Wednesday, August 31, 2011

For Your Information

While I was at the Atlantic site, skimming over Nicholas Carr's articles on how the Internet may be making us stupid (but it remains to be seen), I also saw a link in a sidebar to this article: "A Reminder That America Is Improving," it was headed: "Sodomy Is Not a Crime." By one Conor Friedersdorf, it's about how some guy from the Christian-right American Family Association is calling for the re-criminalization of sodomy. But he's totally wrong, because:
Beyond judicial constraints on lawmakers, the reason sodomy won't again be illegal in the United States is that bigotry against homosexuals has declined tremendously, and -- especially among younger Americans -- there is a recognition that they are as deserving of personal liberty and equal treatment under the law as anyone.
Well, I hope Friedersdorf is right about that, though he makes a mistake common among straights and gays alike. He think that the sodomy laws criminalized homosexuality, instead of certain acts, and denied "personal liberty and equal treatment under the law" to homosexuals. In one sense he's right, especially since the 1986 Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that sodomy laws targeting homosexuals were constitutional, construing sodomy as a "rhetorical proxy" for not only gay men but all "sex/gender outsiders" (Marta T. Zingo, Sex/Gender Outsiders, Hate Speech, and Freedom of Expression: Can They Say That About Me? [Westport CT: Praeger, 1998], p. 116). And this assumption was used by our enemies as a justification for denying us equal treatment under the law, since we were all supposed to be felons. But before 1986, sodomy laws in the US forbade heterosexual couples, married or unmarried, to engage in "the abominable crime against nature, not fit to be named among Christians."

But Friedersdorf is also wrong about something more serious, something I hadn't known myself until a few days ago. It's true, in 2003 the Supreme Court did declare unconstitutional all sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas. But the US military continues to enforce its sodomy regulations, and
Eight years later, however, eighteen states still refuse to rewrite their laws and take these anti-gay relics off their books, with countless LGBT Americans continuing to feel their devastating effects as a result. Several state legislatures and courts have exploited loopholes in the Lawrence decision, while others have simply refused to acknowledge the decision altogether.
Some of the states which have defied the Court are the usual suspects: Texas, Idaho, and Utah. But some are more surprising: Michigan, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. Yes, Massachusetts, where same-sex couples can get legally married -- but they'd better not try to consummate the union!

This is important, since (usually) men are still being arrested, charged, and tried under these laws. Often the charges are dropped, but this means that states are at the very least using these laws to harass people, and just having them on the books means they can still be used to stigmatize gay people.

Yes, Lawrence v. Texas was progress. But we still have a ways to go, and in an area where we thought we had already won.

The Tower of Brabble

(Brabble = "paltry noisy quarrel")

This article by David Sirota urges readers to "trash their smartphones," which might or might not be a good idea. I'm sympathetic to it -- I just have a basic cellphone, and the only upgrade I'm thinking about is to a phone with a QWERTY keyboard -- but on the whole I still disagree with his analysis.

Sirota begins thusly:
A miracle is occurring as you read these words - that's right, an impossible-to-explain miracle of the mind. Somehow, you just managed to read a complete sentence - and that's nearly inexplicable these days.
Oh, horsepucky. This is pure Occidental hyperbole. Since he published it at Salon.com, one of the text-heavier sites around these days, he must know it's bullshit. Sirota gives no evidence for that statement; I suppose it's just one of those things that Everybody Knows. He continues:
There you sit, hammered by stimuli - on your computer screen, you're pounded by an overflowing RSS reader, twitching Facebook and Twitter feeds, an email box constantly chirping at you and IM bubbles doing their best pop-up video impression; off in the distance, your television frantically flits between images of explosions and a screaming, over-coiffed suit whose impossibly fat head floats disembodied above a never ending ticker-tape; and on your desk, face up, a cell phone perpetually spasming with text messages, photos from friends, yet more email and, of course, phone calls.
Well, there you are. It isn't just smartphones, it's what the media (the major perpetrators) call Information Overload. Instant messaging programs, Facebook, Twitter, most e-mail -- these are all corporate media, and being corporate they are enemies of your ability to concentrate. They want to shift your attention away from wherever it is now to something else, anywhere else as long as it's paid content. The more commercial links you click on, the more money someone makes. The more edits in the videos or tv shows or movies you watch, the more excited you'll be, and the more you'll find more leisurely-paced content boring. TV news is limited in time, so concision is at a premium, and of course complex thoughts can't be expressed in soundbytes, but complex thoughts are the Devil's playground, so it's all good.

The necessity to be connected at all times is partly habit, but it's also mandated by a lot of white-collar work, as Jill Andresky Frazier showed in her book White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America (Norton, 2001). As the crumbling economy has deteriorated even further and employment instability has made more inroads into management, you have to be on call -- accessible, available, connected -- at all times. If you aren't, someone else is willing, and will be happy to take your job.

None of this is news, of course. Various Jeremiahs have been yelping that television is destroying our attention spans for decades, and every new technology that affects information, from writing to printing to the telephone to electronic media, has been denounced as a threat to our civilization. But that was then and this is now, and this time, Sirota insists (along with others of his ilk), it's really true!

Maybe so. But where's the evidence? Sirota has nothing but anecdotes and what Everybody Knows. (Can't you feel your mind degrading right now? Did you even make it to the end of this sentence? You see! I told you.) But then he says this:
The science is pretty clear in showing that the Internet is rewiring our cerebral circuitry and re-melting our plasticky gray matter in ways that can addict us to the short information bursts that the Internet specializes in.
Those two links at "pretty clear" go to two articles by Nicholas Carr, a writer at The Atlantic. One article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", offers no scientific evidence at all about the effects of the Internet on our brains -- none. Carr admits that "we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition," and then provides a link to one study of "online research habits," in which researchers
examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.
This proves basically nothing. Imagine a study of the old library card catalogs and printed journal indexes that scholars used to use before such resources went online. I know from my own experience that someone observing my own use of such tools would have found the same pattern of behavior: skimming, hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source I'd already visited. That's because only a small amount of the material I skimmed over was useful to my work. And this is the sum total of Carr's evidence for the deleterious effect of the Internet: he says that the study he cited "suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think." "Suggests" is a far cry from "pretty clearly showing."

I wouldn't be surprised if researchers behaved like this, but again, it has more to do with economic and political pressures in academia than with anything about the Internet. In the good old days an academic could get tenure with barely any publications at all; but since the explosion of higher education in the US since World War II, with more and more Ph.D.s being ground out by the universities, and fewer and fewer jobs for them, they've had to compete with each other by publishing more. This produces vast numbers of articles, dissertations, and books, far too many for any human being to read and digest. Nowadays in the humanities you need at least a book published by an academic press, and some articles besides don't hurt. That's the economic pressure, but it's buttressed by political pressure from state legislatures to provide "objective" evidence that you, O pointy-headed intellectual, deserve your job. A scholarly book or article needs to include citations of other scholars' work, another "objective" criterion of quality. The Internet makes it easier to track down references, and produce that all-important paper (or increasingly, electronic) trail that will get you a secure job, and possibly free you to think instead of collect material for the footnotes.

The other article by Carr that Sirota linked to is an interview in which he expands on his concerns without any new evidence, much less "science." At best this "suggests" that Sirota is guilty of the same sloppiness he decries, and I suppose he can blame it on the Internet, but writers and scholars did the same thing long before there was an Internet.

