Saturday, July 31, 2010

How to Build Your Personal Library for Free

The other day I got into a crowded elevator at the library along with several other people, including three young artfart/alt/punk males. The one to my right had several dvds in his hand ready to check out, and his friend behind me said happily, "Oh, I can't check anything out from here, I owe them way too much money! Where do you think I got my Harry Potter collection from? I have this thing, it's like, I check books out and I just forget that I have them; I just believe that they should belong to me." At which point we reached the second floor, the doors opened, and we filed out.

As usual, my reflexes were slow. I thought, wanted to say, should have said aloud, "What a dick!" Very often library books or other materials that I (and no doubt other people) would like to use are unavailable, listed as "Missing" or "Never returned" in the catalog. I wonder how many are now the property of some stupid, selfish twit like the guy in the elevator. If he didn't want to pay the fines, he could still at least have returned them so other people could use them. I'll be the first to admit that there are worse people in the world; but given the difficult condition of public services everywhere, abusing them like that, and bragging about it publicly, deserves notice. And while the boy may consider himself a bold nonconformist, an independent free spirit, there's nothing more Republican than that kind of contempt for the commons.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

An Eye For an Eye

I'm going to follow John Caruso's example and save myself some time and energy today by recommending an excellent article on Emily Henochowicz, an American student who lost an eye to an IDF tear gas canister in May.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

When Corruption Is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Be Corrupt

We hear a lot about how corrupt Hamid Karzai's government is, and I imagine much of it is true: Karzai is, after all, our creature, our man in Kabul. Almost by definition, a leader installed by invaders is going to be corrupt. If the US had thought Karzai would have too much of a mind of his own, we'd have looked for someone else. It's also useful that such a person should be at least somewhat dirty, so we'll have an excuse for taking him down (or letting him fall) when we choose to do so.

So, when Democracy Now reported this morning that
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered an investigation into a recent NATO air strike that reportedly killed as many as fifty-two civilians, including women and children. Karzai called on NATO troops to "put into practice every possible measure to avoid harming civilians during military operations." Afghan officials say the civilians died when a NATO helicopter gunship opened fire on a compound where they had taken shelter after fleeing an expected firefight between Taliban fighters and NATO troops. US military officials have rejected the claims of the Afghan government, saying there is no evidence civilians were injured or killed.
I had to snicker derisively. The US denial is of course tantamount to an admission of guilt, since the US military always lies about its atrocities. (So does every military and every government, of course, but there's all this American Exceptionalism around.)

The same thing goes for the Obama administrations's efforts to downplay this weekend's release by Wikileaks of a huge batch of documents about the US war in Afghanistan, which "provide a devastating portrait of the war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, how a secret black ops special forces unit hunts down targets for assassination or detention without trial, how Taliban attacks have soared, and how Pakistan is fueling the insurgency." The White House first complained that this was a threat to US security, citing a "potential national security concern" and then declaring that "there’s no broad new revelations in this". All quite familiar. (It's not just the White House, of course. The AP reports that Senator Jane Harman, D-CA, claimed (via) that "Someone inadvertently or on purpose gave the Taliban its new 'enemies list.'" That's a lie, since no one in the US government could have vetted all the material in the time before Harman's remark, and the newspapers which reported on it collaborated with the White House to remove identifying details. Not that I could get all that excited if it were true, since those collaborators provide the US with information for our atrocities.)

(P.S. July 28: The London Times claims that it found identifying details in the documents; Julian Assange of Wikileaks denies it; "Robert Riegle, a former senior intelligence officer, said: "'It's possible that someone could get killed in the next few days.'" Of course, people are getting killed in Afghanistan all the time, often by US troops or predator drones using intelligence given by Afghan informants.)

Amy Goodman's interview with Guardian editor editor David Leigh shows another familiar pattern: the White House worried that the released material would endanger Afghan collaborators, people who had worked with the US. But as Leigh says,
Well, I’ll say it again: we had already decided, on Spiegel, on the New York Times and on The Guardian, what we were going to do, and we were going to take out names that we thought might be in danger of reprisals. And we decided not to publish certain intelligence reports that describe that kind of thing. So all those decisions had been taken. So the White House was pushing at an open door when it said, "We don’t want people to be in danger." So they’re not—they’re congratulating us for something we had already decided to do.
As Glenn Greenwald says, "But best of all was DN's report of an appearance by former hacker Adrian Lamo, who'd turned in Bradley Manning, the alleged whistleblower for Wikileaks' earlier release of the video of a US massacre in Iraq. Lamo spoke at a Hackers on Planet Earth conference and got a rough reception:

    ADRIAN LAMO: I think that the government behaved themselves better than a lot of people would give them credit for. To set the record clear, I am not an informant. I’m a witness in a criminal case. It’s not that different, in my eyes, from being a witness in any other case that could involve potential loss of life.

    EMMANUEL GOLDSTEIN: Adrian, I mean, you say it’s—you know, it’s been a pleasant experience for you, you know, working with the government on this, I guess. But Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker, is currently sitting in prison in Kuwait, I believe, and he could be locked up for the rest of his life. How do you feel about that?

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: Tortured!

    ADRIAN LAMO: I think that it’s a little bit ludicrous to say that Bradley Manning is going to be tortured. We don’t do that to our citizens.

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: Guantánamo!

    ADRIAN LAMO: I mean, obviously it’s been much worse for him, but it’s certainly been no picnic for me. And I knew from the get-go that it was going to be a low point in my interactions with the community. And I—

    UNIDENTIFIED: Yet you could have ignored him. When he first contacted you, you were not obliged to ever answer him. You could have simply ignored him, and none of this would have ever happened.

    ADRIAN LAMO: And Mr. Manning could have ignored the diplomatic cables, and he could have ignored the collateral murder video, but he followed his conscience, as I did mine.

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: From my perspective, I see what you have done as treason.

It's best if you watch the clip and hear it for yourself, though. When I listened, I echoed the audience response to Lamo's claim that the US doesn't torture its citizens:

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Laborer Is Worthy Of Her Hire

One of the greatest days of my life was the day I got a book of my own for the first time. I'm not sure how old I was -- six? seven? eight? somewhere in there. I was already a hardened library user, but I wanted my own library. That first book was a Berlitz children's book, telling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in Spanish and English, very simple. (Que es esto? Es una casa. Es una casita blanca con un techo rojo.) Did I want it, or did my mother choose it for me? Probably the latter. So that was my introduction to Spanish, as well as my initiation into the owning of books.

I didn't add much to my collection until I was in high school, and especially not until I had a job and money of my own. Discovering thrift shops also helped -- there were two in South Bend that around 1970 were selling paperbacks for a dime and most hardcovers for a dollar or less. My first serious boyfriend said semi-affectionately that buying books was like a sickness with me. (He was one to talk -- he had almost as many books as I did when we met.) And another friend, somewhat more affectionately but still chidingly, "Duncan, we have to get you to the library! It is not necessary to buy books!" Of course I knew that; I spend as much time in libraries as I do in bookstores. (Look -- I was born this way, okay? Would someone choose a "lifestyle" that causes them to be mocked and despised? Having my own library is in my genes. Respect my trip, you haterz.)

But it is necessary to buy books. There is something extra about owning them. As Harold Laski reportedly said:
Sir, the fact that a book is in the public library brings no comfort. Books are the one element in which I am personally and nakedly acquisitive. If it weren't for the law I would steal them. If it weren't for my purse I would buy them.
Except that I don't own a purse, my sentiments exactly. But awhile ago, partly as a result of reading this online (and I think, mistargeted) rant, I began musing over the fact that I often buy a book only after I've read a copy from the library. That seems counter-intuitive even to me: after all, I didn't find it necessary to buy the book in the first place, and if I want to reread it, I can always go to the library again. Lately I've come to accept the fact that I'll never have time to reread as many books as I'd like to, so that's not a reason (though I have often used it as a rationalization).

But it occurred to me that it actually makes sense to buy a book after you've read it. Certainly I agree with Nicola Griffith (author of that rant) that writers should be paid for their work. (I should be paid for my work!) But why should I pay for a book upfront? (Though of course I usually do.) Only after I've read it do I know whether the author has earned my money. That's how I now understand the impulse I feel to buy a book I've read: it means, Yes, I'm willing to pay money for this book. It's sort of like paying for a meal in a restaurant (and tipping the server) after you've eaten, rather than before, as in a fast-food place.

A library copy has already been paid for, of course. But it feels right to buy another copy for the sake of the author, as well as the reader's neurotic desire to own. As someone else said, "An ordinary man can ... surround himself with two thousand books ... and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy."

