Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance or Philosophical Subtlety?



The other e-mail I got yesterday was from another blogger whom I've sometimes debated in comment threads elsewhere, and sometimes conversed with in e-mail. Yesterday's message was brief and to the point:
Considering you wrote off officer Choi, I would have figured you to at least say the getEQUAL crowd was misguided for demanding an end to DADT.
This referred to some of my less than admiring remarks about Lieutenant Dan Choi, who seems to be the current poster boy for gays in the military, and to a recent post in which I praised getEqual activists for heckling President Obama for not pushing harder on the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell.

Well, I can understand why many people would see some cognitive dissonance there, even though I don't. But I also admit that it's taken me some time to clarify in my own mind why I feel the way I do. There's long been tension between gay activists who oppose US militarism -- one guy once wrote to the Village Voice that he supported the ban on gays in the military, and wanted it extended to heterosexuals; I concur -- and gay activists who want gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals to have the same chance to kill and maim innocent people in foreign lands that heterosexuals enjoy. Or, to put it a bit more tactfully, this latter faction wants equality of opportunity for military service while refusing to examine the uses to which America's armed forces are put. It's better public relations strategy, of course, and that's what is wrong with it.

Those who want the ban on gays in the military to end often seem to be those who express dismay that the gay movement in the US is associated with, or stereotyped as, The Left. That doesn't seem to me to justify embracing the Right. Some point out, accurately enough, that people often join the military for economic reasons, to get job training or money for college, or just a job, and they accuse those who disagree of looking down on working-class gays who lack the options in life that we supposed elitists have. This argument has lost some of its sheen since Bill Clinton's attempt to end the ban failed in 1993, when Americans who joined the military were less likely to have their legs blown off. Clinton's foreign-policy "successes," it should be remembered, were mainly due to his keeping American casualties low and foreigners' casualties high. And now, as new atrocities by American forces are being unearthed and publicized, I'm seeing the same demonization of American soldiers by liberals and even some leftists that attended Vietnam veterans a few decades ago. (See Vietnam vet Jerry Lembcke's important and still-timely book The Spitting Image: myth, memory and the legacy of Vietnam [NYU Press, 1998].) So, all you working-class gay kids should be free to join the military -- so we can denounce you as "pure human shit to begin with" when you do the job you signed up to do, the job that we told you was good enough for trailer trash like you.

Dan Choi told the Equality March in Washington last October, "We love our country, even when our country refuses to acknowledge our love! But we continue to defend it, and we continue to protect it, because love is worth it!" I pointed out at the time that Choi, a veteran of the Iraq War, was being disingenuous (putting it tactfully again). The US has not fought a defensive war in my lifetime, and a fortiori not in Iraq, which was a war of aggression, and is now a brutal occupation of the country our forces invaded. Choi was appealing to his audience's patriotism, and as I've also said before, patriotism is the first refuge of scoundrels. Still, it's missing the point to say that I "wrote off" Dan Choi. The door to my boudoir is always open to you, Dan. But the real issue isn't Dan Choi, or any other American soldier, sailor, Marine, or Blackwater operative.

None of this means that Don't Ask Don't Tell shouldn't be repealed. I don't think that fighting the military ban on gays has been a good use of gay activists' time or energy, but the policy is discriminatory and can't be justified on any grounds. Replying to my correspondent, I drew a few historical parallels: There were German Jews in the 1930s who were avid supporters of Hitler and insisted that they were as patriotic as any Aryan. Such people were fools and worse, but that doesn't mean that I support Hitler's anti-Jewish laws. The same applies to Proposition 8: I don't agree with the craze for same-sex civil marriage, but inscribing discriminatory policies in a state constitution is bad law.

The deployment of the word "equality" as a buzzword to push same-sex marriage and the repeal of DADT is misleading, a diversion from important questions that need to be addressed. If German Jews had been allowed to join the Einsatzgruppen openly, that would have been "equality," but I think few people today would agree that the first goal should have been equality for German Jews in military service, and then you could ask whether supporting Hitler and invading Poland was really a good thing. But that is what the more moderate opponents of Don't Ask Don't Tell argue: first we need to get formal equality for the LBGTQ Citizen, and then we can debate the propriety of invading Iraq, or escalating the US war in Afghanistan, or attacking Iran. That's just another diversion, of course: in reality, no such debate is acceptable to them.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Contrast and Compare

So I finally bought a new monitor for my old Amiga 2000 computer, and so I started updating some files that I'd fallen behind on, and then began playing a couple of old computer games that I hadn't been able to play for about a year. Till past 2:30 a.m., two nights in a row. That's why I not only haven't written much here for a day or two, I'm also cranky and bleary from lack of sleep. Not that that's much of a change, as someone muttered in the back row.

But today I got a couple of interesting messages in the e-mail; I'll write briefly about one of them tonight (no computer games tonight! no, sir!), and the other one tomorrow.

This kind writer liked my previous post on people who show inadequate deference to the only President we've got, and sent me a link to a 2008 article from Harper's that I wish I'd seen before. The writer, Mark Slouka, shares my curmudgeonly disdain for reverence toward the Presidency, including this anecdote:

At a White House reception a couple of years ago, President George Bush asked Senator-elect Jim Webb how things were going for his son, a Marine serving in Iraq. “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,” Webb replied. “I didn’t ask you that,” the president shot back. “I asked you how your boy was doing.”

Webb, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, had not only risked his own life in the service of his country but now had a child in harm’s way, serving in an ill-conceived and criminally mismanaged war sold to the nation under false pretenses by the man standing in front of him. One might expect this second man to be nice. To show a modicum of respect. Should he fall short of this, one could at least take comfort in the certainty that the American people would hold him accountable for his rudeness and presumption.

Which is precisely what many of them did—they held Jim Webb accountable. “I’m surprised and offended by Jim Webb,” declared Stephen Hess, a professor at George Washington University, in a New York Times article entitled “A Breach of Manners Sets a Tough Town Atwitter.” Admitting that the president had perhaps been “a little snippy,” Professor Hess went on to extol the democratic virtues of decorum and protocol, interrupting himself only long enough to recall a steel executive named Clarence Randall who, having once addressed Harry S Truman as “Mr. Truman” instead of “Mr. President,” remained haunted by it for decades.

"A little snippy"! The "breach of manners" was all on Dubya's part, and the President, Mr. Bush, Hizzoner, Sir, should've been taken out behind the woodpile and beaten with a razor strop. I noticed that the manner of Bush's retort was very similar to what Bill Hangley claimed Bush had said to him, which seems to me to be evidence in favor of Hangley's account of the encounter.

By the way, I'd recommend also reading the New York Times article Slouka linked to: it's critical of the fuss over Webb's remark, and has some interesting history. And while I share Slouka's distaste for this sort of craven deference, I'm not sure I agree that it's a new problem. Americans like to believe that we are tough, rugged individualists who have left the knee-bending flattery of the Old Europe behind for new frontiers of equality, but we are also fascinated by glittering royalty and its fairy-tale weddings. American Protestantism, especially the evangelical variety, claims to take seriously the inherent sinfulness of Man (unlike secular humanists who think Man can be perfected if he isn't already perfect), but is in practice a hotbed of personality cults that defer to charismatic preachers. I recently noticed that for all our independence and individualism, Americans seem to be less likely to organize and challenge our governments or other authorities than people in "traditional" collectivist societies.

