Saturday, October 31, 2015

ProcrastiNation

When I have better things to do, I'm apt to wander off onto tangents.

I'd noticed that my 2011 post on Babe Didrikson Zaharias was consistently my most popular post according to Statcounter, consistently getting more than 15 hits per day over a protracted period of time.  Blogger shows cumulative statistics, so I found the post and discovered that it had received more than four thousand views -- 4375 as I write this now.  Most of my posts get fifty views, or less.

So I started looking at all my posts to see which had more than a thousand hits.  Some surprised me; some pleased me.  Here are the results.

The World As I Found It, 3/19/2008, 1040 views.  My review for Gay Community News of Bruce Duffy's novel about Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Limits of language: Andrew Hodges's "Towards 1984", 6/27/2012, 1051 views.  Andrew Hodges's great piece on George Orwell's blind spots about ordinary language, reprinted with Hodges's permission.

Eaters of Dust, 12/5/2009, 1053 views.  About a Nigerian novel with distinct homoerotic elements.

Seeds and Stems Will Rend My Hems, 6/6/2007, 1086 views.  My GCN review of blues-rock stylist Mitch Ryder's very queer solo album, How I Spent My Vacation.

Park Hyo Shin, 12/28/2008, 1087 views.  My appreciation of a Korean pop singer.

Gay Christians Say the Darnedest Things, 5/21/2007, 1104 views.  My first real post on this blog.  It also attracted some attention elsewhere in the blogosphere, so I'm mildly surprised it doesn't have more views.

Tenny Dearest, 1/27/2008, 1125 views.  My review for GCN of two biographies of Tennessee Williams.

Never the Twain Shall Meet, 4/24/09, 1133 views.  About a construction of eroticism between women in Thailand.  I understand why this one got as much traffic as it did: it was picked up by another site.

True Love Waits, 10/2/2008, 1182 views.  Alarmist stories about adolescent heterosexuality in South Korea.

"What Is Truth?" Said Jesting Pilate, 12/17/2011, 1186 views.  On the "liberal" media and journalistic truth.

I Am the Very Model of a Modern Homosexual, 5/5/09, 1213 views.  On orthodox academic Foucauldians.

The Common Clay of the New West, 3/12/12, 1237 views.  On "illegal immigration" and racism among the descendants of immigrants.

Bugs Bunny Made Me Gay, 5/22/2012, 1245 views.  On Glee and right-wing homosexual panic, plus genderbending in children's entertainment.

Are You Born Honosocial, Or Is It a Lifestyle Choice, 9/6/2008, 1261 views.  Fussing over the sexual orientation of fictional characters, especially Frodo and Sam; homosocial vs. homosexual.

I Do Not Like Your Christ, I Like (Some of) Your Christians, 8/2/2010, 1289 views.  On Christian atheist Frank Schaeffer and his ignorance of historical Christianity.

The Son of Man Came Not to Be Served, But to Serve, 3/24/2011, 1478 views.  Moderate respectable Christians, and why they annoy me.

Homo Sum: Humani Nil A Me Alienum Puto, 1/1/2008, 1610 views.  "Universality" in entertainment and art, especially where it involves LGBT characters.

Travel / Posting Advisory and Eternal Life, 5/19/2010, 1654 views.  Written while I was on my way to Korea in the summer of 2010, about eternal life as discussed on Andrew Sullivan's blog.  But not by Sullivan.

Marvin Martian, 12/28/2009, 1664 views.  My post on Edgar Pangborn's 1950s science-fantasy novel about benign Martians observing and interfering in humanity's history.

I Can Haz Slave Boy?, 9/13/2009, 1931 views.  Did Jesus affirm a gay couple?  Did he approve of the sexual use of a slave boy by his Roman centurion master?  Gay Christian apologetic works in mysterious ways.

Assimilation and Its Discontents, 3/20/2010, 2073 views.  A big post on the vexed topic of gay assimiliation.

The Killing of Sister Georgy Girl, 8/28/2010, 2135 views.  About the novel and film Georgy Girl, exploring their queer possibilities.

This Blog Is Not a Safe Space, Part 1, 2/15/2009, 2206 views.  The first of four posts on "safe space" in university diversity-education.

Is Park Hyo Shin Gay? Now You've Got Me Wondering, 3/31/2009, 2626 views.  I hadn't speculated about Park Hyo Shin's sexual orientation in my earlier post about the K-pop singer, but apparently some of his Asian fans looked at the name of the blog, assumed I had said he was gay, and wrote me an angry e-mail message.  This is my response, which got even more traffic than the first post. 

Just Say "Nein"!, 4/14/2010, 2864 views.  I wrote a couple of fan-fiction scripts inspired by the Sassy Gay Friend series on Youtube.  In this one, the Sassy Gay Friend visits Pope Benedict XVI. (Here's the other one.)