[Both quotations from The Writer's Quotation Book: a Literary Companion, edited by James Charlton (Penguin, 1981)]

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Plus, I Have Some Wonderful Oceanfront Property That I'll Sell You For Next To Nothing

So, there was something called Netroots Nation or something going on in Las Vegas, a gathering of "progressive activists" as the Wall Street Journal called them (via), or leftists as the headline of this MSNBC article called them (though in the body of the article they are called "liberal activists and bloggers." Roy Edroso was covering it all for his alicublog, so I'd quit paying attention, but apparently President Obama addressed the convention in a "surprise video appearance" to urge liberals to "keep up the fight." This suggests that Obama has figured out that his frequently-expressed contempt for the mass of the population and their concerns wasn't such a good idea after all. According to the MSNBC piece,
"Change hasn't come fast enough for too many Americans. I know that," Obama said in a surprise video appearance to liberal activists and bloggers at Las Vegas convention. "I know it hasn't come fast for many of you who fought so hard during the election." ...

In his remarks to the annual Netroots Nation gathering, the president said the combat mission in Iraq would soon end, and that the administration is working to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays and close the U.S. prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

"In ways large and small we've begun to deliver on the change you fought so hard for," Obama said.

"We can't afford to slide backward. And that's the choice America faces this November," he added. "Keep up the fight."

Yeah, I felt my gorge rise, too, when I read that. Even if the "combat mission in Iraq" ends, the occupation of Iraq by our forces won't -- the idea is to let Iraqi troops protect US interests -- and "the combat mission" has already moved to Afghanistan and Pakistan. As for repealing DADT and closing Guantanamo, Obama has shown himself to be as half-hearted about those projects as he was about a public option for health care or the Employee Free Choice Act. Or the economic stimulus and rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the rich. Or in standing up to Teabag Nation and its media enablers.

I like the way the Huffington Post paraphrased Obama's "slide backward": "Obama warned about returning to Republican policies 'that got us into the mess.'" Come again? Obama has continued and enhanced the Republican policies that got us into this mess, whether in foreign policy or in domestic economy or civil liberties, while protect the worst malfeasants from accountability for their crimes. According to the article (which embeds the Obama video), "Obama urged the crowd to 'consider what we've accomplished,' then rolled a clip of Rachel Maddow laying out some of the administration's legislative victories." So much for Maddow's standing as a journalist, when she's pimping for one side in an electoral campaign.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Faith Against Faith

But I was going to write about faith.

I picked David Fergusson's Faith and Its Critics: A Conversation (Oxford, 2009) off the new arrivals shelves at the university library. It looked like a short, easy read, a response to the New Atheists in the form of the Gifford Lectures for 2008, but the subtitle was troublesome. Giving a lecture, writing a book, is not a conversation; it may be "an invitation to engage in a rich dialogue" as the book's publisher claims, but it's still just an extended monologue.

So I wasn't expecting much, but Faith and Its Critics was still something of a disappointment. Whatever my differences with the New Atheists, they have succeeded in putting theists on the defensive. The traditional "proofs" or arguments for the existence of gods have largely been abandoned, even by theists; reactionary fundamentalism embarrasses nice, respectable believers; and the New Atheists are so negative, so harsh. So it's not surprising that many theists are trying to reach out to more moderate atheists, presenting themselves as voices of reason and moderation. Fergusson, for example, singles out
Edward O. Wilson, a leading exponent of sociobiology, [who] claims that we do not know enough to pronounce on the truth claims of religion but we can at least recognize that it has its articulate and decent defenders. Describing himself as on the diplomatic rather than militant wing of secularism, he searches for common ground with religion.

In what follows, my claim is that a conversation needs to be established between those occupying the middle ground of skepticism and faith, where each side recognizes that it has something to learn from the other whether that is about the persistence of faith or its many pathological expressions in the world. This, moreover, may be a moral imperative in today’s world where international cooperation and cross-faith alliances are increasingly needed [12].
"Articulate and decent defenders"! "The middle ground of skepticism and faith"! I'm not much for the middle ground, since any position can occupy the middle ground if you get to define the extremes. As Ellen Willis once defined it satirically, “For example, the feminist bias is that women are equal to men and the male chauvinist bias is that women are inferior to men. The unbiased view is that the truth lies somewhere in between.” (“Glossary for the Eighties,” reprinted in Beginning to See the Light, [Knopf 1981], p. 146)

Even the New Atheists agree that religion and atheism share "common ground." That's just what has their pants in a bunch: religion claims certain realms of human thought and action for its turf, notably morality, and the New Atheists don't want to let them have it. They want Science and Rationality to rule, though Science and Rationality have done no better on that turf than Religion has. Here I'd throw down the gauntlet of the Presumption of Atheism: the burden of proof lies on the person who claims that there is are gods and that they have opinions that I should take seriously. But I don't think that believers are wholly Other -- that, if anything, is what bothers them. They can't appeal to their gods' authority, because, first, I don't recognize that their gods have any authority; second, because the burden of proof is on them to show that they know their gods' opinions reliably.

I'm the first to admit that there are articulate and decent Christians, though I don't see why I should judge Christianity by them any more than I should judge Christianity by the inarticulate and indecent Christians. I presume that Fergusson takes for granted that he's one of the articulate and decent, but if so, he doesn't do a very good job of articulating a position I can have a conversation with.

For example, he keeps playing games with the word faith. "In the west, atheism has come to be associated with the rejection of the God of the Christian faith, or the God of Judeo-Christian theism, or still more broadly the God of the three Abrahamic faiths" (17). In these ecumenical, diverse and multicultural times, it is bad form to badmouth what used to be called paganism, but it soon becomes clear that by "faith" Fergusson doesn't mean to include worship of the old Greek, Roman, Norse or other non-Yahwist gods. That's the kindest construction I can put on such statements as
Like Socrates and Jesus before him, Justin [Martyr] is martyred for his faith [15].
Those who martyred Socrates, Jesus, and Justin also had faith, remember. But their faith seems not to count; perhaps it was what Fergusson conveniently calls "pathological expressions" -- all things are possible for him who gets to diagnose pathology. And while it's probably fair to say that Justin was executed for his "faith," which required him to reject the dominant faiths of the Roman Empire in his day, it's not nearly so clear that Socrates and Jesus died because of their "faith." Socrates got into political trouble, and chose to accept execution by poisoning rather than change his conduct or political beliefs, or even to leave Athens. Going by his example, just about anyone who's ever been killed by other human beings could be said to have died for his or her "faith": Trotsky, say, or John Wilkes Booth. Fergusson's invocation of pathology is a reminder that willingness to die for one's "faith" is no warrant of that faith's validity, but he offers no criteria for telling healthy faith from pathological faith.

Jesus is even harder to evaluate, because Christians have never been able to make up their minds why he was executed. Though it's pretty certain that he was killed by the Romans, and the gospels agree that he was crucified as "King of the Jews," the gospels don't show clearly how this charge came to be brought against him. He never claims that title in the gospels, and it has no importance in Christian doctrine. The gospels are more clear that Jesus' death resulted from conflict between Jesus and other Jews (who also had faith and a tradition of martyrdom), but no plausible charge is raised against him -- claiming to be the Messiah is not a crime under Jewish law, for example. "False witnesses" claimed that Jesus had made some sort of threat against the Jerusalem Temple, but these accusations seem not be have determined his death either. And according to Christian mythology, Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity, so his execution was not due to a conflict between faiths but was the will of Yahweh; Jesus' enemies were unknowing pawns in the Father's game. We don't even know that, as Fergusson claims, "Jesus goes to his death willingly but passively" (129). The writers of the gospels probably had no better information about how Jesus faced his death than they did about why he died, so they probably depicted him acting as a faithful martyr should act. [P.S. But at the same time, the Gospel of John shows Jesus marching quite actively to his martyrdom, and the others should also be read in the light of the belief, accurate or not, that Jesus expected and sought his death.]

Most of Faith and Its Critics consists of rambling discussions of modern science and modern faith, how they don't have to conflict but can be reconciled. He devotes a fair amount of time to rebutting Richard Dawkins, not very effectively. For example:
… for example, the grisly stories recounted by Dawkins of children being subjected to movies about the likely conditions of hell in order to constrain their behaviour. However, once again the pathological examples that are adduced do not confirm the hypothesis that religious nurture amounts to brainwashing, let alone abuse. The forms of Christian education with which we are familiar in our churches and schools often enable youngsters to develop skills of discernment and interpretation. They are given freedom and encouragement to make responsible decisions for themselves as they reach adulthood.

