Sunday, March 31, 2013

Reality Has No Name

Here's a good example of sloppy, lazy use of language.  I saw an online advertisement today, consisting of the words "All Military Families Deserve Benefits, Regardless of Sexual Orientation."  Families don't have sexual orientations.  Individuals in families have sexual orientations, but they may not have the same ones: one partner may be gay, the other bisexual -- and their children, if any, may be straight.

What the ad meant, of course, was that same-sex couples should have the same privileges in terms of benefits that mixed-sex couples do.  Which, I suppose, would mean that they'd have to be married:  unmarried heterosexual couples don't get such benefits.

A related example: yesterday a colleague, moderating a GLB panel for an education class, explained to the audience that as teachers they may have students with "same-sex parents."  What she said was that a child may have a parent of the same sex; in my case, that would have been my father.  Not all children do have same-sex parents living with them.  But that's not what my colleague meant.  She meant that some children have two parents of the same sex.  That's not necessarily the same thing as having gay or bisexual parents.  A straight male friend of mine isn't married to the mother of his son; soon after the boy was born she married another man and had a child with him.  Since the boy regarded both men as his fathers, he had three parents, two of whom were the same sex.  (True, they weren't both his biological father, but the same is usually true in lesbian couples with children: only one is the biological mother, but both are moms.)  As I've noticed before, "same-sex" -- which refers to the bodies of the people who are interacting, not to their sexual orientation or other essence -- is gradually taking on the meaning of "gay" or "lesbian," as when someone writes about "same-sex acts."  (Similarly, I've seen references to LGBT individuals, but no individual can be gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered.)

We were speaking to a class for future teachers in the School of Education, and the instructor had sent the participants some advance questions and other material.  The most interesting to me was information about "microaggression," a term I hadn't heard before though it has been around since 1970.  I wish I'd saved the definition the instructor sent us, but Wikipedia's is close to it:
Microagression usually involves demeaning implications and other subtle insults against minorities, and may be perpetrated against those due to gender, sexual orientation, and ability status. According to Pierce, “the chief vehicle for proracist behaviors are microaggressions. These are subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put-downs’ of blacks by offenders”.  Microaggressions may also play a role in unfairness in the legal system as they can influence the decisions of juries.
My immediate reaction to this concept was positive, since it's certainly true that most racist and other bigoted behavior takes forms other than overt violence and verbal abuse.  But even people who throw around racist epithets will deny that they're racist; the real problem is getting them to recognize that such behavior and attitudes are racist (or sexist, etc.).  Invoking a word like "microaggression" is not going to help.  It can be useful for people who are discussing the varieties of bigoted behavior, but it should have no place in dealing with people whose behavior you're trying to change.  A professional who doesn't have a non-jargon translation handy in those situations needs to go back to school.

But I had reservations almost immediately.  Since most white Americans, anyway, seem to have trouble grasping that you can be racist even if you've never lynched anybody or never owned a slave,
I gather from Chester M. Pierce's words as quoted by Wikpedia that microaggressions are by definition nonverbal.  (I'm not sure whether the "often" in "often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges" is meant to modify only "automatic," or "nonverbal" also.  Another definition, also quoted by Wikipedia, includes verbal behavior.)  From the discussion in class when we spoke there, I could tell that the students were already blurring the meaning of "microaggression" to include all kinds of behavior, verbal and nonverbal, that didn't fit the definition of the term.

After the class, I looked for more information about microaggression on the Web, and found this tumblr-like blog, The Microaggression Project, discussed by the bloggers in an interview with Ms. magazine.  I noticed quickly that many of the submissions weren't about microaggressions at all, but about overt expressions of bigotry -- call them "macroaggressions."  I also noticed in the Wikipedia article that some researchers have begun multiplying varieties, "microinsult" and "microrape" for example.  There are also "microaffirmations" and "microinequities."  I don't think that these variations add anything useful to the concept, especially since so much behavior intended to reinforce power and status occurs without overt violence.  The concept of institutional or structural racism, for example, dealt with subtle as well as overt forms of subjugation and privilege.  Power isn't always exercised by violence; it's more effective if it works subtly, even subliminally.

Words like "microaggression" are easy to define, but apparently many people, even academics and trained professionals, have trouble learning and applying those definitions.  They also inflate their meaning to the point where the terms lose precision, and sometimes any meaning at all.  In the same way that "deconstruct" came to mean simply "analyze," rendering it redundant, "microaggression" seems to be headed toward meaning "racism," "sexism," or any other form of bigotry.  In which case, why use it at all?  I suspect that part of the appeal of these words is their Latinate abstractness, which has prestige for many people: using them makes the user feel powerful.  Which isn't entirely a bad thing -- it was, after all, one of the reasons Raymond Williams wrote Keywords: to give working-class people and people without university backgrounds the knowledge they needed to use such words:
I deliberately included some terms in it because I felt that people did not know their more interesting and complex social history, and so were often unsure about employing them, or recoiling from one of their meanings which had been heavily put to use by ruling-class papers or publicists. I wanted to give them confidence in their ability to use these terms [Politics and Letters (Verso 1979), p. 179].
But Williams wrote Keywords primarily for university students, and it's clear they need it just as much.  It may be for lack of such a resource that graduate students and professors keep messing up terms like "social construction," "essentialism," and other technical terms in their own fields.  It's not enough simply to wave these terms around, they must be used correctly.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Problem of Definition

A friend sent me a copy of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, published last year.  She loved the book and recommended it highly to all her friends on Facebook.  I was wary of it, partly because I'd recently tried to read Anneli Rufus's Party of One: A Loner's Manifesto (Da Capo, 2003) and became terminally annoyed within a dozen pages.  But I promised I'd get to Quiet as soon as a copy became available at the library, and that's how a copy arrived in the mail.

I procrastinated, because I had a lot of books I wanted to get through first.  But then I found I'd gotten through most of them, and Quiet was washed up, as it were, on the shore.  So today I gave it a try, and got bogged down very quickly.  I switched to William Benemann's Male-Male Intimacy in Early America, and found myself making notes about things I disagreed with, so I'm going to begin here by explaining why I object to Quiet.  I'm determined to finish it eventually, because I love my friend, respect her intelligence, and feel obligated to get through the book -- but it is going to take a while.  For now, here's how Susan Cain got off on the wrong foot.

Cain begins by telling the story of Rosa Parks, who on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, and whose arrest set off the Montgomery bus boycott.  She contrasts Parks with Martin Luther King, Jr. the eloquent preacher.
I had always imagined Rosa Parks as a stately woman with a bold temperament, someone who could easily stand up to a busload of glowering passengers.  But when she died in 2005 at the age of ninety-two, the flood of obituaries recalled her as soft-spoken, sweet, and small in stature.  They said she was "timid and shy" but had "the courage of a lion."  They were full of phrases like "radical humility" and "quiet fortitude."  What does it mean to be quiet and have fortitude? these descriptions asked implicitly.  How could you be shy and courageous?

Parks herself seemed aware of this paradox, calling her autobiography Quiet Strength -- a title that challenges us to question our assumptions.  Why shouldn't quiet be strong?  And what else can quiet do that we don't give it credit for [2]?
As so often, I found myself asking irritably, "What do you mean 'we'?"  The idea of strong, quiet people is proverbial, even a cliché.  Still waters run deep, for example.  If Parks hadn't acknowledged it herself, I'd have suspected that the tributes she received had more to do with reassuring men (yes, and women) that she wasn't forward, she wasn't a termagant or a virago, she was a nice little woman who knew her place and just happened to find herself on the stage of History, almost by accident.  She took a wrong turn on her way to the ladies' room, perhaps, and ended up under the bright lights. The work of black women in the Civil Rights movement and the Black Nationalist movement has too often been downplayed to appease male insecurity.  That is certainly the way Parks has often been depicted, through no fault of her own, but it's false.

Even if Parks was a shy and humble person, and I have no doubt that she was, she was also an activist before she took her stand on that bus. She joined the Montgomery branch of the NAACP in 1943, and became secretary soon after.  "I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no," she said later, but she stayed in that post until 1957.  And she did more than take the minutes: she investigated the gang-rape of a black woman in Abbeville, Alabama, participated in other actions, and not long before that day in 1955, she "had recently attended the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for training activists for workers' rights and racial equality."  So she was not a loner who walked into town one day and took on the bad guys: however quiet and shy she was, she knew the value of working with others, and knew she didn't stand alone.  She knew that her arrest would lead to organized action; she wasn't the first black person to refuse to give up a seat on the bus, but she was the one chosen by the Montgomery civil rights organizations to support.