The Rule 3 - The Naked Kitchen, 11/26/2009, 2989 views.  I wrote a few posts on the Rule, the Liz Wallace /Alison Bechdel criterion for representation of women in cinema.  To my surprise, I found that quite a few South Korean films made the grade.  This post drew the most attention.

The Girl in the Basement, 6/4/2007, 3188 views.  Another early post, my GCN review of Kate Millett's The Basement, about the killing of teenaged Sylvia Likens in Indianapolis in 1965.  I wasn't surprised to find that this one had gotten so many views, because I'd noticed that it got steady traffic over time.

A Good Ol' Gal from Beaumont, Texas, 2/6/2011, 4375 views.  My post on the great athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who is widely supposed to have been lesbian.

Dude, I'm a Fag, 5/9/2009, 5681 views.  I'm happy that this post, about lgbt teenagers, diversity education, and reclaiming langauge, tops the list; I think it's one of the best, most important things I've written.  Evidently a fair number of other people more or less agreed.

So that's it.  Quite a mixture.

To Increase the General Welfare

Snopes.com is a very useful site, but at times they publish some odd things.  They just posted an analysis of a liberal meme:

Snopes rated it a mixture of truth and falsehood.  The final quotation about "the disintegration of the family unit," for example, is evidently not genuine.  Some of the services the meme claims he benefited from did not exist when he was a kid -- Medicaid, for example, and affirmative action during his undergraduate years -- and some are dubious according to Snopes, such as the claim that he lived in subsidizing housing: "whether Carson ever lived in subsidized housing in his youth was unclear."

This is important to sort out.  Unfortunately, the writer (not one of the original Snopes bloggers, but someone named Kim LaCapria) makes some unwarranted leaps of her own.  LaCapria wrote that a 2011 profile of Carson "mentioned 'projects' but also seemed to suggest Carson's mother endeavored to avoid government assistance save for food stamps," and quoted the profile:
When Sonya Carson moved her sons from their modest house in Detroit to live with her brother and his wife in Boston, she scrimped and sacrificed so they could return. When they did, they had to settle for Detroit's downtown housing projects — but at least they were home.
"Projects" presumably refers to housing projects, i.e., subsidized housing.  "At least they were home" means they were back in Detroit.  The fact that Carson's mother "endeavored to avoid government assistance save for food stamps" doesn't mean that she didn't fall back on government assistance when she had to.  Then LaCapria quotes Carson from the profile:
I knew [my mother] was trying to keep us off public assistance. By the time I went into ninth grade, Mother had made such strides that she received nothing except food stamps. She couldn't have provided for us and kept up the house without that subsidy.
LaCapria then writes that Carson "never claimed to have benefited from more than food stamps and a free pair of glasses on Uncle Sam's dime."  What Carson said, going by what LaCapria quoted, is that his mother used public assistance of various kinds, until she'd "made such strides" that she only needed food stamps.  That she worked while receiving certain benefits makes her not at all unusual: most people on welfare also have jobs.  Some of them are encouraged to seek welfare benefits by employers who decline to pay them a living wage.  But despite her wish not to use other forms of public assistance than food stamps, it seems she did so, according to Ben Carson himelf.  LaCapria seems determined to miss the plain sense of what he said.

The point of the meme is that Carson is a hypocrite, vilifying social programs and assistance that he himself benefited from.  LaCapria doesn't like that either, and she works hard to defend Carson.  Carson, of course, has denied the accusation.  He told The View:
This is a blatant lie. I have no desire to get rid of safety nets for people who need them. I have a strong desire to get rid of programs that create dependency in able-bodied people.
And:
When you rob someone of their incentive to go out there and improve themselves, you are not doing them any favors. When you take somebody and pat them on the head and say, 'There, there, you poor little thing ... Let me give you housing subsidies, let me give you free health care because you can't do that.' What would be much more empowering is to use our intellect and our resources to give those people a way up and out.
Stuff like this doesn't support LaCapria's very generous framing of Carson's position.  Did the subsidies the Chinese government provided to Apple to develop and produce the iPhone rob Steve Jobs of his incentive?  Evidently not, though Jobs did cultivate a victim mentality and blamed the US government for not subsidizing him enough.  In general, those who are already rich demand more subsidies from the government.

Did the GI Bill rob veterans of their incentive to go out there and  improve themselves when it paid for their college educations and gave them preferential housing loans?  It has often been pointed out that the same people who attack public programs and assistance are generally careful not to recognize the extent to which they use and benefit from government programs -- the "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare" syndrome.  Carson is pandering to such people with his caricature of the government disempowering the poor.  It would be interesting to know what he envisages as the right, empowering way to "use our intellect and our resources to give those people a way up and out"; on the surface that sounds just as patronizing as the attitude he's attacking.  I doubt, from what I've seen of his response to requests for clarification, that he has any idea what he envisages.  The Republican Party is not interested in what would help, namely more and better jobs that pay enough to support a family.  (P.S. The GOP candidates generally oppose any increase in the minimum wage.)

