Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Harvest of History

I spent a couple of days over the weekend reading Dorothy Canfield's A Harvest of Stories (Harcourt, 1958), which I bought many years ago so as to have a copy of her story "Sex Education."  That story made a big impression on me when I stumbled on it in a public library while I was in junior high.  It's about how age altered the perspective of a rural woman as she told the same story three times over several decades.  Canfield, who often published under her married name as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, lived a life that spanned the late 19th through the mid-20th century.  That fascinated me as a kid, and still does: I lived at the same time as someone who was an adult in 1900, who knew people who'd fought in or lived through the Civil War, and who saw the world change tremendously in her lifetime.  I say "the world" because she spent time in Europe, and brought the Montessori method of schooling to the United States.  She saw a good many changes in the opportunities open to women, and it would be interesting to know what she would think of the changes that came after.

Anyway, I thought of the book when I told an acquaintance about "Sex Education," and decided it was time to read the rest of it.  Canfield was from Vermont, where her family had lived for generations, and several stories are about those earlier generations, based on recollections of elderly people she knew when she was growing up.  For all that her sensibility looks pretty old-fashioned now, she was a vigorous writer, and a pleasure to read; her style hasn't dated much.

The third section of the book consists of stories about war, and I couldn't help thinking, as I read about the effect of the German invasion on French families in World War I.  I kept transposing them in my mind to, say, Iraqi families have had to endure since 2003.  Canfield went to France to follow her husband as he served in WWI, where she worked the with American wounded, and these tales probably draw on people's real experiences.  They're about the survivors without ignoring the dead, and they're heartbreaking.  Few Americans have the kind of connection to the Middle East (except perhaps through Israel) that many of us have to Europe, so it's unlikely that we'll get such stories out of the Iraq War; besides, we're the invaders, and there's probably not a market in the US for stories about American soldiers ransacking Iraqi houses and executing the Mayor of a village for failure to cooperate with them in every detail.  But I'm sure the stories are there to be told.

I was especially intrigued by a story that could have been put in the war section, but instead was with the other "Vermont Memories."  It's called "Ann Story," about a real woman who assisted the rebels during the American Revolution.  She married at 14 (child marriage!), and when her husband was killed by a falling tree while setting up a homestead, she took over the claim herself with her five children.  She lived to be about seventy-six.

Canfield begins the story by assuring the reader that
We know most of the homely-heroic details of her life, for the people who settled Vermont, from 1764 to the 1790s, were younger sons and daughters of decently educated Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island people, hence quite literate.  They left behind many kinds of written records of those first years -- letters, diaries, account books, memoirs, amateur local histories.

In addition, Vermont oral tradition is vivid and unbroken.  The grandparents of my youth had heard from their grandparents all about the life of the early settlers.  It is from talk as well as from yellowed letters, deeds, and daily journals that we know accurately how the primeval Vermont forests were turned into the mellow home-farms now all around us [36-7].
That reminded me of Craig Womack's remarks on oral tradition, which I've discussed before:
I would argue that oral traditions – legends and myths, if you will – performed in their cultural contexts have always been nationalistic and are told for the purpose of cultivating a political consciousness. If one considers the comments of elders telling stories in The World and Way of the Creek People, virtually all of them indicate the purpose of the stories is to inculcate a sense of Creekness in Creek listeners – what it means to form a clan, a town, a nation; their storytelling constitutes an act of Creek survival. Creek nationalism is created through a Creek narrative; the two from an interdependency, not an oppositional discourse. Although Adams is surely justified in critiquing the way “myths and legends” are often used as a diversion from political discussion, this is not an inherent characteristic of the discourse itself. “Legends and myths” might provide strategies for nationalism instead of functioning as a distraction, and this may be more closely linked to their original purpose [61-2].
Oral tradition is certainly linked to nationalism in Canfield's writing!  She goes on to tell how the early Vermonters were
simple-hearted enough to be on fire with the love for liberty, which they spelled, pronounced, and lived for with a capital L.  When, before long, they drew up a constitution for the new state, those buckskin-clad farmer-hunters laid down their rifles and their axes to write into it (the first state which did this on the North American continent as far as we can find out) a clause forbidding human slavery in any form.  The rising wind of the passion for human freedom, for the recognition of individual human dignity sang loudly in the years of all these young family men, then British Colonials, soon to become Americans, who pushed into Vermont along Indian trails [39].
The Indians, alas, were British allies during the Revolution, so that passion for human freedom didn't extend to them, nor to the land "these young family men" took from them.  Indians appear only as villains in Ann Story's tale, hired by the British "to fight for them against the colonial rebels" (42), just as some American slaves fought for the British in hopes of securing their freedom; as "an Indian war-party, about half a mile away, was pillaging and setting fire to the cabin of a neighbor" (43) who wasn't at home, having fled with most other colonists to escape the Indian danger.  Ann Story was a patriot ("we still keep such words ... in our everyday vocabulary" [42]).  "She wanted the same thing for other people's children -- her country.  In a time when political opinions meant something, showed the stuff men and women were made of, she was passionately on the side of self-government by the people" (42).  Well, American people -- you know.  Not Indians.

So, as you can see, as Craig Womack says, "oral traditions – legends and myths, if you will – performed in their cultural contexts have always been nationalistic and are told for the purpose of cultivating a political consciousness."  But that truism cuts both ways, or in many.

Doomed to Repeat It

What with one thing and another, I never got around to writing a blog post yesterday.  (I did, however, manage to finish reading Connie Willis's Lincoln's Dreams, which had been my priority for the day anyhow.)  It turned out to be just as well, though, because I picked up some more information this morning that came in handy.

President Obama gave a Memorial Day speech that added another dollop to my contempt for him.  Speaking at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, he addressed Vietnam War veterans (or maybe just the veterans in his head):
"You were often blamed for a war you didn't start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor," Obama told a crowd gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which lists names of those who died in the conflict.
"You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that's why here today we resolve that it will not happen again," he said to applause.
The president noted that many Vietnam War veterans have gone to airports to personally greet soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom joined the military in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks that triggered the now-unpopular wars.
According to the same Reuters story, he also "promised as commander-in-chief not to send U.S. troops back into harm's way without a clear mission and strategy."  What was our "mission and strategy" in Libya again?  What was our mission and strategy in Iraq?  In Afghanistan?  The US had a clear mission and strategy in Vietnam, as far as that goes: to stop the spread of World Communism by aiding a loyal ally in South Vietnam.  It was as transparently fake as our missions and strategies since then, of course, but we had one, and you work with the mission and strategy you have.  Considering that Obama continues to lie about what the US military is doing and why, I don't suppose he's breaking his perfect record this time.

But what jumped out at me from his remarks was the claim that returning Vietnam veterans "sometimes were denigrated", seconded by the article's writer, who said that many "of those who survived brutal fights in the Southeast Asian jungle faced derision when they got home in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of public opposition to that Cold War battle."  I didn't want to jump to any conclusions, but it sounded like Obama was repeating the false claim that the antiwar movement demonized Vietnam veterans, which in its purest form says that hippies spat on them.  There is no evidence that anything of the kind ever happened. The antiwar movement worked with soldiers and veterans, denigrating and deriding the politicians who had sent them to Southeast Asia to kill and die.  The group Vietnam Veterans Against the War soon emerged, and if anyone denigrated or attacked Vietnam veterans, it was the political establishment.  Nixon's vice president Spiro Agnew fag-baited veterans who participated in demonstrations against the war, for example, and ultimately there emerged an official discourse of Vietnam veterans as unstable and dangerous.  It didn't help that the US economy was having trouble, and returning veterans had trouble finding or keeping jobs.  As VVAW member John Zutz wrote, "There is no place in the American memory for the factually accurate image of vets throwing their medals back at Congress."  Or at NATO.  And nobody who's anybody suggests that it was shameful and disgraceful to send American forces to destroy a country that hadn't attacked us in the first place.

