Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It's Not Free -- It's Expensive

Rick Santorum got himself some attention the other day when he accused President Obama of being a snob for thinking everybody should get a college education; like my mother said, some people will do anything to get attention. Oh, Santorum got raked over the coals for that! (According to the smart folks at RawStory, though, he got a "round of applauds [sic]" from his Tea Party audience.) Santorum had to do some damage control again, explaining that he meant that college indoctrinates students and changes their ideas.

I don't think Obama's a snob, and I do think that Santorum is a dangerous, stupid fanatic. But I couldn't help noticing, first, that there was some truth in his complaint, and second, that there was nothing new about it. The Right has been complaining that academia is too far left for a long time. It goes back at least to William F. Buckley Jr.'s God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of "Academic Freedom," which was originally published in 1951, and is probably much older. Which made me think of this piece I wrote, and somehow got published in the student newspaper, in the early 1990s. I'll have more to say in another post, but for now, consider that one customer review at Amazon lauded Buckley's polemic as a "Common Sense View of Education Too Profound for the Elite." Funny how the Right flipflops between a fake populism and an equally fake defense of elitism, as the needs of the moment demand.

(Whatever happened to Young Americans for Freedom, by the way? They seem to have merged with College Republicans as the far Right took over the Republican Party. ... Oops, nope, they are now Young America's Foundation -- who needs freedom anymore, right? -- and they kicked Ron Paul off their board of directors last year for thoughtcrime and severe political incorrectness.)

ON THE FREE EXCHANGE OF IDEAS

The other day I found a leaflet in a trashcan at work: "Survive Political Correctness at IU" it began. "YOU Have a Right to be Heard!" On the flip side it read:

IUYAF
Indiana University Young Americans for Freedom
IUYAF is a conservative student organization dedicated to preserving the element that made America great:
Freedom

YAF was founded in William Buckley's living room in 1964, and functions mostly as a sort of fraternity for extreme right-wing students, giving them access to government jobs when they graduate. The most famous YAF alumnus (not counting co-founder Marvin Leibman who came out publicly as gay in 1990) is probably Tom Huston, who as a White House aide in 1970 presented then-president Richard Nixon with a "clearly illegal" plan for suppressing dissent in the US.

I began reading. "Isn't the University supposedly a place where ideas are freely exchanged?" the leaflet asks itself. "It's supposed to be," it answers itself. That was a surprise. In general the Right views the University as a place where students passively ingest the glories of white heterosexual male culture. According to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, the New Left of the 1960s destroyed this age-old curriculum and encouraged students to think for themselves, even to question their professors. It's gratifying to see how far YAF has swung to the left.

"However, many professors are LEFTISTS," the leaflet goes on. So? Many professors are Rightists. People who are committed to the free exchange of ideas welcome a variety of viewpoints in the University; but not YAF. (Similarly, right-wing IDS columnist Reid Cox warned freshmen against taking any "leftist" classes such as Jewish Studies, lest they be exposed to contaminating influences.)

"Many professors will ridicule any attempt to present views that are contrary to their own." Professors anywhere on the political spectrum may exhibit such unprofessional conduct, but apparently it only bothers YAF when "LEFTIST" professors do it: Rightist profs may and should ridicule any ideas that are contrary to what YAF calls "common sense." There is a serious point here: how can there be a free exchange of ideas with or under someone who has the power to grade you, who may be tempted to impose his or her beliefs by turning them into course requirements? "LEFTIST" educational critics have been pointing this out for years, but it's not a partisan political question. YAF would have you believe that the Right is neutral, universal, while only the Left is partisan.

The leaflet then lists some "LEFTIST" ideas: professors "will criticize free markets. They will condemn the actions of 'whites'. They will scorn the traditional two-parent family and praise homosexuals."

"All these things are contrary to common sense," says the leaflet. "Yet you will hear professors repeat these themes in class again and again." Most advances in human thought have been "contrary to common sense," from the recognition that the earth moves around the sun to the extension of the vote to non-propertied white males, from religious toleration to equal pay for equal work. If we limited discussion to ideas which one special-interest group considers common sense, we'd still be living in caves. Evidently YAF really wants something like "the free exchange of ideas which meet YAF criteria of True Political Correctness."

"What kinds of people will I encounter?" the leaflet then asks. "All kinds," it replies. " ... Treat them all with respect." Since Diversity Programs at IU are meant to promote respect for all kinds of people, I thought for a moment that YAF had come around. But watch out for "some people who seek to destroy what you know is true ... These persons are IU's 'thought police.' They want you to think that their way is the only way." (Perhaps they believe that only their way is "common sense"? In other words, anyone who disagrees with you is "thought police," the crack PC commando squads of IU's Ministry of Diversity, "slaves to the University," which 'pays them to break down what you learned before coming to IU."

Notice that the "you" addressed here is a white heterosexual male of right-wing Republican views. (A potential member of YAF, in other words.) YAF apparently assumes that any student outside this narrow target group will have no trouble surviving Political Correctness at IU. Indeed, YAF views such students as the problem: YAF knows that its opponents go far beyond Diversity Advocates to large numbers of its fellow students. The programs and classes YAF deplores were not unilaterally imposed from above, but are the products of student pressure dating back to the 1960s.

"How can I survive this war on free thought?" Confront "opinionated" professors, YAF advises. Allan Bloom must be spinning in his grave! Of course, this is only acceptable if they are LEFTIST: black students who disagreed with a white professor at Harvard were misrepresented and vilified in Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education. "If he or she [note PC terminology!] belittles your views, simply say, "Gee. I thought a scholar like yourself would be open to a true discussion of opinions.'" This is cute, but a "true discussion of opinions" requires more than the insistence that one's own view is "common sense."

Still, a pattern is emerging. The free exchange of ideas always carries with it the risk that you may be wrong, or at least unable to prove you're right. Your opponent may be better-informed, or a more skillful debater. If you're rational, you'll shrug, and resolve to learn more and do better next time. But YAF wants the exchanges rigged in their favor. If they lose, they complain that their opponents are paid tools of the diabolical PC agenda; it never occurs to them that they didn't do their homework, let alone that they might be wrong -- they know they're right. This attitude is consistent with the Right's approach to other issues. Free thought is risky; only total abstinence is safe.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Authentic Democratic Gibberish

My Tabloid Friend on Facebook linked to this article celebrating the Dear Leader, whose poll numbers have been rising lately. No wonder: compared to the prospective opponents the GOP is fielding, he almost even looks good to me.

The same writer also recently explained "Why President Obama is more like Jesus Christ than any Republican", concluding:
President Obama is far from perfect and his legacy is still yet to be complete, but as his presidency continues each day he has stayed true to his message. Not every promise has been fulfilled and as his time in office continues the choices become greater. One thing that can be said about President Obama is that he is doing what is best for the country as a whole, not just a particular sector of the country. It's hard to please everyone when we all have different ways of thinking, but in the end if the message in the story of Jesus is to be tolerant, caring and accepting and doing what is right for everyone, President Obama has a stronger leg to stand on than his Republican counterparts.
As you can see, Robert Sobel needs a copyeditor. President Obama has only one leg to stand on? A bit earlier Sobel wrote, "In no way should anyone try to compare President Obama to Jesus or anyone else [so why is he doing it?], he's his own man and he stands on his own two feet." (Sobel bills himself as a "middle class father, husband and son, [with] a degree in communications and media production." College degrees aren't what they used to be, I guess.)

And no, I don't think it can be said about Obama "is that he is doing what is best for the country as a whole, not just a particular sector of the country."

What especially enchanted me was this comment from a Top Commenter:
The President of the USA is a mighty fine man, husband, father, an leader of the free world. The best President we have ever, I only saw the republicans kill JFK but loved him didn't see him for to long since I was young. Obama is the best thing besides McCain & Palin Poor Bruce below me is a brunt of an thuglican whom call our PRESIDENT a CHIMPMS. He probobly needs viagra or something to a republican that wants to talk about evolution and is a Pukelicant, whom needs viagra, an needs cialis for his erectile dysfunction is all he thinks about...Not about the Solar & Wind Green Energy. He looks like the supidest man in a red shirt a BP Employee whom should be jailed for polluting the Gulf of Mexico and killing the people of the ocean he stands in front of with pride so you see the dolphin dead behind his right should. OMB BP SUCKS AN SO DOES BRUCE VAN BRUNT FROTHY FECAL MATTER. Bullseye on his face would look nice...
It's great to see that unlike the Republicans, Democrats and especially supporters of President Obama are rational, literate, and civil.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Just You Wait Till Your Father Comes Home!

