Saturday, July 30, 2011

On the Home Front

I haven't been writing enough about Korea, though Koreans have many of the same problems Americans do: a plutocratic ruling class that continues to grab more power and money, and very destructive bad weather. The cartoon above contrasts the concentration of wealth that results from construction of high-rise apartment buildings in Seoul with the losses in basement apartments caused by the recent flooding.
Tenants who usually live in half basement apartments and residents in vinyl houses incur significantly greater amounts of flood [damage], but they have been excluded from receiving compensation from the government.
According to the Hankyoreh, fifty-nine people have died in Seoul as a result of this week's massive rainstorms and mudslides, with more rain to come. There's also concern about landmines still in place since the 1960s (to deter North Korean infiltrators), which may be exposed or detonated by heavy rain. My friends over there are okay, but many people aren't.

Friday, July 29, 2011

You Say Tomato, I Say Tomahto


(via)

Something that has occurred to me often when I've observed administrators talking to the proles about policy and long-term finance: either they are lying, in which case they shouldn't be in charge, or they don't know what they're talking about, in which case they're incompetent and shouldn't be in charge.

(P.S. Much as I enjoyed, and agreed with, the economist in the clip above, I was even more tickled by both speakers' careful, anxious tiptoeing around the racial politics in the scene they quote from Blazing Saddles. Though many Obama fans would like to think otherwise, however, Barack Obama is no Sheriff Bart.)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Significant Organizational Weakness

It's always bitterly funny when you see something like this:
Clearly these are horrific attacks, but they can also be interpreted as a significant organizational weakness on the part of the adversary.
That's Ryan Crocker, US Ambassador to Afghanistan, commenting on the assassination of the mayor of Kandahar by a suicide bomber on Wednesday. Like so many people with no sense of irony, he seemed unaware that his remark applies just as much to the United States, which has openly embraced assassination as a tactic against its enemies.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Way of a Man With a Lad ...

There are three things too wondrous for me, yea, four things which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way people keep talking about homosexuality as an "identity," though they have no idea what an identity is. Or homosexuality, for that matter.

I've just begun reading the new, uncensored, annotated edition of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, published this year by Harvard University Press. The editor, Nicholas Frankel, has gone back to the magazine publication and Wilde's typescript, which apparently contain more obviously homoerotic content than the book version. That should be interesting, since even some very sensible queer scholars have doubted that Wilde intended sodomitical interpretations of his characters.

But so far I'm still in the introductory material, and damned if Frankel didn't put his foot in it almost immediately. From page 7:
It is worth bearing in mind, however, that in the Victorian era, sexual preference was less clearly seen as an identity; indeed, the word homosexual did not enter the English language until 1892, when it was used adjectivally in a translation of Richard Krafft-Ebing’s book Psychopathia Sexualis (it was first used as a noun in 1912). Wilde and the other men who participated in London’s homosexual subculture, many of them leading secret double lives, would have been viewed by the majority not as homosexuals per se but as men indulging in “unclean” vices. Even so, homosexual acts were generally considered repugnant and deviant – and for the first time, with the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, sexual activities of any nature between men were not merely sinful but unlawful. (The criminalization of homosexuality and the example of Wilde’s life and work are widely credited with instating homosexuality as a distinct sexual and social identity.)
Here we have the usual confused and contradictory thrashing around. If it is so significant that "the word homosexual did not enter the English language until 1892," if it marks some kind of sociocultural watershed, how could London have had a "homosexual subculture" before 1892? How could "homosexual acts" be considered repugnant if they didn't exist before they bore that name, and how could "homosexuality" be criminalized by a law passed seven years before the word entered the language?

Yes, I'm being deliberately pedantic here, but I think it's justified. If "homosexual" uniquely denotes "identity" (a word that neither Frankel nor most other scholars who use it bother to define), it can't be applied to anything that occurred or existed before it passed into the language. It would also be nice if someone explained how the advent of the word "homosexual" magically produced "homosexual identity." As I've said before, talk like this is generally based on a misreading of Michel Foucault, and is more of a genuflection to his influence than a well-founded historical statement.

And no, I'm not being too hard on Frankel. Look again at the latter part of the quotation above:
... for the first time, with the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, sexual activities of any nature between men were not merely sinful but unlawful. (The criminalization of homosexuality and the example of Wilde’s life and work are widely credited with instating homosexuality as a distinct sexual and social identity.)
This is clumsily written, but on its face it's false. What changed with the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 (often called the Labouchere Amendment after the Member of Parliament who introduced it) was that a wider range of genital contact between males became unlawful. Henry VIII's statute made "Buggery either with Mankind or with any Animal" a capital crime; there wasn't absolute agreement as to what constituted buggery, whether it extended to oral-genital contact or was limited to anal penetration -- the law required proof of penetration, and was generally interpreted to refer to the latter. The death penalty was abolished for most crimes in 1828. (I'm drawing here on H. Montgomery Hyde's The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name: A Candid Look at Homosexuality in Britain [Little, Brown, 1970], pages 91-93 and 134-136.) If by "homosexuality" Frankel means "sexual relations between males," then homosexuality had been criminalized centuries before Labouchere; if he means "acts labeled 'homosexual,'" then Labouchere didn't even touch on them.

It can be, and has been, argued that buggery doesn't equal "homosexuality," so under that rather strained interpretation "homosexuality" wasn't criminalized before the Labouchere Amendment. But it it wasn't criminalized after it, either: what the Amendment criminalized were acts, however vaguely specified, not identities. And so matters remained as far as the law was concerned: the "sodomy" laws overturned by the US Supreme Court in 2003 also were about acts, not identities. Most of these laws penalized sodomy between males and females, as well as between males, so they didn't criminalize homosexuality either.

Besides, "bugger" is also an identity. I think it was in a biography of Virginia Woolf that I read that when she began meeting her brother's male friends who loved other males, she had to learn to refer to them as "buggers," not "sods." Despite their bugger identity, several of them married and sired children; despite their heterosexual marriages, most of these men continued having it off with other men. Probably "sodomite" had functioned as an identity long before that, as Mark Jordan suggested in his The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago, 1997).

Nor is it clear what homosexual or gay "identity" means today, or why it matters. That's what bothers me about discussions like Frankel's: there doesn't seem to be any point in invoking identity here. It doesn't explain anything, and it doesn't make much sense.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Follow the Money

One of my Facebook friends, a fellow blogger, posted a link today to this article from the Fiscal Times, "Why Taxpayers Are So Angry and So Wrong About Spending." The author, Mark Thoma, begins:
Republicans, emboldened by public support for spending cuts, have taken the country to the brink of default as they fight to dial back government programs and vehemently oppose any tax increases to attack the deficit. But is the fight over the debt ceiling really an ideological battle between the two parties over the size and role of government? Or is a lot of the public support for GOP positions driven by myopia about entitlement spending and misplaced public anger?
I immediately wondered about this. From what I've seen, polls show that most Americans vehemently support tax increases (for the rich, anyway), and do not support the Republican / Obama program of cutting government programs that help ordinary Americans. So I clicked through that first link, which took me to a Gallup Poll report on the debt ceiling, which not only didn't mention tax increases but explained, "The question wording did not mention the rationales for or against raising the debt ceiling, nor did it explain that any such move would ultimately be a part of a broader budget bill involving spending cuts and perhaps tax increases."

Next I did some digging to see what polling on taxes showed. This FAIR blog post pointed out that in the political mainstream, "raising taxes on the wealthy is considered a non-starter--even though most Americans would support it." As evidence, two links: one to a Reuters poll which found that 12% of respondents favored tax increases to reduce the deficit, and 56% favored a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, for a total of 68% who were willing to increase taxes, with only 19% favoring only spending cuts. A Pew poll came up with exactly the same numbers.

The second link was to a Bloomberg article which begins:
Americans want Congress to bring down a federal budget deficit that many believe is “dangerously out of control,” only under two conditions: minimize the pain and make the rich pay.

That aversion to sacrifice is at odds with a spate of recent studies, including one by President Barack Obama’s debt panel, that say reductions in Medicare, Social Security, military and other spending are necessary to curb a deficit that totaled $1.29 trillion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, or 9 percent of the gross domestic product.
Of course that debt panel was packed with men whose biases toward cutting social programs was well-documented before they began their "study."

