Friday, September 30, 2011

I Say We Take Off and Nuke the Entire Site from Orbit



It's the only way to be sure.

Band of Thebes, where I got this clip, asks, "Do the bullies run completely unchecked in feral packs?" Of course they do. Parents and teachers and administrators stand by and do nothing; sometimes they join in. I've written before about this.
Reading Pascoe's account of what she calls "the rape paradigm," or remembering the Speakers Bureau volunteer who tells how once a month, in his high school in the 1980s, the cool kids would wear t-shirts that read "SILLY FAGGOT -- DICKS ARE FOR CHICKS", I find myself asking a question I never thought would pass my lips:

Where were the adults?

Where were the adults when Pascoe's Ricky was being harassed and beaten up, or when Keith was jamming a drumstick into another student's crotch and yelling "Get raped"? (Standing back and watching it happen, she says.) Where were the adults when those t-shirts were being worn in the halls, classrooms, and cafeterias? (Doing nothing, or chuckling at the wit of it all.) Even the word "dicks," which I'd have thought a punishable breach of decorum, didn't bother the administration. Considering that political messages or other attention-grabbing slogans are verboten in so many school dress codes, I find it incredible; but antigay bigotry is uncontroversial and apolitical. Their high moral standards, their obsessive concern with a docile student body, can be forgotten for the right cause.
As Anderson Cooper says in the clip, religious bigots claim that anti-bullying programs "encourage homosexuality." This needs to be fought more effectively. Kids like Jamey Rodemeyer shouldn't have to do it themselves. As Dan Savage has said, gay advocacy groups are kept out of schools by the bigots. But why should it be necessary for outsiders to do this? Parents should be the leaders in these matters; don't they care about their own children? Of course it won't be easy, but finding your child hanging from a rope because he couldn't stand his life anymore is presumably harder.

The gay community can set an example, and needs to clean its own house. As I also wrote before, there's a lot of hostility to effeminate boys and masculine girls (under the euphemism "stereotypes") among gay people who fancy themselves respectable, the kind of people I call Homo-Americans.
And if it's destructive to bad-mouth people, if speaking negatively about someone in their presence can drive them to suicide, something needs to be done about gay people who complain about the bad homosexuals who Fit the Stereotype and made it seem that they couldn't be normal Homo-Americans like they wanted to be, scaring them back into their closets for years. It's those Stereotypes who get beaten up regularly and are more likely to kill themselves; it surely doesn't help them to hear themselves denounced as scary, malevolent queer demons who ruin everything for normal homos. It's telling that many respectable gay people think it's proper to demonize them. (And like the straight homophobes, the image people never think about the the impact of what they're doing on real people.)
Then there are hip, radical straight boys (they never will be missed!) who want to rehabilitate the word "faggot," because on their account it doesn't really mean "homosexuals," it means people "who take a knee," who "choose to lose, because the alternative bears too heavy a cost." (This is especially funny, really, because the blogger who wrote it later whined, when IOZ playfully urged defiance of TSA groping at airports, that he couldn't do it, because he had his kids with him and it would just get him in trouble for nothing. Faggot.*) Or who, in their ideological purity, don't want class issues to be sidetracked by trivia like racism, sexism, and homophobia.

We've got our work cut out for us.

*Bear in mind, I don't think he should have defied TSA at the airport. I'm just pointing out that he fits his own definition to an F, so maybe he should be a bit less judgmental about other people's little capitulations. The faggot.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Believing What You Know Ain't So

I just finished reading Bruno Latour's On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Duke, 2010), and am still stirring it around in my head. Latour is (in)famous as an anthropologist of science, whose fieldwork consists of observing the savage scientist in his natural habitat, the laboratory. I haven't yet read any of that work; all I'd read before was We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard, 1993), whose title signaled to me that the author was someone whose ideas would make sense to me; and so it proved.

Here's a nice passage from the newer book, which caught my attention after I listened last night to three people on the community radio station talking about ancient astronauts and the like. None of them believed that the Great Pyramid was built by extraterrestrials, because that wouldn't be scientific; yet I got the impression that they believed that extraterrestrials had crashed at Roswell and been sequestered at Area 51.
Does the only example of naïve belief we have, then, come from a naïve belief on the part of researchers that ignorant people believe naively? Not quite, for ignorant people do exist who quite resemble the picture that researchers would like to paint of them. Photographers of flying saucers, archaeologists of cities lost in space, zoologists tracking the Yeti, people who have been contacted by little green men, creationists fighting against Darwin – all the sorts of people that Pierre Lagrange studies with a collector’s passionate interest – are all trying to pin down entities that seemingly display the same properties of existence, the same specifications as entities that, according to the epistemologists, come from laboratories. Curiously enough, these people are called “irrationalists,” whereas their greatest fault comes more from the reckless trust they display in a scientific methodology, dating to the nineteenth century, in order to explore the only mode of existence they are able to be imagine: that of the thing, already there, present, stubborn, waiting to be pinned down, known. No one is more positivistic than creationists or ufologists, since they cannot even imagine other ways of being and speaking than describing “matters of fact.” No researcher is that naïve, at least not in the laboratory. This is so much the case that, paradoxically, the only example of naïve belief we have seems to come from the irrationalists, who are always claiming that they have overthrown official science with stubborn facts that some conspiracy had hidden away [44].
The last section of the book is a sermon on the relation between science and religion, and even though I disagree rather vehemently with a lot of what he says there, he still raises valuable questions and points to important problems. And I appreciate the almost Wildean paradoxes he plays with, which (as he admits) catch him in his own contradictions.
What would happen to me if, in criticizing the critics, I was simply trying to create another scandal? What if this essay, in its pretension to re-describe iconoclasm, was nothing but another boring iconoclastic gesture, another provocation, the mere repetition of the endless gesture of the intelligentsia’s most cherished treasures? We don’t know for sure [88].
And:
… it is science that reaches the invisible world of beyond, that ... is spiritual, miraculous, soul-fulfilling, and uplifting; it is religion which should be qualified as being local, objective, visible, mundane, un-miraculous, repetitive, obstinate, and sturdy [111].
And:
What I have argued in this lecture is very different: belief is a caricature of religion exactly as knowledge is a caricature of science. Belief is patterned after a false idea of science, as if it were possible to raise the question “Do you believe in God?” in the same way as “Do you believe in global warming?” except the first question does not possess any of the instruments that would allow the reference to move on, and that the second is leading the interlocutor to a phenomenon even more invisible to the naked eye than God, since to reach it we have to travel through satellite imaging, computer simulation, theories of earth atmospheric instability, or high stratosphere chemistry [121].
I'll probably have occasion to refer to Latour again, but for now it's time to hit the sack.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fashionable Stubble and Cocaine Fueled All-Nighters

Last weekend I wrote about an article at Onion's AV Club that complained about the treatment of Christians in independent cinema, and also about Weekend, a new movie about two gay men that has been getting good reviews. This week the AV Club has a review of Weekend by Allison Willmore, the same writer who cried a river about Christians in movies.

The review is highly positive, but it isn't terribly insightful.
But while it’s accurate to describe it as a “gay film,” that label needlessly condemns it to a niche when it deserves a wide audience, or at least as wide an audience as a drama that features frank, unabashed man-on-man hookups can manage. Weekend is, simply, a great indie romance.
I guess this could be worse. Willmore recognizes that the problem is homophobia and niche marketing, not anything inaccurate about the "gay film" label. (And when you think about it, did the "gay cowboy" label -- which was used by just about everybody except the filmmakers and their marketing department -- really hurt Brokeback Mountain?) It would be nice if straights (and probably many gays) could reach the point where they took for granted that a gay movie would be about something other than homosexuality, but I don't expect to see that in my lifetime. And since so many heterosexuals are squicked out by same-sex romance on the screen, it's probably just as well: better they should be forewarned so they don't have to throw tantrums in the theater.

