Monday, December 22, 2014


I glanced over at the newspaper someone was reading at the next table in the library, and saw this:
From the point of view of a Cowboys fan, I imagine, the word would be "victory" or "success," not "disaster."  Which is why I keep laughing, albeit bitterly, at sports fans.  One fan's disaster is cause for another's celebration, so why should I take either side seriously?  I had a vague impression that one trait of an adult is the recognition that the world doesn't revolve around one's own provincial or personal associations.  If my beloved dumps me, I can reasonably be very upset, even take to my bed for days of weeping.  But if I think that the rain outside shows that the universe is weeping with me, I'm childish at best, delusional at worst.  Yet the sports fans I know have no such perspective.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bringing Cuba Under Our Wings

Daniel Larison has written several good posts on President Obama's move to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba.  Today he took Marco Rubio to task for saying the predictable stupid hawkish things about it:
There is no good reason for the U.S. and Cuba not to have normal relations today, and so we should have them. If the U.S. refused to have normal relations with every state because of its authoritarian character or the abuses it has committed, as Rubio claims to want, it would have to shut down its embassies in half the countries around the world.
But then he wrote something just about as absurd as anything Rubio had said:
That is especially true in those states that mistreat their people and govern in an authoritarian and abusive fashion. These are the states that most need to be opened to outside influences, and they are the states that are often the most opposed to the U.S. Having diplomatic representation in these countries not only helps to secure U.S. interests there, but it also provides an opening for communication with the people of that country.
I know Larison knows better than this, because he wrote in this very piece that "The U.S. maintains normal relations with all kinds of governments, including some of the very worst in the world."  I go further than that, and want to stress that the US has excellent relations with numerous very repressive governments, indeed with "those states that mistreat their people and govern in an authoritarian and abusive fashion." Far from viewing this state of affairs as a distasteful Realpolitik necessity, our rulers are quite enthusiastic about right-wing dictators.  I doubt Rubio is an exception to this rule.  It's simply false that such states "are often the most opposed to the U.S."  Sometimes, yes, they are; but often they are quite friendly with us.

Once we've removed a turbulent, excessively democratic government, we train the new regime’s police in techniques of torture. I don’t know if it’s still true that there’s a positive correlation between a state’s human rights abuses, positive investment climate, and the amount of US aid it receives, but it was true until the 1980s at least. Far from opening such countries to outside (presumably ameliorating) influences, having good relations with the US protects them from such influences. Apologists for this tendency, who are of both parties, tend to adopt an extreme cultural-relativist position: Oh, Those People don’t feel pain the way we do, life is cheap there, they don’t understand Democracy, and besides, we can’t play cops to the whole world.  Openness to outside influences goes both ways, too: the US generally manages to resist such influences that would curb our abuses.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Custer Was a Hero to Most ...

Custer was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me ... well, I guess not.  I was kind of fascinated by him as a kid, probably because the imagery of the doomed last stand is powerful stuff, and read several books about him and his dreadful end as I grew older.  Eventually I could no longer see him as a remotely good person, let alone a tragic victim.

I was looking around on Youtube the other night, and found this clip:

That's Buffy Sainte-Marie in the miniskirt and go-go boots, and the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, both of them openly mocking our wounded warriors and fallen heroes on the national TeeVee!  I don't object to this myself, but I can't help wondering how it went down in the more timid days of network television in the 60s.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Outrage Is Our Most Important Product

So the US Senate finally released its long-promised report on torture during the first years of Bush's War on Terror, defying warnings by alarmists that it would set off a wave of anti-American violence.  As Daniel Larison pointed out:
There was no such concern among hawks about the foreign policy implications of torturing people when it was being done, and they expressed no similar worries that other U.S. actions would provoke violent responses. If one raises the possibility that aggressive U.S. actions in other parts of the world could have dangerous consequences for Americans later on, that is normally denounced as 'blaming' America. Strangely enough, that doesn’t seem to apply when there is a chance of exposing our government’s egregious abuses to public scrutiny and having some small measure of accountability for those abuses.
I've been bemused by the reactions among liberals.  Jon Stewart was reportedly so shocked! shocked to learn that there was torture going on it made him want to vomit.  No one who was an adult during the 2000s, even in America, can credibly claim not to have known about the US practice of torture at the time: even before the Abu Ghraib revelations, there were plenty of reports of rendition and torture in the media.  There was even a fair amount of debate throughout the decade in mainstream as well as marginal media.  Nominal liberals like Jonathan Alter and Alan Dershowitz advocated the use of torture before the end of 2001, and urged then-new President Obama to continue the proud tradition.  Stewart is old enough to remember all this, so I presume he's going for theatrical effect.

I've also been reminding liberals who've indulged in outrage over Fox News's attacks on the report that it wasn't only Fox that warned of the dire consequences that would follow if the world were told that what they'd known had happened all along, had happened.  Fox was part of a chorus with CNN, the New York Times, and USA Today.  Some liberals were thrilled when John McCain dusted off his anti-torture credentials.  I teased a few of them by accusing them of endorsing him for the Presidency in 2016, since they'd used a similar line when a few writers pointed out that even Ron Paul was right about a thing or two.  I also had to remind them that the US was supporting, fostering, and practicing torture on a bipartisan basis long before George W. Bush took office.  They also like to forget Obama's role in shielding the torturers from accountability for most of his presidency.  (Remember "Reflection, not retribution"?  That's down the memory hole, along with "Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!")  But posturing is so much easier, and more fun, than informing oneself.

Today Larison linked to a story in the Washington Post which reported that the "bitter Mideast" has reacted to the Senate report with a "shrug."  But you know, life is totally cheap in the Mideast, so they don't really care about torture -- they just hate America, because Islam.
... Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy [explained].  “This seems like run-of-the-mill stuff in the sense that this is what people expect of the U.S. They would be surprised if it wasn’t the case, and that’s a product of years of deep anti-American sentiment,” he said.
See, the "deep anti-American sentiment" couldn't possibly be the result of US violence, whether direct or by proxy, in the region.  They just hate us for our freedoms, I guess.  Or for our Freedom Fries.
Arab governments might have been expected to seize on the report, but their reaction too was muted. That’s in part because many U.S. allies in the region were directly complicit in the rendition and interrogation programs. Also, nearly all Arab governments have long employed similar brutality against their own political prisoners.
“Clearly everyone’s disgusted by it, and I’m sure the extremists will leap on it as evidence of American perfidy,” said Theodore Karasik, a regional expert who serves as senior adviser to Dubai-based Risk Insurance Management.
Well, the report is "evidence of American perfidy"; but then, so is the consistent US support for repressive regimes in the Mideast and elsewhere, another troublesome fact that has the effect of winning recruits to Islamist insurgent groups. Again, as Daniel Larison says, the hawks and their defenders never think that invasion, mass murder, torture, and indefinite imprisonment without trial might produce bad consequences for the US.  It's not as if the world's people need Senate reports to know what the US and its allies are doing to them -- their noses are ground in it every day.  Only Americans can maintain blissful ignorance about what is being done in our names, and throw tantrums when our sleep is disturbed.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Providential Coincidences

At the public library recently I came across a book called Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (HarperCollins, 2010) by Kristin Swenson, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.  I leafed through it and thought it looked like a convenient summary of current research and knowledge about the Bible for laypeople, so I checked it out.  It turned out to be a book I could recommend to people who wanted such a summary, and I was gratified to find that it had little information I didn't already know.

There was one thing I disagreed with strenuously, though.  In her discussion of Moses and the Exodus, Swenson tries to find a factual basis for the ten plagues that Yahweh sent to nudge Pharaoh into letting his people go.
Whether or not the plagues of Exodus] really happened is a question we cannot answer for certain. There is no reference to such events in Egyptian sources, and, as noted above, historical accuracy did not seem to be the biblical authors’ primary aim. Although two psalms also list the plagues, they do so in a different order and each includes only seven (probably reflecting a liturgical function), but not exactly the same seven.

One of the most convincing theories of how these events may have transpired presumes a seasonal situation gone bad. Flagellate organisms from Lake Tana worked their way into the Nile during the annual flooding period and sucked up all the oxygen, killing the fish. Frogs migrated out of the flooded river as they normally would but were infected by bacteria, Bacillus anthracis, possibly exacerbated by the decomposing fish.

