Sunday, January 30, 2011

But He's So Dreamy!

It's a hard time for liberals when they're reduced to stuff like this:
Whatever my feelings about Obama's centrism I've got to say that he and Michelle really adorn the White House. As a couple they are just...well...magnificent and the children are fucking adorable (same age as my two so I really feel for them). The huffpo lineup of former first ladies and their dresses at these state dinners was like the evolution of humanity from grotesquely old and billowy faux victoriana to blooming, statuesque, youth.
Those words were written by a commenter on this post at alicublog, a hardcore Obama supporter and Democratic party loyalist. (No permalink, but it's on the first page of comments.) Now, I confess I paid tribute to the Obamas' charm (with due reservations on the table) before the killing, torture, jailing, and general suppression really got going, and his emptiness was confirmed once and for all. On one hand, slobbering about their glory like a courtier (who probably has never yet gotten within grovelling range of Himself, but evidently still Hopes) while brushing aside his "centrism" (! -- does she consider Dubya a centrist?) is obscene. On the other, even she recognizes that she has nothing else positive left to say about her Leader's policies and actions. Flattery: the last refuge of political apologists.

And then I found this on the FAIR blog. Obama's new press secretary is a former journalist, and married to a journalist. (Hell, why didn't he just appoint Rachel Maddow his new press secretary?) The writer, Peter Hart, then quotes Howard Fineman, whom we've heard from in these precincts before, and he's nothing if not consistent: always on the side of the cool kids, the In Crowd.
Among his other attributes, Jay Carney is a cool dancer. I know that because I saw him and his wife, Claire Shipman, getting down on the tented dance floor of a fancy Georgetown wedding years ago. Jay Carney, who went to Yale and was a foreign correspondent in Moscow, is--besides being smart, savvy, loyal and well-connected with the right sort--suave.
Don't touch that dial! There's more:
There are few better-connected couples in the Washington media and social scene than Carney and Shipman. Their children attend the Sidwell Friends School with the Obama girls. They are the kind of well-liked, Ivy-credentialed insiders who make the Tea Party boiling mad. But why should Obama care?
To my mind, there are better ways to infuriate the Teabaggers, but it doesn't surprise me that Obama chose this one.

Howie -- I'm sure he won't mind me calling him "Howie" -- concludes by comparing Carney and outgoing press guy Robert Gibbs.
Gibbs, the son of teachers at Auburn University, liked to celebrate Auburn football victories by wrapping White House trees in toilet paper. I could be wrong, but I don't think Jay has done or will do that for a victory over Harvard.
Well, I'm sure that at the very least Carney would have underlings TP the trees for him. When I was a child, I TP'ed trees as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things and let the servants do them on my behalf.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Where the Wild Things Are

Open Salon features some strange stuff, often several months past its sell-by date, but some garbage is timeless, y'know? Like this piece denouncing the burning of books, reacting to the threatened Koran-burning last fall, by a "former advertising and marketing executive and winner of over 50 advertising awards for excellence, ... an unpaid Senior Advisor on John Kerry's 2004 Presidential Campaign... [and a] blogger, activist, Democratic Strategist on MSNBC and FOX News and founder of Common Sense NMS." As you'd expect from such a person, his post was bogus from the title on, which he repeated in the main text. "Americans Don't Burn Books"? I suppose this is an example of the "No True Scotsman" tactic, because of course, Americans often have burned books, though nowadays it's simpler just to pulp them. The blogger's extended tantrum is, by the way, an example of the very magical thinking that underlies burning books or flags or effigies: that the burned object is a poppet, and by burning it you burn the person it stands for. (This is often associated with "voodoo dolls", but poppets are European magic, as American as apple pie.)

Then there was this one, "Political Propaganda Has Defined Patriotism." Patriotism often goes along with the poppet-magic mentality, and it has always been associated with propaganda. (Remember Samuel Johnson's quip that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels -- the unsavory aspects of patriotism are not exactly a new discovery.) The post begins by invoking the "Nazi's" (a plural was presumably meant but the possessive was written) and the popular legend about the Big Lie, blithely ignoring, oh, say, Parson Weems, "The Star-Spangled Banner," and "Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'" According to the blogger, Paul Joseph Goebbels wrote that "The most brilliant propagandist technique… must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over and over." (Except that Goebbels didn't write that, it was Hitler. Details, details.) Then she writes, "Over the past two years, many of the very techniques Goebbels employed have been used to mobilize a discontent and fearful America." You'd have to call that liberal propaganda defining patriotism, because it's the kind of big lie that was a staple of liberal discourse under Bush, like Molly Ivins's 2007 lament, "What happened to the nation that never tortured? The nation that wasn't supposed to start wars of choice? The nation that respected human rights and life? A nation that from the beginning was against tyranny?" The US was never such a nation, any more than it was the kind of nation depicted in Reaganite propaganda (white people living behind picket fences in small towns, self-reliant and beholden to no one, especially government bureaucrats). So this post is a textbook example of what it pretends to denounce.

Most recently I stumbled on this post. The title was promising: "I'm an Atheist, Ask Me How." Except that the blogger doesn't know how. She begins:
I can hardly believe that Christianity is still so prevalent in this, the year of our Lord, 2010. It’s fucking bizarre that an organization advocating homophobia and misogyny is so globally cherished.
Starting from the atheist premise that there is no god, the answer should be obvious: an organization advocating homophobia and misogyny is globally cherished because homophobia and misogyny are globally cherished. To oversimplify somewhat, since there is no god, religious doctrines and dicta must be invented by people. Religions are collective constructions, so they don't need to be consistent or reasonable. Someone who for political reasons has a voice gets to insist that this or that bit goes into the stew. If enough people agree with him, his bit will be embraced and cherished and trumpeted by most believers. If not, his bit will be tactfully reinterpreted, or paid respectful lip service and ignored. Consider Mark 10:25, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." It's as securely scriptural as Leviticus 18:22, in fact it's a teaching of Jesus, but you won't find most Christians putting a lot of store by it.

Or consider Jesus' prohibition of divorce, Mark 10:11. Even in the New Testament this teaching is diluted by Matthew, who shows Jesus giving a loophole for someone with an adulterous spouse. Conservative Christians hung on to it in the US until fairly recently, but by the time the divorced and remarried Ronald Reagan became a presidential contender, they were ready to shove this Christian teaching down the slippery slope. And now, homosexuals are demanding the "right to marry," and it's Reagan's fault.

I don't know why misogyny and homophobia are so popular, but they are, and if they weren't, it wouldn't be possible for religion to exploit them. And the blogger knows this, because she also says, "There is no God, Heaven, or Hell, all religion is man-made, and you are not morally superior because of your faith." See that? "All religion is man-made."

Further, where traditional religion fades, other, newer authorities take up these attitudes and run with them. Secular science's first take on homosexuality and women was straightforwardly reactionary: Homosexuals were not sinners, but they were sick, and could be cured. Women needed to stop trying to usurp the place of men, such as universities (hard study would render women sterile and eventually drive them mad), and should stay at home tending the children, as Evolution intended. Women who continued to rebel in this manner were clearly mannish and might even try to love each other (see homosexuality), would wear suits and smoke cigars, and civilization would perish as the contagion spread.

But this was all in the past, I hear you say, and we are more enlightened now! Perhaps, or perhaps not. Not until 1973 did the American Psychiatric Association remove homosexuality from its official list of disorders, and not for another couple of decades did it reject therapeutic attempts to "cure" us, though there had always been good evidence that such attempts were ineffective and mainly succeeded at making the patients miserable. As for gender, there are still plenty of scientists pushing a biological determinist line, that boys like guns and girls like dolls, and despite the critical flaws in their evidence and their claims, they still have no trouble getting funding for their research or publicity for their claims. The corporate media give them all the exposure they could wish, and the line is that only backward, biased feminists and leftists quibble with these secure, unbiased scientific findings. The case of race is similar.