Back in the 90s, impelled by the realization that most gay people I knew hadn't seen any of the significant gay and lesbian films that had been released to that point, I ran a one-semester film series in the dorm where I was working. The turnout was gratifying, and included straights as well as gays in the audience. Later a young straight man who'd attended most of the showings told me that he was surprised to find the films had so much intrinsic interest, that they told meaningful and interesting stories above and beyond same-sex romance and relationships. That made me happy, because it was exactly what I'd hoped people to take from the films they saw: that they'd have been worth seeing even if the characters had been straight.

If you read my post on Weekend from the weekend, you'll recall that I was bothered by what I can only describe as the filmmaker's narrow-mindedness: he complained that previous gay films he'd seen had "never represented how I felt about being gay, ever ... I haven’t got muscles and I don’t live in West Hollywood." By his logic, I shouldn't bother seeing Weekend, since I don't live in England, I don't maintain a fashionable stubble on my face, and I've never had "a cocaine-fueled all-nighter": therefore it doesn't represent how I feel about being gay.

Despite this, I still plan to see Weekend if it ever comes near enough. Why? Because I don't expect art to show me only myself. One reason I read and watch movies is to find out how other people see the world, how they live, what is possible and imaginable in human conduct and relationships. I can't think of any gay movie that was about a person like me. (Many of my favorite gay films have been about lesbians, in fact.) Yet there have been a good many gay movies I've seen that I enjoyed, that spoke to me, that represented at least part of how I felt about being gay.

I remember how some straight women athletes I knew reacted to Personal Best, Robert Towne's 1982 film about two bisexual women athletes: "People will look at this," they wailed, "and think all women in sports are lesbians!" This despite the fact that the two leads are the only women athletes in the film who aren't heterosexual: they're surrounded by peers who are quite vocally interested in men. Still, that is how a lot of people think, if "think" is the word. They'll look at Weekend and think that everybody in Nottingham is gay and does cocaine! The only way to avoid such reactions is not to make movies, I guess. But I expect more intelligence from critics, and from filmmakers -- even though I don't get it nearly often enough.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

No One Who Puts His Hand to the Plow and Looks Back Is Fit to Serve in the Obama Campaign

There's been a fair amount of reaction to Melissa Harris-Perry's accusation that white liberals are "abandoning" Obama because they're racist. She admits that she's talking about "a more insidious form of racism," though, since she names no specific culprits nor any specific examples of racist practice or discourse. What her complaint boils down to that Obama has suffered
a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans—from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now. I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected.
David Sirota took Harris-Perry down on that last point:
President Clinton was not "enthusiastically re-elected," as Harris-Perry well knows. When Clinton triangulated against his liberal base with NAFTA, welfare reform and "don't ask, don't tell" (among other issues), he faced just as vociferous liberal criticism as Obama does today, and in the very journals like the Nation for which Harris-Perry now writes.

As a result, America saw the opposite of "enthusiasm" in 1996 -- that presidential election, in fact, saw unprecedentedly low turnout. Additionally, Clinton -- after dissing his base -- won a meager 49 percent of the vote in that election, despite running against one of the weakest, least charismatic Republican presidential nominees in recent memory. In short, just as many white liberals were dissatisfied with a white president for abandoning the Democratic Party's base back in 1996, so too are many now dissatisfied with a black president for doing the same -- or, in many cases, worse.

(For the record, in 1996 I voted for Nader. But then, I'm not a liberal or a Democrat.)

Sirota shows how Harris-Perry ignores numerous important differences between Clinton and Obama, unemployment and a staggering economy not least among them. It doesn't help that Obama's approval rates among African-Americans have also taken a nosedive, which I suppose is also because of racism. Or maybe it's because, as Obama himself claimed during his repellent performance before the Congressional Black Caucus, blacks are lazy and demand everything handed to them on a platter: "Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying." (This is not a new theme in the Obama show, of course.) I seem to remember another distinguished African-American leader saying essentially the same thing a few years ago: "Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and moan, whine and whine." He also claimed that he was picked on because of his race, and suffered a "high-tech lynching" which climaxed in his elevation to the highest court in the land.

Harris-Perry exhibits behavior we've seen before, by Republicans during the Bush years: she's just regurgitating White House talking points, from her touting all those lovely laws that were passed under Obama - quantity trumps quality, you see -- to claiming that his critics are "disappointed" because he didn't save the world in forty-eight hours. (The writer Pearl Cleage posted a status with the same basic content today.) From his lips to her keyboard! Especially so soon after the debt-ceiling debacle, you wouldn't think an Obama loyalist would want to remind her readers about her leader's record, but let her have her will. We're going to see a lot more of the same as the campaign drags on.

I went back to C. P. Snow's response to personal attacks in The Two Cultures, a good all-purpose approach.
However, the problem of behaviour in these circumstances is very easily solved. Let us imagine that I am called, in print, a kleptomaniac necrophilist (I have selected with some care two allegations which have not, so far as I know, been made). I have exactly two courses of action. The first, and the one which in general I should choose to follow, is to do precisely nothing. The second is, if the nuisance becomes intolerable, to sue. There is one course of action which no one can expect of a sane man: that is, solemnly to argue the points, to produce certificates from Saks and Harrods to say he has never, to the best of their belief, stolen a single article, to obtain testimonials signed by sixteen Fellows of the Royal Society, the Head of the Civil Service, a Lord Justice of Appeal and the Secretary of the M.C.C., testifying that they have known him for half a lifetime, and that even after a convivial evening they have not once seen him lurking in the vicinity of a tomb.

Such a reply is not on. It puts one in the same psychological compartment as one’s traducer. That is a condition from which one has a right to be excused.
One reason why accusations of racism can be so effective is that the United States is a racist country: no one can honestly claim that his or her opinions are utterly free of it. But just for that reason, unless you can point to specifically racist elements of someone's practice or talk, saying that an American is racist is like saying that they're breathing. One could just as accurately claim that white liberal supporters of Obama are racist, and continue supporting him because they're trying to overcompensate for their prejudice. Either move is a distraction from the issues, though of course that's normal in a political campaign. Obama's going to need a shitload of distraction to throw in the voters' eyes during the coming thirteen months, though his Republican would-be opponents are doing their best to make it easy for him.

Meanwhile, Obama should be challenged when he demands support for harmful policies, which is what he was doing with the Congressional Black Caucus. If they resist voting for bills that will harm their constituency, they're doing their job, not shirking it.

And what an irony: one similarity between Clinton and Obama that Harris-Perry overlooks (not too surprisingly) is that they both lost control of Congress in midterm elections because their right-wing policies alienated their base. This undermines her case, because she depends on a postulated "double standard" that let a white (but still America's first black) president get away with things a black president can't.