None of this is exactly obscure; so why does Cain perpetuate this myth?  No doubt because it can be used to support her thesis, but the historical reality is quite different from her (and mainstream America's) version of the story.

Beyond that, do "timid," "shy," and "humble" really equal "introvert"?  Maybe Rosa Parks was an introvert; I don't object to the classification, but Cain hasn't really given any reason to put her into that box.  I'm an introvert, and I'm not particularly humble.  Though I'm shy, I have also been a ham ever since I was a child; give me an audience to speak to or sing to, and you'd never guess I was shy, or introverted.  From the list of famous introverts she provides in the introduction, it appears that she thinks "introverted" means "socially inept."  As the Publishers Weekly reviewer said of Rufus's Party of One, it's a "compendium of everyone who was anyone who ever spent a moment alone".  That set me to wondering.  From what I remember and my mother's occasional remarks, I began to be less gregarious around the time I learned to read, and because reading came easily to me, I found books a fascinating world to explore; reading, like serious thinking, is something that you must do alone.  (There are ways to read with other people, but they're slower.)  There were probably other reasons and factors, but I think that was one of them for me.

Later in the book (I peeked ahead) Cain discusses Asian-American kids who live in communities with large numbers of serious students, so that they have a community of people to share their nerdy interests with.  She still thinks they're introverts.  I grew up in a small midwestern town, with few if any eager readers or scholars around, so I had no such community. Would my personality be different if I'd had a bunch of friends who loved to read?  I can't know, but I suspect so.  I've also read that European mathematicians and scientists are less likely to be monomoniacal isolates than their American counterparts; they're more likely to have a good grounding in the humanities as well as the sciences.

It seems that Cain embraces the very clichés and stereotypes she's set out to refute.  She also thinks that the marginalization of the introvert is something new, and even peculiarly American.  I doubt that just on principle: human beings are a social species, so a person who won't immerse himself or herself in the group will always be suspect.  And unless you're devoted to the idea that there's something wrong with being different, is it really so bad to live on the margins of the Group?  (Which doesn't mean you aren't still part of it.)  It's a difficult job sometimes, but someone has to do it.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

I Like Her Attitude

Today I'm reading Sexual Politics in Cuba: Machismo, Homosexuality, and AIDS (Westview Press, 1994) by Marvin Leiner.  Though it was published during the Clinton administration, it tells me a lot I hadn't known about sexuality and gender in revolutionary Cuba.  Leiner is an admitted heterosexual, and I believe I've seen some criticisms of his work in other academic writings on homosexuality in Latin America, but I'll check those after I finish reading the book.  I have a few minor quibbles myself, but nothing that really affects the value of the book so far.

Leiner is also a socialist, and (or but?) he manages to rebut some criticisms of Castro without being uncritical of the regime.  (He often points out that much of the official and unofficial persecution against Cuban gays has its parallels in the US and elsewhere: like OMG, the nasty Cubans won't let homosexuals serve in the military!  When this book was written, we were excluded from the US military too.)  He's been a scholar of Cuba for decades and has lived there for extended periods; he draws on his own interviews for this book.  But for now I want to quote one of his sources, the director of the National Working Group on Sex Education (Spanish abbreviation GNTES), Monika Krause.  Krause, from the former East Germany, moved to Cuba to work on their sex education program.  Leiner quotes her lecture on homosexuality to Cuban doctors.
Then I say, "I need you, from this moment on, to be capable of repressing your aversion, your hatred, because I need you to listen.  You're doctors.  You are not anybody from the street: you are doctors."

I try to teach this class with a lot of participation, and, sometimes, depending on the group, I also introduce skits.  I tell the doctors that I need a volunteer.  If nobody raises his or her hand, I continue: "You are my doctor; I am an adolescent boy."  (That needs a lot of imagination.)

So I'm role-playing the boy, and I say to the young doctor: "You are the family doctor, and I am asking you what to do because I'm homosexual.  I have a lot of problems, and I don't know what it is, and I want to change because I want to live in accordance with the ethical and moral rules of society.  I don't want to be an outsider.  Well, doctor, what shall I do?  I need your help."

The members of the class don't know what to do.  They are asking the same questions of me, calling on me for help.  Well, then I say, "Tell me, every one of you, what are the main characteristics of a homosexual?"  And I write their answers on the chalkboard: "a disease, a plague." They continue, and I put all the words on the board: weak character, anti-social, faggot, corrupt, deviant, degenerate, unnatural.  All the familiar, terrible phrases.
[P.S. Krause's remark that "You are not anybody from the street; you are doctors" is probably unfair to people "from the street."  Lower-class Latinos have wide differences of opinion and attitude to homosexuality, but I can say that in my experience, working-class people without college educations are generally not hostile to gays; they may consider it sinful, but hey, we're all sinners.  Epithets like "a disease, a plague," are more likely to come from the more educated.  I realize that Krause means merely to shame her audiences for their irrational vehemence, but to do so by appealing to their class prejudice -- in a socialist society! -- isn't an ideal approach.]

While I hope that they are better than this now, the same program before a roomful of American doctors in the late 1970s and early 1980s would probably have gone exactly the same way.  American doctors weren't, until that time and possibly later, required to take any courses on human sexuality, even though general practitioners were sure to be asked questions about sex.  This is one reason why straight doctors mostly failed to deal properly with the AIDS crisis as it unfolded; gay doctors were another story.  Back to Krause:
Several times when I am talking, they jump and shout, and I have to say, "Are you a doctor?  Or are you illiterate?"  When they ask for further clarification, I explain that we do not yet know the real essence of homosexuality.  But neither do we know the real essence of heterosexuality.  Only nobody is asking about that; everybody is asking about homosexuality.  Our view  was always that homosexuality is something bad, evil, something terrible, unnatural.  I say, "We know a lot about what homosexuality is not.  We have enough arguments to say that it is not what is on the board; of that I assure you."  And we have no possibilities of carrying out research because our homosexuals in Cuba are still under obligation, if they respect themselves, to hide their condition.  Not to do so would bring about the end of his or her life as an accepted human being ...

Often when I teach this class, the doctors will interrupt me -- shouting, getting very agitated and losing their control.  Sometimes they feel very ashamed when I have to calm them down.  "Control yourself!  You are doctors!  You cannot behave this way in front of a patient; you can't.  Even if you hate homosexuals, you cannot manifest the same behavior and attitude you just have with me."

And then I say, "Of course, I do not expect that you will change your attitude from today to tomorrow.  I know what many of you are thinking: She is one of them because otherwise, she wouldn't say that.  She is perverted; she is a lesbian, she is a feminist; she is a this or a that and so on.  And I assure you, I was thinking the same things ten or fifteen years ago.  But we have to be consistent with our humanistic conception of society ...

And then I tell them an anecdote.  I attended the Latin American Congress on Sexuality and Sex Education in Venezuela two years ago.  The representative of the Catholic Church, Bishop Monsignor Leoni from Caracas, gave a speech.  He was condemning so many things, so many things.  Delegates from the Congress asked him: "What is the position of the Catholic Church concerning homosexuality?"  And the monsignor answered, "A homosexual can never be a good Catholic.  The Catholic Church and homosexuality are antagonistic."  People asked why.  He answered, "Because it is so."  "Why can't a homosexual be a good Catholic?"  He replied, "Because he cannot."

Then I say to the class: "You are not allowed to answer as did the Bishop Monsignor Leoni of Caracas" [46-48].
I think I'm in love.  I've often said that I don't like the term "common sense," but what Krause says here feels like common sense to me.  Lest anyone protest that she's imposing "Western" ideas about sexuality and homosexuality on a non-Western society, let me point out that, first, Krause was brought in by the Cuban government to teach these things; and second, the homophobic attitudes of those doctors (not to mention Monsignor Leoni) are thoroughly Western.  (As others have pointed out, when non-Westerners condemn homosexuality as a Western import, they are usually quite happy to cite Western bigots to support their views.)

