Saturday, November 30, 2013

We've Gone Too Far to Turn Back Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 29, 2013

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnd ... I Dunno!

It appears to me that science journalism is getting worse.  Everything is turning into sports punditry, because everything is sports.  And everything must be liveblogged, and there must be explanations and we have to know everything right now.  There's no room for uncertainty, because science is knowledge.

So, like, this comet, see, it approached the sun, and went around it.  And the sun is totally hot, see, so like nobody knew whether it would melt, or what.  In fact I totally thought it like fell in!  But then finally it showed up again, and what happened?  Search me!
At some point after perihelion I made a decision. I drew a line in the sand, saying I thought this was an ex-comet. But then, not long after, like Lazarus or a zombie, ISON came back from the dead...

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Comets and cats are equally predictable. It’s a losing game to be firm with them; your best move is to watch, wait, and enjoy the show while it happens. That’s my plan, for sure.
Okay, I admit I'm being a bit unfair.  If this science blogger had been more dogmatic and sure of himself, I'd have jumped him for that.  But this rambling seems so similar to the kind of coverage we get of elections, sports, OJ Simpson's white Ford Bronco, and other processes: somebody trying to fill up time (or bandwidth) when he doesn't really have anything that intelligent to say, and it's really too soon to say anything.  But somebody has to have coverage, and it's better to say something than to say nothing.  Because the whole world is watching.

This is why I stopped watching election night coverage sometime in the 1970s: it just seemed pointless to listen to these mediocrities bloviate all evening. Phil Plait may know his science, but he's a lousy writer, or like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, he's trying to sound hep and accessible, the fighting radical scientist who's not afraid to talk to the Kids in their own language.  This is supposed to get young people excited about science so they'll major in science in college and build space ships to take us to the stars, or something.

I like your science; I do not like your science writers.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Elder Gods' Attention Span Will Get You Eventually

I've concentrated on reading instead of writing these past two days, with good results.  Right now I'm about fifty pages into Deborah Meier's The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem (Beacon Press, 1995, 2002), which I've been meaning to get to for years.  I've seen Meier's articles here and there, and she seemed like someone I should listen to.  I was right.

Meier was one of the founders of Central Park East elementary school in 1974, a small and very successful alternative elementary school.  In 1985, the same core people founded Central Park East Secondary School, which was harder because there had been, she says, far fewer efforts at continuing progressive educational ideas into high school.  Usually alternative high schools were "only for the 'gifted' (often wealthier and whiter) or only for those having trouble with school (darker and poorer).  Such mini-schools tended to come and go at the political whim of the district or school supervisor" (35).  But CPESS survived, and is still around.

Meier has been influenced by many of the same educational reformers I've valued, like John Holt and Gerald Bracey, so it's not surprising that there's plenty of useful wisdom in The Power of Their Ideas.  For example:
We all have more in common with five-year-olds than we imagine: adults remain, in Piaget's terms, "concrete thinkers," and little kids, lo and behold, are capable of some very fancy abstractions.  Think about how deeply we've accepted the notion that young students lack "attention spans" because they're "immature," when in fact it's young children who have the longest and most tenacious attention spans.  (Watch an infant struggling for half an hour to work out some new theory of how an object moves from one place to another.)  It's boredom and anxiety that drive concentration away; fidgetiness appears in first grade and grows worse over time [47].
A number of things impress me there, including the reminder that adults retain many of the thinking patterns commonly associated with young children, not always for the better; if anything, we lose the concentration and ability to bounce back from failure and mistakes that every infant learning to walk exhibits.  This fit with a foolish and harmful article a friend linked to the other day, which I hope to return to before long,  But for now I want to forge ahead in Meier's book.

(Image from Avedon's Sideshow.)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The More It Changes, The More It Stays the Same

Two friends linked today to stories about a new statement by Pope Francis which attacked "unfettered" capitalism.  One article said the document, Evangelii Gaudium or Joy of the Gospel, was 84 pages long; the other said it was 224 pages long.  But details, details!  As I've complained before, many of my liberal friends, including non-Catholics and even non-theists, get all excited by Francis' pronouncements, which never seem to have any follow-through in action.  (Admitted exception: his disciplining of a German bishop for spending millions of euros on his residence.)  Some people commented on those links that Francis was "more left field ... (than we're used to)" and excited themselves by wondering "How long do you think he has until someone attempts to assassinate him?"

My friends have short memories.  The quotations I saw from Evangelii Gaudium sounded familiar to me.  Here are a couple of samples from EG:
"As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems," [Francis] wrote...

“I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth,” the pope wrote...

“We have created new idols,” the pope wrote. “The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”
I knew I'd heard such sentiments before, and sure enough, a search confirmed my memories.
He deplored "hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor".

Those "hotbeds" also grew out of "the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism", as well as "various forms of terrorism and crime", he said.
And again:
In the speech, for example, he railed against abortion and contraception, as hurting the family, but he also called for state-sponsored day care, as helping it.

He also raged with equal fire against Marxism and capitalism. By focusing solely on material concerns, he said, they "falsify the notion of reality by detaching it from the foundational and decisive reality which is God."

"Both capitalism and Marxism promised to point out the path for the creation of just structures, and they declared that these, once established, would function by themselves," he said. "And this ideological promise has proven false."
The "he" in these quotations, of course, is Pope Benedict XVI.  His predecessor, John Paul II, said similar things.

But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
For that matter, both Benedict and John Paul opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and JPII opposed the first Gulf War as well.

I suppose a dedicated exegete could find nuances in their various statements that indicate real doctrinal differences on political economy between Francis and his predecessors, but it seems obvious to me that he's not really saying anything new here.  It's long been clear to me that while the Vatican will put real pressure on secular authorities to pass laws against contraception, abortion, and homosexuality, they don't put anything like the same energy into pressing for economic justice.  What arms merchant has felt the burn, what slumlord, what economic exploiter?  When has the Church encouraged -- let alone ordered -- Catholics to abstain from military service in unjust wars?  There's been at least one priest defrocked and excommunicated by Francis for being too pro-gay and pro-woman.  (For the purpose of comparison, the "Bishop of Bling" was merely suspended, or as Bloomberg News worded it, "put on leave.")  I'll start being impressed by Pope Hope and Change when he defrocks a priest or two for hanging around with dictators and capitalists, or when he makes some rich Catholic tycoon do a pilgrimage to Rome in sackcloth with a public confession of his sins and giving away half of his wealth to the poor.

When the Son of Man Comes, Will He Find Faith on Earth?

Something else I meant to say about Rod Dreher and Megan McArdle's complaints about same-sex marriage: They may be right about the effects of social change on conservatives like them, because they appear to have abandoned all opposition to homosexuality except for same-sex marriage.

It's been hard for a long time to find a religious conservative who'd cite Leviticus 20:13 and call publicly for the execution of perverts.  Even Orson Scott Card tried to claim that when he endorsed keeping sodomy laws on the books, he was talking solely about intra-Mormon business.  Sex between males hasn't been a capital offense in the United States for centuries now, and though the sodomy laws are still in force in some states despite Lawrence v. Texas, not many people want to defend putting homos in prison anymore.  Not publicly, anyway.  For a decade or more, bigots would call on the Bible to back them up in their opposition to "normalizing" homosexuality, but they seemed to have given up on actual State persecution of sodomists, and wanted only to be able to denounce us from their pulpits and force their kids into ex-gay boot camps.  Rick Warren, the evangelical hustler befriended by Barack Obama, is careful not to froth at the mouth when he talks about gays: he believes in "equality", he says, and is coy about issues like civil unions and hospital visitation.  Some old-guard reactionaries are still warning America that the Gayish Media are coming for your kids, but for media consumption they claim they'd just like to seriously "debate gay teen propaganda."  And they all complain that the Gay-controlled media "are not celebrating diversity.  They are intimidating dissidents."  But they don't object to intimidating dissidents -- they just want to be the intimidators.