The article goes on to cite polling data and interviews. Some of the poll results are surprising at first glance, but maybe not so much when you think about it. It turns out that it's at best a half-truth even to say that "Republicans ... vehemently oppose tax increases to attack the deficit." For example,

While Republican congressional leaders have opposed increases in taxes paid by high-income families, sentiment among the party’s rank and file is mixed. Republicans are divided on eliminating the tax cuts for the wealthy, with 50 percent opposing and 47 percent supporting. An increase in the cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes splits Republicans almost evenly.

The poll shows there’s little appetite across all parties and demographic groups for changes to entitlements.

Eighty-two percent of respondents opposed benefit cuts to the Medicare health-insurance system for the elderly, with about half of Republicans wanting to see both the current Medicare and Social Security systems preserved. Just 35 percent of all respondents back a system in which government vouchers would help people pay for their own health insurance.

“Nobody wants to fail to take care of children who need medicine or the elderly,” said Tea Party supporter Randy Thorman, 45, a high school social studies teacher in Pryor, Oklahoma. “We don’t want to throw people out without some type of help.”...

Cathy Freeman, a 64-year-old Republican and retired bookkeeper from Waco, Texas, said the deficit should be addressed by ending tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, not slashing the entitlement programs her family relies on.

“We need to look at that before you start hurting the little guys,” Freeman said. “Let’s look at some things that aren’t fair in our system.”

A majority of 72 percent also opposes reducing benefits for the Medicaid health program for the poor. This is true even of Tea Party supporters who have built a movement around smaller government, with 66 percent against reducing Medicaid benefits. Seventy-two percent of those earning $100,000 or more also are opposed.

And so on. I should mention that Thoma's article turned out not to be quite as bad as I thought: he favors social spending and professes himself disappointed by Obama's failure to be the progressive Thoma had hoped for when he was elected. The trouble is that Thoma has bought into the corporate media line that most Americans support the Republican program. A much more accurate headline would be something like "Why Republican and Media Elites Are So Angry and So Wrong About Spending." But that wouldn't be news, I guess.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy

What I wanted to write about, though, was a disturbing article I read this weekend, which reminded me how much many adults hate children. Of course, it was published on the site of Family Circle, "Where Family Comes First."

The article, entitled "Not Every Kid Deserves a Prize", was remarkable for its meanspiritedness. The author, Karin Fuller, writes about the trophy her daughter was awarded, at the age of eight, for playing soccer:
She didn't deserve it. Nor did she want it. At 8 years old, she hated soccer. She hated the uncomfortable shin guards, the itchy socks, the boring black cleats.

She disliked practice and she passionately, fervently, detested the actual games. Still, for completing the season, the team wanted to give her a trophy. I couldn't understand why. In my mind, if you start something, you finish it. And that gets an "atta girl"—not a trophy.

I wonder if Fuller always finishes everything she starts. I certainly can't see any reason why anyone, adult or child, should stick with something she so passionately hates, for no reason other than having started it. (And whose idea was it to start her playing soccer in the first place, I wonder?) It's one thing to tell a kid that she has to go on taking care of the pet she begged for, because the pet needs care. But why stick with an activity that no one depends on, and that you're not contributing anything to? I doubt that her absence from the team, had she quit, would have hurt anybody. I also can't see why her daughter should have received an "atta girl," any more than a trophy, just for finishing something; by Fuller's standards, even that seems like a sop to her self-esteem.

But Fuller's got more nifty examples.

I recently overheard a waiting-room conversation between two mothers. One complained her son wasn't allowed on a field trip reserved "unfairly" for high-achievers. She admitted her son had made little effort to earn his spot, but in her eyes, it was unreasonable to reward some kids and not others. The second mother was upset because her son had received a failing grade for repeatedly falling asleep in class. "It's not fair," she said. "He turned in most of his homework assignments."

Let me see if I've got this right: Kids who don't try should get the same benefits as those who do? And completing most of the assignments should discount that sleeping-in-class thing? Are we so obsessed with fairness that we raise children to believe everyone should be treated the same, regardless of effort or skill?

Let me see if I've got this right. A kid who repeatedly falls asleep in class is nothing to get concerned about -- I suppose he's just doing it to annoy the teacher (and Karin Fuller), because he knows it teases. If he still does his homework, he isn't trying. As for that field trip, why is it reserved for high achievers? Why is it a reward, something reserved by definition for only a few students, instead of something the whole class participates in?

And it gets better:

My husband, Geoff, was a teen with a younger sister when his father remarried a woman with two boys. Both older boys were accustomed to always coming first, while the younger kids were used to baby-of-the-family privileges. But suddenly the roles—and rules—had changed. Cries of "Not fair!" became commonplace. One day Geoff's father sat down with all four kids and said essentially this: "On any given day, life isn't fair. That's the way it goes. We hope everything evens out in the long run. Live with it."

Rules, you see, aren't made by parents, but by "life," which is unfair. On any given day, anyway. Things will even out by themselves. Parents aren't responsible.

I see things differently. "Life" often isn't fair, but people should be; if they aren't, they're in the wrong. I don't mean to downplay the difficulty of being a parent, nor of building a new household out of two old ones, but Geoff's father was abdicating responsibility for his own actions. (Of course I'm relying here on Karin Fuller's probably self-serving second- or third-hand report, but that's the point: she's spinning it to suit her own prejudices.)
There may be some who disagree, believing there's no harm in giving trophies to all, that it's a harmless way to recognize kids' participation and encourage them to try. What they're failing to see is that by rewarding everyone, the trophy is devalued, or the certificate becomes nothing but a piece of nice paper with a pretty font. In our quest to make everyone equal and everything fair, no one is special. By bolstering self-esteem across the board, we're sending the message that self-esteem is more important than hard work and achievement. But ultimately, high self-esteem doesn't guarantee success. That takes self-discipline, self-reliance and self-control.
I disagree, because there are other ways of looking at this. I think there's harm in giving trophies to anyone, especially young children. Rewards discourage achievement, because they cause people to lose interest in doing whatever they are rewarded for. Alfie Kohn has shown this many times over the years, with plenty of studies that demonstrate it, but giving and getting rewards feels so good.

Consider the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, about a program which taught ballroom dancing to fifth-graders all over New York City, concluding in a city-wide competition with a humongous trophy as the prize. It got mostly positive reviews, in which the most popular recurring word seemed to be "adorable." A few reviewers, like Slate's David Edelstein, were wary of the competition element:
One reason I hate the fact that my just-7-year-old daughter watches American Idol (long story) is that I don't want her to think about competition yet. I don't want her to see people being judged—and in some cases, ripped apart. Yes, that sounds odd coming from a critic—but these are people who aren't rich and famous and in some cases are getting torn apart with a camera in their face. But up in Washington Heights in Mad Hot Ballroom, competition might be the only way out, and there are fewer illusions to be dashed.
But even Edelstein, in the end, dissolved into a puddle of Awwwww! And I agree, the kids are cute. But when I watched Mad Hot Ballroom, I noticed other things that weren't so cute. Several teachers, administrators, and dance instructors claimed that the program taught children to be "little ladies and gentlemen":
Over shots of the winning students, a teacher says that one of the girls was incorrigible and now, after a year of rehearsals, she has poise and self-control and doesn't get into trouble.
Well, winning helps, I suppose. But how long will that "poise and self-control" last? Will most of the kids even go on dancing after the program is over? Probably not: it's set up to make dancing stressful and coerced, as if the aim were to turn them off, not encourage them to continue. Mad Hot Ballroom isn't a controlled study, so I'm not faulting it for not telling us where the kids were five or ten years later. But I reserve the right to be skeptical.

None of the reviewers I've read noticed the school administrators, especially those in the school that had won the previous year's competition and had the trophy in their school. (You didn't think the kids would be allowed to take it home, did you?) They talk as though they, not the students, had won the competition, and semi-playfully talk about doing magic so the trophy will stay with them another year. Winning, even vicarious winning through one's students, doesn't seem to improve people's characters.

Losing's another matter. Another reviewer noticed that (in an instructors' meeting, thank goodness, not in front of the kids):
One of the instructors, however, blurts out something along the lines of "Second place is first loser!" Taking that another step, the program's leader reminds the instructors that, indeed, life is tough and competition is healthy.
Well, there you have it: there's only room at the top for one, and everybody else should get their noses ground in the dirt, because they're losers. I couldn't help wondering why, if learning to dance was so good for kids' social skills and corrigibility, the distraction of throwing in a high-stakes competition was added, to produce hundreds of bruised losers when nothing real was at stake except the principals' egotism. Far from being "healthy," competition purely for competition's sake makes no sense at all.

