saved. The missionaries simply followed the teaching of Christ that a Christian's real family is not flesh and blood, but "whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Mark 3:35).

"Abduction" and "stealing" are strong words. These Baptists seem to have thought that Haitian children could be plucked from the trees, that as Christians and as Americans they could do whatever they wanted. To do something wrong implies that they saw other people as, well, people, with interests and wishes of their own; this doesn't seem to have occurred to them at all. Only their motives and wishes mattered. I'd like to think that their experience in Haiti will give them something to think about, but so far they seem to be too busy shutting down their minds as they protest their innocence to do any thinking.

They All Look Alike, Don't They?

Jenny Crusie linked to a blog called Failbooking, from which she quoted this bit:

A couple of commenters pointed out that the added lyrics should include "E-I-E-I-O." Another suggested the line "There was a farmer had a god..."

Browsing around Failbooking, I found this more sobering example:

Oh well, countries full of poor black people, how can an American be expected to tell them apart? Even when they're in different hemispheres, or movies. (Notice, though, that "Chris" spotted the mistake right away. Not everyone is ignorant.)

And they need Jesus. I noticed that some of my Facebook friends first reacted to the news of the Haitian earthquake by waving around their Christian piety. Offended by Pat Robertson's remarks, but apparently more for reasons of Christian PR than by their falsity or truthiness. Many calls to prayer. But before long they remembered that Christians think of themselves first, not about foreigners who are already poor anyway. Another viral cut-and-paste job, of course. (Someone else noticed and blogged about it.) Here's the text, posted by one of the former prayer-mongers:
A country with millions of homeless children going to bed without eating, elderly going without needed medications and mentally ill without treatment- yet we have a benefit for the people of Haiti on 12 stations. 99 percent of people wont have the guts to copy & repost this.
Of course I was one of the the few, the proud, the Socialist. I reposted it, and taunted the friend who'd posted it by pointing out that she was calling for universal health care. She indignantly replied that she did not, because she didn't want to help illegal immigrants. We got off into a short debate about whether universal health care would help illegal immigrants, which was fun but beside the point, though it did show how far her Christianity extended.

Still, it's not the Haitians' fault that Americans don't have decent health care or a better general welfare system, nor is it the fault of the bleeding-heart Obama-voting liberals who organized the Haiti earthquake relief-Telethon. It's not even the fault of the mass of Americans, despite Christopher Hitchens (via), who "sometimes think Americans want to live dangerously. They think this wouldn’t be America if you had health coverage." Some of Roy Edroso's liberal commenters agree with Hitchens, bashing Joe Sixpack for opposing health care reform even though it is well established that most Americans favor a government-run health insurance plan, if not a government-run health care system. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. It's hard for me to tell who's nuttier these days, my fellow members of the Hoosier-American Diaspora, or the liberal blogogentsia.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Il Faut Cultiver Notre Jardin

To return to a question I asked a couple of days ago: I'm about a hundred pages into The Old Garden a novel by Hwang Sok-yong about a middle-aged South Korean who's released after eighteen years in prison for political crimes, only to learn that the woman he loved, and who'd sheltered him while he was on the run from the dictatorial government, died of cancer shortly before his release. Finding it difficult to adjust to the relative freedom of life outside, he returns to the village they lived in before his arrest, to the house she had bought and refurbished when she learned she was dying. Reading her notebooks and letters, he remembers his activist past and broods on the changes that took place in South Korea after the success of the democracy movement and the growing consumerism and commercialization of Korean society.

That is as far as I've read, but The Old Garden is fascinating in its detail and sweep, and I'm looking forward to reading the next 400 pages. Originally published in Korean in 2000 by a distinguished author known for taking on difficult episodes of recent Korean history, such as its involvement in the Vietnam War (Shadow of Arms) and inter-Korean atrocities during the the Korean war (The Guest), The Old Garden was made into a film in 2007, and finally was translated into English in 2009. But the question I want to ask is whether a book like The Old Garden is an escape from reality, or a way of coming to grips with reality.

It's a trick question, of course, as I suggested before, and my answer is: Both. First, it's an escape from reality, because the South Korean society is so different from American society. We were not ruled by a brutal military dictatorship for forty years, nor did we suffer a civil war that devastated much of the country and ended in an armed truce that still leaves the nation divided. Even the high-water mark of political activism in the 1960s (in my lifetime, that is -- there were other peaks in the past) didn't exact quite as great a toll from the opposition movements as resistance to the South Korean dictatorships did: widespread torture, execution, and imprisonment of dissidents. (There were notable exceptions, but they remain exceptions; the bulk of US state violence and terror has been directed at foreigners.) Above all, there is no equivalent in recent American history to the Kwangju massacre of 1980, when the South Korean government responded to a local democracy movement and uprising by blockading the city of Kwangju, and sending in shock troops who slaughtered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of citizens. This event haunts not only The Old Garden but much of recent Korean literature and film.

So, reading a book like The Old Garden gives me a glimpse into the lives of people in a different society, facing different problems from any that I have faced. And there is no reason why I shouldn't read about the lives of people who are different from me. Yet it's not fantasy: Hwang, who was an activist himself and spent some years in exile from Korea, writes from experience and the experience of people he knew about a world that is all too real. (I'm reminded of Bruce Cuming's reminiscence, in Korea's Place in the Sun: a Modern History (W. W. Norton), of Korean students who told him that they were willing to die for democracy: sadly, he remarks, many of them did.

But that's the other side of the answer to my question: there are suggestive and disturbing points of contact between Korean and American experience, which I hope emerge in some of my posts on the past few years' mass protests in Korea. (See most of the posts from June 2008 and the beginning of July 2008, and this and this one from the following year.) As the US government cracks down, ever more harshly, on peaceful protests in the US, more and more Americans will face problems that begin to approach what South Korean dissidents faced. There's a lot to be learned from the Korean experience. For one thing, though it might seem now that the sides were more clearly defined in a dictatorship than in a nominal democracy like the US, the Korean dictatorships had not only secret police and censors, they had a collaborationist press that pushed their side of the story. And now that Korea is officially a democracy, the same corporate media mostly jeer at dissidence in terms very similar to those we encounter in the US: hey, the dictatorship is over, you've got your freedom, so why are you complaining? If you don't like the rascals in power, throw them out by the power of the vote! There's no need to clog up the streets with candlelight vigils in a free society. The derogation of the vigils in the Korean press (which still didn't satisfy President Lee -- he sicced his prosecutors on media which had been insufficiently supportive of his policies) is framed in very similar terms to the derogation of the protestors against the World Trade Organization in 1998, complete with lies and distortions of history.

I'd say, then, that The Old Garden contains lessons for Americans no less than Koreans. For me it is partly an escape from the largely apathetic political movements of today's America, and my own personal lack of involvement, to a time and place where many people put their lives and freedom on the line in the cause of freedom, justice, and democracy. But it also gives me a sense of what it could mean to do such things, and makes me ask myself under what circumstances I might choose to do them too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Scribble Scribble Scribble - Eh, Miss Alcott?

