Friday, August 30, 2013

Send in the Drones -- Don't Bother, They're Here

Where O where has the week gone?  I was going to write this post by Tuesday at the latest, and now it's Friday.  If only I were as good at other things as I am at procrastination.

Anyway, I begin with something I meant to include in Sunday's post about moderates.  I've been reading Stuart Biegel's book The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools (Minnesota, 2011), which included this information:
Dr. Karen Franklin’s groundbreaking research, for example, sampled the attitudes and experiences of approximately five hundred young adults in the late 1990s and identified four distinct motivations for anti-LGBT aggression: perceived self-defense, enforcement of gender norms, peer dynamics, and thrill seeking ...

This research goes a long way toward illuminating the complexity of anti-LGBT animus and identifying reasons why it persists in so many places. A key conclusion of the Franklin study is that anti-gay aggression – whether in the form of physical attacks, verbal assaults, failure to intervene when in a position of power, or even silent complicity – "can be seen primarily as an extreme manifestation of pervasive cultural norms rather than as a manifestation of individual hatred …. [P]eople who have assaulted homosexuals typically do not recognize themselves in the stereotyped image of the hate-filled extremist" [xviii; emphasis added]
(The article Biegel cites is excerpted here.)  On one hand, it's nice that someone did empirical research into the attitudes of queer-bashers.  On the other, I couldn't have asked for a clearer expression of the intellectual and moral dishonesty surrounding extremism and moderation that I've written about so often.

There are several problems here.  One is the word "stereotype."  Stereotyping is always a bad idea, of course.  But who's doing it?  It seems to me "the stereotyped image of the hate-filled extremist" is most often invoked by apologists for bigotry, like Michael Kinsley defending Ben Carson.  Sure, Kinsley protested, Carson engaged in some intemperate antigay rhetoric, but he's not a monster.  On the whole, I believe, this move attacks an imaginary opponent, which I might describe as the stereotype of the Politically Correct Extremist, who sees monsters every time some upstanding citizens beat a fag to death, or blow up a Birmingham church with four young girls inside, or protect sexually predatory clergy from accountability.  Sensible, moderate people know that the real monsters are those who call for the impeachment of presidents for starting illegal wars, or who defend servicemen who reveal classified information about military or government misconduct to the press, or who objected to Ben Carson's addressing graduation ceremonies at Johns Hopkins.

Oddly enough, there's another side to this liberal defense of bigotry.  As Franklin says, bigoted violence "can be seen primarily as an extreme manifestation of pervasive cultural norms rather than as a manifestation of individual hatred."  Politically Correct Extremists have been pointing this out for a long time.  When school administrators and faculty not only avert their gazes but justify and even actively participate when a student is being beaten up in a classroom, it becomes absurd to speak of "individual hatred."  (Biegel, for the most part, prefers to speak of "individual hatred" anyway, throughout the book, ignoring the cultural norms that underpin the attitudes of individuals.  It's one of the major weaknesses of The Right to Be Out.)  When the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy not only refused to discipline sexually abusive clergy but protected them by moving them to new dioceses, the problem ceased to be deviant individuals and became a corrupt institution.  When the military refuses to punish rape of its personnel by other personnel, the problem is not individual rapists but a systematic Rape Culture.  But recognizing the institutional forces that drive, perpetuate, and protect bigotry and violence is also a very serious no-no, a major thoughtcrime of Politically Correct Extremists who would have you believe, for example, that racism is endemic in American culture, rather than the personal flaw of aberrant individuals.

But let's accept for the sake of argument that queerbashers are not "hate-filled extremists."  Fine.  What shall we do about them, then?  It's hard to see the point of this move.  Kinsley, for example, accused Ben Carson's critics of wanting to send "in the drones to take him out", instead of merely laughing off his "nutty remarks."  No one, as far as Kinsley showed, had advocated killing Carson with drones; but that was, according to Kinsley, the only alternative to laughing him off.  But is a person who makes "nutty remarks" a desirable commencement speaker?  If so, why not invite nutty old Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at commencement?  Just laugh off anything he says about the Jews.

Invoking the straw man of the monstrous "hate-filled extremist" is pretty clearly an attempt to prevent rational discussion, not to advance it.  It's also meant to forestall any action against physical bullying and violence against people our culture regards as acceptable targets.  Jamie Nabozny, a gay youth who was verbally harassed and physically attacked almost daily for five years in his Wisconsin public school district.  As Biegel writes,
In addition to reporting these occurrences to faculty and staff as soon as they happened, Nabozny and his parents met formally with school-site administrators on six or seven occasions over time.  At these meetings, the officials always promised to do something, yet no discipline of any consequence appears to have been administered.  Instead, the message from these educational leaders was that “boys will be boys,” and that Nabozny should expect this sort of thing because he was gay.  Not only did there appear to be no remorse on the part of school officials, but the record indicates active complicity by faculty and administration in the pattern of mistreatment.  Teachers themselves called Nabozny a fag, and on numerous instances over time – in both private and public settings – the administrators in charge blamed Nabozny for bringing all this on himself by being out [11].
Nabozny's experience was not unique; Biegel reports some other similar cases, and others have documented pervasive adult permission of antigay violence in schools.  As an adult Nabozny sued his school for failing to protect him.  The first federal court to look at the case rejected his suit, but that judgment was overturned, and eventually a jury found the school officials liable for failing to protect him.  "Before [the] jury returns to determine amount of damages," according to Lambda Legal, "officials offer to settle with an award of nearly $1 million."  (Notice the "boys will be boys" line: those who complain that schools nowadays are hostile to boys' just being themselves like that phrase, and moves to rein in boys' aggression toward girls and other boys is one of their bogeys.  They will deny that they endorse such violence, but they regard any constraints on it as emasculating for boys.)

What should be done about people like Ben Carson, then?  He hasn't, it's true, engaged in antigay violence; he's merely expressed some stupidly bigoted opinions about gay people, nothing all that unusual in American culture, though of course it's considered bad form to be caught saying such things publicly.  Genteel bigotry is the standard. I think that bigots should always be called out and criticized, preferably publicly and on the spot.  (This isn't limited to antigay bigotry; I feel the same about racism, misogyny, and other "pervasive cultural norms.")  Even verbal reproof of bigotry is generally unacceptable to moderates, though, except when they feel like indulging in it themselves.

I just did some searching to see what I could find about the critic Brendan Gill's claims that his late friend Joseph Campbell was a virulent anti-Semite, racist, sexist bigot.  Those claims first surfaced in the New York Review of Books in 1989, and I remember the controversy vividly.  It was fascinating how even anti-racist, feminist friends of mine were reluctant to take the allegations as seriously as they would about someone who they didn't admire for other reasons.  If his bigotry didn't affect his work, they said, it shouldn't matter to their appreciation of his work.  I can agree with that, but I'd never found Campbell's work worthwhile in its own right.  (Nor am I alone: see this critique, for example.)  I managed to watch just one episode of his popular PBS program The Power of Myth before giving up in disgust at his vacuousness.  It looks like the fuss eventually died down, thanks largely to the indignant and often vacuous denials by his advocates that Campbell could have been a bad man; after all, he inspired Star Wars!

The most interesting defense of Campbell I found turned up in several places, including his Wikipedia page (which itself obscures the substance of Gill's article):
Stephen and Robin Larsen, authors of the biography Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind (1991) and members of the founding board of advisors of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, argued against what they referred to as "the so-called anti-Semitic charge". They state: "For the record, Campbell did not belong to any organization that condoned racial or social bias, nor do we know of any other way in which he endorsed such viewpoints. During his lifetime, there was no record of such accusations of public bigotry".
The Larsens' defense is irrelevant.  Brendan Gill did not, as it happens, claim that Campbell did belong to "any organization that condoned racial or social bias"; his accusations of racism were based on things he said in private conversations.  Quite a few people backed Gill up, including the director of a university press who reported Campbell's "vexation" over the admission of black students to Sarah Lawrence College, where Campbell taught.  It would be difficult to come up with clear examples of such statements, though more and more of them were reported after Gill's article appeared.  But enough statements were reported that I don't think they can be dismissed out of hand.