[P.S. Alfie Kohn points out that this kind of competition involves artificial scarcity. There's no inherent reason why there must be only one "winner"; the idea is to distract the competitors from the fact that they're fighting each other over a worthless piece of plastic and metal. In the real world, resources and goods often are genuinely scarce. But suppose that a family is short on food. Do the parents put the food on the floor and tell their kids to fight for it -- or compete with the kids themselves? (Well, maybe Karin Fuller would.) No. In the real world, when goods are scarce, you share them. One function of competition -- and maybe a conscious purpose at times -- is to teach children and adults that sharing is for losers. On the other hand, the good things connected to the teaching of ballroom dancing, such as social skills and the pleasure of dancing in itself, aren't scarce, so there's no reason to make the dancers compete unless you want a war of all against all. Which is a reminder that Hobbes's war of all against all is not, as he thought, the state of human beings in nature, it's a product of "civilization."]

Often enough competitiveness is sheer evil. While I was looking around on the web, trying to put off dealing with Fuller's article, I found another article by Alfie Kohn in which he documented parents who work actively to keep other people's kids out of the advanced classes that are reserved for their high-achieving offspring.
[F]rom Amherst, Massachusetts, where highly educated white parents have fought to preserve a tracking system that keeps virtually every child of color out of advanced classes, to Palo Alto, California, where a similarly elite constituency demands a return to a "skill and drill" math curriculum and fiercely opposes the more conceptual learning outlined in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards; from an affluent suburb of Buffalo, where parents of honors students quashed an attempt to replace letter grades with standards-based progress reports, to San Diego, where a program to provide underachieving students with support that will help them succeed in higher-level courses has run "head on into vigorous opposition from some of the community's more outspoken, influential members -- the predominantly white, middle-class parents of high-achieving students."
... They may be pro-choice and avid recyclers, with nothing good to say about the likes of Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh; yet on educational issues they are, perhaps unwittingly, making common cause with, and furthering the agenda of, the Far Right.
... This is essentially what happened in San Diego, where an attempt to give a leg up to lower-tracked students was, as Elizabeth Cohen of Stanford University puts it, "the kind of project that you'd think wouldn't bother upper-status parents at all. Wrong! They said, 'What are you going to do special for my kid?'" This posture, she adds, goes beyond a simple and commendable desire to do everything possible for one's own children. "When parents tell me they're terribly anxious about their kids getting ahead, I'm sympathetic. Everyone wants the best for their kids. But when it extends to sabotaging programs that are designed to help people, I have to draw the line."

Notice what is going on here. It isn't just that these parents are ignoring everyone else's children, focusing their efforts solely on giving their own children the most desirable education. Rather, they are in effect sacrificing other children to their own. It's not about success but victory, not about responding to a competitive environment but creating one. As Harvey Daniels of National Louis University sees it, "The psychology of those parents is that it's not enough for their kids to win: others must lose -- and they must lose conspicuously."

This is the sort of thing that casts doubt on Fuller's contention that "success ... takes self-discipline, self-reliance and self-control." It also helps to have access in the first place to resources that are necessary for advancement in a stratified society.

Incidentally, I recently read A Class Divided: Then and Now (1987) by William Peters, about Jane Elliott's famous "blue eyes - brown eyes" discrimination exercise in which children are divided into groups by the color of their eyes. Those in one group are given privileges and praised arbitrarily, while those in the other group are denied privileges and criticized arbitrarily -- on the first day. On the second day, they switch places. Originally Elliott did this with her third-grade students, though since then she's done it with older ones and, in modified forms, with adults.

I'd been hearing about this exercise for years, but Peters's book taught me something I hadn't heard before. After it was over, many of the students showed a decisive improvement in their school performance, which lasted for at least the rest of the school year; see pages 97-8 and 108-10. Oddly, no one seems to have followed up on this, though Elliott brought it to the attention of some educational psychologists. Her own theory (pp. 109-10):
"On the day they are in the 'superior' group and doing genuinely superior work ... they find out for the first time what their true potential is. They learn by actual experience that they can do much better work than they have been doing. Later, when the exercise is over and they continue to work at a higher level, they are simply responding to what they now know they can do.

"It's no longer news in educational circles that children tend to live up -- or down -- to the expectations of their teachers," she continues. "In this case, it's the children's expectations of themselves that have changed. Their new expectations are based not on hopes or wishes or even on what their teacher told them about their abilities, but on their own knowledge and experience. They don't just think they can do better work, they know they can, because they have."
Fuller concludes:

Ultimately, we aren't simply raising children—we're raising adults. And if we want them to become functioning members of society, they need to learn how to win and how to lose. They need to be able to take criticism, cope with arbitrary decisions and handle setbacks. They need to see that people who work hard to achieve—even if they fail at first—will be rewarded more than those who don't.

That's called real life. And it's fair.

It takes a certain amount of denial to pretend that the US (or any other society that I know of) is a meritocracy, in which those "who work hard to achieve ... will be rewarded more than those who don't." Are the masses of unemployed today simply people who didn't work hard? It might be true that those at the top of our society, who've devastated the economy so effectively, did work hard, but at what? Certainly nothing productive. "Fair"? No, far from it.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Wow. Even the faithful Obama apologist Steve Kornacki is expressing some doubts about the Great Collaborationist. As a result of the GOP's earlier push for a voucher program to replace Medicare, and Kathy Hochul's surprise victory in a May 24 special election in New York, using Medicare as a club to beat her opponents:
Suddenly, the idea that Democrats might actually post the 25-seat gain needed to win back the House in 2012 didn't seem out of the question. At the very least, it seemed, they had found a winning issue sure to bring them within striking distance of control heading into the 2014 cycle.

But then came the "grand bargain." For the past several weeks, Obama has aggressively and publicly pursued a deficit-slashing deal with Boehner that, in exchange for relatively slight revenue increases, would make deep domestic spending cuts, even in Medicare and Social Security. The grand bargain now seems dead, but Obama has now provided an abundance of emphatic sound bites in which he makes it clear that he believes entitlement spending can and should be cut and that doing so would strengthen -- and not harm -- the programs. In other words, he has handed the GOP the tools to create the perfect response to ads like Hochul's during the '12 campaign.

The basic political logic behind Obama's move is obvious. As Ed Kilgore noted this morning, he is pursuing a reelection strategy that depends on convincing swing voters that he's a reasonable, compromise-friendly pragmatist -- and that the GOP is beholden to an irrationally ideological base. There are even those who believe Obama always knew the grand bargain wouldn't work, and that he pushed it so hard just to demonstrate how unwilling the GOP is to compromise. ...

What is clear, though, is that Obama has made his party's strategy for next year's election a lot more complicated.
Yup, that's pretty clear. So clear that even Kornacki can see it.

I want to stress again that the move against entitlements isn't news to those who've actually paid attention to Obama. He began dropping hints about cutting Social Security and Medicare before he won the nomination, let alone the election. I don't think it's at all unfair to say that the budget conflict just gave him the chance he's been waiting for all along.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

You See? I Told You

Damn! I should have spent more time on yesterday's post.

It turns out that US media have reacted to the revelation that the Oslo attacks were apparently the work, not of al-Qaeda, but a right-wing Christian fundamentalist Nordic farmer, by continuing to claim that al-Qaeda did it, or Muslims in general.

Before the dust had cleared, the Only President We've Got agreed (via), though cautiously as is his wont:

“I wanted to personally extend my condolences to the people of Norway,” Obama said at the White House after meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. “It’s a reminder that the entire international community holds a stake in preventing this kind of terror from occurring. We have to work cooperatively together both on intelligence and in terms of prevention of these kinds of horrible attacks.
"This kind of terror" doesn't explicitly mention Muslims, but who else could be implied in his references to "the international community" and the cooperative gathering of "intelligence"? Unless Obama already knew about the suspect's international ties to right-wing anti-Muslim circles in the US, but I think we can safely doubt that.

From the same article, a reminder that it's about us, always and only about us.

The State Department issued a similar statement and said it had no reports that any Americans were hurt in either attack.