But anyway! Since Slouka's article was published we've had Representative Joe Wilson breaching protocol by calling out "You lie!" during President Obama's address on health care. This produced a similar frenzy of tongue-clucking by manneristas and decorum mavens, especially since Rep. Wilson had the bad luck to accuse Obama of lying on one of the few occasions when he was telling the truth. At least it showed that the corporate media don't require slavish deference only to Republican presidents. As for vice presidents, Dick Cheney recently boasted that telling Senator Pat Leahy to go fuck himself was "sort of the best thing I ever did." That sets the bar pretty low, but as usual, it is all about form, not substance, isn't it? It's bad form to lobby the President to save the whales at a photo-op called to try to defuse opposition to his policies; it's bad form to tell the President that you think he's doing a bad job and you hope he won't be re-elected; it's bad form to tell the President that you'd like to get American troops out of Iraq. This allows media and Presidents alike to dodge the question of whether those criticisms are merited, assuming that they could be expressed in a more suitable place, like an isolation cell at Guantanamo. Because, you know, the trouble is that those criticisms tend to be "animated by principles that may be right, but aren’t really very helpful: the pacifists, the isolationists, the reflexive opponents of Republicans or the US military." So mind your manners, keep in your place, tug your forelock, and vote early and often.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Compare and Contrast

2010. Today John Caruso posted this story at A Distant Ocean. Phil Radford, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, was invited to the White House to meet President Obama.

He walked person to person, saying hello, as advocate after advocate threw him softball questions. I shook the President's hand, and said:

"Mr. President, I am Phil Radford from Greenpeace. We are concerned that your administration is overturning the ban on whaling."

"I know" he replied. "I've seen your ads in the papers."

"Great," I replied. "What is your plan to change your administration's position?

"Look," said the president, sounding like his Saturday Night Live doppelganger, "I love whales. I will do what I can to protect them."

"Will you reverse your administration's position?" I asked.

The President responded "Oh come on, don't lobby me here right now..."

2001. A freelance writer named Bill Hangley told this story.
So when the President was here on July 4, I had the opportunity to shake his hand. I wasn't sure if that was a good idea or not but I did it anyway, and said to him, "Mr President, I hope you only serve four years. I'm very disappointed in your work so far."

He kept smiling and shaking my hand but answered, "who cares what you think?" His face stayed photo-op perfect but his eyes gave me a look that said, if we'd been drinking in some frat house in Texas, he'd've happily answered, "let's take it outside." A nasty little gleam. But he was (fortunately) constrained by presidential propriety.

But that was the end of it, until I turned away and started scribbling the quote down in my notepad, so as to remember The Gift forever. When he saw me do that he got excited and craned his neck over the rubberneckers to shout at me, "who are you with? Who are you with?" People started looking so he made a joke: "make sure you get it right." But he kept at it: "Who do you write for?" I told him I wasn't "with" anybody and pointed to one of his staff people, who knows me a little, and said, "ask him, he'll tell you." Then I split.

Half an hour later, my boss (who had helped organize the event we were at) came up to me and said, "did you really tell the President that he was doing a 'lousy f***ing job'?" No way, I said, I was very polite, I just told him what I thought. Fortunately, he believed me. He wasn't happy with me, but he believed me.
I first read this story in Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon, but later found it on the site Snopes.com, which researches rumors and urban legends. The Snopeses concluded, reasonably enough, that there's no way to decide whether the story is true or not. But then they decided to editorialize:
Our opinion? There are plenty of traditional outlets for expressing dissatisfaction with the policies and actions of elected representatives, but walking up to the President at a public function and telling him he's doing a lousy job isn't one of them. Such behavior demonstrates a lack of respect for the office of President of the United States, an honor that should be maintained whether or not one respects the man who currently holds the office — just as the well-mannered citizen doesn't express his disagreement with the political views of a American-flag-carrying protester by spitting on the flag he bears, because that act displays a contempt for everything Old Glory symbolizes, not merely for the person carrying it. The President isn't above criticism, but freedom of speech isn't an excuse for ignoring the ordinary civilities of choosing an appropriate time, place, and manner for the expression of that criticism.
This reminds me of that scene in Woody Allen's Love and Death, where Allen's character marries Diane Keaton's character after a long determined pursuit. In their marriage bed he puts his hand on his bride's breast, and she says, "Please -- not here." After years of dealing with people in various corners of the Internet who protest that discussion forums designed and intended for just that purpose aren't the right place to debate politics, religion, or anything else, I am still boggled by the Snopeses' attitude. If Radford could call up the President for a few hours of golf and talk to him man to man on the links, reminding him of campaign contributions received and (hopefully, if he flies right) campaign contributions to come, I'm sure he would. But mere mortals don't usually have the options reserved for the great.

I suppose there are "plenty of traditional outlets for expressing dissatisfaction with the policies and actions of elected representatives," but (especially where the President is concerned) most of them seem to be designed to ensure that those representatives never hear the dissatisfaction expressed. I have a better chance that my criticisms will reach the ear of my Congressman, though, than that of the President. Most citizens are never going to meet the President face to face, and it seems to me that anyone who has that opportunity should use it responsibly. Expressing one's dissatisfaction with the actions and policies of my elected representatives, politely and rationally, seems to me the prerogative of a citizen of a nominally free and democratic country. If Hangley said to Bush what he says he said (and I see no reason to doubt it), I don't think he behaved inappropriately at all. (Dick Cheney's notorious "Go fuck yourself" to a member of Congress took place long after Hangley's encounter with Bush, by the way. Hangley behaved much better -- with more "propriety", if you like -- than our elected representatives.)

From the way the Snopeses express their disapproval, I suspect they believe that Hangley did cuss at Bush: they compare his remarks to "spitting on the flag". Or maybe not; they seem to think that just mildly telling the President that you don't like his performance is
lèse-majesté. (Which is evidently still a crime in some countries, but we don't have a king here, remember? In fact we fought a revolution to get rid of ours.) This is hysteria. I'm not a flag idolater either, and "everything Old Glory symbolizes" includes some history that should be spit on as far as I'm concerned, like slavery and the genocide of the Indians. The President of the United States is not a king; the office (let alone the person) of the President is not sacred. Perhaps the Snopeses would be happier living in England or another monarchical (monarchized?) country.

