Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Give Me a Signal When It's My Turn to Join in the Chorus

I just finished reading Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions (Pantheon, 1996), a posthumous collection of fiction, nonfiction, and a long interview by Toni Cade Bambara.  There's a lot of interesting material in it, including a fine essay on Spike Lee's School Daze and another on Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust. She also discusses independent African-American film, including several I want to track down and see.

But I'm writing this to quote some bits that especially caught my interest.  First, one I disliked: Bambara says that in writing her novel The Salt Eaters
... I was stretching, reaching, trying to do justice to that realm of reality that we all live in but do not acknowledge, because the English language is for mercantile business and not for the interior life. The only time you see that realm rendered is in science fiction [235].
I think this qualifies as fairly explicit racism, but I'll be nice and say it's merely a false antithesis.  The English language is not only for mercantile business rather than the interior life, certainly no more than any other language.  It's a kind of statement that has often been made by white racists about non-European languages.  Sure, English can be used for business, but it has also been used for every other kind of purpose its users have tried: poetry, oral storytelling, fantasy, philosophy.  On the other hand, no language handles very well the pre-verbal aspects of interior life, but people try anyway.  (I wonder what kind of science fiction she had in mind.)

But moving on.  In another essay she writes:
As David Mura, Amero-Japanese writer in Minnesota, has frequently said, POCs find in the cultural work of POCs what they can’t find in the Saul Bellows and Updikes, or in Descartes and Plato [177].
I'll go along with this, to a point.  It's also true that gay white men find in the cultural work of gay white men what they can't find in the work of heterosexuals.  Or that women find in the cultural work of women what they can't find in the work of men.  And so on.  It's perfectly all right to look for insights in the work of people who share one's background and experiences; it's important to stress the validity of doing so in a society which insists that only the work of members of the dominant group can have any value.  But there are two pitfalls in this statement.  One is that members of non-dominant groups will still, often, find useful material in works of the dominant group, though it is up to them to decide what has value there and what doesn't.  The other is that no group is monolithic, and differences within groups are greater than differences between them.  It's very important to me as a gay man, for example, to have available the cultural work of other gay men; but much of it doesn't speak to me at all -- though it speaks to other gay men.  This recognition has the added danger of leading to insularity, as with a gay English filmmaker who complained that all gay male films were about men who have muscles and live in West Hollywood, so he couldn't relate to them.  This was a lie, not to put too fine a point on it.  I still haven't watched his film, but I still wonder if I should, since I'm not a druggie Brit with carefully manicured beard stubble, so what could his cultural work, on his assumptions, have to say to me?  Cultural work should be about people like us, but also about people who aren't like us; sometimes those who aren't like us are members of our own group.

There's also an irony in Mura's dictum.  While the writers and thinkers he mentions are generally classified as "white", only Updike among them was a WASP.  Bellow was Jewish, and Descartes and Plato both belonged to what nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon racists would have called the dusky Mediterranean races.  They certainly weren't Anglo-Saxons, the "AS" in WASP.  Were the ancient Greeks white?  Bambara dismisses at least once the "two-race model" which divides humanity into blacks and whites (or POCs and non-POCs), but Mura seems to have fallen into that fallacy himself.  Though I wonder how specific he wants to be: can Asians learn from Africans? Can Chinese learn from Japanese, or Vietnamese, or Thais, or Indians?  Or should they stick to their own nationalities and subraces?

Mura's remark also reminded me of one of my favorite passages in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet:
From the keepers of a dead canon we hear a rhetorical question -- that is to say, a question posed with the arrogant intent of maintaining ignorance.  Is there, as Saul Bellow put it, a Tolstoi of the Zulus?  Has there been, say the defenders of a monocultural curriculum, not intending to stay for an answer, has there ever yet been a Socrates of the Orient, an African-American Proust, a female Shakespeare?  However assaultive or fatuous, in the context the question has not been unproductive [51].
Sedgwick then poses analogous questions: "Has there ever been a gay Socrates?  Has there ever been a gay Shakespeare?  Has there ever been a gay Proust?" and stays for the answer: 
A short answer, though a very incomplete one, might be that not only have there been a gay Socrates, Shakespeare and Proust but that their names are Socrates, Shakespeare, Proust; and beyond that, legion -- dozens or hundreds of the most centrally canonic figures in what the monoculturalists are pleased to consider "our" culture, as indeed, always in different forms and senses, in every other [52].*
So one might retort to Mura and Bambara that there hasn't been a white Plato either.

My final quotation from Bambara:
I was always in the movie house. I liked movies, and I would sit there and rewrite them. Most of the time the stories were stupid because none of the women ever had girlfriends. I used to think, Well, no wonder. No wonder Barbara Stanwyck is getting thrown off the cliff, or Lana Turner is getting shot, or Bette Davis is having hysterics. They don’t have any girlfriends [225].
This is another independent formulation of the Liz Wallace/Alison Bechdel Rule for movies: that to be minimally interesting a movie must have a least two female characters, who talk to each other about something besides a man.  It's nice to find that so many great minds have come up with it.

*I'm not going to discuss here whether it's appropriate to say that Socrates, Shakespeare, or Proust were "gay"; suffice to say that they clearly weren't straight, as we think of it today.

The Next Time Someone Asks Rhetorically ...

"What happened to the fiercely independent, adversary, speaking-truth-to-power news media we used to have?"

Show them this:
After successfully completing the flight that would make him the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn gave a speech at his hometown high school. His old teachers, the astronaut joked, would be "very surprised" to learn, as news accounts had it, that he had "received straight A's all through school." His football teammates would be similarly shocked to learn that even while Glenn had sat on the bench, they had sought guidance from him about gaining "a few more yards." The people who knew John Glenn, The Guy before he became John Glenn, The Astronaut, the newly minted hero suggested, must be amazed to read all the gushing accounts of their classmate's various "prowesses."
Glenn was poking fun at the inevitable trajectories of heroism: the wide-eyed exaggerations, the casual polishings, the careful erosions of inconvenient facts. But he was poking fun, more specifically, at a legal document: a contract between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Life magazine. One that sold the Mercury astronauts' life stories to the media outlet, exclusively. In exchange for this, Life agreed to obtain NASA's approval before publishing images of and/or writings about the astronauts. And it agreed to pay for the privilege -- a sum that reportedly amounted to, in 1959 currency, some $25,000 per astronaut, per year. That's hundreds of thousands of dollars in today's money.
Another bit that would be worth remembering:
So while "there was no explicit editorial direction" for the stories, one of the Life ghost writers noted, "the deal Life made with NASA and the seven individuals created a strong bias toward the 'Boy Scout' image, because all pieces under the astronauts' bylines had to be approved by them as individuals, as a group, and by [NASA publicity head] Shorty Powers and whomever happened to be in charge at the moment in Washington."
This fits with the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model of media, and with George Orwell's critique of the English Left Press in the 1930s: no "explicit editorial direction" is needed, because everyone involved knows what "it wouldn't do" to mention.  The more it changes, the more it stays the same.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Acting Homosexual: Meet the New Pope, Pretty Much the Same as the Old Pope

Some people I know got all excited about some remarks the new Pope uttered on his way back to Rome from Brazil.  I'm still looking for a more complete transcript, but Democracy Now! gave me more than the National Catholic Reporter today:
Pope Francis: "Everyone writes about the gay lobby. I still haven’t found anyone who gives me an identity card in the Vatican with 'gay' written on it. They say that there are these people. I think when someone finds themselves with a person like this, they need to make a distinction between being a gay person and that of being part of a lobby. All lobbies are not good, that is the bad thing. If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?"
That's dependent on his (or her?) not engaging in sexual activity, of course.  The NCR adds "They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem ... they're our brothers" right after "to judge him?"  Some writers have noticed that Francis was not saying anything new: the distinction between "the tendency" and the activity remains in place.  It's okay to be gay, but not to act on it.  As one writer at Time pointed out,
the accompanying message in the catechism that while a gay person is to be accepted, acting out on homosexual acts is to be deplored: “Under no circumstances can they be approved … Homosexual persons are called to chastity.” Francis, who cited the catechism in his answers to reporters, said nothing to contradict this. Asked for his position on gay marriage, he answered: “You know perfectly the position of the church.”
As another writer at Time explained -- a remarkable sentiment to appear at what used to be a very right-wing and antigay magazine -- Francis' remarks don't signal any change at all in doctrine.  "The Vatican’s catechismal stance regarding the LGBTs in our midst remains the same: The church may love the sinner, but it hates the sin."