Another bit from Kiddie Lit. Louisa May Alcott wrote much more than the books she's most famous for (Little Women, Little Men, etc.). She also wrote thrillers under various pseudonyms. One of her most serious efforts, though, was A Modern Mephistopheles, published anonymously in 1877. (A later edition, published just after she died, bore her name.) The Atlantic Monthly's reviewer praised it more highly than any of Alcott's acknowledged works. Beverly Lyon Clark points out in Kiddie Lit (113):
Of course this book was not presumably for children, nor was it necessarily drawing on a genre that had made its primary appeal to females. It was also published anonymously. The reviewer thought it could only be by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian. The Atlantic was most enthusiastic, in short, when neither the book’s genre nor its author’s name was identified as feminine and when the book was not specifically addressing children.
Clark has some rather amusing information about Hawthorne fils (50).
“We are told that women – and unmarried women at that – do three-fourths of the novel-reading in the world; and that, consequently, novels must be so fashioned as to please and attract the feminine mind, and especially the junior feminine.” So declaims Julian Hawthorne in 1888, in his essay “Man-Books,” echoing his better-known father, who had famously complained in 1855 that his own novels had had to compete with those by “a d------d mob of scribbling women,” and also echoing the younger Hawthorne’s acerbic contemporary H. H. Boyesen, who indicted the nineteenth-century audience as an “Iron Madonna who strangles in her fond embrace the American novelist.” Julian anticipates “that the great American novelist, when he comes, will give us a man-book”; meanwhile he finds only one or two “man-books” in nineteenth-century American literature – W. S. Mayo’s Kaloolah and perhaps Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
"Man-books"! I wonder if what Hawthorne was looking for was something like John Preston's gay leather S/M classic Mr. Benson, a book that wouldn't be published until the second half of the twentieth century. But "man-books" sounds like porn talk to me. As David Savran wrote in Taking It Like a Man (Princeton, 1998, page 233),
Much of the discourse by leathermen stresses S/M’s remasculinizing force. Yet sometimes this process produces unexpected side effects, connecting S/M to masculinities that have, at best, problematic histories. Thus, for example, two of the contributors to Leatherfolk pointedly invoke Robert Bly’s Iron John. Referring to Bly’s description of various initiation rites, John Preston argues that “[w]hat Bly is talking about, ... the S/M world can deliver.” Mark Thompson, meanwhile, much more indebted to New Age vernacular than Preston, adopts Bly’s nomenclature of the “soft man” and presses into service both the jargon of authenticity and the metaphysics of depth to which Bly continually appeals, noting that what drives leathermen on is “a curiosity to know a deeper part of ourselves, that place where the source of our authentic power resides.” Given the historic positioning of Bly’s work and of the men’s movement, these moves strike me as being inauspicious.
Inauspicious or not, the misogyny and homosexual anxiety that characterizes so much male whining over the past couple of centuries might well be eased by a fatherly spanking from a leather daddy. If the majority of fiction readers are women, Julian, then suck it up and produce what they want; if not, Daddy's always ready to warm your pink behind. But the Atlantic reviewer's assumption that A Modern Mephistopheles must have been written by a man reminded me of something more recent.

In the late 1960s work by an exciting new science fiction writer began to appear, under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. Tiptree corresponded with other writers and fans, but stayed out of sight, which led to much speculation about Tiptree's real identity. It was known that he had worked for the US Army's photointelligence unit in World War II, had later joined the CIA, but returned to school for a doctorate in experimental psychology. Oh, Mary, how butch! It was like James Bond had begun writing science fiction. On the other hand, Tiptree wrote with sensitive attention about women, so some fans speculated that he might be female. Distinguished sf writer Robert Silverberg contributed an introduction to Tiptree's first collection of stories, in which he argued that a woman could not have written such work: "It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male." Elder Bad Boy of sf Harlan Ellison wrote of Tiptree's contribution to his Again, Dangerous Visions anthology, "[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat [for awards] this year, but Tiptree is the man." And of course, it soon emerged that Tiptree was a 61-year-old woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon.

You'd think, after all the times writers have successfully passed for the other sex, that people would have learned better than to make such claims as Silverberg made about Tiptree. In fairness, some second-wave feminists have also argued for the existence of female sentences and other specific ways that women can write that men can't. And it seems that most people, whatever they may claim, are still very invested in gender difference. It's always seemed to me that if there are real psychological, emotional, artistic differences between men and women, they'll take care of themselves.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reality Is For Those Who Can't Face Oz

"Fantasy is not for everybody," [Martin] Gardner contentiously puts it. "I know of no studies by professional psychologists on this matter, but I hazard the guess that an eight-year-old's liking for fantasy reflects the strength of his imagination. ... I suspect that it is from the ranks of such children, when grown, that come our most creative individuals." (Beverly Lyon Clark, Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature in America [Johns Hopkins, 2003], page135)

Such a tendency [to accomodate the real] was reinforced by John Dewey's turn-of-the-century preference for stories that do not encourage children to escape from reality... (Clark, 136)

When asked whether Oz is especially popular with young girls, Martin Gardner responded, "I'm afraid it is." (Clark, 140)
I think it's quite funny, this notion that "fantasy" fiction encourages children (or adults) to escape from reality while "realistic" fiction encourages children to face it. It's as funny as the Freudian belief that the Pleasure Principle is somehow opposed to the Reality Principle, though I suppose that one makes sense if you believe that Reality is no fun at all, but c'mon -- pleasure is still part of reality. I read all kinds of books as a child, from fairy tales to "realistic" fiction, biographies, popularized science, and so on, and I used all of them to escape "reality," the reality of growing up a book-crazed sissy in the semi-rural Midwest during the 1950s. Alexander the Great, George Washington Carver, Frank Lloyd Wright, Clara Barton, and Madame Curie were as real, and as fantastical, to me as Stuart Little, Jo March and her boys, Horton the elephant, the Boxcar Children, or the Three Billygoats Gruff.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Hodgson's Choice

This weekend I started reading Beverly Lyon Clark's Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature (Johns Hopkins, 2003), and found it fascinating, but it sent me after other reading material that interrupted the job at hand. Early on, Clark discusses Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924). Burnett is probably more famous today for A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, but when Little Lord Fauntleroy was first published in book form in 1886, it was a best-seller and stayed immensely popular for decades. Clark writes (pages 18-19):
[Burnett's] enthusiastic admirers ranged from nine-year-old Helen Keller ("I do love Lord Fauntleroy," she wrote in a fan letter) to British Prime Minister William Gladstone (who made a point of being introduced to Burnett and of telling her that Fauntleroy "charmed him"). Then-canonical American man of letters Oliver Wendell Holmes addressed Burnett as a writer "who knows the human heart," adding, "You should be very happy, for what mother ever had such a darling child as your dear little Lord Fauntleroy?" Similarly canonical James Russell Lowell wrote to Burnett's publisher, "I should be glad to have the author know how much pleasure the book gave me. I feel so grateful to her." Mark Twain embroidered a slipper for the actress who starred in the American dramatic version; Lewis Carroll gently teased his favorite child actress about coveting the role. As a critic wrote in 1918, Fauntleroy "caused a public delirium of joy." ...
[Burnett] happily endorsed playing cards and candy, and there were Fauntleroy toys and writing paper, a chocolate Fauntleroy, Fauntleroy perfume -- not to mention the popularity of his trademark velvet suit with sash and lace collar and cuffs. Fauntleroy was an early merchandising phenomenon [19].
Ah, yes, the suit. I wonder if its "popularity" was among mothers, or among little boys. According to this blogger, Burnett made the suits for her sons, especially Vivian, but the blogger seems not to know that she was already an established and popular author by the time she wrote Fauntleroy: "Francis [sic] Hobson [sic] Burnett originally conceived of the Little Lord Fauntleroy story as a way of entertaining her children." (Or maybe as a way of convincing them that their suits were cool?) Maybe so, but the story was immensely popular among adults too.