The problem isn't science, or even religion; it's what the philosopher Walter Kaufmann named "decidophobia," the fear of fateful decisions. Neither science or religion can make our decisions for us. And that is frightening, as Kaufmann acknowledged. Most people evidently want to believe that there is a solid, certain place where they can stand, and absolute principles by which to make their moral choices. Atheists tend to choose different ones than theists, but they seem to be no less likely to pretend to know more than they know.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Snake and the Stone of Spiritual Abundance

I didn't watch or listen to Obama's State of the Union speech, but I did find this status message on Facebook today from my minister friend:
Praying for President Obama as he prepares the State of the Nation address for tonight. We need to be challenged, asked to sacrifice, in good ways for the future of the republic. Debt is going to swallow us if we don't all take a slice of the pie of sacrifice.
This reminds me of an exchange from Firesign Theatre's Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers! I quote from memory: a woman on a TV game show trades everything she's won so far for a little bag, but after she opens it, she protests, "But -- but -- this is a bag of shit!" The Master of Ceremonies replies, "But it's really great shit, Mrs. Presge!"

Or, as Jesus once said, according to Matthew 7:9, "Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask for bread, will he give him a stone?" And if millions of Americans are out of work and have been so for a long time, and if many more have lost their homes in foreclosures of dubious legality, what man out there will then offer them "the pie of sacrifice"? But it's really great sacrifice, Mr. and Mrs. America, and it will be good for you, all the way down!

My old friend seems to have a thing for this kind of sacrifice. Just about a year ago he quoted a column by the New York Times's Bob Herbert, and complained "few of us [are] willing to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow." I thought he was full of shit (but really great shit) then, and I think so now. And remember, this guy isn't a fundamentalist -- he's an organization man in a mainline Protestant denomination, who was appalled by Pat Robertson's nasty remarks about Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake but still thought that the US should go easy on the aid until the Haitians got their act together and learned how to do an economy right.

We know already that Obama is ready to dish out big slices of the pie of sacrifice to most Americans, in the form of later retirement and cuts in Social Security benefits; he's already begun his assault. I wondered what Bob Herbert was up to these days, and by an interesting coincidence his latest column was on Social Security, opposing any such assaults on America's elderly while carefully not mentioning Obama's name.

The deficit hawks and the right-wingers can scream all they want, but there is no Social Security crisis. There is a foreseeable problem with the program’s long-term financing, but it can be fixed with changes that do no harm to its elderly beneficiaries. One obvious step would be to raise the cap on payroll taxes so that wealthy earners shoulder a fairer share of the burden.

The alarmist rhetoric should cease. Americans have enough economic problems to worry about without being petrified that their Social Security benefits will be curtailed. A Gallup poll taken recently found that 90 percent of Americans ages 44 to 75 believed that the country was facing a retirement crisis. Nearly two-thirds were more fearful of depleting their assets than they were of dying. The fears about retirement are well placed — most Americans do not have enough to retire on. But there should be no reason to believe that Social Security is in jeopardy.

The folks who want to raise the retirement age and hack away at benefits for ordinary working Americans are inevitably those who have not the least worry about their own retirement. The haves so often get a perverse kick out of bullying the have-nots.

You know those "deficit hawks"? One of them is named Barack Obama. In fairness I must stress that I don't know what kind of filling my minister friend has in mind for the pie of sacrifice, since he was (probably deliberately) vague on details, but given his adoption of deficit-hawk rhetoric, I have to suspect that that's part of what he has in mind. It's a perfectly middle-of-the-road position, after all. I wonder what sacrifices he has in mind for himself?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Give Me Your Tired, Your Wretched Analogies

My dear helpful RWA1 struck again, linking on Facebook to this article from the Washington Times, and commenting, "It is time to retire analogies to Nazis and fascists once and for all." It appears that a Democratic Congressman compared "Republican attacks on President Obama's health care law to Nazi propaganda," but backed down when criticized by (of all people!) Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and the dead-armadillo group No Labels.
"You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it," said Mr. Cohen on the House floor Tuesday. "The Germans said enough about the Jews and the people believed it, and you had the Holocaust."
I can think of two good reasons for eschewing analogies to Nazis and fascists. One is that it would limit, slightly, the output of American political discourse, since comparing your opponents to Nazis is a treasured bipartisan tactic. The US Government regularly uses comparisons between Hitler and foreign political figures it wants to demonize; an embargo on such comparisons would be a terrible hardship for our own propaganda mills, possibly forcing us to rely on the cheaper product of overseas propaganda mills. (If it meant never having to hear the word "Islamofascist" again, I might be won over. And would Communist and Socialist analogies also be retired?)

The obligatory reaction such comparisons evoke ("Oh, how could you say such an awful thing? You're so hateful!") is the second good reason: it enables everyone concerned to ignore the issue involved by trying to seize the moral high ground and extract an apology, by which time everyone will have forgotten what they were talking about to begin with. Rep. Cohen ("who", the WashTimes delicately informed its readers, "is Jewish") should have known that; he later "said it was 'disappointing' his comments have been used to distract from the health care reform debate." Disappointing, maybe; surprising, not at all. So why did he give his opponents such an easy out?

Lying, even the systematic repetition of outrageous lies for propaganda purposes, is not a specifically Nazi practice. Maybe his propaganda minister Goebbels codified the technique, as the WashTimes indicates, but according to Wikipedia Hitler coined the phrase "Big Lie" in Mein Kampf in 1925 -- and it was something he accused the Jews of doing, amusingly enough. When Goebbels wrote about the Big Lie in 1941, it was to accuse the English of doing it. It appears, in short, that like "Political Correctness", the Big Lie is what other people do rather than a method anyone avows as their own practice. (Rep. Cohen's history was faulty in other respects: anti-Semitic propaganda found such a ready audience among German gentiles because Germany, along with the rest of Christian Europe, had a long tradition of anti-Semitic propaganda and violence. It's not as if the Nazis invented anti-Semitism, or conjured it into German heads that had never harbored it before.)

I think that calls to stop using Nazi/fascist analogies are a distraction in themselves. It's not as if Nazism or fascism died in 1945 with the end of World War II, after all. Fascism survived in Franco's Spain, for example, until the Generalissimo's death in 1975. Various US-backed dictators in Latin America, such as Pinochet, Alfredo Stroessner and numerous Argentinian generals, admired Hitler. So did many American political and business figures, but this admiration went down the memory hole when Hitler became an official enemy. Since fascism, especially, is a specific and definable system of government, I can't see why it should be improper to point out that a given politician or country or movement or party is exhibiting fascist tendencies. When a country engages in torture, invades other countries aggressively, or inflicts collective punishment of civilian populations, these are not specifically Nazi practices, but they are the sort of conduct that supposedly revealed the endemic evil of Nazism. When Noam Chomsky says that if the Nuremberg Principles were enforced, every American president since World War II would have to be hanged, he's not saying that American presidents are Nazis, but they have committed the same crimes that were held up as proof of Nazi depravity. That's a more important matter, it seems to me, but it's exactly what is not acceptable to discuss in civil political discourse.

Of course, neither side will quit invoking Nazis until the other side does, so there's no real danger it will stop anytime soon. What is important, to return to Rep. Cohen, is not whether the lies of Republican opponents of Obama's health care reform bill are Nazi lies; what is important is that they are lies. Dragging in the urban legend (as it evidently is) of the Nazi Big-Lie is a distraction. From "death panels" to "job killing," the Republicans have lied. (So have the Democrats, of course, about other things, and they should be confronted on the substance, not compared to Nazis.) That may be partly because, although there are many valid criticisms that could have been made of Obama's bill, they were not those the Republicans were interested in making. The best way to deter the use of invalid Nazi / fascist analogies is to concentrate on substance. Anyone who wants to attack the Republicans (or the Democrats) should stay focused, on-message, without bringing in irrelevancies that will be used to evade the real issues.

