Monday, May 31, 2010
It's reasonably entertaining to watch him fillet the interviewer, who lobs one bit of Israeli propaganda after another at him, only to have him shoot them down. It's also a reminder that Chomsky's a Zionist, a point of which Chomsky's fans can hardly be ignorant since it's a well-known part of his origin story that he was planning to make aliya but became a linguist instead. I suspect that many of Chomsky's fans are as selective and self-deceiving in their knowledge of his positions as, say, many of Barack Obama's fans are of his.
I've seen a flurry of links lately to some articles scoring Chomsky for opposing boycotts and divestment from Israel, yelling He's totally a Zionist, comrades! The word "duh" comes to mind. If there are Chomsky dittoheads who follow Chomsky's opinions and recommendations without question, so much the worse for them. I wouldn't object to being called a Chomsky fan, but I've disagreed with him before, many other people who are basically on the same side have disagreed with him. (One of the pleasures of reading his book-length dialogue with Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power: The Middle East and US Foreign Policy: Dialogues on Terror, Democracy, War, and Justice, is that Achcar doesn't hesitate to disagree with Chomsky on important points, and Chomsky debates him back without rancor or hysteria.) I take Chomsky seriously enough to listen to his arguments, and I agree with him more often than not, but I don't feel any obligation to follow him slavishly, and I don't feel constrained to go along with him on (say) the boycott of Israel.
One writer accused Chomsky of dismissing disagreement with "contempt," which is probably true, but so what? Contempt isn't Guantanamo, it isn't Bagram, it isn't Gaza, it isn't even being sent to bed without your supper. If his contempt is the worst Chomsky's critics have to deal with, they're getting off easy in world-political terms, and if it intimidates them, they are just dittoheads and should be dismissed with contempt.
And the boycott is, I believe, going to be more important than ever in the wake of Israel's latest atrocity, an attack in international waters on the Freedom Flotilla, a peaceful aid mission to Gaza, killing at least ten people (Democracy Now! says at least 15) and injuring more, following up with the shameless lies we've come to expect from the Light of the Nations. (I myself am impressed at the chutzpah involved in Israeli complaints that when the storm troopers swarmed onto the boat, they were attacked with sticks and knives, small-arms fire, or even people "speaking Arabic" -- clear evidence of anti-Semitism, I suppose. Even if they are telling the truth for once [and they've got video], why shouldn't the flotilla defend itself?) I've already sent e-mail to the President and my Congressman -- phone calls and snail mail are not really feasible from East Asia -- and I urge everyone to do the same sort of thing. Pressuring the Obama administration and the US Congress to put real pressure on Israel is probably a lost cause, but writing and calling are one place to start. Support the boycott -- Elvis Costello just canceled a concert in Israel in solidarity with it -- or not, if you disagree. But think about what is going on, and do what you think right.
Sunday, May 30, 2010
No president has really done very much for the American Negro, though the past two presidents have received much undeserved credit for helping us. This credit has accrued to Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy only because it was during their administrations that Negroes began doing more for themselves. Kennedy didn't voluntarily submit a civil rights bill, nor did Lyndon Johnson. In fact, both told us at one time that such legislation was impossible. President Johnson did respond realistically to the signs of the times and used his skills as a legislator to get bills through Congress that other men might not have gotten through. I must point out, in all honesty, however, that President Johnson has not been nearly so diligent in implementing the bills he has helped shepherd through Congress.
Of the ten titles of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, probably only the one concerning public accomodations -- the most bitterly contested section -- has been meaningfully enforced and implemented. Most of the other sections have been deliberately ignored.
I'm sure that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day.
--Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, 1969
As many obstructionists have said smugly, You can't eradicate racism (or male chauvinism or homophobia) by passing laws against it. That's true, though once laws have been passed the same obstructionists will say: Okay, game over, you've got equality, now go home and shut up. Social movements also may try to bring about change by extra-legal means: picketing, boycotts, argumentation, and just plain getting up in the face of bigots who put their bigotry out on the street for everyone to see. It's not surprising that Sullivan and other "classical liberals", who prefer people to be isolated individuals, would object to organizing, solidarity, social pressure, advocacy, and other approaches. Not everyone has to join a movement, of course. But it's important to remember that you can't bring about social change by legislation alone; my difference with Sullivan and his ilk is that I don't think other methods are illegitimate.
Or rather, re-posted, since it's evidently another one of those chain texts that people pass along. It took me less than a minute to read it, and only twenty-five muscles to start typing up this post.
A Soldier is missing their family while caring for yours. In the minute it takes you to read this, Soldiers all over the world are saving lives. It's Military appreciation week....Repost if you are a Military, love a Military member, hold memories of a Fallen Hero or appreciate the Military
I wonder if this person noticed that the word "American" is missing from the text. Would she agree that Taliban soldiers are saving lives? Soldiers are "all over the world", right? I didn't think about it right away myself, because my blood pressure went right up at "saving lives." Yeah, right.
Militaries don't save lives, they take lives. Can Americans be excused for ignoring this basic fact just because it's Memorial Day there? Anyway, General McChrystal said he was heartbroken, and the perpetrators have received letters of reprimand; the President says he takes civilian deaths very seriously. Remember, it's about us, it's all and only about us.
The US military has reprimanded six operators of an unmanned drone, which mistakenly attacked a civilian convoy in Afghanistan killing at least 23.
Warnings that the convoy was not an attacking force were ignored or played down, while the ground-force commander was not sure who was in the vehicles, an investigation found.
The deadly assault took place in Uruzgan Province in February.
Civilian deaths in strikes have caused widespread resentment in Afghanistan. ...
The commander of the international forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, said letters had been issued reprimanding four senior and two junior officers in Afghanistan.
He said: "Our most important mission here is to protect the Afghan people; inadvertently killing or injuring civilians is heartbreaking and undermines their trust and confidence in our mission.
"We will do all we can to regain that trust."
The botched strike happened despite Gen McChrystal's introduction of much tougher rules of engagement in a bid to minimise such casualties.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Whatever It Is I'm Against It disassembles the press conference here, and quotes some weird Presidential jokes, or attempts at jokes, here. Tain't funny, McGee. And:
P.S. The Field Negro does an excellent job of talking back to the President; too bad the White House isn't listening.
I have seen a lot of clips of Secretary of State Clinton grandstanding on Korean TV in the past few days, announcing that an independent inquiry had established North Korean guilt, which to me is as good as a confirmation of the North's innocence. Korean friends and some articles I've looked at in the Hankyoreh inform me that there is room for doubt. One friend told me today that it's normal around election time for the ruling party to stir up anxiety about North Korean aggression. Similar incidents have been happening ever since the Korean War ended in truce in 1953, but more people died (about 46) when the Cheonan sank, and it providentially occurred close to the elections, which made it useful for exploitation. On the other hand, the Lee administration's shutdown of economic activity with the North is hurting businesses in the South:
Businesses commissioned for inter-Korean processing and trade were up in arms Tuesday following President Lee Myung-bak’s announcement of plans to halt inter-Korean trade in response to the sinking of the Cheonan. The companies charged that the government’s measures “are killing South Korean businesses, not North Korea.” With the government’s focus lying solely on punishing North Korea, the abrupt announcement gave no time for small and mid-sized companies to prepare a retreat, and despite what is effectively a compulsory measure, almost no government compensation plan has been put in place. ...I suspect that measures like this may hurt the ruling party at the polls next week.
