Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Decline of Western Civilization



I'm not sure exactly why or how, but this performance (via) somehow embodies how I feel this morning. Partly because I've been experiencing writer's block again.

I seem to recall someone telling me, back when this album was new (back in the early 70s, I believe), that some of the orchestras Beethoven had to cope with might have sounded like this. And for fans, Brian Eno played in these sessions.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sharia Law for Madison, Communism for Cairo!

From Lenin's Tomb.

It's been entertaining to watch the Right going berserk over the protests in Madison, often the very same right-wingers who support the Tea Party. Someone actually complained somewhere that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker won his election, so now he can do what he wants! Someone else pointed out in reply that Obama and the Democrats won the 2008 election, so why didn't the Teabaggers welcome their every initiative? (The same complaint was made in Korea during the beef-import protests of 2008: they've got the right to vote now, so why are they protesting in the streets?)

Which reminds me, the BBC has a story up this morning that I found interesting but mildly disturbing. It's a celebration of an American academic named Gene Sharp, who has built his career studying methods and tactics of "nonviolent revolution." According to the article, Sharp's booklet From Dictatorship to Democracy, which lists 198 "techniques collated from a forensic study of defiance to tyranny throughout history", has been used by activists from Burma to Serbia to Egypt. Sharp has been accused, the writer sniffs, of being a CIA front; I wouldn't be so sure he's not, though he has one interesting item in his CV: he was jailed "for nine months in 1953-4 for protesting against conscription of young men to fight in Korean War."

What disturbed me about the article was a passing remark that "President Hugo Chavez used his weekly television address to warn the country that Sharp was a threat to the national security of Venezuela." This means that Sharp's methods can be, and perhaps are being used against properly elected governments, not just tyrants. (What disturbed me was the implication, so common in the US mainstream, that Chavez is a tyrant; it doesn't have to be supported, everybody just knows it.) Diana Johnstone wrote a few years ago, "I have written another note on that, pointing out that the United States, with its vast wealth and power, is able to use all methods, those of the powerful and those of the weak, including 'non-violence' (U.S. agents taught 'non-violence' to the well-subsidized 'Otpor' movement in Serbia to get rid of Milosevic... which did not preclude using violent groups as well)." I hope the protesters in Wisconsin are studying From Dictatorship to Democracy. It seems only fair.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why Don't You Reach Under and See?

I just had to put this up here. Via Another Queer Jewish Buddhist, a blog I must investigate more.

For All the Intellectual Snobs I've Known Before

(Image by the Great and Powerful IOZ.)

Salon ran a piece by Michael Lind the other day that left me ambivalent. (My normal state, of course.) Mostly it was an exercise in concern trolling, with Lind admonishing liberals and "center-left" media to spend less time mocking Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and more time on our comatose economy and the "revolution [that] is rocking in the Middle East." I suppose I agree, but I don't pay much attention to Rachel Maddow, so I don't know how much time she actually spends on the crazy sayings and doings of Beck, Palin, O'Reilly, Coulter, Limbaugh, and the rest. The left media I do follow don't spend a lot of time on them, though of course such clowns do make entertaining copy, and heaven knows we can all use a laugh now and then. Maybe Lind thinks that any time spent mocking them is too much, but would he write an equivalent piece for Fox News or National Review Online, urging them to spend less time mocking liberals?

Some of Lind's arguments make sense to me, though I'm not sure what to do about them.
Since the '60s, conservatives have managed to recruit populist voters by claiming that the intellectual elites look down their noses at them. By theatrically sneering at less-educated politicians and media loudmouths, progressive pundits seem to prove that the left consists only of snobbish members of the college-educated professional class making fun of the errors of people who did not attend prestigious schools.
Good point, and one I've written about myself, but what to do? Should I pretend that Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, et al. are deep thinkers who should be engaged and debated seriously? The trouble with that idea is that their fans aren't interested in engagement and debate. The right-wingers I've talked to can't cope with disagreement, though they are like liberals in that respect. For most of the past two or three decades, though, I've mostly argued with educated people from a range of political positions, who tend to think they're a cut above Joe Sixpack, rather than on Joe Sixpack himself. When it comes time to talk to Fox News fans, though, I think I have to do the same thing: disagree with them forthrightly and challenge them to defend their position. I'm in an awkward position, though, since I'm a kitchen worker and a dropout from a decent but not exactly "prestigious" university on one hand, but an intellectual and a bookworm on the other. Even if I'm not Joe Sixpack, though, I'm a working-class taxpayer, which does distance me from many of my fellow leftist writers. And where does Michael Lind fall in this spectrum?

I also agree with Lind's argument that "If you're going to be an intellectual snob, at least get your facts right", but I'm not so sure about the example he gives.
A few weeks ago Chris Matthews mocked [Michelle] Bachmann for suggesting that most of the Founders were against slavery and that the three-fifths clause in the Constitution was intended to insult black people by calling each one "three-fifths of a human being." As conservatives gleefully pointed out, before it was endorsed by Bachmann, the theory that the Constitution, despite its concessions to the practice, embodies disapproval of slavery was shared by Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The same viewpoint was held by Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, who declared in his "corner-stone" speech of March 21, 1861:

The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.]