Anyway, what I neglected to write about yesterday was something I noticed but didn't bother to look for again and quote, namely this bit from the New York Times report:
There was ample reason for concern that terrorists might be responsible.
Blogger Richard Silverstein noticed and wrote about this, in the same post that showed the suspect's role as a guest blogger on an American anti-Muslim site. According to Glenn Greenwald, earlier versions of the Times article put "Islamic" in front of "terrorists," but the implication remains the same: "terrorism" is violence perpetrated by Muslims who aren't in the pay of the US. Any other violence isn't terrorism, by definition.
That Terrorism means nothing more than violence committed by Muslims whom the West dislikes has been proven repeatedly. When an airplane was flown into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, it was immediately proclaimed to be Terrorism, until it was revealed that the attacker was a white, non-Muslim, American anti-tax advocate with a series of domestic political grievances. The U.S. and its allies can, by definition, never commit Terrorism even when it is beyond question that the purpose of their violence is to terrorize civilian populations into submission. Conversely, Muslims who attack purely military targets -- even if the target is an invading army in their own countries -- are, by definition, Terrorists. That is why, as NYU's Remi Brulin has extensively documented, Terrorism is the most meaningless, and therefore the most manipulated, word in the English language. Yesterday provided yet another sterling example.
Another of my Facebook friends recovered quickly: "Whaddaya know - a Christian fundamentalist. No surprise - in the next decade, I expect them to become the new Islamic fundamentalists - including on US soil. You listen to some of their rhetoric and it's not much different from what's coming from Al Qaida..." And: "It surprises me that the Phelps haven't become domestic terrorists... I guess they're too high-profile?" His friends agreed: "There's a reason Markos Moulitsas has consistently referred to the Christian Right in the U.S. as the 'American Taliban.' Different religions, same crazy-ass bullshit."

Of course Christian terrorism has a long respectable history in the US, there's nothing "new" about it. And wholesale secular state violence based in the political center has killed far more innocent people than retail religious-based terror, whether Christian-fundamentalist or Islamic-fundamentalist. For that matter, I don't see much -- well, any difference between the reactions of the people I'm quoting here (and I could add many more) and the hysterical kill-all-ragheads response of many Americans to the September 11 attacks, by people who expect to cheer from the sidelines as the bad guys are executed publicly.

Speaking of which, RWA1 linked on Facebook to an op-ed in the right-wing Economist which declares confidently that Chávismo is dying, like the man himself, and that the Brazilian collaborationist model of "Brazil’s Lula, a fellow-leftist but a democratic one," is the wave of the future. (Remember that in this discourse "democratic" means "rule by multinational corporations, enforced by the American military.") The op-ed itself is oversimple and dishonest: it may be more or less right about Venezuela's problems, but overhopeful about the failure of Latin American resistance to US domination, since "leftists" there continue to win elections. But it's RWA1's comment that is relevant here: "May he meet his reward quickly, and let some sanity return to Venezuela." ("Sanity," of course, means "democracy," as previously glossed: a dictatorship, military if necessary, on the multinational corporate payroll.) One of RWA1's friends chimed in in comments: "By 'reward' I hope you mean the circle of hell reserved for socialist dictators. And by 'quickly' I hope you mean 'suddenly and painfully.'" As with RWA1's earlier hope for "trouble and turmoil" in Venezuela, the human fellow-feeling these guys express is touching.

P.S. As to why "There was ample reason for concern that terrorists might be responsible," Richard Seymour at Lenin's Tomb writes:
I don't mind telling you that I think this was wish fulfilment. That is, I think that these pundits and their employers largely would have liked nothing better than for it to be an Islamist attack, because then they have a set of responses that they can energetically put into motion, and a pre-determined narrative around which they can cohere those responses. Far right racists murdering young leftists, on the other hand, is not a subject on which they can rapidly form plausible responses.
The BBC post I linked to yesterday is a good example of the "pre-determined narrative" Seymour had in mind, I think. I wonder if RWA1 will find any useful links related to the attacks. ("Useful" for me, that is.)

Friday, July 22, 2011

This Man Must Be a Prophet

It's going to be a while before it's certain who carried out today's terror attacks in Norway, but some of the response already has been revealing.

Apparently a "jihadi" group claimed responsibility for the bombing, which the New York Times and some other papers promptly reported:

The response to this report was predictable, as shown by the comments to this MSNBC piece: Kill the ragheads! This shows that the Muslims hate our freedoms! Nuke Mecca! Glenn Greenwald pointed to part of the New York Times article which declared "the attacks appeared to be part of a coordinated assault on the ordinarily peaceful Scandinavian nation." As Greenwald noted, "This is simply inaccurate. Norway is a nation at war -- in more than just one country", namely Libya and Afghanistan. (What the Times probably meant, though, was that things are normally peaceful in Norway, not that it doesn't wage war elsewhere; much as news reports of quiet in the Middle East usually mean that although many Arabs have been killed or wounded, no Israelis have been hurt.)

For pointing this out, Greenwald was immediately smeared by some of his hostile commenters, for (so they imagined) claiming that the attacks were justified. That's only to be expected, of course, because Americans who leap to advocate violence against foreign civilians (when they're forced to notice it) naturally assume that anyone who is critical of American violence must therefore welcome violence against America.

The creepiest thing I've seen so far about the attacks is by a BBC commentator, who suggests sadly that the Oslo attack will mean "the end of innocence" in Norway.

To the outside world, the lives lived by Norway's people, both the elite and ordinary folk, may seem naive.

Though up to now they have not seen any reason to protect themselves.

Like Sweden before the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986, the Norwegian people have collectively resisted any calls for greater home security.

To them, living in an open society has been not just a privilege, but also a statement to the rest of the world; a display of how it is possible to live together in peace. ...

Norway's attitude to risk might now change, quickly and dramatically, as private individuals withdraw and as central authorities bolster security.

If so, a possible goal of the attackers may well have been achieved, in that they have robbed Norway of its innocence.

This is concern trolling at its most shameless. There has not so far been any indication that Norwegians are rushing to follow the US and UK by converting their country into a locked-down security state; the writer simply wants them to, as the crocodile tears course down his cheeks.

Soon afterward, though, it emerged that the gunman "dressed as a police officer" who attacked a Labor Party youth camp, and appears to be connected to the bombing, is a Norwegian. Those who are old enough to remember the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 will recall that there were initial reports of a swarthy Arab-looking guy fleeing from the scene, which inspired a similar flurry of anti-Muslim frenzy -- until the suspect turned out to be a blond American veteran of the first Gulf War. Similarly, the attempt by white supremacists to bomb a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane earlier this year excited very little interest in the corporate media. Greenwald remarked in an update to his post:
... if indeed it turns out to be a domestic rather than "terrorist" (i.e., Muslim) attack: American interest in these attacks and the desire to be seen publicly denouncing them will quickly diminish -- almost to the point of non-existence -- if the perpetrators are not Muslim.
In his Twitter feed, Greenwald also quoted a tweet from MazMHussain:
Reports terrorists are Norwegian; but let me say any planned racism/ethnic profiling of white Nordic men is UNACCEPTABLE
Hear, hear!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The People's Democratic Republic of Luna

One of the latest viral memes is this photo from China:

It's drawn a lot of attention in the West, like this article at Salon by Drew Grant, "North Korea, most of Asia terrible at Photoshop." They're not too terrible, since the North Korean photo Grant reproduces was picked up by the Associated Press and only disavowed a day later.

Not only that, but Chinese Photoshop mavens (among others) are playing with the image, showing that "Asia" is pretty good at Photoshop; just not its governments. I especially like this one, which shows how levitation is really done:

I'm also partial to this one, from the same source:

But now I'm reminded of a photograph of alleged Sandinista or Salvadoran rebel atrocities from the 1980s that was picked up by US media and continued to run even after it had been discredited. I'll have to see if I can track it, or at least the story, down.

By the way, it looks like I've passed the 1000-post mark. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Or Is He the New LBJ?

I recently read the first volume of Jules Feiffer's collected Village Voice comic strips, from the 1950s and early 1960s. Reading ten years' worth of weekly strips in a few days probably wasn't the best idea, but I was still amazed at how well Feiffer's early work has aged. Not just the stuff about relationships, but the stuff about politics still works. I guess that's not surprising, since relationships and politics haven't changed much in fifty years.