The biting insects should probably be understood as mosquitoes – not “gnats,” as in many translations. They would have reached unbearable numbers as the high floodwaters receded. As for the flies, well, just imagine all those decomposing critters. It’s possible that at this point, the livestock, which had been safely secured some distance from the floodwaters, became infected with the same anthrax as the frogs. According to Greta Hort, it was transmitted by the fly Stomaxys calcitrans, which bites people and animals alike – perhaps explaining the boils. As for the storm, such weather isn’t common in Egypt, but it isn’t unheard of, either. Swarming locusts are more common, and the occasional khamsin (Arabic for an intense sandstorm) would have made the day seem dark as night. The most likely period for these events would have been August to May, a bit longer than the narrative suggests. The biblical story isn’t explicit about duration [192].
This is euhemerism, an ancient and popular critical tactic which tries to get rid of miracle stories by postulating that the events described actually happened, but were misunderstood or gradually enhanced with marvelous additions.  (Or that gods were originally human heroes whose exploits were exaggerated in the retelling.)

Euhemerism has been used to debunk mythology and to defend it.  James Barr wrote in Fundamentalism (Westminster Press, 1977) that euhemerism was common in conservative evangelical writing in the 1950s and 1960s, but it also turned up in conservative scholarship of the same period.  And, of course, euhemeristic explanations of the Star of Bethlehem circulate every year during Christmas season.  In his review of a respectable scholarly 1955 commentary on the gospel of Mark by Vincent Taylor, for example, Morton Smith criticized
T[aylor]'s insistence that the tale "has not yet attained the rounded form of a Miracle-story proper and stands nearer the testimony of eyewitnesses" (ib.) - who fundamentally misunderstood what happened. This objection applies to T.'s treatment of all the major miracle stories. As already noted, 'vivid details' lead him to conclude that every Markan story of Jesus' miracles (except the blasting of the figtree) is told from eye-witness tradition. At the same time, he will not admit that any of the major miracles happened: Jesus did not walk on the sea, but waded through the surf by the shore (p. 327) ; his apparent cure of the Syro-Phoenician's daughter (p. 348) and his apparent stilling of the storm (p. 273) were providential coincidences ('brilliant timing,' Moule, ib.) ; and so on. So Mk.'s 'narrative is everywhere credible' (p. 318) as to everything but what Mk. meant to narrate. Clearly, this position is the product, not of criticism, but of the conflict of two apologetic techniques - to defend Mk. directly by accepting his stories, and to defend him indirectly by getting rid of his miracles.*
The trouble with this strategy, as Smith indicated, is that it tends to rely on "providential coincidences" and "brilliant timing."  Moses just happened to dip his staff into the Nile at a time of year when it was going to run red anyway (and the credulous Egyptians, who'd observed such changes before, were taken completely by surprise), and the rest of the "plagues" were just a natural sequence of events that followed in their turn.  This sequence of plagues can't be used to verify or date the Exodus, then, since it would probably have occurred numerous times in Egyptian history.

This explanation also falters because, as Swenson admits,
If these nine plagues really did happen in a manner that can be explained as natural events, the tenth cannot.  Try as we might (and there are some imaginative theories out there), the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn, defies natural explanation.  In the story, God instructs the Hebrew people to slaughter a lamb and spread its blood on their doorways before roasting and eating it.  That would mark which households to spare as the LORD passed through Egypt, killing firstborn children and even firstborn animals… [192].
Her authority for this "convincing theory," the Danish scholar Greta Horst, seems to have been bolder.  I haven't read Hort's articles** completely yet, but I noticed that she did attempt to speculate on a "natural" explanation for the killing of Egypt's firstborn.  That should be interesting, because it would also have to explain why smearing blood on the doorframes of the Israelites' houses would protect them.  (The story also includes one of those charming revelations of Yahweh's moral character, for he "gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Furthermore, the man Moses himself was greatly esteemed in the land of Egypt, both in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people" [Exodus 11:3], but he "said to Moses, 'Pharaoh will not listen to you, so that My wonders will be multiplied in the land of Egypt.' Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh; yet the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the sons of Israel go out of his land [Exodus 11:9-10]."  In other words, it wasn't Pharaoh's fault that he didn't free the Israelites -- Yahweh made him do it, in order to let him show off his power some more.)

Of course the plagues look like "natural events." If Yahweh or any other god (including Nature) sends epidemics, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, etc., then it's possible to describe those events in naturalistic terms.  The question for believers, however, is whether those events were literal acts of their gods, and if so, what message the acts were meant to convey.  Science can't answer that question; but believers disagree among themselves about the answers.

What I find odd is that although euhemeristic explanations have also been offered for some New Testament stories, as I've indicated, Kristin Swenson only resorts to the tactic in writing about the Exodus.  She must know that it's a dubious approach, largely discredited in scholarship about religion.  The nineteenth-century theologian David Strauss mounted a strong attack on it in his Life of Jesus [1835-36, translated into English by George Eliot*** in 1846], which provoked a shitstorm of condemnation from the orthodox.  (Another act of God, no doubt.)  Yet euhemerism moves.

* Morton Smith, "Comments on Taylor's commentary on Mark."  Harvard Theological Review 48: 21-64, page 36.
** Greta Hort, “The Plagues of Egypt,” in two articles published by Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 69(1-4) (1957): 84-103; and 70(1-2) (1958): 48-59.
*** Yes, that George Eliot.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Darwinian Apostles' Creed

I've mentioned before, and agreed with, the argument that you shouldn't judge a religion by its worst adherents, but by its best.  I still agree with it, up to a point, though as always the first question is how to decide who the best adherents are.

But, as I say, only up to a point.  Dismissing the "worst" adherents of a religion is often an evasion.  If a religion makes supernatural claims, as Christianity does, then it's fair to ask why the Holy Spirit fails to cleanse and purify and set straight the hearts of so many Christians.  But even without the supernatural baggage, it seems to me fair to notice that a religion doesn't manage to transmit its high ideals to most of its adherents.  Along the same lines, atheists who talk as though the absence of belief in God clears away irrationality, superstition, and magical thinking all by itself, are setting themselves up for a fall.  Atheists, of course, have no central authority, no organization to set doctrine and practice and inculcate them into the laity.

On the other hand, I think it's useful to look at the middling adherents of a religion, just I think it's useful to look not only at the best works of art but at the mediocre and even bad ones.  You can't see the virtues of an outstanding work if you can't see the background against which it stands out.

This is why I was interested as well as entertained by the discussion under this meme, posted by the liberal-Democrat site Daily Kos on their Facebook page on the 155th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species.

Something seemed off to me in that quotation, partly because it's not an accurate description of how natural selection works, so I looked around and sure enough, the quotation is not from Darwin.  It's a paraphrase of Darwin by a teacher in management studies, which explains to me why it sounds like it was said by a motivational speaker instead of nineteenth-century naturalist.  Leon Megginson, the likely author, probably didn't claim to be quoting Darwin, but somewhere between 1964 and 1982 the paraphrase came to be treated as a direct quotation.  It was even inscribed in letters a foot high on the floor of the California Academy of Sciences.  This writer says that the Academy removed Darwin's name from it but evidently kept the text, which is too bad because the text will still convey an inaccurate picture of natural selection to students who see it.

So, what do the Facebook followers of Kos have to say about this meme?  They loved it.  Some samples:
Well, so much for the GOP!!!

They cannot die off soon enough. If ever a species should have gone extinct before its time...

The Pope got your message loud and clear , Mr. Darwin !

I guess if you look at politics from a Darwinian point of view, and seeing as the rich and powerful are the ones with the most to lose from change, you can understand why they fear change so much. Thus the term conservative and its ideology.

Well thank you, President Obama for hanging in there!
... In other words, thanks to President Obama for resisting change?

A few commenters pointed out that the quotation is bogus.  No one so far of the people who like the quotation have acknowledged that.  Predictably, since it's Daily Kos, many of them have interpreted it as a prophecy of the downfall of the American Republican Party.  (Just as conventional religious believers see current events reflected in Holy Scripture.)  Some commenters have pointed out that the GOP is currently managing change pretty well, having won control of Congress and many state-level governments besides.  This also rolls off the backs of the true believers.

While culture, such as our ability to create artificial environments so that we can live in regions that would otherwise kill us, certainly has played a role in human survival, that's not "managing change."  ("Manage change" is one of those empty phrases beloved of motivational speakers and gurus.  Does it mean to respond creatively or passively to change, or does it mean to make change happen?  What kind of "change" are we talking about here?)  Nor does functioning in an organization have much to do with natural selection.   Success in Darwinian terms means reproductive success, not climbing the corporate ladder.  A CEO with a multimillion-dollar paycheck who doesn't have offspring who in turn have offspring, is "unfit" for evolutionary purposes.

Even more, Darwin's theory is not about individuals or political parties, it's about species.  (Note the commenter above who referred to the Republicans as a species.)  It is species that adapt, or fail to adapt, and species that persist or die out.  All individuals die; it's the species -- a statistical abstraction that evolutionary theorists still have trouble defining -- that Darwin was concerned with.

