Friday, September 28, 2012

On The Road, In The Air

I've been in San Francisco since Wednesday afternoon, and Internet access has been a bit less accessible than I expected, so I haven't been posting.


(I can't get the image to rotate; I'll keep working on it.)

Which doesn't mean there hasn't been a lot on my mind, especially since traveling means staying in a hotel which means access to a TV, so I've had the TV tuned mostly to CNN.  I've seen way too much Erin Burnett, but frankly, Anderson Cooper isn't much better.  Both remind me of the very narrow spectrum of opinion that TV news offers, from A to B.  Should the US nuke Syria, or just use incendiary weapons?  Are we taking firm enough action against Iran to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons: are sanctions enough, or will military action, hand in hand with our friends in Israel, be necessary?  (The irony of two nuclear powers with long histories of aggression and terrorism telling Iran not to defend itself is lost on all the commentators.)  Or how about the election, what can Romney do to close the gap between him and Obama?  (It's not considered that Romney's policies and public statements, or indeed Obama's, have any relevance.  Winning the championship is the only thing that matters.)

But I've also been to the GLBT History Museum, which has an exhibit on gay -- actually, mostly lesbian, but that's fine with me -- Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Bay Area.  It's small, but still worth a look.  There's also a new (though even smaller) exhibit about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.  I attended a meeting of a gay men's discussion group Wednesday evening, which was a lot of fun and very satisfying.  Some issues came up that I mean to write about soon.

This is only the third time I've ever been to the Gay Mecca, and it's the best time I've had so far.  Which, I suppose, is another reason I haven't been writing, I've been distracted: that's the point of traveling, isn't it?  I'll be returning home tomorrow morning, and then I'll try to get back to work.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Legacy of Misinformation

This Democracy Now! report quotes Ann Coulter being stupid -- not exactly news, I know.
Meanwhile, appearing Sunday on ABC’s This Week, conservative pundit Ann Coulter argued immigrant rights should not be considered civil rights. Host George Stephanopoulos asked Coulter about her claim.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Immigrant rights are not civil rights?
ANN COULTER: No, I think civil rights are for blacks.
ROBERT REICH: See, this is essentially the problem. And the Republicans don’t understand—
ANN COULTER: What did we—can I just say, what have we done to the immigrants? We owe black people something; we have a legacy of slavery. Immigrants haven’t even been in this country.
Isn't Coulter a lawyer?  Since she is, she should be able to read a statute, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  "National origin" could apply to immigrants, but the purpose of the Act was also carefully delineated:
To enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes.
Civil rights, as I hope you can see, are not for only one group.  A good many people are unaware that the Act protects not only blacks but whites, not only women but men, and so on.  Even leaving whites out of it, "race" covers not only people of African descent but all non-whites.  Whether "national origin" can be stretched to include "immigration status," I don't know, but it's not clear how this Act and its successors would apply to immigrants.  Even legal immigrants (until they get a green card) and visitors must get government permission to work in the US, so refusing to hire someone without such papers isn't discrimination under civil rights law.  (If anything, the "illegal immigrant" problem bespeaks a lack of discrimination against undocumented immigrants, since many US employers prefer to hire them: they're cheaper and more vulnerable.)

I think I've mentioned before that many people seem to think that "Civil Rights" means "black people's rights," just as they generalize "discrimination" beyond the specified domains of the Civil Rights act.  You can see this when someone defends, e.g., racism as discrimination by pointing out that there are all kinds of discrimination, like someone five feet tall will not be hired as a professional basketball player.  True, but "discrimination" in civil rights law has a defined, limited meaning.  In the same way, commonly used terms like "gay rights" or "women's rights" are confusing shorthand for "the civil rights of gay people" and "the civil rights of women" -- though, again, forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation ("gay rights") or on sex ("women's rights") also protects heterosexuals and men.  (I believe I've also seen people try to define the "civil" in "civil rights" as "polite," which is not what it means in that context.  Others have similarly misunderstood the "civil" in "civil marriage.")  So Coulter's not the only one who's confused.

There was also this bit, in the same segment:
DR. ALFREDO QUIÑONES-HINOJOSA: We’re all humans. We all have the same abilities. We all have the same potential.
No, we don't all have the same abilities.  But legal equality doesn't mean sameness.  As for potential, there's no way to know what anyone's "potential" is, but there's no reason to believe that everyone has an equal amount of it.  But even people with different abilities and potentials are to be treated equally under the law.  Is this really rocket science?  I've been amazed at how many people don't get it.

Of course, Coulter's remark that "we owe black people something; we have a legacy of slavery" is disingenuous.  The American Right doesn't think that America owes black Americans anything, and has constantly opposed civil rights legislation, let alone affirmative action.  The real reason for antidiscrimination law and affirmative action, however, is not to redress the legacy of slavery but to counter the American tradition of white racism in the present.

It's true that "immigrant rights" aren't civil rights, but that's because "civil rights" refers to a subset of rights, not to the people who are entitled to them.  Everybody gets civil rights.

Friday, September 21, 2012

No, You Hate America!

Back to "tribalism" for a moment.  I don't watch TV, so I haven't seen Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and had no idea what it was even about until it came up in a post at alicublog earlier this week.  As usual, Roy Edroso was discussing a rightblogger who'd been making a fool of himself online, "talking about [the] 'last remaining undecided voters in America,' and bases his characterization on the fact that a reality TV show about hillbillies beat out some reality TV shows about rich politicians making promises to America." Which, as Edroso noted, seems like a reasonable preference. The rightblogger called for an adjustment of Republican rhetoric to appeal to "the Honey Boo Boos": "the headlines need to be as unsubtle as possible, but still hewing to reality — reality through our lens."

Edroso continues:
I'll spare you: It mainly means recreating rightwing talking points like "OBAMA TEAM TWEETS COMMUNIST PROPAGANDA" in oversize red letters. "Even a Honey Boo Boo can get through those headlines," he says; "they’re short enough to survive the three-second attention span."

That someone actually thinks this about his fellow citizens doesn't surprise me, but I am a little surprised that he would say it out loud in a public forum. It suggests to me that Zombie is not actually concerned with influencing those voters. He's like a teenage boy who doesn't have a girlfriend and declares it's because girls prefer jerks, and so he'll be a jerk himself, and then they'll all come running. Having been a teenage boy myself, I recall that such a person is usually not seriously mapping out a seduction strategy, but looking for sympathy from like-minded loners.
Ah, the populist piety of campaign season!  Those whose memories are not properly disciplined may remember how, after the Kenyan usurper's false victory in 2008 and just before his 2010 comeuppance, rightbloggers high and low claimed that conservatives respect ordinary voters, while the liberals despise them.  I suspect this (false) claim had something to do with the fact that the Tea Party was flush with corporate money, and the Democrats were suffering from voter disenchantment, so the Republicans were feeling strong and of course they'd want to justify this by declaring their faith in the wisdom of We The People.  At the moment, however, the shoe is on the other foot: Romney and Ryan are flailing around helplessly, other Republican candidates are in trouble, Obama is confident, and many Democrats are already (and prematurely) proclaiming victory, so Roy can afford to be generous.

Of course I agree that it's not wise politically to say derogatory things about the voters, such as that we must not "underestimate how stupid the voting public is," that the wise elites "are always talking policy but the voters are always choosing on personality," that "the vast majority of voters don't vote on policy or logic or history but rather on tribal loyalties and misunderstood rumors."  However, this is how liberal Democrats talk sometimes.  While Roy Edroso was circumspect in this post, his commenters promptly began laying on the Hee-Haw jokes, obese hilljack couch potato jokes, Cracker jokes, White Trash jokes, etc.  One commenter wondered whether "the Honey Boo Boos (Does he mean the actual mo-rons of the show, or the ninnies who watch, btw? Pretty sure there's a difference.) are registered, let alone 'likely,' voters."  That was the rightblogger's point: that the show's subjects and audience were "undecided" and must be won over to the Romney-Ryan cause.  Evidently some Democrats feel that they'll never convince such people that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

The difference between this kind of "tribalism" and the kind that many leftbloggers decry is that it's not specifically racial, in the sense of dividing humanity up by skin color or language.  It is, however, related to scientific racism, which divides humanity according to class, years of schooling, IQ and other "cognitive" traits.  Class includes not only income and wealth but class markers, such as the kind of entertainment consumed, or one's religious affiliation: if you must be religious, then join a respectable denomination like the Episcopalians, or be a Reform Jew.  Though some crude forms of Social Darwinism are stereotypically associated with the Right, contempt for the poorer, fatter, and less schooled as a lesser breed is endemic among liberals, progressives and leftists.  Most of the right wingers I know are petit bourgeois, many are college graduates, and judging by their Facebook photos are pretty well-kept -- no doubt the result of many years' feeding from the public trough -- yet too many liberal Democrats stereotype the Right as obese trailer trash gorging themselves on Cheetos in front of the TV.  Not that they'd be justified even if it were true.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life

Before I return it to the library, I want to write some more about Joan Morgan's When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist. It's an interesting book, and I don't regret reading it, but there are times when Morgan is so unselfconsciously clueless I have to laugh.

