Saturday, August 30, 2014

First World Problems

Bernie Sanders is probably one of the better members of the Senate, though it should never be forgotten how low the bar is.  A lot of my liberal Democratic friends post fiery quotations from him, like the one above, or from Elizabeth Warren, which apparently make them feel good but show the limitations of their politics.

It happened that I noticed the meme above while I'm reading David J. Blacker's The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Regime (Zero Books, 2013).  Blacker is a philosopher, and Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Delaware.  I hadn't heard of him until this book was mentioned in connection with the University of Illinois' firing of Professor Steven Salaita.  I ordered an e-book copy, and so far (about 60 pages in) I'm enjoying it.  The technical language might put off some readers, and I admit that at first I wasn't sure Blacker was going to deliver the goods of substantial analysis, but that changed quickly.
Let us stipulate, say, that there is greed on Wall Street.  There "greed is good," in fact, as says Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko in 1987's Wall Street.  But bankers and people in general have always been greedy.  Did they suddenly get more greedy in the 1990s when the subprime housing crisis was brewing and the many "innovative" speculative strategies were being rolled out?  It is logically possible that there was some mass alteration of human nature a couple of decades ago but this possibility seems so remote that it serves as a reductio ad absurdum of the "greed" hypothesis  [5*]...

A precondition for any Marxist [or, I would add, systemic and structural - DM] analysis of the financial crisis is that it is not ultimately caused by individual bad actors such that we could punish the culprits and/or re-regulate the banks and all will be well again ...  While deregulation certainly hastened the crisis and so is highly germane to any analysis of the late domination of the economy by the financial sector, it still begs the question, why?   Why the neoliberal zeal for deregulation or, perhaps one should say, why did this simple market idolatry suddenly become so appealing to so many? ... Why the rise of the neoliberal matrix in the first place? [59] ...

But humility also requires one to recognize the inadequacy of system-preserving proposed remedies like reining in personal greed, merely re-calibrating the regulatory parameters on finance or even redistributing corporate profits.  All of these may be fine things to do and defensible ad hoc in context, but piecemeal melioristic approaches share the unfortunate assumption that the extant underlying forces of production are static and legitimate [60].
The tendency of wealth to concentrate upwards isn't a bug, it's a feature of capitalism, along with the business cycle, bubbles and crises of the kind we saw in 2008.  My only quibble with Blacker is that he doesn't mention (I assume he knows) that these are also features of state-capitalist industrialization in nominally socialist countries like the former Soviet Union and present-day China.  The passages I quoted from Raymond Williams in these posts, along with Chris Harman's analysis in Zombie Capitalism (which Blacker cites, so he knows), pointed me in he right direction.

Bernie Sanders is a socialist, but he's the kind of socialist that Obama Democrats can get behind.  Like Warren (but also like Rand Paul from another political position), he's isolated.  He can safely denounce the corruption of the plutocrats, but if he looked to be making any real progress toward structural change, Obama himself (or Hillary Clinton, or whoever succeeds Obama) would attack him and try to bring him down, and Obama's devotees would regard him as they regard someone like Michael Moore.

*I'm not sure about the accuracy of page numbers; I'm quoting from an e-book that supposedly has "real" page numbers, so I hope that anyone who refers to a print copy will be able to find the passages I'm quoting.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

I've Got a Little List

Another of my right-wing acquaintances, this one a guy I went to high school with, posted a link to the above meme last night.  It's worth noticing, I think, because the claim that Bibles and prayer aren't allowed in school is so popular in certain circles, and because it's a flat lie.  I commented:
It's false that Bibles are not permitted in schools. I realize that the truth doesn't matter to Christians; I'm just pointing it out for the record.
I didn't really expect to get a response, but this morning I found that another person from my high school had asked:
To what Christian types does the truth not matter?
I replied:
Just for a start: those who post stuff like this.
I think I've said before that there seem to be some public-school teachers and others who may genuinely believe that they mustn't allow their students to pray on their own initiative during the school day, or read the Bible, or use Biblical material in class discussion or for writing assignments and the like.  But that would certainly be because they've believed the false claims of religious reactionaries who misrepresent Supreme Court decisions which forbid public schools to impose religious observances (like prayer or devotional Bible-reading) on their students.  (A misrepresentation which surely casts doubt on the implication of the meme that people who read the Bible are more honest or conscientious than those who don't.)

Of course, I exaggerated slightly in implying that there are no Christians to whom the truth matters.  I can think of several; but I think of them as the exception that proves the rule, since they generally are the targets of attack from other Christians for what they say and write.  Ironically perhaps, they aren't particularly "radical" (whatever that means in a modern Christian context) or even dissident in their theology: I have in mind the scholars James Barr and Dennis Nineham, from whose work I've learned so much.  Both are ordained clergymen in mainline denominations as well as scholars, and they seem comfortable enough in their churches.

But here's another example of dishonesty about religion from a source I've noticed before:

This one was shared by some Facebook friends who are gay and not religiously orthodox but still seem to want to find shelter under His wings.  My objection is what it was before: I see no reason to believe that there's a supreme or superior being who's doing anything for starving babies or people with cancer.  This meme is like a kid saying, "Mom, I don't have time to take out the garbage, I'm doing my homework, I have a big test tomorrow I have to study for!" -- while really he's watching Internet porn.  And if there's anyone who can't use the excuse of not having time, it's God.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Taking Life by the Neck; or, Say It Ain't So, Henry!

I've been trying not to write more about Robin Williams's suicide, but then the other day the sf writer John Scalzi denounced Henry Rollins for his piece in the LA Weekly attacking Williams.  Rollins has since apologized; Scalzi approves of the apology, I don't -- but I don't think Rollins had anything to apologize for.

Start with Rollins's attack on Williams.  It's headed "Fuck suicide", typical boy-culture stuff.  (I've been even more annoyed by all the "Fuck the Police" stuff I've been seeing in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown.  It doesn't mean that these fine, radical thinkers love the police and want to give them pleasure, perhaps to teach them that love is better than hate; it means that they think fucking is degrading and debasing to the person who is fucked.  Women, pay attention to what the straight boys you're marching with are saying about you.)

But on to the article itself.  I shared Rollins's alienation from the popular and media reaction to Williams's suicide.  He went on to praise Williams as a performer, and for doing USO shows as Rollins himself does.  And then:
But I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves.
How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children? I don’t care how well adjusted your kid might be — choosing to kill yourself, rather than to be there for that child, is every shade of awful, traumatic and confusing. I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life. No matter what mistakes you make in life, it should be your utmost goal not to traumatize your kids. So, you don’t kill yourself.
I think that first quoted sentence says more about the limitations of Rollins's understanding than it says about Robin Williams.  As far as I can tell, Rollins is not himself a parent; nor am I.

I agree that suicide can be an expression of hostility towards others, as witness the childish line "You'll be sorry when I'm dead."  (Even better when it's combined with "... and I'll be laughing." No, they won't.)  But I think Rollins was cheating here a little bit.  Williams's youngest "child," Cody, was born in 1991, which makes him 23 now.  That doesn't mean he's too old to be traumatized by his father's suicide (or death from any cause), but it does mean he's old enough to understand that it wasn't about him, that his father was suffering terribly -- as everyone seems to agree Williams was -- and chose to end it because he didn't want to suffer anymore.  Cody is also old enough that his parents aren't obliged to "be there" for him at every moment anymore: they have feelings and needs and lives of their own, and so does he.  (Many parents have the same difficulty understanding that everything their children do isn't about them.)  Which is not to say that Williams's children aren't or shouldn't be hurt by his loss, only that at a certain point in life the feelings of offspring no longer trump the feelings of the parents.  It might be that Williams hung on for as long as he could -- he was 63, for heaven's sake, and had apparently been miserable for most of his life -- and finally decided enough was enough.