It's not a big deal that so few people recognized that the Darwin quotation in this meme isn't genuine, though it's still significant since liberal secularist Democrats like to see their opposite numbers as gullible fools who'll believe anything they're told.  What matters is that so many pledge their allegiance to Darwin and Evolution, but have no idea what Darwin's theory actually says. Whether human beings and dinosaurs coexisted, for example, is not part of Darwin's theory; it has more to do with geology in any case, but it's an empirical question, not a theoretical one. (For that matter, I suspect that contrary to what orthodox Darwinians like to say, it's possible to do valid biological research on the details of evolution without understanding -- or even believing -- the theory as a whole.)

I don't have any real numbers, of course, but this meme and the reactions it inspired support my suspicions of poll numbers about belief in Evolution versus belief in Creationism.  (Just in passing, the percentage of Americans who subscribe to Creationism, according to Gallup, dropped from 46 to 42 percent since 2012.  That number has held fairly steady for "the past three decades.")  That a certain number of Americans say they believe that human beings evolved doesn't tell me anything about their grasp of evolutionary theory, and I have heard from enough people who clearly misunderstand the theory to wonder.  (Gallup asked its respondents to declare how "familiar" they are with the theory of evolution, but that's no help.  Thirty percent of those who said they were very familiar with the theory also believed that God guided the process, while thirty-four percent left God out of it.)  "I believe that Man Evolved, without help from God" is a declaration of faith, not evidence of scientific literacy.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Shoot the Arbiter

It's funny, the flexible relation many people have to authority.

Today someone complained on Facebook that there are too many books with the title Something Rich and Strange, referring to a review of such a one in the New York Times, a collection of stories by Ron RashThe comments quickly focused on the reviewer's calling the collection an "anthology," which should mean a collection of work by a variety of authors instead of just one.  Thus:
The distinction between "anthology" and "collection" is so clear and obvious that the inability of major venues to acknowledge it makes me want to poke my eyes out with a fork.

Okay, I probably wouldn't got that far. Even so . . .
Another commenter, a novelist, chimed in:
It is dismaying to see it in the NYT ... I sort of count on them to help keep the roof from leaking
The next commenter, a distinguished writer, critic and academic, replied that
the NY Times gave that task up back in the seventies when they finally gave up as well on their "Information Desk," a service where you could phone in, ask any question you wanted, and generally get an answer pretty much immediately from one of the twenty-five or so smart people in that office at the time, with a few reference books and a couple of encyclopedias in with them, whose job it was to answer such queries. I called them up once, when I was twelve, to find out the meaning of "serendipity" (because it wasn't in my dictionary back then) and the person who answered the phone told me, without missing a beat, all about "The Three Princes of Serendip," its sixteenth century publication date in Venice, and its coiner in English, Horace Walpole. Neat . . . The NY Times may still be the paper of record, but it is no longer an arbiter of American English and hasn't even aspired to that for some fifty years.
Well, who can blame the Times, really, for abdicating that position?  First, in 1961, Merriam-Webster published its Third New International Dictionary, a "descriptivist" work that the Times and other establishment publications attacked editorially and in reviews.  The Times declared its intention to use only the Third's 1934 predecessor, though the writer Bergen Evans mischievously showed that the Times regularly allowed usage that the Second rejected, and only the Third accepted.

But the Enemies of Language weren't done with the Times.  Gay activists pressured the Grey Lady to refer to them as "gay," rather than "homosexual."  In 1987, their campaign succeeded.  So, with Authority crumbling, why shouldn't the Times simply decide that Anything Goes?  

Still, I'm not so sure it has done so.  Arbiters are entitled to change their minds, though they pretend they don't.  What the last writer I quoted objected to was that the "arbiter of American English" had made a decision he rejected.  But if the Times really is such an authority (and who appointed it to that office, anyway?), then who is he to challenge it?  I happen to agree with the "anthology" / "collection" distinction, but I have no authority.  As I said, it's funny how people will invoke this or that person or institution as Authority -- until it makes a decision they don't like.  Like it or not -- and I don't, particularly -- the New York Times regards "anthology" and "collection" as equivalent.  Language changes.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Question Is Who Is To Be Master

I just read Katha Pollitt's new book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (Picador), and I recommend it strongly to anyone who's concerned about reproductive justice.  It's Pollitt at her best: lucid, rational, informed.  Since I've so often criticized her when she wasn't at her best, I'm glad to see her back in form.

Since I largely agree with her arguments, I'm not going to say much here.   This passage caught my attention because of what she didn't say:
Anti-abortion conservatives cannot admit out loud that they have basically abandoned mothers and children.  Churches and charities, they claim, will get them on their feet, with no red tape and no burden on the on the taxpayer [159].
If anti-abortion conservatives really felt this way (and I agree that they do say some version of it), then why was there a fad under Republican administrations, including Republicans-Except-In-Name like Barack Obama, for government support of "faith-based" charities?  This wasn't universal, to be sure; I believe that Pat Robertson himself warned that taking government money would open churches to government surveillance and interference.  But a believer who argues against government social programs on the ground that churches and charities can take their place should oppose faith-based charities on principle.

Pollitt falls into a familiar secularist mistake, unfortunately:
Secular people may believe abortion is wrong, they may even think women who have abortions are sluts and worse, but they don't have a divinely approved worldview that officially defines women in terms of wifely, domestic, and maternal duties and makes abortion the key to modern downfall and depravity.

Perhaps this is a good place to point out that most mainstream Protestant denominations, as well as reform and conservative Judaism, are at least moderately pro-choice, although they hardly shout their position from the rooftops.  Their quiet on the subject gives the misleading impression that "faith" itself is hostile to reproductive rights.  Be that as it may, if you want to understand why there is so little significant organized resistance to legal abortion in France, Germany, Britain, and Scandinavia, the lower level of religiosity, and the much smaller role religion plays in national life, is much of the answer [169].
Wow, "divinely approved"?  Really?  If that were true, that worldview would have to be taken at least a little more seriously than Pollitt does, or I do.  And I know that Pollitt, who like me is an atheist, doesn't really think that the male-supremacist worldview is divinely approved; I presume she was being snarky here.  But she repeats the blunder more seriously, when she asserts that there's less organized resistance to legal abortion in certain other countries because of "the lower level of religiosity, and the much smaller role religion plays in national life" there.

I think she has it backwards, as so many of my fellow atheists do.  Why is there a lower level of religiosity in those countries?  Why is there an association -- and I agree that there is -- between male supremacy and reactionary religion?  But it's not always so; there's also an association between Western science and male supremacy, both historically and in the present.  In both cases, I think that men who want rigid sex/gender differentiation will create rigid, patriarchal "worldviews."  Pollitt is not unaware of this, since she spends some time on eugenics and its role in twentieth century efforts to keep middle-class white women well-shod but pregnant, and dedicated to the service of the male.   She's also aware of the male atheists who continue that tradition to the present day.  (The title of that column focuses on the leadership, but Pollitt acknowledges the "grassroots" misogyny that female atheists contend with.)  But she's a devout believer in the power of Science to make sense of the world, and I think that's why she finds it convenient to put the primary blame on Religion.

As for "divinely approved," Pollitt shows that the Jewish/Christian Bible doesn't actually forbid abortion or say anything about it, and that even such reactionary churches as the Southern Baptist Convention came to oppose abortion only relatively recently.  I was wasting time the other night looking at some old blog posts, and came across a debate in which I disagreed with someone who claimed that "Religion starts from the assumption that an ancient text or tradition is true, and seeks to reconcile observed reality with the text."  When I pointed out that this was not in fact the case, that most religions historically have not had sacred texts and that Christianity for example began with the cult of Jesus and only produced its scriptures later on, my opposite number protested that she'd meant that religion today starts from the assumption that an ancient text etc.  That's not true either.  Texts play only a limited role in American Christianity; people who are drawn to religion are looking for something else, though the illusion of ancient tradition no doubt has some appeal.  They feel "the attraction of religious services and styles of worship (74%), having been spiritually unfulfilled while unaffiliated (51%) or feeling called by God (55%)."  "Most said that they first joined a religion because their spiritual needs were not being met. And the most-cited reason for settling on their current religion was that they simply enjoyed the services and style of worship."  And, as we all know, most Christians are biblically illiterate.  Believers don't submit to Scripture, they read their opinions and prejudices into the text and get them back endowed with authority.  The question is who is to be master, that's all -- and the answer is not Scripture, but the interpreter.