By the time I was born, Little Lord Fauntleroy seemed to have been reduced to his look. There were numerous film versions of the novel (the latest was made in Russia in 2003, but I'd love to see the 1996 Filipino version Cedie), but though I never saw any of them nor read the book, I knew what a Little Lord Fauntleroy looked like: the long golden hair, the velvet suit, the arms akimbo. Fauntleroy was the epitome of sissyhood, or at least of a boy forced by his mom to wear sissy clothes, and as a sissy boy the whole thing made me nervous.

But reading Clark's discussion made me curious, so I found the book at the public library. It was a recent paperback edition, and the cover illustration reflects later anxieties about how a Real Boy should look and dress. More Rudyard Kipling than Frances Hodgson Burnett, don't you think?

As for the story, I could see why it was so popular. Cedric Errol, Lord Fauntleroy, is quite a taking little fellow, and Burnett did a good job on his character and the more complex character of his grandfather, the Scrooge figure who must be won over by his newfound grandson's unselfconscious directness, honesty, and innocence. The plot's complication and resolution are melodramatic cliches, though I'm not sure I can expect a 19th-century writer to satisfy my 20th-century tastes in that respect; and Burnett did handle her material skillfully. I'll have to read more of her work.

It took me a while, though, to figure out what bothered me about Burnett's writing: it was that she could hardly refer to Cedric without using the word "little":
Then suddenly his loving little heart told him that he'd better put both his arms around [his mother's] neck and kiss her again and again, and keep his soft cheek close to hers ... His greatest charm was this cheerful, fearless, quaint little way of making friends with people ... As he grew older he had a great many quaint little ways which amused and interested people greatly ... When he was quite a little fellow he learned to read ...
And so on, all that in just the first few pages. Of course this is typical of the way writers wrote about children in the 19th century, but it's one of the features of the period's style that has always put me off. (And I see from my own "taking little fellow," above, that it's catching.)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

He's Sure the Boy I Love

[I Sit Corrected: This morning I received a very generous (under the circumstances) e-mail from Cristina Nehring, author of A Vindication of Love. She wrote that the Nation review misunderstood and misrepresented her book, and gently but firmly chastised me for improvising on a book I hadn't read. So if you read this blog post, bear in mind that I am riffing not on the book, but on the review. I now feel obligated to read A Vindication of Love for myself, which I'll do as soon as I can get a copy from the library, and will report here when I do.]

There are so many other things I should be writing about, but the new issue of The Nation arrived in my e-mailbox (I subscribe digitally), and while scrolling through it to find Alexander Cockburn's rebuttal to some letters attacking his views on climate change, I came across this lengthy review of Cristina Nehring's book A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century. I am very ambivalent about romance, which I don't equate with love, but that's one of the other things I should be writing about, and I'll try to get to it one of these days.

Nehring's book sounds like a bit of a mess, if I judge from Miriam Markowitz's rather ambivalent review.
Yet as Cristina Nehring argues in her recent treatise, A Vindication of Love, given that love has long been an animating force in literature it is surprising that it is so out of favor among novelists, poets and their ilk today. "Where once upon a time love poetry was the most abundant poetry written, it is now among the rarest--particularly in high-brow publications. Adolescents are still allowed to write love poems. Famous poets are not--or only if they demonstrate Latin American provenance or prodigious restraint."

Nehring's book is an elaborate defense of ferocious, passionate love, a love that "at its strongest and wildest and most authentic...is a demon," a religious faith and a "divine madness." In Nehring's view, this love is endangered after an embattled twentieth century that brought us Freud, feminism, pheromones and friends with benefits. Love in the twenty-first century has never been freer or easier, she writes, and yet, paradoxically, it has been "defused and discredited.... Streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence." Not just love itself but its many attendant rites and rituals: courtship, mating, marriage--all these have been attenuated, coupled "with AA batteries and [sold] over the counter."
With that stuff about how love is demonic at its most authentic, Nehring sounds as if she might be a disciple of Camille Paglia, but I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it. First, I've had me some of that ferocious, passionate, demonic love in my day, and I think I'd rather take up heroin than mess with it again. I've known numerous people who've been through the same sort of thing, and Nehring's dismissal of love "streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence" makes me think of T. S. Eliot's infamous dictum in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," that "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." People who quote this line are less likely to quote the sentence that immediately follows: "But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things." Somebody who's spent a week unable to stop crying over it might be less celebratory of wild, authentic, demonic love.

According to Markowitz, Nehring leans heavily on C. S. Lewis's theory of courtly love and its influence on later European conceptions of romance. I haven't read much of Lewis's literary criticism, only his apologetics, but it seems that he ignored non-European literature on love. A critic of his day could perhaps be excused for such tunnel vision, but nowadays it's not merely "politically incorrect" to believe that only Europe and the US constitute culture, it's bad scholarship.

But the main thing that occurred to me was that I hadn't noticed that "novelists, poets, and their ilk" had stopped writing about love in the twenty-first century. For that matter, while love was indeed a major theme in the past, not every writer or artist focused on it all the time. Nowadays, for example, most people think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning for her Sonnets from the Portuguese, but I'm not sure Browning herself cared as much for them as for her feminist novel in verse, Aurora Leigh (which I read a few years ago and, though it was uneven, it was pretty good), and for other liberal causes, like Italian nationalism.

Some of the great romantic novels aren't all that romantic either, as Nehring uses the word. Markowitz quotes Vivian Gornick's The End of the Novel of Love to the effect that "When Emma Bovary was loosening her stays with a man other than her husband, or Anna Karenina running away from hers, or Newbold Archer agonizing over whether to leave New York with Ellen Olenska, people were indeed risking all for love." It happens that I recently read Madame Bovary, and it didn't seem to me that Flaubert was celebrating the glory of romance -- I thought he portrayed Emma as a foolish young woman looking for a mirage she'd read about in romance novels. Jane Eyre is popularly thought of as a proto-Gothic romance, but as I recall it Jane rejected both surrender to destructive passion and a sensible but loveless marriage. Only after Rochester was blinded and lost an arm (read by many critics as symbolic castration) did she trust him with her happiness. If writing about love is only "authentic" if it ends in suicide, disgrace, and misery, though, I can't say I consider it much of a loss.