For the most part, the companies commissioned to do processing plan their production six to seven months in advance, so a lot of the raw materials are already in North Korea," said an official who attended the Unification Ministry’s talk Tuesday. "If the goods that are currently being produced, or even those that are already finished, cannot go in, then it tarnishes the image not only of the businesses, but also of the company, since they are unable to deliver to the foreign contracting company, and of the state."
I've also learned from the Hankyoreh that President Lee Myung-bak and "a number of cabinet members" did not complete their compulsory military service. That surprised me, because not completing one's service is supposed to be a serious disability for men in South Korea. But evidently it hasn't stood in Lee's way. On the other hand, his record may partially explain his desire to appear tough toward Japan and North Korea; we have such men in US public life too, known as "war wimps" and "chicken hawks."
I was sitting on a bench in COEX Mall yesterday, writing in my notebook, when a Korean man about my age, dressed in suit and tie, noticed me and stopped to chat. "Is that English?" he asked about my writing. I admitted that it was.
After asking me the usual biographical questions -- where was I from, what brought me to Korea, what did I do back home in America -- he asked what I thought about the sinking of the Cheonan. Didn't I think that America would help Korea, as Mrs. Clinton had promised? I made a face, and told him I wouldn't rely too much on American promises. What, he asked, is she a liar? She is, I told him, and so is Obama: think of what they have said about Iran and numerous other countries. Besides, didn't he remember that in the Korean Civil War, the US had promised to help the South if the North attacked -- yet when that attack happened, there was no help until the South was almost entirely conquered?
He conceded that unhappily, but then he brightened and declared that there was nothing to worry about, because the North is very weak. There is no danger that they could do much damage to the South. I thought about that for a moment, then asked him why, if the North is so harmless, President Lee and the Americans are saying that the North is a deadly threat? That took him aback too. We chatted for a few moments more, and then we shook hands and he went on his way.
Myself, I don't believe that North Korea is as weak as this man claimed; that was just normal nationalistic boasting on his part. I believe that they could do a lot of damage in the South before they were stopped. It chills me to think of what war would do to the beautiful country I'm visiting, and to its people. Interestingly, it's China that is pressing for caution and patience now -- they don't want war on the Korean peninsula either, so close to their own borders. It's easy for the Americans to say "Let's you and him fight" -- the fight would take place far away from us.
P.S. From the Hankyoreh:
I'd call that a healthy attitude. We could do with more of it in the US.
In a survey conducted Saturday by Research Plus at the behest of the Hankyoreh, 59.9 percent of those surveyed say they do not trust the military’s statements issued on the findings of its investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan. Only 34.9 percent say that they trust the military officials. Some 57.9 percent also said that the ruling government has not responded effectively to the stinking of the Cheonan, while only 34.3 percent said they think the government has carried out an effective response.
Friday, May 28, 2010
Am I the only one who's getting a gigantic kick out of watching Eyjafjallajökull spit in the eye of modern technological civilization? Take that, human air travel. And this has to be the best thing I've seen so far about this spectacular demonstration of planetary poetic justice:Well, no, I don't think he was being too flippant about the disruption of air travel, though that could be because I fly only once a year at most, so I'm arguably not included in that tiny proportion of the world's population affected by the eruption. I also think that scientific hubris about "our" ability to control nature can bear to be taken down a few pegs now and then, though I'm not sure this blogger would agree with me on that.Two years? Oh god yes.
While airlines hope to fly up to about half their regular schedules Monday, the potential for long-term air travel disruption still exists. Records show that the last time the Icelandic volcano stirred, in 1821, it erupted on an off for two years.
Go, Earth, go!
(If you think I'm being too flippant about all these suffering travelers or you'd just like something a little more substantive, go read George Monbiot's observations about the fact that in order to address global warming, we must drastically reduce the amount of flying we do. The point that struck me the most forcefully: "But I urge you to remember that these privations affect only a tiny proportion of the world's people. The reason they seem so harsh is that this tiny proportion almost certainly includes you.")
The first, relatively trivial thing I want to point out is how easily he falls into anthropomorphizing the volcano and the planet. This is one of the core symptoms of religion -- treating the impersonal as if it were personal. One of the reasons I insist that religion is not a discrete, separate, special creation in human culture, easily distinguishable from other areas of human thought and endeavor, is that unbelievers, even unbelieving scientists anthropomorphize too. That includes Richard Dawkins, well known for his didactic personifications of the Selfish Gene and the Blind Watchmaker. That's the trivial matter.
Not so trivial is Caruso's vindictive glee that He (Eyjafjallajökull, that is) has brought down the mighty, humbled the proud, smitten the wasteful in Coach and Economy Class with literal fire and brimstone. (His commenters joined in with hallelujahs.) As with Christians, taking this stance requires cultivating a debilitating tunnel vision. If Eyjafjallajökull was telling "us" that "we" need to fly less, what was the Earth's crust telling the Haitians? What was Hurricane Katrina telling the residents of New Orleans? What was the Cretaceous Mass Extinction telling the proud and selfish dinosaurs? (Did Earth take out a contract with an asteroid to rub them out? Pretty solid organization there.)
Every natural disaster, in this mindset, becomes a righteous act of the Biosphere, chastising its rebellious children. You can't celebrate just one; you have to account for the others. Once you've postulated that a god intervenes in our world, either by taking the BEST unto his bosom to be with him or by giving us a beautiful day after a week of rain, you can no longer claim that it doesn't intervene by killing off a quarter of a million Haitians, or by sending plagues or droughts or famines. The same goes for Mother Nature. It won't work to blame these disasters on Sinful Man with his Global Warming, partly because they occurred before human beings were a gleam in Gaia's eye, but mostly because that is the same rationalization the religious use to account for embarrassing suffering that they don't want to connect with their gods. You can't attack Pat Robertson for blaming the earthquake on the Haitians, and then praise Eyjafjallajökull for striking down the air travellers -- not if you want to see yourself as fundamentally different from Robertson.
I don't think that Caruso was all that serious, of course. He was speaking in parables for our edification, just like any other preacher. I don't mean to take him literally. But to paraphrase Gandhi, I find increasingly that I like your atheism; I do not like your atheists.
God saw you getting tired and a cure was not to beThis makes painful reading, and I'm not denying her loss, or telling her that she should feel differently. I just want to try to sort out why I find this kind of talk so disturbing.
So He put His arms around you and and whispered "come to me"
With tearful eyes I watched you, and saw you pass away
Although I loved you dearly I could not make you stay
A golden heart stopped beating, hard working hands at rest
God broke my heart to prove to me He only takes the BEST
(Repost if you have a loved one in Heaven)
Begin with "He only takes the BEST." It's obviously false. Everybody dies. People are dying all the time, all around us. I understand that grief makes it very hard to pay attention to matters outside our own painful circle, but for me the best remedy for grief is to remember that it makes me part of the human community, to look outward instead of only inward. But if Yahweh takes only the best, whoever they are, then the worst would never die. The spiritually advanced die, the corrupt die. Which makes me wonder why people say such palpably ridiculous things, and why they find them comforting.
Second, this verse isn't very flattering to Yahweh. even leaving aside the notion that "a cure was not to be", not even for an omnipotent deity who could heal the sick and raise the dead. In Greek myth, Crete imposed a tribute on Athens, requiring the best, the most beautiful, most graceful of its youth to be sent to die in the labyrinth in the jaws of the Minotaur. The Minotaur also "took the best," but no one would see this as a sign of his great goodness.