Of course, ignoring structural and political factors is another feature (not a bug) of the corporate media. I agree with Sirota that ramping down one's use of rapid-fire media is a good idea, though for the reasons I've mentioned, it may not be as easy as exercising a little willpower. Sirota does admit that for some people a smartphone may be a "genuine necessity, by virtue of one's work," but claims that most who justify it on that ground are just trying to excuse their "addiction."

So what about someone like me, whose "addiction" is to print, to sentences and paragraphs and longer strings of text? C'mon, gimme a little taste, I need just a little, please... Sirota doesn't mention e-readers, and whatever my reservations about them, there's no doubt that people are using them to read, you know, books. The concentration of publishing into fewer and fewer conglomerates, like that of media into fewer and fewer media consortiums (consortia?) is connected to the success of e-books, but it's not the fault of the Internet either.

One other factor might be worth mentioning here, and that's the magical thinking that underlies a lot of the celebration of computers and the Internet. Recently I read something that reminded me that many people expected word processors to do more than just make it technically easier to compose, edit, and format text: on some level they expected it to produce content as well -- just sit back and let the computer write your novel for you! The same consideration applied to graphics and video software: you still had to come up with the content yourself -- it's so unfair! Other people expected the Web to do their "thinking and communicating" for them:
It turned out that the internet wasn't an advanced, processing brain, after all, nor an agent of meaningful change. In the political realm, it has revealed only had one enduring value: as a propaganda tool.
They too were disappointed when they found out that it was just a tool for transmitting information: they were still going to have to do their own thinking. Still other people thought that computers would be pets. Still no go. And these fantasies were harbored and promulgated by computer geeks themselves, though of course they were useful in advertising as computers caught on among non-geeks. In the end, there's no real escape from what is for so many people the misery of being human: computers and the Internet are not saviors, though they could be useful tools for those who want to save themselves. That's hard work, though.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Culture Is Going Down the Water Closet

I took a break from writing a post I'm not sure about and began reading The Case of the Gilded Fly, a 1944 murder mystery by Edmund Crispin, recently reprinted by Felony & Mayhem. This was Crispin's first book, and so far it's entertaining. The setting is Oxford during World War II, and some of the characters are academics and former academics. One of the former is Professor Gervase Fen, of whose friendship with a police constable the narrator tells us:
Their relationship was further complicated by the fact that Fen had solved several cases in which the police had come to a dead end, while Sir Richard had published three books of literary criticism (on Shakespeare, Blake and Chaucer), which were regarded by the more enthusiastic weekly papers as entirely outmoding conventional academic criticism of the sort Fen produced. It was, however, the status of each as an amateur which accounted for their remarkable success; if they had ever changed places, as a mischievous old don in Fen's college once suggested, Fen would have found the routine of police work as intolerable as Sir Richard, the niggling niceties of textual criticism; there was a gracious and rather vague sweep about their hobbies which ignored such tedious details. Their friendship was a longstanding one, and they enjoyed each other's company enormously [12].
An example of the ex-academics is Nicholas Barclay.
As an undergraduate reading English a brilliant academic career had been prophesied for him, and he had bought, and read, all those immense annotated editions of the classics in which the greater part of every page is occupied with commentary (with a slight gesture to the author in the form of a thin trickle of text up at the top, towards the page number), and the study of which is considered essential to all those so audacious as to aim at a Fellowship. Unfortunately, several days before his final examination, it occurred to him to question the ultimate aims of academic scholarship ... [14].
I enjoyed these digressions on English academia in the 1940s because to hear some people today tell it, you'd think that impenetrable and pedantic writing by academics was a recent development in the UK and the US, probably due to infection by French theory. (French theory I cannot possibly allow; people always think it is improper .... But German sounds a thoroughly respectable language, and indeed, I believe is so.*) But it's nothing new, and is a lot older than this book. I think I'll enjoy the rest of it.

*Yes, that's a deliberate misquotation.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Trouble With Privilege Is That Everybody Doesn't Have It

I don't remember where I first heard the title of this post, but it seems to me that someone ascribed it to Virginia Woolf. Whoever said it, I think it's right.

One day about a week ago Homo Superior posted on same-sex marriage, attacking an article by the English writer and provocateur Mark Simpson. The article, which turns out to be two years old, argues that marriage is basically a religious institution and that same-sex couples don't need it if they can get marriage-equivalent civil unions, as they can in England. This displeased HS, who argued that
there is no progressive case against gay marriage as an issue of social justice, not unless progressive politics has stopped meaning the struggle for maximum freedom and full equality. One might make radical critiques against the institution of marriage — and please do so in the privacy of your own seminars — but all social justice movements of the past have sought to change access to existing institutions, not attempted to create new ones out of air, because that’s what equality requires.
Does it? And why should "radical critiques" of marriage take place only "in the privacy of your own seminars"? (And who's "you"?) Such critiques have been around for some time, and they don't have anything to do with same-sex marriage per se. The early Christian churches weren't big on marriage or on sex of any kind, and a radical critique of marriage was advanced by nineteenth-century feminists. It should also be remembered that heterosexual marriage is rather on the skids in the US, with many heterosexuals preferring to avoid legal bonds in favor of more informal arrangements. Domestic partnerships were first registered in the US by cohabiting heterosexuals. Simpson didn't claim in his article that new institutions should be created "out of air" -- he pointed out that different sexual and domestic arrangements already exist. He also argued that most British queerfolk were satisfied with civil partnerships, which would be one of those "new institutions."

It's also false that "all social justice movements of the past have sought to change access to existing institutions", though I must thank Homo Superior for giving me such an opening. The anti-slavery movement didn't seek to change access to an existing institution, it sought to abolish it. Slavery was very old and had a religious dimension as well: in the New Testament the Christian is a slave of Christ, and abolitionists have always had difficulty finding biblical support for their position because there really isn't any. (This counts against the Bible, of course, not in favor of slavery.) "Changing access" to the institution of slavery would have entailed something like subsidies to enable the less wealthy to have slaves of their own, and eventually to allow black people to own slaves too, including white ones. That would be "equality" in exactly the sense HS is talking about, but I don't think many people would see it as desirable.

The reason a radical critique of marriage is in order is that marriage has traditionally had nothing to do with equality. First, it existed, and still exists, to privilege some couples over others. If you're married, your sexual relations are licit; if not, they are fornication or adultery. Laws against fornication largely fell by the wayside in the United States in the late twentieth century, but some states still have laws against adultery. The children of married couples are also licit, or legitimate, and the aim has always been to privilege some children over others. The stigma of illegitimacy has diminished greatly in the past few decades, but it's not totally gone yet. Many "marriage equality" advocates talk about the "rights" that follow from marriage, but they are privileges and benefits, not rights -- if they were rights, it's a violation of the principle of equality to reserve them for married couples.

The gap has narrowed somewhat in the past century, but marriage also enshrines inequality between the partners, with the wife losing much of her legal personhood when she marries. And those are just the legal disabilities. Until fairly recently, married women were less happy than unmarried women -- or married men. The change has been explained as a result of married women's increased autonomy, especially the freedom to earn their own money. But whatever the reason, women have been voting with their feet against heterosexual marriage, around the world. The real question ought to be why marriage still has so much prestige.

The legal and social disability of single people -- including unmarried couples -- compared to married ones isn't exactly a secret: "marriage equality" campaigners harp on the point constantly. But they aren't campaigning to increase access to marriage's privileges and benefits by single people -- only by same-sex couples. As IOZ asked once, "If they are, in fact, human rights, then why must you be married to acquire them?" To invoke equality in connection with an intentionally and functionally unequal institution such as marriage is dishonest.

