Monday, August 31, 2015

Mensa for Dummies

John Scalzi posted a grab of one of his tweets this morning:

It was prompted by the ongoing Sad Puppies vs. Social Justice Warriors "kerfuffles surrounding science fiction and its awards, there have been a couple of people (and their spouses, declaiming about their beloved) who have been slapping down Mensa cards as proof that they (or their spouse) are smart."  Scalzi explained, in his trademark style, why doing this tends to prove the opposite.  For example:
Your Mensa card does not mean you know how to argue. Your Mensa card does not mean you do not make errors or lapses in judgment. Your Mensa card is not a “get out of jail free” card when someone pokes holes in your thesis. Your Mensa card does not mean that you can’t be racist or sexist or otherwise bigoted. You may not say “I have a Mensa card, therefore my logic is irrefutable.”
Good enough.  The comments under his post are another matter, however.  They fell into two main groups. In one group, the commenter would mention that he or she had attended Mensa meetings, even joined for a while, and found the people in the organization to be mostly pretty nice people.  The other group declared that they'd never joined or gone to a meeting, but all the Mensa members they'd met were jerks.  I found this latter group fascinating, because despite their evident conviction of their own superior intelligence, they were making a fundamental logical mistake, one that Scalzi himself didn't: they were generalizing an entire group based on their experience of a few, probably unrepresentative, members.  Analogous stereotypes are "All the Christian fundamentalists I know are hypocrites," "Did you ever see a fag who wasn't effeminate?" (actual example), "All heroin addicts started out on pot, so smoking pot will turn you into a heroin addict."

(Just for disclosure's sake, I have never joined Mensa or gone to a meeting.  The Mensa members I know in person are quite nice and bright people, and the Mensa jerks I've encountered were all online, trying to establish their intellectual credentials by bragging about their IQ scores or their Mensa membership.)

Some of the discussion focused on IQ tests and SATs.  Several commenters pointed out the uselessness of IQ tests as a measure of intelligence.  One riposted:
IQ tests (what Mensa uses) are tests of aptitude. They are basically measuring how easily and quickly you will learn and absorb concepts of all types, and solve new problems. How accurate they are is almost beside the point because really they are irrelevant in most situations including arguments about topics.

How easily you could learn is not a measure of how much you know.
If two people sit down to learn a skill and one can attain expertise in 1 hour and the other needs 1.5 hours that is interesting. However if the first person never spends the hour learning the skill then the second person is absolutely the one you want around when you need that skill set.
IQ tests do not measure aptitude.  As far as I know, no one knows how to do that.  IQ tests mostly measure what you already know, or know how to do.  I last took an IQ test in high school, and I don't recall any part of it devoted to how quickly I could learn a skill; nor, from what I've read about the IQ controversies, has such an exercise become part of the test since then.

Similarly, the SAT, which was based on the Stanford-Binet IQ tests, was originally "called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, then the SAT Reasoning Test, and now simply the SAT."  The College Board. who owns the franchise, explains that it "tests the skills you’re learning in school: reading, writing and math. Your strength in these subjects is important for success in college and throughout your life," which sounds like what used to be called an achievement test.  It is not an aptitude test, and it's not even a very good predictor of college success, though that's its usual rationale.  This commenter's confident assertions are interesting; they seem to have no basis in fact, and I wonder where he or she got them.

Another commenter, a former Mensa member, wrote:
I studied rhetoric in school and my mom was a physicist; what I learned from this background is that the way to persuade people is to provide relevant and verifiable evidence.
I think this person may be confusing "is" and "ought."  I also value relevant and verifiable evidence, but I've learned to my disappointment that many, even most people, don't.  The way to persuade people in the real world appears to be to assert, as loudly as possible, that your opponent is fat or Republican or a libtard or a funditard or an asshole.  This approach is more "natural," and much easier.  It's also more effective, from what I see.

For example, this morning a liberal / progressive friend of a friend shared this meme on Facebook:

According to Snopes, Palin didn't say this and wasn't even on Hannity on that date.  I pointed this out in a comment on the Facebook post, exulting sarcastically that liberals aren't gullible or dishonest like Republitards.  Of course the person who'd posted was displeased -- she reacted exactly like the right-wingers I know react when I point out that they've posted something bogus, asking why I was on her timeline and getting indignant about my meddling.  Mockery is a very private thing, especially when you're posting it in public on Facebook.  One hears that social media are an echo chamber, that people want to engage only with people who share their politics; to a great extent that's true, as this person showed.  And I suppose we need places where we can find others who share our opinions and prejudices, but we also need to engage with people who don't, or the social and political changes this person hopes for will never happen.

Back at Scalzi's blog, the same commenter continued:
Anti-intellectualism is hardly the worst form of prejudice, but I know people who have been hurt. Also it’s like fat-shaming; we’re not a protected class and some people think it’s okay to show disrespect.
This lament was oddly off-topic.  The Sad Puppies clearly see themselves as intelligent, and intelligence of certain kinds as important and a sign of one's value.  They may well be anti-intellectual, since they associate what they call Social Justice Warriors with a kind of pointy-headed intellectualism that is widely devalued and mocked by people who think themselves intelligent.  "And let’s be honest — we all know someone who’s pretty book-smart and pretty life-stupid," wrote another commenter, providing an example of this distinction.  I can't recall where, but not too long ago I read something where the writer distinguished between being intelligent and being an intellectual.  I think of an intellectual as someone who works with more or less abstract ideas; an engineer or other scientist may be highly intelligent but no good at dealing with ideas, and dismissive of those who can.

As for the rest of his remarks: Being in “a protected class” doesn’t mean that others can’t “show disrespect” to you, nor should it. “Protected class” is a problematic legal term which means that the law will protect you from certain specified and more-or-less carefully defined forms of discrimination. But showing disrespect is fine, and hardly anyone really believes that it isn’t — except disrespect to themselves. For example, almost everybody wants respect for their religious affiliation, and discrimination based on religion is forbidden by Civil Rights law in certain spheres. But just about everybody has some religious class — liberals, fundamentalists, “Cafeteria Christians,” etc. — they love to mock and disrespect, and they’d be outraged if anyone told them not to. And the other part of the First Amendment guarantees our right to do so, as it should.

So sure, it’s perfectly okay to show disrespect to intellectuals, or to the intelligent.  It's not necessary to define bookish kids as a "protected class" to protect them from the bullying they too often face at school.  But kids who aren't "smart" also face bullying and contempt at school, including from their teachers, and they also need help from those around them.  If anything, they are probably more vulnerable than the smart kids: I know people who've been hurt.

I've mentioned before the graduate student I once knew who told me, sweetly and almost shyly, “I don’t say this to many people, but I think of you as my intellectual equal.” I thanked him, embarrassed, because I realized that though I hadn’t thought about it before, and don’t go around making such comparisons in the first place, I didn’t consider him my intellectual equal.  But, as Scalzi noted this morning, what he said revealed more about him than it did about me.