War also takes the best. It's a pious cliche to say so. Countries select only the healthy and strong young people to go to kill, die, and be maimed. People are more ambivalent about war than about their gods, but they romanticize the brave youths who die so gloriously. This may be partly a symptom of guilt, and one situation where the traditional fear of the dead could be halfway rational. Why not flatter the young people whose lives you've squandered? If there were some kind of afterlife and the dead are watching us, it might well be prudent to praise them, to appease their resentment.
"If you have a loved one in Heaven..." What about our loved ones in Hell? It isn't polite to say so, but everyone must have such people, including the most devout Christians, though they don't like to think about it. Even the very devout will, if pressed, admit that it impinges on their god's sovereignty for them to say who will or won't go to Heaven; they usually say brightly that they are just expressing a lively faith in their god's mercy. From what I've seen, Yahweh's mercy and a token will get you on the subway, but that's beside the point. These people don't know their loved ones' eternal destination; they are whistling in the dark.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
The term "rape culture," used repeatedly by the Hathor Legacy blogger, is misleading if it suggests that there is a "rape culture" distinct from the culture as a whole. As Joanna Russ wrote in 1985 (Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts, The Crossing Press, page 92):
I’ve always thought that patriarchal male sexuality must be a rather difficult business. To over-simplify: A partner’s hostility or boredom is ordinarily a real turn-off – and yet this is exactly the situation under patriarchy, where so many women are not interested, not excited, not participants, and not happy. Yet men must penetrate and ejaculate if there are to be any babies – and so the problem for patriarchy (whether you think of this as a one-time invention or a constant process) is to construct a male sexuality that can function in the face of a woman’s non-cooperation or outright fear and hostility.Most women, whether they think of themselves as feminists or not, recognize this; it's part of the folklore. But it's so extreme, it's like saying that all men are rapists, isn't it? Well, no, it isn't. It's to say that our official culture structures sexual expression this way, even though not all men or women conform to the role they are supposed to play. I suspect it's because most people do not live up to official erotic and gender values that human life is at all bearable -- to the extent that it is bearable.
If you doubt that this is the case, let me present a revealing passage from a highly respectable male writer who calls for a return to traditional Christian values, Harry Blamires. Blamires is, according to Wikipedia, an Anglican theologian, literary critic, novelist, and a protege of C. S. Lewis. He's the author of a mainstream academic work on James Joyce's Ulysses. In his book The Post-Christian Mind: Exposing Its Destructive Agenda (Ann Arbor MI: Servant Publications, 1999), Blamires complained that "the need for living harmoniously in society along with people of other faiths has encouraged a pluralism that saps confidence in the imperatives of the Christian revelation" (14):
Current secularist humanism -- a mishmash of relativistic notions negating traditional values and absolutes -- infects the intellectual air we breathe. There is a campaign to undermine all human acknowledgement of the transcendent, to whittle away all human respect for objective restraints on the individualistic self. The hold of this campaign on the media is such that the masses are being brainwashed as they read the press, listen to the radio or watch TV .And so on. Most of the book is just this overheated. Someday I may quote and discuss more of it. But for now I want to single out one fascinating bit -- fascinating in the same sense as a car wreck: you can't look at it and you can't look away.
... The size of Victorian families indicates an uninhibited level of sexual activity. [As does the number of children sired by Victorian papas and sons on the maidservants.] It could be argued that the Victorians were much more conscious of the power of sex than we are. That could be why women were distanced from men by complex etiquettes of contact in social life. There was a time when female employees in certain respectable institutions were required to lower their eyes when conversing with male colleagues. The ethos between this distancing must surely have been based on a recognition of the compulsive force of the sexual appetite. On those grounds the Victorians would never have been so rash as to put both sexes together in comparable stations, say, on a warship. We, who have seen what doing so had led to, may perhaps concede their prudence. The Victorians seem to have believed in the need to tame sexuality and domesticate it. We find in Victorian literature the image of the virginal young woman who seems chastely remote from contact with the earthiness of procreation. She is someone in whose presence animal appetite is chilled into awe. This image, the angel in the house [!? – the angel in the house was the mother, not a virgin], was surely not the product of male minds castrated by dwelling in the world of top hats that had to be decorously lifted at the sight of a skirt. It was the product of male minds alert to the bubbling cauldron of sexuality that seethed beneath the surface of interchange between the sexes [152-153].Let me try to tease out some of the remarkable assumptions embedded in this incoherent rant. The most obvious, I suppose, is that for Blamires "the sexual appetite" is exclusively male, and it is always a hairsbreadth away from aggression. A woman who meets a man's eyes -- in "certain respectable institutions," at least, and I wonder which ones he has in mind -- instead of lowering them modestly, risks setting off his hair-trigger lust. The Victorians were not the only ones who believed in the need to tame sexuality and domesticate it; so did the pagan Greeks. The early Christians agreed, but they mostly seem to have thought that the best way to tame male sexuality was total abstinence, with marriage a licit outlet for those who couldn't cut the mustard. But the Victorians seem also to have had little hope of taming the brute beast in the human male, and settled for supplying many outlets, commercial and amateur ("bad girls" of one type or another), for a man's "bubbling cauldron", so that the chaste respectable virgin may be spared his rutting violence if her icy remoteness fails to chill his animal appetite into awe.
Now, a culture based on assumptions like these will be a rape culture. Rape will be the norm, because women's own wishes and desires are not taken into account, or even noticed. The culture will represent men as ravening beasts whose lust is barely kept in check and can be set off by nothing more provocative than making eye contact. On the other hand, the lowered eyes of modesty are wonderfully stimulating: a modest woman knows she's enflaming a man, she's just being coy to entice him; she really Wants It, as all women do. If a man assaults a woman, it's because he lost the war within himself to tame his sexuality; but it also must have been something she did, probably deliberately, so she must have Wanted It. If too many men are losing control, then women should be confined to their homes after dark; any who go out after curfew will know that whatever happens to them is their own fault, so they must Want It too. A fortiori, if you dress up your daughter like a harlot you can hardly pretend to be surprised if some poor man decides she's signaling her sexual availability and takes her up on her offer, even she's only six years old. But even if you lock her in a barrel until she's eighteen and feed her though the bunghole, even if you cover her from head to foot in the name of "modesty," her mere femaleness makes her what the Catholics call an occasion of sin. There will be men trying to break the barrel open to take her, there will be men who will go nuts and attack her because her chador didn't conceal her enough, her sensual body language shines through like X-rays. That's just how men are.
It's worthwhile to compare Blamires's take on male sexuality with Michael Ruse's. Being a post- or at least non-Christian, Ruse lamented that women don't go into heat, because "then even if we had the same moral principles -- treat others fairly, etc. -- it would simply not make sense to condemn someone for fucking the female if he got the chance." Like Blamires, though, Ruse took for granted that men are always on a hair-trigger, ready to be set off at the mere sight of a pretty girl passing by; about women's desires he had nothing to say, apparently being ignorant of their existence and not interested in finding out.