If it seems that I'm nitpicking, I reply that if we want to know how to change people's minds, if we want to know how to address people with opinions we dislike, then we're not going to get very far by supposing them to be servants of a god we don't even believe in ourselves.  Religious opponents of abortion (or of gay people, or of women's autonomy generally) don't hold their positions because their sect or its sacred text tells them to. They ignore the parts of the Bible that don't suit them, and interpret the rest so as to conform to their prejudices.  If their pastor or priest is too liberal or too conservative, they'll pick up and find one who suits them better.  Christians in those European countries Pollitt mentioned have the same sacred text as American Christians do; why don't they have the same attitudes to abortion?  Why does religion play a lesser role in their national life than in ours?  Divine approval can hardly be the answer.

Friday, November 14, 2014

"Why Hell?": The Collected Wisdom of Jean-Luc Picard

I'm back in the US, trying to adjust again to a fourteen-hour time difference.  Which may be why memes like the above, posted on Facebook the other day, leave me feeling punch-drunk and combative.

My first reaction, predictably enough, was "What do you mean 'we', bald man?"  I didn't land on a goddamn comet, though I do find the achievement interesting and worthwhile.  Nor have I clicked through the many links to Kim Kardashian's nekkid picture that have been thrown my way, nor until the Picard meme erupted into my feed like an infected zit have I talked or written about it.  I could add that talking about one doesn't necessarily preclude talking about the other, which a lot of elitist-wannabes tend to forget.

I commented to that effect, and my Liberal Artist Friend replied:
Duncan, it has to do with the natural human tendency to identify with the group(s) one is part of (e.g., humans, Americans, educated people, Internet users). Or even a group one feels some connection to (e.g., scientists) – as with sports fans who refer to a team with the word "we," even though they aren't on the team.
To which I replied:
Yes, LAF, that is known as "tribalism." (All kinds of problems with that word, of course.)
Because I'm still getting my jet-lagged brain in gear, it didn't occur to me right away that LAF's comment had also, inadvertently, answered the Picard meme.  Talking about Kardashian's power glutes has to do with the natural human tendency to cluster together and gawk, especially when (supposedly) erotic stimuli are put on display. More people, evidently, are interested in a nekkid picture of Kim Kardashian than with some quite unsexy pictures of a piece of dirty rocky ice in space.  Like it or not, that's a normal human tendency. (The stereotypical male fascination with machinery, which leads little boys to gawk at construction sites and sometimes at pictures of a machine landing on a piece of dirty rocky ice in space, is also a normal human tendency, but not a sign of greater rationality than the mindless herd; it's just a compulsion found in a smaller mindless herd.)  It also explains why people vote Republican or Democratic despite the failure of either party to give them what they want or need: the natural human tendency to identify with the group(s) one is part of, or even feels some connection with. Hence the tendency of devotees to identify with Barack Obama (for example), when he definitely does not identify with them. Just about everything LAF (or I, to be fair) dislikes in humanity has to do with natural human tendencies.  Natural human tendencies are not necessarily benign.

It happened that the Onion A.V. Club posted a negative review of the latest Dumb and Dumber movie yesterday, and the comments there contained some interesting digressions.  Someone remarked that Jim Carrey had apparently recanted his earlier anti-vaccination views, which led to a thread on that subject.  One person wrote:
Insisting that you know better than doctors, when you have no medical training whatsoever - even though it's clear children are dying because of your advice - cannot be written off as her being tragically misinformed and uneducated.
Here we have an example of what might be called science tribalism.  I haven't looked into the anti-vaxxer controversies and don't much care about them.  What I want to address is the weird notion that doctors know best, especially when they are united in their stance.  It was doctors and biologists -- and politically Progressive doctors and biologists at that -- who pushed through the American eugenic laws that imposed involuntary sterilization on thousands of "defectives", laws which provided a starting point for Nazi Germany's eugenic laws.  These laws were upheld by an 8-1 majority of the US Supreme Court in 1927.  Although a few scientists criticized these laws on scientific grounds, they were outliers.  Most opposition came from churches and from social scientists, who were derided for their superstition and hostility to science and reason, and their disregard of the human suffering that results from unregulated human breeding.

I have my disagreements with Michael Berube, but his book Life As We Know It (Pantheon, 1996), about being the parent of a son with Down Syndrome, contains some useful information about what doctors know and what they don't.
Right through the 1970s, "mongoloid idiot" wasn't an epithet, it was a diagnosis.  It wasn't uttered by callow, ignorant persons fearful of "difference" and Central Asian eyes; it was pronounced by the best-trained medical practitioners in the world, who told families of kids with Down's that their children would never be able to walk, talk, dress themselves, or recognize their parents.  Best to have the child institutionalized and tell one's friends that the baby died at birth.  Only the most stubborn, intransigent, or inspired parents resisted such advice from their trusted experts.  Who could reasonably expect otherwise?  [27]
The Berubes were given a lot of bad medical advice when their son Jamie was born in 1991, but it helped that Janet Berube was a nurse.  "Most doctors are relieved that they can talk details with Janet, but a few can get weird" (36f).  Still,
At one point a staff nurse was sent in to check on our mental health, and she found us babbling about meiosis and monoploids, wondering anew that Jamie had "gotten" Down syndrome the second he became a zygote.  When the nurse inadvertently left behind her notes, Janet sneaked a peek:  "Parents seem to be intellectualizing."  "Well," Janet shrugged, "that seems accurate enough" (14).
Berube notes that
Sometimes these parents [who rejected the 'best' medical advice and refused to institutionalize their children] acted out of religious conviction, believing they should play the hand God dealt them, whatever His plan might be.  Sometimes they acted pragmatically: one family decided not to institutionalize their baby when one doctor informed them that, at a state hospital, "perhaps the care would be so minimal that he would not survive past the first year of life." That one piece of advice wound up offsetting the counsel of every other physician they heard from.  Another family drove across two Midwestern states, on the advice of doctors, to speak to the headmaster of the nearest institution.  The father told me the story some thirty years after it happened.  After hours on the road, they met the headmaster, who appeared to have stepped out of a famous Grant Wood painting.  But despite his dour appearance, he wound up being the first person who'd given them any hope for their child, advising them to keep the baby home at first and see whether they'd be interested in bringing him in anytime in the first year -- but there was no rush.  The parents thanked the headmaster, left the institution, and never made the return trip.  As the father put it, they had finally been given permission to try to love and care for their child themselves, and that turned out to be all they needed [27-8].
Parents aren't always right either, and I think it's fair to be skeptical about the motives of parents who supposedly decided not to warehouse their children because of religion.  I think they rationalized their decision by selecting a dogma that supported it.  But these stories -- and more; I recommend Life As We Know It to anyone who might be interested -- are a reminder that neither religion nor science can be a substitute for judgment.  Obedience to the best medical or scientific knowledge will produce bad, inhumane decisions as reliably as obedience to religious teaching.  And these parents' refusal to accept the best medical advice wasn't based on medical or scientific knowledge, though medicine eventually caught up with them; they refused on purely emotional grounds.  But then that medical advice wasn't rational either.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Where's the Rest of Him?

So this meme turned up on Facebook the other day, on a queer page called Lizzy the Lezzy which exemplifies the declining standards of queerness nowadays. (No, I don't really mean that: standards of queerness have always been low. Remember, it takes a fairy to make something tacky.) I'm not going to post the image itself, to protect whatever privacy the people in it may have, but here’s the text:
My son Jack (7 yrs. Old), told me he wants to be “Queen of New York”. Maybe that was him “coming out”, maybe not! I did tell him he can be anyone he wants and Id be right by his side! Love knows no limits OR gender! And this is what Ive been teaching him since he was a baby!! #I ADORE AND SUPPORT THIS PAGE!!!!!!
I wasn't the only person who didn't adore. I commented that New York doesn't have a queen, or a king for that matter. This of course led the page owner and numerous others to whine about “haters” picking on a little boy. I don't believe that any of us were addressing Jack. We were addressing the nominal adults who posted this meme on Facebook. If I knew the boy, or someone like him, I wouldn't pour cold water on his fantasy. I wouldn't take it seriously either. It would be difficult to walk the tightrope between non-judgmental support and the patronizing contempt that many adults consider the proper way to deal with children, but I'd do my best. I'm not obliged to be non-judgmental to Jack's adult enablers, though, and I meant my remarks for them.

What is going on here? I don't know Jack or his mother, so I don't know where he's coming from. Does he really want to be Queen of New York, or was he saying something he knew would reduce his mom and some other adults to a slobbering puddle of head-patting? Children often learn to perform for adults (I did), and it doesn't speak badly for them, but it does speak badly for the adults. Even if the boy was serious when he said it, he'll likely forget it in a few months at most, and decide he wants to be Cher, or Margaret Thatcher, or Michelle Obama. And I hope he does, because wanting to be Queen of New York is like wanting to be a Unicorn, or Bartholomew Cubbins: the Queen of New York is an Empty Set.