P.S. If there ever should be a bilateral disarmament treaty on Nazi analogies, not to worry: there will still be fag discourse, as beloved among liberals as it is among conservatives.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Remembering the Bone House

Nancy Mairs isn't the most prolific writer, and it would be easy for me to lose sight of her. It helps that a few of her books sit on my shelves near the door at about eye level, so I notice them now and then. She doesn't write bestsellers, so I am less likely to find her latest books prominently displayed in the bookstores. And as I get older, time goes by quickly, so it only recently occurred to me that I should check to see if she had published anything lately -- or even if she's still alive, since she's in her late 60s now. Even if she didn't have multiple sclerosis, that's an age where people start falling by the wayside if you don't watch them closely.

In fact Mairs has published two books in the past decade: A Troubled Guest: Life and Death Stories (Beacon, 2001) and A Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith (Beacon, 2007). That's not bad for someone who's clinically depressed and needs a powered wheelchair to get around. I doubt I'd be as productive in Mairs' seat. But she's one of the writers I turn to, ambivalently, for a truthful account of what it's like to be waist-high in the world (the title of another one of her books), to be dependent on others, to be confined.
Oh I hate the limitations. There are specific parts of limitations that I especially hate. I was always a walker, and I just miss being able to get up and take off and walk somewhere. Probably the greatest source of pain has been that I can't be with my grandchildren the way I want to be. You know, I can sit and look at them, but I can't pick them up, I can't cuddle them, I can't run around after them, I can't take care of them.
May Sarton was another writer I looked to for the same kind of reporting. In her later years and especially after her first stroke, Sarton had to learn to accept help from other people; she wrote about her experiences with considerable honesty. Some young, able-bodied people prefer not to think about what they will face as they get older. Forewarned is forearmed: I at least wanted to hear from people who'd been there before me. Sarton was one of the first I discovered; Mairs has stayed with me longer. Her body may be failing, but her mind is still vigorous, and she writes a stark prose that I admire and envy. You can get a taste of it just from the title of her memoir, Remembering the Bone House, "bone house" (from the Anglo-Saxon banhus, Mairs says) being a metaphor for the human body.

A Troubled Guest turns out to be essays on death and the experience of mortality -- knowing, with varying degrees of certainty, that one's body is not going to last forever, and especially beginning to feel (as opposed to mere intellectual knowing) that its days are numbered. Thankfully, Mairs's Catholicism (she converted as an adult) isn't too intrusive, and she's a heterodox Catholic indeed: in bygone days she'd have been severely punished and possibly excommunicated for the kinds of opinions she expresses here. It appears from what she writes in A Troubled Guest that she was drawn to Catholicism by the liturgy and by the fellowship she found in the particular assembly she joined and still belongs to. She has little respect for hierarchical authority and considers it her duty as a Christian to work through important issues herself, rather than let the Church or anyone else tell her what to think about them. Of course, she is pretty sure that God agrees with her. I think that's why I'm not likely ever to become a religious believer: I don't want that kind of egoistic certainty.

As I say, though, her religion mostly isn't intrusive. I'm bothered more by some wild generalizations she makes in A Troubled Guest about "modern" times. For example, on page 70 she writes that she likes living in a house that shows signs of having been lived in by others before her. I agree, but:
One of the consequences of the modern habit of constructing the cosmos in relation to the personal self is that we too readily believe that entities spring into being for our use, exist as long as we need them, and vanish at our departure. The [sketch of an] owl [tacked to a bulletin board by her back door] reminds me that my house is indifferent to my occupancy, having harbored one tenant after another for sixty-five years.
I don't see anything "modern" in "constructing the cosmos in relation to the personal self" -- what would Mairs call the ancient (but still current) habit of seeing the earth as the center of the universe, with all celestial bodies revolving around it, and the first human beings just coincidentally being the ancestors of one's own tribe? How about the New Testament belief that the universe was created and all history directed to achieve its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus, so that his followers could be glorified and judge the angels? What would arguably qualify as "modern" is the modern scientific view of a universe vaster and older than we can grasp, with no special status attached to our planet and us. But many people (including many scientists) still believe in a developmental timeline culminating in themselves.

On the very first page, she writes:
Although suffering is a state often considered scandalous in modern society, a mark of illness to be cured or a moral deviance to be cured or a moral deviance to be corrected, from a spiritual perspective it is simply an element in the human condition, to be neither courted nor combated.
I simply won't let Mairs have this, even if she distinguishes between "spiritual" and "religious." From the spiritual perspective of the New Testament, suffering is a consequence of sin, which will end when sin is conquered or purged. (At the same time, the New Testament also views suffering as a mark of special distinction: God has chosen you to suffer, for whom the Lord loveth he chastiseth. I don't believe that Mairs is unaware of this theme.) What Paul called "this body of death" was a husk to be shed like a snakeskin so that the pure body of spirit could be set free. The people who flocked to Jesus to be healed weren't "modern", and they knew better than to think that suffering was "a neutral element in the human condition," any more than death was. And Jesus healed them, going so far as to tell the paralytic he healed in Mark 2 that his sins were forgiven. Later Christians "courted" suffering, as Jesus himself did according to the gospels, from martyrdom to mortification of the corruptible flesh; whether they were spiritual or not isn't for me to say. The Bible doesn't have a single answer to the question of suffering, any more than "modern society" does. The Buddha, for whom the problem of suffering was central (six centuries or so before Jesus), saw it as a lamentable element in the human condition, a consequence of craving, to be "combated" by the cessation of craving. I don't think atheism has a single account of suffering either, but my own is closer to Mairs's: it's an element of the human condition, not to be either celebrated or derided, probably ineradicable but certainly to be combated.

I feel the same way about death. Some people have talked of achieving a well-rounded life, as though it were a story with a beginning, middle, and end, with suspense and foreshadowing. But like any other story, you only can construct a narrative arc after you know how it ended. There's a tension between the reality that everybody dies and the the reality that we mostly can't know when or how we will die. We only die once, as Stephen Vizinczey wrote, but we are mortal all the time. Different people react to these realities in different ways, but whether we deal with them well or badly, the "story" always ends with death.

When she writes about mourning and grieving, the same difficulty arises. Supposedly in olden times people knew how to mourn, but nowadays we go to grief counselors -- though she describes present-day memorial services involving modern people who seem to be able to grieve and mourn without professional guidance, and I don't believe that people in the past or in 'traditional' societies were any more uniform in their responses to loss than we are now. Prescribed forms -- wailing by the corpse for days, trying to crawl into the coffin or the grave (click on CC for English subtitles) with the deceased, wearing deep mourning for a year, etc. -- work for many people, but probably constrain others and make them feel worse.

Despite these lapses, which don't really have much importance in what she has to say, A Troubled Guest gave me a lot, as all of Mairs's writing has done. (I think it's time for me to begin rereading her previous books.) It's not "spirituality" but materiality that she writes about best: the bodies of human beings and our animal companions in strength and weakness, the bone house and the wooden frame house with the sketch of an owl left there by a previous tenant. This is what we need to come to terms with: ourselves as bodies, living and dying, thriving and failing, generous and selfish, vulnerable and inevitably mortal. Nancy Mairs has helped me engage that enterprise as well as any writer has.

Friday, January 21, 2011

C-I-V-I-L-L-Y, Civil-ly



The New York Times has reported the first fruits of the New Civility being practiced by our political classes, Peter Hart wrote at the FAIR blog on Tuesday.
Under the headline "Lawmakers Aiming to Increase Civility," the New York Times (1/17/11) reports from the front lines of the improved, post-Tucson political climate:

And the House speaker, John A. Boehner, used the phrase ''job-destroying'' instead of "job-killing'' in reference to the Democrats' healthcare overhaul in a speech to colleagues on Saturday--a subtle but pointed shift in tone, though not in substance.

Change is in the air!