I'm sure that both Bush and Obama would agree with the Snopeses, of course. From the look on Bush's face when Stephen Colbert roasted him at the National Press Club in 2006, to the look on Obama's face when gay protesters heckled him recently, our elected representatives need to be confronted more. (And do I need to point out that Hangley, Colbert, and the GetEQUAL protesters still behaved better than our current right-wing dissenters?) Two American political cliches come to mind: If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen; and The buck stops here.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

All Animals Are Equal

(Click on the image for its source and more information)

Homo Superior points to a piece on George Orwell's Animal Farm by Christopher Hitchens at/in the Guardian -- but mainly, it seems, to complain about "all these passive-verb sentences". (Maybe he's alluding to Orwell's admonition "Never use the passive voice where you can use the active"?) I'd be grateful for the link simply for a related story sending Hitchens up for using "lesbian" as some kind of insult, with a link to a wonderful (or maybe terrifying) site that I'm going to add to my blogroll. And I'm taking it as an opportunity to post here a piece I wrote on Animal Farm in the 90s for the local student newspaper.
HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION

If I had to point to one decisive influence that swung my politics to the left, it would be easy: George Orwell's Animal Farm, which I discovered in the fifth or sixth grade. I read it on my own, not in school, which is probably why it wasn't until years later that I encountered the prevailing interpretation of the book.

Both Right and Left agree that Animal Farm is a Cold War tract, an attack on Stalin's USSR and a vindication of Churchill and Truman's national security states. When they're feeling charitable, my fellow leftists dismiss it as a product of tubercular delirium in Orwell's last years. Right-wingers see Animal Farm as a sign that Orwell was abandoning socialism in favor of a mature anti-Communism, like that of Joe McCarthy or Francisco Franco. Both sides assume that anti-communism equals fawning pro-capitalism, but that's not how I understood Animal Farm, so this summer I went to the library and reread it.

The introduction to the Time-Life edition I read declares that when Animal Farm was published in 1946, "already it was becoming brutally clear that wartime hopes of peacetime cooperation between the West and Russia had been dangerously naive." If that was Orwell's message, he didn't manage to get it into Animal Farm, which states clearly that the rulers of capitalist society will find peaceful cooperation with totalitarian states brutally easy.

It's true that the rebellious animals of the Manor Farm are betrayed by the pigs, who represent the Communist elites who ruled the Soviet Union. But if Animal Farm is a defense of Western democracy and free enterprise, where are the benevolent democratic leaders of the West? They can only be represented by the vicious, drunken farmers, who have no redeeming qualities at all. By Cold War values, the ending of Animal Farm is a happy one. The pigs have seen the error of their ways and become just like their farmer counterparts, who in turn see at Animal Farm "a discipline and an orderliness which should be an example to all farmers everywhere.... [T]he lower animals on Animal Farm did more work and received less food than any animals in the county." I can imagine Winston Churchill expressing such views, or the architects of NAFTA.

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." This hardly depicts a radical difference between England and the USSR, Churchill and Stalin: it says that they are indistinguishable. East and West can meet, if not altogether amicably: "Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress.... The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously." Cheaters both. For me this scene calls up images of Nixon meeting Chairman Mao, or Reagan dining with Deng Xiaoping.

"But the luxuries of which Snowball had once taught the animals to dream, the stalls with electric light and hot and cold water, and the three-day week, were no longer talked about. Napoleon had denounced such ideas as contrary to the spirit of Animalism. The truest happiness, he said, lay in working hard and living frugally." Is this Stalinism -- or is it Reaganism, the Era of Diminishing Expectations? Grandiose dreams of increased comfort and leisure were bruited about when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s; now we hear that the postwar boom was an economic aberration, and we had better adjust to the idea that things are going to get worse, not better.

No, Animal Farm is a subversive book. If the adults who allowed it into my school's library had really read it, they'd have made sure I never did. The right-wing censors who want to purge the curriculum of any real political incorrectness don't realize that their hero, George Orwell, is laughing at them from his grave.
Hitchens's column does include some interesting information about Animal Farm's publishing history and its reception worldwide, for which I thank him. He crows over having noticed "one very salient omission":
There is a Stalin pig and a Trotsky pig, but no Lenin pig. Similarly, in Nineteen Eighty-Four we find only a Big Brother Stalin and an Emmanuel Goldstein Trotsky. Nobody appears to have pointed this out at the time (and if I may say so, nobody but myself has done so since; it took me years to notice what was staring me in the face).
He's right, though I think I recall having noticed the omission myself. Never wrote about it, though, and while it's interesting if you demand that your allegories walk on all four feet, I'm not sure it means anything. (Hitchens has nothing to say about its significance either.) I think what I pointed out is more meaningful, especially with regard to Animal Farm's reception by the anti-Communist West. Someone must have noticed it before, but I don't recall ever reading anyone who did. People like Malcolm Muggeridge (who wrote the introduction to the Time-Life edition that I quoted in my column) didn't realize that the leaders of the US and Britain during the Cold War were Orwell's farmers, every bit as vicious and corrupt as the Soviet Union's pigs.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

My Secret Identity

Not everyone will agree with me, of course, but I think it's good news that Archie comics will be introducing an openly gay character in the September 2010 issue of Veronica. I used to read several different comics in the the Archie series as a young fagling, but this is the first time in 40-some years there's been reason to revisit them. I like the way that the gay character, Kevin, casually mentions that he's gay to Jughead (hint, hint?); odd as it may be to say of this kind of comic book, it reminds me of the real world. I suppose I should have the local comics store order me a copy so I won't miss it.

The comments under that Comics Beat story got my attention. Most were positive, but there were the predictable rants from bigots, like the one who complained that "this only promotes sex and I would not let my kids read these… I believe these COMICS are for kids and I dnt want my kids to be havn sex b4 marriage (no, that is not impossible) and kids should b able to b a kid without relating to everyone in the world… not just an opinion, read the Bible!" As other commenters quickly pointed out, the whole Archie world is built on (hetero)sex: Betty's crush on Archie, Archie's lust for Veronica, for example. How a gay Archie character would lead kids to have sex before marriage any more than the straight ones do is not obvious except to the hysterical.

And I loved this guy, who touched base with every cliche in the book, crammed into one paragraph:
Why is it when anyone disgrees with something that is pro Gay, they are critisized as being hatefull and ignorant. We have become a nation that has no morals or convictions! I believe being homosexual is wrong based on God’s Word (the Bible) I also beleive that only God can judge. As Christians we need to stand up and stop being intimidate becasue we dont want be be labeled as horrible people. I know swveral Gay, people, I even have gay family members, I love them all I just do not approve of the lifestle. Just as you have the right to say you like the comic change, I and anyone else have the right to say we dont like it and dont want our children to read it. What happened to freedom of speech! Why am I ignorant or hateful because I have differnt beliefs than you? So many of your comments are so hypocrital! Introducing diffenent nationalities is not the same as introducing a Gay character. A perso is concisded gay because of sexual oreintation. Our society is so sexualized, no wonder Rape, Aids, Abortion and teen pregnancy is so high! I can not letmy son watch videos or certain commericals without him seeing a woman being objectified or shaking her body! I pray for all of you as well as our Country. I pray that God will send someone in your life to show you the light. May Jesus be with all of you even the ones that will write hateful comments. As for me and my house, We will serve the Lord!
(Serving the Lord: dip Lord in egg batter and roll in seasoned flour. Fry in 400-degree oil until crispy; serve while hot, with the beer of your choice. But I digress.)