A friend linked to this piece (letter or op-ed, I'm not sure which) in a Muncie, Indiana newspaper.  The Unitarian Universalist church there spoke out against "the position" expressed by a presumably Christian writer in the same paper a couple of weeks ago.  Unitarians, as you're probably aware, are much more liberal than the Catholic Church, but they don't seem to be a lot more sensible:
Sin as an explanation for homosexuality is wrong, unfair and hurtful. Homosexuals continue to be victims of discrimination and ignorance in our culture. As happened with discrimination against women and people of color, the tide is turning, and in a generation or so our great-grandchildren will wonder what we were thinking.

Each of us is born somewhere on the sexual orientation continuum. Most of us are heterosexual, some of us are bisexual, some of us are homosexual. Did those of us with heterosexual orientation decide to be straight? Was there a moment when we made a conscious decision? Of course not.
The first quoted sentence makes no particular sense, but I presume the writer is thinking of Romans 1, where the apostle Paul explains male homosexuality as the result of a refusal to believe in Yahweh.  "Wrong, unfair and hurtful"?  This is God we're talking about here, buddy -- his ways are not our ways.  "Victims of discrimination and ignorance"?  Well, that's exactly what antigay Christians want, though of course they believe themselves to have knowledge, not ignorance.  The Unitarian writer is in no position to cast the first stone, since he goes on to show his own ignorance: there is no basis whatever for his claim that "Each of us is born somewhere on the sexual orientation continuum."  Even if you grant for the sake of argument the incoherent science of sexual orientation that is current today (which I don't), it makes no claim to explain a person's precise location "on the sexual orientation continuum."  The continuum itself is a fiction, borrowed from Alfred Kinsey's work, where it was developed as a way to visualize the diversity in people's sexual history, not their orientation.  Since many people move around on that scale during their lifetimes, it cannot be about an inborn, congenital, immutable sexual orientation.

There's a lot of confusion about terminology in this area, as I've argued before.  Many people talk about "orientation" as if it were a physical trait which we know to exist; it's not.  Many people talk about "orientation" as if it could be measured and quantified; it can't.  We have no way of measuring or detecting a sexual orientation.  At best we can try to elicit someone's sexual history, but the picture we'll get will necessarily be incomplete at best.  But beyond "orientation," people talk about "being gay" as if "being" could be separated from acting on it -- which simply plays into the hands of the Vatican, accepting their invidious distinction between the acceptable disposition and the sinful actions.  Years ago, after reading and listening to various antigay people, I realized that they were using "becoming gay" where pro-gay people would use "coming out."  That is, you "become gay" by getting to know other gay people, and engaging in homosexual activity.  They prefer not to think about what you may have thought or felt before.  They also assume that if they don't know you're gay, you are by definition straight, so you become gay by coming out in the post-Stonewall sense, by beginning to tell the truth about yourself and your relationships.

But many people, gay or not, use "being gay" in a similarly confusing way.  "Being gay," for many, means not just harboring the Gay Gene in yourself, it means living your life as a gay person -- which, for most of us, means having sex with other people of our own sex.  Not just copulating, of course: "sex" and "sexuality" reasonably include romantic love and interpersonal relationships.  But in that case, trying to use "being gay" at other times as if having sex played no part in it, is dishonest.  People are not at their best or most rational when they're under attack, I know, but it is possible to do better, and to be honest about it.  Our allies do no good by fostering misinformation, as that well-meaning Unitarian spokesman did.

I think we should stop worrying about the question of acts vs. orientation.  Even if homosexuality were simply a matter of sexual acts, what would be wrong with that?  There is nothing wrong with homosexual sex per se, though of course some acts may be performed by selfish, manipulative, even abusive people for selfish, manipulative, or abusive ends.  I think a major reason many people, gay or straight, want to think in terms of a congenital "orientation" is that they still think same-sex sex (especially anal copulation) is bad, and that gay people can only be excused if our genes make us do it.  I think this is quite a horrible position to take.  No one really believes that if you're out of control and go around doing horrible things, it's okay and other people should tolerate it.  Gay people get indignant if someone compares homosexuality to, say, alcoholism; but it is gay people who've made the comparison, since they generally accept that alcoholism is inborn, even genetically determined.  They don't want to be judged negatively for being gay, though, so they reject the comparison; but they do feel ashamed of having sex with other men or with other women.  If gay people were out of control, the proper measure would be to restrain us.  Others might pity us, and refrain from judging us (like Pope Francis), but they wouldn't allow us to go around doing awful things.  The proper response is to deny that homosexual sex is awful, and to declare that it doesn't matter why we do it.

Until we can affirm our loves, our desires, and our sexual practices, we're on very shaky ground.  Appealing to biology won't do the job.  First, many people, not all of them religious, won't accept the biological explanation; second, they shouldn't accept it, because it's invalid as biology; third, it's irrelevant, because biology alone can't tell us whether we should or shouldn't be gay.  Biology -- rather like religion -- has no ethical content or moral authority.  It will be harder to fight the belief that sex between males or between females is sinful, but that's what we must do.  In the long run it may not matter, because so many people nowadays seem to be abandoning the belief that homosexual sex is a sin.  This is not, apparently, because they've been convinced by reason or by science, but because they know gay people and don't see anything wrong with us.  (A similar change has occurred in many right-wing Christians' attitude to interracial unions: where they once insisted that Scripture forbade miscegenation, they now admit that it doesn't.)  So the right and wrong of sexual behavior may not matter.  Myself, I'm not ready to go with the flow on this or any other matter.  I do think the burden of argument should lie on the bigots: it's up to them to come up with good reasons why homosexuality is unacceptable.  They've had a long time to come up with some, and so far they've come up dry.

Monday, July 29, 2013

If It Isn't One Thing, It's Another

Amazing how things happen to keep me from writing.  Today it was driving a friend to Indianapolis for an appointment with his lawyer.  Well worth doing, and I enjoy driving, but it did throw a spanner into my plans for the day.  But while I was waiting for him in the lawyer's office, I read further in a book I'd begun reading yesterday, Arundhati Roy's Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (Haymarket Books, 2009).  Somehow I've failed to keep up with her books, which is inexcusable: she writes clearly, even beautifully, with lots of useful information, and the books aren't very long.  But this one slipped under my radar.  (On the other hand, her books often appear under different titles, which can be confusing.  This one, for example, has also been published with the subtitle and title reversed -- Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy.  Her fine book on the "Maoist" guerrillas has appeared as Walking with the Comrades and as Broken Republic.)

I imagine most people who've heard of Roy know her as the author of the novel The God of Small Things, which won the 1997 Booker Prize, and perhaps they wonder why Roy hasn't written any more lovely novels.  The short answer is that she's been writing lovely but infuriating non-fiction about political injustice in India, though she situates her native country in the international system, and much of what she writes is every bit as relevant to US politics as to India.  (Which is why Ian Buruma published a scurrilous attack on her after the September 11 attacks, accusing her of all manner of all anti-American thoughtcrime and forfeiting the respect I'd had for him up till then.)

For example, "Of course there is a difference between a politics that openly, proudly preaches hatred and a politics that slyly pits people against each other" (63). She's talking about India, but she could be talking about our own Republicans and Democrats.

Or this:
As neoliberalism drives its wedge between the rich and the poor, between India Shining and India, it becomes increasingly absurd for any mainstream political party to pretend to represent the interests of the poor, because the interests of one can only be represented at the cost of the other. My “interests” as a wealthy Indian (were I to pursue them) would hardly coincide with the interests of a poor farmer in Andhra Pradesh.

A political party that that represents the poor will be a poor party. A party with very meager funds. Today it isn’t possible to fight an election without funds. Putting a couple of well-known social activists into Parliament is interesting, but not really politically meaningful. It’s not a process worth channeling all our energies into. Individual charisma, personality politics, cannot effect radical change [64].
She has some recommendations as to the way out of this dilemma, but I recommend those interested in reading them to find and read the book.  I checked it out of the library, but will probably buy my own copy eventually.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The United States of Amnesia

Why is it that the trip home messes up my routines more than the trip out?