On a serious note, this would suggest a shift from a mean-sounding, unsupported-by-the-facts attack on one's opponents to a slightly less mean-sounding, still fact-free attack on the Democrats and the Obama White House.
The other day, one of my Facebook friends from high school posted a picture, allegedly of President Obama with his head stuck up his tuchus, and the comment:
USA Today and Associated Press just released a picture of President Obama practicing his yoga. it's pretty obvious his yoga has affected a lot of his policies and decisions over the last couple of years.
I commented:
Every President practices that yoga.

Y'know, the trouble isn't that the Right puts out stuff like this -- so do the liberals and the left. (Who are two different groups.) The trouble is that this is the best the Right has to offer.
My friend replied:
Duncan .... I hope this made you laugh ......that is all I have to say about that.
See? That is all such people have to say. But if you want serious discourse, then eventually you have to set aside the dumb jokes and talk rationally and truthfully, about substance. If "civility" means merely the cosmetic adjustment of saying something like "job-destroying" instead of "job-killing" -- and as Boehner and other Republican leaders have shown, that's what they think it means -- then civility is a distraction.

Another related distraction was pointed out on Wednesday by Glenn Greenwald in a comment on one of his own posts:
Almost every day, I have different political labels applied to me -- civil libertarian, leftist, far leftist, socialist, libertarian, etc. etc. I ignore them always because discussions of labels are invariably stupid and time-wasting. They're a tool used by the simple-minded to know whether they should agree or disagree with someone without having to grapple with the substance of the claims.

I noticed very early on that people wanted to apply a label to you because, once affixed, they don't have to bother with the substance of what you argue any longer. If the label is something they like, they'll agree - if it's something they dislike, they can dismiss it without having to do the work ("oh, he's just an X - who cares what he says"?).

Beyond that, these labels mean so many different things to so many different people that they're now meaningless. If someone insists on applying one to me, I'm not going to fight to reject it, because I really don't care about the label. I'm interested in the arguments and the substance.

The arguments and the substance are exactly what the corporate media want to avoid, and they have a large constituency that likes it that way. As Ian Welsh put it (quoted by Avedon Carol) about reactions to the Wikileaks revelations, "At least half the 'progressives' I know revealed themselves as, simply, supporters of authoritarianism; revealed themselves as mushrooms who wanted daddy to keep them in the dark and feed them shit." We already knew that about the right, of course.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Enough Is Enough

Sometimes I have to write a whole long post to figure out how to say the same thing more briefly. So here is what I was driving at. The trouble isn't the poisoned climate of "violent" discourse that the Right has created in the US, it's the history of overt violence by the Right that the discourse feeds on. If someone playfully feints a punch at you, and you've been beaten up before (let alone by that same person), it's not the feint that is the problem, it's the previous beatings.

Of course, violence doesn't come out of nowhere, much as the Right would like you think so. It helps to have a gun culture, a culture of racism, a culture of vengeance and blood-feud. And that describes a lot of the United States of America. (I'm reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time since I was a kid, and I'm struck by how how much of the folkways Twain describes are still with us ... but more on that some other time.) As FAIR put it, there are a hell of a lot of lone nuts out there, and many of them aren't "lone": they're talking to each other, connected by a shared taste in media and a fondness for lethal hardware. As Gary Younge put it (via) in the Guardian:
Fights outside town hall meetings, guns outside rallies, Facebook pages calling for assassinations, discussions about the most propitious moment for armed insurrection. In late October I asked a man in the quaint town of Salida, Colorado, if President Barack Obama had done anything worthwhile. "Well he's increased the guns and ammunitions industry exponentially," he said. "My friends are stockpiling."
Sooner or later some of those guns will go off, and they've been doing just that.

I said before that, like any bunch of rambunctious children, the Right's spokespeople were shocked and (briefly) silenced when someone actually got hurt and lots of media coverage ensued. At the very least, the right-wing frothers who have free rein to puke up their bile on cable networks, talk radio, and other commercial media, should acknowledge publicly that all their Second-Amendment, Tree of Liberty, Reload rhetoric, and all the strutting around with guns (I don't think you have to be a Freudian to see the symbolism there) was just childish swagger to make them feel tough, to give them a giddy feeling of connection with people in the past who, for all their faults, put their lives on the line for what they wanted to achieve. You know: Our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor? That would describe people who braved state violence at the national political conventions in 2008 (and 2004, and 2000, and ...), or at various international business gatherings in Philadelphia, Toronto, Seattle, and just about everywhere else, but not the Tea Party groups. Of course, in order to pledge your sacred honor, you have to have some honor in the first place.

The sheer bloodiness of the Tucson shootings, including the killing of a little girl born on the holy day of September 11, 2001, may have something to do with why the incident has generated a national wave of handwringing, when so many other incidents have not. Admittedly the corporate media and President Obama aren't going to have much useful to say about it, but it's good that the Right has been put on the defensive. Good. Keep them there.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I Know I Am, But What Are You?

What would I do without RWA1, my right-wing acquaintance who enlivens Facebook with the most amazing-yet-predictable outbursts against Teh Left and Teh Liberal Media? Tonight he linked to a commentary by P. J. O'Rourke at The Weekly Standard, announcing that The New York Times has "lost it." RWA1 commented: "The NY Times has become a partisan rag in its political coverage of this country, the equal of William Loeb's Manchester Union Leader or Pulliam's Indianapolis Star." Like he considers that a bad thing?

The Times has always been partisan, though not in the way that RWA1 means. It has always represented the political "center," and spoken for the ruling elites. When Ronald Reagan was turning Central America into a charnel house in the 1980s, the Times dutifully passed along the party line. (Ironically, it was right-wing publications like U.S. News & World Report and The Wall Street Journal that exposed Reaganite lies.) When Nicaraguans voted out the Sandinistas after a decade of US-sponsored and managed terrorism, the Times printed a banner headline on their front page, "AMERICANS UNITED IN JOY," which as Noam Chomsky said was "the kind of headline you'd see in some weird, exotic, totalitarian state, like Albania." When it came time to make war on Iraq again, the Times not only went along with Bush, its reporter Judith Miller helped invent the propaganda.

Of course there were occasional lapses, like the publication of the Pentagon Papers almost forty years ago; we don't have a controlled press in the US, so adherence to the party line is not complete. This causes fury among folks like RWA1, to whom I once recommended Mark Hertsgaard's fine book On Bended Knee (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988), which documented how the mainstream American media knowingly and deliberately collaborated with the Reagan administration from the start; RWA1 was nonplussed, because media submission had not been total, and all he could see were the deviations from perfect discipline. Happily, the Moonie Washington Times became the Reagan administration's house journal, setting a standard of partisanship that the New York Times couldn't hope to match.

Now we also have The Weekly Standard, an overtly right-wing rag that is nothing if not partisan; but that doesn't bother RWA1, nor does the equally blatant partisanship of the Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller, or National Review Online, or Commentary, or the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, which are his main sources on Facebook. Is it that he expects better of the New York Times and the Washington Post? I find that hard to believe. He clearly thinks that P. J. O'Rourke, Joe Rehyansky, George Will, Jennifer Rubin, and the other modern Demosthenes whose work he cites are sensible, sober commentators, speaking truth to power. It's great to have these constant reminders that the "sober" Right (as opposed to the flamingly deranged Right, the regular beat of Roy Edroso) is still so completely dishonest, as to make even the Obama Administration look halfway sane by comparison.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

As American As Cherry Pie

(Okay, I think I now see where I'm heading with this. Sorry for the long delay since the last post.)
I've said it many times: the worst thing about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is that they can be used as an extreme point, compared to which everyone else can claim to be moderate. Jerry Falwell, for example, or my RWA1, who just linked on Facebook to a USA Today article reporting that Phelps and his church will celebrate the Arizona shooting of Giffords and others. "The demon-possessed preacher rides again," RWA1 commented. See? RWA1 is in the middle of the road, a moderate, reasonable voice stuck between the demon-possessed extremists of the ultra-right and the hate-filled extremists of the ultra-left, like Barack Obama. Like Goldilocks, he's found the seat that is just right.