I especially like the "What happened to freedom of speech!" since freedom of speech not only guarantees one's right to say what one thinks right, but guarantees others' right to disagree vehemently. (This person answered well for the most part, except for assuming that we are "born gay" and a few other blunders.) But then this guy threw in his two cents' worth, with more pruriency about "gay bowel system" which "is so disgusting its symptoms can only be alluded to" and our high numbers of sexual partners (jealous much?), which prompted this whiny and ill-informed response:
I’m sorry, there are so many lies in this quote it’s maddening. I’m gay, I’ve been out for eight years, and I think I’ve dated a total of MAYBE fourteen people during that time. Fourteen. In eight years.
I've pointed out before how stupid people are about statistics. If gay men in Atlanta (the previous bigot's example) had "an average of 60 partners a year" in 1994, that average is built not only on people as pathetic as this commenter, but on those who have many more than 60 partners a year. But he lost any sympathy I might have felt for him when he added that he "goes to a Baptist Church! ... we are a very forward thinking church, in every sense of the word. Towards women, gays, African Americans, etc. (as it should be!) So everyone, please just keep in mind not all Christians are so close-minded." Evidently he doesn't go to a Southern Baptist Church, but anyhow this is just the flip side of his mistake about averages. Not all Christians "are so close-minded," but many are. It's as misleading to stereotype Christians as gay-positive, feminist, and anti-racist as it is to stereotype them in the reverse directions. And it gets worse as he goes along.

Another commenter sensibly pointed out, "How many times will deflecting the attention of girls who want him because he’s a hunk work in stories? And if he’s the only gay in Riverdale, he has no one to date." Still, the caveat is premature, I think. All we've seen so far is the first page of the story. Maybe Kevin will ask Jughead to the prom. And maybe Jughead will say Yes.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Balls Out

Homo Superior is disgusted by this story, and so am I:
According to SFGate, the [North American Gay Amateur Sports A]lliance kicked three players off the amateur softball team they belonged to and stripped the team, called D2, of its second-place standing because the players were in fact bisexual, not gay.

Steven Apilado, LaRon Charles and Jon Russ are now suing the Alliance with the backing of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, claiming that while at the 2008 Gay Softball World Series in Seattle, they were each led into a conference room and questioned about their sexuality. Charles, the team's former manager, claims that he was told "This is the Gay World Series, not the Bisexual World Series."

I'm actually a bit shocked by it, because I had the impression that gay sports were mostly pretty inclusive -- the Gay Games, for example. They even let straights in. That seems to be common, though not universal, for minority activities. At IU, for example, the Afro-American Choral Ensemble has a lot of white members; I was pleasantly surprised the first time I went to one of their concerts.

On the other hand, I'm sympathetic to, and largely supportive of, minority-only space; I don't think it's either sinister or discriminatory. The trouble, as the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival knows, is defining and enforcing it. If you want to have a gay-male only team, you should be able to have one. But a surprising (to people who've never heard of Alfred Kinsey, at least) number of gay men have bisexual histories. Sometimes those bisexual histories continue into the present, but that's history for you.

But I'm also amused, in a snarky and Schadenfreude-laden way. I have mixed feelings about the standard sort of civil-rights legislation, but this story made me think that it might be good if ENDA passes after all. A lot of biphobic and misogynist gay men will discover in a hurry what I've been explaining patiently for a couple of decades now: if you pass a law against discrimination based on sexual orientation, it will not protect only gay men. It'll protect (gasp!) lesbians and (moan!) bisexuals and (eek!) heterosexuals too. Which is not what many gay men and lesbians meant at all, it is not what they meant at all.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bringing the Two Together

Glenn Greenwald writes:
As several people noted in comments, Obama's rationale for threatening to veto an anthrax investigation (investigations would undermine the State's credibility and thus dilute its authority) is very similar to the Catholic Church's explanation for why it concealed reports of so many abusive priests (disclosure would undermine the Church's credibility and thus dilute its authority). See, for instance, here, as well as here (Cardinal Christoph Schönborn: "the appearance of an infallible church was more important than anything else"). That was also the same rationale invoked by Justice Scalia when enjoining the Florida recount during the 2000 election (Scalia: a recount would "irreparably harm" Bush "by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election"). Common to all of these suppression-justifying claims is the notion that preventing the truth from being examined and known is necessary to preserve institutional credibility and power.
I wonder if Richard Dawkins will decide to make a citizen's arrest of Barack Obama? Or George Bush? The scale of the crimes involved in the case of US Presidents is far greater than even Popes.

For more double standards and hypocrisy, see also this one.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

It's No Fun Unless Someone Loses an Eye

Hi! This is Duncan's blog. Please press 1 for English. If you believe that you live in America and shouldn't have to press 1 for English, please press 2 for English. I can move it further down the list if that will suit you better.

From Harvey A. Daniels. Famous last words: the American language crisis reconsidered. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983:
In Chicago, during the Christmas season of 1978, twenty-six Spanish-speaking people were killed in a series of tragic fires. Many of them perished because they could not understand the instructions that firemen shouted in English. When the city promptly instituted a program to teach the firefighters a few emergency phrases in Spanish, a storm of protest arose. "This is America," proclaimed the head of the Chicago Firefighters Union, "let them speak English." A local newspaper columnist suggested, with presumably innocent irony: "Let's stop catering to the still-flickering nationalistic desires to perpetuate the Latin heritage." The city's top-rated television newscaster used his bylined editorial minute to inveigh against the Spanish-teaching program in the firehouses.

An exasperated resident wrote to the letters column of the
Chicago Tribune: "I object to bilingual everything. It is a pretty low sort of person who wants to enjoy the benefits of this country while remaining apart from it, hiding in an ethnic ghetto." Another letter writer huffed: "What does it take to bring home to these stiff-necked Latinos that when they move to a foreign country the least they can do is learn the language? I, for one, am fed up with the ruination of the best country in the world." Still another correspondent was even more succinct: "If they can't understand two words -- don't jump -- they should go back where they came from." And after my own brief article on the language controversy appeared, an angry firefighter's wife wrote me to explain her husband's awful dilemma in being stationed in the Latino community: "Why should he risk his life for nothing?" she wondered.
From Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, The best war ever: lies, damned lies, and the mess in Iraq. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, 2006:
In November 2003 -- about the time that the initial euphoria of war began to fade in the United States -- Newsweek magazine reported a startling fact about the tactics Iraqi guerillas used against U.S. soldiers: "In Iraq, when guerrillas place an IED (improvised explosive device) by the side of the road, they sometimes write a warning on the street -- In Arabic. The locals understand to steer clear; the Americans drive right into the trap. 'Everyone knows about it except us,' grouses Lieutenant Julio Tirado of the 124th Infantry Division, Florida National Guard, patrolling warily in the town of Ramadi."...

[U.S. troops] don't simply lack an understanding of Iraq's history and culture, they lack even the language skills needed to communicate about basic, simple things. The enemies they are fighting do not need to be particularly intelligent to outmaneuver them, and they certainly don't need to be noble. (Indeed, they are not.) The mere fact that they can speak the[ir] native language confers a huge advantage over U.S. Forces, which cannot be overcome by mere money and technology, let alone by the arrogance that has been American's main defense against the realization that the war in Iraq was a mistake.