Credit where credit's due: I stole this post's title from another of Scalzi's commenters.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

There's Gold in Them Far-Out Hills

I've begun reading Gerald Graff's Literature Against Itself, originally published in 1979 but reprinted in 1995 with a new preface by Graff that I'm saving until I've read the rest of the book.  I like Graff, and have read several of his other books, but this is the first of his scholarly books I've gotten into.  It's dense, and will take me a while to read, but it's also very entertaining and quotable, including when Graff is quoting someone else.

For example, early on he quotes the critic Harold Rosenberg, who wrote in 1972:
Social and/or aesthetic far-outness is a public relations technique aimed at the presumed indignation of a stable middle class that ceased to exist four decades ago [2, footnote].
Graff also cites evidence that outraging the middle class was exhausted at least as far back as the 1920s.

I mostly agree with this, though immediately after I read it with approval, it occurred to me that there is still an American middle class, ready and eager to be indignant at the performance art of various political and media celebrities.  Ironically, given, the traditional association with this indignation with conservative and reactionary sectors of the population, today's cultivators of the ragegasm are mostly liberal, while those who feed their indignation are on the Right.  This was true even when Literature Against Itself was originally published; it hasn't become less true in the years since then.

A page or so later, Graff himself remarks:
Some scholars in this group [those who feel little affiliation with the literary or critical "vanguard"] applaud attacks on deconstructionism and other fashions as proofs that they need not bother to read the critics in question.  It would be self-deluding to pretend that in attacking "fashionable" ideas, one is not oneself doing something fashionable [3-4].
Of course this cuts both ways and up and down, as Graff goes on to note:
Both the "conservative" and the "vanguard" factions in current cultural quarrels use the word "fashionable" as a stick with which to beat the other side, yet both sides can substantiate their usage convincingly enough [4].
And that's just in the first few pages.  I'll be taking a lot of notes as I proceed.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Honor among Scholars

Over thirty years ago I began studying the New Testament and Christian origins, mostly on my own though I took a class or two along the way.  I began for several reasons. I wanted to write a definitive essay on why biblical teaching on homosexuality had no authority, and found that the backstory was too large for anything brief.  I was also reacting to the defensive arguments of Christians that I should judge Christianity by Jesus and his teachings, not by the interpretations or conduct of specific Christians.

This project turned out to be very rewarding.  It reaffirmed my atheism in a way that no writing by an atheist could have done, though I had read and continued to read writings by atheists.  I learned how to do research, and how to think historically and critically.  But I also learned that if I hoped to learn the truth about Jesus and Christianity, I was doomed to failure.  In the first few months I read several reconstructions of Jesus' career that at first seemed plausible enough.  After each one, I'd read another that effectively refuted the previous one, and offered another, initially plausible account of what Jesus and the early Christians were up to; and so it went.  One of the conclusions I reached was that it is probably impossible to produce a valid account of the historical Jesus.

This, I recognize, assumes that there was a historical Jesus.  I'm agnostic on that question, because the same difficulties that prevent our producing a reliable picture of the Jesus of history also make it impossible to say for certain that he did or didn't exist.  This is true of all history: certainty is almost never possible.  The best we can do is to sort out probabilities, even concerning fairly recent events and people where the documentation is much richer.  That's why I recommend Albert Schweitzer's The Quest for the Historical Jesus, originally published in German in 1906 and first translated into English in 1910, to anyone who's interested in this subject.  The bulk of that book is a survey of historical-Jesus research from the late 1700s to around 1900; Schweitzer showed what was wrong with all of the theories those writers produced, and then offered up his own reconstruction, which had flaws of its own but still challenges New Testament scholars more than a century later.  You won't learn what Jesus did say or do, but you may learn to be skeptical of the speculations or other claims about Jesus that you'll encounter -- not just from Christians, but from non-Christians and anti-Christians who are sure that the Bible is fiction but are mysteriously convinced that their opinions and speculations are non-fiction.  You'll also learn that almost all accounts of the supposedly real Jesus that are touted as something new are not only old, but were refuted ignominiously by Schweitzer a hundred years ago.

Recently I read Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret by David F. Watson, published in 2010 by Fortress Press, which over the years has published many books I've found useful.  It looked like this one might offer some new insights into the New Testament, so when I heard of it I went to the university library and checked it out.  And I did learn from Honor Among Christians, though nothing really earth-shaking.

Watson, like numerous scholars before him, seeks to apply social science to biblical interpretation, in particular to the problem known to scholars as "the Messianic Secret."  That phrase applies mainly to the gospel of Mark, where Jesus tries (inconsistently) to maintain secrecy not only about his status as messiah but about some of the miracles he performs.  In 1901 a German scholar named Wilhelm Wrede published a book on this problem, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien [The messianic secret in the gospels], which wasn't translated into English until 1971 -- in time, luckily, for me to read it.  It had much the same impact on New Testament studies as Schweitzer's big book: it was upsetting to conventional piety, but it was too well-argued to ignore altogether.

There are elements of secrecy in the other three gospels, as well as elsewhere in the New Testament, but it was Wrede's discussion of Mark that drew the most attention.  Briefly, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus drives out demons, who on their way out of their victims claim to know who he is, and he silences them.  Sometimes when Jesus does healings, he takes the sick person aside, or (as in the case of the daughter of Jairus), shuts himself in a room with only one or two other people (usually his chief disciples) present.  Afterward, he may or may not order them to tell no one about what he has done, though this doesn't work: despite his strictures, people will talk, and they do.  When Simon Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus tells him and the rest of the Twelve not to tell anyone about him until after he has died and risen from the dead.  Scholars had already noticed these and other details in the gospels, and debated what they meant.  If they were historically true, and until the late 19th century most biblical scholars took for granted that they were, they sought to explain why Jesus would behave like this.  Wrede argued that these details were not historical but were dogmatic or theological -- that is, Mark invented them to make theological or doctrinal points.

I read Wrede around 1990, and I noticed that much of what I'd read about his work was erroneous, as if often the case with controversial ideas. Some of the received wisdom about flaws in his argument turned out to be about ideas that he considered but rejected. But I can't recall the details; I should reread The Messianic Secret sometime soon.  So I'm not sure about some of Watson's criticisms of Wrede, but I'll grant their validity for the sake of argument.  For example, I think Watson is correct that not all of the "secrecy" in Mark is necessarily related to Jesus' status as messiah, and that not all of it is necessarily secrecy.  He devotes a chapter to the language and concepts of secrecy in the ancient Mediterranean world, which is one of the best parts of the book.

The application of social science to this material is interesting too.  Watson argues that Jesus' culture, as well as others around the Mediterranean, placed a very strong emphasis on honor and shame.  Expectations about how a man should honorably conduct himself, how he should avoid shame, how he should react to praise, how he should treat his inferiors, and how they should respond to patronage.  So, Watson argues, when Jesus tries to keep his healings secret, he is deliberately going against the normal expectations of a great man, who would usually expect thanks and praise and the spreading of his fame for helping others.  Jesus wanted to overturn the normal conception of honor, by arguing that the great should be the servants of the less, rather than lording it over them.

This is all very well, but it's not exactly news, nor is social science necessary to see it.  Even if you know nothing about ancient Mediterranean culture, an attentive reader can see that Mark's Jesus (and not only Mark's) is going against the grain of his society.  He must continually squelch his disciples' competition for status among themselves, for example; he must tell people not to spread around the news of (some of) his miracles, though as Watson and other scholars have noticed, his efforts are doomed to failure from the start.