Marriage appears to be their last stand.  They've pretty much given up on legal prohibitions of homosexuality itself, and on mobilizing majority disapproval against it.  They like to imagine themselves reading Leviticus 20:13 and Romans 1:26-7 behind locked doors by candle-light with a faithful remnant of real believers, just like the primitive Church in the catacombs!  And being true Americans and devout Christians, they are terrified of majority disapproval themselves.  Just being called bigots, or homophobes, or old-fashioned, brings them to their knees.  There's no need to throw them to the lions, or send them to Politically Correct Re-education Camp, or disenfranchise them.  Even name-calling may not be necessary.  Just a frown of disapproval seems to be enough to make them deny their Lord.

As a gay man who was born in a time when gay men and lesbians met behind drawn curtains and locked doors, even in big cities, when gay meeting places were raided and customers beaten up and humiliated, their identities exposed in the press, and who has seen a remarkable change of social attitudes in my adult lifetime, I certainly can't resist some Schadenfreude at the moral cowardice of such people.  When I came out, I knew I'd be subject to public hostility and disapproval, and sometimes I was.  But as long as I knew it was okay to be gay, and as long as I had some allies, I didn't need majority support.  It turned out not to be as hard as I feared at first, though of course I chose my terrain carefully, a fairly liberal university environment.   (Which didn't mean there wasn't antigay bigotry and violence there too.)

And much of that bigotry has melted away over the past several decades.  It's not gone yet, nor do I believe it will ever be.  As with interracial dating, which after decades of banning, a reactionary institution like Bob Jones University finally, sheepishly, admitted it didn't have a biblical basis to forbid, because the social revulsion against interracial dating had largely dried up, it appears that many people are finding that they don't really find homosexuality so horrible to contemplate anymore.  That doesn't mean they want to be gay themselves, only that it doesn't bother them in others, and a growing number of people don't oppose same-sex marriage for those who want it.  That's really not so surprising: although heterosexuals are less likely to marry than they were when I was a kid, the institution still has immense prestige.  In our culture, it's considered a Good Thing, something everyone should want to do someday, and since it is almost universally agreed that if you meet someone you really really really love and want to spend the rest of your life with, marriage is the obvious and necessary next step.  Given that bedrock belief, most people find it obvious that gay men and lesbians should feel the same way, and they can't think of a good reason not to let them marry.  It seems unfair not to let them.

McArdle doesn't appear to be religious, except for her Randite background (she used to blog under the name "Jane Galt," I understand).  I don't know what kind of social support network she has, though as a good rational Objectivist libertarian she should be prepared to stand utterly alone against the looters and moochers and other collectivist scum -- though what that has to do with opposing gay marriage, I have no idea.  Dreher, like most antigay Christians, has a community to back him up, so I don't really see why being in a righteous minority scares him so much.  Even if official persecution comes, however unlikely that is, he will, Scripture says, have his reward in heaven.  As an atheist I never had any such reassurance, and it's an interesting question, which I can't answer, why I never felt the need for it.  Perhaps in Dreher's moral universe that would be monstrous Pride.  But Christians have an ancient tradition of expecting and facing worldly opposition to their faith -- a paranoid delight in persecution, as Graham Shaw called it in The Cost of Authority.  The paranoia goes some way to explain why they're so sure that gay goons will invade their churches and force their ministers to say, "I now pronounce you wife and wife."  They love scaring themselves with the thought.  I suspect that a major reason they feel the need to do so is that many of themselves can't, when they search their hearts, think of any good reason to oppose same-sex marriage either.  But they have to.  The enemy is in themselves.

Despite all this, I'm not complacent.  If homophobia is declining in the US and England, as the sociologist Mark McCormack argues in his 2012 book, it is just as possible that it will return someday, like the tide.  There's still plenty of bigotry and violence around, along with racism, misogyny, and gut anti-Semitism.  People of good will must continue working against such things.  But if the job is turning out to be somewhat easier than we expected, that also means we can pause now and then to think about what we're doing and why.  The most dispiriting thing to me is the dishonesty and irrationality of so many people who are supposedly on my side.  Even if all antigay bigotry disappeared magically tomorrow, I'd still have to work against that.

Monday, November 25, 2013

When the World Was Square

Yesterday a DJ on our local community radio station played Andrew Vasquez' idiotic recitation about "the days when the world had four corners --
the age when the young maiden
and the distinguished warrior defined
the perfect union
which I hadn't heard in a few years, and it wasn't long enough.

Then today I was reading Kenneth L. Feder's Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaelogy (7th edition, McGraw-Hill, 2011), which I'd stumbled on at a library book sale.  The book was written as a college-level textbook, and it's not bad, despite Feder's simplistic picture of science.  He even surprised me pleasantly by referring respectfully and accurately to the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who's something of a bogeyman among scientific fundamentalists.  On the other hand, Feder also refers constantly to biblical "literalism"; well, nobody's perfect.

But Feder also answered a question that has been on my mind ever since I read Scott Richard Lyons's X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent (Minnesota, 2010).  Lyons, an Ojebwe/Dakota professor of English at Syracuse University, recalled 
.. several arguments I had as an instructor at Leech Lake Tribal College with culture cops who wanted to shut down our science programs because they taught evolution. "Nothing in our oral traditions says that we came down from trees." Science was considered suspect because its origins lay outside an Ojibwe epistemology; because the latter was deemed suspect and pure, it had to be protected from contamination. My side eventually won the day, though not (as one might expect) through our claim that we needed to teach science to produce more local doctors and nurses. It was only after we successfully argued that our clan origin story could be read as a kind of proto-evolutionary theory that the culture cops backed off [96].
This story made me wonder about the existence of Native American Creationism, a traditionalist rejection of Darwinian theory, not because it teaches that "we came down from trees," but because current evolutionary theory has concluded that human beings originally emerged in Africa, and current archaeology concludes that human beings migrated to the Americas across a land bridge between present-day Siberia and present-day Alaska.  That would conflict with American Indian creation myths, which put human origins in the Americas.  And according to Feder, sure enough,
Some Native Americans object to the Land Bridge scenario because, as one told me directly, "It makes us immigrants, no different from you and your ancestors."  Maybe that is the case, but the most conservative scientific view places Native Americans in the New World more than 13,000 years ago -- "immigrants" they may be, but certainly not latecomers! [109]
(Have I mentioned that Feder has the same hearty chalk-talk style I've complained about before in certain academic writers addressing a lay audience?)
Indian activist, author, and historian Vine Deloria, Jr. (1995), made this issue the core of his book Red Earth, White Lies.  His argument was that the Bering Land Bridge model cannot be proven.  Besides, Indian religion maintains that native people in the New World have always been here; they were created here and did not come from anywhere else.
Feder points out that there are many different Native American creation myths, so which one is the true one?  He quotes Deloria's answer to the question:
Tribal elders did not worry if their version of creation was entirely different from the scenario held by a neighboring tribe.  People believed that each tribe had its own special relationship to the superior spiritual forces which governed the universe.  (Deloria 1995: 51-52)
I'll have to read Red Earth, White Lies.  (It's in the public library!  And it looks like Deloria took on the subject of creation vs. evolution more than once.  This could be interesting.)  Deloria, who's most famous for Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969) and God Is Red (1975), is right that the Land Bridge hypothesis can't be proven -- scientific knowledge, unlike mathematics, is never proven with absolute certainty -- but there's no more reason to take Indian creation stories as fact than there is to believe their many Old World counterparts.  And if the discrepancies between differing "versions of creation" can be dealt with, I don't see why the myth of a Bering Land Bridge represents a problem.