On the other hand, such statements were probably common among old-guard faculty at good colleges, and even not-so-good ones.  Remember that Ivy League schools in Campbell's youth had maximum quotas for Jews, and probably for other groups as well; this reflected the "pervasive social norm" of American racism in the first half of the twentieth century.  When the norm began to change, many faculty men of Campbell's generation were unhappy about it, but even then they knew well enough to use code in public.  (See the passage about Carl Bridenbaugh addressing the American Historical Association in 1962, which I quoted here.)  Privately-made racist statements like those attributed to Joseph Campbell would hardly have been noticed by his peers, who would also have wanted to protect his reputation, even after he was dead.  Besides, the term "racist" brought to mind "the stereotype of the hate-filled extremist"; "anti-Semite" meant jackbooted Nazis; Campbell was a gentleman, and didn't "belong to any organization that condoned racial or social bias."  The Larsens say that during Campbell's lifetime there were no accusations of "public bigotry."  Again, Gill didn't say that there were: the bigotry was private.  I wonder if the Larsens were consciously trying to mislead by that wording, or if they were just sloppy.  But their defense of Campbell falls into a familiar pattern.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bomb Bomb Assad, Plus Thousands of Civilians


An old friend posted a link to a story from the Onion today, which satirically imagined the managing editor of CNN.com explaining why Miley Cyrus's performance at the Video Music Awards was their top story today: it was a cynical move to get more web traffic.  It wasn't one of the Onion's better efforts.  (This one was better.)  Those who clicked through the Cyrus story and related items like the accompanying "Evolution of Miley" slideshow have only themselves to blame.  Still, it is possible to read about Miley Cyrus and the violence in Syria, Egypt, or elsewhere.  At least I think it is; I don't turn to CNN.com for serious news coverage anyway.  And I still can't be bothered to see what Cyrus did at the VMA the other night.

A mutual friend, someone I've known for almost as long, commented: "It's really a pathetic commentary on American homo sapiens that far more will weigh in on Cyrus than what's happening in Syria."  Someone else wrote "Miley's sexy dance was shown on the 'celeb news' in Germany, too. It was very awkward to watch, but I don't see how it needs to be international news... Then again, we also get more updates on Syria and even on the fire in California than we do 'in case you give a shit what American stars do in their spare time, here are some clips.'"  (I don't think that appearing and performing on a professional awards program counts as "spare time" -- it's part of the job.  But whatever.)

I'm hoping my friends aren't mistaking a piece from the Onion for real news.  I'm sure of the person who posted this link, not so sure about the second person.  She can put her mind at rest, though.  Judging by what people I know post to Facebook, artery-clogging recipes, exhortations to "like" Jesus or children with cancer, inspirational quotations, cat videos and cute Obama pictures far outnumber any weighing-in on Miley Cyrus.

When I travel I sometimes watch a little CNN on the hotel TVs.  Last time (before this month) I was in San Francisco, in September 2012, CNN's evening coverage devoted a couple of hours to Syria.  The gay anchor, what's-his-name Anderson, did a story on the possibility of private citizens legally supplying weapons to the rebels, which he clearly favored.  Right-wing wackette Erin Burnette was also, as I recall, very concerned about Syria.  From what I see in media-watch media like FAIR, the corporate media have maintained a fairly steady drumbeat of Syria coverage.  More recently, Obama has floated the possibility of the US government arming the rebels, and that has hardly escaped notice by the corporate media.  Democracy Now!, not a corporate program but a lefty/liberal one, has reports of Syrian casualties almost daily. The US government has been steadily supplying anonymous government officials to accuse Assad's regime of using chemical weapons, though actual evidence has been sparse, and I'm skeptical of the new claims for just that reason.  So I think it's ridiculous to accuse the US corporate media of ignoring Syria in favor of celebrity antics.  Maybe they haven't covered Syria 24/7, but by that standard, my friend herself would be guilty of not weighing in on Syria enough on Facebook.  For shame!  The Flying Spaghetti Monster will be ashamed of her in the world to come.

So, what would be a preferable alternative?  From the viewpoint of a non-elite US citizen, I don't know.  Should I be writing to the corporate media to urge them to provide more US-friendly propaganda about Syria, or to take an editorial stand in favor of US intervention?  If so, I refuse.  I'm open to suggestions for constructive actions that citizens or the government could take, but I haven't heard any.  Who is gullible enough to believe that either Obama cares at all about the plight of the Syrian people?  (I was going to include Vladimir Putin in that question, but Putin doesn't matter here: he's a bad man, but he's not a US politician.)  Who is gullible enough to believe that a US intervention would have a good outcome -- for the Syrians, I mean, not for Obama's approval ratings or for the bank accounts of profiteers?  Plenty of people, to answer my own rhetorical question, and I find that a lot more worrisome than the numbers who are concerned because a twenty-year-old young woman danced suggestively on MTV.  The US is not and never has been interested in the welfare of people in the countries we attack, despite our humanitarian protestations.  Arming the rebels, who as far as I know are not good guys either, would be the first US step but it wouldn't be the last.  Remember when we were just going to impose a "no-fly zone" on Libya?  Obama was able to avoid any US casualties there, which is all that matters because only US military lives are of any value.  The Libyan civilians who died?  Who cares?  Not most American "progressives."

So when John Kerry -- not a person for whom I have any respect -- gets all stern and serious about the evil acts of Assad, I know something bad is going to happen.  Probably not for the US, though.  Anyone who gets behind the Obama gang on this discredits themselves.  If anyone has any serious ideas how to help the Syrian people without supporting a US or UN or (Cthulhu help us) NATO intervention, I'd be interested in hearing them.  But I don't see any point at all in griping because Miley Cyrus got some coverage.  Better that than the latest batch of foreign policy "experts" doing a CNN roundtable on any subject.  Let them talk about Miley instead.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

We're All Moderates Here


A couple of different people I know passed this along on Facebook this weekend. 

I was with Ms. Yasira Jaan until she put "Islamic" in quote marks. (The No True Scotsman move.)  But she's probably right: Most Christians use the Westboro Baptist Church to make themselves look moderate by comparison, and so no doubt do most Muslims about Islamists.  Jerry Falwell called WBC pastor Fred Phelps "a first class nut," and fretted, "I found it almost impossible to believe that human beings could be so brutal and vicious to a hurting family."  (This was the same guy who said to a hurting country a few days after September 11, 2001: "[T]he pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'")  Returning Christian love for Christian love, Phelps picketed Falwell's funeral.  Was Falwell a moderate?  Phelps also denounced Pope Benedict XVI for protecting sexually predatory priests; was Pope Rat therefore a moderate?  My Right Wing Acquaintance RWA1 loves to post links to stories detailing the offenses of the man he calls "the demon-possessed preacher."  I certainly am not surprised if Muslim "terrorists" play the same role in the mainstream Muslim imaginary.

In saying this, I don't mean to say that all Muslims are the same, or that Ms. Jaan secretly makes donations to al-Qaeda.  It's just that using Phelps or al-Qaeda as the pole star of extremism leaves self-styled moderates a lot of wiggle room.

My comment to this effect displeased one of the friends who'd posted Ms. Jaan's tweet.  He replied, "Your comment would seem to suggest you consider moderation a meaningless term."  Well, yes, I do, as a matter of fact.  "Moderate" has no content whatever, especially if the self-styled moderate is permitted to set the extremes -- which they usually do.  Many people confuse moderation of tone with moderation of content, but neither one means much.

People can and do define just about any position as moderate if they're allowed to choose the extremes. Was Jerry Falwell a moderate? Was Pope Benedict a moderate, just because Phelps denounced him?  The classic statement on moderation is in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail"; check it out. He didn't have much use for moderates either:
... I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I don't know anything about Ms. Jaan's political or other opinions, but I notice she wears a headscarf.  Of course that tells me that she is a moderate.  An extremist at one of the spectrum would wear a chador or burqa; an extremist at the other end would walk around immodestly bare-headed.  Lest anyone accuse me of attacking women who choose to cover their heads of their own free will, let me point out I too am a moderate, because I agree that women should be free to wear the hijab if they freely choose to.  There are extremists who would ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves; at the other extreme there are those who would force them to do so.  The friend who posted this tweet to Facebook, by the way, is also a moderate: he regards Barack Obama's presidential offenses as a "disappointment," between extremists of the Right who cheer on drone strikes, NSA data mining, cutting Social Security, etc.; and extremists of the Left like me, who see them as grounds for impeachment.  Isn't moderation wonderful?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Beat Me, Whip Me, Make Me Obey the Rules

Choice came from deep needs, but where did the needs come from?
-- Dick Francis, Hot Money

I just finished reading Learning the Hard Way: Masculinity, Place, and the Gender Gap in Education (Rutgers, 2012) by the sociologist Edward W. Morris.  It's a pretty good job of countering the always-fashionable view that there are innate and unchangeable differences between males and females in learning and thinking, and even better, Morris resists the temptation to see everything monolithically: he recognizes that the differences between boys and girls aren't absolute, and that the differences within each group are greater than the average differences between them.  He also recognizes that the same actions may have wildly contradictory motives and outcomes.

