Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Least of These

Today a friend and I had dinner at a local restaurant.  Since it's semester break and between holidays, the town is quiet, and there weren't many other people present, so I noticed a group of people sitting nearby.  They were two men and two women, all in their late 20s, and a baby about a year old. The adults were college types, possibly young professionals.  I noticed that the men were holding and playing with the baby, and I supposed they were two heterosexual couples out for the evening.

But gradually I noticed that the men never handed the baby to the women: they handed him back and forth between them, bouncing him and cuddling him, and though I couldn't make out most of what they were saying, they were both talking about him and his crotchets in a familiar manner. The women commented occasionally but didn't seem to be contributing stories of their own about his sleeping habits, diaper usage, how often he ate, or the like.  Gradually it dawned on me that while they were two couples, they weren't heterosexual couples: rather, they were a gay male and a gay female couple, and the baby was the son (adopted, I presume) of the two men.  When they finished their meal and got up to leave, the baby stayed with the men; the women didn't even hold him for a moment.  The men carried him out to their car, strapped him into his car seat, and drove away.  The women went off to their own car.

This wasn't the first time I've seen gay parents in the field, so to speak, but it's still a relative novelty in Bloomington.  It inspired a complex mix of feelings, but I think foremost in my mind was protectiveness.

I think one reason I've been so inactive lately is that I've been trying to decide whether or not to write about the fuss over the Duck Dynasty "patriarch" Phil Robertson.  I imagine most of my American readers know the background by now, but I do get some traffic from overseas, and it's possible that those readers might not have heard.  The controversy was summed ably by the blogger Ampersand at Alas, a Blog:
Phil Robertson, a long-bearded dude from a hugely successful A&E reality show makes racist and homophobic comments during a GQ interview, leading to objections from various lefties and lefty organizations, which A&E responded to by “suspending” Robertson (although the suspension may be “just for show“), which led to various right-wingers objecting to left-wing totalitarianism and blah blah blah you get the gist of it.
Ampersand went on to sum up the issues involved quite well, saying most of what I thought about the "kerfluffle" (the word I'd have used for it), so I'll just refer interested readers to that post.  Or to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote two excellent posts focusing mostly on Robertson's warped perspective on American race history, without slighting what he had to say about homos.  And, as Americans who pay attention to things also probably know, A&E lifted the suspension on Friday, which can hardly have surprised anyone.

I think the main reason I couldn't bring myself to write about all this was that I was horribly depressed by the Floodgates of Stupid opening once again.  On most sides.  Rod Dreher began grinding out warnings that Christians were being persecuted by Teh Gey, just as he had so often predicted; I stopped reading after the first two or three.  I would not have minded so much the gibbering of the Christian Right, complaining that Robertson was being persecuted just for bearing witness to the teachings of the Bible.  I had some fun pointing out that Robertson and his supporters are clearly Cafeteria Christians who ignore Biblical teachings that don't interest them, such as the apostle Paul's declaration that long hair on a man is shameful.  The Robertson men are walking, talking, embodiments of shame, going against nature according to Paul, who spoke with divine authority.  The conservative Christians I mentioned this to ignored it, thus showing how devoted they are to Scripture.  No surprise there.

The responses of most liberals, gay and straight, were just as dispiriting.  Many of them spoke piously of the sanctity of contract: Robertson had entered into a solemn binding agreement with A&E, and he'd broken it by saying things they didn't like, so he had no right to complain.  Such people didn't have much to say when I asked them if this meant that they were okay with employers controlling every aspect of employees' lives?  The First Amendment protects citizens' free speech from government interference, however inadequately, but big corporations are at least as big a threat to civil liberties as big government.  Did these people think it was okay for MSNBC to fire Phil Donohue for being too skeptical of the Bush Administration's rush to war in Iraq?  I mean, he was an employee too.  Again, there wasn't much response to this question.  As usual, the reaction was mainly partisan: only people on Our Side, whichever side that happened to be, have the right to say controversial or offensive things.

My Right-Wing Acquaintance Number One did not disappoint: he was furiously indignant about Robertson's suspension.  Like numerous rightwingers, he thought that Robertson shouldn't be penalized (or, apparently, even criticized) for saying what many sincere people believe about homosexuality, and after all, that's what the church teaches.  Another of his Facebook friends asked him what he thought about Robertson's comments about contented darkies in old Looziana, and he admitted he hadn't read that far.  After checking, he answered sullenly that not many churches support racism anymore, which was a charming non sequitur.  True, even Bob Jones University has fallen from its former fierce Bible-based defense of racial separation, but a good many American whites still subscribe to the belief that Jim Crow wasn't that bad, that Southern whites viewed their black servants as family, and that now that Those People have their rights, racism just isn't a problem anymore.  Robertson was surely talking for about as many people in his remarks on race as he was in his hysterical condemnation of buttsex.  I didn't think to ask how many churches have to teach a particular doctrine before it becomes exempt from public criticism; I wish I had.  RWA1 went on to link to a post in defense of Robertson's bigotry by Camille Paglia, whom he called a "righteous broad", and he claimed that the attack on Robertson's statements was motivated by an outbreak of class hatred.  This from a man who declares that American culture is going down the toilet because of commercial culture, which would surely include Duck Dynasty's white trash aesthetic!  It's also instructive to compare RWA1's reaction to Robertson to his condemnation of the Westboro Baptist Church; as I've pointed out before, WBC mainly functions as an extreme, compared to which other bigots can declare themselves moderate.  And though RWA1 defended the right-wing doctor Ben Carson, who said similarly stupid and bigoted things about homosexuality, he was silent when the liberal actor Alec Baldwin got into trouble for using homophobic epithets.  As I said, partisanship is obviously the deciding factor.

All this confirms my general sense of the inadequacy of American political / cultural discourse, which is nothing new but is still depressing when my nose gets rubbed in it.  (I reached a similar point a little over a year ago, during the 2012 election campaign, for the same reason.)  I don't think this is anything new, as I've said before, but I still believe that it can and must change.  I kept thinking I should write about it, but it seemed like too big a subject, and yet for just that reason I couldn't seem to motivate myself to write about anything else.  For one thing, I often have the feeling that I'm repeating myself, taking on the same cluster of topics over and over again, just because they become prominent, over and over again, in what passes for the national conversation.  Or maybe just the parts of the national conversation that I see.  I haven't started yet another post on The Modern Concept Of Sexual Orientation and Gender Binary for the same reason: I've written plenty about it before, and don't really have anything new to add.

But seeing those two dads and their son in the restaurant made me think of something else, which makes me think I should call this post "Why We Fight."  In the last analysis I'm not all that offended by Robertson's remarks about queers; they're predictable and tired, and they don't, by themselves, do me any harm.  And I've often griped about liberals' overwrought reaction to offensive speech -- Oh, how can you say such awful things!? -- which I see as self-stroking, self-displaying, self-righteous outrage not very different from that of the bigots.  It certainly does nothing to foster dialogue or debate with those who differ from us; but as I've also observed, most people anywhere on the political spectrum aren't really interested in debate or dialogue.  It can't be because they've tried it and they're tired of it: those I observe have never engaged in dialogue or debate that I know of.  I've done it much more than most people, for all the good it does.

What has concerned me since the 1960s, when I first began delving into these issues -- the Civil Rights and antiwar movements at first, then the gay movement and feminism -- is that other people should not be hurt.  I don't want to be hurt either, but I've suffered relatively little.  And once I could speak up, it seemed important to do so, so that other people could be emboldened and feel less alone.  Just standing together isn't enough -- I think of Stephen Vizinczey's remark about the anti-Semite who "wouldn’t look for a Jew to fight, only for a Jew to mob" (The Rules of Chaos [McCall, 1970], 208).  Alas, most liberals aren't looking for fundamentalists or bigots to fight, only for one they can mob.  Even in a controlled, structured situation, they can't carry on a discussion.  This doesn't distinguish them from their right-wing counterparts, of course; that's the trouble.  Both groups can throw up prefabricated, predigested opinions on their Facebook timelines, but if they're challenged about the content or the ideas they can only retreat to abuse and self-pity.

And yet I can't withdraw from the struggle.  There are plenty of people who would feel fully justified in taking that little boy away from his fathers.  Such things have happened before.  They will happen again.  I don't know where Phil Robertson would stand on an issue like that.  Instead of throwing hissyfits about how awful he is, someone should ask him, in public.  If he wants to be grossed out by the idea of two men having sex, that's his right, but I want to know what he proposes to advocate about public policy.  The same goes for opponents of same-sex marriage when they pretend that they don't object to gay couples, they just want to reserve the sacrament of marriage for one man and one woman.  The same thing goes for someone like Pope Francis, who talks a nice non-judgmental line about gays, but I want to know what that means in practice.  Would a male or female couple with a child be welcome in his Church, or its facilities?  I don't think this is that hard; finding out that it apparently is too difficult for the reality-based to handle is what depresses me.