Let's not forget divorce. Marriage makes it harder and messier for couples to separate, even when there are no children involved. It looks to me as though many couples stay together longer than they should, from a misplaced fear of being judged wanting -- selfish, lazy, immature -- because they didn't live happily ever after. I've succumbed to it myself, but I've also seen enough other people make the same mistake, at great emotional cost, that it bears stressing here.

I have a few bones to pick with Simpson, though. He begins his diatribe by objecting to religious opponents of same-sex marriage being called bigots.
It’s faintly absurd to have to even say this, but it isn’t bigoted to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s just being conventional.
We have a false antithesis here: a goodly proportion of bigotry is conventional, often obligatory. Like many people, Simpson mistakes bigotry for an individual pathology, not a social structure.

Nor is marriage a fundamentally religious institution (though see above, on the religious dimension of slavery). In un-secular societies, just about every aspect of life is sacralized, from birth to death. If marriage were basically religious, though, that would be an argument against government involvement in it -- in the United States, that is. Simpson seems to overlook the formal separation of religion and government in America, while England has a state Church. In European countries, even those with established churches, the distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage is often even more sharply drawn.

Besides, as I've pointed out before, the American separation of religion and government means that same-sex couples who want religious ceremonies can roll their own, as it were, and there's no legal barrier to their doing so; the legal barriers here are to same-sex civil marriage. The "conventional" non-bigots Simpson defended can wail and gnash their teeth, but they can't stop same-sex couples from redefining religious marriage to suit themselves.

I'd point again to Nancy Polikoff's book Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage (Beacon, 2008), which argues that all families should be valued, whether they involve married or quasi-married couples, or no couples at all. Children need support and protection whether their parents are married to each other nor not. American and European society were already moving in that direction until the 1980s, when a pro-marriage backlash pushed by the religious Right tried to reverse the trend. The depressing thing is that so many gay people went along with it.

A common misunderstanding of second-wave feminism and gay liberation was that, because they made radical critiques of marriage, they were therefore against any coupling or relationships at all. It's important to recognize the validity of single life (and celibacy, for that matter), and of erotic life that doesn't involve exclusive couples, but many people have formed successful long-term couples that weren't formalized in marriage. (One researcher recently pointed out that non-marital couples don't last as long as married ones; but that may be not be a bad thing -- from what I've seen, a good many couples stay together a lot longer than is good for them.) The importance of friendship, whether or not it includes erotic relations, needs a lot more attention too. What matters is enabling and encouraging people to discover and choose what they really want from their relationships, and I believe one way to move in that direction is by decentering marriage, and making it one possibility among others for people who are getting intimate with each other.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Trouble with Separatism

The other issue I meant to write about yesterday was racial (and other) separatism, but I figured that post was long enough already.

One major item on the Nation of Islam's wishlist was a black-only state, possibly a state within the US to be handed over exclusively to the Black Man. As this idea recurred in Marable's account, I began wondering what it would have helped. In a racist country -- as the United States is, and was even more in the early days of the Nation -- a black-only state would have been isolated economically from outside. Would the Interstate Highway System have included the black state? I didn't quite figure out whether Elijah Muhammad had in mind an independent, sovereign nation, which would have been even more isolated. Even if the new black nation wasn't landlocked, its larger, richer, vastly more powerful white neighbor would have kept it under strict surveillance.

White racists would have been quite happy with such a situation. While black self-sufficiency was also a plank of the Nation's platform, self-sufficiency is largely an illusion. I imagine at least some traffic in "guest workers" from the black nation to the white, to maintain a basement for white workers' wages and working conditions. (Sound familiar?) It would also bring some income to the black nation. If we're talking about simply a black state within the Union, the permeability of the border would be even greater. No doubt there would also be frequent "incidents" at the frontier, blamed by each side on the other.

One of the selling points of this vision was that blacks would treat one another well in their own state or nation, and be able to live proudly by contrast to their lives in a white supremacist state. By comparison, maybe so. But Elijah Muhammad doesn't seem to have had much interest in democracy for blacks. He ran the Nation of Islam as his own personal fief, from the top down. Discipline was maintained by the paramilitary Fruit of Islam, with corporal punishment the norm. But I suppose it's less bothersome to be thrown down the stairs or beaten within an inch of your life by Your Own. No doubt the Bonus Marchers, white World War I veterans trampled by police horses and shot down in the streets by white soldiers, would have agreed.

Leave aside the question of intraracial conflict and oppression, though. I kept wondering about travel to and from the black state or nation. Would blacks be under an outright ban everywhere else in the US under this arrangement, and would whites be utterly excluded from the black state? (And what about people of "mixed race"? Malcolm X himself was light-skinned, and harped in his Autobiography on the blood of the "devil" he carried. Should he have been allowed into the Promised Land?) Would having a black state justify the other forty-nine's being all white? That wouldn't have been the result in any case: if all African-Americans magically disappeared overnight, the growing Latino minority would still be giving white racists the megrims, along with Asians and the traditional Irish, Italians, and Jews. One of the notable things about these kinds of exclusions is that they are ultimately a game of Musical Chairs: get rid of the blacks, and the remainder would still be divided against itself, as it had been throughout American history. It would then be necessary to expel one more group after another, until the Anglo-Saxons were driven back across the ocean. But in that case, shouldn't the entire human species return to Africa?

This is why the quest for separation makes no sense to me. The Nation of Islam, as far as I could tell, agreed that it was legitimate for people to reject those whom they defined as different from themselves, and to try to drive them out. Certainly this was a very American sentiment. But if one accepts the necessity of racially uniform states, it's longer valid to condemn whites for their racism: on this construction they are simply conforming to human nature, black no less than white. Yet no society, no country, is really uniform, and every society manages to deal with some differences. It's not clear to me what determines the threshold at which difference starts to matter; it varies within the same society from time to time under different conditions.

The same consideration applies to Israel, many of whose apologists postulate the universality and inevitability of anti-Semitism and claim that Jews, no less than Christians, are entitled to their own homeland, But Christians don't have their own homeland, and aren't entitled to one. The history of Christianity is marked by the same infighting between sects: Which Christianity? Were Catholics right to try to purge Protestants, Lutherans to burn Anabaptists, Anglicans to disenfranchise Quakers, Methodists, Baptists and other dissenters? Aren't Christians entitled to a homeland free of heretics? The Zionist claim only makes sense on the assumption that they are; but remove the Jews and Christians will be at each other's throats, and in their new homeland Jews will be divided among themselves. If Zionists want to argue that religious or racial uniformity is legitimate, then anti-Semitism (along with every other form of bigotry) ceases to be illegitimate. It's striking that Zionism should have borrowed the assumptions of racism and religious bigotry as justifications for its own national project. At a time in history when bigotry was under attack and pluralism became a desirable principle, Zionism came down on the side of the racists. (See, for example, Paul Breines's Tough Jews.) The black nationalism of the Nation of Islam seems to have come from the same sources.