Morris spent a year and a half doing fieldwork in a couple of high schools, one larger, urban, and predominantly black, the other smaller, rural, and predominantly white.  He says that he began expecting to explore "intersections of class, gender, race, and place" but soon discovered "the gender gap and concentrated my analysis on that topic" (184).  His observations brought back memories that sometimes shook me deeply.  For example, the "clownin'" role some young men adopted, which gave status to youths who didn't excel at either academics or sports, recalled to me my own clowning in various contexts, including school.  Unlike Morris's clowns, though, I got good grades.  But certainly I was (and still am) gratified if I could make people laugh. "Book smarts," which are at best viewed ambivalently by most of Morris's male informants, were always important to me, because I had them.  But they also defined a gap between me and most of my peers; making them laugh gave us something in common, however tenuous.

Getting good grades was acceptable for male students, Morris found, as long as they didn't exert any visible effort to get them.  If they studied, they pretended they didn't; if they had trouble with a subject, they couldn't ask a teacher or anyone else for help.  Studying was classified as girl stuff, asking for help even more so.  If they were lucky, their parents could help them at home.  As a result many of them were torn between the need to maintain face by not seeming to care about schoolwork, and the need to maintain the grades to keep themselves eligible for official school sports, and from there to seek athletic scholarships to college -- not so much for the stake of a degree, but as a stepping stone to the grail of professional sports.

This hit home for me, because though I did get good grades (and in fact, for what it's worth, graduated second in my class, in a school about the size of Morris's small rural high school), I almost never did homework.  I did most of my assignments during study hall, and I always made sure I had at least one study hall period each day, so evidently I didn't worry about losing face by being seen doing schoolwork.  I'd established from childhood that I wasn't interested in sports, nor in proving my manhood in other ways.  It was only when I came up against geometry class in my sophomore year, as I recall, that I had to take assignments home because they took more time than I had in study hall.  In my senior year I had a couple of long papers to write, which I also did outside school hours. Usually at home I read, wrote, watched TV, taught myself to play guitar, and daydreamed about making my own telescope.  I didn't have much of a social life then, but learning guitar and listening to pop music changed that somewhat: it gave me another shared interest with some of my peers.  But I now see that it was important to my own self-image not to do homework.  If I hadn't had a head start in most areas -- math was the exception -- and an excellent memory, I'd have had to work harder, or my grades would probably have suffered too.  I still perceive myself as lazy, because the intellectual tasks I assign myself don't feel like work; I read far more than most people do, for example, but if I didn't enjoy it I probably wouldn't do it as much, and I'm more conscious of the books I haven't read, but want to, than of the books I have read.  I'm just not interested in driving myself that much: if something becomes too difficult, I usually simply drop it.  So I found myself identifying with Morris's underachievers, and realizing how much I've relied on my intellectual gifts.  It was a chastening recognition.

Another point of contact was conflict with rules.  A recurring theme in Learning the Hard Way was that the young men spent a lot of time and energy just rebelling against all the petty rules and regulations that school imposes.  In a section titled "Rules Are for Girls," Morris notes,
Although lack of attention to schoolwork directly impeded boys' academic progress and outcomes, other factors affected their academic careers more indirectly.  One concerned their tendency to get into trouble and to demonstrated behavior that openly defied or cleverly manipulated school rules. As research has shown, taking risks and flouting conventions are often interpreted as constituting masculinity... In my study, boys generally expressed and exhibited disdain for strict rules.  However, the schools were saturated with such rules, which tended to place boys at odds with school-sanctioned comportment and activities.  For example, I asked Kevin if he ever thought about wrestling for Clayton's [that is, the small, mostly white rural school] school team since he enjoyed boxing and had told me in elaborate detail about how he wrestled with his friends and older family members.  He replied, "No, I don't like that many rules.  I'd rather be street fighting ... They'll let you go at it for a while before they break it up" [63].
Here too I realized that I wasn't as different from other boys as I'd always liked to think.  I was clever enough to avoid disciplinary action, choosing to back down when an administrator delivered an ultimatum -- ordering me to cut my hair, for example.  (This was in the late 60s, when "long hair" meant a Beatle cut that half-covered the ears; administrators today would probably drop to their knees and thank God for students who wore their hair that short.)  But I still pushed at the boundaries.  So sissies aren't necessarily more docile than "normal" boys; we just break different rules and conventions.  (This one did, anyway.)  And I wasn't so driven by the need to resist that I confused trivia of mainly symbolic import, like hair length, with more important issues -- which didn't come up in my high school career.  My main concern was getting out of high school and going to college, where things would be different and better; so I expected, so they were.

What interested me about the rule-breaking of Moore's high school boys was that they often aspired to join the military or professional sports.  Any kind of organized sport is hemmed in with Byzantine webs of rules, and the military even more so.  The purpose of military basic training is precisely to break the will of a recruit, and the penalties for rule-breaking are far more severe than anything these guys encountered in high school.  The rules are likewise even more dominated by chickenshit than high school discipline, though much school regulation is merely a milder form of obsessively trivial control of students' behavior and dress.  It's a commonplace of the "war against boys" theme today that schools used to be more accepting of boys' innate messiness and stupidity, but the fact of the military (to say nothing of a glance at educational history) shows this is nonsense.
In early modern England, both in homes and schools, across the boundaries of social class, the birch rod - as administered by parents, servants, nurses, tutors, or teachers - became the conventional instrument of retribution. Both boys and girls were expected to be unremittingly deferential to their elders and were beaten routinely for a great range of offenses: disobedience, obstinacy, laziness, a missed stitch, a flubbed Latin conjugation. And the punishments varied enormously in severity, from a gentle hand slap to prolonged, violent whippings that sometimes resulted in the death of the child. For the determined castigator, the child’s hand, mouth, face, and buttocks (either naked or clothed) were fair game. In addition to the birch rod, a ferula - a wooden slat with a large rounded end and a hole in its middle - could be used to raise a large and painful blister. Lawrence Stone notes that in the grammar schools (which drew a far greater number of boys than they had during the late Middle Ages) the standard method of administering the rod required one active and two passive participants: a boy would be beaten “with a birch” by his master “on the naked buttocks while bent over and horsed on the back of another boy.” Even in universities, young men were regularly submitted to public whippings, floggings over a barrel, or detention in the stocks [David Savran, Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture (Princeton, 1998), 17-18].
School has always been more about teaching submission to authority than it has been about cultivating the independently thinking person.  What has changed is that in developed countries schooling is now universal, and everyone is expected to last through at least twelve years of it.  Well into the twentieth century, schooling for most Americans ended with the eighth grade or earlier.  Boys who chafed at the petty regulations could and did drop out, and there were other job options for them.  (I was amazed when I read Harpo Marx's autobiography, in which he told of dropping out of school -- if I recall correctly -- in the second grade.  But that was around 1900.)  One of schooling's primary functions has been to sort the students who learned easily from those who couldn't; those who couldn't were simply jettisoned.  Now that students aren't allowed that way out, schools need to adjust their methods, to teach rather than sort; but that's not likely to happen.

Why, then, do these young men, driven to "aggressive verbal or physical outbursts, often in defiance of school rules," follow their "self-made path to manhood" (Moore, 42) into new institutions that will repress them even further?  In some cases they aren't aware of the constraints they'll face: like young women who marry to escape their mothers' control, thinking that marriage will give them freedom, but discover they exchanged a mistress for a new master, some young men may think that the military or professional sports will be freer than school.  Others, perhaps, know that they'll be testing their wills against that of the hierarchy; others masochistically wish to be dominated.  Others simply believed the TV recruiting commercials and the movies.