Vagabond Scholar's Best of 2013

On Friday the blogger Batocchio posted his annual Jon Swift Memorial Roundup for 2013, carrying on the good work of the late Al Weisel, alias Jon Swift.  Bloggers choose their own favorite post of the year, and Batocchio posts them.  I'm in there, of course, but so are a good many other writers you might not have heard of.  Take a look and see what you think.

I'll be putting together my own retrospective of this year at This Is So Gay, which I'll post in a few days.  Meanwhile, Happy New Year to everyone!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

I'd better write this before the day gets away from me altogether.  The blogger Batocchio is collecting his annual list of bloggers' best posts of the year, following the late Jon Swift's tradition.  I'm looking through what I wrote this year to see what I might send him, and it occurred to me that I'd be interested to know if my readers have an opinion.  Do any of my posts from 2013 stand out for you?  If so, I'd be delighted to hear what you think.

I was going to enable comments for this one post, to make it easier for people to weigh in, but that option seems to have disappeared from my setup on Blogger; so I'm afraid e-mail is the only way to let me know.  But I'd be glad to hear from anyone who has a suggestion.  Happy holidays to all.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

From Our "No One Could Have Foreseen This Outcome" Department

On Friday, Whatever It Is, I'm Against It did an admirable job once again of dissecting a Presidential press conference.  He doesn't get very far, being brought up short by this gem which shows the Great Collaborator's brilliance, prescience, and gritty, Chicago-style political street-smarts:
On debt ceiling chicken games: "But I’ve got to assume folks aren’t crazy enough to start that thing all over again."
Well, you know what happens when you assume.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Thought for the Day



Sorry I've been inactive lately.  I've been reading a lot, which is good, and doing things -- such as joining some friends to sing Christmas carols at local nursing homes on Saturday.  That was an interesting experience: the irony of an atheist singing Christian music wasn't lost on me, but I was also struck by how some popular carols ("We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "Deck the Halls") are really drinking songs.  And the nineteenth-century lyrics of some of the overtly Christian songs were weird, like

Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity ...


I hadn't really listened to the words before, since as with "The Star Spangled Banner" most people only sing or pay attention to the first verse.  It was a day well spent in many respects.

There have been a lot of things going on that I wanted to write about, without having time to write about them: more conservative Christians casting themselves as victims of gay marriage repression (plus polygamy) for example, but also some weird reactionary writing about schooling: is learning cursive writing a fundamental right?  Should the college essay be abolished?  The wack factor is strong with these young ones.

I'll try to get to some of these presently.  For now, I wanted to mention a small epiphany I had this morning, listening to Democracy Now before I went to work.  I've always been bothered by the Bush gang's use of "homeland" as patriotic, warmongering propaganda, but couldn't quite put my finger on what it made me think of.  Today the word "homeland" recurred in a DN report on Nelson Mandela's funeral.  For example, in this interview with Amy Goodman's brother David:
Qunu was also in the heart of a former apartheid Bantustan, or homeland, called the Transkei, which when I was in South Africa at the height of apartheid in the ’80s was—had actually been declared an independent country by South Africa, populated only by black South Africans. It was a way of dispossessing blacks of citizenship in their home country. And it had all the trappings of a country. I had to pass through border posts, had my passport stamped, and there was a Transkei defense force. And it—this so-called independent homeland, which no one recognized except South Africa, actually existed until Mandela became president in 1994.
That was why I had such negative associations with the word, so that when the Department of Homeland Security slouched into the light I reflexively reacted against it: it was Newspeak from another repressive regime.  There were plenty of other reasons to dislike the term, but I think the South African connection was a strong one for me.


Friday, December 13, 2013

Dynamic Tension Turns an Eighty Pound Weakling into a Stasist King of the Beach

I decided not to read any more of Virginia Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress (The Free Press, 1998).  Maybe I'll be missing something really great, but unless she changed her approach after the first eighty pages, I doubt it.  Here are a few more bits that show why I can't take her too seriously.
Work life itself is different from a generation ago – freer and more fluid, with greater risk and greater reward – and the general public is much more aware of the textures of how markets actually work [35].
I can't help wondering whose "work life" Postrel meant here.  For most people, as far up the scale as middle management, work is "freer and more fluid" only in terms of greater job insecurity.   Today's business ideal is, as Noam Chomsky has often put it, that you should never be able to assume that just because you had a job today, you'll have a job tomorrow.  At the same time, the degree of control exercised by employers has increased steadily over the past few decades: drug testing, psychological testing, background checks, and computerized surveillance of workers' "productivity", right down to counting the number of keystrokes one types in.  Lately I've helped some friends apply online for entry-level, menial kitchen jobs, and I've noticed that even if you're going to wash pots and pans in the back of a chain restaurant, you're expected to answer a long (100 questions or so) personality assay.  I suspect that Postrel is thinking only of a select group of workers, the kind often called "the creative class," but even if so, she's tripping.  And things have only gotten worse since The Future and Its Enemies was published.  Next slide:
Rather than try to address worst-case scenarios with technocratic schemes that will create legacies of their own, he [Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation] urges an evolutionary, common law approach.  “Almost always,” he says, “the time-tested laws and legal principles we already have in place are more than adequate to address the new medium” [46]
As I pointed out in my previous post on Postrel, she seems pretty sloppy in classifying ideas and behavior.  Hanging onto "time-tested laws and legal principles" sounds stasist by her criteria, but she seems to take Godwin's remark as an example of dynamism.
Consider the infamous Denver International Airport, (DIA).  Aviation officials touted the $4.6 billion project as essential to keep up with the region’s growth.  They promised it would be a vast improvement over the old Stapleton Airport, which was often locked in by bad weather.  But its sponsors foisted DIA on unwilling customers.  The airport is twenty-five miles outside Denver, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, while Stapleton was just fifteen minutes from downtown.  To make matters worse, there are no hotels neaer DIA.  And the new airport’s cost per passenger is somewhere between $11.75 and $11.84, depending on how you count – substantially more than either the $4.59 at Stapleton or the $9.91 promised by former mayor Federico Peña.  Frequent travelers resent the inconvenience and the generally higher ticket prices.  “I liked Stapleton better,” one told The Denver Post.  “You would literally leave about 45 minutes before your plane departed.  With DIA, you have to leave an hour and a half before. “  A flight attendant expressed a common sentiment: “It’s a beautiful airport.  But we hate it” [76].
These people are obviously statists, technophobes, and Luddites.  When people resist the installation of a Walmart in their area, Postrel accuses them of stasism.  Maybe the objections to DIA are okay because they're after the fact and ineffective?  Change is good, says Postrel, except when it isn't.  But I can't tell how she decides which is which.  I doubt she can either.

An airport, to say nothing of the airlines it serves, can hardly be a dynamist enterprise.  It requires centralized, long-term planning.  There's no way it could be dynamist, but then the older Stapleton airport is no different in that regard.  I wonder what folks around Denver thought about it when it was built?  Leaving for the airport forty-five minutes before your flight departs could well have seemed too much then.  (Since the 9/11 attacks, which took place after this book was published, increased "security" measures have made it necessary to arrive early anyhow.)

Finally, Postrel quotes with approval the right-wing writer (later to be a Bush II flunky) David Frum:
Why be thrifty any longer when your old age and health care are provided for, no matter how profligately you act in your youth?  Why be prudent when the state insures your bank deposits, replaces your flooded-out house, buys all the wheat you can grow, and rescues you when you stay into a foreign battle zone? [77]
I read Frum's Dead Right, from which this quotation comes, and I don't remember its being this delusional.  When there was no social safety net to speak of, most people didn't manage to provide for themselves very well -- that's why Social Security and other such programs were instituted.  One reason why personal thrift is not a reliable means to a comfortable old age is that it relies on institutions, and those institutions turned out to be unreliable.  In the Great Depression people who had saved lost their money when banks failed.  That's why bank deposits were insured, to protect people against irresponsible bankers.  Banks aren't supposed to be dynamist institutions.  When regulations were loosened at the close of the 20th century, people who had thriftily and prudently put their money into investments against their retirement lost money again, which is why privatizing Social Security is a bad idea.  Whom do you trust more, Wall Street or the Federal Government?  Like most small-government rightists, I would expect both Frum and Postrel to be the first to yammer for government disaster relief if their houses were flooded.  Insecurity is for other people, not for them.