The evolution of gay identity politics has exhibited the same contradictions. The mainstream of gay politics in the US has adopted a quasi-ethnic model, sometimes merely from expediency but also from conviction. This connects to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's universalizing vs. minoritizing schema: are homosexuals a discrete, even racially distinct human subgroup, or are we more like a religion, a potential for conversion that exists in every person? The minoritizing, quasi-ethnic model would seem to imply that we are cuckoos in the heterosexual nest, who must come out and rejoin our original group; yet the minoritizing gay movement also is assimilationist, embracing reactionary notions of family and social acceptability. The anti-assimilationists often share the biological model of homosexuality as a genetic difference, but (maybe more consistently) stress that it makes us different, invoking Jungian mysticism and notions of inherent gay culture. Given Jung's racial and racist mysticism, we come full circle. Harry Hay reportedly used to say that gay boys "smell wrong" to our fathers, which is why they reject us. Well, if we're biologically different, and if it's natural to shut out what is different, why shouldn't they reject us? Again, the differences between the assimilationists and the anti-assimilationists look less important to me than their similarity.

I don't really have a conclusion here. I wanted to highlight the contradictions that make it impossible, in my view, to follow these theories of racial / religious / erotic difference to any logical end. But as a Darwinian, I don't assume that underneath it all, human beings must have evolved to be able to come together despite our differences. There's no reason to believe so. It may be that we are driven by powerful, conflicting impulses towards inclusion and exclusion that can't be resolved. But it seems clear to me that these impulses produce division in any human group, no matter how uniform it may seem at first. For that reason, separatism won't work. We have two main choices: either to privilege separation, which ends in smaller and smaller warring communities, or to work toward connection and inclusion -- not to believe we're all the same, but to recognize what we have in common. I think it is possible through education and conscious social engagement to get people to embrace difference and incorporate more of it in any group, but it will always be a dynamic, ongoing process, never to be finally settled. Still, I'd rather proceed on the presumption that it can be managed, and that engagement with difference is both workable and satisfying.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Extremists to the Left of Me, Moderates to the Right of Me!

I'm in the final fifty pages of Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X, and I've been troubled by some of its political and social judgments. In fairness, though, many of the participants and observers of the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s came to similar conclusions; what troubles me is that forty years later, so many people are still trapped in the mistakes of the period.

Probably the main issues I'm thinking of are violence and racial separation. I've long challenged other whites who said that Malcolm and the Nation of Islam advocated and even practiced violence against whites. Even in the 1960s, while I was still a kid, I could see that Malcolm (the Nation's most visible spokesman at the time) was talking primarily about self-defense against white violence both official and freelance. True, many whites publicly and officially deplored the freelance violence by vigilantes, but most of them never did much about it. This was partly because white terrorism, especially in the South, could target dissident whites as well as uppity blacks, as shown by the murders of white civil rights workers in Mississippi and elsewhere in the 60s. That the killers were able to evade capture and conviction for decades was the result of white solidarity, though intimidation was no doubt also involved. Maybe the US government should have responded to white terrorism in the South the way it responded, say, to peasant resistance in South Vietnam: by leveling white communities, burning them to the ground and moving the survivors to "strategic hamlets" until the troublemakers had been smoked out and eliminated, or at least until southern whites, without exception, had embraced non-violence. In my bleaker moods I've sometimes thought so.

I'm not ignoring or minimizing the history of white racist terror in the north. As Marable recounts, the Nation of Islam never did much in the south; Malcolm's constituency was poor urban blacks, who faced racism in the north and knew it. (The passage I quoted from Malcolm X in a previous post came from a major section dealing with anti-racist struggle in the north during the 1930s and 1940s.) And this continued down to the present day; northern whites responded in large numbers to Richard Nixon's incitement and encouragement of their racism.

What bothers me is the notion advanced by the Nation of Islam and by Malcolm X as its spokesman, and accepted by Marable and many other self-styled moderates, that Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders who rejected violence even in self-defense, were not "radicals" or "extremists." Malcolm liked to declare that "[Whites] should say thank you for Martin Luther King, because Martin Luther King has held Negroes in check until recently" (414). This was absurd on two counts. First, when Malcolm was invited to visit Selma, Alabama, in 1964,
... Malcolm could not refuse. The beauty of the Selma struggle was its brutal simplicity: hundreds of local blacks lined up at Selma's Dallas County building daily demanding the right to register to vote; white county and city police beat and harassed them. By the first week in February thirty-four hundred people had been jailed, including Dr. King. Under cover of darkness, terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan harassed civil rights workers, black families, and households. On February 4, Malcolm addressed an audience of three hundred at the Brown's Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Significantly, while the event had been arranged through SNCC, after some negotiations it was formally cosponsored by King's SCLC. Malcolm's sermon praised King's dedication to nonviolence, but he advised that should white America refuse to accept the nonviolent model of social change, his own example of armed "self-defense" was an alternative [411-412].
Notice that whites, in and outside of the South, did not see nonviolent action as 'holding Negroes in check' -- quite the opposite. Local authorities tried to check it themselves, with violence, and allowed white terrorist groups to harass, assault, and kill Civil Rights Workers. Look at this excerpt from King's "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail," addressed to white "moderate" ministers in 1963:

You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of the extremist. I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation, and, of a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security, and because at points they profit by segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement.... I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need not follow the "do-nothingism" of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. There is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest....

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice ... Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ ... So the question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice --or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? ...

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this. Maybe I was too optimistic.

Somehow I'd thought of this as a document of the 1950s; that it comes from 1963, after several years more of struggle as King and the nonviolent wing of the Civil Rights Movement had become ever more militant, is even more telling. Notice too that King began by playing the classic Golden Mean game, with himself the reasonable moderate between total quietism at one extreme, and the other extreme, represented by Elijah Muhammad, that "comes perilously close to advocating violence" -- but then he recognized (if only rhetorically, at first) that in the eyes of white America he was an extremist. If this be extremism, make the most of it!

The mistake here is the common belief that "moderation" in rhetoric equals "moderation" in policy, that black people especially are obliged to keep their voices low and evenly modulated, their rhetoric pacific and polite. That this is a mistake is shown by the fact that during his lifetime, King was always seen by whites as a dangerous radical. After all, one of his books was entitled Why We Can't Wait, with the epigraph "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." Wait a minute, doesn't that sound more like the demagogic rhetoric of a Malcolm X?

Malcolm's move from the Nation of Islam led him into engagement with "mainstream" civil rights groups and even a tentative alliance with whites -- but the Civil Rights movement hadn't stood still either, and as Marable admits, Malcolm and the Movement met more or less in the middle as more and more activists rejected King's supposedly conciliatory stance in favor of more militance, and less nonviolence. While King adhered to nonviolence, he too became more militant, and he'd never really been conciliatory. He became less conciliatory as time went on. It's a pity Malcolm didn't live to see it.

But the bigger irony is that if anyone was 'holding the Negro in check' it was Elijah Muhammad, who counseled blacks to refrain from political action of any kind, including voting. (In this he was like white religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell, who in the same era counseled his flock to avoid such worldly activity.) One reason Malcolm came into conflict with his mentor, on Marable's account, was that he kept straining at the leash, unable to refrain from building connections with black groups working actively against racism in the north and elsewhere. And despite the Nation's rhetorical appeal to violence, when it came down to brass tacks Muhammad had no stomach for it. (Not unreasonably, since blacks were outgunned by the white state.) When white police in Los Angeles murdered an unarmed Muslim named Ronald Stokes while raiding a mosque in 1962, Muhammad ordered his followers to "stand down" (208), to Malcolm's shock.
The time had come for action, and surely Muhammad would see the necessity in summoning the Nation's strength for the battle. But the Messenger denied him. "Brother, you don't go to war over a provocation," he told Malcolm. "They could kill a few of my followers, but I'm not going to go out and do something silly" [208].
On the other hand, Muhammad could stomach Muslim violence against his own. The Fruit of Islam (FOI), the Nation's paramilitary wing, regularly beat and terrorized members who misbehaved or dissented, culminating in the execution of Malcolm himself. The police tended to unconcern about these peccadilloes, as about black-on-black violence generally, and Marable says there is evidence that some FOI higher-ups -- including, possibly, one of the assassins -- were police informants.