Here's the text from a 1965 strip, during Lyndon Baines Johnson's second bloody term. A radio announcer is reading the news:
And now the latest from overseas.

Fighting continues tonight in New York's Harlem. The government of the United States has filed a strong protest with the government of Ghana claiming that it acted illegally in dispatching two thousand Marines to protect the Hotel Theresa and other strategic points in the community.

In the meantime the government of Israel has announced plans to drop one thousand paratroops into the boroughs of Brooklyn and Bronx to protect houses of worship.

In further developments, French paratroops have refused to withdraw their occupation of fifty French restaurants on the island of Manhattan until all personnel are evacuated.

President Johnson continues to insist that New York is an internal problem and that if foreign troops don't withdraw immediately, American troops will force them out --

Just as soon as they get back from Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Laos, the Congo, Guantanamo, and Santo Domingo.
Quite a few people have noticed how many wars The Only President We've Got is juggling right now; Feiffer's work is a reminder that we've been there before. Like Obama, LBJ inherited some of his wars, but put his own stamp on the old ones and started several new ones.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

In Soviet Russia, Rubik's Cube Solves YOU

Okay, but this is IT.

Yesterday I checked out Like Shaking Hands with God (Seven Stories Press, 1999), a book of conversations about writing between Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer. Boy, am I ever glad I didn't buy it, and all hail once more to public libraries, the training schools of socialism! I hadn't heard of Stringer before, but one small virtue of this one is that it pointed me toward his books. Vonnegut I've read, of course, and Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the books I will keep no matter how I whittle down my collection in years to come. But here he just embarrasses me.

I do like his remarks about literature as
the only art that requires our audience to be performers. You have to be able to read and you have to be able to read awfully well. You have to read so well that you get irony! I'll say one thing meaning another, and you'll get it. Expecting a large number of people to be literate is like expecting everybody to play the French horn. It is extremely difficult [17-18].
But even here he goes a bit too far. Yes, a reader is a performer, as Vonnegut says. But though reading is harder to learn than spoken language, most people can learn to do it well enough. A significant part of the problem is that reading is generally taught in school in such a way as to discourage students from learning to do it well. If you're just playing a rousing game of "Ain't It Awful," of course, such considerations are unimportant. I do expect large numbers of people to be literate, though "large numbers" and "literate" both need to be defined. And that's leaving aside the question of whether people only respond creatively to written texts: understanding oral performance (which long predates the invention of writing and the spread of literacy beyond small elite groups) also involves complex skills of decoding and meaning-making.

What really annoyed me was this excerpt from Vonnegut's book Timequake, which was read aloud the evening this conversation took place:
A Luddite to the end ... I persist in pecking away at a manual typewriter. That still leaves me technologically several generations ahead of William Styron and Stephen King, who, like [Vonnegut's character Kilgore] Trout, write with pens on yellow legal pads.

I correct my pages with pen or pencil. I have come into Manhattan on business. I telephone a woman who has been doing my retyping for years and years now. She doesn't have a computer, either [40].
"Telephone"?! A true Luddite would write a letter with a quill pen, and dispatch it by messenger, who would wait for any reply and bear it back. Preferably on foot -- none of these newfangled 'railroads', as I believe the young people call them. He goes on to talk about sending some pages to his typist by post, using an envelope. An envelope, for heaven's sake -- a true Luddite would simply fold the ms. and seal it with wax and his personal seal. A gentleman has a personal seal, cuts his own quills, and grinds his own ink.

Vonnegut goes on to talk about the importance of face-to-face dealings with people, and I'm with him there. (So is Samuel Delany, who also discussed the importance of such contact at about the same time in his Times Square Red, Times Square Blue [NYU Press, 1999].) At the post office,
I put the waiting time to good use. I learn about stupid bosses and jobs I will never have, and about parts of the world I will never see, and about diseases I hope I will never have, and about different kinds of dogs people have owned, and so on. By means of a computer? No. I do it by means of the lost art of conversation [44].
I hadn't noticed that the art of conversation was lost. (To lose one art might be accounted a misfortune... But now that I think about it, gossiping in a queue, as fine a pastime as it is, isn't what is usually meant by "the art of conversation.") Vonnegut should have looked in the pockets of his other pair of pants, I know that's where I always find misplaced items. But technology hasn't a lot to do with that issue. As his admission about Styron and King shows, Vonnegut is aware that Luddism is relative. He uses advanced technology when it suits him, like his typewriter and telephone. And though I have a computer, and I even used a fax machine yesterday, I still value face-to-face dealings with people, as do all the younger people I know. Technology is often an excuse for shutting oneself away, rather than a reason; people became recluses long before Facebook.

As the poet Adrienne Rich once wrote: "Nostalgia is only amnesia turned around."

Which reminds me, Dennis Baron has an interesting new post at his Web of Language blog, "Computers Remember So You Don't Have To." He begins by describing studies which show that people who rely on computers and the Internet tend not to remember the information they get there.
More and more we’re saying to ourselves, “Why bother memorizing the names of the Oscar-nominated movies for 1939 when I can just look them up on IMDb?” Or, as the psychologists put it, “The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.”
Familiar so far, but instead of indulging in a technophobic rant, Baron continues:
But this is not surprising. Relying on an external database is nothing new: before digitized contacts files there were address books; before IMDb there were Leonard Maltin books. Before Wikipedia there were analog encyclopedias. And before Google there were librarians. As the experimenters acknowledge, humans have always recognized the role of individual expertise: we quickly learn who to ask for the best recipe, the most-accurate directions, the conversion from Fahrenheit to centigrade. That way we don't have to remember everything.
And for that matter, we don't have to memorize a lot of recipes because they're in the cookbook. We don't have to memorize the music we play on instruments because we have systems of notation that let us write it down. I've always had trouble remembering how to convert Fahrenheit to centigrade, even before computers, but that was because I so seldom had to do it. If I'd done it more, I'd have memorized it. I remember the birthdays of all three of my brothers and my niece, but after a few years BC (Before Computers) trying to work out a system on index cards, I keep track of the birthdays of my far-flung friends on my computer. Bitch about it if you like, but using such tools enables me to remember more birthdays than I could have done otherwise. My friends generally seem pleased when I send birthday greetings, and none have complained so far that I do by e-mail instead of sending a handwritten note in black ink on creamy white notepaper by manservant.

Baron then quotes Plato from the Phaedrus:
This invention [writing] will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.
So, you see, it all started with writing. Or maybe it started when we first started covering our bodies with artificial skin so that we could live in colder climates, or when we began making stone tools instead of using our natural, god-given teeth to rip and tear. Back to the Stone Age! Back to the days before the Stone Age, when we weren't isolated and dehumanized by technology!

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Very Queer Sort of Queer

There's a notion that turns up often in writing that touches on homosexuality, whether centrally or tangentially. Supposedly there is something called "homosexuality as we know it [or think of it] today," or "what we would term homosexuality." In the pre-Stonewall past, something went on that "we" would term homosexuality, but people back then knew better and never made the mistake we do. As I've written before, it is almost never clear who "we" are, nor what we think homosexuality is; and as far as I can tell, several different models of eroticism between people of the same sex are current today, in the United States alone. I don't use the word "homosexuality" there because even in the post-Stonewall present, people are often quite insistent that what they or others are doing isn't homosexuality, no matter what "we" think.

When you're interested in how people think about themselves, it's legitimate and necessary to use the concepts and terminology they use. (But it's just as legitimate to use your own culture's concepts and terminology for other purposes.) Oddly, though, now that I think of it, today's LGBTQ scholars rarely do so. Many of them show no hesitation about using "queer" (or "transgender") for every culture and every era, though "queer" in the sense(s) they use it is just as culture-bound as "homosexual" or "gay." This eliminates the necessity of cultural or historical sensitivity in one's scholarship, which no doubt makes it easier to produce, but also invalidates it except as therapy, which seems to be the main purpose of a lot of queer writing these days. Not that there's anything wrong with therapy!

But I digress, just a little. I've been thinking about this problem ever since I read Barry Reay's New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America (Manchester, 2010) last winter. Reay drew heavily on the Kinsey archives, especially the material supplied by Thomas Painter, Kinsey's Times Square informant. Painter was a participant-observer: he not only interviewed and photographed his subjects on Kinsey's behalf, he befriended, hung out and had sex with them. Using Painter's material and much else, Reay put together an interesting picture of the hustler/trade subculture, which involved men who (officially at least) penetrated other men without reciprocation, often directly or indirectly for money. In this pattern of male-male eroticism, only the penetrated was labeled queer; the penetrator was not.