This example shows how lopsided Postrel's stasist vs. dynamist categories are, and it's why I decided to quit reading her.  You can't have dynamism without some stable institutions, and a government is the best bet (though not a perfect one, especially when it is taken over by business types) over the long haul.  Thrift and prudence means that you expect some stability in an unstable world, or why bother to save and invest?  Of course it's possible for control and stability to go too far, just as dynamism can go too far; but neither one can be rejected altogether.  Postrel writes as though she really thinks that stasis should be abandoned altogether, and that's ridiculous.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Give Me Medieval Christianity -- But Not Yet

Rod Dreher continues to amuse me.  Apparently he longs for the serious Christianity of the distant past, but as St. Augustine prayed for chastity, not just yet.

Today he has a long post about Christian community, focused on the Rule of Saint Benedict, of whose founder he says:
Around the year 500, a generation after barbarians deposed the last Roman emperor, a young Umbrian man known to history only as Benedict was sent to Rome by his wealthy parents to complete his education. Disgusted by the city’s decadence, Benedict fled to the forest to pray as a hermit.
Dreher goes on to describe a couple of American Benedictine communities, representative of a "New Monasticism, which typically involves single adults—and sometimes families—living in an intentional community, usually among the urban poor. Yet most people, especially those with spouses and children, will not be able to live so radically. Are there any models for them to follow?"  This is odd, since after all radicalism is precisely what Dreher is recommending, against the spiritual emptiness of modern life.  (But then, it appears that the code word in that quotation was "urban."  It's all very well to live in the city, but then you'll be living too close to non-whites.  Better to move to Alaska.)  The models he depicts would hardly seem less radical to most people than the New Monasticism, for example:
Now in its second decade, Clear Creek is home to more than 40 white-robed monks and to a growing community of laymen like the Pudewas, who—inspired by the writings of Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and Wendell Berry—moved to the countryside to be near the monastery and embrace a more agrarian lifestyle. The lay Catholic community centered on the abbey now has about 100 people in it.
Though the Benedict Option is about creating a community of shared values, the Clear Creekers are not separatists. These Catholics get along well with their Baptist neighbors. What’s more, says Pudewa, the community’s lack of formal structure is a secret to its success.

“Everybody’s on their own,” he says. “If you find property around here, that’s great, but nobody’s organizing this for you. If you love the monks and want to go to mass every day, you can, but if not, nobody’s critical. There’s very much a live-and-let-live attitude around here” ...

Clear Creek’s mothers and fathers bring up their children largely disconnected from mainstream American popular culture. Yet, though homeschooled, the community’s children are not being raised in, well, a monastery. They go to Tulsa for swing dancing twice a week, for example.
 "Nobody's critical"!  "A live-and-let-live attitude"!  That's the wishy-washy "feel-good relativism that sociologists have called 'moralistic therapeutic deism,' which is dissolving historic Christian moral and theological orthodoxy", which Dreher has made clear he doesn't approve.  (But what's the "moralistic" doing in there?  Is Dreher tendentiously distorting the sociologists' classification?  I wouldn't be surprised.  While the Culture of Therapy may not suit a sexist, antigay bigot like Dreher, it is certainly moralistic even when it pretends not to judge.  Rather like the official non-judgmentalism of Christianity)

And "swing dancing"!  "Twice a week"!  I can imagine what St. Benedict would have had to say about that.  I presume that this "swing dancing," probably to the pulsating jungle beat of jass music, involves mixed couples, and is not far from copulation in an upright position.  It's ironic how the shameless animalistic cavorting of a previous generation -- like the waltz, say -- can become the wholesome, respectable entertainment of a later one. 

It's an intriguing article all the same.  I confess to an attraction to "intentional communities" (i.e., communes) myself.  I've often thought that a secular, non-theistic community of that kind, devoted to reflection, study, and self-sustaining work, has some appeal, at least in principle, and single-sex monastic communities, like ex-gay ministries, are historically a great place to meet guys.  Obviously they're not for everyone, and probably not really for me.  My own life is congruent in important ways with the ideal enunciated by one of Dreher's sources: “How to live life as a whole. Not a life of worldly success so much as one of human success.”  You don't have to be a Christian, or a religious believer, or a monastic, to agree with that emphasis.

What I find interesting is Dreher's approach-avoidance attitude to this kind of life.  He's attracted by its radicalism, but endorses and justifies its compromises with the World.   I think it's fair to ask: At what point does that kind of compromise run afoul of the Exalted Lord's stricture: "Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth"?  Whatever that point may be, I think Dreher has crossed it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

From Our "You Keep Using This Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means" Dept.

Samuel R. Delany linked to this post on racial "microaggressions" today.  Despite the disclaimer (echoed by comments under Delany's link) that the "project is NOT about showing how ignorant people can be in order to simply dismiss their ignorance," that's pretty much what it is about.  It doesn't help that, as the word has moved from academia to a wider userbase, people don't know what it is supposed to mean.

The weirdest evidence for that was a comment under Delany's link, by another writer of some repute.  She lives in a poor Central American country, and she listed some things people say to her there that bother her.
The other thing is getting asked how much things I have cost (including my dog and her cocker clip when she's been recently groomed) -- and either I answer or I "forget." This somewhat bothers me, but it's not the micro-aggression that spitting near my feet is (one guy appears to really have it in for Gringos).
I pointed out that spitting near someone's feet is not "micro-aggression," it's aggression full stop.  The writer replied, "Having had rocks thrown at me when I was a child for being too smart for a girl who wasn't a college professor's daughter, I'm okay with one guy in town who doesn't like gringas."  Which is fine -- I'd feel the same in her situation, and I've encountered some hostility as an American when I was in Korea -- but it doesn't change the fact that spitting at someone, let alone throwing rocks at them, is not microaggression.

This is to me the most disturbing distortion of the term I saw at The Microaggression Project tumblr: what many people reported as microaggressions were really overt and explicit expressions of bigotry.  (That's true in the "21 Racial Microaggresions" post too: see number 10, among others.)  I think this inadvertently supports the assumption many bigots make, that if you don't run someone over with your car, it's not bigotry.  And as this linguistic inflation proceeds, I predict that even overt violence against people will eventually be referred to as microaggression.  And then racists will start whining that the idea of being some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth microaggressor never crossed their minds -- being called a microaggressor is one of the worst things you can be called in public life.

Insisting on this is not hairsplitting.  The images in the "21 Racial Microaggressions" post include a fair amount of fine language chopping.  "Being biracial doesn't make me a 'what'," for example.  People love creating distinctions and multiplying categories, but they have trouble keeping them consistent after they've created them.

I noticed too that some of the microaggressions in that post are as likely to come from other people of color as from whites, like "You don't act like a normal black person ya' know?" and "You don't speak Spanish?"  Mina Shum's great Canadian indie film Double Happiness shows these pressures at work on a young Chinese-Canadian woman.  I've encountered plenty of such stereotyping from other gay men in my day. ("I mean, you're supposed to like Barbra Streisand if you're gay, aren't you?")  Delany himself remarked on the post, "The one I've been getting for seventy-one, going on seventy-two years of my life is: 'You're black? So then what were your parents . . .?' The answer, by the bye, is black. Yes, both of them. And so were all four of their parents."  In his memoirs Delany recounts an affair he had with a black African man who refused to believe that he -- Delany -- was really black; I doubt that guy was the only such person of color in Delany's life.

Another commenter on Delany's link made a very good point:
Is there a way we can think about trying to place one another ancestry and culture-wise less as "aggression" and more as just a way to establish certain kinds of relatedness with one another - a topography of sorts? We're not, after all, just all cosmopolitan liberal subjects unmoored from all context. The way we visually present to one another can't just be brushed under a rug. For example, as a Brit from an Italian family I'll have more in common with someone raised in a catholic culture (even though I was raised anti-catholic.) Surely it's how we go about placing each other than whether we do it. Because whether we speak it or not, we actually do it all the time.
I think this person may have missed something, though: while I agree that trying to place people is a way to establish certain kinds of relatedness, the kinds of behavior collected under "microaggresion" go beyond that, often putting people into a double bind.  Children of immigrants or of interracial couples can't help the fact that they don't fit into a normal "topography" of race or culture: expecting them to do so is not just trying to map them but, yes, a form of aggression.