Anyway, I finished reading Richard Seymour's American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Imperialism (Haymarket Books, 2012), and I recommend to anybody who might be interested.  It's especially good because it's relatively short -- only a little over 200 pages -- and because it connects the past to the present, almost up to the publication date, so it's good for younger people who want a manageable introduction to our history from this point of view.  Zinn's People's History, for example, is also a good introduction, but looks intimidatingly hefty.  American Insurgents is more like Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects (also, by a nice coincidence, published by Haymarket Books, 2010), which covers roughly the same period with a focus on economic history.  Chomsky's Propaganda and the Public Mind (South End, 2001), one of his books of interviews with David Barsamian, is useful in the same way for those of us who have trouble remembering the Clinton years.  It's good to know this history, because defenders of the status quo like to switch between insisting that this or that current atrocity is just an aberration in the otherwise glorious cavalcade of American greatness, and (when faced with the history) accusing critics of dredging up the dead distant past, which nobody cares about, just to make America look bad, but we've fixed all that now.

But back to American Insurgents.  Seymour does a nice job demolishing some of the partisan divisions that structure mainstream American history, as I was taught it in school and by the media.  "Isolationism," for example.  There may be a few people who want to turn the US into a Hermit Republic, but usually the people who are called isolationists are quite happy to have us imposing our will on other countries.  As in the passage I quoted in Thursday's post, Pat Buchanan supported of the US invasion of Vietnam, and "a co-architect of Reagan's aggression in Central America."  Many "isolationists" see the Western hemisphere as part of the US, to be invaded, played with, and disciplined as our leaders see fit.  Their non-interventionism is highly selective, guided by expediency and the needs of American corporations for markets and raw materials.  Opposing aggression by one's government is not isolationism, however much patriots would have you believe otherwise.

Another theme he stresses is the involvement of working people, and of African-Americans, in anti-imperialist movements; educated elites were more likely to support imperialism.  (His account of the flipflop of American progressives and liberals about the First World War is illuminating.)  But even in among that popular bogeyman class, college students, the picture is more complicated than the mainstream would have it:
In truth, US students had long ceased to be the children of privilege, and a large number of even Ivy League students were recipients of financial aid.  Moreover, opposition to the [Vietnam] war was not concentrated among affluent college students.  Every scientific study has shown that opposition to the war was inversely proportional to wealth and education.  Blue-collar workers were doves, favoring withdrawal, while the hawks were concentrated among the college-educated high-income strata.  What can also be said is that most Americans were unwilling to fight the war, pay the necessary taxes to support it, or vote for candidates who, like Barry Goldwater, pledged a fight to victory.  From 1964 through the end of the war, every candidate except Goldwater professed to be a "peace" candidate [127-128].
But he also cautions that although "the divisions between 'hard hats' and students" -- many of whom, I repeat, were children of those "hard hats" -- "have been caricatured, they weren't fabricated" (128).  But then much of organized labor, especially the bureaucracy at the highest levels, already collaborated with the elites.  And "the ultraleftism of some of the protesters alienated labor ... Nevertheless, there were always those in both camps who sought to keep open channels, and the spread of antiwar sentiment among workers was encouraging enough to New Left activists to raise the possibility of acting together" (128-9).  Additionally the rise of antiwar veterans of the war as a major sector of the antiwar movement must be remembered.

Another theme running through American Insurgents is "the pattern, which persists to this day, for Republicans and Democrats to criticize one another's wars, channeling popular discontent into their own campaigns where it is disarmed, while preserving the ideological underpinning of US imperialism" (112).  Barack Obama didn't invent it; it goes back at least to the First World War.
War fever didn't have to last long -- it never does, and its effects are necessarily superficial.  It relies on a certain forgetting, an "innocence" (as we sometimes call willful ignorance) about American's role, against which the best antidote is the condensed knowledge of internationalist political movements [167].
American Insurgents offers a manageable, and well-made, dose of that antidote.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Marked Sensation

I'm not a very good tourist, which is one of the reasons I'm often content to travel alone.  I've been to Chicago many times since I was a child, so I saw the museums and galleries and such about as many times as I want to.  I love walking around, I love investigating used bookstores and record stores, I enjoy trying out restaurants, and I love seeing movies that haven't yet come to Bloomington and maybe never will.  I saw two on this trip, Twenty Feet from Stardom and Fruitvale Station, both of them excellent.  But I also enjoy reading, and I do a lot of that when I travel. Oddly, I've done a little less reading this time than usual, and I've spent a little less time online than usual.

I just started reading Richard Seymour's recent book American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Anti-Imperialism (Haymarket Books, 2013).  I've enjoyed his previous works, The Liberal Defence of Murder and Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, and this new one already looks very promising.  In the preface he mentions that,
far from anti-imperialism being a strictly middle-class affair, or one led by pampered college students, left-wing working-class Americans -- particularly African-Americans -- have usually formed, if not the vanguard, then the avant-garde of resistance to imperialism.  Contemporary research on American peace movements finds that class is an important factor in motivating antiwar activism, more so than for those earning less than $40,000 dollars a year than for those earning more.  The experience of racist and sexist oppression is also central to galvanizing activists.  This would tend to corroborate the findings of studies of the anti-Vietnam War movement, which was (in defiance of the caricature of "rich college fucks" using their privilege to subvert America, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan characterized radicals at the time) largely working-class and disproportionately African-American [xviii-xix].
It was when Martin Luther King, Jr. started focusing on class issues and opposing the Vietnam War, remember, that many of his white liberal supporters began to back away from him.

Seymour also criticizes the libertarian anti-imperialist position:
Often compromised by hewing to racist and antiegalitarian principles, its anti-imperialism has been neither reliable nor internally consistent.  Pat Buchanan, a classic Old Right figure who positions himself as a non-interventionist, was a member of the Nixon White House, a supporter of the Vietnam War, and later a co-architect of Reagan's aggression in Central America, who steered the administration's propaganda toward unequivocal endorsements of the white-supremacist regime in South Africa [xix-xx].
And at the beginning of the first chapter Seymour quotes the escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, from an 1849 speech I'd never heard of before:
I would not care if, tomorrow, I should hear of the death of every man who engaged in the bloody war in Mexico, and that every man had met the fate he went there to perpetrate upon unoffending Mexicans.
The Mexican War, you may recall, was waged to expand slavery in the South by stealing Mexican territory and turning it into the slave state of Texas.  Douglass's anger at first upset his Boston abolitionist audience; the transcript I linked to says that his remarks were met with "(Applause and hisses.)"

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Focus on the Issues

Thanks to staying in a hotel with a TV in my room, I'm learning all kinds of things about American media culture that I otherwise would have missed!  The Royal Baby seems to have fallen off the radar on MSNBC, having been pushed brutally aside by the latest Anthony Weiner scandal.  (Fortunately the serious news aficionado can keep up with the Royal Baby saga at the Onion.)

For the first hour after I woke up this morning, various talking heads on MSNBC debated the significance of Weiner's behavior, of his wife's Standing By Her Man (a phrase whose use in these stories seems to have started with Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1992), and of the Cubicle Guy who "went viral" and Everybody Who's Anybody wants to know who he is.  NPR, the Serious News people, filled us in. Thank you, NPR, for going where the mainstream media fear to tread; I can sleep better tonight, knowing who Cubicle Guy is. There was clucking about Weiner just thinking about himself (unlike every other figure in American politics) and "I think we want someone who can be focused on issues."  Yes, one of them actually said that.  Why would anyone in political life want to focus on the issues, when the media will ignore such a person in favor of scandals, gaffes, and the Cubicle Guy?

One of these segments was followed by a stumbling young anchorperson who reported that beer sales are down 2.6%, because what with the raise in the payroll tax, the young men who buy beer just can't afford as much beer as they used to.  But as the economy improves, beer sales will go back up!  Now, there's some hard-hitting, issues-focused, objective journalism for you.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Bleedin' Obvious

I was sitting in the Chicago Greyhound station today, trying without success to get their free wi-fi to work.  There was a TV tuned to CNN in my line of sight, showing their coverage of the royal parents showing their royal baby to the common media and then getting into their royal car to drive home to their royal apartment.  That unemployed girl who married a soldier from a welfare family (via) has done pretty well for herself.

