Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Anything Goes

This just in, thanks to Homo Superior: an article at the New York Times site on homosexual behavior in animals. "Homosexual behavior" might not be a good word for what it's talking about, of course: Lindsay Young, the biologist who's quoted extensively on pair-bonding between female Laysan albatrosses, is careful to make it clear that she doesn't even know if the birds are copulating with each other. All she knows is that they share nests (39 of 125 nests at Kaena Point, Hawaii are inhabited by female pairs) and incubate eggs together. Does that make them "lesbians"? How do you decide? It's "homosexual" in the etymological sense of "same-sex" (a term used confusingly elsewhere in the article), but since the word is usually used to allude to copulatory behavior, or pair-bonding that may or may not involve copulation, people tend to jump to conclusions. "As the biologist Marlene Zuk explains, we are hard-wired to read all animal behavior as 'some version of the way people do things' and animals as 'blurred, imperfect copies of humans.'" "Hard-wired" is probably bogus, but whether you're talking about Laura Bush praising the Laysan albatrosses for their family-values monogamy, or a gay man assuming that two male orangutans fellating each other also are fans of Lady Gaga, it's certainly a common tendency.

The article spends some time on attempts to find a "Darwinian" explanation for animal homosex. "The point of heterosexual sex, Vasey said, no matter what kind of animal is doing it, is primarily reproduction." If this were an argument, it'd be circular. From the point of view of an evolutionary biologist, it's true, since he or she will have been trained to try to explain all behavior in animals (and whatever you call the equivalent stuff in plants -- do plants have behavior?) in terms of its relation to reproduction, the struggle for existence, maximizing fitness, and so on. Without anthropomorphizing other species, by asking what they "think" they're doing when they copulate, the "point" of sex in human beings, whether it be homosexual, heterosexual, or self-inflicted, is pleasure. We do it because it feels good, and the target / object that brings us pleasure is not biologically or evolutionarily pre-determined. (That's a slight overstatement, since many humans distrust pleasure and try to extirpate it; but even those people are reacting to the fact that most people derive pleasure from genital activity.)
It’s also possible that some homosexual behaviors don’t provide a conventional evolutionary advantage; but neither do they upend everything we know about biology. For the last 15 years, for example, Paul Vasey has been studying Japanese macaques, a species of two-and-a-half-foot-tall, pink-faced monkey. He has looked almost exclusively at why female macaques mount one another during the mating season. Vasey now says he is on to the answer: “It isn’t functional,” he told me; the behavior has no discernible purpose, adaptationally speaking. Instead, it’s a byproduct of a behavior that does, and the supposedly streamlining force of evolution just never flushed that byproduct from the gene pool. Female macaques regularly mount males too, Vasey explained, probably to focus their attention and reinforce their bond as mates. The females are physically capable of mounting any gender of macaque. They’ve just never developed an instinct to limit themselves to one. “Evolution doesn’t create perfect adaptations,” Vasey said. As Zuk put it, “There’s a lot of slop in the system — which,” she was sure to add, “is not the same as saying homosexuality is a mistake.”
"Evolution doesn't create perfect adapations," but a lot of Darwinians think that it should and does. But the advantage that Darwinian theory has over creationist approaches is that it explains the unintelligent design that is so common in our world, from sickle-cell anemia to the Ichneumon wasp, from burn scar tissue to the belief that wings now used for flying originally evolved to manage body temperature but turned out to provide lift too. It's true, recognizing this "doesn't upend everything we know about biology," but so many biologists have been determined to forget and ignore what we know about biology that it probably feels like it to them. Michael Ruse, for example, fumed in his interview with Tamler Sommers, "You don't make progress by sitting on your bum farting on about spandrels" (100), attacking Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin's argument that not every feature in nature can be explained in terms of adaptation. I think Ruse is wrong here as he is in other areas, and that evolution is really a lot sloppier than he wants to think.
Many people who contacted Young after the publication of her first albatross paper assumed she was a lesbian. She is not. Young’s husband, a biological consultant, was actually an author of the paper, along with Brenda Zaun (who is also not gay, for what it’s worth). Young found the assumption offensive — not because she was being mistaken for gay, but because she was being mistaken for a bad scientist; these people seemed to presume that her research was compromised by a personal agenda. Still, some of the biologists doing the most incisive work on animal homosexuality are in fact gay. Several people I spoke to told me their own sexual identities either helped spur or maintain their interest in the topic; Bruce Bagemihl argued that gay and lesbian people are “often better equipped to detect heterosexist bias when investigating the subject simply because we encounter it so frequently in our everyday lives.” With a laugh, Paul Vasey told me, “People automatically assume I’m gay.” He is gay, he added, but that fact didn’t seem to detract from his amusement.
Of course, hardly anyone (except me) thinks that heterosexuals' assumption that everyone, including all non-human species, are heterosexual, might be "compromised by a personal agenda." Forty years after Stonewall, we still are fighting about that one.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fit to Eat With the Hogs, Redux

For some reason (probably wishful thinking) I was convinced when I woke up this morning that it was Wednesday. I managed to maintain that pleasant delusion until I walked into work and realized that the student workers were the ones scheduled for Tuesday, not Wednesday.

Roy Edroso had a brief post yesterday about Norman "Still Breathing" Podhoretz, who's been defending Sarah Palin at the Wall Street Journal. Podhoretz compares Palin to Ronald Reagan:
It's hard to imagine now, but 31 years ago, when I first announced that I was supporting Reagan in his bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, I was routinely asked by friends on the right how I could possibly associate myself with this "airhead," this B movie star, who was not only stupid but incompetent. ... Ultimately, of course, we all wound up regarding him as a great man, but in 1979 none of us would have dreamed that this would be how we would feel only a few years later.
Of course, to those who aren't "we all", this is no comfort. Of course Podhoretz isn't the first to make this analogy, but "we all" to the left of him don't consider it a hopeful augury. He presses on boldly:
Take, for example, foreign policy. True, she seems to know very little about international affairs, but expertise in this area is no guarantee of wise leadership. ... What she does know—and in this respect, she does resemble Reagan—is that the United States has been a force for good in the world, which is more than Barack Obama, whose IQ is no doubt higher than hers, has yet to learn.
Doesn't the Journal have copy editors? But the derailed syntax of that last sentence is less interesting than its choice of a way to misrepresent (and in Podhoretz' moral universe, to defame) Obama. Podhoretz doesn't support his claim that Obama "has yet to learn" that "the United States has been a force for good in the world," so I don't know why he says such a ridiculous thing. What Podhoretz claims Obama has yet to learn is a staple of liberal and "progressive" (to say nothing of center-right) discourse: the US has perhaps been "deeply imperfect" at times, but it has been a force for good all the same. Even Katha Pollitt, in rejecting the jingoism that erupted after 9/11, declared "I've never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World", and Noam Chomsky routinely reminds his audiences that Americans enjoy an unusual degree of freedom compared to most countries. I've quoted before this passage by William Rusher, former publisher of the National Review and still a hardcore conservative.

Wright told his parishioners (who could be seen in the background applauding his remarks) that the U.S. government had engineered the AIDS epidemic to kill black people, and worked up to a peroration in which he resoundingly rejected the slogan "God bless America." No, he thundered: The right view was "God Damn America!" His parishioners roared their approval.

Needless to say, when questioned by reporters, Obama wasted no time distancing himself from those sentiments. He not only disagreed with them, he asserted, but if they had ever been uttered in his hearing at a service of his church, he would have felt obliged to leave the church. The United States has its defects, but its virtues far outweigh those defects.

So, why did Podhoretz say such a crazy thing? Partly, of course, because saying crazy things is part of the right-wing shtick, but also because impugning the patriotism of their opponents is the tactic they reach for first in (to use the term laughingly) debate. No doubt they enjoy watching their opponents splutter and proclaim that they are so patriotic, indeed more patriotic than the wingnuts, who really do hate America. Shoot at the dudes' feet, make them dance, it's a laugh riot.