A number of them have defended Carson where the Snopes post has been linked, and they tend to fall back on a prepackaged propaganda term, "welfare as a way of life."  What advocate of public assistance wants welfare to be a way of life?  Does a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system constitute a "way of life"? What better alternative does Carson envisage?  It may well be -- I haven't checked his website -- that he favors a government-run health care system on his website, but denounces government assistance on the stump, as he vilifies gay people and same-sex marriage in public appearances, and when criticized claims that he favors same-sex marriage and opposes Kim Davis.  It's a great way to run a campaign; it worked for Obama, after all.

I've noticed before, despite the popular right-wing accusations of Snopes' radical liberalism (supposedly because they're supposedly owned by George Soros), that they have a soft spot for right-wing politicians.  They took George W. Bush's side when he claimed he'd been insulted by a liberal, and declared that there's no need for citizens to confront their elected officials face-to-face at all, even politely, since we can vote and write letters to their offices.  (In fairness, they cast it in terms of "respect for the office of President of the United States," not of obeisance to Dubya specifically.)  Now one of their team is doing something similar for Ben Carson.  Odd.  Well, Snopes.com is still a useful site, but like any source of information, must be read critically.

This doesn't excuse the makers of the anti-Carson meme, who did shoddy and dishonest work.  It's only going to get worse as the endless campaign continues.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Those Who Talk, Don't Know; Those Who Know, Don't Talk

It's funny how books chosen almost randomly can seem to interrelate.  So, for example, I recently decided to read April Sinclair's 1994 novel Coffee Will Make You Black because Dorothy Allison mentioned its "furious, charming adolescent" lesbian (okay, bisexual) protagonist in an essay in her collection Skin.  I'd heard of Coffee Will Make You Black before, but had never gotten to around to it because I hadn't realized it had a gay character, and then the e-book went on sale for a couple of dollars, so I went with it.

And I'm glad I did.  The story, which appears to be at least partly autobiographical, takes place in the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s.  It follows the African-American narrator, Jean "Stevie" Stevenson, from junior high to high school, against the backdrop of the political and cultural changes of the time.  But it also traces her own changes, and those of her peers: one kid begins as a scrawny, goody-goody nerd (as Stevie and some other girls see him, anyway) and metamorphoses into a Black Power militant, organizing actions in their high school.  Stevie comes from a mixed family: her dark-skinned mother has middle-class aspirations, but married a lighter-skinned man who never had or perhaps lost such ambitions early on.  He's a manual worker, drinks too much, and is constantly being corrected by his wife for grammar and other class-related infractions.  But they soldier on.  Stevie is good in school, but also wants to have friends.  Her best friend moved to another neighborhood a year or two before the book opens, and Stevie hasn't found anyone to replace her.  She's drawn into hanging out with some less ambitious girls, to her mother's anger and frustration -- and fear, that peer pressure will lead Stevie to get pregnant and drop out of school.  This doesn't happen (spoiler?), happily.

Stevie's emerging racial consciousness is encouraged by her grandmother, also dark-skinned, who has her own business, a successful fried-chicken restaurant.  She drops her g's and says "ain't," but she knows her own worth despite her daughter's chiding, and she's a lovely if somewhat stereotypical character, who gives Stevie the affection that Stevie's mother finds it difficult to express.  For whatever reason, Stevie seems to have a core self-approval that allows her to be friends with girls whose lives will take them in different directions than hers without surrendering herself altogether.  I kept worrying that she was going to cave in, but she never did, which was a relief after reading (not to mention knowing) about kids who go along with the crowd until they're damaged and find it much harder to repair themselves.  Sinclair followed Stevie to college in her second novel, Ain't Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice, which I'll probably read before this year is out.

As soon as I finished reading Coffee Will Make You Black, I picked up Ruth Moore's first novel from 1943, The Weir.  I've read and discussed two of Moore's later books here before.  The Weir is an impressive debut, I thought, though I wasn't happy with the ending, which seemed forced onto the story rather than developing out of it.  Still, Weir had her command of small-town and island life in Maine from the start, and overall I enjoyed the book as much as I did the other two I've read; I'll continue reading her novels.

Something struck me, though, almost immediately.  I noticed that the family constellation in The Weir was very similar to that in Coffee Will Make You Black, with a crusty grandmother, conflicts and worries about the children's future, and so on.  At times during the first fifty pages or so I had to stop and remind myself that I was reading about 1940s Maine rather than 1960s Chicago.  This was mainly because both 1960s Chicago blacks and 1940s white Maine fishermen had what looked to me like similar ambivalences about education, manual work, money, and relations between insiders and outsiders.  Can black folks / islanders trust white folks / summer people (or "foreigners"), make friends with them, intermarry with them?  Can our kids move on to better lives without despising their roots?  What should be done about those kids who aren't interested in finishing high school, let alone going to college?  What about those who could move on but choose to stay?  I often have the feeling that many of the differences that people see between their group and other groups are illusory.  Of course that may not be because the differences don't exist in reality, or that there are no differences; it may just be that writers of fiction tend to rely on similar themes and models, regardless of whom they're writing about.  Still, moving from one novel's environment to the next, I felt more continuity than difference.