When it's appropriate, and unfortunately it often is, I've said basically the same thing to classes which train teachers or social workers: you're entitled to your personal beliefs and opinions, but you are not entitled to impose them on your students and clients.  (Just as I, an atheist, would not be entitled to tell Christians I was counseling or teaching that they'll be just fine if they give up their religious beliefs.)  It's lovely to see someone else saying the same things.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mom Quiz

Helen Keller has fascinated me since I was a child.  She was still alive when I first heard of her, though she was very old and her health was failing.  What moved me about her was not so much her heroism in overcoming her disabilities, but how she symbolized the importance of language and learning, of talking and reading and writing as ways of making sense of the world and making contact with other people.  The famous and defining image of Annie Sullivan spelling W-A-T-E-R into young Helen's hand, leading to the revelation that the signs were connected to the water flowing over her other hand, is for me the key to all this.  So is the fragility of our faculties.  (The film Awakenings, about people who emerged from years of catatonia brought on by encephalitis lethargica to brief periods of awareness, affected me similarly.)


So when I found a copy tonight in a used bookstore of a children's biography of Keller, published in 1958 but kept in print until the early years of this century, it caught my attention.  (The picture above isn't of the copy I found, by the way.)  But what made me decide to buy it was the name of the author, Lorena Hickok.  Does that name ring a bell for anyone else?  Click through to find out who she was.

Ooooh, Snap! Oh, Wait ...

There's a confusion at the heart of the controversy over same-sex marriage, and it's noticeable in this question by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, posted online in an image file too damn bloated for me to put into this post.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Outside of the marriage context, can you think of any other rational basis, reason, for a state using sexual orientation as a factor in denying homosexuals benefits or imposing burdens on them?  Is there any other rational decision-making that the government could make?  Denying them a job, not granting them benefits of some sort, any other decision?

MR. COOPER: Your honor, I cannot.
The site where this quotation appeared touted it as "A Supreme Court Justice Takes Down An Anti-Gay Marriage Argument in 1 Minute."  It includes a one-minute, twenty-second audio clip of the exchange, with another question that adds nothing substantial to the question already quoted.  I don't understand how that headline follows from Sotomayor's questions.  Nor does the site's comment connect, as far as I can tell.
During a Supreme Court hearing to determine whether Proposition 8 (marriage shall only be between one man and one woman) was constitutional, a number of anti-gay marriage arguments got spectacularly demolished.
I don't see any demolition, spectacular or otherwise, in Sotomayor's remarks.  Maybe I'm missing something.

The confusion I'm referring to is between the issue of same-sex marriage and the concept of "sexual orientation."  It's true that homosexual and bisexual persons are probably more likely than heterosexual persons to want to marry someone of their own sex, but the issue isn't sexual orientation, it's the sexes of the people involved.  It's been a popular derisory line of antigay bigots that homosexuals are free to marry, they just can't marry someone of their own sex.  That line shows a deliberate cluelessness on the bigots' part, but it also is true.  Quite a few homosexually or bisexually-inclined people have married spouses of the other sex.

Bisexuality throws a bit of a monkey wrench in this whole mess, by the way, not least because of the hostility to bisexuals so common among many gay people.  A bisexual person isn't obliged by his or her "sexual orientation" to marry, if anyone, someone of his or own sex; it's possible that they'll marry someone of the other sex.  If sexual orientation were the driving force in choosing a spouse, then logically bisexuals must be allowed two spouses at the same time, one of each sex.  But that's a reductio ad absurdum, not a recommendation.

I've mentioned before the relevance of Loving v. Virginia to this controversy.  In overturning state laws against interracial marriage, the Supreme Court did not postulate a "racial orientation" that drove the Lovings to marry someone of a different race, though given the virulent racism of the United States in those days it would have been a reasonable claim that they must have had a different nature to want to mix races like that.  But that seems not even to have been thought of.  (Ironically, by tying same-sex marriage to status, the same-sex marriage movement is assuming an "intraracial" model for marriage: gay people will marry other gay people, sticking to their own kind.)  "Sexual orientation" was invented largely to claim that lovers of their own sex are driven to do so by a different (but murky and incoherent) biological nature, and that concept frames the debate about homosexuality in the US today, so much so that many if not most gay people think it's absolutely necessary if we're to claim our rights as citizens.  Not only bisexuality as a separate "sexual orientation" but the more recently-added category "men who have sex with men" pose serious difficulties to the status approach, which is why most advocates of gay rights and same-sex marriage prefer to ignore them.  But since bisexuals have been subsumed into the GLBTQ alphabet soup, it takes some serious thought control to bring that off.

In the context of a Supreme Court case it's easier: the issues are framed as narrowly as possible, and I don't expect the Court's resident bigots, Scalia and Thomas, to try to widen the frame; that would necessitate an intelligence about human sexuality and a subtlety of thought that neither ever seems to have displayed before.  But I can't help wondering, and would love to ask Ms. Justice Sotomayor: what if it were established definitively that homosexuality is not a "status" but something else?  The concept of sexual orientation, after all, is tied to very dubious and probably bogus science.  After all, people are entitled by the Constitution to choose their religious affiliation, to speak their minds freely and not by inner compulsion.  Why must the choice of one's spouse be thought to be so different from the exercise of other rights and freedoms?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Outstaying Its Welcome

We didn't get the seven inches of snow that had been forecast last night, just two or three, but that's bad enough for the last week of March in south central Indiana.  Flurries continued today, and are supposed to continue through tomorrow.  So I'm going to use my displeasure over the weather as an excuse not to write much of a post today.  (I'm also captivated by two different books that I'd rather continue reading.  Might write about at least one of them when I'm done.)

Today's photo is from the Facebook page of one of my hometowns, probably taken in the 1920s.  It just occurred to me, looking at it again now, what snow removal would have been like before the internal combustion engine took over; probably next to nonexistent.  I've read about people digging a path to the barn and the outhouse and waiting for a thaw.  It could be worse, but I'm an optimist: it could be better.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Your God Is Too Small

The upper quotation in this meme baffles me.  (Well, so does the title: families are not forever, not in Christianity.  Jesus was explicitly hostile to natural families.)  Yahweh, the God of Judaism and Christianity, is everywhere.  It never ceases to amaze me how religious believers whittle down their own deity.

I recall how the ultraconservative Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga tried to deal with the problem of evil with an analogy: If you run out of gas on a lonely road on a stormy night, it doesn't mean your friend is a bad person if he fails to help you, because he didn't know you needed help.  (This was published in 1974, before cell phones.)  Plantinga really seemed to believe this move would work.  But if you run out of gas on a lonely road on a stormy night, the God of Christianity knows it.  He could add some gas to your tank without leaving his throne.  Or he could inspire another driver to take a detour down your road and notice your plight.  There are other arguments which might work better, but Plantinga used this one, and it's typical of the ways theistic philosophers have dealt with knotty problems in the philosophy of religion.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Some Words of Wisdom from 1986

I'm re-watching one of my favorite movies, Parting Glances.  It is probably the first feature film that dealt with AIDS to go into general release in the US, made by a group of friends on a shoestring budget but much better than you'd expect for the money.  (About as good as a TV movie from the period, but much better-written.)  It has lots of great dialogue; one of the tragedies of cinema is that Bill Sherwood, who wrote and directed, didn't live to make another film.  (I read an interview with him in which he recounted phone calls with closeted Hollywood people who offered him a chance to do pretty much anything he wanted, as long as it wasn't gay.)  Here's a great exchange I'd almost forgotten until I saw it again today.

Nick (Steve Buscemi) is a punk/alternative musician with AIDS.  Michael (Richard Ganoung) is his former boyfriend, still-friend, and caregiver; he visits regularly to make Nick's meals, which has led to some strain between Michael and Robert (John Bolger), his partner of six years.  Michael and Nick are in Nick's kitchen when Nick asks:
NICK: You know the difference between straight guys and gay guys?

MICHAEL: Uh... I forget.

NICK: There isn't any.  This is a scary and seldom-understood fact.  Straight guys are jerks, gay guys are jerks...
Though I'm also partial to this exchange between Michael and his friend Joan (Kathy Kinney), talking about Michael's guilt over feeling glad he doesn't have AIDS.  (The characters are both about 28 years old.)
JOAN: Don't worry, a few years down the road we have lung cancer, heart attacks to look forward to.

MICHAEL: It's different when you're fifty or sixty, impending death doesn't freak you out as much.

JOAN: I bet it does, I bet it's a fuckin' drag, even if you're eighty.
I think that to most screenwriting pros, dialogue like this would be considered a distraction to be cut out.  I think these exchanges tell us more about the characters, and also express the writer's opinions without being intrusive or preachy.  I love this movie.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Love Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

I was listening to Democracy Now's story today about Tomas Young, the wounded Iraq War veteran whose angry letter to Bush and Cheney has been getting a lot of attention lately, when I remembered the above meme, posted to Facebook last week by one of my right-wing acquaintances there.  The meme annoyed me, but for some time I couldn't think of what to say about it.  "Thank him for what?" was my first thought.  But that wasn't enough: I had to think of what I should say to a veteran.  Something not accusatory.