Monday, September 26, 2011

In the Room the Bottoms Come and Go

I'm reading Jeffrey Escoffier's history of gay porn, Bigger than Life (Running Press, 2009), and it's a good, informative read, but things keep catching my attention. Like this, describing the filming of a famous early hardcore feature, Boys in the Sand:
There was no top, no bottom -- indeed those rigid distinctions had not yet evolved among gay men ... [98]
Then, a few lines down on the same page, about the same film and the same period:
An old friend was present when the casting was being discussed and said to Poole, "I've got the perfect person for you. He's blond, six feet tall, and handsome. He's got a nice dick, a beautiful ass, and he does everything."
"He does everything." This is a nod to the fact that there were tops and bottoms in those days, though the terminology was somewhat different. A real man was a penetrator only (what would now be called a total top), while a queer was penetrated. In fact, the usual line among orthodox post-colonial Foucauldians is that sexual versatility is a modern and probably cultural imperialist development, while the active/passive dichotomy is traditional, indigenous, and natural. Of course, just like today, the boundary between those categories was highly permeable. In Barry Reay's New York Hustlers, which I discussed here a couple of months ago, he describes a gay male milieu built on a rigid distinction between Queers and Trade, while admitting that occasionally Trade got into being penetrated by Queers, but it still didn't mean the penetrated Trade were closeted Queers, only that being "pedicated ... merely enlarged his sphere of enjoyment and did not make him ‘queer.’"

I've noticed myself that as a post-AIDS development, the "top" is a fairly unstable category, held together with spit and tissue paper. I've been informed by several self-identified tops that they refuse to be penetrated because they don't want to contract HIV. (I haven't been able to get out of them why they think other men allow these "tops" to penetrate them; I suspect the question is too threatening to entertain.) An identity built on fear is not a very reliable one; I suspect that at least some of these "tops" will get drunk from time to time and allow what they never allow, probably without a condom. You don't have to be an essentialist to believe that refusing to be penetrated for fear of HIV is not the same as genuinely not enjoying or wanting the experience -- just like refusing to have sex with other men for fear of Hell doesn't make you straight.

But I digress. Here's another passage that snagged me, this time a quotation from Edmund White's States of Desire.
San Francisco is where gay fantasies come true, and the problem the city presents is whether, after all, we wanted these particular dreams to be fulfilled -- or would we have preferred others? Did we know what price these dreams would exact? [quoted by Escoffier, 118]
One reason I didn't get around to visiting San Francisco until I was nearly 50 (and even then it was because a friend bought me a plane ticket -- otherwise I might never have made the trip) was precisely that I wasn't all that attracted by the "particular dreams" it represented. When I've visited gay neighborhoods closer to home I haven't felt their siren call, because I've never wanted to be surrounded only by other gay men. That was why I chose to be openly gay -- admittedly, in a relatively gay-friendly college town -- because being isolated from straight people was never my "particular dream." I wanted straights to make room for the gay people who already lived beside them, not to let them have a gay-free environment. Besides, when I saw the spaces that gay men constructed according to their own dreams, I realized that once again I was a misfit, and I wasn't going to try to assimilate.

The final quotation (for today, at least). From the New York Times Magazine, January 3, 1971, quoted on page 117:
What distinguishes San Francisco from any place else is the style with which porn is marketed, its practitioners' attitude towards it and the tolerance most square citizens display concerning the whole question. The basic assumption, it would seem ... is that a "mature adult" is entitled to get his kicks any way he can, provided decent citizens don't have to witness the process and nobody gets hurt.
What stuck to me in this one was "decent citizens." Of course, if there's one thing we have learned in the last forty years, it's that "decent citizens" always keep porn, sleaze, and homosexuality at arm's length, and never avail themselves of these products, services, and practices -- right? Stop laughing. But it's amazing that this assumption is still so common. What is known, though it's hardly news, is that many "decent citizens" need the Red Light District out there so they can sneak away to it when they crave release from the straitjacket of "decency." One of the many problems with Scott Herring's "slumming" model is that he pays too little attention to the people who live in the slums: they're still the Other for him, no less than they were for the respectable folk he wrote about with such smug disdain.

What progress we (that is, gay people or GLBTQ+π if you prefer) have made is the emergence of respectable, "decent" Homo-Americans, gay people who also present themselves as above the sleazy, gives-us-a-bad-name behavior of some ghetto homosexuals. You won't find them gyrating drunkenly in backless chaps on a Gay Pride Float, or cruising around toilets and highway rest stops. Until they themselves get caught doing it, of course.

Escoffier has more sense than the Homo-Americans, of course; I'm not including him with the likes of them. He recognizes, chronicles, and even celebrates the parts of our history that many gay people would prefer to forget. It just seems to me that at times he leaves the dividing wall up from the other side.

Whatever the Market Will Bear

It's true, I'm a hateful, bitter, cynical negative old man. What would I be without brand recognition? (Speaking of which, I was accused of cynicism and negativity in alicublog's comments again the other day. Which, as I pointed out, is like being chided for incivility by Ann Coulter fans.)

Another one of my Facebook friends posted a link to a Lakota-dubbed version of The Berenstain Bears. I've never seen the series myself, but fine with me. I'm all in favor of preserving the pre-Columbian languages of this hemisphere.

My friend, however, made this remark about the link:
Self-reliance is more fun than being consumers. Living languages are more satisfying than assimilation.
Oh, my. Oh, dear. I posted this comment:
Wait a minute -- isn't English a living language? And who am I assimilated to?
It could be that I've misunderstood my friend's comment, because it doesn't really make much sense. It could be that she objected to dubbing a bland commercial product into Lakota, hiding niche marketing behind cultural preservation and diversity. The Berenstain Bears are very much a consumer product despite (or because of) the show's PBS provenance: "As of 1983, the Berenstain Bears had been licensed to approximately 40 companies for more than 150 types of products, with projected annual sales of $50 million", extending to "clothing, Happy Meals, cereal, chocolate, crackers, greeting cards, puzzles, embroidery kits, and notepads." But that has nothing to do with "living languages." No matter how socially concerned the owners of the franchise may be, they're not likely to dub the Bears into Latin. (Maybe they should: The Berenstein Bears Go to the Gladiatorial Games ! Grandpa Berenstain Bear and the Slave Boy! There are real possibilities there.)

Assimilation, of course, is relational, not absolute. Children who don't assimilate to one culture (call it Tele-American) assimilate to another (Lakota). Learning your "native" language is a major part of assimilation to your "own" culture.

And where does "self-reliance" come in? Traditional cultures are not self-reliant, they're built on interdependence. My friend's first sentence seems to staple Ayn Rand to Ralph Nader. (Admittedly, the thought of a cage match between the two is intriguing.) The second appears to embrace an essentializing nativism. The comment is no more incoherent than those of my RWA1, but that's exactly the problem: it's setting the bar too low.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Did You Know There Was, Like, an Adoration Chapel Around the Corner There?

There's a strange new article at the AV Club this weekend. Well, it's really strange because it's at the AV Club, whose writers generally show more sense.