This has nothing to do with gender, and even less to do with love.  I feel sure that Jack wouldn't have received so much attention and stroking if he'd said he wanted to be King of New York; gender is very much at the crux of the reaction. It seems to be because a little boy said something gender-nonconformist. I don't know anything about his inner life. Maybe he tortures cats when his mom isn't looking.

I don't know what fantasies about being royalty mean to young children. If Jack wasn't just buttering up his mom, then maybe he daydreamed about being the center of attention (which he achieved, online anyway) in a palace, or wearing glamorous outfits, or wearing a crown. (As I've said before, I don't get crowns. Drag queens like them, as do some fundamentalist Christians. I've recounted before the drag queen I heard about from a mutual friend, who stole the crown a rival had won in competition so that he could dress up in his trailer, sit in front of the mirror, set the crown on his head, and admire himself.)

A queen doesn't exist in a vacuum. She sits at the top of a pyramid, at the top of a lot of other people, and she couldn't be queen without them. No wonder Jack's mother told him she'll be right by his side: if he were queen, she'd get a lot of perks. But a queen's life has plenty of routine and drudgery, even more so in the past. I just read Nicola Griffith's new historical novel Hild, which depicts how much work there was in being a British queen in the seventh century of Our Lord: not just cutthroat politics and jockeying for position and producing and protecting an heir but cloth production and embroidery and running the domestic side of court life and managing royal businesses: –production, storage, distribution, trade, and quite a lot more. Not quite what Jack or his mom imagines, I daresay. Not just sitting on a throne while wearing a crown to die for and yelling "Off with their heads!" now and again.

Here's something that occurred to me the third or fourth time I watched Frozen, which I think says something about fantasies. When Elsa builds her ice castle in the mountains and closes herself in, what does she do after the great doors slam shut? It's a satisfying fantasy to think of telling off the people who've annoyed you beyond endurance and going to your room, slamming the door, and locking it from the inside. But then what do you do? It's like the difference between having a wedding, and living a married life: the first is glamorous, the second is not, though the second has its pleasures and satisfactions. Even if the cold doesn't bother Elsa, the boredom would surely get to her in five minutes. (No cell phone, no Facebook, no Disney Channel -- how would she survive?)  And even an anorectic ice queen needs food, which Elsa doesn't seem to be able to conjure up from nowhere. She doesn't even seem to have a diary to vent to. It's the theatrical gesture that counts here, the fantasy of power and control and getting even.

Now suppose young Jack wanted to be Scarlett O'Hara, with Tara and gowns and crinolines –and hundreds of slaves to tend to her body and keep the plantation going. I imagine his mom would still drool over him -- she might have the same fantasy, and make them adorable matching mom and son ball gowns and hairdos -- but it might be a little less attractive to other adults. Suppose he wanted to be Ilse Koch, the Bitch of Buchenwald –-- love the uniform! Or hell, why not Imelda Marcos with her fabulous shoe collection? Suppose he wanted to be Mammy, Scarlett's senior slave. Ooh, way less appealing. But these are fantasies, not realities, right? Who are we to judge a child's dream?

But you can't be anyone you want. You can't be queen or king of New York, because there's no such office. You can't even be queen or king of England: that slot is reserved for a very few select persons. You can't be Barack Obama, or Michelle Obama; you can't be Cary Grant (who himself wished, apparently in vain, to be Cary Grant). Nor can you be Superman. That still leaves you a vast world of possibilities, of course.  And you can always be yourself, but who would want that?

Jack's story got under my skin because it's just the latest in a long series of idiocies. Consider this meme, one of many that have come my way.

I don't think it did this dog any harm to be dressed in that ridiculous costume, but does it say anything about how it sees itself? Of course not. We know nothing about its inner life. I wish I believed that the dog's owner knew that too, but with the floods of similar animal memes and other postings from pets' "mommies" and "daddies," I don't take it for granted. I believe that dogs and cats and other animals have inner lives, but I doubt very much they're about being human superheroes. (Some cat memes base their humor on positing that cats don't like being dressed up in such outfits and plot revenge on their owners for it, which seems more plausible because you can tell when an animal doesn't want to do something. Cats can be quite firm about that.  But loving mommies don't care what kitteh likes or wants; Mommy knows what's good for her sweety-puss.) Even less do their inner lives involve being used as fantasy surrogates for their owners.

Again, I wouldn't tell my* or someone else's young child this, but I wouldn't spread their fantasy all over the Internet either. Why is Jack's fantasy getting so much attention and praise from strangers? If you post a photo of your seven-year-old daughter dressed as Princess (later Queen) Elsa on Facebook, probably only your relatives and a few dutiful family friends will like it, let alone share it. (Don't mention her insistence that she has to diet so she can be skinny like Elsa, because she's "too fat"; that doesn't fit in this happy scenario.) A photo of your son as Elsa, complete with eating disorder, might get more attention for the gender nonconformity. It seems to me that the people celebrating Jack on this page are projecting their own fantasies onto him, using him in an unwholesome way.

By the way, did Jack ask his mom to splash his childish dream on the Facebook to Hell and back? Even if he did, it wasn't informed consent: does a seven-year-old know what it means to go viral on Facebook? What does it have to do with his fantasies, or hers, and those of the adults who slobbered over it? I don't believe these fantasies among adults are more common than they used to be, though I wouldn't be surprised if they were. When the economy is a swamp for most people, when most parents don'’t believe their kids will be better off than they were and most kids agree with them, why wouldn't people retreat into fantasies about being fictional characters? (Corporatists don't mind, of course. Disney sold millions of Anna and Elsa dresses for Halloween this year. There's gold in them there dreams, but not for the dreamers.) We know something about the fantasies of people in the past, the fictional characters they identified with – wanting to be a prince or princess is nothing new. But thanks to Facebook and other electronic media, ordinary people can now publish their fantasies for each other to see.

Nor do I want to forbid other people to fantasize, to make them live in a dreary grim “real” world. (That's a common accusation against those who question fantasies, I know.) I think daydreaming is fine, and indeed necessary. I daydreamed as a child, and I still daydream now. I understand the uses of fantasy. Why shouldn't a child, who's constantly pushed around by adults, dream of being powerful and free? I probably wanted to be Superman; as a five-year-old I drew lots of pictures of him. My mother bought me a Superman shirt, blue with the logo; I think one thing that killed the fantasy for me was realizing that wearing the outfit didn't give me the powers. Later I wanted to be Davy Crockett, and later an astronaut, and later still a musician. I still fantasize about having a book on my shelves by me, published by a major house, with my name on the spine. I'm working on that one.

Why shouldn't adults stuck in dead-end jobs fantasize about becoming rich, even if it's just from the lottery? But humankind does not live by fantasy alone. There also has to be room for action, for figuring out what you really want, what will fill your days in satisfying ways, and how to get it. And somewhere along the way -- when I was in my thirties or a little later? -- I realized that I wanted to be me, and that I'd succeeded.

We don't, in fact, always let people see themselves as they wish.  Bigots don't like to see themselves as bigots; racists don't like to see themselves as racists; homophobes don't like to see themselves as homophobes.  Why should we judge them? Why can't we see them as they see themselves? The standard retort would be that those people are haters, and people like Jack and his mom are about love, and they aren't hurting anybody!  Those people don't see themselves as haters, of course: they're Christians, they are about love and not about hate.  As I've pointed out before, the people who denounce hate are generally big haters themselves.

Many people want to organize their lives around bumperstickers (and now memes), with everything black and white with no shades of gray, and with simple slogans that tell them what to do.  That's the approach that got us into the trouble we're in now, that Walter Kaufmann called decidophobia, the fear of making fateful choices.  How we see ourselves both matters and doesn't matter; how others see us both matters and doesn't matter.  A wise person must take both into account, listening to others but not giving them final say, but also recognizing that he or she can't see him or herself whole.  We need to find other people whose opinions we can trust to some extent; we must see ourselves as others see us, we need all the input we can get -- but we also must judge for ourselves how far to rely on them.  This isn't a matter of the truth lying somewhere in between, but of both-and.  Children want to be kings or queens, princes or princes; adults must decide for themselves, and take responsibility for their decisions.