In the end, Marable can't make up his own mind. On the same page, he writes first that "To Malcolm, armed self-defense was never equated with violence for its own sake" (485); two paragraphs later, that Malcolm "had also come to reject violence for its own sake, but he never abandoned the nationalists' ideal of 'self-determination" (485-6). And:
Given the election of Barack Obama, it now raises the question of whether blacks have a separate political destiny from their white fellow citizens. If legal racial segregation was permanently in America's past, Malcolm's vision today would have to radically define self-determination and the meaning of black power in a political environment that appeared to many to be "post-racial" [486].
Even in the 1960s, the existence of de facto, as opposed to de jure (that is, legal) racial segregation was recognized. The notion that the mere removal of Jim Crow laws automatically eradicated racism in America is beloved of many whites -- "You've got your rights, so what more do you want from us?" -- but most blacks know better. I don't think the current political environment is "post-racial" by any stretch of the imagination; the election of Barack Obama certainly doesn't make it so. "Many" would agree with me.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Art of Compromise

I'm just passing this along in case you haven't seen it already.


Little Boxes

I wasn't blogging in 2005, when the Northwestern University study on (male, natch) bisexuality was published, or I'd have had some things to say about it. Supposedly the researchers -- under the direction of the notorious Michael Bailey, which should have been a tip-off -- found that men who identify themselves as bisexual aren't really turned on by both sexes, with turn-on measured by having subjects watch various kinds of pornography while wearing a penile plesmograph to chart their arousal. The study got a lot of publicity, such as a New York Times article with the charming title "Straight, Gay or Lying?", angered a lot of bisexuals and pleased a lot of gay men and lesbians who'd always claimed that bisexuals were just closet cases. Quoth the Times,
The study is the largest of several small reports suggesting that the estimated 1.7 percent of men who identify themselves as bisexual show physical attraction patterns that differ substantially from their professed desires.
That may be true, but a representative study of gay men or straight men might come to similar conclusions. In my own experience, for example, I've been surprised how readily and effectively straight-identified men are able to be aroused by other men when they feel like it. (Impotence, when I've encountered it, has usually been a problem for gay-identified men.) And there are a lot of gay fathers out there who made their sperm deposits directly, so to speak. The Kinsey data, outdated though they may be, and about overt behavior rather than "identity," pointed in the same direction: the number of men who had sex with other men, often on an ongoing basis, was far greater than those who were exclusively homosexual throughout their lives. More than half of the ten percent of Kinsey's male subjects who were touted by gays as "gay" in fact had significant heterosexual experience. Whether they thought of themselves as gay or bisexual is something we'll never know, but it says something that gay people retroactively claimed a sizable population of bisexuals (going by what they actually did) as gay.

So, the new study, also reported in the Times (via) and also done at Northwestern, found that bisexual-identified men were aroused by hopefully erotic images of both men and women, "while gay and straight men in the study did not." The article also reports another study by researchers in Indiana which showed bisexual-identified men videos depicting "a man having sex with both a woman and another man, on the theory that these might appeal to bisexual men." This study also found that bisexual men exist. I can report, however, that scenes of a man having sex with both a woman and another man often turn me on, though I'm not bisexual, presumably because they depict men having sex with each other. For that matter, I can report arousal from watching heterosexual scenes, presumably because they depict men in sexual situations. These researchers are using blunt instruments to examine a complex phenomenon, but what else can they do?

Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, praised the 2005 study, but seems more critical of it in retrospect. Now she tells the Times,
“I’ve interviewed a lot of individuals about how invalidating it is when their own family members think they’re confused or going through a stage or in denial,” she said. “These converging lines of evidence, using different methods and stimuli, give us the scientific confidence to say this is something real.”
Is it "something real"? Reality is a tricky category where human psychology is concerned. "Sexual orientation," for example, describes a pattern of behavior and desire that can really be observed in human beings, but what does it mean to call it "real"? Is a pattern of behavior a trait? There has never been any doubt that many people have sexual relations with people of both sexes; the question has been what it means. The earlier Times article referred to something called "true bisexuality," but never explained what it meant. Did it mean equal numbers of male and female partners? How far can a person stray from 50/50 before they cease to merit the bisexual label? (I once asked an anti-bisexual gay man that question in an online debate, and he angrily refused to address it, but it is certainly a question worth asking, and answering.) The earlier article also raised the question of whether bisexuality is "a distinct and stable sexual orientation," but it's not certain that monosexuality is stable either. As I've argued before, what psychologists study as "sexual orientation" isn't really "sexual orientation" at all.

The new Times article is more attentive to the reactions of bisexual persons, who are ambivalent about it. Some have even figured out, apparently, that they don't need to be validated by scientific studies, though it's certainly gratifying when it happens.

Ellyn Ruthstrom, president of the Bisexual Resource Center in Boston, echoed Mr. Larsen’s discomfort.

“This unfortunately reduces sexuality and relationships to just sexual stimulation,” Ms. Ruthstrom said. “Researchers want to fit bi attraction into a little box — you have to be exactly the same, attracted to men and women, and you’re bisexual. That’s nonsense. What I love is that people express their bisexuality in so many different ways.”

I've encountered this line before, and it still annoys me. Of course "sexuality" can be reduced to "just sexual stimulation." It's not all there is to sexuality or relations, but it's a necessary component. It does seem to be surprisingly difficult to get people to remember that just about every component of human experience has to be viewed in its context, but when people get defensive, they just confuse matters more. "Sexuality" is that aspect of human life that involves "sexual stimulation," but since human beings assign complex meanings and emotional associations to everything we do, any serious discussion of sexuality has to cover a lot of other ground. I reject reductionism too, but usually the response to it is to be reductive somewhere else -- or to water down the concepts involved until they no longer mean anything.

Then there's the matter of "identity." Of course bisexual identity exists. If someone says "I'm bisexual," that's an identity and it therefore exists. What it means, if it means anything, is another question altogether. Many, perhaps most people, who have sexual relations or even relationships with persons of both sexes do not "identify as" bisexual. People tend to lie about their erotic behavior, no matter who it's with. There are a lot of reasons for that, and I think that mere avoidance of stigma is one of the most salient.