At the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, a good many "novelists, poets, and their ilk" were writing about love. Nehring apparently demonizes feminists, but even feminist poets like Marge Piercy and Adrienne Rich wrote and published love poetry. Nehring also apparently concerns herself only with "serious" writers, which is a mistake. Popular music is still mostly about love; movies and popular fiction still thrive on love stories, happy and unhappy. ("The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily," Miss Prism told Cecily Cardew of her abandoned three-volume novel. "That is what Fiction means.") There's no need for teenaged girls to harrow the nineteenth century for fantasy fodder when they've had Titanic and Twilight, among so many others, in the past few years.

Which brings me to another curious narrowing of focus in Nehring's book, or at least in Markovitz's review. Markowitz praises Nehring's
characterization of Emily Dickinson, redeemed from her long scholarly captivity as the lady in white, a hermetic poetic priestess of a sensibility so squeamish she could hardly bear to pass her parlor door. As Brenda Wineapple recently documented in her excellent biography White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the frisson of Dickinson's poetry derived from what Nehring describes floridly as a "carnivorous want" that came from holding the world, and sexual intimacy, at bay.
I'll have to have a look at Wineapple's book, but she's not the first to challenge the picture of Dickinson as a "hermetic poetess." There's evidence in letters and poems, collected and discussed by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith in Open Me Carefully (Paris Press, 1998), that Dickinson's passions were not directed only at males. Gay and lesbian novelists, poets, and their ilk (including moi) have written a great deal about love in the past half-century, and since 1981, at least, no one could accuse gay men of having thought of love as safe. But I'm sure it's just an oversight that they escaped Nehring's [p.s.: or at least Markowitz's] notice.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I Burn Down Your Cities, How Blind You Must Be



President Obama's ... well, whatever it is, it's in the current issue of Newsweek, as we were warned it would be. To call it an article is a stretch. It has no real content; it's just a gaseous effusion of high-sounding rhetoric, the sort of thing you don't need to read or listen to because it just is. You stand there with your hand over your heart and your eyes on the flag, and listen to the boring man drone on.
But above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do. For decades, America's leadership has been founded in part on the fact that we do not use our power to subjugate others, we use it to lift them up—whether it was rebuilding our former adversaries after World War II, dropping food and water to the people of Berlin, or helping the people of Bosnia and Kosovo rebuild their lives and their nations.
This is purest moonshine. The US does, and often has, used its power to subjugate others. I'm not keeping score, but in my present mood I'd say we've done it more often than not. Obama knows better, or used to. Though, as often as not, there was no need to subjugate when we could simply exploit, as Naomi Klein reminds us on the Newsweek site; but she also links to some good news at her own webpage, which is a good resource for those interested in what else is going on in Haiti. See, for example, Rebecca Solnit's piece. Newsweek tries to undercut Klein, though, with another article, an interview with Klein misleadingly titled "Naomi Klein Sees Exploitation in Rescue Missions." (It's reminiscent of the responses to Peter Hallward's Guardian article.) How many people will read past that title? You should. Klein answers the interviewer's stupid questions very effectively.

Other writers at Newsweek are less vague and therefore more obnoxious than Obama. John Meacham, for example, argues that humanitarianism is good policy:
As FDR noted elsewhere, experience has taught the United States that Emerson was right: the only way to have a friend is to be one. The world watches how we act toward those less fortunate than ourselves—and just about everybody on earth is less fortunate than we are. Rebuilding Haiti will not kill jihadists in Afghanistan, Somalia, or Yemen. It will not calm Iraq. It will not slow Iran's march toward a nuclear weapon. Yet it will show us to advantage—a great power doing good, even when the do-gooding is outside a realist's flinty calculus of a national interest. ...

Then there is what my colleague John Barry calls the "old-fashioned but real" interest in perpetuating the Monroe Doctrine. "I can easily foresee that Russia and, especially, China may choose to tweak Obama by mounting very public relief efforts in Haiti," John says. Hugo Chávez and his comrades will also capitalize on any impression that America is ignoring Haiti.
Meacham's opening summary of US policy toward Haiti ends, conveniently, with Woodrow Wilson's 1915 invasion, with no mention of intervening events (for which, again, read Peter Hallward), "history suggests that we won't stay the course", though we always have before, to the Haitians' great cost. But Meacham can't take his eyes off the calculator for a nanosecond. Why does he assume that Russia and, especially, China don't want to be good neighbors too, outside a realist's flinty calculus of a national interest? The world -- meaning everyone but the US -- is probably aware of Cuba's relief efforts in Haiti, as it is of Cuba's past relief efforts around the world. And the world is also aware of past US interference in Haiti: Chavez and John Barry's other bogeymen are not likely to worry too much about the US "ignoring Haiti" -- rather the people (not necessarily the governments) of the world will be watching about how the US imposes itself on Haiti.

Finally, in an article only partially available online, one Lisa Miller sets out to justify the ways of God to man. She mentions Pat Robertson's much-vilified remarks on the disaster; quotes Bart Ehrman, bless him, on Robertson -- "If that happened to the Haitians because they're so sinful, then why hasn't it happened to him?" -- then turns to Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, a title that was often deservedly parodied in its day.

Kushner sniffs, "I think that it's supreme hubris to think you can read God's mind," then shows his own hubris by explaining that "The will of God is not to send us the disaster, but to send us the disaster to overcome." How does he know? Surely he hasn't been reading God's mind; maybe they were talking on the phone the other day. But as Ehrman says, this is no answer either. It takes, well, hubris to tell people who've watched their families die that they should just make the best of it, grow spiritually, and "overcome." I've quoted before the opinion I share, that I'd rather believe there is Nobody out there, than believe there is Someone who watches and does nothing -- let alone "sends us the disaster to overcome." Rabbi Kushner is, in his own way, as disgusting as Pat Robertson.

Did someone mention hope? To each his or her own, but I don't see much hope in a belief system which holds that a big guy in the sky will kick over every sandcastle we puny mortals build, just to see us scurry to build it up again, and perhaps to weep great salty tears in sympathy with us. Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown is a saint by comparison.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Science Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

I recently read Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science, by Theodore L. Brown, published last year by the Pennsylvania State University Press. It's an example of what I can only describe as scientific apologetics. For the benefit of those who may find the word confusing, "apologetics" doesn't mean asking pardon for bad behavior: it means a defense of one's life (as in Plato's Apology, which represents his teacher Socrates' speech in his own defense at his trial) or opinions and beliefs (as in the very long tradition of Christian defenses of their religion). Wikipedia defines apologetics as "a field of Christian theology that aims to present a rational basis for the Christian faith, defend the faith against objections, and expose the perceived flaws of other world views", which is a good summation of what scientific apologists do for their own domain. Theodore L. Brown takes much of that tradition for granted in Imperfect Oracle, and seems mainly concerned to make a case for the exercise of scientific authority in modern, especially American society, and for what he calls the "autonomy" of science. He is aware that authority is a complex, ambiguous notion, but keeps getting tangled up in its coils.