I was poking around in the recent past when I found this interview of Anne Lamott by Joan Walsh. (I got there by way of Walsh's piece on Internet misogyny, which I agree with.)

Now, I like Lamott's writing, from her fiction (all of which I've read) to much of her nonfiction. Bird by Bird is a great book, not just about writing but about being a human being. Operating Instructions, her journal of her first year as a mother, was beautiful too. But when she writes about Faith and Spirituality, she turns me off; I've only read her first Christian book, and that was enough. From time to time I find myself tempted to read the later ones, just because she's a good writer; but then I remember how obnoxious she -- yes, even Anne Lamott -- becomes when she starts talking about God. In this interview she has a lot of good things to say about aging, politics, and Molly Ivins, but first she has to deliver a little sermon.
Everything in the culture says that if you’re a person who really loves Mary or Jesus or one of the Hindu gods or whatever, that you’re not supposed to have jealousy or existential waves of judgment. And I don’t think God ever said that. I think the message of Jesus is “Me too” and “It’s weird down here” and “People can be really awful and the amount of suffering you’re going to see around you, whether in San Francisco or Fairfax or a foreign country, is going to literally blow your mind.” I work like hell but I’m also secretly kind of lazy. I do tons of benefits and stuff like that and yet I’m kind of lazy and shiftless; I take a nap every single afternoon. I have a life that allows a 45-minute nap. So what I can say to people is, “There’s nothing you’ve thought, I haven’t thought too. No matter how awful you behave I can probably relate, although the details will be different.”
That last sentence is good, it's a major part of what I like about her writing. It's what comes before it that doesn't work.

"I don't think that God ever said" that "you're not supposed to have jealousy or existential waves of judgment." Perhaps she should read the gospels, where Jesus says that if you judge others, you'll go to Hell; and that if you even experience lust, let alone act on it, you'll go to Hell. The message of fanatical perfection that she blames on "Everything in the culture" is an echo of Jesus' teachings in the gospels, and particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. I'm not aware of any passages that counter them. I'm sure Lamott has her ways of getting around such sayings, but that's what she has in common with other fundamentalists. Christians have almost two thousand years' experience explaining away troublesome Bible passages. That's long enough that most of the time they can forget that it's what they're doing.
I think the message of Jesus is “Me too” and “It’s weird down here” and “People can be really awful and the amount of suffering you’re going to see around you, whether in San Francisco or Fairfax or a foreign country, is going to literally blow your mind.”
I'd sure like to see her expand on this. It's not very easy, as Lamott surely knows, to boil down all the teachings of Jesus in the gospels to a single message; probably Jesus himself couldn't have done it. It's very subjective, but what's subjective can be discussed, defended, and criticized. "Me too"? The Jesus of the gospels is quite sure that he's better than you, that's why he came to give his life for many. He is, after all, the Son of God, come down to rub elbows with the canaille downstairs for a season, until it's time to carry out his suicide mission and return to the heaven from which he came. I can't think of any place in the gospels where Jesus commiserates with anybody; sometimes he takes pity on their suffering, but that's not a "Me too", it's an alm tossed to the lepers. "It's weird down here" doesn't make sense to me at all when I think of the Jesus of the gospels. "People can be really awful and the amount of suffering you're going to see ... is literally going to blow my mind." ("Literally"? I'd hope Jesus wouldn't use that word that way.) Again, I can't extract this message from the gospels. It's more like, "If you think things are bad here, wait till I cast you into eternal hellfire, you craven sinner! Wait till Our Father comes home!"

And there's the irony. Lamott's conclusion is just fine, but it really has nothing to do with Yahweh or Jesus; their concerns, as far as we can tell from the Bible, are quite different. (Yahweh's, for example, seems to be more like "Ooh, gross! Body fluids! Wash them off this minute before I get sick." Or his take on animal sacrifice: "The food is terrible here -- and such small portions." There is, I admit, more interest in social justice in the Hebrew Bible than in the New Testament, and that's good, but why would an omnipotent, omniscient being be so squeamish about the same ladyparts he created?) Lamott believes in her message because it's what she wants to believe, and I consider it preferable to anything I've ever found in any religion I've looked at. But I don't agree that it's the message of Jesus -- I know the New Testament too well to fall for that.

Which just goes to support my reversal of Gandhi's famous (but evidently apocryphal) platitude: I do not like your Christ. Some of your Christians are pretty decent; they are so unlike your Christ.

We Were Only Trying to Help!

In a follow-up to its story on the killing of two American officers in the Afghan interior ministry building this weekend, the BBC reports that "At least 30 people have been killed in violence over the last five days." By "violence" it clearly means "violence by Afghan rioters," not "violence by NATO troops against Afghan civilians around the rest of the country in the course of their normal duties," which right-thinking journalists and news consumers know isn't really violence at all.

Glenn Greenwald has a good related post at Salon this morning, pointing out that the protests in Afghanistan aren't simply about the burning of Korans. He quotes this New York Times story:

Protesters in Kabul interviewed on the road and in front of Parliament said that this was not the first time that Americans had violated Afghan cultural and religious traditions and that an apology was not enough.

This is not just about dishonoring the Koran, it is about disrespecting our dead and killing our children,” said Maruf Hotak, 60, a man who joined the crowd on the outskirts of Kabul, referring to an episode in Helmand Province when American Marines urinated on the dead bodies of men they described as insurgents and to a recent erroneous airstrike on civilians in Kapisa Province that killed eight young Afghans.

“They always admit their mistakes,” he said. “They burn our Koran and then they apologize. You can’t just disrespect our holy book and kill our innocent children and make a small apology.”

I've noticed that Americans have trouble remembering what the US is doing over there. It's reminiscent of the US invasion of Vietnam in this respect: One one hand, we're only over there to help the "Afghanis," because if we leave the Taliban will oppress their women (never mind that the Northern Alliance, our allies in the overthrow of the Taliban, also are patriarchal Islamic fundamentalists who oppress women), we're only trying to help them, okay, and they should at least appreciate that, instead of rioting over trifles. On the other hand, the "Afghanis" are a threat to American security and we can't leave until we've made sure that they'll never attack us again, we are over there primarily to protect and defend ourselves, and the sooner they put down their arms and stop fighting us, the sooner we can leave that godforsaken wasteland (except for the bases and troops and mercenaries we'll certainly want to retain, for our own security, and they wouldn't begrudge us such trifles, would they?).

I think this might be the place to use, finally, this quotation from a educated liberal commenter on a lesbian-feminist blog a couple of years ago, as one example of "folks who are angry and upset with their own lives, and who, for some reason, attribute all that is wrong in their lives to the actions and influences of others":
Ask an Afghani Taliban peasant why his family is impoverished, and he’s likely to blame Israel, the US, or the West. Ask him to show you those places on a map and chances are he can’t do it. Gee, ya think his support of a system of corrupt tribal warlords, a corrupt weak government, and the lack of decent free education might have something to do with his poverty?
(Other examples included black -- "urban" was the commenter's adjective -- men who sit around drinking Colt .45s and blaming "The Man" for their inability to get a job, and angry white male Limbaugh fans who blame all their "economic and personal woes" on gays, feminists, and people of color. Quite even-handed, you see.) The complacent ignorance displayed about the situation in Afghanistan that led to the US presence there still amazes me; certainly the commenter is in no position to cast the first stone. And how many Americans can find any country on a map?

Greenwald also points out that Americans have our own little totem that you had better not mess with: the Flag.
Beyond all these points, it’s perversely fascinating to watch all of this condescension — it’s just a book: who cares if it’s burned? – pouring forth from a country whose political leaders were eager to enact a federal law or even a Constitutional amendment to make it a criminal offense to burn the American flag (which, using this parlance, is “just a piece of cloth”). In fact, before the Supreme Court struck down such statutes as unconstitutional in 1989 by a 5-4 vote, it was a crime in 48 states in the nation to burn the flag. ...