I can't think about this without also thinking of something I touched on in my previous post, the denial of mortality and of death itself.  The last year of Nelson Mandela's life brought this home for me.  For years before that, he had "retired from retirement" because of his failing health.  2013 was a morbid death watch, the way millions of people panicked every time Mandela went into the hospital.  At 95, after a very long life of public service, I'd have thought he had earned the right to rest.  But people still wanted a piece of him, and wanted him to go on living no matter what.  They saw this craving as love, but I think it was something else.  Selfishness is when you let your wishes override the wishes of another person, and I think that selfishness was the dominant emotion in those who wanted Mandela, or anyone else, to be kept alive forever, no matter what.

This kind of selfishness is evident in much of the public mourning for Robin Williams, needless to say, yet hardly anyone seems to have criticized it.

I don't mean that suicide should be committed lightly.  But Rollins, like so many people, seems to take for granted that Williams took his life casually or lightly and certainly for the wrong reason, even when they blame his decision on "depression." (Yeah, Fuck Depression.)  I don't know, and no one probably knows, exactly what chain of feeling and thought led up to Williams's final decision.  For that reason, a becoming humility should be evident in any judgment of that decision, and such humility has been conspicuous by its absence in most of the commentary I've seen.

Nor do I mean that parents and children shouldn't remain close and mutually considerate throughout their lives if they want to.  But once the offspring are adults, the obligations involved change.  It would be nice if a suffering person -- like Williams, say -- could consult with his or her family and reassure them that his or her decision to die was not meant to hurt them.  I don't think this would work in our society as it is, though.  Especially someone like Williams, with a long history of substance abuse and depression, would risk being forcibly committed for treatment if he confessed the wish to end his life.  Which might not be so bad if psychiatrists could accurately distinguish between a passing morbid suicidal impulse and a reasoned decision to die, or if "treatment" would actually help, but there are reasons to be skeptical on both counts.  Williams made sure his family was provided for, leaving generous trust funds to his children (who, being adults, could take care of themselves even if he'd died penniless); he apparently didn't leave a note.  But I see no reason to assume that his suicide was impulsive.

In any case, I don't see that Rollins said anything here that was worse than what many others had said without being attacked for it, except for its bluntness, even though I disagree with him.

I don't feel that way about the rest of the piece, which is kinda embarrassing.
When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind. I have many records, books and films featuring people who have taken their own lives, and I regard them all with a bit of disdain. When someone commits this act, he or she is out of my analog world. I know they existed, yet they have nullified their existence because they willfully removed themselves from life. They were real but now they are not ...

I have life by the neck and drag it along. Rarely does it move fast enough. Raw Power forever.
Reading this made me wonder what Rollins thinks of Ayn Rand.  Apparently he once called her a "cunt," which fits nicely with his use of "fuck."  Gotta keep the bitchez in their place, eh, Henry?  But he's not as far from her as he'd like to think, with that "I have life by the neck and drag it along" line.  Anyone who fancies him or herself to be in total control of his or her life is a self-deluding fool, even though I understand what could motivate someone to delude himself in that way.  Which, just to be clear, is not to endorse a total fatalism either.  It's like the nature/nurture, free will/determinism divide. Yes, we make choices, but the choices start from where we are, what we have.  We don't chose to be born, and we don't choose to be mortal either; you'd think Rollins would be more respectful of people who choose when to die.  They've taken life by the neck too.

Should he have apologized for this diatribe?  I can't see why.  "That I hurt anyone by what I said, and I did hurt many, disgusts me," he wrote.  "It was not at all my intent but it most certainly was the result." C'mon, Henry, you have life by the neck and you drag it along.  What you did was your intent. You can probably see why I don't share Scalzi's approval of the apology: it looks to me like the typical celebrity/public-figure nonapology, which is the same bilge regardless of nation, party, or political stance.  It's all about him: that he hurt anyone "disgusts me."  Who can help but sympathize with his disgust, it must be so painful for him.  I find it hard to believe that someone who's been performing and writing for decades could be unaware of the effect his words would have, especially someone like Rollins whose persona is built on blunt, straight-talking, fuck-this-and-that rhetoric.  His disavowal of responsibility here is at odds with his stated philosophy.

And what about the people who reacted to the original piece?  At least some of them must have been fans to begin with, who read Rollins for his tough, take-no-prisoners style.  (If they persist in reading him just to get the adrenalin rush of offense, they presumably got what they were looking for.)  Were they shocked! shocked! to find that Rollins didn't agree with them in every particular?  Were they fine with fucking capitalism but not a beloved media star?  Well, I don't know what was going on in his readers' minds either.  Maybe he should have apologized, but I don't take his apology seriously.  But maybe that just shows the limits of my understanding.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I'll Give You Something to Misspell About!

A friend, this one an academic in the Pacific Northwest, posted the image below in his timeline today:
He commented: "I guess there's no spell check for headlines, but regardless, no newspaper should hire a journalist who spells based on oral perception of sound rather than on something he or she has read in a book."  How, I wonder, would you learn that about a prospective hire?  Would you ask them if they spell based on oral perception, etc.?

One of his other friends remarked that while researching a book, they'd learned that "most news organizations no longer bother to hire copy editors, and that writing staff are required to edit their own copy. So if you ever feel like you're seeing more typos in news print these days, you are."  The reason for this, of course, is the (perceived) necessity of cutting back staff in order to keep profits up.  It's not exactly news.  Typos and misspelling are the least of the problems such cost-cutting creates.

The next commenter after I pointed this out wrote:
It's our society. We no longer want to correct people because we'll hurt feelings and we have set the bar at mediocrity. I work for a school corporation and the poor grammar and misspelled words from teachers and clerical staff makes me crazy.
I could almost see the steam pouring from her ears.  But this is nonsense.  There are lots of people who want to correct other people, and love hurting their feelings.  For that matter, what she was saying has been said for centuries, so when was this wonderful time when we supposedly did "want to correct people"?

"Makes me crazy" was significant here, I think.  The person in question is what I call a punctuation/spelling/grammar obsessive, who takes every typographical error not just as a moral outrage but as a personal attack.  I'm such a person myself, but I try to resist the siren call of public tantrums over grammatical trivia, even if I don't always succeed. 

But even if these hissyfits were justified, relentless and merciless correction of students' or others' technical errors in writing is known not to be an effective way of teaching them to avoid those errors in future.  The high dudgeon of my friend and the other commenter are no doubt very satisfying to indulge, but it won't do a thing to teach someone not to spell "sputters" as "spudders."  I am sure my friend would never behave like that to his students.  He teaches a couple of foreign languages to undergraduates, so I'm sure his patience must be sorely tested -- that may be why he felt the need to vent over the newspaper headline -- every day in the classroom.  You don't refrain from screaming abuse at your students just to avoid "hurting their feelings," though that's a perfectly valid consideration in itself, but because you know that doing so won't help them learn what you want them to learn.