If there is any brainwashing in our culture then it is surely the sort that derives from peer-group pressure and the media. These function far more powerfully in the consciousness of children and teenagers than do the strictures of their Sunday School teachers [143-4].
I wonder which "forms of Christian education" Fergusson is familiar with, but he seems to be whitewashing the problem. Once again, he brushes aside inconvenient "faith" behavior as "pathological." Teaching children -- or adults, for that matter -- about Hell is hardly marginal in Christianity, having its roots in Jesus' teachings and carrying down through the centuries. If Sunday School teachers nowadays aren't all that influential on young people's consciousness, it is precisely because faith isn't as powerful as it used to be, the very situation Fergusson deplores. In this respect he's like many liberal Christians and even ex-Christians I've talked to, who don't recall hearing much about Hell at church during their childhoods: this means they have not been educated accurately about historical Christianity. [P.S. Or that they've forgotten what they were taught, which I think is equally likely.] They certainly don't show any sign of having been taught "skills of discernment and interpretation."

Fergusson evades the difficulties of biblical material by invoking non-literal interpretation.
Non-literal, symbolic readings are not the invention of recent critics influenced by secular trends [157].
Heavens! Does Dawkins believe so? According to Fergusson, "All we are told [by Dawkins] is that a symbolic reading of difficult passages is a ‘favourite trick’ of religious leaders" (152; citing The God Delusion, 247). Then Dawkins is even stupider than I thought. Of course non-literal readings of high-status texts are nothing new, and the kind Fergusson has in mind are the special province of fundamentalism; they certainly aren't automatically correct.
One distinct advantage offered by this account of the layered meaning of the Scriptural text was that it could accommodate a critical attitude towards those passages that were adjudged morally unacceptable. Where they departed from the teaching and example of Christ, a meaning other than the literal had to be sought [158].
But what if Jesus' teaching and example are morally unacceptable? This seems to be unthinkable for Fergusson, but an atheist, even the moderate sort he imagines himself to be addressing, needn't agree. Since the gospels are virtually the only source of information we have about Jesus' teaching and example, problematic passages can't be disposed of that easily.

The closest Fergusson comes to making clear what he means by pathological expressions of faith is when he touches on terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists.
In the case of recent predatory martyrdom, this is usually an indiscriminate attack on anyone in the target area, whether these are soldiers, civilians, children, sick or disabled persons [132].
The chief difference between this and US and British practice is that we kill the innocent without risking ourselves. Fergusson has nothing to say about secular, let alone Christian homicide bombing, which has killed many more innocent people than suicide bombers have.
Contrast this with the ideology of Al-Qaeda and its brand of global terrorism, which renders any Western city a potential target whether New York, Madrid, London, or Glasgow. Here there is no overriding commitment to a single political collective or local cause. It is a movement that rejects the spread of a global culture – its cities are rootless and godless places in which to live; its political might has oppressed the heartlands of Islam in the middle east; and its client state Israel, a small nation, has humiliated its larger neighbours and displaced its indigenous Muslim population. Moreover, the terror of this movement is largely nihilistic [133].
Fergusson gives no cites for this claim, but the word "nihilistic" suggests he's read Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism.
On the other hand one can also find a corresponding contribution of religion to the flourishing of civilizations, their cultural achievements, and the peaceful co-existence of peoples of different race, language, and religion [137]. ...

At the same time, it should be remembered that the vast bulk of the adherents of all the world’s religions make civil and law-abiding neighbors. By their own testimony, their faith makes them more peaceable than they would otherwise be. … A fair hearing was what the early exponents of Christian faith requested of their pagan audiences and this ought still to be accorded people of good faith everywhere [140].
It's not always a good thing to be "civil and law-abiding neighbors," of course: think of the good Germans who peacefully stood by while their German Jewish neighbors were taken away. (The history of Christian anti-Semitism, while no doubt "pathological" in Fergusson's scorebook, gets short shrift here.) Think of American Christians who opposed the abolition of slavery, and who maintained racist social structures well into the second half of the twentieth century. Think of the American Christian right, who "by their own testimony" are peaceful citizens and only request a fair hearing. The early exponents of Christian faith were disingenuous: far from being peaceable, they spent a lot of energy squabbling with each other, often to the point of violence, and as soon as they dared they extended that violence to "pagans."

Fergusson sweeps a lot of Yahwist history under the rug, and gets wrong a lot of what he does mention.
A willingness to die in the service of God and the keeping of one’s faith is evident through much of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was a way of honouring God and maintaining the cause of God’s people, as in the examples of Daniel and the three men in the fiery furnace. In the inter-testamental period, the example of the Maccabean martyrs extends this further [128].
A willingness to kill in the service of God is even more evident in the Hebrew Scriptures, much more than martyrdom. Whether against non-Hebrews, as in the conquest of Canaan, or within the nation, as in the "reforms" which enforced monotheism, the Hebrew Bible is hardly a model of pacifistic tolerance. Ditto for Jesus, whose preaching is suffused with threats of eternal torture, a theme that the early churches elaborated with gusto. When he acknowledges contemporary cases -- Serbia, Rwanda, Israel / Palestine, Northern Ireland -- he blames it all on 'sectarianism' (124), which is to say, faith.

I myself don't blame religion for human violence, because I regard religion as a human invention. To blame atrocities on religion is to take religion at its own estimation as an autonomous, superhuman (or other-than-human) force; I blame them on human beings projecting their own attitudes onto their gods and getting them back endowed with authority. This also means, however, that the good things about human beings are also our doing. I think we can do better, but I'm not sure I have much faith in that possibility. One way to advance in that direction, I think, is for human beings to own all our actions, instead of crediting gods for them for better or worse.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sweet Sorrow

It's been a while since I've done a post on K-pop, so here's an introduction to Sweet Sorrow, a vocal group who recently released their third CD. They can do gorgeous a capella, though as this live recording shows, it ain't easy to do it live. Still, this song, "Sunshine," from their first CD, is one of my favorite songs of the past decade, and always brings tears to my jaded old eyes.

They do covers of well-known pop songs for their fan club, such as "Dancing Queen," Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" (in Korean!), this medley of three songs by fellow K-poppers Jaurim, and this version of the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" with Lee Seunghwan's heart-stopping "A Thousand Days."

I'm not so wild about them when they're doing jazz, but that's just a matter of taste; they do Manhattan Transfer-style vocals pretty well.

Their first album remains their best, though there are some very nice songs on the latest, especially the opening track "Noraeya", which unfortunately isn't on Youtube. Somewhere, maybe a fan site or just in comments on a video, some young fan allowed that Sweet Sorrow are cute but a little bit old. At least one of them is past 30, it's true, which seems old to a teenager. But they look like youngsters to me, and I hope they stick around for a while.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Living in the Catacombs: John Howard's Men Like That, part three

4. "I don't have a good definition for a homosexual."

In 1955 a Mississippi man named John Murrett was murdered by two young Air National Guardsmen he'd picked up and taken to a Jackson hotel. During the ensuing trial, medical examiner Forrest Bratley told defense attorney W. W. Pierce: "A homosexual is out of my line of work. We don't see them pathologically. In performing an autopsy one cannot differentiate between a heterosexual or a homosexual. I don't have a good definition for a homosexual."
P[ierce]: Would a homosexual or a queer differ materially in his physique, in ordinary behavior in public from the average individual?
B[ratley]: In physique or appearance there would not be any difference. In behavior among the general public there would not be any difference. How they might act before an individual, which I wouldn't consider public, I don't know.
P: Doctor, sex has a great deal to do with the behavior of a good many people. You know that as a medical man, don't you?
B: Sex does determine some of our behavior patterns.
P: And in some instances it can be an uncontrollable urge in the individual. Don't your medical books teach that?
B: I am sure some of the specialized books do. I haven't had that specialized training.
P: Doctor, would a person who would engage in sex perversion, would he be a person who might be aggressive if the sex urge was strong enough?
B: I am sure the sex urge would be just as strong if he wasn't a homosexual.
[Howard 135-136]
Bratley's assertion that homosexuals are physiologically indistinguishable from the general population is at odds not only with mainstream 20th century medicine, but with the present-day mainstream gay movement, which predominantly declares that homosexuality is an inborn physical condition. Not much has changed since Bratley's day, either: we still don't have a good definition for a homosexual. At around the time of this trial, the UCLA psychologist Evelyn Hooker was conducting research in California which turned out to indicate that homosexual men are psychologically indistinguishable from heterosexuals as well. "Homosexuality as a clinical entity does not exist. Its forms are as varied as are those of heterosexuality. Homosexuality may be a deviation in sexual pattern which is in the normal range, psychologically" (Hooker 1957, 30). Bratley's remarks are very close to Hooker's conclusion -- and no less at odds with the views of mental health professionals at the time, or later.