When it was still possible to earn a living and support a family without a high school diploma, let alone a college degree, young men could survive without submitting to a full course of schooling.  But school was never "boy-friendly."  Girls didn't outnumber boys as college undergraduates until recently because they were excluded from college, and when they could no longer be excluded, they were discouraged from achieving.  Once the barriers came down, young women flooded into academia, and young men had to compete with them, for the first time.  The self-imposed and enforced Boy Code hobbled them from competing very effectively.  If the Boy Code really is innate and immutable, then males are in trouble -- or, since not all males conform to the Boy Code, those males who can't study, who must let themselves be intimidated from studying and learning by fag discourse, will face Darwinian selection.

That's one of the contradictions Moore discusses, though he doesn't put it in quite these terms: boys are allowed to be "smart," even "book smart," as long as they don't seem to work to achieve it.  Hard work is only manly and valued if it's physical work. Men are supposed to be tough, independent, impervious -- but in fact they are vulnerable to, and dependent on, the recognition of their manhood by other males.  Contrariwise, girls' achievement, achieved by studying, is depicted as less valuable, less real.  As Moore puts it, their perceived weakness and docility left them free from the restraints that hobbled boys: they could study and do well in school without their femininity being called into question.  But far from accepting the dependence on males that traditional femininity mandates, many of these girls were determined to go to college and support themselves.  The one girl from either school who told Moore that men should be sole providers in families (she planned to marry a professional athlete) still studied and prepared to go to college, because as she acknowledged with bleak realism, a husband might dump her.

Not all boys are trapped in the self-defeating and self-destructive Masculine Mystique Moore describes.  I believe that even those who are entangled in its coils can outgrow it, just as girls increasingly reject dependence on male providers.  But they need to know just what they're trapped in, and encouragement from adults as well as peers to let them know that change is possible.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Pupularizers and Poletergeists

I'm reading The End of Magic by Ariel Glucklich,* which I stumbled on while looking for another book in the library stacks.  Glucklich, a philosopher by training, went to India to do fieldwork on magic as it is practiced there.  He has some interesting ideas, and some interesting stories to tell, but a lot of the time he gets so much wrong that I'm not sure it's worth finishing the book.  For example:
Culture has come along only very recently to buffer humans from nature and to redirect nature’s impact on the physical person. Obviously, culture surrounds a Madison Avenue executive more snugly than a !Kung bushman or a Mongolian nomad [100]. 
Wow.  Just wow.  I can't tell from the context what time scale Glucklich has in mind when he says that culture has come along "only very recently."  Compared to the age of the universe, yes; compared to the age of the human species, no.  In fact it's arguable that "culture" is as old as Homo sapiens, and defines us as a species.  It's older, if you suppose, as seems reasonable, that Neandertals had culture, and possibly older varieties of genus Homo.  For that reason, there is no reason to claim that "culture surrounds" a modern urban human being any "more snugly" than it does people from other cultures: a !Kung bushman is every bit as shaped and enabled by her culture as a Mad Ave exec.  I suspect Glucklich means technology here: the Mongolian nomad has no skyscrapers, no air conditioning, no superhighways, no Internet; but he still has a material culture and a technology that other animals don't.  And he also has language, customs, religion, kinship systems, and other non-material but still very pertinent aspects of culture, that fit him no less snugly than his New York counterpart.
But all three are still animals in many important respects. Biology still shapes much of who they are, despite the effects of culture, as popular books on ethology by Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris and the more technical works of E. O. Wilson have demonstrated. Even cultural psychologists and anthropologists like Jerome Bruner and Clifford Geertz acknowledge this fact [100-1].
Of course, "all three are animals" in every respect.  But they are human animals.  Without human biology, they wouldn't have culture.  Culture is an expression of biology, but human biology gives us a flexibility that most species don't have.  I suspect, especially from that reference to E. O. Wilson, that Glucklich buys into sociobiology and  "evolutionary psychology," which have little to do with whether human beings are animals; at least he seems to assume that evolutionary psychologists' polemical propaganda against their critics is valid when it accuses them of thinking that human beings are not shaped or limited by our biology at all.  (Wilson's Sociobiology, his "more technical work," mostly marshalled evidence from insects -- his specialty -- and other species.  His closing chapter on human beings was full of speculations but "demonstrated" next to nothing about us.  His succeeding book on human beings not only was less technical, it walked back from the more confident -- and mistaken -- claims about human beings he'd made before.  Like so many advocates of sociobiology and EvoPsych, Glucklich claims that his pet sciences have achieved more than they really have.)

Glucklich likes to throw around magical categories like "evolution," and his conception of evolution is often more Lamarckian than Darwinist.  The book is full of typos -- I use two of the more entertaining ones in the title of this post -- and dubious assertions.  Does Glucklich realize that he too is a "pupularizer"?  But I think I'll soldier on and see where his analysis of magic goes.

*Published by Oxford University Press in 1997.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Experience Is the Best Teacher

While I was eating with my co-workers today (I recently decided to work part-time for a while), the dangerous subject of racism came up in conversation.  Indiana, where we're located, has a long nasty history of racism, though of course most white Hoosiers are ignorant of it, as most white Americans are ignorant about the history of racism in our country.  One of my co-workers, a nice white lady, told us that she grew up in California, and she had never "experienced racism" there.  My first response was that there is certainly racism in California, especially against Latinos but of course against black people.  I could feel a buzz of discomfort at the table, so I chose my next words carefully: I'm a white person, so I've never really experienced racism either.  That brought us to the edge of debate, so she backed off and so did I.  There are many suitable places for debate on vexed issues, but work is not one of them.

I mention this because I think her wording inadvertently revealed something about the understanding of many white Americans on race and racism.  I would have to talk to her much more about her background to learn what I'd need to know about her upbringing and experience, and about her beliefs and attitudes about race; under the circumstances, that conversation is not likely to happen.  I'm willing to grant that by "experienced" she meant she'd never observed racism by other white people, as an uninvolved bystander, where she grew up, though I'd doubt even that.  But so many white people believe that black people are constantly playing the "race card" and exaggerate the prevalence of racism in America today, and are just looking to be offended by the innocent remarks of nice white folks, with the result that many whites think of racism as something that happens to them.  So I believe that on some level this woman probably did mean literally what she said: that she'd never "experienced racism."  Any American who can say such a thing is revealing his or her complicity in the obfuscation of racial issues that keeps the American status quo intact.

The Kind of Authenticity That Can Only Be Faked

A disadvantage of not having much real-world contact with gay men's culture is that I'm not always sure what some of the terminology means.  I get a sense of what a "twink" is, for example, from the context of written references to the type, but I'm not sure what the concept's boundaries are.  That would have to come from observing what kinds of men my peers call twinks.  It might not be all that much help, I know, because such classifications change over time.  Take "bears," which used to refer to big-boned gentlemen with a plethora of body hair and, usually, beards.  The men it covered ranged from the hefty to the obese.  Now it seems that a bear can be a gym queen, provided he has a bit of body hair and perhaps some close-trimmed stubble.

This is why I was taken aback when Band of Thebes posted about the work of a Tasmanian/Australian photographer named Paul Freeman.  "Fed up with shaved, steroided gym bunnies," as BoT put it, Freeman produced a body of photographs featuring what, judging by the images BoT quotes, I can only describe as shaved, steroided gym bunnies, though some, I admit, are not shaved.
 
I don't object to such images, nor do I find them unattractive, but they hardly represents a conceptual shift in the photographic depiction of the unclad male.  Putting hunky models in the regalia of Greco-Roman antiquity is actually a well-established convention of male nude photography, from von Gloeden to the American physique studios of the 1950s -- if not from the Renaissance or earlier!  Freeman's aesthetic of carefully styled scruffiness crosses those cliches with the look of fashion photography (think Abercrombie and Diesel) of the past couple of decades.  It's been done before and, predictably enough, touted as the new big thing.  Nothing to see here, folks, move along now.