After all, if he didn't really want all that attention, why do the miracles?  They weren't part of the normal messianic expectations, which Jesus supposedly didn't want to fulfill anyway.  It can be argued that he had to do his miracles, because of his compassion for human suffering; but many of his miracles have nothing to do with that.  Some, like walking on water, look like mere showing off.  Some of his secrecy, such as his declaration that he taught in parables so that his audiences would not understand him, has no detectable relation to the culture of shame.  As Graham Shaw pointed out in The Cost of Authority (Fortress Press, 1982), some of his non-miraculous conduct was oddly provocative for someone who supposedly didn't want attention: "For paradoxically the refusal to conform to demands for public religious observance is itself intensely visible; so that the criticism of religious visibility acquires many of the characteristics of exhibitionism.  Repeatedly they attract hostile attention to themselves and their master.  Invisible spiritual religion thus proves to have a highly public face."  Early in Mark's story Jesus also publicly claimed the authority to forgive sins, which was hardly a stance of meek humility.

A common explanation for Jesus' quixotic secrecy, noted by Watson, is that he didn't want to come to the attention of the Roman authorities, who took a dim view of anyone who drew crowds in territories they controlled.  Again, if that was really his concern, why do the miracles, why preach publicly, why draw all the attention to himself while pretending he didn't really want it?  Supposedly, as I indicated before, Jesus was at odds with the normal expectation that the Messiah would be a military figure and a king in the mold of David; but instead of disavowing them openly, he played coy games with his audiences.  Was he or wasn't he a prophet, the reincarnation of Elijah, John the Baptist resuscitated ... ?  Jesus wasn't telling; you had to guess.

And, of course, according to Christian mythology, Jesus ultimately wanted to come to the Romans' attention.  He told his disciples that the prophets had foretold that the messiah must be betrayed, crucified, and on the third day rise from the dead.  (The prophets had also foretold a great military victory which would restore David's kingdom, extending its rule to the entire world, but Jesus supposedly wasn't on board with that part.)  Eventually he entered Jerusalem with great fanfare, violently disrupted the Temple Court in front of thousands of people (including the occupying Roman troops), playing hide-and-seek with his enemies until they finally caught him. That was supposedly Judas Iscariot's fault, but what would have happened to Jesus' mission if he hadn't been caught?  He was supposed to die on the cross for the sins of humanity.  After the resurrection, of course, all pretense of humility on Jesus' part went out the window: he ascended to the right hand of the Father, resumed his status as the Second Person of the Trinity, and would eventually judge the quick and dead.  According to the New Testament, he would then become a military messiah; the conventional expectations were not really rejected, just postponed.

Watson doesn't do much better with Mark's conflicting and inconsistent narrative than his predecessors have done, it seems to me.  The "culture of shame" theme makes sense of some of the material he needs to account for, but not all of it.  I also think that Watson underestimates how important honor and shame remain in the modern West.  I haven't observed that modern Christians have any trouble understanding what Jesus was demanding of his followers by ordering them to be humble servants, though they do (understandably) have as much difficulty meeting those demands as Jesus' first followers did.  Twenty-first century social science isn't necessary to see how Mark's Jesus went against his culture's ideas of a good or great man's attitudes and behavior, because they are our culture's ideas too.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Is This Clip Really Necessary?

This article is a good example of bad punditry.  "If we watch the Virginia TV shooting is the suspected shooter 'winning'?" asks the headline.  First off, it seems to me that referring to the killer as "suspected" is over-scrupulous.  Even if he hadn't bragged about the killings online, he's dead by his own hand, so leaving out "suspected" or "alleged" isn't going to prejudice his chances in court.  Second, since he is dead, he's not going to "win."  He's not even going to enjoy the notoriety he sought and gained.

Myself, I'm not really interested in watching it. Whether the shooter "wins" or not doesn't interest me either.  (There are echoes here of the "If we do X or don't do Y, the terrorists have won" trope that became ubiquitous after 9/11.  It quickly became the target of well-deserved mockery; so should its use in this case.)  I'm more interested in asking those who do watch it: Why? I think the burden of argument lies on anyone who says I should watch it. Do they have any good reasons, as opposed to mere voyeurism?

Mary McNamara, the LA Times writer of this piece, is very high-minded.
Obviously murder is not entertainment, and it's difficult to believe that anyone would be viewing or sharing the videos for entertainment's sake. News outlets did not show the space shuttle Challenger explode repeatedly on a minute-by-minute basis, or the Twin Towers fall over and over again, for entertainment's sake.

We do not watch news reports in which police brutalize teenagers or armies level villages for entertainment's sake. We watch to see what happened. We watch because no amount of aftermath reporting or narrative reconstruction captures an event with more power and clarity than video footage.
I don't think McNamara knows why "we" watch this stuff any more than I do.  My own take is that I'm only interested in watching video of events that are contested, and often not even then.  I never watched the clips of the Twin Towers falling, for example, because there wasn't any doubt that they had fallen.  And when some people I knew told me I must watch them, they were explicit that they watched them, and wanted me to watch, to stoke their fury against the dirty Arabs who'd done it so that they could support Bush's call for vengeance against people who hadn't done it.  There was nothing in those videos that told me or anyone else who was responsible for the attacks or what should be done about them.  But they were spectacular.  It looks to me like the clips of the killing of Alison Parker and Alan Ward are being used for similar purposes, without a better rationale.

There's a piece at the Guardian which is even worse.  "The man who craved an audience, according to his colleagues, forced America to watch," writes Matthew Teague.  Funny -- I'm an American, and I didn't watch the original broadcast, which was on a local TV station, and so not seen by "America" until the national media picked it up.  I didn't see that either, because I don't watch TV news.  But if anyone "forced America" to watch, it was the national media.  It was their choice; no one forced them.  Anytime journalists claim that it's their duty to run with a sensational story of dubious news value, it's time to be skeptical.  Is it also news when the US government targets whistleblowers and journalists, by jailing them or by killing them, in order to suppress stories our rulers don't want told?  Not so much.  Remember too the "Collateral Damage" video released by Wikileaks, which I did watch.  Americans need to see it to be made to face what their government, their armed forces, and their tax dollars are doing; but our news media mostly weren't interested.  In general, US atrocities aren't news.

I have little patience -- well, none -- when people claim to be victims of the media, manipulated or even "forced" to watch them, their minds controlled, etc.  They have many options, which they mostly don't exercise.  Sometimes they (and I'm talking about liberals and progressives here) demand that the government control the media so they would have to tell the truth.  The government, of course, is impartial and would guarantee that We the People are protected from media lies.  It's telling that these bold critical thinkers are so willing to abandon their responsibility for informing themselves and give it to the government.