I hope I'll live long enough to see a day when "identity" is recognized as a largely meaningless and useless concept, but even if that happens, researchers and scholars will just find some other meaningless and useless concept to replace it with.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

He Who Controls the Past Controls the Future

I've begun reading the late Manning Marable's new biography of Malcolm X, which got a lot of attention when it published earlier this year. I'm only about 70 pages in today, but one subject that caught my attention was Marable's account of black people's civil rights struggles in the north, before and during World War II. Lately I've encountered a few references to the Civil Rights Movement by white commentators who seem to have assumed that the movement began in the southern states in the 1950s after the Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. So it's useful to read about matters like this:
In response to blacks' modest gains in employment [in the 1930s and 40s], thousands of white workers participated in "hate strikes" during the war years, especially in skilled positions. In July 1943, for example, white racists briefly paralyzed part of Baltimore's Bethlehem Shipyards. In August the following year, white streetcar drivers in Philadelphia, outraged at the assignment of eight black motormen, staged a six-day strike. In response, Roosevelt dispatched five thousand troops and issued an executive order placing the streetcar company under army control [56].
(No wonder the Right still considers Roosevelt a Communist! He nationalized a streetcar company! Over nothing!) That white Americans were willing to let their racism trump patriotism during wartime is a sign of the deep-rooted -- endemic, to use a word our President doesn't think applies -- white racism is in this country. And the expression of that racism wasn't lost on black Americans at the time.
None of the meaning of these events was lost upon African Americans, many of whom began to question their support for America's war effort. ... Although the vast majority of blacks still supported the war, a militant minority of young African-American males refused to register for the draft; others sought to disqualify themselves due to health reasons or other disabilities.

After a relatively calm period in black-white relations -- or perhaps better put, one with a less aggressive push by blacks for equality -- a new era was opening, characterized by black resistance and militancy. The Negro March on Washington and the civil rights rallies and demonstrations led by [Adam Clayton] Powell [Jr.] in Harlem provoked fear and reaction among whites. Government authorities tried to derail the burgeoning movement by restricting the freedoms or activities of African Americans and to impose Jim Crow even in cities and states without legal racial segregation laws [56-57].
This is an important part of the history that the Right in America wants excluded from history education, because they want the schools to "dispense not knowledge but a compendium of selected events, personalities and interpretations. More important, knowledge was eliminated of such events and personalities as were deemed to have no usefulness by the ideologues" of the Republican party. The words I just quoted, by the way, come from a 1994 letter to the editors of the Wall Street Journal, but I confess I took them out of context: the writer was denouncing the accurate teaching of American history, which he saw as a page from the strategy books of the Bolsheviks and Nazis. The mindset is still with us, closely associated with the Tea Party movement. So, it's important that we educate ourselves, and each other.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Squandering Our Sanctimony

The Great and Powerful IOZ has been back from self-imposed exile for a few weeks now, but not (in my not-so-humble opinion) exactly on stride. His comment today on the conviction of American backpackers for espionage in Iran was pretty good, though:
Well, Hillary Clinton is disappointed, proving once more that while the poor Persians must make do with the Ghazal, our greatest, infinitely variable native poetic form is sanctimony. It is most likely that these poor nincompoops are exactly the Lonely Planet backpacker assjockeys that they claim to be, and yet for a country that runs several very public infinite interment camps, a country in possession of some of the world's more insane border controls, a country in which a number of internal states have passed hysterical papieren-bitte laws to counter the grave threat of Mexican hedge trimming to go deploring other nations for arresting illegal border-crossers is a bit rich.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Racial Impurity and Gender Confusion

Here's a speculation. I'm reading John McWhorter's new book What Language Is (Gotham Books, 2011), which begins with a lengthy discussion of the difference in complexity among languages. Some have intricate systems of case, gender, or counting; others don't. This much I knew already. McWhorter argues, though, with numerous examples, that the "simpler" languages are usually the result of a sudden influx of speakers trying to learn them as adults. Infants acquiring their first language can, and do, master complex grammars effortlessly. After about the age of fifteen, this ability shrivels up, and few adults can learn new language with any fluency. Therefore they tend to simplify the new language, stripping away verb conjugations, noun cases, genders, and expressive particles. Their children learn the simplified version, and if there's a critical mass of such new speakers, they may affect the language as a whole: "over generations," as McWhorter says, "the very essence of what [a language] is starts to change. Namely, it gets simpler" (24). His first example is ancient Persian, but English went through a similar process.
English, like Persian, was stunted by too many adults learning it for an extended period of time. In this case it was the Scandinavian Vikings who invaded, starting in the eighth-century A.D., and stayed on to marry local women and knit themselves into English society. As new waves of Vikings kept blowing in over generations, children grew up hearing as much "funny" English as native: that is, without gender, using here instead of hither, chucking the difference between has seen and is departed, and so on. Scribes kept writing Old English more or less as if this wasn't happening, but then ... the Norman Conquest put written English on pause.

For two centuries, the written language of England was French, and when English started being used on paper [parchment and vellum, more likely] again, it was "middle" in the same way as Persian when it came back to light -- slimmed down and more user-friendly [27-28].
How do languages become complex in the first place? McWhorter argues that this a consequence of what he calls "ingrown" languages, where a population is relatively isolated, and so has the time and freedom to elaborate its language.
Even if we are aware that what is unusual is when a language is less complicated rather than when it is extremely complicated, a temptation always looms to attribute the complexity of language to some kind of utility. The idea that it is due to something as wan as drift or incremental habit formation sits awkwardly in the mind, especially for speakers of a moderately complex a language as English. Surely, we may think, all of that machinery in a language like Pashto must be for something. It couldn't just be buildup, like some ring in a bathtub [55].
McWhorter thinks that language complexity is just buildup, and gives plenty of reasons for believing that the complications "vastly overshoot anything that would be of any use to a child getting a grip on the system."
Languages are complicated because they can be. They complicate as a natural result of millennia of habits developed by people using them quickly and unconsciously. Because babies can pick languages up despite the massive accretion of complexity this yield, languages stay complex -- unless something intervenes, such as grown-ups learning them [59].
So, on to my speculation. McWhorter's discussion reminded me of gender, which after all relates to language. English is a relatively ungendered language compared to many others, such as French or German or Spanish. But in such languages, which randomly assign genders to inanimate objects, such as la mesa (how do you tell whether a table is masculine or feminine?), there are also contradictions.
German has a suffix, -chen, that makes things dear and small ... and it has neuter case. That means it takes the article das instead of the masculine der or feminine die. ... But once that suffix exists, you just know that somewhere along along the line, -chen will be applied, quite logically, to a woman to create a word meaning something like girly or maiden. It was: Mädchen. But that meant, automatically, an irregularity -- das Mädchen is a neuter word even though it refers to something clearly female [71].
In Spanish, -o is a masculine ending, but the word for hand is feminine: la mano. And so on.

Anyway, this got me to thinking about the way young children assign gender to objects in the world around them, as described by Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender (Norton, 2010).
At just ten months old, babies have developed the ability to make mental notes regarding what goes along with being male and female: they will look longer, in surprise, at a picture of a man with an object that was previously only paired with women, and vice versa. This means that children are well-placed, early on, to start learning the gender ropes. As they approach their second birthday, children are already starting to pick up the rudiments of gender stereotyping. There's some tentative evidence that they know for whom fire hats, dolls, makeup, and so on are intended before their second birthday. And at around this time, children start to use gender labels themselves and are able to say to which sex they themselves belong [211].
But even as they are forming themselves into little gender cops, they can be fooled, because so many of their gender categories are as arbitrary and fanciful as the notion that a hand is feminine or a girl is neuter:
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 [224].
So this makes me wonder if the elaboration of such cues might be connected to the elaboration of linguistic categories, both of which seem to be congenial to children, but which can be and sometimes have to be abandoned. In the case of gender, the fanciful imposition of rigid categories, the insistence that everything has to be crammed into one or the other box, doesn't work for most adults. There's a popular tendency to blame bigotry on adult indoctrination of children, but I don't believe it's always so. I think a lot of it is invented by children trying to make sense of the world, who find it difficult and painful to break down the walls they set up at an early age, especially since our minds "harden" as we get older. Just a thought, though.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