I'll try, when I have time, to track down some of the arguments that Lincoln and Douglass thought that the Constitution opposes slavery. I'm skeptical, though, because Stephens doesn't quite seem to be saying that. He thinks that most of the framers thought that slavery was wrong and if left alone would wither away by itself, but he says explicitly that this belief was "not incorporated in the constitution" and that the Constitution "secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last". That doesn't sound to me like a claim that the Constitution "embodies disapproval of slavery." The three-fifths clause was a compromise with Southerners' desire to have their slaves count as full human beings in the census for apportionment purposes while counting as zero for every other purpose; I think someone could oppose that desire, regardless of one's opinion of the morality of slavery, simply because it constituted wanting to have their cake and eat it too. (Should cattle and other property also be counted in the census? The slaveowners claimed that their slaves were chattel, but they still wanted them to be represented in Congress.) If those "gleeful" conservatives' evidence for Lincoln and Douglass's positions is as good as this, then Chris Matthews (no center-leftist, he) should go on poking fun at Michelle Bachmann.

I'll speculate that Lincoln and Douglass might have claimed that the Constitution "embodies disapproval of slavery", if they did so, for the same reason that contemporary Christians assume that Jesus and the Bible, properly interpreted, also agrees with their values -- on slavery, to take an example off the top of my head: to get the support of a sacred authority for their position.

Lind even offers a constructive suggestion:
The center-left needs its own village explainers, with their own charts and their own blackboards. In the plain language used by FDR for his Fireside Chats, they could show how liberalism is rooted in American values and history, instead of being an alien transplant from socialist Europe. They could sketch the relations between today’s radical right, with its loony theories about a Muslim-leftist world revolution, and the similar conspiracy theories of the Liberty Lobby in the 1930s and the John Birch Society in the 1950s. They could put up diagrams on the screen to explain elementary Keynesian concepts and show the need for public spending, or exports, or both to make up for depressed private consumption in a near-depression like the present. They could ...

Oh, never mind. It’s easier to run a clip of Palin, Bachmann or Beck, and then roll your eyes and ask a fellow pundit to join you in snickering at those idiots.
The fault in his concern-trolling is that it's possible to do both. The Nation has a couple of good articles this week on public employees, and one of them argues:

Liberals and progressives don’t understand why, in poll after poll, Americans support Social Security, Medicare and money for their local parks and other services but oppose “big government.” If we want to close the gap in the often bimodal results of polling, we don’t need more polling: we need well-trained and highly skilled organizers who can help facilitate conversations among next-door neighbors and co-workers. We have good “framers.” We have smart policy wonks with big degrees who can write good policy. We have lawyers to defend the policy. And we have no one in any serious way out talking with Americans about this crisis. It’s organizers who help people in large numbers to come to the self-realization that things aren’t working and that it isn’t their fault. Good organizing is really the only way that workers, the unemployed and the poor can overcome the impulse to blame themselves for the crisis they face. Yet liberal foundations often balk at funding such efforts, believing that it won’t add up to policy change and channeling money instead to policy, legal and “communications” work.

Unions and progressives need to return to engaging large numbers of people in one-on-one conversations. Unions should kick-start the campaign by sponsoring and unleashing the biggest Union Summer program of all time and pay student interns, and unemployed rank-and-file workers, to work with union groups and nonunion allies in a mass education campaign that seeks to change the narrative from “We all go down together” to “It’s time to return to the American Dream we all deserve.” Unions must stop pretending to be engaging the base by setting up call centers or buying cellphones for their members. Foundations must stop pretending that unions don’t matter, and that messaging strategies can overcome America’s cultural norms of extreme individualism. Real conversations, where people have a chance to understand the war that is being waged against them and the power they must build, are the only thing that will save us.

I agree: the author is describing the kind of tactics that worked against the antigay Proposition 6 in California in 1978, and might have worked (but weren't deployed) against the antigay Proposition 8 in 2008. The commoditization and professionalization of what should be progressive, even left, organizations appears to be a large part of what has hurt the American left in the past half century or so. Maybe one small step for humanity would be to give up on "foundations" for support of anti-corporate, pro-labor activism.

But never mind! It's so much easier to roll your eyes at the stupidity of the "center-left" than to recognize that they're not quite as out of touch as you'd like to think.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How I Spent My Saturday Night This Time

... working a dance in the dorm cafeteria again. This time it was the spring dance, timed close to Valentine's Day but not officially on that theme. I'm not sure where this year's Japanese motif came from.
The Viennese Ball theme goes back to the early 1980s, if I recall correctly, when a violinist who lived in the dorm organized an orchestra of other music majors to play waltzes for the dancers. It caught on, though for the past several years the orchestra has been made up of players from a local high school.

As always, there was an ice sculpture, made by a firm in Indianapolis, of the dorm's mascot, a gnome.

Things started off slow, as dances tend to do...

I wasn't careful enough, so most of the pictures I took of the dancers were blurred. This is the best of a bad lot, but it gives you some idea of the intended ambience: formal dress, and masks. There were several female couples, some of whom were couple couples if you take my meaning. Several (though not all) of the male-female couples consisted of that classic team, the gay man and the straight woman, while the jockiest looking boys watched from the sidelines guarding their masculinity jealously.

