Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Gift from God of Biblical Proportions

Really, someone ought to ask Richard Mourdock about this.  (And President Obama, who over the past few years apparently been struggling with Christianity and losing.)  A comment was posted on a blog post today referring humorously to Hurricane Sandy as "Mother Nature decid[ing] to punish Barack Obama and Mitt Romney for failing to mention climate change in the debates."  I chided the commenter for his pagan rhetoric: it was not Mother Nature but God the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit who'd sent Sandy as a divine gift, like an unwanted pregnancy.  And it would be wrong to abort a gift from God.  Maybe we shouldn't even be resisting it: evacuation is an attempt to escape from His judgment, and a true believer knows there's no hiding place from Him.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

There's Just Not Enough of the Pie of Sacrifice for Everybody!

Lately I've been seeing more people claiming online that Obama intends to push for cuts in Social Security and Medicare after the elections.  Whether he wins or not, Congress will be in a lame-duck session, and Obama himself will be beyond accountability, either as a lame-duck president or a re-elected incumbent, free at last to do what he wants, not what his base wants.  This wouldn't be surprising, since Obama already put these important social programs on the chopping block during the great Debt Ceiling wars of 2011, and had spoken the requisite code words ("reform" for example) even before he was elected the first time.

But then it emerged that Obama gave an "off-the-record" interview to an Iowa newspaper in which he gave the game away.  After the newspaper "pitched a fit" (via), the "campaign allowed it to be published."  There are numerous WTFs here, starting with a newspaper allowing an entire interview to be off the record, and continuing through asking the campaign's permission to publish it.  I'd like to think they would have gone ahead and published it anyway.  What were they afraid of, that the President wouldn't grant them any more off-the-record interviews?

Anyway, Obama said:
It will probably be messy. It won’t be pleasant. But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time, which is $2.50 worth of cuts for every dollar in spending, and work to reduce the costs of our health care programs.

And we can easily meet -- “easily” is the wrong word -- we can credibly meet the target that the Bowles-Simpson Commission established of $4 trillion in deficit reduction, and even more in the out-years, and we can stabilize our deficit-to-GDP ratio in a way that is really going to be a good foundation for long-term growth. Now, once we get that done, that takes a huge piece of business off the table.
Just in passing: The Bowles-Simpson Commission (easily and credibly called the Catfood Commission) did not "establish" anything.  Although Obama packed it with deficit hawks, the Commission was unable to agree on recommendations, so its chairmen, Bowles and Simpson, released their own recommendations, which have ever since been treated by the media and by the President as the report of the Commission.  (I've noticed that I've made the same mistake in some posts here; I should make some corrections.)  Bowles and Simpson "essentially saw deficit-reduction as an opportunity to redistribute income upwards: by capping government revenues, cutting tax rates for the wealthy and corporations (while raising them for the middle class), lowering Social Security benefits and making the elderly pay more for their healthcare."  This is not only a very unpopular course of action (except among the very rich and their toadies), it will be harmful to the economy and to most of the country (though not to the very rich and their toadies).

So this is what, according to President Obama, he hopes to achieve.  He even referred in that interview to "the commitment of both myself and my opponent -- at least Governor Romney claims that he wants to reduce the deficit" to carry out this agenda.  Just in case you had any illusions about differences between the candidates on this little matter.

I posted a couple of links about this to Facebook today, and soon had an angry comment from my Obama-Democrat liberal law-professor friend.  First she lectured me that there's never going to be a candidate I agree with 100%, so I should not whine or make posts that "undermine" President Obama, because he's not a Republican (I hadn't said that he is), and today's Republicans would never agree that he was.  "I hope that Social Security won't have to be sacrificed," she wrote.  Obama apologetics of the campaign's final month in a nutshell, you see.

I replied that of course no candidate is perfect, which is why I can't see why she hates on Romney so much, even if he has been something of a "disappointment" to many Democrats.  As for "undermining" Obama, why the hell not?  But then, as my friend knows very well (we have some of the same right-wing frother friends in common), I've spent just as much time "undermining" Romney on Facebook, so it all balances out.  As Avedon Carol pointed out anent Richard Mourdock in the same post, "I swear, it's as if they are doing damage control for Obama - no sooner does he step in it than they come in swinging to punch themselves in the face."  And if anyone has undermined Obama, it has been Obama himself.

And it really makes no difference: Obama cultists have consistently thrown tantrums over any criticism of their God-king from the time he became nationally prominent and a contender for the Presidency.  I fully expect that if he is reelected, they'll continue to denounce any criticism of Obama in the same terms, with fabricated accusations and no substantive rebuttal, forever.  (See examples, mostly anonymous, in the comments under Susan of Texas's post hereThis one, say, and this reply.)

But "I hope that Social Security won't have to be sacrificed"?  My only reply to that was "Jesus H. Christ", though I'll probably have more to say to her about it later.  The sheer dishonesty and stupidity of that remark floored me.

Let me begin by pointing past the blind passive in what she wrote: Obama doesn't have to sacrifice Social SecurityIt doesn't contribute to the deficit; there's no fiscal necessity to cut the program.  As with the pre-emptive tax cuts in his 2009 stimulus bill, Obama offered cuts in social programs to the Republicans during the debt-ceiling fight without their having to demand them.  He's not obligated to accept Simpson and Bowles recommendations, since they aren't binding, but he accepted them anyway -- and he did appoint those two deficit hawks to his deficit-reduction commission, knowing in advance that they are advocates of cutting Social Security and Medicare.  Nor is there support in the general population for cutting Social Security and Medicare; they are both very popular, which is why Social Security has long been called the Third Rail of American politics.  Only Obama's wealthy campaign donors support his intentions, but as both his left critics and his right-wing supporters have been saying, once he's re-elected he'll be beholden to no one.  He doesn't have to cut Social Security and Medicare -- he wants to.  And he's always wanted to.

As for today's Republicans' denial that Obama is a Republican -- which, I repeat, I hadn't said, but attacking a straw man is so much easier -- they love his policies but hate the man, for well-known reasons.  Much as with Clinton, who pushed through much of Ronald Reagan's wish list (NAFTA and "welfare reform," for instance), Obama has continued and extended many Bush policies. Even some of Bush's people have praised him for it, especially on foreign policy and civil liberties, and he has returned the favor.  If Obama were a white, card-carrying Republican, the Republican fringe would adore him.  That's why they have to attack him on fictional grounds -- that he's not a citizen, that he's a Muslim, that he's a socialist, etc.  For their part, his Democratic defenders have to defend him on largely fictional grounds.

The problem is not that I don't agree with Obama 100%, as my friend put it.  I'm not sure how to quantify it, but it's probably in the ballpark to say that I don't agree with him even 50%, maybe not even 10%.  The Obamabots keep falling back on the Supreme Court and they really have nothing else to point to, so it might even be 1 percent.  It's like the "disappointment" line.  The dishonesty of the Democratic loyalists rivals that of the Republicans.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Something About Mary

At my back I hear Procrastination's Leaden Wagon drawing near, but really I need to finish reading this book.  I'm in the latter half of Hilary Mantel's award-winning historical novel Wolf Hall, about the 16th century lawyer and courtier Thomas Cromwell.  I decided to read it because so many people were raving about it, and while it's a compelling read and a masterful piece of writing, I don't get the excitement.  Mantel reminds me of Cecelia Holland in her manner; Holland is usually bloodier, though Mantel doesn't hide the violence of Tudor England -- she just isn't quite as explicit about it.  Like Holland, Mantel's I like Holland and have read quite a few of her novels, but I don't rank her among my favorite writers either.

As I get older I find myself stumbling over historical fiction, though I continue to enjoy reading it, because I keep wondering Is this part authentic, or did the author invent it?  Here's an example from Wolf Hall, which could be historical but might not be.
There is a young woman walking the roads of the kingdom, saying she is the princess Mary, and that her father has turned her out to beg. She has been seen as far north as York and as far East as Lincoln, and simple people in these shires are lodging and feeding her and giving her money to see her on her way. He has people keeping an eye out for her, but they haven’t caught her yet. He doesn’t know what he would do with her if he did catch her. It is punishment enough, to take on the burden of prophecy, and to be out unprotected on the winter roads. He pictures her, a dun-colored, dwindling figure, tramping away toward the horizon over the muddy fields.
"He" who has people watching for the girl is Thomas Cromwell.  The context for the story  is the aftermath of Henry VIII's suspension of his marriage to Katherine, the mother of his daughter Mary (later "Bloody" Mary I), and the difficulty of deciding what to do about Mary.  At this point in the novel it hasn't even been settled where she'll live, a problem given her potential value as a figurehead for rebellion against Henry.