Years ago, in the 80s I think, I heard a Lakota elder on a PBS program declaring sententiously, "God gave the land to the Human Beings."  I gave him credit for saying "God" instead of "Great Spirit," but noticed the ethnocentric use of "Human Beings" for his own nation as opposed to others.  (You can find the same ethnocentrism in the biblical book of Daniel, where the evil pagan kings are symbolized by beasts, and the faithful remnant of Israel is the One Like a Son of Man.)  It was the first time I realized that indigenous religion is no more respectable than that of the European invaders.  Which doesn't justify the invaders' cruelty and violence, of course.  But indigenous Creationism is no answer to it. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

We Will All Be Gay-Married

Rod Dreher has also been working the religious-freedom aspects of the question of same-sex marriage.  Mostly it's the same old stuff, with new examples culled from the Gay-Marriage Panic Department of the Right's propaganda mills.  On Friday he linked to an article by one Jim Antle at The National Interest, who wailed:
A viewpoint that was once acceptably held by the President of the United States—indeed, a viewpoint one had to hold to be elected president in the first place—is now considered rude to express in public. The Mary Cheneys who once allowed people to simultaneously support traditional marriage and avoid charges of bigotry against gays and lesbians have revoked that protection.
So many openings here.  For one thing, when the President of the United States declared his personal belief that marriage should be limited to one man and one woman -- as he and his main competitor had also declared during the 2008 campaign -- many people did object, but most of them were just homosexuals and didn't count.  Most Obama supporters didn't even notice it, and excused his statement as a political necessity if he was to be elected.  When he changed his mind a few years later, any suggestion that he did so as a political necessity to be re-elected was dismissed as callous cynicism.   But I don't recall anyone objecting because he was "rude" (though I don't doubt that some fools did).  I objected because he was trying to impose his personal religious beliefs on the secular institution of civil marriage, flouting the First Amendment.  He was and is entitled to his personal religious beliefs (just as I'm entitled to criticize and mock them), but they aren't and shouldn't be law.

For another thing, what does it mean to "support traditional marriage"?  Antle seems to believe that it means denying civil marriage to anyone who isn't "traditional."  And that's not rude either; other words apply.  Consider the ultra-orthodox Jewish men in Israel who, when they get into trouble for harassing and spitting on young girls they consider immodestly dressed, complain that "we feel we are being prevented from observing the Torah in the manner in which we wish" and compare their Jewish critics to Nazis and themselves to victims of the Holocaust. "They hate us because we’re going the Jewish way.  And there’s only one Jewish way."  Just as there's only one form of "traditional marriage," if we can just figure out which one it is.

The haredi also protest that "We do not hate the secular people, but rather love them, we bring them closer."   Sound familiar?  But 1) the little girls assaulted by haredi men on their way to school weren't "secular," they were Orthodox; and 2) the secular people might well suspect that "we bring them closer" only so that "we" can more easily spit on them.

On the other hand, no one seems to be trying to prevent the ultra-orthodox from observing Torah as they wish, in Israel or in the US; they are only prevented from attacking other Jews who observe it differently.  Likewise, no advocate of same-sex marriage is saying that men and women should not marry legally -- at least, Dreher and his allies haven't quoted anyone who is.  "Traditional marriage" (which the conservatives interpret very elastically when it suits them, including even heterosexual marriage by atheists with no religious dimension) is not under attack, only the attempt to forbid marriage to "non-traditional," same-sex couples.

So it seems that by "traditional marriage" Dreher means not the marriage of one man to one woman, non-traditional though that is, but the heterosexual monopoly on marriage, civil as well as religious.  Being prevented from imposing their particular sectarian doctrines and practices on everyone -- religious and secular alike -- is exactly what religious reactionaries everywhere decry as a violation of their religious freedom, "the dictatorship of relativism" as Pope Rat called it.  They must even be exempt from any criticism or disagreement whatsoever, or they'll cry intolerance.  Let them cry.

But I want to pursue the word "rude."  We've been through that one too, and I've often attacked liberals for their refusal to debate ideas, their taking refuge behind emotive wails of Oh, how could you say such an awful thing?  It's likely that opponents of same-sex marriage will be called rude for expressing their views, but so far they've shown a resilient ability to steal their opponents' tactics and return accusations of rudeness for accusations of rudeness.  It's entertaining to imagine a traditionalist Christian like Dreher facing a Roman governor's order to burn incense before an image of the Emperor.  If he can't even stand up to being called rude for "defending traditional marriage," it's a safe bet he'd have apostatized under real persecution in a New York minute.)  It's so much easier than discussing the issues.  A rational person -- at least the kind of rational person I respect -- will respond to accusations of rudeness by taking the high road and defending his or her views with evidence and good reasons, challenging his or her opponents to refute them.  Our corporate media aren't interested in evidence or reason: they prefer the diversionary tactics of name-calling followed by insincere apologies.  But those people who care about the issues shouldn't let themselves be deterred, and will try to focus on the issues.  Digging through the muck and obfuscation to try to get at what is important in a disagreement.  But as Dreher's citation of Antle shows, the conservatives are just as invested in muddying the issues as liberals are.  Sometimes indeed, liberals and conservatives join hands in the struggle against rational thought.

Dreher also linked recently to an old post on same-sex marriage by (be still my heart!) the Randite blogger Megan McArdle, in which she made this challenge to proponents of same-sex marraige:
My only request is that people try to be a leeetle more humble about their ability to imagine the subtle results of big policy changes. The argument that gay marriage will not change the institution of marriage because you can’t imagine it changing your personal reaction is pretty arrogant. It imagines, first of all, that your behavior is a guide for the behavior of everyone else in society, when in fact, as you may have noticed, all sorts of different people react to all sorts of different things in all sorts of different ways, which is why we have to have elections and stuff. And second, the unwavering belief that the only reason that marriage, always and everywhere, is a male-female institution (I exclude rare ritual behaviors), is just some sort of bizarre historical coincidence, and that you know better, needs examining. If you think you know why marriage is male-female, and why that’s either outdated because of all the ways in which reproduction has lately changed, or was a bad reason to start with, then you are in a good place to advocate reform. If you think that marriage is just that way because our ancestors were all a bunch of repressed bastards with dark Freudian complexes that made them homophobic bigots, I’m a little leery of letting you muck around with it.
The reference to "rare ritual behaviors" shows that McArdle doesn't know what she's talking about, as usual, but I think she does have a point.  The trouble (or the good news, if you prefer) is that it cuts both ways: opponents of same-sex marriage can't say what the longterm effects of same-sex marriage on society will be either, though they are quite sure they'll be cataclysmic.

And the question is more complicated than either McArdle or Dreher cares to think about.  For one thing, heterosexual marriage in the West has become increasingly degendered over the past half-century or so, with the partners formally more and more equal.  So far that is in many ways a good thing, since married women with more autonomy consistently appear to be happier than their counterparts with less autonomy; on the other hand, reactionaries are claiming that women's increased autonomy in marriage has made men unhappier, making them impotent and unwilling to work for a living, etc.  It's not easy to say what to do about that; I don't believe that all men need a woman as a footstool, and those who do might as well adjust or do without.  Anyone who wants to turn the clock back must justify why women -- half the species, after all -- should have to be miserable to boost men's egos.  Defenders of tradition have been perfectly happy to let women suffer.  If it's a zero-sum game where both can't be happy, there's no solution.