Soon after, RWA1 followed up with a link to one of the wacko sites he relies on, the Washington Examiner, which explained that the "far left" is acting just like Phelps:
It's exactly the same as the explanations the far left is resorting to in its efforts to pin the recent Tucson, Arizona shooting onto conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, John Boehner, Glenn Beck, and the right generally.
Even the face of an overwhelming amount of evidence that Jared Lee Loughner had exactly zero connections to Palin et al., many on the left are continuing to insist that conservatives and libertarians bear at least some responsibility for creating a "climate of hate" simply by engaging in the exact same type of vigorous political speech that the left is continually urging its politicians to engage in.
I have to remind myself that by "the far left" this guy means "anyone to the left of Rush Limbaugh." As I've said before, in a country the size of the US, you can find "many" people who are saying just about anything. And yes, there are many Americans like the idiot in the photo above, just as there are many Americans who think that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, who think that his name alone tells you he's a terrorist, who think that the Bill of Rights is Communist propaganda ... or who think that, as some Tennessee Tea Party groups are complaining, the American Founders should be depicted in history textbooks so as to conform to the Right's notions of -- what else can you call it? -- political correctness:
At a press conference, two dozen activists presented their proposals -- I'm sorry, their "demands" -- for the new state legislative session. Among them are sweeping changes to school materials that they probably have not actually read.

Take it away, awful person:

The material calls for lawmakers to amend state laws governing school curriculums, and for textbook selection criteria to say that “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership."

Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group's lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address "an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another."
Now, I agree that there has been some talk -- sometimes confused, sometimes evil -- from liberals in the wake of the Tucson shootings that I reject. Look again at the idiot in the photo above. By her own criterion she is a murderer. The rhetoric of her sign is extreme, confusing speech with action, and defames people who have not committed any act of violence and probably would not. So, she's committing hate speech, and since she equates hate speech with murder, QED: she is a murderer herself. That's one big trouble with attempts to limit freedom of speech: they almost always will backfire on the would-be censor.

I'm not the only person who rejects such positions. Glenn Greenwald responded promptly with a post criticizing the "reflexive call for fewer liberties," citing first a former advisor to Bill Clinton who advocates making it easier to commit people who seem to (ill-defined) others to exhibit signs of mental disturbance. But the Clintons, and their Democratic Leadership Council cronies, are not "the left" by any sensible standard: the whole point of the DLC was to move the Democratic Party to the right. I'd go further than Greenwald in attacking that position, partly because of the very poor record of mental health professionals in respecting the civil liberties, or mere personhood, of those unlucky enough to fall into their hands. There was a famous experiment done in the 1960s, I believe, in which several graduate students presented themselves for commitment to a mental hospital, claiming that they heard voices. After admission they dropped that claim, but it proved to be very difficult to get them out. The doctors couldn't tell when a person was healthy.

But that's not really here or there. There may well be exceptions out there, but since it became known that accused shooter Jared Loughner had a history of mental problems (which was almost immediately after the shootings), every commentator I've heard or read has been careful to stress that this was not a political assassination attempt, that Loughner was not motivated by politics. What exercises people like RWA1 or Matthew Sheffield, the Washington Examiner blogger I quoted above, is that there has been criticism of right-wing discourse, accusing figures like Palin and Limbaugh and Beck of creating a "climate of hate" when all they are doing is "engaging in the exact same type of vigorous political speech that the left is continually urging its politicians to engage in." That's not the strongest line of argument to pursue, and not merely because "the left" has no politicians at the national level.

It takes either an extremely well-trained memory or serious ignorance (or, what the hell, typical right-wing disregard for fact) to claim that there's nothing out of the way about recent right-wing discourse -- and I mean not fringe figures like Fred Phelps, but the right-wing mainstream. That's an odd word, I admit, but figures like Limbaugh, Palin, Ann Coulter, and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson before them, have enjoyed considerable access to the corporate media, where they were treated with remarkable respect. Palin was the vice-presidential candidate of the Republican Party in 2008, for goodness' sake. Limbaugh is an honored figure in the Republican Party. I can't think of any comparable leftist who has ever had the same kind of corporate media visibility that these people command more or less at will.

I was about to add that I can't even think of any any Democrat, "liberal" or otherwise, who regularly engages in the same kind of rhetoric routinely used by right-wing figures, but that's not quite true. A little over a year ago the Democratic National Committee responded to Republican criticisms of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to President Obama in intemperate terms. Glenn Greenwald
noted that the DNC accused the GOP of having "thrown in its lot with the terrorists" and putting "politics above patriotism" because -- just like the Taliban and Hamas -- some Republicans objected to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama. Salon's Alex Koppleman described how some progressive groups, including Media Matters and some blogs, embraced the same theme, even producing videos "suggesting that the right has aligned itself with terrorists." Media Matters' Chris Harris wrote a piece entitled "RNC agrees with the Taliban," and actually labelled the mere act of questioning whether Obama's Prize was warranted to be "unseemly and downright unpatriotic."
The same thing happened when President Clinton bombed Iraq in 1998 and some Republicans doubted his motives for doing so: numerous Democrats accused them of unpatriotically failing to support the President at this critical time (when, just coincidentally, he was under investigation by the Congress for improper fluid exchange). But that's just the problem: there is mainstream, bipartisan hostility toward anyone who criticizes a sitting President, especially when he's engaged in killing dirty foreigners. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are bothered by that, as long as they're the ones in power who get to accuse their critics of sympathy for terrorism. Only a few far leftists, really -- fringe figures -- are bothered by it.

What is at issue here is something different: the overheated rhetoric that greeted the rise to prominence, nomination as Democratic Presidential candidate, election, and inauguration of Barack Obama. To describe it as "the exact same type of vigorous political speech that the left is continually urging its politicians to engage in" is absurd. (But consider the source.) We're talking about hysterical accusations that Obama is a terrorist, a covert Muslim, a socialist, a fascist; a refusal to admit that he had won the election and the Republicans had lost, with ongoing hints that if he refused to 'obey the will of the people' in unspecified ways then revolutionary remedies would follow; and these were not fringe reactions, or not only from the fringe. They were the bread and butter of the Tea Party movement, and of the Republican National Committee.

Nor was it only words. Numerous right commentators have claimed that "the left" also resorts to the same rhetoric, which is only partly true. Yes, George W. Bush was sometimes called a fascist, but usually when I saw it there was some actual comparison made between Bush's actions and policies and historical fascism. The Republican claims were made by people who clearly had no idea what fascism is, or communism, for that matter. I think it's telling that when John McCain conceded the election in 2008 and made conciliatory noises about his opponent, many of his supporters were furious and he had to try, not very effectively, to calm them down. That's why I keep citing RWA1, by the way: he's a very typical right-wing Republican, and though he thinks of himself as a sober conservative, the materials he links to with approval are anything but sober. They're inaccurate and dishonest at best, and crank rants at worst.

And since then, along with the rhetoric, we've seen an upsurge in political violence and threats of same. As FAIR's Jim Naureckas wrote a couple of days ago after providing a partial list of incidents:
These individuals no doubt have a range of relationships to reality, and their ideologies may likewise vary from Tea Party orthodoxy to idiosyncratic conspiracy mania. (One person on the list appears to be a genuine ecoterrorist.) But it's hard to deny that this seems like a remarkable amount of political violence in a little more than two-and-a-half years. (This impression is bolstered statistically by reports that the Secret Service has had to deal with a 400 percent increase in threats against the president, that U.S. Marshals are facing double the number of threats against judges and prosecutors, and that Capitol Police found that threats against congressmembers tripled in the first quarter of 2010.)
Alexander Cockburn commented at Counterpunch:
You can date the moment Republicans and Tea Partiers reckoned heavy talk about guns was okay, a sure headline grabber and vote puller with the right wing base, from the coverage of a man in New Hampshire last August with a pistol strapped to his leg who stood outside an event where Obama was promoting his health care bill, He carried a sign saying , "It Is Time to Water the Tree of Liberty,” a reference to a Thomas Jefferson quote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Open carriage of handguns is legal in New Hampshire, and the man was standing on the private property of a nearby church that had no problem with an armed fellow hanging around. A few days later a black man stood outside Arizona’s Phoenix Convention Center where President Barack Obama was speaking, with an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder and a pistol on his belt. Like New Hampshire, Arizona is an "open-carry" state, which means anyone legally allowed to have a firearm can carry it in public, so long as it's visible. The Secret Service said the man would not have been allowed to take the weapon into the hall where Obama was speaking.

