Friday, December 31, 2010

Actually, They Do Make Ignoramuses (Ignorami?) Like They Used To

My friend the ambivalent Obama supporter sent me a link to this article which linked to this blog post by one Larry Kramer -- not the bloated and inflamed asshole famed for his public temper tantrums, but a corporate-media guy with the same name.

The article, by one Alex Wexprin, declares
In a nutshell, Kramer argues that today’s busy media consumer, lacking the time to dig in to issues themselves, instead relies on cognitive shortcuts to familiarize themselves with what the “correct” opinions are, based on their preexisting ideology.
Wexprin quotes Kramer approvingly -- "We are creating a less-informed but more opinionated public" -- while disagreeing with him tangentially.
First: the problem of opinion fragmentation and people going to outlets that reinforce their existing beliefs is hardly a new phenomenon. If the problem has gotten worse over the last few years, it is more likely to be due to the Internet than an ideological shift in TV news. ...

[Second]: most people in this country do not watch cable news.
The trouble is, neither Wexprin nor Kramer provides any evidence that "the problem has gotten worse over the last few years." "In the past," Kramer declares, "many of those people would have spent the time with a more objective outlet, like CNN or the New York Times, done more research of the candidate, and made up their own minds. Now, it’s just faster to have someone do that for you." Calling CNN and the Times "objective" is funny enough, but when did most people do "more research" and "make up their own minds"?

Americans don't seem to me to be any less-informed than they were when I was in high school forty years ago, before the Internet or cable news, but they were very ill-informed then. Almost twenty years ago, just after the first Gulf War, a "study, conducted by the University of Massachusetts' Center for Studies in Communication, found that the more people watched TV during the Gulf crisis, the less they knew about the underlying issues, and the more likely they were to support the war." Fox News didn't exist then, but CNN did, and dutifully misled its audience.

Kramer writes that "In an effort to appear totally unbiased, CNN ridded itself of opinion or emotion." When was this, I wonder? Was it before or after Lou Dobbs quit? Before or after "new CNN chairman Walter Isaacson met with top Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to discuss how to improve relations between the cable news network and conservative Republicans"?

I'm not sure where my peers and their parents went for their misinformation in the 60s, but there was the Reader's Digest, a reliable fount of right-wing propaganda with an enormous circulation, and there were plenty of right-wing radio commentators even before the Fairness Doctrine was abolished. It was as if there was a sewer in which their blatantly racist, hysterically anti-communist material marinated until it was ready to dump into receptive ears. Morris Kominsky's book The Hoaxers: Plain Liars, Fancy Liars, and Damned Liars (Branden Press, 1970) was a debunking of a lot of this stew. The three big broadcast networks varied slightly in their politics, with ABC notoriously the farthest right of the three in the late 60s, but if you wanted accurate information about US foreign policy, business and the economy, or social issues, you didn't rely on them, "objective" though they were supposed to be.

Rereading FAIR's account of the University of Massachusetts study of Gulf War Coverage, though, I find myself wondering.

While most respondents had difficulty answering questions about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, 81 percent of the sample could identify the missile used to shoot down the Iraqi Scuds as the Patriot. That media consumers know facts relating to successful U.S. weapons but not about inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy, the researchers argued, "suggests that the public are not generally ignorant—rather, they are selectively misinformed."
Were media consumers more knowledgeable about the names of US missiles than about the circumstances leading up to the war only because of skewed media coverage, or might it have been partly because such trivia, like the names of professional athletes, their records and their rankings, were what most media consumers considered important, interesting, and therefore memorable? The first Gulf War was notorious for the way it was covered as if it were the Superbowl, but that was also, probably, the best way to sell it, and I can't think of many people I know who were interested in knowing anything else about it.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

We, We, We, All the Way Home

I've been meaning to write about this for some time. Then, just before the dorm closed for semester break, I noticed a student carrying around a copy of Queer Globalizations: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism, edited by Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé and Martin F. Manalansan IV (New York: NYU Press, 2002). I asked him about it, and learned that he is a big fan of Cindy Patton (as am I), who contributed a paper to the collection. I hope to run into him again in January and ask him what he thought of it. I found it frustrating; like most such collections it was uneven. The tone was set by the editors' introduction, which began with the vacuous platitude "Queerness is now global." They then reported a small contretemps at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) conference on queer globalization at City University of New York in the spring of 1998 (pp. 3-4):
CLAGS's conference on queer globalization drew a wide array of queer activists and scholars specializing in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, the United States, Canada, and queer diasporas. To a record-breaking audience, the speakers discussed the economic and cultural transformations brought on by global capital around the world and attempted to identify both opportunities and perils inherent in these transformations and their implications for queer cultures and lives. Yet nowhere were the perils of our present global condition more clearly signified than in a rather pregnant moment during the closing plenary of the conference. In the question and answer session, a well-meaning U.S. queer scholar of note stood up and narrated a vignette, a cautionary tale of sorts that urgently demanded a reply. He and a colleague had been strolling through the recently cleaned-up and renovated Bryant Park, across the street from what was then home to CUNY's Graduate Center, the site of the conference, when they were accosted by an ostensibly Latino man distributing literature about the liberating power of Jesus Christ. Self-possessed, the white scholar answered the Latino man that he and his friend were in fact gay and had no need for this literature. To the bafflement of the scholar, the Latino man replied that he had also been gay once until he had found the Lord. Now turning pointedly to the plenary speakers, the scholar demanded in earnest, How should I have spoken to this Latino man? How could I have made myself understood by him? How could "we" at this conference, well-meaning queer scholars like him, he seemed to imply, communicate effectively with this Latino (formerly gay) man?
There are a number of questions I wish I could pose to Cruz-Malavé and Manalansan, and even more to that "well-meaning U.S. queer scholar of note." Did the "ostensibly Latino" missionary's activity that day just possibly have anything to do with the hellmouth going on across the street, the conference center full of homosexuals full of need for the redeeming love of Christ? I'd be surprised if he was out there trolling for converts by sheer coincidence.

Aside from that, how does a homosexual grow up in the United States without having had to deal with religious nuts trying to save him? How does a homosexual academic achieve "note" without having spent some time teaching and having to deal with hostile students and fellow faculty, and having learned to answer them? The "well-meaning scholar" must also be aware of the existence of gay Christians and other religious believers, so his first riposte to the "ostensible" Latino's overtures was not especially clever. And what does the missionary's ethnicity have to do with anything, either for the scholar or for the conference, anyway?

Though I'm not an academic, living in a college town I've often had encounters with non-Latino (not even "ostensible" ones) Christian kids who go out witnessing as part of their involvement with campus Christian groups like Campus Crusade for Christ. (Every Wednesday night, after prayer meeting.) They aren't sent out unprepared, and it seems that part of the spiel they're taught includes the phrase "I used to be [insert condition here] like you, but then I was saved." I recall fondly one such kid who gulped nervously when he plugged "gay" into that sentence after learning I am gay. (On the other hand, such campus groups seem to get a disproportionate number of conflicted, frightened, queer young people, many of whom later come out.) I'd never take for granted that a missionary was telling the truth about anything, but again, what was the well-meaning queer scholar trying to prove by crying in the wilderness, "You see how These People are? What can I possibly say to Them?" (On the other hand, I'm stuck with the editors' account of this performance; to add to the fun, Manalansan told a slightly different version in his Global Divas [Duke, 2003], to which I'll return presently.)
At this point the three-day conference, which had progressed smoothly, came to a screeching halt. Our speakers had finally been stumped by one of the opportunities and perils of our present global condition: the complexity of contemporary cross-cultural interactions in our globalized world. They had finally been silenced by the white scholar's attempt to regain his sense of self-possession by wielding, in a destabilized, fluctuating world, what he thought of as a stable identificatory germ (gay) -- an attempt that faltered because the ostensibly Latino man (no longer the mythical "other" before the shining glass beads of European culture) could wield the same term (gay) with equal authority and impunity.
In other words, these fine anti-racist, anti-imperialist scholars had never, in their years of study in the US, ever encountered clueless or racist faculty, fellow students, or random citizens. As graduate student teaching assistants, they had never encountered stupid or provocative questions, and had never thought about how they might deal with them. So that a boring typical provocation like the one by Mr. White Guy could bring their conference to "a screeching halt"! If a senior faculty member makes a stupid racist remark in the hallway, a graduate student or junior faculty would probably not feel free to challenge it; but when you're on a panel at a conference, you have more freedom. Maybe the panelists were just too well socialized into American academic culture.