Which brings me to my next point: Whether or not same-sex marriage is legalized in the US, heterosexual marriage will continue to change, from pressures within heterosexuality.  And that's not news; heterosexual marriage has never existed in just one form.  Marriage hasn't even been the cultural ideal in Christian cultures, as an Orthodox Christian like Dreher ought to know.  There have been waves of rejection of marriage, by women and men alike, throughout Western history, and in Christian tradition that rebellion has the sanction of Scripture and practical precedent.  We're living in such a time now, in the US and elsewhere in the world, when many heterosexuals are voting against marriage with their feet.  Since gay people are a small minority, and those who will marry are a minority within a minority, those who want to play Chicken Little over marriage should worry more about the social changes being wrought by the heterosexual majority.  It's possible of course that same-sex marriage will have effects greater than the numbers suggest.  But it will be hard to distinguish those effects from those of heterosexuals choosing other options for their own reasons; it might even be that the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage is an effect of changes in heterosexual marriage and coupling.  As I've indicated, there are reasons to think so.

People like Dreher and McArdle cultivate a blissful ignorance of larger social forces and trends, except when they endorse destructive ones.  The weakening of heterosexual marriage is arguably connected to political and economic changes whose effects have already been noticed by people who care: the destruction of America's industrial base, for example, followed by the attack on jobs with benefits and security, has devastated the nuclear family (which isn't really "traditional" anyhow) and made it impossible for most men to support a family on one paycheck.  When higher-wage jobs with benefits are eliminated, they are usually replaced with low-wage, no-benefit jobs, forcing many married couples to become two-paycheck families, or even three-paycheck since it is often necessary for at least one partner to work two jobs.  (The wife will usually work two jobs anyway, the Second Shift of housework in addition to wage work.)  If the Right wanted to worry about "traditional" marriage and families, it could focus on this trend, but if anything the Right endorses it.  The longterm effects of these and other economic changes are likely to outweigh any caused by the legalization of same-sex marriage, but the Right finds it convenient to have Teh Gay as a scapegoat while ignoring other, arguably more significant factors.

Notice that McArdle is playing the same dishonest game as many other traditionalists: "If you think you know why marriage is male/female, and is either outdated" etc.  Advocates of same-sex marriage don't think heterosexual marriage is "outdated" -- very much the opposite.  They approve of it, and they want same-sex couples to get its privileges and benefits.  (If they consider anything outdated, it's limiting marriage to mixed-sex couples.  It's a bad argument, but a popular one for many issues.  But Loving v. Virginia didn't mean that white people marrying white people was "outdated" either.)  Legalizing same-sex marriage won't stop marriage from being overwhelmingly, even primarily, male/female.  Letting a few same-sex couples marry legally won't change what marriage predominantly is.  Heterosexuals never had any difficulty in using "marriage" as a metaphor for same-sex relationships in the past, and since marriage is a metaphor, not a natural phenomenon, civil same-sex marriage isn't going to change anything that wasn't already changing.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Everything I Needed to Know About Porn I Learned from the Bible

It's a comfort to be reminded that not all the writers at The American Conservative are intelligent.  Daniel Larison isn't the only one who impresses me: look at this great piece on the know-nothing jingoism of the National Football League, for instance, or this one on the anarchism of Noam Chomsky.  You wouldn't often find such opinions published in the "liberal" media, let alone "conservative" outlets.

By contrast Rod Dreher, the convert from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy who first achieved notoriety for writing as CrunchyCon at Beliefnet before moving into the big time, falls into the willed know-nothing category, and he's not alone.  Same-sex marriage is one of his big concerns, but this past week he went after pornography.  It might be one of the few areas where Dreher agrees with Chomsky.

Dreher cites a report from "a Catholic magazine" (and for those who, inexplicably, "don't want to believe" such a partisan source, he provides another link to similar material: it's a pop-psychology site, which I don't trust any more than I trust the Vatican) that pornography changes our brains!  Neuroimaging proves it!!  And he concludes:
The more you entertain vice, the more hard-wired into your personality vice becomes. That’s not just a teaching from religious sages. In the case of pornography, at least, it’s neuroscience.
Actually, it's not science at all.  (Several of Dreher's commenters tried to educate him.)  Neuroimaging doesn't tell us all that much; it's useful for locating physical damage to the brain from tumors and other lesions, but no one is sure what the pretty pictures mean apart from such gross pathology.  Which doesn't, of course, keep scientists and laypeople alike from extrapolating wildly to advance their fantasies.

Robert A. Burton's A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind (St. Martin's, 2013), which I wrote about in October, has a lot of useful information about this.  True, what we learn affects the brain.  Burton wrote, for example: "Memorizing the street layout of London in order to become a licensed cab driver produces a dramatic increase in gray matter volume in the posterior hippocampus, a region of the brain known to be crucial for spatial navigation" (182), and reported:
In 2007, the Royal Society of England, in its flagship biological research journal, issued an extensive critique of twenty-five years of published results on brain size and behavior. “We all know that correlation does not demonstrate causation but causation is the context in which the results are invariably interpreted.” The society pointed out that neuroscientists disregard the lessons of history, remain ignorant of prior and present studies asking the same questions, generally persist with inadequate data collection, fail to carry out suitable confirming studies despite their availability, limit their correlations to those that confirm their hypotheses, and cite correlation as evidence of causation [188].
So the research Dreher cites should be taken with a grain of salt.  His sources also prattle about "addiction," another tricky area.  The notion of addiction to pornography, shopping, sex, and love was big in the 1980s and hasn't gone away, but it's dubious scientifically.  Even in the paradigm cases of opiates and other drugs, including alcohol, addiction is complex, and its physiological aspects are controversial.  But Dreher's authority, "psychiatrist Norman Doidge," has no doubts.
"The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor,” he says. “Not all addictions are to drugs or alcohol. People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running,” he says. So why not pornography?
One giveaway about the addiction hustlers was that they borrowed Twelve-Step concepts and language, but broke with Alcoholics Anonymous by asserting the possibility of "normal" indulgence in sex and love.  According to AA, if you're an alcoholic, you can never drink again.  So if you're a love addict you can't love safely, but Robin Norwood, who popularized "love addiction" in her book Women Who Love Too Much -- still in print after 30 years, long after it was debunked -- promised that with therapy and a good man, you could love again in a healthy manner.  Ditto for the proponents of "sex addiction."  But they can't have it both ways.  If sex and love, or porn, are addictions like those people develop to drugs, then total abstinence is the only way to recover. and recovery will never be complete.  There's a good if controversial book on this subject, Stanton Peele's The Diseasing of America (Jossey-Bass, 1999), which is worth reading on general principles; it fits with other critiques of psychiatry and its satellite disciplines, like Mad Science by Stuart A. Kirk, Tomi Gomory, and David Cohen.

There are plenty of criticisms that can be made about pornography, from a vast range of perspectives.  The religious is only one of them, and I don't think it's a strong one, mainly because it's so conflicted.  Many Christian alarmists about porn have adopted cultural-feminist arguments about it, to the point of collaborating with Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon to pass anti-pornography laws in the 1980s.  I sympathize with the claim that pornography degrades women, but it's never clear how it differs in any important way from heterosexuality in general.

Numerous feminist critics pointed out in the 80s, when Dworkin and MacKinnon were getting a lot of corporate, mainstream media attention, that the same criticism should be made of "popular" commercial culture, yet Dworkin and MacKinnon and their Christian (mostly male) allies showed little interest in doing anything about it.  The use of nubile women, revealingly or scantily clad is almost universal to sell products; to add to the complexity, such women are also used to sell products to women.  The view of copulation as an inherently debasing, even violent act, difficult or impossible to distinguish from rape, is also a cultural commonplace.  And despite the laments of people like Rod Dreher, that "pornographic" view permeates Western religious traditions, a fact that many feminist and other writers have addressed before.