And I just remembered C. P. Snow's remarks on dealing with this kind of attack:
However, the problem of behaviour in these circumstances is very easily solved. Let us imagine that I am called, in print, a kleptomaniac necrophilist (I have selected with some care two allegations which have not, so far as I know, been made). I have exactly two courses of action. The first, and the one which in general I should choose to follow, is to do precisely nothing. The second is, if the nuisance becomes intolerable, to sue. There is one course of action which no one can expect of a sane man: that is, solemnly to argue the points, to produce certificates from Saks and Harrods to say he has never, to the best of their belief, stolen a single article, to obtain testimonials signed by sixteen Fellows of the Royal Society, the Head of the Civil Service, a Lord Justice of Appeal and the Secretary of the M.C.C., testifying that they have known him for half a lifetime, and that even after a convivial evening they have not once seen him lurking in the vicinity of a tomb.

Such a reply is not on. It puts one in the same psychological compartment as one’s traducer. That is a condition from which one has a right to be excused.
And then I remembered that one of Roy Edroso's commenters had supplied a link to a review of Podhoretz' memoir Breaking Ranks by the ultra-libertarian Murray Rothbard. Now, in the passage I quoted, Snow was referring obliquely to attacks on his lecture The Two Cultures by F. R. Leavis, which he said "were loaded with personal abuse to an abnormal extent ... to the limit of defamation." Rothbard quoted Podhoretz' recollection of having studied with Leavis at Cambridge for three years, and of Snow as "a fairly close friend," though he claimed "I had emerged after seven years of intensive reading, largely under the guidance of those very two men, with an idea about the literary tradition very close to Snow’s." Maybe so, but he emerged with an idea about debate very close to Leavis's. It's a small world, no?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Livin' the Vida, Loca

Well, how about that -- Ricky Martin has come out. In a blog post on his website, even, posted in Spanish and in English. GLAAD (that's the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) is excited, but decorously. The Wall Street Journal's blogger is reassuring about the economic effects of this decision on his career. And while digging around for more information, I found a post at the Bilerico Project from last December, linking to an op-ed (for ign'ant gabachos that don't understand plain Spanish, it's in English here) that Martin wrote for the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Dia, calling for acceptance (not just tolerance) and citing by name various victims of hate crimes, including Matthew Shepard. It's quite a good piece; I'm impressed. (Unfortunately the poster, or someone, titled his post "Ricky Martin comes out for acceptance" -- Martin hadn't quite come out yet. But what a clever play on words!)

The headlines everywhere quote Martin as saying, "I am a fortunate homosexual man." That's what he says in the English version of his statement. The Spanish is somewhat different, and makes more sense to me: "Hoy ACEPTO MI HOMOSEXUALIDAD como un regalo que me da la vida" - "Today I ACCEPT MY HOMOSEXUALITY as a gift which life gives me." I like that much better. Martin's coming out is long overdue, as he himself admits; I just hope he doesn't turn out to be a major asshole on gay issues like, say, Rosie O'Donnell.

But reading this news sent me back to a book I read a couple of years ago, after having seen it cited by numerous other writers in queer and postcolonial theory: Tropics of desire: interventions from queer Latino America (NYU Press, 2000), by Jose Quiroga. I had a lot of complaints about Tropics of Desire, similar to those I've had about other queer postcolonial works. It didn't help that the word "intervention" is one of those terms which, in my view, ought to be banned from academic discourse because they pretend that writing a journal article or a monograph is some kind of political, even revolutionary act. But there was so much more wrong with the book than that, epitomized by Quiroga's discussion of Ricky Martin's refusal to come out.

For example, "Still, his [Ricky Martin's] refusal of the coming-out narrative must be engaged on its own terms" (185). Would those be the same terms as other closet cases? And what, I wondered at the time, would happen to this assertion if Martin ever does come out? "Ricky's sexuality may be disturbing for a culture that needs to define it as fast as it can" (ibid.). Erm, are we talking about Puerto Rican culture here? Or does Quiroga think that only the US wants to define people's "sexuality"? I think he does, and that's demonstrably false.

Quiroga went on:
The constant demands for Ricky to "come out," to proclaim his sexuality out in the open, are clearest examples how queer subjectivity can become an oppressive category that is always seeking validation to the extent of oppressing other choices and consigning the subtleties of sexual choice and play to a secondary status [188]...

That Ricky chooses not to become the latest Latino doll for the already constituted moneyed gay and lesbian [!] nomenklatura is something I applaud. There is much to be admired in his merchandising himself for the best and brightest capitalists rather than for the ones who gloss their financial stakes with the received pieties of a noble cause that is not noble, with humanitarian gestures that keep the prison walls intact [189f].
The "best and brightest capitalists"? Oh my. Is Martin really "merchandising himself," or is he being marketed by international capital? Is it really somehow more admirable that Sony/CBS kept him in the closet for the sake of his (or rather, its) "image"? Martin is explicit that such considerations kept him silent longer than he would have chosen to be otherwise:
Many people told me: "Ricky it's not important", "it's not worth it", "all the years you've worked and everything you've built will collapse", "many people in the world are not ready to accept your truth, your reality, your nature". Because all this advice came from people who I love dearly, I decided to move on with my life not sharing with the world my entire truth. Allowing myself to be seduced by fear and insecurity became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sabotage. Today I take full responsibility for my decisions and my actions.
As I read Quiroga I very much doubted that Martin was closeted (and I noticed that Quiroga seemed to assume that he was gay and closeted) because of a sophisticated social constructionist understanding of "sexual choice and play." Martin's coming-out statement confirms my doubts, though perhaps Quiroga would now claim that Martin has sold out to the gay and lesbian nomenklatura -- one only listens to gay Latinos, apparently, when they can be used to further one's reactionary political agenda. As for the "already constituted gay and lesbian nomenklatura," there are not only unmoneyed Anglos but moneyed and unmoneyed Latino queers who might have something to say about that.

Quiroga then denounced "the global reach of a movement that started in New York" (191), and claimed, "The homosexual rights movement critiqued generalized homophobia and claimed Stonewall as its originary moment, but it soon forgot that these events were initiated mostly by people of color -- including Latino transvestites and poor lesbians and gays" (199). So poor people are all "of color"? All people "of color" are poor? First, though, the global gay movement did not start in New York, it started in Germany over a century ago and had some small influence in the US. It was destroyed by the Nazis but re-emerged elsewhere in Europe after the end of World War II. The "homosexual rights movement" started in California at around the same time, and only gradually spread east. The Stonewall Riots and especially the formation of the Gay Liberation Movement were in many ways a rejection of the accomodationist movement exemplified by Mattachine (after the founding leftists like Harry Hay were purged). Quiroga's historical ignorance is quite remarkable.
Bernardo Garcia has remarked that "[a] better way of understanding the identity development process for Latino gay men is to view it as the management of multiple identities" [199]
Duh! as though, say, Anglo gay men don't have to manage multiple identities too: gay and Republican, gay and Roman Catholic, gay and stupid. Quiroga also mentioned "internal colonizations" (212), which reminds me that he completely ignores the fact that "Latino" or "Hispanic" cultures in America are themselves colonial. You'd never guess from this book, or from the way that Spanish-speaking Americans like to call themselves "colonized", that "colonialism" south and north of the Rio Grande involved Spanish speakers displacing and conquering and murdering and enslaving Indians. And Quiroga's construction of "Latino" simply ignores First Nations indigenous people throughout the Americas, even those who speak Spanish.

But hell, all that's blood under the bridge now. Ricky Martin's intervention retroactively deconstructs Jose Quiroga's apologetics for the closet, and quite neatly too.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sullivan's Drivels

Homo Superior has changed his format, but he's still linking to Andrew Sullivan, who's been complaining about the current state of the Right.
Once upon a time, the intellectual conservatives in this country cherished their dissidents, encouraged argument, embraced the quirky, valued the eccentric and mocked the lock-step ideological left. Now they are what they once mocked. And they have the ideological discipline of the old left.
Like HomoSup, I wonder which "intellectual conservatives" Sullivan has in mind, and when this Once Upon a Time golden age could have been. Homo Superior mentions William F. Buckley, who was as much of an intellectual second-rater as ... well, as Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan doesn't know his history very well, particularly of the American Right, but that's hardly news. What I find funny is that Sullivan himself started out as a hard-liner except for his homosexuality, and filled the pages of The New Republic with right-wing mediocrities like himself (remember Ruth Shalit?); he no doubt likes to think of himself as "quirky" if not "eccentric," but he has never been someone you could read for substance. When George W. Bush took the Presidency, Sullivan was exultant, jeering at the anti-corporate leftists who were going to rage impotently under the new dispensation; some years later Sullivan endorsed Barack Obama, which was not really that much of a change.