The sound was off, but the closed-captioning was on.  The anchor kept saying something like "They're just like any family who've just had their first baby."  Why, yes, exactly.  What the anchor meant, of course, that it's amazing that royal people look deceptively like normal people, when they really aren't.  It could have been worse, of course.  I saw newspaper headlines -- and these were US newspapers -- like "The People's Prince."

So why are the media flocking to see them?  Why, for that matter, did they flock to see the royal wedding, when it wasn't certain that many people even in England cared?  It can't be because it's important news; as FAIR's Peter Hart remarked at the time of the wedding, "it's worth pointing out that there's very little news on the TV news anyway."  It probably isn't because they're giving the public what it wants.  My guess is that the media folks want to distract themselves from all the bad stuff in the world, by covering a story that makes them feel good, and the rest of us are supposed to get satisfaction from their feeling good.  Just a guess, though.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Is Extremophilia a Lifestyle Choice, or Are You Born That Way?

The July/August 2013 issue of Popular Mechanics has an article about "The Case for Alien Life."  I've been trying to find it online, but haven't been able to track it down so far.  I have found thought-provoking articles like "Why 3D Doesn't Work for TV, But Is Great for Gaming" and "When Will the NFL Broadcast in 3D?", however, plus some other articles on the same theme in their archive.

I realize that it's less unwieldy than, say, "extraterrestrial," or "elsewhere in the universe," but it bothers me that their writers keep using the word "alien."  If we ever do find life elsewhere in the universe, we will be the "aliens."  I thought this was funny, for example.
"Titan is so cool," says Peter Ward, who leads NASA-funded astrobiology research at the University of Washington. "Titan is the most exciting place in the solar system astrobiologically. It has the most exciting chemistry set in our solar system by far. If there's life on Titan, it's alien life--really alien life."
If there's life on Titan, it's just plain life.  We'll have to rework our conceptions of the word "life" if it turns out that Titanian life is significantly different in structure and form from life here on Terra.  I was thinking that PM was just dumbing down its analysis for the rubes, so it's comforting to find a scientist who's pretty dumb himself.  Based on our results so far, no matter how astrobiologically exciting Titan may be, the most likely projection is that we won't find any life there.  But true believers never give up.  From the same earlier article:
"Are there ETs in the cosmos? Probably," says Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society, which publishes Skeptic magazine, and investigates claims of extraterrestrial contact. "It's a big place. There are lots of opportunities for life. But that's a separate question from, 'Have they come here?'"
Shermer is still too optimistic with that "probably."  A hardcore skeptic would admit that we have no idea about the probabilities of life elsewhere, because we have only one actual case to work with: our own planet.  It's not unreasonable to speculate that life could turn up elsewhere, but so far the evidence is nil.  There's no probability here, just wishful thinking.  As the author of a book called Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer should know better. But everybody's skepticism has its limits.

So I'm working from the print version of the article.  It's pretty standard stuff, the same old come-on that science propagandists have been trotting out for decades.  I'm sure Neil DeGrasse Tyson would love it, if only to gin up enthusiasm for the scientific enterprise among the rabble.
Only one planet has been proven to support life: Earth.  But evidence is mounting that we are not alone.  Scientists now think the galaxy contains at least 11 billion Earth-size worlds orbiting in their stars' habitable zones, where life is most likely to be found.  And new studies show that strange creatures may thrive far beyond that boundary -- on nearly any of the galaxy's 100 billion planets for their moons.
Nothing there is actually false, but it promises so much more than it can deliver.  None of this is "evidence ... that we are not alone".  The main headings of the article are more of the same.  "Water is commonplace, not rare."  Maybe so, but liquid water still looks rare as far as this article shows.  There's "evidence of ancient freshwater" on Mars, for example, and "research conducted by Jay Farihi at the University of Cambridge suggests that liquid water is actually typical of rocky planets such as our own."  "Suggests" -- a very popular word in reports of scientific research, as well as in academic writing -- and a token will get you on the subway.  It's like a hunter bragging about the magnificent specimen he's going to bag.
"The kind of chemistry that could have been used for life exists everywhere," says David Blake, a geologist on the Curiosity rover team.  "There's no reason that life wouldn't have happened on other solar systems.  The ingredients are everywhere we look."
Even on earth, those ingredients don't always combine to produce life.  It's a big leap from having the ingredients to having the recipe.  This also recalls the Fermi Paradox: it's not unreasonable to think that there should be life elsewhere in the universe, but so far there's no evidence that there is.  It's easy to construct what appear to be overwhelming odds in favor of the existence, not just of life, but of intelligent life that could be broadcasting radio waves we should be able to detect.  So far, however, nada.  Enthusiasts have plenty of good reasons why we haven't detected anything, but as time goes on they sound more and more like enthusiasts explaining why Jesus is still late for his rendezvous with destiny.  You'd think science fans -- let alone scientists -- would learn a certain modesty for the claims they make, but we still get articles like "The Case for Alien Life."

Heading number two is "Life is more versatile than we believed."  The evidence here still comes from the Earth, the only planet we know harbors life.
The study of extremophiles was already well-advanced a decade ago, but work such as Christner's is continuing to extend the known boundaries of life.  Organisms thrive in the deepest reaches of the ocean, in the driest of deserts, and in the saltiest of sands. The red algae Galdiera sulphuraria can prosper in sulfuric hot springs and old mineshafts with waters as caustic as battery acid.  Even our skies are swirling with microbes, a paper published in January revealed.
And so on and on.  How much does all this matter, if there are all those billions of Earthlike planets out there?  It sounds as if there should at least be microbes on Mars, but so far our probes haven't come up with anything.  (Show us on the doll where Curiosity touched you, Mars.)  At least the first few times a probe landed there, the media were full of stories about how the high-tech equipment onboard would be able to detect life if it was there.  The equipment even got positive results at first, but then it turned out that the high-tech equipment wasn't all that brilliant after all; from what I've seen, the promoters have been more careful in the promises they've made for their gadgets.  I don't think it counts against Science that life is hard to detect in a strange environment; that itself is interesting.  But it does make me more skeptical of the claims scientific evangelists make.

Heading three: "Planets are the rule, not the exception."  So it seems.  But so far this planet is the only we know of that contains life.  There follows a two-page spread of cartoon "Aliens: How Sci-Fi Movies Can Save Humanity."  I mentioned Neil DeGrasse Tyson earlier, the voluble evangelist for science who thinks that all's fair in getting more funding for NASA.  He'd like a new space race, like the old Cold War space race, but I'm not sure we could have that without returning to the specific conditions of the Cold War; no, thanks.  It's occurred to me that one reason for declining interest in and support for the US space program might be the improved special effects of science-fiction movies and television, compared to which real space flight as we have it now looks grim, dull, and primitive.  After all, in the movies they just pass through a space warp or turn on the warp drive and bingo! they're in another galaxy.  Why aren't we building a warp drive now?  Why couldn't some smart entrepreneur build one in his garage?  They did it all the time in 1950s science fiction, which was Scientific Prophecy so it must have come true.

There's a lot of justified criticism of popular science reporting, but popular media walk a fine line.  They're supposed to get the facts right, but at the same time scientists want them to be cheerleaders for the Onward March of Progress and more funding for research, and to report their speculations as if they were fact.  You can't do both.  Getting the facts right won't inspire as many kids to want to be astronauts and scientists as the latest sci-fi spectacle.  Tread lightly, O skeptics, for you are treading on their dreams.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fair's Fair

I've begun reading Dick Francis's novels, thanks to a recommendation by Jennifer Crusie, and I just finished High Stakes.  There's a passage in it that I immediately wanted to share.  (The online equivalent of reading a passage aloud to one's housemate.)  The narrator, a self-made rich man who owns some racing horses, has been beaten up and injected with gin by the bad guys, then left on a street for the police to pick up.  His appearance in court for public intoxication is picked up by the tabloids.  After he gets back home:
I spent the whole morning on the telephone straightening out the chaos.  Organizing car repairs and arranging a  hired substitute.  Telling my bank manager and about ten assorted others that I had lost checkbook and credit cards.  Assuring various inquiring relatives, who had all of course read the papers, that I was neither in jail nor dipsomaniacal.  Listening to a shrill lady, whose call inched in somehow, telling me it was disgusting for the rich to get drunk in gutters.  I asked her if it was okay for the poor, and if it was, why should they have more rights than I.  Fair's fair, I said.  Long live equality.  She called me a rude word and rang off.  It was the only bright spot of the day.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Academic Disciplines Admit Impediments

The marriage between Queer Theory and Post-Colonial Studies has not always been a happy one.  I've joined a Facebook group, Against Equality, affiliated with a website of the same name that is
focused on critiquing mainstream gay and lesbian politics. As queer thinkers, writers and artists, we are committed to dislodging the centrality of equality rhetoric and challenging the demand for inclusion in the institution of marriage, the US military, and the prison industrial complex via hate crimes legislation.