It occurs to me that microaggression is one of the tools normally used to socialize people, majorities as well as minorities.  We may not be beaten or screamed at to get us to conform to gender and other cultural expectations, for example, but a bit of mockery or shaming can be just as effective.  And there's no way to raise children without socializing them, without pressuring them to behave and speak and think in certain ways.

I don't mean to deny the negative effects of microaggression on its targets, but if we're going to combat this kind of behavior we have to be able to name it correctly, and distinguish it from other forms of social control.  When I talked to a teacher friend of mine about these matters, he said that microaggression is supposed to be mentioned in education classes to alert teachers-in-training to their own attitudes and behavior, not to give them a club to bash their students with.  As I said earlier, the material in the "21 Racial Microaggressions" post does exactly what it's not supposed to do.  Judging by this material and people's comments, microaggression is already slipping into confusion and ultimate meaninglessness.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Longing for Community

Today at the library book sale I picked up a book called Confessions of the Critics, edited by H. Aram Veeser, published by Routledge in 1996.  Apparently it's a collection of writings by academic critics on the use of "autobiography" in academic criticism.  A number of people I like contributed, so I bought it.

I didn't even notice at first that Gerald Graff was one of the contributors.  I like Graff's work a lot, and I identify strongly with some of the things he wrote in "Self-Interview," like this:
Q. You became known as a polemicist in your early work, and now you're associated with the idea of "teaching the conflicts."  So would you say that combativeness is a deep personal motivation of your work?

A.  Partly but not entirely.  People think I must like conflict because I promote it as a pedagogical and curricular strategy.  In fact I dislike conflict as much as anybody.  In an odd way, my interest in conflict and polemics has always been tied to a longing for community.  I just don't think a democratic community can be sustained by papering over its divisions.  "Teaching the conflicts" for me is a way to get beyond the conflicts.  My assumption is that the more we avoid confronting conflicts the uglier they can only get [97].
Exactly: I could have written that myself.  I'd add that those who object to teaching the conflicts -- which is just another term for "critical thinking," which many people love to preach but not practice -- or who think I like to pick fights, love to see someone else get trashed.  It occurs to me that the difference is that I like to see debate, which ideally is a form of dialogue, while most people seem to prefer an unbalanced fight where a Good Guy (preferably from Our Side) beats a Bad Guy (from Their Side) into the ground.  This is something I ought perhaps to write about at more length someday, drawing on movies like Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, in which one character in an argument will deliver a line that in most movies would end the conversation -- but then the other character ripostes, putting the first character on the defensive, and they go back and forth for quite some time.  That's dialogue.

Later in "Self-Interview" Graff visits some of that same territory.
Q. Your call for community makes you sound at times like Jane Tompkins, who has been writing ... about the competitive individualism and lack of community in academic institutions.

A. Yes, and I share Tompkins' complaint up to a point.  But I'm not attracted to the kind of community Tompkins seems to want, which is emotional or physical rather than intellectual.  For Tompkins intellectuality -- argumentation, debate, analysis, reasoning -- seems to be inherently selfish, competitive, and antithetical to the emotions and the body, part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  For me the antidote to Damrosch's academic anticommunities lies in reconstruction rather than abandoning intellectual community, which need not and should not exclude emotion and the body.

Q. What about the view of some feminists that that model of aggressive argumentation is essentially male?

A.  It's interesting that those feminists don't hesitate to use aggressively "male" argumentation in asserting that view when it suits them.  Like Tompkins, such feminists (who do not speak for all feminists by any means) assume that community and intellectual argumentation are inherently incompatible.  As if to make the critiques of demagogues like Christina Hoff Sommers look respectable, this thinking produces touchy-feely classrooms in which students get in touch with their own "voices" instead of learning to analyze, criticize, or make an argument.  Teachers who practice this species of feminist pedagogy (which again must not be confused with feminist pedagogy as such) are in effect withholding from their students the cultural capital of argumentative discourse that they themselves command.

Q.  But haven't women's studies programs established alternative models of community to the isolation you attack?

A. They've made a start, to be sure.  But unless women's studies programs themselves are put into regular dialogue with other sectors of the university, they become another of Damrosch's anticommunities, closing themselves off from threatening outsiders.  It's unfair, however, to single out women's studies and other new "revisionist" fields for "separatism," since these new fields are merely copying the time-honored, respectable separatism of established academic departments, whose maxim has always been: consolidate your own turf and wall yourself off from anybody who might disagree with you.  In other words, my problem with the new politically oriented fields is not that they're acting like subversives but that they're acting like traditional academics [101-2].
He took the words right out of my mouth.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

True Christianity in Action!

What a week.  Numerous things I won't bother you with have conspired to keep me from posting since Tuesday, and the next week doesn't look much better.  Partly the problem is that there are too many things I meant to write about, and I couldn't choose one to start with.  But a couple of related matters intruded on my consciousness today and effectively chose for me.
A good friend posted this to Facebook today.  Predictable.  He's another one of the many otherwise sensible people who are slobbering all over the new Pope.  I could only sigh, since there's so much wrong here that I hardly know where to begin.

I suppose my first objection is to the assumption that concern for the poor and disadvantaged, opposition to exploitative capitalism, and commitment to individual kindness is somehow specifically Christian.  But Christianity got those teachings from Judaism, and in reality most religions and cultures have such teachings -- at least as ideals to be paid lip service.  Outside the Yahwist tradition, Buddhists were building free hospitals, offering free education and other such services under the Emperor Asoka in the third century BCE, when Jesus wasn't yet a gleam in his Father's eye.  Temples served similar functions in Greco-Roman paganism too, if I remember right.  As an atheist, it seems to me that the virtues Francis is preaching (and to some extent practicing, if you don't count excommunicating pro-gay, feminist priests), are human values, not specifically or uniquely Christian ones.  But that's okay; Mom taught me to share, and I'm happy to share human virtues with Christians.  They just don't get to claim ownership.

The comments under the source for this meme are predictably depressing, but maybe the most emblematic ones are from people who say things like "He's more like Jesus than any U.S. politician who claims to have his endorsement!" or "As an athiest I have to say I like his messeges, seems more christ like than anyone else i've heard" or "I can count on one hand the number of people who call themselves "Christians" who actually act Christ-like. Most of them have all the judgement and intolerance without any of the compassion." I can't think of any Christians who are really Christlike. Not one I know of can walk on water, feed 5000 people by multiplying loaves and fishes magically, still storms, drive out demons, heal the sick, or raise the dead. That includes Francis. True, there are some who threaten people with eternal hellfire for not believing the right things, as Jesus liked to do, but anybody can do that. Jesus explicitly promised that his true followers would be able to do the same miracles he did. So let's get with the program, Christians!

The same friend later posted a link to this post which reports that the Westboro Baptist Church has announced plans to fly to South Africa and picket Nelson Mandela's funeral.  My friend commented "This could be a suicide protest for them although Mandela himself wouldn't have wanted that. I honestly wish I felt worse about that possibility." Not only Mandela but that fine, exemplary Christian would probably disapprove, but it's so typical to see Christians invoking Christian virtues selectively. I was really disturbed by my friend's barely-veiled hope that the WBC people will be killed in South Africa.  I've seen that sort of thing before.  "Very Christian of you," I commented, to which my friend replied with remarks about "guilt" that made no sense to me.  I wouldn't shed a tear for them either (or for numerous other people whose lives my friend would care about more, I think), but I'm not a Christian.  Nor do I try to make myself look moderate (or morally courageous, standing out in the crowd) by yelling loudly about how awful Westboro is, as many Christians do.  Maybe that's the kind of "being Christian" Pope Francis wants to foster, though.

The post my friend linked to was even worse.  The writer piously hoped that the WBC cranks would meet their doom in South Africa.
I’m not saying that I want the members of Westboro Baptist Church to meet an ill fate in South Africa, I’m just saying it could happen. The simple fact is that the hate group is saying that they’ll venture into a country whose murder rate is the 15th highest in the entire world. And that once there, they intend to celebrate — away from the protection of American police — the death of the most beloved man in that country.
Oh yes, I'm completely convinced that this writer (who, by the bye, writes semi-anonymously, under his first name and an initial) doesn't "want" them to be killed.  The moral cowardice in those words is so typically, cravenly, despicably liberal.  To add to the fun, he begins his screed by saying:
In what has become par for the course with Westboro Baptist Church, they have jumped on the most emotionally tugging current event in an effort to get media attention.
And then he points that while the South African Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the guarantee
doesn’t extend to “incitement of imminent violence” or “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.” Well, turns out their hatred is based on their “religion.” Some may also think it’s about race, even though Westboro Baptist Church claims it’s not.  and if they do this in South Africa, there’s a good chance they’ll incite some awesome imminent violence.
("Awesome."  What a giant, pustulent, encrusted twit you'd have to be to write that.)  That being so, the South African government might well decide not to let the WBCers into the country in the first place. They're certainly not obligated to admit them.  And as the writer points out, Westboro has on numerous occasions announced its intent to picket this or that funeral, then quietly failed to show up.  Which takes me back to the writer's initial statement that "In what has become par for the course with Westboro Baptist Church, they have jumped on the most emotionally tugging current event in an effort to get media attention":  In what has become par for the course, liberal media have jumped at the opportunity to give Westboro Baptist Church all the free publicity they could wish for.  They don't even have to appear, for liberals and conservatives alike will whip themselves into self-righteous frenzy about these awful people.