Not that I have anything against hard-liners; I suppose I'm one myself, though I'm not sure which line I'm hard about. Homo Superior goes on to say:

Having said that, I have had more valuable conversations, ones without judgment or ire, with people like Buckley than I have had with those on the lock-step ideological left, and that includes many, many on the Queer Left.

Like anyone with extreme viewpoints, their definition of dissident is someone who agrees with them.

I realized I didn’t belong in the left and sometimes call myself a lapsed lefty. I now embrace the descriptor, contrarian.

(The video clip above comes from Noam Chomsky's 1969 appearance on Buckley's PBS program Firing Line. Buckley's offer to "smash you in the goddam face" is a reference to his then-recent offer, made in earnest, to do the same to Gore Vidal. Here it's supposed to be a joke, though I've never gotten its point. It's the sort of thing that should be borne in mind, though, when Buckley is eulogized. So should Buckley's vacuous debating style.)

Maybe I should embrace "contrarian" myself, but the word has been dirtied more than a little since Christopher Hitchens began touting himself as one. I don't see my own positions are particularly contrary, if I understand the word correctly, which to me implies simply staking an opposing position; I find myself over yonder somewhere. And what happens when two contrarians clash? Do they cancel each other out like matter and anti-matter?

I don't know if I "belong in the left" either, but I do know that most of the thinkers and writers I've learned the most from have been associated with the left, and that left writers and media are those I can reliably look to for accurate information about politics and culture. The few right-wingers with whom I find some common ground are those who are least lock-step themselves, like William Buckley calling for the legalization of drugs (probably the only issue on which I agree with him). On the other hand, I'm not wedded to the word "left", anymore than I am to the words "gay" or "queer."

I'm particularly amused by the notion that the left is lock-step, considering how often people on the left complain about the deep divisions, the sectarian squabbling, that divide our portion of the political spectrum. And while I'm being amused, the use of the word "extreme" as a cussword is always good for a giggle. (I'm reminded of an old joke where a man accusingly asks an uppity woman, "Are you a lesbian?" and she counters, "Are you the alternative?")

I know very well about homophobia on the left, which is detestable and gives me opportunities to express my own hard-line extremism. Harry Hay founded Mattachine after he was expelled from the Communist Party of the USA for being a queer; Black Mountain College, a lefty-liberal experimental college of the 1930s through the 1950s, fired some queer faculty, notably the anarchist writer Paul Goodman, who wrote in a famous essay called "Memoirs of an Ancient Activist",
Frankly, my experience of radical community is that it does not tolerate my freedom. Nevertheless, I am all for community because it is a human thing, only I seem doomed to be left out.

On the other hand, my homosexual acts and the overt claim to the right to commit them have never disadvantaged me much, as far as I know, in more square institutions. I have taught at half a dozen state universities. I am continually invited, often as chief speaker, to conferences of junior high school superintendents, boards of regents, guidance counsellors, task forces on delinquency, etc., etc. I say what I think right, I make passes if there is occasion -- I have even made out, which is more than I can say for conferences of SDS or Resistance. [Len Richmond and Gary Noguera, eds.,The Gay Liberation Book (Ramparts Press, 1973, p. 24]
I especially like that bit about favoring community but always being left out of it, but then I've generally found myself not wanting in to the available communities. I've generally been content to deal with communities through their writings. If I'm marginalized, well, it's a dirty job but someone has to do it, and more often than not it's because I've sidled over to the margins rather than stay close to the people who are at the center or core or mainstream -- whatever you want to call it. ("I wouldn't belong to a club that would have me for a member" -- but there's not a club made up of those of us who identify with that line, either.) I've been a little disappointed to find that I don't necessarily get along with other misfits because being a misfit is not in itself enough to have in common; but that too has been a useful lesson. And despite all this, I've never been a total isolate either. I have something resembling community, and it serves to keep me going.

What to do about American politics, though, I don't know. As an intellectual I have little to say to the Teabaggers, but then anti-intellectualism is endemic to American society, including many intellectuals. Debate is hard, disagreement is generally painful, and most people prefer not to deal with either. Andrew Sullivan has done little to improve things; I've done even less. We're probably doomed.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Duty, Honor, Country

I finished reading Tamler Sommers's A Very Bad Wizard yesterday, but I'll probably be writing about it for a while to come. Certain themes keep turning up, as in the concluding interview with law professor William Ian Miller about societies based on honor. In his introduction to the session Sommers writes (208),
Many Arab and Islamic societies are thought to be honor cultures, and as a result research on this topic has attracted the attention of political and military strategists. Former US Army Major William McCallister, for example, has attributed the US's initial unpopularity with Iraqis during the Iraq War to, in part, our failure to grasp the pervasive role that the concepts of shame and honor play in Iraqi society; they are as important to the Iraqis as land and water. McCallister, who now consults with the Marines in Iraq, writes that "It has taken us four years to realize that we must execute operations within the existing cultural frame of reference."
(The link to McCallister is given by Sommers in a footnote. It's amusing, in the same way that having a finger shoved down your throat is amusing. Among McCallister's recommended readings are Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, which I must reread soon and write about here; Bernard Lewis's The Multiple Identities of the Middle East; Kanan Makiya's long-discredited Republic of Fear; and The Code of Hammurabi, translated by L. W. King.)

So, really? The US was initially unpopular (well, "in part") because of "our failure to grasp the pervasive role that the concepts of shame and honor play in Iraqi society." That the US had invaded Iraq, devastated the country, killed and injured thousands of Iraqis, installed a corrupt gangster as our local puppet -- none of this, and more, rates a mention. (Though as I recall, many Iraqis did initially welcome the US invasion for dislodging Saddam Hussein from power -- but they didn't want us to stick around afterward. That seemed reasonable to me at the time, but now I realize that I misunderstood their honor culture.)

In the body of the interview (which is actually pretty interesting; I may look up Miller's writing on honor in the Icelandic sagas), Sommers brings up the subject of Iraq as follows (224):
TS: ... Let me put it like this: you see in reports from Iraq that some officers come back almost bewildered by the honor codes. One former army guy said that honor and shame are their moral currency, and that until we understand that, we're screwed. Do you think a general misunderstanding of honor cultures has led to (honest, in a way) mistakes, like thinking we'll be greeted as liberators, or that we can establish a democracy without too much pain and loss of life?

WIM: It isn't honor culture the officers don't understand; hell, they live in one. It's the particular substantive matters that trigger honor concerns in Iraq -- just what precisely they will take as a big offense and what they'll shrug off. That's where the misunderstandings take place.
Miller's initial comment is good: it's true, career military officers live in an honor culture -- but he doesn't question Sommers's delusions about US motives in Iraq. I have to remind myself that for these guys, the fact of the invasion, the aggression, is simply off the table; they don't even ignore it, because that would mean being aware in some way that it's there and it's a problem. Just as in Sommers's interview with Joseph Henrich, there is no question that the US, in its honest but bumbling way, was trying to "liberate" Iraq, to "establish a democracy without too much pain and loss of life." (Noam Chomsky likes to tell how the original Great Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company "depicts an Indian with a scroll coming from his mouth pleading 'Come over and help us.' The charter states that rescuing the population from their bitter pagan fate is 'the principal end of this plantation.'") Only the pacifists, the isolationists, the reflexive opponents of the Republicans or the US military would dwell on such trivial irrelevancies. Nor can Sommers and Miller begin to imagine, apparently, that Iraqis might see it any differently.