Howard understands Bratley's testimony differently, however. Though he credits the doctor with "refut[ing] societal stereotypes of queer promiscuity and pathology", he says (approvingly, it seems) that Bratley "depicted homosexuality as ... a state of being for a definable minority of individuals" (135) and "homosexual persons" as "a distinct and fixed minority of individuals" (168). Maybe so, but in the testimony Howard quotes, Bratley said just the opposite: he could not define homosexuals, and they were indistinguishable from the general population except perhaps in private behavior.

Howard is generally hostile to the kind of "gay identity politics" (252) which regards gay people as "a distinct and fixed minority of individuals." This "master category" or "identity mechanism" creates "essentialized gay men" (122), and is apparently the work of "more liberal strains of midcentury American medical discourse" (135), but also of "gay publications in North America's urban centers" (183) whose hegemonic power created such an "irrefutable trajectory" (170) that even Howard finds himself tempted to project "presentist identities and cultural models on to historically situated actors", instead of "attending to the exigencies and specificities of their time and place" (192). Nor, when he's laid aside the bladder he uses to flog the Evil Essentialists, can he seem to refrain from using such essentializing language as "their kind" (xvi) and "men like that", let alone "queer."

Howard shares this ambivalent distaste for "gay identity" with a large number of his colleagues, probably the mainstream of academic writers on gay history and gay life at the end of the century. For example, historian Leila J. Rupp: "What is important is that we avoid thinking that all the terms used by people in the past are synonyms for what we today mean by 'gay' and 'lesbian'" (1999: 104). Or journalist Frank Browning: "To the leading [and forever unnamed] authors and strategists of the American gay movement, sexuality -- sexual orientation -- is an identity, something sure, certain, reliable, around which rites and rituals are being invented" (1996: 16).

Or, from a paper on counseling "men of color" (Tafoya and Wirth 1996: 60): "For some tribal men, one's identity as a homosexual may not be defined by the gender of one's partner, but by the nature of the act itself; thus, as long as one is the active insertor, the gender of one's partner is irrelevant. [On the contrary: "gender" here is clearly defined by one's erotic practices; the authors are confusing "gender" with "sex."] The only 'homosexual' involved is the man who passively receives. [Plenty of "European" binary concepts there!] Such ideas are normative in a number of Native communities, and must be understood from that context." Such ideas are also the traditional white Mississippian understanding, as Howard presents it. What a coincidence.

Jeremy Seabrook, an English sociologist, warns against "projecting onto India Western concepts of straight, gay and bisexual" which he considers "stereotyped and rigid categories" (1999: 140). He quotes "Shivananda Khan, Calcutta-born founder of NAZ in London and a tireless researcher into sexual identities in South Asia" (140): "the withering blast of being labelled 'gay'" destroys "destroys Indian traditions of friendship: indigenous homoaffective and homosocial relationships" (141). Khan doesn't mind using Western concepts and terminology like "homoaffective", though.

Seabrook glibly dismisses gay-identified Indian men, who are "looking at the situation from their own Westernised and socially advantaged position" and "are bearers of precisely those values which Karim and other Indians whose lives are anchored in India deplore" (146). This would seem to imply that John Howard's queer Mississippians are non-Westerners, for Howard considers "gay identity" as intrusively alien to them as Seabrook does for Indians.

Homosexuality in one form or another is not the only erotic practice that has been explained away as an evil foreign import -- consider the way whipping was called the English vice in France, and French in England -- but it has frequently been seen that way, from ancient times right down to the present. And as the examples I've just given show, it is now America, the Wicked Witch of the West, which gets the blame, not only in Asia or Africa, but in the US itself. Seabrook, by the way, deplores Hindu fundamentalists who denounce homosexuality as modern foreign degeneracy, but a major aim of his book is to do the same thing they are doing. The difference is that he sees certain homosexual patterns as indigenously Indian, and only condemns certain others as Western; but this too is typical, as should be clear by now.

Many gay Americans do see homosexuality as a fixed identity or nature (they tend to confuse the two, but so does John Howard), and there are prominent spokespeople for this position, such as essentialist Andrew Sullivan: "The homosexual identity was certainly known to Plato and Aristotle; recent scholarship has unearthed examples of it as recently as New York in the 1920s and as long ago as the Stone Age" (Sullivan 1995: 30). Notice that Sullivan conflates homosexual orientation with homosexual identity; a history of identity would have to rely on verbal evidence, and I'd like to know how there could be Stone Age evidence for it. Even cave paintings could at most depict behavior, not orientation or identity; or have archaeologists perhaps discovered caves with ancient track lighting and industrial carpeting, thus proving the existence of Paleolithic interior designers?

Sullivan as a gay spokesman is a creation of the straight media, who are as ignorant about gay issues as he is. He's not a movement strategist or leader, though many gay Americans are eager to agree with him that gay people are biologically and psychologically distinct from straights. But gay identity is 'socially constructed' if anything is, and so it can never be fixed, sure, certain, or reliable. Others may deny your right to claim a given identity: you aren't a true Christian, Republicrat, Mississippian, American. You may cling to your identity despite all argument or evidence to the contrary. An identity can be changed, abandoned, hidden, or (Goffman 1963) spoiled. Good fences make good neighbors, Robert Frost's New England farmer says dourly; but identities don't make very good fences. People walk through them as if they were made of air -- and so they are.

At the same time, many gay Americans wish to believe that they are basically no different from heterosexuals, and that if it weren't for drunken leathermen who insist on gyrating lewdly on Pride Parade floats (Graff 1999), heterosexuals would recognize this basic similarity and embrace us as upright (oops!) fellow citizens. Many oscillate between declaring that they are genetically incapable of desiring the opposite sex, essentially and congenitally "different", forever doomed to be outsiders on one hand (Sullivan 1995: 13); and "There's something of both attractions in all of us" (ibid., 11) on the other.

The really curious thing about the old-fashioned down-home notions about queers which Howard and others treat so respectfully, is that they are so similar to the "modern homosexual" Foucault postulated. The queer, the not-man who plays receptor to a manly partner's penis, the gender nonconformist, is very like the invert of 19th century European medicine. If I weren't deathly afraid of being reductive, I'd say that they're the same concept. It's easy to forget this, because (as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick pointed out in Epistemology of the Closet), historians and theorists talk about "the modern concept of the homosexual" without noticing that they are retailing at least two such concepts, and probably more. Howard even cites the pertinent part of Sedgwick's book, but ignores what she said there.

Having offered what he calls a "tentative assertion that throughout the twentieth century, queer sexuality continued to be understood as both acts and identities, behaviors and beings" (xviii), Howard promptly forgets it in the main text. Which is too bad, because any writer "informed by queer theory" (xiv) who's actually read Foucault should know that this "tentative assertion" is normative: Foucault (1978) rejected the repression hypothesis, arguing that 19th century medical theories of sexuality never simply replaced other conceptions. Foucault also had a hard time holding this position consistently, and seems to have been unaware that there hadn't been a single conception of same-sex sexuality before "homosexuality." The sodomite was never only "an aberration," as shown by Voltaire's famous (if apocryphal) retort, "Once, a philosopher; twice, a sodomite!"; the homosexual was never simply a "species."

Browning, Frank, 1996. A Queer Geography: journeys toward a sexual self. New York: Crown Publishing Inc.
Foucault, Michel, 1978. The history of sexuality, volume I: introduction. New York: Pantheon Books.
Goffman, Erving, 1963. Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.
Graff, E. J., 1999. What is marriage for? Boston: Beacon Press.
Hooker, Evelyn, 1957. "The adjustment of the male overt homosexual." Journal of Projective Techniques, XXI, 18.
Rupp, Leila J., 1999. A desired past: a short history of same-sex love in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Seabrook, Jeremy, 1999. Love in a different climate: men who have sex with men in India. London and New York: Verso.
Sullivan, Andrew, 1995. Virtually normal: an argument about homosexuality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Tafoya, Terry; Wirth, Douglas A., 1996. "Native American Two-Spirit Men." In Longres, John F. (editor), Men of color: a context for service to homosexually active men. New York: Harrington Park Press / The Haworth Press, 1996: 51-67.

[This is as far as I got with my discussion of Men Like That. There were a couple of other parts of his work I wanted to look at, such as his analysis of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" and his account of the scandal which led to the death of a Jackson classical musician, and I'll try to get to those one of these days.]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Run Over by a Speeding Bus

Band of Thebes has a good post up about the Huffington Post's discovery of GLBT-themed Young Adult (YA) fiction. Like Columbus, the writers are discovering a new world that was already there, and they ignore a lot of excellent recent work. (Unfortunately, as I've pointed out before, it's too often gay people who help in the erasure of our history.)