I mentioned in my previous post that Morgan had complained about the raging dykes who constituted one of the main "flavas" among white feminists in her college days.  But there were others.
The others -- straight and more femme -- were all for the liberation of women as long as it did not infringe on their sense of entitlement.  They felt their men should share the power to oppress.  They were the spiritual descendants of the early suffragettes and absolutely not to be trusted [35]...

White girls don't call their men "brothers" and that made their struggle enviably simpler than mine.  Racism and the will to survive it creates a sense of intra-racial loyalty that makes it impossible for black women to turn our backs on black men -- even in their ugliest and most sexist of moments.  I needed a feminism that would allow us to continue loving ourselves and the brothers who hurt us without letting race loyalty buy us early tombstones [36].
(Someone who had the book out of the library before me wrote a big asterisk in pencil next to that second paragraph.)

Fair enough, and I understand it.  But as her characterization of the "straight and more femme" college feminists shows, "race loyalty" has its pitfalls.  And it seems that Morgan still hasn't learned that being a feminist, whether she calls herself one or not, will still get a woman called a selfish manhater.  Much later in the book, she reports how the mother of her friend Daphne saw it.  Daphne, it seems, found herself a good black man, and has a "wonderful life ...  a beautiful house, dog, great kid, and car -- in that order."
So it was all good until Mrs. Charles ["Not her real name"] said to me (Dee's very single and career-minded girlfriend), "I'm so glad that Daphne isn't like so many of these young women today.  They're so selfish and absorbed in their careers they don't even know how to treat a good man.  No wonder they're all single."  The air in Dee's huge, airy, brownstone suddenly got too thick to breathe ... [133-4].
Morgan then spends two pages writing what she wished she'd said to Mrs. C in reply.  But it doesn't seem to occur to her that Mrs. C saw her just as Morgan saw those white feminists: too busy living their own lives to "know how to treat a good man", i.e., to subordinate themselves to him.  Back in the Eighties, Cynthia Heimel was writing smart, funny, and much more self-aware stuff about the same problem as a white feminist experienced it.  While it's important for women of color to work out their own approach to feminism, they should consider the possibility that even older white women might have something to teach them.  Think of it as getting something back for all that African-Americans have given to American culture.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

It's "National Don't Talk Like a Tribalist" Day

I've been wanting to write about this for some time, but wasn't sure I had properly sorted out my ideas, that I had started change with myself.  This morning, though, the blogger VastLeft tweeted and posted on Facebook that today is "talk like a tribalist day! #everyday", and I realized I was just going to have to become the change I wanted to see in the world ... Seriously, I know from experience that I usually don't sort out my ideas on a subject until I write about it, so here goes.

I first noticed the words "tribal" and "tribalism" turning up as pejorative buzzwords in Glenn Greenwald's writing.  At first glance I thought it was racist, since it implies that mindless solidarity is somehow a trait of 'primitive' foreigners; at second glance I still think it's racist.  Since modern Enlightenment white people tend to exhibit the same attitudes and behavior, it's factually incorrect to use a word that implies that they are signs of primitiveness.  By the same logic, breathing, eating, copulating, raising children, singing, dancing, and telling stories are primitive and "tribal," since tribal peoples do all these things and more.  It's also irrational, since it's really only a smear, like calling something "low-class."

More recently I noticed that VastLeft was using "tribal" more often; he's as apt to accuse Democrats as Republicans of tribalism as Greenwald is, but that's because they don't belong to either tribe.  So I was gratified at first when a commenter on Facebook wrote,
I know! Those Republicans are so tribalist. I'm glad that we liberals are so not tribalist, unlike those ugly stupid Republicans who wear tacky clothes!!!
To which I replied that we non-tribalists must stick together.  But as much fun as that was, it was too easy.  I might have been wrong to assume that the commenter meant to point out that using "tribalism" this way is a form of "tribalism" itself. VastLeft does, after all, attack liberals who are tribalist about the Right.  He is, however, ready to Other creationists, Bible-thumpers, and religious believers generally, on the tacit assumption that just being an atheist and rejecting religions is enough to make one a member of the Good Tribe of Enlightenment rationalists, critical thinkers, open-minded freethinkers, "Brights."  One of the reasons I've never put one of those red atheist A's on this blog is that it is, in this pejorative sense, a tribal symbol.  I also stopped wearing lambdas and other gay-community symbols like the pink triangle a couple of decades ago, don't fly a rainbow flag or wear "freedom rings," though I didn't really think through my lack or loss of interest them at the time.  I'm not saying these are bad things and no one should display them, understand, only that they don't interest me.  And yet I'm quite firm in identifying myself, labeling myself, as gay, as atheist, and so on -- as descriptive labels, not as badges of us/them.

Human beings are a social species.  We can't survive without the community and support of other human beings.  Community -- or tribalism, used as a descriptor rather than as a pejorative -- is a necessity for us.  Like any other natural phenomenon, it has its pitfalls: cliquishness, stereotyping, unthinking loyalty, xenophobia, ethnocentrism.  (I always think of Paul Goodman's remark, "I'm all for community because it is a human thing, only I always seem to be left out.")  And I'm enthusiastic about people joining together, working together, belong to communities of various kinds.  One reason I'm insistent about multiple identities is that I believe that remembering we all belong to more than one tribe can help avoid the kind of thinking and behavior that Greenwald and VastLeft want to stigmatize as "tribalism."

According to this blogger, the writer Sam Harris "thinks that even calling yourself 'atheist' is labeling yourself for theist's convenience & argues why have a name for what you DON'T believe in? You probably don't believe in astrology or ghosts either so do you need a special name for NOT believing in those things too?"  This doesn't keep Harris from Othering religous believers and other groups he thinks of as irrational, of course.  The reason to "have a name for what you DON'T believe in" seems obvious enough to me in this case, just because so many people believe in gods.  But I'm not wedded to the word "atheist."  I'm just as happy to say that I don't believe in gods, and I meet enough people, weirdly enough, who don't know what "atheist" means that I often have to explain it anyway.

On the other hand, I have enough differences with other atheists that I think it's important for me to insist that I am an atheist despite this, not out of "tribalism" but to stress that we are not a tribe, that there is no atheist creed, no loyalty oaths, and atheists (including me) are not exempt from my disagreement or criticism.  Atheism, like any other label, is vast, it contains multitudes.  You can't solve the difficulties this entails by drawing a line in the sand; you have to learn to manage the complexities.  (Sometimes I think of this as the difference between Aristotelianism and Platonism: Platonism postulates identities and ideal types, while Aristoteleanism enumerates variety and family resemblances.)

In the same way, I think it illustrates my point, and may be valuable, if I vote for Obama and criticize him relentlessly, because so many people think that a vote for a candidate entails slavish, uncritical devotion to him or her forever after.  Likewise, the anthropologist and Hindu monk Agehandanda Bharati used to say that you can be a believer and a sound scholar if you "radically criticize the doctrine with which one identifies, pointing out its weaknesses, its foibles, and the clay feet of its founders and sustainers, at every step."* Knowing that accepting an identity doesn't exempt you from the obligation of thinking critically about it is, I think, one remedy for what Greenwald and VastLeft call "tribalism."  Using "tribalism" as a derisive label is no remedy at all -- it's part of the problem.

In honor of VastLeft's "talk like a tribalist day," I'm going rename this blog for a few days. Arggghhhhh.