Blamires, remember, is not a Larry Flynt or a Hugh Hefner; he's a reactionary Christian of impeccably respectable credentials. The crazy things he says do come close to normative Victorian (and pre-Victorian, as you can see by reading Shakespeare or Jane Austen; or post-Victorian, if you read Norman Mailer or John Gray) attitudes to male sexuality. Women aren't people in his Christian mind, they're symbols -- either virgins or whores. It's revealing that what he considers the Christian alternative to pervasive secular relativism looks like a scenario out of Victorian pornography.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
A writer at The Hathor Legacy linked to a post of mine, so I’ve been looking in over there from time to time. Today I read a post and the comments thereto, inspired by a now-removed video at YouTube, which showed a bunch of pre-pubescent girls in their dance class, being taught to dance like pole dancers, hiphop hoochies, and other sluts.
I shared the writer’s displeasure and distaste, but the more I read the post and the comments it inspired, the more I found that something else was bothering me. I’m not a woman, I’m not the parent of a daughter, so of course I don’t understand from the gut the way the writer feels. But I’m also not a pedophile, so I was a bit shaken by the writer’s claim that these girls, and others like them in the gender meatgrinder, were being costumed and taught to dance so as to signal their “sexual availability.”
Well, no. An eight-year-old can’t signal her sexual availability, no matter how she’s dressed or how she moves. The writer and some of the commenters seemed unclear about the gap between how straight males might respond to the children’s moves and what those moves actually signified, let alone offered. To repeat: an eight-year-old cannot signal her sexual availability. It’s hard for me to understand how an adult male could look at such a performance and conclude that a child is offering herself for his penetration.
Which is not just because I’m gay. The blogger wrote, "And if it’s such an okay idea for girls, where are the little eight-year-old Chippendales? Wouldn’t that be cute? No, people: it would be disturbing." Maybe; I'm not as sure of the sensibilities of other adults as she is. I don’t like big Chippendales either, but a group of eight-year-old boys couldn’t signal sexual availability to me no matter how nekked they got or how they gyrated. Maybe when I was eight years old they would have, but contrary to the current therapy-culture assumption that even an eight-year-old can be a pedophile, I don’t think it’s the same thing.
And this raises another point. An adult pole dancer is not “signaling her sexual availability” either. I’ve never gone to a strip club, gay or straight, but I have read enough, and talked to enough men who do, to have an idea of their etiquette. If an audience member, inflamed by the spectacle and assuming it was for his benefit alone, were to climb up on stage and assault a dancer, not only the bouncers but probably some of the other audience members would stop him, beat him up, and throw him out. The same goes for a streetwalker, though many people, male and female alike, don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with raping or even killing a prostitute. Still, she’s not signaling her sexual availability to all and sundry either: a price has to be negotiated, and limits observed. Any pro-sex feminist knows this, I think, so why is this blogger essentially conceding that “bad” women (or little girls), as defined by their body language and dress, are ‘asking for it’?
A feminist, pro- or anti-sex, ought also to know that rape culture has nothing to do with how a woman is dressed or carries herself. Little girls (and adult women dressed modestly or immodestly, fat women, ugly women, old women) are raped not because they went to dance class and worked up a version of “Let Me Entertain You”, but because rapists won’t take No for an answer; many think that if they’re attracted to a female, it’s because she’s sending out sex rays that mean she really wants it, no matter what her lying mouth may say. That’s rape culture, and dressing up little girls like hookers or strippers has nothing special to do with it.
This reminds me of an issue that is still with us, but which I first encountered in the pages of the student newspaper: Islamic “veiling” (the word in English at least is a euphemism) of women. Back in the 80s, I believe, controversy erupted on campus from time to time over this practice, especially at that time because a few American Christian women were converting and being very pious about it. (The Muslim Hedonist’s blog seems to be defunct, unfortunately, for it comes from one woman who joined that movement and came to regret it.) When non-Muslims said or wrote that the veil oppressed women, some of the converts wrote letters insisting that they were just being modest, and that it was American sexual culture that oppressed women and encouraged them to be immodest. (This is the flip side of women and gay men who say that they embrace makeup and drag because they want to be beautiful, as though you couldn’t be beautiful without those accessories.) I later ran into a young woman who, though I don’t believe she converted, gushed about the “spirituality” of Muslim piety, though she’d never have said such a thing about southern Indiana Pentecostal women who embraced and practiced “modesty” in almost exactly the same terms.
The Muslim women (and their male counterparts) were wrong, of course. It’s veiled women who are immodest; that’s why they need to cover themselves. American women who walk around in short shorts and halter tops with their faces and hair uncovered are not immodest; that’s why they don’t need to cover themselves. As you can tell by the range of coverings in Muslim societies which range from just a headscarf that leaves the face uncovered to the full chador which includes a mesh to keep even a woman’s eyes invisible, there’s no clear line between modesty and immodesty. To a devout chador wearer, a Malaysian woman who wears a scarf, a blouse and trousers, instead of a portable tent that covers her entirely, would be little better than an American pole-dancer. It’s notorious that in Victorian England and America, even a glimpse of a woman’s ankles would drive a man wild with lust; it’s less often acknowledged that if she weren’t middle-class and had no male protector in view, a woman would be assumed to be asking for it if a man’s lust proved to be “uncontrollable.”
There’s another thing about the eight-year-old pole dancers. The writer and commenters talked about the “premature sexualization” of these children. Isn’t it also premature when little girls are encouraged to fantasize about being princesses and having fairy-tale weddings? Or to practice motherhood with dolls? They know as little about the reality they’re miming as the girls in that video. (For that matter, is it premature if girls of the same age are put in charge of younger siblings to take some of the load off their overburdened mothers? That’s a traditional practice, after all, and not many people seem to be bothered by it. Indeed, there’s a sort of shrugged-shoulders fatalism about it – it’s natural after all, girls will be girls, of course they want to be princesses, just like Princess Diana. And we all know how well official adult marriage often works out, fairy-tale weddings and all.)
I remember being strongly affected when I first read Marge Piercy’s 1976 future-utopia novel Woman on the Edge of Time; among much else there’s a scene where the head of the children’s care center explains to another future character that in the 20th century, toys were used to teach children sex roles. It was so obvious, but at the time it was a new idea to me. One could say the same about teaching little boys to play soldier, or cowboys and Indians, or letting them do so, which also prepares them for the role they’ll play as adults – namely cannon fodder.
Another commenter pointed out that we know nothing about the background of that video. Were the little girls dressed up by their teachers with the full approval of their mothers? Or did they choose their look themselves? Not that it matters, though it would be interesting to know what the adults involved thought. [P.S. At least some of the parents evidently approved -- see the ABC News story linked below -- but were they thinking? Jeez, I'm so glad I'm not a parent.] Even if the girls nagged until they were allowed to dress like hookers and work up a “SuperFreak” routine, the fact remains that they didn’t know what it signified to adults, and in any case, children need to be protected from the self-serving aggression of adults. (That goes for adults of both sexes, including those who would “rescue” them.) As I indicated before, the blogger and some of her commenters conceded far too much to rape culture, by agreeing that the little girls were behaving in such a way as to invite adult male aggression while stopping just short of saying they were asking for it. (Suppose an adult were to respond to a little boy playing soldier by walking up and shooting him with a real gun. Would anyone argue that the adults in the kid’s life were responsible for his death, because they’d taught him to signify that he was a suitable target for a bullet?)