It happened that another friend, this one a retired kindergarten teacher from northern Indiana, had passed along the above meme a day or so earlier.   It's odd, though, because James Dobson (a well-known fundamentalist Christian psychologist and antigay bigot) is also a proponent of corporal punishment of children.   (But then, so was Dr. Spock, despite his reputation for "permissiveness.")  I learned this from a book I read some years ago, Spare the Child by Philip Greven (Knopf, 1990), which quoted Dobson and other Christian child-rearing experts on the subject at some length.
Despite the popularity of rods, other instruments can be used to inflict pain, depending on the preferences of parents (including "a shoe," "a handy belt," and even "a girdle"), supports the use of rods as the biblical method but also recommends using belts and switches rather than hands.  The chart that he [Dobson] includes in The Strong-Willed Child suggests a preference for the more flexible leather strap so commonly used by parents [75].
Dobson wrote in Dare to Discipline:
As long as tears represent a genuine release of emotion, they should be permitted to fall.  But crying quickly changes from inner sobbing to an exterior weapon.  It becomes a tool of protest to punish the enemy. ... I would require him to stop the protest crying, usually by offering him a little more of whatever caused the original tears [quoted by Greven, 78].
I had some differences with Greven, and it may be time for me to reread his book.  Some of my disagreement is summed up by his subtitle, The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Child Abuse.  As I've said before, as an atheist I don't believe that any human behavior has "religious roots," since religion was invented by human beings, and is used after-the-fact to justify what we want to do for other reasons.  And more recently, Alfie Kohn has shown in his book The Myth of the Spoiled Child (Da Capo, 2014) that the tendency to regard children as the enemy is widespread all over the spectrum of belief, including secular liberals and leftists.  (So, I've found, is PSG obsessiveness and rage at transgressors.)  But Greven's survey of fundamentalist Christian opinion on corporal punishment was eye-opening for me when I first read it.

One well-known reason why copy editors are needed is that everybody makes such errors, and writers know well that we can't spot them all ourselves.  Where eliminating typographical and other errors is considered important, as in print media, it's necessary to have someone other than the writer go over the copy.  Such a person may be a PSG obsessive -- I imagine we're over-represented in the profession -- but the job doesn't involve punishing the writer for making mistakes, nor the does the writer have to feel guilty or defensive for making them.  The capitalists responsible for the ever-increasing concentration of ownership of mass media may or may not care about PSG in the copy their newspapers and magazines print -- they're probably serenely unaware of the matter -- but their decisions to maintain profits will have the effect of increasing such errors, along with errors in content, which is more important.

The Devil's Workshop

I beg pardon for not having posted for nearly a week.  Thanks to heat and humidity and allergens, I've been contending with sinus congestion that interferes with my concentration, and so I have half-a-dozen unfinished posts in the pipeline.  A First World Problem, I know ("Sinuses Clogged / Can't Write a Blog Post").  But hey, I'm retired, I don't have to carry relentlessly on if I don't feel like it.

William Deresiewicz apparently dusts off his critique of Ivy League schooling every few years.  I wrote before about his American Scholar piece on the topic from 2008, and according to Grady Olmstead at The American Conservative, he published a similar piece at The New Republic in July, no doubt to help publicize his new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.  Olmstead pointed to a review of the book by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker, and something he quoted from it deserves comment.  (I actually tried to post a comment under the article, but it disappeared, as have other comments I've tried to post there in the past couple of weeks.  Maybe I've been blocked?)

Anyway, as one of Heller's "good points," Olmstead offers this:
And despite Deresiewicz’s criticisms of students’ frantic schedules, Heller writes that “the truest intellectual training could be how to stay calm, and keep thinking clearly, in the high-strung culture in which students need to make their lives.” These are truly lessons that will remain relevant throughout a person’s life.
Well, yes and no.  My first reaction was that one could say the same of any mother of small children, who must also keep calm and keep thinking clearly under a great deal of pressure, especially if she's a single mother.  But it also would apply to students at non-elite schools who carry a heavy academic load so as to graduate on time, and who may well work a job or two in order to keep their loans at a minimum.  Some of those students will also be mothers of small children, adding to the pressure.

Time management is important, but it isn't "intellectual training," let alone "the truest intellectual training."  I wonder if some of the usual elite distrust of leisure isn't in play here, not just for the proles but for everybody.  People do need to learn to manage their time just as part of the process of being adults, but intellectual as well as artistic training must leave time for reflection, time to sit back and dream and mull things over.

A friend posted the above demotivational meme on Facebook recently.  I knew, of course, that it is satirical and not to be taken at face value, so I commented, "I'm not?  Then what are these pension checks I'm getting for?"  My friend replied kindly that I'd worked hard for many years, so I'd earned the right to dream.  Which, given her own busy life as an academic, made me wonder if she'd missed the point of the meme herself.  I answered that I know many people who've worked a lot harder than I have, but have no pensions or even (in some cases) Social Security to look forward to; and maybe even more important, you don't have to earn a right.

There have always been elements of society that distrust people who aren't busy all the time, because the devil makes work for idle hands to do, and there's nothing more devilish than questioning the prerogatives of the rulers.  Pronouncing a driven, leisure-free, reflection-free existence as a positive good is, it seems to me, a declaration of allegiance to those rulers.

P.S.  According to the blogger post count, this one is number 1900 since I began the blog in May 2007.  Just saying.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Off the Old Bat

I picked up a copy of Against Equality's Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage (Against Equality Publishing Collective, 2010), and I look forward to reading it.  One thing I noticed right away: the recurring theme that "same-sex marriage is an essentially conservative cause" -- an odd claim from an anti-essentialist writer like Walter Benn Michaels, whose cover blurb I just quoted.  But leaving essentialism aside for the moment (I'm pretty sure I'll be returning to it), I think it's time to problematize the term "conservative."

Like many other go-to terms -- "moderate," "extreme," "skeptical" and "agnostic" come to mind right off the bat -- "conservative" shouldn't have any content, but is often treated as if it did.  It connotes a relation between two or more terms.  Think of William F. Buckley's definition from his 1955 mission statement for the fledgling National Review:
A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
Of course there's some stupidity here, in the self-pitying and dishonest clause about "a time when no one is inclined to do," since there are always people who are inclined to try to stop history.  Liberals are just as apt to claim that they stand alone, or defy the tide.  But the definition makes sense, in referring to a relation between people and the present: someone wants to conserve something, but might very well want not to conserve something else.  It would apply, as numerous people have pointed out, better to a New Deal Democrat trying to preserve the legacy of FDR than to someone like Buckley, Barry Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan, who wanted to dismantle the American system then in place and replace it with something radically different.  Those who claim to wish to return to bygone days seldom really want to; they generally are historically illiterate, and don't know what the bygone days were like.  What they dislike is the present.

Consider a 1986 PBS documentary called The AIDS Show, about a revue staged by a San Francisco theater troupe.  I quote from memory: a group of gay men are sitting around talking about how AIDS has affected their lives.  When someone mentions safe sex, one of them bursts out, "I'm tired of hearing about safe sex!  Look: I like to get drunk, take drugs, and go out and have sex with strangers.  You can call me old-fashioned, but that's what I like." That character's position should qualify as conservative, even essentially conservative, in the context of gay men's culture.  So, for that matter would be the closet, leading a double life, marriages of convenience, gender transgression (from men referring to each other as "she" to drag), diva worship, and so on.  Indeed any appeal to culture, be it queer or gay or lesbian or what have you, is likely to be a conservative if not reactionary move: thus far and no farther!

Despite my reservations about the whole project, I'm not so sure that gay marriage is an essentially conservative cause.  Nor is it essentially progressive.  It can be seen as either, or neither.  The first thing you have to notice is that those who are usually called conservatives in the US political map have not exactly rushed to embrace the idea.  Neither, for a long time, did those who were usually styled liberals, though it's certainly legitimate to question whether the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton should be called liberals.  As Nancy Polikoff pointed out, the gay marriage movement seems to be dominated by people with otherwise reactionary views on marriage that they hold in common with the right-wing marriage movement:
... [S]ame-sex marriage supporters borrow from flawed marriage-movement arguments that further a political agenda historically out of line with the gay rights movement.  For example, psychology professor Gregory Herek argues for marriage rather than civil unions by referencing that “heterosexual cohabiting couples do not derive the same advantages as married couples from their relationships.”  But critics of the marriage movement point out that such claims are based on bad science, reflecting “selection effect” and assuming a causal connection that cannot be proven.  Similarly, cultural anthropologist Gilbert Herdt and psychiatrist Robert Kertzner assert that because “marriage supports mental and physical health,” the ban on same-sex marriage “compromises the well-being [of lesbians and gay men], that of their children, and the well-being of future generations.” …

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders has expressed the belief that the marriage of lesbian and gay couples will strengthen the institution of marriage, not weaken it, as though strengthening the institution of marriage, on the terms that rhetoric is usually deployed, is an unqualified accomplishment.  When the marriage movement speaks of strengthening the institution of marriage it is always in a context that asserts the superiority of marriage [Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, Beacon Press, 2008, 99].
Of course, if these views are "historically out of line with the gay rights movement," rejecting them is the conservative thing to do.