This anecdote caught my attention because it reminded me of the popular complaint that with the Internet you can't know who's telling the truth.  It would have been far harder in those days, if you met a young woman walking around, claiming to be Princess Mary: no photographs, no TV, no People magazine, let alone Internet.  England was apparently abuzz with the news of Henry's divorce of Katherine and his immediate marriage to Anne Boleyn, but few people can have known what any of them looked like.  Henry had cruelly put his first wife aside, so why wouldn't he have turned out his daughter to beg for charity?  For that matter, Cromwell must rely on rumor: there are stories of this young woman burdened by prophecy, but they might be no more than rumor: she might not even exist, but in his position he must follow up.  Even the persistence of the rumor is a datum, a faultline in the King's base of support, which can't be ignored.  And to all this I add the question of whether this story is Mantel's, or one she found while researching the novel.

If something like this happened today, there'd be cellphone videos on Youtube in no time, and the media would have interviewed the young woman before Cromwell could start doing damage control.  But the real Princess, if this were an impostor, would be interviewed too.  I speculate that the poor people who aided her weren't necessarily convinced she was Mary; they could just as easily have taken pity on a young woman alone on those winter roads, perhaps visibly not playing with a full deck, and helped her anyway, as they might have helped any other destitute person.

The truth is out there, but it's not always or even usually accessible.

[I've fixed a minor factual error.  Thanks to reader JC for the correction.]

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Space Bar

I'm feeling flustrated, distracted, and out of sorts today, so I'm just going to post this quotation from an interview (via) with Emma Donoghue:
"I got into all this doing a PhD in 18th-century literature, when I became interested in revisionism," Donoghue explains. "Who was left out of history? Well, primarily, women. But look at the history of everyday life and you find that most people are left out: the women lead you to their equivalently obscure male family members, then you come to the freaks and cripples and slaves – not just downtrodden, but treated as not fully real people. If you're writing a novel about Henry VIII, you don't have to say what you've fictionalised, because it's easy to check; Henry VIII doesn't need you to speak up about your sources. But Mollie Sanger, my doughty cowgirl – if I don't put her on the record she's not on it at all. And I'm so grateful to her and all of them for the good stories."
That improves my mood all by itself.  So, should I wait for her new collection of stories to come in at the library, or should I just go ahead and buy a copy?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wave That Flag, Progressives!

VastLeft linked to this blog post from FireDogLake today.  I don't fault its main argument, that Mormon missionary service isn't equivalent to military service.  Of course, Mormon missionary service doesn't necessarily come out looking the worse for the comparison: it doesn't kill or maim nearly as many people.

The blogger went on to shoot himself in the foot:
Bleeding to death in a rocky Afghan Pass that a big flock of Mitt’s equally chickenhawkish supporters sent you to is service to your country.
It's more likely, in fact, that American troops currently in Afghanistan were sent there by President Obama.  Who's never worn a uniform himself, and is living proof that being a lifelong civilian does nothing to ameliorate bloodlust and war fever; it may even increase the craving to call oneself "the Commander-in-Chief."  Does this blogger include President Obama among Mitt's chickenhawkish supporters?

Nor is it clear how dying in an unjust war constitutes "service to your country."  It might be service to the oil companies and other big corporations that an American President serves, but to the Country?  Would the blogger want to claim that fighters in our enemies' armies are also serving their country?   That would at least be even-handed.  But as I've said before, the US has not fought a defensive war in my lifetime, and didn't change that pattern in this century.  Whatever else they may be doing, our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and wherever else they are right now, are not defending us.

Denouncing Romney for his hypocrisy is fine with me, but doing so doesn't require or justify further loss of life by Americans or by our victims.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Buck Stops Here

I wrote "I find this offensive" as a comment on my friend's repost of this meme on Facebook today.  Not just because she herself posts lots of material that is offensive to various people -- it goes without saying that what is meant here is "Speak without offending me; if I offend you, you deserve it for not sharing my opinions."  Not just because being offended is one of the inevitable consequences of freedom of expression.  Not just because I think it is important to offend many people, nor do I break when I'm offended.

But the other principles here strike me as no less wrongheaded.  Pretending, for example, is an essential part of human life, from childhood to adulthood.  We pretend by imitating what we imagine adults do; we try on various selves and possibilities; and among the harder forms is trying to put ourselves in others' shoes -- which ironically enough, is another platitude beloved in these memes.  Or one might pretend to be a sane, rational, healthy person and try to become that person by practice -- another popular meme.  I suppose the meme-maker had some more specific and limited sense of "pretending" in mind, but I don't know what it was.

"Love without depending" is tricky.  Children, of course, depend on others simply to survive.  It's an unfortunate fact that many people can't be depended on, as we find when we become adults, but we still find people we can and do depend on . For many people (especially, I suspect, women) the dependable ones are friends.  Still, letting others -- and by extension, ourselves -- off the hook for keeping their word and their commitments is not a good way to live.  Here again, a reasonable caution is universalized until it becomes a counsel of fear.  To say nothing of blaming the victim: you broke your promise to me, therefore I was at fault for believing you.

"Listen without defending" is another exhortation that has limited value but shouldn't be universalized to every situation.  The other day I was seated in a restaurant next to a table where two heterosexuals were having their lunch.  The butch one was haranguing his femme for various failings; she was mostly weeping, but quietly.  This is a pattern I've seen too often over the years.  One complaint he kept repeating was that she insisted he should accept her as she is, which for some reason offended him greatly.  I only eavesdropped intermittently, but it was hard to ignore them altogether.  It is important to be able to listen to another person, but not to make yourself into a passive vessel with no needs of your own.  Especially when someone is criticizing you, it's necessary to be able to evaluate the criticism, and defend yourself if necessary.  A few years ago I realized that under attack I first apologize, then realize that I've done nothing to apologize for, and go on the offensive against the criticism.  I suppose that's not such a bad approach, but I'd fallen into it without thinking about it, too ready to assume that I was in the wrong.

One of the really hard parts of becoming an adult, I think, is that you have to learn the necessity of judgment.  You have to learn that no principle or rule fits every situation, and that you have to decide for yourself whether a given rule fits a given situation.  And the decision is yours -- one (but only one, and not universal) of the functions of religion is to enable the believer to pass the buck of moral responsibility upstairs to the higher power.  But this meme is just wrongheaded all the way.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Six Out of Seven Spin Doctors Agree

I'm grateful to the zealous guardians of public health who've been warning Americans of this ominous new health threat.  We should all be vigilant against it!

But in the excitement of our struggle against Romnesia, we shouldn't forget another malady that has been spreading across the US like a radioactive virus for the past four years: Obamnesia.

Murder of civilians? Bombing cities? Kill lists?  Support for dictators against popular uprisings and the threat of free elections?  Assault on civil liberties at home? Protecting corporate fraudsters and CIA torturers from accountability? All down the memory hole. It's all summed up in a few simple words: "Look to the future, not to the past."  If messy, negative memories threaten to erupt from the depths of your mind, just repeat that motto.  Obamacare, however, doesn't cover it.

(Personal note: I'm disturbed to find that what seemed like writer's block turns out to be my mind's refusal to write on subjects other than politics and especially the current election campaign.  There are other subjects that matter to me.  But for some reason, writing about them is a struggle compared to dishing out snark about the candidates and their cheering sections.  The words just fly from my fingers.  It's as though I were channeling them.  Depressing.)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Whose Ox Is Being Gored

True, and if Springsteen's recommendation made any sense, it would have been right to vote, say, for the man who "got" Saddam Hussein.  Right?

Glenn Greenwald posted to Twitter that "Chris Matthews breaks the story of a major violation of the Constitution by Mitt Romney."  Matthews, it turns out, objected to Romney's telling Obama "You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking."  Lèse-majesté! A gutter commoner dared to disrespect the sacred person of the POTUS!  Byron York of the Washington Examiner, wrote:
After the clip ended, Matthews seemed appalled. “I don’t think [Romney] understands the Constitution of the United States,” Matthews said.  “He’s the president of the United States.  You don’t say, ‘You’ll get your chance.’”