So, I haven't yet seen any good reason why I should watch the clips of the killing of Alison Parker and Alan Ward.  Í'm not persuaded that people want to watch such videos out of a disinterested desire to know what happened.  That doesn't mean that people shouldn't watch them; I only ask that they interrogate their own motives with the same skepticism they'd apply to the motives of other people.  I know, I ask too much. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

This Man Must Be a Self-Fulfilling Prophet

Why does this meme-maker write as though most of "2010's America" didn't support government-run healthcare, expanding Social Security, raising taxes on the rich, and all those other "socialist" programs and policies? Why do people who think that they're smarter than Republitards accept and spread the corporate media / Republicrat propaganda line that the US today is right-wing? Yes, there are people who want to eliminate social programs, but they are a minority. Often they are even a minority of Republicans.  To talk as though they represented America in this decade is not only dishonest, it's siding with them by taking their claims as fact.
And it's not as if there weren't many in 1930s America who opposed the New Deal. FDR had to work against a lot of opposition. Probably about the same proportion of the population. Much of the opposition that didn't come from the wealthy came from working-class whites who didn't want the New Deal programs to help blacks -- in other words, to prevent the enactment of any program that would benefit anyone beside themselves. This meme perpetrates historical ignorance, and worse, misinformation.  It also encourages liberals and progressives to believe that the obstacles to improving life for most Americans come from the vast majority of Americans, thus giving themselves an excuse for failure in advance.  As Whatever It Is I'm Against It wrote of their hero and role model, "It’s pretty much always Obama’s working assumption that he will lose any fight. And then, funnily enough, he does."

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Franker and More Celebratory

In my earlier post on Kate O'Brien's 1958 novel As Music and Splendour, I noticed that Emma Donoghue wrote in 2010 that it had "a tactful and inexplicit quality" and doesn't put "a female couple center stage and neither is written from and for an emerging lesbian community the way Patience and Sarah so clearly was."  As I wrote in that post, when I read As Music and Splendour (thanks to Donoghue's reference to it) I found it surprisingly blunt and forthright, and its female couple shared center stage with the other main character's heterosexual relationships.

Then I stumbled on a reference to an earlier essay by Donoghue on O'Brien's work, which appeared in 1993 in Ordinary People Dancing: Essays on Kate O'Brien, edited by Eibhear Walshe and published by Cork University Press.  Donoghue's take on As Music and Splendour was quite different in that piece, much closer to mine.
What I find so satisfying about working on Kate O’Brien rather than on other lesbian novelists, quite apart from the quality of her writing, is her honesty.  She is explicit – not about sex (concerning which she has little to say) but about moral issues, decisions, hard words.  Reading the works of her contemporaries, even those as apparently “out” as Gertrude Stein, we have to struggle through euphemisms and code-words, layers of innuendo and ambiguity, all designed to protect the writers from embarrassing accusations.  Romantic friendships, especially in the girls’-school literary subgenre (a powerful example is Dorothy Strachey Bussy’s Olivia (1949), are often given a degree of intense eroticism that can only be called lesbian – yet nothing can be proved.  Whereas Kate O’Brien, on the two occasions when she writes about passion between adult women, calls it exactly that; no coyness veils her analysis of lesbian relationships.  She knows, and she makes her heroines acknowledge, that this is not romantic friendship but a quite different thing: something equivalent to marital love, though outside its social ‘order’; something punishable and costly, but often worth the price [48].
As Music and Splendour (1958) is like Mary Lavelle in that the story unfolds far away from Ireland, but is much franker and more celebratory in its account of a relationship between two women.  Instead of playing a supporting role, the lesbian is one of the two heroines, whose stories are presented equally and in parallel.  Set at a safe distance in place (Paris and Rome) and time (the 1880s), As Music and Splendour nonetheless manages to create a modern Irish lesbian and give her a startling voice [50].
Much better.  I just realized that this essay was published in the same year as Donoghue's excellent historical study Passion Between Women.  Since then she has published a study of the poet(s) Michael Field, which I haven't yet read, and Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature, which I have.  I just looked again at Inseparable, which covers a lot of 20th century lesbian fiction as well as much older works, and I see that though Donoghue mentioned O'Brien and As Music and Splendour in it, she again got it wrong, lumping it in with The Well of Loneliness and The Friendly Young Ladies as a novel where the "generous" lesbian gives up her girlfriend to a man. Maybe it had been too long since she'd read either the novel or her earlier discussion of it.  With this 1993 essay, "'Out of Order': Kate O'Brien's Lesbian Fictions," to guide me, I'll be working through the rest of Kate O'Brien's novels.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Così Fan Tutte

I've been having frustrating computer problems, still not completely solved, or I'd have written here sooner.

A regular reader sent me a mail message recently, saying that he's "a LITTLE more in favor of [the] 'some people have always been gay' argument" than I am.  I found this baffling.

"Some people have pretty much always been gay" isn't an argument, it's a claim.  Depending on what it's supposed to mean, I agree with it.  That is, I think it's as certain as any historical claim can be that there have always been some people who were interested erotically only in their own sex.  There's documentation of that from many cultures over a couple thousand years, and I see no reason to suppose that it's not true at almost all times and almost all places.  I think it's also pretty clear that same-sex eroticism isn't limited to such people, that many people have had sexual experience with partners of both sexes in varying proportions.

What I don't agree with is the other claims some people make around this one.  It's not surprising, because most people bring cultural and personal baggage with them, myself not excluded.  There's no agreement what being gay, or being homosexual, or being bisexual, means.  I didn't exaggerate too much in my Gay Christians Say the Darnedest Things post, when I wrote sarcastically that because Leonardo had no Madonna CDs and (shame!) didn't go to Judy's Carnegie Hall concert, many scholars doubt that he was really gay.  In the first place, not all gay people are alike nowadays in the US, and I see no reason to suppose that that's a new development limited to the US.  Nor, of course, does it follow that because there have always been people who were interested erotically in their own sex, that exclusive interest is therefore inborn, or genetic, or biological, or whatever.

