Sunday, June 30, 2013

Vandalism for Thee But Not for Me?

This image is spreading from Gay Marriage USA on Facebook.  Supposedly the two grinning geeks it depicts are straight, though I don't see that it makes any difference.

The first time I saw it myself, it was shared by my friend A.  Remember her?  She was the person who was PO'd because someone placed a fundamentalist Christian tract on a shelf in the stacks of the library where she works.  She called that "littering."  Here, however, she was endorsing vandalism.  It all depends on whose ox is being gored, I guess.

Yes, it's mild as vandalism goes; but so was the "littering" in the library stacks that upset A.  I imagine that these fine Straight Allies put the S back on the marquee after posing for their photo op, and if so, no permanent harm was done.  But I'm a lot less impressed by these two boys than they evidently are by themselves.  I also feel safe in saying that a photo of someone doing something analogous to, a pro-gay church would not have gotten A's approval, or Gay Marriage USA's.  There would probably be a lot of righteous indignation and inflation of the offense.  I've been guilty of the same kind of double standard myself in the past; it comes naturally to many human beings, but that's not really an excuse.  I'm not demonizing A here either, or even these fine Straight Allies.  They're young, maybe someday they'll become more thoughtful.  I'm just impressed by how quickly A went from inflating some fundamentalist outreach into littering, to endorsing a minor act of vandalism.  What a difference a few days make.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Liberals Love Me, This I Know

I
I respect and admire Wendy Davis for her thirteen-hour filibuster against a nasty bill in the Texas Lege that would not only have made abortions much harder to get, it would have sharply reduced access to health care for women, since the clinics that would have had to close didn't only do abortions.  She's worked hard and overcome a lot of obstacles, such as being a teenaged single mother, and the firebombimg of her office by political terrorists in the Lone Star State.  All this should be enough, but I've been seeing calls on Facebook that she should run for President of the US; more realistically, Daily Kos wants her to run for Governor of Texas.  I'm not signing the latter petition since I'm not a Texan, and I don't know whether she'd make a good President.  But on reflection I realize that "Now she should run for President!" is just stuff that empty headed people say to express their happiness.  They don't actually mean anything by it.  It doesn't mean that they've put any thought into the matter.

The meme above, though, shared by one of my liberal friends, crossed the line for me.  Most obviously: Really?  A Harvard Law School degree qualifies you to pronounce on Constitutional issues?  We have before us the example of our Constitutional scholar of a president, also a Harvard Law grad, whose grasp of constitutionality is sketchy at best.  For that matter, the Supreme Court's resident antigay bigot, Antonin Scalia, has a bachelor's from Harvard Law, so his opinions on the constitutionality of sodomy and same-sex marriage must outweigh all the liberal laypeople who've been baying for the overturning of DOMA and Proposition 8, right?  Remember that in 1986, state sodomy laws were constitutional according to the Court, the body whose job it is to decide such questions; in 2003, they suddenly stopped being constitutional.  Constitutionality isn't something like the atomic weight of carbon; it's a judgment, and judgments are debatable, even by the experts.

I also remembered the gay Vietnam veteran, Bob Garon, who told candidate Mitt Romney that the latter's opposition to same-sex marriage meant that Romney did "not believe everyone is entitled to their constitutional rights."  As far as I can tell, Bob Garon doesn't have a degree from Harvard Law, or from any law school.  But all the people who cheered his in-your-face encounter with Romney were happy to overlook his lack of qualification to pronounce on the topic.  And that was perfectly appropriate, because you don't have to be minimally informed to express an opinion, as the commenters on this article about Garon show abundantly.

Rick Perry, by contrast with Wendy Davis, is surely a swine.  But as a successful politician, he doubtless has many advisors who are qualified to tell him whether a law is constitutional or not.  They may well be wrong, as legal and other experts often are, and no doubt Perry favors advisors who tell him what he wants to hear.  Rather like President Obama, who felt obligated to defend the Defense of Marriage Act for the first several years of his presidency, until he decided (on principle, I'm sure) to stop defending it.  His insistence, picked up by his apologists, that it was his duty as President to support and defend any all laws before the Supreme Court, was false (another example of his sketchiness about Constitutional law).

But if Perry took positions that Obama Democrats liked, they'd be equally happy to overlook his poor academic record.  What angers me about this meme, which is reminiscent of another one I've discussed, is that it reveals the selective snobbery of Obamabots, their contempt for those who, they like to believe, are Stoopid, uneducated hillbillies who marry their cousins if not their siblings, and not wise, well-educated responsible voters whose positions are determined by reason, evidence, and the qualifications of the politicians they support.  That they are really quite ignorant and irrational themselves is something they prove, eagerly, on a daily basis.  And that's why we can't have nice things.

It isn't that I don't respect expertise; I do.  But expertise isn't defined by where you went to school, or even how many years you went.  I also know that experts disagree with each other.  In the case of the Supreme Court, their status may have been achieved through politics rather than real expertise or excellence.  Sometimes they say things that are blatantly false, or irrational.  So what are we non-experts to do?  We can inform ourselves about the issues that matter to us.  We can learn to think critically, which includes learning how to see the gaps in our own knowledge and flaws in our reasoning; that's why I keep urging that critical thinking needs to be taught from elementary school onwards.  It doesn't matter what it's called; it needn't even be a separate subject, since it will be part of most subjects.  In any case, my liberal acquaintances keep showing that they either never learned to think analytically and critically, or don't bother to use what they learned.  (Maybe, like our civil liberties, it is too precious actually to be used; using it would get it all dirty.)  And as with learning to think about race, it's not important to learn to think critically to avoid my getting all up in your face, it's important for its own, and for everyone's sake.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Nothing Says "GLBT Ally" Like Homophobic Language

First one of my right-wing acquaintances shared a meme with a quotation ascribed to George Orwell: "The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it."  Interestingly, Orwell apparently didn't say this.  I found one source online which claimed it came from A Collection of Essays, which sounded iffy but turned out to exist -- it just didn't include this sentence.  (It's available as an e-book online, which made it easy to search.  Amazon's "Look Inside" didn't turn it up either.)  Wikiquote reports that it hasn't been found in Orwell's works, but did appear (not attributed to Orwell) in a "conservative" opinion piece that defended the right-wing shock jock Michael Savage as one of those who speak the truth.  Even if Orwell had said it, my friend wouldn't have agreed with him about who speaks the truth and who doesn't.

Then the item above appeared in my news feed from Yo, Is This Racist?  Maybe even funnier.  Again, the irony is delicious: calling for a homophobic and/or misogynist epithet to show one's solidarity with downcast, downtrodden gays. The person who submitted it as a question to Andrew Ti's tumblr missed it entirely, as did Ti.  Thanks, guys, but no thanks.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Paula Deen, Paula Deen

One of my liberal friends passed along a meme on Facebook which exulted over the sponsors Paula Deen has lost, and declared that the meme-maker wanted Deen to lose everything.  Here I must draw the line.  What kind of thing is that to wish on anybody?  In the same way, as I've said before, the US of America has a lot of blood on its hands, but I don't want it to be invaded and devastated for its crimes -- I want all countries to stop committing these crimes. Whatever power comes along that is capable of reducing the US to rubble is not likely to stop with us, or to have begun with us.  And you don't have to tell me that it isn't going to happen, I know that very well, but this is what I advocate anyway.  So I want Paula Deen to stop being racist, even to recognize why she's being criticized.  I know that won't happen either.  If I'm going to fantasize, I prefer to fantasize about good outcomes.

Yesterday I noted that Deen had gotten some rather backhanded support from the Reverend Jesse Jackson.  He said that she can be "redeemed."
Jackson says if Deen is willing to acknowledge mistakes and make changes, "she should be reclaimed rather than destroyed."
Now that I look at that post more closely, this doens't look like such a positive remark.  Jackson said "if Deen is willing to acknowledge mistakes and make changes"; that's a big "if."  Besides, I presume, given her background, that Deen is already redeemed, saved, bought and sealed, washed in the Blood of the Lamb.  That only shows how little "redemption" in that sense is worth.  Anyone can begin learning, and can change, at any point in their life.  People who are in a position to talk to Paula Deen should try to get her to listen to and learn from the voices and examples of people -- many of them her age or older -- who risked (and some cases gave) their lives to change the society that produced her.