Now, it’s entirely possible for one to think Romney was rude to Obama during that moment in the debate.  A president is of course entitled to some deference, and some people undoubtedly thought Romney was insufficiently deferential.  Others thought Romney’s behavior was entirely acceptable.  But just for the record, there is nothing in the Constitution barring one from saying “You’ll get your chance” to the President of the United States — no matter what his supporters on MSNBC say.
I know, I feel kinda dirty linking to and quoting the Examiner, a mostly scurrilous right-wing rag on the level of the Daily Caller or the National Review Online.  But York is right in this case.

But if it had been the other way around -- a trashy Democratic challenger trampling on the prerogatives of a Republican President -- right-wing journalists would have been as indignant as Matthews was the other night, and liberals would have jeered at them for it.  One of the commenters on York's post raved that Obama deserves no respect, because he put his "filthy feet" on the holy Oval Office desk.  (This was a right-wing meme a year or so ago, debunked by Snopes.com, who found a picture of George W. Bush with his filthy feet on the same desk.  The truly faithful can ignore such irrelevancies, of course.)

This incident actually makes me like Romney a little more, because US Presidents probably don't get told to hold their horses very often, and a little bit of healthy disrespect won't kill them.  I have to wonder how much of Romney's attitude came from wanting to put an uppity black man in his place, and I suspect racism played no small role.  Notice, though, that what riled Chris Matthews (and, I'd bet, for many other liberals) was irreverence to the President.  He'd probably have been upset if any other President -- even a  Republican -- had been told to shut up, and I don't agree.  There's too much reverence for the Presidency in this country as it is, and Americans need to remember the supposedly egalitarian roots of our system of government.  Respect for the executive is one thing, a slavish deference another.

Byron York, it appears, has in the past exhibited a treacherous ability to see the clay feet of his allies, which has won him attacks by his brethren despite his usual ideological loyalty.  It's easy to exercise one's critical-thinking skills on political or other opponents, just as it's easy to see the crimes of official enemies; and contrariwise it's much harder to see the irrationality and criminality of one's allies.  So it's normal for partisans to demand deference when the incumbent president is of their party, and to complain when he doesn't get it.  Democrats were jubilant when Joe Biden repeatedly interrupted Paul Ryan during their debate, and Republicans were indignant, but of course Ryan is only a Congressman.  Republicans were happy when Romney triumphed over Obama during their first debate, while Democrats were downcast.

(By the way, some of the Right have been predicting "riots" by Teh Black if Obama loses the election next month.  Based on recent history, I think riots by white Republicans are more likely if Obama wins.   If Obama loses, I foresee that African-Americans will react with demoralization, and white liberals will retreat into depression, as they did when George W. Bush took office.  But I digress.)

Ta-Nehisi Coates did a couple of good posts on Tagg Romney's expressed wish to punch President Obama.  While I basically agree with him about the racial dynamics involved -- such issues are never wholly absent -- I think that young Romney could have said exactly the same thing about a white opponent.  Coates asked for examples of a "black man associated with a credible black candidate for the presidency, joking about beating down the incumbent president of the United States."  A National Review writer offered an anecdote about Michelle Obama, which Coates dismissed on the grounds that Michelle is a black woman, not a black man; he might also have objected that she was talking about a former President, not an incumbent.  The gender issue isn't irrelevant here, but think of white politicians fantasizing violence about other white politicians, like (via):
media executive Harry Evans, who reportedly exclaimed at a party celebrating Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate win in New York, "I want to kill Nader." Hillary, affirming her support for capital punishment, reportedly responded, "That's not a bad idea!" Nader said Evans had apologized to him but Clinton hadn't returned his call.
And I'd already thought about this, but someone posted about it before I did.  Credit where credit's due:

(Or kids in other countries.) If Obama had a son, he'd look like Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.

Liberal journalists and pundits often do a very good job of shooting holes in right-wing discourse; sometimes conservatives effectively and rationally refute liberal discourse.  But it's relatively rare for them to use their critical abilities on their own side.  That, I think, is why people go wrong: because they won't subject their own beliefs and plans to the same scrutiny that they apply easily to others'.  As Nietzsche wrote in one of his notebooks: "A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!!!"

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Disappointment?

It's a humbling experience to realize how long it takes me to sort out and focus my thoughts on some subjects.  I take some comfort from people like Noam Chomsky, who has often remembered how timid at first was the movement against the US invasion of Vietnam.  The same goes for my responses to Obama loyalists during the present election campaign.  But tonight I think I managed to clarify something in my own mind, if in no one else's.

One of my Facebook friends linked to someone's tweet, to the effect that Governor Romney blamed parents for the violent tendencies of their children.  "Then, Tagg Romney said he wanted to punch the President."  Fantasizing about violence against one's political enemies is popular among the ruling elites, let alone ordinary Americans, and Tagg's remark (like his Dad's "binders full of women" remark) mainly served as a distractive tactic for Obama's fans to dwell on.

Who, I asked, should I blame for Obama's violence (not just tendencies -- he has a lot of blood on his hands)?  My friend surprised me by answering "Obama."  That, at least, was honest, and I said so. My friend replied:
In all seriousness, Obama's use of drones is one of the reason that I consider him a disappointment as a president. He'd be better, all things considered, than Romney but he also hasn't done enough to distance the nation from the arrogant bomb-first attitude of the Bush administration. That said, I don't know of anyone out there who'd be much better; I doubt Ron Paul would really break that much from previous policies overseas -- too much of the economy is organized around the military to cut the defense budget as drastically and immediately as he has indicated he would do.
... Which wasn't honest, on any level. I replied:
What boggles my mind is people who say things like Obama's use of drones being a "disappointment", and think that has appropriate gravitas. He's a war criminal and a bloodsoaked butcher, not a disappointment. (This also relates to the Obama devotees who sneer about Obama supporters who've been "disappointed" by his failure to save the world in six months etc. "Disappointed" is not the word. I was never an Obama supporter and never had any illusions about him, any more than I had illusions about Bush, though I admit that both turned out to be much worse than even I had expected. The Left has often been accused of cynicism, but once again Obama has shown that we aren't nearly cynical enough.)

Let alone the fantasy that Obama ever intended to "distance the nation from the arrogant bomb-first attitude of the Bush Administration." Why do you bring in Ron Paul? I don't, and never have, endorsed or supported him. Nor does it matter if there's "anyone out there who'd be much better." It doesn't matter if there's any candidate who would do what I think should be done. I can still criticize the existing candidates for what they do and what they fail to do. (In Romney's case, remember, all such considerations are purely speculative. I know what Obama has done as President.)

Remember too that serious social change is not brought about by voting. It's brought about by direct action -- organizing, demonstrating, and so on. To cite a minor example: Harry Truman didn't issue an executive order forbidding racial segregation in the military because people voted for it, he did it because he was threatened with massive protests in an election year. There's a limit to the effectiveness of such tactics, but they are much more effective than voting. Change doesn't come from elected officials, it comes from groups of people putting pressure on them. Obama might have been less destructive if people had done the same to him, instead of sitting around in a puddle of drool over him and his adorable family. The moral vacuity of American liberals these past four years has been an education to me, though.
I think I put my finger on something here: the use of the word "disappointment" by Obama supporters to express their admission that the POTUS isn't perfect (though he's still awfully good), while remaining convinced of their own great seriousness, unlike Obama's shallow, immature, drug-addled critics from the left.  Some other Obama critics, including VastLeft I think, have pointed this out too, but I hadn't realized before how much weight that one word carries in apologetics for Obama's administration.  Imagine someone defending a serial killer, or a child rapist, by saying that they couldn't think of anyone out there who'd be much better.  That, of course, keeps the focus on personalities instead of structural factors, but also keeps the discussion (to use the word loosely) within the gamut from A to B that is typical of normal political discourse.  Real "transformative" hope and change don't come from political business-as-usual, they come from people who refuse to work within the system as it exists.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

It's About Me, Me, Me!

An Obama fan posted her reasons for liking Obama, and why she's "better off" since he became President.  Here's one of them, which is typical of the lot:
War: In my lifetime, there have been three wars – Viet Nam, where I worried for years that my brothers would have to go; the Line In The Sand, where I worried about my oldest son being deployed on a daily basis; and Middle East wars, where my granddaughter’s husband is deployed and where I worry that my grandson will go. Under Obama, we are set to pull out after training Middle Eastern forces to defend themselves. Under Romney-Ryan, they are set to give trillions more to the military, even though they didn’t ask for the money. That tells me there is another war agenda looming in the future. How many more lives should we sacrifice to pay for big corporation agendas?
First of all, as you can see, It's All About Us: she worried about her brothers who might have to go to Vietnam, about her oldest son "being deployed" in the first Gulf War; about her grandson who might go to "Middle East wars."  If she's worried about the millions of innocent non-Americans who were killed in those wars, she doesn't mention it.