Related to these notions, I believe, is the excuse often made for stereotyping, that "stereotypes have some truth in them" because some people do fit the stereotypes.  This line came up at the discussion group I attended last week in San Francisco, and I wish I'd thought to ask what now seems to me the obvious question: So what? What follows from it?  It certainly doesn't follow that everyone is obliged to conform to the stereotypes just because some people do.  That seems to be what is meant, however: that inside every gay man, however butch he may pretend to be, is a screaming queen trying to claw her way out, and that every self-styled bisexual is just a closet case who, if he were honest with himself, would have sex only with other males.  In his book on male prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, for example, Mark Padilla reports that local gay men told him:
“I hope you’re going to prove what we already know: they’re all closet cases [son unos tapa’os].”  This implies the existence of a deeper, more authentic sexual identity that is being actively repressed by the bugarrón, who fails to recognize his own fundamental sexuality and public mark himself in terms of his presumed same-sex erotic preference [33].
There are numerous ironies here, aside from Padilla's own frequent cluelessness.  One is that these Dominican gay men subscribe to a trade/queer model of male homosexuality, though (as always seems to be the case) with plenty of slippage.  If all the bugarrones dropped their pretensions and came out as flaming travestís, there'd be no tops to supply the all-important dick to Dominican gays.  As Padilla also pointed out of a Dominican bar's quixotic attempt to exclude bugarrones,
The policy was doomed to fail from the beginning. First, it seemed entirely incongruous with the erotic integration – and in many ways, the economic interdependence – of bugarrónes and gay-identified men. Local bugarrón-gay or bugarrón-travestí relationships frequently entail an economic arrangement in which the gay/travestí mantiene a su bugarrón (supports his bugarrón), an inversion of the typical gender division of labor in heterosexual relationships.  Further, despite the occasional tensions between them, bugarrónes still represent the erotic ideal for a significant proportion of gay-identified [Dominican] men, reflecting what [Stephen O.] Murray ... has described as the sexual system of “homosexual exogamy” in Latin American homoeroticism. Thus, in their attempts to “clean up” the bar, the owners of Tropicalia were planning to purge a primary source of gay men’s attraction to the business: bugarrónes. As many local gay men commented to me, “So, if they keep bugarrónes out, why would we go there?” [32-3]
In much the same way that many heterosexual men will try to get "nice" girls to have sex with them, in order to prove that all women are essentially whores, the Dominican gays, like the norteamericano tourists, will try to get bugarrones to dar culo, or give ass: if they succeed, they can scorn them, their stereotypes have been vindicated.  The aim is probably not to move toward a more "egalitarian" mode of homosexuality, where either partner may penetrate or be penetrated, but simply to validate their erotic cosmology.  So, as Annick Prieur observed in her study of Mexican vestidas, they despise those mayates (equivalent to bugarrones -- men who penetrate other men) who let themselves be penetrated, even when it is the vestidas who penetrate them. This connects to a fantasy entertained by some gay men, who insist that there are no straight men, that every man can be had if you go about it correctly.  Taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that every man is, at bottom, a bottom.) If these gays really succeeded, though, and exposed all bugarrones as closet cases who really, deep down, want only to be penetrated, who would penetrate them?

This is only a problem if you insist on eliminating the middle ground, but that is what people are doing when they stereotype: there are no differences, there is no variation, everyone is alike, even if they pretend otherwise.  It's not an empirical description but a principle that overrides observation and evidence, and can't be refuted because any observation that seems to contradict the principle can be dismissed as false consciousness, misunderstanding, or failure to grasp the essence that underlies mere appearances.  (So it's related to belief in biblical inerrancy: any seeming error is due to the interpreter's misunderstanding or lack of sufficient faith -- the Bible's lack of error is the first principle of interpreting it.)  It's true that some people can be found who fit any stereotype you like, and that's not problematic.  The trouble arises when the stereotype is postulated as the underlying truth about all individuals.

*The Caribbean Pleasure Industry (Chicago, 2007.)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

His Object All Sublime

In a previous post I wrote:
The idea that it's important to know that the human race will survive somewhere among the stars seems very adolescently romantic to me. Steel-eyed rationalists such as [Stephen] Hawking evidently fancies himself to be still fear their own deaths, which isn't unreasonable, but also the death of the species, which is. I suppose that if cockroaches could think, they'd feel the same way, but that doesn't mean I'd agree that it's important to send a bunch of cockroaches to another solar system either.
On reflection, I am considering changing my position.  We should send a bunch of cockroaches to another solar system, if we can find one with a planet that can support life.  It is important that terrestrial life should survive somewhere in the universe if we destroy it here.  Cockroaches have been quite successful in the only terms that matter (objectively!) for Darwinian evolution, so why not let them carry on for us?  We, who have been so destructive of ourselves and the biosphere, have had our chance and should not be given a second one.  I trust no one will protest that cockroaches are pests, and might overrun a new planet as Japanese beetles and other invasive species have done when transported to new habitats.  If that is a consideration, it applies in spades to Homo sapiens.

But I digress.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson put his foot in it recently in an interview with the Daily Beast.  Not in his remarks about Scientology and freedom of religion, which were quite reasonable, but which were taken by the headline writer at DB and a couple of other sites to be 'defending' Scientology.  I just reread the interview and I don't see any defense of Scientology there, even "sort of" or "kind of." He said that if you're going to have freedom of religion, the government can not have the power to decide which religion is a real religion and which is not; he also said that Scientology is not obviously more absurd than older and more respectable religions.  Which is one of the recurring obstacles to freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression: if you defend the right to hold absurd religious beliefs or express false or hateful opinions, plenty of commissar-clowns will accuse you of defending, supporting, or embracing those beliefs and opinions yourself.  (Noam Chomsky should send Tyson flowers or something in sympathy.)

No, where Tyson went wrong in the interview was in the statements quoted in the meme I found and posted above in this post.  (It was by tracking down the quotation in the meme that I found the interview.)  Frankly, though, I must admit I'm not sure what Tyson was talking about here; even in context he seems to be rambling on autopilot.  There are no "objective truths" for governing a country.  You might be able to claim that the First Amendment is "objective" in the sense that you can find the text in places outside your own head, and there's agreement on the words that make it up, and since it's part of the Constitution, it has authority because it's the supreme law of the land, to which almost all Americans pay lip service.  So we have official freedom of religion in the US not because religious freedom is an "objective truth," but because most of us agree that it's something we should have.  There's a lot of disagreement as to why it's a good idea, and I don't think most people, including Tyson, have thought about that much.  (It's in the Bill of Rights!  It's common sense!  It's freedom, and freedom is a good thing, like equality!)   I also think it's fairly obvious that by "freedom of religion" most people mean freedom for themselves but not for others. (I'll give Tyson credit for knowing better than that in this case.)  Even going beyond that primitive level of understanding, rational people can and do disagree on specific cases.

If that's what Tyson meant by "objective truths," then I don't disagree, but I don't believe that's what he meant.  I think he means that society can best be governed through the application of some "truths," presumably determined by scientists like him, which can't be questioned by the canaille, and that's dubious, to put it gently.  It's how the US got its eugenics laws in the twentieth century: scientists determined that some people should not be allowed to reproduce, American society listened to those wise purveyors of rationality, and voilá: thousands of people were sterilized.  Even if Nazi Germany hadn't given eugenics such a bad name, this would not have been a good thing.  More important, it would not have been dictated by logic, or justified by objective truths.

It's also not an objective truth that scientists should be given vast amounts of money to explore whatever line of research happens to obsess them.   Elsewhere in the Daily Beast interview Tyson says:
So the issue comes about not that there are religious people in the world that have one view over another, it’s if you have one view or another based on faith and you want to legislate that in a way that affects everyone. That’s no longer a free democracy. That’s a country where the few who have a belief system that’s not based in objective reality want to control the behavior of everyone else.
Now, people with religious beliefs are not "a few" in the United States, though they're not as large a majority as they used to be.  Ironically, perhaps, what Tyson wants is for scientists, a few who have a belief system that he claims is based in objective reality, to be able to legislate in a way that affects everyone.  Personally I'm in favor of subsidizing scientific research, though not indiscriminately, and I like the space program and want it to continue, but it's only one concern out of many, and not obviously or objectively more important than taking care of people here on earth with the knowledge and methods we already have.  As with any other faith-based enterprise, taxpayers' money should come with strings attached -- regulation, oversight, accountability -- which many scientists resent fiercely: they want blank checks for whatever they want to do, even if it's misconceived and badly designed.  Tough luck, guys.  Nor is it an objective truth that "we" must travel to the stars and colonize other planets to continue the human race after we've wiped ourselves out on earth.  (With, probably, the wondrous weapons and other means that Science has given us.)  The universe doesn't care whether one more species goes extinct, so it's not an "objective truth" that human survival is any kind of necessity.  I too hope that human life will continue for some time to come, but that's not a rational or "objective" hope, especially since all human individuals die, and all life on earth will end when the sun burns out, if it hasn't gone extinct from other causes before then.  If we're going to argue rationally, I can't see any objective reason for humanity to go on ruining other planets when we've demonstrated that we can't take care of the one we currently inhabit.