Reay is as insistent on this point as any hustler. "Those who engaged in what we would term homosexual acts," he says firmly, "... were not necessarily homosexual" (35). "[Dotson Rader] made it clear that he was no ‘FAGGOT’, ‘no miss mary pansy’, ‘HUSTLERS ARE NOT QUEER’" [171].
George Chauncey has described a sexual culture divided into fairies and ‘normal men’, or ‘queers’ and ‘men’, rather than heterosexual and homosexual. Leo, an eighteen-year-old, African-American, effeminate man in Chicago, thought in terms of fags, faggots, cats (‘colored queers’), bells, and queer people (on the one hand) versus Jam people, straight people, squares, and those who were manly (on the other). He felt that he could be himself when ‘among the faggots’. He became confused when men who appeared masculine – ‘men’ – tried to french him. … This was activity that we would doubtless call homosexual, but the attitudes, desires, and identities involved in this activity were not what most would now identify with homosexuality [42-3].

Painter, who appeared in Henry’s book along with his hustler associates, later questioned the sexologist’s categorizations. "Dr. Henry obviously believes that participation in a homosexual act makes one a homosexual, and we do not believe any such thing." He was especially critical of the doctor’s characterization of the hustler Leonard R. as a homosexual when he was not homosexual: "most male prostitutes to homosexuals are themselves heterosexual" [63].
Already a couple of questions arise. Who were those men who tried to "french" Leo? Trade weren't supposed even to kiss or caress their fairy partners, just lie back with their arms behind their heads and let the fairy bring them to orgasm. (Look ma, no hands!) One hustler's partner "told him, ‘You don’t blow johns. You don’t get fucked. You just strip and serv ‘em dick.’ Even though customers knew it was pretence, it was what they expected. ‘The money kept my face straight; gave me a straight macho face’" (250).

Some guys evidently hadn't read the rulebook, and Reay doesn't seem to be interested in them. Sex and masculinity in modern America didn't always fit the trade/queer binary, even pre-Stonewall. Leo's example also shows that fairies were as invested in maintaining that binary as trade were, but not all men who wanted sex with other men felt the same way. Trade and fairies constituted one pattern, one social construction of eroticism between males, but not the only one.

Next, the psychiatrist George Henry was certainly pre-Stonewall, so how could he have "believed that participation in a homosexual act makes one homosexual"? (Notice that Painter himself, though also pre-Stonewall, still apparently viewed a sexual act between two males as "homosexual," even though according to Reay that is something only "we" would do.) I think the indignant denials by hustlers and their johns that they were homosexual indicates that at the same time, existing alongside the model they used, there was at least one model that classified the insertor as homosexual along with the insertee. (I should also mention that Reay is critical of medical researchers who "essentialized homosexuality as effeminacy" [158], even though that means they agreed with the trade/queer binary.)

It seems to me that Reay, along with so many who would agree with him, ignores little matters like stigma, and denial as a defense against stigma. Painter (and men like him) also had personal reasons for not wanting to see his hustlers as homosexual: he wanted manly trade, real men, heterosexuals who would have sex with him. I think this is purely a matter of definition, depending on what you, I, or "we" think a homosexual is. If you define "the homosexual" as a male who wants to be penetrated by other males, then of course the male who penetrates him is not "a homosexual," even if he penetrates many other males. If you define "the homosexual" as "a participant in a homosexual act," then of course both participants are homosexuals.

Or not; few people are satisfied with such simple classifications, and reality intrudes even on those who subscribe to the trade/fairy model. "Eddie, who was being pedicated [that is, fucked anally] by both Painter and Melcarth and had begun to worry about enjoying it – ‘Eddie … fucks girls avidly’ – was easily convinced that it merely enlarged his sphere of enjoyment and did not make him ‘queer.’" Avoiding stigma is obviously the important consideration here. (Notice that Painter was one of the men who 'pedicated' Eddie; even a queer was willing to breach the trade/queer barrier when he got the chance, it seems.)

Then there was
William Burroughs, a homosexual, [who] was notoriously dismissive of pansies, fags, and swish. ‘Burroughs may be gay, but he’s a man’, was Norman Mailer’s endorsement. ‘I don’t mind being called queer’, Burroughs wrote to Allen Ginsberg in 1952, ‘But I’ll see him [his publisher] castrated before I’ll be called a Fag That’s just what I have been trying to put down uh I mean over, is the distinction between us strong, manly noble types and the leaping, jumping, window dressing cocksucker.’ ‘All complete swish fairies should be killed’, he told Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in 1955, ‘not as traitors to the cause of queerness, but for selling out the human race to the forces of negation and death.’ Interzone, written though not published in the 1950s, refers to a ‘queen-repellent smelling of decayed queen flesh’. ‘A room full of fags gives me the horrors’, writes the narrator (Burroughs) in Junky, first published in 1953 [171-172].
This hysterical revulsion against effeminate men, while common, wasn't universal: as the example of Leo shows, fairies and pansies often scored with masculine men. (I think I detect a whiff of irony, if not self-mockery, in Burroughs's "us strong, manly noble types," by the way.) What makes the fairy so threatening, I think, is not that he's repulsive, but that he's also strangely attractive -- not to everyone, perhaps but to many.
Gore Vidal’s notorious antipathy towards his literary rival Truman Capote proclaimed a similar (homosexual) masculine distancing from the recognized popular stereotype of the effeminate queer [174].
Except that Vidal’s not all that masculine himself in speech or mannerism -- no more effeminate than his nemesis the notoriously heterosexual William F. Buckley Jr., but still. Reay's discussion of Vidal reminded me of something that has bothered me for a long time: from time to time Vidal has referred to "trade" in interviews and in print, but he uses the word differently than Reay and everyone does (though Reay seems not to notice it): for example, he refers to trade as men who "rent their asses" to other men. Certainly some men have done so, but they weren't called trade.

There's irony here, in the way someone like Reay who deploys social-constructionist terminology nevertheless falls back into essentialist concepts. He's far from alone, of course. Reading New York Hustlers sent me back to Mark Padilla's Caribbean Pleasure Industry: Tourism, Sexuality, and AIDS in the Dominican Republic (Chicago, 2007). Padilla, a gay Hispanic anthropologist, studied the hustler scene in the Dominican Republic, which also relies on the trade/queer binary. Of a bar which catered to local gay men and tried to ban trade (called bugarrones) for a while, Padilla writes:
The policy was doomed to fail from the beginning. First, it seemed entirely incongruous with the erotic integration – and in many ways, the economic interdependence – of bugarrónes and gay-identified men. Local bugarrón-gay or bugarrón-travestí relationships frequently entail an economic arrangement in which the gay/travestí mantiene a su bugarrón (supports his bugarrón), an inversion of the typical gender division of labor in heterosexual relationships. [But quite typical, cross-culturally, of relationships between queers and Real Men. -- DM] Further, despite the occasional tensions between them, bugarrónes still represent the erotic ideal for a significant proportion of gay-identified [Dominican] men, reflecting what [Stephen O.] Murray ... has described as the sexual system of “homosexual exogamy” in Latin American homoeroticism. Thus, in their attempts to “clean up” the bar, the owners of Tropicalia were planning to purge a primary source of gay men’s attraction to the business: bugarrónes. As many local gay men commented to me, “So, if they keep bugarrónes out, why would we go there?” [32-3]
Though the bugarrónes are supposed to be trade, there is widespread skepticism about their impenetrability. "Indeed, when my research associates spoke with one of Tropicalia’s owners about my ethnographic interviews with bugarrónes, he said tersely: I hope you’re going to prove what we already know: they’re all closet cases [son unos tapa’os]'" (33). Padilla sees this as local "gay-identified" men's wish to impose a "global gay space" on the DR, but then he admits, "The men in this study often mentioned to me that one or another of their peers was known to 'dar el culo' (give their ass) on occasion, which often produced much hilarity on the part of the storyteller." Given the popularity of such allegations in albures (sexual joking), I’d be wary of taking those ‘mentions’ at face value. But I'd also suspect that the “storyteller” might be the one who gives the ass on occasion; compare "While most would acknowledge that other sex workers steal regularly from their clients, almost none would admit to firsthand involvement in theft" (40). As Padilla got to know his informants better, he learned which ones did in fact steal from their clients; they included some of the same men who'd denied "firsthand involvement in theft."