Today I realized that what I should say, and what I think almost all Americans should say to someone who fought in either Afghanistan or Iraq, is simply I'm sorry.  Sorry for letting you be sent over there.  Sorry the antiwar movement wasn't able to stop Bush and Cheney's evil plans.   (Those who supported the war should apologize for that.)

By chance I also happened yesterday on a 1960 discussion, now available online, of Robert Heinlein's notorious sf novel Starship Troopers.  I haven't read all the contributions yet, but Damon Knight's startled me.  This part:
To a dedicated pacifist, "War is horrible" is a basic premise and is interpreted literally.  It follows that no recognizably human being could be a professional soldier.  But professional soldiers exist.  Therefore they must be essentially depraved and brutalized people.  When professional soldiers are depicted in fiction as being normal human beings, the pacifist's whole position is threatened; and he screams.  So would you.
I'm not a pacifist myself, dedicated or otherwise, but I'm alert to the use of "pacifist" as a straw man to distract attention from the issues when war is being discussed.  I have not read much of the literature of pacifism, a lack which I suppose I should rectify but doesn't seem all that important to me, because (as I argued in the post I just linked) the real question is whether a specific, given war should be fought, whether the default answer to that question should be (as it normally is) "Yes."  The burden of argument, I insist, should rest on the person who advocates bombing anyone else into the Stone Age, not on the person who opposes going to war.  But that goes against every instinct of civilized life.

My lack of literacy in pacifist studies is relevant now because I can't say for certain whether or not avowed pacifists hold that "professional soldiers ... must be essentially depraved and brutalized people."  I have never seen this asserted (though I welcome citations if my readers can supply any).  The only time I encountered such a suggestion (though not by pacifists), I argued against it.  Since Knight's accusation is so similar, rhetorically, to accusations generally made against opponents of war (they spit on our troops!  they want us to be overrun by the dirty Reds!), I think it's safe to dismiss it.  I can't imagine such a defense made of mundane-fiction books about war; those I've heard of or read don't depict soldiers as essentially depraved -- not all that surprising since they are often written by veterans.  It's the governments they serve, the men and women who run those governments, who are depraved, as we see over and over again.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Picking Up the Cast-offs

I noticed today that when the Atlantic runs articles on heterosexual marriage, they tend to be fretting about heterosexuals' declining interest in the institution.  Articles on same-sex marriage can be a lot more upbeat, with no mention of the downside of matrimony.  Just sayin'.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pollittically Correct


Christina Hoff Sommers has a post at The Atlantic today, devoted to ankle-biting Sheryl Sandberg's hot new book Lean In.  It's a nice mixture of misreading and illogic, which I gather is typical of Sommers.

First she takes a swipe at Katha Pollitt, who defended Sandberg as being "like someone who’s just taken Women’s Studies 101 and wants to share it with her friends."  Sommers complains that Lean In "is mired in 1970s-style feminism ... What Pollitt intends as a compliment goes to the heart of what is wrong with Lean In."  I think Sommers's ear for tone is a bit off.  Read in context, Pollitt's remarks feel patronizing (or rather matronizing) to me.

I gather that by "1970s-style feminism" Sommers means a sort of blank-slate approach to gender, where social conditioning is all and biology is nothing.  True, some 1970s feminists did talk that way, but even those who did had a tendency to fall back into essentialist "women are naturally gentle and nurturing" talk.  Like many people discussing differences between groups, however, Sommers tends to turn relative differences between men and women into absolute ones, and to forget how those absolutes have shifted just in the past century, and how much they vary from place to place even now.  So, for example:
Sandberg's goal is to liberate her fellow Americans from the stereotypes of gender. But is that truly liberating? In a 2008 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a group of international researchers compared data on gender and personality across 55 nations. Throughout the world, women tend to be more nurturing, risk averse and emotionally expressive, while men are usually more competitive, risk taking, and emotionally flat. But the most fascinating finding is this: Personality differences between men and women are the largest and most robust in the more prosperous, egalitarian, and educated societies. According to the authors, "Higher levels of human development—including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth—were the main nation-level predictors of sex difference variation across cultures." New York Times science columnist John Tierney summarized the study this way: "It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India's or Zimbabwe's than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France."
First, notice "women tend to be more nurturing, risk averse and emotionally expressive, while men are usually more competitive, risk taking, and emotionally flat" (italics mine). Like many sex/gender reactionaries, Sommers papers over the immense variation among men and among women.  Women tend to be more nurturing than men, but not all of them are, and they vary widely in how nurturing they are; likewise, many men are more nurturing than others, and some may be more nurturing than most women.  Nurturing is partly a learned pattern of behavior, for females no less than males, requiring active practice as well as a modeled example.  Every man has been nurtured, so he has some idea of what it entails, and he can learn to do it.  It ain't rocket science.  But while sex/gender reactionaries are very solicitous of people refusing to learn skills not stereotypical of their sex, they have no objection to forcing people to do what is expected of their gender.  One of the simplest examples of what I mean is "Boys don't cry."  If boys didn't cry, it wouldn't be necessary to tell them not to.  "Boys don't cry" is a normative demand pretending to be a description.

Second, notice "Personality differences between men and women are the largest and most robust in the more prosperous, egalitarian, and educated societies." That undermines Sommers' assumption that personality differences between men and women are innate and immutable -- unless she wants to claim that the differences between "more prosperous, egalitarian, and educated societies" are innate, biologically based, and immutable.  She's careful not to say so, so I gather she accepts that economic change can influence gender quite powerfully -- and if that's so, then her position collapses.

People are probably not totally malleable: we're made of flesh, after all, not light or electrons.  But women have accomplished many things that, fifty and a hundred years ago, gender reactionaries were certain they couldn't do.  A commenter named Brandt wrote under Sommers's post:
Isn't it possible that these "cultural constructs" are rooted in the immutable characteristics of males and females? Might there be something in the biological makeup of boys that steers them away from "fetishizing" princes and towards cowboys and GI Joes? I think you need to open your mind to the idea that "culture" isn't just a simple patriarchal construct...
Oh, there might be "something in the biological makeup of boys that steers them away from 'fetishing' princes and towards cowboys." Almost anything is possible. But without actual evidence to support that claim, Brandt is just blowing smoke. There is evidence about the ways in which people are pressured and induced to perform in gendered ways, however.

The same thing applies to "rooted in the immutable characteristics of males and females." It's possible, even likely, that there are such immutable characteristics, but right now we have no idea what they are. Which doesn't stop a lot of people from talking as if they knew, and there's the problem. For example, medical experts used to be quite sure that women simply were biologically incapable of completing a college education: the stress of study would cause the blood to run from ovaries to their brains, and cause them to go sterile, or mad. Now we have reactionaries trying to explain why women are so successful in college, often more so than men. Or to explain that the current imbalance of women in the sciences is due to "immutable characteristics of males and females," even though there are a lot more women in the sciences than there used to be. The lower proportions of former days used to be explained as immutable too. The overt and often conscious exclusion of women from the sciences that used to obtain is conveniently overlooked. The same pattern occurs in sports.

We also need to remember that there is enormous variation among men and among women: all men are not alike, and all women are not alike. Brandt, like Sommers, chooses to forget this.  Differences between the sexes are generally average, rather than absolute, but sex/gender reactionaries are fond of turning relative differences into absolute ones. It doesn't really matter anyhow. If a little girl wants to learn how to play baseball or program computers, she should be taught how to do it. An older professor once confessed to sports sociologist Michael A. Messner as they watched a women's baseball game, "You know, it amazes me to see a woman throw like that. I always thought that there was something about the female arm that made it impossible to throw like a man."* This wasn't a personal blip but a commonplace medical myth of the good old pre-Title IX days.)  If a little boy wants to learn to cook instead of play baseball, he should be taught to do it. But even if a little boy doesn't want to learn to wash dishes, he should be taught anyway, because there's no reason why only girls should be taught such basic skills, which have nothing to do with "immutable characteristics of males and females."