Along those lines, just imagine what would happen if a Muslim army invaded the U.S., violently occupied the country for more than a decade, in the process continuously killing American children and innocent adults, and then, outside of a prison camp it maintained where thousands of Americans were detained for years without charges and tortured, that Muslim army burned American flags — or a stack of bibles — in a garbage dump. Might we see some extremely angry protests breaking out from Americans against them? Would American pundits be denouncing those protesters as blinkered, primitive fanatics?
Probably not, but I'm sure that pundits for the country that invaded us would do so.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Color of Disbelief

It seems only fitting that this should have turned up right after the Post ran an article about a bunch of antigay African-American Christians whining that they're being picked on for their religious beliefs:

“There is an idea that it is mandatory for blacks to believe in God,” said Mandisa Thomas, founder of Black Nonbelievers, an Atlanta group.

“We have heard this from preachers who say blacks would not have gotten anywhere without faith. And if you do not believe in God, you are ostracized, targeted by family and friends, accused of trying to be white. There is this idea that if you subscribe to atheism you are betraying your race, you are betraying your culture, you are betraying your history as well.”

Now, a growing number of African-American nonbelievers are reaching out to others in their communities to help them confront these challenges. They are calling on atheists of all colors to make the fourth Sunday in February — Black History Month — a “Day of Solidarity with Black Nonbelievers.”

The Day of Solidarity originated last year with Donald Wright, a Houston consultant who has written about his own journey from the black church to atheism. Fellowship with other atheists is critical, he said, if black nonbelievers are to move not only out of the closet, but also into the mainstream of American life.
Sounds good to me, though the American mainstream isn't comfortable with atheists of any color. We're just going to have to crash that party.

Does Not Compute

An unidentified gunman shot and killed two senior NATO officials in the interior ministry building in Kabul. The killer is still at large.
Nato commander Gen John Allen condemned the attack as "cowardly".
Thus saith the BBC. Also that the building "should be one of the safest in the capital, and that any Afghan who carried out the attack would have had the highest clearance."

So, some individual managed to enter a secured building belonging to the occupiers of a country at war -- which means not just security gates but probably armed guards -- reaches the "command and control centre," kills two American military officers, and escapes. "Cowardly" doesn't seem like le mot juste, pardon my French. If Navy SEALs did something similar, like breaking into a compound to take out one of America's enemies, it would be a bold, daring, heroic exploit that would have American news anchorpersons wetting their pants with admiration, and brave American citizens dancing in the streets. Liberal Hollywood would want the movie rights.

For purposes of comparison, killing civilians from afar with remote-controlled predator drones isn't "cowardly." I'm kind of used to this sort of doublethink after so many years of having it shoved in my face, but every now and then an especially blatant case brings me up short.

Bonus BBC Fun Fact: Spiders are bigger when you're afraid of them.

Second Bonus BBC Fun Fact: Men may not become extinct after all. It had been feared that men might die out in five million years or so, which meant I was going to have to stock up. But fortunately, it's not going to happen, so I can let all those hoarded men go.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Christian Pride

My Tabloid Friend on Facebook linked today to this Washington Post article on the controversy over same-sex marriage in black churches in Maryland.
All of a sudden, they are bigots and haters — they who stood tall against discrimination, who marched and sat in, who knew better than most the pain of being told they were less than others.

They are black men, successful ministers, leaders of their community. But with Maryland poised to become the eighth state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage, they hear people — politicians, activists, even members of their own congregations — telling them they are on the wrong side of history, and that’s not where they usually live.
Sometimes, the pastors say, the name-calling and the anger sting.
Wow! I can totally relate, y'know, because I've experienced anger and name-calling too -- from their side. When you take a moral stand, you have to expect some anger and name-calling, and you don't whine about it.  (If you're a Christian, you're supposed to glory in it.)
... But Thomas and the 77 other Baptist ministers in the association do not see same-sex marriage as a civil rights matter. Rather, they say, it is a question of Scripture, of whether a country based on Judeo-Christian principles will honor what’s written in Romans or decide to make secular decisions about what’s right. In Maryland, as in California and New York, opinion polls have shown that although a majority of white voters support recognition of same-sex marriage, a majority of blacks oppose it, often on religious grounds.
This is a false dichotomy. Freedom of religion, for example, is a matter both of civil rights and of Scripture and religious belief. Many religions, and subdivisions within religions, require the chastisement of people with dissenting beliefs. (At first I wrote "persecution" there, but that's not how the religious see the killing, torture, and expulsion of people with the 'wrong' beliefs. "Persecution" is what you do to me, not what I do to you, even if we do the same things.) For Christians, the target can be non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, "pagans") or it can be other Christians (Catholics vs. Protestants, Anglicans vs. Baptists, and everybody against "heretics"). In the days when Christians took their faith seriously, as a matter of life or death (life for me, death for you), it was absurd to argue that people had a right to believe the wrong thing. As Robert Wilken wrote in The Myth of Christian Beginnings (Notre Dame, 1971),
Most English-speaking American Protestants trace their origins to the colonists who came from England in the early seventeenth century and settled at Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. Parents, schoolteachers, clergymen have told and retold generations of children the tale of persecution and oppression in Europe and the desire of these first Americans to establish religious freedom in the new land so that men might live together peacefully, tolerating different views.
... Even such a fundamental pillar of American life as the separation of church and state is widely thought to be an inheritance from the first settlers. Yet those Pilgrims never dreamed of establishing religious freedom in their colonies. Indeed, they had no idea of toleration. "All Familists, Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other Enthusiasts shall have free liberty to keepe away from us." And another: "Tis Satan's policy to plead for an indefinite and boundless toleration. ..." The land, however, was spacious, and men could, if they found the atmosphere confining, simply move on to form a new colony [8-9].
There's debate nowadays over whether freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. As you can see, freedom of religion in America traditionally meant my freedom to burn you at the stake, unless you exercise your freedom to get the hell out of Dodge first. But we've left those days far behind in our secularist abandonment of all traditional values.

Still, as late as the 1960s and after, the Civil Rights movement had opponents who insisted that the Negro question was not a matter of civil rights but of Scripture, and whether a country founded on Christian values would honor God's wishes or not. The material I'm about to quote comes from the journalist Robert Sherrill's Gothic Politics in the Deep South (Ballantine, 1969), which has a chapter on the topic. Page numbers refer to this book.

The chapter begins with a quotation from the late Senator J. Strom Thurmond: "This war we're in [over desegregation] is basically a fight between the believers in a Supreme Being and the atheist" (234). (Thurmond, you may remember, managed to defy God long enough to father a daughter on his family's black maid.) One of the ministers quoted in the Post article said, "It’s really believers against nonbelievers." Mostly the chapter is devoted to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, "the school that dismissed Billy Graham as a student for breaking rules, later gave him an honorary Ph.D., then reversed itself again and damned him as a heretic in an argument that still rattles the Fundamentalist world" (237).

Sherrill describes with bemused awe the restrictions on BJU students in those days:
A student who is merely caught inside -- not necessarily buying anything, just inside -- any of a dozen anathematized stores near the campus is automatically dismissed from BJU. These are stores -- drugstores and grocery stories, as well as eateries -- that obtained liquor licenses over the protests of the college. Also the students are not allowed to:
Listen to jazz on the radio, or sing or play it themselves.
Go into the gym in mixed groups.
Date off-campus without written permission.
Sit or lie down on blankets anywhere on the 185-acre campus.
Leave the campus after 10:30 p.m.
Borrow anything from townspeople.
Release any information to newspapers without getting it approved by the administration ...
The parade-ground crackle is awesome. Students rise with a bell, and go to sleep with a bell; they must attend all chapels; they must go to all meals; they must study at certain times and not study at certain other times; they must wear certain clothing (stockings for the girls at all times; for the boys, ties to class, coats at evening meal); girls must not loiter in the halls; and all classes must open with a prayer, and all discussion groups close with a prayer [241].
(By the way, I used to work with a man about ten years my senior who thought it a shame that students nowadays aren't required to dress the same way at meals at Indiana University -- a state school, mind you -- as they were when he attended Ball State in the Fifties.)

But then, as "Dr. Bob [Jones], Sr, was fond of telling the BJU students in chapel, 'If you don't like it here you can pack your dirty duds and hit the four-lane highway'" (240). Freedom of religion, just like the Pilgrim Fathers!