It also produced them, remember.  When Ta-Nehisi Coates was dissecting Brad Paisley's "Accidental Racist" debacle a few months ago, he made a helpful and positive suggestion.
Paisley wants to know how he can express his Southern Pride. Here are some ways. He could hold a huge party on Martin Luther King's birthday, to celebrate a Southerner's contribution to the world of democracy. He could rock a T-shirt emblazoned with Faulkner's Light In August, and celebrate the South's immense contribution to American literature. He could preach about the contributions of unknown Southern soldiers like Andrew Jackson Smith. He could tell the world about the original Cassius Clay. He could insist that Tennessee raise a statue to Ida B. Wells.



Every one of these people are Southerners. And every one of them contributed to this great country. But to do that Paisley would have to be more interested in a challenging conversation and less interested in a comforting lecture.
This led to an interesting exchange in the comments, which spilled into the discussion of a succeeding post.  After a number of commenters had responded to the piece with devastating wit like "Ah, so Paisley has to pass some type of racial bar exam before he's allow to argue before the court of public opinion?", one asked:
... if I'm upper middle class white and suburban how much reading and studying must I do so that TNC will talk to me without getting ticked off at my ignorance? What's the motivation for taking on the work of being allowed to engage?
Coates replied:
I don't think you understand. The reason to try learn all of this is not to keep me from being "ticked off" at you. And your motivation should not be that I will smile, pat you on the head, and give you a cookie. My alleged anger at you is wholly irrelevant to your pressing desire to understand the history of racism in this country. The last part of that sentence is the only thing in the world matters. Your curiosity is its own blessing. And your ignorance is your own burden ...

Either you want to know--for your own sake--or you do not. Much of what I know about the history of racism I learned from white guys, who'd studied and read and written books. I've talked about their work, with some regularity, right here. Your ignorance has nothing to do with who you are, and everything to do with what you are willing to actually do. If I am not willing to do anything, I generally try to avoid talking like I am.
It's highly significant, I think, that the commenter thought, or wrote as if he thought, that it was all about him getting Coates's approval, or not getting it.  This notion turns up frequently in public discussion of race (but also of sex/gender and sexual orientation): with greater or lesser degrees of explicitness, the white / male / heterosexual sneers: Oh, don't I meet your high standards of Political Correctness?  The real trouble is that the black / female / gay adversary (everything is sports, remember) doesn't meet the former's standards of Political Correctness, or simply that she is insubordinate.  (This can be seen especially when men say that they'll help with the housework, they just don't want to be given a list of things to do: they want to decide how much or how little they'll help.)

It appears, however, that Deen is taking a different, depressingly familiar approach.  She "has called in crisis manager Judy Smith to help her get her empire back in order."
Smith, the muse behind ABC's 'Scandal,' has worked behind the scenes helping calm the international hysteria over the SARS pandemic; advising Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick during their run-ins with the law; and shaping the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's reputation following the 9/11 attacks.

In an interview with Washingtonian magazine last year, Smith described her biggest takeaway about human nature from her encounters with people at some of their lowest points in life: "I like to believe in the good in people. But we're all going to screw up from time to time," she said.
If only Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden had hired Judy Smith!  They too might have been "redeemed."  I'm not saying that Deen is as bad as they were, but notice that Smith has also worked to improve the image of the repressive, brutal Islamist kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  So Saudi Arabia imprisons women for driving a car, and executes sodomites? (Not since 2002, apparently, to be fair.  Just flogging and imprisonment nowadays.)  Well, we all screw up from time to time.  Deen's a media celebrity, so it's not surprising that she's concerned with appearances.  They're so much easier to manipulate and change than actual behavior.

Moral philosophers have been trying for millennia to decide whether the criterion for goodness is being a good person, whether rightness inheres in actions, or whether rightness lies in the consequences of our actions.  I think all of these are involved, though not equally all the time, and no one of them determines what is good or right.  That Paula Deen can apparently see only the suffering of her great-grandfather when his slaves were emancipated, and can't see at all the suffering of the slaves themselves, indicates that she's not a good person.  She should try to empathize with those slaves and their descendants who have suffered from white racism because it's the right thing to do.  It will also have good consequences, by helping to diminish the amount of suffering from racism in the world.  It might not be totally irrelevant that many people will give her approval for doing so, though many other people will disapprove; other factors are decisive.

The Perils of Paula Deen

I had hardly any idea who Paula Deen was until this recent storm broke.  The first I heard of her was when she revealed she has Type 2 Diabetes, which won her some criticism because of the fatty, sugary, unhealthy recipes she promotes; but it barely registered.

That's one of the pluses of not watching TV or following TV culture; the negative to it is that when someone puts me in front of a TV, I can't believe what I'm seeing -- it's like news from another planet or a really alien society here on earth, though less interesting.  When I was visiting a friend last week, he had The People's Court on, followed by an hour -- though it seemed longer -- of Spongebob Squarepants, which I'd never seen before either and which seems to me unfit for children.  Or for adults.  The main thing I noticed was that almost all the commercials in that time block were for physical-injury liability lawyers and paycheck-advance companies.  It told me a lot about the state of the American economy.  But back to Paula Deen, tied to the railroad tracks by Snidely Whiplash, and the PC Train is bearing down on her.

So I had a twinge of recognition when I heard Paula Deen's name being blazoned on the Intertoobz, along with the "N-word."  Not the word itself, you understand, the euphemism.  I still didn't care, but then Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a very good blog post about the controversy.  Coates is one of the best writers about race in America, and he's become one of my prime daily reads.  His commenters add a lot, and it helps that the comments are heavily moderated, by Coates himself and a couple of volunteers.  He wrote about Deen:
I confess myself refreshed to hear Paula Deen respond "Yes, of course," when asked if she used the word "nigger." We have conditioned ourselves with a kind of magic to believe that racism is a matter of kindness and prohibitive vocabulary -- as though a hatred of women can be reduced the use of the word "bitch." But what does a country which tolerates the terrorism of Southwest, Georgia expect? What does a country whose left wing's greatest policy achievement was made possible by an embrace of white supremacy really believe will happen to children raised in such times? What do we expect in a country where many find it entirely appropriate to wear the battle-flag of the republic of slavery?
He also quoted from a New York Daily News story which made it clear that Deen hadn't just used the "N-word."
Deen, talking at an event months before losing her job for using the "N-word," recounted how her great-grandfather was driven to suicide after his 30 slaves were set free.

"Between the death of his son and losing all the workers, he went out into his barn and shot himself because he couldn't deal with those kind of changes," Deen said at a New York Times event. Deen, owner of a restaurant empire, asserted the owner-slave relationship was more kinship than cruelty. 

"Back then, black folk were such an integral part of our lives," said Deen. "They were like our family, and for that reason we didn't see ourselves as prejudiced." 

She also called up an employee to join her onstage, noting that Hollis Johnson was "as black as this board" -- pointing to the dark backdrop behind her. "We can't see you standing in front of that dark board!" Deen quipped, drawing laughter from the audience. 

At the same event, Deen at one point described race relations in the South as "pretty good." "We're all prejudiced against one thing or another," she added. "I think black people feel the same prejudice that white people feel."
As Coates commented, "Here is everything from Civil War hokum to black friend apologia to blatant racism. And people at a New York Times event are laughing along with it."  And in comments to his blog post, some readers took it upon themselves to defend Deen: she's an old Southern lady, she grew up in different times, she doesn't mean any harm, she's not a racist, and anyway, she was raised to be racist, so it's not fair to pick on her.

I'm four years younger than Paula Deen, I grew up in the all-white Indiana countryside, and I don't see that her age is any excuse.  (Curious, now I think of it: the people who use that excuse for celebrities or themselves are generally the first to jeer if someone blames crime on poverty and deprivation: whatever happened to taking responsibility?  But they themselves are imprisoned by their upbringing and Society, it's not their fault, nothing is their fault.)  My parents weren't notably political, and while they would not have tolerated my brothers or me using racial epithets, they weren't very enlightened about race.  I was talking about this with another lifelong Hoosier last night, who's just about Paula Deen's age herself, and we were both wondering why we had reacted so differently to the Civil Rights movement, compared to our peers.  I speculated that one reason my parents never spoke disparagingly about blacks was that there weren't any in our vicinity.

In any case, I am an old white man who grew up in even more racist times in a state that has a long nasty heritage of white racism, including years during my parents' lifetime when the state was run by the Ku Klux Klan.  The area where I now live was a Klan stronghold, and still is to this day.  Yet I sided with the Civil Rights movement from the beginning.  Deen, a few years older, could have done the same, then or since, especially if she grew up knowing black people.  If she cared about them as much as she claims, if she saw them as family, she could have wondered why they were organizing for their rights; she could have sided with them.  She chose instead to stick with her white Southern racist heritage.  And yes, that is a lifestyle choice.