To be fair to the HP writers, they say clearly enough that their list includes some that "are new, some [that] are classics, but all are worth a read." Still, as BoT points out, a couple of years is a long time in teen years, and some young reader out there may stumble on the HP article and find it useful.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

If I Had That Money, I'd Give It All to the Homeless -- Every Cent!

I've linked to the video clip above before, and I'll probably do it again before I die. It sums up my views in this post concisely -- who says Chomsky can't do concision? -- and is a moving rejoinder to Scialabba's "argument for elitism." But anyway ...

I have to correct an earlier post. I mistook George Scialabba's quotation from Ortega y Gasset for a division into rulers and ruled:
The most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are; without imposing on themselves toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves. …
And so on. But I was wrong. Whatever Ortega was talking about here, it wasn't the incapability of human beings to govern themselves -- that, as Scialabba put it, "most people will always be incapable of the energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner poise required for citizenship in a republic." It appears that Ortega was talking about intellectual and "spiritual" qualities of self-perfection, which are still bogus in my opinion, but the real fault lies with Scialabba's adducing Ortega's "sadly, quietly authoritative observations" in support of "the argument for elitism."

In fact, immediately before the passage I quoted, Ortega warned:
When one speaks of "select minorities" it is usual for the evil-minded to twist the sense of this expression, pretending to be unaware that the select man is not the petulant person who thinks himself superior to the rest, but the man who demands more of himself than the rest, even though he may not fulfil in his person those higher exigencies. The most radical division that it is possible to make ... [etc.]
"The division of society into masses and select minorities is, then, not a division into social classes," Ortega insisted, "but into classes of men, and cannot coincide with the hierarchic separation of 'upper' and 'lower' classes." (The blogger who quoted this passage declared that Ernest Hemingway was one of "those who make great demands on themselves," based on his adherence to a newspaper style sheet. I don't think that's quite the kind of demand Ortega had in mind, but who knows?)

One question here, of course, is how to distinguish the truly "select man" from the "petulant person who thinks himself superior to the rest." For example, another blogger who quoted Ortega complained: "One of the worst things that happened to western culture is the fashionability of faux intellectual poses among common people. If you're a nobody, and you probably are; face up to this fact. Live your life as well as you can; cultivate moral excellence, and learn humility and good manners." Fashionability? It has always been fashionable. But then there's always been faux humility too. (I can't help wondering what qualifies that blogger to preach to his fellow human beings so self-righteously.)

This is an important question, but it's more important to ask what making great demands of oneself, "piling up difficulties and duties", indeed what "energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner poise," has to do with "citizenship in a republic." All these traits are virtues, I suppose, but they'd be virtues in any society. I'm also not sure that the drive for self-perfection as Ortega described it necessarily goes along with Scialabba's list of virtues. Many elitists wouldn't think so, but then they would reject the whole project of a republic, except as it gave them something to rule. Very often people who are busy perfecting themselves aren't interested in participating in civil society, getting their elbows dirty by rubbing up against the vulgar multitudes. Were Nietzsche, or T. S. Eliot, or Isaac Newton, or any number of other great minds, interested in being good republicans? (Scialabba describes Ortega as a "Nietzschean conservative," which makes me wonder if Ortega would have been interested in being a good republican citizen.)

Indeed, I think it's arguable that much of the mischief done in history has been the work of people who not only wanted to perfect themselves but everyone else, disregarding the latter's wishes in the matter. The drive for perfection animated the eugenicists who hoped to perfect the race by getting rid of the "unfit." They certainly had, or thought they had, energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner poise, but these traits were compatible with a destructive scientific racism. Ortega was evidently anti-fascist, and as I say I'm not clear about just what kinds of self-perfection he had in mind. (I suppose I'm going to have to read The Revolt of the Masses, dammit.)

I once got into an argument at A Tiny Revolution on more or less this subject. (No permalinks to individual comments there, alas, as always.) Faced with the slaughter of Afghan civilians by US forces, one commenter remarked:
Sure it's all crap, but that is what people get pounded into their heads over and over and over again. So why wouldn't the public at large believe it? Please remember that a full 50% of the population is of average or below average intelligence. (Funny how that sounds insulting, isn't it?) I don't think many people know much about iraq or afghanistan, partly because they just don't and partly because that's not encouraged by the media either.
Why, yes, it does sound insulting, but even worse, it's irrelevant. (Deliberately so, which is why it's insulting.) I wrote:
There's nothing "insulting" about saying that 50% of the population is average or below -- it's simply true by definition, and so meaningless. The questions are, what is the average? and how intelligent do you have to be to know that the government is lying to you? If you have to be a genius to know that, then we're doomed. Yet as far as I can tell, the educated classes are just as credulous, if not more so, when the government speaks. Higher education is largely a matter of indoctrination and preparing its subjects to fit in with the rulers, so that's hardly surprising.
The other commenter replied, rather predictably:
I am not only above average intelligence, i am a real smarty pants, so much of a smart pants that I actually was aware that it's true by definition that 50% of any population--every population--is below average intelligence, more or less, depending on whether we're talking mean or median or mode or chi square distribution or a flux in the warp core, captain. And i neither insulted nor intended to insult anyone. But i commend you for your valiant defense of egalitarianism anyway, because i appprove wholeheartedly of that, even if i am too flip for my own good.

But all that being the case, i don't know that that makes my observation meaningless, in the context i was talking about. I was trying to inartfully suggest that you can't expect the general public to disbelieve the government when the government piles mounds upon mound of lies on them about whether killing civilians on the other side of the world is necessary or avoidable. My point was that many people really are less equipped to see through so many lies, by reason of intelligence and training. And i'm not backing down from that. It can be easier to deceive people who don't have information and education and aren't sophisticated, at least that's what courts have long said, though they say that less and less as they become more reactionary, which is the trend i've seen.

I kept asking for some reason to believe that IQ has anything to do with being "equipped to see through so many lies," but this was a question beyond the other commenter's capacity to answer, or even grasp (thus demonstrating his high intelligence), so he settled for repeating himself: "my position is just that ordinary people aren't well equipped to figure out the complex questions of what the military is doing abroad." There is nothing "complex" about "what the military is doing abroad"; one way of securing one's spot among the "select" is to assert that the problems are more difficult than they in fact are.

In this spirit I continue to pose the question of how smart one actually needs to be for citizenship in a republic. Scialabba wants to set the bar high, but gives no reason for doing so other than that "the masses have fairly consistently disappointed their well-wishers" by not rising up against the elites. But if you insist that there do exist elites, a "yeast of heroes" in Scialabba's phrase, who make great demands on themselves, you have to consider that they have even more consistently disappointed their well-wishers by their murderous policies and conduct. (And worse yet: if the ignorant masses ever did rise up against the elites, they'd go after George Scialabba too!)

Oddly, elsewhere in What Are Intellectuals Good For? Scialabba praises an essay by Noam Chomsky on equality, which appeared in The Chomsky Reader (Pantheon, 1987, 183-202), and is now available online. It's hard for me to understand how someone could admire Chomsky's arguments there while at the same time, however sadly and regretfully, granting force to "the argument for elitism." Especially since Chomsky tackles Scialabba's position head on, in a discussion of "a series of articles on 'egalitarianism' by John Cobbs in Business Week, (December 1975), which is not untypical of current debate over these issues." Cobbs, Chomsky says,
poses what he takes to be "the great intellectual dilemma of the egalitarians," namely, that "a look at the real world demonstrates that some men are smarter than others." Is it fair to insist, he asks, that "the fast and slow . . . should all arrive at the same condition at the same time?" Is it fair to insist on equality of condition achieved, when natural endowment so plainly varies?