For example, in his chapter on "Science and Religion," Brown takes up the controversial issues of contraception and abortion. "It is arguable," he admits, "whether any increased knowledge of human biology could influence the Catholic Church's position on the beginnings of human life, and hence on questions relating to contraception and abortion. Nevertheless, it is germane to our discussion that scientific research has revealed many aspects of the process of conception that could inform thoughtful consideration of the moral aspects of contraception, abortion, use of stem cells for research, and much more" (188). After a summary of Church doctrine and the science of conception, Brown reports (194):
Abundant survey data show that since the publication of Humanae Vitae, Catholics worldwide have increasingly practiced contraception in violation of church edicts ... For example, among women between the age of fifteen and forty-nine in the United States, 70 percent of Catholic women were using some form of contraception in 1995, about the same percentage of all women in that age group. ... The data are quite clear: the Catholic Church has very limited moral authority with Catholic laity in matters of sexual behavior and reproductive health.

A second interesting theme is embedded in Pope Paul's interview with Jean Guitton [quoted on the preceding page]. It reveals his suspicions of science as a source of good, and a fear that the Church will not be able to deal effectively with the complex moral and religious issues emerging from scientific advances. The pope expresses the fears of the Vatican hierarchy -- a collection of celibate, rather aged men not in good contact with the realities of modern life -- that any authority the church cedes to science is authority lost.

It is important to see that at the biological level, the issue of contraception is not one in which the authority of the Catholic Church and science are in direct opposition. There is no real question of the expert authority in matters related to contraception ... At the level of the biology associated with human fertility, science's role has been that of the expert ... Conception and fetal development are biological processes, not ecclesiastical definitions. A teaching that is uninformed by any of what science knows about these most vital biological matters is bound to suffer some loss of moral authority with Catholic laity. Although, at the most basic level, science and the Catholic Church are not at opposite poles, neither do they reside comfortably alongside each other.
With all due disrespect to Paul VI and to the Roman Catholic Church generally, I disagree with Brown's interpretation of the excerpt he quotes from the Pope's conversation with Jean Guitton (cited from Robert McClory, Turning Point [Crossroad, 1995], 131-132). No doubt the Pope was concerned about his authority, like many of his predecessors -- the Church's authority has never been unquestioned or uncontested. Basically, though, he made the same point that Brown concedes here: that the morality of contraception and abortion are not determined by biology. (I'd also note that many opponents of abortion have been Protestant, and some are not religious at all -- the "New Atheist" Christopher Hitchens, for example, though Hitchens "resents" his "annexation" by anti-choice extremist groups.)

Brown trips over his own feet in that last paragraph I quoted. True, conception and fetal development are "biological processes, not ecclesiastical definitions", but one could say the same about sexual intercourse with as much justice. The difference between consensual intercourse, marital sex, fornication, adultery, and rape are not biological but moral and ethical. (The Church has been trying for centuries to convince the laity that fornication -- consensual intercourse between unmarried persons -- is a sin no less than adultery, but largely in vain.) Religious opponents of abortion and contraception don't dispute that these interventions work -- they don't, in other words, deny that science has the technical expertise to carry them out -- they declare that they shouldn't be carried out. And Catholics who reject the Church's "moral authority" by using contraception or securing abortion do not thereby grant "moral authority" to science. Women weren't convinced by science that it was okay to have abortions or prevent conception. Women have sought ways to control their fertility for millennia; they only needed better technology to do so effectively. While they are no doubt grateful to scientists and doctors who've provided that technology, they are no more willing to cede authority over their bodies to doctors than to popes. Brown is confusing different kinds of authority here.

But then, Brown likes the science-versus-religion trope, even when it doesn't quite fit. For example, when he recounts the career of Louis Pasteur, he writes about doctors who rejected Pasteur's advice to wash their hands and sterilize their instruments: "Despite his exalted reputation as a scientist, however, his moral authority with the medical establishment was quite limited. The members of the distinguished Academy of Medicine, a generally self-satisfied lot, did not graciously accept advice from someone who, though a newly elected member, was outside their circle" (63). Yet Brown admits that Pasteur was also a showman who exercised what Brown calls "charismatic authority" to impress the public and build his career. The Academicians, whatever their reasons for doubting Pasteur's recommendations, saw themselves as men of science. Similar motives underlie the professionalization and institutionalization of science today, and not for the better.

In his summation at the end of Imperfect Oracle, Brown shows that his confusion with regard to fertility is not an isolated lapse (293):
Scientists, like anyone else, may hold ideas that are simply wrong. Individual scientists have at times advanced faulty theories regarding race, social status, and gender that served those in power. Scientists have at times been complicit in supporting repressive political regimes. But these shortcomings were typically short-lived, and were brought to an end by actions of the scientific community itself. They must be measured against the enormous positive changes that science has wrought. Scientific discoveries have made it possible to hold progressive ideas about human nature that were previously unthinkable. In American society today, the conservation about such topics as religious beliefs, ageing, homosexuality and gay marriage, the origins of criminal behavior, the deleterious effects of persistent organic environmental pollutants, childhood education, global warming – the list is virtually endless – are all informed in one way or another by perspectives that are the result of scientific investigation.
Brown's concession of science's "shortcomings" here is a bit disingenuous, and reminds me that he chose not to deal at all with such problems as negative eugenics, taking advantage of the usual association of the forced sterilization of the "unfit" with Nazism and other "repressive political regimes." But the first sterilization laws were passed in the United States. As Andre Pichot wrote in The Pure Society from Darwin to Hitler (Verso, 2009, page 179),
It is probable, therefore, that even without the Nazis, Germany would at some point or other have adopted and put into effect legislation of this kind. Besides, it was only the Catholic Church that made any institutional protest, particularly in the person of the bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen – whom we shall meet again later on, and who condemned eugenic sterilization in a pastoral declaration of 29 January 1937.
The same applies to the US, where only conservative Christians opposed our sterilization laws. It's certainly easier to jeer at the Church for opposing birth control than for opposing the sterilization of the mentally ill; but it wasn't scientists who brought that practice to an end.

I have similar objections to Brown's catalog of topics about which he thinks science has "made it possible to hold progressive ideas": "religious beliefs, ageing, homosexuality and gay marriage, the origins of criminal behavior, the deleterious effects of persistent organic environmental pollutants, childhood education, global warming - the list is virtually endless". Science has contributed little to discussion of most of these issues, and often has been flat wrong about them. "The origins of criminal behavior," for example, belongs to the sorry history of eugenics: many scientists were sure they could trace "criminal behavior" (by which they didn't mean the crimes of rulers and business leaders) to biology, and "habitual criminals" were also a target of sterilization laws, as were homosexuals. On "homosexuality and gay marriage" science also has little light to shed, and as far as I can tell is more of an obstacle to understanding than an aid. We don't know much more about homosexuality than the Greeks did, but then we don't really need to. Gay activists drew on Alfred Kinsey's research on human sexuality, but it was too controversial to be much help, and today's gay leadership has largely rejected Kinsey in favor of retrogressive biological determinism. Recently I read someone's claim that there is no secular institution or movement trying to make gay people straight. Until just a few years ago, though, secular psychiatry tried to do just that, in the name of science and a better world.