There were no male couples. This bothers me, and if I were forty years younger I'd have tried to find a male date to learn to waltz with me. I like watching men dance together. In the mid-Eighties, a few years after I began working in this dining hall, I went to a party there that exhibited the same pattern: jocks sitting at tables and refusing to dance with anyone, gay men dancing with straight women, women of various sexualities dancing with each other, most straight men dancing with women. Several straight (but non-macho) men invited me to dance; the other gay men wouldn't dance with me, or with each other. Things haven't changed much, even in a notoriously gay-friendly dorm. I wonder why.

The orchestra played for an hour, and then a DJ took over.

At midnight the dance ended, and we cleaned up. We carried what was left of the gnome after five hours of slow melting outside to the cold night, and put everything back into place for the next morning's meal.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Queer Cupids of All Persons


Another centenary I should have brought up was the poet Elizabeth Bishop's, born 8 February 1911. In fact I only took notice of it because of Colm Toibin's essay (partly available online) on Bishop, collected in Love in a Dark Time, a book of essays on homosexuality and art, politics, history; which is shameful of me, because Band of Thebes had already mentioned it.

Bishop is a poet I respect, but I've never really been able to warm to her. Still, whenever someone gooses my memory and I look at her work again, I'm impressed all over again by her craft. PoemHunter.com has a bunch of her poems online, so check some of them out if you're curious. "Love Lies Sleeping", for example, which seems to me to have come out of her experience living in Brazil:
Earliest morning, switching all the tracks
that cross the sky from cinder star to star,
coupling the ends of streets
to trains of light.

now draw us into daylight in our beds;
and clear away what presses on the brain:
put out the neon shapes
that float and swell and glare

down the gray avenue between the eyes
in pinks and yellows, letters and twitching signs.
Hang-over moons, wane, wane!
From the window I see

an immense city, carefully revealed,
made delicate by over-workmanship,
detail upon detail,
cornice upon facade,

reaching up so languidly up into
a weak white sky, it seems to waver there.
She alludes glancingly here to her long relationship with Lota de Maceto Soares, but of course Bishop wasn't openly gay in her lifetime, though her lesbianism was another one of those open secrets. (Or, as Toibin put it about James Baldwin in a fine essay in the same collection, "clearly (as opposed to openly) gay." The first part of the essay on Baldwin is here. And in 2008 Toibin published an essay comparing Baldwin and Barack Obama, which I haven't read but am linking to anyway so I can find it easily when I'm ready.)

But that reminds me of something I need to track down, an article from Christopher Street in the late 1970s, when Bishop was still alive. I think I still have the issue around here somewhere, and I've been meaning for years to find it and reread the piece. It was a review of David Kalstone's Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery (Oxford University Press, 1977), and the reviewer, whose name I don't remember now, pointed out that, like Kalstone himself, four of the five poets the book discusses are gay, a fact that according to the reviewer is never mentioned in the book. (Lowell was odd man out.) An issue or two later there appeared a furious letter to the editor, attacking the reviewer, and declaring that to the letter writer's certain knowledge Miss Bishop was not gay, and that he hoped she would consider libel charges against the reviewer. Not too surprisingly, nothing came of that threat as far as I know.

The letter writer had a point, since when Five Temperaments appeared, only Adrienne Rich had made a public acknowledgment of her lesbianism; given the glacial slowness of scholarly writing and publication, it's possible that she hadn't yet come out when the book went to press. In years to come, Merrill became more open about his own homosexuality, and though Ashbery lagged behind, he now seems to have followed suit. But the letter writer's anger was strange, since he was a well-known openly gay writer himself, and as the reviewer pointed out with amusement in his reply, it seemed odd at best for an out-and-proud gay man to say that it was libelous to declare in a gay periodical that someone was gay, when the intent was obviously not to defame Bishop or the other writers. I suppose that the letter writer was speaking on behalf of Miss Bishop.

Times have changed since then, but homosexuality is still considered an accusation, and even scholarly venues too often try to degay queer artists and other public figures. (Band of Thebes regularly draws attention to these efforts, which is among the reasons I follow that blog.) Bishop died in 1979, soon after this small controversy, and it's interesting to speculate whether she would have stayed closeted or come out. And I know she was using "gay" in the old-fashioned sense in this 1979 "Sonnet", but it's still fun to read it in other senses:
Caught -- the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
undecided.
Freed -- the broken
thermometer's mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

Playing Eleven-Dimensional Football

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the American left, such as it is, isn't doing very well. That's not exactly a new problem, and just why it's so has been much discussed and debated. I don't have the answer myself, and maybe the disturbing stuff I've been noticing lately isn't representative.

One problem is trying to figure out who is the American left; American leftists spend a lot of time and energy attacking each others' credentials, so one easy way out would be simply to say that the writers I'm going to criticize here aren't True Leftists. It's too reminiscent of Christian anathemas for comfort, though also a reminder that getting rid of religion doesn't automatically get rid of the misbehavior associated with religion: unbelievers just start doing the same nasty things in the name of History, or the People, or whatever. So I'm not going to worry about who's really a leftist and who's not. I'm not even interested in whether I'm a leftist, which I have from time to time been told I'm not. Maybe I'm really a rightist who believes that wealth should be redistributed downward. (And maybe I'm really a heterosexual who sucks a lot of dick.)