The Founder (as he often called himself) explained, "If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God Almighty because He made racial separation ... It is no accident that most of the Chinese live in China. It is not an accident that most Japanese live in Japan ... " (247). But Bob Jones III explained to Sherill in an interview:
I don't want you to ... don't misconstrue this as an attack upon the Negro -- it's not. We love the Negro people. Some of the finest Christians I've ever known were Negroes. In fact, they put me to shame. And I have looked at several Negro Christians and wished to God I could be as Christlike as they are. And among Christian Negroes there is no strife between them and us -- we are brothers in the Lord. I'm for the Negro being able to have rights, to be able to ride on the bus with the white man, to eat at a restaurant if he wants to, to have education in a state institution -- he pays taxes like everybody else and he should have the privileges his tax money brings. I believe this and I'm all for it [247].
"He seemed to be heading toward a modest pitch for integration," Sherrill reflected, "but I knew he wouldn't be able to make it all the way" (248). I'd point out that Jones's rhetoric is perfectly mirrored by today's antigay Christians, who assure us that they love us, and are not against letting us visit each other in the hospital, and recognize us (as one of the ministers in the Washington Post article put it) as fellow sinners. "This young man sitting across the desk from me, godlike in his certitude, was also stretching forth a finger to touch the Negro into a life of fellowship," Sherrill continued. "But there was still the small gap, in this case requiring his imagination to effect the bridge, so I knew it would never happen."

Jones did not disappoint.
... Until we have our redeemed, supernatural bodies in Heaven we're not going to be equal here, and there's no sense in trying to be. Here's what I say. The Negro -- and I'm not, it's not my own feeling -- but a Negro is best when he serves at the table, when he does that, he's doing what he knows how to do best. And the Negroes who have ascended to positions in government, in education, this sort of thing, I think you'll find, by and large, have a strong strain of white blood in them. Now, I'm not a racist and this is not a racist institution. I can't stress that enough. But what I say is purely what I have been taught, and what I have been able to study in the teaching of the Scripture [248-9].
I'll spare you the ensuing tirade against the United Nations, but it's worth mentioning because today's Right continues that vendetta.

So, you may be thinking, this is one wacko college, but they only speak for themselves. I quoted the Joneses because they were handy, but I remember hearing the same arguments from racist whites throughout the period. The Christian schools that sprang up all over the country, but particularly in the South, from the 1950s were intended to hide racism behind a religious front. The trouble was, they claimed tax-exempt status as well, and managed to get it for a long time, supported by the Supreme Court. (The same question is arising about Christian schools and gay students.)

Besides, for all its marginality, Bob Jones University achieved a kind of martyr status on the Right when it lost its tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating. (BJU had begun admitting black students in 1971, but until 1975 they had to be married, and even after that they could not be in an interracial relationship. Despite Jones Sr.'s remark about God putting the Chinese in China for a reason, the school had always admitted Asian students.) The school took the fight to the Supreme Court, where it lost in 1983, despite then-President Reagan's intervention on BJU's behalf. "Reagan would later say that the case had never been presented to him as a civil rights issue." In 2000 George W. Bush visited BJU to deliver a campaign speech, igniting a firestorm of criticism which led to the school abolishing its policy against interracial dating. Bob Jones III told Larry King that it was "a rule we never talk about" and "We can't back it up with a verse from the Bible." Most damning, BJU abandoned its official racism not under government pressure, but under criticism from the worldly and ungodly. (When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? Not even at Bob Jones University.) Keeping up with the Joneses isn't easy.

Funny how these eternal-will-of-God, God's-ways-are-not-our-ways policies have a tendency to crumble over time. But you know, the anger and the name-calling sting. Could it be that Christian opposition to same-sex marriage will go the same way eventually? Probably.

But again, the point of going over this history is to point out how the same themes keep recurring in Christian bigotry. Was racial equality a civil rights issue or a religious issue? It was both, of course. Is same-sex marriage a civil rights issue or a religious issue? Both, of course. In both cases, it's illegitimate for churches or other religious institutions to dictate social policy. That they can't see that they are repeating the same worthless arguments that were made against the Civil Rights Movement a half-century ago speaks very badly for them, as men of the cloth and as human beings. Somewhere the apostle Paul said that if Christ wasn't raised from the dead, then his preaching was in vain and Christians' faith is in vain; and Christians are of all men most to be pitied. That's pride speaking, Christian pride; it's certainly not evidence for the Resurrection.

Back to Nathaniel Thomas, the minister quoted before in the Post article:
Take the word ‘marriage’ out of this bill, and we’re pretty much in agreement,” Thomas says. “Everyone should have full legal rights and would have them with civil unions. You wouldn’t see me down there protesting against civil unions. The state is the state, and the church is the church. I understand that. But put the word ‘marriage’ in there, and now you’re redefining something that is in the Bible and in our principles as one man and one woman. Why do you need to use a biblical word in a civil situation?”
If Thomas and his allies really feel this way, they should be lobbying to take marriage out of the civil sphere altogether, including for heterosexuals, and give civil unions to everybody who wants state recognition for their relationships. Can you imagine the fury that would ensue over that? It would come mostly from Christians. The word marriage is already "in there." (Does he think Loving v. Virginia should have settled for giving the Lovings a civil union while denying them marriage?) Thomas must know that he's lying in his teeth, because the Bible does not define marriage as one man and one woman: polygamy is the Old Testament norm, and the New Testament has nothing to say on the matter. Christians abandoned polygamy to conform to Roman norms, not for biblical reasons. Nor is marriage a biblical word; it can be found in most religions and most cultures. (By his standard, non-Judeo-Christian heterosexuals shouldn't be allowed to marry either.)

As I've noticed before, the biblical prohibitions of sex between men (and I agree that they are there) aren't about marriage: men aren't allowed to commit buggery even if they are not married to each other. Yet Thomas is willing to ignore Romans and Leviticus, even to extend full civil rights to sodomites and sapphists; he only draws the line at civil marriage. How does he justify that? His hypocrisy is staggering, especially here:
Over and over, the ministers return to the image that some supporters of same-sex marriage have painted of the church as hater. “There is not one of us who doesn’t have persons in our family with that lifestyle,” Thomas says. “And I tell them, ‘You are still mine.’ ” His voice cracks; he halts for a moment. “You are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. No, I will not discriminate against him. We are a people of mercy. But the state may not tell me that I must sanction his behavior, just as I may not sanction behavior of the adulterer or the liar.”
Thomas already sanctions "his behavior," by his willingness to let those with "that lifestyle" have civil unions. Nor will legalizing same-sex civil marriage force him to sanction "that lifestyle," leaving aside the fact that he already sanctions it. The Maryland bill already includes a completely unnecessary religious exemption, since churches are not required to recognize even heterosexual marriages that don't meet their cult requirements. And if this debate is between "believers and nonbelievers," which suggests that it's only non-Christian gays who will want to get married, then what does Thomas have to worry about? (In fact, there are plenty of gay Christians who'll want church weddings, and being Christians they view the First Amendment as a mere piece of paper. But in time the churches will come around without state pressure, just as they did on race.)

Looked at rationally, it's hard to see what the fuss is about. Certainly it's not a religious issue, except insofar as these shameless bigots are making it into one. But all religious issues are made by human beings. Maybe it's not a civil rights matter either; the civil rights issues involved are shaky, in my opinion, but it's not necessary to view same-sex civil marriage as a civil rights issue in order to legalize it. These men may not want to see themselves as bigots; the truth often hurts. But I can't see what else to call them, except fools.

Duality of Tastes

I owe Shirley Hazzard an apology. The Transit of Venus, which I just finished reading, is not as male-identified as I thought at first. But in fairness to myself, I was more than halfway through the novel before I had any reason to revise my assessment.

There had been a slight hint earlier, when one of the main character's coworkers rebels at the usual division of office labor: when a male administrator asks Valda to sew a button for him ("I am not handy with such things," he tells her), she complies, but a week later asks him to change her typewriter ribbon. "I am not handy with machines," she tells him guilefully. (This is in 1950s London, by the way.) He writes in her personnel file that "she tended to be aggressive over trifles" (141). Later "the queenly and long-limbed Valda" laments to Caro, the protagonist, how male supremacy contaminates heterosexual romance, but she also observes of her coworkers, "The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea" (142). And then there's something just a bit ... odd. Queer, even:
For her part, Valda considered Caro as a possibility lost. Caro might have done anything, but preferred the common limbo of sexual love. Whoever said, "When you go to women, take your whip," was on to something deep, and deeply discouraging [143].
Valda disappeared into the background, but I should have known that in a novel as carefully constructed as this one, I hadn't seen the last of her. That episode had to be a setup for something else, and so it proved. Caro gets involved with an American man, and when she returns to the office one day after a long lunch, she learns that Valda has been tending to be aggressive again.
... Valda had refused to prepare tea or procure sandwiches at lunchtime over ever again. ...