Marriage might well be "conservative" for heterosexual couples and "progressive," even radical, for same-sex couples.  A conservative stance on homosexuality would entail that gay people remain invisible, silent, closeted.  Conservative gay people, the kind I met and argued with in the 1970s and after, would agree.  Why do you have to advertise your sex life? they'd ask peevishly, much like their heterosexual counterparts: My private life is nobody else's business.  Legal marriage, which entails putting your couplehood on public record, registered with the state, entails leaving the closet, and I've often been amused by closeted people who nonetheless wanted a marriage license: to get that piece of paper, they'd have to declare their sex lives publicly.  Even if they didn't take out a wedding announcement in the local paper, the issuance of a license would be published.  If you're married, that person you're living with can no longer be euphemized as your friend, your longtime companion: that person becomes your spouse, and it's been revealing how many gay people who want the social and historical baggage that comes with marriage are queasy about the social and historical baggage that goes with husband and wife.

When I've pointed all this out, the reactions I get told me that they hadn't really thought through the implications of their position.  The same was true of those who said they wanted government to get out of the marriage business, ignoring the fact that a marriage license and all the benefits and privileges it bestows are the result of government getting into the marriage business.

True, a lot of gay people seem to think that legal marriage will prove to straights that we are sober, responsible, respectable people, just like heterosexuals.  But the right-wing backlash to the drive for same-sex marriage has shown how naive such a belief is, so it's strange to see that a self-styled queer vanguard seems to share it.  And of course there's a lot of hypocrisy among the advocates of same-sex marriage.  As a group we probably are  as sober, responsible, and respectable as straight people are, as a group -- which isn't very.  But hypocrisy, defined as the homage vice pays to virtue, is a very conservative practice.

I've mentioned before Duncan's First Law of Gay Respectability, which holds that if gay people want to have a “respectable” public life, we have to have a “scandalous” private life, and vice versa. The exact content of a respectable public life and a scandalous one has changed over the past few decades, thanks to generational changes in straights' attitudes toward homosexuality.  I've also observed that presenting ourselves so as to please straight people is a hopeless exercise, since some straights are more comfortable with gender-compliant (not "stereotypical") gays and others are more comfortable with gender-noncompliant ("stereotypical") ones.  No one approach will work across the board, so I've been skeptical for decades about buzzwords like "assimilation," "transgressive," "conservative," "liberal," and "radical."  It's not always possible to avoid using them, but they are mirages that recede as one pursues and tries to capture them.

It's essentialist to posit that gay people should be "outlaws," just as it is to claim that we should be respectable citizens.  Like straight people, we aren't by nature anything.  Human sexuality is expressed in many different ways, some of which are invalid and other of which aren't.  I see many prescriptions about what sex and love should be for; some I agree with and others I don't, but none of them is universal or mandatory.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Divine Whimsy and Darwin; or, The Madman Theory

In the fall of 1971 I moved into a dormitory room at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University.  Before that I lived for a year in a house I shared with other students in South Bend, Indiana, during my second year attending the regional campus there.  I was very ambivalent about the move, because in South Bend I had for the first time in my life a circle of friends among whom I felt I belonged; but I also had wanted to live in Bloomington ever since my first visit there as a high school senior in 1968, and I wanted (but also feared) the resources for gay life that I knew Bloomington had.

As I settled into life in Bloomington, I noticed something odd: I was using the word "home" to refer to three different places -- my dorm room, the house I'd shared in South Bend, and my parents' home in the country outside South Bend.  I realized that they all felt like home in their ways, so it was proper to use the word, but only context could tell someone else which home I had in mind when I'd saying I was going home.

This might have something to do with why I'm uncomfortable with some of the arguments in Nelson Rivera's The Earth Is Our Home: Mary Midgley's Critique and Reconstruction of Evolution and Its Meanings (Imprint Academic, 2010).  Nelson Rivera (who shares a name with a Salvadoran footballer who died young) is a theologian who teaches at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.  The book is as a whole a disappointment; it reads rather like Cliff's Notes on Midgley for ministers who might not otherwise venture to read a philosopher, even one sympathetic to religion as Midgley is; but also like an attempt to appropriate her for the faith, as theologians like to do.  Aside from references to a few stray articles by her that I hadn't seen before and might track down, like this one, I didn't get much from Rivera's discussion that I hadn't already got from reading Midgley herself.

I have to admit, though, that some of those articles included information I was happy to get.  In one, for instance, Midgley says that "for most important questions in human life, a number of different conceptual tool-boxes always have to be used together.  And unfortunately, there is no single law showing us how we have to combine them.  We simply have to keep on doing this carefully as the necessities of each case dictate until we reach a result that appears satisfactory" (quoted by Rivera, 179).  I agree completely, and I'm pleased to see someone else saying this.  And again:
According to Midgley, when it comes to the assertion of a personal God within the framework of a scientific view of the world, there we confront some problems.  She thinks, for example, that the notion of a personal cosmic will, which is typically found in an anthropomororphic religious creed, is basically hostile to science.  There is no place in natural science for it.  She thinks moreover that this notion is not consistent with conceptions of order, so vital to our understanding of the universe (as cosmos).  It is order, and not a personal arbitrary will, that the human mind seeks to penetrate with the tools of science [209].
Here Rivera cites an article and Midgley's Evolution as a Religion, page 70.  This interests me, because usually Midgley hedges on issues like this; she's apt to use "religion" to refer to her donnish, twentieth-century philosopher's notions of what religion should be, rather than to what it means to theologians, clergy, and lay believers.  And yet this reminds me of something I wrote a few years ago, arguing that belief in a personal God does not support a lawful ordered universe but rather an arbitrary, disordered one.  Reading some of Rivera's remarks about the role of randomness and chance in the genetic variation that is the raw material of evolutionary change, it occurred to me that randomness, far from setting natural selection at odds with religion, might actually make it more compatible: the variation among individual organisms could be interpreted as Yahweh's idle fiddling around to stir shit up, or as he put it in an old rabbinic story I quoted, "Be still, that is how it entered my mind."  Or, as Terry Pratchett put it, more wisely than he knew, we are in the hands of a madman.

But back to the question of the earth as our "home."  Rivera concludes:
As I hope will be clear through these pages, evolutionary theory is not necessarily incompatible with religious belief.  On this matter I side with Mary Midgley when she states that one of Darwin's major contributions to philosophy, and I would add to theology as well, is the conviction that we belong down here, that we belong to the earth, that we are part of creation, not under or above the whole of the biosphere.  Darwin's common sense [!] has brought our attention back down here from up there.  Most importantly, when the theory is properly assessed, it becomes quite a corrective to human arrogance, and to any religion that forgets where our proper place is: down here, with every other creature.  In this sense, the theory could be said to contribute to a spiritual if not a religious view of how things really are, us included [129].
Midgley has (correctly) criticized scientific dualism, but she sometimes forgets that the belief that human beings are not part of nature, that we are not at home in the world, was a religious doctrine first -- it is, in fact, an important part of traditional Christianity (see Philippians 1:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:1) to seek escape from this world and this body of flesh to the heavenly mansion where the believer will live with Christ.  Rivera does cite some material -- again, mostly not from her books -- which shows Christian theologians indignantly claiming that Christianity is so into ecology!  But the main evidence they seem to have for this claim is Saint Francis, the exception who proves the rule, and the concept of "stewardship."  As Rivera admits, "But even this notion of a steward [Midgley] finds somewhat patronizing.  And I may add, it has been mixed with notions of 'dominion' over the earth, as in the end of the first account of creation in the Book of Genesis" (203).