As I expected, a lot of my Facebook friends from high school are furious that Paula was fired by the Food Network.  One of them posted a close paraphrase of Deen's remark, quoted above, that "they" say the same thing about "us" that "we" say about "them."  Whether he was unconsciously quoting her or they were both plugged into the same collective unconscious, I don't know, but I don't say such things about "them," so don't include me in that "we."  One circulating meme complains that she was fired for something she did once, twenty years ago; which shows that they are not paying attention.  As the stuff I quoted above shows, it's about a lot more than that.  Another calls for boycotting the Food Network until they bring Paula back.  Today there were old white people quoting Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to the effect that there are more serious things to worry about than Paula Deen's racism.

Should the Food Network have dropped her?  Or all the other sponsors who're bolting like rats deserting a sinking ship?  I don't know.  A lot of people forget that no one has a First Amendment right to have a television show on any given network.  The First Amendment right in that instance belongs to the network, not to its employees.  I've already spent more time on Paula Deen than she deserves, and I doubt very much she'll ever miss a meal.  To some extent it's true that Deen is a scapegoat; as Coates says, she's part of a larger pattern that includes her sponsors and much of the country.  I don't know if I would have fired her, but what gets me is the people who don't just defend her right to have her views, they defend the views themselves.  I could be persuaded that there are graver problems facing African-Americans today than the malign stupidity of Paula Deen, but I know the people who are defending her, and they don't care about those graver problems either.  The problem with Deen is that she is typical of many older white Americans, who wish the past sixty years had never happened.  Individually it's easy to see them as dinosaurs, dying off rapidly; but collectively they are a large part of the racial problem in this country.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ding Dong, the DOMA's Dead?

Just a quick addendum, recycled after I found myself saying the same thing repeatedly on Facebook today:

I've been seeing a lot of GLB people crowing that DOMA has been struck down, that it's dead, and the like.

Sorry, folks, DOMA yet breathes.  It is not dead, but sleepeth.  The court only struck down one provision, albeit a key one.

This is a constant annoyance to me, the way people overstate changes. Back in the 90s I was always hearing how "gay marriage" was now legal in states and countries that had simply recognized domestic partnerships and civil unions. Then as now, I and other cranky ol' meanies would point out that civil union, however nice, is not marriage. The widespread eagerness to confuse the two (or three) casts some doubt on SSM advocates' indignant refusal later on to accept civil unions as a separate-but-equal substitute for the Real Deal. If civil unions were "marriage" in their eyes a decade ago, why not now?

And I don't harp on this just to harsh people's buzz, or because I'm mean. (Though I am.) It's because if everybody goes "Ding Dong, DOMA is dead!" then many other people, gay or straight, will believe that the war has been won and there's nothing left to do. Over the years I've talked to many people who'd say, "But don't gays already have marriage in Colorado and Hawaii and Vermont?" I had to explain that no, gays don't already have marriage. Those who want it still had work to do, and they still have more work to do.

P.S. I see that the Court also dismissed the appeal to sustain California's Proposition 8 today. But even that was on narrow procedural grounds, namely the standing of the appellants. They didn't rule on the Constitutional question of "marriage equality."

Father Knows Best

Everybody except me, it seems, has been holding their collective breath for the Supreme Court's ruling on the Defense of Marriage act. This morning, someone somewhere posted that the Court had overturned DOMA, so I did a quick search for more information. The ruling had been issued, it turned out, but it didn't overturn DOMA; it threw out one key section of the law, the part that forbids the Federal Government to recognize married same-sex couples as married for purposes of federal benefits, joint filing of tax returns, inheritance, and the like. That's good news, but the provision the Justices (narrowly) rejected was only one of the law's pillars.  Another, no less important, is the provision that states need not recognize same-sex marriages which were contracted in other jurisdictions.  (That means that if you get married in Massachusetts and then move -- or even travel -- to Indiana, your marriage license is just a piece of paper here.)  The case before the Court wasn't challenging that part, so it still stands for now.  But people do overreact; even the headline writer for the USA Today story I linked to gets it wrong.

The Atlantic had a post today about another ruling that got less media attention, though it touches on a related issue, that of parental rights.  Another article at the same site discussed that issue as it came up in the DOMA case, but Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl makes for an interesting control.  A Cherokee soldier in the US American army was engaged to a Latina woman; she got pregnant, they broke up (not necessarily as a result of her pregnancy) and lost touch.  The mother decided she didn't want to keep the baby and put her up for adoption; a white couple in South Carolina assumed "pre-adoptive care" of the baby.  Four months later, just before leaving for a one-year tour in Iraq, the father was notified of the mother's intent to put the baby up for adoption, and sued for custody, which he won at first.  (I'm not harping on the father's military status because I think it guarantees he will be a good, responsible father, by the way.  It doesn't.  But in cases like this, the tear-jerking factor weighs heavy in the public eye, and even in those of the courts: *sniffle* Would you take away the child of a *sob* veteran, who *bawl* put his life on the line to serve his country?)

The legal point at issue before the Supreme Court was "whether a parent who doesn’t have custody can invoke rights under ICWA", the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.  The Court threw the case back to the South Carolina Supreme Court to "to review the facts of the case under the new standard the Court has applied-- a standard that limits Brown's parental rights."  This doesn't guarantee that the adoption will go through, but it increases the likelihood that it will.

Now, see if you can guess which Justice wrote the following in a dissenting opinion.  If you didn't know it was about Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, you could read it as an endorsement of gay parenting, couldn't you?
The Court's opinion, it seems to me, needlessly demeans the rights of parenthood. It has been the constant practice of the common law to respect the entitlement of those who bring a child into the world to raise that child. We do not inquire whether leaving a child with his parents is "in the best interest of the child." It sometimes is not; he would be better off raised by someone else. But parents have their rights, no less than children do. This father wants to raise his daughter, and the statute amply protects his right to do so. There is no reason in law or policy to dilute that protection.
Right: the above was Justice Scalia, who disagreed unsuccessfully with the majority of his colleagues on DOMA.  On its face it can be taken as a defense of the right of gay or lesbian parents to raise their biological children, but Scalia has different principles in such case.  In "oral arguments for the Proposition 8 case" (the other gay-marriage case before the Court this session), Scalia said, "there's considerable disagreement among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not."  As the Atlantic writer wrote, "The true consensus among sociologists, as expressed by the American Sociological Association, is that there is no evidence of such harm."  But even if there were no such consensus, even if competent sociologists did warn of possible harm to children raised by same-sex couples or single gay or lesbian parents, Scalia pointed out here that sometimes the law overlooks possible harm to protect the rights of the parents.  (Some readers may forget that some gay parents are the biological parents of their children, but many are.)   I don't think this is a simple, cut-and-dried question; one reason we have courts is to balance competing interests, rights, and legal principles against each other.  The law doesn't enforce itself.  I suspect that Scalia's overriding concern in his dissent about Adoptive Parent had more to do with father's rights, protecting patriarchy, than with mere parents' rights.  I'm not dismissing fathers, mind: I just wonder if Mr. Justice Scalia would be as solicitous of the overriding rights of a father who was also a homo.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thank You for Pressing the Self-Destruct Button

In a story on the Obama administration's attempts to stop information leaks (except for those it commits itself, of course) Democracy Now! quoted a speech President Obama made last month defending his seizure of reporters' phone records:
Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. It can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk. I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me, as commander-in-chief, not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.
This is getting old.  It's the same rationale Obama and his apologists have waved around every time their malfeasance has been exposed.  So far, there has been no reason to believe that any of these leaks he's working so hard to block have put anyone at risk, but notice that the rhetoric is always conditional: it can put men and women in uniform at risk; Julian Assange potentially has blood on his hands.  As with anyone who cries Wolf, it's possible that sooner or later Obama's dire warning will be vindicated.  But so far, no.

But notice: "as commander-in-chief" Obama (like his presidential predecessors) has made decisions which have not only put American "men and women in uniform" and other operatives at risk, his decisions have gotten them killed (and wounded and maimed) in large numbers.  For no good reason.  Not to mention all the innocent non-Americans who've been killed and wounded and maimed by his decisions.  It's even possible that by exposing and forestalling Obama's attempts to extend the US war in Iraq, Wikileaks saved American lives.  There's much greater danger -- not potential danger, actual danger -- to world peace and human well-being from the US government than from any unauthorized leaks by whistleblowers.