It's been a fairly busy day, and I couldn't decide what to write about, but this might be worth passing along. I heard about it on the Shortwave Report, a radio program that plays on my community radio station on Fridays, so I looked around on the web, and sure enough, it was true:
For the first time in recent history, the Foreign Operations Budget (State Department) openly details direct funding of at least $5 million to anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela. Specifically, the budget justification document states, "These funds will help strengthen and support a Venezuelan civil society that will protect democratic space and seek to serve the interests and needs of the Venezuelan people. Funding will enhance citizens' access to objective information, facilitate peaceful debate on key issues, provide support to democratic institutions and processes, promote citizen participation and encourage democratic leadership".
Sure, it's better for Obama to interfere in the Venezuelan elections with cash instead of bombs, but can you imagine the hysteria if it were revealed that Venezuela had funded the US political opposition on a similar scale? You don't even really need to imagine it. Back in 1976 one of our free-world allies sought to influence the workings of Congress by greasing a few palms, and all heck broke loose. Time complained about "exported South Korean corruption", and I suppose they had a point: what, our homegrown American corruption isn't good enough for Congress, they have to import it from the Asian sweatshops? One source reported that
he once saw then Ambassador Kim Dong Jo stuffing $100 bills into white envelopes. Kim's attaché case was "bulging with bundles of $100 bills. There must have been several hundred thousand dollars in that briefcase. It was an astonishing sight."

Incidentally, Tongsun Park, the prime mover in Koreagate, kept up his US connections. He eventually became a lobbyist for Iraq at the United Nations for the oil-for-food program of the late 1990s. He was convicted in 2007 of influence-peddling and served about a year of a five-year sentence. The things you learn ....

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Obstructing Commerce and Exorcising Cash Registers

I've just begun reading The Reverend Billy Project, by Savitri D and Bill Talen, published this year by the University of Michigan Press. The Reverend Billy is a performance-art character, invented by co-author Talen in the 1990s to satirize American consumerism. I hadn't heard of him before; my attention was mainly caught by the name of the editor, the critic Alisa Solomon, who also contributes an interview with the authors to the book. There's a Reverend Billy website, a documentary, and you can see him in action on Youtube -- with Glenn Beck, for example. (It's mildly entertaining to watch Beck, of all people, questioning Billy's theological qualifications and bona fides.)

The book opens with an account of Reverend Billy's attempted exorcism of a Starbucks north of Los Angeles in 2004, which led to his arrest, conviction, and three days' incarceration for sexually harassing a cash register.
The original charges against Billy included a restraining order that enjoined Billy to refrain from harassing, confronting, or sexually intimidating the Starbucks cash register [30].
As the prosecuting attorney summed it up in closing arguments, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, he intentionally interfered with business, he did interfere with business and this was beyond, beyond any right any of us have to go in and have a skit, have a play, have any actions, because there is a sacredness, there are places that people can't go grabbing registers and disturbing the flow of business. That's just beyond" (33).

"Sacredness"! My goodness. Of course this brought to mind Jesus' cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple Court, reported in all four canonical gospels. Here's Mark's version, in the New Revised Standard Version:
15Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple,* and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
18And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
It's often said that if Jesus were to come again today, he'd get in just as much trouble as he did the first time. He certainly impeded lawful business in the Temple Court; the author of Mark misleads us a bit, because the moneychangers and vendors did not set up shop "in the temple," but in the outer court, known as the Court of the Gentiles. Their work was, if not absolutely necessary, at least a convenience for pilgrims who'd come long distances to worship in Jerusalem and could hardly have brought sacrificial animals with them, and who needed to make cash offerings in forms without idolatrous images of foreign gods or kings stamped on the coins. It's hard to see how such services constituted "robbery", unless Jesus thought that the Temple personnel should have supplied them free of charge -- not a bad idea, but Jesus himself accepted financial and other support from his followers. If he objected to the offering of animal sacrifices in the Temple according to strict specifications, he needed to take it up with Yahweh and Moses, the authors of Scripture, who'd set those specifications.

A story like this should be borne in mind when people are talking about literalism. What would it mean to take the cleansing of the temple court literally? If that means believing that it actually happened, then one would still have to figure out what it means. Should Christians imitate Jesus by attacking, say, Christian gift shops that sell chi-chi statuettes of Jesus and wooden plaques that say "Jesus Loves You So Much It Hurts"? Would this apply to all the Christian writers who make money by explicating the gospel for modern people? How about Hollywood blockbusters which retell the life and suffering of Christ?

I've read some scholars, not the most radical by any means, who've argued that the story is a legend, that the historical Jesus didn't actually invade the Temple courts. There are reasons to doubt it: during major festivals like Passover, when Jesus staged his intervention, the Roman troops who occupied Jerusalem in those days kept a sharp eye open for troublemakers, and would probably have intervened rather forcefully if some wild-eyed fanatic pulled out a whip made of cords and began overturning tables in the Court of the Gentiles. I admit I enjoy the mental image of Jesus protesting as he was dragged off by Roman soldiers, "But you don't understand! I didn't mean it literally! It was an acted parable! It was a metaphor for the Day of Judgment!"

Heck, maybe that should have been Reverend Billy's defense.

*The New International Version has "temple court" instead of "temple" here, probably an apologetic addition. "Court" isn't in the Greek original.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Truth About Black, Er, Campaign Buses

This accounts for a political life that sometimes looks like a never-ending campaign, in which leaders extinguish wildfires, upbraid billionaire industrialists, or, as was seen last week, scuba dive in the company of a camera crew. Polling data has become an essential part of governing.
Oh, wait, the Times was talking about Russia there (via), not the United States. Besides, our leaders don't extinguish wildfires. Never mind!

(tip o' the mouse to Whatever It Is I'm Against It)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

England's Green and Pleasant Land

I drove down to Kentucky this weekend for a relative's birthday, so I heard a lot more corporate-media news on the radio than I usually do. There were several references to the London riots, of course, and I was struck (though not surprised) by the spin that the newscasters usually took: the rioters were just a bunch of bored kids who'd had too long a summer. Not a word about the ongoing police violence that killed 333 people between 1998 and 2010 without a single police officer being convicted, or about the peaceful protests about this and other issues that were ignored. Richard Seymour linked to a photo of the gun that killed Mark Duggan, and as he said, "That gun is a beast. It's designed to decimate flesh. Police use these weapons on citizens. The idea that they haven't got enough weapons or powers is fueled by a juvenile revenge fantasy, not reality."