What interests me here, though, is the concept of home.  I agree that human beings are part of nature, and that we "belong" on this planet, in this biosphere that produced us.  But "home"?  A home is something I construct from a place I'm in, a feeling I have about a place -- it's not something inherent in the place itself.  Any place can become a home; any home can cease to be a home when I leave it.

Homes don't exist in nature; people (and depending on your views, other animals) construct them by altering the space they occupy.  The location of a home isn't determined by where one was born; often people travel long distances to create a home, and often they meet resistance from those who are already there, who may tell the newcomers to go back where they belong.  Those predecessors may not be "natives" themselves; if not they, then their parents or grandparents.  Human beings have always been wanderers.  If we could leave this planet with a viable destination, some of us surely would -- and then the new planet would become home.  I felt at home in Bloomington the first time I visited here, but I've felt the same way about other places.  Home can be an aspiration, not something that already exists.

The connotations of "home" as a secure place of love and care, which I think Midgley and Rivera are invoking here, are also doubtful when applied to the earth.   Rivera says that for Dawkins and for evolutionary theory generally, "Nature seems to be rather indifferent to pain and suffering" (143).  Rather indifferent!  The same is true of gods, including the Christian god -- except when they aren't indifferent but actively and gleefully inflicting pain.  Conventional religion doesn't get rid of these problems, it just shifts the blame around.  At least "nature" is indifferent, not sadistic, though some non-theists can't resist anthropomorphizing natural disasters as punishment in a very religious manner.  Like certain early Christians who fantasized that they would view the suffering of the damned from the bleachers in Heaven, such people think of other people's suffering as a spectator sport.  I think that Midgley is cheating by using sentimental appeal if she wants us to view "nature as home, as a nurturing experience, as garden and not just the context of our tears and sweat" (166).  Perhaps it can be viewed that way, but Mother Gaia also hurts and kills us, starves and burns us out, creates our tears and sweat.  Our home, yes, but we're not necessarily at home here.

Some homes become places you need to leave.  There are reasons why people feel alienated from the earth, the world, their bodies, their lives.  Some of them may not be particularly good or rational ones; some are probably internal to the person and others the result of experience; and the fantasy is unrealistic, but it seems to me that many people (including me, including Midgley) dismiss it too easily, as a perverse, even wicked refusal to face reality.  They may be just that, but what they are first is subjective -- just like the feeling that this world is our home.  Maybe we need to think more carefully and sympathetically about those reasons. 

P.S. I've done some rewriting, adding, and rearranging in this post, and I can't decide where to put this, so I'll put it here for now: It seems to me that although Midgley knows better, she seems to fall from time to time into the nurture/nature, environment/genes error.  Some molecular biologists are beginning to abandon the environment/genes distinction altogether -- see Evelyn Fox Keller's The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture (Duke, 2010) for a dense but brief discussion of this.  It also appears that the very concept of genes, selfish or not, is in trouble: what a gene is thought to be has changed drastically ever since the concept was first proposed.  It was more a placeholder than an actual thing for a long time, and it may be that the placeholder has begun to outlive its usefulness.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Beware of Wishing for What You Deserve

I'd seen this meme before, but today when someone passed it along I figured out how to say what is wrong with it.

That girl you called a slut may not be a virgin; she may in fact sleep around quite a lot.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully her.  The pregnant girl may not have been raped; she may in fact be a "slut."  But that doesn't entitle you to bully her.  That boy you called lame may not have to work hard every night to support his family.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully him.  That girl you pushed down may not be getting abused at home, but that doesn't entitle you to push her down.  That girl you called fat may not be starving herself; she may be binging on Hostess Twinkies every night.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully her.  That scarred old man may never have worn a uniform; maybe he got his scars in a fight in a bar over some trivial squabble he was too drunk to remember afterward.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully him.  The crying boy's mother may be perfectly healthy; he may be crying because he didn't get the new Xbox he wanted.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully him.

Implicit in this meme is the suggestion that it's only bad to bully people who don't deserve it, and that it's okay to bully people who do.  Who gets to decide who deserves it?  Insofar as I'm right about this, whoever composed this meme is not really against bullying: they just don't want the 'wrong people' to be bullied.

For example, I found this in a book* by a supposed expert on bullying, telling how to prevent it.  Here's one of the author's supposed successful cases:
Claire had very long hair and a low fringe.  No-one could see her face.  All the other girls wore headbands and called her ‘shaggy-dog.’  The moment she wore a headband and had her fringe cut, the teasing stopped [176].
I'll admit that making such a change may be an easy way to stop oneself from being bullied.  But it's hard to imagine a more classic example of blaming the victim, while leaving the bullies free to police others. Bullies may try to hide behind the bigotry of the communities they live in, justifying their behavior by claiming that their victims deserve it.  Just being different in some trivial way is seen many people, including adults, as a punishable offense.  The aim of the meme I'm dissecting is to try to get rid of difference, to persuade bullies to see the sameness in people they might pick on.  (I'm probably being too generous, though: the meme's last sentence shows that it isn't really directed at bullies, but at people who are "against bullying" -- and aims to bully them into re-posting it.)  That, from everything else I've read on the subject, completely misunderstands the psychology of bullies.

Here's one of the same author's recommendations:
Get fit:  Many targets look weak and wimpy.  Don’t spend your free time in a library or hidden inside a computer.  You need to play outdoors, exercise, go to the gym, play sport or dance.  Even walking for 20 minutes five times a week makes a difference.  Then you can gesticulate, duck, run quickly or protect yourself physically [217].
Sure, exercise is good and important.  But as one who spent his free time in libraries as much as possible as a kid, and still does, I object to the implication here that people should deal with bullying by appeasing the bullies, adopting their supposed values, and becoming like them.  The key words here might be "look weak and wimpy"; bullies pick on people they think are safe targets.  And you can't always get away from bullies by running or ducking, especially if they gang up on you.  Again, this recommendation blames the victim and justifies the bully.  So what if a person looks "weak and wimpy"?  That doesn't entitle anyone to bully them.

Even many people who'd never think of picking on a child seem to think there are people who deserve to be picked on.  Fat-shaming is a very popular pastime among adults of all political persuasions, for example; so is shaming the old, or the sexually active, or the insufficiently gender-compliant.  (Many people also seem to think it's okay to post bigoted stuff on the internet, because they aren't doing it face to face.)  They might indignantly and self-righteously denounce those who bully one group, but they're glad to find people they think it's all right to persecute.  (Even children aren't really safe.  In Alfie Kohn's newest book, he shows that a disturbing hatred of children is widespread and acceptable among liberals and conservatives alike.)

Here's a mild example that showed up this morning, from a grammar-obsessives' page.

The cartoon is funny in a number of ways, but it relies on some stereotypes about language and language users that really need to be dispelled.  The primitive (or the highly educated and intelligent person, for that matter) who speaks broken English, for one.  In his or her own language he or she will be perfectly articulate -- a real caveman would not have spoken broken English ("What woman have?") but a correct form of his own -- but in a new language he or she can only communicate with difficulty.  (Of course, we have no idea what the languages spoken by Stone-Age cavedwellers were like.)  This is one reason why I think everybody should have to learn a new language at some point in his or her life; it might be that struggling to assemble a proper sentence in a strange tongue will promote empathy for foreigners who've done the same with one's own.  But probably not.