On November 15, 2005,
Wall Street Journal reporter Greg Jaffe told the story of David (last name withheld for security reasons), a U.S. Army foreign-affairs officer stationed undercover in northwestern Iraq. David wore civilian clothes and was so fluent in Arabic that the locals thought he was one of them. As a result, he was able to tell American military commanders how jihadist fighters had moved into Iraq across the Syrian border. He advised commanders and other officials on how to deal with their Iraqi counterparts and fired incompetent interpreters who had been hired by officials who didn't know the language. But here's the catch: he was one of only a handful of U.S. soldiers with those skills, and the military was in the process of pulling him out of Iraq. According to Colonel John D'Agostino, who oversaw his unit, "When David leaves, the U.S. Embassy's regional office in Mosul won't have a single Arabic speaker or Middle Eastern expert on its staff."

This shocking deficit is a reflection of one of the central yet rarely mentioned paradoxes about the role that the United States has come to occupy in the world. No other nation on earth is as involved in the affairs of other countries, yet the American people show very little knowledge of or even interest in knowing about those countries and their cultures. Hundreds of thousands of American troops are stationed on more than eight hundred military installations scattered throughout the world, and currently the United States is fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet whereas many citizens of Europe learn to speak several languages by the time they are adults, most people in the United States are lucky if they pick up even a smattering of French or German by the time they graduate from school. When large numbers of Hispanic immigrants began arriving in Florida and the U.S. southwest a couple of decades ago, the backlash included efforts to pass English-only laws that would restrict the immigrants' abilities to do business and communicate publicly in their native language.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

That's What Friends Are For

I'm not sure why I haven't felt like posting, or doing much of anything constructive or productive the past couple of days. Doesn't matter. This brought a smile to my face tonight (via):



Is there anyone with access to Obama who will explain to him that many gay people don't trust him, including (especially) gay people who voted for him? I giggled when he protested to the chanting activists that Boxer is their ally, and he's their ally, and he wants to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. He wanted a public option for the health care reform bill too -- hell, once upon a time he wanted a single-payer system. Who knows what he'll be serving up by the time a supposed DADT repeal reaches Congress? (Remember, DADT was Clinton's follow-up to his pledge to lift the ban on gays in the military. Result: the numbers of people expelled from the military for being queer increased.)

But let me just stick to gay issues. During the campaign Obama pandered to homophobic churches by getting an "ex-gay" preacher to entertain them. He used the word "proselytizing" with reference to gay people in an interview with the gay press. (To be scrupulously fair, he was talking about a gay man he'd known who "wasn't proselytizing all the time", but that would seem to imply that he thinks that significant numbers of gay men are.) He invited the antigay preacher Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. His Department of Justice defended the Defense of Marriage Act against a court challenge, with derisory damage control afterward. He has repeatedly and clearly expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage, in terms that make it clear he doesn't understand the issues involved. He ignored, and his ally Barney Frank sneered at, the Equality March on Washington last fall.

As long as gay people have an ally like Obama in the White House, I suspect that Don't Ask Don't Tell will be around for the foreseeable future. Those who want it repealed should keep up the pressure. I think it's obvious from his expression and body language in this clip that he was very displeased that the proles were harshing his vibe, but it's about time people from his base started doing that.

I notice that all this took place at a Democratic National Committee Fundraiser -- more than heckling, Obama needs to feel a pinch in the party's money department. But don't worry, in 2012, we'll have "Surely, comrades, you do not wish Sarah Palin back?" That'll keep the voters in line.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Weak Minds and Strong Soju

The other day I had an interesting exchange in a gay chat room I frequent. Another regular there, a white American (call him X) in his mid-30s living in Seoul (lucky dog), was teasing a Korean half his age, whom he apparently knows in real life (call him Y). The American thinks that such teasing is "good fun," in his words. He kept typing in "X pulls down Y's pants", which Y would protest and ask him not to do. This pantsing was virtual, of course -- they weren't in the same physical space at the time -- but it still seemed to disturb Y.

Finally, when X said that he was just teasing Y because he likes him, I commented, "And whom the Lord loveth, he pantseth."

X's response surprised me. "Don't say the Lord," he admonished me. I figured I was dealing with a religious nut upset by my blasphemy, but before I could reply, X wrote, "Religion is for weak minds."

"Well, then you'd fit in perfectly, wouldn't you?" I wrote. X then wrote something that indicated he thought I was a Christian. "I'm an atheist, fool," I wrote.

"You've been reading it or you couldn't quote it."

"I'm an English major, so of course I've read it. I also read Shakespeare." I then asked him if he was a fan of Ayn Rand, but he'd never heard of her. Reading his chat profile later, I found that he listed one book he liked, namely Sam Harris's The End of Faith, another prop for weak minds. Only a weak-minded person would object to someone's being acquainted with religious writing as literature, as though you'd get cooties just from touching the pages -- let alone forbidding others to use religious terminology in their presence. ("I'm an atheist and my ears aren't garbage cans!") We're all familiar with the parallel case of religious people who try to avoid "worldly" media or pursuits, lest they fall by the wayside. (And "Whom the Lord loveth he chastiseth" is a fairly notorious verse; I know it mainly by quotations in other writers, not in its original context.) But after all, refusing to learn about opposing views is so much easier than learning about them, whether you're a Christian or a Sam Harris fan. Finally, X was so offended by my playing with religious terminology that he didn't notice I was making a a joke. Maybe not a great joke, but it was a joke, and one that I would expect an atheist to appreciate. I've known Christians like that, too. Some atheist blogger, Greta Christina I think, once objected to the term "fundamentalist atheists," professing not to know what such a person would be like. I present X as an example.

All of which made me think of Antony Flew's 1950 paper "Theology and Falsification," a very powerful contribution to the philosophy of religion. It has been reprinted many times -- if you have an old Intro to Philosophy text around, chances are it includes this essay; and most of it is available online (it's only about a thousand words in total). The gist is that Flew challenged theists to explain what, if anything, could constitute evidence against belief in gods. He was concerned primarily with discourse, the utterances about God that believers make:
For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of the assertion. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is as near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion. And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion. When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, "Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?" he was suggesting that the Believer's earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.
Flew's paper is sometimes dismissed as a relic of early 20th-century Logical Positivism, a philosophical movement that is now passe. ("Logical Positivism?" today's professional philosopher is likely to say, aghast. "That's, like, so 20th century!") But it has the virtue of having contributed to its own obsolescence, because religious philosophers mainly reacted by granting the force of Flew's objection, denying that religious utterances were supposed to make assertions about the world, and trying to find other kinds of meaning that religious utterances could have. Like Flew's later book God and Philosophy, "Theology and Falsification" changed the landscape of Philosophy of Religion and of religious apologetics. This reaction took the form, however, of declaring that not only atheists like Flew but most religious believers misunderstood what religion and religious talk were all about. (Flew also remarked, "Merely remarking parenthetically that those who intend or interpret such utterances as crypto-commands, expressions of wishes, disguised ejaculations, concealed ethics, or as anything else but assertions, are unlikely to succeed in making them either properly orthodox or practically effective." I agree.)