"And is not that somewhat absurd? [asks the same administrator] The purveying of -- ah -- victuals being an accepted part of her functions?"

"By whom is it accepted?" [inquires Caro]

"By every woman here except Miss Fenchurch and, I now take it, yourself. Had there been a wider sense of unfitness, the girls would have expressed it generally."

"Most people have to have unfitness pointed out to them. At first there is usually only one person who does that."

Mr. Leadbetter had, as he was put it to his wife that evening, seldom been so vexed. "And do you not find this a paltry and and selfish attitude? The men in this office are, after all, forgoing the lunch hour altogether, remaining at their desks for extra duty. The girls are merely asked -- required -- to help them discharge onerous extra tasks."

"The men do nothing that lowers their self-esteem. On the contrary, staying at their desk exalts it" [192].
And so on. Perhaps you're wondering why Caro had gone into Mr. Leadbetter's office in the first place.
"In fact I have come to give you my resignation."

His mouth opened and closed: like a horse with carney. "And may I inquire the motive?"

"I am going to be married" [193].
To her American, of course. It's a neatly done scene, but it's also the only time Caro exhibits any sense of politics, of any kind. Well, it is the Fifties, not a good time for politics in Anglo-America. Years later she becomes aware of oppression in Latin America, and briefly befriends a poet from an unnamed country (I'd guess Chile was the model, but the author is carefully unspecific) whose work she undertakes to translate into English. I'm not complaining because Caro doesn't start running guns for the revolution; what bothers me is the hermetic quality of Caro's depicted life. I think all this is due to Caro's personal alienation, not the author's: between "1952 and 1962 Hazzard worked in the United Nations as a clerical employee", and she later wrote two nonfiction books about the United Nations, so I assume she has a wider perspective on the world than Caro exhibits. Presumably her UN job was the model for Caro's job in London, which has some vague connection to international diplomacy. (Like Caro, Hazzard was born in Australia in the early 1930s and moved to England just after World War II.) The result is to make Caro mostly seem especially self-absorbed, rather than to put her personal -- romantic -- life into any kind of relief.

That episode did open up the book a bit to my mind, but then towards the end it is revealed that one important character is a Sodomite. He calls himself a "homosexual," but his function is more primitive than that: he opens up a moral abyss with the shock value of "the underside of my nature" and "me and my kind," so I think Sodomite is more apt as a label for him. You can almost smell the fire and brimstone as he tells his sordid story. It made me withdraw the goodwill I'd begun to extend to the novel, which never recovered from this detour. But "detour" isn't the right word, because it's clear that Hazzard intends it to be part of the main road of the story. The abyss then recedes into the distance, and heterosexuality triumphs -- I'm deliberately trying not to give away too much, though it's not a big surprise in context. But the ending rings false to me. I'm only really surprised that I had forgotten this episode from the previous time I read The Transit of Venus. (On the other hand, I also forgot that Frank Herbert's Dune had an important character named Duncan -- a more uncommon name in those pre-Highlander days -- until I saw the 1984 film version.)

Hazzard writes really well; it's her prose that carried me through the book's 337 pages. Her depiction of her characters' aging was interesting too. At the end, though, I was struck by the drabness of the world and people she created.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Russ Feingold Supports Targeted Killings

I've never been a fan of Russ Feingold, but then I never paid much attention to him. Many on the leftward end of the American political spectrum adore him, though.

Today Feingold appeared on Democracy Now! Although he's now one of thirty-five co-chairs of President Obama's re-election campaign, he disapproves of Obama's decision to accept Super PAC money. "That’s not who Barack Obama is," he said, which indicates that he needs to pay more attention. And then, later in a long interview:

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the killing of Awlaki. Did you support that in Yemen?

RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, obviously I wasn’t consulted in advance. The question there is, is there a doctrine where if somebody is an American citizen and they are clearly affiliated with an enemy power and it is impossible to get them—if that’s true, and that’s what I don’t know—if it’s impossible to get them any other way, is it justified? I would say, probably. But how do I know whether that’s true. You have to tread very carefully when you’re dealing with American citizens. But I am not shedding any tears over the loss of that person, who I think did horrible things.

To her credit, Goodman followed up, and Feingold provided a textbook example of waffling in reply:

AMY GOODMAN: The President—the ACLU has sued President Obama most recently. "The targeted killing program violates both U.S. and international law," writes the ACLU in their press release. They said, "As we’ve seen today, this is a program under which American citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept secret not just from the public but from the courts. The government’s authority to use lethal force against its own citizens should be limited to circumstances in which the threat [to] life is concrete, specific and imminent." And they not only killed Awlaki, but then, in a separate killing, they killed his 16-year-old U.S.-born son.

RUSS FEINGOLD: I agree with the proposition of the ACLU’s lawsuit, and I think it should be litigated. I think it will be very interesting to see whether the killing of al-Awlaki fits that definition. I think that’s going to be a close question. As to the other ones, it’s a fair point. And, of course, I agree, as a general policy, as something that’s an excuse to do whatever you want and assassinate U.S. citizens anywhere near a conflict, that cannot be justified. But I think as to the actual person who was the target, I think it’s a fair question that needs to be litigated.

Notice that last sentence in particular, which is charmingly incoherent, and remember that there is no evidence that Awlaki did any "horrible things": he was a propagandist for al-Qaeda, but he doesn't seem to have committed any acts of violence himself. Certainly Feingold didn't specify any, nor did the Obama administration. What provoked Goodman's first question was Feingold's listing Awlaki, along with bin Laden and Qaddafi, as bad people who were now "out of power," thanks to President Obama; but of the three only Qaddafi was ever actually "in power." This could probably be explained as a minor error resulting from speaking extemporaneously if Goodman hadn't asked him to clarify.

Obama's contempt for due process was the entire point of the criticism directed at him in the matter. And if being a propagandist for "horrible things" provides your opponents with a license to kill you, there are a good many Americans, from journalists to government figures, who'd be in big trouble. But as Obama has also made clear -- by his stance on the mere possibility of investigating the Bush administration for its crimes against humanity -- committing horrible things is only a crime for Them, not for Us.

A Conspiracy of Hope

Jon Stewart did a fun segment on Republican attacks on Obama:

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2012 - President Evil
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"Republican leaders believe that everything Barack Obama has done in his first term has been a canard so that he can do the opposite in his second term." Entertaining, and on target. But isn't that what Obama's supporters and apologists have also been saying all along? "Oh, he's just pretending to support all these right-wing positions so that he can get the nomination / be elected / to play 11-dimensional chess with the Congressional Republicans / get re-elected. But once he's safely in office, he'll be able to let the real Barack shine through!" Almost nobody in the political mainstream believes that Obama says what he really means, it's always a cover for his true intentions. The difference is whether you believe that his true intentions are evil, or good.

And those of us who, all along, pointed not only to his public statements -- the threats against Iran, for example, which began in 2007 -- but his record, and suggested that these had some relevance? Oh, we were accused of being secretly on the side of the Republicans, of being nasty Grinches who wanted to destroy all Hope, and of being conspiracy theorists.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

In the Room the Women Come and Go

I've been reading Shirley Hazzard's 1980 novel The Transit of Venus (Viking) -- rereading it, rather. I first read it soon after it was published, because of the rave reviews it garnered, but it made absolutely no impression on me. Hazzard writes very well, her prose is the main attraction, but I suspect I'll forget the book again right after I finish it. It reads like a Virago reprint of a novel from the 1930s or 40s, and indeed it's set (except a bit of backstory) in the 40s right after the end of the Second World War. The trouble is that it seems to have no perspective on the period, as one has a right to expect from a novel written, or at any rate published, thirty years later.