Or maybe not. As Manalansan tells the story in Global Divas, the panelists, who included "Geeta Patel, Norma Alarcon, Michael Warner, and Kobena Mercer," were "noncommittal." There's quite a difference between "noncommittal" and "stumped," let alone "brought to a screeching halt." Michael Warner looks pretty white to me; even if his colleagues were flummoxed, surely he could have taken on his fellow White Man. Perhaps their consternation was more of the "How do you keep walking around with nothing attached to your brain stem?" variety.

I think if I'd been on the panel for the closing plenary, I'd have asked the "well-meaning" (I think this word is meant to be sarcastic) queer scholar why he didn't just ask the ex-gay Jesus freak if he'd like to fool around a bit. (Ex-gays are notorious for not being very "ex" after all.) I don't follow the authors' claim that Mr. White Guy "faltered because the ostensibly Latino man ... could wield the same term (gay) with equal authority and impunity." It doesn't relate to what they say Mr. White Guy said, and it looks like projection to me. But if they're right after all, I can't help but wonder where Mr. White Guy has been for the past 30 years. The world I live in has plenty of ex-gays and Jesus freaks in it -- some of the Jesus freaks are gay, too! -- and they don't surprise me as they evidently surprise him.
In order to break the silence, the speakers could have redirected at this point the white scholar's question, forcing him (as Silviano Santiago, the Brazilian novelist, recommends queer scholars to do in his brief and incisive essay in the present volume) to engage with his own suppositions. In a room full of queers of color, we could have asked him not to presume that we were included in his well-meaning "we." We could have reminded him, that is, that the "other" was already in the room, and that the tendency to figure racial or ethnic difference as impermeable alterity was not so much a symptom of the other's radical difference as of its unsettling proximity.
Yes, "what do you mean 'we,' paleface?" strikes me as a useful response to Mr. White Guy, too. But they're wrong about Santiago's recommendation. His essay has some idiocies of its own (he seems to believe that the US gay movement does nothing but parade around in drag 365 days a year; see page 18), but he addresses the conference as "metropolitans" -- that is, he regards these well-meaning graduate students and faculty of color not as "we" with him, but as "you" or "them", part of the Imperialist Other. He graciously says that he won't invite them to engage with their own suppositions, because he's their guest. (Of course, that's a not-so-subtle way of telling them to do it anyway.) The authors (who are Latino and Filipino) take for granted they have no colonialist suppositions of their own -- upper-class in their home societies, students and later faculty at elite institutions in the US. When I read stuff like this, and I find a lot like it in the post-colonial things I've been reading the past several years, I always suspect that they have their own unresolved hangups to deal with. I sympathize, but their unexamined assumptions will distort the way they teach their students, and that is everybody's problem.
This anthology on queer globalizations is our insistent attempt not to answer the white scholar's query, deflecting thus his colonizing gaze. It is our ethical refusal to provide a grammar that could make the complexity and density of the cross-cultural interactions generated by our present global condition immediately transparent and universally legible. It is our refusal to fix the term "gay," and the powerful legacies of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movements, as a prerequisite for global interaction and coalition. For it is in the permutations of this term and its legacies, as they circulate around the globe, in queer organizations and gatherings, from Mexico City's Semana Cultural Lesbico-Gay to New Delhi's Campaign for Lesbian Rights and Beijing's International Women's Conference, from Buenos Aires's Marcha de Orgullo Gay to the diasporic South Asian and Latino Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade in Queens, New York, that the future of the human and civil rights of queers also lies.
Wow -- I am, like, totally deflected by the editors' courage in refusing "to fix the term 'gay'"! That refusal is of course standard operating procedure in white American queer theory, which means that they are adopting American models "as a prerequisite for global interaction and coalition." So does the claim that the "future of the human and civil rights of queers" also lies in a worldwide "gay" movement, a claim that attracts accusations of cultural imperialism when the wrong people make it. If anything, Manalansan and Cruz-Malavé are playing the same game as their well-meaning queer scholar of note: "What," they are asking rhetorically but with no detectable irony, "should we say to this ostensibly white queer scholar? You see how hopeless These People are?"

Of course, Cruz-Malavé and Manalansan don't have to say anything, to that scholar or to me; it's not their job to educate him or me. Some (many?) white American queer scholars aren't interested. I am interested, though, and I'll go on listening, trying to educate myself. But it seems to me that this sort of grandstanding is a waste of time, when there's so much to be done and learned.

Monday, December 27, 2010

You Know -- Them

Here's a fine representative example of the kind of American political discourse that makes me want to stop writing, stop reading, maybe bang my head against the wall for a few hours, and ... beyond that, I don't know. Anyway, it's a comment on a Glenn Greenwald post, and it reads:

I WANT TO SEE THEM LEAK

Reports of how the Zionists and Cheney's inside CIA organization planned and carried out 9/11 in order to begin this entire coup.

This would have to include details of the stolen 2000 election, who prepared and edited the Patriot Act, and the names of all those who enriched themselves with the insider information.

Now that'd be some juicy readin'.
Short and sweet. "Zionists" is sort of the cherry on top, but the whole thing is precious, or as my old friend Grant would say, "precocious." Leave aside the Truther tinfoil hat stuff, but as I've asked such people in the past, if We already know that They "planned and carried out 9/11", who needs Wikileaks? I love the ambiguity of "this entire coup," too: does the writer think that things only began going bad after September 11, 2001, or even with Dubya taking the oath of office? It would seem so, but of course things were far from aboveboard before Bush ambled onto the scene. Were Cheney and the Zionists also behind the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center? Were they behind the Vietnam War, which involved government lying on a grand scale that was exposed with the publication of the Pentagon Papers? There was a lot of double-dealing in the leadup to World War II, and World War I for that matter. And how about the sinking of the Maine? Lincoln was as cagey about the reasons for quashing the Confederate Rebellion as either Bush was about either Iraq War. And those are just the highlights of US government malfeasance; there must be corresponding conspiracies in the past of every country that has ever existed.

Who edited and prepared the Patriot Act? I thought that was more or less public knowledge -- much of the Patriot Act had been on the Clinton administration's wish list, and was part of a bipartisan tradition of expanding government powers of surveillance, control and punishment over the general population. The same goes for the "details of the stolen 2000 election", about which a great deal has never been particularly secret, and has been published and analyzed. I'm sure there are details that haven't been released, but enough is already known to shake things up if enough citizens cared. (That's another of my pet peeves about the Truthers and others like JFK Assassination Buffs who chortle knowingly about the secret documents and records that We need to know about. I'm sure that there are lots of goodies locked away from public view, but there's enough evidence in the public domain to [paraphrasing Noam Chomsky] send every American President since World War II to the gallows. We already know that our leaders are vicious gangsters, they don't really make a secret of it, and probably the only way to get at the buried evidence is to start indicting them for the crimes we already know they've committed. But the Truthers and JFKers are curiously uninterested in such matters.)