Tyson is apparently a good astrophysicist, but that doesn't qualify him to set the conditions by which human beings should govern ourselves.   He clearly hasn't given it much thought in the first place, and so relies on "common sense" clichés of the American scientific subculture -- reason, objective truths, etc.  To cite an example close to me as a queer: those totems were invoked to justify the program of trying to "cure" homosexuality.  And from the point of view of a technocrat-wannabe like Tyson, why shouldn't scientists continue to try to find a way to stop the suffering of homosexuals, even though they've failed consistently for more than a century?  We haven't cured cancer yet either, but we still keep trying, and that's the scientific enterprise -- to keep on trying despite consistent, ongoing failure.  That homosexuality is a disease in need of cure is not an objective truth; but neither is the claim that's it's "normal" and "natural."

Now, understand that I'm not saying that Tyson would agree that homosexuals should be cured, though I doubt he could give any good reasons on the matter.  From the Daily Beast interview again:
As a scientist, does homophobia strike you as particularly odd? There are many species within the animal kingdom that are attracted to the same sex, and perhaps if people were more educated in the sciences instead of religious dogma, then there would be less homophobia.

Well, it almost always entirely stems from religion. But the point here is that if you’re religious, and your religion tells you that being gay is bad, then don’t be gay. But you have to remind yourself that that’s your belief system, and there are other belief systems that don’t agree with that, so you should not be in the position to make legislation that affects other people. 
It's false that "many species in the animal kingdom ... are attracted to the same sex."  Species aren't attracted to anything; what the interviewer presumably meant was that homosexual copulation and pair-bonding occur between individuals of many species.  But what happens in many species doesn't tell us what is good or bad for human beings.  Should human males kill and eat the offspring sired by other males in order to ensure their reproductive advantage, as happens in "many species in the animal kingdom"?  Should human females bite off the heads of their sexual partners after copulation?  Religion is extremely widespread, virtually universal among human beings: would Tyson or the interviewer want to argue that it's therefore good and true?

Tyson blames homophobia -- a bogus clinical entity, by the way -- on religion, relying on the genetic fallacy that you can explain and evaluate anything by looking at its history or genealogy.  Science also "stems from religion" and from magic, for example; I doubt he'd think science is discredited by its origins.  But the claim that homosexual copulation is widespread in non-human species was resisted fiercely by many students of animal behavior, and it's still somewhat controversial.  And scientists took for granted that human homosexuality was a disorder well into the twentieth century; its removal from the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual was opposed by "many" professionals, on "objective" grounds.

If Tyson isn't religious himself, then he presumably believes that religion was invented by human beings for their own ends; if so, then he can't claim that religion is the source of anything.  He would have to ask why human beings put homophobia into their religions.  (When he says that "other belief systems" don't object to homosexuality -- another overgeneralization -- what he means is "other religions."  Or does he mean to include science in the class of "belief systems"?)  If "religion" causes human beings to do certain things, why don't all religions have identical values?  For that matter, why do values within any one religion often contradict each other?  I suppose Tyson, like many self-styled rationalists, would like to believe that a rational belief and value system wouldn't have those contradictions.  There's no reason to believe that either, of course, it's just another part of self-interested scientistic common sense: Put us in charge, instead of priests or politicians or lawyers, and we'll solve all your problems by logic and science.

If Tyson "defended" any dubious suspects, it would be George W. Bush, who appointed Tyson to an aerospace commission or two.  Tyson goes quite easy on Bush, yet those who claim falsely that he defended Scientology seem to have missed that.  And purely on factual grounds, Tyson has a point:
People can say and think what they want, but what matters is whether or not it becomes policy or legislation, and I don’t remember any legislation that restricted science. In fact, the budget for the National Science Foundation went up. What matters is money in Congress. What does Congress do? Allocate money. That’s really what they do. So the science budget of the country went up during the Bush administration, and the budget for NASA went up 3 percent—and it had actually dropped 25 percent in real spending dollars under the eight years of President Clinton. I don’t care what you say or think. I care about legislation, and policy.

Also, he appointed me! There may have been some science that he hadn’t learned yet or didn’t know fully, but he’s not creating legislation based on it. Speeches are politics, so you can’t fault a politician for saying something political.
Tyson's clearly a politician himself.  That explains a lot.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Tactful and Inexplicit?

I hadn't heard of Kate O'Brien's As Music and Splendour until a couple of months ago, though it is a story of love between two women published in 1958.  I thought I knew most of the significant twentieth-century lesbian novels at least by reputation, so I was surprised when Emma Donoghue mentioned this one in her introduction to a 2005 reprint* of Isabel Miller's Patience and Sarah.

As Music and Splendour was originally published in the UK in 1958.  It's the story of two poor Irish teenagers who are sent to Paris, and from there to Rome, to study singing in the 1880s.  Having distinguished themselves by their talent in Eire, they are granted extended loans by an institution called The Committee, effectively mortgaging their futures for years.  Away from their hometowns for the first time, they turn to one another for company and become fast friends.  Both achieve success at high levels in the opera and are able to repay the patrons who paid for their training, though Rose becomes more of a star.  Clare, though more reserved, does quite well too, on her own terms.  The novel recounts their training in some detail.  The girls' teachers are depicted compassionately but without illusion; this is a very adult book in the best sense of the word.  I've never been an opera queen, so I have no idea how accurately O'Brien describes their milieu and its politics, but the details are interesting anyway.  Both draw numerous male admirers, but manage to avoid ruin, and not just because they're heavily chaperoned.  Rose eventually selects a young French tenor as her first lover, but Clare falls in love with the Spanish Luisa.  Yet As Music and Splendour isn't a romance, it's a Bildungsroman about two young women growing up to be artists.  Love is part of their lives, along with everything else that they encounter along the way, but music is the most important part.

Donoghue wrote that, in contrast to Patience and Sarah, such earlier historical novels like As Music and Splendour and Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show "have a tactful and inexplicit quality; neither puts a female couple center stage and neither is written from and for an emerging lesbian community the way Patience and Sarah so clearly was" (page 16).  It's true that Patience and Sarah, one of my all-time favorite books, puts its female couple center stage.  As Music and Splendour doesn't, but as I recall, Summer Will Show does, though against the backdrop of mid-nineteenth century political revolution in Europe.  It's true that Summer Will Show is "inexplicit" about the nature of the relationship between the two women, but it was originally published in 1936, just a few years after the scandal and court battles surrounding Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness: it must have taken a fair amount of courage to publish even an inexplicit novel about lesbians that didn't demonize them.  (Indeed, O'Brien's 1941 novel The Land of Spices was banned in Ireland for a passing reference to homosexuality.) As Terry Castle wrote, if the relationship in Summer Will Show had been between a man and a woman, no one would have objected that you couldn't be sure it was an erotic one: heterosexuality is assumed, homosexuality must shout itself from the rooftops or it will be ignored -- and then heterosexuals will complain about the Love That Won't Shut Up.