This passage, for example, from page 146. One of the principals, a young woman in her early twenties, is in a department-store tearoom overlooking Piccadilly in London, waiting for a friend to arrive.
Admitting only seemly sounds, the room sheltered none but the decorous. All tables were occupied by women. Waitresses like wardresses kept a reproving eye on performance, repressively mopping a stain or replacing a dropped fork. Something not unpleasant, a nursery security, came along with this. Yet in such a setting you might sicken of women -- sicken of their high-pitched, imperious, undulant gender, their bosoms and bottoms and dressed hair, their pleats, flounces, and crammed handbags: all the appurtenances, natural and assumed, of their sex. In such density they could hardly be regarded as persons, as men might be; and were even intent on being silly, all topics sanctified by the vehemence brought to them.
There is some validity to these observations, but exactly the same could be said of men in all-male environments, be they gay or straight, butch or nelly: in such density they can hardly be regarded as persons. I don't know much about Hazzard, but I get the impression from this novel that she's rather male-identified: the kind of woman whose friends are mostly male, who thinks of herself as above the fripperies and foolishness of most women. Or maybe not, who knows? The novel, so far at any rate, is highly gendered, a glimpse into the heterosexual lifestyle that makes me feel quite content not to be part of it.

Turnabout Is Fair Play

From Dan Savage's latest column:
HEY, EVERYBODY: You know how Mormons “baptize” dead people who weren’t Mormons—including Holocaust victims—because Mormons believe they have a right to choose Mormonism for the deceased? And you know how the Mormon Church says that being gay is a choice? The same church that doesn’t think you should have a choice about being posthumously baptized? Well, now you can choose homosexuality for dead Mormons! Just go to AllDeadMormonsAreNowGay.com, enter the name of a deceased Mormon or ask the site to find a dead Mormon for you, and—presto!—that dead Mormon gets to have a gay afterlife!
I was bemused by the utter hysteria that the revelation of the postmortem baptism by Mormons of Gentiles produced. For example: "The Mormon practice of converting dead people is so despicable and sickening" -- just one of many. You'd think that the performance of this rite actually did something, had some effect. Which, of course, it doesn't. Your late loved ones and revered historical figures will not become Mormons, they are safely beyond the reach of any intervention now. AllDeadMormonsAreNowGay.com seems a perfectly reasonable response, and just so there will be no confusion about this, I entered Orson Scott Card's name in there. I know he's not dead yet, but why should he have to wait? And, of course, this site is every bit as efficacious as the Mormon rite.

(The very first commenter on this column at The Stranger pointed to the next logical step: since the LDS also do posthumous marriages, because you can't enter into the Kingdom if you're single -- which would have surprised Jesus and Paul -- it is legitimate and indeed a blessing to posthumously gay-marry those poor dead Mormons who otherwise would have been shut out of Heaven.)

Come to think of it, though, the fuss over the Mormon rite reminds me of the way that many people, straight and gay, react to speculations or evidence that this or that historical figure (or even fictional character) may have "known the joys of homosexuality," as ADMANG puts it. It's as though we were posthumously recruiting them.* The suggestion is still commonly seen as an accusation, even in our supposedly more enlightened times.

*The comments on that article are entertaining. For comparison, see this helpful site. Aren't you glad that liberals and progressives aren't gullible, credulous fools who believe everything they see on the Web, unlike the fools who watch FOX News?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What Do You Do With a Drunken Samurai?

Last night I had a chance to see a 35mm print of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai shown on campus. It was the third or fourth time I've seen it in thirty-odd years, and it was a good time to see it because of the thinking I've been doing about violence in films and fanboys' celebration of it.

Seven Samurai was originally released in 1954, and it quickly became a classic. Kurosawa wanted to flesh out the samurai genre, which was already a standard of Japanese cinema, as martial arts was in China and the Western and crime film were in Hollywood. It's the story of a small village, ravaged by bandits in the late 1500s, whose people decide to hire samurai to defend them. Seven are willing to take on the job, a motley crew like the ensemble in a World War II picture: they range from the grizzled veteran and the hero-worshiping young novice to the drunken clown (played by Toshiro Mifune with enough mascara at times to double for Joan Crawford). The samurai organize the villagers and lead the defense, killing off all forty of the bandits and suffering some losses themselves. The survivors go on.

The finished product is 207 minutes long, almost three and a half hours, and it moves along steadily, expertly, at times creakily. Some of the plot devices, like a doomed romance between the youngest samurai and a village maiden, are just too obvious, but they don't get in the way. There's always the problem, when you watch an older film, that what seems like a cliche now may not have been one when it was made. In terms of the story (as opposed to technical aspects such as cinematography), I don't think that's true of Seven Samurai, but Kurosawa -- who also cowrote the script -- and his cast handle these elements with such conviction that they mostly work. And when you consider that the film is almost sixty years old, it stands up remarkably well.

Still, watching Kurosawa's old samurai movies brings home just how much cinema has changed in the intervening decades. Audiences expect brisker (not to say manic) pacing, less character development, and more gore. Seven Samurai's characters don't really develop -- those who live to the end are pretty much the same people they were at the beginning, even the novice -- but we do learn more about them and their backgrounds; that is, we get exposition rather than development. There are no real surprises, but then surprise really isn't the goal.

I recall one geekboy who argued online that because he personally fell asleep (or claimed he did) while trying to watch Seven Samurai, it was therefore inherently a boring movie. I pointed out that very many people did not fall asleep while watching it, so he was wrong. Granted, a 207-minute-long feature is a long slog, but as many viewers and reviewers have said, Seven Samurai moves along quickly. Sitting down in the theater last night, I was a bit worried about what I'd committed myself to, especially since I'd seen it before, but the time passed easily and without boredom. I couldn't help wondering what the many younger people in the audience, who'd grown up with a whole different kind of action movie, thought about it. The showing was sold out in advance, and I had to wait to get a ticket, but the film is a known classic and I'm sure instructors had recommended it. Were the kids disappointed? I don't know.

Consider: Seven Samurai is in black and white, in the old boxy screen ratio (1.33:1.00) of the days before Cinemascope and other widescreen formats. It must have cost a lot to make because of the extensive sets, the costumes, and the large cast (a hundred or so villagers, the inhabitants of the town where the samurai are hired), plus fight choreography and fire and rain effects (the final showdown takes place in a pouring rainstorm, probably machine-made). But one special-effects expense was conspicuous by its absence, namely blood and prosthetics. There are no geysers of blood or swords stuck into eyes, no lopped-off limbs or impaled torsos. A lot of characters are despatched by sword and spear, but the effect is theatrical, stagy. There's no attempt to make the violence look "real" by today's standards (though today's screen violence is increasingly unreal). So I was surprised by this online reviewer's assessment:
The fighting is brutal and Kurosawa doesn't sugarcoat it, men really die. The battle culminates in a final skirmish in the rain, leading to a bittersweet ending that comments on the nature of conflict and the price paid by those who undertake it. There is no easy victory. The saber rattling is tone deaf.
No, men don't "really die" in this movie; at least he didn't say "literally." It's just pretend death; it's a movie, okay? (And "skirmish" is really not the right word for the battle in the rain.) Often the camera "looks" only glancingly at the fighting, and the swords and clubs flail around without seeming to connect with anyone; only the agonized (but still stylized) screaming of the wounded tells you that the weapons found their mark. Fake blood is used very sparingly, only once or twice in a very long movie. It's reminiscent of classic Hollywood Westerns, where men who've been pumped full o' lead simply contort themselves and fall, with no blood shed, let alone exit wounds. But the fighting looks messy and brutal and no fun at all, which is probably the effect Kurosawa wanted. I just think it must seem tame to contemporary audiences.

Another specifically Japanese aspect of the film is the amount of male nudity, or rather exposed male flesh. Male peasants working in the fields often wear no more than a loincloth which shows off their buttocks, and there was one closeup shot of a man's backside and thighs that I don't think lingered on his body merely incidentally. Toshiro Mifune, playing the wild samurai, shows off his body quite a bit. It's not a great physique by 1950s Hollywood standards let alone today's defined, gym-toned buffness, but it's still impressive. As the samurai are on their way to the village, Mifune strips down to what this writer calls "a g-string" to frolick in a stream and catch fish for lunch with his bare hands, while the others (fully clothed) watch from above with amusement. Later he steals some armor from the bandits, a corselet almost like a Merry Widow, that covers his torso and allows his buttocks to peek out coyly below; he spends the last half hour or so of the film in this outfit. I'd be wary of reading too much homoerotic subtext into all this, including the young novice's hungry hero worship of the older fighters, if it weren't for the fact that Japan generally, and the samurai in particular, have a long tradition of male homoeroticism and hot man to man action. It needn't take place only within a minoritizing gayish framework (though it can do so, using different terms and categories than the contemporary American ones), so it shouldn't be ruled out in Seven Samurai.