We want to reinvigorate the queer political imagination with fantastic possibility!
Anyone who reads this blog will recognize that, as a queer thinker, I'm a priori sympathetic to Against Equality's agenda.  I've written often on their first two concerns, and admittedly rather less on the third.  But so far I'm wary of their work.  They're too prone to throw around the word "privilege," even though as far as I can tell they're fairly privileged themselves.  (And that second paragraph is complacent bullshit.)

Privilege is always relative.  Recently on another site I saw someone, presumably white, argue that poor whites in a particularly disadvantaged county in West Virginia don't have white privilege, but he didn't provide any information about the condition of black people, if there are any, in that county.  (If there aren't any, well... )  It's not exactly a major revelation that white racism in the Jim Crow era functioned (and may even have been deliberately intended) to let poor whites have someone they could feel superior to, and to redirect anger at blacks that might otherwise have been directed at wealthy, powerful whites.  Less well-off racist whites today often complain that blacks have it better than they do: there's a lot of thwarted entitlement in that complaint.  Analogously, graduate students in the US often have it rough, but they are still privileged in terms of status and access to knowledge.  That doesn't mean they have it easy, but it does mean they need to be careful about throwing accusations of privilege at other people.  Against Equality explicitly views the current US gay movement's focus on marriage, gays in the military, and hate-crime laws as dictated by the white privilege of the current leadership.  There's truth in that, but it's an incomplete picture.

So, someone posted a link on the Against Equality page on Facebook about Benjamin Medrano Quezada, the newly-elected gay mayor of Freznillo, Zacatecas in Mexico.  "The fans at Queerty aren't too pleased about this one," commented the person who shared the link, because Medrano told the AP he isn't concerned about gay marriage.
“I’m not in favor of gay marriage, I don’t share that view, because we are still very small town … in short, we’re not prepared, in my view,” the 47-year-old gay bar owner told the AP. “Not yet, anyway, because we have strong roots in our religion, and in our customs.”
Ha ha, take that, you heteroimitative privileged gays at Queerty!  But another member of Against Equality commented mournfully, "(But *sigh* that is exactly how *not* to be critical of gay marriage.)"

Oh, really?  What is the right way to be critical of gay marriage, and who gets to decide it, especially if you're not talking about an American fundamentalist but the singing Third-World mayor of a Mexican town, a status that should confer unquestionable authenticity on Medrano?  He looks güero (that is, "fair"), which confers skin-color privilege on him in Mexico as in the US; and owning a gay bar marks him as petit bourgeois, therefore also of suspect authenticity.  But his reasons for rejecting same-sex marriage are typical of rhetoric from around the world, including queer-theoretical Third World academics: we're traditional here, we're a small town, we're devout, it's not our custom, we don't need your foreign ideas and your atheistic NGOs.  You'd think that devout, conservative small-town people would want their homosexuals married instead of tomcatting around, but there you are.

I recently read a book of academic papers on passing.  Unfortunately, most were quite poor work.  The best, and to my mind the only really good one, was about the drag ball scene documented in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. The paper, "Mimesis in the Face of Fear" by Karen McCarthy Brown, traced the complexities and contradictions in the ball scene, which goes back to at least the 1920s, and originated as an outlet for urban gayish people of color.  Some theorists, including theorists of color, have imposed their understandings on these performances, and were displeased when the poor black and brown queens turned out to have their own understandings and agenda.  McCarthy wrote that "bell hooks, for example, approached the Ballroom Scene in this mood and then found herself disappointed, even angry, about the quality of resistance manifest there."*

This doesn't mean it's improper to criticize traditional, devout, indigenous ways of being and resisting.  It's just to say that neither I nor the folks at Against Equality should presume to lecture South African township ladies, Dominican bugarrones, beauty-contest-competing Filipino bakla, singing gay Mexican small-town mayors, Thai toms and dees, or black and Latino urban Ball queens on how they can most authentically manifest resistance or construct their identities.  We can argue with them, sure; but we must also listen to them if we expect them to listen to us.

It works both ways, of course.  Graeme Reid quoted the Dutch-Surinamese anthropologist Gloria Wekker's stricture "emic constructions and explanations of same-gender sexual behaviour need to be taken seriously. There is no reason to assume that the Western folk knowledge about sex, which has been elevated to academic knowledge, should have any more validity than folk knowledge anywhere else"**.  Western folk knowledge, even when it has been elevated to academic knowledge, also has no less validity than folk knowledge anywhere else.  Both can and should be argued with, but that's what people like Wekker, Reid, the people from Against Equality, and I are for: to argue about them.

*In María C. Sánchez and Linda Schlossberg, eds., Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion (NYU Press, 2001), p. 219.
** In Graeme Reid, How to Be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small-town South-Africa (University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press, 2013), p. 184.

The National Debt

Just a quickie before I go out to have lunch.  Ta-Nehisi Coates has another good piece on President Obama's speech about the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.  The racist Right reacted predictably, just as Obama's fans did.  (I cite Coates because he's a supporter but can still praise Obama for doing something good without drooling.  He's also been very critical of the President's record on race; praise from him is earned.)

The New York Magazine article I linked to included a tweet by Ann Coulter, rather mild from her I thought.  But I began thinking about a statement about immigration Coulter made some months ago:
ANN COULTER: What did we—can I just say, what have we done to the immigrants? We owe black people something; we have a legacy of slavery. Immigrants haven’t even been in this country.
As I wrote back then, it would be interesting to know what Coulter believes "we owe black people."  What does Coulter believe we owe Trayvon Martin and his family? This remark was a rhetorical flourish, using African-Americans as a club to beat Mexicans with, not anything Coulter would stand behind.

There's another passage from Obama's speech that I want to quote; I thought Coates had mentioned it, but I can't find it now.  Here it is, from Garance Franke-Ruta's post on the speech:
Now, this isn't to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It's not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.
So, if you encounter someone who asks some version of Neal Boortz' rhetorical question:

The answer is "Yes."  I've been hammering on several Facebook friends who've posted memes about this or that white child who was killed by brutal black men, and why didn't this story get national attention?  (The implication being "reverse racism," the Liberal Media only cares about Teh Black.)  The answer to that one, of course, is that when you check out those cases, you find that the killers were promptly arrested, tried, and usually convicted.  Rather different than what happened to George Zimmerman.

There was one exception, where a Grand Jury decided that the accused shooter should not face the death penalty because he's a minor.  There are other differences, as that Snopes post shows.  The final outcome of the case isn't known, because it hasn't yet gone to trial.  One revealing thing about the meme I saw was that it referred to the Grand Jury as the peers of the murdered baby's mother; I believe it meant to imply that her "peers" hadn't done their job correctly, had even betrayed her.  Oddly, I saw similar complaints by some supporters of Trayvon Martin about the jury that heard George Zimmerman's case, that they weren't a jury of Trayvon Martin's peers.  Juries are supposed to be peers of the accused, not of the victim.  But in this case too, police action was swift and more or less effective, very different from the killing of Trayvon Martin.  These memes end up proving the opposite of what their makers and sharers want them to prove.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Prole for a Day

My Right Wing Acquaintance RWA1 is on a crusade to try to stop our local NPR affiliate from removing the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast from Saturday afternoons, and replacing them with talk shows.  Though he's not alone in this enterprise, he and his allies evidently don't have enough clout to make the station back down.  The station's operation director told the local paper that after "Car Talk" and "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me" (from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays), listenership drops off dramatically, and he wanted to get those numbers back up.