Part of the elite contempt for Vietnam-era veterans was shown by the initial media and Beltway reaction to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall: they hated it, and there was even some attempt by the right to gin up some racist hysteria because the designer was (American-born!) Chinese.  Only when it became clear that the public liked it did the elites suddenly remember that they'd really recognized its greatness all along.  But if you want to talk about neglect of American veterans, consider Korean War veterans, who didn't get a memorial in Washington until 1995, although 36,000 died there (along with a million or more Koreans).  As with Vietnam, the willed amnesia came largely from the fact that the Korean War ended in a truce, not the glorious unconditional victory that Americans are promised by birthright.  (I mean, isn't it in the Constitution?  We always win?)  Returning Vietnam vets found that people -- not dirty hippies, but their school classmates -- just didn't want to hear about their experiences; it seems to have been even better for Korean War veterans.  I must have known some as a child in the 1950s, but I don't remember hearing anything about that war: it was World War II that was all over the place, as American interference in Vietnam gradually increased.

Still, I didn't want to accuse Obama of saying something he didn't mean, so it's a good thing I put off writing this post until today, when VastLeft linked to this takedown of The Audacity of Hope, which quotes Obama committing the lie to print on page 29: "the burning of flags and spitting on vets."  So he evidently believes it.  (An apologist could argue that in context, Obama was just describing the beliefs "white ethnic voters" to explain why they voted for Reagan, but his use of the trope this weekend shows that he believes it -- or else he was just pandering.)

The Reuters story kicks off with another piece of Obama propaganda, referring to his "own efforts to wind down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars started by his predecessor, George W. Bush."  Korea and Vietnam may be ancient history, but Obama has only been in office for three and a half years.  It shouldn't be necessary to go to the archives to remember that Obama campaigned on his intention to escalate the war in Afghanistan (a promise he actually kept), or that Bush-Cheney had already begun winding down the war in Iraq with a negotiated Status Of Forces Agreement that Obama tried to ignore.  But he wasn't able to persuade the Iraqi government to cooperate, partly because of revelations by Wikileaks of US crimes which made the Iraqis unwilling to grant US troops legal immunity; so he had to wind down the US war (while still keeping thousands of regular forces and mercenaries in place).

Vast Left summed it up well, writing of Americans who served in Vietnam:
The horrors we subjected them to, and the ones we sent them to visit upon so many others, are not—or by gum should not be—something to celebrate.

Pity, learn from, heal from, yes. But to use the language of disgrace to describe some Americans' reticence to celebrate Vietnam troops as conquering heroes is a vulgar display of pandering for the head of a nation that remains ready, willing, and able to repeat the sins of that war as long as our empire has bullets, bombs, and Selective Service and military volunteers.

Monday, May 28, 2012

I'm All for Equal Rights, But Would You Want Your Brother to Marry One?

The rapper 50 Cent recently endorsed same-sex marriage (via), though not without certain reservations:
So in process, we need organizations for straight men. We do. We need organizations for straight men in the case you’ve been on the elevator and somebody decides they want to grab your little buns. Times are changing. Those organizations are set up for at one point they were being attacked for those choices. Now its completely different. Obviously [homosexuality] is more socially accepted.
"More socially accepted" than what?  I know, I know, straight men are an endangered species, what with all these homosexuals sucking their cocks.  At least some of us aren't proselytizing all the time.  I appreciated Ta-Nehisi Coates's comment:
This is what I meant about the difference between being fine with marriage equality, and still being bigoted against gays. As sure as there were arguments against slavery that had nothing to do with an affinity for black people, there are arguments for marriage equality that still allow for bigotry against gays and lesbians.
But he hasn't quite got it.  A lack of "affinity" for people in any category isn't equivalent to "bigotry."  Arguments don't have a lot to do with it -- as I've argued before, a lot of the arguments for same-sex marriage are really poor stuff -- it's people's ability to hold inconsistent opinions.  As 50 Cent explained, "I don't have personal feelings towards it because I'm not involved in that lifestyle."  I think that's true for well-meaning liberals, especially straight men: there's an obvious appeal to abstract fairness in the notion of "marriage equality" that has nothing to do with their personal and very concrete discomfort about queers.  That discomfort keeps surfacing in fag jokes, remarks about having to "bend over" for Israel or China, and of course the all purpose "sucks."  (I have the impression that liberals worry about having to bend over for political undesirables, while conservatives worry about having unacceptable political positions rammed down their throats.) 

It's dreadfully picky of me to point this out, of course, just as it's uncool to call people out on their racist humor: Hey, they can't be prejudiced -- some of their best friends are gay Negroes!  Legalizing same-sex marriage will, I believe, have little effect on fag discourse, which is an immediate, real-life concern for many people, not all of whom are gay.  Bigotry won't be made to go away by lifting a legal barrier here or there: it has to be confronted and pushed back directly, fearlessly, and constantly.  And there's not much stomach for that in Liberal Land, not least because it would require them to confront their own bigotries.

I think I may have lost the link to one writer who criticized Obama's belated and opportunistic endorsement of same-sex marriage by arguing that the real credit for changing Americans' attitudes toward homosexuality should go to the activists (his word, though many of them wouldn't have thought of themselves as activists) who for the past forty or fifty years did the hard day-to-day work of being openly gay among straight people -- family, friends, co-workers -- often (especially at first, in the 70s) being derided by other gay people, and quietly refusing to be shoved back into silence and dishonesty about their, our, lives.  Just as the Civil Rights Movement was not about the high-profile "leaders" but about the ordinary people who put their lives on the line every day by resisting white supremacy.  That's really why the casual homophobia of someone like 50 Cent or the straight liberals who joke about picking up soap in the shower is so offensive: they are usually completely unaware of what ordinary people face and have faced in a bigoted society, but that's of no consequence compared to their hangups.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Time Is Overripe By Now

An old friend of mine posted the image above on Facebook.  (Later she also posted a picture of Obama with Bill Clinton linked to one of those advertisements where if you donate a pittance to the Obama campaign, your name will be entered in a lottery to attend an event where both Great Men will be present.)

At first I was suspicious, as I've learned to be with words of the wise posted on the Internet, but the quotation turned out to be genuine.  Too bad, though, because first of all, not everybody thinks of liberals in those terms.  The Right, obviously, but also some supposed beneficiaries of liberal virtue.  I've quoted before this excerpt from one of Langston Hughes's "Simple" stories, "Liberals Need a Mascot":
"Just what is a liberal?" asked Simple.

"Well, as nearly as I can tell, a liberal is a nice man who acts decently toward people, talks democratically, and often is democratic in his personal life, but does not stand up very well in action when some social issue like Jim Crow comes up."

"Like my boss," said Simple, "who is always telling me he believes in equal rights and I am the most intelligent Negro he ever saw -- and I deserve a better job. I say, 'Why don't you give it to me, then?' And he says, 'Unfortunately, I don't have one for you.'

"'But ever so often you hire new white men that ain't had the experience of me and I have to tell them what to do, though they are over me. How come that?'

"'Well,' he says, 'the time just ain't ripe.' Is that what a liberal is?" asked Simple.

"That's just about what a liberal is," I said ...
That was published in 1949.

Second, Hughes's description of a liberal fits John Kennedy's practice as President.  He escalated US involvement in Vietnam, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war over Cuba, and severely disappointed Civil Rights activists who'd put their hope in him as a champion of racial equality in America.  (And doesn't that "looks ahead and not behind" remind you of someone today?)  You can call Kennedy lots of things, but "liberal" isn't one of them unless you're using Langston Hughes's criterion.

I've also quoted Martin Luther King Jr. before (via) on Kennedy as a Civil Rights icon, and I might as well quote him again:
No president has really done very much for the American Negro, though the past two presidents have received much undeserved credit for helping us. This credit has accrued to Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy only because it was during their administrations that Negroes began doing more for themselves. Kennedy didn't voluntarily submit a civil rights bill, nor did Lyndon Johnson. In fact, both told us at one time that such legislation was impossible. President Johnson did respond realistically to the signs of the times and used his skills as a legislator to get bills through Congress that other men might not have gotten through. I must point out, in all honesty, however, that President Johnson has not been nearly so diligent in implementing the bills he has helped shepherd through Congress.
Of the ten titles of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, probably only the one concerning public accomodations -- the most bitterly contested section -- has been meaningfully enforced and implemented. Most of the other sections have been deliberately ignored.
...
I'm sure that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day.
I pointed out some of these things to my friend; her reply was "I'm proud to be a liberal!"  I'm not sure I see what there is to be proud of, but to each her own.  But I see this as part of a larger problem.  It's not so much that political labels are meaningless, though it sometimes seems so.  When large numbers of Americans think of politicians like JFK, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama as liberals, something is wrong.  Obama knows better: he's said that in Europe he'd be considered a conservative, and that was early in his term, before he'd shown just how far he was willing to follow and extend Bush-era policies.  Even "centrist" is far too generous for him.  If American liberals are willing to claim such men as one of them, then they should revise their mission statement.