The Democracy Now! story went on to report an internal government program aimed at stopping leaks from within, the Insider Threat Program.
And beyond places like the National Security Agency or the Pentagon, Insider Threat also covers employees in agencies or departments like the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration, the Departments of Education and Agriculture. As part of the program, staffers at the Department of Agriculture and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have taken an online tutorial called "Treason 101," which instructs them to look out for employees fitting the psychological profile of spies. The Department of Education has told its employees that, quote, "certain life experiences ... might turn a trusted user into an insider threat." These experiences include, quote, "stress, divorce, financial problems" or "frustrations with co-workers or the organization."

In addition to demanding that government workers monitor their colleagues’ behavior, the Insider Threat Program even encourages penalties against those who fail to report what they see. And it regards leaks to the media as a form of espionage. A Pentagon strategy document instructs agency superiors, quote, "Hammer this fact home ... leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States." All this leads McClatchy to warn, quote, "The [Insider Threat] program could make it easier for the government to stifle the flow of unclassified and potentially vital information to the public, while creating toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations."
I can't help thinking how all that would sound if it were paraphrased by substituting the names of relevant organizations in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq.  As McClatchy warns, this program will surely create "toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations."  Thank you for pressing the Self-Destruct Button, Mr. President.

Even funnier (in the worst way) is the reference to "the psychological profile of spies" in the first paragraph I quoted there.  Many employees of the organizations under Insider Threat are hired to be spies; now they and their fellows are being encouraged to spy on each other to root out spies.  And who came up with that psychological profile?  People like Philip Zimbardo, who are very concerned with figuring out why people disobey authority, and why they obey authority.  (I don't assume that Zimbardo had any involvement with this program, understand: but when the government sponsors psychological research, it isn't in order to foster dissidence, civil disobedience, or a critical attitude towards the government.)  The professionals who do such research have no interest in ethics, political ideals and principles, or any other elements of a free society: their job is to come up with ways to support policy, whether it's good or bad.  Psychiatrists and psychologists were deeply involved in the modernization of torture in the US and elsewhere; see Al McCoy's A Question of Torture (Metropolitan Books, 2006), as anthropologists have counseled them on how to win the hearts and minds of locals in Afghanistan and Iraq after we bombed, strafed, and incinerated them and their families.  (Public-relations professionals were hired to try to sell Brand America in the Middle East as we went to war there; they at least had the sense to give up after drawing comfortable paychecks for a while.)  They're probably aware that not bombing, strafing and incinerating people is a necessary though not sufficient approach to winning hearts and minds, but that method isn't on the table.  Whoever built that psychological profile of spies in the Pentagon and the NSA was doing the same kind of work: to prop up a totally corrupt enterprise by getting your employees to adjust to the job, rather than question whether the job is worth doing.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Road to Heaven Is Paved With Conspiracy Theories

Before I leave behind the topic of conspiracy theories for a while, I thought I'd spend a little time on the book I've just begun reading, C. E. Hill's Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford, 2010).  Hill, who is Professor of New Testament at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, wishes to discredit not only the real conspiracy theory that drives Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but the theories (which do not necessarily involve conspiracies) of some of his colleagues: James M. Robinson, Elaine Pagels, and Bart Ehrman, for example.  He also criticizes the work of a scholar, Walter Bauer, whose 1934 book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity has influenced those scholars and remains controversial to this day.  I decided to read it less for that aspect than to update my knowledge on the formation of the Christian biblical canon, particularly the list of books that make up the New Testament.  As far as I know, we know almost nothing about why these books, and not others, were adopted as Scripture by the early churches.  So far, it doesn't look as if anything major has been learned since I studied early Christianity thirty years ago, though Hill mentions some research that is new to me; so even if I get nothing else from Who Chose the Gospels?, I'll get that.

But what concerns me here today is the "Great Gospel Conspiracy" in the book's subtitle.  Hill is right, I think, when he says that "it is remarkable how Bauer's thesis seems to predispose many of its advocates to what we might call a 'conspiracy theory' mentality.  That is, to explain what now may appear to be the prominence of our 'mainstream' church before the fourth century, many lay great weight on the notion of the ultimate 'winners' rewriting history" (22).  This is even more true outside of scholarship.  I've often talked to people who wanted to see the history of Christianity as a tale of wicked churchmen deliberately, knowingly distorting the pure Good News taught by Jesus of Nazareth so they could control the sheeplike masses.  Professionals like Ehrman, Pagels, and Robinson know better, as did Bauer.  (It has been at least twenty years since I read Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, but I don't recall it advocating conspiracy theories.  Bauer may have been wrong on some matters -- what scholar isn't? -- but he wasn't a crank.)

But it isn't only revisionist approaches like Bauer's that seem to predispose their advocates to a conspiracy-theory mentality.  So does orthodoxy in Hill's terms, and why not, since the New Testament itself is full of conspiracy theories.  Jesus' opponents are characterized as hating him and trying to bring about his downfall from sheer malignant perversity and hatred of God, not from any principled reasons.  Paul takes the same tack with regard to his opponents, as do other New Testament writers with theirs.  Since these tactics became canonical as the writings that contained them became Scripture, even conscientious scholars (most of whom were Christians) found it easiest to accept them as truth and at most try to rationalize them.  This isn't a "conspiracy," it's just going with the flow.  George Orwell accused his fellow leftists of the same laziness in his attacks on sloppy political thinking and writing.
Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news - things which on their own merits would get the big headlines - being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that 'it wouldn't do' to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is 'not done' to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was 'not done' to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
Since the early churches, "orthodox" or "heretical," were not devoted to rational discourse, it's not surprising or even sinister that they preferred ad hominem attacks on opponents to critical analysis of their errors.  As Jennifer Wright Knust showed in her Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Early Christianity (Columbia, 2006), the same techniques were taught and demonstrated in the teaching of rhetoric by highly educated Roman "pagans."  If you want to win a court case, you don't argue the facts, you accuse your opponent of outrageous, baroque, and humiliating sexual excesses.  In this respect the early Christian controversialists were very much people of their time.  Knust concluded:
From biblical tradition, to Greek invective, to early Christian polemics, "the opponents" -- be they gentiles or slaves or barbarians or heretics -- were universally said to devote themselves to sexual excess. Though there may have been licentious gentiles, slaves, rulers, philosophers, barbarians, heretics, or Christians, the sources I have been exploring will not help us find them. Instead, these sources indicate a widespread attempt to employ moralizing claims regarding sexual behavior and gender deviance to validate authority [160].
You only need to read the online comments sections of local newspapers today to learn that this approach to debate is still widespread and popular.  Similar tactics are used against political dissidents even in the elite press, and at the highest levels of government.  Fag-baiting is popular all over the political spectrum. (Remember when the Bush administration tried to discredit a political reporter by revealing that he was gay?  It didn't work, because he wasn't closeted, so he couldn't be outed.  But it said a lot about the mentality of his accusers that they tried.)  And when Christian laypeople defend orthodoxy, they too follow in their Master's steps by attacking the (real or imagined) motives of their critics, whom they accuse of wanting to undermine the simple faith of ordinary believers, just to ruin their day.  So do professional scholars, unfortunately.  This doesn't excuse the conspiracy-theory mentality of many atheists or nominally Christian critics of orthodoxy, of course: it only indicates where they learned it.  One of the reasons why conspiracy theories have such power is that they are evidently a natural, normal way for human beings to think.

So far, Hill has refrained from speculating about the unclean motives of the scholars he quotes, and I want to give him credit for that.  But I still object to some of his arguments.  That bit about "rewriting history," for example: his point is that though many critics of orthodoxy say that the Christian canon was settled by wicked priests and archbishops at "the fourth-century Council of Laodicea" (Hill, 3), there is good reason to believe that the four canonical gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John -- were already widely accepted as uniquely authoritative by most Christians by the end of the second century.  Fair enough.  And it may be that some of today's critics, especially lay critics, believe that a unique revision of Christian history began when the Emperor Constantine began the process by which Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and everything was different before then.

But I don't think that many professional scholars think so.  They know that the process of writing and rewriting history is always ongoing, and that Christians began "rewriting history" from the beginning of their sect.  In particular, partisans justified their differences with other partisans by telling the story of the faith so that it began with Jesus and led directly, inevitably to them and their faction.  This too is normal human practice: the whole history of the world seems to lead to my glorious country, my family, and me.  The early Christians, struggling for legitimacy, claimed that the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition was all about them, and that the Church was the True Israel, heir to the promises Yahweh made to Abraham.  This was nonsense on any rational account, but who was rational?