The pattern is familiar: we tried to help the Iraqis / Vietnamese / Haitians / Filipinos / name your favorite recipient of Euro-American assistance, to bring them democracy, freedom, Christianity, but they just aren't ready for democracy. Their values, their "norms," are different from ours, and that's "where the misunderstandings take place." Even worse, they are crafty, deceptive, corrupt and irresponsible, and we simple, innocent, direct Americans don't know how to cope with their devious ways. We're the New World -- fresh, scrubbed, untouched by Old World wickedness -- so how could we possibly understand them?

One thing that doesn't get covered in the interview, unfortunately: Sommers mentions in the introduction that among the topics covered in his more than three hour gabfest with Miller was "the appalling hypocrisy of the Israeli University boycott" (209). I guess he means this? I feel sure that Sommers's take on the matter would be every bit as profound as his understanding of Iraqis' reaction to the US coming over to help them.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Love Is in Bloom

Recently (it was only five days ago, but it feels like longer) one of my Facebook friends from high school, the Methodist minister, posted that "a couple of guys have been giving me all kinds of grief about eating the occasional scone with my cup of coffee in the morning." Apparently scones aren't manly in Methodist land, or at least in northern Indiana Methodist land.

This revelation prompted a thread of joking from both men and women, and Mark responded with a link to his blog, and to an article from Sports Illustrated (I almost spelled that "spurts", hehehe) on the metaphysical significance of the high five.

The SI article was a fantasia on failed high-fives, the difficulty of bringing the gesture off successfully, and on its significance -- along with the dap, the chest bump, "the soul shake, the leaping shoulder carom and, last but not least, the grip-and-rip", as expressions of love between males. Because men don't express affection like you and me.
Mark T. Morman, a Baylor associate professor of communication studies, has spent years analyzing male-to-male communication, and he has a message for all you fivers out there: You're in love, or at least in like. "We call it covert affection, as opposed to overt," explains Morman. "Punching somebody in the arm or punching somebody in the chest, that doesn't look very affectionate, mainly because we tend to frame affection in very feminine ways—hugging, kissing, soft touching. So when a guy punches another guy or pushes or shoves him or wrestles him to the ground, it's covert affection, but it's real."

Of course, Morman points out, this can lead to discrepancies when both genders are involved. For instance, Jeff Lurie and his wife. "I remember that—it was hysterical!" says Morman. "That's an example of the masculine and the feminine crashing into each other. Sometimes there are affection disasters."

"Shoves him or wrestles him to the ground." I need to savor that for a moment. That, and the bit about hugging, kissing, and "soft touching" being "feminine." My friend the minister quoted this passage in his blog post, by the way, and added:
I've been saying this for years. Visitors to Trinity will hear me and my friends verbally "high fiving" or "chest bumping" one another. We talk trash to one another. Give each other such a hard time. And it almost always a sign of affection. Hassling one another is how men show love.
Or maybe this is just Christian love? I mean, when your exemplar is a God who shows his love by crucifying his own son, and by condemning the vast majority of human beings to eternal torture, showing one's manly love by wrestling one's buddy to the ground can seem the most reasonable thing in the world.

I've asked this question before:

Where were the adults?

Or, as I asked Mark on Facebook,
Good grief. Are straight men still fussing about this stuff? ...

Just out of curiosity, though, Mark, how do you explain cultures where men show affection by holding hands, kissing each other, sitting close to each other, embracing each other -- all that, you know, sissy stuff that men don't do according to Mark T. Morman? Like the Beloved Disciple resting against Jesus at the Last Supper, or the Prodigal Son's father, who didn't welcome his returning son with a chest bump or by throwing him to the ground (!), but by rushing out to embrace and kiss him, weeping? That doesn't mean those cultures aren't ferociously homophobic, by the way; they just draw the boundaries differently than latter-day American men do. All that aggro stuff you describe isn't love and affection, it's substitution for the love and affection they're afraid to show.
Mark responded, "Different cultures have, I guess, different ways of playing music, showing affection, or playing football." Actually, though, I cheated a bit as I posed my question, because even American men don't only show affection for each other by beating each other up.

In the dorm where I work (admittedly an artsy-fartsy liberal arts living-learning center, but we have our share of jocks, ROTC, and frat boys), I don't see much punching, shoving, or wrestling each other to the ground. I do see young men hugging each other and touching each other affectionately, not just around work but all over campus. This may be partly a generational thing, but if so my generation is impoverished.

Still, I doubt even that. My generation would have been the hippies and other males who rejected -- however inadequately they succeeded -- the rigid masculine roles we'd been taught as children. My generation came up with the Promise Keepers, a reactionary Christian group that wanted to reinstate biblical patriarchy in the home, but which also insisted on men showing affection to each other by being affectionate. Insofar as we failed to carry these changes through, our lives are impoverished, but I think we made a lot of progress anyway, and really, American men are no more all alike than another other group. Some of us can only show affection by punching each other and making fun of each other for eating "sissy" foods like scones (?); others show affection by hugging each other, treating each other with warmth and even tenderness. But where are the adults in my old friend's church? The behavior he describes belongs to Fag Discourse; it's not innocent, and at the risk of granting Christianity its own moral pretensions, what's it doing in and around a church? Or anywhere.

Some years ago, on the night before Graduation Day, I was sitting at the bar of a tavern popular with alumni and other manly men. Two boys came in, evidently graduating fraternity brothers, and stood at the bar a few feet away from me to order a couple of shots. They toasted each other, downed the shots, and embraced each other; I still insist that I heard the sound of one of them kissing the other's neck. Nobody minded, least of all me. They didn't punch each other or slam each other against the wall; as far as I noticed, they didn't wrestle each other to the floor. That's why I disagree with my old friend and with Mark T. Morman, the Baylor associate professor of communication studies. What they are celebrating as normal and positive is neither.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Inside Outside

Back to Frans De Waal, in A Very Bad Wizard.
TS: Can primate research help them take this into account -- help them see that we're not built for caring about people with whom have no connection with [sic] at all?

FDW: Of course, I'm not saying we shouldn't care. I don't think primate research offers that kind of moral guideline. All I'm saying is that it will be a challenge. I think as soon as we lose our wealth, the caring we do have for distant out-groups will disappear. Given that we are wealthy as a nation, in that sense, we ought to care about others. But as soon as there's a crash in our economy, like in the '20s, say, something really serious, will we still care about distant people? Human caring is predicated on affordability. Moral obligations to the out-group are not -- however much philosophers might wish them to be so -- independent of moral obligations to the in-group. ... [78-79].
(Sommers mentions in a footnote that "this interview, of course, took place in early 2007", a year before the big economic crash of 2008.)

I'm not a primatologist, but that's okay because De Waal is stepping outside his field here anyway. It's not obvious to me that "wealth" is necessary to care about "distant out-groups." Generally it seems to be rich, or richer people who are most atomized, individualized, most apt to denounce foreign aid to people who don't respect the USA. (This may even have something to do with why they're rich.) The US spends a relatively small amount of its wealth on foreign aid, and a poor country like Cuba works hard to help other countries, notably by sending doctors and other aid in disasters like the recent earthquake in Haiti. That same earthquake, even in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, elicited at least a pretense of caring from many Americans. Need I mention that the Great Depression De Waal refers to also led to the New Deal and a good many social programs that helped the American poor? I suppose his premise could be reconciled with reality by someone who knew what they were talking about, perhaps by adjusting the "out-groups" in question, but Sommers and De Waal are busy playing tough-minded realists here. Others might wish to indulge in soft-minded altruism, but they know better, as philosopher and primatologist: we just aren't built that way.

(Have I mentioned before my distaste for this move? Imagine a Stone Age Darwinian, warning his fellows that human beings evolved in warm climates, so it's hopeless to try to move north into the icy climes of Europe -- they'll just have to wait until we know enough about our genetic endowment to change ourselves to survive in such a hostile environment.)

And there's more:
TS: You also say that we have a mental switch that when triggered can turn friend into foe. An attack of some kind can trigger this. You said that our reaction to Iraq is perhaps an example of this kind of primitive impulse that you see even in chimpanzees.