Friday, May 25, 2012

I Get My Misinformation from the New York Times!

There's been some excitement in liberal circles about a new study which shows that people who depend on Fox News for their news are worse-informed than people who use other media.  NPR listeners did the best, followed by viewers of "Sunday Morning Shows" and The Daily Show.  Metaphorical high fives were exchanged across the Intertoobz; the sound of liberals patting themselves on the back could be heard across the nation.  But I wanted to know more, so I looked at the numbers.

True, NPR listeners did much better than Fox News viewers.  But not even the NPR listeners did very well.  On four questions about US politics, for example, Fox News viewers would answer 1.08 questions correctly, while NPR listeners would answer 1.51 questions correctly.  So the star pupils scored 38 percent; not exactly a result to brag about, even if the dunces only scored about 25 percent.

Not that I'm surprised.  When stories like this emerge, I always point out that after the first Gulf War, in 1991, a study "conducted by the University of Massachusetts' Center for Studies in Communication, found that the more people watched TV during the Gulf crisis, the less they knew about the underlying issues, and the more likely they were to support the war."  Fox News didn't exist in that day, so the other corporate media, like CNN and the broadcast networks had to shoulder the task of misinforming the public -- a task at which, as the study showed, they succeeded admirably.

And since 1991, the "mainstream" media have continued to do their part for the war effort.  FAIR documents the malfeasance not only of Fox but of more respectable news outlets, including print media.  A discriminating reader who wanted to be misinformed in the run-up to the second Gulf War, for example, didn't have to go slumming with Fox News, because the New York Times was running Judith Miller's dispatches which passed along Bush administration's fraudulent propaganda.  Just this month, MSNBC's Chris Matthews went for a double-dip: he claimed before an audience of cable-TV professionals that the government would have more trouble making false claims about weapons of mass destruction today because the vigilant 24/7 cable news networks would have brought about a "reckoning."  As FAIR points out, Matthews is not only ignoring the fact that the cable news networks existed in 2002, he and his colleagues embraced Bush administration claims and cheered on the war.  The most prominent opponent of the war at MSNBC in those days, Phil Donahue, was fired, and Matthews seems to have lobbied management to get rid of him.  Matthews is definitely bipartisan, though: nowadays he's passing along the Obama administration's false claims about Iran's (non-existent) nuclear program.

So, I think the celebration over Fox News's inadequacy is overreaching a bit.  One of Tabloid Friend's commenters remarked: "Every time any other media is compared to Fox their viewers always come across as morons."  So how do NPR's listeners, with their score of 38 percent, come across?  Ben Adler at The Nation claims that Fox News "fails the fundamental test of journalism: are you informing your audience?"  True, but so do the rest of the corporate media, who should be regarded with as much skepticism as Fox.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Vote for the Cutest

The latest in a series.  According to the New York Times article where it appeared, it's three years old but is still on a West Wing wall because people like it so much.  I do too.  But I first saw it when it showed up on Facebook yesterday, the writer Pearl Cleage was gushing about it, and so it fits into the Cute Obama Pics category.
David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s longtime adviser, has a copy framed in his Chicago office. He said of Jacob, “Really, what he was saying is, ‘Gee, you’re just like me.’ And it doesn’t take a big leap to think that child could be thinking, ‘Maybe I could be here someday.’ This can be such a cynical business, and then there are moments like that that just remind you that it’s worth it.”
Being the hater that I am, the first thing that occurred to me was what it means to "be here someday."  At a press conference closing last week's NATO conference in Chicago, with the attendant police violence and military lockdown of the city, Obama was upbeat:
"And the Chicago police -- Chicago's finest did a great job under, you know, some significant pressure and a lot of scrutiny. The only other thing I'll say about this is thank you to everybody who endured the traffic situation.

"Obviously Chicago residents who had difficulties getting home or getting to work or what have you, you know, that's -- what can I tell you? That's -- that's part of the price of being a world city.

"But this was a great showcase. And if it makes those folks feel any better, despite being 15 minutes away from my house, nobody would let me go home. I was thinking I would be able to sleep in my own bed tonight. They said I would cause even worse traffic. So I ended up staying in a hotel, which contributes to the Chicago economy. "
You see?  Even the Commander in Chief has to make sacrifices.  And if that little kid works hard, someday he can be there too: killing teenagers with predator drones, stuffing uncooperative journalists and random American students into Yemeni prisons, snooping on your telephone conversations and mine.  (I haven't written yet about the NATO conference, but I'd recommend this face-off about NATO from Democracy Now!  It's obvious to me that Obama is ultimately responsible for the storm-trooper tactics of the Chicago police, even if Chicago weren't his political home base and even if the Mayor weren't his crony and former chief of staff.  The people who planned it all must have reported to the President.)

I also remembered something that Thurgood Marshall said late in his illustrious career: that he no longer felt he could go around telling black students that if they worked hard, they could become the one black Justice on the Supreme Court, just like he had.

Also interesting has been the abrupt about-face of many African-American Christians on same-sex marriage since the President declared his support for it.  It's always inspiring to see people think for themselves, and as I've said before, it's educational to see how easily principled, Bible-based opposition to civilization-threatening change can evaporate, almost overnight.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bugs Bunny Made Me Gay

(I began this post a couple of months ago, then left it in Draft-mode limbo. Rather than rewrite it completely to bring it up to date -- the Blogger update is old news now, for instance, and some of the bugs have been fixed -- I'm finishing it and posting it without a lot of changes to what I originally wrote.)

So I was just going to jump in and do a quick post on something that had caught my attention (which I'll get to in a moment), but I discovered that Blogger had picked this moment to dump its New Look on me.  It took me ten minutes just to find my way past the help screens to the posting page.  (The autosave feature is great too -- it's noticeably slower than it was in the previous version.)  Thanks, Blogger, you've made my day!

But here's what I meant to write about.  Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams posted yesterday that FOX News's Bill "Loofah" O'Reilly is up in arms over Glee, grappling
with the terrible, terrible paradox that while “Glee” may have some merits, it also sends the message “that alternative lifestyles for children may be positive.” And then, oh no, he showed a clip of the character Unique performing a KC and the Sunshine Band song in a dress and heels. O’Reilly, who is terribly concerned that America’s youth “might go out and experiment with this stuff,” next welcomed Carlson, along with Judge Jeanine Pirro, for an old-fashioned round of pearl-clutching. “Here we go again,” said [Gretchen] Carlson, “pandering to .3 percent of the American population that consider themselves transgender. Now I get to explain this to my 8-year-old, if I just wanted to watch a nice family show with some nice music?”
As Williams pointed out, it's perfectly legitimate for a parent not to let her 8-year-old watch Glee in the first place: "I think it’s too racy for her – and I question any high and mighty moralizer who thinks it’s just 'a nice family show with some nice music.'"  She adds quickly that her "daughter knows that there are gay and lesbian and transgender people in the world – she even knows gay and lesbian and transgender people! And yes, sometimes it’s confusing for kids to get their heads around identity and sexual orientation."  Hell, adults also find gender, identity and sexual orientation confusing -- a good many posts right here on This Is So Gay are about that confusion.

But here's what I wanted to get at: cross-dressing is a time-honored, even ancient feature of popular entertainment.  Classic Warner Brothers cartoons featured cross-dressing regularly, and what could be more mainstream than Lucy and Desi?  (That was also a prime-time program that I watched regularly in its day; I don't remember the "Auntie Mildred" scene, but I almost certainly saw it.)  Or William Powell?  Or White Christmas?  Or The Flintstones?  It's true that drag has a different function in such cases than it usually does on Glee, but I don't think that eight-year-olds subject their entertainment to very searching analysis.  Bugs Bunny usually cross-dresses to fool his antagonists, but at least once he dressed Elmer Fudd up as a hot babe.