Writer Allison Willmore begins "What If They Just Plain Believe?" by describing the reception of Kevin Smith's "religion-baiting" new movie Red State at Sundance earlier this year. Red State, however, "was just one of a crowd of films there to feature broad villainy in the name of fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity", and Willmore lists a few. Then she writes,
It’s not as though someone decided, “This will be the year of the abusive evangelical!” But taken together, these titles were enough to make some—to make me, certainly—squirm in discomfort at the easy targets they set up and then knock down. They invite the question: Are indie films unfair to Christianity?
Whoa! That's a bit of a leap, to put it gently: from "fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity" to "Christianity," full stop. It's the kind of equivocation that evangelicals themselves love to use in debate. When they're on the defensive, they remind you (as Willmore does) that "around 75 percent of Americans [identify] themselves as part of a Christian denomination." When they're on the offensive, they attack most of those 75 million for not really being Christians, because they aren't evangelicals. And that intellectually dishonest move drags down Willmore's article, culminating in
If faith only shows up as a means of keeping people down or as a way for someone to hide an underlying cruel/greedy/lying/delusional nature, if the idea that a character can be sincere in his or her beliefs and get something from them is impossible, then indie film becomes the equivalent of the smug belligerent atheist kid on campus who’s always trying to organize debates about the existence of God with Christian groups, and who ends up coming across as just as annoying as any sanctimonious proselytizer. Personally, my hopes are pinned to the recently announced The Book Of Mormon adaptation: Trey Parker and Matt Stone may be experts at skewering the preposterous aspects of organized religion, but they’re also willing to admit that out of faith can come positive things.
(N.B. I added the link to the cartoon there.) Personally, I think that Parker and Stone are a good example of what is really wrong with most outsiders' view of conservative religion. They fasten, no less than Smith apparently did in Red State, on easy targets: homophobic fundamentalists, child-molesting Catholic priests. Then they turn around and sentimentalize clean-cut, wholesome Mormons (you know, the kind of people who worked hard for Proposition 8) or gesture vaguely at Jesus and Love and why-can't-we-all-get-along. Even hard-core atheists can go along with this, quoting with approval Gandhi's "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians" line, and asking why fundamentalists are so un-Christian, unlike that nice Mr. Jesus, who only taught hellfire and damnation and plucking out your eye to avoid sin, and depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire -- Die! Die! Die! You know, the true meaning of Christian love.

Willmore also complains:
So one could argue that films like the ones listed above are critiques of the dominant culture—though not the dominant culture of cinema, given that most multiplex movies, the ones that are seen by the broadest audiences, avoid religion entirely unless it’s of the ancient Greek or Norse variety and will enable some kickass slow-motion fight scenes. And it’s hard to imagine any other religion, even Islam, taking it on the chin so regularly in the media, being used as shorthand for hypocrisy and repressed rage without provoking protests of cultural insensitivity.
This is also a common complaint among conservative Christians, and just as dishonest when they do it. The trouble is partly that evangelical Christians want a very specific kind of Christianity depicted in media, and so they're dissatisfied by the watered-down version that makes it into product aimed at "the broadest audiences." I don't believe media people when they claim that they are just giving America what it wants, but they might be right that even most American Christians are put off by a movie character taking time out to a commercial for evangelical Christianity. (For a detailed, informed, and very sensitive discussion of this issue, I recommend Heather Hendershot's excellent Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture [Chicago, 2004].) And that leaves aside the detail that "the broadest audiences" Hollywood wants to reach are more than ever international audiences, who might not be Christian at all, but when they are, are even less likely to be American-style fundamentalists.

But even in the multiplexes, the story is more complicated than Willmore admits. Surely she's heard of this recent hit The Blind Side, which starred Sandra Bullock as a very Christian Southern white lady who adopts a poor black kid and makes him a football star. I haven't seen it and don't watch much multiplex fare anyway, but what I have seen over the past few decades fits the pattern I mentioned above: it does depict religious bigots as villains, but pays nonsectarian lip service to Christian charity and niceness. This understandably bothers a lot of conservative Christians, and I can understand why they want antigay bigots, racists, and anti-choice fanatics to be presented as positive characters, but the fact remains that such figures are embarrassments in real life and not representative of "the dominant culture." Many conservative Christians want commercial entertainment (borrowing Willmore's words) "to run with [fundamentalism] as the primary characterization of the religious affiliation of the majority of the nation", but only as long as it's presented positively.

To repeat: fundamentalists are not equivalent to Christianity. As I've said before, no single type of Christian is representative of Christianity. It's as invalid to judge Christianity by Martin Luther King Jr. as it is to judge it by Pat Robertson. I judge it by Jesus, so of course it comes up wanting. Even people who might privately share such views don't like what they look like from outside, so of course they blame the messenger. (I see a similarity here to men who complain about negative depictions of men as violent brutes in commercial media: they don't object to depictions of violent men per se -- quite the opposite -- but they do mind violent men being seen as villains. Men who aren't violent, who like women, children, and domesticity -- these are the men they want to see demonized.)

Using "abusive" Christians as negative characters isn't limited to non-Christians, by the way, or even to today's commercial entertainment. Such types show up in nineteenth-century popular fiction; I believe there were such characters in Oliver Twist, and the fanatic has always been a convenient boogeyman for those who want to look and feel moderate. (The worst thing about Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, to my mind, is that they make almost any other Christian seem moderate by comparison, and many bigots take advantage of this.) I wonder if The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which actually is an anti-Christian book, could be published today. Twain, however, fit the pattern I described above: "If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian," he once wrote.

A number of commenters named films that treat Christianity, or religion generally, with more nuance and sympathy; I could name more myself. But that would bog one down in disputes about how adequate they are, or if there are enough of them. That's not really the issue anyway; I think it's more important that Willmore relied on this convenient confusion between one strand of Christianity and the whole tangled skein. This is why I was startled to find Willmore's polemic at the AV Club; it really belongs on a hardcore conservative Christian site.

While I'm On the Subject ...



Band of Thebes has a post today about a new gay film from the UK, Weekend. It's been getting a lot of good press, such as this review by admitted heterosexual Andrew O'Hehir of Salon, so I mean to see it when I get the chance.

But I was put off by some of the statements in BoT's post, especially some made by the filmmaker as quoted in the New York Times by Dennis Lim:
“Weekend” is the exception that proves the rule: As gay experiences have become more varied, and as the conversation about being gay has evolved, gay films have largely failed to keep up. A wide swath of so-called gay cinema “never represented how I felt about being gay, ever,” Mr. Haigh said. “I haven’t got muscles and I don’t live in West Hollywood.” Often overlooked are the subtle complications that have come with progress. “People are accepting you but perhaps not fully,” he said. “And do you want to be accepted fully?”
Have gay films "failed to keep up"? For that matter, have "gay experiences become more varied"? This is misleading in so many ways. "Gay experiences" have always been varied; to claim otherwise is to declare one's (willful?) ignorance of our history. From the descriptions I've seen of Weekend, it contains no themes that couldn't have been covered in gay films at any time in the past forty years. For that matter, they have been covered in gay films.

BoT calls Lim's account of gay cinema "a wide-ranging think piece"; I don't think so, though I don't think it pretends to be. It skims far too lightly over the subject, and exhibits very little thought along the way, if any at all indeed. After derisory summaries of Parker Tyler's 1972 opus Screening the Sexes and Vito Russo's 1981 survey The Celluloid Closet, Lim writes:
As gay liberation took root, the most prominent gay films were sincere romantic dramas like “Making Love” and “Personal Best” (both 1982), which strove to validate same-sex relationships by presenting them in a nonthreatening light, and the films grew even more somber as AIDS entered the picture (“Longtime Companion,” “Philadelphia”). Gay characters now turn up regularly in Hollywood movies, as comic sidekicks or diversity tokens, but usually take center stage only if they are martyrs (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Milk”).
I wouldn't connect Making Love or Personal Best to gay liberation, which was pretty much dead and buried by 1982. As so often, Lim and the Times confuse gay liberation with commercial gay male culture, ignoring the eclipse of gay liberation (which never sought to "validate same-sex relationships by presenting them in a nonthreatening light") and its supersession by the avowedly assimilationist gay-rights movement that dominated the scene by the late 1970s. (That's not necessarily a putdown: the assimilationist gay-rights movement is, for better or worse, representative of American gays as gay liberation never was.) Those two films are also Hollywood product with all the limitations the term implies, so Lim is ignoring (as I suppose he must) everything that happened in gay cinema outside that paradigm. As for gay characters turning up "regularly in Hollywood movies as comic sidekicks or diversity tokens," that was a feature of Hollywood's treatment of queers long before gay liberation, as Russo showed exhaustively in The Celluloid Closet. The main change has been the substitution of "diversity tokens" (another Hollywood staple from way back, where minorities are concerned) for the fag- or dyke-villain-killers who were Hollywood's other preferred queer stereotype before Stonewall.