FDW: If you hit yourself with a hammer, you're going to blame someone -- anyone. Frustration leads to angry reaction. This is known as the scapegoat effect, which occurs even in rats. You place two rats on an electric grid and shock them: they will attack each other as if the other is to blame for the pain. In primates, we often see that if there are tensions among higher-ups, they pick on a low-ranking individual to attack it. I felt the same happened in the United States after 9/11. A big and mighty country got attacked on its own soil -- something it's not used to -- and so someone had to be blamed, someone had to be attacked to let off steam. Thie target's actual guilt was a secondary concern. Afghanistan was not big enough for the angry reaction the US wanted to show. What struck me most was the cheerleading in the media. At the moment, everyone is backtracking and questioning the wisdom of the attack, but at the time it happened, all I saw was great enthusiasm. As a result, what is it, five hundred thousand Iraqis are gone? It's a disaster [79].
There might be a tiny bit of reality here, but again, De Waal is babbling. Did the attack on Iraq have to do with "tensions among higher-ups"? It's arguable, since in fact the US leadership had been planning an attack on Iraq since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. And at least "half a million Iraqis" were killed by US sanctions during the 1990s, plus random bombings and other US/UK terrorism. None of this had anything to do with 9/11.

Now, I agree, as do many people, that the US reacted to the 9/11 attacks with a blind bloodlust, a desire to kill ragheads, any ragheads. That led to the original US invasion of Afghanistan. "Afghanistan was not big enough for the angry reaction the US wanted to show," De Waal says -- but the US did attack Afghanistan, even though it remains doubtful that Afghanistan was responsible for 9/11. And while there was elite media and government support for Bush's invasion of Iraq, there was also more dissent than one would have expected: many liberals argued that we should concentrate on Afghanistan and capturing Bin Laden, or maybe we should go after North Korea. The scapegoat mechanism was working well on Afghanistan, but Bush had other obsessions. And nothing De Waal says can account for Obama's escalation in Afghanistan, or continued occupation of Iraq. (For that matter, how do other instances of US aggression fit in here? Vietnam? Bosnia? They don't work.) It looks to me as if De Waal has mixed up Afghanistan and Iraq here. Well, he's a primatologist, not an historian or a political scientist, but his attempts to relate his profession to current events falls flat.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Before the Reality Principle

I remarked in an earlier post how some scientists and philosophers (among others) like to fancy themselves tough, unsentimental realists -- they can face the unpleasant reality that free will is an illusion, that Man is a hairless ape, that Man is inherently aggressive, brutal, competitive, hierarchical, and so on. (Freud also opposed the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle -- get it? Reality is the opposite of pleasure. If you feel good right now, you're living in a fool's paradise, but don't worry: Reality is gonna get ya in the end.) Sometimes they affect some regret that reality is so unattractive, but the upshot is still that life sucks and then you die, and thanks to their years of philosophical or scientific training, they can face it. Can you, punk? Huh?

I stopped taking this pose seriously when I encountered it in political reactionaries (proto-Reaganite conservatives) in the 1970s. Life is unfair, they'd opine, and unfortunately governments -- even our America, home of the brave and land of the free -- must do nasty things. I found, however, that like most Americans they were woefully uninformed about how much blood Uncle Sam actually has on his hands, and when I'd spell it out for them, they'd start looking green around the gills.

Aside from the discussions in A Very Bad Wizard I've discussed so far, there's also Frans De Waal, a Dutch primatologist who has challenged the popular quasi-Darwinian program of
providing a sort of shock therapy to people in the social sciences and philosophy. And when the social scientists would reply, "But sometimes people are kind to each other," they would reply, "No, no, that's all made up, they're faking that. There has to be some sort of selfish ulterior motive behind it" [75].
De Waal even recognizes what many people have trouble recognizing: that people (and other primates) are social and selfish, cruel and kind. He talks about empathy and its importance as a source for morality. But then he makes what I think is a basic error of his own:
Because the way evolution works, yes -- it's a nasty process. Evolution works by eliminating those who are not successful. Natural selection is a process that cares only about your own reproduction, or gene selection, and everything else is irrelevant [73-74].
From a certain point of view, De Waal is correct; but that point of view is a creationist perspective, which sees the world as the product of a personal intelligence. He's anthropomorphizing natural selection here. But evolution is not Natural Selection Idol. Natural selection doesn't sit around wherever natural selection sits, like a cosmic Simon Cowell, gleefully and sadistically eliminating the Losers while the studio audience howls like the Bandur-log. Natural selection doesn't "care" about your own reproduction, or about anything else: it's an impersonal, nonpersonal process. "The struggle for existence" is at best a technical term in Darwin's theory, which should be replaced because people, including scientists, tend to take it literally. Direct competition is not the norm in natural selection -- plants, for example, do not try to bite out each other's throats. Predators and prey are not in competition with each other.

Not only that: everybody dies, the "successful" along with the "unfit." The successful may live longer, or have more offspring, but they all die in the end, and most species eventually go extinct after a longer or shorter run. (And in the longest run, the sun goes nova and the universe collapses into heat death and the extinction of everything.) The unfit don't even know that they have been eliminated; a species is not a Platonic form with consciousness that wails disconsolately (or who knows, puts a brave face on it, whatever) as it is sent to the showers.

Some people find this appalling, or least insufficiently dramatic. They want a cosmic Someone -- a cosmic Simon Cowell, in fact -- who sits and watches, and commiserates and This Hurts Him More Than It Hurts You, and they find such a notion comforting. But if Super-Simon is out there somewhere, he's the one who is cruel. Whether you believe in Theistic Evolution, Intelligent Design, or Young-Earth Creationism, you believe that all the millennia or eons of Nature Red in Tooth and Claw is Super-Simon's deliberate, conscious plan. He wants it that way.

This first occurred to me when I read an essay by Stephen Jay Gould on the Ichneumonidae, a superfamily of wasps, most of which insert their eggs into caterpillars. The larvae then feed on the hosts' innards until they're mature, and eat their way out. Someone wrote to Darwin, as I recall, complaining how awful it was that Natural Selection should produce such awful creatures. Darwin, though, saw it (via) as I do:
I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.
The Ichneumonidae are there, however they came into being. Not that the Ichneumonidae are cruel; the larvae don't know that they're eating their host alive. Nor is Natural Selection cruel; even "indifferent" anthropomorphizes it too much. The Ichneumonidae are another example of species finding an ecological niche. (Are they really that much more horrible than carnivorous animals that have to kill other animals to live?) But if a personal Creator made the Ichneumonidae, or earthquakes, or tsunamis, or leukemia, it knew what it was doing. Creation is a lifestyle choice.

Monday, March 22, 2010

In Whose Service Is Perfect Freedom

Speaking of free will, the Health Care Bill (is it Obama's? does anybody know?) passed the House yesterday. Whatever It Is I'm Against It quotes Planned Parenthood: "We regret that a pro-choice president of a pro-choice nation was forced to sign an Executive Order that further codifies the proposed anti-choice language in the health care reform bill", and comments, "When a president signs an executive order that codifies anti-choice language, maybe it’s time to stop referring to him as a pro-choice president." But that would be social constructionism. (Constructivism?) President Obama is essentially pro-choice. It's in his genes! At any rate, Galen Strawson would be happy to explain to you that it was all predetermined, from before the creation of the world.

All the DJs on our local community radio station were dedicating their playlists to the passage of the Health Care Bill, including the reggae program yesterday. How much you want to bet that those patriarchal, male-supremacist, often homophobic Jamaican males support women's control over their own bodies? I admit I'm ignorant about the Rastafarian position on reproductive freedom, but it was predetermined that I should write those words.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Determined to Do the Right Thing

I think it was while reading Mary Midgley's Wickedness (no, it's not a how-to book), years ago, that I got into an argument about free will with a student who saw me reading it. He rejected the idea, I forget whether it was on behaviorist or biological-determinist grounds, and it suddenly popped into my head to tell him: Well, I'd like to believe that I don't have free will, but I can't help it -- I was conditioned this way, or maybe it's in my genes. But either way, I have no choice. My friend spluttered at that, and I don't remember where the debate went from there. He might have tried the behaviorist riposte discussed by Noam Chomsky in his important demolition of B. F. Skinner:
Skinner would surely argue that reading the book [Beyond Freedom and Dignity], or perhaps the book itself, is a "reinforcer" in some other sense. He wants us to be persuaded by the book, and, not to our surprise, he refers to persuasion as a form of behavioral control, albeit a weak and ineffective form. Skinner hopes to persuade us to allow greater scope to the behavioral technologists, and apparently believes that reading this book will increase the probability of our behaving in such a way as to permit them greater scope (freedom?). Thus reading the book, he might claim, reinforces this behavior. It will change our behavior with respect to the science of behavior (p. 24).