But as I said, leave that aside. It's easy to dismiss this writer as just another Conspiracy Theorist, but he also uses the rhetoric of the corporate mainstream media and our government officials. "Them" can't refer to Wikileaks, who didn't leak the material now exciting so much commentary and controversy: Wikileaks receives the leaked material and publishes it to the Web, or through its media partners. But if you didn't already know that and cling firmly to the knowledge, you'd hardly know it from respectable commentators, who think that Wikileaks or Julian Assange himself leaked everything, or hacks into government computers and plunders the riches thereof, and therefore can decide what to leak. As Greenwald keeps reminding his readers, Wikileaks can only release and publish what other people send to them. And until someone leaks it, we (as opposed to We) don't know what is being kept from us. But a surprising amount of discrediting and even incriminating information is already Out There.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

To the Sweden Station

Damn, this guy is smart. Richard Seymour has written the single best piece I've seen on the Swedish sex allegations against Julian Assange, and the discussion in comments is worth looking over too: in addition to Seymour's debates with some of his readers, it contains a lot of useful links. (And for Cthulhu's sake, will people stop confusing Naomi Wolf with Naomi Klein?) Now I don't have to try to write about it; he's said what I would have, and done it better.

Though I want to mention also this post from the FAIR blog, in which the Washington Post's insufferable Obama flack Dana Milbank functions as metonym for every media fool who has assumed that Julian Assange is Wikileaks, and that his personality is the important thing -- that by calling him an egoist or an egomaniac, they've discredited all the material that Wikileaks has published. (I hope to spend more time later on a fatuous article by sf writer Bruce Sterling on Wikileaks, Assange, and accused leaker Bradley Manning, though it has been pretty well shredded just in its own comments.)

My Lack of Faith Disturbs You

This is not good. I just realized that I'd posted my second, longish comment in twenty-four hours on a Glenn Greenwald post, yet I hadn't been able to muster the energy to post here since Wednesday. Actually I've been fairly busy, doing more reading of actual print than I have in some time, but still, that doesn't stop me unless I'm procrastinating for other reasons. Which I guess I am. It's amazing how much you can get done as long as it's not what you are supposed to be doing.

Consider this, from The Telegraph last June.

Professor Richard Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at Ulster University, said many more members of the "intellectual elite" considered themselves atheists than the national average.

A decline in religious observance over the last century was directly linked to a rise in average intelligence, he claimed.

But the conclusions - in a paper for the academic journal Intelligence - have been branded "simplistic" by critics.

Professor Lynn, who has provoked controversy in the past with research linking intelligence to race and sex, said university academics were less likely to believe in God than almost anyone else.

That last paragraph sets off all kinds of alarms about Professor Lynn's intelligence and the quality of his research, let alone his claims. So, let's see ... why, he has his own home page, on which he lists "Eugenics" among his interests, and
In 1991 I extended my work on race differences in intelligence to other races. I concluded that the average IQ of blacks in sub-Saharan Africa is approximately 70. It has long been known that the average IQ of blacks in the United States is approximately 85. The explanation for the higher IQ of American blacks is that they have about 25 per cent of Caucasian genes and a better environment.
He has also published defenses of eugenics and is a director of the proudly 'politically incorrect' Pioneer Fund. So this man, despite his stature in certain circles, is not the best source for today's atheists to cite.

Some of them have done just that, though. I found the first two paragraphs quoted at Atheism Soup, though any rational person would immediately recognize that correlation -- in this case between rising IQs and dwindling church attendance -- does not equal cause. Besides, any decently scientifically-literate person should know that there's reason to doubt the equation of IQ with intelligence. Atheism Soup got those two paragraphs, which constituted the entire post, from Deep Thought, which might be a subblog of Atheism Soup. No doubt Atheism Soup's readers, being rationalists, will be as critical as I was, rather than taking such transparent and malign nonsense simply on trust. Snort.

The atheist cult of personality seems to be growing, as shown by the image above. See why I'm feeling a bit down? Hemingway as a role model? Well, as with the corresponding Christian cult of personality, it allows the lazy and mediocre to uplift themselves by identifying with people of higher status.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Housekeeping



I've been waiting for a two-males version of this song for a long time. (Our community radio station often plays whole sets of heteros doing it. Give it a rest, it's been done!) And this is a good one, though as Avedon says, they fall down on the harmonies, and as I'm saying, there's a bit too much camera movement; were they hoping to distract the frothers from Teh Gey flirtation going on? It's great to have a sympathetic sissy character on TV, though I'm put off personally by the way Chris Colfer's upper lip won't uncover his front teeth. I'm not sure why it bothers me, but it does. I'll live, though. We old queens are surprisingly tough, as the grizzly bear discovered.

Ahem. I recently made some changes in the "What I Read Online" sidebar, which is not really a blogroll (I suppose I need one) and isn't even strictly accurate, since I hardly ever read some of the sites listed anymore; I most often use it myself, especially when I'm not using my own computer, so I can jump right to sites I'm likely to need. I should update it more often, but I'm lazy.

With that in mind, I'm adding Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog (h/t to a Random Link at Corrente Wire), because it looks like something I'll find useful for links. (This post pointed me to Derailing For Dummies, which also looks useful.) I wish I'd had this post on rape culture to hand when I wrote these posts, for example. I'll probably turn to this FAQ on "slut-shaming" the next time I have to deal with someone who complains about immodest females. Feminism 101 might come in handy when certain subjects come up on blogs by liberal males, who just can't see why some women don't think it's "extremely funny" to suggest that a man seeks the US Presidency because his DNA drives him to do it, in hopes of connecting with some hot female DNA once he's arrived.
But here's what Obama's DNA did not foresee: HE CAN'T. As the first Democratic president since Bill Clinton was impeached, HE ABSOLUTELY MUST NOT.

I think most men can appreciate that being in this situation must be its own unique form of torture. So when I see Obama letting torturers walk, I enjoy the fact that at least he's suffering himself. I'm not kidding or making light of it when I say that if I myself had to choose between the two situations, I might rather be waterboarded.
Isn't that just a scream? A manly scream, of course, we're all heterosexual males around here. Oddly, or probably not so oddly, the same blogger doesn't seem to think it's funny that Julian Assange's DNA, which presumably has the same motives, has been hoist on its own petard. But biological determinism is like any other religion -- you don't get to apply it selectively. If Schwarz were correct about the evolutionary history behind all this (though he isn't, it's just a popular fantasy among heterosexual males, perhaps especially Betas), then it's hard to see how males have survived this long: their DNA points them into rather disastrous dead-ends. If their DNA drives all males to seek power and notoriety to make them more attractive to women -- and why did Hillary seek the Presidency, I wonder? -- then we have to laugh at Julian Assange's DNA no less than Barack Obama's. Comments are closed on those posts now, or I'd be looking for some relevant links at Feminism 101. But something tells me there will be need again in the not-so-distant future.

P.S. Ellen Willis: “Humorless is what you are if you do not find the following subjects funny: rape, big breasts, sex with little girls. It carries no imputation of humorlessness if you do not find the following subjects funny: castration, impotence, vaginas with teeth.” Can't repeat that one enough.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Hot Steaming Smug of Open-Mindedness

"C'mon, Nathalie, we'll catch your brains! Let them fall out of your open mind!"

Okay, Duncan, ya lazy bum, get to it.

I was led to the British online magazine Spiked by a post at alicublog, which touched on issues that I hope I'll get to before the end of the year. But the title of this article in a sidebar caught my attention: "Lesbians: the new smug marrieds?"