As Music and Splendour, however, is explicit, depending on what is meant by "explicit."  There are no sex scenes, but O'Brien makes it clear that Clare and Luisa are not just good friends but lovers.  (I'm actually glad that Donoghue got that wrong, so I could be pleasantly surprised when I read the book.)  Most of a chapter of the novel is devoted to Clare's defense of her love for Luisa against the accusations of Thomas, a young Welsh singer, conductor, and composer who's in love with Clare.  It's a fascinating exchange, because Clare gets the best of the debate -- which is hardly a debate, since Thomas hardly bothers to make an argument, just indulges in name-calling.
‘I can’t understand that split in you.’

‘Split?  How do you mean, Thomas?’

‘I mean, pet – sit down, don’t look so furious – I mean, this unlucky schwärm you have for Luisa -- ’


‘Don’t get cross.  Wait.  Schwärm is a good German word – Schwärmerei – for the manias girls get for each other or for their teachers – in school age. Your development has been delayed, and you are having a schwärm now for Luisa -- ’

‘Oh Thomas, stop!  Please stop.  How dare you?  Because I told you truly that I love Luisa you must not bring your clever talk against something you know nothing about.’

‘No clever talk.  Sit down.’

‘Here I sit down.  What now?’

‘I know plenty about love, Clare.’

‘In some ways you may, Thomas.  And I have observed you, and I know your actions – but I appreciate your good manners.  Still – I think you are amoral.’

‘Amoral?  But you, Clare?  I take you to be serious and grown-up, in your own conception, when you say you are in love with Luisa?’

‘Yes – Thomas.’

‘Then – you are totally amoral.’

‘No.  I am, I suppose, a sinner – certainly I am a sinner in the eyes of my Church.  But so I would be if I were your lover.  So is Rose a sinner – and she knows it – in reference to our education and faith.  You, who come out of Baptist chapels, don’t know how clear our instruction is.  Rose and I know perfectly well what we’re doing.  We are so well instructed that we can decide for ourselves.  There’s no vagueness in Catholic instruction.’

‘But there’s lots of disturbance.’

‘That sounds witty.  What disturbance have you encountered?’

‘Well, love – the disturbance you create.’

Clare stood up.  Standing, she looked down on the weary, dusty young man whom she liked greatly, and to whose vivid intelligence and friendship she owed so much.

‘Thomas, I’ve learned fast – so has Rose – in two years of Italian life.  You can argue as you like against my loving Luisa.  But I can argue back all your unbridled sins.  We all know the Christian rule – and every indulgence of the flesh which does not conform to it is wrong.  All right.  We are all sinners.  You and I and Rose and Tonio and René and Mariana – and all our friends’ [207-8] 
Now, Clare is hardly taking a militant, pro-gay position here; she concedes that in the eyes of her Church (Roman Catholic, Irish division) her love for Luisa is a sin.  But not more sinful, she insists, than the heterosexual fornication that her friends and colleagues indulge in without a second thought.  And I ask the reader to remember again that the relationship between Clare and Luisa isn't depicted as an ambiguous romantic friendship which might or might not involve copulation.  Clare is explicit that she and Luisa are lovers in the same sense as Rose is with René, or Thomas with his numerous paramours.  Thomas, the all-too-typical male heterosexual supremacist, tries to dismiss her love for Luisa as a mere schoolgirl crush, but Clare rightly will have none of it.  She doesn't allow him to condescend to her, though that doesn't keep him from trying.  She demands that he give reasons, and he has to concede that he has none.

And again, a few pages later:
‘What is love, then?  Two silly girls kissing each other?  Is that love?’

‘Maybe.  I find it to be love.’

‘Oh Clare – how all this torture heaps up love!  What are we to do?  Where am I to bury you, you unnatural, appalling one?’

‘You can’t bury me until I’m dead.  But why am I unnatural or appalling?  Consider your own career.’

‘Darling, I’m a man.’

‘I didn’t think you’d be so stupid as to say that.’

‘Nor did I.  See how you degrade me!  Stop striding!’

Clare leant against the window.

‘Easily I might have loved you,’ she said.  ‘But – she caught my heart before I knew what was happening, Thomas.  And I think she’s lovely, and I love her.  I can’t help it.  It’s true.’

‘She isn’t even faithful to you.’

‘I know.’

‘If you were a man you couldn’t endure that.’

‘No.  Men, as you call them, don’t seem to be able to endure things.  I don’t know what sex you suppose me to belong to, but I can endure Luisa’s life.  I love her,  you see.’

‘She’s promiscuous.  She’s a whore.’

‘Maybe.  It may be for that alarming honesty that I love her.’

‘Then you know more than I do about love.’

‘You’ve never been in love, Thomas -- ’

‘I’m in love with you -- ’

‘Only since you discovered you can’t get me -- ’ [212]
Amusingly, Thomas at one point invokes love's "texts – Plato, Ovid, Stendhal" as authorities for Clare, which he retracts right away as "no good" (209), though not, as far as I can tell, because he remembers that in Plato's philosophy "love" meant primarily erotic (if sublimated) love between males.

I've had some exchanges like this with heterosexuals who objected to the supposed immorality of erotic love between people of the same sex, while ignoring or brushing aside their own heterosexual immorality, which was often extensive.  Thomas, of course, is mainly miffed because Clare won't let him have sex with her.  But I've also met homosexuals who accepted that view.

It's also a common move to dismiss homosexuality as adolescent dabbling, as though heterosexual adolescents didn't dabble with one another too.  When I remember that As Music and Splendor was published in 1958, I'm impressed by the position O'Brien let Clare take.  Reading it also took me back to the mindset that was common among queers as well as among straights before and often after Stonewall, in which same-sex love was not to be taken seriously, just a kind of dirty play.  For all that, there were plenty of committed, long-term same-sex relationships between males or between females, but I've met many gay men and lesbians of my parents' generation who, though they were in such relationships themselves, saw them as a kind of second-best making-do.

I had a curious conversation in the mid-1970s with one such man, who was indignant when a drunken wife at a faculty party said that it was no secret that he and his partner were a couple.  Everyone at the party was shocked too, because while it was no secret, you weren't supposed to talk about it.  My friend asked rhetorically if they'd talk about each other's adulteries (which they probably would).  I asked, very seriously, if he considered his fifteen-year relationship with his partner to be morally equivalent to adultery.  He thought a moment, then allowed that he didn't.  But I think that on some level he did.

Kate O'Brien, who was old enough to be that man's mother, managed not to bring his attitude to As Music and Splendour.  Given the informal censorship of the 1950s, which required apologetic shame for homosexual characters if not a violent death at story's end, it's a remarkable novel, and I hope to find time to read it again someday.  And though I disagree with her account of it, I thank Emma Donoghue for bringing it to my attention.

*By Little Sister's Classics, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, British Columbia.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Your Mama Was a Bulldagger

The San Francisco Gay Men's Salon is going to be discussing Stereotypes next month, and I've got my plane ticket and hotel room reserved.  On Thursday morning, by happy chance, Democracy Now! featured Alison Bechdel, the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home, and Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, the composer and writer, respectively, of the Broadway musical based on Bechdel's book. 