There's also a link to an interview with the great man, which adds to the hilarity.
But I think [his book] ‘Outback’ triggered a big response because we romanticize these types of men. The men of the countryside, the west, the wild, the outback… There is an established escapism associated with their reality. A timelessness. A freshness and wholesomeness. I accentuated this by the use of earth tones and sepias, aging photos, by choosing rustic and worn environments and settings, and through the actions and camaraderie of the moments and rural activities I captured. I think the lifestyle depicted in this filmic way was evocative and authentic. It connected the body of images into a total world, a mythical utopia where men are natural and at ease and unaffected, unselfconsciously, innocently beautiful while actively and happily engaged in and enjoying their life ...
SR: A very distinct aesthetic permeates your work. The men are natural, rugged, sweaty, unshaven… You have been pretty vocal about the fact that you have no interest in photographing the typical male model in the usual fashion. You enjoy photographing a man that looks like a man.
PF: As a gay male, I am increasingly alienated from the direction that a lot of gay male fashion and erotic male photography is taking, finding its general photo surreal plasticity obliterates  so many of the real, nuanced, subtle features of a man that make him a thing of beauty.  In the mid to late eighties when the gym culture really took off, gays took to improving their bodies with a vengeance. They copied the pro body builders by taking steroids and shaving down their bodies, in order to highlight definition and youthfulness. The new stereotype was faux macho beyond the village people types which had at least been based on real life stereotypes. Now, it was a tribal muscle gym fetishist thing. And it is a pervasive fashion which grows still in popularity and evolves and which I fear is now disconnected from any organic male sensuality or the reality we genetically recognize or respond to intuitively. We respond to it now because it’s the fashion. (As the director of The Australian Centre For Photography once kindly complimented me, it is clear from my work that the erotic lies in the individual not the stereotype.)
BoT remarks, "Never mind that for about half the images, he took Sydney models to the Outback to manufacture the verisimilitude he sought."  Well, you see, I do mind.  Freeman's self-inflating rhetoric is also wearily familiar.  The sexism and misogyny here ("a man that looks like a man") would be offensive if it weren't so tired and dishonest.  Again, the (female) interviewer gushes, "What I love most and appreciate about your work is that it’s definitely missing that 'staged' quality. The men - and the way you capture them - have a kind of raw, rugged energy that makes me feel as though I really am looking at REAL men at work and play in the Australian Outback."  The photos reproduced here don't bear that out.  Outback, Freeman declares, "doesn’t feature - at least by conventional gay standards - the hottest men."  "Hottest" compared to what?  Freeman's models conform to "conventional gay standards" as far as I can tell.  His work is very much in the main traditions of male physique and nude photography.  Which doesn't mean he shouldn't make whatever kind of pictures, featuring the kind of men, he likes, only that there's nothing unusual about it.  Even his considerable technical skill is not unusual in the field.  You or I might not be able to make such images, but hundreds of other professionals could and do.

The recurrent references to "REAL men" especially annoy me.  The men being put down by comparison are just as "real" as Freeman's models, who are surely the result of diligent gym work, costuming, and hair styling.  It takes a lot of preparation and planning to produce art that looks spontaneous, unstaged, and authentic.  It's to Freeman's credit that he brings it off so well, if you like this sort of thing.  And I do, among other sorts of things, but not enough to pay money for his books.

I sometimes muse about what would be genuine alternatives to mainstream gay male photography, featuring men who really aren't typical male models: men who don't work out, men with paunches, men with pronounced guts, men who are losing or have lost their hair, men forty or more years of age, for examples.  A competent photographer should be able to see the beauty in such men and find a way to record it on film or in pixels.  The photoblog The Real Men of New York, which I've linked to before, caught such men on the fly, but it seems to be defunct.  The Bear movement has produced its share of depictions of big men, but often it just poses them according to the conventions of porn, which again is all right but isn't what I mean.  That's the trouble, of course: what pleases me will displease many other gay men.  But I've also learned over the years that what pleases me will also please some others, enough others to be worthwhile.

As I say, I have no objection to Paul Freeman (or his fans) fetishizing whatever kind of man they like.  What I do object to is their contemptuous putdowns of other kinds of men, who are after all fetishized by other men.  What makes Paul Freeman's taste superior to anyone else's?  It's clear he thinks his fetishes are superior to those who like, say, steroided, shaved gym bunnies,  He also needs to look at the history of the male nude before the 1970s; he seems to think that the kind of idealized "surreal plasticity" he deplores is something new.  For that matter, the classical ideal he wishes he could evoke was of the ephebe, the beardless youth, not the stylized cowboys he likes.  And what's this nonsense about an "organic male sensuality or the reality we genetically recognize or respond to intuitively"?  Freeman's kind of photography is anything but organic, and the types of men he objects to are "intuitively" desired by others.

Freeman is making a typical false-consciousness accusation: what I like, I like authentically and autonomously -- even "genetically" -- but what you like, you you only think you like, because you've been brainwashed.  This attitude permeates mainstream sexual culture, both homo and hetero, and though it's often deplored, even those who deplore it tend to share it.  What needs to be challenged and rejected is the belief that sexual tastes can be rationalized, that beauty can be measured objectively, and that beautiful people are morally superior to others.  All these ideas are false, and harmful.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

So It Goes ...

I've begun reading Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, another of those classics I've put off for decades.  I read a few of his later books during the 1970s, and liked them, but for some reason I didn't get to this one.  I'm only a few chapters in now, but something got my attention.

The novel is about the collapse of an Andean bridge in 1714 that killed five people, and the friar who decides to find out why God chose to kill them, by collecting information on their lives.  At the close of the first chapter, the narrator (whom I don't take to be Wilder himself) addresses rhetorically the question of why the disaster happened:
Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.
"On the contrary" threw me.  There are no contraries here: both of those cliches -- the first from King Lear, Act IV Scene 1, the second from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 10 verse 29 -- say essentially the same thing: all suffering is the result of divine action.  Shakespeare's Gloucester is more negative about the idea, Matthew's Jesus means to be reassuring, but both assume that gods are behind everything that happens.  Wilder's narrator disavows any conclusion, but the way the "contraries" are framed seems to me to load the dice somewhat.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Awww ... That's Really Deep

I'm on the road again, so posting is going to be lighter than I'd like.  But a Facebook celeb posted this small gift today.
I love this quote by Oprah Winfrey .... "Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough."
That wisdom comes from a woman who goes shopping for $30,000 purses.

Maybe I'm being overcritical.  I don't begrudge Winfrey her success, nor do I think she shouldn't spend her money as she wishes.  But there's something a bit off about such a person urging other people not to be so obsessed with getting more possessions.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Means and Ends

I'm about fifty pages from the end of David F. Noble's Forces of Production (Knopf, 1984), and I keep finding great stuff to quote.  Like this:
It is a common confusion, especially on the part of those trained in or unduly influenced by formal economics (liberal and Marxist alike), that capitalism is a system of profit-motivated, efficient production.  This is not true, nor has it ever been.  If the drive to maximize profits, through private ownership and control over the process of production, has served historically as the primary means of capitalist development, it has never been the end of that development.  The goal has always been domination (and the power and privileges that go with it) and the preservation of domination.  There is little historical evidence to support the view that, in the final analysis, capitalists play by the rules of the economic game imagined by theorists.  There is ample evidence to suggest, on the other hand, that when the goals of profit-making and efficient production fail to coincide with the requirements of continued domination, capital will resort to more ancient means: legal, political, and, if need be, military.  Always, behind all the careful accounting, lies the threat of force [321].

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Your Tax Dollars at Work: American Manufacturing: Command Performance