I also like that bit about "sincere romantic dramas", as though heterosexual cinema never bothered with such trivia.

Lim writes as though gay cinema is a purely American and possibly a post-Stonewall phenomenon, though the earliest examples of gay cinema I know of (defined as films made from a gay viewpoint, by gay or gay-friendly filmmakers) are European, made between the World Wars. Gay criticism has come a long way since Tyler and Russo too, but Lim shows no knowledge of figures like the Brit Richard Dyer, the Canadian Thomas Waugh or the American Alexander Doty, the Americans B. Ruby Rich and Judith Mayne, among many others. Since the 1970s or so, a lot of the most interesting gay films have come from outside the US, and critics writing about gay cinema had to pay a lot of attention to those films if they wanted to have anything to write about, because so little was coming out of America. but to acknowledge that would violate the sacred principle of American exceptionalism: we're the first, the best, and the only significant country in the world.

As for that bit about "Gay characters ... usually take center stage only if they are martyrs", we know whose fault that is, don't we? I mean, Hollywood is out there begging for something else -- something fresh, something different -- but all Teh Gey will offer them are gay martyrs. It couldn't possibly be because Hollywood prefers to depict gay people that way ...

Lim continues,
In the indie sphere the brief flowering of the New Queer Cinema of the early ’90s identified a new niche audience. Gay-theme movies, festivals and distributors proliferated, capitalizing on the epiphany that gay films, and in particular romances, could be as formulaic as straight ones.
There was also a brief flowering of independent gay films in the mid-1980s, as floundering Hollywood companies discovered they could make more money by buying and distributing films they hadn't produced, whether made independently in the US or by various producers in the UK and Europe. As with the New Queer Cinema, such films benefited (as did their audiences) from their lack of Hollywood's terror of doing anything too interesting or (buzzword) "transgressive." Most of my favorite GLBT films were not made by Hollywood, which labors mightily to produce one or two minor gay-related works (marketed as world-historical breakthroughs) every decade. It's Hollywood, not gay cinema, that has "largely failed to keep up" with gay life, and only someone who equated Hollywood to cinema would make such a mistake.

So, back to director Andrew Haigh (the most useful thing I learned from Lim's article was that the surname is pronounced with a hard G, to rhyme with "vague").
Accordingly, the question of whether “Weekend” is a gay film is probably best answered: yes and no. “The root of the film for me is two characters trying to work out who they are and what they want from life, how they’re going to fit that into the world around them and show the world that they are those people,” Mr. Haigh said. “These issues aren’t just about being gay. They’re about how you define yourself, in public and in private.”
Once again I must wonder: what, according to Dennis Lim, is a "gay film"? Does he think that a gay film is only and completely about "being gay" -- whatever the hell that means? It only makes any kind of sense if you believe that to be gay is not to be human, and that our concerns are totally alien to those of "universal" real people. I don't entirely blame Haigh for answering a stupid question, I blame Lim for asking it.
A wide swath of so-called gay cinema “never represented how I felt about being gay, ever,” Mr. Haigh said. “I haven’t got muscles and I don’t live in West Hollywood.” Often overlooked are the subtle complications that have come with progress. “People are accepting you but perhaps not fully,” he said. “And do you want to be accepted fully?”
That's all very well -- after all, one way to see a movie you like is to make it yourself -- but come now. I can't think of many "so-called" gay films I've seen that were set in West Hollywood. Several have been made there, no doubt, because a lot of gay filmmakers went there to build careers, ended up having to make their own movies, and couldn't afford to go on location anywhere else. That's part of what being "independent" means. Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, presumably one of Haigh's and Lim's offenders, was made in West Hollywood by a transplanted Hoosier, who thought he was courageously breaking stereotypes. Go Fish wasn't made in Chicago because the filmmakers wanted to escape West Hollywood hegemony, but because they lived there and made the film on a shoestring. I could name any number of gay films that weren't set in Hollywood and don't feature hypermuscled men, so I think Haigh's complaint reflects his own tunnel vision and fantasies rather than an actual failing of "so-called gay cinema" -- all the more so when you remember that he's English, and very few English gay films out of the many that have been made were set in West Hollywood.

BoT also approvingly quotes Haigh's “I was always frustrated, and angry sometimes, about the stories that people were telling, which were either coming-out stories or frothy, sexy comedies which weren’t funny or sexy.” Oh, and heterosexuals aren't interested in coming-of-age stories either, but again, there have been enough glbt films that were neither coming-out stories or frothy, sexy comedies that I wonder who was restricting Haigh's film viewing so cruelly for so long. ("No, Andrew, you can't see Querelle or Law of Desire or Apartment Zero -- they aren't set in West Hollywood!" "Awwwww Mum!")

(Incidentally, Lim reports that for his next project "Mr. Haigh plans to shoot in Los Angeles with a male lead." Stereotype!) So, can such an intellectually dishonest filmmaker make an artistically honest film? I'll find out when Weekend comes close enough for me to see it myself.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Battle Cry of Freedom

From Glenn Greenwald this morning:
In fairness, the U.S. is fulfilling President Obama's pledge that it will "not stand idly by" in the face of a tyrant's oppression of his own people, as the U.S. is actively feeding that regime new weapons; that, by definition, is not "standing idly by." In his U.N. address, President Obama praised the regime ("steps have been taken toward reform and accountability") but then powerfully added: "more are required"; he also then equated the two sides: the government's security forces and democracy activists on whom they're firing and otherwise persecuting ("America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc – the Wifaq – to pursue a meaningful dialogue"). I think it's important to remind everyone that the reason there is so much anti-Americanism in that part of the world is because they're primitive, ungrateful religious fanatics who Hate Our Freedom.

... as the regime in Yemen continues to slaughter protesters, it's worth reviewing this recently released WikiLeaks cable from 2005 detailing the mighty impressive list of weaponry supplied by the U.S. to that regime; it's important to remember, though, that WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning are the real criminals and it would be better for us not to know ...
From Steve Kornacki this morning, on last night's Republican candidates' debate. Of course, for him it's all about the elections, but still.

[Stephen Hill, an American soldier serving in Iraq], wearing a gray "ARMY" t-shirt then appeared on-screen and told the candidates that he is gay and that he had been forced to lie about his identity when he was deployed to Iraq in 2010 because he didn't want to lose his job. He then asked if the candidates would "do anything to circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers" now that the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy has been officially repealed.

His video then ended and ... a handful of very loud boos erupted in the debate hall. Otherwise there was silence -- not one cheer for an active duty soldier asking the candidates if they'd let him continue serving his country without lying. No other voter-submitted question all night elicited such a harsh response.

Rick Santorum then proceeded to make a fool of himself -- no surprise, of course. And Kornacki asked rhetorically:
Does it even need to be mentioned that none of the other eight candidates on stage took the opportunity to jump in and chastise the crowd, or at least to say "thanks" to the soldier?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

This and That

'Sfunny, even though I'm retired I don't seem to have any more time than I did before. I'm reading a lot, though. Just finished reading a novel called Swallow (Northampton MA: Interlink Books, 2010) by the Nigerian writer Sefi Atta -- her third book apparently. It's another one of those things I just noticed on the new arrivals shelves, picked up and checked out. I was impressed, though not overwhelmed; it was better than most of the recent Nigerian fiction I've been reading, and it seems I keep stumbling on such books. It's about a young woman living in today's Lagos, trying to make her way, living with a rather wild roommate, contending with a boyfriend who wants to get married until she accepts him, and trying to make sense of her family's past. It doesn't have much of a plot, but its cumulative power is remarkable.