Wait a minute, so the author doesn't like the old smug marrieds, whoever they are? Anyway, the article turns out to have been inspired by Lisa Cholodenko's movie The Kids Are All Right, in which the teenaged children by artificial insemination of two lesbian moms track down their sperm donor, and seriocomedy ensues. (The women took turns, each one using the same donor for the child she bore.) Feeling neglected by her workaholic doctor partner Nic (Annette Bening), the less-driven Jules (Julianne Moore) drifts into an affair with the donor (Mark Ruffalo), nearly bringing down her household. Myself, I liked the film, which inspired a fair amount of controversy, though it is safer and more accessible than Cholodenko's two previous features, both of which were pretty dark. The Kids Are All Right is groundbreaking only if you haven't been paying attention to either the lives of gay people or GBLT film for the past couple of decades, but between most straight people's ignorance about the former and most gay people's ignorance about the latter, it's not surprising that it was a revelation for many.

The Spiked writer, Nathalie Rothschild, takes The Kids Are All Right as an opportunity for some concern trolling. First of all, she seems to be sure that gay men and lesbians really are fundamentally different from straight people, and that the film goes wrong because
it tries so painstakingly hard to communicate the message that hey, there’s nothing odd about two women raising a family together, man, that it ends up being a fairly ordinary film about, well, a married couple wrapped up in a middle-aged crisis with two teenaged kids wrapped up in a teenage crisis.
Rothschild does touch on one of the paradoxes of minority art: should it stress the differences between a minority and the majority -- the oddness of, say, Jews trying to live in a Gentile country as though they were, y'know, people just like the goyim -- or the things the minority has in common with the majority, which the majority often tries to ignore or deny? If she wants difference, she should have a look at Cholodenko's first feature, High Art, in which a naive young straight woman becomes fascinated by a brilliant, self-destructive older woman artist, or her second, Laurel Canyon, which is a variation on the same basic story. Of course, in both cases it could be argued that Cholodenko is telling a story that could just as easily be heterosexual if the fascinating older artist were male, so that High Art turns out to be "a fairly ordinary film" too.

But Rothschild has another concern to troll about.

Watching the film, I was reminded of a story I heard at a Thanksgiving weekend party in the Hamptons a few years back (la-di-da). The host couple’s seven-year-old son was friends with a black boy and girl who had been adopted by two white gay men. One day in school the seven-year-old asked his friend how come he had two dads. The friend shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Cos I do.’ The boy was apparently satisfied with this answer and that could have been the end of it, but the dads found out and called up the boy’s mother to discuss the matter.

The fact is, even in this day and age two white, gay men adopting two black children represents a pretty extraordinary cultural shift. Of course, normalcy is a fair enough aspiration for gays. They should have the choice, just like anybody else, to lead a conventional lifestyle or a non-mainstream lifestyle, to be single or married. But being curious about gay marriage, adoption and sperm donation – how it works, what is the impact on those involved, how they get treated by the rest of society – is perfectly acceptable, too.

These kinds of questions, this kind of curiosity, which one could reasonably expect The Kids Are All Right to deal with, are not really confronted. Instead, everyone is so right-on, so cool, so open-minded that their brains may spill out at any minute. Anyone who interacts with the family accepts them as they are and no one seems to think much of their fairly unusual set-up. This goes for Laser’s knucklehead mate, as well as Joni’s male and female friends, Nic and Jules’ straight friends, and Paul and his part-time mistress. Finding out that his sperm (donated when he was 19) had been inseminated into the wombs of a same-sex couple, he says something to the effect of ‘Oh, yeah, okay, I love lesbians’.

Rothschild overlooks a few things. I thought, myself, that Paul's "Oh, yeah, okay, I love lesbians" was meant as gentle mockery, that as a rather shallow and commitment-avoiding heterosexual male he mainly thinks of lesbians in terms of girl-on-girl action in porn videos. At the same time, he has probably met a few real lesbians, whether he loved them or not, but he doesn't take them all that seriously. It's true that the film has little to say about the adjustments that had to happen along the way for Nic and Jules's neighbors to be as "right-on" and accepting as they are now. That would be an interesting TV miniseries, maybe, but the film is about the lives they live now. Evidently, like many dominant-group members, Rothschild believes that minorities should make their art with a dominant-group audience in mind, patiently explaining everything for their benefit. There's a place for such work, but sometimes minority artists choose to produce work for their own group, which allows them to make assumptions about what the audience will understand, and to tell different kinds of stories. GLBT writers and critics have complained for decades about the ubiquity of the coming-out story, and tried to find ways to start by assuming a GLBT milieu. From what I've seen, such work is often popular with at least some straight people, perhaps because it respects their intelligence and trusts their willingness to learn, even if that's not the artist's intent. The intent may be along the lines of: I'm going to make this film or write this novel for a gay / lesbian / bisexual audience, and if heterosexuals want to watch / read it, that's fine, but I'm not making it to cater to them. That's perfectly acceptable approach as far as I'm concerned.

Rothschild has another axe to grind, though. Her Hamptons anecdote has some gaping holes in it. What exactly transpired in the conversation between the gay adoptive father and the straight mother? Rothschild assumes that he called specifically in order to tell her that her son's curiosity or her own was not "acceptable." Not knowing what they talked about (does Rothschild?) I'd have supposed that the father wanted to make sure that his son wasn't going to be bullied or harassed, or that the mother wouldn't forbid her son to play with his son. In any society I know of, not excluding hip California, bullying of kids deemed different is enough of a problem that the father wasn't being at all paranoid to want to make sure there was no problem, and if there was, to nip it in the bud. He might well have gotten a rather confused report from his young son -- clearly, it wasn't "the end of it" in the boy's mind, or he wouldn't have told his father about it -- and wanted to talk parent-to-parent. (For that matter, I take it that the straight mom was working with her young son's version of the story, which might not be perfectly accurate either.) Such concerns are, to my mind, just as acceptable as heterosexuals' curiosity about sperm donation.

And look again at this sentence: "But being curious about gay marriage, adoption and sperm donation – how it works, what is the impact on those involved, how they get treated by the rest of society – is perfectly acceptable, too." Indeed it is, but you'd think from the way Rothschild puts it that the "curious" weren't part of "the rest of the society" themselves. That gay father was talking to part of "the rest of society," and he knew it.

But again, before I can really make any suppositions, I have to know what the gay father said, and Rothschild doesn't share that information. My curiosity about the conversation is not acceptable, apparently. Maybe she doesn't know herself, but sees the story as an opportunity to deplore Political Correctness, or she calls it, "intolerance." I think my suspicions are justified, if not confirmed, by what Rothschild says next. She begins with liberal good will:

Of course, a film about gay people doesn’t need to be a miserable drama about prejudice and discrimination. In fact, it’s actually refreshing that The Kids Are All Right is not that. But for all its right-on-ness, it has a distinct air of intolerance about it. Just like that gay dad in the Hamptons automatically thinking there was a problem about his son’s friend’s curiosity, it’s as if Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, who co-wrote the film, believe that to have any issue at all with, or indeed any curiosity about, two women raising a family is just not kosher. ‘We’re all cool with this’, the filmmakers and cast seem to be saying, ‘and if you think there’s something odd about this family, then there’s something wrong with YOU’.

Oh, really? I think Rothschild is projecting here. If Cholodenko and Blumberg thought it wasn't okay for straights to be curious about the lives of lesbian parents, they wouldn't have made a movie about them for general release. (If they felt they had to make the movie anyhow, putting it on the GLBTQ festival circuit would have kept it far from the un-kosher eyes of most straights.) I'd have thought that was obvious enough, but evidently it isn't, so it needs to be said.

Some straight people (and men, and white people, and Gentiles) experience art by minorities as excluding them, or meaning to, unless it explicitly declares the artists' acceptance of their marginal role. This has been especially common, from what I've seen, in some straight men's reaction to lesbian feminist writing: they report feeling as though they were reading something they weren't supposed to be reading. I've never had that feeling, even when reading lesbian-separatist writing that I knew I wasn't supposed to be reading because it was labeled "lesbian-only." I believe that any serious reader wants to read what isn't meant for his or her eyes, though I'm probably overgeneralizing here from my own temperament. But as with Rothschild, I think such men were really trying to cover their own hostility to uppity lesbian writers who weren't trying to cater to them, by projecting their hostility onto the writers. It seems that for Rothschild, gay parents are damned if they do try to forestall potential problems affecting their kids, and damned if they don't but cheerfully expect everyone to be "
so open-minded that their brains may spill out at any minute."