Still, the (almost entirely Western) audience last night only giggled at Mifune's nudity -- and to be fair, it is clearly supposed to be as much a comic as an erotic element, though the two don't exclude each other -- as they did at the peasants' antics, though those are also double-edged in a different way. Kurosawa's peasants aren't simple, uncomplicated bumpkins: they have a darker side that keeps them from becoming caricatures. It's one of the great strengths of the film.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Repressed Never Really Went Away

I really hadn't meant to write more about Jeremy Lin, but some of the noise has been hard for even me to ignore.

The two incidents involving racial stereotyping, for example. First there was this image of Lin's head emerging from a broken fortune cookie, aired on MSG Network. (And what's up with his tongue hanging out like that? I've seen what I'd call a disproportionate number of news photos of Lin that show him yelling, face distended, as if he was a coach. But I admit, the ways of fans and sports media are not my ways.) Second, somebody on ESPN decided to put a headline (via) on their site about a "Chink in the Armor" after Lin's gameplay faltered. The headline was quickly taken down, an apology was issued, the writer responsible was fired, and the anchor who read it was suspended. (Some reasonably intelligent discussion of "chink in the armor" can be found here.)

Maybe I should add Floyd Mayweather's deprecation of Lin's success, claiming that he only got attention because he was Asian. Rush Limbaugh couldn't have said it better. Mayweather responded to criticism like a white person, claiming that "Other countries get to support/cheer their athletes and everything is fine. As soon as I support Black American athletes, I get criticized ... Wow what a country." He later added, "I'm speaking my mind on behalf of other NBA players. They are programmed to be politically correct and will be penalized if they speak up." Right out of the Limbaugh playbook! I guess it's a sign of African-American progress that their pundits now borrow from the most characteristic right-wing talking points on race.

Saturday Night Live did a funny sketch about all this:



(Just a thought: Could it be an unconscious, tacit admission of the fundamental triviality and boringness of sports that sportswriters need to put so much energy into drivel like "Linsanity"?)

Then Gawker put up a story headed "What if Kim and Lin Started Dating?" Yes, Kim Kardashian.
According to one of Kim Kardashian's friends, Kim's publicist has arranged for her to go on a date with Knicks demigod, Jeremy Lin. And while it's probable that there's no truth in this, it's kind of fun to imagine. Think of the Kimsane headlines.
My ever-vigilant Tabloid Friend on Facebook linked to it, gabbling "Wow I bet she would totally fuck that dude's head up if she managed to get that close to him. lol" and "I'd be retarded putty in that woman's presence for a while...unless she managed to offend me sufficiently enough, which then kinda gets the blood flowing to the proper head, so to speak. lol" Racist ("she only like men with big dicks") and misogynist ("she's only after the money, afterall knicks offered lin billions") comment ensued, to say nothing of the comments at Gawker itself. I commented that TF was scraping the bottom of the barrel for material to link to. I did not add, though maybe I should have, that none of us even know that Lin is heterosexual. (He's an evangelical Protestant who wants to become a pastor -- two of the early warning signs of the closet.)

This stuff really makes me feel weary, because I hate being reminded how racist this country still is. Like most Americans, the people I referred to above would indignantly deny that they're racist. But if they're right, why does racism keep leaking out around the edges when they talk? And these are just the leaks; sometimes it's blatant, as shown in this story (via) from Lin's college days:
Some people still can't look past his ethnicity. Everywhere he plays, Lin is the target of cruel taunts. "It's everything you can imagine," he says. "Racial slurs, racial jokes, all having to do with being Asian." Even at the Ivy League gyms? "I've heard it at most of the Ivies if not all of them," he says. Lin is reluctant to mention the specific nature of such insults, but according to Harvard teammate Oliver McNally, another Ivy League player called him a C word that rhymes with ink during a game last season. On Dec. 23, during Harvard's 86-70 loss to Georgetown in Washington, McNally says, one spectator yelled "Sweet-and-sour pork!" from the stands.
Just to play devil's advocate for a moment, I recognize that some "racial jokes" are not meant as slurs. I eventually came to realize that when some of my blue-collar Hoosier co-workers greeted foreigners of any background with clumsy stereotyping jokes, they were just being awkward, and meant well. They were being friendly, as best they knew how, as taught by their culture; it's just that their best was pretty poor stuff. (And of course their culture, like most, is racist. We're in Klan country down here.)

But what Jeremy Lin has had to deal with can't be excused that way. It was another Ivy League player who called him a chink during a game, and it seems fairly certain that he was passed over for the NBA draft because he is Asian, not because of any lack in his game. Of course racism is as Ivy League as Harvard and Yale, and I'm not at all surprised to find racism and overt stupidity in the upper classes. (An older professor once confessed to sports sociologist Michael A. Messner as they watched a women's baseball game, "You know, it amazes me to see a woman throw like that. I always thought that there was something about the female arm that made it impossible to throw like a man."* This wasn't a personal blip but a commonplace medical myth of the good old pre-Title IX days.) It looks to me like elite sports is one of the areas where even the pretense of eliminating bigotry doesn't apply, once you get below the surface protestations. But that, I think, is because it's so representative of American life. (For once I'm not going to say "white American," because as Floyd Mayweather demonstrates, the bigotry is not limited to whites.)

In her review of The Bell Curve back in the 90s, Ellen Willis wrote:
The idea that black brains are genetically inferior to white brains did not fade from public view simply because white people were convinced by Stephen Jay Gould's eloquent arguments. Rather, the gap between Americans' conscious moral consensus for racial equality and the tenacious social and psychic structures of racism was papered over with guilt and taboo. Many opponents of racism thought they were doing their political duty by shouting down the Jensens and Herrnsteins driving them underground. But this literal enforcement of taboo was only a crude reflection of a much more widespread process of self-censorship.

I don't mean that the moral consensus of the post-civil rights era wasn't genuine. I mean that morality isn't enough, that it can't forever keep the lid on contrary feelings rooted in real social relationships that have not been understood, confronted, or transformed. Commenting on The Bell Curve in The New Republic, John B. Judis indignantly points out that the taboo Murray and Herrnstein are so proud of violating was a reaction to Nazism: "It's not a taboo against unflinching scientific inquiry, but against pseudo-scientific racism. Of all the world's taboos, it is the most deserving of retention." The problem, though, is that taboos can never truly vanquish the powerful desires that provoke them. For some decades after the Holocaust, there was a moratorium on open anti-Semitism in Europe and America; it didn't last. So long as hierarchy is a ruling principle of our culture, the idea of black inferiority cannot be transcended, only repressed. And in an era when an ascendant global capitalism is creating a new, worldwide class structure -- when the language of social Darwinism is increasingly regarded as a simple description of reality -- genetic determination of social status is an idea whose time has come back.
While I agree with her main argument here about the limitations of taboo, I disagree with Willis on several points. The main one is that racism (and other bad -isms) never really went away. Racism didn't so much go underground as become more genteel, and mainstream American racism had always been genteel: Saying the N-word is tacky, nice people don't do it, but really, Those People would really be happier sticking to their Own Kind. White people created good jobs for ourselves, and while we'll be happy to let Those People have whatever jobs or positions at Harvard are left over when we've taken our share, they should be modest and polite and not become importunate. That Martin Luther King is just a Communist troublemaker, stirring up unrest; the Colored would be perfectly content if he and all the other outside agitators would mind their own business. The adaptation of this approach to other disenfranchised groups can be left as an exercise for the reader.

Aside from this, the problem I see is that most white Americans weren't interested in, or even aware of "the eloquent arguments of Stephen Jay Gould." And as Willis suggests, they were beside the point anyway. Racism was never based on believing that "black brains are genetically inferior to white brains"; the scientific arguments, worthless as they were, always floated atop the gut conviction of difference and inferiority. Willis even recognizes this: elsewhere in the same review she wrote that "If I bought the authors' thesis, I would still be allergic to their politics. I don't advocate equality because I think everyone is the same; I believe that difference, real or imagined, is not excuse for subordinating some people to others. Equality is a principle of human relations, not Procrustes' bed" (40).

Many people believe (or act as though they believe) that simply reciting a list of fine principles -- equality, justice, can't we all just get along? -- should be enough to absolve them of racism, sexism, etc., when they get caught saying something vicious and stupid. There's a great Feiffer cartoon from the late sixties depicting a male and female hippie facing off. The woman listens blankly as the man declares for several panels that they're in the same struggle, the same fight; her face only closes down when he asks, "So why is it that every day after slaving away on the barricades, I come home to a dirty commune?"