Fun Home was amazingly successful, in both its iterations.  The book won numerous awards (scroll down to Awards) and was listed as one of the best of its year by a wide range of queer and heterosexual publications, and Bechdel was awarded a Macarthur Grant.  The play won five Tony awards, and has garnered a surprising amount of media attention, with the authors and cast appearing on TV all over the place.

Fun Home (the book, anyway -- I haven't seen the play yet) is about a lot of things, and its complexity has been noticed by many readers and critics.  But it seems to me that when people are listing what it's about, they tend to leave out "stereotypes" -- which is a bit odd, when I consider that Bechdel herself is a butch lesbian, and one of the key numbers in the musical is "Ring of Keys," based on a brief but important scene in the book where very-young Alison, in a small-town diner with her closeted gay father, is riveted by the entrance of a butch woman delivery-truck driver.

When people talk about stereotypes, they almost always mean negative stereotypes.  As I wrote in this opinion piece for the IU student paper fifteen years ago, the people who seem to embody those negative stereotypes are often the Boogeymen / women who scare gay kids and keep them in the closet longer than they might have stayed otherwise.  When we speak to classes we're often asked how we feel about those stereotypes, do we think they hurt gay people and let down the cause?  Lip service is often paid to the drag queens and butch lesbian of Stonewall, but in general gay people present the sissies and bulldykes as problematic.

Until now, that is.  Bechdel always had a range of types in her decades-long comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and butch characters were presented as a part of the lesbian landscape.  But despite the strip's popularity and longevity, it never got the exposure that Fun Home has had, with a little girl singing an ode to a butch woman on national (international?) television as part of the Tony Awards ceremonies.  "Ring of Keys" also seems to be one of the standout numbers from the musical, and other performers are picking it up for recitals and auditions, to judge by what is turning up on Youtube.  (Another song from the show that's catching on is "I'm Changing My Major to Joan," in which college-age Alison celebrates her first sexual experience.)

Fun Home's composer Jeanine Tesori told the Tony Awards audience that "'Ring of Keys,' ... by the way, is not a song of love, it’s a song of identification, because, for girls, you have to see it to be it."  But Alison Bechdel told Democracy Now's Nermeen Shaikh:
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Alison, one of the things that you’ve said about the performance of this song is that having a child singing about desire in this interesting way is also revolutionary.

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah, I mean, desire and identification, and the complex relationship between those things. We don’t want to think that children have sexualities, and so that feels very revolutionary, that this kid is discovering this part of herself.
Presenting a stolid butch woman as an object of desire is transgressive whether the desiring person is a child or an adult, and I think that's the most revolutionary thing about this song.  It's not at all the same thing as, say, Ru Paul's Drag Race, where (from what I've seen) it's more or less taken for granted that a drag queen is an object of desire because he's dressed and made-up and moves and performs in conventionally feminine ways.  It isn't the queen who's the object of desire, but his outfit. I'm not the right person to say, of course, because I'm not at all fascinated by these tropes of glamor and beauty; I know very well that many people, probably the majority, love them.  And I think that whatever my own feelings, it's important to remember that contrary to the demonization of the sissy, effeminate males appeal to many people, men and women alike.
My own "ring of keys" figure was the early Captain Kangaroo (notice the jingling ring of keys the Captain wields as he opens the Treasure House each morning).  I think I exaggerate these traits in hindsight, but it seems to me that the Captain was a great male role model for little children, with his gentle voice and the kangaroo-like pouches of his jacket pockets.  He did semi-drag at times, putting on a frilly apron to dust the Treasure House, but it was the absence of machismo in his character that I liked about him.

Myself, I like to think that the woman who so impressed young Alison was a mother, maybe even heterosexual.  Smash those stereotypes!  I'm thinking of the story the poet Minnie Bruce Pratt tells in S/He about her lesbian friends' reaction to her mother:
But my friends are interested in something else: "We expected a little white lady in gloves. You didn't tell us your mama's a bulldagger!"

She has been the woman who sat at the grey kitchen table with me and my father, her child and her husband. She was always the one next to the stove, within reach of the pot of field peas, more cornbread. I'm so used to this that I saw her hands simply as feminine, though they are huge, capable with iron mattock or steel knitting needles. I'm so used to her height and bulk, her sneakers and windbreaker, her taciturnity and her ease with women, that I've never noticed how much she looks like the white-headed coach of a women's softball team [54].
Oh, I suppose it's more likely than not that the woman young Alison admired was lesbian, given the times -- it would have been the mid-1960s -- though from what writers on the butch-femme experience have said, many hard butches had to be supported by their femmes because no one would hire them.  But any woman who had a job driving a truck and delivering food to restaurants would have had to dress in a "masculine" way.  Especially in those days, any woman who wasn't wearing a housedress or heels and a string of pearls would have been perceived as a roaring butch anyway.  I wonder if the adult Alison Bechdel, if she could see that woman again, would perceive her the way she did as a child; maybe so, since her father clearly did.

I think it was DOB honchos Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon who observed, in their 1972 book Lesbian / Woman, that if you see a stomping butch in jeans, hiking boots, and backpack on the Appalachian trail, she'll probably have a husband and children with her; the lesbians will be tottering along in capri pants and flimsy shoes, trying to look feminine and fit into society. Besides, butch lesbians did become mothers with surprising frequency, as a surprising number of drag queens I've known became fathers. 

I suspect that the connection between desire and identification tends to be severed after puberty, often forcibly though not always or completely.  That's another stereotype: if we see someone who fascinates us, it must mean we want to copulate with them, right?  Or its flip side: I'm not gay, I don't want to have sex with that fascinating person, I just admire them and maybe identify with them.  The complex relationship between identification and desire, is, by the way, an important theme of Bechdel's (as opposed to Kron and Tesori's) Fun Home, with Bruce Bechdel wanting to be girly.  Though he shares Alison's admiration for stylish male clothing, he discourages her interest in it by pointing out that it would sit poorly on her budding adolescent breasts; mostly he tries to make her into the girl he wants, or thinks he wants, to be.  The adult Bechdel comments in retrospect that she wanted to be the well-dressed man, not to have him.  Yet she desired girly girls powerfully, without wanting to be them.  After she came out, though she had some butch-on-butch relationships (according to some of her earlier autobiographical work) with other women.

What makes Fun Home so rich is this ambivalence, this awareness of the contradictions in all the characters and in the story's creator.  (Creatrix?)  Bechdel has always talked about her own ambivalence about becoming mainstreamed; I worry that as the Fun Home phenomenon spreads inward from the margins and occupies the vast center, its complexity will be eroded, dissipated, lost.  (I also worry that it will become the Token Lesbian Success, as Brokeback Mountain was the Token Gay Male Success: oh, we don't need to do another lesbian play on Broadway, let alone a musical: It's Been Done to Death.)  If that happens, it won't be the fault of Bechdel or of Kron and Tesori, it'll be the fault of people who lazily and reflexively fall back on stereotypes, which must then be disassembled and deconstructed over and over again.