So, Hill supports his argument by quoting a famous second-century church father and martyr, Iraenaeus of Lyons.  He writes that "when orthodox writers of the period such as Irenaeus of Lyons report on the use of Gospels in their day, they could be, and have been, accused of skewing their reports in favour of the four Gospels, as if involved in a conspiracy" (21).  Hill quotes Ehrman saying that "once it [the orthodox party] had sealed its victory over all its opponents, it rewrote the history of the engagement -- claiming that it had always been the majority opinion of Christianity" (22-3).  Ehrman is wrong here, but I don't see where "conspiracy" comes into the picture.

Of course any Christian writer would have skewed his reports in favor of his church's library and teachings; the heterodox writers did the same.  Many of the "Gnostic" writings were written in the name of various disciples of Jesus, in order to claim that the writers' churches could trace their beginnings to the Lord himself.  I don't know of any evidence that the heterodox writers were any more generous about the motives of their opponents than the orthodox were.  None of them made up their traditions and arguments and sacred history out of whole cloth: they drew on "apostolic" tradition, handed down from the elders, and on Scripture.  Ehrman should know better than to claim that the process of creating a history that authorized present claims began only in the fourth century; as a New Testament scholar, he knows perfectly well that it was going on all along, on all sides.  But Hill should know that too.

But no matter how sincere Irenaeus was, it doesn't necessarily mean he was right.  Hill writes:
Despite his statement that 'It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer than they are', Irenaeus' argument is not one of logical necessity but of aesthetic necessity, of harmony, beauty, or proportion. 'It is fitting,' he says, that there are four and only four; the characters of the four cherubim are 'in accord with' the characters of the four Gospels.  Later in the passage he reiterates, 'there cannot be more or fewer than those we have mentioned.  For since God made everything with harmony and proportion, it was necessary for the form of the Gospel to be harmonious and in proportion' [37-8].
Because these notions come from "earlier Greek and Latin philosophical and artistic sources, from Plato and Aristotle to Irenaeus' day', Hill declares that "objections to Irenaeus' arguments ... as logically uncompelling are a bit beside the point" (38).  Are they?  It is, I agree, important to recognize what sorts of criteria Irenaeus and his audience found compelling, but it is also important to remember that they have no bearing on historical questions like those that concern Hill and me.  If early Christians had adopted only three gospels, Irenaeus would have found criteria by which their three-ness was in harmony and proportion (like the Trinity!); better still if there had been seven gospels (the days of the week! the seven heavens!), or twelve (the tribes of Israel! the apostles!). Hill wants to establish that the four now-canonical gospels were widely recognized and accepted as authoritative in Irenaeus' day, and that may well be true, but it doesn't explain why there were only four, and why those four.

Consider Irenaeus' account of the origin of the four canonical gospels, also quoted by Hill:
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect ... Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what was being preached by Peter.  Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.  Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who had also leaned upon his breast [see John 13.23], himself published a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia [39].
Irenaeus didn't make up this description himself; it is similar to other early accounts of the authorship of the gospels.  The trouble is that the gospels described here don't sound like the gospels we have.  The gospel of Matthew wasn't originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic; most scholars nowadays believe it was written by revising and adding material to the gospel of Mark.  Some scholars have speculated that the "Hebrew" Matthew might have been the source of what was added to Mark; maybe so, maybe not, but it wasn't canonical Matthew.  Mark, however, shows no sign I've ever been able to detect of having any connection to Peter.  (For one thing, it doesn't include an account of the risen Jesus' appearance to Peter, who according to Paul was the first witness to the resurrection [1 Corinthians 15.5], though this appearance isn't described and is barely mentioned in any of the canonical gospels.)  The gospel of Luke doesn't bear much if any resemblance to the teaching of Paul as we know it from his letters; it's easy to see how the book became associated with Paul, though, because the same author wrote the book of Acts, with Paul as its hero. The gospel of John is notoriously hard to reconcile with the other three, or to connect with John the Son of Zebedee.  As Morton Smith wrote fifty years ago, "We have thirteen or fourteen names for Jesus' reportedly twelve disciples, and we hear of his brother James and of missionaries like Barnabas and Apollos in outlying districts; but of all these ghostly fathers nothing genuine has been preserved, not, at least, with their names attached to it."*

I'm perfectly willing to accept that the four now-canonical gospels were established among most Christians as authoritative by the end of the second century -- probably even among the "heretics", most of whom probably just supplemented them with other gospels and writings they found useful, though this too is uncertain.  (An important exception would have been Marcion of Sinope, who supposedly rejected everything except the gospel of Luke and some of the letters of Paul.)  But we have no idea where these books came from, how they came to be associated with certain of Jesus' followers, or how they won the recognition among Christians that they evidently won, because we have none of the evidence we'd need to answer these questions.  A conspiracy theory won't answer them either, but dismissing those who reject the orthodox account as conspiracy theorists doesn't help.

I have a related objection to Hill's account of Bauer's thesis as developed by later scholars.  As he puts it,
... Ehrman and others restrict their use of the terms 'orthodox' and 'heretical' to fourth-century and later phenomena (after the victory was sealed) and use 'proto-orthodox' to describe people or groups before that.  For, until the victory was sealed, there was no 'orthodoxy,' no main or intrinsically more genuine stream of Christianity [23].
As an orthodox modern Christian, of course Hill objects to this downgrading of his stream of tradition.  But there's nothing particularly radical about it.  I'm not sure whether Ehrman thinks "there was no 'orthodoxy'" before the fourth century; I would say that there were numerous competing, conflicting orthodoxies, each convinced that it was the true vine and all the others were impostors.  That would have been the case in Paul's day, certainly, when there were on his account many competing accounts of the Gospel, but only his was correct -- it even trumped Jesus' original followers in Jerusalem.  And Paul's connection to later orthodoxy is dubious; some of his teachings fed into that stream, others were rejected, others were drastically revised.  His writings were canonized, but only as they were authoritatively interpreted by the Church.

As for "no main or intrinsically more genuine stream of Christianity," well, that's the question on the table, isn't it?  Given the strange disconnect between Jesus' original followers and the later churches, indicated by but not limited to the fact that they left no surviving writings and that the writings attributed to them are almost certainly not by them -- I don't see how it can be taken for granted that "orthodoxy" as ratified by Constantine was the "intrinsically more genuine stream of Christianity.  Analogously, which modern dialect of Latin is "main or intrinsically more genuine" than the others? That's a historical question which can be settled, if it can at all, by evidence and analysis, not by statements of faith in received tradition, especially when there are such yawning gaps in that tradition.

Neither Hill nor Ehrman nor Bauer nor Pagels nor Robinson is engaged in a conspiracy to pollute, divert, or block the "main stream" of Christian teaching.  They are all (as I am) hampered by blind spots and biases.  Hill, to his credit, makes some serious arguments against the positions of these revisionists; but even if his every criticism were sound, it wouldn't prove that the traditional orthodox position is correct.

*Morton Smith, "A Comparison of Early Christian and Early Rabbinic Tradition", Journal of Biblical Literature 82 (1963), 171.

Our Professional Liars Aren't Doing a Very Good Job

A friend posted a link to this article on Facebook, and I mean really, The Discovery Channel?  What do they have to tell me?

Like most articles deploring conspiracy theories, it's a conspiracy theory itself: Gee, who are these people who keep spreading these crazy theories to undermine confidence in our government and our other great institutions?  Why won't they be reasonable?

I heard Democracy Now's story on the upcoming documentary about the TWA 800 crash of 1996, and I don't really have an opinion about the crash itself, but simply waving all the government experts who solemnly studied and investigated and came to solemn conclusions isn't enough to persuade me that the official explanation is true. (Which, as I'll explain below, doesn't mean that the alternative explanation, whatever it is, is true either.)  I didn't come away from the DN story with a sense that the filmmakers had a particular theory about what did happen to TWA 800; rather, they pointed to evidence that the investigators ignored, and shoddy and unconvincing attempts to put across a benign explanation of the disaster.  That's a far cry from the 9/11 Truthers, who have tried to marshall evidence (however inadequate) that the Twin Towers could not have been brought down by airliners flying into them -- which could conceivably be true without the destruction's being a black-op inside job by the Bush administration, for which I've seen no evidence at all, though I have seen a lot of irrationality, such as the notion that if you don't believe the Truthers, you have no reason to oppose the War on Terror.  This belief leads to attacks on such prominent critics of the War on Terror as Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, who are accused of slavish support for Bush's policies simply because they don't agree that 9/11 was an Inside Job.