But back to the way racism leaks out of the celebration of Jeremy Lin. I can't understand why his success is so threatening to white sports commentators; for that matter, it says a lot about the culture of elite sport in the early 21st century that he was passed over for the NBA draft and then spent so much time on the bench. The people in charge -- presumably white males, again -- couldn't see past his Chineseness to the talent he had. It took a couple of accidents to give him a chance to play; otherwise, who knows how long he'd have languished without a chance to prove himself? As Andrew Ti wrote at deadspin,
NBA fans have almost no vocabulary with which to talk about him. As with any Asian person in popular culture, people's first resort is a torrent of pan-Asian racist gibberish: If it has anything to do with any country, food, product, concept, or stereotype involving Asia, the rule is basically, "Make any association or equivalence you want, whatever." ... There isn't much to say other than that this is racist as fuck.
He's right, but really? In 2012, white (and also, judging from the examples Ti gives, black) Americans still have almost no vocabulary with which to talk about a talented basketball player who happens to be Asian? And lacking such vocabulary, they aren't smart enough to shut up totally about it and just talk about his playing? And they are so obsessed with his Asianness that if they try to shut up about it, it keeps leaking out? And somebody at ESPN thought he could sneak it in with "Chink in his armor"? And probably thought he was terrifically clever?

Which is one more reason why I stopped worrying about being normal decades ago. I looked at the conduct of the people who were normal, and realized I wasn't missing a thing.

*"Ah, Ya Throw Like a Girl!" by Mike Messner, in New Men, New Minds, Breaking Male Tradition, edited by Franklin Abbott (The Crossing Press, 1987), p. 40.
** In Don't Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial (Beacon, 1999), p. 40-41.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Eminent Outlaws

I've just begun reading Christopher Bram's new book Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (Twelve, 2012). It's a fun read, and I should have known better than to start reading it early in the evening. I kept reading twenty or thirty pages, putting it down, and then thinking, "Hm, I'll just read a little more." Next thing I knew I was over halfway through its 306 pages, it was three in the morning, and I stopped reading reluctantly. I'll probably finish it today.

That's probably just me. Bram and I are almost the same age, and we're both readers ... oh, and we're also both gay. So we read pretty much the same books, and we have similar tastes. He's also read a lot of the same critical and biographical material on these writers as I have, so the historical narrative had few surprises for me. Reading Eminent Outlaws is like a long chatty comparing-notes session with another serious reader.

Of course, we disagree on some minor points. He has a somewhat different take on the great Foucault question, and I wonder if he's actually read Foucault. I really disagree with his claim that "Queer theorists imagined a wonderful arcadian past where men and women simply did what they did and only their actions were judged, not their souls" (311). I've read enough queer theory to know that's not true, even when you take into account that the judgment of the actions in Christendom was extremely harsh. What he says there reminds me of what a lot of my non-Foucauldian contemporaries believed: that somewhere in the past -- ancient Greece, the Islamic world, Latin America -- society had not been corrupted by Judeo-Christian homophobia and the love of men for boys was celebrated. (This attitude is epitomized for me by Arthur Evans's Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture [Fag Rag Books, 1978], which as I recall managed to argue both that classical Athens was a totally gay-friendly society and that Socrates was executed for having sex with other men, because of cultural homophobia.) Still, I agree with Bram that "gay people today, whatever they call themselves, occupy a very broad spectrum of desires, personas, and self-definitions. The names are only approximations, anyway" (x). The men he's writing about all lived after 'the invention of the homosexual', so it's appropriate to discuss them under that rubric.

Similarly, on page 194 Bram writes:
Most straight people, and many gay people, especially those who came of age more recently, don't understand how momentous and difficult coming out was to men and women of this generation. It seems so obvious now, so banal. But the straight world made coming out important and dangerous. They despised homosexuals so much that the homosexuals responded with either total silence or the clever argument of Gore Vidal and others that there was no such thing as a homosexual -- if only people understood that gay identity was a social fiction, then antigay feeling would go away. Yet it wasn't until huge numbers of men and women took the banal and embarrassing step of naming themselves and sharing the name with their families that not just culture but the whole body politic began to change, shifting forward a few inches.
I don't remember that queers of my generation thought any such thing. I think Bram underestimates the influence of Alfred Kinsey on our understanding, but then I might overestimate it from having lived so long in Bloomington, the home of his research. Kinsey was opposed to both biological determinism and to psychoanalytic theories of sexuality, but the biggest impact his work had that I remember was its revelation that sex between men (as well as most other stigmatized sexual behavior) was far more common than most people had realized. Queers of my generation argued, not that "gay identity was a social fiction" but that it was common and therefore okay; not a very strong argument. This claim was taken to the extreme of claiming that Kinsey had proved that everybody is basically bisexual, or that sexuality is distributed on a bell curve, with most people bisexual and only a few either exclusively homosexual or heterosexual. Kinsey didn't prove any such thing, but this was a powerful myth.

But nowadays gay people believe that if only people understood that gay people are a separate breed, the slaves of our genes, driven to commit sodomy and listen to Lady Gaga by our biological difference, then antigay feeling would go away. I don't believe that antigay feeling is based on any assumptions about the nature of gayness; rather, I believe that beliefs about the nature of gayness are invented to justify the antigay feeling. Or the progay feeling, which as I indicated, is compatible both with biological determinism and radical anti-essentialism. I admit, though, that from what I've seen the most popular defense is to wail that we are born this way and can't help ourselves -- a claim that has deep historical roots.

One criticism I've seen made of Eminent Outlaws concerns its male focus. Bram makes the usual excuses: "I chose this focus reluctantly, but I needed to simplify an already complicated story. Also, lesbian literature has its own dynamic and history. It needs its own historian" (x). To give him his due, he does mention female writers, like Mary Renault and Patricia Nell Warren, who contributed to the gay male canon: Renault for her historical novels of classical Greece, Warren for her breakthrough novel The Front Runner (Morrow, 1974), about the love between a gay track coach and his star runner, and he points out (174) the impact that poetry had on lesbian culture. That the full story would be too "complicated" is not a very good excuse, but I can sympathize. He might have mentioned that lesbian writing flourished as an alternative canon, often involving small presses and self-publication; few of the major writers found their way into the mainstream houses in the US. Adrienne Rich, for example, won recognition before she came out. (Notice how she's de-gayed in this bio. And this one.)

A better explanation would lie in this book's subtitle, the words "changed the world." The literary establishment is predominantly male, and was even more so when Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, and the other post-WWII writers Bram discusses built their careers. They worked in the mainstream; even Allen Ginsberg, whose work was first published by small presses, and William Burroughs, whose first published novel was a pulp paperback, achieved nationwide notoriety as part of the legal campaign against obscenity laws. Women writers, regardless of their sexual orientation, were rarely allowed to have such impact on "the world." (Gertrude Stein, of an earlier generation, was an exception because of her male identification and connections to famous male artists; Bram barely mentions her, but she's chronologically outside his scope anyway.)

The women's movement changed the world, however, and the work of women writers, including lesbians, gained a prominence and even legitimacy that's new in history -- against intense resistance that continues to this day. But then, gay male visibility also faces such resistance. But few if any of the writers Bram discusses had much to say about feminism, or about women's writing. Christopher Isherwood met Virginia Woolf once or twice -- her publishing house put out his first novels, in fact -- but he was more influenced by E. M. Forster, who was uncomfortable with Woolf's feminism. Carson McCullers barely features in Eminent Outlaws, despite her connections to several of Bram's principals and her relevance to his subject. And there have been some important books focusing on lesbian writers to the exclusion of gay male ones, starting with Jane Rule's Lesbian Images (The Crossing Press, 1975); it's arguable that gay men and lesbians have different, somewhat parallel literary traditions, though some knowledgeable people, like Terry Castle, might beg to differ. Thanks to the lesbians I've known, my exploration of queer literature since the 1970s has always included the work of women.

Since Bram didn't aim to write a scholarly book (which would probably have legitimized an even narrower focus), he can probably be excused for taking the easy way out. Eminent Outlaws will be a good introduction to the post-World War II gay male canon for people, especially young ones, who didn't grow up with it. But someone ought to take a look at the bigger picture.