The writer also complains that by not showing up, the Phelpses have deprived "counter-protesters the benefit of giving them the finger or blocking their view of the event."  (Personally, I think that liberals and progressives should hire the WBC to come to visit: it would gin up all kinds of publicity and fund-raising possibilities for local liberal causes.)  In most if not all cases, the Westboro pickets aren't near enough to see "the event."  The law in various US locales requires them to picket "on a public street 1,000 feet from the site of the funeral; they complied with the law and with instructions from the police, and they protested quietly and without violence."  But these fine, upstanding, truly Christian folk like to imagine the Phelpses standing at the gravesite, foaming at the mouth and spitting on the bereaved.  Sort of the way that more conservative Christians like to imagine homosexual orgies, or some respectable Romans liked to fantasize about primitive Christians' "love feasts," which involved blowing out the lamps, copulating promiscuously with one another, and eating a human infant.  There's nothing like prurient fantasy to show real Christianity in action.

Though I despise the WBC as well, I can't work up a whole lot of enthusiasm for giving them tons of publicity, which is what really encourages them to continue.  For that matter, I recall that when they began their career of infamy by picketing the funerals of people who'd died of AIDS, the straight media clucked disapprovingly, but the campaign to silence them altogether didn't gain any steam until they moved to less safe subjects, like fallen US military.  Then a lot of people got worked up into a lather -- but in the US, as opposed to South Africa or Canada or the UK, the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech still means something, even for the most loathsome, hateful people.  But what really dispirits me here is this complacent self-styled liberal Christian indulgence in murderous fantasy, though I guess if you pretend to be all about Love, you have to hate somebody as a safety-valve.  And come to think of it, when I consider Jesus' fondness for threatening people he disliked with endless torture in hellfire, this kind of murderous fantasy is pretty Christlike.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Liberal" Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

There's been an ongoing argument about the meaning of bigotry, focusing recently on some vile things said by the noted liberal actor (and bogeyman of the Right and of South Park) Alec Baldwin.  I've been following at Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog at The Atlantic, so I'll quote some of his quotations.  Baldwin wrote the following to a gay journalist who'd written something he disliked:
George Stark, you lying little bitch. I am gonna fuck you up … I want all of my followers and beyond to straighten out this fucking little bitch, George Stark. @MailOnline … My wife and I attend a funeral to pay our respects to an old friend, and some toxic Brit writes this fucking trash … If put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I’m sure you’d dig it too much … I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I’m gonna fuck….you….up.
And there's more, much more.  Just one more quotation, though it's more comical than bigoted.  When Baldwin's show on MSNBC was canceled, he responded thusly:
But you've got the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy—Rich Ferraro and Andrew Sullivan—they're out there, they've got you. Rich Ferraro, this is probably one of his greatest triumphs. They killed my show.
I had to look up Rich Ferraro, who turns out to be a biggie (Vice President of Communications) at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media-watch organization that real queer fundamentalists consider far too easy to get along with.  I do, of course, know who Andrew Sullivan is, and while I have to giggle at how he'd react to being called a "fundamentalist," he doesn't fit Baldwin's description either.  It appears, however that in the same statement, Baldwin admitted, "And I have to take some responsibility for that myself", which shows more self-awareness than I expected, but is probably just empty pro forma "balance."

Read the post I quoted these from if you need more persuading that, supporter of same-sex marriage though he be, Alec Baldwin is a bigoted misogynist homophobic scumbag.  I really can't see why there'd be any disagreement on the question.  But there is.  (By the way, for a pretty overwrought counterattack, try this piece, which rants about "witch hunts," "the militant lobby" and the like.)

Coates has been discussing one persistent defender of Baldwin, a writer named Wes Alwan.  Alwan is very scrupulous about applying the word "bigot" to Baldwin:
These condemnations are grounded in a number of highly implausible theses that amount to a very flimsy moral psychology. The first is the extremely inhumane idea that we ought to make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves: that what people do or say when they’re most angry or incited reveals a kind of essential truth about them. The second is that we are to condemn human beings merely for having certain impulses, regardless of their behaviors and beliefs. The third is that people’s darkest and most irrational thoughts and feelings trump their considered beliefs: Baldwin can’t possibly really believe in gay rights, according to Coates, if he has any negative feelings about homosexuality whatsoever. The fourth, implied premise here – one that comes out in the comical comments section following Coates’ post – is that we are to take no account whatsoever of the possibility of psychological conflict. We refuse to allow ourselves to imagine that a single human being might have a whole host of conflicted thoughts and feelings about homosexuality: that they might be both attracted to it and repelled by it....
 
It is just as ludicrous to condemn people for being afraid of or repulsed by homosexuality as it is to condemn them for having violent impulses.
I believe I've written before that I object to "homophobe" being used as a moral condemnation because of its pseudomedical history and definition: if homophobia is a disease or disorder, as it supposedly is, then its victims are not morally responsible for their condition, any more than a schizophrenic is.  They should, of course, seek treatment.  I do use "homophobe" loosely, to imply that a person has a gut-level aversion to gay people and to homosexuality, but I also stress that homophobia in this sense is not limited to heterosexuals but is very common among gay people.  (That's not a terribly radical notion, it's shared by many Culture of Therapy gay people and allies under the rubric of "internalized homophobia."  Of course all homophobia is "internalized."  I suppose the term is supposed to mean that the subject turns the homophobia inward, on him or herself, but the internalized homophobe seldom stops there.)  For this reason, when I'm in the mood for moral condemnation I prefer to speak of bigotry, but Alwan doesn't like that word either.

But it should be obvious how ludicrous Alwan's defense is.  Baldwin isn't being condemned for having antigay "impulses," but for overt behavior, repeated over a considerable period of time.  As for the "worst moments" defense, Baldwin has evidently had a lot of them.  If they were really bad moments when he wasn't in control of himself and don't reflect his better self, he could apologize, seriously and abjectly (by which I mean, not the usual obviously insincere "apologies" offered up by celebrities for PR purposes), and give his critics reason to believe that he's trying to change his behavior in the future.  Instead Baldwin continues to blame his critics.  That's not going to work.  I can't help thinking that Alwan wouldn't extend the same generosity of spirit to a right-winger accused of homophobia or bigotry or racism, but that's okay -- we have Michael Kinsley to do that.

Additionally, on Alwan's logic no one could ever be condemned for bigotry at all.  The more extreme and irrational a person's opinions, statements, and actions, in fact, the more we would have to invoke the same "dark" mechanisms that produce violent and bigoted "impulses."  Again, I wonder if Alwan is willing to extend the same compassion to illiberal right-wing bigots, or if he reserves it for liberals alone.