Anyway. What got me onto this topic was a post at The Distant Ocean last Sunday, a blog I've often found useful but often criticized. Yes, it was the night of the Heterosexual Oscars, and John Caruso was teed off because some guy posted a long article at Common Dreams dissing the Superbowl.
Robert Lipsyte, still bitter all these years later over the "high school jocks" who "shouldered him in the halls", decides to take a ride on the reliable left hobby horse of football bashing. It's a by-the-numbers bit of doctrinaire liberal cultural analysis that hits all the points you'd expect to see: vicarious proxy war, sexism, testosterone, soccer rejectionism (which he somehow fails to link explicitly to homophobia, though the subtext is certainly there), and even dog fighting to give the whole exercise some currency. ...
Funny thing, though: neither the commenter nor Caruso shows where anything Lipsyte said about football or the Superbowl was wrong; they were just complaining about his tone. It's exactly what a lot of liberals say about Noam Chomsky (also notorious in certain circles for failing to genuflect before commercial sport, unlike the butch Ralph Nader): he's so humorless, so bitter, so harsh, so elitist, so sure he's right and everybody else is wrong. Yet Caruso, so far, remains a fan of Chomsky, who's been under attack from other leftists again lately. Which isn't to say that Chomsky (or anyone else) is above criticism, but criticism should be halfway intelligent.
Lipsyte ... predictably misses the single most important one: that football is an interesting game to watch, in many ways and on many levels.

I won't go through all of those, but I do want to point out one that I haven't often seen mentioned: despite its reputation among people who don't know any better, football is a thinking person's game. It's deep and strategically complex, on offense and defense. I've always described it as the chess of mainstream sports (compared to the checkers of baseball or the tic-tac-toe of basketball). It takes years to fully appreciate everything that's going on during any given play of a game, and even after you've spent years watching it you can't really take in every aspect of every play. At any given time I might be paying attention to the line, or the secondary, or the backs, or the receivers (and even that just scratches the surface, since within those divisions I might be watching the safeties or the defensive backs, the running backs or the tight ends, etc). Or I might follow something else entirely, or take it in as a whole instead of focusing on any of the parts. ...
Pull the other one, why don't you? Sure, intellectuals can find pretty patterns while watching American football, as some of them have done with boxing and other sports. I don't find any of it convincing, but what matters is that none of this addresses what Lipsyte actually said.
I don't begrudge a person hating football for any number of reasons, even as I feel sorry for anyone who can't appreciate the unique beauty of a perfectly-thrown spiral perfectly caught. I watch much less of it than I did as a kid, actually, and I agree with a lot of the criticism I've read of football in particular and professional sports in general (and I've got plenty of my own gripes). But the notion that disliking football is some badge of ideological purity, and the particular brand of condescending dimestore psychologizing you see in the annual spate of Super Bowl-bashing exercises like Lipsyte's, are just the kinds of things that push people away from the left.
It's really generous of Caruso to pity me and others like me who don't enjoy watching football. (Sarcasm alert! for the irony-impaired.) But I don't really feel that I'm missing anything, any more than I feel that my failure as a connoisseur of opera, cheeses, or fine wines is a disability. Or cricket -- the list of things I don't love, but other people do, is probably as long as yours. And talk about "self-congratulatory disdain," the kind of patronizing toadying to Joe Sixpack that Caruso indulged in that post is the sincerest form of contempt.

Caruso also quotes a commenter on Lipsyte's article (no permalink, posted by lhhj
2011-02-06 12:24; bold type is Caruso's):
I do not particularly identify with pro football fans and, yes, we all understand the bread-and-circus-excessive-violence-late-empire aspect of the spectacle. The problem with this essay, however, is not so much its thesis, but rather its tone of self-congratulatory disdain for all those presumably insecure, threatened, and really rather stupid, macho American men out there who channel their insecurity into football. One paintbrush. Maybe many of these guys can still find some beauty and grace in the game. If so, then fine. But I also believe that the air of smirking cultural contempt expressed in parts of this essay is a real problem for the left and has been for quite a while.
It's also true, the left in America has often been at odds with commercial entertainment (which is what pro sport is), often for good enough reasons. Nowadays we tend to forget that well into the 60s the American left was bitterly hostile to pop music, including rock'n'roll, preferring the purity of traditional folk ballads and blues. That was the environment that nurtured Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and other protest singers of the period, until Dylan kicked over the traces and electrified. None of which in any way invalidated the criticisms of the entertainment business as business, the relentless dumbing-down of popular arts by commercial (and later corporate) interests that continues with a vengeance to this day.

I just reread Lipsyte's post again, and I don't find "the notion that disliking football is some badge of ideological purity" or an "air of smirking contempt" in it, though I find plenty of both in Caruso's post. (Maybe in some of the commenters.) That might just be my own blind spot, so you should read it yourself if you care. And Caruso admits that "I agree with a lot of the criticism I've read of football in particular and professional sports in general (and I've got plenty of my own gripes)." So what is the beef? If you don't like Lipsyte, read Dave Zirin for a left, antiracist, anti-imperialist critique of sport as we know it today.