Second, Bush didn't start the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to train "Middle Eastern forces to defend themselves."  And that's the last thing either Bush or Obama would want Middle Eastern forces to be able to do: that's why Obama is trying to crush Iran, after all -- so that Iran won't be able to defend itself against American or Israeli attacks.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not born of any altruistic concern for the self-defense of "Middle Eastern forces," but from lust for blood vengeance against Muslims, any Muslims.  If this writer thinks otherwise, she should praise Bush and the Republicans for starting those wars. Yet at the end, she claims that the wars are about "big corporation agendas" -- what happened to America's altruistic concern for Middle Eastern self-defense?  And how does any of this make her better off since Obama became President?

Here's another "reason" why she's glad to wake up and Barack Obama is President:
Gay rights: I know that you can’t choose who you love or who you are attracted to. It’s an innate chemistry. It just is. I don’t see any difference in love between two same sex partners or two opposite sex partners. Love is love. To deny benefits to one couple while allowing them for another couple is biased and sexist. While I don’t think government should step into the bedroom, if fairness needs to be enforced by a law, I’m for it.
This is a mess in several ways.  Government stepping into the bedroom is exactly what civil marriage is.  As Wendy Kaminer once put it, "When you marry, you sign a contract you've probably never read, written by the state."  Several times I've encountered people who expressed their support for same-sex marriage by saying that they wanted the government to get out of the marriage business: but that was exactly what they didn't want.  They wanted the government to sanction and reward (with various benefits) certain couples.  Another speaker on a panel for a human sexuality class today said that people should be allowed to marry whoever they want, and again, he didn't really mean that.  I'm sure he was willing to leave our age of consent laws in place, and presumably he doesn't think brothers and sisters, or brothers and brothers for that matter should be allowed to marry.  And what about first cousins?  There wasn't time to bring this up as part of the discussion, or I would have.  I'll have to ask him about this.

As for the writer I just quoted, I'd ask her the same questions and add unmarried couples to the mix: should you have to get legally married to get those benefits, and if so, why isn't that a "biased" requirement?  Like most Obama fans, she has chosen to forget Obama's oft-stated, and only recently toned-down, opposition to same-sex marriage.  And I'm baffled by "... if fairness needs to be enforced by a law, so be it."  What kind of law does she have in mind?  Does she think that the law should require churches to recognize same-sex marriages?  Given how many people are vague about the difference between civil and religious marriage, I wouldn't be surprised.

So, someone wrote that (and more), and someone else decided to post it to a high-traffic group on Facebook.  I don't suppose should have to have good reasons for supporting a candidate or office-holder, or that their arguments must be either rational or factually accurate.  But this writer is well within the mainstream of the pro-Obama people I encounter.  And I found that profoundly depressing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

One Must Cultivate One's Garden

Today also turned out to be busier than I expected.  So I'll let the web do my work for me today and pass along this very interesting article about an experiment in South Korean industry that might become a trend.
The workplace has gotten safer, too. The number of accidents at the Pohang Works amounted to three or four per year in the past. For the past year, there hasn’t been one. Meanwhile, per worker crude steel production is up by 31.8% from 1,052 tons in 2009 to 1,387 tons in the first half of 2012.

In 2010, the percentage of products produced that were found to be faulty was 3.07, which declined to 2.33 in 2011. Production costs have also dropped. As recently as 2010, yearly production costs at the Pohang Works were falling on the order of 200 billion to 300 billion won (US$180 million to US$270 million) per year. In 2011, they dropped by 730 billion won (US$660 million); so far in 2012, the number has been 900 billion won (US$890 million). Observers are pointing the new shift system as the secret to POSCO’s success at keeping solidly in the black while other steel makers around the world are languishing in or near the red.
Fewer accidents (though I must say that three or four accidents per year in a steelworks sounds pretty low to begin with), better productivity, fewer flaws, lower production costs, and improved quality of life for the employees.  Now all that's needed is to turn it over to workers' ownership.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Passing Gas

One of my right-wing acquaintances (let's call her RWA3, to distinguish her from RWA1 and RWA2) passed this along ("shared" it, if you like) on Facebook today.  The source she'd got it from captioned it "'Like' if you think gas should still be this price!"

Why sure!  And the minimum wage should still be $1.60 an hour.  To say nothing of the fact that people of the age RWA3 and I share were dismayed when gasoline rose to the obscene price of 79.9 cents a gallon.  In those days, though, the minimum wage was $4.25, which was ruining American business.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Read the Label Carefully

Some years ago I participated in an online discussion about the words that are used to describe sexual orientations.  One participant, a graduate student in sociology as I recall, said that the words "homosexual," "heterosexual," and "bisexual" irritated him: why couldn't we just use the word "humansexual"?  He had a point, I guess.  While we're at it, why bother with classifications like "vertebrate" or "invertebrate"?  Why can't we just use a word like "earth entities"?  It would be so much more inclusive.  While we're at it, why not just give up using language altogether?  Words are so confusing and divisive.  In the good old days before we invented all these different languages, we just sniffed each other's butts, and everybody got along fine.

I hadn't thought about this point until now, but what would "humansexual" even mean?  If it's constructed on the model of "homosexual," it makes no sense at all.  I think it was supposed to mean that one's sexual orientation was toward other humans -- which would exclude animalphiles, and that's just not fair.  Still, I suppose that something like that was in that guy's mind: we should just brush aside all human differences and focus on what we have in common.  Fair enough.  If only it were that easy.  In any case, humans are not a sex, so the term would make no sense to begin with.  Obviously the guy who proposed it -- a highly educated person, remember -- didn't understand what "homosexual" and "sexual orientation" mean.  To quote Kinsey again:
… It [“bisexual”] should, however, be used with the understanding that it is patterned on the words heterosexual and homosexual, and, like them, refers to the sex of the partner, and proves nothing about the constitution of the person who is labeled bisexual [657].
In this matter, years of schooling have little or no effect on people's misunderstandings.

In the years since that exchange, I've seen many similar coinages, both in ordinary conversation and in scholarly discourse, that were equally off-kilter.  "Homosensual," for example, which also shows a misunderstanding of what "homosexual means."   "Homosocial" and "homoerotic," of course; also "homoromantic" and "homoaffectional."  The author of one amazingly demented scholarly paper tossed in "homodepressed," "homoplatonic,"and  "homomorbid."  I wonder what the point of these inventions is; probably the hope of going viral in other scholars' footnotes.  Which is a valid goal on its own terms, but doesn't add anything to the archive of human knowledge.

The book I've been griping about for the past week, by the way, is Understanding Asexuality by Anthony F. Bogaert (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).  I've gotten bogged down in the first chapter because of his bogus attacks on Kinsey -- which continue throughout the book -- but I've harped on that numerous times already.  On his principal topic, asexuality, he also goes astray.

I checked out Understanding Sexuality because asexuality has been turning up on the mainstream radar lately.  I'd noticed a couple of articles about it at Salon, and then some asexual individuals expressed interest in volunteering for GLB Speakers Bureau and the sexuality panels we do.  That was fine with me; I had some questions of my own about it, and I'd have been interested to hear what they had to say, but they don't seem to have followed up by becoming volunteers.  For example: is asexuality a sexual orientation, or is it the absence of one?  (This is analogous to the question whether atheism is a religion or the absence of one.  Is not collecting stamps a hobby, or the absence of one?)

Bogaert presumably thinks that asexuality is a sexual orientation.  He argues for a distinction that could be useful, between "sexual attraction" and "romantic attraction," and postulates that many asexuals have romantic feelings without wanting to express them genitally.  It appears, though this is not something he really follows through, that "romantic attraction" still has a sexual orientation, towards one's own sex or towards the other.  (Remember, the "sex" in "sexual orientation" refers to the sex of the partner, not to what one wants to do with them.)  It doesn't seem that asexuals are indifferent whether they bond romantically to males or to females, and this again leads to confusion in the labeling: it "is not unusual for an asexual person to say that he is asexual but biromantic, or that she is asexual but heteroromantic" (15), Bogaert says.  Again, this shows a misunderstanding about the meaning of "sexual" in "sexual orientation."  "Heteroromantic" could be shorthand for "my romantic interests are heterosexual," but I see no reason to suppose that Bogaert or his asexual informants realize that.