I'm not sure where this image came from (I snagged it from somebody on Facebook), and I have no illusions that Spock would solve all our problems, or that rationality is necessarily the answer, but it's a nice fantasy.

They're both half-breeds, after all, Spock and Obama. Which reminds me of a speech of Spock's from Star Trek V that has stayed with me for over twenty years. Spock's half-brother Sybok bonds people to him by showing them their painful, guilty, shameful memories; Spock is the only one who isn't impressed.

Sybok, you are my brother, but you do not know me.
I am not the outcast boy you left behind those many years ago.
Since that time I have found myself and my place.
I know who I am. And I cannot go with you.
Some people never find their place, never learn who they are.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Value of Human Life

I'm listening to Democracy Now's coverage of the vigil outside the Georgia prison where Troy Anthony Davis, accused of killing a police officer in 1989, is scheduled to be executed. It's now over an hour past the time when Davis was supposed to be killed, but apparently the execution has been delayed.

There is strong evidence indicating that Davis was wrongly convicted: several witnesses have recanted their testimony, and several jurors at his trial have said that they would decide differently now. Even if this turns out to be wrong, there seems good reason for another trial. It's remarkable how many Republican law-enforcement people agree, including William Sessions, FBI Director under Ronald Reagan. Going by reports during DN's coverage tonight, there is hope for a stay of execution tonight. That possibility could be disproved before I finish posting this, so I'll update it if necessary.

(One of Davis's sisters just told Amy Goodman that the delay in the execution shows that "God is still in control." I hate to be cynical in a situation like this, and I know that people will say the most embarrassing things under stress, but: Girl, please. If God were in control, the whole mess would never have gone this far.)

But listening to this broadcast reminded me of another execution ten years ago, which I wrote about for the student newspaper. The execution of Timothy McVeigh, for the 1995 Oklahoma City terror bombing that killed 168 people, took place in Terre Haute, Indiana, on June 11, 2001. I got only negative responses to this column, and from people whose disagreement surprised me a little. None of them could explain why they disagreed, and ten years later I still think I made a good argument here. Unlike Davis, there was no real doubt of McVeigh's guilt, but I believe that makes this piece just as relevant now.
Now that Timothy McVeigh has been executed, it's moot whether the death penalty should be applied in his case. I was struck, though, by one local columnist's comment that "McVeigh was not a good poster child for people opposed to the death penalty. ... If anyone deserved to die, that was the guy."

This comment misses the point of opposition to capital punishment. I suppose the best "poster child" would be an innocent person, someone falsely convicted of a capital crime; it takes very little soul-searching to agree that such a person should not be executed.

Next would be someone properly convicted but repentant, who can appeal to Christian values of forgiveness and personal renewal. But, as that writer's remarks suggest, it's quite possible to be moved by such people while still holding that there are people who deserve to die.

Someone who really opposes the death penalty will oppose it even to dispose of a remorseless criminal like McVeigh. In that sense, McVeigh is an ideal "poster child" -- not because he's appealing, but because he isn't.

The core question is this: what can justify killing anyone? Tim McVeigh believed that while the deaths of 168 men, women and children in Oklahoma City were regrettable, they were also necessary. This is not, unfortunately, as unusual a belief as I wish it were. It echoes -- deliberately, I suspect -- the infamous claim of a military spokesman in Vietnam that it was necessary to destroy a village in order to save it.

McVeigh was a military man, a Gulf War veteran, indoctrinated in a system which treats human lives as tokens to be used up in the pursuit of military and political goals. The U.S. killed far more than 168 civilians in the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, in World War II and in any number of smaller actions around the world. More than 168 civilians were killed in Panama during George Bush\'s invasion of Panama in 1989, even by official U.S. estimates; human rights groups claim a death toll in the thousands. Of course, these deaths were regrettable, but we are assured they were necessary, not only by our government but by ordinary citizens who support its actions.

But again, who gets to decide this? American troops under orders have killed unarmed American civilians on American soil numerous times since the Civil War. The Bonus Army of 1932 (two World War I veterans and one baby), Kent State (four students) and Jackson State (two students) Universities in 1970 are among the more famous. These deaths too were regrettable but necessary, and since they were official killings no one was executed for carrying them out.

McVeigh, by contrast, decided on his own which lives were expendable, without orders from above. If he had exploded his bomb in Iraq, or in Waco, Texas, as part of an official military or paramilitary action, his life would not have been forfeited.

How many people are needed to validate the taking of human life? One lone bomber, apparently, is not enough. Two? Three? A dozen jurors? The President, the Cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff? The 535 members of Congress? At what point, and for what reason, does taking a life, or 168 lives, or 168,000, stop being a crime and become regrettable but necessary in the eyes of most citizens?

Please understand that I'm NOT saying that McVeigh didn't commit a terrible crime. I'm saying that bringing him to justice is only a beginning. If Americans really believe that McVeigh deserved to die for his crime, we should also bring to trial other American criminals whose hands are far bloodier than McVeigh's: the men who gave the orders which killed millions in Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. If the lives of mere foreigners don't count, these men's victims included thousands of Americans as well -- 55,000 in Vietnam, for instance. Will supporters of the death penalty call for the execution of (among others) Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Oliver North and Bill Clinton?
I was being sarcastic when I wrote that it takes "very little soul-searching to agree that such a person [who is innocent of any crime] should not be executed." Quite a few people refuse to consider the possibility that a guilty verdict could be mistaken, especially when it could provide an execution.

After Timothy McVeigh was executed, a local newspaper printed a photograph of one of the celebrants outside the prison: a fat white man wearing a wedding dress, dancing with joy at McVeigh's death. I'd bet that he, like others who celebrate outside executions in the US, considered himself a Christian, a question I'm not competent to judge. But it reminded me of something Walter Kaufmann wrote in Without Guilt and Justice (Wyden) in 1973:
In Paul W. Tappan's massive standard text on Crime, Justice and Correction, for example, all ten references to Freud (in seven hundred fifty pages) concern the light he shed on criminals. But Freud ... also turned a searchlight on respectable society, illuminating the unedifying motives that come to the fore in punishment. Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal [49].
P.S. 11 p.m.: The Supreme Court has unanimously denied a stay of execution, and according to Democracy Now! the execution of Troy Davis is proceeding tonight, and (P.P.S.) Davis died at 11:08 p.m.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Something Else About Heroes

I wrote last week about my increasing distaste for superhero stories, and then I came upon this interview with the late Octavia Butler, whose Patternist series I just reread. Discussing her 1979 novel Kindred, about a contemporary African-American woman who's mysteriously thrown back in time to antebellum Maryland and must try to survive as a slave, Butler explained why she wrote the book.
What I was trying to do is make the time real, I wanted to take them back into it. The idea was always to make that time emotionally real to people. And that's still what it's about. The nice thing is that it is read in schools. Every now and then I hear about younger kids reading it and I wonder how they relate to it. All too often, especially young men, will feel, "Oh, if it was me, I would just..." and they have some simple solution that wouldn't work at all and would probably get them killed. Because they don't really understand how serious it is when the whole society is literally arrayed against you and arrayed to really keep you in your place. If you get seriously out of line, they will kill you because they fear you.