I've said my say about the Superbowl, the World Cup, and competition generally in these precincts. There are many people I like and respect who feel differently, and while I occasionally challenge their adoration of this team or that, it doesn't strike me as terrifically important. I don't say that people shouldn't enjoy football or other sports; I only say that if they want respect for their pleasures, they should respect those of others. And if they claim to have a larger worldview, one that takes in not only pro sports but social justice around the world, they need to attend to the same kinds of analysis and criticism that Caruso said "push people away from the left." No, it's not the tone; it's the substance.

Caruso's tone, though, could use some work. He begins his post by jeering that Lipsyte is "still bitter all these years later over the 'high school jocks' who 'shouldered him in the halls'", as if that weren't a good reason to be bitter. As it happens, though, Lipsyte didn't say that he was shouldered in the halls by high school jocks, but Caruso puts those words in quotes as though he did. Lipsyte was addressing readers who might have received such treatment. For the record, I never was shouldered in the halls. I just never found football, or any other sport, worth paying attention to.

"Shouldered" is the least of it, though, since high school jocks often go further than that with impunity. (By the way, did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?) That's a problem that needs to be dealt with, not jeered at. On the other hand, Robert Lipsyte is a sportswriter himself, and I wouldn't assume that he doesn't enjoy football or other sports. (Reading Susan Cayleff's biography of Babe Didrikson Zaharias reminded me just how bad most sports journalism traditionally is, however, especially the egregious Paul Gallico. It's one of the things that helps to keep me off sports.)

I don't enjoy sports, though. I don't have to try to learn to like them so that I can be a normal guy. Normality is, how you say, overrated. Nor do I have to pretend to like them so I can reach out to the Ignorant Masses; that sort of condescension has always alienated people. If I have any place in an American left (and I think I do), it has to be as myself, and I don't expect everyone else to make themselves over in my image either. Clearly there has to be a lot more thinking about this. Blaming a post at a liberal blog that most Middle Americans are never going to read is not a good way to start.

Caruso's post reeked of the same attitude that I find so winning in Barack Obama's attacks on the "professional left" (sometimes made through his lackeys, of course, but they're his), and probably for similar reasons. This isn't limited to Caruso, of course, or like so many other things I take on in this blog it wouldn't be worth writing about. Certain persons on the left have long said very similar things. Some of them were dreaming about former days, when burly workers struck against the bosses, when Woody Guthrie wrote "This machine kills fascists" on his guitar, when Leadbelly had to perform for white audiences in bib overalls so he'd seem Authentic. (For black audiences, like most bluesmen he wore a suit.) The left in America has often been in crisis, much like American manhood come to think of it, and it seems that every blow it has taken in the past thirty years has made things worse: the election of Ronald Reagan, the installation of George W. Bush, the election of Barack Obama, Republican victories in the 2010 midterms.

Now, I'm not saying that all these things haven't bothered me too. I know that writing a blog isn't political activism, but I confess I don't know where to find a Left I want to join. If it's going to be self-righteously racist, misogynist, and homophobic, I'm going to have to attack it as much as I attack the Right.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Every One That Doeth Evil Hateth the Light

It's great news that Hosni Mubarak has resigned, after balking yesterday. The courage of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who kept up the pressure on him, in the face of attacks by his thugs, should be celebrated now and for years to come. We Americans should heap shame on President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton for supporting Mubarak as long as they did. They'll try to take credit for his resignation, but they should be jeered at when they do. It wasn't their doing. If it had been up to them, Mubarak would still be in power.

The US right has been tying itself into knots on this matter for the past couple of weeks. On the one hand, the fall of Ben Ali and now of Mubarak echoed the "Arab spring" that flowered briefly in 2005 under Dubya, and some on the Right attacked Obama for not putting more on pressure on Mubarak, even though Bush abandoned his support for democracy in the Arab/Muslim world almost immediately. The 2006 victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections may have been one factor, but Bush had no serious interest in Middle Eastern democracy anyway. Will the US Right give Obama the credit for Mubarak's resignation? Of course not. On the other and dominant hand, the US Right warned that Obama wasn't supporting Mubarak enough, that Mubarak would be replaced by a jihadist Sharia Muslim Brotherhood tyranny. (The wrong kind of tyranny, of course: a stable pro-Western, pro-Israel tyranny, a destination for American extraordinary renditions, torturing on demand, is just fine.)

That being said upfront, I'm wary of getting too excited. The Egyptians should be proud, but for me there are memories of (among other things) the exultation that followed the election of Obama in the US. Bush was gone! Democracy would flow down from above like a river from the mountain springs! The People had spoken! The downfall of Mubarak is great news, but by itself it means little, especially since Mubarak designated his successor, a blood-soaked torturer with no more interest in democracy than Mubarak has. Omar Suleiman has announced that the Supreme Military Council will be in charge now, and that's not a hopeful sign, especially since the Egyptian military is a prime beneficiary of American "aid."

It's a safe bet that (among others) the US, Israel, and entrenched interests in the upper strata of Egyptian society will be doing their best to ensure that change in Egypt is limited, hobbled, and strangled in the cradle. And these elements have an important advantage over those who want democracy: anti-democratic forces can work in private, in secret, because while of course the People are the court of last resort, they just don't understand the necessary compromises that need to be made in a free society to make things go forward. The demonstrators in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt who brought Mubarak down worked in the open, before the eyes of the world. Those who aim to undo what they achieved not only prefer secrecy, they need it to do their dirty work. I'm sure most Egyptians understand this; I hope they can find ways to frustrate it.