Am I saying that I think asexuals aren't really asexual after all?  No, I'm not.  I'm pointing out an ambiguity in the term, which fits well with the general confusion about terms like "heterosexual," "homosexual," and "sexual orientation."  Like "bisexual," which originally referred to physical sex and to reproduction, the word "asexual" has roots in reproductive biology: one-celled organisms generally reproduce asexually, without the exchange of genetic material that sexual reproduction involves. Asexual people can reproduce if they want, just as homosexual people can.  But they don't have to reproduce if they don't want to, just as homosexual people don't.  Or heterosexuals: wanting to copulate doesn't mean you necessarily want to have children.

Most painful is Bogaert's attempt to invent an evolutionary basis or function for asexuality.  He's a Darwinian fundamentalist, who believes that every detail of behavior or physiology must have been selected by "Nature" herself for the benefit of the species.  To that end he confuses asexuality and celibacy, though they're not at all the same phenomenon.  He even tries to find an evolutionary rationale for solitary masturbation, seemingly unaware that autoeroticism is widespread in the animal kingdom.  (I use the word "autoeroticism" there because "masturbation" means that the self-stimulation is done by the hand, which isn't even always true among human beings.  Both males and females often achieve self-inflicted orgasm by rubbing against something, a mattress or a pillow or some such.)   He gives no plausible reason for thinking that autoeroticism is anything but a fringe benefit of the pleasure associated with reproductive sex.

And he seems unaware of the existence of the clitoris -- well, he mentions it once: "the organs of sex most directly associated with physical arousal (i.e., penis, clitoris, vagina)  are brimming with nerve endings, which ultimately connect to the pleasure centers of the brain that are capable of making us experience intense pleasure" (23).  Look, I'm a big ol' homo, but even I know that the vagina doesn't have a lot of pleasure-related nerve endings, and most that it does have are near the opening.  It's the vulva, including the labia, and the clitoris that are mainly involved in female erotic pleasure.  Yet whenever Bogaert discusses female sexual arousal, he mentions only vaginal lubrication (see 74, 75, 112, 136).  That's not irrelevant, but it seems like mentioning only the "pre-cum" lubrication produced by a man's urethra before he ejaculates, and ignoring his erection.

But back to my main concern here, which is labeling and identity.  There's going to be some difference between sex researchers and asexuals about what it means to be asexual.  Bogaert wants to define it in terms solely of an absence of erotic attraction, not an absence of erotic drive (or sexual desire, as he calls it), and that's fair enough, because many asexuals apparently masturbate, they just don't associate the pleasure with a real or fantasized partner.  I also suspect that some of the same issues will arise about asexuality that have divided gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, because asexuality seems to lie at one end of a continuum of erotic expression: not an either-or division, but a more-or-less difference of degree.   And people in general really hate differences of degree: they constantly try to turn them into differences of kind.

The word "intimacy" also turns up in this area, and people tend to forget that "intimacy" has long been a euphemism for copulation.  There's never been much agreement about the relation of copulation to intimacy, though most people seem to take for granted that emotional closeness, especially between males and females, will inevitably lead to the old in-out-in-out.  That won't be true for asexuals, but it isn't always true for "sexuals" either.  The most enthusiastic sexual copulator will still probably be emotionally close to people with whom he or she doesn't want to copulate: parents at least, children hopefully, and friends of either sex.  In my own case, and I know I'm not unique in this, there have been numerous people I've loved seriously and even regretted not wanting to have sex with.  It's a perennial though not universal human complaint.  Often emotional closeness kills off erotic interest.  Is this connected to asexuality?  I have no idea.

Those who've written about asexuality mention the incredulity many "sexuals" display at the very idea that some people simply aren't interested in copulation.  That's not really so surprising: as Bogaert acknowledges, most people tend to universalize their own experience and tastes to all of humanity.  I've tried to learn not to do that.  I think it's valid, and important, for people to figure out what they want and need, and try to find people with whom they can share their interests.  One of the main lessons Kinsey tried to teach, but that very few people learned, was that there is enormous variation within human erotic drive, desire, and expression.  That variation isn't going to go away; we might as well learn to respect it.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Small Revelation

I don't know why I haven't been able to get much writing done.  I've done too much commenting at other sites, perhaps -- but that doesn't usually slow me down much.  And there have been a number of distractions and interruptions (some of them welcome) this weekend.  But I was reading (re-reading, actually) Emily Toth's Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (Pennsylvania, 2009), and noticed something in her impeccable advice to new faculty on page 99:
Get yourself a mentor, or several -- senior professors who'll decode the academic enterprise for you, and tell that words that seem distant and uncaring ("uncollegial," "inappropriate," "not germane") are in fact strong condemnations, not mealy-mouthed euphemisms.
Really, I thought when I read that sentence today.  We all have our bugbears, our pet peeves, and among mine are the words "inappropriate" and "unnecessary" in certain contexts.  Context is important, of course: both words should be used in the right place.  They annoy me when they come across as "mealy-mouthed euphemisms," with the sense of someone's nose being held against a bad smell.  In such cases they're prime examples of what is often derided as Political Correctness.  Someone uses a racist or sexist or  homophobic epithet, or some other expletive, and someone else says peevishly, "That's so ... unnecessary" or "That's so ... inappropriate."  In a way this reaction is funny, because the language being admonished is exactly that, and probably intentionally so, but the people looking down their noses are unaware of how funny they look.

But when I read Ms. Mentor's advice, it occurred to me that the people who annoy me with these words are usually academics.  I'll have to start keeping track.  But then their reaction makes sense, except that they've taken their crushing condemnations out of the context where they'd be effective, to admonish people who don't know the code.

Consider this bit that I've quoted before, from the British stand-up comic Stewart Lee:
Eighty-four percent of people think Political Correctness has gone mad, and you don't want one of those people coming up to you after a gig and going, "Well done, mate! ... Y'know, you can't even write racial abuse in excrement on someone's car without the Politically Correct Brigade jumping down your throat."
Now imagine someone reacting to racial abuse written in excrement on someone's car by making a face and saying, "That's so ... inappropriate."  Or "That's so ... unnecessary."  But maybe the fault lies with me: I think that rather stronger language is appropriate and necessary in response to bigotry. 

Or consider an example from elsewhere in Ms. Mentor: in the middle of a meeting with the female graduate student whose dissertation he's advising, a male professor lies on the floor of his office, pleading a bad back, and peeks up the young woman's skirt.  (This seems to be a popular game among some male faculty; I've read about it before.) The student can't go through channels, because sexual harassment is a venerable tradition in academia, as elsewhere, and she needs the help of this professor to get her degree.  His colleagues would consider her lodging a formal complaint to be "uncollegial," and probably "inappropriate."  I agree with Ms. Mentor that discretion is the better part of valor, and that one should pick one's battles with care; her advice in dealing with more powerful colleagues is good: survive to become a professor yourself, and use that status to protect the weak.  But I also hope that academics will learn to save their mealy-mouthed euphemisms for the Faculty Council, and to be more direct and forceful outside of that very specific context.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Days Grow Short, Literally


Too much to do today, but I've started a couple of posts that I may not have time to finish until tomorrow, and then found something else I wanted to write about too.  So for now, just to keep my hand in, I thought I would post a couple of photos I took on campus yesterday, when the sun was bright and the temperature not too cold, on one of the last mild days before it turns really cold.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Boy and His Dog Named Boy

While I was traveling I took along Julia Mickenberg's Learning from the Left: Children's Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (Oxford, 2005) to read.  The main thing I learned from it was that a lot of the authors of books I'd read and liked as a child were leftists, socialists, Popular Front, even a few actual Communists.   Quite a number of people of the left moved into publishing even before the McCarthy era, and more found that they could work in children's publishing, including as writers, even after they were blacklisted everywhere else.  Some, like Lois Lenski and Wanda Gag, wrote fiction, but others wrote history, biographies, and science books.  Much of their work is still in print.