Did any of this, and much more, induce me to "go out and experiment with this stuff"?  (Wingnut please!  I think anyone who's going to "experiment" with cross-dressing will stay in rather than go out.)  When I was about five, I tried on my mother's shoes, as I tried on my father's at some point.  They didn't fit, and that was that for me.  I was never interested in women's clothes, which seemed too flimsy (as they were supposed to be); stage makeup in high school taught me that I didn't like having grease on my face.  As an adult, after I came out, I once tried on a dress, but not for long: I didn't feel covered by it, and never looked back after I got my pants back on.  If I'm a girl at heart (as the conventional scientific wisdom has it), she's a dyke.

More seriously (and yes, I recognize that O'Reilly probably didn't mean "go out" literally -- that's the trouble, he was channeling cliches, not thinking), so what if some kids did "experiment" with cross-dressing, whether they were inspired by Glee or by Bugs Bunny?  (Bugs is a much better role model, to my mind.)  In many, probably most cases, the "experiment" will fail.  Kids try on many roles, identities, images, costumes in their lives, and most don't take.  We have no idea why some do and others don't.

O'Reilly and many other people clearly think that it will be terrible if a boy puts on a frock, a wig, makeup, and heels.  There was a fuss last year about a J. Crew ad involving a five-year-old boy wearing pink nail polish; I thought it was interesting that both the screamers and the supporters tended to assume that the boy was trans, not merely playing with his mom.  I don't see what's terrible about it.  I haven't been following Glee this season, so I don't know anything about Unique's backstory, but I'm not very moved by his apotheosis on the stage. (And girl, please -- there's nothing unique about being either a drag queen or transgendered.  Take this kid to a drag club, and see how "unique" he is.)  For someone like Unique, of course, there's more to it than the stage; I suppose that by appearing onstage "as a woman," he is expressing his inner self, his true being; the applause he receives validates the expression, and by extension validates his true being.  That's another, probably dangerous, mistake: the sadness of the actor alone in his or her dressing room after the show, removing the character and becoming his or her everyday self, is a stereotype of long standing.  If his identity is pinned to stage performance, he's in trouble: performing can only ever be a small part of a performer's life, and actors have often found themselves deeply torn between the persona they present on stage or before the camera, and who they really are.  Unique is a narrative (to use the current jargon) about a trans kid, not any kind of reflection of reality.

The same is true of all those cartoons and comedy sketches I grew up on: they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, meant to imply that homosexuality or transsexuality were okay.  On the contrary, you were supposed to laugh at the absurdity of Bugs or Elmer in drag, and the device had different meanings for each of them.  For Bugs, drag (and the big sloppy kisses he often planted on the faces of male adversaries) cemented his identity as Trickster: Elmer was so dumb he couldn't recognize the boy rabbit beneath the makeup.  For Elmer, drag was humiliating, or put him in a subordinate position next to Bugs, as when he plays the bride to the Hare's groom.  There were plenty of he-she's, girlymen, diesel dykes, passing women, and other sexual nonconformists in those days, and every adult knew about them, but  Production-Code entertainment was forbidden to deal with them.  The fault lay in the Code, not the nonconformists, though we haven't made that much progress since it was dismantled.

Back to Gretchen Carlson's complaint, quoted by Williams.  She claimed that Glee was pandering to the ".3 percent of the population that consider themselves transgender," and what about the children?  I've been hearing variations on this complaint for decades.  First, it's not necessary to go into full clinical detail about transgender, transsexualism, homosexuality, or even heterosexuality when answering young children's questions.  So much of the discussion of sex education has consisted of reassuring parents that little kids usually don't want to know about Reverse Cowgirl or Pearl Necklaces, and that their questions about where babies come from can and should be answered in age-appropriate ways.  An eight-year-old doesn't have to know how to make a baby herself.  Second, though, as they get older, fuller explanations will be necessary, because they're likely to meet sexual nonconformists of various kinds.  Even if the transgendered do constitute 'only' three-tenths of a percent of the population, the transgendered have families and relatives and coworkers: they are known to people other than themselves, and they come from all backgrounds.  The first transsexual I ever met, forty years ago, was a redneck boy from rural southern Indiana who was saving up for his operation; the most recent one was about my age, a highly educated and renowned computer scientist.  You can't avoid trans people simply through Fundamentalist Republican separatism, since it's not impossible that your minister will resign his post at the age of fifty-five to become the woman he always wanted to be; if not him, then it might be his son or daughter.

You don't have to be nonjudgmental in answering your own children's questions.  If your six-year-old asks about the gay male couple down the block, you're completely within your rights to say something like "Well, sometimes men fall in love with each other instead of with a lady -- but we think it's wrong, because God doesn't like it."  You can do the same with religious differences; you don't even have to be accurate about your Episcopalian or Muslim neighbors, though if you aren't, eventually your child will learn on his or her own that Episcopalians don't worship Satan and Muslims don't eat babies for dinner, and you'll have some explaining to do.  Even if you have no moral reasons to tell the truth, there are practical ones.  It's one of the prices we pay for living in a pluralistic society, which allows you to be a Roman Catholic or a conservative evangelical.  You might think you'd be happier if America were less pluralistic, but if it were you wouldn't be free to hold your own beliefs.

The real problem I see is that we still don't have great answers about these matters.  The discourse on transgender is confused and incoherent, probably because our discourse on gender is confused and incoherent.  But it's not such a big problem, because you don't really have to understand why a person is trans to support their quest for being the person they want and need to be.  (Ditto for sexual orientation: it's not at all important why people are gay or straight.  And isn't the multiplicity of religions a bit tricky to explain to kids?)  But "I don't know" are the three scariest words in English to many people, and not just to the people at Fox News.

The Young Maiden and the Distinguished Warrior

Possibly the strangest chapter in Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality was Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm's “Red Hot to the Touch: WRi[gh]ting Indigenous Erotica."  Akiwenie-Damm began by complaining about the lack of erotica written from a First Nations perspective, a lack she set out to begin righting herself.
I longed for images and stories of love between our people. Love between people I could recognize. Between Indigenous people like the ones I knew. Not the stereotypes and fantasies of Hollywood or those of sexually bored middle-aged American housewives or of white men looking to affirm their virility and dominance – I wanted something true. If I was going to read fantasies about Indigenous men, I wanted them to be like my fantasies, to stir my desire for flesh-and-blood Indigenous men. I wanted them to be about love, not power [110].
Fair enough; a lot of writing has been inspired by the desire to fit just such a niche, and I'd the last to criticize anyone for wanting depictions of stories about "people I could recognize."  I have pointed out certain problems with such projects, however, and in this instance I'm bothered by the racist stereotyping Akiwenie-Damm indulges.  Are "sexually bored middle-aged American housewives" really so different from a sexually bored middle-aged Canadian Anishnaabe woman?  Do all First Nations women have the same fantasies about the same Indigenous men, or will First Nations Harlequins need to be broken into smaller niches, according to nation?  Her assumption that "love" and "power" cover no common territory is also problematic.

But leave that aside.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and Akiwenie-Damm offers up some samples of the kind of fantasies she wants to see. For example, her protagonist meets and nurtures a burning, oozing passion for a young (younger?) Indigenous fellow who's doing some remodeling work for her, building a deck or something:
And she couldn’t help it. She flirted outrageously with him. She was witty. She was fun. She felt the world roll beneath her feet. She could do anything. She would try anything. Charm oozed out of her pores, like honey from a honeycomb. It was beyond her control. She felt madly, crazily alive. She wanted to stand in the middle of Elgin Street and sing his name. She wanted to climb Blue Mountain and hear his name echo back to her. She wanted to walk the Niagara Escarpment and tell every buzzard and crow to call out his name. She couldn’t help it. It was him doing this, not her. It was he who awoke her. It was them, together, who saw sun and stars and moon in each other [112].
I've read a fair sampling of erotica and romance fiction (basically the same thing) by white American women, aimed at the middle-aged demographic Akiwenie-Damm dismisses so lightly, and I don't see any substantial difference between her fantasy and theirs.  Her prose is indistinguishable from theirs, and not up to the best writers in the field.  The only difference is a few adjectives for hair and skin color, plus a few local-color details to provide ethnic authenticity.