I began reading Swinging on the Garden Gate: A Spiritual Memoir by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, originally published by Skinner House Books in 2000, before I read either Coffee Will Make You Black or The Weir.  I decided to give it a try because I was intrigued by the subject, an avowedly bisexual woman's quest to integrate her religious life and her sexuality.  I got bogged down about a third of the way through, however.  For whatever reason -- autobiographical accuracy, literary convention, "spiritual" convention that requires that the seeker hit bottom before finding enlightenment / salvation -- I found Andrew an unrelieved drag.  I am being too mean there, I know; not everyone has an easy life, and as someone who spent much of his youth in a haze of self-pity I am in no position to condemn her.  But as she tells it, her childhood and adolescence had no positive aspects at all, not because of poverty or racial or class oppression, not because of her family, not because of her peers, not because of abusive religious teaching -- but because she seems to have suffered from what someone (Angelo D'Arcangelo, maybe) called a "spiritual vitamin deficiency" that kept her drooping well into adulthood.

Again, this is not a condemnation: I'm talking about temperament, not anything that is her fault.  It's not her fault that she felt alienated from her female body, which made adolescence unpleasant.  Still, Stevie Stevenson (who, as I said, appears to be as much her author's autobiographical projection as Andrew is in her memoir) has a harder time of it: severe monthly cramps, nausea, for a couple of days during each period.  (Compare too, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, which addresses similar bodily alienation in adolescence with more insight and richness.)  Yet Stevie's much more interesting to read about than Andrew, with more going on in her head.  As for her sexuality, Andrew appears to have come of age sometime in the 80s, in a liberal religious and political environment, not in the early sixties before the Women's Health movement, women's spirituality, and other cultural upheavals changed the way women and girls saw their bodies.  Yet Swinging on the Garden Gate begins (in the twenty-first century?!) with an adult Elizabeth Andrew still depressed about her body and her bisexuality and hoping to advance spiritually in a retreat environment.  You'd think that the LGBT Christian and other religious trends hadn't already been active and influential in such circles for three or four decades by then.  Yet (as of page 52 out of 175 or so) no awareness of these possibly helpful resources was evident to me.

Speaking of spirituality, I found a strange dissonance going on in Andrew's account of her spiritual development.  On the one hand, as a child she's somehow closer to God as children stereotypically are, she knows better than the adults around her who are tangled in the coils of Organized Religion and its confining traditions and rituals; on the other, she feels almost a vocation and wants to be part of the rituals and traditions of her Organized Religion.  On yet another hand, she's ignorant about God and his plan for her, being naïve and ignorant and undeveloped, but she still somehow knows better than anyone around her what God wants and expects.  Maybe all these stances can be reconciled, but I don't think so.  It seems to me that if God did exist as a vaguely paternal superior being, he could have been more helpful as Elizabeth Andrew trod hopelessly through her slough of despond.  For that matter, I wonder if the adults around her were as unhelpful and clueless as she makes them seem, or if she shut them out herself, as many kids do.  Self-pity is one thing; self-righteousness is another; the two combined are downright toxic.

It's true, you got to cross that lonesome river by yourself, but at the same time you never really do it alone, especially in a time and place (she's not living in Afghanistan under the Taliban, for heaven's sake) where so many other people are walking the same paths and have had a lot to say about their experiences.  This seems to me of a piece with the isolating individualism of the Culture of Therapy, which I wouldn't criticize so much if it worked better, if it produced more positive outcomes instead of fostering an ongoing dependency on leaders, workshop leaders, life coaches, and such people.

Maybe I should try to clarify what I mean by "spiritual"; I'm an atheist, after all, and I don't believe in spirits.  I agree it's not the best word, but I don't know of a better one, and fussing over specific terminology for abstract concepts is often a way to waste lots of time.  When I use the word "spiritual" I'm thinking by analogy of the difference between mind and matter, melody and invidual notes, rhythm and individual beats, the individual frames of a movie and the illusion of motion that succeeding frames produce.  Neither in itself is bad; only trying to isolate them and rely on one to the exclusion of the other.  So, "spirituality" means attending to the continuity, the connection, between individuals and the different components of their lives, but also of the continuity between themselves and society and the world.  "Spirit" in this metaphorical sense is the illusion of wholeness, connection, as opposed to the illusion of separateness and isolation.  We are at the same time discrete individuals and inseparably part of the whole, without which we couldn't exist. That's probably not an adequate explanation, but I hope it will do for now.