* "My [i.e., Duncan's] child" is also an empty set.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

One Foot in Front of the Other

I'll begin by quoting again this passage from Shin Kyung-Sook's novel I'll Be Right There, which I wrote about here.
I made the right decision to learn about the city by walking around it.  Walking made me think more and focus on the world around me.  Moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, reminded me of reading a book.  I came across wooded paths and narrow market alleyways where people who were strangers to me shared conversations, asked one another for help, and called out to one another.  I took in both people and scenery.
This uncannily describes my peregrinations around Seoul for the past three and a half weeks.  I've spent a lot of time on buses and subway trains, of course, which are also full of people.  But more than during past visits I've walked around.  The autumn weather has been more comfortable for walking than the stifling, humid summer weather of my past visits, and I'm not worried about getting lost, as I used to be.  Which doesn't mean I can't get lost -- even born Seoulites do -- but I know that if I walk for a few blocks in almost any direction I'll come to a subway station, and from there I can get back to some place I know.

One of the benefits of my exploration has been interactions with people, despite my nearly non-existent Korean.  (I feel guilty, ashamed, and frustrated for not having worked on learning more.  I've resolved to do something about that.)  The easiest of these interactions is giving up one's seat to other people on the subway.  There are, as in other cities around the world, seats reserved in each car for the elderly, the infirm, and pregnant women, but they fill up, and people freely offer their seats elsewhere in the cars.  Even when I was a few years younger than I am, people offered me their seats, and though I sometimes resisted, if I was tired enough I would accept.  Soon I got into the spirit of it, and I had enough basic vocabulary to play the game.  "Sir [or Ma'am], sit!  Yes, sit!*  No no, I'm fine!  I'm only going to the next station!"  If someone older than I got on, I'd be on my feet (just as the others would), offering a space to them.

Now, for about the past week, this hadn't been happening.  There weren't any opportunities to play the game on the trains I was on while I was on them; no other seniors offered me a seat or needed one while I was there, there were enough seats for those of us who were riding.  But today it was different.  I was reading in my seat when an older heterosexual couple got on, and there was only one seat so I gave mine; I had to insist, but after one refusal the seat was accepted.  At the next stop a seat opened up opposite to where I'd been, so I sat -- but at the next stop I gave that seat to a young mother carrying her toddler son, and another seat opened up for a halmoni (grandmother) next to her.  We all beamed and nodded and thanked each other happily.  As we moved to the end of the line where I was bound, more seats opened up and the game was over for this ride; the young mother spoke to me, and her son was looking at me.  I said hello to him, and she said hello for him -- he was too young to speak, and probably wouldn't have spoken even if he were a year or two older, children are shy sometimes.  But then she was giving him some dry cereal to nibble on, and he held it out to me.  I thanked him but didn't accept it, not being sure I should.  He gave it to his mother instead.  And then it was my stop.

I've long wanted to live in Korea, and this trip has confirmed and strengthened that wish.  I think I could live comfortably here, and I think I'm going to take more serious steps toward doing so.  Of course, I must learn to have conversations in Korean.  If I could do that now, there would have been conversations on the train today, not just thank yous and head bows.  And those conversations must be in Korean, so that I'm the one who has to work harder to express himself.  (This is how I feel about conversations in Spanish with my Mexican friends.  They get to correct my Spanish, and they do.)  Still, those are better than nothing.  Today made me think of Andrew Ti's fury at Americans who'd use the few words of Chinese they know, because (he assumed) they hope to be told "THANK YOU FOR BEING ONE OF US."  Of course the same gesture can mean wildly different things depending on the person who uses it, but his interpretation made no sense to me two years ago and it still doesn't.  We are already "one of us."  The task and obligation is to make the connections that follow from that: to learn more of the other's language and culture, and interact on that basis.

Something more about that.  Today as I was crossing the street to the subway station in the district where I've been staying, a middle-aged man who was riding his bicycle in the opposite direction called out happily to me in English, "Hello, sir!"  I replied happily, "Hello, sir!"  "Nice to meet you!" he called as he rode past, and I replied in kind.  I'd have spoken in Korean to him if there'd been time, but he was gone.  I'd like to ask Andrew Ti about that.  Did this man use his few words of English in hopes I'd tell him "THANK YOU FOR BEING ONE OF US"?  I doubt it. Should I despise him for a racist shitbag who had no reason for tossing out his pitiful store of English at me?  (I just looked at Ti's tumblr for the first time in over a year.  It's gone way downhill, and Ti's become a rote Obamabot.  Kinda sad.)

This doesn't mean I think I can "be Korean." If I move here, gain fluency in Korean, even become a Korean citizen and adopt a Korean name (as a few Westerners have done), I'll still be an old white man from the United States.  Korea is still too 'racially' homogeneous to have many Caucasian Koreans, but I suspect that will change in the next generation or two, and then there will be black and South Asian and white Koreans, just as there are black and white and South Asian and East Asian Americans.  Belonging is complex, but I feel like an outsider in the US too, so being an outsider in another country won't be that different; belonging is something you make happen, in concert with the people you encounter and live among.

*Although manners and politeness as well as deference to the old are important in Korean culture, they aren't always expressed in the language as they would be in American English.  So one doesn't say "please" when inviting a senior to sit.  I've noticed that Korean (and Japanese) movies often put American-style politeness into the subtitles.  A child's answer to his parent may be translated as "Yes, father," when the original language has only "Yes" or a grunt, which can be transliterated as "Eung."  Manners are, remember, a social construction.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Reach Out and Inappropriately Touch Someone

I've been conveniently absent from the US during the three weeks leading up to the 2014 midterm elections, but of course in the Internet age there's no real escape unless you unplug, and I wasn't ready to do that.  Facebook was the worst, though even the Democratic loyalists were curiously subdued this time around.  There were hardly any memes telling me not to complain if I don't vote (though, as I always do, I did vote), and not many more trumpeting the joyous new life that President Obama has given us, with chocolate rations raised from thirty grams a week to twenty.

I still have a week before I return to the States, but the lamenting has broken out on Facebook over the perfidious Republicans' taking of the Senate from its true possessors, the Democrats.  Readers in the US will know what I'm talking about.  (After all, shouldn't Democrats have a state in their historic homeland, like every other religious group?)  Most of what I'm seeing blames the voters and the non-voters, of course, though I suspect the reality is more complex than that.  Take into consideration the usual low turnout of off-year elections, add that most Americans have benefited very little from Obama's economic recovery, and that the wealthy who have benefited are ungrateful swine who figure that they can do even better under Republican rule.  Even if the top .1 percent all voted Democratic, though, there aren't enough of them to swing the election.

So an old friend posted on Facebook: "God, Americans are stupid. Get me out of this country."  Of course this remark is a textbook example of American stupidity, reminiscent of the Republicans who said they'd move to Canada to escape Socialist Obamacare, or the Democrats who said they'd move to Canada if Dubya was elected, or re-elected.  But then, it's not a serious statement of intent, just an empty venting of bad temper.  One of his friends yowled,
Voting a Republican majority into the Senate because goll durn it, it must be Obama's fault that we had this recession? For gods sake idiots, W got us into this mess to begin with, and the Republicans tried to shut down the gov't last year in a grand stand attempt to "govern" without govenment? THINK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I snarled,
True, the Republicans caused the 2008 depression, though with Democratic collaboration and connivance. The deregulation was as much a Clinton project as it was the Republicans', but then Clinton like Obama is a Reagan Republican. That the recovery was so sluggish (to put it kindly) was as much due to Obama's incompetence and collaboration with the Republicans -- remember his giving them huge tax breaks for the rich in his stimulus package even before the GOP had demanded them? The recovery (like the fabled 'prosperity' under Clinton) mainly benefited the rich; there was no trickle-down to the bulk of the population, but who cares? Certainly not the Democrats' apologists. Remember the Democrats' letting the Republicans deploy threats of filibuster to block important legislation, so that a non-constitutional supermajority of 60 votes in the Senate was needed to pass anything. And then remember Obama's attempts to get rid of Social Security, his deficit commission packed by him with deficit hawks -- even so, they couldn't reach the desired destructive consensus, so Obama simply accepted the chairmen's report as if it were the Commission's conclusions. Guess why.

And that's leaving aside the relentless assaults on civil liberties, the surveillance, the stomping on dissent, the war on whistleblowers, new wars and escalation of the old ones. This doesn't mean Obama hasn't done one or two things right, I suppose, but it's not at all unreasonable that many Americans, including Democrats, should be unenthusiastic about him and the party. We're always being told that if we don't like the way things are going, we should 'vote the rascals out'; that's the whirlwind the Dems are reaping now.