This would be fair enough if public broadcasting were supposed to be about selling airtime to the highest bidder.  It's supposed to run programming that isn't necessarily commercial or popular.  There's also the problem that the decision was made by management at the top, so to speak, and presented to the public as a fait accompli.  The manager said he welcomed a "lively discussion," but as another local critic complained, "a 'lively discussion' following a decision already put into force is not the same as one before. And that’s worrisome."  It reflects the great corporate dependence and commercial orientation of NPR (and PBS for that matter) over the past couple of decades, as government support has dwindled under pressure from the Right.  RWA1 would prefer not to see that trend as having anything to do with him, of course, but it does.  Free markets are for other people, not for him -- especially when it comes to forcing the decadent culture of Old Europe down American throats.

That is the big irony for me.  Last year RWA1, in a conniption over May Day protests around the country, wrote this on the dry-erase board outside his store:
Nor should we listen to those who say, "The voice of the people is the voice of God," for the turbulence of the mob is always close to insanity
--Alcuin, ca. 800 A.D.
He kept it there for months, when his usual practice was to change those messages every few weeks.  It still hasn't occurred to him that he's one of the turbulent mob, close to insanity, and the station management probably sees him in just those terms.  Why not leave the running of the station to experts, to professionals?  They and not the ignorant rabble know what's best.  I'm being sarcastic, of course; it's entertaining to watch RWA1, like so many right-wingers, flipflop between playing the elitist and playing the prole.  But he's used to being part of the elite who runs things like the local Republican Party or classical music scene.

RWA1 went so far as to join the hippy-dippy self-esteem Left by starting a petition against the programming change.  It has, so far, four signatures.  I don't feel any particular Schadenfreude about that -- in fact, I just looked at the page for the first time and was mildly shocked to find it had gotten so little response.  I know he has more allies than that: RWA1 knows a lot of people connected to classical music, and Bloomington is a good town for it, what with the IU School of Music here.  I'm not an opera queen, though I like a lot of Euro-American art music, but I'm concerned about the state of public media in this country.  I support our community radio station, and I don't think that listenership (or sales) should be the only deciding factor in what is available to audiences.  The low response to the petition, combined with the failure of efforts to reverse the decision, indicates that support for the Met broadcast is far lower than I expected.  I'm amazed that so few people cared enough to bother.

Opera used to be popular music, but that's what happens to popular taste.  I wonder if, in a couple of centuries, there will be a similar dust-up over the cancellation of a Classical Hip-Hop program from a public station -- if we even have radio stations by then.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Let Them Eat Praise

I'm chugging along, mostly happily, through Nina Eliasoph's The Politics of Volunteering, with the occasional bump.  For example, at one point she refers to ACT-UP as a "gay rights organization," which it emphatically was not: though most of its active members probably were gay men, its activism was about the treatment (in various senses of the word) of people with HIV/AIDS, not all of whom were gay or male.  From her sole reference to ACT-UP's methods as "stag[ing] 'kiss-ins' at ice-cream parlors in the 1980s" (52), it sounds like she has ACT-UP confused with Queer Nation, which came along a few years later and borrowed ACT-UP's approach to activism to advance GLBTQ visibility.

Again, in a list (borrowed from other scholars' definitions) of what makes a NGO or Non-Governmental Organization, she specifies that an NGO is "not mainly aimed at generating profits for the CEOs" (96).  Strictly speaking, the profits earned by a corporation do not go to the CEO, who is a manager, not an owner; profits are supposed to go to the shareholders.  In practice, of course, many CEOs receive stocks as part of their compensation and in some corporations the CEO is a founder and major stockholder (think Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg), but their role as stockholders is theoretically separate from their role as managers.  This isn't just a technical quibble, because many people think that managers are owners and entrepreneurs, which is only true some of the time.

So, for example, you get people like Eddie Lampert, a hedge-fund manager and Ayn Rand fan who took over K-Mart and later Sears, driving them both into the ground while enriching himself.  I guess he owns those companies, but he didn't build them and has effectively destroyed them.
Some refer to Lampert as a corporate raider. He prefers the term “active investor.” It must be admitted that Lampert wasn’t only interested in stripping the assets of his retail giant to make a fortune off it right away. He thought he could increase profits, too. After making a nice wad of cash from Kmart by selling off the valuable real estate sitting under dozens of stores, shutting down 600 stores and laying off tens of thousands of workers in the name of cost-cutting and thereby jacking up the stock price, he got bigger ideas. He would use Kmart to take over another ginormous retailer, Sears.

What background did Lampert have in retail? None at all. But never mind that. He was a Wall Street genius, and he would make this thing work by harnessing the power of data and numbers and letting the invisible hand of the market guide his Franken-company to glory. He even hired Paul DePodesta, the statistician of “Moneyball” fame, to advise him. When Kmart acquired Sears, the new company, Sears Holdings, became one of the largest retailers in the U.S., and Lampert became its CEO. He took on the Herculean task of integrating two vastly complex companies. And he brought on a guy that knew all about restaurants and nothing about retail to help him, Aylwin Lewis, former president of YUM! Brands.
Reactions ranged from surprise to predictions of doom. Mark Tatge at Forbes called him “Crazy Eddie” and decided that he must be planning to liquidate the whole shebang, perhaps slowly, by dumping stores (Sears owns a ton of valuable real estate) and using the money to do stock buybacks (more on that later) that would further enrich him.

It turns out that contrary to Lampert’s notion, you actually do need to know something about a business in order to manage it well. There’s really no substitute for industry-specific experience. And bigger is not always better — a gigantic corporation can be too unwieldy and complex to thrive, especially when your management philosophy is derived from a writer of bad novels.
... Sears has lost half its value in five years.
I like that bit about preferring to be known as an "active investor."  (You're not a corporate raider, Eddie, you're just big-boned!)  As an investor, he has made out like gangbusters, as a result of the detachment of finance from production enabled by the deregulation "reforms" of the post-Reagan period.  So he's a very good investor, but a very bad manager.

Still, The Politics of Volunteering has a lot of good stuff in it.  (To avoid any confusion, I should point out that the material about Sears and Eddie Lampert that I just quoted comes not from The Politics of Volunteering but from an article by Lynn Stuart Parramore at Salon.)  For example:
"Community visioning," "strategic planning process," "asset mapping," "community forums," "training programs," these are some hints that a great deal of empowerment talk is in play.  From these phrases, it is hard to know what participants actually did.  Clearly, pamphlets with information were circulated, and indeed, if a person has enough money to buy healthful food or enough time to grow it, then such information could be a lifesaver.  Making ordinary citizens responsible for their own health can help them "make healthy choices."  But if a person is pregnant or has diabetes, information would not be enough.  At one such "health fair" in Los Angeles, I obtained a great deal of information, including a poster listing "One Hundred Ways to Praise Your Child" from the Los Angeles Child Guidance Clinic.  It is nice to praise one's child, but it made me think that they were being offered praise when what they needed was health care, food, places to get clean, fresh air and exercise, and child care [104-105].
Or this:
A famous case that seems, on the face of it, to illustrate the potential of a little seed money plus a little voluntarism too add up to a fully self-sustaining organization is Homeboys Industries.  A priest got former gang members in an impoverished East Angeles neighborhood to learn to bake and to sell their muffins, bread, cupcakes and croissants.  The program seemed to show clear as day that if only ghetto people got the entrepreneurial spirit and a small financial jumpstart, they would spring out of poverty.  The organization added on a gardening business, silk-screening company, tattoo-removal, day care, and other businesses.  By 2010, the NGO generated about $3.5 million a year, according to its founder ... But when donations started drying up after the financial crisis of 2008, it became clear that the Homeboys Industries depended on donations.  It still needed another seven million dollars a year from donors to continue to operate. Various government and private donors kicked in, to make this organization continue its valuable work.  It was not a profit-making enterprise.  It was not a good poster child for self-help -- unless, that is, we include as a "self-help" the fact that Homeboys Industries successfully marketed its worthiness, attracting donors to give money to it instead of to another potentially worthy cause [105-106].
There are a number of ways to interpret this story.  (That bit about "the entrepreneurial spirit" is, I hope, meant ironically.  Poor people are generally more entrepreneurial than the better-off.)  After all, profit-making companies also look for "donations" to keep them going, by selling stock.  Before you object that investors expect to get a return on the shares they buy, remember that they don't always get them.  Amazon, for example, has done remarkably well at selling stock although, "for more than a decade, Amazon has teetered between minimal profits and no profits.  In 2012, it said Tuesday [January 29, 2013], it lost money."  Further, for-profit companies expect and often get various kinds of government subsidies ranging from tax breaks to grants and other direct payments: Apple, to cite a notorious example, relies on the Chinese government to subsidize its supply chains there.  Without that socialist assistance, Apple might have to charge a few dollars more for their iPhones and perhaps take in a few dollars' less profit.  Economic unfreedom suits them just fine.  It would appear that Homeboy* Industries is just functioning like a normal American company.