I don't have a knee-jerk reaction to the very idea that men and women might be inherently different: I know very well there are significant inherent differences between men and women (and as a gay man, I say Vive la difference!).  The question is how far and how much those differences constrain us.  Brandt didn't offer any evidence for this suggestion, simply asserting the possibility that there are immutable differences between the sexes.  That doesn't even reach the level of postulation (as Bertrand Russell said, postulation has all the advantages of theft over honest toil).

If there really are things that women can't do but men can and vice versa, there's no need to enforce them socially.  But since we don't know in advance what they are, it is intellectually dishonest to posit them.  Many supposed differences that respectable people used to be quite sure were inherent and immutable have turned out to be neither.  So sure, I'm open to all kinds of possibilities, but I'm tired of people who posit them as possibilities and then assert them as fact.

There's another beloved fallacy that Sommers tosses out:
Despite 40 years of consciousness-raising and gender-neutral pronouns, most men and women still gravitate to different fields and organize their lives in different ways. Women in countries like Sweden, Norway and Iceland enjoy elaborate supportive legislation, yet their vocational preferences and family priorities are similar to those of American women. 
Wow, forty years!  That's an awful long time -- it's almost forever!  But though some changes have happened very quickly -- changes that on Sommers's innatist assumptions should never have happened -- they never had the acceptance of everyone in American (or, likely, European) society.  There has been fierce, often organized resistance to any change in women's status. (The same applies to race: though legal barriers to racial equality have been dismantled in the US, enforcement has been half-hearted, and white racism hasn't gone away, not even after forty years.)  This has been particularly noticeable in politics (which also remains an old boys' club) and religion.  That perfect equality hasn't been achieved yet isn't an argument against striving for it.

Besides, suppose that there are some innate, immutable traits that make women less interested in certain fields; suppose that we'll never achieve more than a 40/60 there, or 45/55.  So what?  The old ratios, which were defended as innate and immutable, turned out not to be.  Women and men should be free to choose, and to have support for their choices as much as possible.  Despite Sommers's declared individualism, she still seems to prefer to sacrifice the individual to the sex.

* "Ah, Ya Throw Like a Girl!" by Mike Messner, in New Men, New Minds, Breaking Male Tradition, edited by Franklin Abbott (The Crossing Press, 1987), p. 40.  See also Colette Dowling, The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality (Random House, 2000) Julie des Jardins's The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (The Feminist Press, 2010), and Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender (Norton, 2010).

Monday, March 18, 2013

Differences



Today turned out to be busier than I expected, so I'll just pass this video along.  It's the trailer for Audre Lorde - The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992, a documentary I saw tonight at the university cinema.  Cinematically it's not much, being pasted together from sound recordings, still photographs, and low-res video recordings by Lorde's German publisher Dagmar Schultz, but it's still fascinating.  Lorde was not only a brilliant writer, she was a charismatic (if often difficult, one gathers) human being. 

On her visits to Germany, Lorde made great efforts to meet Afro-German women, to find out what they thought about their lives and their places in German society, and to urge them to talk each other.  It's fascinating to watch footage of these women, both as they appeared when they first met Lorde in the 80s, and as they appeared nearly thirty years later in interviews for the documentary.  Dagmar Schultz was present with Lorde's German translator for tonight's showing to answer questions, so we got to see them both in three periods.

What struck me very forcefully as I watched was Lorde's insistence on multiple (or hyphenated, as she also called them) identities.  As the documentary website puts it,
A delicious paradox about Audre Lorde’s life is that she was impossible to label or to categorize, and yet at every turn and with every utterance, she stood up and defined herself, made it clear to all whose lives she touched when she was introducing herself as “African-American. Feminist. Lesbian,” continuing, “I speak to you today as Warrior. Poet. Black activist,” and then filling in, “I come to you today as Professor. Mother of two children. Cancer survivor.” As the Ghanaian-German poet May Aim, who appears in the film, says in the film “Hope in my Heart. The Story of May Ayim”: “The way she stood there in saying who she was impressed me a lot, because normally people hide behind their words.” With these multiple identities Lorde asked people to acknowledge differences, to build bridges, to become conscious of one’s own power and to use it.
My own insistence on the multiplicity of identities and the importance of engaging with difference instead of trying to erase it was probably inspired by Lorde, though I'd forgotten it until tonight.  Her ideas as she expressed them in the film were so close to mine that I must have internalized them from reading her essays.  I couldn't have chosen a better inspiration.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

If I Get Her the Wool, Will She Make Me One Too?

I checked William Benemann's Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships (Harrington Park Press, 2006) out of the library after Band of Thebes praised Benemann's work.  I just began reading it, and already he's doing the Foucault Two-Step:
I join my voice to those who have begun to question some of the theories of Michel Foucault concerning the formation of a homosexual identity.  I do not believe that a homosexual orientation was non-existent until it was socially constructed during the late nineteenth century.  From my reading of sources from the colonial, Revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary period, I am convinced that there were men who were homosexual and who -- without the physicians, clerics, legislators, or sociologists -- recognized themselves as different from their comrades, a difference based solely on their sexual response.  I also believe that there were de facto gay communities.  Some of these communities were congruent with specific geographic places.  Others were real but floating, linked to a profession rather than a physical place.  Still others had their existence only on a subconscious level but were nonetheless a powerful impetus to bring men together.  I believe that men loving men in the early years of this country were aware of the concept we now label as "queer space," and that they took active steps to separate themselves from the heterosexual majority in order to join their brothers in an underground community based on a shared sexual response [xv].
Well, that's a mixed bag!  I have reservations about Benemann's ability to read "sources from the colonial, revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary period" if he can't read Foucault, and from this paragraph I conclude that he can't.  I haven't read everything Foucault had to say about the emergence of the Modern Homosexual, but then neither have most people who cite him.  Some of them seem not to have even read the entire first volume of the History of Sexuality, where Foucault made his canonical remarks on the subject; all they seem to know is this one paragraph, and often only the very last sentence of this paragraph:
The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitively active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized – Westphal’s famous article of 1870 on “contrary sexual sensations” can stand as its date of birth – less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration [relaps]; the homosexual was now a species.
This is not a "theory," nor does it say anything about "identity" or "orientation."  It doesn't even use the term "social construction."  It does not say that "a homosexual orientation did not exist until it was socially constructed in the nineteenth century."  (Benemann begs the question whether there is such a thing as "a homosexual orientation" in the first place.)  What it does say is that nineteenth-century doctors interpreted sex between males, or between females, as a "psychological, psychiatric, medical category" involving "a kind of interior androgyny."   This interpretation persists to this day, and underlies most or all of the scientific work done today on sexual orientation.

On the very first page of the second volume of The History of Sexuality, written as Foucault was rethinking his approach under the influence of Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Foucault himself wrote about the word "sexuality,"
The term itself did not appear until the beginning of the nineteenth century, a fact that should be neither underestimated nor overinterpreted. It does point to something more than a simple recasting of vocabulary, but obviously it does not mark the sudden emergence of that to which "sexuality" refers.
So the kind of simplistic linguistic determinism that many Foucauldians fall into was eventually rejected by Foucault himself.

I like Benemann's dismissal of "physicians, clerics, legislators, sociologists," which comes closer to the heart of the matter.  What changed in the nineteenth century was the way such elites thought about sex between persons of the same sex.  Even Foucault, oddly enough, wrote not only as though what physicians, clerics, legislators, sociologists was the truth about homosexuality, but as though their categories were the only categories that existed in society.  He knew better than that, because before The History of Sexuality he'd dated the emergence of 'the homosexual' to the early 18th century English Mollies.  As usual, our information on the Mollies comes from hostile outsiders -- purity crusaders, the courts, newspapers -- so I'm not sure we know as much about them as I'd like.  But it's safe to say that the Mollies created their social forms through practice, not through theory, without the advice of medical professionals.  (There's also a widespread assumption that the classifications the doctors developed were something totally new and alien, as though the doctors were not men of their time and culture.)  When a category -- "Sodomite," say -- did filter down to the hoi polloi, it changed meanings and connotations along the way.  But then, the meaning of "homosexual" as a category was never particularly clear, any more than the meaning of "Sodomite."

A lot of the controversy over the nature of the "homosexual" has nothing to do with social constructionism or with Foucault.  There's no question that the fag/ penetrated / passive / bottom is homosexual.  The question is whether the trade / penetrator / active / top is homosexual; and it's disputed everywhere from Latin America to the Philippines to South Asia to right here in the USA.  The current model for scientific research assumes that the homosexual male is feminized and the homosexual female is masculinized, never thinking to ask who these people's partners are; but this model is much older than the 1870s, and appears independently in numerous cultures.