There's something else in Flew's paper I want to look at, though. I remember it well from past readings, but this time it jumped out at me:
Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications. And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of theological utterance.
Flew seems to be saying that theological utterance is peculiarly susceptible to killing "a fine brash hypothesis by inches, the death of a thousand qualifications." It is, he says, "the endemic evil of theological utterance." I agree that the tendency is common in theological utterance, simply because it's so easy to indulge in it when you're talking about something immaterial, invisible, intangible, etc. By "endemic" I suppose Flew was thinking of Webster's definition 1b, " characteristic of or prevalent in a particular field, area, or environment ", and while I'm inclined to agree with him, I hesitate. Not because the death of a thousand qualifications isn't common in theology, but because it's so common everywhere else: in political discourse, artistic discourse, in personal relationships, even in the sciences. (Need I mention philosophy here? I hope it goes without saying. A lot of people, especially laypeople, think of what Flew is talking about as endemic to philosophy -- analyzing things to death until they no longer mean anything, sophistry, obfuscation, "what exactly do you mean by that?" Sometimes they're right.) I don't think Flew meant to single out theological utterance absolutely here; I know he has complaints about other kinds of discourse too. But many atheists are less careful.

For many atheists, religion is the Original Sin, so they might blame the equivocation in non-religious areas on the bad example of religion itself. For me, such a move would fit with the tendency I've noticed in many atheists to talk as though religion were not the invention / construction / creation of human beings, but an autonomous entity that goes around telling lies, starting wars, and teaching children not to touch themselves down there. I don't think so. I think the tendency Flew criticized is a peril endemic to language, discourse and analysis itself, to the fact that categories and classifications don't work neatly in the real world and so must be qualified; and there's no foolproof way of recognizing when you've crossed the line into killing off a fine brash hypothesis by inches. From time to time anyone involved in thinking and talking about the world would do well to reread "Theology and Falsification" and ask himself or herself if it's pertinent to what they're doing. I try to.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Theory and Practice of Paradise

I haven't read any of C. S. Lewis's books on Christianity in a long time, so John Beversluis's book on Lewis takes me back. This passage from Lewis's book The Problem of Pain, for example, explaining why his God lets people suffer:
We are perplexed to see misfortune falling on decent, inoffensive, worthy people -- on capable, hard-working mothers of families or diligent, thrifty little trades-people, on those who have worked so hard, and so honestly, for their modest stock of happiness and now seem to be entering on the enjoyment of it with the fullest right. How can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said? ... Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for a moment, that God who made these deserving people, may really be right when He says that their modest prosperity has not made them blessed; that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands before them and recognition of this need; He makes that life less sweet to them. ... The creature's illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature's sake, be shattered. ... And this illusion ... may be at its strongest in some very honest, kindly, and temperate people, on on such people, therefore, misfortune must fall [96-98, quoted by Beversluis 241-242].
There's a lot to be said about this, and Beversluis says it quite well, so if you want a detailed discussion read Chapter Ten of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Prometheus, 2007).

But I have a few things to add, among them that suffering falls not on only the self-satisfied bourgeois but on the devout and self-abasing Christian. According to orthodox Christian doctrine of course (and Lewis was very orthodox), there is none good, not one, and everyone deserves the worst misery that Yahweh can inflict on them, because we have fallen short of his glory. The most devout Christian is still harboring pride, self-love, and all the other monstrous faults that God just has to gouge out, without anesthetic. It happened to Lewis too, twenty years after he wrote The Problem of Pain, when his wife died of cancer, and in the book he wrote after her death, A Grief Observed, he admitted that he had been smug and complacent in writing so lightly about the agony his god inflicts for the crime of "insufficiency." None of this proves, of course, that Lewis was not describing the way the universe is actually organized; it doesn't, however, establish that Yahweh is just.

Beversluis also quotes one of Lewis's defenders, one Thomas Talbott, who has objected to Beversluis's argument that the world would be improved if Yahweh simply removed cancer from it, and argued that
Any such world [that is, any world with less pain and suffering and without cancer] that God could have created would have contained a less favorable balance of good over evil than exists in the actual world [quoted in Beversluis, 244].
How Talbott knows this, he apparently doesn't say. He goes further:
To begin with ... we must delete from the world (in our imagination) all the pain and suffering caused by this terrible disease as well as all the psychological torment experienced by both those cancer victims and those who love such victims; then we must delete all those goods -- such as the courageous endurance of pain - for which the cancer is a logically necessary condition; then we must delete all the free choices -- that either would have been made at all or would have been made differently if our world had been devoid of cancer ... [W]e must also add in all the options, all the free choices, and all the consequences of such free choices that would have been different. ... If in the absence of cancer, more people would have become more vicious, more likely to engage in warfare or to inflict suffering on others, the total quality of suffering might have been increased by the elimination of cancer [quoted in Beversluis, 245].
Talbott's morals are wanting, but his clarity at least is admirable. The position he holds is quite common, even standard, among theists grappling with the Problem of Evil. "Everybody's doing it" is not an excuse, but it's important to remember that he's not a lone wacko. Consider Rabbi Harold Kushner, a cozily mainstream figure, who told Newsweek after the Haitian earthquake, "The will of God is not to send us the disaster, but to send us the disaster to overcome." That's what Lewis and Talbott are saying too. It's not that God wants to hurt us, but things would be so much worse if he didn't. (It's a common move in this discourse to blame a lot of human suffering on human agents, but shouldn't they simply be viewed as Yahweh's instruments? A person's complacency can be shattered just as effectively by a course of waterboarding, rape, or being run over by a tank as it can by cancer, earthquake, or drought.)

What no one seems to notice is the difficulty this presents to the Christian hope of Heaven, an eternal state free of suffering and full of joy. If Yahweh cannot create a world without suffering because suffering makes us better by shaking our illusions out of us until our teeth rattle, then he can't create a Paradise where there is no suffering. In that case, it might be that we're living in Paradise already -- except, perhaps, that our suffering does end, sooner or later, when we die. No doubt in Paradise that little oversight will be remedied, and Yahweh and his angels will ensure that we suffer eternally. For our own good, of course, and in a loving, caring way, until every last bit of rebellion and self-sufficiency is squeezed out of us.