Understand, I love computers.  I'm still reading David F. Noble's Forces of Production, and it contains this passage:
In the mid-1960s, the Air Force produced a promotional film on numerical control, to push the use of the newer technologies within industry.  Entitled Modern Manufacturing: A Command Performance, the film was targeted at top managers in the metalworking firms.  A technocratic version of Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times, it opens with a dream sequence of a manager seated at his oak desk.  The manager idly sketches a new part, then abruptly leans over and barks into desk microphone: “Orders to the plant!”  The verbal commands are automatically translated into computer commands and from that point on all manufacturing, assembling, and shipping processes are automatic, requiring no human intervention – the automatic factory.  The film concentrates on the machinery rather than people; the “modern” manufacturing establishment has N/C machine tools galore, plus automatic molding, forming, welding, testing, punching, handling, plotting, and drafting equipment – all “elements of our plan of the future.”  (As contrasted with “conventional” manufacturing, illustrated by a group of half-clad black “natives” running a conventional engine lathe in a thatched hut!)  [219]
My first reaction to that last bit was to wish I could see the film. Then I realized it was entirely possible that I could; and sure enough, it was available on YouTube.  The scene Noble described occurs nearly at the end of the film, at about the 32-minute mark.  It turns out that he didn't remember or describe it quite accurately: first there is a scene, probably using stock footage, of actual Africans working metal without machines, with pre-industrial technology, and then a probably staged scene of a single black man in a kind of sarong, manipulating a machine tool under a thatched canopy.  See for yourself.  (Notice too that one of the few floor-level factory workers shown is black; no doubt the filmmakers thought they were very enlightened to include that touch.  The only woman depicted is, of course, a keypunch operator.)  This is one of the true benefits of the digital age, being able to access material that only a decade or two ago would be very hard to track down.  I didn't have to look in university archives, I didn't even have to leave my apartment: there it was, in all its fifty-year-old glory, proclaiming the triumph of Modern Science, available to you at a surprisingly low price when the taxpayer subsidies are taken into account.  The time is fulfilled, and the day of "emancipation from human workers" (235) is at hand!
The film stresses the importance of total integration of manufacturing processes, reproducibility, and interchangeability (“tapes can be sent anywhere in the world and produce interchangeable identical parts”) and epitomizes the ideology of automation in action.  “Modern manufacturing,” the narrator repeatedly points out, “shortens the chain of command,” “eliminates human error,” and “greatly reduces the opportunities for a breakdown in communications.”  “Instructions are fixed,” not subject to human intervention or “human emotion”; management commands cannot change.  Modern manufacturing is indeed a command performance, where the commands come from the top.  We must automate, the film concludes, we must eliminate human interventions and uncertainty and reduce the time required to move “from design concept to finished product as soon as possible.”  Such command performance is vital “for the survival of industry and our country” [219].
There are a lot of fascinating details in this primitive infomercial.  One theme that recurs, as Noble shows, is the idea that managers are scientifically competent.  Maybe in some smaller companies there were engineers who'd moved up to management, but American Manufacturing: Command Performance was made to appeal to big contractors in the aerospace and weapons sectors.  And really, how many managers even there could have produced detailed specifications for new machine parts off the top of their heads, or polished drawings like the one we see early on?  I'm pretty sure it would have taken more than an hour even for a fulltime, experienced draftsman to come up with that, to say nothing of the time needed to design the part in the first place.  There's a lot of fantasy going on here.  “As of now,” the salesman/narrator intones, “conventional computers do not accept oral commands; so the instructions are put on punched cards, or tape.”  That's quite an understatement for 1963, or for decades to come.



More pertinent for the hard-nosed businessman's interests, Noble reports that the claims made by the film are over-optimistic at best:
“Complexity degrades reliability,” industrial economist Seymour Melman has observed.  Such was certainly the case with numerical control, without doubt the most complex, and unreliable, equipment ever installed in a machine shop environment.  Jack Rosenberg of ECS described the experience in 1958 when the first Air Force-sponsored systems were placed in the factories of prime contractors as “the year of shock for all parties involved, the point at which exposure to reality began.”  The factory environment was hot, electrically noisy, the floors shook, the air was full of physical and chemical contaminants, machine operators mishandled control tapes, maintenance staff was not prepared to deal with electronic controls, servo systems, or computers.  “None of the numerical control designs or designers was prepared for this acutely hostile environment,” Rosenberg recalled.  Anticipating that the machinery would perform as promised, production managers attempted immediately to assign the new equipment to normal multi-shift schedules. The result, in Rosenberg’s assessment, was “chaos.”  “Several machine tools were torn apart by improper programming, operation, maintenance, or servo design.  Several others were damaged.”  Machine downtime in 1959 hovered around 80 percent, owing both to maintenance problems and to the great difficulty of “keeping them loaded” with program tapes. (And without tapes, N/C machines became merely very expensive furniture.)  Programming errors, moreover, proved extremely likely, troublesome, and expensive, prompting Western Electric’s Edward E. Miller to observe that “N/C makes errors with greater authority than anything we are accustomed to.”  When the systems did not function as desired, the problem was compounded by the ambiguity about who or what was responsible.  Machine tool builders were convinced the problems were caused by the electronics, and blamed the control manufacturers, while the latter charged the builders with poor machine design or construction.  Diagnosing a malfunction was thus more than a technical task, which was difficult enough in itself; it also entailed its own particular form of politics.
The first decade of actual production experience with N/C made it plain that industry was not prepared for the second Industrial Revolution, and neither was the technology that was supposed to usher it in [220-1].
In the real world, then, programming numerical-controlled machine tools wasn't as simple and quick as American Manufacturing: Command Performance wanted prospective customers to believe.  It was effective (if not efficient, let alone economical) primarily in advanced aerospace and weapons manufacturing, where cost was no object, thanks to taxpayer subsidies.  Smaller companies making simpler parts simply couldn't afford this kind of equipment, nor did they need its capacities even if they bought it.  The perceived need to compete drove a lot of smaller manufacturers out of business, according to Noble, a reminder that the degradation of American manufacturing long predates NAFTA and the offshoring that became so prominent in the 1980s and after.  Though Forces of Production is nearly thirty years old, it is still relevant, which is no doubt why it's still in print despite its unfashionable -- indeed, counter-fashionable -- message.

I imagine some people will deny that the African scenes are racist; they're just meant to inject a little humor into the production.  If so, it's a false antithesis: this is racist humor, and a glimpse into the mindset both of the American military and of American manufacturing in the early 1960s.  (Remember, this film was made on the taxpayer's dime.)  And the attitudes expressed in American Manufacturing: Command Performance are still with us, as shown by the persistence of scientific racism if nothing else.  The use of African tribesmen to symbolize machine-tool technology that didn't use computer-driven numerical control -- a bit old-fashioned, true, but hardly primitive -- is familiar too: similar tropes turn up in a lot of secularist derogation of religion.  One ongoing theme in Forces of Production is the technocratic hatred for humanity, accompanied by an apparent belief that the technocrats themselves are not human, not emotional, just pure disembodied rationality, entitled to command their brutelike inferiors.

As I said, I like computers.  But they need to be kept in their place.  Even more important, the people who inflate their capabilities, pushing them as panaceas -- let alone the next step in evolution -- need to be kept in theirs.

Declarations of Dependence

I've added May Sarton's journals to my list of reading projects.  Or rather, re-reading projects, since I've already read them all, mostly as they were published.  In my thirties and forties they were interesting primarily for her account of aging; I'm now slightly older than she was when she began writing journals for publication, so it will be interesting to see how my perspective has changed.  Another interesting aspect in the later journals, especially after her 1986 stroke, was how she had to learn to depend on other people.  That made a big impression on me when I first read them, but I expect to learn more now that I'm old myself.

But what got me started this time was something I'd heard about these books, and wanted to check for myself.  Her first journal, Plant Dreaming Deep (1968) describes her move to a house of her own in (or near) the village of Nelson, New Hampshire.  Determined to live alone, she aimed to write honestly about herself, including her anger and temper -- a somewhat daring course for a woman writer.  But she found that most readers didn't notice her anger in that book, it was too well masked.  I think of Sarton as a ladylike writer, and her anger up to this point was expressed in repressed, ladylike ways.  In Journal of a Solitude (1973), which I'm reading now, Sarton resolved to make her anger more explicit.  I wanted to see how well she'd kept that resolution, and if I could tell the difference between the tone of the first book and the tone of the second.

I can see how she worked hard not to censor herself, to mention her anger -- indeed, her rages and tantrums, the words she herself used for certain moods.  This is a good thing, but as the word "tantrums" suggests, she had trouble putting her anger into context.  It doesn't help that she still censored herself in certain areas, not entirely of her own choosing I suspect: for example, she refers often to the woman she was romantically involved with at the time as "X," and is careful not to make it explicit that X was a woman.  Her partner of many years, Judy Matlack, is mentioned several times by her first name only, and their relationship is never specified.  Sarton and Matlack had broken up when Sarton moved to Nelson, but they remained close, and they often spent weekends together until Matlack's death.  (She spent her later years in a nursing home, where Sarton visited her even after Matlack no longer recognized her, as I remember from the later journals.)  This reticence makes it difficult for Sarton to delve into the sources of her anger, at least for print, and makes her outbursts seem isolated and sometimes puzzling.

(I noticed that it was in Journal of a Solitude that Sarton made her famous reference to her 1965 novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing as "a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality ..."  Geez, what a list of negative virtues!  It has been a long time since I read Mrs. Stevens, and I imagine I'll be rereading Sarton's novels after I get through the journals, but as I recall Mrs. Stevens wasn't all that interesting.  Nor, in fact, was she a novelty: there were quite a few non-sex-maniacal lesbians in fiction before her.  Like Gore Vidal's account of his homosexual novel The City and the Pillar, Sarton toots her own horn a bit too stridently here.)