*I'm not sure where Eliasoph got the extra "s" she put on "Homeboy"; their website doesn't have it.  Oh well; I've made such mistakes myself.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I'm From the Republican Party, and I'm Here to Help

I'm enjoying Nina Eliasoph's new book The Politics of Volunteering (Polity Press, 2013).  Her 1998 book Avoiding Politics made a strong impression on me (and as I've noted before, it's time I reread it), and this new one fits well with Sarah Sobieraj's Soundbitten, on political activism.  For now, a few notes.

Eliasoph has already brought up the Left vs. Right dichotomy a few times, though she recognizes its limitations.  On the anarchist Emma Goldman, she writes:
So we can see that if we want to line up Goldman along Left-Right lines, it is impossible.  The Left usually agrees with [Jane] Addams in favoring a strong state, to ensure equality of opportunity, and fears corporate power.  The Right, in contrast, fears a strong state and is not very worried about inequality; generally favors corporate power; and assumes that corporate heads are justified in using their financial power to influence elections; if they were clever enough to get rich running companies, they must also be clever enough to run everything else [38].
This is a fairly conventional description of American politics, but I'm bothered by it.  The American Right talks about the perils of big government, and claims to want to shrink it ("until you can drown it in the bathtub" is one of their taglines), but in practice, when they get into power, they increase government spending and deficits, and are eager for the State to violate people's privacy -- sodomy laws, restrictions on divorce, restrictions on contraception and abortion, for example.  (One of RWA1's finest moments was when he accused the Obama administration of thinking that "women's (and everyone's) bodies belong to the state, and there will never be an end to their intrusions on private decisions, if only to care for their 'property' and to mitigate the costs of taking care of it."  This was brought on by Obama's efforts to require insurance companies to cover the costs of contraception in their policies.  This initiative was opposed by conservatives who really do believe that women's bodies belong to the state, as well as to the church, which have the right to control them.  RWA1 is libertarian enough -- barely -- to tolerate women's reproductive principle even though "I have queasy feelings about the subject of abortion," but he joined his elderly right-wing compatriots in believing that the insurance mandate would require women to use contraception, a marvelous and typical bit of Rightist nuttery.)  The massive surveillance apparatus now under fire, thanks to Edward Snowden's whistleblowing, is a joint Republican-Democratic project, though that doesn't strain Eliasoph's categories because both parties are on the Right by any reasonable standard.

Most people who are ostensibly critical of Big Government don't have a very clear grasp on what government does.  I've been trying to remember the location of something I read on this point last week, about how little most people think about what their taxes pay for: roads, streets, bridges, parks, schools, public health projects, and much much more.  The "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare" meme is notorious, but if the government at all levels did drown in the bathtub today, Americans' lives would get a lot harder very soon.  I'm all for small civic organizations at the local level, but some things need to be done at regional and national levels.  Like most leftists, I don't trust Big Government any more than I trust big business.  In principle I believe it's possible to treat large organizations as our creatures, rather than the other way around.  Certainly most people who dismiss the value of large organizations seem to forget just how much they depend on them, every day.  That doesn't mean that I think government at any level is currently responsive to ordinary citizens; of course not.  But the remedy is to make our governments more responsive.

Which brings me to the other passage in The Politics of Volunteering I wanted to mention.
When a student of mine started an essay by saying, "Society makes us do things we would not otherwise do," this sentence was already a mistake.  Without society we would not exist, so there is no "otherwise" [36].
Society, like Soylent Green, is people.  If I think of myself as a discrete, atomized individual, I'm luxuriating in an illusion; the easiest way to recognize it is to remember that from another discrete, atomized individual's point of view, I am "society."  Eliasoph describes Alexis de Tocqueville's conception of society earlier in the book:
He has very little faith in people's innate decency.  People are not born good citizens or bad citizens, good or bad people, caring or uncaring, selfish or altruistic, greedy or generous or generous, passive or active, Tocqueville says.  Their societies train them to be good or bad, in very small, constant, steady, everyday ways: the steady constant drip drip drip that creates canyons and valleys, not a big, one-time splash.  "Common sense" tells us that good people create a good society, but Tocqueville reverses the arrows: a good society creates good individuals [12].
That first sentence reminds me of Paul Goodman's anarchist take on human nature.  I have some reservations about this, of course.  I don't "reverse the arrows," I think that they go both ways.  Good societies make good citizens make good societies: which came first, the chicken or the egg?  It's impossible to separate them.  Also, there is wide variation among citizens: society doesn't train us all uniformly.  Whether this is because of innate temperament or variations in our training -- it's probably some of both -- the fact of variation remains.  If Tocqueville meant to advance a theory of social determinism, he was mistaken.  And a good thing, too.

Eliasoph also describes Tocqueville's belief that American society was more atomized, individualized, and that this was in some ways a loss of the cohesion that came from a traditional "aristocratic" society where everyone had his or her place in the Great Chain of Being.  I agree with this caveat to some extent.  But Tocqueville, Eliasoph says, feared that the individuals of American society might "glue themselves together and massify ... Mob rule, witch hunts, and fanaticism set in" (17).  I don't think "aristocratic" societies avoided this danger: the great European witch hunts had been part of traditional hierarchical societies, for example, run from the top of hierarchies downward.  So had mob violence against minority religions earlier in history.  The same goes for "the tyranny of the majority," a familiar bugbear:
Imagine the person who does not agree with the majority, or can't conform.  If a "tyranny of the majority" develops, the whole society turns into one interminable seventh-grade class in the 1950s, before there were rules against harassment, and you are the gay thirteen-year-old who thinks you are the only oen of his kind on the planet ... In such conditions, democracy vanishes.

Civic associations to the rescue, again!  Where there are plural civic associations, Tocqueville implies, people learn to tolerate opposing views, even if they do not agree with them. ... [17]
Tyranny of the majority, expressed in the pressure to conform, occurs in traditional societies too.  That's how society creates citizens, after all.  And plural civic associations, fostering groupthink, may simply declare war on each other.  I don't think Eliasoph shares Tocqueville's optimism on this point; she's just summarizing it, and she goes on to discuss other models.  I think Tocqueville wasn't entirely wrong, just incomplete.  I'm looking forward to seeing where Eliasoph goes from here.

(I found the title of this post in comments somewhere last week, by the way; I don't remember where.  I think it's wonderful, and I don't to give the impression that I came up with it myself.)

Credo Quia Absurdum Est

 I'm glad I read Mad Science before I read Allen Frances's Saving Normal, because it gave me a grounding against which to read Frances's rather biased presentation.  His survey of the overuse of psychotropic drugs, for example, puts all the blame on Big Pharma for pushing all those medications and on the public for demanding them.  He admits that psychiatrists should have stood their ground against the hordes of Better Living Through Chemistry, but it wasn't their fault.  Nobody could have foreseen the diagnostic inflation that misused the Diagnostic and Stastical Manual III and IV, even though diagnostic inflation had historically been a problem in medicine and psychiatry, and the overuse of drugs was no novelty either.

But some things would have made me skeptical anyway.  Try this excerpt from Frances's discussion of diagnostic fads, past and present.  He calls Demonic Possession a fad, though he admits it's thousands of years old and never really went away, but he has a theme to sustain in this chapter, okay?
The belief in demonic control is universal across cultures and enduring through time because it makes so much sense to most people; it taps into something basic in human psychology and explains a large part of human experience in a simple and plausible way.  The battle against demons appeals to the theological mind; cures most of the system that ails us; ministers to the soul; and binds the tribe.  Demons are a completely logical, if prescientific, way of understanding the changes caused by psychiatric and medical illness (and also by drugs, dreams, and trance states).  It appears silly only to us children of the Enlightenment who believe in biological causes of strange behavior.  But there is one unavoidable problem with this otherwise useful diagnostic category -- it has provided a wonderful excuse for the persecution, torture, and murder of the mentally ill.  The very most inhumane treatment could easily be justified on the spurious grounds that it was part of a holy fight against the devil [119].
The "theological mind" is actually the rational mind, bearing "Garbage In, Garbage Out" in mind: logic is only as valid as the premises it begins from.  The demonology of the late Middle Ages was highly rationalist, as the historian Hugh Trevor Roper wrote in The European Witch Craze of the Sixteen and Seventeenth Centuries, "The sixteenth-century clergy and lawyers were rationalists. They believed in a rational, Aristotelean universe, and from the detailed identity of witches’ confessions they logically deduced their objective truth."