We’re not standing on a level deck here. When George Bush was president cops would arrest protesters just carrying signs by the side of the road along which the president was scheduled to drive. A guy with a rifle or a side arm would have been behind bars in ten seconds, in New Hampshire or Arizona or anywhere else.
And, a couple of days later:
If Palin was in the Animal Rights movement she would have been indicted, sentenced and imprisoned long ago. To draw a specific comparison: the SHAC 7 were convicted of “animal enterprise terrorism” for running a website which posted the names and addresses of individuals tied to the animal testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences. They were not charged with any act of property destruction, they were charged with “conspiracy” on the grounds that they should be held accountable for the actions of others in the same movement.
Palin of course is a vigorous opponent of abortion. An anti-abortion campaigner back in the 1990s ran a website called The Nuremberg Files. It published the names and addresses of doctors who performed abortions and others who made that possible, either by running clinics or providing protection or issuing legal opinions from the bench. When one of the doctors on the list (or clinic owners, cops providing protection, judges, etc.) was killed, a strike-through line would appear over their information. When they were wounded, their names would be greyed out. In its old form the site is now down after a court ruled following the murder of Dr Barnett Slepian that the strike-through and euphoric rhetoric accompanying each 'aborted' abortionist amounted to incitement. Check out what's on line at present, from the man who originated the site: http://www.christiangallery.com/.
It's true that similar rhetoric and gun display had some currency on the Left in the 1960s. There was a lot of talk of Revolution, celebration of Che Guevara and other actual revolutionaries, and some Black militants posed for fetishistic photographs of themselves with weapons. This sort of thing was crushed by the government, the most notable example being the murder of Fred Hampton in his bed by Chicago police in 1968. But the Right has a longer, bloodier history of such things, from lynchings around the US to murders of Civil Rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s, to assaults on antiwar activists down to the early 2000s. I'm haunted by the Peekskill Riots of 1949, which I first read about in Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace's documentary history Violence in America (Knopf, 1970). Concertgoers leaving a benefit concert by Paul Robeson in Westchester County, New York, had to run a gauntlet of rioters. As Wikipedia describes it:
Security, organized by labor unions, was tight with union men standing in a circle of protection around the entire concert grounds and sitting with Robeson on the stage. Attended by 20,000 people, the concert went off without incident. However, as concertgoers were leaving, they were picketed on by hostile locals and outside agitators, who threw rocks through windshields of the cars and buses, chanting "Go back to Russia, you white Niggers" and "Dirty Kikes". Much of the violence was also caused by anti-Communist members of local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters. Some of the concertgoers and union members, along with writer Howard Fast and others assembled a non-violent line of resistance, locked arms, and sang "We Shall Not Be Moved". Some people were reportedly dragged from their vehicles and beaten. Over 140 people were injured and numerous vehicles were severely damaged as police stood by, the most famous case being Eugene Bullard, a World War I veteran and first Black aviator, who was beaten by a local, two policemen and a state trooper.
This history shows the irrelevance of talking about a "climate of hate" caused by rhetoric. It's the other way around: The rhetoric is the product of a history of overt violence; usually tolerated, often condoned, and sometimes committed directly by the government. The reason why discourse like the bipartisan samples collected here is disturbing is that it's not just rhetoric: the US government kills, tortures, bombs, ravages. As the Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown declared in 1967, violence is as American as cherry pie. Numerous bloggers have pointed out that for President Barack Obama to deplore the violence in Tucson while he orders and justifies far greater violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere is outrageous dishonesty. IOZ, writing a parody of Obama's Tucson speech, put it most clearly: "What kind of country have we become, where we can shoot each other even as our brave men and women are overseas, shooting others?"

Still, I suspect that the Tea Party right were mostly taken by surprise when Gabrielle Giffords was shot. They enjoyed strutting around with their open-carry firearms, naming themselves after a violent act of civil disobedience while mostly limiting their activism to screaming abuse at their elected representatives, and using gun metaphors like "Second Amendment solutions", even probably fantasizing about rising up like the Sons of '76. Kiddies, the Boston Tea Party was no tea party. Most likely, they would have been Brit Loyalists during the actual Revolution, or at least slunk off quietly when it was time to march against the Redcoats. Like any bunch of rambunctious children, they were shocked and silenced when someone actually got hurt. And like children, they insist that it wasn't their fault, it's yours!

Which is all the more reason not to take them seriously on any level. They mostly can't face disagreement -- one of RWA1's funnier citations was a piece by the right-wing classicist Victor Davis Hanson, whingeing that because President Obama was exhorting Democrats to vote for Democrats and not Republicans, he was exhibiting a "Manichean" good guys / bad guys attitude, as though the midterm elections were an "existential battle like the Civil War." This was at a time when Republicans were claiming that the midterms would be "historic," a return to the ideals of limited government that America was really about. The Right can dish it out but they can't take it -- talk back to their bluster, and they fold right away, complaining that you're mean and are picking on them.

Which brings me to another buzzword that has been much in the air this past week: civility. Civility is one of those virtues that's usually for other people: I'm not being uncivil, I'm just engaging in vigorous political speech; you, on the other hand, are dragging civil discourse in the mud. It is annoying when liberals like Paul Krugman wring their hands about today's incivility and point to an imaginary past when we were all, like, nice to each other; as annoying as the Golden-Age fantasies one hears from the Right. But the trouble with the right's discourse (or that of the center, as it's laughingly known) is not really that it's uncivil: it's that it's a tissue of lies, with the boundaries drawn so as to keep tight limits on the discussion. As the queer scholar Jeffrey Escoffier wrote a decade ago, "Stoicism is necessary in public debate. No one enjoys being humiliated in public. Participation in public dialogue will not be fruitful if we do not learn to accept conflict, pain, and hurt feelings. Some of the detrimental effect of political correctness stems from the fear of being criticized or misrepresented in public. Expressions of anger and hostility should be expected" (American Homo, p. 200). And as the queer lawyer Glenn Greenwald wrote more recently, criticizing the moderation fetish of Comedy Central's Restore Sanity Rally,
One other point about this fixation on the "tone" of our politics. Political debates are inherently acrimonious -- much of the rhetoric during the time of the American Founding, as well as throughout the 19th Century, easily competes with, if not exceeds, what we have now in terms of noxiousness and extremity -- but far more important than tone, in my view, is content. For instance, Bill Kristol, a repeated guest on The Daily Show, is invariably polite on television, yet uses his soft-spoken demeanor to propagate repellent, destructive ideas. The same is true for war criminal John Yoo, who also appeared, with great politeness, on The Daily Show. Moreover, some acts are so destructive and wrong that they merit extreme condemnation (such as Bush's war crimes). I don't think anyone disputes that our discourse would benefit if it were more substantive and rational, but it's usually the ideas themselves -- not the tone used to express them -- that are the culprits.
But I don't expect there to be a change. We're far more likely to see more assaults on civil liberties in the name of civility, than to see people work at learning how to debate important issues. Disagreeing sensibly is hard. It takes practice. It's so much easier to prattle about "a climate of hate," about "political correctness," "civility," and similar empty verbiage.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

That's Why We're in Trouble Now

The title -- So Greek -- got my attention on the New Arrivals shelves at the university library. Maybe the subtitle, Confessions of a Conservative Leftie, should have warned me off (Melbourne: Scribe, 2010) . The author, Niki Savva, worked as an Australian print journalist, with a bias to the liberal-ish Labor Party, for a couple of decades before becoming press secretary to conservative Liberal politician Peter Costello. Six years later she joined the staff of arch-rightie John Howard. What the hell, could be interesting, I thought, and checked it out.