Kindred was kind of draining and depressing, especially the research for writing it. I now have a talk that begins with the question, "How long does it take to write a novel?" and the answer is, as long as you've lived up to the time you sit down to write the novel and then some. I got the idea for it in college. But a lot of my reason for writing it came when I was in preschool, when my mother used to take me to work with her.

I got to see her not hearing insults and going in back doors, and even though I was a little kid, I realized it was humiliating. I knew something was wrong, it was unpleasant, it was bad. I remember saying to her a little later, at seven or eight, "I'll never do what you do, what you do is terrible." And she just got this sad look on her face and didn't say anything. I think it was the look and the memory of the indignities she endured. I just remembered that and wanted to convey that people who underwent all this were not cowards, were not people who were just too pathetic to protect themselves, but were heroes because they were using what they had to help their kids get a little further. She knew what it was to be hungry, she was a young woman during the Depression; she was taken out of school when she was ten. There were times when there was no food, there were times when they were scrambling to put a roof over their heads. I never had to worry about any of that. We never went hungry, we never went homeless. I got to go to college and she didn't even get to finish elementary school. All that because she was willing to put up with this nonsense and try to help me. I wanted to convey some of that and not have it look as though these people were deficient because they weren't fighting. They were fighting, they just weren't fighting with fists, which is sometimes easy and pointless. The quick and dirty solution is often the one that's most admired until you have to live with the results.
Superhero fantasies (and action-movie fantasies, which are very similar) take place in a universe where "the quick and dirty solution" works: you shoot down a Nazi blimp with a blaster and Evil is defeated. You punch the bad guy in the nose and he disappears from the story; you've won. Evil wears a black hat and twirls its mustache, cackling and gloating, so you can easily tell it from Good. But in the real world, things don't work that way. There's nothing wrong with fantasies in themselves; perhaps they allow you to let off steam. What's wrong is mistaking them for the real world. This form of the mistake is generally coded Boy; the Girl equivalent is the quick and dirty solution of a wedding: the two good people have been joined together, and in the fantasy you don't have to live with the results.

I like the way Butler expressed this. It doesn't mean that resistance is never worthwhile: the real heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, for example, were people like her mother. Superimposing superhero fantasies on that period would be like what happens when Secret Identities connects superheroes to the internment of Japanese Americans, or to Hiroshima. (I don't want to oversimplify too much. The Hiroshima story I read shows a superhero emerging from the radioactive waste of the atomic bombings, an unplanned consequence of American hubris. But another story has the Asian American superhero joining forces with Barack Obama to smite the Nazis and the KKK, as if Obama weren't running dungeons and blowing up brown people himself.) It's taken me a long time to catch up with Octavia Butler's insights, no doubt because of my own privilege. But she had it right.

A Critique of Pure Reasonableness

Steve Kornacki is Salon's news editor, and as a fairly devoted Obama loyalist, representative of the type. Today he's arguing that being abused by the GOP has "positioned Obama well to battle the GOP on taxes." The outcome of the battle over the deficit -- y'all remember that, don't you? -- was that while Obama's "reasonable man" strategy succeeded in getting the populace to regard the Republican Congress negatively and saddle them with most of the blame for the mess,
... it was far from a complete triumph [for Obama's "reasonable man" strategy], because the widespread anger at the GOP failed to translate into newfound support for Obama, whose overall job approval rating (and standing in head-to-head match-ups with potential 2012 foes) has continued to deteriorate since the debt ceiling fight. In other words, he succeeded in making his opponents look very unreasonable, but didn't get any points for coming across as reasonable himself.
That could have been because the mass of Americans realized that while letting the GOP make itself look bad was a strategic victory for Obama and the Democrats, it still resulted in a lousy deal for the ordinary voter. The corporate media and the party loyalists are only interested in how each party benefits, both in Congress and in the next round of elections, but it doesn't seem that I'm alone in having other interests. If the debt-ceiling debacle was even a partial "triumph" for Obama and the Democrats, it was a Pyrrhic triumph: Another one like that and we're done for. And it looks like we're in for more triumphs like it.

Kornacki hopes that this time Obama will take off the gloves and go mano-a-mano with the Republicans, showing them what he's really made of or at least sending some really tough messages and creating an image of toughness. Typical Obama-fan stuff, and we've been there before, though instead of breaking out the pom-poms and going into Full Poodle Skirt cheerleader mode,** Kornacki goes for gravitas.
In a way, though, the debt ceiling experience is a perfect setup for what Obama is now doing. Take his new threat to veto any deficit reduction plan that the congressional supercommittee produces if it doesn't include more tax revenue from wealthy Americans. No longer is Obama instinctively staking out a compromise-friendly position. How this will be regarded by the public is a fascinating and tricky question. On the one hand, polls consistently show that voters strongly agree with the principles Obama is now articulating. On the other hand, public opinion is quirky. As Greg Sargent put it today:

Now, Republicans tend to think such polling isn’t that meaningful. Even if it shows public support for high-end tax cuts*, Republicans are happy to target Democrats on the issue, because they can continue to make the general charge that Dems are tax-hikers, furthering the narrative of profligate Big Government liberals running off the spending rails. Republicans believe this narrative is very potent with moderates and independents. And there very well may be something to this.

When you factor in the the number of pundits and media outlets proclaiming that Obama is playing to his base and ignoring moderates with his new approach, the danger for the president here becomes obvious.

Not "the danger for most Americans," not "the danger for the already reeling economy," but "the danger for the president." Meaning, of course, political danger, like dropping approval numbers or dwindling chances of re-election. Now, if we can get unemployment to drop meaningfully, if we can get some real economic growth happening (instead of flood-up patterns to the rich that increase our already outrageous economic inequality), then maybe I'll care about "the danger for the president." Till then, I think Kornacki has mistaken me and most people for somebody who gives a fuck. The president, like any other politician, is not an end in himself but primarily a means to an end for most citizens: someone who serves our interests, not his own, and the two interests are not at all the same.
How can he combat it? Here the damage that he helped inflict on the GOP 's image this summer could be very helpful. If his Republican opponents are seen as fundamentally unreasonable ideologues, Obama may have more leeway than he otherwise would to behave "unreasonably" -- especially if he is doing it in the name of a principle with which most Americans say they agree. Now when Republicans (or the press) bemoan Obama's supposed unwillingness to reach across the aisle and compromise, he can reply, "I already tried that, over and over and over" -- and there's a chance voters will know what he means.

Of course, there's also a chance they won't, but that's the risk that comes with being president when the economy is as rotten as this.
Of course, Obama as president has nothing to do with the rotten economy.

But notice how Kornacki tries to frame this, and imagine some other possibilities: if voters didn't lavish approval on Obama's capitulation to the Republicans last summer, maybe it was because life isn't a zero-sum game where there's only one winner and one loser, one good guy and one bad guy. Maybe it wasn't because we didn't understand what the president was trying to do, in his latest round of eleven-dimensional chess -- maybe we understood all too well, and we didn't like it. Even though most of us don't seem to recognize this most of the time, it is possible for both sides to be bad guys, and it's possible to blame both Obama and the Republicans for the deal they reached. This is incomprehensible to the corporate media and party loyalists, but if Obama wants to avert "danger to the president," he had better try to understand it. If Obama hoped to make himself look reasonable to the public by putting Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, then he not only failed but he's even more stupid than I gave him credit for. The Republican Party is going down like a burning dirigible, and Obama seems determined to wire the GOP to his neck and go down with it.