When I got back to Bloomington, I went to the library to look for some of those books.  I'd been thinking about rereading Lenski even before I read Mickenberg; her Strawberry Girl, about poor farmers in Florida at the dawn of the 20th century, had made a big impression on me when I read it in fifth grade -- mainly because it was the first time I'd ever encountered the word "hell" in a book meant for kids.  But I also remember her highly stylized illustrations.  I checked out and read Strawberry Girl and San Francisco Boy, about Chinese American children in San Francisco in the early 1950s, and Doris Gates's Blue Willow, about migrant farm workers in California during the Depression.  While I was looking for them in the library I also found Jim Kjelgaard's 1945 novel Big Red.  I'm not sure I read that one as a kid, but I did read at least one of the sequels: Outlaw Red rings a bell.  Kjelgaard wasn't one of Mickenberg's subjects (though according to his daughter he was a strong supporter of the NAACP), but I decided to get Big Red too.

Big Red is the story of teenaged Danny Pickett and his father Ross, who scrape by as trappers in rural (upstate?) New York.  Danny's mother died so long ago that she's barely a memory for him.  Father and son live by squatter's right in a cabin on the estate of railroad magnate Dick Haggin,who worked his way to wealth from humble beginnings.  Haggin has just acquired an Irish setter, Champion Sylvester's Boy, for seven thousand dollars, and has a dog show in New York City coming up.  Danny meets Boy when he reports that one of Haggin's bulls has been killed by the evil bear Old Majesty, and it's love at first sight for both of them, but of course they come from different worlds.  Mr. Haggin can see Danny's quality, however, and lets him have custody of the dog before the show.  Danny names him Red and trains him to hunt partridge, over the objections of his father, who can only see Red as a varmint dog.  Haggin sends Danny with the dog to the show, where Boy / Red wins best of breed.  Danny's head isn't turned by the fleshpots of New York, of course; he's just a simple country boy with only one thing on his mind: hunting and trapping.  Under his tutelage Red flourishes, and the story proceeds inexorably to the final showdown with Old Majesty.

Kjelgaard was a solid, skillful writer, and I enjoyed reading Big Red; I might even try some of his other books.  But I was amazed at how thoroughly asexual the book was -- except for the dog, of course: Red is provided with a worthy mate who provides him with heirs, including one who had "about him an invisible but very definite aura of the essence that Danny knew as quality.  It was as though the tiny mite had inherited all the finest qualities of both his father and mother, and in so doing was just a little finer than either one" (253).  But Danny himself has no interest at all in girls (or boys, for that matter: he has no comrade of his own age, just his father and the kindly Mr. Haggin).  The only female character in Big Red is a "quality woman" from Philadelphia who demands the dog from Mr. Haggin, though Danny knows she "didn't want a dog, or know what a fine dog was.  She wanted Red because he looked nice, and would complement her own faultlessly groomed self" (100).  Mr. Haggin is helpless before her imperious demands, and only Nature and chance saves Red from exile in Philadelphia.  There's one bit of comic business when Danny's father fears that he might lose Danny to a woman's wiles: a telegram arrives instructing Danny to meet one Sheilah Maguire at the train station -- but of course Miss Maguire is Red's mate, not Danny's.  This is the tradition that spawned Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and the first Star Wars film: a world, indeed a universe almost empty of women, populated by clean-limbed youths, their venerable male mentors and benefactors, and their companion animals, who are almost men themselves.

Monday, October 8, 2012

But I'm a Cheerleader!

Now that we're only a month away from Election Day, the flood of sheer nuttery has burst the levees.  I've been considering blocking the Facebook feeds of several more of my friends there for the duration, especially those who have nothing much of their own to say but will pass along every meme attacking the opposition that comes their way.

Today I began wondering wondering why they do this.  Do they really think believe that these soundbytes are going to change anyone's minds?  It might be -- they're mostly clueless enough -- but a lot of the stuff they're posting, especially the Democrats, has to do with the importance of voting.  (That which isn't about Big Bird, that is; I almost forgot.  Maybe I was trying to repress the memory.)  And here I must confess, I'm generalizing from my own position.  I don't understand why so many people don't vote, though I'm aware of the voter-suppression projects that have always characterized American elections.  After you've been blocked and intimidated enough times, giving up would feel reasonable.  As an educated white male, I've never faced anything like that, and I've always voted.

So I'm not surprised by the people of color I know who are concerned to ensure that would-be voters are registered and will get to the polls and past the obstruction tactics the Republicans are making ready.  The people who baffle me are the ones like me.  They've got their photo IDs, they should have no trouble at the polls.  But they seem anxious, and I have the impression that they're afraid that they won't vote.  Is their Obama-worship secretly wide-stance?  Are they afraid that the Devil will take control in the voting booth and they'll suddenly vote straight Republican?

The reaction among liberals to their President's lackluster performance in debate with Romney last week has something to do with my feeling about this.  I suppose they entertained fantasies that Barack would "clean Romney's clock", blacken his eye and knock out a few of his teeth, or send in some Navy SEALs to gun him down.  Some whimpered that it was like The President didn't even want to winHis campaign manager "had to pep up a demoralized staff in Chicago."  You'd have thought he lost the election that night, instead of merely putting in an uninspiring performance at a largely meaningless media spectacle.  But will they abandon their President in his hour of need?  Are they going to stay home on November 6 because Obama isn't a great debater?  If so, no wonder they throw vitriol at anyone who criticizes him: they're afraid they'll lose their own will to vote.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Attacking a Straw Kinsey

The book I was reading yesterday continues to frustrate and annoy me.  The author repeats his erroneous characterization of Kinsey's research -- "Kinsey's traditional behavioral scale for measuring sexual orientation" -- though I concede that this time he may be referring to later researchers' tendency to use the Kinsey continuum to measure sexual orientation, a use which Kinsey didn't intend in the first place and for which it doesn't really work.  But I don't think he understands this, because he clearly hasn't read Kinsey recently enough to have any idea what he wrote, or else has thoroughly misunderstood what Kinsey wrote.

The author spends some time explaining the limits of "a strictly behavioral approach to sexual orientation," and he's more or less right about them.  But then, Kinsey didn't purport to be studying "sexual orientation."  I stress that because so many writers on human sexuality falsely claim that he did.  Kinsey was studying sexual behavior, as the titles of his two big books make explicit.  Even that limited task was probably impossible, because most of his date came from interviews which sought to reconstruct people's sexual histories.  People who've had only one or a handful of sexual partners can probably remember all of them, though if they're over the age of about thirty, they probably can't remember accurately everything they ever did.  And that's assuming that the informant hasn't done anything he or she feels shouldn't have been done, and has either managed to forget it or chooses not to remember it for the interviewer.  It was Masters and Johnson who did some in-depth research into human sexual behavior in a laboratory setting, which more or less eliminated memory malfunctions for the behavior they observed, but couldn't reconstruct the subjects' histories.  Richard Lewontin's critique of another large-scale survey of human sexual behavior (only partially available online, alas, but you can see an exchange between Lewontin and the survey's principal author here) showed that people either can't or won't (or both) remember their sexual histories acccurately, let alone report them accurately.

There are other factors, of course.  In an essay called "Aversion / Perversion / Diversion" Samuel Delany tells about a young man he met in a New York porn theater where men would go to have sex with other men.
As we began to touch each other, he leaned toward me to whisper, in a light, working-class accent, "You know, I've never done anything like this before.  All the other sex I've ever had has been with women.  But somebody told me about this place, so I thought ..."*
But Delany met the same young man at least twice more in the same theater over the next few months, and even though the youth greeted him with recognition, each time they began to touch each other, he would repeat the same formula.  Delany comments, "What troubles me in the memory of these encounters is, of course, how much of myself I can see in this fellow.  His litany, like some glorious stutter, recalls Freud's dictum: repetition is desire" (121).  What, I wonder, would the young man have told a researcher who was taking his sexual history?

It was a common criticism of Kinsey in his day that he didn't pay attention to the emotional side of sex.  Usually this complaint came either from religious figures, who weren't all that wild about the behavioral side of sex anyhow, or from psychoanalysts and psychiatrists whose claim to a more scientific account of sex was open to serious question.  The psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper which purported to show that Kinsey's sample was skewed because it was made up of people who were willing to talk about their sex lives, which apparently proved them to be perverts.  I'll have to track down Maslow's paper, because I'd like to know how he or anyone else could claim to know anything about the sexual practices of the people who wouldn't talk about their sex lives.  From what I've seen, people who deploy this argument are usually quite sure they know what people really do, but they can never explain how they know.  The answer I usually get is along the lines of Nice people don't do things like that, because people who do things like that aren't Nice.  I wouldn't take for granted that people who don't want to talk about their sexual histories have necessarily had fewer partners or a narrower range of practices; it could be the opposite, that they have more to hide.  But again, who knows?