Like it or not, children want to grow up, and in the meantime they imitate adults, whether the ones around them or ones they hear or read about or see in the movies. I don’t much like some of the roles they try on for size either, but with the best will in the world you can’t stop them from needing to do it. What we can try to do is to hammer it into adults’ heads that whatever fantasy children are playing with, it’s a game and not real, and adults shouldn’t mistake the game for reality. That goes not only for obsessed straight men but for adult women.
Much of the blogger’s argument was based on her visceral reaction to the video, to children’s “beauty” contests, and the like.
Tell me when you watch the linked video, honestly: don’t you feel like you’re watching women? Women’s slim thighs, women’s hidden breasts, women’s buttocks? After all, women with curves have been out of style for forty years – little girl bodies have long been the ideal for all of us (which may be a whole other topic). If you’re attracted to women, doesn’t this video give you a creepy little hormonal twitch, probably followed by irrational guilt? Sometimes in reviewing media for Hathor, I try to imagine seeing women through white male eyes – it’s so easy, since I grew up in a culture that taught me to look at my own body to see if I had what men wanted or not. I watch this video, and I see what men want. My brain tells me I’m looking at little girls: my eyes tell me I’m looking at grown women.As though only "white males" objectified women this way! Seen any hiphop videos lately? The blogger links to an ABC News story that quotes a "clinical psychologist" who says "It's pretty clear that this dance is erotic in a way that would be more appropriate for girls post-puberty." Physician, heal thyself. So much is in the eye of the beholder, you know. Why would it be "appropriate" for post-pubescent girls or women to pander to rape culture? It's also worth noting that many people did object to the video and the performance. But I have to add, from the clips included in the ABC story, that my eyes don't tell me I'm looking at grown women. And if you want to see premature sexualization of little girls, look at a ballet class.
The blogger just wasn’t as far outside of rape culture’s assumptions as she liked to think. I think there’s only one way to address this. A pole dancer isn’t asking for it. Nor is a prostitute. Nor is a college girl who shows her tits in a Girls Gone Wild video. Nor is a woman who walks into a chain bookstore and is greeted by an employee who can't take his eyes off her breasts. (The same blogger, as it happens.) It’s hard enough to get men to grasp this; if women (and especially feminist women) can’t grasp it either, then we might as well give up.
We're beginning a new series of messages at Trinity UMC-Elkhart this weekend. Calling it BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS TRUTHS ABOUT GOD. We're wading into deep water. Talking about such BIG mysteries as the Trinity, the 2nd Coming, and the fact (this week) that grace comes in three flavors...works in three ways.In fairness to the man, he commented on his status himself right off: "Oh, for cryin' outloud, Chaplain. Get a life...or a scone... or a turnover...or muffin...or French toast...." This refers, of course, to an earlier status in which he discussed being teased because eating scones isn't manly. But he didn't really mean it, I'm sure, or he'd cancel the "series of messages." Anyway, an earlier status read thusly:
Bring your Bible. Be prepared to dig deep. We'll be exploring such big mysteries as the Trinity, the 2nd Coming, etc. Tell your friends. This weekend we're talking about the fact that the NT teaches us grace comes in three different flavors. Works in three different ways in our lives.Three different flavors? The New Testament? I kinda wish I could be there, Mark, with my Bible. But it wouldn't be a good thing to do, even if I weren't on the other side of the planet at the moment. I'd do my best to sit on my hands, because I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about these "mysteries," but I'd probably have to be gagged to keep from behaving badly. (I can't help wondering: does "Tell your friends" include bringing outsiders like me, or better still, a competent New Testament scholar?) This is a good example of what I find objectionable about the kinds of Christians who like to think of themselves as respectable, and who are often seen as such even by non-Christians: nice, white, suburban, mild and not pushy (except for that crap about BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS TRUTHS ABOUT GOD). They mostly wouldn't talk about these things in public, and except for the more militant fundamentalist atheists, most non-Christians would either shake their heads derisively or hush themselves and tiptoe out if they hear about them, because it's a Christian thing and they wouldn't understand.
Here's what bugs me about all this. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, has certain knowledge about the Trinity, the Second Coming, or Grace, or any number of other theological issues. The Second Coming in particular is hotly controversial among Christian scholars of the Bible, and it was the topic that caught my eye and made me want to hear just what Mark is going to have to say about it. You can spin all kinds of tall tales about it, but most are no better or truer (maybe hairier) than anyone else's. Apocalyptic is basically an embarrassment to the mainline churches, who prefer to ignore the matter or obfuscate it as much as possible. You can't possibly deal with it adequately in a "message" or a "series of messages," and if you do deal with it adequately you'll end up with questions instead of answers; the same goes for his other topics, but this is the one I've spent the most time looking at myself. The Trinity and Grace are even more vacuous. There are times when I feel some sympathy for pastors who have to try to find something resembling sense in theology and pass it along to their congregations, but this isn't one of them.
When I'm in Korea, I rent one so that my friends can reach me easily. I just got this year's model yesterday, and it's pretty nice; see above. My experience isn't representative, because I only have it for a couple of weeks and never really adjust to the experience. But this time around I decided that I really don't want to get a cell phone in the US until and unless I really need one -- until I move to Korea, say -- and here's why.
Today one of my friends called me while I was in a PC room. I heard the ringtone, but I nearly missed his call because my mind refused to recognize that I was hearing my phone ringing. If that were a phone, my mind reasoned, I'd be at home; I'm not, ergo it's not a phone. Some version of this has been a problem every time I've rented a phone, and I often miss calls because of it, annoying my friends when they can't get through to me. I have to be alone in a room to be sure I'll hear the ring and recognize it as mine.
It doesn't help that I hear other people's phones ringing all the time. I guess I need a ringtone as personalized as a child's cry so that I can recognize it in a crowd. But I think it will take me a fair amount of time to adjust to the difference, and I'm not sure I want to.
I belong to a generation that began the assault on public space with transistor radios (these little contraptions were the predecessor of the Walkman -- if you watch reruns of old TV sitcoms you might see one being held to the head of the occasional "Beatnik"), and I grew up surrounded by what my parents' generation regarded as Damn Noise, including Damn Noise I made myself or passed along. But I always valued silence too. For a while in the mid-60s when money was tight, my mother tried keeping our electricity use to a bare minimum. We used kerosene lamps (eek! what a fire hazard!) in the evenings and left the TV and radio off. I did my homework and reading by lamplight (which, along with self-abuse, might have contributed to my deteriorating eyesight later on), and I remember that period as a good one. When I go outdoors now I don't have a music source plugged into my ears, can't imagine trying to ride a bicycle with headphones or earbuds blocking ambient sound, and even walking I prefer to hear the sounds around me.
There are times when I miss phone calls because I'm out of the house, but caller ID and an answering machine help most of the time. I'm not sure I want calls to follow me wherever I go. At work, despite a faltering policy against it, just about everybody keeps their phones on and whip them out when they ring, no matter what else they're supposed to be doing. I work in a kitchen, but forget sanitation! I remember how odd it struck me the first time I saw a boy and girl walking down the street holding hands; in her other hand the girl had her cell phone, into which she was talking animatedly. Her date didn't seem perturbed, but I'd have been. Trying to stop all that is probably a lost cause, but for now I'm just as content to leave the phone at home, plugged into the wall. Call me an old fuddy-duddy if you like: I've been called worse, and I've embraced other new technology as soon as I found it useful so it's not even accurate. It probably has to do with not wanting to be always at the world's beck and call, and my own personal (neurotic?) need to be alone when I want to.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
If anyone ever does a version of The Celluloid Closet for Korean media, this commercial will have a special place in it, what with its use of flamboyant sissy stereotypes that haven't been seen in US movies since Blazing Saddles. The boys are from a boy group called 2 PM. Here's another version, also subtitled, with some different scenes.