RWA1, of course, rose to the occasion with rants about the decline of the social contract and a link to this Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Theodore Dalrymple:
The youth of Britain have long placed a de facto curfew on the old, who in most places would no more think of venturing forth after dark than would peasants in Bram Stoker's Transylvania. Indeed, well before the riots last week, respectable persons would not venture into the centers of most British cities or towns on Friday and Saturday nights, for fear—and in the certainty—of encountering drunken and aggressive youngsters.
And so on. This is disturbing, all right, and indicates serious problems with English society. But I can't help wondering how to square Dalrymple's account with the facts of 333 people killed in police custody. (One hundred of that number were killed between April 2004 and March 2005. Which, I suppose, is the tip of the iceberg, with more people beaten or otherwise injured by the police but who didn't die. And then there are the times when the police are the rioters.) Dalrymple doesn't even mention Mark Duggan; nor does he mention that the police initially lied about the circumstances, claiming falsely that Duggan shot first (the bullet they produced as evidence turned out to be a police bullet). There can be numerous explanations for this situation -- maybe the police prefer to dodge the mobs of hooligans and only assault isolated individuals they can safely gang up on. But anyone who wants to explain or understand what has happened in England in the past weeks is going to have to take the whole picture into account, instead of playing the old geezer chasing the kids off his lawn. The social contract (for which the Right has no use anyway) in England was already shredded, by the Tories and New Labour, long before this summer's riots. Quoth Dalrymple:
The reason for this is clear: The young unemployed Britons not only have the wrong attitude to work, for example regarding fixed hours as a form of oppression, but they are also dramatically badly educated. Within six months of arrival in the country, the average young Pole speaks better, more cultivated English than they do.
The rest of the piece is more of the same. Maybe English education has always been terrible; obviously Dalrymple sees education as a process of domestication for youth, preparing them for "fixed hours" and other regimentation. That is certainly how conservatives in the US see it. But again, not a word about police violence or other forms of repression that have always been part of English life.

I also wonder how long English youth have been terrorizing the English old. Dalrymple claims it's "long," which might mean "since last week," or "since the Norman invasion," or any number of points between. Alexander Cockburn commented on this kind of nostalgia at Counterpunch over the weekend, quoting first from the writer Gavin Mortimer:
In October 1940 Winston Churchill ordered the arrest and conviction of six London firemen caught looting from a burned-out shop to be hushed up by Herbert Morrison, his Home Secretary. The Prime Minister feared that if the story was made public it would further dishearten Londoners struggling to cope with the daily bombardments…

The looting was often carried out by gangs of children organized by a Fagin figure; he would send them into bombed-out houses the morning after a raid with orders to target coins from gas meters and display cases containing First World War medals. In April 1941 Lambeth juvenile court dealt with 42 children in one day, from teenage girls caught stripping clothes from dead bodies to a seven-year-old boy who had stolen five shillings from the gas meter of a damaged house. In total, juvenile crime accounted for 48 per cent of all arrests in the nine months between September 1940 and May 1941 and there were 4,584 cases of looting.
So much for the romance of the Blitz. Cockburn goes on to point out that
The riots in London last week started in Tottenham in an area with the highest unemployment in London, in response to the police shooting a young black man, in a country where black people are 26 times more likely to stopped and searched by the cops than whites. Stop-and-searches are allowed under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, introduced to deal with football hooligans. It allows police to search anyone in a designated area without specific grounds for suspicion. Use of Section 60 has risen more than 300 per cent between 2005 and last year. In 1997/98 there were 7,970 stop-and-searches, increasing to 53,250 in 2007/08 and 149,955 in 2008/09. Between 2005/06 and 2008/09 the number of Section 60 searches of black people rose by more than 650 per cent.
Again, it's hard to square this with Dalyrmple's account of drunken, aggressive youth controlling the streets. The kindest thing I can say is that it must be oversimple. But maybe it's only white youth who are the problem?

The best commentary I've seen on the riots has been at Lenin's Tomb. He does his own satire of certain mainstream reactions:
I remember a time when a copper could clip a young fellow round the ear and send him on his way. I remember a time when the most violent thing in the charts was the Foxtrot, when nuns rode to morning service on bicycles, while mist rose from the countryside. And I remember when rioters had some respect, and some principles. Not like today's mob. ... The decent working class values of old - hard graft, family, community, and a good kick up the arse - have been replaced by the values of the Carphone Warehouse. 'Greed is good' is the slogan upon which these feral yobs have been raised. They are Thatcherites. That is why they should have their benefits taken away, and they should be reported to the police, conscripted, and deported. It never did me any harm... (Contd, p. 94, and ad infinitum).
His post on "The competing common senses of the riots" is worth a read, as is his comment on a Tory historian's attempt to clear space on the frontiers of old-fashioned English racism, and on reports of racist vigilantism in Enfield. (Brit racism in high places is nothing new, of course.)

I had some entertaining exchanges on Facebook under some linked articles about the riots, with people who accused anyone who disagreed with them of supporting riots and looting. I kept hammering back: I don't support rioting, but I don't support state violence either. They clearly are just fine with repressive reaction, I suppose because they don't imagine that the boot might ever come down on their necks. But that's not really the issue, is it? Part of ethics (it seems to me) is that you condemn wrongness even when it doesn't directly affect you. Too many people are just fine with police violence, even random execution-style slayings like the one that killed Mark Duggan.

Monday, August 15, 2011

He Don't Know Us Very Well, Do He?

The Hankyoreh, the left-liberal South Korean news site, has an interesting article about the Hope and Sympathy Youth Concert, which put three political figures on stage to discuss political issues on August 12. "Concert" is a misleading word, maybe a mistranslation; since what is involved is two traveling speakers joined by local figures, "Tour" might be more accurate. They drew an overflow crowd of 1600 in Changwon, and according to the article they've regularly spoken before audiences of around 2000 young people at each stop. There's also going to be a big Hope rally in front of Seoul City Hall this coming weekend.

The title of the article made me wary, though: "For three figures, 'common sense' replaces left and right.'" That might be better than the American cliche of the middle of the road, since it implies something other than splitting the difference, but "common sense" (again, I don't know what Korean words it's supposed to translate) is generally wrong too. One should especially keep one's hand on one's wallet when politicians and business types appeal to common sense, and the Hope and Sympathy tour appears to be no exception.

The article got off to a promising start, though: Yoon Yo-joon, "a 72-year-old former Minister of Environment and conservative strategist who twice served as director of the Yeouido Institute, the Grand National Party’s think tank", told the audience:
Korean society likes to apply labels. I have hardly heard the term ‘Red’ thanks to my ancestral background, but democracy only deepens when you first move from political democracy to socioeconomic democracy. That is Article 119, Item 2 in the Constitution [on economic democratization]. If we did a good job of upholding that, there would not be the inequity and polarization we see in Korean society today.
The others agreed with him, pointing to the irony involved when people who call for implementing the Constitution are accused of being Commies. We have a similar irony here, where the rightists who claim that they simply want to return to a strict reading of the US Constitution have no idea what that document says. And ours is evidently a lot shorter than the Korean Constitution.

The theme that night was evidently harsh criticism of the Korean conglomerates. One of the other speakers, Ahn Cheol-soo, dean of Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology, "said that large companies like Samsung were 'like newborn babies that want everything when the urge strikes.'"

So far, so good, though American corporations are well-known for demanding government money whenever they run into difficulties; and Korean conglomerates always benefited from government support and intervention. But then the speakers revealed rather serious ignorance about the US corporate and political scene.

Ahn commented, "In the U.S., when chairmen gather together, the news comes out the next day that they are forming a research organization to lower expensive healthcare costs, while when we gather together, we demand tax cuts."

Er, no. US corporations also demand tax cuts. If American CEOs have ever formed a research organization to lower expensive healthcare costs, it would prescribe the elimination of Medicare.

Yoon explained that the reason large South Korean companies engage in a “plundering” management style is because they are at an early stage of capitalism.

Again, this would imply that American corporations are also "at an early stage of capitalism," but it might be better simply to acknowledge that capitalism is plunder, whether it is state-managed or nominally private. Corporations have no natural existence anyway; they are not "people," as one distinguished American political theorist claimed last week, but creations of the state. If these gentlemen are dispensing "common sense," they'll need to look for something better, like accurate information.