The author of the Discovery Channel story admits in passing that conspiracy theories "tap into a widespread distrust of the government (fueled by both real and imagined transgressions such as the recent revelations about public surveillance)" -- but which kind are those recent revelations about public surveillance, "real" or "imagined"?  That's really not good enough.  It isn't only about the revelations of indiscriminate government surveillance of the public; it is that extremely high-level government officials, from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to President Barack Obama, have lied about the surveillance programs after the programs were exposed.  This is good evidence of a conspiracy by the Obama Administration to lie to the public about an important matter.  (The best alternative explanation, that the Obama Administration is in a condition of disarray, even panic, and various officials from the President on down are flailing desperately around to cover their butts, is not reassuring.)  I'm not picking on Obama, mind you: he's just the latest in a series of Presidents who've lied about their misconduct.

So, one reason conspiracy theories survive is that some conspiracies really do happen. The 1980 "October Surprise", for example, in which Reagan representatives persuaded Iranian leaders to delay the release of US hostages in order to hurt Jimmy Carter's chances of reelection, or Gary Webb's stories on connections between the US government and the narcotics trade in Central America, or the Iran-Contra conspiracy.  Responsible spokesmen still dismiss those derisively, even though they've actually been confirmed. I could add many other instances where the US government has lied in concert -- which means conspiracy -- about matters great and small.  It's not at all unreasonable to distrust the government's word.

The claim (of which this article makes so much) that the US government spent four years investigating the TWA 800 crash and concluded that it was an accident is not all that convincing. For one thing, official denials often amount to tacit admissions of guilt. Think of the crazy claims that the US was flying spy planes over the USSR, or that the US spent years trying to assassinate Fidel Castro, or that the Bush Administration conspired to "fix the intelligence" on Iraq, or any number of official claims that were exposed as lies by the Wikileaks publications. Is it a "conspiracy theory" to notice that the Obama administration is conspiring to lie about NSA data mining? If so, so much the better for conspiracy theories, because they are certainly lying about it. There are plenty of cases where our government lied about matters, often of trivial importance, and then had to reverse itself when it was caught. (Think of all the times police officials lied about why officers had beaten or pepper-sprayed peaceful demonstrators, or even denied that the abuse had occurred at all -- until videos surfaced that confirmed the accusations.  Another official conspiracy theory, by the way, is the story that circulates about the anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations of 1999, which casts the unprovoked police riots there as measured responses to protestors' violence.)  I don't assume that the TWA 800 was shot down by a US missile (though as far as I've heard, it has not been claimed that it was a deliberate black op), but I don't assume that the government told the truth about it either.

Another reason conspiracy theories won't go away is that conspiracy theories are used by the same people who deride them, sometimes with validity and sometimes not: the conspiracy theory that Iran is 'defending its right to have a nuclear weapons program', for example, so that it can attack Israel. Much of American foreign policy is based on conspiracy theories: North Korea wants to destroy us with nuclear missiles!  Saddam Hussein has Weapons of Mass Destruction that present an imminent threat to our shores!  Ho Chi Minh is a Communist puppet in the pay of Moscow and "Peiping," planning to conquer America!  As the Discovery Channel story says about conspiracy theories generally, it's impossible to prove that Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapons program, so this conspiracy still has legs -- and it helps that respectable corporate media and bipartisan government officials continue to promote it.

One thing I noticed about the rhetoric in this article is that "conspiracy theorists" are cast as a discrete group of irrational wackos -- almost a separate race -- which is one reason I said that it promotes a conspiracy theory itself.  Since conspiracy theories are not limited to an identifiable minority of weak-minded irrationalists but are part of the currency of mainstream America, from government to mainstream media, the Discovery Channel's article discredits itself on that ground alone.  Aside from that, human beings are story-making animals; as the writer says about the disagreement among scientists, it's just human nature.  Which doesn't mean that people's disregard for plausibility, logic, and fact isn't alarming: only that it's much more widespread, more mainstream, than this article allows.

Which, to repeat, doesn't validate any specific theory.  Even if it were proven that the official account of the collapse of the Twin Towers was invalid, it wouldn't prove that the Bush administration was behind it.  If it were proven that TWA 800 was brought down by an outside object, whether a mis-aimed missile or something else, we still wouldn't know where the object came from, what it was, why it got into the same airspace as the airliner, or why the Clinton administration preferred to cover up the facts: that would require a lot more investigation.  By the same token, if the neo-Darwinian theory of natural selection were to collapse tomorrow, it wouldn't mean that Yahweh created the universe in six days, six thousand years ago.  It's much easier to falsify one theory than to construct a true one to replace it.

I've quoted before Daniel Ellsberg's comment, "It is inexcusable to take what [government officials] say at face value. You are not talking to pathological liars, you are talking to professional liars who should be looked at as skeptically as used-car salesmen or Pfizer or Merck spokesmen."  I've also wondered whether we shouldn't be concerned that our professional liars, the men and women we elected to lie to us, consistently do such a lousy job of it.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Hey, I Just Met You and I Know This Is Crazy, But Let Me Beat You Up

Early in my gay career I noticed that some people (gay or straight) were more comfortable around gay people who were gender-compliant -- that is, they behaved as men and women were officially supposed to behave.  Others were more comfortable around gay people who weren't gender-compliant, or "stereotypical" -- that is, they behaved the way people of the other sex were supposed to behave.  Each comfort pattern made sense in its own terms.  The former group liked men to 'act like men,' and women to 'act like women.'  I suspect that this made it easier for them not to think about what gay men did sexually with each other, but that's only a guess.  The latter group liked men who desired men to 'act like women.'  Perhaps it made it easier for them to think of sex between men as something a man would never do; if a man who coupled with other men 'acted like a woman,' they could distance the activity from something they, as manly men, would ever do.  Perhaps they were just more comfortable knowing who was gay, based on appearance and mannerism, and who wasn't.  I repeat that in both cases, I'm speculating.  The different expectations of how gay people should gender themselves, however, were clearly there.

Only a few years before I came out, homophile organizations like Mattachine and the Daughters of Bilitis were instructing gay men and lesbians to behave like 'normal' men and women (out of bed, at least).  Ironically, gender prescriptions for women at least were changing, broadening heterosexual women's options.  Lesbians were pressuring each other to be more femme just as straight women were becoming more butch.  I think it was DOB honchos Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon who observed, in their 1972 book Lesbian / Woman, that if you see a stomping butch in jeans, hiking boots, and backpack on the Appalachian trail, she'll probably have a husband and children with her; the lesbians will be tottering along in capri pants and flimsy shoes, trying to look feminine and fit into society.  But then, as they implied, PR-conscious strategies generally imposed more restrictive norms on gay people than heterosexuals imposed on themselves.  If it's not forbidden, it's mandatory; if it's not mandatory, it's forbidden.

To a great extent, the call for gender compliance hid behind the excuse of What the Heterosexuals Will Think.  Often it reflected gender-compliant gays and lesbians' wish to impose their styles of gender and respectability on all gay men and lesbians.  (As I've argued before, PR-conscious gays don't really care that much about what upsets straights: when most heterosexuals were offended by the idea of same-sex marriage or gays in the military, these activists brushed their objections aside with derision. Only the standards they shared with bigots had to be respected.)  But then, gender-noncompliant gays and lesbians were just as willing to universalize their styles as the way to be gay.  The idea that different people express gender and sexuality differently, and that these differences should be allowed and respected, is still too radical for many of us.

This realization led me to conclude that no single gendered style was going to win us acceptance.  If we worked at passing for normal gendered citizens, that would make us acceptable as gay people to many heterosexuals -- but not to all of them.  Many other heterosexuals would prefer that we conform to the gender norms governing the "opposite" sex.  No matter which course we chose, we would win over some heterosexuals and alienate others.  That's not to say that we should ignore what heterosexuals think, only that we shouldn't let it determine how we live our lives.  Whether we try a public-relations approach of marketing ourselves to straights, insisting that we are just like them, or work at education, teaching them about diversity and how to live with it, will depend on what issues we're working on.