Coates wrote again on this topic today, addressing Alwan's latest entry, in which he reaches for a dictionary and argues that "bigot" just doesn't fit.  But as Coates shows, Alwan selects the meaning that suits him, and the word is wide enough to include Alec Baldwin.  Alwan wants "bigot" to mean someone who's "unpersuadable," though Baldwin's reaction to criticism indicates that he's exactly that.  Coates goes on to point out that just as Baldwin is complex, so were many notorious white racists such as Strom Thurmond.  Of course, there's a similar panicky overreaction to calling racists by the proper label.  Alwan complained, as Coates quotes him:
I worried, when I published a long post defending Alec Baldwin against charges of bigotry for calling someone a “cocksucking fag,” that I ran the risk of being seen as defending the indefensible. I knew that if the post got any attention, readers who are unfamiliar with my reputation as a (hardcore) liberal might interpret it as a particularly sophisticated piece of crypto-conservatism or closeted bigotry. And I also worried that friends who know me better might wonder how it is I could possibly make such a defense: my motives would be suspect. Indeed, the point of Coates’ marking a portion of my argument as “bizarre,” “terrible,” and “telling” is to signal – without openly calling me a bigot, a ploy that would be too embarrassingly obvious – the fact that my motives are in question: I’m a white guy defending another white guy, not someone making a principled argument (no matter how wrongheaded) about what I believe to be right. I am, possibly, a closeted bigot, dressing up my bigotry in a sophisticated argument; not, as I intend to be, a self-critiquing liberal who wishes to hold liberals – for the sake of consistency, intellectual honesty, and fairness – to their own liberal principles.
Alwan's tangled up in his own apologetics.  I think it's obvious enough that in defending Baldwin's behavior he is "defending the indefensible."  That doesn't make Alwan a bigot, of course; it makes him an apologist for bigotry.  ("Apologist" means "defender," in the older sense of "apology."  It didn't originally mean saying you're sorry, it means making a defense.  If you read Plato's Apology -- his version of Socrates' defense speech at his trial -- thinking that Socrates told the Athenians he was sorry for corrupting the youth and denying the gods, you're in for a surprise.)   Whether Alwan's "a closeted bigot" I don't know, and I'm not saying he is.  But I don't see that he's a "self-critiquing liberal" either, self-critique appears to be absent from his discourse, along with "consistency, intellectual honesty, and fairness."

I got into this with some other commenters under Coates's earlier post.  Some people were arguing that calling someone is a bigot is a "global" condemnation of the whole person, with the implication that he or she can't change and will always be Evil.  I've run into this claim in past debates, and it always baffles me, because as far as I can tell Baldwin's critics assume that Baldwin could change his behavior if he wanted to, but he clearly doesn't want to.  He didn't claim that his behavior was a "worst moment," he denied that he behaved badly at all.  In that case I see no reason not to call him a bigot, even on Alwan's assumptions.

Another commenter claimed that you only call a person a bigot if you intend to cut off all contact with them.  I don't have any contact with Baldwin in the first place, and I'm not a fan of his work either.  But if I did, I would certainly cut him off and have no contact with him.  On the other hand, I know quite a few bigots, in real life and online, and I don't always cut off all contact with them -- on the contrary, I keep criticizing their attitudes, opinions, and behavior.  My judgment of them as a bigot doesn't assume that they can't change; I assume that they can change their behavior if not their attitudes, and I let them know that if they want to be around me in the future, they had better moderate their rhetoric in my company or I'll give them a hard time for it.  What surprises me, somewhat, is that these fine liberals apparently see criticism and shunning as nuclear options, extreme measures that they would never consider using themselves.  If this is true, and I don't entirely believe them, then I would say it doesn't speak well for them.

In the real world, I have spent (wasted?) a great deal of time patiently debating with bigots of various stripes, explaining to them why I think they're wrong, trying to answer their reasoning and self-justifications.  I don't cut people off impulsively, without a good amount of information about them, though I admit that as I get older and more experienced and can spot a bigot on the horizon, I'm less apt to let such people get near me in the first place.  And some behaviors, such as calling someone a cocksucking fag, set off enough alarms in themselves that I see no reason to withhold judgment on them for very long.  If someone wants to be regarded as a good person, he or she had better refrain from such behavior in the presence of strangers.  And no, being a supporter of gay rights (or civil rights), or having lots of gay (or black) friends doesn't give you a pass on using slurs.

Of course, bigots of various stripes have encouraged this kind of wishy-washyness, by wailing that "The accusation of racism is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life", or that "The word racist is truly hurtful. It’s not who I am. It’s not who I ever was. It’s just not fair. It’s just not right."  There is legitimate debate over just what racism and other types of bigotry are and how they work, but that's not what is going on here.  Rather the aim appears to be to define bigotry as something so monstrous that almost no one can fit the definition.  But the real mystery to me is why liberals are colluding in that endeavor.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Clash of the Titans of Eleven-Dimensional Chess

Just a quick note for now.  James Fallows has a new post up at The Atlantic about China's foreign policy.  Specifically he's interested in whether the Chinese leadership is fiendishly clever or embarrassingly clumsy (and yes, he draws the obvious connection to the same question about Barack Obama):
Some people think that any step it makes reflects the far-sighted shrewdness of Chinese strategists from Sun Tzu (at right) onward. For whatever reason, such an outlook is particularly popular among Australian analysts. Eg this about the ADIZ and this more generally, though here is one from an American.

Others note that foreign policy is usually the lowest-priority item on the Chinese leadership's (collective) mind. What really matters in Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party's command center, is domestic security, stability, and growth, with anything beyond that as an afterthought. By this logic, China's foreign-policy and defense moves, far from fitting into a decades-long master plan, often seem ad-hoc at best and self-defeating at worst.
"I'm in the second camp," Fallows says, and proceeds to explain why.  I want to read the whole article later (and also Fallows's take on whether Obama is a chessmaster or a klutz), but this bit caught my eye, referring to the Chinese leaders: "They're bad at predicting foreign reaction (as a result of only being able to read slanted news)."

This is probably true, but I think it applies no less to Obama and other American presidents.  Whether it applies to other world leaders I don't know, but I would expect so.  Remember, for example, when Obama believed that the Supreme Court had struck down the Affordable Care Act because his staff brought him the headlines from corporate media that didn't bother to read the opinion?  I'm not impressed by Obama's intellect to begin with, but it's apparent to me to me that the longer he's been in the Oval Office, the dumber he has become, because the only media he listens to are apparently the corporate ones, with their slanted perspective.  It would take a conscious, deliberate decision to make sure that his staff brought him news and opinions from a wider range of sources, and I see no reason to believe Obama ever made that decision.  Despite their obsession with poll numbers, elite American politicians are generally quite clueless about what their own people are thinking, let alone the rest of the world.  And that's why the world gets into such trouble -- because its elites shut themselves off from information they badly need, and mainline distortions from media that only know the perspective of the investor class.

This story (from Stephen Vizinczey's The Rules of Chaos [McCall, 1970, 47]) may be a little too neat, but it's the right place to tell it.
These hypothetical suggestions (and the whole genesis of my argument about power) originated in my instructive experience of growing up in a police state, the chaotic world of a most tightly oppressed small country, communist Hungary, ruled until 1956 by the dictator Rakosi -- a multilingual and well-educated Batista.  He had enormous power -- including the power (which he exercised) to murder most of the leading figures of his own party, his ministers, the president of the republic and anyone else he happened to think of.  But apart from the killing, he had less to do with what went on in the country than the most ineffectual democratic leader.  He prevented people from electing the government, but this did not allow him to govern them.

For instance, stealing became a matter of honor.  In 1951 Rakosi went to open a big factory in the new town of Stalinvaros, only to find on arrival that there was nothing in the place, only empty walls -- every machine, every screw, even the doorknobs and windowpanes were missing.  As the progress reports went on multiplying while the new factory was in fact diminishing, no one in the chain of command dared to pass a true word upward (a lot of people on the site managed to get themselves transferred the previous year), and so Rakosi did not learn what had happened until he actually went inside the building.  You couldn't have less control than that.  In this instance the dictator himself must have recognized that terror served him ill, and there were no arrests of executions reported on account of the missing factory.
One of Vizinczey's maxims is that Power Weakens as It Grows, and I think its truth can be seen in most organizations.  The United States of America is not a dictatorship or police state (though we're rapidly moving in the direction of the latter), but the only way for a leader to be spared bad news by nervous underlings is to have people he can trust to bring it to him -- maybe specifically delegated to do so.  Even in the US, where someone who brings bad news to the Leader is unlikely to be shot or sent to an Arctic prison camp, there's great reluctance to harsh his buzz by telling him what he (or she) doesn't want to hear.

Another telling anecdote from The Rules of Chaos (page 48):
During the few victorious days of the 1956 [Hungarian] revolution, the most shocking discoveries in the files were not the straightforward political murders of communist officials or grumblers, but the private, personal scores which had been settled under the aegis of the fight for socialism ... A dictator cannot even control the direction of violence: through the unavoidable sharing of dictatorial power with its executors he unleashes anarchy in which the local police chiefs roam about freely as armed and capricious bandits in every town.
Like the story of Rakosi and the missing factory, the difference between a dictatorship and a free society is a matter of degree rather than kind.  People are remarkably good at convincing themselves that their personal dislikes and grudges (and vice versa) are matters of principle.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Flexibility for Me But Not for Thee

I'm not sure I'll finish Virginia Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress (The Free Press, 1998).  I'm not even sure now how I happened on it -- I know it was on Amazon, probably while I was looking for something else.  (There's another book with the same title but different politics.)  Postrel is a former editor of Reason magazine, and since then has written for The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, and other media.  She's evidently a Libertarian, and from what I've read in this book so far she's trying hard to extricate herself and her readers from the toils of conventional political categories.  But so far she's not trying hard enough.