The Hebrew Bible -- known to Christians as the Old Testament -- assumes that women are men's property, to be exchanged between them in marriage.  One of the crucial love stories in Genesis, for example, is that of Jacob, who goes looking for his fortune and meets a pretty girl at a well.  Her name is Rachel.  He helps her move a stone and kisses her, and on learning that her father Laban is his mother's brother, decides he wants to marry her.  (First-cousin marriage, yuck!)  He offers to work for Laban, and when Laban asks what wages Jacob should be paid for serving him, Jacob asks for Rachel, and agrees to work for seven years to earn her.  "So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her."  But on the wedding night, Laban slips Rachel's older sister Leah into Jacob's bed.  Jacob deflowers her, and despite his protests is stuck with her.  Laban generously gives both girls to him, but Jacob still has to work seven more years to pay for Rachel.  Remember this story the next time someone tries to tell you that traditional marriage is one man and one woman, but notice also its treatment of women (not men) as commodities to be bought and sold.  It's typical of the Old Testament, and assumed in the New.

But that's only part of what I'm talking about here.  There's also the motif of the Bad Woman, the Harlot, polluted by contact with too many men (or with only one man who hasn't lawfully purchased her), rented out to them rather than purchased.  I've mentioned before the allegories in the book of the prophet Ezekiel which cast the city of Jerusalem as an abandoned baby girl whom Yahweh adopted and raised to be his bride:
“When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil...
It's not clear to me what these lubricious details have to do with spirituality, as opposed to the prophet exciting himself and his male readers.  I suppose the two aims aren't mutually exclusive.  But blood will tell, and Jerusalem became a whore, selling herself to all comers.  (Yahweh, being male, could spread himself around as he liked.)
35 “Therefore, O prostitute, hear the word of the Lord: 36 Thus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, 37 therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness...
And so on.  The image of Yahweh as a cuckolded and violently abusive husband recurs in the Hebrew Bible.  It's the guiding theme of the prophet Hosea, for example, who claims that Yahweh ordered him to marry a loose woman and sire children on her.  Then Yahweh will punish his unfaithful wife Israel, saying:
“Rebuke your mother, rebuke her,
    for she is not my wife,
    and I am not her husband.
Let her remove the adulterous look from her face
    and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts.
Otherwise I will strip her naked
    and make her as bare as on the day she was born;
I will make her like a desert,
    turn her into a parched land,
    and slay her with thirst.
I will not show my love to her children,
    because they are the children of adultery.
And so on.   There's a lot more.  In the New Testament this theme mainly occurs in the Book of Revelation with its symbolic Whore of Babylon, who is "drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (17.6).  (In general, the New Testament encourages a rejection of marriage and therefore of sexuality, but this isn't really at odds with the idea of sex as polluting and degrading.)  Whoredom is equated in the Bible with idolatry, which can be confusing sometimes, but it's meant to be: the reader is expected to be blinded with fury at those who are unfaithful to Yahweh, so why bother trying to make sense?  Jennifer Wright Knust has a good discussion of this topic in her Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (HarperOne, 2011).  The Bible, as Knust's subtitle indicates, isn't consistent about women or sex (or any number of other subjects), but the Polluted Woman is one of its important themes.

The idea of the unfaithful woman as "whore" -- not meaning literally a seller of sexual services so much as a woman off the leash, and presumed eager to service all comers.  (I wonder if the ultra-orthodox males in today's Israel who spit on eight-year-old girls and call them "whores" mean literally that these children are selling sexual services.  As I noted above, it's probably not something they think about.  But they're certainly following tradition.)  That is why male ownership of women is justified, to keep women under control, to regulate "carnal lust, which is in women insatiable" as the late-medieval Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches put it.  There are good women, but they're only a blink away from jumping over the traces and turning into whores, which is why their fathers, brothers and husbands must keep them tightly restrained and confined.

This is one of the pillars of what people like Rod Dreher like to call the pornographic mind or the pornographic imagination, yet it's a major theme in the Christian tradition.  If a law like Dworkin and MacKinnon's were passed and enforced, it would require action against the Bible and the religious institutions that treat it as authority.

Dreher's secular source warns:
According to Online MBA, 40 million Americans are regular visitors to porn Web sites. And in the U.S. $2.84 billion is spent on pornography yearly. And as with most addictions, the habit has intensified over time. Society’s taste in pornography has skewed further and further towards the extreme as internet porn has become more widely accessible: “Hardcore pornography now explores the world of perversion, while softcore is now what hardcore was a few decades ago, explicit sexual intercourse between adults, now available on cable TV. The comparatively tame softcore pictures of yesteryear—women in various states of undress—now show up on mainstream media all day long, in the pornification of everything, including television, rock videos, soap operas, advertisements, and so on.”
$2.84 billion is a lot of money, but it's a tiny amount compared to what the US spends each year to kill people.  Killing people, on the other hand, is a biblical value, mandated against idolaters by Yahweh himself.  Some Canaanite cities were to be burned to the ground as a burnt offering to Yahweh, including the livestock and all human inhabitants.  In others, everyone but virgin females were to be killed, and the virgins enslaved -- see Numbers 31:18 and Deuteronomy 20:13ff; slaves of course were available for sexual use by their owners, as were female captives taken in war (Deuteronomy 21:10ff).

I'm skeptical of the claims about the "world of perversion" in "hardcore" porn.  The same claims about violent porn were made by the feminist porn movement of the 1980s, but they were debunked: only a small portion of commercial pornography could be called violent, and it was a specialty niche.  Most pornography depicts nonviolent, consensual copulation.  (Consider the analogous argument that a religion -- Christianity, say, to choose one at random -- should not be judged by its most "extreme" versions; pornography, by contrast, should be.)  Perhaps the "perversion" referred to is oral and anal sex, and it does seem to be true that anal sex has become more common in mainstream heterosexual porn.  (It was always mainstream in gay male pornography, naturally.)  But is it "perversion"?  To some people, no doubt, even when they themselves practice it privately.  That's the beauty of words like "perversion" -- they raise the blood pressure and produce righteous excitement, but they don't contain much information.  They're not meant to: their function is emotional incitement.

As for the increasing acceptability of porn-inspired imagery in mainstream commercial entertainment and advertising, that's an issue that people can discuss.  Secular radical feminists have been talking about it for a long time, but because they were a bunch of hairy-legged manhaters with whom right-wing Christians saw no benefit in allying, no one paid attention.  The Christian Right's interest in working with feminist anti-porn crusaders expired years ago, though they also appropriated and assimilated Dworkinite rhetoric.  And the objectification of women remains disputed by males of all persuasions.  (For an introduction to the question, see this and this, then go from there.)  To be brief here, I'd say that the problems with pornography are themselves a result of mainstream misogyny and male supremacy.  Mainstream men need "sluts" and "whores" as an organizing principle for their dealings with women; women who collaborate with such men also need "sluts" and "whores" to try to ward off abuse and declare their allegiance.

Even if all secular pornography magically disappeared tomorrow, though, the treatment of women as sexual objects and commodities would still be omnipresent in Christian society.  It's inextricably entangled (love that word) in the cultural foundations of the Christian West.  (Which doesn't let the various cultures of the East off the hook; they're just not the issue here.)  I'm critical of those people who claim that pornography is an educational resource, to teach people the reality of sex; I think that's obviously batty, since pornography is about fantasy, not reality.  I don't have any broad answers about how people should be educated about sex, but I think honesty -- meaning accuracy -- is a good policy. There are exceptions (which prove the rule), but mostly Christian churches have been more interested in suppressing accurate and honest discourse about sex.  I don't see Dreher as one of the exceptions.