Which reminds me irresistibly (and mischievously) of this bit from Noam Chomsky's elegant evisceration of B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity:
Elsewhere, we learn that freedom "waxes as visible control wanes" (p. 70). Therefore the situation just described is one of maximal freedom, since there is no visible control. Furthermore, since "our task" is simply "to make life less punishing" (p. 81), the situation just described would seem ideal. Since people behave well, there will be no punishing. In this way, we can progress "toward an environment in which men are automatically good" (p. 73).
Extending these thoughts, let us consider a well-run concentration camp with inmates spying on one another and the gas ovens smoking in the distance, and perhaps an occasional verbal hint as a reminder of the meaning of this reinforcer. It would appear to be an almost perfect world. Skinner claims that a totalitarian state is morally wrong because it has deferred aversive consequences (p. 174). But in the delightful culture we have just designed there should be no aversive consequences, immediate or deferred. Unwanted behavior would be eliminated from the start by the threat of the crematoria and the all-seeing spies. Thus all behavior would be automatically "good," as required. There would be no punishment. Everyone would be reinforced -- differentially, of course, in accordance with his ability to obey the rules.
Within Skinner's scheme there is no objection to this social order. Rather, it seems close to ideal. Perhaps we could improve it still further by noting that "the release from threat becomes more reinforcing the greater the threat" (as in mountain climbing -- p. 111). We can, then, enhance the total reinforcement and improve the culture by devising a still more intense threat, say, by introducing occasional screams, or by flashing pictures of hideous torture as we describe the crematoria to our fellow citizens. The culture might survive, perhaps for 1,000 years.
There you have it -- a little bit of Heaven right here on Earth, and a beautiful prefiguring of the bliss that awaits us (not all of us, of course!) when God calls us home.

On Obstinacy in Unbelief

I'm reading the revised edition of John Beversluis's C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Prometheus, 2007), and it occurred to me that much of Christian pastoral counseling -- which is a form of apologetic in itself: one of its functions is to reassure Christians that the problems they're having don't invalidate their commitment to Christian faith -- relies on convincing people that their God isn't God after all, that he's not even a very good human being.

As Lewis said in a piece called "On Obstinacy in Belief", one's trust in God should not depend on one's mood, or falter when things aren't going perfectly:
We believe that His intention is to create a certain personal relation between Himself and us, a relation really sui generis but analogically describable in terms of filial or of erotic love. Complete trust is an ingredient in that relation -- such trust as could have no room to grow except where there is also room for doubt. To love involves trusting the beloved beyond the evidence, even against much evidence. No man is our friend who believes in our good intentions only when they are proved. No man is our friend who will not be very slow to accept evidence against them. Such confidence, between one man and another, is in fact almost universally praised as a moral beauty, not blamed as a logical error. And the suspicious man is blamed for a meanness of character, not admired for the excellence of his logic [in The World's Last Night, Harcourt 1960, pp. 25-6].
Lewis properly declares the relation between the believer and God as sui generis, that is, unique and not comparable to any other relation. But it can, he allows, be described by analogy to relations we are familiar with, like parent/child, erotic love, or friendship. The trouble is that because the relation is sui generis, all analogies break down quickly. I'd say, myself, that better analogies are available -- they're just less flattering.

Take one of Lewis's own examples: "No man is our friend who will not be very slow to accept evidence against them." True. That's because we can't know any other person's inner self, appearances can be deceiving, evidence can be falsified and we have to wait until our friend can explain problems that arise. Our friend promised to meet us at our favorite restaurant at 2 p.m., but he didn't show. Only later do we learn that he was hit by a car and taken to the hospital unconscious with two broken legs and a smashed cell phone. If we stomp back and forth fuming about our friend's unreliability without knowing the facts, it's our friendship that in question, not our friend's.

Another example is one I read years ago. Suppose you are fighting in the Resistance against the Nazi occupation, and you meet a highly placed collaborator in a secret encounter, who assures you that he is really on your side and he will soon act to prove it, but in the meantime you must trust him. For some reason you do, although more of your comrades are rounded up and executed each day.

Another example of Lewis's, after his wife died of cancer. He compared his God to a surgeon, who must do terrible, painful things to us in order to make us better. It hurts him as much as it hurts us, but there is no other way to improve us. (This would be something like Rabbi Kushner's claim that God sends us disasters so that we can overcome them. The dead, who don't get to overcome anything, don't show up in the balance sheet.)

There's one other thing I should mention here, an example which seems to be Beversluis's: "'Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him,' says Job (Job 13:15), who surely was not unaware of the problem of apparently contrary evidence" (210). "Apparently"! Job, for those who've forgotten, lost his wealth, his family and his own health as the result of a bet between Yahweh and Satan. Satan bet that if Yahweh removed the fence of protection to which Job owed his fabled well-being, Job would lose his trust in him, and Yahweh gave Satan permission to do everything to Job but kill him. Tormented beyond measure, Job finally denied the justice of Yahweh. In context, Job is saying that he'll continue attacking Yahweh for mistreating him, even if Yahweh slays him. I suspect that Job 13:15 is mistranslated here (it's the King James Version, I believe, but the text of Job is notoriously "corrupt," which means that experts aren't always sure what the Hebrew is, let alone what it means. [An explanation here.] Walter Kaufmann, whose discussion of Job and the Problem of Evil in The Faith of a Heretic (Doubleday, 1961) is still the best I've encountered, translated the verse as "He will slay me? For that I hope. But my ways I will maintain to his face. And let this be my salvation that no hypocrite comes to face him." (This translation is found in Kaufmann's Critique of Religion and Philosophy [Harper, 1958], page 349; I don't know Hebrew, but Kaufmann did, and I think this rendering fits the context better than the AV.) And rightly so, since nowhere in the book is it claimed by anyone (except his false friends) that Job has done anything wrong. And as Kaufmann pointed out [151],
Nowhere else in the the Bible does shadday ['almighty'] appear so constantly as the name of God as in the book of Job. But the claim that God's omnipotence is not questioned in the book does not rest merely on the use of a word. Rather, the point is that it never occurs to anybody that God might simply be unable to prevent Job's suffering.
The trouble is that these sorts of excuses can't apply to relations with a god who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly benevolent. If such a god promises to meet you for lunch at 2 p.m., no auto accident can stop him, he can't be knocked unconscious, and his cell phone battery is always charged. If your friend who promised to meet you turns up later undamaged and breezily says, "Oh yeah, I was supposed to meet you; sorry, I just didn't feel like lunch, and I decided I didn't need to check in with you," then you would have a sound reason to begin doubting his friendship. If he's never behaved like this before, you'd give him a second and even a third chance. God needs a better excuse than this kind of analogy.

Similarly for the high-placed Nazi collaborator. Sure, he must move carefully, marshal his resources and allies, and strike when the moment is right, or he'll end up with a bullet in his brain too. But a god doesn't have this excuse. He's not vulnerable, he's in no danger from the Nazis and can act when it suits him -- indeed, to deny that is to deny his divine sovereignty. Nor does he need to sneak around at night, meeting his partisans by candlelight with secret handshakes and passwords, making portentous promises. (Christians sometimes like to talk as though the earth were in the hands of the devil and his forces, and so God must sneak around to escape detection as he prepares for his final victory. Um, no.) He can safely keep you informed without danger to you, let alone to himself. Doubting a god is not like doubting a mere human being. The standards for a god are higher than they are for us, yet to listen to Christian apologists, you'd think they were lower.