Her organizing master categories are stasis and dynamism: one side wants everything to stay the same in society, the other is excited by change.  These categories are found everywhere on the political spectrum, making for strange bedfellows at times.  So, for example, she points out gleefully that the radical environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin and the falangist reactionary Pat Buchanan unexpectedly found themselves in agreement when they met on an episode of CNN's Crossfire program in 1995: "Rifkin answered Buchanan's opening question of 'this new global high-tech economy" as a cruel destroyer of jobs.  "You sound like a Pat Buchanan column,' replied his interrogator. 'I agree'" (2).

In retrospect, no informed person should have been surprised by this strange accord, but many are still surprised, and think it's a new development when Pope Francis attacks rapacious global capitalism, though his predecessors did so too.

Postrel continues:
Economic and cultural dynamism get similar treatment.  The [Weekly] Standard praises cultural critic Tom Frank, an anticommerce leftist, for promoting the idea that "both free speech and a free market did much to democratize values and attitudes that previous generations would have largely dismissed as pernicious or infantile."  Attacking management guru Tom Peters for emphasis on change, flexibility, and innovation, Frank himself waxes conservative.  He denounces markets for disrupting the social order: "Capitalism is no longer said [by management thinkers] to be a matter of enforcing order, but of destroying it.  This new commercial ethos, not a few movies and rap albums, is the root cause of the unease many Americans feel about the culture around them.  Former Clinton aide William Galston praises Republican Bill Bennett for his attacks on market-driven popular culture: "The invisible hand," says Galston, "no more reliably produces a sound cultural environment than it does a sound natural environment."

What all these left-right alliances have in common is a sense of anguish over an open-ended future: a future that no  Galston, Bennett, Frank, or Buchanan can control or predict, a future too diverse for critics to comprehend.  Their anguish is not always coherent, nor is it expected to be.  If stasist criticisms are impossibly vague, they seem all the more profound.  What matters is the general message: The world has gone terribly wrong, and someone needs to take control and make things right [4-5].
And again:
"The enemies of the market are ... not the socialists," wrote the economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his influential 1967 book, The New Industrial State. ... "With the rise of the modern corporation," wrote Galbraith, "the emergence of the organization required by modern technology and planning and the divorce of the owner of the capital from control of the enterprise, the entrepreneur no longer exists as an individual person in the mature industrial enterprise."

In the era of Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and Andy Grove, no one much believes this any more.  The efficient capital markets that Galbraith consigned to the crazed imagination of free-market ideologues are all too real and disruptive.  Contrary to his confident claims, technology generates change, not predictability, and corporations cherish flexibility, leanness, and just-in-time management.  The small and adaptable flourish [6-7].
It has been a while since I read The New Industrial State, but I think Postrel has misread Galbraith.  He was right to point out that, contrary to corporate and free-market propaganda, American industry did its best to evade market forces.  If the propaganda has changed, not much about the practice has.  It doesn't really matter, though, because she's wrong about everything else, largely because she has mistaken management gurus' fantasies and corporate propaganda for fact.  First, it's absurd to claim that "the small and adaptable flourish" when you're talking about Bill Gates and Ted Turner: they run behemoths, and that hasn't changed in the decade and a half since The Future and Its Enemies was published.  The "leanness" myth was disposed of by David M. Gordon in his Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial "Downsizing" (The Free Press, 1996), published a couple of years before Postrel's book.  Managerial fads come and go, but management abideth forever.

[P.S.  Later Postrel refers to "the apparent efficiency of Galbraithean big business" (20), which confirms my sense that she gets him wrong.  To repeat, Galbraith was describing the reality of big industry, against its "free-market" propaganda misrepresentations; and I don't think he had any illusions about its efficiency.  But maybe I should reread The New Industrial State ... sometime.]

Second, corporations were always creatures of the State, as a Libertarian like Postrel should know, and their CEOs have no interest in facing instability and change themselves: that's for lower management and peons.  When a big corporation fails, it demands (and usually gets) rescue by the government.  This is true whether the government at the time is nominally Republican (see Reagan's savings and loan bailout) or nominally Democrat (see Obama's support for Bush's Wall Street bailout and his own bailout of the auto industry).  CEOs aren't accountable when they drive their company into the ground -- they still get their salaries and bonuses; they downsize the lower echelons not to achieve efficiency or flexibility but to show their toughness.  Big corporations generally become big through government largesse, which undercuts Postrel's thesis on a couple of counts.  The immediate post-WWII period was hardly a time of stasis, but whatever dynamism there was came about as a result of joint government-corporate planning.  High-tech industry, as David F. Noble showed in Forces of Production, depends on government support to fund innovation, which tends to be expensive and inefficient, even wasteful.  Elsewhere in the world at around the same time, the Asian "economic miracles" were marvels of central planning and government-business symbiosis, and (yes) highly disruptive for most people.  What kind of balance obtained between the disruption and destruction is hard to measure, but it's not certain that most people benefited over the long run.  As a dynamist, Postrel assumes that they did, because it's self-evident that change and disruption are good for us.  Or at least, for those who matter.

In addition, Postrel's characterizations of critics of unfettered capitalism and technological change as "anticommerce," anti-trade, anti-market, anti-technology, and so on are familiar caricatures but inaccurate.  As with management magical thinking, she takes for granted that if a policy is called "free trade" it must really be about free trade, and "free markets" are really free markets.  But "free trade" agreements are meant to control trade (Obama, for example, wants to limit South Korean auto imports to the US while increasing commerce in the reverse direction), and to subsidize US business interests at the expense of workers.  When Steve Jobs attacked Obama for not being "business-friendly" enough, he wanted the US to be more like China, whose government subsidized the supply chains and other amenities that made his obscene profits possible.  None of these guys really wants to face the free market naked.  But only people like Jobs, Gates, and their ilk can demand government protection against the market's dangers.

So, while Postrel is right to point out that many differences of position don't map well onto "left" and "right", "conservative" and "liberal" categories, her own "stasis" and "dynamism" categories don't work either.  Maybe she'll improve as the book proceeds, if I decide to follow.

P.S.  I've read a little farther.  In chapter 2 she tries to explain more, but just digs herself in deeper.  I have to admit, though, that I'm in sympathy with her definition of "dynamism," which sounds like anarchism to me.  She quotes approvingly the economist Herbert Simon ("like Hayek, a heterodox Nobel Prize economist" (37):
We have become accustomed to the idea that a natural system like the human body or an ecosystem regulates itself.  To explain the regulation, we look for feedback loops rather than a central planning and directing body.  But somehow our intuitions about self-regulation without central direction do not carry over to the artificial systems of human society.  I retain vivid memories of the astonishment and disbelief always expressed by the architecture students to whom I taught urban land economics many years ago when I pointed to medieval cities as marvelously patterned systems that had mostly just "grown" in response to myriads of individual decisions.  To my students a pattern implied a planner in whose mind it had been conceived and by whose fiat it had been implemented.  The idea that a city could acquire its pattern as "naturally" as a snowflake was foreign to them.  They reacted to it as many Christian fundamentalists responded to Darwin: no design without a Designer! [37-8]
I'll have to take Simon's word on the "natural" growth of medieval cities, but it's also true that medieval and ancient societies included projects that were designed and carried out through central planning: cathedrals, for example, didn't just grow, nor did pyramids or aqueducts or the Roman road system.  Probably medieval cities were a mixture of central control and organic, unplanned growth.  I'd also point to the inconvenient fact that "natural" organic evolution often produces very faulty design.  And cancer is dynamic "growth" and "change," but that doesn't make it desirable.

Postrel's trouble is that she isn't consistent or accurate in her classifications.  She condemns "urban planning and endangered species laws to keep out Wal-Mart and block new housing" (22).  But Wal-Mart isn't organic dynamism, it's a centrally controlled entity, organized from the top down, which requires massive organized systems (not to mention big government subsidies for its supply chains, not to mention food stamps and other subsidies for its underpaid workers).  New housing is also generally centrally planned by people from far outside the community, financed by big banking systems, and it also demands public subsidies of water and sewer systems, electricity, and so on.  Blocking such enterprises isn't necessarily stasist, it can just as easily be dynamist small-scale spontaneous resistance against centralized technocrats.