Few things have pissed me off more this past decade than liberal Democrats' fatuous and complacent conviction -- totally without foundation -- that they are "reality-based," "evidence-based," and more rational than the average stupid American. They are irrational and quite stupid. They have nothing to offer America; only the Republicans have less.
He replied:
I love pissing off Republican fantasy artists! You made my day! As Biden said, "Facts Matter"!
That was it: he merely assumed that I am a Republican.  (This is like a certain troll who accused me in comments at a couple other blogs of "wanting more and better Democrats.")  No rebuttal, no argument, no facts, and -- despite his exhortation to THINK!!!!!!!! -- no thought.  thus confirming my assessment.  As if I needed confirmation.

My own wish to emigrate is apolitical.  South Koreans also routinely pass up progressive politicians in favor of corrupt right-wing hacks.  I don't imagine I'll find a good, rational society here or anywhere else.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

No Shibal, Sherlock

I've been seeing teasers for this hit Korean musical on the subway monitors since I got here three weeks ago, and have wondered idly if I should try to see it.  One thing that makes it interesting is that the play, which spawned a sequel, is not a translation of a Western play but an original Korean work.  But then something occurred to me: there are no Caucasian actors in it.  Holmes and all the other, supposedly English characters are being played by Koreans.

This does not in fact bother me.  But it brought back memories of controversies in American theater and movies over the casting of Caucasian actors to play Asian characters.  I have mixed feelings about these controversies.  In the case of Miss Saigon, there were objections to the way Asian characters were depicted, but in that case wouldn't it be better to have them played by whites rather than have Asian actors sully their principles by playing racist depictions of Their People?  These complaints just confused the issue.  There were ample absurdities from the show's defenders, of course, such as the claim that there just weren't enough good Asian (or Asian-American or Asian-British) actors to play the parts.  (Something like that was a rationalization for the use of boy actors to play female characters in Shakespeare's day.)  I think that excuse is not likely to fly anymore (though some still try, like the producers of the TV movie Earthsea), as more and more actors of Asian descent have found work in American media.

But there's something more going in these objections, I think: a deep-rooted literalism that demands that the theater and movies, far from being the Kingdom of Fantasy we hear so much about, must be realistic.  This may carry more weight in film, where the camera gets right up in the actor's face, and the kind of "facial prostheses" used in Miss Saigon won't convince.  Though we still get a Caucasian actress playing a probably "Asian" character in The Hunger Games by darkening her hair and hoping for the best.  And there's also the question in a world full of multiracial people (who tend to make racists of all colors uncomfortable) of who's white and who's not.  There were people who complained that the hero of The Matrix was played by a white actor while characters of color were delegated to supporting roles, and who had to be reminded that Keanu Reeves has Native Hawaiian, Chinese, English, Irish, and Portuguese ancestry.

Another even more literal form of this literalism was the reaction to a Coke commercial made for the Superbowl, in which the song "America the Beautiful" was sung by people in a variety of languages. Although this song has no official status -- it's not the national anthem or anything, though apparently many believe it is -- many people felt that it was somehow defiled by being sung in languages other than English.  (That it was defiled by being used in a Coke commercial during a commercial sports event seems not have entered their tiny heads.)  One could point also to racist hysteria over the national anthem's being sung, again at a sports event but in English, by a young native-born American citizen of Mexican descent.  It's hard to detach the gut-level racism in such reactions from considerations of power and "representation" in media, but I believe that gut-level response is almost always a factor.

On stage, though, it's a different matter.  You can mix up the "races" quite nicely, and you can have divas of sub-Saharan descent playing ancient Egyptian (which is to say, supra-Saharan) royalty.  You can have men playing women and women playing men, straights playing gays and vice versa, for all sorts of reasons.  If a play is racist, it would better to argue that no one should act in it than to demand that parity requires that only an Asian actor should play a racist caricature of a "half-caste."

Me, I'm delighted to see Koreans engaged in the kind of cultural appropriation that gave us Sherlock and Sherlock 2, with Korean actors playing Victorian Brits.  But those who object to whites playing Asian characters should take notice, and come up with some reasons why this doesn't bother them.

Friday, October 31, 2014

On Not Getting Along

A younger contemporary from my high school days -- call him "Splendora" -- posted this meme on Facebook, which he'd found on another jerk's page.  I suspect that he posted it because some people (including but not only moi) had disagreed in comments when he complained about a report of two drag queens from RuPaul's Drag Race appearing in a commercial for Starbucks.  This was entertaining in itself, given Splendora's own fondness for drag and general bad taste.  (It was he, as much as anyone I know, who inspired my tagline "Oh Mary, it takes a fairy to make something tacky!")   Maybe I'll return to that little controversy another time; for now, I want to address this meme.

I've often seen complaints like this online, as I think I've mentioned before: when someone's posted opinions encounter disagreement or criticism, they may protest that "this isn't the right place for debate." (One obnoxious variation is the old quip "Debating on the Internet is like competing in the Special Olympics -- even if you win, your [sic -- they always seem to write it that way] still retarded!")   I've asked such people what is the right place for debate, but they never seem to have an answer for that, probably because they don't think there is a place for debate.  Usually it's they who are in a place that has been designated for debate, and are trying to stop other people from having a discussion.  They could just leave themselves, but that, of course, is unthinkable.

Facebook is a different case, I suppose.  I recently defriended an old friend of thirty years' standing when she deleted some comments of mine under a political meme she'd posted.  Facebook, she told me sternly, is not for "politics," it's "where friends and family come together."  She was, she said, already embroiled enough in debates in other online fora.  So why did she post a political meme on Facebook?  She said she had the right to post whatever she liked on her page, and to delete any comments she objected to.  True enough.  So I deleted her, as I've unfriended another nasty, illiberal liberal friend as well as obnoxious right-wingers.

I've also received angry messages from people I don't know, because some mutual Facebook friend had commented on some post of theirs, so the comments and the post showed up in my news feed, and I felt like putting in my two cents' worth.  Why are you posting on my page? they thundered.  You don't even know me.  If you don't like what I post, it's none of your business.  If it turns up on my page, it's my business.  If they don't want people to respond to what they post, they need to tweak their privacy settings so only their Facebook friends will be able to see it.  This is actually much older than Facebook, of course, the idea that what someone posts publicly isn't public, and only those responses they like should even be posted.  (In other words, If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all!  That stricture doesn't apply to them, naturally.  Usually I respond because they've posted something especially nasty and vicious.  But that's different.)

I've been seeing a lot of complaints (the one cited here, for example, but it doesn't stand alone) that social media like Facebook are an echo chamber where people only talk to people they agree with, and that liberals don't have any conservative friends and have no dealings with people of different politics.  (Conservatives like to claim that they have liberal friends, though it's hard to understand how they can do so if liberals won't be friends with conservatives.  And those liberal friends only seem to function as sources of stupid beliefs that the conservative writers demolish with contemptuous ease.  Admittedly, I use several of my liberal and conservative friends for that myself.)  This meme, of course, demands that Facebook be such an echo chamber.  (The earlier step in the transmission had the poster casting his stance as keeping toxic people out of his life; he seems pretty toxic to me.)

But then consider this article from The New Republic that another friend passed along.  The writer declares that Fox News's racism is too harmful for liberals to ignore.  He didn't, that I could see, show that any liberals had said explicitly that Fox should be ignored, not even Frank Rich, whom he quoted at some length.  The quotations supported my own distrust of Rich, who not so long ago was quite the liberal icon.  But they didn't really say much, nor did the writer of the article really say what liberals should do about Fox, except that "the ideas that Fox's [sic] peddles remain gross and dangerous, and as long as they are in circulation, they should be criticized, debunked and scorned."  "Scorned" -- that'll learn 'em!  I can't see that liberal criticism and debunking of Fox and other right-wing sources has done a lot of good, not least because liberals have their own blind spots that are harmful, gross and dangerous, and ostensibly liberal non-Fox media also mislead and misinform their audiences.

I know that trying to deal with people you disagree with isn't easy, or comfortable -- how well I know it!  But what do people think it means to live in a more or less free, diverse society?  We have to share our society, our country, our world with people we not only disagree with, but disapprove of.  And there's so much talk about "conversations" we need to have about difficult subjects, such as race (via).  But we can't have them if we insist on being comfortable, on not being challenged or criticized or disagreed with.  I understand why people shy away from these discussions, but I think we need to have them, to get used to being disagreed with, to learn how to disagree with others, if we're going to have the kind of society that most people claim they want.