Californians or not, we should be free to live with anyone we want, to raise kids, to grow our own organic vegetables and to compost our kitchen scraps – but we should also remember that it’s pretty intolerant to expect others not to criticise our lifestyles, or at least be curious about them.

I don't think I'm projecting in saying that this is quite a leap to make, from "curious" to "criticise." The two are not the same thing, and I think it says something about what lurks beneath Rothschild's liberal protestations that she confuses the two. I'm fine with curiosity -- remember, I've been running the local GLB Speakers Bureau for over twenty years, and have been answering heterosexuals' questions about gay life for twice that long. Criticism is fine too; we homosexuals have been criticizing ourselves all along. But if heterosexuals want to criticize gay or lesbian "lifestyles," they must expect the rest of society to criticize them right back.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Great Work Begins!



Because I'm a sick pervert dedicated to the destruction of Western culture, I actually like this video. But then, I also like this, and yes, this (via):



Today was my last day of work until the first week of January, and of course it started to snow in the afternoon. But I'm hoping to get a lot done in the next two weeks. Snow, which would tend to keep me indoors, might even help.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Because You Are Lukewarm, I Will Spew You Out of My Mouth

Oh, dear, where does the time go? While I'm struggling to get my act together, here are a couple of things that I hope will be useful and informative.

The Daily Beast has an article on Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of leaking classified material to Wikileaks, which supplements Glenn Greenwald's article of a couple of days ago.
What is clear today is that he’s being held in extraordinarily harsh conditions—notably harsher than Bryan Minkyu Martin, the naval intelligence specialist who allegedly tried to sell military secrets to an undercover FBI agent, and is currently being held awaiting trial, though not in solitary confinement. Manning, who has been convicted of nothing, has spent the better part of a year incommunicado, living the life of a man convicted of sa heinous crime.
Free added bonus: more deranged comments, dripping with bloodlust, endorsing any and all punishment of a man who has not yet been convicted of anything.

Extra added bonus, also at Daily Beast: John Avlon, founder of dead-armadillo group No Labels, reports on his "war with Rush Limbaugh," with whom he's evidently on a first-name basis. The article itself is predictable middle-of-the-road mush.

Back to serious matters. I'd been hearing for some time about the planned civil disobedience demo against Obama's wars, planned for Thursday at the White House. There doesn't seem to have been much, if any, corporate media coverage, despite the participation of some fairly high-profile figures. A search of CNN.com brings up nothing, though there are plenty of eulogies for the late war criminal Richard Holbrooke. The New York Times links to Democratic Underground in lieu of any coverage of its own. Here's a report from the Veterans For Peace website:
131 people were arrested at the White House yesterday in an action to End The Wars, including the board executive committee of Veterans for Peace. It is estimated that 2/3rds of those arrested were veterans. Of those arrested a number of women from Code Pink were also arrested. Approximately 500 folks attended the rally. There were dozen of speakers including Daniel Ellsberg and Ray McGovern who were also arrested.
But where was Dan Choi? Even one of the crowd of loons at right-wing site FreeRepublic concluded, "There doesn't seem to be much interest in this thread." Only veterans, after all. Once they come home, they're of little interest to the Support Our Troops crowd.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Procrastination Is My Middle Name

I've been fiddling around with a couple of other posts for the past few days, but haven't been able to finish anything. Here's something that I can toss out there quickly, with minimal comment -- it speaks for itself. Glenn Greenwald has posted an article at Salon.com on the inhumane conditions in which Pfc. Bradley Manning, alleged leaker of classified documents to Wikileaks, is being held. Although Manning
has never been convicted of that crime, nor of any other crime. Despite that, he has been detained at the U.S. Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia for five months -- and for two months before that in a military jail in Kuwait -- under conditions that constitute cruel and inhumane treatment and, by the standards of many nations, even torture....

From the beginning of his detention, Manning has been held in intensive solitary confinement. For 23 out of 24 hours every day -- for seven straight months and counting -- he sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he's barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions. For reasons that appear completely punitive, he's being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch).
Greenwald quotes John McCain, who endured such confinement while a POW in Vietnam: "It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit." He's probably aware of the irony involved, but some of his commenters aren't. (Neither, it's safe to say, is the President of the United States.) I haven't taken the time read all 494 comments that have been posted so far, but there are several writers (this one, right off the bat) who are saying that this is what will happen to you if you break the law, as Manning is alleged to have done, and if he'd done the same thing in China or Russia he'd be dead by now, he's a traitor traitor traitor ... the usual, predictable ranting that appears in various fora, including as content in right-wing media, when a story like this breaks. Since Manning has not, as Greenwald stresses, been convicted of any crime, there's no basis for punishing him at all, let alone in this draconian manner. (Except for Catch-22: You must have done something wrong, or you wouldn't be in jail.) And isn't it inspiring to be told once again that the US is not, and needn't be, any better than regimes like Russia or China or Iran or Saddam's Iraq? This, remember, is what such people consider a defense of the United States: that we are simply behaving like the official enemies, whose horrific behavior justifies our demonization of them, but should also be our role model.

Remember this bit from informer Adrian Lamo's appearance at a Hackers on Planet Earth conference a few months ago?

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.
Oh, don't we?

Greenwald has written an important article, which should be read by everyone.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Who Watches the Watchers?

I went to a Latin dance party at a local restaurant/club last night, and continued a pattern that for me goes back to high school: I don't really don't know how to dance Latin style, though I like the music and I enjoy the crowds. So I watch the people who do know how to dance, have some conversation with an acquaintance or two, sometimes meet new people. I generally enjoy myself, and last night was no exception, despite a smallish crowd because of the bad weather. (The blizzard that hit the northern Midwest didn't arrive until today, but temperatures dropped and there was some snow; plus we're on the eve of Finals Week, and the town wasn't all that active last night.) It's a lot better for me than it was when I was a kid, partly because I have a lot more social experience (and, I hope, somewhat better social skills), which gives me more confidence, and partly because I'm out of the closet and no longer worry about what people will think about me.

Still, I kept thinking of a passage from Colm Toibin's 1999 novel The Blackwater Lightship, which I read last week. It's mainly the story of an Irishwoman named Helen, married with two kids, alienated from her mother (her father died of cancer when she was about 12), struggling to keep up connections with people, but not unhappy on the whole. Abruptly she learns that her younger brother Declan is seriously ill with AIDS. She'd long known that he was gay, but the diagnosis takes her by surprise. Declan wants to stay with their grandmother, who lives in a cottage near the sea, but he also calls in a couple of gay friends who've been among his main caregivers for several years. Helen has to tell both their mother and their grandmother that Declan is dying, and of course all sorts of conflicts and reconciliations take place.

One thing I liked, parenthetically, is that Declan's friends, Larry and Paul (they're not a couple, though Paul has a partner of many years), are not at all apologetic about being gay, or about being odd men out in the gathering at Granny's house. Declan's mother Lily is normally homophobically bigoted, and there's a great exchange between Lily and Paul when Declan shits his bed and Paul chases everyone out of the room to give him privacy during the cleanup.
‘How dare you speak to me the way you spoke to me in there!’ Lily stood up and faced him. ‘I don’t know what you think your place is here.’

‘Look,’ Paul said. ‘I knew as soon as I came in that Declan felt humiliated and I decided that he needed privacy and I didn’t notice him saying that he wanted you all back in when you left.’

‘As far as we are concerned you have no business here,’ Lily said.