To me that's reassuring: people aren't so different from each other after all.  (Remember, however, that differences within groups tend to be greater than differences between them.)  I'm pleased that so little alteration is necessary to produce working erotica for a First Nations woman, but that also means that any white publisher could hire a hack off the street to produce it, and sell it to everybody.  Then I wonder: are white women, let alone white men, allowed to read Akiwenie-Damm's indigenous erotica?  Will we pollute it with our colonialist eyes, read it through the lenses of our hunger for power?  Akiwenie-Damm's essay was published in an anthology primarily meant for white eyes anyway, so I suppose not.  By all means, there should be erotica and other writings for women of all nations, let a thousand flowers bloom.  I'll read some of it, because I can learn from almost anything, but I'll be hoping for better than this.

Monday, May 21, 2012

But Only God Can Make an Oaf

[I've continued this post since I posted it last night.]

Marilynne Robinson isn't totally useless, if only to argue with.  Yes, I'm still slogging through When I Was a Child I Read Books, and I'm now in the second essay, "Imagination and Community," which contains this nugget on page 24:
From time to time I, as a professor in a public university, receive a form from the legislature asking me to make an account of the hours I spend working. I think someone ought to send a form like that to the legislators. The comparison might be very interesting.
But you know, lots of people could have written that.  Having delivered herself of one pithy observation, Robinson returns to bloviating.  On the same page:
In fact, we in America have done pretty well.  By human standards, which admittedly are low.
Where will you find higher ones?  Among paramecia?  I suppose she means divine standards, since she goes on to prattle about the importance of "overlapping communities," but first she'd have to be able to find them.
I identify with my congregation, with my denomination, with Christianity, with the customs and institutions that express the human capacity for reverence, allowing for turbulence within these groups and phenomena.  Since we are human beings, turbulence is to be expected ... Those of us who accept a historical tradition find ourselves being burdened with its errors and excesses, especially when we are pressed to make some account of them.  I would suggest that those who reject the old traditions on those grounds are refusing to accept the fact that  the tragic mystery of human nature has by no means played itself out, and that wisdom, which is almost always another name for humility, lies in accepting one's inevitable share in human fallibility [26-27].
The trouble with reverence is that it's almost always selective.  The original Christian reverence, for example, entailed irreverence, to put it mildly, toward "the old traditions" of Judaism and the old gods of the "pagans."  In that respect, as I've suggested before, the scientistic secularists at whom Robinson looks down her nose are arguably the true heirs not just of the primitive Church but of the fire-and-brimstone revivalists of the glory days of American religion.  Like their religious predecessors, they take pleasure in knocking the stuffing out of Man's pretension: You think you're at the center of the universe? Ha! You think you're a special creation? Why, you're just descended from apes!  "The wisdom of the world is foolishness before God," Paul gloated in his first epistle to the Corinthians (3:19), as Robinson must surely know, and that quip doesn't stand alone in the New Testament.  He wasn't just talking about the worldly, but about "the Jews" to whom a crucified Messiah was a scandal (1 Corinthians 1:23).  Humility is in notably short supply in the early Christian writers, as is civility.  The first Christians gleefully threw out all kinds of traditions, which led to their being called atheists because they refused reverence to the old gods, and it wasn't for a century or more that some began to yearn for worldly philosophical respectability, and began mixing Plato into their theology.  Robinson tries to smooth out these little "turbulences" in the service of her agenda, but they're important.

Later in the essay she mentions the social movements of the Sixties, but she doesn't seem to want to remember how disruptive they were, how at odds with the sweet reasonableness and civility and humility she values -- to say nothing of reverence for old traditions.  "Just at that time the great social transformation began, set in motion by Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others, which called into doubt the whole system of discrimination that had governed most lives, not only in America but throughout the world" (29).  Of course those "transformations" had begun long before, and it's no disparagement of Parks and King to point out that they didn't "set [them] in motion" but rode, like surfers, on waves that others had churned up.  For someone who claims to value learning, Robinson is notably and tendentiously ignorant about her subjects.  She really needs to attend to the beam in her own eye before poking at the specks in others'.

My own style of atheism avowedly steals from any older wisdom that looks helpful, whether it's called religious or not, since religion is a human invention, and I am heir to all human cultures, for better or worse.  (So are you.)  I agree with Robinson on the importance of humility, and I think that looking at what other human beings have said and thought and done will make you humble, because it's virtually impossible to find any bright new idea that wasn't thought of someone else before, probably a couple of thousand years ago.  On one hand, my predecessors' feet of clay entitle me to look at their works critically; on the other, they remind me that I'm human too, and as prone to embarrassing error.  Judge (as Walter Kaufmann modified Jesus' exhortation), so that you may be judged.

Five Years!

Just patting myself on the back for a moment: I started this blog five years ago, and 1319 posts later (plus 29 in draft limbo), I'm still here.  Thanks to those who've read, sent me e-mail, and linked.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sister Marilynne Explains It All to You

I'm not yet done with Marilynne Robinson, however.  In "Freedom of Thought," the first essay in When I Was a Child I Read Books, she lays down the law on Religion.

Early in the essay, Robinson declares:
But the “physical” in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial. We all know that if we were the size of atoms, chairs and tables would appear to us as loose clouds of energy. It seems to me very amazing that the arbitrarily selected “physical” world we inhabit is coherent and lawful. An older vocabulary would offer the word “miraculous” [10]
Would it? I’m not so sure. "Miraculous" is a word that has lost most of its meaning, from what I can tell.  In any case, Robinson falls right into the Shabby Friar’s fallacy here, which marvels that God in his wisdom so arranged matters that rivers and seas were placed adjacent to the larger cities and towns. This is related to the Creationist / Intelligent Design claim that the Creator arranged conditions in the Universe within the disappearingly thin slice of temperature and other physical constants that would enable the emergence of life -- but also to the popular evolutionist image of a series of figures, from Less Advanced (perhaps an apish Cave Man) to Most Advanced (a modern white man, of course).

It might surprise Robinson to know that I agree with her assertion that many critics erase "all evidence that religion has, anywhere and in any form, expressed or stimulated thought", though I don't agree that there's a conflict between that and what she calls the "anthropological bias" that "regards all religion as human beings acting out their nature and no more than that" (12), since acting out our nature seems to me to leave lots of room for development.  And nothing she says begins to make a case that religion can't be explained fully as a human production.
This is the anthropologists’ answer to the question, why are people almost always, almost everywhere, religious. 
Ah, when you concede that “almost,” you’ve got yourself in trouble already, because then you have to explain the exceptions, and Robinson is barreling along too quickly to pause for such trivia.
Another answer, favored by those who claim to be defenders of science, is that religion formed around the desire to explain what prescientific mankind could not account for. Again, this notion does not bear scrutiny. The literatures of antiquity are clearly about other business.
Except, as she admits, when they’re not.  But even when they are, you've got all those literatures with their different gods and their different requirements.  Subsuming all "religions" under Religion won't do, it really won't.
Some of these narratives are so ancient that they clearly existed before writing, though no doubt in the forms as we have them they were modified in being written down. Their importance in the development of human culture cannot be overstated. In antiquity people lived in complex city-states, carried out the work and planning required by primitive agriculture, built ships and navigated at great distances, traded, made law, waged war, and kept the records of their dynasties.  But the one thing that seems to have predominated, to have laid out their cities and filled them with temples and monuments, to have established their identities and their cultural boundaries, to have governed their calendars and enthroned their kings, were the vivid, atemporal stories they told themselves about the gods, the gods in relation to humankind, to their city, to themselves [12-13].
Where do I begin to explain what is wrong with this paragraph? First, I suppose, “religion” is itself an eighteenth or nineteenth century concept, not something that the “ancient” people applied to their understandings and stories and rites. And we moderns haven’t stopped telling stories of gods or Big Men: the US has plenty of them, especially around election time but also in professional sports.