I must also dissent from Benemann's claim that early American buggers and sodomites "took active steps to separate themselves from the heterosexual majority in order to join their brothers in an underground community based on a shared sexual response."  A considerable segment of gay male community requires men who define themselves, and are defined by their queer partners, as normal men.  That includes only some men-loving men, however, but I'm looking forward to see how Benemann constructs his subjects.  And what, may I ask, is a "de facto gay community"?  I didn't know there were de jure gay communities.  Well, I'll see where Benemann goes from here.  His focus on romantic friendships might help him to avoid harping on Foucault.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Move 'Em Up, Head 'Em Out

I finally finished Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, which turned out to be even less meritorious than I expected.  Hayes's ongoing misuse of the word "meritocracy" annoys me like a stone in my shoe: "institutions that create meritocratic elites" (64), "the energetic force of meritocratic competition" (75), "American political economy during the meritocratic age" (142), "several decades of failed meritocratic production" (155), "the class of meritocratic overachievers" (201), "the meritocratic era" (203), and the like.  What meritocratic era?  He can't seem to make up his mind whether meritocracy has been an aspiration, or a brief shining moment that has alas faded, or some combination of the two. 

He even quotes someone else's misdefinition:
Adam Michaelson, a former advertising executive who worked in Countrywide [Financial]'s marketing division, recalls the atmosphere of the business this way: "Countrywide fashioned itself a meritocracy, that is, whoever generated the most value or profit for the firm would be granted the greatest rewards, growth and prestige."  As happened in so many places over the past decade, the institutional definition of merit inside Countrywide became thoroughly perverse [97-8].
But the "institutional definition" didn't become "perverse," it was perverse in itself.  Those who generated value and profit for the firm weren't running it (the -cracy part of meritocracy again): the upper ranks of executive officers did that.  Those upper echelons skimmed off immense wealth for themselves from the "value and profit" their underlings generated:
Between 2001 and 2006, [cofounder Angelo] Mozilo managed to arrange for himself a staggering $470 million in in total executive compensation.  The most cynical interpretation of these actions, though also the most plausible, is that Mozilo was looting the company he'd built as fast as he could before the markets or regulators caught up with him [97].
Earlier in the book Hayes wrote, "In a meritocracy, people are judged not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character" (51).  Leaving aside the fact that we have no way of judging the content of people's character directly, before they are granted access to money and power, it seems fair to say that Mozilo showed his character all too well as he squirreled away vast amounts of money.  In the end the Securities Exchange Commission caught up with him, but he managed to avoid trial or jail by reaching a settlement in which he "agreed to pay $67.5 million in fines and accepted a lifetime ban from serving as an officer or director of any public company ... The terms of the settlement allow Mr. Mozilo to avoid acknowledging any wrongdoing.  In February 2011, the U.S. dropped its criminal investigation into the facts behind that civil settlement."

This isn't, contrary to Hayes's repeated lament, a new crisis of authority and public trust in the US.  What bothers me is that he really thinks that it's important that we believe authorities, and that they used to or even theoretically could deserve unquestioning trust.  He seems to think, for example, that the "mainstream" corporate media used to be reliable, or ought to be treated as if they were.  It "wasn't just the rise of technology that produced the explosion of the blogosphere; it was the perceived failings of the mainstream media" (118).  That word "perceived" bothers me.  It could mean that those failings became manifest and so were perceived; but in context it seems to mean that people only thought they discerned those failings.  If Hayes has ever heard of I. F. Stone, he doesn't let on.  As he concedes,
It turned out that ... someone sitting in a basement in New Jersey, using the Internet, reading from a diverse set of sources about WMD intelligence, could actually get closer to the truth than the beat reporter with the inside sources at Langley [118].
That's essentially what Stone did.  Expelled from the Washington press corps in the late 1940s, he started his own newsletter and worked by close reading of corporate media and government publications.  He didn't even need the Internet.  Access to government insiders, that consummation devoutly to be wished among most American journalists, has more to do with wanting to rub elbows with the powerful than with doing serious journalism.

Critical thinking makes Hayes uneasy for some reason.  He admits that authority figures have made lethal mistakes, and that professional "consensus" can be and has been completely wrong.  But he still seems to think that somewhere there's a meritocratic elite who will be right and can be trusted, if we can just find them.  That, it seems to me, is the root of the problem.  No one individual can know everything, so we have to delegate learning to other people.  But if we expect to find someone who knows everything and never errs, we're bound to be disappointed when our elites turn out to have feet of clay, and then go looking for the next true authority.  It's not necessary to be cynical about it, just realistic, but that option seems not to have occurred to Hayes.

Hayes assumes that competition selects for merit, and that is probably his biggest mistake.  In some cases it may do, where merit can be narrowly and specifically defined: as the fastest runner or the highest jumper.  But that applies only to a very small part of worthwhile human endeavor.  When merit is defined as making as much money as possible for your hedge fund, you get into trouble.  Or consider this example:
[Economist Sherwin] Rosen argued that certain technological trends had radically expanded the demand for services for those who were the best in their field: in 1950, a top basketball player could only monetize his talent with an endorsement deal that would sell sneakers to Americans; today, LeBron James is featured on billboards from Florida to Turkey to China [142-3].
I think "market" would be more accurate than "demand," but the real fault here is the assumptions that there is one indisputable "best in their field," and that no one else can "monetize his talent."  Many elite athletes have their fans, who'll buy products endorsed by their favorite stars, and those fans disagree about who is the best.  You don't have to be the top basketball player in the world to become rich, or even financially comfortable.  And again, sport is a field where excellence is relatively easy to define and detect, compared to the arts, let alone politics.  Hayes goes on:
The same goes in a whole host of domains: the best opera soprano can, with the advent of MP3s and the Internet, sell to anyone in the world with an iPod, which spells trouble for the fifth best soprano. If you can buy the best, why settle? [143]
This assumes that people seek out the best, or the world's best, singers, and that they agree who is the best.  Neither is true.  A fan may have his or her favorite diva, and argue that she's the best against the fans of rivals, but there is room (and a need) for more than one great soprano in the opera world, just as there's no reason why New York City can't offer excellent educations to more than 185 new students each year.  Those who aren't the top 185 still have a claim on learning, and something to contribute.

I realize that I'm probably not a typical music listener, but I don't think in terms of seeking out the best singer, or songwriter, or guitarist, or pianist, or band in the world.  I look for music or other art that gives me pleasure, or moves me emotionally, and I'm drawn by a range of artists.  Sure, there are fans who root for their band or their singer against all others -- I remember with distaste the divide between Beatles and Stones fans in the 60s, for example -- but it isn't necessary to denigrate all other singers than your personal fave.  The mindset that does so is fed by the competitive ethos of capitalism, but that's what is wrong with it.  Few of even the most fanatical fans have records by only one performer in their collections.  And none of this has much if anything to do with merit, let alone meritocracy.

Hayes structures his book around a few hot-button stories that many writers and pundits can agree are important -- the Roman Catholic abuse scandals, steroids use in baseball, corruption in business and finance and politics -- but they don't have much to do with "meritocracy."  That's not too surprising, since he doesn't have a very clear understanding of what meritocracy is or might be, and Twilight of the Elites is a frustratingly insubstantial discussion of some serious problems.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Keeping Up With the Chinese

Garance Franke-Ruta provided an entertaining account of Marco Rubio's speech at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference).  I noticed something different than she did, though.  She was interested in Rubio and Rand Paul pandering to their right-wing audience, I was interested in something else.  The relevant passage:
"The Chinese government provides their people no access to the Internet. The Chinese government will hold citizens prisoner without any right to recourse. The Chinese government coerces and tortures people until they get confessions. The Chinese government restricts the ability of people to assemble. If you escape China, they actually put pressure on governments to forcibly return you. The Chinese government has coercive birth limitation policies, which means that in some cases they are forcing abortions and sterilizations. The Chinese government uses forced labor. And this is what they do to their own people.

"We want that to be the leading country in the world?"

"No!" replied the audience.

"We want that to be the leading voice on this planet?" Rubio continued.

"No!" came the cry.
Oh, my goodness!  Almost all the crimes Rubio lay at the feet of China are, in fact, part of the great phenomenon he calls America.  The US was built with forced labor, which has made a comeback in the prison-industrial complex.  Torture, forced confessions, the abolition of habeas corpus, extradition of political dissidents (or nowadays, simply killing them with drones), restriction of the freedom of assembly, even forced sterilization -- all are American traditions, and they're happening now.  As for restricting people's access to the Internet, that's been tried too.  All of these have been acceptable to conservatives of Rubio's stripe.  Do we want that to be the leading country in the world?  Do we want that to be the leading voice on the planet?