There's nothing "unreasonable," either politically or in terms of people's lives, about blocking the destructive policies embraced by the Republicans, the corporate sector, and the Blue Dog Democrats. It's perfectly reasonable for Obama to raise taxes on the rich; the Bush-era tax cuts should have been allowed to expire long ago. It's perfectly unreasonable to cut payroll taxes (via) that support Social Security and to cut back on Medicare (via) and Medicaid. Notice again that Obama has promised, in his new tough-guy mode, to "veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share." He promised, then, to change -- that is, cut -- benefits for those who rely on Medicare. Give him a bill that raises taxes "on the wealthiest Americans," and he'll happily slash away at Medicare. All of Obama's "unreasonability" is aimed at you and me, not at the Republicans. And this political battle, contrary to Steve Kornacki and his ilk, is about you and me, not about Republicans versus Democrats. Whoever claims victory at its end, they'll be standing on our bodies.

*Is that a typo or a Freudian slip in Greg Sargent's article? What the polls show is not public support for "high-end tax cuts", but rather public support for "high-end tax hikes." The following sentence indicates that he knows it, as does the rest of the article.

** I swear I had no idea when I wrote this that Kornacki was gay; he only came out to the world this past week, 16 November 2011.

P.S. Typo fixed; thanks, JV! (As always, a post which points out a typographical error will contain a similar error itself.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Monogamous Reader?

Rainy Days and Mondays

President Obama is on the campaign trail for sure now, as he makes populist noises about raising taxes on the rich. See Whatever It Is I'm Against It for the usual dissection of Obama's incoherent rhetoric, though not if you're prone to motion sickness.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote today,
He does that precisely because everyone -- especially the rich -- knows it will not and cannot happen. We're now formally in (re-)election season, so it's time again to haul out the progressive music. Some Democrats are honest and cynical enough to acknowledge that Obama is doing all these things purely for political gain and -- because his re-election is their top priority -- to celebrate it even while acknowledging it will never become reality ...
I wouldn't mind Obama's talking like this purely to improve his chances if he really tried to get those tax increases through. Politics is politics, and everything a national politician does is done with an eye on the next election. But we've been through this before, since Obama played the same game in 2008, and we know what happened once he was in office. Remember too that in the spirit of compromise, Obama will find it politically necessary to give up all of his demands and concede most of the Republicans'. As Whatever It Is I'm Against It once wrote about a December 2010 press conference:
WHAT SOME WOULD HAVE PREFERRED: “Now, I know there are some who would have preferred a protracted political fight, even if it had meant higher taxes for all Americans, even if it had meant an end to unemployment insurance for those who are desperately looking for work.” The assumption here is that he would have lost the fight. It’s pretty much always Obama’s working assumption that he will lose any fight. And then, funnily enough, he does.
As noted there, the outcome of a "protracted political fight" would (according to Obama) have been pretty much the same as the outcome of Obama's prompt surrender. (That's assuming, of course, that Obama doesn't want the outcomes he gets.)

When one of my lefty-lib Facebook friends linked to a Huffington Post article about Obama's "deficit reduction plan," I posted a comment to the same effect, that Obama is only saying such things because he's in campaign mode. Someone else commented, not unreasonably, that "the funny thing about doing what people want is, it's automatically a re-election plan. Yknow, because people want it." Again, my complaint isn't that Obama is floating this plan just in hopes of ensuring his re-election -- "playing politics" with it is the usual label -- it's that, given his record, there's no good reason to believe he'll try very hard to get his plan through. He's not "doing what people want" -- he's saying what people want to hear. Talking and doing are two different things. Obama only fights for bills and policies that will please his big corporate contributors. It's up to him to prove me wrong; I wouldn't mind if he did, but I'm not holding my breath.

Another of my lefty-lib Facebook friends (who nonetheless still keeps the Obama faith most of the time) posted a link to a Rachel Maddow video on "moderate" Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, soldiering on despite "dismal numbers." Why liberals would concern-troll for a Republican candidate, as though they want any Republican to have a fighting chance against their God-King, baffles me. Maddow laments that Huntsman has avoided serious gaffes in the Republican debates, but hasn't said anything memorable either -- like exulting in the number of people he's killed, presumably.

Maddow mentions that Huntsman's staff have misspelled his name twice on his press materials, but herself confuses the meaning of "bisect" early in the video: she says that a video clip shows Huntsman's head "bisected" by a tugboat in the background, when it is Huntsman's head that bisects the tugboat. She later misuses the term "open question", which she seems to think means "a question I'm asking to everybody," instead to "a question that hasn't been answered yet." It's stuff like this that confirms my feeling that I needn't waste my money on cable or satellite to watch TV news.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Constitutionally Deficient

I read somewhere recently that the Tea Party is offering coloring books about the U.S. Constitution to schoolchildren (try this, little girl -- the first one's free!) to jumpstart their Constitutional literacy. That wouldn't be a bad idea, though of course the Tea Party, like most Americans, should begin with themselves.

I admit that until I read Roy Edroso's latest post, I'd almost forgotten myself that the Constitution endows Congress with the power to "establish Post Offices and Post Roads" (Article I, Section 8). So those on the right who want the Post Office to hurry into bankruptcy so it can be privatized are actually opposed to the Constitution; not that that's news. The Tea Party and the Republican right generally have shown themselves not only to be uninformed about the Constitution they claim to adore, but are actively disdainful of its provisions. (Not that the Republicans have a monopoly on violation of the Constitution, of course!)

I'm going to have to read the Constitution more often, and more carefully, myself; I'd overlooked the first paragraph of Article I, Section 9 until today: "The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person." It's long outdated now, of course, but it's interesting as another Constitutional concession to slavery and the slave trade.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

All the Boys I've Loved Before

Just a quick note tonight. I read Stan Persky's Buddy's: Meditations on Desire (New Star Books, 1991) today. Persky is a Chicago-born political philosopher, about ten years my senior, who lived and taught in Vancouver for many years but now is apparently based in Germany. (His website has the .de suffix.)

Buddy's is about what its subtitle promises: a collection of short prose pieces on love, desire, sex, mortality, and the meaning of it all. It was written during the first decade of the AIDS epidemic but touches on that topic only tangentially. Mostly Persky describes a few of the young men he was involved with erotically during the Eighties, men who'd fit roughly into the trade category, plus his friendships with some of his gay male peers. Unfortunately he tries to cast his lads as incarnations of the god Cupid, even though he seems to admit in the book's epilogue that the conceit doesn't work very well. There are the predictable references to Plato's dialogues on love and sex, plus Montaigne and a few other exemplars.

Not at all a bad book, but I had hoped it would go deeper. His asides about his writings on politics intrigued me more, so I looked him up online. Turns out that not only was he a co-editor of Flaunting It!, the anthology of writings from the lamented Toronto gay liberation magazine The Body Politic (no wonder his name sounded familiar to me) but he knew and has written about various poets, including Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. (He quotes "When I Pay Death's Duty," a wonderful poem of Blaser's, at some length in the book. It appeared in Donald Allen's historic anthology The New American Poetry [Grove Press] in 1960.)
I looked at Persky's website, which includes a lot of his writing. I'll probably spend more time in its archives, but for now I'll just mention his review of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, with which I find myself in agreement, particularly his speculations about why Klein annoyed so many reviewers. (I'd only add that I also suspect as a factor boys' annoyance when a girl is too damn smart, smarter than they are.) I also liked his review of Chris Hedges's Empire of Illusion: again, Persky seems to notice the same things that bother me about Hedges, even when I agree with his main points. There's also a review, which I'll read tomorrow (tomorrow is another day!) of Marjorie Garber's new book The Use and Abuse of Literature, which I bought when it first appeared but haven't read yet. So many books, so little time ...