Second, stories are almost certainly far older than the written versions we have, because writing is a very recent invention compared to language itself.  It’s fairly obvious that Robinson is thinking only about the Middle Eastern and East-Mediterranean “religions.” But that was only part of the world and of humanity. Isn’t it miraculous that her picture of human culture and “religion” is able to draw on that particular part of the world, and not China, or the Pacific, or the Australian aboriginals, or the pre-Columbian Americas? God must have wanted her to write this essay.

Finally, even in the part of the world she’s writing about, most people didn’t live in “complex city-states,” which like writing are a fairly recent development. Primitive agriculture predates the city-states. We know that pre-city people also had their stories to orient themselves in the world (or to orient the world around themselves), though of course we know less about them because they weren't written down.

It seems to me that people tell stories for their own sakes, simply because we like narratives.  But like any other form of play, the stories we tell are not something completely separate from the real world: they emerge from our minds, and they are assembled from pieces of the world, however repurposed.  (Coyote in American Indian story, for example, is partly a coyote, with certain human traits projected onto him, just as Bugs Bunny is only partly a rabbit.  And gods are also projections of human traits; only later philosophers try, without success, to depersonalize them and turn them into principles.)  It seems to me that because human beings love and need to find patterns and make connections, we put meanings into our stories, which may be about our kings and our cities but may also be about our next-door neighbor and his wife and children.

Meanwhile, it's not as if people ever stopped telling stories, so it's not clear to me why Robinson stresses the antiquity of those old tales. As I suggested earlier, there must have been still older stories that flourished and faded before the invention of writing, perhaps for thousands of years, and yet are lost to us forever.  We moderns and postmoderns (terms which also allude to myths about the nature of history and time) still have our totems and idols and spiritual beings, and our origin stories that just happen to culminate in Us, the goal toward which creation was always striving.  I’m not sure that the corporate sponsors and logos are any more debased than those of the great kings of antiquity, who may simply look more profound to us now because they’re so distant from us in time. At least some of those great tombs and temples were built to glorify the divine kings who commanded their construction, but who were not more divine than the immortal, invisible Corporate Persons who put their names on stadiums, museums, and other great public works today.  As Terry Pratchett once wrote, wisdom is the only thing that looks bigger the farther away it is.

In Craig Womack's Red on Red (Minnesota, 1999), he writes about the function of stories in American Indian societies, pointing out that when "folk tales" and other oral materials are collected in print anthologies, the use of those stories is lost with their cultural context.  A storyteller in an oral culture tells his or her tale to an audience that is present for the telling, who knows the mythos (or backstory) of the tale; he or she might choose a story or slant the telling to make it refer to contemporary persons or events, but there's always a larger context in which the story is given meaning by the teller and the audience.  For Womack,
I would argue that oral traditions – legends and myths, if you will – performed in their cultural contexts have always been nationalistic and are told for the purpose of cultivating a political consciousness. If one considers the comments of elders telling stories in The World and Way of the Creek People, virtually all of them indicate the purpose of the stories is to inculcate a sense of Creekness in Creek listeners – what it means to form a clan, a town, a nation; their storytelling constitutes an act of Creek survival. Creek nationalism is created through a Creek narrative; the two from an interdependency, not an oppositional discourse. Although Adams is surely justified in critiquing the way “myths and legends” are often used as a diversion from political discussion, this is not an inherent characteristic of the discourse itself. “Legends and myths” might provide strategies for nationalism instead of functioning as a distraction, and this may be more closely linked to their original purpose [61-2].
My disagreement with Womack here is that, on his own account, at least some of those oral traditions are older than European contact, so even if they were 'originally' about nationalism, they would have referred to different enemies in different times.  A story's "original purpose" can't be known, especially in an oral culture where there's no way to record earlier versions and contexts from a hundred, a thousand, two thousand years ago.  A story's "original purpose" is both unknown and unimportant; what matters is what it is made to mean by each teller and each audience.

And then too, none of this is specific to American Indians, as Womack is unhappily aware.  The invading Europeans had their own legends and myths told for the purpose of cultivating a political consciousness and inculcating a sense of what it means to build a nation: Columbus, the Pilgrim Fathers, Pocahantas and John Smith, the first Thanksgiving, the glorious patriots of the Revolution, and so on -- all told and shaped, and eventually written and published, to provide an origin myth for America, the land of the free and the home of the slave.  Anyone who looks at the history of the interpretation of the Christian Bible can see the same process at work: the old stories are pulled and pushed to fit the needs of the moment, some are discreetly ignored, others are brought up front and embellished.  Political candidates in their campaign speeches seek to situate themselves in the glorious story of our nation's history.  Partisans want a version of history taught to schoolchildren that will make them feel proud to be Americans.  And so on.  Stories are still very much part of human communication and connection.

The disagreement isn't over whether to tell stories, but over which stories, how they're to be told, and by whom.  Womack mentions a scholar who "points out an important characteristic of the Creek nation – its tendency to 'swallow up' smaller groups that moved into Creek country (these groups would often become assimilated Creek, most eventually adopting the Creek language)… This 'swallowing up' effect is important because it demonstrates that Creeks were able to view nationalism as a dynamic, rather than a static, process" (30-31).  Am I being unduly cynical if I wonder how this dynamic process was viewed by those who were "swallowed up"?

That takes me back to Marilynne Robinson, who points out that the Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin all "quote the pagans with admiration.  Perhaps only in Europe was one form of religion ever so dominant that the fact of other forms could constitute any sort of problem" (12).  That's a one-sided distortion of the way Christian writers used "the pagans".  The attractive aspects of the old religions they saw much as Robinson says modern secularists see religion: as a primitive, inchoate foreshadowing of the perfect truth of Christ (or Science), just as the parts they disliked were blamed on demonic deceptions or the influence of the flesh.  The tendency she attributes to moderns "to make a sort of slurry of religious narratives, asserting the discovery of universals that don't actually exist among them" (ibid.), isn't new either: it can be seen in someone like Herodotus, puzzling over the different customs and gods they have in Foreign Parts, or in the syncretism that led to the gods of one nation being identified with the gods of others: Venus with Aphrodite, or Artemis with Isis, or Alexander the Great with Ammon.

Robinson's a curious character.  We've all encountered the young iconoclast who's just discovered the different creation and universal-flood myths of the ancient Middle East, or the dying and rising god myths that bear a vague resemblance to the Christ story, and triumphantly declares that Christianity stole all these motifs from the earth-based religions!  Such kids, whose patron saint is C. S. Lewis, are prime material for midlife re-conversions to Evangelicalism, or sometimes Eastern Orthodoxy.  Robinson seems to have taken the next step: having picked up some popularizations of late twentieth-century physics, she's ready to declare Rationality a myth, and Science a parasite on spirituality!  I'll agree with her to a point: scientists and rationalists have their own myths, and their own disinclination to look at the pre-rational roots of their disciplines and methods.  But the flaws in the neo-Darwinian synthesis don't mean that Genesis is a true account of the origin of the world.  As literary company, alas, Robinson is inferior to Lewis, and much closer than I suspect she'd like to think to Francis Schaeffer or his angry son Frank.  As a partial corrective I'd recommend to her Paul Veyne's Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (ET Chicago, 1988), who's much better-natured and wiser besides:
[R]eason has not won (the problem of myth was forgotten rather than resolved); it was not fighting for a good cause (the principle of “current things” was the bastion of all prejudices – in its name Epicurus and Saint Augustine denied the existence of the Antipodes); and, finally, it was not reason that was engaged in the battle, but only a program of truth whose presuppositions are so strange that they elude us or astound us when we do grasp them. One never possesses a complete vision of truth, falsehood, myth, or superstition, or evidence of them, an index sui. Thucydides believed in oracles, Aristotle, in dream divination; Pausanias obeyed his dreams [74].
 And (131 note 8):
Nor has anyone proved that Zeus did not exist.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Matter of Opinion