*Agehananda Bharati, The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism, Ross-Erikson, 1976, page 68.  In the same book Bharati says in passing. "A primitive society, by anthropological criteria, is a small, band-like society structured entirely on kinship lines, which does not deploy fulltime specialists for anything" (142).  Two things about this: 1) it's not derogatory or racist to use the word "primitive" in this way, just as there is probably a definition of "tribal" that isn't derogatory or racist, but either word can be used to put down what one doesn't like in one's own allegedly "advanced" culture, just as "childish" can be; 2) by Bharati's definition there are still "primitive" aspects of modern Western society, but these are not necessarily bad: friendship, kinship, taking care of others as amateurs rather than as specialists, without expecting cash payment for doing so.  In their use of "tribal" as a pejorative, however, Greenwald and VastLeft, are doing something different, like Christians dismissing all non-Yahwists as "pagans."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Inner Peace

A friend posted this image to Facebook today, and it bothered me enough to move me to comment on it.  I found that I had a lot to say about it, so I decided to continue my complaint here.

I wouldn't want to say that Thich's statement is utterly false.  I can understand it in a way that I could agree with at least partially, as saying that one can't just sit at home and wait for peace to happen, one must rouse oneself to act, in concert with others. I could go further and agree that one must be prepared to change oneself, as well as other people, and structures and systems constituted of those people.  It could be that "spiritual" practices of the kind associated with contemplative religion would be among the means one could use to change oneself.  So far so good.

But some people talk about changing oneself as though the process had to be complete before one ought to engage in activism, or action of any kind.  Though I know almost nothing about him, I doubt that Thich would agree with this, since according to the Wikipedia article about him, he mixed spirituality with political activism early on in his career.  Nor, surely, would Martin Luther King have agreed.  It was King's association with Thich here (again according to Wikipedia, King nominated Thich for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967) that made me uneasy when I saw this image.  I admire and respect King a great deal, and I've often cited and quoted him in this blog, but from what I know of him I don't think he was a placid, perfected spiritual master.  He seems to have been conflicted, often angry, often uncertain how to proceed in his work.  He was also, I gather, sexually compulsive.  Such traits don't, to my mind, disqualify King as an activist or a spiritual person.  Rather the opposite: they mean that you can work hard and do important things without being perfect or pure in every way.

In Alan Watts's The Way of Zen he quotes a Zen master who said, "Now that I'm enlightened, I'm just as miserable as ever", and another who said of himself, "On rainy days the monk Ryokan feels sorry for himself" (189).  I found these sayings liberating, because they implied that rooting out every negative thought in myself wasn't vital to becoming wiser or happier.  I sometimes quoted them to friends who touted this or that guru or tradition to me, which always incensed them, though some later changed their minds.  I can't blame them: one of the major benefits people seek from spirituality is an end to suffering and unhappiness, so the last thing they want to hear is that the teachers they revere as role models are still imperfect (to put it mildly).  It's not as if I was Little Mr. Sunshine myself, then or now: I too wanted less unhappiness in my life.

Some of my friends angrily accused me of cynicism, of not wanting anybody else to be happy just because I'd been disappointed in the spiritual quest.  I suspect this was an answer they learned at their teachers' knees.  I don't think I was being cynical: rather, I was taking a different approach to personal growth than the cult of personality they were using, in which the teacher becomes an idealized father figure who'll never let them down.  If you expect perfection from parents, you're bound to be disappointed; and for at least some of my friends, their spiritual quests consisted of a series of letdowns, followed by a search for the teacher who wouldn't have those annoying human faults.  What I learned from Watts was that at least some of the canonical teachers were doing something else.  I wanted to know what happiness and "enlightenment" meant in the lives of real people who had succeeded in finding them.  (In just the same way, I wanted to know, not what an ideal couple would be like, but what real happy couples were like.  Some people have accused me of having unrealistic expectations of relationships, but they had no answer when I asked what realistic expectations were.)

I've known activists who scorned spiritual practice as an excuse for quietism, and Thich's statement above can be used as one.  If you have to purify and perfect yourself before you can work for peace in the world, then there's no need to involve yourself in messy political struggles.  Indeed, such people may believe that merely sitting at home and meditating is enough to change the world -- the hundredth monkey effect -- and there's even the notion of darshan, whereby one derives spiritual benefit simply by sitting in the presence of a holy person.)  People like King refute such an idea by their own example: they were, and are, able to work productively without being perfect.  There's also evidence that political activism itself makes people happier and more autonomous.  (I'll try to find some links, but I'd begin by pointing to Nina Eliosoph's Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life [Cambridge, 1998].) As you work to change the world outside yourself, you will change yourself too.

I'm wary of using the word "saint," but because Thich and King are religious figures in the conventional sense, it's hard to avoid entirely in this context.  For many people, a saint is someone who's essentially good, tranquil, endlessly giving, who achieves great things because of that essential inner power.  Such a person can't really be a role model, because he or she is fundamentally different from you and me.  Ths isn't a specifically religious or spiritual attitude: secularists often use secular high-achievers like Noam Chomsky as an excuse for inaction, because they could never do everything he does, he's a genius, he deconstructs the propaganda machine, they could never do that.  Significantly, Chomsky's own heroes are peasants and working people whose names you've never heard of.  (On a less exalted scale, some gay people have dismissed my views on the importance of coming out because, they said, "it was easy for you."  They knew nothing about me, and they were wrong: coming out was not easy for me at all.  But pretending that it was created a gulf between us that justified their apathy and inaction.)  I think that if we must use the word or concept of a saint at all, we should pay close attention to the weaknesses and failures of our saints.  Instead of They could do it, so I don't have to, the approach should be They did it, so I can do it too.  Not I could never do all that (which is probably true), but I could do some of that, so I might as well get started.

It may well be that what I'm saying here is exactly what Thich meant by 'beginning with oneself.'  If so, fine.  But I'm sure it's not what many other people (including some people I know) think he meant by it.  It even looks to me as though the approach of self-perfection first interferes with their achieving peace on any level, whether the personal or the social.  (The friend who posted the meme doesn't let his spirituality block him from action: he's involved in dog rescue and adoption efforts, for example.)

"Spirituality" is an easily-abused buzzword, but I don't think it's necessarily useless: I personally think of it as covering questions of meaning and value that science doesn't (and can't).  I mainly object to people's trying to partition it off from action.  A valid spirituality will have to address action as well as inward contemplation, the world as well as the void, culture as well as Nature, the city as well as the desert and the mountains.  (One of the neopagans Margot Adler interviewed years ago complained that a modern paganism was going to need gods of the city as well as gods of the woods and fields.  I don't need gods, but I liked his point.  I'm not aware of any religion that really seems at home in the city, and I'm not sure atheism is either.)  Martin Luther King and other religious activists have tried to create a theology of action and activism, though I'm not sure where someone like Thich Nhat Hanh fits in.  If anything, inaction and withdrawal have become secularized in the past several decades as certain schools of psychotherapy have taken them in; I don't think it's a coincidence that those trends have been embraced by big corporations, as a means to keep their workers oriented to fitting into the system rather than questioning it.

"Peace" is overrated, at least in some of its meanings.  If it's invoked to keep conflicts from being addressed and resolved, it's just one more opiate of the people. As the opposite of war, it's desirable; as the opposite of difference and even conflict, it's not.

Monday, September 17, 2012

No True Neurotic

There's another attempt to define authenticity that has been on my mind, but I'm giving it a separate post.  I just read Martin Duberman's A Saving Remnant (The New Press, 2011), his dual biography of the gay/lesbian left pacifist activists Barbara Deming (1917-1984) and David McReynolds (1929- ), which is fascinating both because the subjects are such inspiring people and for its account of the social history in which they lived their lives and built their careers.

Martin Duberman was born in 1930, which makes him and McReynolds almost exact contemporaries.  I was born in 1951, which means I came of age along with a sea change in attitudes toward homosexuality, as well as about race and sex.  Sometimes I forget how much difference it would have made if I'd been born even ten years earlier.  Duberman mentions several times that gay people of the generation he shares with McReynolds found it difficult or impossible to get rid of the guilt and shame with which they'd been indoctrinated by their upbringing.  He misses, however, what looks like a coping mechanism that I think is more common among people of his age than it is among younger ones.  It hasn't completely faded away, of course, because there's still a strong antihomosexual (and antisexual) streak in American culture.