Current attempts to explain the evolution or biology of religion are based in the same wrong-headed tradition. While science may allow us to measure the "deleterious effects of persistent organic environmental pollutants" with a new degress of accuracy, people have always known that it's not a good idea to shit where you eat. And so on; too often in areas relating to human society, scientists have been human, all too human in their approaches to problems, and have often lagged behind non-scientific thinkers.

Not that I'm saying, mind you, that science has nothing to contribute on important topics, or that scientists shouldn't participate in social debates about them. What I'm saying is that science has no "authority" on, say, gay marriage or the rest of Brown's catalog, any more than religion has. Not long ago I noticed Richard Dawkins fuming about theologians' opinions being consulted or accorded any respect at all. He had a point, but the same applies to scientists. If Richard Dawkins has better politics than most Englishmen of his class a century ago, it's not because of advances in science, but because of changes wrought in the way we think by people of no particular scientific or theological sophistication, with no authority but what they made for themselves.

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My Fed Chairman, I Think I'll Keep Him

Numerous writers in the blogosphere and elsewhere have noticed the corporate media's weird distortions of the political scene. For example, when I logged out of my e-mail account tonight I saw this blurb to a link on Ben Bernanke's imperiled status as Chairman of the Fed:
Is Fed Chief's Job in Jeopardy? Ben Bernanke is up for reconfirmation as head of the Federal Reserve. Just weeks ago, his job seemed safe, but sustained anger at Wall Street and Democratic politics may bring him down.
Of course, that second sentence may just be sloppily written: is it Democratic politics that may bring Bernanke down (if only!), or is it sustained anger at Democratic politics that may bring him down? I suspect it's meant to be the latter, even though Bernanke is a Republican and was first appointed Chairman by the Republican George W. Bush in 2005. True, Obama wants to keep Bernanke on for another term, and Obama is nominally a Democrat, but that's the trouble: Bernanke represents Obama's continuity with Republican politics generally, and the Bush administration in particular. And the first politician the article cites as an opponent of Bernanke's is Democratic senator Barbara Boxer, who the writer says is "generally close to the Obama administration." But not too close, apparently, and increasing the distance since she's up for re-election this year. "Few Republicans have said they will vote for Bernanke, even as the number of potential Democrats declines." Well, there's bipartisanship in action!

The article, by Sphere's Senior Correspondent Joseph Schuman, gets generally messier as the writer tries to fit reality into his politics: "A sudden end to Bernanke's chairmanship, and the prospect of a more politicized monetary policy, would almost certainly rattle stock markets and severely undermine confidence in the dollar." As though American monetary policy weren't already politicized, but in a different direction! As though the stock market weren't always already rattling hard enough to shake out your teeth! But not to worry; if it becomes necessary to abandon Bernanke, Obama will surely be able to find another Republican to take his place.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

For today, a little story that I keep remembering for some reason. It crawled out of my memory today, so I decided to write it down here.

One of the things I like best about South Korea is its mass transit system. I spend a lot of time during my visits riding the subway. It's a cheap form of entertainment, with many people to watch, and sometimes conversation -- usually with old men or women who proudly show off their English. I know that many Americans hate that, and if I ever actually live in Korea I may come to hate it too, but for now I enjoy it.

One afternoon in the summer of 2008 I rode from one end of the Blue line to the other, from Uijeongbu-bukbu to Incheon. It's about a two hours' trip, starting out aboveground, moving below ground, and emerging again into daylight as it leaves Seoul. A few stops from Incheon, I noticed a family that was having fun, mom and dad in their 30s and a boy (about 10) and girl (about 12). When their stop came, they stood waiting at the doors next to my seat, and I noticed they were speaking English. The father noticed my surprise and asked, “American?”

“Yeah.”

“Where from?” he said with a touch of a drawl.

“Indiana. You?”

“Texas. Visiting family.”

“Have fun,” I said as the train stopped.

“So far, so good,” he said a bit ruefully as the doors opened and they got off.

I’d been fooled partly because the father and son interacted with a lot of physical play, more like Koreans than Americans. I rarely see American children that age hanging happily onto their fathers the way Korean kids often do.

That's the story.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Way We Argue Now

Peter Hallward's piece on Haiti last week filled in most of the gaps that I'd noticed in mainstream / corporate news coverage. This one, for example:
Aristide's own government (elected by some 75% of the electorate) was the latest victim of such interference, when it was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment. The UN has subsequently maintained a large and enormously expensive stabilisation and pacification force in the country.

Haiti is now a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population "lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% – four and a half million people – live on less than $1 per day". Decades of neoliberal "adjustment" and neo-imperial intervention have robbed its government of any significant capacity to invest in its people or to regulate its economy. Punitive international trade and financial arrangements ensure that such destitution and impotence will remain a structural fact of Haitian life for the foreseeable future.

...The same countries scrambling to send emergency help to Haiti now, however, have during the last five years consistently voted against any extension of the UN mission's mandate beyond its immediate military purpose. Proposals to divert some of this "investment" towards poverty reduction or agrarian development have been blocked, in keeping with the long-term patterns that continue to shape the ­distribution of international "aid".

The same storms that killed so many in 2008 hit Cuba just as hard but killed only four people. Cuba has escaped the worst effects of neoliberal "reform", and its government retains a capacity to defend its people from disaster. If we are serious about helping Haiti through this latest crisis then we should take this comparative point on board. Along with sending emergency relief, we should ask what we can do to facilitate the self-empowerment of Haiti's people and public institutions. If we are serious about helping we need to stop ­trying to control Haiti's government, to pacify its citizens, and to exploit its economy. And then we need to start paying for at least some of the damage we've already done.

I thought that was fairly clear and entirely reasonable. But it wasn't, apparently, to some of the Guardian's commenters, who seemed bent on giving Youtube commenters a run for their money as the world's stupidest. Here, for example, is the very first one in its entirety: "I think we should stop oppressing Africa with aid as well." As you can see from what I quoted, Hallward urges us to send emergency relief. What he does consider oppressive is the regime imposed by US and other foreign interference, which twice overturned Haiti's elected government by violence. Another commenter hastened to show the same careful misunderstanding: "I was going to send some American dollars to help, but now I understand that would be classified as 'neoliberal 'adjustment' and neo-imperial intervention'." And so on, and on, and on.

Others fell back on the Let's-Not-Bother-With-the-Past-Let's-Do-What-We-Can-Now line: "You can't bring history into this." Or: "[Haiti's] problems are not our fault." Or, even more beautifully, "Are you absolutely sure that this is a good time to be scoring poltical [sic] points?" (Here and here as well.) Of course there's no reason why we can't do both, and again, Hallward was explicit about the importance of sending emergency relief now while allowing Haitians to run their own country in the future.