Besides, many modern languages don't have pronouns, or use them differently than English does.  Spanish, for example, has pronouns but doesn't use them as much as English does: verb conjugations convey the information that pronouns do in English.  So in Spanish a sentence without a pronoun -- No hablo ingl├ęs, I don't speak English --is perfectly correct.  I know that the speaker is speaking in the first person from the conjugation of hablar.  According to this Wikipedia article, Mandarin Chinese speakers "infrequently" use first-person pronouns, though "their usage is gaining popularity among the young, most notably in online communications" -- perhaps because of the influence of other languages which use them more.  But I've also noticed well-educated Americans from the middle and professional classes who regularly drop first-person pronouns, e.g.: "Have to say that this appeals to me a great deal."

So, the cartoon above is harmless in itself, but it's based on assumptions about people who don't speak Standard English for whatever reason, and in the context of a grammar-obsessives' page it feels less innocent.  After all, people who don't speak or write "correct" are stupid dolts who deserve to be mocked and discriminated against, because they're ignorant and uneducated and probably Republicans.

As the political philosopher Michael Neumann wrote a few years ago, "Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush."  When I quote this to many fine educated liberal people, they don't seem to get it (though yes, some do).  Some squinch up their faces uncomfortably as if they're thinking, But then what random strangers can I pick on?
*Evelyn Field, Bully blocking.  London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ooey Gooey Was a Worm, a Mighty Worm Was He!

I want to go back for a moment to something I quoted from Neil DeGrasse Tyson a few days ago:
If you are one of those people who don't like thinking about astronomy because it makes them feel small, Tyson suggests looking at it a different way ... If you "see the universe as something you participate in — as this great unfolding of a cosmic story — that, I think should make you feel large, not small. ... Any astrophysicist does not feel small looking up in the universe; we feel large."
How many people don't like thinking about astronomy because it makes them feel small?  What does it have to do with science?  As I indicated yesterday, scientists are apt to brag that science is supposed to make us feel small, because religion supposedly makes us feel big -- but much of religion is devoted to quashing pride and reminding us of our smallness and insignificance before the Deity.  (Except when we make him mad -- then we're not so insignificant after all: our sinfulness puts all Heaven in a rage.)

Besides, if you feel large when you look up at the universe, something is wrong, because you are small, whether you're an astrophysicist or a pastry cook.  Tyson is saying that doing astrophysics fosters delusions of grandeur, which if true would discredit astrophysics, rather than recommend it.  Anyway, isn't science supposed to be about Finding the Truth and not about feeling big or small?

I've mentioned before the feminist historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller and her book Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death (Routledge, 1992).  Here's another bit from it that interested me, drawn from
the real lives of those contemporary scientists who got their start as boy scientists, producing explosives in their kitchens, bathrooms, or, if they were lucky, in a hand-fashioned basement laboratory.  (A generation ago, a common sideline of these basement laboratories used to be the production of “stink bombs” – ready to be set off by the young scientist whenever crossed by an uncooperative or angry mother.)  We are all familiar with the preoccupation many boys have with explosives, and with the great affective investment some of them show in producing bigger and more spectacular explosions – often indeed, continuing beyond boyhood into student days – but perhaps those of us who have spent time around places like MIT and Cal Tech are especially familiar with such behavioral/developmental patterns.  We would probably even agree that these patterns are more common in the early life histories of scientists and engineers than they are in the population at large.  Certainly, for the great majority of the scientists and engineers who started out life as play bomb experts, the energy invested in such primitive attempts at the resolution of early conflicts has been displaced onto mature creative endeavors that leave no trace of their precursors.  But in some cases, such traces are evident, even conspicuous.  As the result of a handy convergence between personal, affective interests and public, political, and economic interests, a significant number of these young men actually end up working in weapons labs (just how many would be interesting to document) – employing their creative talents to build bigger and better (real rather than play) bombs.  In other cases, traces of earlier preoccupations may be evoked only by particular circumstances – for example, the collective endeavor of a Manhattan Project.  The differences between these adult activities and their childhood precursors are of course enormous.  Yet it seems to me that the affective and symbolic continuity between the two nonetheless warrants our attention [49-50].
Just parenthetically, Keller reports that at Los Alamos, a successful bomb, a "bomb with 'thrust' [was] identified as a boy baby, while a girl baby [was] clearly identified as a dud" (50).

Anyway, this passage reminded me that even a sissy like me was fascinated by explosions when I was young.  I never built a basement lab to cook up my own explosives, but I loved cap pistols and fireworks.  Keller allows that many, perhaps most such boys outgrow their early fascination with things that go boom for "mature creative endeavors," though some move on "to build bigger and better (real rather than play) bombs."  I'm sure I recall a later passage in the book where, I thought, Keller mentioned that at Los Alamos, the physicists would relax on weekends by going into the desert to play with conventional explosives, but I can't find it now.  Looking around online, though, I found this more recent story:
Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico accidentally blew up a building on December 16 with a Civil War-style cannon. According to an occurrence report [pdf], which was first reported by the Project on Government Oversight, the lab's Shock and Detonation Physics team was testing a large-bore powder gun when they heard a "loud unusual noise."

About 20 minutes later, the researchers ventured out of their bunker to see what had happened. Upon further investigation of the facility’s Technical Area 15, the team discovered that Building 562 had been blown apart. Two doors were "propelled off the structure" and concrete shielding blocks were blasted off the walls. Parts of the cannon were also found lying on the asphalt nearby. The Facility Operations Director declared a "management concern" regarding the explosion. No-one was hurt, but sources told POGO that damages could cost $3 million. The lab reported that it has conducted a "critique" of the incident.
The reports give the impression that these "accidents" -- there are evidently quite a few of them -- occurred during regular research, but why would scientists at Los Alamos be working with, "testing", a "large bore powder gun"?  I suspect that they were just playing around and that a "loud unusual noise" was the aim of the exercise, not an accidental or unwanted side effect. Well, boys will be boys, eh?

The probability that many scientists were driven by a desire to make big booms and big stinks before they started seeking Truth doesn't in itself discredit science, but it does undermine scientists' pretensions to being above the irrationality of the stupid masses.  While I was working on this post I stepped into my local video emporium and saw that Neal DeGrasse Tyson's remake of Cosmos was playing.  Coincidentally (or was it?) I walked in on the segment on the Big Bang Theory that he'd told NPR about.  Tyson spoke slowly and sententiously, his big liquid eyes as full of staged sincerity as any televangelist's -- but then, that's what he is, a tv preacher bringing us the Good News according to Hawking and Darwin.  And his god (created, like all gods, in his own image) is a kid cooking up a Big Bang in the basement, so that he'll feel big.

A Brief for the Prosecution

An old friend, a poet herself, linked today to this poem.  Just the part of it that showed in the preview pressed certain buttons in me.  After acknowledging "Sorrow everywhere.  Slaughter everywhere", the poet declared "But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants."  No no no, I thought.  Not today, not this week, not this year, not this century, I will not let this one pass unchallenged.  So I took a deep breath and commented: "'Defense' of what? I'm sorry, but that thing is vile."

(And that was before I'd read the lines "If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down / we should give thanks that the end had magnitude", which confirmed my contempt for the performance: if the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, there's no magnitude in our end, we're just one more caterpillar on the tracks.) 