I'm referring to Duberman's repeated assertion that McReynolds
strongly believed – and in this he was way ahead of his time – that the real issue was exclusivity, that the rigid categories of “gay” and “straight” served to mask the reality that everyone felt erotic attraction to both men and women (“any man who is not potentially able … to have relations with another man is fully as neurotic as the homosexual who cannot relate to women”) [119].
In support of this claim, Duberman cites the research of Alfred Kinsey, with a boost from William Masters and Virginia Johnson.
Their in-depth studies of groups of gay and straight people – some of the latter overtly homophobic – both insistent on their exclusive orientation, were nonetheless found to have pronounced fantasies about having sex with people whose gender contradicted their conscious, stated preference [ibid.]
It has been a while since I read Masters and Johnson's Homosexuality in Perspective (Little, Brown, 1979).  Among the things I remember most strongly about it was their concern that women's superior sensitivity and sexual technique with other women should not be used as "recruiting" propaganda for lesbians.  Why not? I thought.  Certainly if you believe that people can be persuaded to become homosexual, they should be acquainted with what Masters and Johnson thought were scientific facts -- in this case, that men have very little staying power and pay little attention to the response of their sexual partners, compared to women.

Masters and Johnson also claimed to have converted (or "recruited," to borrow their terminology) homosexuals to heterosexuality in a two-week program with a 71% success rate.  When I read the book, I noticed that they had the same problems most conversion-therapy programs have: understandably, their "successful" patients were not eager to keep in touch with them after the program was over, so they had no way of knowing whether the change had been permanent.  Where follow-up was managed in other studies, reversion was common, and "success" limited to a few months.

In recent years, Masters and Johnson's program has come under suspicion.  Masters refused to show the raw data to his associate Robert Kolodny, who eventually concluded that the cases described in the book were dubious, and in later years Virginia Johnson herself declined to stand behind Homosexuality in Perspective, calling it a "bad book." 

Of course it could be that Masters and Johnson's other claims were valid, even if their conversion program was bogus.  One notable aspect of Homosexuality in Perspective was that it used a heterosexual control group, which is unusual.  I recall their finding that among the most common erotic fantasies they found in their subjects, regardless of sexual orientation, was that of copulating with someone other than one of their usually preferred sex.  The other most common fantasy was copulating with someone other than their partner.  What I don't recall, and maybe I should just go over the book again, is whether either of these fantasies was universal in their subjects, or merely most common.  I doubt very much that every single subject had these fantasies, but even if they did, Masters and Johnson were not doing a sex survey like Kinsey's: they did not even try to study a representative sample of the population.  They selected their subjects carefully, after interviews and medical workups.  It's ironic that the criticism often (and largely inaccurately) leveled at Kinsey -- that his sample was unrepresentative of the population at large -- is actually much more true of Masters and Johnson.  That doesn't by itself mean that their conclusions were invalid, because they were doing a very different kind of research than Kinsey.  But it does mean that you cannot generalize from their subjects to everyone else.  Their work does not prove that everybody is fundamentally bisexual (whatever that would mean), any more than Kinsey's did.

Kinsey may well have believed that everyone is basically bisexual, but his research found no such thing.  Fifty-four percent of his male sample turned out to be monosexual -- that is, either exclusively homosexual or exclusively heterosexual in their sexual outlet -- throughout their lives.  Duberman, who wrote a long and intelligent review of two recent biographies of Kinsey, knows better.  That so many people who do know better nevertheless distort Kinsey's work is interesting, and somewhat disturbing, given their usual disdain for the irrationality and ignorance of sexual conservatives, but they are still wrong.

Besides, this is all irrelevant.  According to Duberman, both Deming and McReynolds had some slight heterosexual experience (as most gay people seem to do, thanks to relentless social pressure to be heterosexual), and in his later life, after years of psychotherapy, McReynolds summoned up a few weak heterosexual impulses in himself, and then dropped the matter.  The notion that exclusive heterosexuality and exclusive homosexuality are both 'equally neurotic', while technically true (zero equals zero) often turns up among people of this era: Margaret Mead has been reported to have said the same thing, as is the maverick psychotherapist Albert Ellis, and quite a few people have quoted it around me over the past several decades.  When I was younger I took it more seriously myself, before I figured out what was wrong with it.

Most blatantly, this claim is an attempt to moralize sexual orientation -- to claim that one sexual orientation is healthier or morally superior to another.  That would have to be argued, not simply asserted ex cathedra, and I'm not aware of any evidence to support it.  It sounds especially odd from the lips and pens of people who accept a medical model of sexual orientation, holding that it's not chosen (and is therefore morally neutral). And I can grasp the notion that someone who shuts himself or herself off from a whole sub-range of sexual experience might validly be classified as "neurotic," though I don't agree.  For one thing, how far do we extend the range of experience that we are required to explore?  A bit of s/m, maybe?  Water sports?  Or does this requirement extend only to sexual orientation?  If so, how much heterosexual experience am I required to have before I'm allowed to say No to having any more?

Try this analogy.  I'm left-handed, though somewhat bi-manual: I write and eat with my left hand, but I play guitar right-handed, and so on.  Some people are more strictly handed, other less so.  Now imagine someone telling them that they're neurotic if they won't try to be more ambidextrous.  I would demand some evidence for the claim in the first place, but more forcefully I'd ask what business it is of theirs anyway.  If this seems an outlandish comparison, remember that left-handedness has been demonized in many cultures, and well into the twentieth century American southpaws were often forced by their teachers to use their right hands in the classroom.  Testing the limits of one's comfort zone is all very well, but it's for me to decide when, how, and how far I'm going to push mine.

Who gets to prescribe what sexual experience someone else must have, anyway?  I've argued before that (as far as I can tell) regardless of our sexual orientation, most individuals of our preferred sex are erotically unattractive to us, let alone the other sex.  Should someone be able to nag me to have sex with him just because I like males and he's male?  Some have tried, Cthulhu knows why.  I don't think anyone has the right to guilt-trip anyone else into putting out, for any reason.  No one should be made to feel inadequate because he or she is unattracted to any person, or any class of persons.  I may feel regret when I turn someone down, but I wouldn't want anyone I was interested in to have sex with me out simply because I asked, regardless of whether he wanted to.

And this leaves aside other questions about sexual availability.  Some people have promised monogamy to their partners.  Monogamy is arguably unnatural, and it's after all only a lifestyle choice, but that doesn't entitle someone to claim that a partnered person is uptight for refusing to have sex with them.  They may well be uptight, but they are entitled to their uptightness.  Quite apart from sexual orientation, not everybody wants or chooses to pursue a wide range of partners.  That variation of human sexuality also needs to be respected, I believe.  We have the right to our irrational little quirks as long as they harm nobody -- and not having sex with someone is not harming them.  Literally dozens of people haven't had sex with me, and so far I've survived.

So I'm bothered by Duberman's question-begging reference to "the reality that everyone felt erotic attraction to both men and women," not least because it evidently wasn't even true for the guy who declared it a reality: he had to undergo therapy for years to persuade himself that he was weakly attracted to a woman.  So first, you need to prove that it's a "reality," and then you need to give good reasons why I should pursue attractions, let alone copulation, with people I'm not conscious of being attracted to in the first place.  This does seem to be mainly a hobbyhorse of the generation of gay people just before mine; but Duberman chose to trot it out in a book published just last year.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Fantasy Police

While I was puttering around this morning after a late night, my eye lighted on Samuel Delany's On Writing (Wesleyan, 2005) and I decided to reread his remarks on Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye.  That novel's premise is that a young black girl, living in the South on the cusp of the Second World War, becomes obsessed with the idea of having blue eyes and goes mad.  Quite mad.  I'm going to reread The Bluest Eye soon, I hope (I say that every time I think of Delany's critique, but this time I mean it), but my attention was caught today by this passage:
Morrison's novel aligns itself with the Fantasy Police.  Reading it, I find myself asking: What's wrong with wanting to be different from what you are?  The assumption that wanting to be other than you are means that you hate yourself is pathological and patently absurd.  A much clearer and more articulate argument might be posed that to desire effectively to be different, actually to expend energy to bring that difference about (to become surgically a woman if you are born a man; to become surgically a man if you are born a woman; to reconstruct your foreskin if you were circumcised before you could consent to it; to straighten your hair if you don't like it kinky; to wear blue contact lenses if you have brown eyes and dark skin; to wear dreadlocks if you were born with straight blond hair; to pierce, or tattoo, or or decorate your body in any way at all; to exercise or diet to contour your body toward whatever ideal you set yourself) requires much more self-confidence and a clear sense of who you are than those who never question or wish to adjust their bodily reality at all [166-7].
That is a long sentence, so don't lose sight of its beginning: that a much clearer and articulate argument to that effect might be posed.  I'm not sure I'd agree entirely with it myself, since I'm not sure what "a clear sense of who you are" is; I'd have to see a fuller articulation of it before I could decide.  But I still like his basic complaint.  Delany is black himself, and he's fully aware that "whatever ideal you set yourself" isn't necessarily a pure spark that comes out of a pure individual core: it's affected (though not completely determined) by the environment one grows up in.