And then consider this story. A 21-year-old bugarrón named Geraldo was living with a local maricón until a male friend le quemó (told on him, that is; literally, "burned him") to his novia.]
But she saw the guy, and – on top of everything the guy was a real maricón -- and I told her, “No! He’s a maricón! I’m not a maricón, I’m a bugarrón!” … And she said “What do you mean you’re not a maricón, if you live with a man?!” And I said they weren’t the same thing. “What do you mean?” And I said, “No, because he’s the one who receives, and I’m the one who gives.”
Was the girlfriend infected with globalizing gay identity notions, or is mariconería more ambiguous and inclusive than Padilla -- or Reay -- wants to believe?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Blame Game; or, A Hard Package Is Good to Find

According to this poll, "67 percent of respondents said any debt deal out of Washington must include tax hikes for the wealthiest Americans." (According to the same poll, 54 percent blame Bush for the state of the economy, while only 27 percent blame Obama; and "that voters will largely blame Republicans, rather than Obama, if the debt limit is not raised."

According to President Obama (via), he isn't listening:
And I think it’s important for the American people that everybody in this town set politics aside, that everybody in this town set our individual interests aside, and we try to do some tough stuff. And I’ve already taken some heat from my party for being willing to compromise. My expectation and hope is, is that everybody, in the coming days, is going to be willing to compromise.

Because it turns out poll after poll, many done by your organizations, show that it’s not just Democrats who think we need to take a balanced approach; it’s Republicans as well.

The clear majority of Republican voters think that any deficit reduction package should have a balanced approach and should include some revenues. That’s not just Democrats; that’s the majority of Republicans. You’ve got a whole slew of Republican officials from previous administrations. You’ve got a bipartisan commission that has said that we need revenues.

That would be the Catfood Commission, which called for cuts in Social Security and Medicare. As does President Obama. Those polls also consistently show that most Americans do not want cuts in Social Security and Medicare, nor do they care about the deficit nearly as much as they care about jobs.

So he's not listening, or he doesn't care:
We simply need to make these tough choices and be willing to take on our bases. And everybody knows it.
La la la la he can't hear you! -- Not unless you donate a lot more than five measly dollars to his campaign war chest, anyway. Then he suddenly can hear you. Obama knows he's at odds with his base, if by that he means the people who voted for him as opposed to the people who paid for him. He wants to give them spending cuts while pretending that he's interested in cuts that won't hurt them.
And that’s, by the way, what I said in the meeting two days ago. I was very blunt. I said the American people do not want to see a bunch of posturing; they don’t want to hear a bunch of sound bites.
Which is why he's provided us with a bunch of posturing and a bunch of sound bites, no doubt.

It may be that it's not "politically possible" for Obama to do the right thing; he certainly isn't competent to do it, though he seems competent enough as a servant of the wealthy. Thanks to his frittering away the mandate he had when he took office, his party lost their majority in the House, which does make his job harder; but if he'd cared, he'd have done something else. But it's not his fault, it's somebody else's: the Republicans (not all of them, just the radical extremists -- he seems to see Boehner as a moderate), the professional left, those who see the glass as half empty instead of half full, who need to have their heads examined. Obama isn't just the new Reagan, he's the new Nixon.

Friday, July 15, 2011

I Know: Picky, Picky, Picky

I don't really expect any better from the corporate media in general, but I do wish that nominally liberal commentators would stop talking about Democratic politicians moving "to the center" when they mean "to the right." Maybe Robert Reich was being a tad sarcastic when he wrote today:
After a bruising midterm election, the president moves to the political center. He distances himself from his Democratic base. He calls for cuts in Social Security and signs historic legislation ending a major entitlement program. He agrees to balance the budget with major cuts in domestic discretionary spending. He has a showdown with Republicans who threaten to bring government to its knees if their budget demands aren't met. He wins the showdown, successfully painting them as radicals. He goes on to win re-election.
Now, Reich's point was that he wasn't talking about Obama but about Bill Clinton, whom the above passage also describes. It's not quite accurate in other ways -- for example, both Obama and Clinton were already much further to the right before their "bruising midterm elections" than Reich seems to recognize. In both cases, those bruising midterms had something to do with their right-wing policies: Clinton's pushing through NAFTA and Obama's general service to Wall Street and his other big corporate donors, like the insurance companies. Obama hinted at his wish to assault "entitlements" before he was elected -- even before he won the nomination. Both Clinton and Obama would have to move drastically to be the left to be in the center, if we're talking about American public opinion at large instead of the right-wing political, corporate and media elites to whom they belong.

So please, no more talk of "moving to the center." It's just a small step toward honesty in our political discourse, but it might embolden liberals to be more honest on other topics, like Obama's wars.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Importance of Being Ernest

The other day a Facebook friend and fellow-blogger, Tamara Linse, linked to her own blog post on "Being a Man in This Day and Age." "Hemingway as a positive role model: a lament," she added. It sparked a little discussion on Facebook, as well of a few more posts on her blog, and what I wrote in comments felt like the seeds of a blog post, so here goes.

To be honest, I don't know that much about Ernest Hemingway. I know the bare outlines of his life, and read The Old Man and the Sea (for a class, I think) and Farewell to Arms (on my own) when I was in junior high school. I meant to read more, but didn't get around to it for a long time; he just didn't do much for me. (For comparison, writers I discovered at the same age whom I did want to read more included Faulkner, Salinger, and Steinbeck.) I considered giving him another chance a decade later when I learned about his connection to Gertrude Stein, and that Dorothy Parker raved about his work, but didn't read him until The Garden of Eden was published in 1986. It was interesting, and I began to understand why his style was so influential, though I'd also read enough Stein by that time to see very clearly her influence on his style. Beyond that I know little more about him than his very Freudian suicide, and his image as a man's man, which has often been mocked -- but I don't know enough, or care, to have an informed opinion about that.

Hemingway is really just a jumping-off point for some reflections on gender, though. Tamara's post begins, "How many men do you know who are overgrown children?"
They never marry, spend their days playing, and don’t have much real responsibility. Or they are fathers yet don’t lend much of hand with the kids or around the house. Or they run out on their responsibilities. My husband and I have been talking about this lately. Not because he’s one of them ~ in fact, I am so lucky because he is an equal partner with the kids and with the housework ... What we realize more and more is that he may be the exception, rather than the rule.
Sure, I know plenty of men who are overgrown children, but I don't see what is wrong with never marrying: people who want to stay single should do so. As for fathers who "don't lend much of a hand with the kids or around the house," whatever I may think about them, not lending a hand with the kids or housework is a feature of traditional masculinity. The anthropologist David Gilmore told this story in his very problematic book Manhood in the Making (Yale, 1990, 52ff):
There was a man in Fuenmayor who was a notorious [!] homebody and whose family suffered the consequences. Alfredo was a rubicund little merchant with the non-Castilian surname Tissot (his ancestors had emigrated from Catalonia generations earlier). A sedentary man of middle age, he operated a small grocery establishment from out of his home - nothing unusual for men with small retail businesses. But Alfredo was unusual in that he rarely ventured out from his home, where he lived with his wife and two pretty grown daughters.

In Andalusia, as in Cyprus or Algeria, a man is expected to spend his free time outdoors, backslapping and glad-handing. This world is the street, the bar, the fields - public places where a man is seen. He must not give the impression of being under the spell of the home, a clinger to wife or mother. While out, men are also expected to become involved in standard masculine rivalries: games of cards and dominoes, competitive drinking and spending, and contests of braggadocio and song. Although aware of such expectations, Alfredo resisted them, because, as he confided to me one day, such socializing was a waste of time and money - you have to spend money in the bars; you have to buy rounds of drinks for the company of fellows, and you have to tipple and make merry. You have to boast and puff yourself up before your cronies. All this conviviality was expensive and boring, so the chubby grocer stayed at home with his family. He read books and watched television at night or went over his accounts.