Let us overlook the problem, insuperable in his terms, of clarifying the notion of "behavior that gives greater scope to behavioral technologists," and consider the claim that reading the book might reinforce such behavior. Unfortunately, the claim is clearly false, if we use the term "reinforce" with anything like its technical meaning. Recall that reading the book reinforces the desired behavior only if it is a consequence of the behavior. Obviously putting our fate in the hands of behavioral technologists is not behavior that led to (and hence can be reinforced by) our reading Skinner's book. Therefore the claim can be true only if we deprive the term "reinforce" of its technical meaning. Combining these observations, we see that there can be some point to reading the book or to Skinner's having written it only if the thesis of the book is divorced from the "science of behavior" on which it allegedly rests. ...

If persuasion were merely a matter of pointing to reinforcing stimuli and the like, then any persuasive argument would retain its force if its steps were randomly interchanged, or if some of its steps were replaced by arbitrary descriptions of reinforcing stimuli. Of course, this is nonsense. For an argument to be persuasive, at least to a rational person, it must be coherent; its conclusions must follow from its premises. But these notions are entirely beyond the scope of Skinner's science. When he states that "deriving new reasons from old, the process of deduction" merely "depends upon a much longer verbal history" (p. 96), he is indulging in hand-waving of a most pathetic sort. ...

Skinner claims that persuasion is a weak method of control, and he asserts that "changing a mind is condoned by the defenders of freedom and dignity because it is an ineffective way of changing behavior, and the changer of minds can therefore escape from the charge that he is controlling people" (p. 97). Suppose that your doctor gives you a very persuasive argument to the effect that if you continue to smoke, you will die a horrible death from lung cancer. Is it necessarily the case that this argument will be less effective in modifying your behavior than any arrangement of true reinforcers?
In any case, my response effectively ended our discussion, if not the debate. I still think that I put my finger on a crucial contradiction in the determinist position: if I can be persuaded by evidence and reason that I do not have free will, then I have free will after all. If I don't have free will, then it's futile to argue with me about it.

In saying this, I don't mean that I necessarily think I do have free will, because there's so much dispute about what "free will" refers to. Tamler Sommers's A Very Bad Wizard begins with an interview with Galen Strawson, a philosopher and the son of a philosopher, who declares (12-13):
Almost all human beings believe that they are free to choose what to do in such a way that they can be truly, genuinely responsible for their actions in the strongest possible sense -- responsible period, responsible without any qualification, responsible sans phrase, responsible tout court, absolutely, radically, buck-stoppingly responsible; ultimately responsible, in a word -- and so ultimately morally responsible when moral matters are at issue. Free will is the thing you have to have if you're going to be responsible in this all-or-nothing way. That's what I mean by free will. That's what I think we haven't got and can't have. I like philosophers -- I love what they do; I love what we do -- but they have made a truly unbelievable hash of all this. They've tried to make the phrase "free will" mean all sorts of different things, and each of them has told us what it really means is what he or she has decided it should mean. But they haven't made the slightest impact on what it really means, or on our old, deep conviction that free will is something we have.

TS: That's true. Biologists, cognitive scientists, neurologists -- they all seem to have an easier time, at least considering the possibility that there's no free will. But philosophers defend the concept against all odds, at the risk of terrible inconsistency with the rest of their views about the world. If it's a fact that there's no free will, why do philosophers have such a hard time accepting it?

GS: ... But to be honest I can't really accept it myself, and not because I'm a philosopher. As a philosopher I think the impossibility of free will and ultimate moral responsibility can be proved with complete certainty. It's just that I can't really live with this fact from day to day. Can you, really? As for the scientists, they may accept it in their white coats, but I'm sure they're just like the rest of us when they're out in the world -- convinced in the reality of radical free will.
Now, this is very odd. It's not true at all that philosophers (a group which includes many theologians) have always rejected the doctrine of free will. On one side you've got those who argue for a more or less radical determinism, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and election, and they do so not because of scientific evidence but for philosophical, theological reasons. For these people, freedom of the will is an illusion, just as it for Strawson, Skinner, and others. On another side, it's true, there have been philosophers and theologians who've argued for what Strawson calls "radical free will," the doctrine that we have no constraints on our choices at all, and that we are ultimately responsible for our acts, which are radically undetermined and uncaused.

Further, I'm not sure that "almost all human beings" think of free will as Strawson's "radical free will", at least not consistently. Sometimes they do, though they may well have gotten that conception from philosophers. But they're also willing to qualify both freedom and responsibility when it's expedient to do so. "The Devil made me do it." "Here I stand, I can do no other." "The woman tempted me, and I did eat." "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." They may be wrong in specific cases, but I think most people are aware that freedom and responsibility are not always complete. Total consistency has been derided, but it's not something that human beings are in any great danger of succumbing to.

As it happens, though, I went to the library after I read the interview with Strawson, and checked out Antony Flew's The Presumption of Atheism (Pemberton, 1976), to reread his essays on Pascal's Wager and agnosticism. But it also contained a big discussion of the Free-Will Defense of God's goodness, which holds that there is evil in the world because God gave human beings free will. Flew criticizes what he calls "libertarian" free will, which roughly corresponds to Strawson's "radical" variety, pointing out that from the theistic point of view it contradicts the doctrine that God is the first cause of all things: if our choices are uncaused, then God is no longer the cause of everything. More seriously, libertarian free will is at odds with the fact that our choices are rooted in our biological bodies and our not-fully conscious psychology -- our choices are not fully unpredictable, whether to ourselves or to others. Hard-core determinism, on the other hand, glosses over the fact that we often can do something other than we do, and it is highly unlikely that all our choices (whom we marry, what religion we belong to, when we go to the bathroom) are totally determined in advance. Flew argues for a third alternative, which he calls "compatibilism" (that some freedom of will and choice is compatible with our physical nature), and shows that this alternative has been the standard view in Western philosophy and theology. He also argues that theistic compatibilism means that God is ultimately responsible for our moral choices. He debated this issue over many years, notably with the Christian philosopher John Hick, and I'm not sure it was ever settled, but then few longstanding philosophical debates are.

Strawson hews to a rather ambivalent compatibilism, though he seems not to realize it. He seems to think that a radical determinism is the truth of the human condition, but can't bring himself to believe it though he also recognizes the inadequacy of radical or libertarian free will. Still, he clearly believes that we have some conscious control over our actions and our states of mind, since he says that "perhaps it's not quite inevitable for human beings" (24) to be trapped in the illusion of free will and Deep Moral Responsiblility" (DMR): it might be possible, through years of hard disciplined work, to "live the fact" of our lack of freedom, "though actually one can get quite a ways by ordinary secular reflection" (25). But this takes us back to the contradiction I originally noticed: Strawson can't eliminate the terminology of choice and freedom from his discourse -- he still believes that we should believe we are not free, even if we can't.

Strawson offers a thought experiment in which you go to a bakery with only ten dollars to buy a ten-dollar birthday cake that you need immediately, and you encounter either an Oxfam canvasser or a starving beggar. "You may be convinced that determinism is true. You may believe that in five -- two -- minutes' time you will be able to look back on the situation you are now in and say truly, 'It was determined that I should do that.' But even if you do fervently believe this, I still don't think it's going to touch the feeling of DMR that you have right now as you stand there. And although the Oxfam box example is a particularly dramatic one, choices of this general sort are not rare. They occur regularly in our everyday lives" (24).