I'd also argue that at least some decorations and other changes we may may make to our bodies aren't seen as recuperating or expressing our original selves before our parents conceived us.  People often try out different looks, even selves, without necessarily thinking of them as our essential being.  Whether a given modification feels like an expression of Self depends on the individual: the same look that represents a move toward the ideal for one person might just be this week's fashion statement for another.  But I think of this as an extension of Delany's point, not a refutation: why shouldn't people try on different selves, experiment with body ornament, and so on?  I don't think those experiments are rendered invalid if they don't last a lifetime.

Delany continues a couple of paragraphs later:
The accusation of self-hatred, whether racial or sexual (and notice, it is only blacks, only gays, only Jews, only women who are ever accused of hating themselves -- never straight white Protestant males ...), once we are attuned to it, always carries clear and persistent overtones of sour grapes from the accusers.  ... This has a common name in discussions of liberationist political analysis: blaming the victim [167].
Again, I go only part way with Delany here.  For one thing, it seems to me that straight white Protestant males are accused of self-hatred, usually under the name "liberal guilt" or (formerly) "radical chic."  If a man sides with feminism, a heterosexual with gays, a white person with anti-racism, a Jew with Palestinian struggle, he or she will be accused of self-hatred, and of inauthenticity at the very least.  (You can see this in many attacks on straight white Jewish Noam Chomsky: because he isn't poor, his criticisms on the privilege of the wealthy are hypocritical -- but if he were poor, he would be accused of mere envy of what he hasn't got.)  A blond, blue-eyed person who cultivates dreadlocks will be accused of cultural appropriation, if not overt racism.  Which is wack, if not racist itself.

Still, Delany's basic point is I think a good one.  (There's more to his critique of Morrison that's relevant here, but I'm not going to comment more until I've reread her book.)  I've written before about the same pattern among gay men seeking authenticity either in effeminacy or in machismo.  I think the two positions cancel each other out, but are to be opposed whenever they rear their heads. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Drink Like An American! - Wait, What?

Today must be a football game day -- I haven't checked -- or maybe it's just the weekend, with nice weather after a chill yesterday.  Whatever the reason, the streets were full of college drunks before noon.  I began to notice a lot of the kids were wearing red t-shirts and tank tops advertising the biggest student bar (at least two downtown locations!).  On the front were the bar's initials, KoK, with an American flag pattern stenciled over them; on the back, "Drink Like An American Today!", also with the flag design superimposed on it.  I should have tried to get a picture, and if I do later, I'll add it to this post.  But you get the idea.  I know there are bigger things in the world, or even in Bloomington, to be depressed about, but I felt this deserved a mention.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Un Baile Dulce

Someone posted this photo to Facebook this morning, and I was immediately in love:
(I cropped out a caption that had been added, which read in Spanish, roughly, "My Love, I swear there won't be any women there.")

No particular reason for posting this.  I don't know where it was taken.  I just like seeing men being affectionate with each other.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Love Your Neighbor, Whether He Likes It Or Not

This just turned up on my wall on Facebook.  Someone along the line added the comment, "Great to hear a different voice speaking from within the Christian Church."

It's a common complaint that 'we' only hear from the most "narrow-minded, judgmental, deceptive, manipulative" segments of the Christian churches.  But it's false.  (That categorization, however, is certainly judgmental.)  There are lots of nice liberal, tolerant, accepting, inclusive Christians speaking out, and they even get into the media; so someone hasn't been paying attention.  This reminds me of the people, often gay, who watch a Gay Pride parade and can only see the drag queens and leathermen and bare-breasted motorcycle dykes, ignoring PFLAG, the marching bands, and all the other less 'exotic' gay people.  But that is different anyway, because drag queens, leathermen, and Dykes on Bikes don't hurt anybody, while bigots do.

It's just as dishonest to pretend that right-wing Christians are not really Christians as it is to pretend that liberal and leftist Christians aren't really Christians.  "Not all Christians are like that" applies just as much to Martin Luther King, Jr. as it does to Pat Robertson.  Right-wing Christians are not an insignificant portion of the faithful, whether we're talking about the US or worldwide.  More important, it's not very clear exactly what "Christianity" is.  I think most people would say that it means following the teachings of Jesus, but no Christian follows all his teachings, and most have little idea what he taught anyway.  I constantly run up against people who are sure that some modern Christian doctrine they dislike is at odds with Jesus, even when it's in the gospels.  (End-times expectations, for example.)  Knowing that someone is a Christian doesn't tell you much more about what they believe or practice than knowing that someone is an atheist tells you.

Finally, look at that slogan at the bottom of the billboard: "Christianity For All."  Maybe the people responsible meant something like "Treat all people in a Christian manner," though I would still press the question of which Christian manner.  But I'm not feeling all that charitable tonight, and anyway, the name of the church is a giveaway.  The MissionGathering Church probably wants everyone to be a Christian, which is reasonable for Christians ("Make disciples of all nations," the risen Jesus told his disciples) but not for everybody.  No, thanks.  There are millions of people who don't want to be Christians.  Not all of them are atheists; most just belong to other sects.  It would be interesting to see how the MissionGathering Church missionaries react to people who say "No, thanks" when they come preaching the Good News.  Maybe they'll be nice about it, but I'll bet they only retreat to proselytize another day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Passing Thought

I've just begun reading Joan Morgan's When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life As a Hip-Hop Feminist (Simon and Schuster, 1999).  Morgan's writing first got my attention in 1992 when she wrote a powerful analysis of race and sexism in the Mike Tyson rape case for the Village Voice.  Not only was it smart, the writing was brilliant.  I realized as I was reading part of it to a friend on the phone that it had been written to be declaimed, not just scanned with the eyes.

Later, though, Morgan wrote an article for Vibe magazine (October 1993) that took a lot of heat for its defense (masked as "understanding") of Buju Banton's antigay bigotry.  But I'm reading Chickenheads anyway.

And I'm writing now about a curious cluelessness in Morgan's attack on the white feminists she met in college, a bunch of raging dykes who
used made-up words like "womyn," "femynists," and threw mad shade if you asked them direction to the "Ladies' Room" [35].
This struck me odd, coming as it does from a writer who affects made-up words like "sista" and "nigga."  Just sayin'.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What Happens on Facebook Stays on Facebook

Before I leave the subject of religion for a while, I wanted to discuss this meme, which someone I know posted -- or should I say "shared"? -- on Facebook.  At first glance I liked it, as a generality, but after that I had some reservations, especially as something to be said, or shared, on Facebook.

Even offline, I've had a lot of disagreements with liberal Christians and some non-theists who don't think they should have to live in a world where other people will "share their faith" with them.  First, I often enjoy having others share their faith with me.  As Katha Pollitt wrote when the Southern Baptist Convention announced a plan to convert the Jews,
Ever since that project was announced last year, I've waited for the missionary to knock at my door with all the ardor of the spider for the fly: You'd be surprised how hard it is to get a real theological disputation going in these ecumenical times [Subject to Debate (Random House, 2001), 186].
I know, not everyone is like me.  But I often have to remind the devout that sharing a country with infidels is part of the price you pay for religious freedom, and I guess I also must remind my fellow infidels that the same is true for us.  Yet a good many atheists get all spitty about PDPs (Public Displays of Piety), as I noticed about those "God" billboards some years ago.  True, it's their right to complain about the billboards if they want, but it's also my right to point and giggle at them and say rude things.  Since I wrote that post, atheists have gotten into the act, sharing their unfaith on billboards and bus adverts.  But that's different, I suppose.

Facebook is a whole other thing.  It's not like some random stranger is walking up to you and asking if you have accepted Barack Obama as your Personal Savior.  What you see on your wall is from people you know, or at least have accepted as friends in the Facebook sense.  You have invited them to share their lives with you, and they have invited you to share yours with them.  If some of your friends are religious nuts, they will share their nuttery with you.  If you don't like it, you can defriend them or block their newsfeed.  One of my friends recently posted a meme (!) wishing he could block all, and only, the political stuff his friends were posting.  I commented that I agreed, but less about political stuff than about Cute Kitteh pictures, the inspirational memes, the bogus affirmations attributed falsely to famous historical figures, and the "99% won't have the guts to say proudly that they love Jesus" memes. The political ones at least give me an opportunity to vent at people who deserve it.  But then, so do the religious ones.