Do We Really Need Gender?

We’wha also took advantage of his time in Washington to try out activities he might not have engaged in at home. He took up knitting, a male craft among the Zunis. Although he told a reporter that he planned to give it up when he returned, he must have had some previous knowledge of the craft, and it is interesting to note that he felt free to experiment in this way. 
-- Will Roscoe,The Zuni Man-Woman, University of New Mexico Press, 1991, p. 63
I've been haunted by this anecdote ever since I first read it.  We'wha (1849-1896) was a Zuni lhamana (or "man-woman"), probably the most famous "two-spirit" person in American history thanks to Will Roscoe's book about him.  In 1886 he visited Washington, D.C., as a "cultural ambassador."  He met President Grover Cleveland and received a lot of publicity.  Taken to be female, he was referred to in the press as a Zuni princess, "demonstrated Zuni weaving at the Smithsonian, [and] appeared at the National Theater in a theatrical event".  He then returned to New Mexico and died ten years later of tuberculosis, not even fifty years old.

The reason I find this story about We'wha so poignant is that the institutions surrounding two-spirit people are romanticized by many gay people today, as a symbol of pre-Columbian peoples' supposedly greater freedom of gender and sexuality.  As a lhamana, We'wha dressed in clothing styles worn by Zuni women, and did the work assigned by their culture to Zuni women.  There are men for whom that would be freedom enough, but it seems that We'wha chafed at the restrictions of his society, and when he was far away from the reservation he felt free to do a little bit of men's work, knowing he'd have to give it up when he went back home.  Whether he thought of knitting as men's work, or simply as something he wanted to do, we'll never know, but in any case he could only do it when he was away from his family and home.  And that strikes me, with my Western individualistic standards of personal freedom, as unutterably sad.

"Gender" may be the most confusing concept I've ever grappled with.  And I'm not the only person who's confused: everybody else is too, as far as I can tell.  So one benefit of having read Two-Spirit People is that it gave me some idea, not what "gender" really means, but why it probably doesn't mean anything.  Roscoe's story about We'wha fits with the account I'm trying to construct here.

There were several goads to me in the articles I read in Two-Spirit People.  Jean-Guy A. Goulet's "The Northern Athapaskan 'Berdache' Reconsidered" dismantled an anthropologist's account of "female berdaches" among the Kaska of the Yukon, based on some biased misreadings of interviews with Kaska informants.  John H. Honigmann, the anthropologist in question, tried to find cross-dressing women in a society where, on his own account, men and women dressed pretty much alike; to find women doing men's work in a society where "autonomy and management in the bush all year round were emphasized for both males and females" (Goulet, 53); and to read young women's reluctance to be forcibly impregnated by young men as evidence that they preferred other girls as sexual partners.  (Recall Sabine Lang's claim that "In Western culture, a homosexual relationship is defined as being between two men or two women -- two individuals who are of the same sex and the same gender."  Honigmann assumed that [what he thought was] gender nonconformity was a sign of homosexuality.)  Some other writers in Two-Spirit People referred to Goulet's discussion as a reminder that sharply polarized roles for men and women weren't universal among American Indians.

Then there was Wesley Thomas's attempt to define and rationalize Navajo terms for gender variation, "Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality."  He concluded "for the time being" (161) that "the older Navajo people recognize five traditional gender categories" (158), which involve combinations of male or female bodies with masculine or feminine genders in varying degrees.  Evidently the Navajo have more sharply polarized roles for men and women than the Kaska do: there is men's work and there's women's work, though some individuals cross the boundaries.  For example:
As one of the original people in the Navajo origin stories, feminine males performed and were responsible for work also performed by women.  The tradition continues to an extent.  Some of the work feminine-male people do includes cooking at religious gatherings, weaving, household chores, and tending children [161].
As the title of his article indicates, Thomas is aware that these work assignments are "cultural constructions," but he still talks as though men's work and women's work are pre-cultural categories.   He also seems to take bodies fairly seriously: if what counts is femininity and masculinity and the work assigned to them, who cares whether a person has a male or a female body?  It's the spirit that (supposedly) counts, not the body.

So too, Jason Cromwell elsewhere in Two-Spirit People quotes a "Latino FTM" (female-to-male transgendered person) as saying, "I don't mix or blend my gender.  What I am is a man with a female body" (130).  But what is this "man" that Cromwell's informant speaks of, that's independent of body configuration?  And what is unmixed or unblended in the idea of "a man with a female body"?  Like many identity statements, this is a pledge of allegiance (like, say, "I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free") that conveys no real information.

Another contributor, Arnold J. Pilling, surveyed census and other records of two-spirit people a hundred years ago, and found that they didn't all fit the platonic model of the invert: in some cases, "their cross-dressing consisted primarily of wearing women's caps from an adjacent tribe; otherwise, each dressed mainly in male ritual costume while curing"(84).  Nor were all of them shamans or other religious specialists, as the popular consensus has it.  Still other writers talked about "multiple genders," as it became obvious that two-spirit people were as varied as contemporary gay people or any other category.  Claire R. Farrer wrote of a Mescalero Apache "singer of ceremonies" she called Bernard Second:
Bernard knew much more than did any regular man or woman as a consequence of being a multigendered person.  He was identified as being special from the age of seven, when he began his training as a singer and linguist.  Only as he aged did he realize he was supergendered.  He was consciously taught men's things and knew them impeccably: how to hunt, skin, and butcher animals; how to protect his family -- especially his sisters in his matrilineage; how to do morning prayers; and how to read the sky.  He also was taught, and was expert in, women's things: how to weave a basket, how to make a cradle for a newborn baby and how to prepare food and clothing.  He never offered an explanation of why he was multigendered, saying only that he did men's and women's work because "the Vision [that he had as a seven-year-old boy] told me how my people would come to me one day and say, 'O! My Brother! Show me how to do the old things.'  And they do!"

... It is a positive gift to be multigendered but also it is a burden for -- at least at Mescalero -- it means being several different people confined in one body [237].
And here the argument went off the edge, as it became clear to me that some of these scholars were using "gender" in a very odd way.  It sounded as if they thought that any variation in any trait constituted a gender difference, so that wearing a woman's hat was a gender, and being good at cooking but not doing laundry was another gender, while being good at cooking and doing laundry was yet another, and so on.  This leads to a reductio ad absurdum, where you have a gender (and maybe even more than one gender) for every individual, depending on his or her age, or mood, or the day of the week.  We'wha, for example, would have had a different gender than another lhamana like him in most respects but who didn't want to knit.  Maybe We'wha changed gender when he went to DC and took up knitting, and changed back when he returned home and gave it up.

(It also occurs to me that Bernard's greater knowledge of both men's and women's work is a difference of degree, not of kind, and nothing to do with gender per se.  Evidently Bernard didn't think of himself as "two-spirit," which isn't surprising since the term wasn't coined until after his death.  Again, it's remarkable how people who'd refuse to label non-Western people "homosexuals" see no objection to labeling them with other terms they would not have used, like "two-spirit" or "multigendered."  Notice that as Farrar quotes Bernard, he described his calling not in terms of gender, but in terms of teaching people the "old things," both men's and women's.  But the wise Western anthropologist knows better than the simple, unschooled indigene, I guess.)

It also would have to count why a man did "women's" work, or vice versa.  If a man cooks meals and does laundry because he's in the army and is required to do such menial work, his identity and subjectivity are different from those of a man who becomes a professional chef or runs a laundry to support his family, and both are different from a male who does these things because he's a woman in a male body and believes that only a woman should cook and wash clothes, preferably for her man.  These would be three different genders.  I'm spelling these examples out in (no doubt) tedious detail in hopes of making the consequences of postulating multiple genders as clear as possible.