Helen sought to interrupt her, but Lily continued. ‘Maybe it’s time you and your friend thought of taking yourselves out of here.’

‘Like now, immediately?’ Paul asked patiently. ‘Just because you want us to?’

‘As soon as you can, yes,’ Lily said.

‘And just because you want us to?’ Paul asked again.

‘Well, I do live here,’ Lily said.

‘No you don’t,’ Helen interrupted.

‘It is my mother’s house,’ Lily said.

‘Declan asked Larry and myself to come down here,’ Paul said. ‘We have, Larry more than me, the two of us have been looking after him during very difficult times when I didn’t notice his family around.’

‘We weren’t around because we were told nothing,’ Lily said.

‘I wonder why you were told nothing. Maybe you could ponder that, instead of getting in the way and making pointless arguments,’ Paul said.

Helen felt that he had gone too far, but he remained placid and in control, weighing each word he said.

‘I wasn’t in the way,’ Lily said.

‘Well, it looked that way to me,’ Paul replied.

‘I’m his mother!’ Lily shouted.

Paul shrugged. ‘He’s an adult and he has got a bad headache and he needs a drink and there’s no room for this sort of hysteria.’

‘So are you going to leave?’ Lily asked.

‘Listen, Mrs Breen,’ Paul said, ‘I’m here as long as Declan is here and you can take that as written in stone, and I’m here because he asked me to be here, and when he asked me to be here he used words and phrases and sentences about you which were not edifying and which I will not repeat. He is also concerned about you and loves you and wants your approval. He is also very sick. So stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mrs Breen. Declan stays here, I stay here, Larry stays here. One of us goes, we all go, and if you don’t believe me, ask Declan’ [222-23].
I'd love to see this story staged or filmed; I think this scene would play very well if it was properly done.

But as I say, this is parenthetical. What I was thinking of last night was this, Helen recalling her father-in-law's funeral:
No one in Hugh’s family watched things as Helen did. She looked out for a niece or nephew or cousin or aunt or brother or sister who watched everything, who took everything in as though it were not happening to them. But there was no one like that except Helen herself at this funeral; they were all involved in being themselves, and this surprised her and impressed her. She wished she had been like that at her father’s funeral instead of watching everybody, instead of observing her mother as though she were someone she had never seen before. And she wondered, as she passed the ball-alley on her way into Blackwater, how different she would be now if she had spent those days after her father died openly grieving for him. Would she be happier now? [219]
I immediately identified with Helen as I read this. But then I backed up a little. I think it's possible -- at least, I think it's possible for me -- to be both watcher and to be involved in being myself. Being one who watches everything is part being myself, after all. It's taken me a long time to come to terms with it, and I've been helped by many people who saw me watching and came to talk to and befriend me. It may be one of my strengths that I don't repel them (as Helen would have, though she too appears to be outgrowing it), but accept the attention. I still usually find it difficult to take the initiative in talking to people, though I'm getting better about that too; by the time I'm 90 I should have it all together). But those who can approach others need someone to approach, and I've been lucky that so many people have reached out to me.

Would Helen have been happier if she had openly grieved for her dead father? In the context of the novel it's hard to say. He died of cancer when cancer was still unmentionable, at least in Irish society, and even in our tell-all American society (which on the whole I prefer to the repressed tell-nothing society Helen grew up in, as did I) parents might be reluctant to tell their children about a terminal diagnosis. Helen was only about twelve when her father died. Her mother dropped the children off with Granny without explanation when he first got sick, which understandably led them to feel abandoned. Some children are more resilient and even resistant, but the fear and confusion of such a situation would derail many. The novel is hopeful about Helen's prospects for opening up in the ways she wants and needs, thanks largely to her husband Hugh and the relationship they work quite consciously at maintaining. Whether she'll make real peace with her mother is left open at the novel's end, though they've made progress. It's an interesting novel that gave me a lot to think about it. I will have to read more of Toibin, whom I've been hearing great things about for some time now.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Commitment to Transparency

This morning I was listening to NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," and they mentioned that a cable released by Wikileaks had indicated that China shut down Google because some Chinese official googled himself and found unflattering remarks about his august self. So much for many right-wing frothers' accusation that Wikileaks doesn't and wouldn't publish material that would embarrass Russia or China.

I hadn't heard about this leak, so I did a search and found this blog at Forbes.com whose writer begs to differ. He thinks that the anecdote is "more colorful than it is instructive." He points to the big picture.

Taken together, the cables convey a sophisticated and sobering U.S. understanding of the Chinese leadership: It has no “reform wing,” it operates on a consensus basis, with President Hu Jintao as a “corporate CEO” brokering among various “vested interests,” and with leaders all determined to see their legacies survive succession.

In other words, at the very top the Communist Party of China is exactly what it seems to be to most, a system bent on preserving itself, that captures the men who rise in it, conforming their ambitions to the system’s priorities.

The system’s priority is certainly not to open itself up to critical examination, so that the Chinese people could find out, for example, which leaders have been touched by hints of scandal, which well-connected families are enriching themselves in various industries, or, as one source told a diplomat in one cable, which officials might have profited from ”shady deals behind land transactions.”
I'm sure this (and more) is accurate enough. It just doesn't distinguish China importantly from any other country. The US' reaction to Wikileaks doesn't exactly betoken an eagerness to "open itself up to critical examination," for example. (Speaking of deafness to irony, try Arnaud de Borchgrave: "But hardly a word has been written or spoken about the motives of the WikiLeaks' chief leaker.") And any American "officials [who] might have profited from 'shady deals behind land transactions," I'm sure, would be quite happy to have their malfeasance exposed to the people, because we live in a country under the rule of law, not men. But openness is for them, not for us, right?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I'll Just Do It Until I Need Glasses, Okay?

I've been reading more lately, which means less writing. Ah well.

I just finished Nick Burd's young-adult novel The Vast Fields of Ordinary (Dial Books, 2009), which has been much praised and deserves it. (Calling it young-adult is not a putdown -- a lot of the best recent gay fiction has been in that niche.) It's the story of an eighteen-year-old gay boy in Iowa, getting through his last summer at home before going away to college. It's been done before, of course, but Burd writes very well. It's only marred by a gratuitous but obligatory gay teen suicide, a trope I thought had been relegated to the dustbin of history, like having the homosexual run over by a speeding bus. Still, I look forward to Burd's next novel, which his website says is due next summer.

(Speaking of gay youth, Band of Thebes links to a disturbing new study.)

So then I picked up David Swanson's War Is a Lie (2010). I'm only about forty pages into it, but it has already enraged me in the way that usually only Noam Chomsky's books do. That's a good sign.

After I finish Swanson, high on my list are Elana Dykewomon's Risk, Jaime Manrique's Eminent Maricones, and Rebecca M. Jordan-Young's Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Busy month ahead!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Go Get 'Em, Slugger!

Two interesting posts at Salon.com on Obama's deal to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the rich.

One, by Steve Kornacki, "Actually, it's a pretty good deal," is gleeful.
And it's also worth remembering that there's a clear disconnect between the loudest voices on the left -- the ones that have been branding Obama a sellout -- and rank-and-file Democratic voters, who still approve of the president's job performance at a rate of about 80 percent. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan weren't doing that well with their own bases at this same point in their presidencies.
It's true that Democrats continue to approve Obama's job performance at a rate of about 80 percent; funny that it wasn't enough to stave off those losses in November. I'm not sure where Kornacki got that bit about "rank-and-file Democratic voters," which sounds like he's talking about Democrats other than the professional leftists and whining losers -- including such typically rank-and-file Democratic constituencies as labor -- who weren't so wild about the way the country was going in the weeks before the midterm elections, and were finding it difficult to motivate themselves to get out the vote. Much of what Kornacki calls "the left" is rank-and-file Democrats, in other words -- it sure as hell isn't Republicans.