At the same time, it's clear that her anger often puzzled her: she wrote repeatedly that on some mornings she woke up in tears, for no reason she could name.  I don't judge her for this -- I have my own temper, and I honor her honesty in admitting that she could be difficult to get along with, in ways I recognize in myself -- nor do I try to diagnose her.  As she became older and her health declined she often came across in the journals as merely querulous, but then she had plenty to complain about, and I was always impressed at her determination to keep working and traveling as long as she could.  I hope to do as well myself.

The other thing I notice on this reading is that although Sarton often refers to her solitude, how she has chosen to live alone to dedicate herself to work, and her frequent loneliness, she hardly seems solitary to me.  As I mentioned, she kept in close touch with her ex, she had various love affairs, and she had an extended network of friends both personal and professional.  Her solitary life in these journals is frequently interrupted by visitors, usually but not always on the weekends, and by travels around the country to give readings and lectures.  Sometimes fans come knocking on her door.  She also has neighbors, who helped her get settled into her house, mow her grass, plow the road after snowfall, and look in on her periodically to make sure she's all right; her portraits of these people are often quite touching.  But then she complains regularly that she can't get any work done because of all the interruptions!  It's a fair complaint, but it undermines her protestations of solitude.  Oh well, I experience similar ambivalence about living alone, so I read a lot of this with recognition.  Like Sarton, I live alone, but I'm assuredly no hermit, nor would I want to be.  Maybe the meaning of "solitude" needs to be clarified.  I remember that while Thoreau lived "alone" and solitary at Walden Pond, he still went into town each day to gossip, and he took his laundry home for his mother to wash.  Even the desert hermits of the early Christian church lived in connection with monasteries and churches, and probably passed few days without seeing fellow religious, pilgrims, and servants bringing them their meals.

So, I'm enjoying this renewed acquaintance with the "solitary" May Sarton.  May my own old age be as fulfilling and productive.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Regardless of What They Say About It, We're Gonna Keep It

The Snopeses have never, as far as I can tell, seen a living President whose side they wouldn't take.  It's rather touching.  Today they took on a recurrent slur on President Obama: that the family dog Bo had been flown in his own personal jet to meet the Obamas when they arrived in Massachusetts for their vacation.  I think it's a safe bet that this rumor was fostered by Republicans, because in one version quoted by Snopes, the writer asks rhetorically "I wonder if that sets well with all the unemployed, hurting, U S citizens who can't afford food, but we can pay for this."  Republicans only care about the unemployed, hurting U S citizens when a Democrat is President, or when some other partisan advantage can be gained by pretending to care.  Democrats play the same game in reverse.

So, according to Snopes, Bo is sometimes shipped out on a separate plane, but they quote a newspaper report that he doesn't have the plane to himself, or even to himself and just one handler: "there were other occupants on the plane, including several other staffers.  The presidential party took two small jets to the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport in Trenton because the airport was too small to accommodate the President's usual jet."

Fair enough, I guess.  This tale reminded me of a review the late John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in a review of A Time for Truth (McGraw-Hill 1978), by former energy "czar" and Secretary of the Treasury William Simon.  (The review was collected in Annals of an Abiding Liberal, published in 1979 by Houghton Mifflin.)  As if unwilling to let the book stand on its own two feet, so to speak, Simon got introductory essays written by two ultraconservative economists, Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek.   Galbraith reported that Simon wrote
of going to Moscow in April 1975 [that is, during the Republican Gerald Ford administration] for a worthy but modest public relations exercise on behalf of Soviet-American trade.  What he calls "a staff group from the departments of State and Commerce and others" were along.  It was a relief, he says, to be on the way home, and as they soared out of the Soviet capital on Air Force Two, "seventy-eight dignified representatives of the United States of America shouted and applauded like youngsters in sheer relief ..."  A more candid man would condemn taking seventy-eight people all that distance for such a job  That, in all truth, Mr. Simon, was bureaucracy run wild [Annals of an Abiding Liberal, 104-5].
The President is a different case than a "public relations exercise," of course.  He can't really travel without support staff.  I suppose the amount of tax money that goes to pay for those two small jets is infinitesimal compared to the full Federal Budget.  And Air Force One also goes with the job.  I doubt that Republicans really want to impose the same austerity measures on Republican Presidents that they'd happily impose on Democrats.  Or vice versa.  It's funny, really.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Are They or Aren't They?

The above photograph is apparently world-famous -- in fact, it won the photographer a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 -- but I don't remember having seen it before.  Someone posted it to Facebook this weekend, under the header "Amazing Facts."  It depicts one male utility worker giving CPR to another worker who'd been shocked by a high voltage line. The CPR worked: the stricken man survived to live another forty years, and the man who saved him is still living.

Of course it sparked a lot of comments, some eulogizing the courage of linemen, others questioning how the picture came to be taken -- some speculated that it must have been staged, because who'd have a high-quality camera on a work site? -- some babbling about "heros" and "angles" (meaning "angels, of course), and others fiercely defending the virtue of the men depicted, this was not a dirty gay kiss but the Kiss of Life.  The person who posted the photo set a high tone by beginning the caption with "It's not what you may think."  (Gee, I thought it was a lineman giving CPR to another lineman -- do you mean they were really making out?)  One commenter wrote to another, "I hope Someone lets you die if you need mouth to mouth. Or Elton John is there and does mouth to mouth."

There were, of course, the predictable exhortations to other commenters to "get your mind out of the gutter."  There's nothing wrong with two men kissing, there's nothing of the "gutter" in it.  It supports something I've long thought: you can't always (or even often) tell, just by looking, whether two people are touching each other affectionately, erotically, or (as in this case) therapeutically.  If the circumstances under which this photograph was taken weren't so well documented, it would be hard to be sure what is really going on in it.  (If you can bear to read an ignorant and virtually incoherent account of a homoerotic reading of the picture, look here.)  It could be a carefully staged erotic photo, though it isn't.  I can sympathize, in fact, with those people who question whether it really was unstaged, because the image is so clear and the disposition of the men's bodies looks as if they were posed as lovers.  (On the other hand, the photo also reminds me of paintings of the body of Jesus being taken down from the cross.  "Passion," after all, meant suffering before it meant strong erotic or emotional feeling.)  If you first read the photo as a gay image, that is entirely reasonable.  It just happens that it isn't.  If it's true that a picture is worth a thousand words, it's also true that pictures may need a thousand words to clarify their ambiguity, and the words that label or describe a picture can change radically the way we interpret it.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hosts : Parasites = Taxpayers : The Business Sector

I'm sitting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, stalled on my way home from San Francisco.  There's some mechanical problem with the plane, so we are waiting on the arrival of a part and a mechanic.  If all goes well, I'll get home tonight.  (What I'll do if I get to Indianapolis too late for the last shuttle to Bloomington tonight, I don't know.  Start walking, maybe?)  But it leaves me with time to post something here.

I'm reading David F. Noble's Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (Knopf, 1984), an account of management's eternal quest to enhance their control of the world by replacing human workers with machines.  (If only consumers could be replaced with machines too, the cycle would be complete!)  Noble focuses on the automation of machine tools, a process which was accelerated by World War II, faltered briefly when the war ended, and took on new life with the Cold War.  Peace is Hell.  Not only heavy industry but academic science flourishes in modern wartime, when the government will spend almost unlimited amounts of money developing new technology. 