This all leads me to doubt whether it makes any sense to speak of two-spirit people in their various forms as a third (let alone fourth or fifth) gender.  They are not (on Wesley Thomas's account, which fits with others') something other than male or female, masculine or feminine, men or women, but combinations of pre-cultural male and female essences in varying amounts.  By this logic, mixed-race people would be third or fourth or fifth or thirty-second "races" depending on the degree or "racial" mixture they inherit; and "sexual orientations" would be as manifold as points on the Kinsey continuum.  The number of genders would approach the number of human beings in the world, with at least one gender for each person.

So American Indian conceptions of gender -- which, remember, vary widely between nations -- are not really so different from Western conceptions.  (Compare the Jungian anima and animus, female and male principles, supposedly present in both sexes in different proportions.  Since they occur in both sexes, it makes no sense to gender them at all.)   Even in contemporary American culture, gender is a troublesome concept, but it doesn't seem that American Indians had better ideas.  Two-spirit Navajo/Oneida contributor Carrie H. House refers to "he-shes and she-hes" as "those who hold in balance the male and female, female and male aspects of themselves in the universe", again speaking of "male and female, female and male" as if they were pre-cultural principles, aspects of the world separate from and prior to the cultural understandings of human beings.  There's good reason to believe they aren't.

Everybody balances "female and male aspects of themselves", because in both human biology and psychology, both sexes combine "female" and "male" qualities.  Testosterone, for example, is conventionally called a "male hormone" and estrogen a "female hormone," but both hormones occur in every human body, only in differing proportions.  Both males and females have nipples, though they're only functional for nursing in females, and not all the time even for them.  Colette Dowling, in The Frailty Myth (Random House, 2000), reports research which found that girls do better overall than boys on fitness tests until their early teens, despite the official standards which expect them to do worse:
At twelve and thirteen [girls] fell behind in sit-ups, and only a handful could meet the boys’ criteria in pull-ups, but their scores overall were so high, they were the fitness winners hands down. So here’s the obvious question, as put by the researchers: “If prepubescent girls are physiologically capable and data from several studies have found no significant differences between boys’ and girls’ performances on fitness test items, then why are American fitness test standards noticeably different for boys and girls of the same age?" [88]
The professor who told sports sociologist Michael Messner, "I always thought that there was something about the female arm that made it impossible to throw [a baseball] like a man," or the Andalusian villagers who told the anthropologist David Gilmore that a married man who helped his wife with the cooking was "performing tasks absolutely unnatural to the male physiology and musculature" (Manhood in the Making, Yale 1990, p. 54) were basically in agreement with American Indian gender norms: if a male does women's work, he's not a man; if a woman throws a baseball like a man, she's not a woman.  Physiological differences between the sexes to justify behavioral differences  are simply invented, as these examples show.  (I think I read somewhere that elementary school boys asserted dogmatically in the 1980s and 1990s that girls can't ride skateboards or play video games because they're built differently than boys.  It goes without saying that these boys had no basis for these claims beyond wishful thinking.)

Psychologically, the differences between males and females are also relative, with greater overlap than difference between the sexes. Dowling again, on psychological testing which aimed to isolate masculinity and femininity:
Over 40 percent of men score above the median on traits considered feminine, and over 40 percent of women score above the median on traits considered masculine -- a substantial overlap if one is looking for attributes to define femininity and masculinity.

Scholars of gender difference constructed these scales, Beall reveals, by selecting questions that men and women responded to differently and then making up a scale accordingly. “The responses that males gave were called masculine and the responses females gave were called feminine,” wrote Beall, who was blowing the whistle on the scale makers, who in essence were creating the difference they were supposed to be discovering. Nineteenth-century concepts of “masculine” and “feminine” remained entrenched in the twentieth, she explains, because investigators never questioned “the theoretical justification for such traits and just assumed the existence of masculinity and femininity, even though many of the scales were not quantitatively reliable.” In such a way can psychologists both create and validate their own theories [49].
The social psychologist Erving Goffman wrote in 1963, before the rise of Second Wave feminism, that
...there are other norms, such as those associated with physical comeliness, which take the form of ideals and constitute standards against which almost everyone falls short at some stage in his life. And even where widely attained norms are involved, their multiplicity has the effect of disqualifying many persons. For example, in an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America; a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports. Every American male tends to look out upon the world from this perspective, this constituting one sense in which one can speak of a common value system in America. Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself -- during moments at least -- as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior; at times he is likely to pass and at times he is likely to find himself being apologetic or aggressive concerning known-about aspects of himself he knows are probably seen as undesirable [Stigma, Prentice-Hall, p. 128].
But this rejection of a dualistic model of masculinity/femininity never caught on.  Despite its support by lots of empirical evidence, it inspires deep-rooted resistance.  I've found that many people are intensely bothered by it, including (maybe especially) self-styled gender rebels.  One such person, self-identified as genderqueer, seemed upset when I quoted the woman from Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons's Lesbian/Woman (1972: 81), who,
speaking as the new “woman-identified” woman of Gay Women’s Liberation at the 1971 Council on Religion and the Homosexual symposium, was challenged by someone in the audience because of her apparently masculine attire. But Lynda explained, “This short haircut, because it is mine, is a woman’s hairstyle. These so-called men’s boots, because I am wearing them, are women’s boots. This pipe, because I am smoking it, is a woman’s pipe. Whatever women wear is women’s wear. It is a matter of individual choice – and comfort.”
I'm not sure why this statement felt liberating instead of threatening to me when I first read it forty years ago.  But while I understand that the recognition that gender differences are culturally relative, variable, and permeable is upsetting for many people, I don't see how it makes that recognition less valid.  Some people have been just as disturbed by the idea that the earth is round, that it moves, that human beings are descended from other animal species, that dark-skinned people are just as human as pinkish-grey ones, that copulation should only occur between males and females, and so on, yet cultural liberals don't feel any obligation to respect their discomfort about abandoning these boundaries -- on the contrary, they find it exhilarating to mock their discomfort.  But their discomfort should, they believe, be respected.

This is a difficult position to work out, however.  Cultural distinctions are important, and possibly even "real" for some version of that word.  I understand that for many people, assigning certain clothing, hairstyles, work, and other practices to one sex or the other is comforting and meaningful.  These are among the ways of mapping the world that all human beings engage in.  No one is harmed if I, an anatomical male, choose to wear a dress or lipstick, but in order to assert that I must also break the connection between anatomy and culture, "sex" and "gender."  Many people, including many of the transgendered, want to break that connection while still asserting that it's meaningful: that if a woman pees standing up or a man pees sitting down, that's an expression of an essential maleness or femaleness, not a matter of choice and comfort.  They want to maintain the fiction (or myth, in a certain sense of that word) of two distinct, mutually exclusive, essential, natural, pre-cultural genders, but that fiction is unsustainable.

In the long run that fiction is also harmful, even when it includes a loophole like "two-spirit."  (Which, as I've shown, is a dubious one anyway.)  It puts invalid limits on what individuals can do, it allows and requires people to be persecuted for failing to conform to the norm, and the misery it causes many is inextricable from the sense of belonging and fitting that it provides to others.  That doesn't mean that people shouldn't be free to dress, manipulate, decorate, and modify their bodies as they choose, only that that freedom doesn't mean I must accept their account of what they are doing.  A male in a dress and makeup is not thereby a woman, no matter how strongly he feels like one; just as a male who receives another male's penis into his body isn't a woman, even if he maps that experience in terms of maleness and femaleness.  These distinctions and boundaries must be recognized as human constructions, not natural kinds (though even natural kinds do not always constrain us), and as conventional, even arbitrary.  There is no anatomical reason why men should knit and women not, or vice versa.