Another fastened onto Hallward's crimethink about Cuba: "Personally I think not having the freedom to express dissent against your goverment to be a disaster. The rest of the article is not even worth commenting upon". Later, "What the Cuban government is concerned with protecting is its own position of power. Why else would so many people want to leave the 'socialist paradise'?"

The trouble here is that Haitians didn't have the freedom to express dissent against their government for most of the twentieth century, and when they succeeded in electing a government they wanted, against terrible repression, it was overturned with US and other foreign support. The US didn't object to Castro because he's a dictator; if he were our kind of dictator -- a Duvalier, an Emmanuel Constant, a Somoza, a Marcos -- he'd have received lots of US money and training for his secret police torturers. (We insist on the secret police torturers.) The US had no objection to dictatorship in Haiti; it was democracy that it feared. And Haitians by the tens of thousands want to leave the capitalist paradise that the international community has imposed on them. The US, mindful that Haiti is a free country (unlike Cuba), regularly sends them right back so they can work in free-trade sweatshops for 38 cents an hour. It's to Obama's limited credit that, because of the earthquake emergency, he has granted a stay of deportation for Haitian refugees currently in the US. But when things return to normal -- Haitian normal -- it's a safe bet that he'll revert to continuing Bush's policy and send them back.

As Lady Augusta Bracknell sagely remarked a century ago, "Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever." That certainly seems to be the case with the commenters on Hallward's article. Their responses cast light on the way that people think, or don't think, about difficult matters.

Monday, January 18, 2010

My Mother the Television

I just read Raymond Williams's Television: Technology and Cultural Form, which was originally published in 1974. Williams had agreed to revise and update it just before his death in 1988, but didn't have time to do so; still, the book has useful ideas and information in it, and is held in high esteem by at least some contemporary scholars. In particular his rejection of technological determinism ("the medium is the message" -- he was sharply critical of Marshall McLuhan) needs to be remembered and understood. Here are some bits that I liked.
Many people who are aware of the manipulative powers of radio and television, or of its apparently inexhaustible appeal to children, react in ways which implicitly suppress all the other history of communication. Thus it is often indignantly said that television is a ‘third parent’, as if children had not in all developed societies had third parents in the shape of priests, teachers and workmasters, to say nothing of the actual parents and relations who, in many periods and cultures, intervened to control or to instruct. Against those real alternatives this switchable communication has profound attractions. Or it is said that people are exposed to propaganda by television, as if there had never been masters, employers, judges, priests [135]. ...

This explains the realities of contemporary mediation, but it explains also the apparently irrepressible search, by listeners and viewers, for other sources. Many British working-class people welcomed American culture, or the Americanised character of British commercial television, as an alternative to a British ‘public’ version which, from a subordinate position, they already knew too well. In many parts of the world this apparently free-floating and accessible culture was a welcome alternative to dominant local cultural patterns and restrictions. Young people all over Europe welcomed the pirate broadcasters, as an alterative to authorities they suspected or distrusted or were simply tired. of. The irony was that what came free and easy and accessible was a planned operation by a distant and invisible authority – the American corporations. But in local and immediate terms, as in the other cases mentioned, this did not at first greatly matter; a choice was being exercised, here and now.

Television has been a majority service for a whole generation. It has had certain intended effects corresponding to certain explicit intentions, explicitly declared by the variable character of television institutions. But it has also had unforeseen effects, among them the desire to use the technology for oneself. In the young radical underground, and even more in the young cultural underground, there is a familiarity with media, and an eager sense of experiment and practice, which is much an effect as the more widely publicized and predicted passivity. Indeed, by prolonged use of a technology which had seemed to be contained and limited to commercial or paternal or authoritarian ends, many people – we do not yet know whether they are enough people – conceived quite different intentions and uses. …

… Yet this does not mean that the issue is undetermined; the limits and pressures are real and powerful. Most technical development is in the hands of corporations which express the contemporary interlock of military, political and commercial intentions. Most policy development is in the hands of established broadcasting corporations and the political bureaucracies of a few powerful states. All that has been established so far is that neither the theory nor the practice of television as we know it is a necessary or a predicting cause [136-137].

But a community is also a real social fact: not an idealized notion but a social system containing radical inequalities and conflicts of interest [155].

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Cat With Eyes as Large as Saucers

Homo Superior links to this Quote for the Day:
The Republican party right now is largely bonkers. The Democratic party is a lily-livered hackfest of mediocrity. I remain of the view that Obama is the best thing going for this country.
And asks, "Who could argue with this?"

I could ... George ... I could. So could many others. And that's leaving out the succeeding sentences:
But between the insanity on the right and incoherence on the left, he is marooned in a lonely center. Maybe in the long run, this is a better place to be. Right now it is making governance close to impossible, at a moment when we need all hands on deck.
(Tee hee hee, he thinks that the Democratic Party is the left!)

But the thing to remember is that a few short years ago, Sullivan would have said roughly the same things about George W. Bush.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Precious

I've warned about this before --
If, or rather when same-sex civil marriage is implemented, it will be only a matter of time before we start seeing news stories about the Baptist minister, father of two, with a loving husband of twenty years at home, caught making sexual advances to an undercover police officer in a park tearoom. (Better yet, imagine him caught picking up a female streetwalker, and defending himself with the claim that he thought she was really a male transvestite.) Or about the nice Episcopalian couple in the suburbs – he’s a lawyer, he’s an accountant – whose child keeps coming to school with mysterious bruises, or worse. Or the nice Jewish lesbian couple – just celebrated their tenth anniversary -- one of whom turns up at the Emergency Room with a broken arm from “falling down the stairs” of their ranch home. How about the not-so-nice trailer-trash butch-femme couple who scream drunkenly at each other every night on the other side of your thin apartment wall – but they’re married, bless ‘em!
-- and now The Daily Show has caught up with me.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
No Gay Out
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

It reminds me, though: why are antigay bigots so fond of that trope about cramming our lifestyle / agenda down their throats? As with Pastor Rick, something Freudian appears to be going on.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti: Give Sphere a Troutman, It'll Generate Spin for the Rest of the News Cycle

The earthquake in Haiti is horrifying, and I'm glad that so many people care, and that so much is being done to try to help.

Some predictable media-whoring is going on, of course. Tiger Woods, we're told, is keeping a low profile since his scandal broke, but Russell Simmons told the New York Daily News that Woods is "considering" a $3 million dollar donation to help Haiti. Well, he can certainly afford it, and if he comes through, his motives don't matter. (Update.) Rush Limbaugh argued that Haiti shouldn't receive aid. Pat Robertson said that the earthquake was God's punishment (and having read the Bible, I wouldn't put it past him) for Haitians' allegedly having cut a deal with Satan; I'm not sure whether Robertson was referring to Voudoun or to the slave uprising that won their independence in the first place, but I'm betting on the latter. Slave revolts are only the first step down the slippery slope that leads to gay marriage. President Obama has agreed to write a cover story about Haiti for Newsweek, which is sure to exhibit the same historical accuracy and depth of analysis as all of his public statements. But this sort of thing is, as I said, predictable, and not worth worrying much about.