Like all other townsmen, Alfredo was under the scrutiny of public opinion and was accountable as a man. Although grudgingly admitting his modest business acumen (said however to be based on his wife's capital), the townspeople did not accept his lame excuses for inappropriate comportment....
Yes, there are numerous individual exceptions, like Alfredo, whom Gilmore himself despised.
Beaming maternally, the homebody took pride in his knowledge of local recipes and in my vocal appreciation of his culinary skills.
Why "maternally"? Why not "paternally"?
And yet, Alfredo was for other men a subject of endless discussion and debate [55].
Why not "gossip"? (Because men don't gossip, you silly! They discuss and debate. Honestly...)

As I've said before, a major part of what makes life tolerable is that most people don't live up to society's gender norms, even as they pay lip service to them. Yet it's traditional manhood that Tamara is appealing to in her post, though what she appeals to is the same thing she deplores.

Gilmore goes on to write about the Truk Islanders' culture, which, "like Spain, provides little or no ritual confirmation [for boys], leaving each man to find his own way" (57) through drinking and fighting. However,
As on Truk, scrapping in Canada is a youthful stage of proving, superseded by a more constructive maturity. Dyck reports that most fights occur between men aged eighteen to twenty-five. After this phase most men settle down to enjoy their status as "hard men" while continuing to visit the bars to socialize and drink. In addition, marriage signals a change in a man's involvement in the scrapping. After marriage, most men either assume a nonfighter's role while drinking in the bars or else they drop out of the bar scene altogether to attend to their domestic responsibilities ... [76].
Gilmore has kinda changed his tune there, hasn't he? I quote this mainly because it supports my sense that the fighting / drinking / gambling pattern has little to do with manhood: it's about Boy Culture, much like the initiation rites that fascinated so many Americans during the heyday of the mythopoetic men's movement twenty years ago. To my mind, secret passwords and ritual initiations, male-only clubhouses and games, are the kind of things that boys find attractive but should be outgrown. In that respect Tamara and I seem to agree, but most cultures, including our own, don't think so.

With the result that Tamara seems quite confused. She goes on to complain that "men on TV sitcoms are the butt of everyone’s jokes. They are often incapable, lazy, dumb, and all those other stereotypes. It’s as if the stereotypes of the women in the 50s (ditzy blonde; here little lady, let me take care of that) have been reversed and now it’s okay to make fun of men." This was a complaint that was often made in the past. I remember a writer for men's magazines who wrote a series of articles in the 1960s saying the same thing, and of course American men have been claiming that their precious bodily fluids are being sapped away by the American matriarchy for over a century. I don't watch enough TV nowadays to develop a good comparison, but in the past those ditzy men were balanced by the equally unrealistic solid fathers: Ward Cleaver, Jim Anderson, Alex Stone; even Ricky Ricardo was the relatively sane one in his household. One major problem is that so many people today think that the old TV shows are an accurate documentary portrait of family life in the 1950s and early 1960s.

It has always been "okay to make fun of men", and why not? Comedy makes fun of everybody -- as Tamara recognizes, women have also been stereotyped in comedy, and popular entertainment relies very heavily on stereotypes. Those comedies were produced by men, written by men; were they traitors to their sex? (The matriarchy-hunters would probably say so.)

She continues:
I guess what I’m getting at is that where are the role models for our boys? Heck, for our men? If all they see around them are images of laughingstocks, if they’re allowed or encouraged to be little boys their whole lives, if they don’t have things to be proud of, how in the world can they be happy and functioning adults?
First of all, you don't look for role models on TV: you look for them around you. TV, movies, even books can widen the range of images available, but they aren't role models. There are a lot of societal caricatures circulating of our culture, and one of the more distracting ones holds that kids don't grow up with suitable male role models -- in the ghetto, for example, but not only there. This is a caricature because, except perhaps in areas most devastated by poverty and drug-related violence, there are plenty of adult men around -- uncles both by "blood" and by status -- who provide various kinds of support to children of both sexes even if their fathers are absent or unknown. I see no reason to believe that children of divorced parents in the white middle-class have no access to adult males either. But if a child is growing up in isolation from functional, living, flesh-and-blood adults of either sex -- or peers for that matter -- then TV sitcoms are the least of her problems.

Second, "role model" is a troublesome concept, as is the notion of social role generally. Sociologists should probably abandon it, because it has never been defined properly and makes little sense to begin with; but they're attached to it (and it's spread like a radioactive virus to the culture at large). For example, role theory tends to assume human beings as blank slates on which "society" inscribes "roles." At the same time, it assumes that boys and girls have different natures which need to be shaped through role-playing so that their nature will develop as it should, rather than in "anti-social" directions. But it also assumes that human beings -- especially males -- have a nature at odds with socialization, so that we are constantly struggling to be ourselves as "society" tries to stifle and remold us in the image of those roles -- as though human beings weren't social animals, who can't survive, let alone flourish, without society. (More on this some other time, I hope.)

The idea of role models implies that children need role models to learn how to be boys and girls, or they'll grow up to be anomic, or worse, homosexuals. Role theory emerged out of a cultural matrix which saw homosexuality as the worst thing that could happen to a person; in our present, supposedly more enlightened society, those who want children to have sex-role models are conflicted. On the one hand we want our boys to be boys and our girls to be girls, and the notion of homosexuality as inversion is still very much with us; on the other hand we don't want to stifle their individuality and we don't want our little gay children to commit suicide. Can we channel the Ikea commercials and Will and Grace only to those children who need them? Or will they confuse little straight boys, making them believe that it's okay to shop for effete foreign furniture, or to do Judy Garland imitations? Is Kurt Hummel gay propaganda? Is a boy lip-synching to "Single Ladies" a good role model or a bad one? How about three bearded, beer-bellied guys lip-synching to Dianna Agron's "I Say a Little Prayer"?

Next Tamara links to a site she loves called The Art of Manliness, which features posts like (in all seriousness) "How to Stock a Home Bar," "Lessons in Manliness from The Old Man and the Sea," "The 5 Switches of Manliness: Nature," "Become a Stand-up Guy: The History, Benefits of Use of Standing Desks" (this last illustrated with a photo of a smiling Papa Hem), "100 Must-read Books: The Man's Essential Library" and omighod I think I'm going to be sick. (Ayn Rand made the top 25 of that must-read list, so you know they're not sexist, just stupid.) It's one thing for five-year-olds to think in these terms, but adults who are still doing it are, to quote somebody or other, "just overgrown children." I'd go so far as to say that The Art of Manliness is made up of stereotypes that would fit those man-mocking sitcoms just fine.

The Village Voice once ran a review of a book whose title I don't remember -- it may have been something by Warren Farrell, one of the men's-rights movement types who emerged in the first flush of the anti-feminist backlash, though it could as easily have been a male-feminist book. I remember liking the whole review but especially its closing line, which I have to quote from memory: "You want a role model for your boy? Let him read Colette." Most of my feminist friends didn't like the recommendation because they weren't that wild about Colette, but you could replace her with any number of other female mensches. I've been influenced positively by people of both sexes, not as role models whom I imitated in every particular but as people who had something to teach me. The idea that adult women are somehow a bad influence on boys -- which is not just a pillar of the Mythopoetics but inextricable from the concept of "role models" -- or even merely irrelevant to their development as human beings, is wrong and destructive.

Children start figuring out gender by themselves at a very early age; they don't need help from adults, because the conclusions they reach are so often wrong. A couple of my Korean friends put their son in a cooperative day-care center in Seoul, run by the parents, which tried to be non-sexist, but they ran up against what seemed to be the kids' own built-in stereotypes. My friend told me that the boys just naturally seemed to gravitate to the tools and toy cars, and the girls to cooking and dolls. That in itself isn't bad; what concerns me is that some boys and some girls don't, but most of the time such kids are pressured to conform. If they "naturally" want to do something different, they should be allowed to. (In Kid House, as far as I could tell, they were.) Adults have never had a hands-off attitude to kids' gendered behavior, especially when it comes to enforcing norms. Little boys are told "Boys don't cry!" even as they are crying.

I've already run on here long enough, and I'm sure I'll be saying more on the topic soon. For now I'll close with this bit from Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender (Norton, 2010), page 224:
Indeed, so powerful are these metaphorical gender cues that five-year-old children will confidently declare that a spiky brown tea set and an angry-looking baby doll dressed in rough black clothing are for boys, while a smiling yellow truck adorned with hearts and a yellow hammer strewn with ribbons are for girls.
I want that spiky brown tea set; and also the smiling yellow truck adorned with hearts.