The person who'd posted the poem on his tumblr (not the poet himself, who died in 2012), replied in a few minutes:
The poem isn't a defense but a kind of preparation. I don't think it is vile. It admits the world is filled with horrors but says we cannot give ourselves over that entirely, that we have to live and love despite ourselves, despite the awfulness in the world.
I'm not sure what "a kind of preparation" is supposed to mean, but his response strikes me as the lowest kind of apologetics.  (Where, after all, does "the awfulness in the world" come from?  Who fills the world with horrors?  That's why I object to the bit about "the locomotive of the Lord" -- it appears that the poet accepted exactly the kind of theodicy I have no use for.)  I also think he's misreading the poem in terms of his own preconceptions -- what Walter Kaufmann called the exegetical fallacy, reading your beliefs into a text and getting them back endowed with its authority.  I replied:
If it's not a defense, it needs a different title. But what struck me as vile was the line "we enjoy ourselves because that's what God wants." Which god? According to every orthodox theology I know of, and most non-orthodox ones besides, suffering is something that God wants, either because we've brought it on ourselves or because God wants to test us, or because God works in mysterious ways, or other such nonsense. If I want to read good poetry about human suffering, I'll read the Book of Job. Or Marge Piercy, who's written some good poetry on this subject over the years.
To which he replied,
Okay, be angry and carry on. Jack Gilbert is one of the great poets of the 20th Century, and this poem is one of his most beloved. But no one is forcing anyone to read it. --- shared it as many people have today.
Great poets have been known to write great garbage.  They are not above criticism, and indeed it's all the more important to criticize them when they say something stupid or evil.

I confess I'd never heard of Jack Gilbert before today. According to his obituary in the New York Times, "Brief for the Defense" (quoted in its entirety there) is one of his best-known poems.  Because I haven't read anything else by him, and I'm not going to start now, I have no context for the statements in this poem, though I find it hard to imagine what context could make them anything but malignant.

Then my poet friend chimed in:
My only comment is to note that the word "risk" is in this poem for a reason.
That's exactly the kind of use of words like "risk" I object to.  (It reminds me of "intervention," which also sets off alarms for me.)  Of course the word is in the poem for a reason; I just don't think it's a good reason.  I think it's posturing, preaching to the choir: like Marilynne Robinson daringly declaring herself a liberal and a Christian, like Greg Louganis telling gay audiences that he knows It's not a choice, like Barack Obama telling his fans that if Wall Street wants a fight, that's a fight he's willing to have, like black conservatives denouncing the Civil Rights Movement in front of white Republican audiences.  Risk without cost, risk without risk.

And what kind of "risk" is involved in "delight"?  I speculate it's the "risk" that it won't last forever but will pass.  Maybe that really does deter some people.  But that delight will pass is not a risk, it's a certainty.  I see the wish to escape transience as one of the main impulses (and errors) behind much religion, born of a wish to achieve bliss that will never end.  I understand that wish -- how could I not? -- but it's never going to be fulfilled.

I'm not surprised that the poem is well-loved by the kind of people who sentimentalize the smiles and laughter of the destitute from a safe distance, admiring and praising the big smile of your ragged shoeshine boy before you go back to your comfortable hotel room and, ultimately, to your suburb.

I was amused by her friend's dismissive "be angry and carry on" -- as if anger were a bad thing.  But then a lot of people think it is.  (At least, other people's anger is a bad thing; their own is worn with pride.)

Of course I wasn't forced to read the poem.  But I respect my friend, which means I take what she puts on Facebook more seriously than I do what many other people I know post.  (Except for the cat-related material.)  I'm not saying she should not have posted the poem, but having seen it and read it, I won't be told I should not respond to it.  (And to be fair to her, let me stress that it was not she but her friend who got all spitty about my reaction.)

That's always a difficult question in a place like Facebook.  On one hand, you've got people who have conniptions at seeing anything they dislike.  On the other, you've got people who think that freedom of expression means no one is entitled to disagree with anything they post.  My friend is a librarian as well as a poet, and committed as most librarians are to freedom of expression, even when it's offensive or disturbing or unpleasant.  Most of what I disagree with on Facebook I don't respond to.  When I do comment, I do so carefully and I hope thoughtfully.  Often I decide not to comment after all, and cancel what I began to write; sometimes I bring my complaints here.

According to my friend's friend, it would seem that "Brief for the Defense" is being used to express the feelings of a lot of people lately; perhaps because of Robin Williams's suicide, because of the summary execution by police of a young black man in St. Louis and the subsequent repression of community objections to the slaying, perhaps because of the latest Israeli blitzkrieg in Gaza, perhaps because of the renewed civil war in Iraq, perhaps the combination of all these things and so much more.  It was because of all these things and more that I found the poem a wrong-headed statement, and chose to say so.

I suspect that my reaction to this poem and all that it represents is a matter of temperament.  I would prefer that there's no god, No One out there, rather than Someone watching the world and doing nothing about it except shedding great salt tears.  I know that there are many who'd disagree with me, and I suppose "Brief for the Defense" speaks to them.

It's probably not out of place to add that I agree with part of the poem, the idea that people somehow find reasons to go on living and celebrating their lives in the face of the horrors they suffer.  Where I differ is in the poet's declaration that God wants them to do so.  I don't believe in gods, but if they exist, their wishes don't determine what I think or do.  If we "risk delight," it's not because of the gods, but despite them.  (The "risk," if any, in most theologies would be that the gods don't want us to be happy, and will punish us for daring to be so.  Compare C. S. Lewis's very orthodox claim that Yahweh makes people suffer because they've had it too easy, and "The creature's illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature's sake, be shattered.")  It would be altogether right to go on living in flat defiance of their wishes, and to curse them and the locomotive they rode in on.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

As Hope and Change Sink Slowly in the West ...

I'd pretty much given up on Pearl Cleage because of her relentless cheerleading for Obama, but then today she posted this on Facebook:
I know it's unrealistic to dream this dream, but a part of my imagination keeps seeing a scene where President Obama goes to Ferguson and walks through the streets, talking to people, reassuring Michael Brown's family that justice will [be] done, being present on the scene, smelling the tear gas in the air, making sense of things,, articulating a vision for the next phase of our national life...
This is pretty mild stuff, but it's the closest to actual criticism of Obama that I've ever seen from her in the past five and a half years. When someone like Cleage lays down her pompoms and faces reality, even if only for a moment, even someone like me finds it difficult to do the "I Told You So" dance. But only for a moment.

At the Tower of Babel They Knew What They Were After ... But I Don't

The sound from a television in the student union was turned up high this morning, so C-SPAN's story on state laws mandating English as an official language caught my attention as I passed by.  They were taking calls from viewers, and the one that started as I came along was from a guy in Michigan who cited the Tower of Babel.  Since I'd recently read Tim William Machan's Language Anxiety (Oxford, 2009), which uses the story of Babel as a unifying metaphor, I stayed to hear how the caller was going to use it.

Alas, the Holy Spirit wasn't helping the caller; he recounted (or probably read aloud) the story, and then lost momentum.  First he started to invoke the Christian-racist line that God had put different peoples in different countries for a reason (which would imply that he himself should go back to Anglo-Saxia, or wherever these people came from), but dropped it for another tack.   He said that he wasn't "afraid" of other languages, he'd studied Latin and German in high school, and, uh... The host cut him off at that point, saying that they wanted to talk to more callers from Michigan.

For your convenience, here's the story from Genesis 11 in the New King James Version:
1  Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Pretty short, isn't it?  The epithet often applied to the Biblical manner is laconic,  and it certainly applies here.  It's always a good idea to look at the canonical versions of famous Bible stories, since thousands of years of use have decorated them with details that are not in the originals, re-shaping them according to official agendas and laypeople's fancies.  Even Machan did this, mixing in post-biblical revisions of the story throughout his book, and I was never sure he knew he was doing this.

When I first took a serious look at Genesis 11 a couple of decades ago, I noticed that Yahweh seemed really to worry that the Tower would reach Heaven.  I found that funny, since a tower of baked clay bricks with tar for mortar wouldn't even get close.  (Those of my generation will recall that many people in the Fifties and Sixties warned that the US space program was analogous in its sinful pride to the Tower, an attempt to usurp God's prerogatives.)   In this, the story resembles Genesis 3, where Yahweh says that Adam and Eve, having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, have become "as gods," just as the serpent had promised them they would, and he drives them out of Eden to keep them from eating from the Tree of Eternal Life and living forever.  This version is very different from the standard Christian interpretation, and it raises interesting questions for Christianity.  For example, the Jesus of the gospels promises eternal life to his followers -- isn't that just what Yahweh didn't want us to have?