P.S. Ashraf Khalil's summing-up here says it better than I can.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Trouble with Normal

The BBC opened a story on "Egyptian unrest" with this rider:
Egypt is increasing pay and pensions for public-sector workers by 15% as protesters defy attempts to return the country to normality.
I know there are various possible meanings for "normality" here that don't miss the point. But normality, Egyptian-style, is exactly what the protests opposed: a corrupt, violent, repressive state, with a crumbling economy. Of course a return to that normality is exactly what Mubarak, Obama, Clinton (whose envoy to Egypt works for Mubarak) and Netanyahu (among others) want to see.

Mark Mardell, the Beeb's North American editor, spells it out:
What US policymakers want amounts to the current Egyptian government's pro-Western policy, plus democratic legitimacy, plus stability. They believe for that to happen, peace on the streets is essential and serious negotiations about the path to elections are vital.
What the US wants is change without change, in other words: a veneer of "democratic legitimacy" plus "stability," plus Mubarak's collaboration with the US and Israel. What the Egyptian people want is another matter, of little interest to the US. None of this is at all surprising, of course. It's exactly what I'd expect. But it's charming to see it said so openly and unself-consciously.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Good Ol' Gal From Beaumont, Texas

There are other centenaries coming up this year, and I find it more interesting to contemplate the hundredth birthday of Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, coming up on June 26, than Ronald Reagan's today. (What a coincidence that it's also the day of the Heterosexual Oscars. Did they do that on purpose?)

I just finished reading Susan E. Cayleff's 1995 biography Babe (University of Illinois Press), which is sloppily written but well-researched, drawing on interviews with surviving members of Zaharias's family, her friends, her competitors, and especially Betty Dodd, the younger golfer who was Zaharias's intimate during her battle with cancer. It's been widely speculated that Zaharias and Dodd were lovers, but Dodd didn't come out to Cayleff, and we'll probably never know unless Don Van Natta Jr.'s forthcoming biography Wonder Girl, scheduled for publication by Little, Brown this June, has more dish. Not that it matters, because Cayleff did establish that the two women loved each other, and Zaharias relied on Dodd so much that her husband George, jealous as he was, didn't dare to try to get rid of her (see especially page 213).

Even to someone like me who doesn't care about sports, Zaharias was amazing. A versatile athlete, she came blazing out of Texas to spectacular victories in numerous track-and-field events at the 1932 Olympics, finally settling on golf as a sport where she could hope to earn a living. She and the pro wrestler George Zaharias met and fell in love, and he became her manager as well as her husband. Cayleff prints a studio portrait of George "in his wrestling prime," when he was a great beauty; but before long he ballooned to 400 pounds, and kept Babe on the road while he drove off to tend to other "business", some of which may actually have been business. Before long Babe was wisecracking, "When I married George Zaharias he weighed 250 pounds and looked like a Greek god. Now he weighs 400 and looks like a gawddamned Greek" (Cayleff, 198). He was gross enough to embarrass even the uncouth Babe, which took some doing. (In fairness to George, though, Babe in the same period metamorphosed from a young k.d. lang to Mammy Yokum.)

Cayleff does a good job on the pressures female athletes faced (and still face) to feminize and heterosexualize themselves, and shows how Zaharias resisted even as she conformed. Born to immigrant Norwegian parents in Texas, she was always a tomboy, loud, competitive, money-hungry, gregarious, and eager for the spotlight. (Typically for her background and era, she was also racist and anti-Semitic, according to Cayleff.) Cayleff is good on the subject of class, too. Zaharias didn't have any, which not unreasonably irked more ladylike and image-conscious female athletes. Like Muhammad Ali decades later, she enjoyed bragging about how good she was, and like him, she made good on her boasts. And although her tombstone quotes her saying the old saw that what matters isn't whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game, in reality (like Tiger Woods decades later) her motto was "I don't see any point in playing the game if you don't win, do you?" (Cayleff, 266). When she got a part in the 1952 Hepburn-Tracy vehicle Pat and Mike, Zaharias insisted that the script be rewritten so that her character beat Hepburn's.

She loved the press and quickly learned how to use it to keep herself in the public eye, and the public loved her. Like many high-achieving women of her generation, she was no feminist -- was anti-feminist in fact -- and was ambivalent about being a role model for younger women athletes even as her own celebrity and achievement opened doors for them.