Can human beings get along without gender -- without, that is, assigning a halo of behaviors to each biological sex?  I doubt it; if we could, we probably would have done so already.  The reproductive difference between males and females is natural, and gender conservatives like to appeal to that.  We are born from female bodies, not male, and until recently, only women could nurse infants (though not always the same women who gave them birth).  But human beings assign gender to traits and behaviors that go far beyond those very limited basic ones, and they cling just as fiercely to them.  The assignment of gender apparently starts in infancy, and what we learn that early is often very difficult to unlearn later.  Unlearn it we must, though, and we must protect children from other children's fantasies about what boys and girls should be.  The same goes for adults, of course.  Unfortunately, most adults' hearts aren't into providing that protection most of the time.

I've referred to We'wha with masculine pronouns in this post partly because Roscoe did, but mainly to try to bring the gender dissonance of a lhamana into greater relief.  To call him "she" would make his adoption of women's clothing and work seem more "natural" to Euro-Americans, by defining his sex according to the work he did.  But his family and neighbors knew perfectly well that he was male.  The role of a lhamana is not, as far as I can tell, to be a woman, but to be a male living as a woman, and that's an important difference.  I'm also thinking of Ursula K Le Guin's line "The King was pregnant," from The Left Hand of Darkness.  Set on a planet whose dominant intelligent species is sexually neutral for most of the time, but become male or female for brief periods of time: the same person might sire children or bear them at different times of life.  Le Guin has said she loved writing that sentence.

In her contribution to Two Spirit People the anthropologist Evelyn Blackwood complains that Roscoe "calls We'wha 'he' despite the fact that We'wha lived as a woman and was perceived as a woman by Western anthropologists" (285); I wouldn't have thought that Western anthropologists' perceptions had any authority in this case, since their inability to comprehend American Indian cultures is precisely what's being criticized in this work.  While We'wha "lived as a woman," he wasn't a woman in his own society, he was a "man-woman."  (A woman doesn't "live as a woman," she is a woman.)  To categorize him as a woman would be to surrender to Western categories, not to respect Zuni ones.

As an analytic classification, gender needs to go.  As Lynda said, whatever a female does is feminine; whatever a male does is masculine.  It isn't easy to shed the illusions we construct about gendered essences, but that is a serious thinker's job.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Middle Class As We Know It Today

I'm reading the final essay in Long Before Stonewall, Stephen Shapiro's "In a French Position: Radical Pornography and Homoerotic Society in Charles Brockden Brown's Ormond or the Secret Witness," and it's a relief after much of what has gone before it.  (Maybe I should add by the way that several of the papers are quite good, like Laura Mandell's "What's Sex Got to Do with It?" and Lisa L. Moore's "The Swan of Litchfield"; even those I have criticized here for their theoretical bumbling often include useful historical information -- but that's the problem, one I've pointed out numerous times: scholars' research often is not informed by their theory, or vice versa.)

Shapiro begins by criticizing the misuse of Michel Foucault in "sexuality studies," especially the history of sexuality, and I'm going to quote his criticque at length.
The acts-versus-identities model has had ambiguous effects for revering sexual cultures. For the notion that conceptions of sexuality are socially conditioned and historically mutable has frequently meant that even otherwise gay-friendly critics often deny that pretwentieth century agents gave meaning to their sexual practices. The initial problem with an overly dogmatic use of Foucault is that his work concentrates on tracking the changing terms used by officials to describe sexual activity. He never attempted to develop a method for discerning how the subjects covered by terms like “sodomy” or “homosexuality” may have conceptualized their own erotic behavior. Likewise, his work never acknowledged the belatedness of bourgeois professional knowledge, where middle-class writers and politicians usually begin discussing cultural matters long after these formations have already existed, especially if they were initiated by the laboring-class or other groups on the margins of middle-class expectations. The fact that early modern authorities refused to acknowledge the presence of alternative attitudes and semicovert communities in their midst does not mean they did not exist before then.

A tendentious use of Foucault has resulted in sexuality studies policing itself in ways far more rigid and unimaginative than is the case for other kinds of social history. We acknowledge the presence of a middle class before 1800, even while we understand that the particular bourgeois ideal of antagonistic individualism protected by the refuge of nuclear family domesticity does not fully exist then because the middle classes have different traits that they emphasize as defining themselves. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe does not have the rich interiority of a nineteenth-century Bildungroman’s hero, but the novel begins by clearly nominating Crusoe as belonging to the mercantile, middling class. It would be nonsensical to argue that because Crusoe does not fit the particular form of middle-class behavior dominant in the nineteenth-century, the bourgeoisie, and the larger category of capitalism, does not exist before 1800. For sexuality studies, the overly homogeneous nature of the Foucauldian paradigm does not give us critical tools that are supple enough to make sense of sexual values that cannot easily be slotted into the acts or identities categories. This two-stage model flattens the often uneven phases of erotic practice in the post-medieval West, especially those within the eighteenth century as a phase of transition and radical transformation between the early modern and modern periods [358-9].
I like Shapiro's analogy to the emergence of the middle class, which I'll try to remember in the future when I have to engage orthodox Foucauldians.  One could also claim that the nineteenth-century middle class is not The Middle Class As We Know It Today, or to paraphrase Caleb Crain, the middle class as we (moderns) know it is modern.  But I want to go beyond his critique, because even Shapiro seems to think that the "acts versus identities model" is Foucault's.

I've pointed out before that the locus classicus, the John 3:18 of Queer Theory, found on page 43 of the English translation of volume I of Foucault's History of Sexuality, doesn't mention identities (or "orientations" for that matter).  Foucault was writing about changing conceptions of behavior, which ranged far beyond the erotic, advanced by men who were vying for authority to regulate their fellow citizens.  As Shapiro says, he had little or nothing to say about those authorities' targets and how they saw themselves, which is where one would need to look if one wants to talk about identities.  Foucault himself tended to forget this, both in The History of Sexuality and in his other writings and statements on the subject. And for all the talk of "the modern homosexual," Foucault's formulation isn't tied to the word "homosexual" -- he invokes "Westphal's famous article of 1870 on 'contrary sexual sensations' ... as its date of birth" -- and it doesn't really support the use fundamentalist Foucauldians have made of it.  But that's how it is with Scripture.

I don't think that "the Foucauldian paradigm" is really "overly homogeneous" in itself.  As I remember, Foucault warned, right there in The History of Sexuality, that changing concepts and models didn't succeed each other in a neat, linear, homogeneous fashion: different concepts co-existed, and their proponents contended with each other to gain authority.  When I read The History of Sexuality: Introduction myself, about a decade ago, I was startled to realize that not only Foucault's enemies but his fans had ignored much of what he said, on the subject of cultural homogeneity but also on "power" and other concepts that had come to be associated with him.  If a scholar really followed Foucault, she would not use his work like Scripture but learn from the way he handled evidence and ideas.  That would include pointing out when he got things wrong, which he often did, though as I've also said before, the famous passage was published in French in the mid-1970s and must have been written even earlier, before the explosion of gay and lesbian history that was detonated by John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, a book that Foucault admired (he even contributed a blurb) and was influenced by.  Even experts knew much less about the history of homosexuality, even in Europe and North America, let alone around the world, than we know today.  (And we today know less than we'll know in fifty years, I hope.)  What still baffles me is why so many academics used and continue to use Foucault's work as a hobble rather than as an incentive to do their own thinking.