According to her website, Andrew is now a "spiritual director" as well as a writer and writing teacher.  I thought I found more genuine spiritual insight in The Weir and Coffee Will Make You Black, though neither book has pretensions to such, than in Swinging on the Garden Gate.  (I also kept thinking of the passages I quoted in this post as I struggled to read it.)  I intend to finish Andrew's book, but I found it offputting enough that it may be some time before I continue.  I'd generalize from that: with a few exceptions, I've found more spiritual insight and value where they aren't advertised or promised than where they are.  But that's just me.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Nothing Up My Sleeve; or, The Silence of the Genes

At first I thought I'd just add to yesterday's post, but decided to start a new one.  After I clicked on Publish and moved on to other matters for the evening, I kept wondering what valid a use a "genetic" test to detect homosexuality could have.  After all, LGBTQ folklore has it that we know from an early age that we're Different, so who needs a test?  I can imagine a confused and frightened young person wanting to take such a test to prove to himself or herself that she isn't gay, and then having to face positive results.  Maybe parents would drag offspring they aren't sure about to the doctor to settle the question one way or the other.  By analogy to similar tests, the only use I can think of for this one would be "diagnostic," and what valid diagnostic use would a test for homosexuality have?

One of the New Scientist articles I linked to yesterday acknowledged some of these concerns.
This concern may be premature. Marc Breedlove at Michigan State University in East Lansing points out that in its current form, the test is not accurate enough to be used to predict whether someone in a new population of individuals is gay with any certainty, since the 67 per cent accuracy of the test is only relevant for the test population, who are themselves not reflective of the general population, in which a much lower proportion of people are gay.

Nevertheless, some researchers contacted by New Scientist raised concerns over the ethical implications of such research. For example, if the test were developed further, could it one day be used to screen for sexuality at an early age?

“Eugenics is always a possibility, but governments that regressive would rarely have enough money to spend on something like this,” says Alice Dreger an ethicist and historian of sexuality. “More likely it would be used by parents.”

Dreger recalls an anecdote from a researcher who studies the fraternal birth order effect. The researcher received a phone call from a man in the US who was looking to hire a surrogate mother – but because of the effect did not want someone who had already had several sons. “That’s not really what I want…” the man had said, “especially if I’m paying for it.”
I wonder about Dreger's remarks.  Once science and commerce have done that voodoo that they do so well, the hypothetical test would soon be affordable, not just for parents (!) but for "governments that regressive."  Regressive governments (like the poverty-stricken Saudi Arabian regime, maybe?) don't have to develop the science themselves, they just need to find a way to pay for it from the aid they receive from the United States.  Even a "centrist" administration will probably go along with selling the test abroad -- finding overseas markets for American products is a bipartisan priority.  Regressive and repressive governments also aren't much concerned with accuracy; a few false positives leading to the execution of non-gay individuals would hardly bother them much.  Where do they find these people?

And yes, of course there are parents who'd be interested in such a test.  Since most antigay bigots reject biological-determinist explanations of homosexuality, one could mock them for using a test based on a biological-determinist explanation of homosexuality.  Bigots are quite comfortable with biological-determinist theories that support their bigotry, and besides, better to be safe than sorry.  In the hypothetical case I outlined above, of parents taking their child to the doctor to be tested for homosexuality, they could still follow up by trying to beat the Gay out of him or her.  I haven't noticed that inconsistency bothers many people.

Dean Hamer, in his New Scientist piece, claimed that "such work won’t worsen homophobia. People who understand the role of biology in sexuality are more likely to be accepting and inclusive." It's a bit odd, really, to find a scientist reassuring the public that there's nothing to worry about because the science doesn't work yet.  The usual line in scientific evangelism is that you can't stop the forward march of Knowledge, and if we can't detect gays with a saliva test today, we'll be able to do so Real Soon Now.

Even forgetting people like Günter Dörner, the German endocrinologist who "classified homosexuality as a 'central nervous pseudohermaphroditism'" resulting from low levels of male hormone in homosexual males, it isn't only "people who understand the role of biology in sexuality" that we have to worry about -- it's the people who don't understand the role of biology in sexuality.  But that group includes a lot of scientists working in the field.

For example, the NBC story that Queerty used as a source for their post included this significant passage:
Dr. Margaret McCarthy, who studies the developing brain at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said epigenetic changes could happen while a fetus is developing. 

"Developing male fetuses produce very high quantities of testosterone during the second trimester and this directs psychosexual development along masculine lines, a component of which is preference for females as sexual partners," McCarthy said in a statement.

"This study provides a major step forward in our understanding of how the brain can be affected by factors outside of the genome. It is also possible that the experience of being a homosexual or a heterosexual has itself impacted the epigenetic profile. But regardless of when, or even how, these epigenetic changes occur, their findings demonstrate a biological basis to partner preference."
It appears that Dr. McCarthy accepts the popular scientific notion that male homosexuals are in some way feminized, since we have a preference for males as sexual partners, instead of females as "masculine" psychosexual development would produce.  But she's wrong about the effects of hormones, which produce not partner preferences but, at most, roles in sexual behavior: lordotic males who present themselves to be mounted by partners of either sex (or a researcher's finger stroking their backs), female who mount partners of either sex.  They don't explain why a 'normal' male would mount a lordotic male, or a 'normal' female present to a masculinized female.  (This behavior has nothing to do with human homosexuality, but pointing that out would undermine their claims to explain human homosexuality.)  I can't see where McCarthy got the idea that Ngun's "findings demonstrate a biological basis to partner preference," because they demonstrate nothing of the kind.  It's certain that biology provides a "basis" for sexual behavior, as it provides a basis for language and other cultural phenomena; without bodies (biology) these phenomena wouldn't occur.  But the variations in language, culture, and sexuality have not been shown to be determined by biological differences.  But environment and culture also provide a basis for sexual behavior.  The bogus nature/nurture divide is still active in the scientific community.