Presumably it is the case that in our "real world" some combination of attributes is conducive to success in responding to "the demands of the economic system." Let us agree, for the sake of discussion, that this combination of attributes is in part a matter of native endowment. Why does this (alleged) fact pose an "intellectual dilemma" to egalitarians? Note that we can hardly claim much insight into just what the relevant combination of attributes may be. I know of no reason to believe, and do not believe, that "being smart" has much to do with it. One might suppose that some mixture of avarice, selfishness, lack of concern for others, aggressiveness, and similar characteristics play a part in getting ahead and "making it" in a competitive society based on capitalist principles. Others may counter with their own prejudices. Whatever the correct collection of attributes may be, we may ask what follows from the fact, if it is a fact, that some partially inherited combination of attributes tends to lead to material success? All that follows, so far as I can see, is a comment on our particular social and economic arrangements. One can easily imagine a society in which physical prowess, willingness to murder, ability to cheat, and so on, would tend to bring success; we hardly need resort to imagination. The egalitarian might respond, in all such cases, that the social order should be changed so that the collection of attributes that tends to bring success will no longer do so. He might even argue that in a more decent society, the attributes that now lead to success would be recognized as pathological, and that gentle persuasion might be a proper means to help people to overcome their unfortunate malady. Again we return to the question: What is a just and decent social order? The "egalitarian" faces no special "intellectual dilemmas" distinct in character from those that confront the advocates of a different social order. ...

Discussion of egalitarian views is often misleading, in that the criticism of such views is commonly directed against a straw-man opponent, as egalitarians have been quick to point out. In fact, "equality of condition," much deplored by contemporary ideologists, has rarely been the express goal of reformers or revolutionaries, at least on the left. In Marx's utopia, "the development of human energy" is to be taken as "an end in itself as humans escape the "realm of necessity" so that questions of freedom can be seriously raised. The guiding principle, reiterated to the point of cliche, is: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." The principle of "equality of condition" is nowhere invoked. If one person needs medical treatment and another is more fortunate, they are not to be granted an equal amount of medical care, and the same is true of other human needs.
The whole article is worth reading; Scialabba was right that it's very good, and I'm grateful to him for mentioning it, since I hadn't looked at it in a long time and had forgotten it. But it also demolishes Scialabba's position in "The Sealed Envelope."

Scialabba must really like that passage from The Revolt of the Masses, because he quotes it elsewhere, for example in a 1992 piece called "Crowds and Culture." Inspired by a trip to Italy, which was plumb roont by rain and tourists, Scialabba was ambivalent:
Actually, I’m not sure, on reflection, that I want to complain. Perhaps the crowd is even a cause for – guarded – celebration, for a muffled cheer. In theory, after all, the cultural landmarks of Europe are everyone’s heritage. Better a single confused, brief, distant glimpse of them than yet another generation of ignorance for half the population or more. Many of the crowd will have come for no reason they can articulate; but for others, out of a daily round of routine labor and consumption, the trip may be a shy, wistful homage to the higher life. And even if barren for the traveler, the trip may have a residual effect, may water a seed, blow on a spark, transmit a message to a child, neighbor, co-worker.
But there's always a "but":
True … and yet. Something’s not right. It’s not a happy match; the places themselves are, in a sense, frustrated. A half-empty theater or sports stadium is a waste; when they’re full, both performers and audience are exhilarated. But the Farnese Gardens, the Cappella Palatina, the Greek temples of Sicily can only work their magic on a few visitors at a time. And no doubt they would prefer some visitors to others: erudite old friends and ardent neophytes rather than the dutiful, the acquisitive, the ignorant, or the naively curious. ...

Whether active (i.e., reading their guidebook) or passive, few tourists seemed to recognize (I’m speculating, I admit) that there might be any other qualification for being where they were – in the holy places of European culture – than having paid.
Really? The gardens, the chapel, the temples are conscious "holy places" and have preferences about visitors and viewers? Does it, like, hurt them when unworthy eyes are looking at them? And what about the locals who live in those places? Are they properly humble before the cultural treasures that by merest chance of birth they live among? Should those treasures be reserved for the truly wise ones who can appreciate them, and the oxlike locals shut out?

Scialabba then quotes Ortega's by-now familiar lines and comments:
Ortega’s mistake – what made him a conservative – was his assumption that this distinction between high-quality and low-quality human beings, between creative and critical people on the one hand and passive consumers and conformists on the other, was a metaphysical distinction, was just a fact of human nature. He never considered that increasing the number of the responsible, the cultivated, the noble from generation to generation might be possible through a supreme effort of democratic pedagogy. He went, that is, only part of the way with William Morris and Oscar Wilde toward the loftiest conception of socialism yet devised.
It's mighty big of Scialabba to grant that Ortega was wrong in assuming that this distinction "was just a fact of nature," and could be mitigated through "a supreme effort of democratic pedagogy." Once again the missionary impulse to save the proles from themselves raises its head, and there's good historical as well as logical reason to distrust it. Me, I'm not sure that a supreme effort is needed, or even desirable, because I don't know what is the metaphysically correct mindset to bring to "the holy places of European culture", nor do I know how Scialabba could know that all those tourists were motivated purely by commercialism and were unworthy to bring their unclean eyes unto them.

I don't believe in holy places anyway, and many of the glories of European culture were created for "the masses" in the first place. Did they appreciate those treasures in the way Scialabba thinks they should have? (Did London groundlings genuflect at the first performances of Shakespeare's immortal dramas?) It's not for Scialabba, or for me, to decide.

The "Do I Have to Read This"? Department

One of the hot new tomes out there is Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. It's so hot that it has barely been published, and neither the local public library nor the university library has it yet. According to the Psychology Today site, which is helping to push the book, Ryan is "a psychologist, teacher, and author" with a Ph.D.; Jetha, who's also his wife, has an M.D.

Dan Savage has touted the book in his sex advice column, not once but twice. The first time, he not only called Sex at Dawn "the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior In The Human Male on the American public in 1948" -- which coincidentally seems to be the blurb he contributed to the dust jacket -- but invited Ryan to co-host an installment of his column. (Ryan returned the favor at his Psych Today blog: "Having spent most of the past ten years working on this book, I think it's pretty important too, but 'since Kinsey?' Probably not, but hey, get a copy and let us know what you think (especially if you agree with Dan!)." Savage signed off that column with "Anyone who’s ever struggled with monogamy—and any honest person who ever attempted it admits to struggling—needs to read Sex At Dawn" and a link to the book's website and ordering information. Pretty altruistic of him.

The second time he seemed to be backing down somewhat from the grandiose claims he made the first time: "And to all the outraged folks writing in to ask if I’m seriously suggesting that no one should ever be monogamous: That’s not what I’m saying—and it’s not what the authors of Sex At Dawn are arguing, either. ... What the authors of Sex At Dawn believe—and what I think they prove—is that we are a naturally non-monogamous species, despite what we’ve been told for millennia by preachers and for centuries by scientists, and that is why so many people have such a hard time remaining monogamous over the long haul." That's very nice, but it's hardly a radical claim, nor is it a new one. And contrary to what Savage claims, "scientists" have hardly been denying that "we are a naturally non-monogamous species." Much of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology has been arguing the opposite for the past few decades -- "science" hasn't been in a position to make pseudo-authoritative declarations on any subject for centuries. Look at this quotation from Robin Baker's Sperm Wars, which I quoted in an earlier post on this subject:
Some things, of course, will never change. Nothing – short of castration, brain surgery, or hormone implants – can remove a person’s subconscious urge to have as many grandchildren as they can. So, nothing will remove a man’s subconscious urge to have as many children with as many women as his genes and circumstances will allow.
That doesn't look to me like a claim that human beings are a naturally monogamous species -- at least, not male human beings.

At the book's website Ryan writes:
Since Darwin’s day, we’ve been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science—as well as religious and cultural institutions—have maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man’s possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman’s fertility and fidelity.
This is a straw man. Darwin seems to have been under no such illusion. It's a stretch to say that "religious institutions" say that "sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species," when non-monogamy is so compatible with so many religious traditions. Christianity is monogamous (though ambivalent about any sexual expression) because of its association with Roman culture, but its Judaic roots are polygamous. But even Christianity recognizes that sexual fidelity is hard work. One workaround has been to claim that though Yahweh created us monogamous, Original Sin made us horndogs; any assertion that we are naturally monogamous requires some fancy redefinition of the term "natural." And that last bit, about women exchanging fertility and fidelity for men's protection and possessions, has nothing to do with monogamy, since it rationalizes polygynous arrangements no less than monogamous ones. It's not a hopeful sign for the realism or coherence of the argument in Sex at Dawn.

According to the book's website,
Ryan and Jethá’s central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, often overlooked evidence from anthropology, archeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. ...