This is a commercial for soju, Korea's potent rice wine (more like rice vodka!), featuring unconvincing heterosexual display and muscle queens. Alternative version here.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Several media outlets eked a story out of this, which John pointed out because they'd neglected to notice, or at least to mention, a more serious discrepancy between Obama's posturing about freedom of the press and the US' history of murderous violence against journalists. This only goes to show why either John Caruso nor I will ever find a job in the exciting field of White House journalism.
But I can't get very worked up about it either way. It's not necessary to ask the President about actual US practice, though of course it would be fun. He's shown before that he can't deal with inconvenient questions, though of course the corporate media aren't interested in asking them. (Did I mention that Obama is Not Bush?) You don't send a corporate lackey to do a journalist's job, and if the President won't answer questions the only alternative is to hit the pavement, read the documents, follow the money. After that you can offer the White House the opportunity to bloviate, obfuscate, and generally sling the bullshit, but it is not a good journalist's job to act as a stenographer to the President.
Not being allowed to ask questions at the President's pleasure is not a violation of press freedom as as I can see. The government in general is, I believe, required to report its doings to the citizens, and as citizens, journalists can read those reports and require the government to explain them. If the government refuses to answer, that is news too. But I can't help wondering what kind of questions about BP's oil spill that reporter had in mind. What does Obama have to say about it at this point that he hasn't said before?
There are journalists who'll react to this suggestion by screaming that if they did that, they'd never get access to the President or any politician again! Like that's a bad thing. But politicians and the government in general need journalists as much as journalists need the government, and maybe more. What if the House gave a press conference and nobody came? What if, when staff called the press to ask where they were, they were told that press conferences -- especially Presidential press conferences -- were a waste of journalists', and the nation's time? It'd never happen, but that's just the problem. In general the corporate media, with a few honorable exceptions who manage to sneak in from time to time, are no more interested in changing the routine than the presidents are.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Now that this left-right, Tory/Lib-Dem alliance has removed the Labour Party from power and is governing Britain, these commitments to restoring core liberties -- Actual Change -- show no sign of retreating. Rather than cynically tossing these promises of restrained government power onto the trash pile of insincere campaign rhetoric, they are implementing them into actual policy. Clegg, now the Deputy Prime Minister, gave an extraordinary speech last week in which he vowed "the biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832." He railed against a litany of government policies and proposals that form the backbone of Britain's Surveillance State, from ID Card schemes, national identity registers, biometric passports, the storing of Internet and email records, to DNA databases, proliferating security cameras, and repressive restrictions on free speech and assembly rights. But more striking than these specific positions were the general, anti-authoritarian principles he espoused -- ones that sound increasingly foreign to most Americans.Greenwald writes (tongue in cheek, for the Irony Impaired):
Most striking of all, the new Government (specifically William Hague, its conservative Foreign Secretary) just announced that "a judge will investigate claims that British intelligence agencies were complicit in the torture of terror suspects."Contrasted with Obama's latest triumph against the people, a Federal Court ruling granting his demand to deny habeas corpus to people imprisoned in his "secret" dungeons at Bagram and elsewhere, this is an interesting development. The Brits can expect some serious pressure from their senior partner to get back in line, and I look forward to seeing how they respond to it.
What an astounding feat of human innovation: they are apparently able to Look Backward and Forward at the same time! And this concept that an actual court will review allegations of grave Government crimes rather than ignoring them in the name of Political Harmony: my, the British, even after all these centuries, do continue to invent all sorts of brand new and exotic precepts of modern liberty.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
I'll be leaving for Korea on Friday morning, so things are going to be hectic until after the weekend. Hell, they're hectic now, and I should be at home getting ready instead of sitting here in the Pourhouse typing. But that's procrastination!
Meanwhile, I found this at Homo Superior, and the link indicated that it had come from Andrew Sullivan.
That couldn't be the Catholic-American Sullivan, I thought. When I clicked through, it turned out I was right: he was quoting a letter from a reader. It's quite good stuff. All I can add is Wittgenstein's Tractatus (6.3412), "[I]s some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life?"
The Christian notion of eternal life just doesn’t make any sense to me. I can’t conceive of how I could be “me” without the context of the world I live in, the relationships I have, and my time and place. That would be some other person. To be an ego without a world is to be nothing. I think when you have a better understanding that our existence as personalities in this world is already ephemeral, even while we are alive, it makes regret for our disappearance seem peculiar.
As Rilke says, we are “transpositions of air”.
Monday, May 17, 2010
Noam Chomsky Denied Entry to Israel
Israel Admits Error in Denying Left-Wing, U.S. Intellectual Noam Chomsky Entry Into Controlled Territory
Israel denies US academic Chomsky West Bank entryRenowned US scholar Noam Chomsky has been denied entry to the West Bank by Israeli immigration officials.
Chomsky had tried to enter the West Bank from Jordan, to speak at Birzeit University. The Israelis, who control entry, sent him back to Jordan. Chomsky suggests that it was at least partly because he hadn't planned to speak at an Israeli university as well, for that all-important balance. Now, as the ABC article shows, the Israelis are working on damage control: the decision was scandalous in Israel itself.
Israel's Interior Ministry admitted Monday that Chomsky's rejection had been made in error and without referring the case to the correct body. Access should be controlled by a special Israeli body responsible for coordinating activities in the Occupied Territories. ...
Chomsky said the Israeli official at the border told him, "Israel does not like what you say."
The ABC headline is a sort of Freudian slip. We all know that the West Bank really belongs to Israel anyway. Despite the pretense that the Palestinian Authority has any authority, it's Israel which controls the West Bank's border even with Jordan, let alone Israel. In that sense, it's true that Chomsky was "denied entry to Israel." Few Americans, and not many more Israelis, will even notice the slip.
Chomsky's response: "Find one government in the world which does."
The new law will require
the US state department to compile a public list of foreign governments that violate press freedom.In a very modest way, yes. Obama was talking about governments elsewhere in the world, remember. (Except maybe for this government.) The US is free to kill journalists, bomb TV stations, and otherwise violate press freedom at whim. (To say nothing of other atrocities.) No one will be watching us -- why don't we do it in the road?
Mr Obama said the measure would send a strong message that Washington was paying attention to the way governments elsewhere in the world treat the media....
He said the law - named the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act - would show countries that repressed freedom of speech that they could not operate against the media with impunity.
"The loss of Daniel Pearl was one of those moments that captured the world's imagination because it reminded us how valuable a free press is," Mr Obama said.
"This legislation, in a very modest way, puts us clearly on the side of journalistic freedom."