Many scientists are naive, to put it nicely, about the motives of the people to whom they hand over the new toys they've invented.  Even a low-tech intervention like abortion can be used to bigoted ends, as when it's used to prevent the birth of daughters -- especially when it's combined with higher technology that allows the sex of the embryo to be known during gestation.  It might be acceptable to push for a saliva test that detects homosexuality if it had some positive use, but no one seems to have any idea what that would be, and there are plenty of negative consequences that are all too plausible and likely.

Hamer also brushed aside concerns about a test: "... Ngun’s work does not amount to a sexual orientation test. Even if it can be replicated in more twins with highly correlated methylation patterns, it is unlikely to work in unrelated members of the public."  Why is Hamer so negative?  Doesn't he have faith in scientific progress?  Just because we can't do something now doesn't mean we won't be able to do it later!

So what is the value of Ngun's work, even dismissing all the criticisms of its weaknesses (weaknesses that also characterized the research that made Hamer famous, as it happens)?  Hamer wrote, "My fear is that the furore stirred up will inhibit it. That would be a pity, because sexual orientation is one of the most fundamental and fascinating variations in humanity that we can study."  I disagree with him on both those counts.  I don't think that sexual orientation is particularly fascinating or fundamental, any more than differences in skin color are.  If, as various streams of the LBGT movement have argued, homosexuality is just not a big deal, not a difference that matters to individuals' value or capacity as human beings, then how is it "fundamental"?  One of the points of the Kinsey scale is that homosexuals and homosexuals can be thought of as different in degree, rather than in kind.  Is a Kinsey 2 fundamentally different from a Kinsey 3 or 4?  Where do you draw the line?  For that matter, why is a difference in sexual orientation more fundamental or fascinating than the fact that people are not equally attracted (or attracted at all) to all people of a given sex?  I'm not attracted to all men, and I'm often not attracted to men whom other men desire fiercely.  That looks to me like a more fundamental difference than sexual orientation, but scientists like Hamer don't seem to find it fascinating.  (It's a difference that they either try to overlook, or try to explain by claiming that some people are inherently more attractive, on evolutionary grounds.)

Is a difference in sexual orientation more "fundamental," say, than a difference in language or religion?  Such differences have been taken to be important, to be markers of fundamental human difference worth fighting and killing over, but they are not.  I think it needs to be argued, not postulated, that sexual orientation is fundamental.  Hamer assumes that differences in "sexual orientation" are both fundamental to the individual, and must (therefore?) be based in the genes in some carefully nonspecific way.  Even if he were right about this, decisions of funding need more than his dogmatic assurances, which seem to be motivated by PR aims to justify supporting the work.

Another notorious researcher takes the same tack:
“The scientific benefit to understanding [why people vary in sexual orientation] is obvious to anyone with an iota of curiosity,” says Michael Bailey at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “The predictive test needs replication on larger samples in order to know how good it is, but in theory it’s quite interesting.”
What I find interesting is that Bailey reads Ngun's study in a way diametrically opposed to Hamer: Hamer dismisses the possibility of a "predictive test," while Bailey sees it as feasible as well as "quite interesting" in theory.  He doesn't seem to have a valid use for it, though. And neither Bailey nor Hamer seems to have noticed the serious flaws in Ngun's study listed by Ed Yong at The Atlantic, which indicates a lack of important analytic skills on both their parts.  Other than that, Bailey can only handwave that it's obvious that understanding variation in sexual orientation has a scientific benefit.  Maybe it has a benefit, maybe not, but that's not obvious.  As Noam Chomsky wrote decades ago about American race-science bearing on intelligence:
A possible correlation between mean IQ and skin color is of no greater scientific interest than a correlation between any two other arbitrarily selected traits, say, mean height and color of eyes. The empirical results, whatever they might be, appear to have little bearing on any issue of scientific significance. In the present state of scientific understanding, there would appear to be little scientific interest in the discovery that one partly heritable trait correlates (or not) with another partly heritable trait. Such questions might be interesting if the results had some bearing, say, on some psychological theory, or on hypotheses about the physiological mechanisms involved, but this is not the case. Therefore the investigation seems of quite limited scientific interest, and the zeal and intensity with which some pursue or welcome it cannot reasonably be attributed to a dispassionate desire to advance science. It would, of course, be foolish to claim, in response, that “society should not be left in ignorance.” Society is happily “in ignorance” of insignificant matters of all sorts. And with the best of will, it is difficult to avoid questioning the good faith of those who deplore the alleged “anti-intellectualism” of the critics of scientifically trivial and socially malicious investigations. On the contrary, the investigator of race and intelligence might do well to explain the intellectual significance of the topic he is studying, and thus enlighten us as to the moral dilemma he perceives. If he perceives none, the conclusion is obvious, with no further discussion.