Living in a pluralistic society with freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion is not going to be peaceful.  I'd have thought my fellow atheists would realize that.  One more disappointing dose of reality for me.

To Serve the Son of Man

Back to Daniel Boyarin's The Jewish Gospels.  His second main claim is that Jesus kept kosher, "which is to say that he saw himself not as abrogating the Torah but as defending it.  There was controversy with some other Jewish leaders as to how best to observe the Law, but none, I will argue, about whether to observe it" (103).  The core of his argument is a passage in the gospel of Mark, where Jesus enters into a dispute with some Pharisees over ritual handwashing before meals.  (I say "ritual" because the cleansing wasn't a hygienic practice.)  I think Boyarin makes a strong case that Jesus' declaration in Mark 7 wasn't meant to overturn the dietary commandments of the Torah, and that the passage has widely been misinterpreted.

The only reason this matters is that the early churches disagreed sharply about believers' obligations under the Law of Moses. The scholarly quest for the historical Jesus consistently runs up against the barrier of Jesus' death and his followers' claim that he was raised from the dead.  Even according to the gospels, his followers didn't understand who he was or what he was teaching them until after his death and resurrection, and his ministry had to be reinterpreted in light of it; some of the resurrection stories make this explicit by having the risen Jesus explain how the Bible had required that everything happen as it did.  Some of his more inconvenient teachings have been explained away by saying that he they only applied to the days of his ministry and weren't meant to carry over to the new dispensation; but if so, it's hard to understand why the gospels preserve them in the first place.  But more often it appears that it's the other way around, and the earthly Jesus was talking past his audiences to believers a generation later, when the gospels were written.  (Why the gospels came to be written at all is a knotty problem in New Testament studies.)

The earliest surviving Christian writings are the letters of the apostle Paul, who was often at odds with Jesus' original disciples, as can be seen especially in his letter to the Galatians.  The gospels and the book of Acts also conflict with Paul in important ways: which is a problem because Paul is a character in Acts, and the narrator presents himself as Paul's follower, yet its portrait of Paul doesn't fit well with what we can learn about Paul from his own letters.  Acts presents Paul as a devout Jew even after he was called; indeed, Boyarin's definition of Kosher Jesus fits the Paul of Acts just as well: not abrogating the Law but defending it.  Since we know from Paul's letters that this doesn't describe his teaching or practice, it becomes legitimate to wonder if the gospels and Acts may have cleaned up Jesus' act as well.

Boyarin doesn't seem to recognize the problem.  He writes breezily of the diversity of early Christian belief:
... some [Christians] kept much of the Jewish law (or all of it), some kept some rules but dropped others (e.g., the apostolic rule of Acts), and still others believed that the entire also needed to be overturned and discarded by Christians (even those born Jews) [11].
This is a fair summary, but what did Jesus do?  Boyarin seems to think that the gospel of Mark represents Jesus' teaching fairly transparently, which isn't likely.  On the dietary commandments, Paul's letter to the Galatians makes it clear that Paul exempted not only Gentile Christians from Torah observance, but Jewish Christians too.  Paul claims:
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"
"Cephas" -- from the Aramaic for "rock" -- is Simon Peter.  James is the brother of Jesus, not the gospels' son of Zebedee; at some point James not only joined his late brother's sect but became a major player in its leadership.  According to Acts 10, Peter had a vision which gave him permission to ignore kosher and eat with Gentiles, so that he could baptize a Roman centurion named Cornelius.  According to Paul's (polemical) account, though, Peter backed down in Antioch, intimidated by representatives of James' faction.  Paul taught that all baptized believers were free of the Torah, because baptism united them with Jesus, whose death had freed him from the obligation to keep kosher.  Even if this was only Paul's doctrine, it's worth pointing out that Peter went along with it until it led to conflict with Jerusalem.  (Boyarin hardly mentions Paul in The Jewish Gospels, but he has written a book about Paul, which I had better read soon.)  No one knows where Paul got his doctrines; he claimed he got them directly from Jesus when he was called to be an apostle (Galatians 1).  Christian scholars have pooh-poohed this, reasonably enough, and claimed that he got them from Peter and James during a two-week stay in Jerusalem three years after his call (Galatians 1:18-19).  Even if that's true, it would mean that Paul got the doctrine of Christian freedom from the Mosaic Law from Peter and James, only a few years after Jesus' death.  Where did they get it from?

Boyarin also discusses gospel stories about observance of the Sabbath, and here again his discussion undermines his case.  He cites various rabbis who ruled that the Sabbath can be broken to save a life, agreeing with Jesus' reported dictum (Mark 2:27) that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  But Boyarin has to make this fit with Jesus' reported claim (Mark 2:28) that as the Son of Man and therefore the Messiah, he was lord of the Sabbath.  According to the Jewish background Boyarin adduces, there was no need to invoke the Messiah to override the Sabbath for humanitarian reasons -- that was already widely accepted within Judaism.

Finally, Boyarin devotes a chapter to arguing that belief in a suffering Messiah was already widespread in Judaism before Jesus came along.  His argument is based on passages like the Servant passages in Isaiah, which he claims were interpreted within pre-Christian Judaism to refer to the Messiah.  If this is so, however, we can reasonably wonder why Jesus' own disciples reportedly reacted so negatively when Jesus taught them that the Son of Man must suffer (Mark 8:31ff).  Maybe the Messiah could suffer, but not the Son of Man?  (This is dubious because Daniel's "one like a son of man" is persecuted by the beasts in Daniel's visions.)

"I submit," Boyarin writes,
that it is possible to understand the Gospel only if both Jesus and the Jews around him held to a high Christology whereby the claim to Messiahship was also a claim to being a divine man.  Were it not the case, we would be very hard-pressed to understand the extremely hostile reaction to Jesus on the part of Jewish leaders who did not accept his claim.  Controversy among Jews was hardly a new thing; for a controversy to lead to a crucifixion, it must have been a doozy.  A Jew claiming that he was God, that he was the divine Son of Man whom the Jews had been expecting and, moreover, not being laughed out of the village for this claim, would have been such a doozy [55-6].
If the Jews were expecting a divine Messiah, how could claiming to be the Messiah lead to this kind of hostility, or even to being laughed out of the village?  How could conforming to standard expectations be a "doozy"?  This question has been asked many times before, and Boyarin's answer is the standard Christian answer, the same answer his book is dedicated to rejecting: because he claimed to be God.  (It's related to another standard Christian answer: the Jews were expecting a conquering military Messiah, so of course they violently rejected Jesus for claiming to be a meek, loving, nonviolent Messiah.  This one belongs to the history of Christian anti-Judaism, of course.)

It's also hard to see how a controversy among Jews could "lead to a crucifixion."  Crucifixion was not a Jewish punishment but a Roman one, and there's not really any doubt that Jesus was executed by the Romans.  Why would the Romans intervene in such a controversy?  The gospels' accounts are not plausible for a number of reasons, and many scholars have tried to make sense of them with little success.  The usual Christian answer is that the Romans mistook Jesus for a nationalistic military Messiah when in fact he was totally peaceful, and tragically let themselves be pushed by the Jews into killing him.  (The real Christian answer would be that Jesus had to die, because it was foretold in the scriptures, and the Romans and the Jewish leadership were just pawns in Yahweh's game of eleven-dimensional chess with Satan.  But while this answer often underlies the usual Christian answers, it usually isn't acknowledged explicitly.)

While The Jewish Gospels is a good reminder for many people, Jewish and Christian, of the Jewishness of Jesus, of the New Testament, and of Christianity itself, it doesn't add much to what was known already.  As I wrote in my previous post, it fits into a familiar genre that has been with us for a long time, and is more about showing interfaith goodwill (a valid project, to be sure) than about getting at historical truth.  That Daniel Boyarin's arguments lead to the kinds of contradictions I've pointed out here indicates that The Jewish Gospels is more a work of apologetics than of scholarship.