Kinsey focused on behavior, not because he was under any illusion that behavior was the whole story, but because it was what could (however inadequately) be measured and counted.  And that was important, because the real fury over his work came from its indication that far greater numbers of people did what they weren't supposed to be doing than the critics wanted to believe.  This was true not only of homosexuality but of premarital and extramarital intercourse, especially among women: Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, published in 1953, was widely seen as an insult to the virtue of the American woman, and there's general agreement that Kinsey lost the crucial support of the Rockefeller Foundation because of that controversy.

But the author I'm quoting is unaware of all this.  I mentioned in the previous post a remark by Kinsey about younger men whose overt experience is exclusively homosexual (because, for whatever reason, it was more available to them) although they know they are primarily interested in women.  A reading of what Kinsey wrote would have shown him that Kinsey was aware of these problems.  But there's no way short of a direct memory tap (which, luckily, is beyond reach of our technology for the foreseeable future) to know what people have actually done, or what their true "deep-seated" desires really are.  Researchers who've attempted to study what Kinsey didn't have come up against the same barriers: people don't remember accurately, they can't reconstruct their emotional history in any detail, and there's no way for the interviewer to tell whether they're telling the truth.  As Richard Lewontin wrote about this problem,
Even though the world is material and all its phenomena, including human consciousness, are products of material forces, we should not confuse the way the world is with our ability to know about it. Like it or not, there are a lot of questions that cannot be answered, and even more that cannot be answered exactly. There is nothing shameful in that admission.
Unfortunately, too many researchers are unaware of this, or prefer to ignore it because they believe there is something shameful in that admission.  They dismiss Kinsey -- or rather, their fantasy version of Kinsey -- and blunder ahead without learning from his achievements or from his failures.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, considering how much of science is trial and error.  What is bad is when their (willed?) ignorance leads to the publication of misinformation about their work and its predecessors.  For myself, I'm willing to simply throw out Kinsey's research, but only with the understanding that no one after him has produced any more reliable knowledge about human sexual behavior.

*As reprinted in Delany, Longer Views: Extended Essays (Wesleyan University Press, 1996), pp. 120-1.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Un Peuple en Diaspora

I haven't read much by the late Eric Hobsbawm, who died this week at the age of 95, but this excerpt from his autobiography, quoted at Jews sans frontieres, got my attention:
What exactly could 'being Jewish' mean in the 1920's to an intelligent Anglo-Viennese boy who suffered no anti-Semitism and was so remote from the practices and beliefs of traditional Judaism that, until after puberty, he was unaware even of being circumcised? Perhaps only this: that sometime around the age of ten I acquired a simple principle from my mother on a now forgotten occasion when I must have reported, or perhaps even repeated, some negative observations of an uncle's behaviour as 'typically Jewish'. She told me very firmly: 'You must never do anything, or seem to do anything that might suggest that you are ashamed of being a Jew.'

I have tried to observe it ever since, although the strain of doing so is sometimes intolerable, in the light of the behaviour of the government of Israel. My mother's principle was sufficient for me to abstain, with regret, from declaring myself konfessionslos (without religion) as one was entitled to do in Austria at the age of thirteen. It has landed me with the lifetime burden of an unpronounceable surname which seems spontaneously to call for the convenient slide into Hobson or Osborn. It has been enough to define my Judaism ever since, and left me free to live as what my friend Isaac Deutscher called a 'non-Jewish Jew', but not what the miscellaneous regiment of religious or nationalist publicists call a 'self-hating Jew'. I have no emotional obligation to the practices of an ancestral religion and even less to the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and politically  aggressive nation-state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds. I do not even have to fit in with the most fashionable posture of the turn of the new century, that of 'the victim', the Jew who, on the strength of the Shoah (and in the era of unique and unprecedented Jewish world achievement, success and public acceptance), asserts unique claims on the world's  conscience as a victim of persecution.

Right and wrong, justice and injustice, do not wear ethnic badges or wave national flags. And as a historian I observe that, if there is any justification for the claim that the 0.25 per cent of the global population in the year 2000 which constitute the tribe into which I was born are a 'chosen' or special people, it rests not on what it has done within the ghettos or special territories, self-chosen or imposed by others, past, present or future. It rests on its quite disproportionate and remarkable contribution to humanity in the wider world, mainly in the two centuries or so since the Jews were allowed to leave the ghettos, and chose to do so. We are, to quote the title of the book by my friend Richard Marienstras, Polish Jew, French Resistance fighter, defender of Yiddish culture and his country's chief expert on Shakespeare, 'un peuple en diaspora'. We shall, in all probability, remain so. And if we make the thought experiment of supposing that Herzl's dream came true and all Jews ended up in a small independent territorial state which excluded from full citizenship all who were not the sons of Jewish mothers, it would be a bad day for the rest of humanity - and for the Jews themselves."
-- Eric Hobsbawm: Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life (Pantheon, 2002, p.24).
Just what I need: another oeuvre of a prolific writer to add to my piles of books to be read.  I probably don't have to read all his work, and I've already read The Invention of Tradition.  I'll probably start with Interesting Times.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Orientationalism

The book I'm reading today contains the following sentence:
Kinsey described people’s sexual orientation on a point scale from zero to six, again mostly based on their behavior (what they did and with whom).
It doesn't matter which book it was, because the substance of the sentence turns up in so many others, as well as in daily talk about human sexuality.  What does matter is that it's incorrect. The author is an academic psychologist, so he's passing along this misinformation to his students, as well as to readers of his book.  Reading it today was the straw that broke the camel's back, as it were.  Since I was in the public library at the time, I went to the stacks and found Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin, published in 1948 by W. B. Saunders in Philadelphia, and turned to the chapter on homosexual outlet.

As I've said before, Kinsey did not "describe ... sexual orientation."  The term doesn't appear in the book, in fact, though on page 641 he mentions "younger males" who "may even have all of their overt experience in the homosexual" because they "have not ventured to have actual intercourse with girls, while their orientation is definitely heterosexual."  This is the only time the word "orientation" appears in the entire book, and in context it's clear that he's using it to mean something like "predominant interest," not a fixed biological or psychological mechanism as the term is commonly used nowadays.

In fact, Kinsey repudiated any such notion.  In 1941 he had published a couple of papers demolishing hormonal theories of homosexuality, and he repeated throughout the chapter on homosexual outlet that he rejected the concept of homosexuals (or heterosexuals) as discrete kinds of persons.  The space he devoted to developing and explaining sexual experience as a continuum was one way he tried to undermine that concept.  (Despite this, he referred in the text to homosexual persons, though in context he clearly meant the term as shorthand for "persons with significant amounts of same-sex erotic experience.")

This can also be seen in his discussion of bisexuality.
As previously pointed out, it is rather unfortunate that the word bisexual should have been chosen to describe this intermediate group. The term is used as a substantive, designating individuals – persons; and the root meaning of the word and the way in which it is usually used imply that these persons have both masculine qualities and feminine qualities within their single bodies. We have objected to the use of the terms heterosexual and homosexual when used as nouns which stand for individuals. It is similarly untenable to imply that these “bisexual” persons have an anatomy or an endocrine system or other sorts of physiologic or psychologic capacities which make them partly male and partly female, or of the two sexes simultaneously [656-7].

… It [“bisexual”] should, however, be used with the understanding that it is patterned on the words heterosexual and homosexual, and, like them, refers to the sex of the partner, and proves nothing about the constitution of the person who is labeled bisexual [657].
He concluded,
The very general occurrence of the homosexual in ancient Greece ... and its wide occurrence today in some cultures in which such activity is not as taboo as it is in our own, suggests that the capacity of an individual to respond erotically to any sort of stimulus, whether it is provided by another person of the same or of the opposite sex, is basic in the species. That patterns of heterosexuality and patterns of homosexuality represent learned behavior which depends, to a considerable degree upon the mores of the particular culture in which the individual is raised, is a possibility that must be thoroughly considered before there can be any acceptance of the idea that homosexuality is inherited, and that the pattern for each individual is so innately fixed that no modification of it may be expected within his lifetime [660].
In rereading the previous paragraph I noticed something odd.  We don't really know much, if anything, about the incidence of homosexual desire or behavior in any culture, including ancient Greece.  What we do know is that sex between males was less taboo there, though it was also regulated and restricted in various ways.  We know this because of the documentation of such relationships in "mainstream" Greek literature and discourse from that period.  But no one ever did a systematic survey like Kinsey's to find out how many Greek men actually had sex with other males.  And despite the very strong prohibition and stigmatization of sex between males in early twentieth-century America, Kinsey found that its occurrence was very wide indeed.  It could be that even in those supposedly more tolerant societies, the actual occurrence of sex between males might be no greater than it is here and now.  We have no way of knowing.