Her accusation of "antitechnology" is also dubious.  Noble showed in Forces of Production that opposition to automation on the shop floor wasn't opposed to technology: machinists were not only fond of machinery, they figured out how to reprogram automated machine tools, reverse-engineering the program tapes when the programming went awry.  In that book and in his later Progress without People (Charles H. Kerr, 1993) he points out that General Electric experimented with a decentralized shop system:
In the late 1960s the management of GE’s Lynn, Massachusetts plant was having technical difficulties with newly installed numerical control lathes and blamed it on worker sabotage. In reality, the workers were trying to correct for problematic equipment by manual intervention but were hampered by management’s insistence that machines could run by the themselves, and that the workers were only “button-pushers” or “monkeys.” After considerable conflict, GE introduced a quality of work life program (prototype of those later introduced in the auto industry) which gave workers much more control over the machines and the production process and eliminated foremen. Before long, by all indicators, the program was succeeding – machine use, output and product quality went up; scrap rate, machine downtime, worker absenteeism and turnover went down, and conflict on the floor dropped off considerably. Yet, little more than a year into the program – following a union demand that it be extended throughout the shop and into other GE locations – top management abolished the program out of fear of losing control over the workforce. Clearly, the company was willing to sacrifice gains in technical and economic efficiency in order to regain and insure management control [65].
It was the workforce that was "dynamist" in this and other cases, and technocratic management that was "stasist."  But Postrel can't see any resistance to technocratic control as anything but stasist.

Again, Postrel reports how,
When Hurricane Andrew swept through Miami in 1992, residents spontaneously took to the streets to clear fallen trees and help neighbors.  Some directed traffic at intersections where the lights were out.  Floridians north of the stricken area loaded their cars with supplies and headed down to help ... Such efforts, unplanned and uncoordinated, proved vital in reaching out-of-the-way towns missed by the Red Cross and government workers.  Like ants following a scent without direction from the queen, charitably minded individuals found places that needed supplies and took care of them.  Decentralized solutions worked even as centralized disaster authorities, specifically the head of Dade County's Emergency Management Office, were throwing tantrums on national television [38].
This is inspiring, and Rebecca Solnit would approve.  Postrel's summary shows what's wrong with her account, though: "For posthurricane Miamians and their benefactors, [decentralized decision making] meant cleaning up, providing ice, food, and gasoline, and getting life back to normal" (39).  Gasoline and ice (in Florida, at least) are the products of highly organized, centralized planning and production, to say nothing of electricity, cars, and the roads on which those benefactors drove them.

The same goes for her objection to "mass-transit subsidies and car-pool mandates to fight the automobile" (22f): "the automobile" isn't some scrappy little mutt that evolved spontaneously.  It could become a vital feature of American life only after it became mass-produced through central planning, with highly organized supply chains, and government-subsidized road systems (the Interstate Highway System didn't just grow either), plus conscious and deliberate programs to disadvantage mass transit.  Postrel's tunnel vision keeps her from seeing a full three-dimensional picture of her pet products and projects, and ends up a caricature.  It appears to me that if she likes a phenomenon, it's dynamist; if she dislikes it, it's stasist.  The world of human enterprise doesn't fit into her categories any more than it fits the conventional left-right, liberal-conservative categories.

Postrel's analysis is, I'd say, of a piece with the Tea Party slogan "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."  She doesn't seem to grasp the intricate connection between central and localized decision-making: you can't really have one without the other.  She comes close to recognizing it when she declares that "The Net not only managed to become big and important before big and important before any would-be regulator noticed, it evolved both software rules and social norms without official direction.  Its origins as a Defense Department program are far less significant than its bottom-up growth and development" (38).  It's possible for a centrally planned system to leave room for "bottom-up growth and development," but you couldn't have the latter without the former. If I manage to get through more of the book, maybe she'll explain how she hopes to get rid of all the stasists and give us a purely dynamist world.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

We've Gone Too Far to Turn Back Now

I finished reading Deborah Meier's The Power of Their Ideas last night, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  This bit, for example:
In demonizing the Right, or the Left, we avoid seeing our overlapping fears and our overlapping hopes.  There are plenty of liberal-minded citizens who are uncomfortable with Central Park East's stress on open intellectual inquiry and would have us leave young minds free of uncertainties and openness until "later on" when they are "more prepared to face complexity."  First, some argue, "fill the vessel" with neutral information and easily remembered and uplifting stories.  But such compromises will neither satisfy the Right nor prepare our children's minds for "later" [81].
At various places in the book Meier describes the five "habits of mind" she and her colleagues developed for Central Park East Secondary School, always adding that they were constantly being revised and reformulated: "We never write them out the exact same way, and over the years we've realized they are constantly evolving in their meaning."  (That seems to me a good thing.)
They are: the question of evidence, or "How do we know what we know?"; the question of viewpoint, in all its multiplicity, or "Who's speaking?"; the search for connections and patterns, or "What causes what?"; supposition, or "How might things have been different?"; and finally, why any of it matters, or "Who cares?"

Lawyers tell us these "habits" are very lawyerly, but journalists and scientists tell us they are basic to what they do as well.  As a historian I recognize them as being at the heart of my field.  As a principal I find them useful when "naughty" kids are sent to my office.  I ask them to put their version of the story on one side and that of whoever sent them to me on the other, then we consider evidence that corroborates either version, discuss whether what's happened is part of a pattern, how else it might have been dealt with, and, finally, why it matters [50].
I really like this, though I question whether all five questions are basic to science, where viewpoint and "why any of it matters" are not on the menu.  I especially like Meier's recognition that many important questions are never resolved, but we still have to bumble along and act anyway.  I first encountered this insight in the psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp's Eschatological Laundry List, published in 1974 but already circulating before that and now frequently posted on the Web.  Items 33 and 34 are
33. All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.
34. Yet we are responsible for everything we do.
These basic facts should be remembered whenever anyone declares his or her knowledge overconfidently, whether that person is a scientist or a preacher, a politician or a CEO.  (The two categories aren't mutually exclusive, of course.)  For right now, I want to point out two typical responses to these basic facts.

One goes something like: "But if you have to wait until you have perfect information, you'll never be able to do anything!"  That's not true.  You still have to act, but anyone who claims to have sufficient data for important, major decisions is either lying to you or deceiving themselves.  It might be that having to acknowledge the limits of one's knowledge might prevent people from making some bad decisions with destructive consequences, either because they admit they don't know enough to be sure their course of action is the right one, or because others will work harder to keep the decision-maker from rushing ahead recklessly. (Going to war is one such bad decision with destructive consequences, but there are others.)  It might make the public more wary of the "But we've got to do something!" that's used to justify just about any bad course of action.  Anything which puts the brakes on such behavior is a good thing.  At the national and international levels especially, it should always be asked, "Do you have enough information to justify killing large numbers of people, or crashing the world economy?"

People have been making important decisions on the basis of insufficient data all along, which they will usually admit by trying to evade responsibility for the bad ones with another popular excuse, that Nobody could have foreseen that doing X would lead to Y!  This is generally a lie, because even a quick investigation will find that plenty of people predicted that X would lead to Y.  The trouble is that those successful prophets are the wrong people, motivated by "reflexive opposition" to our wise leaders and institutions.  (Oddly, reflexive obedience isn't regarded as discrediting.)  They were right, but for the wrong reasons.  Those seeking to excuse themselves will also protest that none of these fine critics bothered to barge into their offices and make them listen.  Of course institutions are set up to keep such people away.  This excuse is bipartisan; Democratic apologists use it as readily as Republicans.

Another popular, and related evasion is that there isn't time to think about every possibility!  Which is technically true, which is why important decisions have to be made without sufficient data.  But in the real world, the problem isn't a lack of time.  One reason for insisting that there's no time is that it enables people to push through bad courses of action that aren't really urgent, but calls for debate can be brushed aside as distractions by those who favor the enemy.  There wasn't really any rush for the US to invade Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria, or to strangle Iran; the only real danger was that more delay and more debate might make it more obvious that military action was a bad idea and, worse, that diplomacy might succeed.  (Our Presidents always pay lip service to diplomacy, but they really hate it, as a totally unexciting and inadequate substitute for killing people.)

Very often debate can continue while action is taken.  Action tends to reveal flaws in the plan as adopted, which can then be corrected if those involved haven't cut off the possibility of thought and modification.  In Central Park East, many issues are discussed by faculty, parents, and students on an ongoing basis.  Traditionalists would find this annoying, of course, since they regard the intractability of many problems as a good reason to throw out change and return to the good old ways.  If there are still problems after that, it's not the administration's fault; it's always the other guys.