I imagine I'd have the same complaint about most books by journalists. Savva, who seems to be almost my exact contemporary, emigrated to Australia from Cyprus as a toddler with her parents and her older brother. Two sisters followed, one of whom died as an infant. The other, Christina, struggled all her life with beta thalassemia major, a form of anemia, and Savvas' account of her courage and determination are the best parts of the book.

Savvas covers her early life in the first chapter, which is interesting enough, but after she gets her first job with the Dandenong Journal she's much less interesting except when she mentions her family now and then. She writes like the newspaper reporter she is, which isn't a bad thing in itself, but what she writes about here is mostly gossip with no context -- what I'd call thin writing. I expect even a native Australian would have trouble identifying all the personnel, media people and politicians from the late 1960s on. Here's an all-too-typical sample from the 1980s:
Hard as it might be to believe now the politician I was toughest on was John Howard.

We were watching the news in the press-gallery office one night when a member of Andrew Peacock's staff walked in and saw Howard on the box. 'He's got new teeth,' he said. His name was John Harvey and he was a dentist, so he knew what he was talking about.

Howard was in trouble then, as he was for a good part of the 1980s. My story the next day was both cruel and apt: John Howard was hanging on to the leadership of the Liberal Party by the skin of his new teeth.

Not content with that, I followed up with a column, putting it together with the more modern glasses he had acquired, and gleefully pointed out that he had had his eyebrows freshly clipped -- an attempt, I wrote, to tame the old ones, which I said resembled wayward caterpillars.

It provided fodder for Keating and other comedians to ridicule Howard for years [79].
Pardon me, Ms. Savvas, but I think you've mistaken me for someone who gives a fuck. I'd heard of John Howard before, in the context of politics in that part of the Pacific, and as a participant in the neoliberal economic policies that have been so destructive around the world. But even if he played a more significant role in my political history, of what possible interest are his teeth, his glasses, or his eyebrows? I know that for many people these are the things that matter about their politicians, and that's a lot of what I think is wrong with politics and journalism in the US; apparently it's also what's wrong with politics and journalism in Australia. Bummer.

(Click on the image above for a sample of Savva's current newspaper writing.)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bang Head Against Wall. Repeat As Necessary.

Do you ever feel like throwing back your head and howling like a forlorn dog? I've been feeling like that a lot recently, which has made it difficult to write.

There's been a fair amount of fuss lately about a forthcoming edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the work of a (white?) academic, which replaces the 219 uses of the word "nigger" with the word "slave." I don't like bowdlerization either, but much of the criticism ginned up in the liberal blogosphere has been pointless. It's not as if this edition, published by a small regional press, is going to cause the standard version to disappear. That didn't happen when John Wallace, a school staff member in Virginia, published an edition of Huck Finn with the very same substitution twenty-five years ago; I doubt it will happen now. Does such a revision constitute "censorship"? Only in the tiniest technical sense, as far as I can see. Even if every school in the nation supplied its students with the New South edition for study purposes, the standard version would still be all over the place. Even removing Huck Finn from the curriculum wouldn't be censorship, since literally dozens of books are not in the curriculum, which changes from generation to generation. There have been at least two literary retellings of Huck Finn, both of which dealt with the issues it raises in different ways -- I was about to say, "by de-gaying" it, though that's not quite right, since it isn't gay. But ever since Professor Leslie Fiedler pointed in 1948 to the "homoeroticism" in the original (and in so much classic American fiction), many critics have tried to get rid of it. Is that "censorship"?

And I am impressed to see how many white people are quite comfortable telling black kids that they should toughen up and deal with it when white kids call them "nigger." Or even that, since they have encountered the word many times already in their lives, a few more times won't hurt. After all, they've heard the word many times in hiphop, so why should it bother them if it turns up in Huck Finn? On the whole, I'm inclined to agree with Toni Morrison's take (PDF) that trying to excise the N-word is "a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children" -- though appeasing adults instead of educating children is just what the American school system has largely evolved to do. And brushing off the problem by saying that the teacher should be able to deal with it, while in principle correct, is also ignoring the difficulties teachers face. Mark Twain's handling of race doesn't fit well into the multiple-choice tests that have taken over so much of American school time, thanks not to teachers but to various bureaucrats (and of course the highly lucrative testing industry). Just about everyone who derisively opposes the NewSouth edition seems determined not to think about the problems Huck Finn poses.

Some writers (sorry, I'm too burned out to supply enough links -- will try try to fix it later) accused the editor of the NewSouth edition of thinking that if we just eliminate the n-word, that will be enough to stop racism. I think that's a straw man; I haven't seen anything to support the claim. I don't believe, when I pick on people for using "faggot" and other homophobic epithets, that stopping their use is all that's needed to eliminate antigay bigotry. But since their use is a sign of bigotry, attacking those who use them is one small part of working against bigotry. I've argued before that the best way for gay people to deal with the epithets is to reclaim them, but in the meantime, anyone who uses them in the traditional way should expect to be confronted. (As The Onion once put it: if we don't have free speech, how will we know who the assholes are?)

Come to think of it, I think I detect some kind of connection between this jumping on the bandwagon against the NewSouth edition and some recent attempts by ostensible progressives / leftists to rehabilitate the word "faggot" as a pejorative for what one of them called "kneelers." And one of John Caruso's commenters who was especially furious about removing the n-word from Huck Finn also seems to be concerned with establishing Ralph Nader's bonafides as a manly man rather than a "shrinking violet." But of course there couldn't possibly be a connection. If there comes a day when white racism really is not a problem in the US, then it will be possible to teach Huck Finn as a purely historical document, whose language can simply be glossed by teachers. The trouble is that things haven't yet changed enough.

For that matter, as several commenters at Racialicious asked rhetorically, if Huck Finn is taught to teach white students the humanity of black people (the very kind of "politically correct" approach to literature that the critics of the NewSouth edition condemn out of the other side of their mouths), wouldn't books by black authors do the job even better? Frederick Douglass's Autobiography, for example. As Toni Morrison suggests, trying to turn Huck Finn into an anti-racist tract does as much injury to its complexity (and as she shows, its incoherence on many levels) as denouncing it as a "racist tract" would do. In the good old days beloved of many white people my age and older, books by black authors about black experience were not in the curriculum. That's no longer the case, thanks to "politically correct" demands of "identity politics" that a wider range of voices need to be heard, and taught. But the gains that have been made are always in danger of being lost, and the threat comes from all over the political spectrum.

We all have our blind spots, though, and John Caruso wrote a much better post on the US media distortion of the Wikileaks controversy. But even he weaseled, just a tiny bit, on the accusation that Julian Assange "stole" documents.

It's true that Assange didn't personally "steal" the material Wikileaks has been publishing, but if I'm not mistaken it's also illegal to fence stolen goods: the fact that you didn't personally steal them doesn't exculpate you. And it's also true, as Glenn Greenwald has been pointing out, that reporters not only receive leaked material, they encourage sources to get that material for them. The reason why so many Americans are having tantrums about Wikileaks is not that they consider government secrets to be sacrosanct -- they have no objection to the US spying on other countries to steal their secrets, for example, and would probably be happy if even Wikileaks published "stolen" material about their own pet conspiracy theories -- but because they don't want to know the bad things their government is doing. So while it's true that, in a narrow sense, neither Assange nor Wikileaks "stole" those documents, it's somewhat a waste of energy to defend them against the accusation. If Assange had personally entered the corridors of the Pentagon, rifled the file drawers, and walked out with the materials Wikileaks has been publishing, he'd be a hero even if he was legally a thief.

I was struck by a deranged commenter to one of Greenwald's posts who wrote that Assange "received stole [sic] property and should not have made them public, instead he could have shown real backbone by notifying the ones who were robbed (the American people) and returned them." That's exactly what Wikileaks did, of course: notified the American people that their military and their government were hiding these things from them, and let them know some (a very small part, since Wikileaks can only publish what others leak to them) of what their government was illegitimately withholding from them.