Machan recounted how the Babel story has been used by people who were anxious about English from the Middle Ages to present-day America:
From the very different perspective of a native Anglophone, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., protests what he calls the ‘cult of ethnicity’ in modern America but likewise uses the Babel model for non-linguistic purposes.  Mixing literary and biblical allusions with emotive metaphors, he bluntly warns of what will happen if variation is allowed to proceed unchecked: ‘Will the center hold?  Or will the melting pot give way to the Tower of Babel?’  [quoting The Disuniting of America, rev. edn. Norton, 1998, 22]
While I listened to the caller on C-SPAN today, it occurred to me that Babel might not be the most comforting model for English-only cranks, since it implies that having just one language makes Yahweh nervous, and you don't want to see him when he's nervous.  Maybe the influx of foreigners with their foreign languages is Yahweh's way of keeping America from becoming too proud and powerful, just as he did in Shinar a few generations after the Deluge?  It's odd how people who invoke Babel in this context see linguistic confusion as something to be resisted, instead of humbly accepted as the will and chastisement of the Lord.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Hamster Wheel

Robin Williams is dead, evidently by his own hand.  I was never a big fan, and as time went on I got tired of the types of characters he played and the way he played them.  According to the first reports, Williams had been "battling depression" for a long time, and that may have had something to do with my Robin Williams fatigue: there was too little joy in his persona, too much struggle against the engulfing darkness.  I don't say that to blame him, understand, only to say what I found unappealing in his work.  It is of course terribly sad that he suffered so much for so long.  No one should have to go through that.

Leaving aside Williams as a person, because I know nothing about him as a person, it has been interesting to see what people have been saying about the force that evidently drove him to  take his life.  What I've seen shows how confused a concept "mental illness" is in ordinary discourse.  (And not only there.)  The first commentaries I saw stressed the importance of Getting Help: If you're experiencing depression, people wrote, Get Help!  All I know about Williams is what I read online, but it would be surprising if he never did seek help.  He was married and had a family, as a star he had a professional network of friends and coworkers and agents who would have known about his problem, and he would at least have been under considerable pressure to see a therapist and get medication.  I suspect that people who repeated the Get Help mantra weren't really talking about Williams, or even about people with clinical depression, but just saying what they needed to say, as others would have urged prayer and fasting.

So, for example, someone wrote in a comment thread:
i don't believe he truly intended to commit suicide ... he was in active treatment for severe depression and they were messing with his meds ... and we all know every psycho-med carries the danger of 'suicidal tendencies" during adjustment periods ... personally, i'm happy for him - he's free from all this bullsh*t here which is probably what contributed to his lifelong depression
I don't know how this person knew what treatment Williams was getting for his depression, but suppose it's true.  If so, then all the urging to Get Help seems like dubious advice.  It's known that "every psycho-med carries the danger of 'suicidal tendencies'", and not just during adjustment periods but throughout their use, but also that they are not much (if any) more effective than placebos over the long haul.  Williams did Get Help, but it didn't help him, didn't make the pain go away.

That last sentence is odd, though, isn't it?  If you believe that clinical depression is a medical condition, then it has nothing to do with "all this bulls*t here, which could not have "contributed to his lifelong depression."  His depression, like all clinical depression according to the psychiatric model, was the result of "chemical imbalance" in the brain, not of anything in Williams's life.  If he'd lived in the Garden of Eden before the fall, he'd still have been miserable.

So too, some other people wrote about their feeling that they could have saved Williams if they'd been there, that they would have seen his pain and let him know they loved him.  Perhaps he killed himself because people didn't show him how much they cared?  So, for example, a friend wrote:
There is nothing worse in life than feeling unwanted....... As we all mourn Robin Williams, I wonder if that is one thing in life that drives people over the edge - feeling all alone in the world, with nobody and nothing to live for. Because if there is a bridge, however tiny, to someone who cares or something that has a meaning, can one really make that one final, irreversible step?
Another person wrote:
And it's true. Depression will sneak up on you and when you least expect it, it will get the upper hand. Phone a friend or find someone when it get so hard.
If Robin Williams felt unwanted, it could hardly have been because people around him failed to let him know they cared.  I've known a few people who might have been clinically depressed, but who in any case couldn't or wouldn't believe that others loved them, despite the love and support they received from their friends and their family.  Again, I'm not making a moral judgment here: I've been depressed at times myself, and I know how impermeable those bad feelings are to the real world.  I've felt worthless and hopeless, and all the concern of people who respected and loved me couldn't get through.  In time those feelings passed, and I can't claim that it was because I suddenly realized that I was loved and respected; I don't know why they passed, so I'm not bragging any more than I'm condemning Robin Williams, or the friends I've known who were trapped for whatever reason in the sealed glass jar of depression.  This doesn't mean we needn't love and support others, or that they needn't love and support us; it means that a failure to build bridges was not the cause of Robin Williams's suicide.

The point is that it's worse than useless to blame other people for Williams's suicide if he was, in fact, clinically depressed: it's morally (and medically, for that matter) wrong.  In the first place, everyone has failed someone else at some point in their life.  That includes Robin Williams and the legions of other depressed people.  Demanding that everyone be perfectly, self-denyingly supportive of other people at all times is a hopeless counsel, because it's impossible.  I learned this from Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur, by the way: no one can meet another person's every need and wish.  (Have you never met someone who blamed you for failing to know what they wanted, presumably by reading their mind?  No, I didn't say anything about it, but you should have known!  If you don't know, I'm certainly not going to tell you!)  Dinnerstein was writing about children in relation to their mothers, but I think this generalizes to adults.  Demanding total self-sacrificing service to others a great way to foster guilt, if that's what you want to do, but 1) it's not what I want to do, and 2) it won't work, because the demand is impossible to satisfy.

I've noticed this before, and it's ironic: both the medical model and the touchy-feely Culture of Therapy claim to suspend judgment, but they don't in fact do so.  Especially the Culture of Therapy is built around blaming people, both the victims (who clearly don't love themselves enough) and those around them (who failed to be perfect egoless mommies).  Robin Williams killed himself because he didn't Get Help, or didn't believe in the love of others, or because others didn't love him, and left him to suffer.  That his pain had nothing to do with him as a person, or with the failings of his family and friends, is not really acceptable; it must be someone's fault.  (Not God's, though -- God isn't responsible for anything.)

And let's not forget that in much mourning there is great anger at the deceased for going away.  That anger lurks under the blame in Williams's case, you don't have to dig very far to find it. As in this monumental declaration:
Depression can go fuck itself.
We loved him, but he didn't listen to us!  He didn't Get Help!  Other people didn't love him enough!  He felt unloved, like he was the only person in the world, because other people didn't build bridges to him!  We have to find somebody to blame!  Bad wicked Depression did it!  He went away and left us!  Depression took him away from us!

There's also a denial of death in this, as in so much mourning.  Everyone dies, but most people talk (at least some of the time) as if death is not inevitable.  A suicide like Williams's complicates the matter, because it was not inevitable that he die at that moment; he chose it.  (Couldn't that be seen, contrary to the person I quoted above, as Williams making his own decision to end his suffering?  Who is making these decisions?)  But people react just as unrealistically to 'natural' death.  It might be magnified in the case of a celebrity like Williams, whom millions thought they knew and loved without ever having met him.  I've seen several posts where once again, lines that were written by others for him to speak onscreen are ascribed to him.  Even if by performing he identified himself with his roles, even if he took a kind of responsibility for them in that way, this confusion of the player with the play is troubling.  We love you, Robin! but love based on a projected image isn't really love.  It's about what the other represents for us in our fantasies, regardless of his or her own feelings or needs.