The second piece, by Gene Lyons, titled "Obama Bought Himself Precious Time," is reasonable enough. Lyons, another party loyalist, stresses (as Kornacki does) that Obama basically traded the extension of the tax cuts for the extension of unemployment benefits.
The Party of No was forced to say yes. From a Tea Party perspective, GOP leaders agreed to increase the budget deficit purely for the sake of multimillionaire tax cuts. How much clearer can things get?
The Tea Party is already pissed off at the GOP leadership, which is why they ran their candidates against mainstream GOP incumbents; that's not news. Of course, from a left perspective, Democratic leaders also agreed to increase the deficit for the sake of multimillionaire tax cuts.

The trouble I see is that there's no reason to believe that the economy will improve enough to do the unemployed any good, and the tax cuts aren't going to help -- rather the opposite; tax cuts do not stimulate the economy, so Obama's compromise has the worst of both worlds, increasing the deficit while depressing the economy. The question is whether the positive elements of the deal will be able to improve the economy enough to offset the depressing elements. As Lyons says, Obama bought himself time, but I don't expect him to use that time constructively -- it will be a career first for him if he does. Since most Americans are less concerned about the deficit than they are about the economy and unemployment, Obama and the Democrats really need to do something about the economy and unemployment and worry less about the deficit.

Lyons terminally annoyed me, though, with this bit:
Maybe it's because I'm lucky enough to have a decent job, and maybe because I never envisioned Obama as a political messiah to begin with, but an awful lot of this commentary strikes me as overwrought. Or maybe it's because I'm a sports fan and tend to see politics more as a game than a theatrical melodrama on themes of good versus evil.
Sports similes usually get my back up; allow me to quote myself here.
Let me see if I can put this clearly. Sport is not politics; politics is not sport. Setting up proper health care for ordinary citizens matters a great deal -- it is, in fact, a life-and-death matter, unlike who wins the Superbowl or today's IU-OSU football game, which doesn't matter at all. Not in the slightest. And the worst thing about organized sport, even worse than the amounts of money wasted on Albert Speer stadiums and the like, is that it is intended to teach people from childhood that winning a game is as important as feeding the poor or preventing war. And it works -- that's why Americans spend their free time following sports instead of attending to what their government is doing.
But there's the problem for Lyons's view: many Americans see games as very important, indeed as cosmic melodramas of good versus evil. Which doesn't mean that I think that one should indulge in overwrought rhetoric, as Obama did during the recent campaign. That's just Lyons the party loyalist, taking up the anti-left talking points of his leadership. I don't think that politics is a theatrical melodrama on themes of good and evil either, but it is serious in a way that no game can be. Unemployment is at Great Depression-level highs in this country right now, for example, even though corporate profits have metastatized under Obama. Does Lyons want to tell the unemployed that their situation is just a play in a game? I don't think the reason is that he's got a "decent job," because I also have a decent job and I still take the plight of the unemployed seriously. Nor did I ever view Obama as "a political messiah." (Here Lyons is using the Dem talking point of jeering at those who were "disappointed" because Obama didn't bring world peace in 48 hours.)

Maybe there's a third way of looking at things, as there usually is. Something like this, quoting Obama's latest press conference:
WHAT SOME WOULD HAVE PREFERRED: “Now, I know there are some who would have preferred a protracted political fight, even if it had meant higher taxes for all Americans, even if it had meant an end to unemployment insurance for those who are desperately looking for work.” The assumption here is that he would have lost the fight. It’s pretty much always Obama’s working assumption that he will lose any fight. And then, funnily enough, he does.
Or, as Avedon said at Sideshow:

It's not that "the left" doesn't praise your policies, it's that you keep passing policies nobody likes. You're all lies and no fight. (Isn't it amazing how he can never push things any farther left than way out to the far right?). We would have loved it if you'd at least compromised on health care, Mr. Petulant, but you didn't - you just gave the store away, and now you want to give away the rest of the block - and then dismiss objections to destroying the lives of 98% of the country as a fight for "an abstract ideal". It's not an "abstract ideal", you little creep, it's our country and our families and our lives. It's food on our tables and a home to live in and getting the heat up above freezing in the winter and preventing your children from dying unnecessary deaths. It's honest work for honest pay versus begging and bowing and slavery. A roof over your head and food in your belly are not "an abstract ideal", you putz. Don't ask me to thank you.

This also answers Gene Lyons: a roof over your head and food in your belly is not a game either, except maybe to comfortable people who have decent jobs and they're all right Jack, they've got theirs. And maybe, sometimes, politics is a theatrical melodrama on themes of good versus evil -- except that in the two-party system as presently constituted, what we've got is evil collaborating with evil. The fact that one side is the bad guy doesn't mean that the other side is the good guy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Laugh, and the World Laughs with You

At alicublog this morning, Roy Edroso came perilously close to criticizing President Obama:
The big tax-cut giveaway Obama just announced -- assuming that it accurately portrays the deal with the GOP -- demonstrates one unremarked fact: Republicans don't give a shit about the deficit. No sane person thinks we can even begin to scale that back just with cuts. Yet they just agreed to abandon the easiest route to new revenue, plus Democratic "concessions" that close others.
Whew! I could feel the breeze from the precipice there.

Notice how, in this account, Obama becomes the announcer, sorta like Walter Cronkite; just the messenger, not responsible for the message in any way. And remember how
, at the beginning of his administration when his party controlled both houses of Congress, Obama hobbled his stimulus package with tax cuts. Don't buy any claims that Obama had no choice but to surrender to the Republicans because of the midterm elections; he'd have done it anyway.

Now, I check alicublog daily. As I've said before, it's a valuable clearinghouse of right-wing dementia in certain areas, and I'm grateful that Edroso scours the web for this material so I don't have to. But his focus (varied slightly with occasional commentary on the arts, which usually consists mainly of fulminations against right-wing thoughtcrime in that arena ... do I detect a pattern here?) can obscure the fact that his politics are thoroughly mainstream-media. "Republicans don't give a shit about the deficit," he rails. The deficit is an obsession of the corporate media and the Village/Beltway political class, which is one reason they celebrate Bill Clinton, who did eliminate the deficit -- at great cost to most Americans, because in elite discourse the deficit functions as an excuse for cutting and gutting social programs. But there's no reason to believe that most Americans share this obsession. Polls show consistently that the deficit ranks low on our list of concerns, well below the economy and jobs. And there's certainly no reason to believe that Obama or other Democrats give any more of a shit about the deficit than the Republicans do.

In the same vein, Edroso's commentary on Wikileaks focuses on right-wing hysteria about the document dumps, not the Obama administration and its media supporters, who also want Julian Assange's head on a pike; for that you have to go to Glenn Greenwald. On the TSA and the "porno scanners," Edroso was contemptuous of the frenzy ginned up by the Republicans, but failed to notice that liberal Democrats were in on the fun too. And so on.

Thinking about this, I found my copy of sociologist Nina Eliasoph's Avoiding politics: how Americans produce apathy in everyday life (Cambridge UP, 1998). Eliasoph did participant observation of a community in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s (I think -- I need to reread the book), and describes the different ways people dealt with political issues. Some got involved in astroturf "volunteer" groups under the guidance of professionals, some chose more genuinely grassroots forms of activism. Others chose cynicism and disengagement, and the patterns Eliasoph described are familiar to me both from online forums and my experience in that life we call real.
There was a clear formula for treating the rare moments when a topic that could be taken as "serious" arose. It went: a person said something that could be taken as serious. The next thing said had to be a joke: rarely a joke on the topic, but most often, a joke on the speaker herself or himself. The next thing said had to be an even bigger joke that topped off the previous joke. So the pattern was: serious comment, joke on the speaker, bigger joke. If anyone was ever serious in the group context, the two jokes in a row would vanquish that illusion [290 note 15].