The same thing goes for the divine Surgeon. Surgeons cut you up, oncologists prescribe intensely unpleasant courses of chemotherapy or radiation, because they are not omnipotent or omniscient. A surgeon who insisted on vivisecting you when he or she could simply wave a hand and say, "Be healed," could reasonably be suspected of being a vicious sadist, and the burden of proof would be on him or her to give reasons why not. This applies to a god even more, and Lewis's argument isn't helped by the fact that his lord and savior didn't heal people by invasive procedures -- he simply said the word. If there's a reason why "spiritual" healing requires prolonged torture that may just as well destroy the patient's trust in the doctor as achieve its nominal end, the patient needs to know the reason. (Notice that if the patient loses faith, Christians see that as a failure of the patient, not of the doctor's abusive treatment.) If no such reason is given, it's time to look for a new doctor.

And so on. I've never yet encountered an analogical defense of God that didn't rely on excuses that might just barely excuse a human being, but not an all-powerful deity. This doesn't prove that the Christian god doesn't exist, of course; it only gives what I think is a plausible reason not to trust him. Considering that the Bible presents its god as an abusive husband, and in other unflattering ways, it's hard not to feel about suffering Christians who cling to their faith as I would about a human being who won't leave an abusive relationship, and keeps making the most extravagant excuses for the abuser. They have to find their own way out, but they need support when they're ready to leave. Otherwise the cycle of abuse will continue.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Unclean! Unclean!

Okay, I vented a little bit about Michael Lucas's Advocate column, but what was the point of that thing anyway? The reason I read the damn thing in the first place is because this gay blogger linked to it. (I have no free will, just as Galen Strawson says. I see link. I must click to it. Mongo just pawn in game in life.) The majority of the impetus was the word "supergays": I decided to see what this word could mean, and found that Lucas didn't know what it meant either. It seems to work sort of like "Politically Correct," or "You think you're so smart! You think you know everything!" In this case, "These Supergays and Superlesbians think they're so special, but they buy my porn!" (Do superlesbians buy his porn?)

The blogger, one Joe Thompson, provided the following poll:

  • He's right - 100%!
  • He's insane and just trying to score press.
  • He's right, but I don't care. Porn stars should not represent us.
  • He's somewhat right, and maybe we should discuss this further.
  • I don't care, I just want to sleep with him.
It seems to me that these options, dumb as some of them are, probably are an accurate reflection of many people's reaction to the article. (Especially the last one.) What stuck with me here was "Porn stars should not represent us." Who said that Lucas represented gay people, or wanted to? His column was about personal slights he's suffered, which he blamed on the very real and troublesome PR obsession of certain subgroups of American queers with respectability, flag-waving, and hypocrisy.

Some of the comments posted to Lucas's column sank below even that, though, like the one (4/5/2010 3:36:58 PM, no permalink) which began, "Well, the truth of the matter is, Lucas, that you are a whore. And you like it. But, as it has been true throughout history, people may like whoring but not be seen with one in public." I presume that the commenter is a queer, and likes it, and as it has been true throughout history... Another (4/5/2010 1:53:52 PM) admonished Lucas that "you're a porn 'star', not Nelson Mandela. ... So until hell freezes over you'll just need to deal with the fact that your chosen profession as a porn 'star' doesn't make you a front man in politics or entertainment. " I don't see where Lucas claimed to be Nelson Mandela in his column, or even demanded to be a "front man." Some commenters (for example, 4/3/2010 1:45:29 AM) speculated that he may have had trouble at logo because of his vehemently anti-Muslim views, and that wouldn't surprise me, though from the look of things, Lucas could get more mileage by waving the flag, brandishing a crucifix, and claiming that he's being discriminated against because he stands up for America against the Mohammedan barbarians.

If he had somewhere claimed to speak for all gay people (as opposed to all of us, which is different), I'd object, but he hasn't. He says he has been "invited to speak at some pretty prestigious institutions, including Yale, Rutgers, Stanford, and Oxford, among others. The mainstream press has written numerous articles about me. I have been profiled in New York Magazine and The New Republic. And I have appeared on TV channels from HBO to NY1"; it would be interesting to know why.

Michael Lucas doesn't represent me, he's too dumb. But then, neither does The Human Rights Campaign. Neither do the Log Cabin Republicans, or gay Democrats for that matter. I don't know of any gay organization that does. Neither does Dan Choi, or Rosie O'Donnell, or Don Kilhefner, or Canon Mary Glasspool. I speak for myself. I have not delegated anyone to do that for me.

Who does speak for "the gay community"? None of us, and all of us. As I remember with some embarrassment, we who were openly gay in the early 70s sometimes at least talked as though we thought we spoke for all gay people. We didn't, but we did speak for ourselves, which not many gay people were willing to do in those days. One of the best things we did was to provoke them to do so, even if it was in the form of "Hey, wait a minute -- these guys don't speak for me! I'll have to stick my head out of the closet for a minute and speak for myself!"

I can say, "I'm a gay person, and I think ..." with perfect validity, though, not because I speak for other gay people, but because I am one of the individuals who make up "the gay community", and no statement about that vast nebulous abstraction should be taken seriously unless it takes me into account. And you. And Michael Lucas, and the Christian-Right wannabes he calls "supergays."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Just Say "Nein"!

Voiceover: The year is 1985. Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger is writing a letter cautioning against the laicization, or defrocking, of the Reverend Stephan Kiesle, already convicted of child molestation by a California court. "Consider the good of the Universal Church," he writes. This letter will surface in 2010, fanning the flames of a growing scandal which threatens to reach Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, himself. This unpleasant situation could have been prevented if Cardinal Ratzinger had a Sassy Gay Friend.

[Theme music. The Sassy Gay Friend throws his stole over his shoulder and smirks at the camera.]

[SGF, dressed in a priest's robes, bursts into the Cardinal's chamber.]

SASSY GAY FRIEND: What are you doing? What, what, what are you doing?

JOSEPH ALOIS RATZINGER: I am contending mit the enemies of die Kirche.

SGF: Oh, good! That must mean you're going to defrock Kinky Kiesle. It's about time.

JAR: Nein! I am saving a priest from the persecution of the ungodly. The world always seeks to destroy die Kirche by slander.

SGF: Josie, he was convicted of child molestation four years ago! He's been getting into the pants of little kids since the 1970s! He's not being slandered, he's a total sleazebag! And let me give you a blast from the future: he'll be defrocked anyway, and he'll be tried for 13 counts of child molestation in 2002, but thanks to these delaying actions of yours most of them will be thrown out because of the statute of limitations!

JAR: This is the fault of the homosexuals. They've infiltrated die Kirche and are trying to ruin it from within.

SGF: Right, by molesting little girls as well as boys. To throw you off the scent, so to speak. But let me ask you something else, Josie. What do you think of this tasty little number? [SGF shows JAR this photo:]
JAR: What a nice-looking young man! Who is he?

SGF: He's Father Georg Ganswein, and he's going to be your "Private Secretary," nudge nudge wink wink, when you become Pope in twenty years. He's going to stir places in elderly Catholic women that they'd forgotten they had!

JAR: The Pope? I? What are you saying, you strange fellow?

SGF: Oh, never mind. Let's get outa here and go shopping, you stupid bitch. Prada awaits!

[SGF opens the door and JAS exits ahead of him. SGF turns to the camera.]

SGF: She's a stupid bitch.