There are also different levels of stereotype-breaking.  One, call it first-order, is to defend and protect people who "fit the stereotype."  There's nothing wrong with a boy's being a sissy, a grown man being a drag queen, a girl being a tomboy, a grown woman being a butch truck driver.  But while being allowed to fit the stereotype can be liberating, it can also close off many options.  For Graeme Reid, hairstyling is the quintessential black gay South African occupation, and many ladies exhibit talent with hair and ask for nothing more than their own salon and roster of adoring clients.  But here's where second-order stereotype-breaking comes in.  One of Reid's informants, however, Nathi,
did not see hairstyling as his chosen career ... When he was 23 years old, he said that 'since he has schooling', he would rather be doing something else.  However, two years later he was still in the same job and appeared to have settled into the life of a hairstylist [120-1].
This doesn't mean that hairstyling is in Nathi's genes, however.  It probably has something to do with the widespread poverty that still pervades South African life, especially for blacks.  Most wealth in South Africa is still concentrated in white hands.  As Reid shows, hairstylists work long hours and don't make all that much money, so attending night school, let alone college, requires more determination than most people have.  But it also suggests that while gays may be accepted, even celebrated, as long as they behave as gays are stereotypically expected to behave, they are under considerable pressure, both from straight society and from gay society, not to stray outside the bounds that have been set for them.  Another of Reid's informants, working as an informal apprentice in a hair salon, said that "he would rather do catering or fashion design" (118), both of which are comfortably gendered for feminine gay men.  But what if he wanted to play soccer, or become a doctor or lawyer or astronomer?  Those occupations would be largely closed off to him for class reasons, but I wonder how much encouragement he'd get from his gay friends.  (You can't play football!  You'd muss your hair.  You might break a nail!)  Letting people occupy a gender- (or race- or class- ) defined box is all very well, but those boxes need to be expanded to give them more options.

Reid writes:
Local gender norms are fundamental to the ways in which same-sex sexual identities are expressed and performed in public. Gender norms also provide the framework for acceptable and transgressive forms of gay identity. Yet the deployment of an overtly feminine identity by gay men cannot only be understood in terms of imitating a heterosexual norm or unwittingly perpetuated gender stereotypes. In other words, a feminine gender identity is not simply imposed or adopted in the face of patriarchal pressure, the unrelenting logic of which would render gays effeminate and thus unthreatening to heterosexual masculinity [122].
What I wrote earlier indicates why I think this won't do.  Reid does recognize that there are both "acceptable and transgressive forms of gay identity."  In the South African townships, an "acceptable" form means that a man embraces a feminine style in varying degrees, which determines (while also enabling) his role in sexual expression no less than his social role.  A "transgressive" form in the same locale severs gender from sexual role, so that a man can be normatively masculine but still enjoy being penetrated, or take sexual pleasure in other ways.  But as I indicated, for a man to be a lady is both "acceptable" and "transgressive," in that he abandons normative expectations for males while adopting normative female styles; for a man to embrace what Reid considers an urban, male, activist, Western gay identity is also both "acceptable" and "transgressive," since such a man is normatively masculine except in his sexual activity.  Both styles appease some people while outraging others.  It's not possible to please everyone, so it becomes necessary to think about what one wants personally and how to get it in the face of opposition, which one will encounter no matter what one does.

It seems to me, by the way, that Reid is generalizing the gender norms of poor black people in the South African townships to all of South African society.  I imagine there are gay black men in South Africa who express gender differently; it won't do to accuse them, as Reid does, of conforming to "Western" concepts.  He assumes a much greater degree of uniformity than you'll find in any society -- including the townships, as his own examples show.

As for Reid's assertion that "the deployment of an overtly feminine identity by gay men cannot only be understood in terms of perpetuating a heterosexual norm" and so on (emphasis mine), those terms can't be completely dismissed either.  No one grows up in a vacuum.  A child learns her first language not by freely inventing one, but by observing and imitating the language used by the people around her; she also learns, at roughly the same age as she learns language, that gender matters, and can't simply go her own way in that arena either.  To reject one restrictive gender norm generally results in adopting another restrictive gender norm -- if I'm not going to be a Daddy, then I'll be a Mommy -- and yet no one conforms totally to those norms.  And in any case, there is considerable pressure to conform; if we all resist that pressure to some degree, we also surrender to it in some degree.  The penalties for nonconformity range from reproving, nagging, shunning, and harassment to exclusion, violence, and even death.

As Reid recognizes, adopting an overtly feminine style frees some gay men from the restrictions of masculinity, but it also exposes them to the restrictions and vulnerability of femininity.  Ladies, like heterosexual women, are menaced and victimized by theft, robbery, harassment, rape, and other violence.  Reid tells how, soon after his arrival in Ermano, he had to contend with the attentions of gents who said things like
I love you.  I love you so much.  Let us go and talk where no one can see us.  I know I am a black man and you are white, but just give me a chance to show you how much I love you.  I want you to be my girlfriend [52].
Such come-ons could shift from "flirtatious" to "openly aggressive" in a heartbeat.  Nor was this behavior comfortable for the black ladies: "Tsepo, who was with me in the car at the time, said, 'I hate it when people say "I love you" when they don't even know you" (53).  Some of this is directly tied to their being gay; some of it follows from being feminine, and even adopting the most respectable feminine image, that of the church lady and matron, doesn't immunize women or gay men against these dangers.

It appears that gents don't necessarily require their male paramours to be ladies who embody "a feminine gender identity."  The guys above could pursue Reid although he (whatever his personal style) was not a lady.  His lady informants, when he moved to Ermano, had trouble reading him: was he a gent or a lady?  Despite his failure to meet full feminine standards, they quickly classified and adopted him as one of them.

Reid continues to reify "performance" and confuse it with performativity, though he does finally recognize that "After all, women, like ladies, also engage in the daily performances that constitute femininity" (137).  As with all role theory, there are serious problems with seeing daily behavior as a role or performance, but confusing it with performativity just distorts Reid's intellectual framework.

I concede that this confusion has become normative in gender studies, but I'm not a big fan of normativity.  (Normativity is a pervasive social fact, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be criticized.)  When I pointed out this problem to one gay academic, he dismissed it by acknowledging that although it began as a misunderstanding of performative speech, the scholars involved were entitled to redefine the term to mean whatever they wanted it to mean.  Well, no they aren't: not if they continue to cite J. L. Austin as authority for the concept, and besides, in serious discourse, you are not entitled to play Humpty Dumpty -- especially if you're unaware you're doing it.  I found this example in an academic book on "making schools and communities welcoming to LGBT youth" by three concerned teachers.
Language is a tool. As such, we believe that speech is performative – it does things. Words invite or exclude, recognize or erases, empower or intimidate. Far from what the children’s chant would have us believe, words are sticks and stones.*
As authority for these assertions, they cite J. L. Austin's How to Do Things With Words, which introduced and popularized the concept of performative speech acts.  But Austin didn't, as far as I can tell, say that all speech is performative, as the authors above claim.  He argued that certain types of speech are performative, as distinct from other ways in which language can be used.  Saying flatly that "we believe that speech is performative" and citing Austin is like saying that "everything is relative" and citing Einstein's paper on Special Relativity.

*Vaccaro, Annemarie; August, Gerri; Kennedy, Megan S.. Safe Spaces: Making Schools and Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth (Santa Barbara CA: Praeger, 2012), p. 95.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Question Is, Which Is To Be Master -- That's All

As I continue to read Graeme Reid's How to Be a Real Gay, I sympathize with his difficulties in trying to make sense of the styles of sex between males that he encountered in small-town South Africa.  I'm struggling with the same problem myself, and I don't pretend to have solutions.  Still, I think other writers have done a better job of describing the complexities of the subject -- Annick Prieur, for example, writing about cross-dressing feminine homosexuales in Mema's House.  Where Reid writes about a South African lady changing from his respectable church-lady outfit ("a bottle-green dress and a white shirt, headscarf and a matching belt", 98) into informal hair-salon wear ("tight-fitting white pants, stylish boots, earrings that were long enough to brush his shoulders and a delicate pink blouse that cascaded down his left thigh, offset with an orange jacket"):
There would be nothing remarkable about women church members changing from formal to informal wear, but because Nathi was not a woman, but a lady, his clothing was part of an ongoing and self-conscious performance of femininity.  In both churches and hair salons, gays frequently presented themselves as feminine, but in these two different spaces there were, of course, completely different styles [98].
Like many writers who refer to performativity, Reid seems to think that only drag queens and fairies are performing femininity.  As I understand it, though, that approach recognizes that even the born-female, XX-chromosome born-female church lady is "performing" femininity just as self-consciously.  She, or her daughter, may well dress in "completely different styles" in other spaces.  (Note to self: read Gender Trouble before the summer is quite over!)  Femininity and masculinity are not single, monolithic constructs.  But even so, changing outfits for different environments is part of the normative femininity that ladies aspire to.