Saturday, May 15, 2010
I am myself a liberal. By that I mean I believe society exists to nurture and liberate the human spirit, and that large-mindedness and openhandedness are the means by which these things are to be accomplished. I am not ideological. By that I mean I believe opportunities of every kind should be seized upon to advance the well-being of people, especially in insuring them decent wages, free time, privacy, education, and health care, concerns essential to their full enfranchisement.To paraphrase Henry Kissinger trying to appease Richard Nixon, there are liberals and then there are liberals. Trying to solve the problem by definition isn't the most responsible way to sort out the difficulties we face. People who call themselves liberals often mean very different things by the label, from "classical liberals" who pretend they agree with Adam Smith (but don't) on free markets, and who accept Lockean notions of the atomized individual and the social contract, to people like Robinson with a mushy, kissyface huggybear conception of what "society" should do. I'm not saying they shouldn't call themselves liberals -- both meanings are valid enough as labels, and others besides. Remember Paul Feyerabend's sly dig at Ernest Gellner: "Thus, being a liberal, I do not have to admit that Puritans have a chance of finding truth. All I am required to do is to let them have their say and not to stop them by institutional means. But of course I may write pamphlets against them and ridicule them for their strange opinions." Feyerabend's conception of liberalism was valid too.
Now, I basically agree with the values Robinson assigns to liberalism. I'm just not not sure they are liberal, or that it matters. Rather than standing up for "liberalism," I'd rather stand up for what it represents -- decent wages, education, free time, and so on. Getting tangled up in the word "liberal" is a diversion, though of course many opponents of decent wages, free time, education, and the rest will want a diversion ("Oh, you must be a liberal!"), and it takes a certain amount of focus to stay on topic. Robinson herself has trouble doing so -- notice her claim that she's not "ideological." Maybe she's using the word as code for "leftist"? In any case there's nothing wrong with being ideological.
Robinson goes on to criticize "liberalism, not in principle but as a movement", and to deplore the capitulation of the Democratic Congress (which she tellingly identifies with liberalism or at least "the liberal movement") to Bush, and to "the embrace of illiberalism" as though this were some new development. "These solons," she opines, "were cowed not so much by being out of power as being out of style." (Things didn't change when the Democrats regained a majority in Congress in 2006, after this essay was published.)
Now, Robinson is old enough to remember the Reagan administration, when Democrats and liberals also capitulated, gratefully, happy to leave the twisted values of the Sixties behind. Of course the pattern is much older than that. Liberals have such a long history of abandoning their high principles when the going gets tough that they've made it part of the definition of being a liberal, along with rising up boldly from time to time to lament the degradation of the noble name Liberal by the spineless and the wicked. (Another part of the historical pattern is liberals going wild over some new, charismatic young politician and projecting all their fantasies onto him, defending him against all critics -- especially the ideologues of the Left -- as he carries on with the illiberal agenda.)
It is sad to consider how much first-rate courage must be devoted in this world to struggling out of the toils of sheer pettiness. The Saudi women who first drove automobiles risked and suffered penalties, overcame inhibitions, and shattered norms, heroic in their defiance of an absurd conviction. We have our own Rosa Parks. That such great courage should have been required to challenge such petty barriers [!] is a demonstration of the power of social consensus. ..."Our own Rosa Parks." I wonder if Parks considered herself a liberal; I don't think Martin Luther King Jr. considered himself one. White liberals were notorious for cautioning moderation to the Civil Rights Movement more than for supporting it. Robinson really should lay aside the theology for a time and study some 20th century American history.
For more historical perspective, there's this cozy conversation between American right-wing icon William Buckley and Brit literatus Malcolm Muggeridge. In the 1960s Muggeridge made a splashy conversion to Christianity (and later to Roman Catholicism), which accounts for Buckley's assumption -- not always borne out by reality, as you can see -- that he and Muggeridge were on the same page.
This part, for example:
MUGGERIDGE: When I say that I am a man of the Left, I mean by that that I am instinctively against authority, and on the side -- or hope that I, I always wish to be on the side -- on the weaker side.Watching stuff like this reminds me why I'm baffled when people, including liberals and leftists, pay tribute to Buckley's great intellect and shrewd debating skills. (Plus, he totally made conservatism cool.) Muggeridge professes to admire his writing, but when I see them talking together I sense a certain condescension toward Buckley, even a mild embarrassment at his shallowness, quickly passed over as Muggeridge (a much better speaker) moves on to his own next point. Buckley's claim that the Right is the opponent of authority in America is, of course, laughable -- as a Roman Catholic he was always a supporter of authority, and as far as the state went I'm not aware that he ever opposed its use of force against foreigners or, within our borders, uppity Negroes. (According to Katrina van den Heuvel's eulogy, he turned against Bush's war on Iraq, but only safely after the fact -- "If I had known back then in February 2003 what we know now ..." -- and did oppose the surge.)
BUCKLEY: Why would that make you distinctively a leftist?
MUGGERIDGE: Because what is good in the Left position is precisely that. What's bad is its connection, and sometimes identification, with what you in America would call a liberal view of life. That's the bad side. The good side is an instinctive, almost chivalrous feeling, that you should be on the side of the weak.
BUCKLEY: Well, would you say that there is a curious, then, ah ah, congruity between the Left as defined in England and the Conservative as defined in America, who is singularly the opponent of authority, especially state authority?
MUGGERIDGE: I've always had a considerable sympathy with the Right in America ...
But that's not the issue. Condenscension is. It's probably a good thing for the upper classes to be "on the side of the weak," at least when you consider the alternative, but there still seems to be assumption that the better classes should be running things. Most monarchs would have claimed the same thing: protect the weak, don't let them protect themselves. After all, it's the rulers against whom the weak must usually protect themselves. Robinson also writes from the perspective of enfranchising the lower orders from above, though she is more tolerant than Buckley of those who struggle on their own behalf against "petty barriers" like Jim Crow. I'll be more inclined to take her principles seriously when she starts applying them to Barack Obama.
Friday, May 14, 2010
I've had this long piece sitting around for some years now; I figure it might as well go here.
John Howard. Men like that: a Southern queer history. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1999.
Essentialists get more corporate media access, since those media tend to favor and promote biological determinism; but in order to denounce social constructionism, they must mention it now and then, so word gets out, and some of the impressionable young will be tempted by this unnatural sin. Social constructionists are well-represented and influential in academia and in the publications of university presses, but are lucky to get a soundbyte in edgewise now and then outside the classroom. These opposing viewpoints make for gripping Family entertainment (tune in next week to see Andrew Sullivan and Michael Warner bludgeon each other on Celebrity Death Match), but they are really just more-or-less amusing caricatures.
Social construction is counter-intuitive, so it's not surprising that even its proponents often have trouble understanding it, let alone applying it consistently. Some confuse it with cultural determinism, the belief that human beings are blank slates written on by Society. When gay neuroscientist Simon LeVay was promoting his hypothalamus theory of the cause of homosexuality, he told an interviewer that friends had told him there was no need to look for a biological cause, since 'we know it's socially constructed.' I’ve always wondered whether it was LeVay who misunderstood the meaning of 'socially constructed,' or his friends, or both.
There's no question that skin color and such traits have biological roots, for example, but "race" and its meanings are socially constructed around these physical features. It's often been pointed out that few people identify themselves as essentialists -- at least, people in the formal study of sexuality. But even those lay writers like Andrew Sullivan who denounce social constructionism most fiercely, seldom seem to refer to themselves as essentialists. (Is essentialism genetic, or is it a lifestyle choice?)
Essentialism correspondingly is often equated with biological determinism, though there's not a necessary connection: social constructs are built from material, biological traits like physical sex or skin color. Essentializing is social construction in action: when a person who writes is called a writer, when a person who lies is called a liar, when a person who commits sodomy is called a sodomite and thereby essentialized, social construction is taking place. The belief that a thief, or a writer, or a Sodomite, is "born that way" will then be rationalized with whatever naive theory is available: it's in the blood, the genes, the soul, one's nature, etc.