The machine tool industry is an appropriate focus for Noble's study:
Although they are credited with hard-headed business conservatism, the machine tool makers in reality have always been more attuned to performance than to costs, an attitude that can be traced back to the Army-sponsored origins of the industry in the nineteenth century ... [In 1963, the economist Seymour Melman complained about the industry] in an article aptly entitled "Profits Without Productivity," this time noting specifically that "since the Department of Defense has become the single largest customer for the machine tool industry, the industry [has been] made less sensitive to pressures from other customers for reducing the prices of its products" [9].
As the taxpayers became increasingly (if unwittingly) generous supporters of scientific research, scientists themselves forged a cozy relationship with the military and with industry.  I was going to say they were "corrupted," but the ease with which they slipped into this cronyism indicates that they had little virtue to protect.
Universities had become accustomed to the ways of industrial contracting, and to their affluent liaison with the armed forces.  Scientists had become the "backroom boys" and "science had become powerful, had become a useful and gainful profession."  During the war, "cost itself was no object, the imperative consideration was to get on with the job, at whatever the price in dollars; fiscal and administrative policies were subordinated to the technical needs of those who were getting the job done."  Historian Daniel Kevles noted that "the war effort had given professors the heady taste of doing research with few financial restraints.  Typically the young physicists at the MIT Radiation Laboratory had grown accustomed to signing an order for a new instrument whose cost would have deadlocked a faculty before the war."  For the people who would come to dominated postwar science, professors and students alike, a "novel blend of the sheltered academic instructional program and the playing-for-keeps research and development program," a military orientation, and an indulgent policy of performance at any cost had become an attractive way of life [11].
By the mid-1950s, MIT and its industrial partners had become used to being supported by the taxpayers:
In early 1954, the Air Force solicited proposals from the aircraft industry for the government-funded application of numerical control to production machinery.  The Air Force had hoped that the industry would underwrite the commercial development of the new technology on its own initiative and with its own capital but this never happened, owing largely to the great complexity and expense of the system.  Even those who had been impressed by the demonstration at MIT had their doubts that the electronic gadgetry would actually function in production, under shop conditions.  Thus the Air Force assumed responsibility as well for the “transfer” of this technology from the laboratory to the factory, offering pay for those commercial application projects which “because of the undue financial risk involved, the aircraft industry is not in a position to underwrite … with private capital” [134].
The military even found it difficult -- impossible, in the event -- to escape MIT's embrace:
The Air Force had already begun to criticize the laboratory’s extensive liaison activities.  More important, the Air Force desired very much to pull back from MIT and shift the burden of further development of this now technically proven technology to industry.  As project historian Donald P. Hunt explained, “The Air Force at this stage considered that the development status of numerical control was such that industry could and would accept and exploit it to an extent commensurate with its potentialities without further government sponsorship.”  This turned out to be an overly optimistic assessment of the situation: the government had still to expend millions of dollars and actually create and guarantee a market for numerical control before wary industrialists would take the gamble [138].
History like this should make everyone skeptical when pro-business conservatives try to pretend that there's a wall of separation between government and business, especially when big corporations are involved.  It's not news to anyone who's half-informed that the postwar economic boom was funded by huge amounts of taxpayer dollars.  Anyone who talks about "economic freedom" (the Right's propaganda slogan equivalent of the marriage movement's "marriage equality") should be questioned closely about how much "freedom" they really want; it probably will consist of the freedom to receive vast amounts of tax money with no strings attached: no accountability, no responsibility.  Profits without productivity, as Seymour Melman put it.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Teeman Multitudes

The Daily Beast has an article up, "How Gay Was Gore Vidal?"  The author, Tim Teeman, is apparently a successful British journalist, the kind you cannot hope to bribe or twist, with an upcoming biography of Vidal due to be published later this year.  The article is, well, painful.
Vidal said he was bisexual, but his family and friends say he was gay. Vidal adamantly believed “gay” referred to a sexual act, not a sexual identity. 
Oh, no.  No, no, no.  First, I'm not sure Vidal ever said he was bisexual.  He did talk and write of having copulated with males and females, and maybe that's what Teeman means.  But as far as I know Vidal never labeled himself sexually, at least for the record.  (Readers, correct me if you know otherwise.)

Vidal did not believe "'gay' referred to a sexual act, not a sexual identity."  The word Teeman has in mind, I suspect, is "homosexual," which Vidal insisted referred only to acts, not to persons. "Gay" does not equal "homosexual."  In this he followed Alfred Kinsey, whose research into sexual behavior Vidal supported and aided.  Nor would Vidal have used the term "identity" in this context; that's a post-70s usage, which has led to immense confusion.
On "gay," Vidal told Fag Rag in the 1970s,
I prefer the word faggot which I tend to use myself. I have never allowed, actively, in my life the word “gay” to pass my lips. I don’t know why I hate that word ... Also, I mean, historically it meant a girl of easy virtue in the 17th century. They’d say: “Is she gay?” Which meant: “Is she available?” And this, I don’t think, is highly descriptive of anybody. It’s just a bad word. You see, I don’t think you have to have a word for it. This is what you have to evolve. These words have got to wither away in a true Hegelian cycle.
Vidal wasn't the only fag of his generation who hated the word "gay."  (Just as gay men of my generation hated "queer" when it was reclaimed by younger people in the 90s, and a few years later younger queers rejected "gay" because they knew it only as a homophobic schoolyard slur.)  Christopher Isherwood was another, though he eventually grew accustomed to it as he made common cause with the post-Stonewall gay movement.  There were a number of reasons for this distaste, but since Teeman can't even get Vidal's words right, he can't shed much light on his reasons.

Teeman condescends to Vidal as a man of "his time," but he's too ignorant of even recent history to be taken seriously.  Writing of Howard Austen, with whom Vidal lived for over fifty years, Teeman writes "For most of their lives together, Vidal referred to Austen as his friend," and adds, "This was no 'friendship,' but, as I sketch in the book, a deep, enduring relationship."  "Friend" was queer code for "boyfriend" in those days (you can see this in Isherwood's writings) and for quite some time afterward, and not everyone even now would agree that a friendship, even a non-sexual one, can't be "deep" or "enduring."  It looks like Teeman's upcoming book will have some hot dish, but he too is a man of his time, and it's a time of shallow, sensational, ill-informed tabloid writing.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

That'll Teach That House a Lesson

You've heard of the superstitious old days, when animals were tried and executed for various crimes?  Including crimes against nature?  (This doesn't seem like it should be so outrageous to modern sensibilities, since many people increasingly treat non-human animals as people and members of the family.  With rights go responsibilities!)

Anyway, in the Twenty-First Century, we've come to this: the demolition of a house where a crime was committed, with due process of law of course, as "a relative of one victim represented the three and took the controls of the wrecking crane for the first smash into the top of the front wall. Later, as the house debris disappeared into the basement, church bells rang."  So it was a highly spiritual moment.  As one former resident of the street put it, "tearing the house down was important for the neighborhood to show 'that monster – that he is behind bars and that he's never going to get out.'"  This will send a message to houses everywhere, to be responsible for what happens within their walls, unlike the people in this neighborhood, who never noticed anything amiss in that household over a decade.

In other news on the same web page, "Selena Gomez Wears Impossibly Short Shorts."  Obviously symbolic of how life goes on.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Photo Funny

Okay, help me figure this out.  These pictures were taken within about a minute of each other.  South of Market:


North of Market, catty-corner from the first one:

More than half a dollar's difference per gallon, same day, same street.  I don't think I've ever seen anything like this before.

P.S.  A sharp-eyed reader from the East Coast pointed out what I should have spotted: the sign at the bottom of the first picture, which explains $3.75 as the cash price.  The credit-card price is $4.33, almost as much as the station across the street.  If I had to drive in San Francisco, I'd be sure to have cash when I needed to fuel up.

Monday, August 5, 2013

If You're Happy and You Know It, Kick Some Butt


I'm gonna pass this meme along just so I can critique it.  First, "be thankful" to whom?  (I'm an atheist, remember, so there's no one to thank, despite Daniel Dennett.  Wotta maroon.)  But more important: Happiness and anger are not necessarily incompatible.  The happier I am, the more angry certain things make me, because they harsh my buzz.  Things like bigotry, stupidity, evil.  The same goes for hate: I hate bigotry, and I will open a can of whoop-ass for bigots of all stripes.  Funny, isn't it?  Bigots are such tender critters: they can dish it out but they can't take it.  Call them on it, call them what they are, and you're a big old Politically Correct meanie.  And other people, ostensible liberals, will side with them.

As for complaining, this is another in that family of memes that backfires on its creator.  The person who made this meme is complaining about people who complain, like people who judgmentally tell you it's wrong to judge, or hatefully tell you that you shouldn't hate.  As Tom Lehrer said, "I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings -- and I hate people like that."  But complaining is just fine; it's necessary, though all complaints are not created equal.  As Malcolm X said, quoting proverbial wisdom, it's the hinge that squeaks that gets the grease.

Somewhere there's a quotation from Pauline Kael on this subject that I must recover.  But if you're so happy that you can't get angry about things that matter, you're not happy, just high.