Prieur, by contrast, writes:
So the jotas have considerable scientific support when they claim to have been born both feminine and homosexual. Still it seems a paradox that these persons who so actively go about forming their femininity, through makeup, dressing, and bodily transformations, at the same time insist that they are born feminine and are merely undertaking the necessary adjustments. Even if I am open to the belief that there are some innate or early founded differences that orient some more toward a heterosexual and other more toward a homosexual preference, some toward a rather masculine and other towards a rather feminine personality, I also believe that the actors' own essentialist interpretation of these differences accentuates them, polarizes them, and creates binary oppositions out of a continuum. A theory of innate factors cannot offer an exhaustive explanation of homosexuality [115].
Again, she is skeptical of the vaunted femininity of her informants:
Others, like Lupita, told me they liked housework. ... Having lived with some of them, however, I have good reason to doubt that they really like housework that much. Confronted with a stack of dirty dishes their femininity evaporates, and they start to resemble lazy teenagers. Not that this is any proof that their femininity is superficial - I suspect their sisters are not always fond of doing the dishes either. But their sisters can refrain from liking without much ado. (That they lack the same possibilities to escape it is another question) [176].
Prieur and Reid are writing about analogous milieux, though her vestidas live in Mexico City, not a small town (the country/city binary plays a major role in Reid's analysis).  The odd thing, though, is that Reid has so far been claiming that ladies are social women,  just as their gents are socially men, because in their culture gender trumps bodies and sexual orientation is determined by gender rather than sexual object choice.  (As I've argued before, if gender really did trump body configuration in this construction, effeminate men would pair up at least sometimes with butch women. but it doesn't work that way.)  On this logic, there should be no cultural difference between a lady with a penis and a woman with a vagina.  But there definitely is.

So, for instance, Reid writes about
a context where transgression of moral and social norms appeared to be determined not so much by sexual acts, but rather through the respect or transgression of gender boundaries. In other words, a heterosexual man could have sex with an effeminate gay without ruffling many feathers in the ambit of social decorum or jeopardizing his status as heterosexual. What does this way about the boundaries between (in Fuss’s formulation) the heterosexual ‘inside’ and the homosexual ‘outside’? Homosexual acts, per se, do not constitute homosexuality and same-sex practices can do form part of heterosexual experience [39-40].
This is congruent with the common picture of Latin American activo/pasivo sex between males, where a man's manliness supposedly isn't compromised by penetrating another male, especially an effeminate one.  (However, "heterosexual" is as foreign a term and concept in this context as "homosexual.")  In practice, it's a bit more complicated than that:
The most pervasive [generalization] is that being gay in these environs is almost invariably synonymous with being effeminate or, in local parlance, a lady or sisButi. According to jolly-talk, ‘straight’ men can be ‘somehow bended’. Bhuti explained to me that in ‘location language’, the phrase ‘somehow bended’ refers to ‘straight’ men known or suspected of being available as sexual partners to gays. Those who are ‘somehow bended’ are also referred to as gents.
So it seems that there is a difference, or a distinction, between being a man and being a gent. And that distinction indicates sexual object choice as distinct from gender. Which is not quite what Reid has been saying.
These are important categories, as ‘straight’ men remain the primary object of desire for gays. Injonga also refers to a ‘gay butch’, someone who is attracted to and involved with gays, but who maintains a male social and sexual role in a same-sex relationship.
Sexual object choice again.
This term is almost the same as a gent, but the subtle distinction is that the term suggests a primary, albeit not exclusive, attraction or sexual involvement with gays [who are males, even if they are ladies - DM], whereas a gent is primarily heterosexual, in orientation, if not in practice.
Wait a minute. I thought the idea of ‘orientation’ (meaning ‘sexual object choice’) was utterly foreign to these kids. What I see here is a blurring of those clear boundaries, and it indicates an imagined distinction that may not really be a difference. It indicates that the ladies, at any rate, know the difference between a man who’ll have sex with feminine males on the side, because he's been "somehow bended," and a man who prefers to have sex with feminine males out of desire.
A lady is a femme, who ideally maintains a female social and sexual role in relation to a gent, a ‘somehow bended’ or a butch. This gender binary is respected and adhered to by both ladies and gents. It is an orthodoxy that was constantly confirmed and reinforced [or simply enforced] on daily practice and through gossip, banter and rumour. People were characterized and allocated a gender role according to this gender binary and usually the allocation seemed so self-evident that it was not worthy of comment: a lady was obviously a lady; a gent clearly a gent [60].
It also appears that non-gays in South Africa can tell the difference between gender and object-choice.  (Compare the Dominican girlfriend of the Dominican hustler I mentioned in my previous post, who wasn't convinced by her boyfriend's insistence that only the maric√≥n he was living with was queer.)
Brian’s girlfriend discovered that he was seeing someone else when she found condoms in his room in Richard’s Bay on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. She confronted him about it. At first he told her it was another woman, but she was already suspicious. She took their child and left him, telling his mother that her son was gay. His mother denied this, saying, ‘No, I know Brian is a boy.’
But by local terms, he isn’t gay, he’s a man. So that much may be true.
But later she told Brian that he would have to ‘pack his things and go’ if he did not change his ways. Brian said that with the exception of his younger sister (whose husband also had sex with gays) his family did not accept him and spoke badly about gay people.
Hey, no problem, because Brian’s not gay. Right? Right?
However, after a short separation, Brian’s girlfriend returned. Brian said, ‘The mother of my child said no, she wants to go on with me because she loves me. So we are back together and we are still lovers. And now she is pregnant with our second child.’ He remained involved with his girlfriend, but he moved to Ermelo to put some distance between himself and his family. In Ermelo he had a primary gay partner, known amongst others as his ‘senior wife’, as well as various other gay partners. While his girlfriend knew that he had male lovers, she did not want to see them. His gay partners knew about each other. The protocol involved was that the ‘senior wife,’ Zithembe, would grant Brian permission before he took another gay lover. Zithembe was deferential to Brian, declining to be interviewed, for example, until he had received permission from his ‘husband’, Brian [64-65].
Nevertheless, "Family members can play an important role in domestic disputes.  When Wandile's boyfriend assaulted him, his family intervened and his boyfriend vowed never to beat him again" (90).

It sounds to me as though the idea that gent/lady sex is culturally indistinguishable from man/woman sex doesn't hold true for the whole culture; it holds sway mainly in gay circles, and it takes a lot of work to keep shoring it up, even there.  I'd say it's more wishful thinking than a real cultural norm; I think that distinction holds up because writers like Reid talk as though South African gay social constructions are determined by overall South African gender norms.  And just as one finds in Mexican vestida circles or among twentieth century inverts, "It is accepted as a truism that 'straight' men inevitably end up with women" (90): the invert's quest for true love, which requires a 'normal' partner, is doomed because a 'normal' partner can never really be satisfied with a partner of the same sex, even if he (or she) is of a different gender.

I also suspect that Reid may be overstating the dominance of the lady/gent model in South African homosexual practice.  Ladies are easy to study because they are visible and have a social presence in their communities; insofar as they are small-business entrepreneurs, they aim to stay in one place, unlike their often unemployed boyfriends.  As many researchers have found around the world, getting their gent partners to talk about themselves is a lot harder.  Since they insist, and their lady partners insist, that they are just regular men, they have no basis for building a community.  Reid brushes up against other models, also down-low, of sexual interaction between males.  His informant Clive, for example, also a country boy, "was first introduced to gay life in KwaThema, although he was no stranger to having sex with men. Since he was twelve he had had thigh sex with older male farm workers who brought him gifts or small amounts of cash. ‘We never kissed,’ he told me and they never spoke about it. Sometimes Clive dressed up a bit, in ‘ladies things’ (80).  No one has any idea how many such men there are, because they retreat into the shadows as soon as the sex is over.  If you're looking for "identities", as Reid is, such men may not be of much interest.

Reid also comes across evidence that the penetrator/receptor binary isn't absolute, but he relegates it to an endnote and an informant's remark that "There are things that happen behind closed doors" (96 note 22).  HIV transmission, a very serious matter in South Africa, would indicate that gents aren't as impenetrable as they or the ladies want to claim.  Some men are gents in one locale, ladies (in bed, at least) in another.  The cross-cultural evidence indicates that getting gents to talk about being penetrated is going be very difficult.

South Africans who don't fit comfortably into the lady/gent model don't have an easy time of it.  There's no indication, and probably no way to find out, how common they are, but Reid talked to several of them.  Things weren't very different in the pre-Stonewall (but still "modern" and "Western") United States, where people were pressured to fit into existing community categories.  One famous rebel was Audre Lorde, who resisted defining herself as either butch or femme, and so was regarded with distrust by other New York City lesbians.  This is why I've always been wary of "community": I quickly learned that, far from being an environment where I could Be Myself, it was a place where a different group of people would tell me who to be.  Some of Reid's informants come up against the same constraints, and they don't like them any more than I did.  What Reid calls the 'gay activist' model of homosexuality, tainted by association with the City, Modernity, and the West, can be a useful tool for carving out space in a gay community that is not much more tolerant of difference than the straight world is.