What bothers me a little more is the absence of historical context in much of the mainstream news coverage. Again, in the short run it's not important as long as the media are drumming up concern and help, but in the long run it does matter since the earthquake is really just a cap to centuries of misery imposed on Haiti from without. Democracy Now!, whose reports I linked to at the beginning of this post, is an exception, but then they're not mainstream. Probably only DN! would feature a guest who was even aware of the irony of Obama's appointing George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to coordinate the US aid program:
RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, Amy, I’m, of course, troubled by that. I don’t think this is the time—neither the time nor the place to discuss those things that have troubled me for a long time in the history of American policy towards Haiti. Now the focus must be upon the rescue efforts that are underway to save lives.

But I hope that this experience, this disaster, causes American media to take a keener look at Haiti, at the Haitian people, at their wonderful creativity, at their art, at their culture, and what they’ve had to bear. It has been described to the American people as a problem of their own making. Well, that’s simply not the case. Haiti has been, of course, put upon by outside powers for its whole post-slavery history, from 1804 up until the present.

Of course, President Bush was responsible for destroying Haitian democracy in 2004, when he and American forces abducted President Aristide and his wife, taking them off to Africa, and they are now in South Africa. President Clinton has largely sponsored a program of economic development that supports the idea of sweatshops. Haitians in Haiti today make 38 cents an hour. They don’t make a high enough wage to pay for their lunch and transportation to and from work. But this is the kind of economic program that President Clinton has supported. I think that is sad, that these two should be joined in this kind of effort. It sends, I think, the wrong kind of signal. But that is not what we should focus on now. We should focus on saving lives.

But in the last analysis, I hope that American media will not just continue to—the refrain of Haiti being the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but will come to ask the question, why?
Most of what I'm seeing doesn't bother to ask that question, and it is not because the writers want to focus firmly on what must be done now, without fussing over the past. This writer, for example, who modestly confesses that she "traveled with an honorary title, U.N. Citizen Ambassador", laments that
Haiti was so destitute, so broken. ... The hurricanes that devastated Haiti, particularly the town of Gonaives, in 2004 and 2008 made planning a priority. The priority. But for most of its existence, Haiti has had a highly centralized government, with local authorities either invisible or impotent ... It's a problem that all the humanitarians in the country felt they contributed to: a culture of dependence. The phrase I heard most in Haiti, from everyone at every level of society was, "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day ..."

But the needs remained. Haiti's problems were complicated, old and typical. Haiti was ruled by autocrats for so many years that it seemed no one shared any sense of national identity. If the country doesn't serve you, why should you serve it?
Well, you know how it is. Haiti's problems are old. Things are bad, that's all. It's nobody's fault. The actual history that produced these problems seems to be entirely unknown to Emily Troutman (and the article as a whole is even more offensive than this excerpt suggests), especially the grass-roots political movement that showed that Haitians do indeed have "a sense of national identity" and political dedication that puts most Americans to shame. That's why they had to be stopped, and stopped, and stopped again.

I was in a chat room where Haiti was being mentioned from time to time, and one participant declared that Haiti could be "a paradise 10 years from now." I asked him who it would be a paradise for (the Haitians? tourists? multinational corporations who are in heaven when they pay workers 38 cents and hour?) but couldn't get him to elaborate. Naomi Klein did elaborate, however. The vultures are hovering, and this disaster is just the opportunity they're waiting for.

On Facebook, my old friend the minister is saying nice things, and of course urging people to help. He's properly embarrassed by Robertson's rant, of course, but why? I mean, yes, it's bad PR, but it also goes back to a question I addressed some time ago. Most people would agree that we should judge religions by their best adherents, not by their worst (though most people judge competing sects by their worst adherents). But how do you decide who are the best and who are the worst? Robertson's position is biblical enough. King David took a census, and Yahweh punished him by sending a plague that killed 70,000 people. According to 2 Samuel 24, Yahweh incited David to take the census; the Chronicler (1 Chronicles 21) solved the problem by claiming that Satan incited David to take the census, which only implies that Yahweh is Satan. If you want to argue that this doesn't count because the Old Testament God is a God of Wrath, Jesus is reported to have said that Jerusalem would be destroyed because Israel had failed to recognize him as Messiah. This doesn't make any more sense, really, because if Israel had recognized Jesus as the Messiah, he would not have been crucified and mankind could not have been saved by Jesus' saving sacrificial blood.

Beyond this, natural disasters are conventionally known as acts of God. Most modern Christians, even very conservative ones, are uncomfortable about this, but it's traditional Christian doctrine that Yahweh is not just the creator of the world but its sustainer. Everything that happens is his doing. Not even a sparrow falls without his knowledge, according to Jesus, and as an omniscient and omnipotent being Yahweh is therefore responsible for that sparrow in a way that no mere human being could ever be. It's also traditional Christian doctrine that Yahweh is a god who acts in history. The Deist philosophy -- that God created the universe but has followed a hands-off policy ever since -- is not reconcilable with Christianity, which holds that Yahweh intervened at least in Jesus' career. So in Christian terms, it doesn't really matter if the Haitian earthquake was a punishment or had some other motivation: it was still an act of the Christian God. Whether Christians should help the Haitians (who are themselves Christians, remember), or whether aid constitutes an act of rebellion against their god's will, is a question that, as an atheist, I happily don't have to answer.

P.S. It turns out that the Haitian revolution was exactly what Pat Robertson had in mind. It also turns out that Robertson didn't make the story up himself; it's been circulating for several years now. This historian provides some background (via) while still largely ignoring the direct US support for those plundering Haitian plutocrats.

Jon Stewart gets a wee bit self-righteous in this clip, pointing out all the pretty parts in the Good Book and asking why after such a disaster Robertson didn't quote any of them: passages where Yahweh reassures his Chosen (after he's hit them with yet another plague, earthquake, invasion, or deportation) that his love for them is steadfast and they can lean on him all the way. Except that it was always Yahweh who sent the plague, earthquake, invading army of deportation in the first place, which makes him like the classical abusive husband/lover: first he beats you black and blue, then he swears that he only did it because he loves you, and if you'd only stop making those deals with Satan he wouldn't have to chastise you. The prophets of Israel, including Jesus if you want to include him, were all about Tough Love, and repellent as Robertson certainly is, he stands squarely in that demented tradition.

Stewart also is displeased by a Rachel Maddow item in which she points out the USAID / US military connection. It's a good thing he didn't see Naomi Klein's warning, quoted above! Granted that the first priority right now is getting help to Haiti as soon as possible, there's no reason not to be wary of US / corporate intentions at the same time. Unless Stewart is packing his bags to go minister personally to the suffering Haitians, he can't really fault Maddow for doing her job, just as he continues to do his. (Satire? While people are dying? Jon, how could you?) Then he engages in an embarrassing interview with Tom Brokaw, which tiptoes around the history of Haiti with vague references to "corruption and oppression."

(both photos)