Kinsey's strictures on biological explanations of homosexuality have not been confronted by later researchers.  Indeed, most researchers today have tried to ignore what he said and wrote, often by misinterpreting, or misrepresenting, or simply misunderstanding it. His criticism of hormonal theories was simply ignored, and the same inadequate concept of "the homosexual" is standard in research today.

Of course, it's quite possible that Kinsey was wrong.  But he hasn't been shown to be wrong.  There was a graduate student with whom I had some conflicts when I first began running the GLB Speakers Bureau at IU, who told me in one of his more conciliatory moods that sex research had "moved beyond Kinsey."  I told him that it looked to me as if it hadn't yet caught up with Kinsey.  It should be remembered that Paul Gebhard, one of Kinsey's original team and later head of the Institute for Sex Research, tried to discredit Kinsey's numbers for the incidence of homosexual behaviors.  To that end Gebhard removed all histories of prisoners and others who might have "contaminated" the sample and tabulated the results all over again -- but he found that the percentages dropped only a tiny amount: from 37% to 36.4% for males who'd had at least one sexual experience to orgasm with another male, for example.  Despite this, people who should know better continue to accuse Kinsey of overcounting homosexual experience because he included prisoners in his sample.

Another graduate student, a decade or so later, conceded that the Kinsey scale wasn't intended to refer to or measure "sexual orientation," but declared that sex researchers use it for that purpose today.  She didn't, however, explain how those researchers measure "sexual orientation."  There isn't, to my knowledge, any way to do it.  Today's researchers either allow subjects to assign themselves a number on the Kinsey scale, or administer to them a version of Kinsey's interview; the result is called their sexual orientation.  Since the interview can at best only count overt sexual experience, and a very impressionistic account of desires and fantasies, the result remains a sexual history, not a measure of sexual orientation.  (As the quotation about inexperienced younger males above indicates, experience is considerably affected by the availability of willing partners, as much as it is by one's own predilections.)

I think that what's going on here is that the biological sexual-orientation model is so dominant today that even people who've been trained to know better impose it on all discussion of human sexuality.  The psychologist I quoted at the outset simply took it for granted that in writing about homosexuality, Kinsey was describing "sexual orientation," although he wasn't and would have rejected the concept.  I wouldn't be surprised if he has never actually read the chapter on homosexual outlet in Sexual Behavior in the Male. (Just as I suspect that most people who quote Foucault's famous aphorism about the Origin of the Modern Homosexual have never read The History of Sexuality.)  Why bother?  Everybody knows what Kinsey said.  And everybody knows he was wrong anyway, and sex research has moved beyond his clumsy, primitive beginnings.  If I hadn't been conditioned by the authority-skeptical ethos of Gay Liberation, I might think the same way.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Our Precious Sexuality Fluids

In this week's column, Dan Savage answers questions he received in written form at a college appearance.  I thought this one was interesting:
I’ve always considered myself a lesbian, but a few weeks ago, I got really drunk and slept with one of my male best friends. Am I not a lesbian?
Female sexuality is a lot more fluid, as they say, and many lesbian-identified women have slept with men. Your sexuality identity—the label you choose to apply to yourself—should communicate the essential truth about your sexual interests and partner preferences. So you’re free to identify as a lesbian even if you slip and fall on the occasional dick.
His answer is thoroughly inadequate, but that's not entirely his fault, because there are no clear boundaries in this area.  As Savage says, many lesbian-identified women have slept with men, and (he might have mentioned) more than incidentally.  But I think he's wrong that "female sexuality is a lot more fluid" than (presumably) male sexuality.  Many gay-identified men have slept with women, and many straight-identified men have slept with men.  We have no idea how many, of course.  I considered invoking Alfred Kinsey here, but his research is really no help because he didn't study identities.  A lot of people say he found that 10% of the male population was gay, but they're wrong.  Kinsey found that 10% of the (white, incidentally) male population had mostly same-sex outlet to the point of orgasm for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55; he didn't report how they identified themselves.  We don't even know how the 4% of white males who had only same-sex outlet throughout their lives identified themselves.

I'm almost done reading Barbara Deming's A Humming Under My Feet, which I mentioned yesterday, and I'm struck, not just with how many times she records having let men have sex with her (read the book and you'll see why I put it that way) despite her knowledge that she only really desired and fell in love with women, but with how often she seriously considered marrying a man because that's what you're supposed to do: get married to a man, have his children, be a serious mature adult.  From Martin Duberman's account of Deming and her younger contemporary, the gay socialist David McReynolds in A Saving Remnant, it's clear that McReynolds's experience was similar.  Even more depressing, Deming abandoned her lover Nell to the courtship of her brother Ben, with the same rationale: a woman could only offer another woman a second-best kind of love.

But back to Dan Savage.  Just before the question from the lesbian, he answered this one:
I’m a guy who does not find guys physically attractive. Even so, I like to give and receive blowjobs with men. Does this mean anything about my sexual orientation?
Yes.
The question here, I suppose, is how many times you can have sex with someone who isn't covered by your sexual identity before it means anything about your sexual orientation.  Since part of the definition of "sexual orientation" is that you find people of that sex attractive, or as the American Psychological Association defines it:
Sexual orientation is an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectional attraction toward others. It is easily distinguished from other components of sexuality including biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female), and the social gender role (adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior).
(Except that sexual orientation isn't really "easily distinguished" from those other components: most people, including professionals, tend to confuse them.)  "Sexual identity," as I've noticed before, is a confused and confusing label.  It ought to mean which biological sex (male or female) one identifies as, but it's commonly used to refer to which sexual orientation one answers to.  "Sexual identity" is often confused with "sexual orientation," whose meaning is itself unclear due to the ambiguity of the word "sex."  (It's often used to refer to any erotic preference, which has led to pedophilia being called a sexual orientation even though children are not a sex.)  Even among professional sex researchers and other putative experts, the terminology for human sexuality is a mess.  Among us laypeople, it's totally incoherent.

It's tempting to say that labels are useless, and we should just get rid of them and be people.  Many people give in to that temptation, but I haven't noticed that they really get rid of labels.  Instead they just shift them around a little.  If I choose not to label myself, other people will be happy to take up the slack, so I think I had better be prepared to deal with that.  If I do label myself, they will misunderstand the labels, and sometimes I suspect that misunderstanding is deliberate.  Or maybe it's just the old "Don't stereotype me, but I'll stereotype you all I want" approach.

A disturbing aspect of Deming's experiences with males as she describes them in A Humming Under My Feet is that the men who tried to pressure her into copulation (and too often succeeded) just assumed that if they wanted her, she must want them back, or at any rate be willing and available -- especially since she was a single woman traveling alone; this made her fair game.  They wouldn't take a direct "no" for an answer, and she had to be quite insistent that she wasn't available to them.  One notable swine, a Greek sailor whose roaming hands she had to fend off for hours, finally sneered at her, "So you don't like men?"
I believe in love, I told him.  I added that I was sorry if he'd misunderstood me.  He gave a contemptuous shrug and strode off [218].
Even if her "sexual identity" had been straight or bi, she might simply not have wanted him.  To say so might have been dangerous for her, of course: male pride is touchy, and is often defended with violence.  That too is one of the inequities feminism rejects: that women must always be careful of men's feelings, though men needn't reciprocate. 

This refusal to take "no" for an answer is not limited to straights, of course.  Many people figure that if you're the right sex for them, they're the right sex for you, and if your "sexual identity" confirms that, then you are not allowed to turn them down.  They're allowed to turn others down, of course, because that's different. These issues are really prior to questions of identities and labels.  There's no real need to explain why you're turning down -- or, for that matter accepting -- someone's sexual overtures in terms of orientations or identities; simply saying "No, thanks" or "Yes, thanks" ought to be enough.  People with inadequate erotic manners won't be stopped by a mere identity: they'll be sure that they can be the exception to your orientation.

Identities aren't just individual phenomena, though, they're social, and ideally they help us to interact considerately with one another.    They're also used for solidarity and control, which has a downside too.  If someone asked me the same question that young lesbian asked Dan Savage, I think I'd turn it around: What would you say if another lesbian you knew asked you the same question?  Your answer to her would be my answer to you.