I don't think you have to believe in Deep Moral Responsibility to believe that some kind of moral responsibility is involved in Strawson's dilemma. Call it Shallow Moral Responsibility. You don't have to believe that God cares, or the Universe cares, or that Mother Nature cares if children starve in Lower Slobbovia. But you do, or you don't. Of course, you can also argue that giving your ten dollars to Oxfam won't change much; you can argue that giving your ten dollars to a hungry beggar is of little moment since the beggar will be hungry again tomorrow. You can also argue that feeding a hungry person today is more important -- or not -- than giving someone a birthday cake. (Is it for you? Your partner? Your young child? All these affect the dispute.) But these arguments still assume that there are choices to be made. And while you may not be Deeply Morally Responsible, you are still responsible in the Shallow everyday sense for the decision you finally make -- who else is, after all? (A lot of determinists fall prey to a radical dualism in their attempts to save their doctrine -- you didn't make the decision, your genes did, or Evolution, or your conditioning: there's a Homunculus in your pineal gland, driving you like a car or a kid with a joystick.) And I don't see any evidence or argument in Strawson's discussion here, any reason to believe that the outcome of his experiment is determined in advance. It seems to be at best a declaration of faith, not a statement of fact.

Scientific determinists also, I've noticed, exhibit a certain self-congratulatory glee and puffed-up moral superiority about their ability to grasp our fundamental mechanical natures. At the very least, this is incompatible with their determinism, since they clearly assume they might have done otherwise, but were too smart and realistic to join the ignorant many in their cowardly refusal to face Facts.

This doesn't prove that we are free after all, of course; the dilemma in whose toils Strawson groans might be an illusion. But I don't think so, provided we recall that I am not talking about libertarian / radical free will or Deep Moral Responsibility. I don't believe that our actions are completely determined, and that even though we haven't begun to understand how, we do make some choices. (One obstacle to understanding would be the deterministic structure of scientific explanation, which leaves no room for choice. For a while around 1990, following Roger Penrose's suggestion in The Emperor's New Mind, some people were actually arguing that "free will" might be due to quantum indeterminacy, but that didn't work either.)

There's more to say on this subject, but it can wait for my next subject from A Very Bad Wizard, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Meanwhile the cord to the power supply for my laptop just broke, so I'll probably have to work with public computers for a few days until I can get a replacement. As my aunt said when she ran over the kids with the car, "If it's not one thing, it's another!"

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Assimilation and Its Discontents

I've been dithering around writing about gay people and assimilation for years. People are still talking about it, and every year or so I get a request from a student journalist to ask if any Speakers Bureau volunteers are willing to talk about the assimilation question. I think my position has more or less stabilized (though you never know), so here goes.

I think GLBT assimiliation is a non-issue -- I'm not sure the idea even makes sense. First, we are born assimilated into straight society: our parents and families are overwhelmingly heterosexual. There's no analogy between our situation and that of people who come into a new culture from another one, speaking another language, having other customs, used to other political systems. (Even this ethnic model of assimilation has been questioned, though in many respects it seems a moot point: most immigrants' children and virtually all of their grandchildren learn English and acculturate. This article, for example, mentions a study which found that "after four years of American high school the children of Mexican and Filipino immigrants were fifty percent more likely to self‑identify themselves as Mexicans and Filipinos than as Mexican‑Americans, Filipino‑Americans, or unhyphenated Americans." It's not clear what the "decrease" was measured against historically, compared to previous generations of Irish or Germans or Italians, and I wonder what effect anti-immigrant sentiment and propaganda had on the self-perception of the kids in the study. But anyway...) If queers want to refuse assimilation, we have to secede, though often enough we're expelled. Still, I'm not sure how well either withdrawal or expulsion fits with the notion of assimilation or its rejection.

Nor am I sure what constitutes assimilation. Many of us take for granted that same-sex marriage is assimilationist, and I agree that the motives of many if not of its advocates are precisely to blend into mainstream society. But will they succeed? How well do same-sex couples blend in? I'm not the only person who's noticed that same-sex and especially same-gender couples undermine the gendered, separate-spheres structure of "traditional" marriage. That is certainly among the reasons why religious bigots oppose it: they want marriage to be hierarchical, with one person in charge and the other subordinate. Heterosexual marriage was already becoming homosexualized in this sense before the same-sex marriage movement got into gear; the controversy lies in whether or not you consider that a good thing.

On the other hand, I've also noticed that many straight male liberals who are vocal in supporting same-sex marriage and an end to Don't Ask Don't Tell are still homophobic, often intensely so. They reflexively fall back on homophobic imagery to describe conflict and unfairness -- bending over, having something rammed down their throats, castration and the lack of "balls", and so on -- and fag jokes are still part of their repertoire. Assimilation is never as easy as the assimilees think it will be, and resistance runs deep. German Jewry was Europe's most assimilated, and they were very proud of the extent to which they'd Germanized themselves, right down to assimilating hatred of "stereotypical" Jews. In the end their assimilation was used against them, just as gay invisibility has been used against us (we're a fifth column, trying to undermine society, pretending to be normal when we're not, etc.)

Sure, the craving of so many Homo-Americans to be recognized as a regular, normal part of our glorious country makes me gag. Which isn't to say it doesn't make a kind of sense, since as I just said, we are born and grow up as part of American culture. It's not surprising (to me, anyway), that many people would react to attempts to expel them by refusing to be expelled, to insist that they do so belong. And who's to say they don't? As I've said before, my own experience has been that being openly gay enabled me to mix (not to assimilate) among straights, while gay community / culture seemed to me like a product of the closet.

I just finished reading Smash the Church, Smash the State!: The Early Years of Gay Liberation (City Lights Books, 2009), edited by longtime activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca. It's mostly a collection of short memoirs by people who were involved in the radical gay movement that exploded in 1969 and petered out sometime in the mid-1970s, with some contemporary documents, some of them published in full for the first time. For those of us who lived through that period and were inspired by that movement, the book is an important jog to the memory; for those who were born long afterwards, it will be probably be something of a revelation. The writers don't minimize the downside of those years -- the government repression from outside, the ego trips and burnout that sent Gay Liberation into a downward spiral, though it never quite died out. Gay Liberation still should be an inspiration, simply because it asked deep questions and proposed radical answers and tried to live them. This was true not only of Gay Liberation but of other movements for social justice and radical change that flourished in the 1960s and were crushed in little over a decade, and that are commonly derogated now as utopian foolishness by a society that was nevertheless affected by them. People who didn't grow up in the 1950s and 1960s can't feel in their bones how much things changed. If those movements didn't directly cause the change, at least they were the vehicles, the channels through which the change flowed.

One thing that struck me as I read Smash the Church, Smash the State! was how many of the writers, men and women alike, have become therapists. That looks like assimilation to me. Given the historical role of psychotherapy as an enforcer of conformity (and worse -- remember the major role therapists and counselors played in the Satanic Ritual Abuse witch hunt of the 1990s), I find this fact disquieting. Did we take over the profession, or did it co-opt us? I think it's more the latter. So I had probably my most mixed feelings about Don Kilhefner's contribution, "The Gay Community in Crisis." Kilhefner was involved in GLF, helped found what is now called the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center (later to be taken over by professional diversity managers -- see Jane Ward's Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in GLBT Activist Organizations [Vanderbilt, 2008]) , and was a co-founder of the Radical Faeries. He's now "a Jungian psychologist and shamanic practitioner" in Los Angeles.

I agree with a lot of Kilhefner's diagnosis of the current gay malaise, though I think it applies no less to other minorities. He writes (275), "It saddens me tremendously today when energized young gay men want to know where they can go to become actively and constructively involved in the community. For the first time since the 1980s I have no place toward which to point them. It tears me apart when intelligent young gay men tell me they have to 'dumb it down' to be part of the gay community. I have a hunch this is true in your community as well." But then I remember having to struggle against dumbing-down in the early 1970s too. There was great resistance to gay politics of any kind among most gay men I met in those days. It wasn't just heterosexuals who laughed at the idea of homosexuals organizing, making demands, changing the way we saw ourselves and expecting straights to do the same. I had unrealistic expectations of the thoughtfulness of other gay men when I first came out, and remember that I did so in a college town.