The same applies to modern science, including outliers like psychiatry.  Notice Frances's proud claim to be a child "of the Enlightenment who believe[s] in biological causes of strange behavior."  Earlier in Saving Normal he devoted a chapter to a glib, simplistic, and misleadingly linear history of approaches to understanding and treating madness, which he depicted as a brave march toward the recognition of biological causes of strange behavior -- even though he admitted at the beginning of the book that "Billions of research dollars have failed to produce convincing evidence that any mental disorder is a discrete disease entity with a unitary cause" (19).  There is, in other words, no scientific evidence that mental disorder does have biological causes, but Allen Frances has true faith and won't be led astray by the absence of evidence.

The concluding two sentences are completely wrong.  First, there's no inherent reason why belief in demon possession should lead to cruel treatment of the victim, particularly in Christendom.  Jesus was a pre-eminent exorcist, and the gospels teach that Christians will be empowered to follow his example: they contain a fair amount of advice for driving out demons.  Jesus freed people from demonic possession not by beating or torturing them, but expelled them by divine power: he ordered them to leave, and they had to obey.  Occasionally he encountered resistance, as when the demons would counter that they knew his true identity ("I know who you are: the Holy One of God!"), which should have given them power over him, but it didn't even faze Jesus; he ordered them out, and they obeyed.  One powerful argument against the claims of Christianity, especially modern Christianity, is that its practitioners can't drive out demons with the power Jesus promised them.

Second, modern psychiatry has its own history of inhumane treatment of the mad.  In addition to the interventions I mentioned and criticized in previous posts, proponents of Assertive Community Treatment endorsed coercion against patients on the ground that they were "Obviously … not … a group of fragile, broken-spirited persons but rather … tough, formidable adversaries who were 'pros' and who had successfully contended with many different staffs on various wards in defending their title of 'chronic schizophrenic'" (quoted in Mad Science, 99-100).  Even the comparatively mild use of psychotropic drugs, prescribed to patients with abandon whether they needed them or not, has a serious downside: some of those drugs' adverse effects include anxiety and suicidal ideation; they may bring on diabetes and other serious physical conditions, and patients on such medications have a significantly lower life expectancy than other people.  All this despite the fact that these drugs are not much (if any) more effective as treatment than placebos.  I'd say that punitive, abusive attitudes toward the mentally ill aren't a result of theology or a rejection of the Enlightenment, but of the practitioner's temperament.

There are some problems, then, at the core of Allen Frances's apologia for modern psychiatry.  Like any apologist, the need to defend his faith leads him to distort the facts in predictable directions.  That's too bad: his intentions are good, but good intentions aren't enough.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results

Something I forgot to put into yesterday's post -- what the hell, it was long enough already, so I'll just say it here.

It goes along with Allen Frances's attack on people who criticize the illness model of mental disturbance: he implies that those critics are not only out of touch with the hard realities of the world, but that they don't care about the suffering of the mad and the people who love them.  Psychiatrists -- real psychiatrists, not the fake "armchair theorists" -- may not be perfect, but they are at least determined to help those poor people, and they'll go on helping them.

Leave aside the fact that, as I pointed out, his villains are not armchair theorists but actual psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, psychologists, and mental health social workers.  My other difference with Dr. Frances is that it's open to serious question how much orthodox psychiatrists do help their patients.  Think of the days when homosexuality was officially classified as an illness, treatable by the talking cure (probably the least harmful of the options), but also by institutionalization, electroshock and other aversion "therapy", hormone treatments of the kind that were imposed on Alan Turing.  Remember that even after homosexuals were no longer officially sick, professionals were still allowed to "treat" us for real and imagined pathology for another thirty years, long after it was known that such therapy didn't work.  Then think of the other orthodox treatments I mentioned in previous posts, such as the Army psychiatrist who forced Vietnamese schizophrenics to work in the hospital gardens by denying them food and submitting them to electroshock, or the Wisconsin doctors who "treated" a violent patient by tormenting her psychologically and then using a cattle prod on her.  Think of the long acceptability of lobotomy and other psychosurgery as "treatment."

But my objection goes beyond these horror stories, important though they are as a reminder of what was considered acceptable by mainstream, scientific, evidence-based psychiatry.  The real problem is that the mental health professions have a surprisingly poor record when it comes to cures, or even improvement, of their patients.  In Mad Science Stuart Kirk, Tomi Gomory, and David Cohen quote a 2001 article in the journal Psychiatric Services which claimed that Assertive Community Treatment was a successful approach because "compared with other treatments under controlled conditions, such as brokered case management or clinical case management, assertive community treatment results in a greater reduction in psychiatric hospitalization and a higher level of housing stability" (103).  As Kirk, Gomory and Cohen point out,
The clinical effectiveness of any treatment is usually measured in symptom reduction, reduced disability, better functioning, or improvements in behavior, self-or other-rated.  What is noteworthy about the quote above is that keeping people out of a hospital or in a community residence is used as the markers of success.  It might come as a surprise then that an award-winning “treatment” program made few claims that it improved patients’ clinical condition.  In fact, Philips et al. admit that “[t]he effects of assertive treatment on quality of life, symptoms, and social functioning are similar to those produced by these other treatments” (p. 771, emphasis added).  In other words, ACT does not reduce the mad behavior or improve the functioning of the severely mentally ill any more than any other approach.  Decades earlier, the ACT inventors admitted: “a change in the site of treatment [from the hospital to the community] says nothing about whether the patient’s clinical status or functioning has improved.  Some would argue that only the place of a person’s suffering has changed” (Test & Stein, 1978, p. 360) [103].
As for the ballyhooed revolution in treatment represented by psychoactive drugs:
The three studies [CATIE, STAR*D, STEP-BD], reportedly costing taxpayers over $100 million, … showed unambiguously that drugs do not make most people considered psychiatrically impaired significantly better for any sustained period of time. Since the studies appeared, mainstream popular and professional reactions suggest that the demonstration has been absorbed, digested, and recycled like every such negative finding over the past sixty years: it appears to have made only a tiny dent in the myth of psychiatric progress [220].
Placebos turn out to be nearly as effective as those very fancy and expensive drugs, whose adverse effects often make it impossible for patients to continue taking them, even if they worked:
But even if we stick to the placebo effect as traditionally defined in drug trials (the measurable therapeutic changes induced by pharmacologically inactive or inert substances), we may consider the conclusion reached by psychologists Seymour Fisher and Roger Greenberg.  After one of the most insightful, restrained, and evidence-informed reviews in the entire literature on antipsychotics, stimulants, antidepressants, and anxiolytics, these two authors stated, “that when proper controls are introduced [in research studies] the differences in therapeutic power between the active drugs and placebos largely recede” (1997, p.382).  It is sobering for anyone to reflect that merely introducing “proper controls” in scientific research would doom the modern psychopharmacologic enterprise [232].
And in any case, "… Big Pharma has signaled its withdrawal from psychiatric drugs since most lucrative patents from the 1990s are expiring or have expired" (317).

This doesn't mean that mental health professionals never do their patients any good: the subject here is their overall track record.  Here's where I regard Stuart, Gomory and Cohen with the same skepticism I direct at Allen Frances.  "People who are distressed or misbehaving can be helped without inferring some, as yet undiscovered, neurological defects," they write (321), but I'm not clear on how those distressed people can be helped.  I hope they can, but mostly the help seems to boil down to the ancient Hippocratic injunction, First, do no harm.  Even that has been often beyond the power of the mental health professions.  To say that isn't to deny that people suffer, or make other people suffer: of course they do.  But to admit that doesn't license any and all clinical interventions on the ground that we've got to do something.  Not doing something upsets many people, but sometimes nothing is the best you can do.