Some might wonder why I'm bothering to read such a book or to write about it, being an atheist and all.  First, I find the history of Christian origins fascinating for its own sake, because the beginnings of a cultural force that's so all-pervading, even today, is relevant today.  Second, you might be surprised at how often ordinary laypeople talk about stuff like this, and I like to be better-informed than they are.  And not just Christian laypeople: the relationship between Jesus' teaching and Paul's teaching is often brought up by atheists.  Even a lot of infidels want to see Jesus as the good guy and Paul as the bad guy.  Finally, what to do about the "Old Testament" comes up often in disputes about homosexuality and religion: a number of gay and pro-gay Christians have stressed the doctrine that the Torah isn't binding on Christians, for example, while others have stressed the difference between Jesus and Paul while ignoring the fact that on sexual matters, Jesus was not very liberal.

For all these reasons, then, The Jewish Gospels seemed like something I ought to read.  That a smart, knowledgeable guy like Daniel Boyarin got tangled up in his own argument is worth knowing too, don't you think?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Obama Exceptionalism



Greenwald is right, but I don't think what he's talking about is anything new.  Elections aren't about issues, after all: they're about which candidate you'd want to have come over for dinner.

I posted this clip on Facebook, noting that neither Greenwald nor I really expect the Right to voice valid complaints against Obama; the Right's actual complaint seems to be that he's being President While Black, which is hard to voice in a way that won't be 'misunderstood.'  (I put 'misunderstood' in scare quotes because usually this locution refers to things that will be understood all too well, as in "If two men have sex in the street in broad daylight, they might be misunderstood as being gay.")

My liberal law professor friend moved to defend her President, using a popular one-two approach that is typical of American political discourse among the educated classes.  First the apologist poor-mouths the subject: sure, he hasn't done everything I'd have ideally liked him to do, President Obama is just doing the best he can against hateful Republicans who set out to make him fail!  Then the apologist distorts or flatly misrepresents the subject's record, touting all the wonderful things he's done, ignoring the less-wonderful things.  These two sit poorly together, since the first shot acknowledges how uninspiring the subject's record is, while the second magnifies his name as choirs of angels shout Peace on earth, good will to men.

In this case, my friend conceded that she wished the wars would end -- a bold move, since the official Obama line is that he's ended the wars.  But I guess wishing that the wars would end admits that they're going on without admitting Obama's role in extending, escalating, and multiplying them.  I had mentioned Obama's appointments to his cabinet of retreads from previous administrations, which my friend took to refer only to Robert Gates although I'd mentioned Larry Summers, a retread from Bill Clinton's day.  She couldn't quite manage to acknowledge this, just repeated that Obama's cabinet appointments, while not those she would have chosen, were his attempt to "reach across the table."  (Even if I had been talking only about Republicans, it's not clear to me that "reaching across the table" to a gang of war criminals, financial frauds, and general bad guys is either ideal or sensible politically.)

In the end, she retreated to the accusation that I was demanding "political perfection, not political reality", since obviously no one was going to prosecute Republican war criminals.  Most obviously, it's revealing that she (like so many educated liberal Democrats) considers massacres of civilians, escalation and multiplication of aggressive wars, an ongoing assault on the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, increasing suppression of dissent by "whistleblowers" and in the streets, active collaboration with the Right on the deficit and social programs, and much more, to be mere imperfections.  More subtly, I notice again the tacit acknowledgment that most of Obama's campaign promises were mere fantasies, pandering to the unrealistic hopes of his base, that he never intended to deliver.  (This surely applies as well to Romney's current hard-line promises to get rid of the Affordable Care Act and so on; if elected, he'll surely disappoint many of those who vote for him.)  Those of us who warned during his campaign that Obama was a right-wing Democrat closer to the Republicans than to his progressive supporters, and who were vilified as cruel cynics at the time, turned out to be prophets without honor in our own land; well, it wasn't the first time, nor will it be the last.

I don't think this is deliberate.  I don't think such people are self-aware enough to realize what they're doing.  (This is ironic, given their level of education and their scorn for the stupidity of the Republicans.)  The important thing is to keep up the team spirit and root for the good guys, basking in their reflected glory and hoping that one day you might even get to shake his hand or gasp attend a White House dinner.  Winning isn't everything, as a football coach reportedly said, it's the only thing.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

You're Not Going To Have The Son Of Man To Kick Around Anymore

I just finished reading Daniel Boyarin's The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New Press, 2012), which I picked up at the library after reading about it on Amazon.  The book description referred to the discovery, in 2008, "of an ancient Hebrew tablet, dating from before the birth of Jesus, which predicted a Messiah who would rise from the dead after three days."  Apparently Boyarin contributed a soundbyte to a front-page New York Times story, but The Jewish Gospels didn't mention this find except in a noncommittal endnote on the very last page of the book.  (And with good reason: it seems to be dubious.)

Boyarin is a very distinguished Talmudic scholar, whose Unheroic Conduct (California, 1997) I found very interesting.  But I found The Jewish Gospels frustratingly uneven.  His general thesis is that Jesus was Jewish (and kept kosher), that Christianity didn't separate definitively from Judaism for several centuries, and that the New Testament (especially the gospels) is a "thoroughly Jewish text [with] cultural origins among the Jewish communities of Palestine in the first century" (157).  He's right to stress this, though the letters of Paul, at least, are products of the Jewish diaspora outside of Palestine.  About the origins of the gospels we know nothing, so scholars are constantly trying to read backward through the texts, which leads to doubtful results.

Although Boyarin clearly did his homework, he tends to overstate the novelty of his thesis.  The Jewishness of Jesus and the New Testament is a theme that comes and goes, like the tide, and those who advance it have an agenda no less than those who reject it.  When I was doing my own research on Christian origins in the 1980s I read a number of works which tried to situate Jesus in Palestinian Judaism, often though not always by Christian scholars, among them Geza Vermes' Jesus the Jew (Macmillan, 1973), Ellis Rivkin's A Hidden Revolution (Abingdon, 1978) and What Crucified Jesus? (Abingdon, 1984), Pinchas Lapide's Israelis, Jews and Jesus (Doubleday, 1979) and The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Augsburg, 1983), and William E. Phipps's Was Jesus Married? (Harper, 1970).  (Phipps argued that Jesus was a good observant Jew, so of course he was married.)

There were also efforts to situate the Jesus / gospel tradition within Jewish tradition, notably Birger Gerhardsson's Memory and Manuscript (1961) and Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (1964), which were recently reissued.  But the same period saw attempts to establish a sharper dividing line between first-century Judaism and neighboring cultures, for example Thorleif Boman's influential Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (SCM Press, 1960).  Even the language Jesus spoke has been a bone of contention: Hebrew?  Aramaic?  Greek?

Especially in the wake of Vatican II, many books appeared condemning Christian anti-Judaism, stressing Jesus' Jewishness and the Jewish roots of Christianity.  From the early 20th century many Christian scholars began to study the Judaism of Jesus' time more seriously than before, and a few Jewish scholars began to study the New Testament. This (along with archaeological work and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls) led to a more complex picture of Judaism, as well as of early Christianity.  But the trend had been there since the rise of historical Jesus studies in the late 1800s, though it was ambivalent: Christian scholars still wanted to see Judaism as the forerunner of Christianity, and they tended to sentimentalize or idealize the rabbis.  So most scholars of early Christianity pay lip service to the Jewishness of Jesus and of early Christianity; the disagreement is on specific issues.

Boyarin begins with Jesus as Son of God and/or Son of Man.  Reversing what he says is the usual reading, he argues that "'Son of God' referred to the king of Israel, the earthly king of David's seat, while 'Son of Man' referred to a heavenly figure and not a human being at all" (26).  He claims too that "the term 'Son of God' is not often used to refer to Jesus in the New Testament ... In the Gospels, Jesus is more likely to be referred to (or actually to refer to himself) by the title 'Son of Man'" (25). Like most scholars, Boyarin traces "Son of Man" to the apocalyptic book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible.  In this book, Daniel is a young Israelite exiled in Babylon from his homeland.  He has many adventures (the lion's den, the fiery furnace, and so on) and is granted visions of the future.  In one of these visions, after a series of several monstrous creatures, thrones are set up, and one is taken by an "Ancient of Days" (a really old man, that is) attended by millions.  One of the beasts is slain, and the others are deprived of their "dominion," though they are allowed to live on for a time.  And then:
13 “I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
14 “And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.
Baffled, Daniel asks "one of those standing by" the meaning of what he has seen.  The bystander explains:
17 ‘These great beasts, which are four in number, are four kings who will arise from the earth. 18 But the saints of the Highest One will receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, for all ages to come.
Evidently, then, "the one like a Son of Man" in Daniel symbolizes the holy ones of the Most High, usually understood to be the faithful and obedient Israelites who endured persecution by the beasts/kings.  This makes sense, because no one assumes that the kings in the vision appeared in real life as chimerical beasts which resembled lions with the wings of eagles, let alone as horns on the head of another beast.  The visions of Daniel are believed by most scholars to refer to various kings who kept Israel down after the end of the Babylonian Exile, culminating in Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ruled from 175 to 164 BCE.  Antiochus was ambitious and eccentric, even unstable.  He tried to outlaw Jewish religious observances and to put a statue of himself as Zeus in the Temple at Jerusalem, replacing the worship of Yahweh.  This led to what is known as the Maccabean revolt, aided by an outside attack from Parthia, which was resolved when Antiochus died of disease in 164 BCE.  Because of his attempt to profane the Temple with his image, he is widely regarded as the "little horn" referred to in Daniel 8:9 who set up the "abomination of desolation" in the Temple, which is referred to in numerous biblical and extra-biblical books, including the gospels of Mark (13:14) and Matthew (24:15).  Jesus not only refers to himself frequently as the Son of Man, he speaks at times of the Son of Man coming on clouds, just like in the Book of Daniel.  This is the basis for the connection between the gospels' "son of man" and the book of Daniel.