I just read Occupy, Noam Chomsky's new pamphlet of interviews and speeches on the Occupy movement.  It's a slim volume, and there's nothing new in it, but it's always interesting to read what Chomsky has to say.  (The appendix by the National Lawyers' Guild on dealing with police and arrest, however, will be immediately useful to many people.)  One bit that caught my attention was a question and Chomsky's answer to it in an interview with an NYU student:
The late British philosopher, Martin Hollis, worked extensively on questions of human action, the philosophy of social science and rationality.  One of the claims he made was that any anarchist vision of a society rests upon an idea of human nature that is too optimistic.  In short, he argued that anarchism is only viable if humans by nature are good.  He says that history shows us that humans cannot be trusted to this degree; thus, anarchism is too idealistic.  Would you mind responding to this objection very quickly, given your commitment to some of the ideals of anarchism?
It's possible to respond to arguments.  It is not possible to respond to opinions.  If someone makes an assertion saying, "Here's what I believe," that's fine -- he can say what he believes, but you can't respond to it.  You can ask, what is the basis for your belief?  Or, can you provide me with some evidence?  What do you know about human nature?  Actually, we don't know very much about human nature.  So yes, that's an expression of his belief, and he's entitled to make it.  We have no idea, nor does he have any idea, if it's true or false.  But it doesn't really matter; whatever the truth turns out to be, we will follow the same policies, namely, trying to optimize and maximize freedom, justice, participation, democracy.  Those are goals that we'll attempt to realize.  Maybe human beings are such that there's a limit to how far they can be realized; okay, we'll still follow the same policies.  So whatever one's un-argued assertions may be, it has very little effect on the policy and choices [66-7].
I disagree with Chomsky on several points here.  I think you can respond to opinions.  I'd consider the kinds of questions he suggests to be responses to opinions.  Chomsky has certainly spent more time debating people in his career than I have, and he has his own approach, but to me it seems important not to let opinions stand unanswered or uncriticized.  I've encountered many people who believe that their opinions should be "respected" without question or criticism, but I haven't observed that they draw a distinction between arguments and opinions: they just won't tolerate any disagreement with their beliefs (though they feel free to disagree with the beliefs of others).

Besides, it looks to me like Hollis was making an argument, though I can't be sure since I can't look at his own words; the interviewer doesn't give a source, and I haven't found one online.  It looks like he was arguing something like this:
If anarchism is to work, human nature must be good.
But human nature is bad.
Therefore anarchism can't work.
It's a badly flawed argument, but it's an argument, and a response can be made to it.  It's flawed, first, because "good" and "bad" beg numerous questions about human nature.  (A Randian Objectivist, for instance, would consider selfishness and a refusal to cooperate with other people as "good.")  It's flawed because of its assumptions about what anarchism requires in order to work, and also about what it would mean for anarchism or any other political system to work.  These are objections that would have to be answered before you even get to Chomsky's, valid as they are: we don't know enough about human nature to say whether or not anarchism is compatible with it, and even if we did, we wouldn't necessarily be required to behave in ways that we consider wrong.

The anarchist Paul Goodman addressed virtually the same objection forty years ago, in his last public speech, reprinted in a posthumous collection of his political writings, Drawing the Line (Free Life Editions, 1977).
Question: But people are naturally greedy – without some political compulsion they’ll do harm to each other and never reform.

Goodman: Let’s assume, as you say, that people are greedy. First, people are just what they are; the beauty of the decentralist, anarchist position is that nobody can do much harm. As an anarchist, and all anarchists are decentralists, our view is not that human nature is good, but on the contrary, that human nature is probably lousy. It’s improvable, but probably lousy. People are corrupt as hell, therefore don’t give anybody any power, because that’s where the trouble comes from, because the people who have power are not going to be better than the other people. In fact we know that the more power people have the more corrupt they become. Let’s make sure that everybody has an independent free-hold of their own, and if they’ve got that then there will be a limit to how bad things can get. And that’s all you want out of politics. You don’t want politics to give you a good society. All you want is a tolerable background so the important parts of life can go on. We all know what the important parts are, the arts, the science, sex, justice, worship of God, love of nature. The political things are insignificant. But if they are bad, wow, can they cause damage. I don’t want to change human nature. I couldn’t care less. All I want to make sure is that there are enough goods to go around, and there will be enough goods to go around in this highly productive and intelligent race, on this highly productive planet, if you don’t allow it to get concentrated [271-2].
As Goodman said, even if you grant the assumption that people are naturally "greedy" (which I suspect is close to Hollis's), it doesn't follow that some people should therefore be allowed power over others -- the opposite, in fact.  The same people who hold that human nature is essentially greedy and corrupt tend to be the same people who support hierarchies of power.  I don't know whether they believe that some people are less greedy and corrupt than others, and therefore can be trusted with that power, or that pyramidal hierarchies somehow keep those at the top from abusing their power.  Experience would seem to suggest that neither is true in any case, so it is at least a fair to question to ask how to prevent such abuses, and Goodman's anarchist answer -- make sure no one has much power -- is reasonable.  (How to get from a centralized, hierarchical society to a decentralized anarchist one is another question, which numerous anarchists, including Chomsky, have addressed.  Only the very young, I think, believe that the process will easy or short, but then the young are more inclined to believe that five years is a long time.)

The biblical scholar James Barr made a similar point in his writings about fundamentalism, though it extends to conservative Christianity in general: the same Christians who insist on the inescapability of human sinfulness tend to structure their churches according to a cult of personality which quietly exempts their leaders from Original Sin, with scandals both small and large resulting.  On the secular side, there are the various forms of social Darwinism, which claim that people who make large amounts of money or achieve high political office have proven their superiority to their fellows, by definition.  As Chomsky wrote at around the same time Goodman made that speech (in For Reasons of State [Random House, 1973], 375):
One might speculate, rather plausibly, that wealth and power tend to accrue to those who are ruthless, cunning, avaricious, self-seeking, lacking in sympathy and compassion, subservient to authority and willing to abandon principle for material gain, and so on. Furthermore, these traits might very well be as heritable as IQ, and might outweigh IQ as factors in gaining material reward. Such qualities just might be the valuable ones for a war of all against all. If so, the society that results (applying [Richard] Herrnstein's "syllogism") could hardly be characterized as a "meritocracy." By using the word "meritocracy" Herrnstein begs some interesting questions and reveals implicit assumptions about our society that are hardly self-evident.
As Chomsky says at the outset, this is speculation -- but so are the opinions he and Goodman opposed.  If Chomsky's speculation pointed us in the right direction, though, we'd face another difficulty: it would mean that "human nature" is not uniform, and that some people appear to be constitutionally unsuited to living peaceably and cooperatively with others.  If anything, it's those who become our rulers who would have to be recognized as the dangerously inferior breed of Homo Sapiens, not the many. How would an anarchist society, which rejects compulsion, deal with such people?

There's plenty of evidence (most recently gathered and discussed by Rebecca Solnit and Alfie Kohn) that people prefer to cooperate, even in times of great stress.  Once again the notion that people need to be repressed when there's a disaster, that the only alternative is rioting and mob rule, turns out to be a projection by those who have scrabbled to the top, and assume that the majority of people are like them.  Whenever someone stresses the human potential for cooperation and nonviolent forms of conflict resolution, there's bound to be someone else who derides it as a wishful kissyface-huggybear hippie fantasy.  From what I've seen, that's not the case either: those who stress cooperation don't suppose an absence of conflict, only that conflicts needn't be resolved by violence alone; or even the disappearance of greed and selfishness, they are arguing that these traits needn't be regarded as the human default.  In practice, despite their occasional crocodile tears about the horrors of war, or the dreadfulness of rape, the critics of cooperation clearly prefer war as the first resort of international conflict resolution, and they're much more upset by the possibility that men might be restrained from forcibly making sperm deposits than they are by the suffering of the victims. (Indeed, as I've pointed out before, many men have real trouble telling the difference between rape and consensual sex.)

Beware the (self-styled) clear-eyed realists who cheerfully accept the necessity of hierarchy and violence -- for other people -- and lightly dismiss other possibilities.  The assumptions they select reveal what really turns them on.

Friday, May 18, 2012

American Active, or American Passive?

I may have made a mistake today: I checked out Marilynne Robinson's new book, When I Was a Child I Read Books (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2012), from the library.  Another blogger almost read it, for much the same reason I checked it out: gender parity.  But I have other reasons: one is that, since I saw right away that it's a collection of meditations on the state of America today, I wanted to see what, if anything, Robinson will have to say about her man Barack, whom she supported passionately in 2008.