When she came down with colon cancer in 1953, though, she used her visibility against the stigma cancer had in those days, not only raising money for research and treatment but encouraging other patients face-to-face every chance she got. To me that is the real deal, the kind of courage and determination that really matters.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Those Who Can, Do; Those Who Can't, Write for NRO

Speaking of RWA1, he just linked to a collection of "impromptus" by Jay Nordlinger, one of the National Review's roster of online bloviators. "Nordlinger's is a mind worth spending some time with," RWA1 allowed, "especially on music, but also on other matters." An opening snippet was included:
I’ve noticed something the last few days — something that gives us a human lesson, I think: Those who know the most about the Middle East are saying the least, when it comes to the turmoil in Egypt.
So I clicked through. Here's one of Nordlinger's humble, modest impromptus:
The cynical position is the easiest one: “Oh, nothing good will come of the unrest in Egypt. It all leads straight down the tubes” — which it may. But maybe not. And can’t any pleasure be taken in the fact that millions of people have at last lost their fear? Are publicly expressing, for the first time in their lives, that they wish a better, freer, more decent life? Are saying that they want the kind of life that you and I may take for granted? A life in which one can work and worship and marry and raise children? A life in which one can voice concerns about government and society without having to worry about a midnight knock on the door?

Very, very few people wish to live in a police state. I think that can be said.

So far I've only seen what Nordlinger calls a "cynical position" expressed by commentators on the right, in the US. On the left we are taking quite a bit of pleasure in the fact that millions of people have at last lost their fear. It's the conservatives who've been warning us that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over if Mubarak blinks even once, and then there'll be Sharia Law and Jeeehaaaaadddd!

Another one:

Beware those who seek the “fundamental transformation” of the United States and are absolutely sure they know what they’re talking about. Are absolutely sure of what will follow the fundamental transformation they effect.

Again, this describes the Tea Party right better than it describes the Democratic Party. (Yes, it does describe some of the left.) But it's "liberal Democrats" Nordlinger is referring to.

Finally:
The State Department, you may have heard, has upgraded the PLO mission in Washington from a “bureau” to a “general delegation.” This affords the PLO boys diplomatic immunity. It also allows them to fly the PLO flag — which they have. Rep. Allen West, the freshman Republican from Florida, pointed out that Taiwan does not have this privilege. “By allowing this flag to be flown, the United States is extending a diplomatic right that we refrain from offering to even our own allies, like Taiwan.”

Maybe if the Taiwanese tried terrorism?

Cute. But the PLO, now known as the Palestinian Authority, won this privilege not through "terrorism" but by knuckling under to US and Israeli demands. Perhaps Nordlinger has trouble distinguishing between the PA and Hamas ... And come to think of it, there seems to be an inconsistency here. If having a "general delegation" allows the delegates diplomatic immunity and the right to fly their flag, then there must be quite a few allies with that status in Washington. Britain, for example, or Germany. Even Egypt. (I presume flying the flag means "in Washington DC"; even Nordlinger and Representative Freshman would allow our allies to fly their own flags in their own countries -- wouldn't they?) The status of Taiwan is vexed, of course, but Nordlinger and West are being disingenuous.

Extra bonus round:
In the months following 9/11, some conservatives said, “The Left is joining hands with radical Islam. They will work against Western civilization together.” I thought this seemed a little extreme. But some of the conservatives made a good case. And, over the decade, the evidence has burgeoned. ...

Now, you can understand how the Left gets peeved when you say that many of their number are allied with radical Islam. Yet — ... What do you do with Cynthia McKinney when she appears on al-Jazeera wearing an Islamic headdress? I think we can say that, where the anti-Western energy goes, there goes the Left. So it was with Communism. So it is now.
First: "Islam" does not equal "radical Islam." I don't know what McKinney intends to signify by wearing an "Islamic headress" on al-Jazeera, but it certainly doesn't automatically mean jihad. Al-Jazeera doesn't equal "radical Islam" either. Second: Nordlinger provides no actual examples of the 'burgeoning' evidence for the Left's joining hands with "radical Islam" since September 11. The evidence for the Right's interest in radical Islam is rather better, from the Bush crime family's connections to the House of Saud to the Reagan administration's support for Islamists in Afghanistan to Dinesh D'Souza and others who have sympathized, and indeed joined, with supposed Islamist critiques of American decadence. To say nothing of Bush II's use of the Islamist Northern Alliance in his Holy War against the Taliban.

Yes, "disingenuous" is the kindest word I can use for Nordlinger. His is a mind worth spending some time with, but only long enough to ascertain that he's a fatuous, complacent hack.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Where on earth did this week go to? I know that Thursday night I went to a friend's birthday party, and Wednesday night was busy for some other reason. And the world just seems overwhelming lately.

I haven't written about the protests in Egypt, because while I support them I'm not knowledgeable enough to say anything useful about them. (Yeah, like that's ever stopped me before...) I'd hope that the people who read this blog know where to look for information, but if not, try Democracy Now!'s coverage, or the liveblogging by the blogger at Moon of Alabama (CORRECTION: not Billmon, as I mistakenly wrote before -- sorry for the mistake), or articles by an old friend of mine, an Egyptian-American journalist who's been in the thick of things in Tahrir Square. (I've seen the weird phrase "pro-Mubarak supporters" in more than one US news article; aside from being redundant, it covers up the fact that the "supporters" are mostly thugs and plainclothes police in Mubarak's pay -- which doesn't exclude their being "supporters", but suggests a false equivalence between them and the anti-Mubarak protesters.) Ash, who's the source for the photo above, has apparently been heard on NPR and the BBC, along with other people who actually know what they're talking about, a big improvement on the usual malignly ignorant talking heads.