Some use social construction, as some essentialists use essentialism, as a weapon to settle political or personal scores. Every few pages they haul out a catchphrase like a burlesque clown's bladder and give their opponents a good basting for comic relief. Or they use it as a sort of good luck charm, which they touch periodically to reassure themselves that they are on the right side, whether or not it relates to their subject. It might be more accurate (or at least clearer) to refer to many self-identified social constructionists as "anti-essentialists", since they are sure that essentialism is of Satan but aren't sure what social construction means. Something like this seems to be going on in John Howard's much-praised book Men Like That: a Southern Queer History.
I picked up Men Like That because I liked Howard's stated aim: to explore queer life in postwar America outside of the large cities that have drawn most scholarly attention so far. (Though not all of it by any means. Howard himself edited a collection of writings (1997) about glb southern life, which ranged outside the major urban centers; it included a version of Martin Duberman's "Writhing Bedfellows" (1981), including the text of erotic letters by one antebellum Southern male to another. James T. Sears has published at least four books (1991, 1997, 2001, 2009) on glb life in the South. Buring (1997) covers Memphis, Tennessee. Kennedy and Davis's groundbreaking 1995 study of lesbian life in Buffalo, New York ranged beyond Metropolis. Fellows (1996) collects oral histories of gay men who grew up on farms in the Midwest. Appearing at about the same time as Men Like That, Rupp (1999) includes not only the usual suspects in a "short history of same-sex love in America." Bailey (1999) includes information about gay life in Nebraska since WWII. And now there's Wilson 2000.
Of course there's also a growing body of non-scholarly writing, including fiction, on the topic. Neil Miller (1989), like Edmund White (1980) before him and Darrell Yates Rist (1992) after, traveled between the coasts, even to small towns; Pratt (1995) writes as a white southern lesbian. Preston (1995) writes of relocating to Portland, Maine after living for years in New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis and other large cities; Riordon (1996) interviewed gay men and lesbians in rural and smalltown Canada. Osborne and Spurlin (1996) collect writings by lesbian and gay midwesterners. And so on; this list doesn't pretend to any completeness, it's just a reminder that Howard isn't blazing totally new trails.
Howard draws on his predecessors, and adds some new information as well, from interviews, newspaper archives, and popular culture. But he isn't as different, or as consistent in his approach, as he wants to believe. If his focus is supposed to be on rural life, then he spends rather too much time serving up dish on scandals in Jackson and other Mississippi cities, even if they are smaller than New York. If I take his subtitle -- a Southern queer history -- at face value, then perhaps Howard should have spent less time than he does devaluing the work of scholars who have focused on urban areas elsewhere in the US. The reason for their focus on cities is the same as Howard's: the light, so to speak, is better there. Sexual nonconformists are concentrated more visibly, in greater numbers if not necessarily larger proportions than in the countryside, and there's, duh, more accessible documentation. Even in elite universities, scholarship on sexual nonconformity can still pose risks to a scholar's career; so it's hardly surprising that we don't have enough full studies of postwar queer life in mid-sized cities, done by historians at regional campuses or community colleges. It's still worthwhile to move beyond the coastal and metropolitan provincialism that has largely neglected the American heartland, and Howard doesn't need to defend it by dismissing those who have worked elsewhere.
I appreciate Howard's labors, but there are many problems, some serious, with Men Like That. Some arise from dubious interpretation of his data; others involve misuse of his social-constructionist theoretical frame, and to those I will return.
Howard paints an attractive bucolic picture of queer life in Mississippi after the Second World War: farm boys and ministers' sons peaceably fucking and sucking in haylofts and choir lofts (52f) and in the woods surrounding highway rest stops, participating with their straight families and neighbors in womanless mock weddings and beauty pageants for church fundraisers, "well enmeshed" (xi) in their society -- until "unkempt", "brusque and shrill" (239) activists imported "identity politics" from outside, shattering the harmony and contentment Mississippi queers had enjoyed until then. The similarity to Jim Crow apologetics (whites and Their Colored lived in segregated harmony until dirty beatniks and other outside agitators from Jew York came down and stirred things up) is not coincidental, though it seems to be unconscious.
It would be pleasant if this portrait of queer life in Mississippi were accurate, but it isn't. Howard has to qualify his own generalizations rather seriously, until nothing remains but a warm Southern smile, floating disconcertingly in the air. Though at one point he denies that Mississippi police harassed queers before the Sixties (in order to argue that such harassment was a reaction to the Civil Rights movement), he refers to busts at highway rest stops and tearooms and bars during the Forties and Fifties. Maybe these weren't anti-queer campaigns with full media coverage, where politicians, including police chiefs, made political hay from their protection of decent people from the homosexual menace; but such anti-vice campaigns leave a convenient paper trail in the press and courts for the intrepid queer historian to follow; clearing out a highway rest stop now and then doesn't.
More important, while many people did manage to have reasonably fulfilling queer lives in the pre-Stonewall dispensation, even outside large cities, it is also true that such people lived in danger most of the time. As Howard acknowledges, "If forced to the surface, however, if held up to the light, transgressions were indeed punished" (171). "Police ... seemed a threat only when bars became 'too notorious,' as Chuck Plant put it" (94). "The wide-open [?] attitudes of World War II persisted in Jackson, and white gay bars operated downtown into the 1950s. ... sufficiently perceptible to attract men like that, sufficiently ambiguous to allay police officers who patrolled the area. ..." (95). It was, of course, up to straights to decide when a meeting place had become "sufficiently perceptible" or "too notorious." This was the era of the open secret, where 'everyone knew' but pretended they didn't, and toleration was conditional on keeping quiet and acknowledging queer inferiority. Howard says nothing to refute this; he merely denies it, like a Jim Crow politician assuring outsiders that southern whites loved their nigras, I mean Negroes.
The work of gay and lesbian historians since Stonewall should forestall any assumption that pre-Stonewall gay life was unrelieved persecution and misery, or that no gay people in those days (or outside that dispensation now) felt good about themselves. But it also does not justify Howard's opening claim that Mississippi society and its institutions were "Never inherently hostile to homosexual activity" (xi), which he typically contradicts a few sentences later by admitting "complications": "In Protestant evangelical Mississippi, most everyone took for granted that it was sinful, and it was legally proscribed by the 1839 sodomy statute" and again a few pages later: "Though sometimes subject to intimidation and violence ... queer Mississippians proved adept at maneuvering through hostile terrain" (xiv). Chuck Plant, one of Howard's informants, sheds light on maneuvering through the Fifties: "But you needed to be careful. You could meet behind closed doors with the drapes drawn with your friends, but you didn't want it known" (82). I suppose the key word in Howard's earlier sentence is "inherently," whatever it's supposed to mean. Was Jim Crow society "inherently" hostile to people of African descent -- or did it only become hostile when Colored got too big?
Howard declares at the outset, "The extent to which queer genders and sexualities in Mississippi appear akin to those in other places is a question I leave to future writers of larger syntheses and surveys. ... I argue primarily for a specific queer Mississippi, which is not to say a wholly unique queer Mississippi" (xix). As we'll see, this is a slight exaggeration. Howard is quite sure that the good folks of Mississippi are different from the degenerate heathen in other regions, and he rarely misses an opportunity to say so.
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(part two to follow soon)