Peace, Perfection, and Purity

I got e-mail the other day from someone I'd quoted in a previous post, Scott from Chicago, who'd urged  Ta-Nehisi Coates (and presumably other African-Americans) to play nice:
I am starting to have misgivings about articles like these: All that is good in the world (that I have observed) comes from tolerance and a willingness to forgive. Nothing ever good stems from quests for perfection and purity.
I wrote that I have misgivings about people who make such recommendations, and Scott asked me what those misgivings were.  I didn't go into that at length in the earlier post, partly out of laziness and partly because I thought most of my readers wouldn't need to be told.   But since he asked, it seems like a good idea to explain. What follows is a slightly longer version of my reply to him.

I stated my misgiving in the blog post, right after I quoted him: it seems that it is always the people being picked on who are expected to play nice.  It never seems to discredit majorities, and especially powerful majorities, when they behave badly; no one scolds them about demanding "perfection and purity" from the people they attack, no one says that they need to exhibit more "tolerance and a willingness to forgive."  A similar pattern can be seen when righteous liberals demand that dissidents be non-violent, though they make no demand that the State renounce violence.

I'm not sure what "tolerance and a willingness to forgive" have to do with it.  I think most African-Americans, for example, would be perfectly happy to "tolerate" white people if white people would just stop being racist.  (I know that's how I feel about heterosexuals, as a gay man: I get along fine with many or most heterosexuals.  The bigots just need to stop being bigots.)  I think it is very significant that the request to refrain from racist behavior is considered a counsel of "perfection and purity."

As for being willing to forgive, I think it's reasonable to expect people to recognize and admit they've done something wrong before one forgives them.  Since so many white people indignantly deny that they've done or said something racist, no matter what they do, I think forgiveness would be premature.  Not all white people do this, of course, but I'm not talking about them: I'm talking about those who think you're only a racist if you've ever owned a slave or lynched somebody.

The requirement of "tolerance" also interests me because it implies that white people, for example, are somehow disadvantaged, even oppressed, by black people's alleged intolerance of them.  But what TNC is calling for (if I understand him correctly) is not intolerance of white people, it's intolerance of racism, and I don't see any reason why racism should be tolerated.  It can be forgiven if someone actually asks for forgiveness.  But I see very little (if any) of that.  Polls continuously show that most white Americans believe that racism is no longer a problem in the US, and that's absurd.

There's a similar line about "guilt."  Criticize someone for racism or sexism, he may protest that you're just trying to make him feel guilty.  Not at all.  I just want him to stop being racist or sexist.  I'm probably obtuse, but I've always been baffled when I hear white men talking about how they were made to feel guilty for being white or male.  Maybe they were, but I've never gotten that feeling either from anti-racists or women, and I've always been a major guilt junkie.  What they wanted was for me to change my behavior.  And my attitudes, if at all possible.  I found it quite possible.

P.S. A flood of rants about the new "Mexican" Pope on Yes, You're Racist's Twitter feed.  But then someone tweeted "These people ... are frightening. Following makes us non US think all white Americans are vile racists."  The blame for stereotyping should fall on the person who stereotypes, however.  As Yes, You're Racist replied, "But I'm a white American ..."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

One Lung at a Time

Once again I remind myself that writers are generally not responsible for headlines and titles, so Olga Khazan is probably not to blame for "Pope Francis: The First Global Pontiff" at the Atlantic site.  I took my title today from these rather strange remarks later in the article (the second sentence still resists parsing each time I reread it):
Perhaps his largest flaw is that he's somewhat frail for a new pope. Bergoglio is a low-key, slow-moving 76-year-old with one lung at a time when the church needs a vibrant leader.
I have no opinion on Bergoglio, though it appears he's an antigay, antichoice, anti-contraception bigot.  It would be a surprise if he weren't.  This is the Roman Catholic Church we're talking about, after all.  The more it changes, the more it is the same.

What got to me was the number of non-Catholics who were as excited that "we have a new Pope," as they'd be about the outcome of the Oscars or the Superbowl.  Though this meme, shared on Facebook by at least two people I know, was strange too.

What the International Space Station does to contribute to "the promotion of understanding, reverence and human creation" I can't imagine.  And a new commander for the thing seems to me about as exciting as the news that some small town has a new chief dogcatcher.  A commander is a military bureaucrat, though I see that Hadfield will not only be "overseeing the packing and release of the visiting SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule", he's Canadian.  That's about as much of a departure from space-station tradition as electing a new Pope from the Americas is for the Catholic church, but still not particularly meaningful.  Nevertheless, "Watch the historic Transfer of Command ceremony!" gushed the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.  And "'Thank you very much for giving me the keys to the family car,' Hadfield told outgoing station commander Kevin Ford" -- is he planning to go for a joyride in the ISS?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Free Advice, Five Cents (The Doctor Is In)

At first I wasn't sure I was reading this sign correctly, it was so obviously and blatantly off the mark.  But it does seem that the person brandishing it is an Obama devotee, who supports the Affordable Care Act because she believes that it provides "free HEALTHCARE."  It doesn't do anything of the kind, in fact.  It doesn't actually provide any kind of healthcare, since it is about health insurance.  As such, the law has its virtues, but it's far from fixing the mess our health care system is in.

Even more ironic, Obama himself is opposed to free healthcare and to its advocates, who he thinks want to turn America into communist Canuckistan.  People who advocated a single-payer system, also known as Medicare for All, were shut out of the Congressional debate; a "public option" for people who couldn't afford commercial insurance was one of the first provisions Obama ditched during negotiations.  What sick bastard would want to provide free healthcare?  Certainly not Obama.

It also seems to me that "free healthcare" isn't a great slogan in the first place.  Nothing is free, and certainly not health care, which is more expensive in the US than in most of the developed world.  A state-run health care system like Britain's would be cheaper, more effective, and more efficient, but it wouldn't be free.  The question is, or ought to be, how people are going to pay for it.  The Right loves to harp on this point, and throwing "free" around simply plays into their hands by giving them an easy diversion from the real issues.  Of course they're right about the cluelessness of liberals, but that doesn't mean they're any smarter.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Life Is Cheap in the New World Order

There's been some revealing reaction to Rand Paul's filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan, and specifically his opposition to the use of surveillance drones in the US of A.  Even Roy Edroso tried to walk the line between opposing drones and supporting Rand Paul.  I left a derisive comment under that post, asking why he was endorsing Paul for President in 2016, because Edroso has never been willing to let anyone else walk that line.  When Glenn Greenwald argued last year that Ron Paul (that's Rand's daddy) made some good arguments against some of our bipartisan foreign policy, Edroso couldn't read that as anything but a blanket acceptance of all of Ron Paul's positions and an endorsement of Paul's candidacy.  When Greenwald "very graciously" corrected Edroso's misreading, Edroso still couldn't quite cope: "Jesus, Glenn, why not add 'Mwah hah hah' and 'Pathetic humans! Who can save you now?' while you're at it?"  In light of all that, it was really quite bold of Edroso to write, last Wednesday:
But Obama's a politician; that's his lookout, not mine. And while I think he's better than the regular run of postwar U.S. Presidents, "having his back" does not for me extend to countenancing the assassination of U.S. citizens.
By the end of the weekend, though, Edroso was back in Obama's pocket for all intents and purposes, with his weekly Village Voice compilation of rightblogger reaction to Rand Paul.  Comments at alicublog were predictable: Stoopid Stoopid Republicans!  It was up to Glenn Greenwald to sum up Democratic reaction to the whole mess.

But what interested me were the people who reacted to this whole story by saying something like "Aha!  You only care when Americans might be killed!  You never cared when it was just foreigners who were dying."  In some cases this is no doubt true, but in cases like Glenn Greenwald it's obviously false: he's been writing for years about the US killing dusky foreigners, by drones, cruise missiles or roving patrols of soldiers.  (A similar accusation was lodged against him for writing about the torture-by-solitary-confinement of Bradley Manning: Oh, you only care when a little white gay boy is being tortured, you don't care about all the many other prisoners in solitary confinement around the country.  But Greenwald had been writing about that issue, too, all along.)