And that's not including such purely malign figures as President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, who'd be hard to keep out of the media in any case. It appears that the "reform" we're supposedly seeing now is a typical change-without-change: Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's new vice president, has a long history as torturer-for-hire.

The FAIR blog, as usual, has been critiquing the corporate media coverage, such as the noteworthy but unsurprising agreement between "conservative" pundits like Charles Krauthammer and "liberal" ones like Joe Klein that democracy isn't for Mooslims. (At least not until they've been invaded and occupied by the US, I suppose.)

Which reminds me that my right-wing Facebook friends have been surprisingly quiet about the Egyptian uprising. RWA2 posted a quotation from Admiral Dama of Battleship Galactica (I had to ask for the source): "There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people." I pointed out that in Egypt, it's the military that had been siding with the people, however uncharacteristically, and the police that sent in thugs and agents provocateurs to attack the demonstrators. Plus, of course, the US has traditionally preferred to blur the distinction between the police and the army in our client countries, arming and training both. No further exchange ensued, or I'd have asked why a self-styled libertarian likes a statist like General Dama: the army "fights the enemies of the state"? Doesn't the army supposedly defend the people against those who would attack and enslave them? Someone's got his propaganda all garbled.

RWA1 has also been relatively taciturn on the Egyptian protests. At first he stuck with links to relatively noncommittal stuff like this reassuring piece by Robert Kaplan (The protests "are not about the existential plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation; nor are they at least overtly anti-Western or even anti-American. The demonstrators have directed their ire against unemployment, tyranny, and the general lack of dignity and justice in their own societies.") and this fatuous piece from National Review Online which claimed that it's all about Demographics: Then he recommended an op-ed from the Philly Inquirer which called on the Obama administration to "get on the right side in Egypt", but that couldn't last; next he recommended this article by a stupid and vicious Tory from the Telegraph which blames TV and "Muslim extremists" in England for the protests in Tunisia and Egypt: "The Iranian Revolution of 1979 began with the overthrow of an unpopular autocrat and ended with the triumph of a murderous theocrat." That "unpopular autocrat" was also murderous, but that can conveniently be forgotten. RWA1's thrashing about on the issues is all too typical of right-thinking educated Americans, of course, which is why I'm talking about it here.

Myself, I approve of the demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere, because I think that people should have as much control as possible over their governments -- that governments should be accountable to their people. The whole point of US and Israeli support for Mubarak has been to have an Egyptian government that is not accountable to its people. It's tempting to say that the US should simply butt out of Egyptian politics, but I'm not sure that's possible: there will be plenty of other outside forces butting in, so the question is whether we can butt in intelligently (as hilarious as the idea is, given our track record). Another Facebook friend linked to this very sensible blog post from a couple of days ago.
If the people go home now, there will be a few days of relief and peace. Those who only want stability at any cost will be appeased. The U.S. government and the American media will report it as a victory for Egyptian democracy, because Mubarak has agreed to step down in the fall and the protesters have "agreed" (by virtue of going home). There will be a respite of a week or two, and the story will fade from the international news.

Then it will begin. Mubarak's security team will start combing the videos that have been uploaded over the past week, making notes of names and faces. They will obtain phone and internet records. They will start tapping phones and monitoring Facebook. (In the U.S. the word "Facebook" means "ha ha I spend too much time here omg I should be studying"; in Egypt it means that too, but is also a way to organize politically in a country where there is no right to assemble.)

And so on; the whole post is worth reading. Constructing a democratic Egypt will not be easy because of the repressive state apparatus that has been in place for more than thirty years, with US and other outside support. You don't dismantle all those institutions simply by getting rid of the guy at the top, if only because not even the most brutal tyrant or absolute monarch rules alone. It's a popular mainstream US trope to excuse our support of repressive regimes by saying that there are no local institutions of self-government there; to the extent that it's true, it's because such local institutions have been stamped out before they could become effective. Which is not accidental, despite the equally popular imperial lament of Joe Klein (via), "How on earth do we get saddled with such creepy clients as Karzai and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, over and over again?" We don't "get saddled with" them, we choose them, over and over again, because only corrupt tyrants will let themselves be bought by outsiders. And it isn't "we" (viz., Americans) who are saddled with them, it's them -- you know, the faceless huddled masses of Afghanistan and Egypt.

This is not to say, as the blogger I just quoted wrote in another post, that "the U.S. hates democracy for its own sake." The blogger attributes this idea to a "forty-year-old analysis" of unnamed "progressives"; I think it's a straw man, because 1) I can't remember ever having seen any progressive or left analyst say such a thing and 2) this is a common accusation made against left critics of the US imperium -- that we think the US is responsible for all the bad things that happen in the world, and so on. If we can get democracies that will go along with us, we will let them survive. "The United States government would support a stuffed rabbit or Paris Hilton if it meant making the Arab world safe for economic investment and keeping the Suez Canal open," the blogger says. Exactly what people like Noam Chomsky have been saying for decades. But unfortunately, cheap docile labor and other perks of a welcoming investment climate are hard to square with local governments that are accountable to their people. That, and not some metaphysical hatred of democracy, is the reason for the ongoing US discomfort with democracy, abroad and at home. It's because capitalism (whether nominally private or public -- it doesn't make much difference in practice) is incompatible with democracy.