With intelligence, humor, and wonder, Ryan and Jethá show how our promiscuous past haunts our struggles over monogamy, sexual orientation, and family dynamics. They explore why long-term fidelity can be so difficult for so many; why sexual passion tends to fade even as love deepens; why many middle-aged men risk everything for transient affairs with younger women; why homosexuality persists in the face of standard evolutionary logic; and what the human body reveals about the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality.
I'd almost like to read Sex at Dawn, just to see what sort of evidence the authors could have for their claims. We don't, in fact, know anything about "prehistoric" human sexuality, or about the evolution of our family arrangements. The usual approach in evolutionary psychology -- and contrary to Ryan and Jetha, many others have toiled in these vineyards before them -- is to cobble together evidence from non-human species, especially primates; other human cultures, especially "primitive" ones; and to assume that we can extrapolate to early human and hominid social and sexual practices from these. But we can't, if only because practices vary so much. For example, modern chimpanzee and bonobos are probably our closest non-human relatives, but their sexual behavior differs in important ways, and the people who want to draw lessons from our primate cousins can't agree which species should be our role model. Besides, there's no reason to suppose that we should live just as our remote ancestors did; no one even wants to. We evolved, for example, in hot climates and very specific hot climates at that, but we have managed to populate every climate on earth, even the most inhospitable. We didn't evolve to read or write, and literacy was a minority practice in most of the world until relatively recently. And so on.

For that matter, we don't even really know much about contemporary human sexuality, because people lie about what they do and whom they do it with. But one thing we do know is that there's immense variation among individual people -- in sexual practices, the number and kinds of partners we want, and the kinds of relationships we form. That's one good reason why human biology can't be used to determine moral questions: first you have to settle which human biology provides the norm.

Both Savage and Ryan stress that they're not saying that monogamy is impossible or even undesirable, just that it ain't easy. This is not exactly a radical new revelation; any minister with experience of counseling couples knows it. By the time they get done backpedaling, all that remains is a handful of platitudes. Savage concludes his second infomercial:
People—particularly those who value monogamy—need to understand why being monogamous is so much harder than they’ve been led to believe it will be. In some cases, this understanding may help people find the courage to seek out non-monogamous relationships and/or arrangements and/or allowances that make them—gasp!—happier and make their relationships more stable, not less, as a routine infidelity won’t doom their marriage/civil union/commitment/slave contract/whatever. But understanding that monogamy is a struggle for most people—and being able to be honest with our partners about experiencing it as a struggle—may actually help some people remain monogamous.
It's not necessary to entertain various speculations (to put it nicely) about prehistoric hominid sexual arrangements in order to understand why being monogamous is so difficult. It's really enough to recognize that being monogamous is difficult, which can be learned from introspection (looking at your own feelings and experience), observation of other people, and just about all the stories people tell about love and relationships. The difficulty of limiting oneself to one partner is talked about almost everywhere. Some of its advocates even try to make a virtue out of the difficulty of monogamy, which will convince only those who want to be convinced.

The question that is rarely asked is why monogamy is a desirable goal despite all this. Savage says, "For the record: I’m happy to acknowledge that there are lots of good reasons to be monogamous and/or very nearly monogamous, e.g., children and other sexually transmitted infections." Children are perfectly compatible with non-monogamous arrangements, as a look at the Hebrew Bible will tell you. Savage offers no better reasons for monogamy than any True Love Waits tractarian could give you. That's not to say that monogamy is a bad thing; only that as with so many moral strictures, I'm still waiting for some good reasons and arguments to be offered.

So, do I have to read Sex at Dawn? I'm certainly not going to spend my own money on it. When it turns up at a library, I'll browse through it and see if it has any more substance than the advertisements indicate. But I still have to finish reading Cristina Nehring's A Vindication of Love and Thornhill and Palmer's A Natural History of Rape before I'll take on any more silly books. And just today I saw a new candidate in Borders: In Defense of Faith, by the Christian Zionist author David Brog, which purports not only to defend Faith against all the New Atheists ("Surprisingly few books have emerged to defend faith from this onslaught," says the jacket copy, which is a major falsehood right there), but to demonstrate that "the belief in the sanctity and equality of all humans at the core of both Judaism and Christianity—what Brog calls the 'Judeo-Christian idea'— ... has provided the intellectual foundation for human rights." That's certainly dubious, and the list of those who provided laudatory blurbs (Elie Wiesel, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Dennis Prager, Bill Donohue) indicates a rather tortured conception of "human rights." And I use the word "tortured" literally.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It's a Small World After All

I was poking around the web for information about Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's pamphlet Counter-Revolutionary Violence, which was suppressed by Warner Communications in 1973. Because of contractual obligations, Warner couldn't destroy the stock, so some copies were distributed; I read a copy from the university library in 1980. The full text is available online here.

It's not all that common for books to be suppressed in this way in the US, after they've already been printed and published. While I was looking for more information about Counter-Revolutionary Violence, I came across this account of the pressures that limit the range of material that's published in the US. Notice the phrase I put into boldface:
This understanding of the ideological limits of mainstream publishing firms is not far-fetched conspiracy theory. There have been instances in which books were refused publication for strictly ideological reasons. Such was the case with Counter-Revolutionary Violence, a critique of U.S. foreign policy by Herman and Chomsky that was to be published in 1973 by Warner Modular, Inc., a subsidiary of Warner Communications. According to Claude McCaleb, after Warner Publishing president William Sarnoff read an advance copy, he "immediately launched into a violent verbal attack . . . saying, among other things, that [Counter-Revolutionary Viloence] was a pack of lies, a scurrilous attack on respected Americans, undocumented, a publication unworthy of a serious publisher. . . . He then announced that he had ordered the printer not to release a single copy . . . and that the . . . [book] would not be published" (qtd. in Bagdikian 33-34). Sarnoff had ads for this book cancelled and the Warner catalog listing the Herman/Chomsky book and the entire 10,000 copy press run destroyed. Christopher Hitchens narrates the fate of Counter-Revolutionary Violence: "The twenty thousand copies might have been pulped if it were not for a legally binding contract. Instead they were sold to an obscure outfit named MSS Information Corporation, whereupon Warner . . . washed its hands of the entire deal and of all responsibility for advertising, promotion, and distribution." Similarly, in 1979, McGraw-Hill published Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran, an account of the overthrow of Iranian premier Mohammed Mossadegh written by former CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt. Roosevelt asserted that the coup had been undertaken at the behest of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Upon complaints from British Petroleum, successor to AIOC, McGraw-Hill recalled the book from stores and reviewers (Bagdikian 39). Another example of corporate pressure affecting a book’s publication is Marc Elliot’s Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, signed by Bantam in 1989 and dropped in 1991. (It was eventually published by Birch Lane Press/Carol Publishing.) Jon Wiener speculates that Eliot’s book was killed because Bantam had contracted with Disney to publish children’s book versions of Disney movies (744).
As you can see, BP's unsavory history goes back quite a ways.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Man's Reach Should Exceed His Grasp, or What's an Inflatable Girlfriend For?

Another of the essays in George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For? is devoted to Randolph Bourne (1886-1918), a journalist and social critic who opposed US involvement in World War I. Until I read Scialabba's essay, Bourne was just a name to me, but I now think I should read some of his work. It looks like a fair amount of his most important writings are available online, which helps.

One thing about the essay bothered me, though. As you can see from his dates, Bourne died young, at 32, in the influenza epidemic that swept the world after World War I. He "was maimed by forceps during his birth, giving him a disfigured face; spinal tuberculosis at age 4 left him a hunchback," which I guess means he was an unattractive heterosexual. Despite this, Scialabba reports, Bourne "found the 'golden person' he had always … yearned for: the talented, beautiful, aristocratic Esther Cornell. They became engaged a few weeks before Bourne’s fatal influenza attack."

Bourne's biographer Bruce Clayton wrote of Cornell: "Poised and well-mannered, she radiated feminine charm, and though she was a feminist, she had no desire to exclude men from her life." (Yes, male writers still write such things.) I'm happy that Bourne found love, even if it was cut short by his death. But why is it that it always seems to be other people who are expected to look through the unpromising exterior to the beautiful soul trapped inside, who must be (again in Clayton's words) "capable of seeing beyond his deformity to the passionate person he was"? There aren't enough "golden people" to go around for us ordinary mortals, and most of us get along just fine.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Elitism for the Masses, Revisited

So, I'm reading George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For? Essays and Reviews (Boston: Pressed Wafer, 2009), and I'm surprised at how much I disagree with him. It was because of Scialabba's review of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's The Political Economy of Human Rights years ago that I first got really interested in Chomsky's writing, and I've liked some other work of Scialabba's that I've seen, so I started assuming that our views were similar, and you know what happens when you assume.

I appreciate the fact that, like me, Scialabba is in the university but not an academic -- he graduated from Harvard in 1969 but became an office worker there, managing a "mid-sized academic office building" for many years. Unlike me, he was raised Catholic and joined the reactionary and ascetic group Opus Dei, but in college he fell under the spell of secular modernity and abandoned his thoughts of a religious vocation. He's only a couple of years older than I am, so our trajectories have some similarities, but our interests and values are often quite different.