... The question of heritability of IQ might conceivably have some social importance, say, with regard to educational practice. However, even this seems dubious, and one would like to see an argument. It is, incidentally, surprising to me that so many commentators should find it disturbing that IQ might be heritable, perhaps largely so. Would it also be disturbing to discover that relative height or musical talent or rank in running the hundred-yard dash is in part genetically determined? Why should one have preconceptions one way or another about these questions, and how do the answers to them, whatever they may be, relate either to serious scientific issues (in the present state of our knowledge) or to social practice in a decent society? [from For Reasons of State, Pantheon, 1973, p. 361-362]
Subtitute "sexual orientation" for "intelligence" here, and you have some very good reasons to be skeptical of Hamer's, Bailey's and others' enthusiasm for trying to find a biological basis of sexual orientation.  I can understand why laypeople want to know why we are the way we are, but I see no reason to fund scientific research to understand why people differ from each other.  (Why am I left-handed?  Why am I gay?  Why am I an atheist?  Why am I taller than both my parents and all of my younger brothers?  Why are some people darker-skinned than others?  Why am I attracted to this man, but not to that one?)

Hamer comes closest to offering a scientific rationale for such research: "... I am more intrigued by what the work tells us about the role of epigenetic imprinting – the silencing of genes by methylation. This imprint can pass from parent to child and has implications for a range of complex human traits."  Apparently, though, "epigenetic imprinting -- the silencing of genes by methylation" is relevant to "a range of complex human traits," not just sexual orientation.  There's no particular reason why it should apply to homosexuality (or to heterosexuality), except that traditional forms of biological determinism have failed and We've Got to Do Something.  If I recall correctly, Hamer is one of those gay scientists, like Simon LeVay, who try to justify their research by claiming that it would support gay equality in some obscure fashion.  But gay equality doesn't depend on our being born gay, and finding a role for epigenetic imprinting is not likely to persuade bigots.  What this research mainly shows is that scientists like Hamer don't really understand the role of biology in human behavior and culture -- that is, what it means, socially and ethically and politically, for some trait to be "biological" and "not a choice."

I suspect that Tuck Ngun had never thought about possible social consequences of his work until controversy erupted over his announcement.  If I'm right about that, then his scientific education failed him decisively.  (But then, if bioethicists like Alice Dreger were doing the teaching, it could hardly have done otherwise.)  Judging from the pronouncements of people like Dean Hamer, bioethics in practice largely means finding ways to ward off criticism and get more funding for badly designed research of little or no scientific value.  (Remember that Hamer also wrote a book called The God Gene, arguing for a genetic basis for religion; I don't know who was responsible for that title, but Hamer's in no position to complain that laypeople have inaccurate ideas about genetic determination when he's fostering them himself.)  But then there will always be gay people who will clamor for badly designed research of little or no scientific value that will make them feel less bad about being gay.  Where there's demand, there will be suppliers.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

This Time for Sure! I Mean It! No, Really!



One story that got a lot of attention while I was getting ready to travel was an announcement of the latest "gay gene" study.  I first learned about it from a Queerty story linked on Facebook by several queer friends: "Researchers Say They May Have Found the Gay Gene For Real This Time."

The story, apparently drawn from a report at NBC News,  was about a study led by Tuck C. Ngun at "the David Geffen School of Medicine of the University of California, Los Angeles" (really! seriously! this story did not come from The Onion!), which was announced at a genetics conference, and promptly went viral, as these things generally do.  It doesn't appear that Ngun actually claimed to have put salt on the tail of the gay gene, as Queerty and other media said.  What Ngun actually said was something along the lines of "a predictive model for sexual orientation based on molecular markers."  Close enough, I guess.

On the other hand, the announcement drew a lot of criticism.  Even the Queerty article quoted some scientific critics.  Very soon a full demolition appeared at the Atlantic.  Ngun's study used a very small sample, then split that sample, and
As far as could be judged from the unpublished results presented in the talk, the team used their training set to build several models for classifying their twins, and eventually chose the one with the greatest accuracy when applied to the testing set. That’s a problem because in research like this, there has to be a strict firewall between the training and testing sets; the team broke that firewall by essentially using the testing set to optimize their algorithms.
... Ngun admitted that the study was underpowered. “The reality is that we had basically no funding,” he said. “The sample size was not what we wanted. But do I hold out for some impossible ideal or do I work with what I have? I chose the latter.” He also told Nature News that he plans to “replicate the study in a different group of twins and also determine whether the same marks are more common in gay men than in straight men in a large and diverse population.”
Great. Replication and verification are the cornerstones of science. But to replicate and verify, you need a sturdy preliminary finding upon which to build and expand—and that’s not the case here. It may seem like the noble choice to work with what you’ve got. But when what you’ve got are the makings of a fatally weak study, of the kind well known to cause problems in a field, it really is an option—perhaps the best option—to not do it at all. (The same could be said for journalists outside the conference choosing to cover the study based on a press release.)
Now, now -- expecting journalists to actually wait for research to be published, and to examine it critically, would spell the death of modern science journalism in the mass media, as we know it today.