Of the genesis of Faery, Kilhefner writes (273),
I had gathered together all the gay visionary literature I could get my faggoty hands on, beginning with Walt Whitman and including Edward Carpenter, Gerald Heard (writing under the pseudonym D. B. Vest in homophile publications), Harry Hay et al.; culled the evolutionary biology and sociobiology literature about us at the time; and also rounded up the other usual suspects.
The reference to "evolutionary biology and sociobiology" put me on the alert. I remember seeing Harry Hay refer to sociobiology in interviews during the 1980s, and I'd wonder what he could be thinking. In the 1970s some sociobiologists were suggesting that (male) homosexuality could be explained in terms of "kin selection" -- that our cultural contributions in emergent human societies balanced our nonreproductive tendencies. When I first encountered this speculation (which was all it was), I thought it was plausible until I began reading the critiques of sociobiology that began appearing at around the same time. I also wondered what counted as "homosexuals" in this scheme, since most gay men and lesbians are capable of reproduction; the assumption (which is all it is) that we are somehow totally uninvolved in making or raising children is false. This theory is also at odds with the rejection of assimilation, since it assumes that homosexuals have always played an important role in their societies, rather than being outsiders with a society of our own.

But Kilhefner takes sociobiology very seriously (275f):
Evolutionary biologists inform us that the basic function of heterosexuals is the reproductive survival of the species. The most essential question for us at present is: What is the evolutionary function of gay people? What are gay people for? To mimic heterosexuals? I don’t think so. Otherwise, evolutionarily speaking, we would have gone down the drainpipe of history long ago.
This assumes, first, that gay people are biologically distinct from heterosexuals, which we aren't. If we were, we would indeed "have gone down the drainpipe of history"; the sociobiological fables were concocted to explain in Darwinian terms how a non-reproducing adaptation could have arisen in the first place. Second, it assumes that you have to have an "evolutionary function," and you have to know what it is, and if you know what it is you have to conform to it because it gives your life meaning. Or something. I certainly don't see why it's an "essential question," let alone the most essential "at present" -- if it matters, it always did, though it could hardly have arisen before Darwin. (Two centuries ago, I suppose a Don Kilhefner would have been saying that the most essential question before Mollies, Sodomites and Sapphists was to know our role in God's plan; the two ideas are functionally equivalent, and equally unimportant.)
Assimilationists will say we are basically just like heterosexuals except for our choice of sex partners. (Harry [Hay] would say to me: “We’re just like hets when it comes to sex, and in most other ways we are different.”) Assimilationists act as if we already have an identity (homosexual), and with cybersex and hookups who needs a community or even an intellectual life?
Harry Hay's quip has often been quoted, and while it's a cute, Wilde-wannabe paradox, I don't agree, or even get his point. What are those "most other ways" we're different? (I'd rather point out that the assimilationists' claim contradicts their rage at those who'd reduce gayness to mere -- you know -- sex.) I think that, given sexism and male supremacy, the sex of one's sexual partner has some serious consequences; it's not exactly trivial. But most of all, I reject the idea that there are heterosexuals, who are all pretty much alike, and then there are homosexuals, who are all pretty much alike. I've never wanted to assimilate to gay men's culture, any more than I wanted to sit around with a bunch of guys chugging brewskies, slobbering over the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, or screaming at a big-screen TV on Superbowl Sunday.

One thing that bothered me about Michael Warner's The Trouble with Normal (The Free Press, 1999), which I mostly liked, was Warner's apparent acceptance of 'mainstream' society's self-presentation at face value: if respectable men pretended to be monogamous family guys who'd never think of sneaking off to a strip club or an adult bookstore, let alone a gay cruising area, then that was what they were. The underside of the "normal" is part of society, and can't be separated from it. Similarly, as I've suggested before, "assimilationist" gay people will most likely end up being as hypocritical as their straight counterparts, because hypocrisy is part of respectability.

It doesn't seem to me that gay enspiritment, as Kilhefner calls it, offers much of an intellectual life, which is one reason why I've always given it a wide berth. Especially the Jungians, who are especially pernicious. (Kilhefner also refers in his essay to "father hunger", which indicates his ties to the Mythopoetic Men's Movement, another hotbed of creepy pseudospirituality and anti-intellectualism.) A lot of very fine books have come from GLBTQ scholars, but the most resounding turkeys -- Judy Grahn's Another Mother Tongue, Jamake Highwater's The Mythology of Transgression, Mark Thompson's Gay Body, Arthur Evans's Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, Mab Segrest's Born to Belonging come to mind off the top of my head -- all come from the therapeutic/spiritual, and especially Jungian wing of the community. (Well, them and the New Agers, but then the latter are part of the therapeutic/spiritual wing anyway.)

Which doesn't mean I'm complacent about gay politics and community today, as anyone who reads this blog should know. But I think that pursuing "enspiritment" and the culture of therapy has been the road too many of us have taken to become lost in the wilderness.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How Are the Pollitt Fallen

Oh, dear; this is very sad. And painful to watch.

Katha Pollitt's latest column in The Nation is one more painful exhibit of the damage that the Obama administration, following hard on eight years of Bush-Cheney, has done to liberal brain cells. Could it get much worse? I fear it will.

During the Clinton years, Pollitt delivered a series of attacks on the man's policies, especially where women's issues were concerned, while most mainstream feminists were still fawning on him, hoping for access, invitations to the White House, recognition and respect. (A lot of those columns can be found in Subject to Debate [The Modern Library, 2001].) Not all were fooled -- I still treasure this ringing denunciation of Clinton and Gore and Leiberman by Barbara Ehrenreich, for example -- but Pollitt was one of those who most steadfastly resisted the Clinton allure.

Still, Pollitt was one who took Bush's accession really hard; I remember how dispirited, even despairing, her columns from early 2001 were. She recovered, though, and was doing all right until Barack Obama came along, causing an embarrassing relapse as she tried to persuade herself and others that this guy was different, and that "An Obama victory could have big positive repercussions for progressive politics." (Ehrenreich also fell for the Obama shuck.) Pollitt even sank to dissing Cindy McCain's looks, a sexist move she'd properly have savaged anyone else for doing. She rallied briefly, criticizing Obama's support for "faith-based" initiatives, which suggests that anti-religion had come to trump even feminism for her. But before long she was flailing desperately away at a Naomi Klein column that once would have been easy meat for her, trying to defend Obama but bereft of anything to defend him with. Except Hilda Solis, who's looking lonelier and lonelier these days in that hornet's nest of DLCers we call the White House.

But today, ah, today, she declared her support for the Senate "health reform" bill in terms of political and even moral exhaustion. We feminists caved in and let you Democrats turn the bill into "a major blow against abortion rights." So don't accuse us of political purity! (That's what Pollitt accuses others of, we who sit in our cabins on Mount Disdain and sneer cruelly at the true believers.) We are team players! It's those Republicans who are the purists! And they don't play fair! So now, "The way I see it, the Democratic Party and the Obama administration owe supporters of women's rights a huge payback for cooperating on its signature issue." She provides a wish list. Item: "Full funding for Title X. ..." Item: "Full speed ahead on the Paycheck Fairness Act. ..." Item: "Confront maternal mortality. ..." Item: Ratify "the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women." Item: "Fully fund the Violence Against Women Act ..." Finally, she gets so het up she lets loose a dainty semi-expletive: "Speaking of violence against women, Dems, would you look in the effing mirror?" Whoa there, little lady! Don't let your emotions get the better of you. Better sit down. Would you like a glass of water?

I am not saying this to derogate Pollitt's concerns; I agree with her priorities and demands completely. I'm simply unable to believe that she thinks anyone in the Democrat Party is going to listen to her. This is not the first time that writers at The Nation have issued fatwas to the Democrats, or to Obama himself (Pollitt signed her name to that one too, as did Ehrenreich). You can see how much they've achieved. They don't seem to have noticed that not only is the rest of the left laughing at them, so are the Democrats and particularly the White House.

It's not for me to say what Pollitt should do. This is not an open letter from a formerly devoted reader, begging her to listen to the voices of the people who lifted her to an editorship at The Nation and urging her to return to the core values that made her one of the reasons I kept my subscription going longer than I should have. Nor is it a long-distance poultice, telling her that I feel her pain. I really don't know what it is, except maybe my own cry of pain at seeing a very intelligent woman stuck in an abusive relationship with a rotten politician. Only she can extricate herself from it, though.