For example, in the book's second essay, "The Sealed Envelope", Scialabba laments that "the masses have fairly consistently disappointed their well-wishers, including me" (26). This is a common complaint on the Left, and I've made it myself, but Scialabba proceeds from there to accept
the argument for elitism: that most people will always be incapable of the energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner poise required for citizenship in a republic. There is no disgrace in this: most of us are not gifted musicians or mathematicians and feel no shame about it. It is not, obviously, a precise analogy: fellow citizens influence and sometimes govern us; musicians do not. But in another respect the analogy may be valid and actually encouraging. Mathematical and musical ability can be fostered, up to a point, especially if the effort begins in childhood. And generations of what might be called equal early-environmental opportunity may level differences in aptitude. Might a similarly benign civic pedagogy produce a similarly vast rise in the general level of republican virtue?

Once again, conservatives without imagination will wearily or indignantly object that civic pedagogy on a mass scale – any effort to produce rather than merely permit social virtue – must end in totalitarianism. Conservatives (and liberals and radicals) without imagination are, I suppose, always numerous and influential enough to be worth arguing with. Some other time, though; what haunts me most keenly at present are not Isaiah Berlin’s and Leszek Koliakowski’s pontifications nor the grandiloquence of the nouveaux philosophes, but rather these sadly, quietly authoritative observations of Ortega y Gasset:

The most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are; without imposing on themselves toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves. … As one advances in life, one realizes more and more that the majority of men – and women – are incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed on them as a reaction to external compulsion. The few individuals we have come across who are capable of a spontaneous and joyous effort stand out isolated. … These are the select men, the noble ones, the only ones who are active and not reactive, for whom life is a perpetual striving.

Any number of objections will doubtless spring to a generous mind, but one that can hardly do is that the distinction Ortega proposes is not “the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity.” If humanity will always be a mass of dough leavened sporadically by a yeast of heroes, then why talk of “radical democracy”? Capitalist democracy requires only consumers, fermented occasionally by entrepreneurs. The resulting loaf is not very nourishing, but a lot more so than Stalinist or pre-modern brands. And if Ortega is even roughly right, what other kind of democracy is possible? [27-28]
Scialabba makes things too easy for himself by labeling everyone else either "without imagination" on the right, and possessed of "a generous mind" on the left, leaving him with Ortega somewhere in between. Psychoanalyzing one's opponent, while satisfying, is not an argument, and it's argument that's lacking here.

It doesn't matter whether Ortega's division of humanity is "radical" or not. One can divide humanity any way one likes -- I'm sure you've heard the joke about there being two kinds of people, those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don't -- but in order to use such a division as the basis for politics, it is necessary to show that the division has some basis in the real world. Neither Ortega nor Scialabba does so. Scialabba assumes that "humanity will always be a mass of dough leavened sporadically by a yeast of heroes", and accepts "that most people will always be incapable of the energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner poise required for citizenship in a republic." It's not enough to assert such things, they must be supported. Scialabba simply begs the question.

It's not obvious that humanity can be divided into "those who make great demands of themselves" and those "for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are; without imposing on themselves toward perfection" -- but even if this is the case, it isn't obvious that society is presently ruled by those who make great demands of themselves and are consequently the "yeast of heroes" possessed of "the energy, imaginative range, sensual and familial detachment, and inner pose required for citizenship in a republic." Who, I wonder, could Scialabba have in mind? Ronald Reagan? George Bush? (Either one.) Rush Limbaugh? John McCain? For that matter, Barack Obama?

But leave Republicans aside. It was "the best and brightest" of the Democrats, quite full of their own civic virtue and superior learning, who waged the Cold War and, among other spontaneous and joyous efforts, got the United States into Vietnam. Scialabba himself, in another essay collected here, tells how
The New Republic’s editors and contributors, especially John Dewey, urged “realism” and a more indulgent view of the uses of force. They were confident that “intelligence” (that is, they, the intelligentsia) could turn the forces set loose by the war to creative social purposes at home and abroad, could turn mechanized lunacy into a “democratic war.” But to do this it was necessary to ally themselves with – in fact, to subordinate themselves to – state power. They did so enthusiastically, and thereafter (like many liberal supporters of the U.S. invasion of Iraq) devoted a good deal of polemical energy to jeering at radicals and pacifists, whose scruples, the “realists” claimed, could lead only to isolation and impotence" [36-7].
Or as Noam Chomsky wrote,
One might speculate, rather plausibly, that wealth and power tend to accrue to those who are ruthless, cunning, avaricious, self-seeking, lacking in sympathy and compassion, subservient to authority and willing to abandon principle for material gain, and so on. ... Such qualities just might be the valuable ones for a war of all against all. If so, the society that results (applying [Richard] Herrnstein's "syllogism") could hardly be characterized as a "meritocracy." By using the word "meritocracy" Herrnstein begs some interesting questions and reveals implicit assumptions about our society that are hardly self-evident [For Reasons of State (Pantheon Books, 1973), 355].
Of course, this isn't what Ortega meant by people who make great demands of themselves, or what Scialabba meant by those who have the imaginative range and inner poise necessary for civic virtue, but it's not clear what they did mean. What disturbs me is that Ortega appears to be drawing on the "life force" fantasies that were common among many intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which saw evolution as a movement up the Great Chain of Being. These were compatible with, and encouraged, the blood-and-soil racism that flourished on both sides of the Atlantic -- and there too, the superiority of the rulers was assumed, not proven.

On the other hand, I'm not persuaded that "the masses" never make great demands of themselves. (But then, neither Ortega nor Scialabba tries to persuade; they simply assert.) Scialabba recounts how the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously "renounced his wealth and his career in order to teach children in rural Austria, only to conclude that peasants and children alike were as vile as Cambridge dons" (26). This would be better reversed: Cambridge dons, and Wittgenstein himself, were as vile as peasants and children -- but then the division between the rulers and the masses would collapse. If they (or should I say "we"? from the viewpoint of the rulers, Scialabba and I are part of the masses) are often intellectually and morally lazy, so are the rulers, with much more destructive results.

Nor do I agree with Scialabba's "unimaginative conservative" that our present social arrangements "permit civic virtue"; rather they have evolved to suppress it. All efforts to keep the proles and peasants in their place, though, encounter resistance, often successful. The poor and downtrodden, being too ignorant to realize that they lack "civic virtue" and are mere complacent "buoys that float on the waves", have an alarming tendency to demand more, both of themselves and of the societies they live in. So we get such surprises -- to the elites, anyway -- as the 1990 election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti; the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua; democracy movements in South Korea, China, Venezuela, Bolivia, and elsewhere; and the refusal of the Vietnamese people to submit to foreign rule, whether French, Japanese, or American. Even in the US, the people don't always listen to the wise leaders who try to instill civic virtue in them. These efforts may not lead to "radical" democracy, but they are seldom allowed to. How can these upheavals be reconciled with Scialabba's "case for elitism"? I don't think they can, but they also trump it, and they indicate to me that Scialabba gave up on the people too easily.

As for Scialabba's "benign civic pedagogy," he seems to assume, as much as any unimaginative conservative, that it can only be imposed from above. But as Amartya Sen wrote in Development as Freedom (Oxford, 1999, p. 79),
There is an interesting choice here between "technocracy" and "democracy" in the selection of weights, which may be worth discussing a little. A choice procedure that relies on a democratic search for agreement or a consensus can be extremely messy, and many technocrats are sufficiently disgusted by its messiness to pine for some wonderful formula that would simply give us ready made weights that are "just right." However, no such magic formula does, of course, exist, since the issue of weighting is one of valuation and judgment, and not of some impersonal technology.
Sen also remarked (151):
Are the citizens of third world countries indifferent to political and democratic rights? This claim, which is often made, is again based on too little empirical evidence .... The only way of verifying this would be to put the matter to democratic testing in free elections with freedom of opposition and expression -- precisely the things that the supporters of authoritarianism do not allow to happen. It is not clear at all how this proposition can be checked when the ordinary citizens are given little political opportunity to express their views on this and even less to dispute the claims made by the authorities in office. The downgrading of these rights and freedoms is certainly part of the value system of the government leaders in many third world countries, but to take that to be the view of the people is to beg a very big question.
This observation applies no less to the First World masses, I'd say. I don't think I'm either a "radical democrat" or a "utopian" one; I expect the process of democracy to be messy, as Sen says, and the people will often be wrong. But the mistakes (and the crimes, come to that) will be theirs. I don't believe it's the masses who are the problem; it's the self-styled elites.