And ah, then, there's my RWA1 on Facebook, who linked to an attack on Hugo Chavez with the comment, "The American Left has disgraced itself by apologizing for this incipient Mussolini." Oh, come on! If Chavez really were a Mussolini, neither RWA1 nor most Americans would have any objection to him. Hell, the US got along with the Mussolini at first: he was good for business and hostile to labor, which is what matters for good relations with the US, right or far-right. When Venezuela was ruled by a dictatorship, the American Right was perfectly comfortable with it. Saddam Hussein got along just fine with the US, until we no longer needed him.

A good many years ago I confronted RWA1 on just this point. Like many conservatives he tended to get green around the gills when reminded what his tax dollars were paying for in Latin America and elsewhere, but he rallied. At first he blustered about "those goddamned Latin American generals!" I reminded him that those goddamned Latin American generals were trained, paid, and equipped by the US government, and wouldn't last a week without our support. Well, he said glumly, we had to do something to stop those countries from going Communist. (Which is neither here nor there, since the US has supported coups to overturn elected social-democratic governments that that nothing to do with Communism.)

So it goes. What has me wanting to bang my head against the wall, you see, is not the great unwashed, the illiterate, the know-nothing Teabaggers, or Fox News; it's highly educated, politically progressive (except for RWA1 of course) people who are supposedly on the same side I am, but who (among other matters) throw hissyfits over trivial matters like the NewSouth edition of Huck Finn, who feel it necessary to exonerate Julian Assange of accusations of theft. And contrary to RWA1, much of what he would consider "the American left" has been trying to distance itself from any appearance of defending, let alone apologizing for, Hugo Chavez.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

You Take the High Road, and I'll Take the Low Road

Once again I've dipped my toes into the laughing waters of Christian women's inspirational fiction. This time it was Angela Hunt's She's in a Better Place (Tyndale House, 2009) on a display rack at the public library that caught my attention with the saturated colors of its cover. When I leafed through it, I found that the protagonist, Jennifer Graham, is finishing her training as a mortician, a slightly untraditional vocation for a conservative Christian woman, even if she does view her work as a "ministry."

It turns out that She's in a Better Place is the third volume in a trilogy, though author Hunt did a good job of filling in backstory so that I didn't feel any need to go back to the previous volumes. Jennifer Graham, divorcee and mother of two, inherited the Fairlawn Funeral Home in a small Florida town and decided to make a go of it. (Her cheating ex died shortly after they were divorced, which was evidently both satisfying to her sense of justice and highly guilt-inducing.) Mentored by the much older Gerald Huffman, a former minister, she's about to take her exams and become a licensed mortician when when it's discovered that Gerald has a terminal illness. Jennifer knows that the widowed Gerald has an estranged daughter, the single mom of a granddaughter he's never met, so she decides to try to bring about a reconciliation.

The daughter, Kirsten, appears at the door of the funeral home with young Katie in tow, but does her best to stay hard-boiled until the novel's closing pages. It seems she'd always been "rebellious": neither her pious parents nor Jesus himself could keep the Devil out of her. The final break came when she got involved in the (gasp!) theater and performed in a little-theater production of Hair, complete with nude scene. She and her father tell conflicting versions of whether she ran away or was thrown out, but whatever happened, she cast the dust of Mt. Dora from her feet.

Standing over her father's casket, she wrestles with her demons:
She closes her eyes against the battering memories and wills them to go away. Her father is dead, her mother, too, and they cannot influence her anymore. They cannot criticize; they cannot leave her feeling as though she will never measure up to their standards. …

What standards, Kirsten? What did we ask you to do?

"To be perfect," she hisses through clenched teeth.


We asked you to obey. To obey us and God.


"Well, okay. Obeying the Almighty is a pretty tall order – don’t you think? Not everyone can dot every i and cross every t. Not everyone wants to be a saint. Some people want normal lives."


We weren’t perfect, and we never expected you to be. We only wanted you to love God. Everything else would have fallen into place.


"Where you wanted it to be."


Where God wanted you to be.


… Except for the accusations of a guilty conscience, she is alone [309-10].
Cathartic though this is meant to be (for the reader, anyway), it embodies the problems with this kind of religious faith. What a coincidence that what her parents wanted just happened to be what God wanted too! It's a handy way of evading responsibility for one's choices. Before his death the saintly Gerald admits his failures in principle, but what else could he do with such a willful, wayward daughter? Being the kind of Christian he is, he's not going to claim to be perfect, but he neither acknowledges nor sees any actual shortcomings on his own part, denies that he kicked Kirsten out of the house, and blames her for running away. But not all Christian parents agree on where to draw the line. And given the ambivalent fatalism these pious Christians embrace, how can they know that standing naked on a stage and giving birth out of wedlock wasn't where their God wanted Kirsten to be? There's plenty of standard not-my-will-but-thine in She's in a Better Place, but that leads to contradictions it never resolves. (In the same way, all good Christians know that death means Going Home to Be With Jesus, yet they don't really seem to believe it. They know as well as Sappho did that death is not a good thing.)

The religiosity in She's in a Better Place feels rather rote to me. Prayer happens frequently, but it's done quickly and by the numbers. You could excise the Christian references without doing much damage to the flow of the novel. But maybe that's just the atheist in me talking.

She's in a Better Place is also a good example of what James Barr was talking about when he wrote over thirty years ago that "the conservative evangelical view of sex and marriage, far from being haunted by sin and guilt, is light and superficial" (Fundamentalism [Westminster, 1977], 328). Jennifer has something going on with handsome and eligible lawyer Daniel Sladen who seems to be a lifelong bachelor, a trait that in a middle-aged man is rather suspicious, I'd say, especially since Jennifer herself describes him as "lavishly tressed" (28), but in Angela Hunt's world he just hasn't met Miss Right yet -- or hadn't until he met Jennifer. Their relationship isn't really developed, but then it doesn't need to be: God meant Man and Woman to come together, and in the end Jennifer and Daniel do just that. Meanwhile, Daniel gives some manly advice on the Woman Question to Jennifer's younger son Bugs, who's trying to get Katie to be his "girlfriend." They're both about seven -- talk about the sexualization of children!

Hunt is not one to let a cliche get away from her. Among the secondary characters is a hairdresser named Ryan, who freelances for the funeral home now and then. Ryan provided the closest this novel had to real suspense for me: would Angela Hunt give her readers a gay male character, or would Ryan also find his Miss Right? Not in this trilogy. After Gerald has died and Jennifer and Ryan have prepped him for the funeral, they have this exchange:
We stand by the side of the casket for a long moment, and only when I see movement from the corner of my eye do I realize that Ryan is sobbing. I slip my arm around his waist. "I understand," I whisper, not knowing what else to say. "I’m going to miss him, too."

"He never judged me," Ryan fans his face as if he could cool the sudden emotional surge. "A lot of people in this town don’t have much use for me outside the salon, but Gerald saw me as a regular person. I think he understood – you know, the things I struggle with – but he never condemned me. He just kept urging me to follow Jesus" [305-6].
I can't decide whether to give Hunt credit for letting Ryan be gay and almost say so, or to despise her for not letting him do anything about it but "struggle with" it. I'd say she's lukewarm, so I spew her out of my mouth.

Still, I admit freely that Angela Hunt is a pro. She kept her story moving, juggles her several plotlines skillfully, and delivers the kind of satisfying, inspiring read her readers want. She has a slightly forced sense of humor that reminds me of fellow Southerner Rita Mae Brown. Still, I can't say I care to look at more of her work. I still would like to read more of Ann Gabhart's novels, though, and one more inspirational book at the library has caught my eye: a thick historical novel about World War II. At the moment, though, I'm in the middle of Rudolfo Anaya's Chicano classic Bless Me Ultima, and I'm finding it heavy going; more on that once I've finished it.