And not only Greenwald has criticized the drone program: there are plenty of left critics of Obama's crimes, and most of them attacked Bush before him, when Bush was doing similar or the same things.  On the other hand, "the conservatives whom Democrats claim most to loathe - from Dick Cheney to John Yoo to Lindsey Graham to Peter King - have been so outspoken in their defense of Obama's actions in this area (and so critical of Paul): because the premises needed to justify Obama's policies are the very ones they so controversially pioneered."

Some people have argued, on the contrary, that it's only to be expected that a government should be more concerned about the safety of its citizens than about the safety of foreigners.  To some extent, given the world we live in, I can see this.  If you get into difficulties in another country, it's reasonable to head to the American Embassy first for help.  At most, though, this doesn't license my country to actively mistreat people who aren't Americans -- and that brings me full circle.  I'm not indifferent when my country treats foreigners' lives as disposable.

But here's the thing.  I'm perfectly willing to put Americans and foreigners on an equal footing; I just want to reverse the usual priority.  I'll agree not to care when Americans kill foreigners, but then I don't intend to care when anyone -- foreigners or our own Dear Leader -- decides to kill Americans.  I began to move in this direction when Americans would try to minimize American wartime atrocities by saying "War is hell, people get hurt, so shut up."  They weren't nearly as casual about American casualties, of course.  But I don't think you get to have it both ways: if we're in an unprecedented war against a new kind of enemy, and the whole world is a battlefield, there are no non-combatants, etc., then that applies to the US and its inhabitants too.

Auntie Meme

Inspired by the meme cited here.  Of course, I violated my own stricture by making this one, so I'll add this disclaimer: as far as I know, Betty White never said the words I attributed to her here for satirical purposes.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

In Post-Post-Racial America

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that has been getting some well-deserved attention.  He began with an incident that befell the actor Forest Whitaker in a deli near Columbia University, in Coates's own neighborhood.  An employee, suspecting Whitaker of shoplifting, insisted on frisking him in public.  Whitaker didn't call the police at the request of the employee, who was fearful of losing his job, but he lost his job anyway.

Some of the comments under the op-ed are appalling, like this one from "Scott" in Chicago:
I am starting to have misgivings about articles like these: All that is good in the world (that I have observed) comes from tolerance and a willingness to forgive. Nothing ever good stems from quests for perfection and purity.
That one got 764 recommendations.  I see no basis in Coates's op-ed for Scott's accusation that Coates is on a quest for perfection and purity.  It would be closer to the truth to say that Scott is demanding "perfection and purity" from the targets of American racism.  But I started to have misgivings about people like Scott long ago.

Then there was this one, from "Ross" in Rochester NY:
You cannot take one data point and extrapolate it into a conclusion. When you do that, you're guilty of the same behavior that allows people to see a black murderer on the news and conclude all blacks are bad people.
Of course there is not just one "data point", there are many.  This is a popular tactic: accuse the critic of being obsessed with one isolated incident, then as the isolated incidents multiply, change the subject: the critic is indulging in "reverse racism," or dwelling on events that happened long ago, or something like that.  But the attempts by many white people to minimize racism in the US constitute data points, with a multiplier effect as they try to deny the significance of the original events.

Then there's Jorg Lueke from Minnesota:
I hope that the author has recovered from his fatigue of good people. The attitudes of guilt, victimization, and anger, are understandable for a moment but they are not attitudes to live by if we want to live in a society where prejudgements no longer occur. The owner commited no wrong act and yet now both author and wife will spread negative feelings and emotions every time they see this deli potentially infecting their friends and children. Will that make things better? For what really? Because they read about someone else being treated poorly once by an employee? We need to work on living in the moment and acting in the momeent with lover, understanding, and compassion. Compassion for Forrest Whitaker, compassion for the Deli owner, compassion for the employee. Guilt and anger do not break the cycle.
Notice: "someone else being treated poorly once by an employee" -- the Gothamist article I cited above included a report by an eyewitness to the frisking on Forest Whitaker that she has "seen the guys there do this to a black customer before. I have also heard them say some racist crap about the Obamas too. It is unlikely I will be shopping there again."  So it's not "being treated poorly once", though how many times can you treat one person poorly before it becomes a problem?  Jorg Lueke seems to be notably lacking in "compassion" for people who must endure poor treatment constantly: he sees them as bitter complainers.  He also fails to show compassion for Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in the op-ed clearly expressed his conflicted feelings about what to do.

Best of all, "Ralphie" from Fairfield CT:
Yes racism is a terrible thing -- and to be called a racist, or have it inferred that you are a racist simply on the basis of your skin color is also a terrible thing.
This is what is known as false equivalence, as well as lying: Coates had not called anyone a racist "simply on the basis of the color of your skin."  (I've often encountered this tactic in online discussions of gay issues: if I refer to "homophobes" or "bigots", someone will accuse me of assuming that all heterosexuals are bigots.  Since I hadn't said anything like this, it becomes clear that they assume that "homophobe" and "heterosexual" are equivalent.  But they aren't: many heterosexuals are neither homophobic nor bigots, and many gay people are homophobes and antigay bigots.)  Ralphie goes on to express his belief that "we've made great progress over the last 50 years" -- against the resistance of people like him, I'd say -- and begs us not to "cast the 'R' word about as if it explains every unhappy event."  The "'R' word"!

Coates also posted to his blog at the Atlantic about the incident and the op-ed.  The discussion in comments there is much better than at the Times.  Like this comment, the first in the thread:
What I don't think white people understand is the collateral damage this causes to black people who have to deal with what Forest Whitaker went through, from a psychological point of view. You start to see ghosts. You think you see racism everywhere in your interactions with white people. For some, it becomes such a problem that is inhibits their own personal/career growth.
I'm a white person, and I understand that collateral damage at least intellectually.  I have tried to imagine what it would feel like to have grown up knowing that hostile people were looking at me, waiting for an excuse to yell epithets at me, or better, to get me alone in a secluded place and beat me up?  Or seeing me as a threat, just for existing in the space they consider to be theirs?  The closest I've come to feeling it has been some occasions when I was out for a walk late at night, and was almost the only person in sight on a street -- except for a woman who I could see gather into herself at the sight of me, not knowing whether I was a threat or not.  Some men get indignant about that; I don't.  It doesn't begin to compare to growing up black in America, and I'm not saying that it does.  Most of the time I'm invisible in white society; black people never are, from the day they're born.

Some would argue that I have a double standard here.  I've been asked what I would think, while I walked down an empty city street late at night, if I saw a group of  young black men approaching.  I would feel somewhat apprehensive, it's true, but no more than I feel when I see a group of young white men approaching.  The 18-35 age group among males commits most crimes, I believe.  But I have been out walking late at night in large American cities and passed groups of young black men who paid me no attention at all.

Coates commented in reply, "From a cold calculating position, even if it is racism you can't know. There's nothing you can do about it, so you shouldn't bother thinking about it."  But not thinking about it doesn't always work.

Someone else posted a great quotation from Martin Luther King that I will hang on to:
Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s a half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved, then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important, also.
--Martin Luther King, Jr., Address at Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963
(You may remember, as I do, a distinguished white philosopher from England who couldn't grasp the point King was making here.)

Some commenters seemed to miss King's point (though maybe I flatter myself by supposing that I get it).  One said that "No, you can't use legislation to make people less racist but you can use it to erase the racism that was legislated into existence."  Another said that passing a law against lynching is "quite good enough."  King said, "I think that is pretty important, also", which seems to me quite different than "quite good enough."  King didn't deny that other institutions besides the law must be active against racism -- he was rejecting the claim that because the law can't do everything, it can therefore do nothing and shouldn't be tried.

I don't know how much progress we have made against racism in the US.  Certainly there has been some, but not as much as most white people evidently want to believe.  Many racists have learned to avoid blatant expressions in public, but they keep leaking out anyway.  To some extent the Internet has facilitated their exposure, as people assume that what they say online is "private," even as it is publicly accessible; so you get incidents like the racist Hunger Games fans who were furious to find that some of the characters were black, and were played by black actors in the film.  And then you have "a fellow on Twitter by the handle of 'YesYoureRacist' who simply re-tweets people whose tweets are of the form 'I'm not racist, but [horrible thing]' -- it's an astonishing thing to see them all collected in one place."  Or the white Louisiana judge who refuses to marry 'interracial couples': "I'm not a racist, I just don't believe in mixing the races that way."  Besides, he has lots of black friends!

I don't have any conclusion today, because there is no conclusion.  This story is going to be in progress for a long time.