Reading the book's opening pages on the bus, I noticed right away that she was being careful not to name names.
We have the passive pious, who feel they have proved their moral refinement in declaring the whole enterprise bankrupt, and we have the active pious, who agree with them, with the difference in that they see some hope in a hastily arranged liquidation of cultural assets [2].
Excuse me?  I'm not sure who she means by "the passive pious"; the Christian Right, as Robinson must know, formerly rejected political involvement, but they were hardly "passive" even then: they put pressure on schools not to teach Darwin, they opposed school desegregation (were they in the mobs that harassed and threatened black kids attending "white" schools?), they built a network of segregated Christian schools to get around civil rights legislation.  Are nuns who work with the poor "active" or "passive"?
What if we have ceased to aspire to Democracy, or even democracy?  What if the words "Democracy" and "America" are severed, and no longer imply each other?  It is not unusual now to hear that we have lost our values, that we have lost our way.  In the desperation of the moment, justified or not, certain among us have turned on our heritage, the country that has emerged out of generations of attention to public education, public health, public safety; access to suffrage, equality under law.  It turns out, by their reckoning, that the country they call the greatest on earth has spent most of its history acting against its own (great) nature, and that the enhancements of life it has provided for the generality of its people, or to phrase it more democratically, that the people have provided for themselves, have made its citizens weak and dependent [2].
"Certain among us"?  If it weren't for the second half of the last sentence I quoted, I'd have thought that Robinson was talking about those of us who emerged out of generations of attention to public education to criticize our country and its government for its violence and oppression, not just at home but around the world.  But then she makes it more or less clear that she's talking about those "conservatives" who want to dismantle the social programs that have made better the lives of the mass of citizens.  A better-informed critic would point out that those "enhancements of life" were always controversial and bitterly opposed by powerful interests, often in the name of "Democracy" itself; it's the conflict itself that is our heritage.
Our national ancestors generally managed, by the standards then prevailing, to avoid encouraging the same [inter-religious] conflicts here.  Now it is seen as un-American in certain quarters to reject participation in the bitter excitements that can surround religious difference.  This is a critically important instance of self-declared patriots attacking the very substance of our heritage [3].
"In certain quarters."  This may have been written before the Roman Catholic hierarchy claimed that being required to supply health insurance to their employees was liberal persecution.  This was disingenuous at best, but it has to be disentangled by reason and evidence, not innuendoes.  But Robinson is disingenuous herself, for "our national ancestors" generally came to the New World, not for religious freedom, but for the freedom to persecute others.  As one of them put it, religious tolerance was "Satan's doctrine."  True, the religious wars that ravaged Europe didn't happen here, but that wasn't because of the colonists' enlightened views on difference.

Enough for now; that's just the preface.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Re-invented Traditions: Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing

Before I criticize Drew Hayden Taylor's anthology Me Sexy any more, I want to praise the best piece in it, the final one, "First Wives' Club: Salish Style" by Lee Maracle.  For one thing, the writing feels embodied.  Despite all the prattle by the other writers about how First Nations don't apply a body/spirit divide to sex, most of them write about sex like white people.  (Not that I'm in any position to point fingers there: I am a white person.)  In a way, that's only to be expected.  Against all the queer-theory academics who say they're gonna write about queer embodiment (following Foucault's exhortation to think and write about bodies and pleasures -- which, weirdly, he seemed to think were somehow pre-theoretical -- writing doesn't produce a body; at best it's a projection of a body.  Writing isn't pleasure (though the act of writing, like reading, can be pleasurable): it's a shadow or at best an evocation of pleasure.  I think that instead of trying to make writing less intangible, we should recognize it for what it is and rejoice that we have such a useful tool.  No matter what theoretical tools you apply, though, writing about bodies and pleasures produces only more texts.  The best cookbook, with the most delicious-looking full-color photographic illustrations, still won't nourish you.  In the end you have to set aside representations and cook and eat, or make love.

Still, some writers give me the impression of not trying to pretend they don't have bodies, and their writing evokes bodies and pleasures in such a way that it seems fair to call it embodied.  Most of the writers who bring this off are female; I'm thinking of Joan Nestle, for one.  Lee Maracle is another, maybe because (like Nestle and the other writers I'm thinking of) she's older, apparently about my age.  Her sense of humor, which also stands out in the collection, helps too.  Try this anecdote from her contribution to Me Sexy:
As a young person my chiefs asked me to organize the youth and encourage them to attend the first all chiefs’ conference in Kamloops, B.C. So I called a youth gathering to be held at the local Indian Friendship Centre in Vancouver, notified all the young people I knew and made a presentation on behalf of the not-quite-fully-formed Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. It was 1968, the year the skimpy, sexy T-shirt came on the scene for young women. I was wearing one. Along with my skimpy T-shirt I had on a pretty snug pair of jeans and no bra (it was the sixties). An elder from Saskatchewan named Ernest Tatoosis came up after my talk and complimented my speech. After a pregnant pause he added, staring at my cleavage (small though it was), “But maybe you should dress more traditional,” and he pointed at my shirt. I knew what he meant. He was well known for scolding women for wearing sexy clothing. “Real Indian women wore dresses, long dresses, covering their legs and buttoned to the neck.” I suddenly remembered a picture of a group of First Nations men dressed in Western pants, shirts, and sporting little mini-skirts and holding old rifles. Should I tell him that I will wear a long dress buttoned to the neck if he wears that mini-skirt? He probably wouldn’t get it. “You’re right,” I answered instead, and I removed my shirt.

Cree women apparently wore long dresses (deerskin) before Europeans arrived and traditionally covered their bodies pretty much head to toe. What Tatoosis did not know was that, prior to the arrival of the good Oblates, Salish women did not wear shirts during the summer or at a good old bone game.
In this era of Aboriginal Studies, there is a tendency to red-wash or clean up our past before passing on our traditions, and sometimes it gets cleaned up in accordance with someone else’s current morality. I am not advocating a return to the old lahal games practices, in which women sang and danced half-naked, enthusiastically cupping and bouncing their beautiful breasts in an attempt to distract the other team, but we should know a little about who we are before we become someone else’s idea of who we should be [172-3].
In Craig Womack's Red on Red (Minnesota, 1999), he complains, "It is way too premature for Native scholars to deconstruct history when we haven't yet constructed it" (3).  As I wrote before about his complaint, deconstruction really isn't the issue.  I've heard similar complaints from African-Americans and some of my Homo-American brethren as well when they are confronted with anti-essentialist arguments.  It doesn't really matter what you replace it with: the standard -- traditional? -- academic approach to history is seriously flawed, not just in content and European bias but in method.

I wonder what Womack would make of Lee Maracle's story.  When Native peoples are under attack, when (as an elder Womack quotes put it) "We may look like Indians, we have the color of an Indian, but what are we thinking? What are we doing to our own children who are losing their language, their own ways?" (55), shouldn't Maracle have held her tongue and covered up, instead of insulting an elder to his face in public?  Shouldn't she have reined in her rebellion until the First Nations were safe and secure again?  Shouldn't Native women be supporting their men instead of tearing them down?

Of course not.  The hard part about living in the world is that you have to do everything at once -- recover the past, invent the future, and balance the present -- and this task is all the harder for oppressed groups struggling for survival.  Being embattled is no excuse for falsifying the past, though, or imposing irrelevant restrictions on your fellows in the present.  I don't know whether Ernest Tatoosis got his prudery from Christian missionaries or the parallel mindset in Cree culture, though what an amazing coincidence that his ideal woman's outfit sounds so suspiciously Victorian.  But it doesn't matter: why should Maracle have dressed "more traditional"?  How would it have helped her as an (evidently very effective) organizer?  His phrase "real Indian women" gave the game away: as though Maracle wasn't a real Indian woman.  Every divisive stumbling block ever thrown into the path of an organization has been justified by someone as being necessary, and for the group's own good, when it's more likely they sprang from someone's neurotic compulsions: notice again Tatoosis staring at Maracle's cleavage.  There's no principle for deciding the question in advance, but I do think people need to be more skeptical of such moves.  I think Maracle made the right response in that moment, though I'd love to hear more about Tatoosis' reaction, and I wish more of the writers in Me Sexy had her attitude.