To tease each other, people need a shared idea of what is suitable for teasing, so teasing might seem to be a reflection of deeply shared culture. Jokes about being dumb were by far the most frequent (followed by teases about being gay) [106].
This is what she found among the "Buffaloes," the habitues of country and western clubs, but I've encountered it in the gay male community, in gay chatrooms and online in mixed or heterosexual bulletin boards. But the cynics! They're more like the people who populate the comments sections of liberal blogs.
Like private people, they focused on facts when discussing politics. But unlike the private people, they were data hounds. Sniffing out grim facts was a form of self-protection for them...

Unlike the mainstream country-westerners, the cynics were confident enough in their own intellectual abilities to assume that their ignorance comes from factors like government secrecy and the power of moneyed interests, not from their own lack of intellectual abilities. As citizens, the cynics knew that they were supposed to have a say in politics and that political problems affect the way people think and live. The cynical Buffaloes would never just flatly state that they have no say in the workings of our government, as the majority of the country-westerners did. The cynics, unlike the other Buffaloes, held an ideal of political life, but assumed that the ideal was unattainable in today's world [163].
Not all the commenters at alicublog are cynics in this mode, of course. Some are active Democratic party members, some are involved in progressive and left activism. But the tone of cynicism set by the postings infects a lot of the discussion. The Republican gains of November make it all the easier to focus on their malevolence, and to give Obama an even freer ride than he's enjoyed so far from the Democratic blogosphere. There's nothing wrong per se with Edroso's tunnel vision and personal bias; I love bias, and have plenty of my own. The Republicans are scum, and it's true, they don't really care about the deficit or unemployment or any of the other problems that ordinary Americans face. But neither does Obama, who gets more out of touch the longer he's in office, and who seems to be retreating farther from reality as conditions get worse for the rest of us.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The War on Christmas -- I Can See the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Speaking of people who Just Don't Get It, Mary Elizabeth Williams, a Christian writer for Salon.com, recently wrote an attack on atheists who attack religious faith, in particular those who put up a billboard attacking Christmas:
And as a practicing, questioning Christian, I'm in strong agreement with the belief that church and state should firmly be separated, and with the concept of civil rights for all Americans, regardless of their points of view. Because shoving your beliefs on other people is just plain rude. Do you see where I’m going with this? Whether one unshakably believes in a perfectly swaddled little baby Jesus who arrives precisely on Dec. 25 surrounded by cute donkeys and starstruck shepherds is hardly the point. It's that snotty, oh-just-face-it-you-idiots attitude, that utter certainty, that's just as belligerent coming from an atheist as it from an evangelical.
"Because shoving your beliefs on other people is just plain rude" -- am I alone in seeing the delicious, totally clueless irony in that statement? If this billboard constitutes "shoving your beliefs on other people", then so are all the pro-"faith" billboards and churches with roadside marquees and Gideon Bibles in motel rooms and Christmas carols on the radio and all the Christian paraphrenalia that permeates our culture is "shoving your beliefs on other people." To say nothing of all the religious advocates, ranging from the Roman Catholic Church to Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner, who are hollering for more god-talk in the public arena, as if it weren't already saturated with it. By any measure, these atheist billboards amount to less than a drop in the bucket by comparison.

And "belligerent"? The whole tone of Williams's post is belligerent, though no doubt she'd say she was provoked. Fair enough, but to allow oneself to be provoked into belligerence goes against two thousand years of Christian theory, though in fairness it conforms perfectly with two thousand years of Christian practice, starting with the frequently intemperate rhetoric of Jesus himself. I guess it's okay for Christians to be righteously belligerent, but not for nonbelievers. Christendom was built on the belief that it's not only legitimate but a moral duty to attack the beliefs of others; Williams should try investigating early Christian history.

For that matter, American Atheists are aware that they're being belligerent, and quite properly unapologetic about it.
Silverman: Here's That War on Christmas You Ordered The Times reports that "Mr. Silverman said the billboard served two purposes. The first was to get the many people who do not actually believe in God but practice religious rituals to 'come out,' in his words ... The billboard also stands up to what Mr. Silverman described as a reactionary assault on atheists driven mainly by the religious right. 'Every year, atheists get blamed for having a war on Christmas, even if we don't do anything,' he said. 'This year, we decided to give the religious right a taste of what war on Christmas looks like.'"
I'd only object that these billboards are hardly even a taste of "what war on Christmas looks like." But baby steps, baby steps.

From the same source, we get some reports of concern trolling:
I Can See This Backfiring, writes Kathryn Jean Lopez at National Review. "Ironically, in his desire to out Christians who are just going through seasonal retail motions, [Silverman's] billboard may serve to remind believing Christians of the real reason for the season."
I'm sure Ms. Lopez would just hate to see anything like that happen. Oh, and What About Teh Children?
Does It Have to Be So Confrontational? wonders Fox anchor Megyn Kelly. In a mostly amiable interview with Silverman, Kelly asks, "Why impose your belief on a big billboard when the little kids drive by? It's in a place that gets a ton of visibility." Silverman replies, "We're allowed to express our views, just like all the churches are allowed to express their views on billboards."
I wouldn't expect any less from Fox News, the network that fought in court for its right to lie to you, but isn't it surprising that so many people have trouble grasping what freedom of expression (to say nothing of freedom of religion) means? Well, no, I guess not.

On the other hand, "reason" doesn't have much to do with any of this. How do you "celebrate Reason," and what's reasonable about that? For that matter, why not put up billboards debunking the myth of Santa Claus? (That might get American Atheists in trouble with the business community, a more fearsome opponent than the community of faith.) I also remember seeing one atheist blogger denouncing the erection of billboards touting belief, but that was before these atheist groups started doing the same thing, so I guess it was different, and anyway that was ancient times; we have to look to the future!

My objection to the fetishization of Reason by so many atheists and self-declared skeptics is that they are generally unaware of how much unreason and mythology they themselves subscribe to, and don't do actual reasoning very well. Take this interesting paragraph from a mostly pretty good rebuttal to a Christian from the Toronto National Post:
It’s not atheists who use ancient books to lecture and sometimes legislate people on how to live. It’s not atheists who fight over a divided Jerusalem nor who taught my French Canadian mother-in-law that the more miserable a life she lived the more she would be rewarded in death. It’s not atheists who can rally a crowd to stone a woman for being a rape victim. And while non believers likely try to pass critical thinking on to their children they don’t send them to weekly lectures about atheism and tell them they are bad if they don’t learn to parrot their parents’ beliefs.
Oh, really? Atheists are a varied lot, but some of us do use ancient books (Plato and others) to lecture and sometimes legislate people on how to live. As for fighting over a divided Jerusalem, let us not forget that the Zionists who built the modern state of Israel, in full knowledge that they were displacing the people who already lived there, were mostly fiercely secular and often Socialist Jews; blaming the Palestinian resistance to their dispossession on religion is fundamentally dishonest. Given the history of scientific racism, it's also disingenuous to blame social injustice solely on religion: scientific rationalists have been all too happy to take up the task of keeping the lowly in their place, if not for God then for Natural Selection and the good of the Race. Women and homosexuals have not always found Science to be our friend, nor Religion always to be our enemy. (Not surprising, since neither Science nor Religion has any inherent moral content.)

As for "pass[ing] critical thinking on to their children," you have to know how to do it before you can pass it on to anyone else. And most atheists are not, as far as I can tell, any better at critical thinking than most religious believers; I sometimes think they're worse, since so many assume that not believing in gods automatically makes you rational, and that's the kind of belief that makes people stupid. Waving "reason" around as a buzzword is not importantly different from waving "faith" around. Better than celebrating reason is trying to practice it well, and that's a lot harder to do.