Boyarin claims that the Son of Man was widely regarded as the Messiah, and not just as a symbol for the faithful remnant in Israel.  He shows that in other writings from around the time of Jesus, the Son of Man was treated not as a symbol but as an individual, and a godlike one at that -- though still subordinate to the Most High Yahweh.  He argues that when Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man in the gospels, his fellow Jews see him as claiming divine prerogatives, like the authority to forgive sins, and therefore as claiming to be the Messiah.  I don't find this argument fully convincing.  First, Jesus uses the term differently at different times, and sometimes he doesn't seem to be making any exalted claims for himself, as in Matthew 8:20, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head."  The scholar Geza Vermes showed that Aramaic speakers like Jesus might refer to themselves in the third person as "that man" or "that son of man," and argued that when Jesus referred to himself as the Son of man, he was not claiming a title but simply referring obliquely to himself.  This view never caught on among scholars, and Boyarin doesn't address it.  I think it's a possibility, though, for reasons that are relevant to Boyarin's argument.

The gospels show Jesus being asked about his claims and status, or Jesus asking others who they think he is.  No one ever asks him if he's the Son of Man, or accuses him of claiming to be.  At his trial before the Sanhedrin, for example, the High Priest asks Jesus point blank, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?" (Mark 14.61).  According to Mark, Jesus replied, "I am, and you shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven."  This forthright declaration was softened in Matthew 26:64 and Luke 22:71: Jesus answers "You say it" (that is, "You said it, I didn't"); Matthew keeps the part about the Son of Man, Luke omits it completely.  (John's version of Jesus questioning by the Jewish leadership is completely different.)  When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter replies, "You are the Messiah" in Mark (8:29), "God's Messiah" in Luke (9:20), and "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God" in Matthew (16:16).  No one ever tells Jesus that he is the Son of Man, or asks him if he is.

What follows Peter's declaration is also significant: Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone about him.  (Jesus also silenced demons who addressed him as "the Holy One of God," and told several people he'd healed to tell no one about it.  Such secrecy is a recurring theme in the gospels, and scholars are still debating what it means.)  Yet according to all four gospels, Jesus went around referring to himself as the Son of Man, in disputes with his Jewish critics and in public preaching, as in private teaching with his disciples.  According to Boyarin, this was tantamount to a public declaration that he was the Messiah, but no one seems to take it as such.  Boyarin is correct that no one asks what Jesus means by the Son of Man (except a couple of times in the gospel of John, 9:35ff and 12:34ff), but I think he's wrong as to why.

As Boyarin says, Paul occasionally refers to Jesus as the Messiah / Christ and the Son of God, but more often as "Lord."  But Paul never refers to Jesus as the Son of Man, nor do other New Testament writers.  (In Acts 7 and Revelation 1 and 14, there are allusions to Daniel's Son of Man, but the phrase is never used as a title for Jesus comparable to Christ. The New Testament writers are explicitly concerned to prove that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, not that he is the Son of Man.  This is a problem for Boyarin's case: if Jesus was so open and consistent about calling himself the Son of Man, why didn't the early churches follow his lead?

I still have to go over the rest of Boyarin's argument; I'll return to it soon.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Do the Americans Believe in Their Myths?

I know I should let it drop, but it's getting to me, this cult of personality.  An intelligent friend of mine on Facebook quoted today someone else's remark that "Seriously, Michelle [Obama] is like...the statue of liberty. Only with more compassionate eyes, and better fashion sense."  This comparison -- to an inanimate object, mind you! -- seems totally loony to me.  Luckily, Democrats base their politics on principle and fact, not on emotion.

The Onion has a good piece that sums up my reaction to Mrs. Obama's speech very well: "Good Evening, It's An Honor To Be Used As A Political Prop In My Husband's Campaign."  After reading a few more status messages gushing inanely over her speech ("Regardless of if you like President Obama, how can you not want First Lady Michelle Obama back?!"), I posted a link to the Onion piece.  A right-wing acquaintance of mine, who'd been drooling over Clint Eastwood just a few days ago, shared the link.  I commented, "Funny, you didn't feel that way about Ann Romney's speech"-- and she didn't ("a darn good speech at the RNC.  Who knew!").

But enough of this.  I decided to write this post to quote a couple of writers quite unrelated to one another whose remarks feel relevant to the way intelligent, educated adults act as though they believe that national politicians and their families are their personal, intimate friends.  One is from Glenn Greenwald:
Indeed, as I've written many times, "trust" is appropriate for one's friends, loved ones, family members and the like -- but not for politicians. That's what John Adams meant when he said: "There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty." "All" means "all" and "none" means "none."
But that's not how our political culture works generally. Our politics have become entirely celebretized. Political discussions typically resemble junior high chatter about one's most adored and despised actors: filled with adolescent declarations of whether someone "likes" and "trusts" this politician or "dislikes" that one. "I trust Obama" has long been a common refrain among his most loyal supporters. The fact that, as Krugman says, that is much less true now is quite significant, even if "trust" is an inappropriate emotion in the first place to feel towards any political official.
While I agree with Greenwald's basic point about trusting politicians, I disagree that American political culture is any more celebritized than it was in the past.  The scale has increased vastly from the original thirteen states, and mass media have extended its reach so that millions of people at a time can adore their rulers in closeup.  In fact, I believe that electoral politics is primarily glorified "junior high school chatter" about who's the dreamiest and most popular; concern about issues, logic, and fact is at best secondary.  Whether anything can be done about this I don't know; I'm inclined to doubt it.

The other quotations come from Paul Veyne's book Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths? (Chicago, 1988), page 81:
Indeed, the pleasure that citizens took in hearing an orator pronounce the panegyric of their city cannot be believed. These speeches of praise were a fashion that lasted for a millennium, up to the end of Antiquity. People spoke of mythical origins and of kinship among the cities of Greece as often as the people who frequented the salons of the fauborg Saint-Germain talked genealogy, and for the same reasons. … “When I hear praised,” Socrates says ironically, “those who have just died in battle and, with them, our ancestors, our city, and ourselves, I feel more noble and great; each of the other listeners feels the same on his part, so that the entire civic body comes out of it exalted, and it takes me three days to get over this emotion.”
And from page 90:
Worship and love of the sovereign reflect the efforts of the subjugated to gain the upper hand: “Since I love him, therefore he must wish me no harm.” (A German friend told me that his father had voted for Hitler to reassure himself; since I vote for him, Jew that I am, it is because in his heart he believes as I do.) And, if the emperor demanded or, more often, allowed himself to be worshiped, this served as “threatening information.” Since he can be worshiped, let no one think to contest his authority. … [91] Under France’s Old Regime, people believed and wanted to believe in the king’s kindness and that the entire problem was the fault of his ministers. If this were not the case, all was lost, since one could not hope to expel the king as one could remove a mere minister.
The chorus of adulation for the President's wife (who, to repeat, is not running for office herself), the widely-expressed wish to have a Celebrity Death Match between Betty White and Clint Eastwood, and the endless flood of cute pictures of the Holy Family -- all this and more keeps reminding me that Democrats, even the more "liberal" or "progressive" ones, are no more rational than the Republican opposite numbers they scorn so lightly.  Who scorn them as lightly in return, with as little basis.  Whether, and how, we might construct a sensible politics in this country I don't know.  But it won't be built by either party.