P.S. I should also address the final line, the "If you don't like me, don't talk to me" bit.  Whether I like or dislike someone has little or nothing to do with whether I disagree with them.  But unhappily, it's a normal human response to personalize disagreement.  If I disagree with you, or criticize you, that means I hate you, right?  Well, no.  In many cases I've never met the people I talk to online, and that suits me, because what concerns me is the validity of what they're saying -- or the lack thereof.  I've often suspected that some people get upset in online discussion because they're used to letting their personal charm or cuteness or sex appeal or physical menace speak for them, and none of these means diddly online.  Since they've never learned to think critically and construct arguments, of course they freak out when they try to twinkle endearingly over the Intertoobz and it doesn't work.  Since they don't know how to answer an opposing argument, they throw a tantrum and fall back on personal attacks, because in their minds it's all personal.

Which is why the injunction to distinguish between "being a racist" and "saying racist things," though it's perfectly rational, won't work over the long haul.  Love me, love my racism.  But I'm not a racist, nobody's a racist, the accusation of racism is the worst thing you can call anybody!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Not All Atheists?

A couple of days after I got here, I got into a dustup with my Liberal Artist Friend on Facebook.  He posted a link to this meme, which had been posted on an atheist Facebook page.  The comments there are painful enough.  LAF remarked on his repost:
Religious friends: Why are so many of your co-religionists so stupid and hateful? And why can't they write or spell? This person thinks there are dessert islands! (Sounds great!) He thinks bombs hatch. He doesn't capitalize Jesus (!?!). And weirdly and surprisingly, he's concerned about the safety of "out women." Why, why, why???
Now, the first thing to notice about this is its self-righteous stupidity.  Does my friend really believe that if people stopped being religious, their spelling and punctuation would suddenly, magically improve?  I've known too many atheists who can't spell or punctuate (and theists who can) to take that notion seriously.  What do spelling and punctuation have to do with religion anyway?  As for "stupid and hateful", I've been pointing out the stupidity and hatefulness of many atheists, including prominent ones, for years now, and I don't see any improvement coming.

I don't know why many people have difficulty with technical skills like spelling and punctuation, but those skills are not rational (English spelling? please!), and they're not a sign of moral virtue or even intelligence.  They are class markers, of course, which I suspect is why my friend invoked them.  That speaks badly for him, and for his own ability to think critically or rationally.

The same goes for attitudes towards women.  When challenged by one of my friend's friends, I mentioned the attacks on Rebecca Watson for pointing out sexism among atheist males, most infamously by Richard Dawkins (though I hear he's retracted his earlier statement, however belatedly and gracelessly).  My challenger jeered: was that all I could point to?  Why, it was years ago!  Of course it wasn't all I could point to, and it's still a live issue among atheists, as is sexism among scientists.  Another person, a woman this time, argued that you can't expect atheists to get rid of all their sexism instantly:
Sexism is part of our culture. It began in religion but that does not mean a person can easily remove themselves from that reality just because they do not believe in a god.

And a few men do not represent all atheist men. Just as this idiot does not represent all theists.
"Sexism began in religion" is ambiguous, because you could probably say the same of everything in every culture: art, science, cooking, etc.  So where did religion come from?  This person was talking, as so many atheists do, about religion as if it were some autonomous system distinct from human beings, that imposes its will upon us, instead of something that human beings invented.  Religion is sexist, insofar as it is, because human beings were sexist and created their gods in their own image.  Religion has also been a medium through which people have challenged and tried to delegitimize oppressive structures, for the same reason: I don't like it, so obviously God must not like it either. And you know where that goes.

These countermoves were drearily familiar to me. I get them from Christians and other theists all the time.  Oh, that was a long time ago, it's not a problem anymore.  Oh, that is just a problem now because some have fallen away from true faith, it didn't used to be a problem.  You can't judge all Christians by that person, he or she is not typical at all, he or she isn't really a Christian.  Of course Christians aren't perfect, it takes God a long time to cleanse them of their errors and wash away their sins and corruption, but they're so much better than they'd be without Him.

I don't expect atheists to escape or abandon all problematic errors automatically; I certainly haven't.  That's what I've been saying for years.  In my experience and observation, though, it's mainly atheists who blame every problem on religion and talk about "enlightenment" and "waking up" as though error will simply fall away once you throw out belief in gods.  You will then be rational, free of superstition, a new creation in Not-God.  And while my friend and his friends disavowed any such notions, they still are too cavalier about the work needed to get rid of error in themselves.  That's one reason why their cheerleading for science and jeering at the religious annoys me so much: they're like fundamentalist Christians who bask in the intelligence of a few unrepresentative literati or academics like C. S. Lewis, but don't want to work at educating themselves.  I'm enlightened and rational unlike those stupid religious believers who can't spell, because I honor Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson!  But these guys are no more representative of atheists than C. S. Lewis was of fundamentalist Christians.  And you know, I'm not a fan of any of them.  For a long time, and maybe still, the most influential atheist in the US was the "prophetess" (as Mary Midgley mischievously dubbed her) Ayn Rand.

As with religion, the not-all-atheists approach backfires.  It's true that not all atheists are like Richard Dawkins or Ayn Rand or any other celebrity atheist.  But what are we like?  I'm not sure there are any universals to cling to, and even generalizations are difficult.  Even what would presumably be the core of atheism, the absence of belief in gods, doesn't look the same in all atheists.  There are what I'd call dogmatic atheists, who are certain there are no gods; and there are what the late Antony Flew dubbed Stratonician atheists, who see no reason to believe that gods exist, and who put the burden of argument on theists to come up with (1) some kind of workable definition of what they mean by "god" and (2) good reasons to believe that such entities exist.  I'm in the latter category myself, and though I have numerous disagreements with Flew, his account of atheism has influenced me more than any other.  I've also seen some atheists dismiss Stratonician atheism as not real atheism, and I suspect the dogmatic atheists are more representative of atheism than I am.  Not that I worry about that.

The point is that no matter what you say about atheists or atheism, it won't be true of all of us.  (The same is true of theists, just to hammer the point monotonously home.)  It's okay to generalize, but to do so responsibly you must have reliable information about the group you're talking about, and I'm not sure we do.  It's likely, I suspect, that the less attractive aspects will be more common and so more representative than the more attractive ones -- and who gets to decide what's attractive? -- so it's just safer to remain ignorant of what your movement is actually like.

This is probably one reason why biblical illiteracy is so common among Christians.  I recently had an exchange with someone on Facebook who assured me that hellfire and damnation, sexual repressiveness, faith-healing and exorcism, and end-times preaching were not Jesus' teaching as found in the gospels, they were added by the Church much later.  This is of course false, and revealed my opponent's ignorance of the Bible.

I was bothered, in the post on Dawkins I linked above, when the blogger wrote that Dawkins is "not a good leader for me, but even Jen McCreight, who recently called for new attitudes in atheism, says she likes Dawkins despite his flaws."  And again: "If Dawkins were to learn from criticism the way Cromwell does, then he’d be valuable as a leader.  But I’m not holding my breath for him to check his privilege, because there are much clearer thinkers to pay attention to."  I don't think atheists should have leaders, though of course many other atheists clearly want them.  (Who's more representative?)  I've learned a lot from other atheists, though also from some theists, but I don't regard any of them as a leader.  Once you have a leader, you're going to have authority and a cult of personality, and people will be expected to be loyal and obedient to the leader and to the movement.

It's ironic.  I've been attacked for arguing that it's odd for atheists to treat 'religion,' rather than human beings, as responsible for the bad things we find in religion and culture, and those other atheists accused me of setting myself up as the Authority on atheism and trying to decide what an atheist should or should think.  None of them tried to address rationally what I'd said; they simply declared me a Bad Atheist, perhaps the Bad Atheist.  (When I pointed out problems with their account of some elements of Christianity on another occasion, one of them accused me of being an antigay fundamentalist Christian.  Don't you just love rational critical thinking?) Authority plays an obvious part in most religions, though such authority is often challenged from within in various ways; but like most problematic phenomena, you don't get rid of it simply by disavowing belief in gods or faith in reason.  You don't have faith in reason: you use it, well or badly.  And many avowed rationalists use it badly.

So, for those atheists who want to disavow or excommunicate Dawkins, Harris, or any other celebrity atheist, I must ask the same question I've asked Christians about Christianity: which atheists are representative of the "movement"?  I spent some years listening to Christians' answers and following up on them, always finding their Christian exemplars wanting and being referred to new ones.  I've probably read more on atheism (and on religion for that matter) than most of my fellow atheists have, so I may have an easier time in this area.  I'm not asking for atheists who'd qualify as leaders, as I indicated before; I'm asking who is knowledgeable about the historical and philosophical issues, responsible, and usually rational?  Probably there are no such people, which doesn't discredit atheism; it should be a reminder of our human finiteness, our lack of omniscience, and of how much we have to learn.  That shouldn't really be a stumbling-block for atheists.  Should it?