I was amused by Ngun's protest -- better to do badly designed research than to do none at all!  It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that going public with such poor work would hurt his chances of doing the bigger study he hopes to do in the future.  Maybe he should bypass all the grinches among his colleagues who picked his baby to pieces, and try crowdfunding the next one.  GLBTQ media like Queerty would be glad to help.  The comments under that article are appalling; but then so are many of the comments under the Atlantic article, including a batch by a minister who asserts that sexual orientation is "as immutable as eye color and hand dominance," without any evidence to support that claim.

One other curious thing about the Queerty article, though.
Interestingly, after making the findings, Ngun, who is openly gay, decided to abandon the research out of fear that, if developed further, it could be used to screen fetuses or punish or persecute gay people.

“I just left the lab last week,” he said. “I don’t believe in the censoring of knowledge, but given the potential for misuse of the information, it just didn’t sit well with me.”
No link, no source given at all.  It's not mentioned in the NBC article that Queerty linked to.  So, did Ngun leave the lab before or after he announced his findings to the American Society of Human Genetics?  Before or after he defended his inadequate work against criticism?  Why did he only consider the "potential for misuse of the information" after he'd done the study?  It's not as if those concerns haven't been raised often before.

I found a probable source for the quotation from Ngun in a New Scientist article.  Another NS article pooh-poohed the concerns in equally familiar ways: Mankind must not be left ignorant of trivial and unnecessary matters, no matter what the human cost.

Then I found another article at the right-wing Daily Wire, written in a language I believe the author thinks to be English, which announced that
Not only had the study been misrepresented in a way that led many publications to announce that a "gay gene" had been found, it was done so all without the necessary authorization of the senior author and principal investigator of the research, Dr. Eric Vilain. What is more shocking is that the scientist who presented the research, Dr. Tuck Ngun, who is openly gay, was offended by his own research and decided to completely abandon the lab a week before the conference for fear of it shedding a negative light on homosexuality.
This, along with the rest of the piece, is fatuous.   No amount of care in presentation could prevent "many publications" from interpreting the study as evidence of a gay gene; the mass media, straight and gay, are extremely fond of biological determinism and will impose it on any story they cover.
In fact, the study was proving the opposite of what the public was led to believe: that there is no gay gene. Unfortunately, that reality was too harsh for the politically correct to accept, because that would mean that little boys who wear makeup are not genetically gay; they are still just little boys wearing makeup. It would diminish the need for a 'gay community' and threaten the validity of many males who claim that they are gay. 
I can't find any support for the claim that Eric Vilain had any objections to Ngun's presentation, but it appears that he too favors a genetic explanation for homosexuality: "The twin studies do not show that it is 100% genetic. They just demonstrate that there is a genetic influence."  So Vilain is also one of the "politically correct" that the Daily Wire denounces.  And the claim that Ngun's flawed research can already "predict" someone's sexual orientation is still being trumpeted, despite his critics.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Take Off for the Great White North

Ah, here's an example of what I was warning against the other day: a friend of a Facebook friend linked to this article about Canada's new Prime-Minister-Designate Justin Trudeau.  The headline: "Canada withdrawing fighter jets from Iraq, Syria, Trudeau tells Obama."  The guy who posted it remarked, "Apparently voting DOES sometimes make a difference, on some issues, in some countries, in some years."  That set off a flurry of jubilant comments: "Wow - he ain't wasting any time, is he?", "He also announced half of his cabinet will be women" (Hillary Clinton, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, and Golda Meir, perhaps), and "HELL YEAH!!!!"  

Even I was momentarily swayed, until I noticed another comment that read "He IS wasting time. Empty announcement to appease the population.  'But he gave no timeline' = They will stay there as long as the US demands them and the people wont even know it because 'their end was announced.'"  So I clicked through, read the article, and dang if he wasn't right: Trudeau gave no timeline, and "he vowed to keep military trainers in place" and "mov[e] forward with our campaign commitments in a responsible fashion."

I don't mean to jump the gun in the opposite direction.  Trudeau might still follow through.  But the time to celebrate will be after the planes are withdrawn, not before.  Maybe voting will have made a difference this time.  But it's too early to say.  Is that really such an outrageous position to take?  Not on this planet.

Ecology of the Undead

Ye gods...!  Who would invent such bogeys, such farcically loathsome things, unless ... I raised my eyes to the grey bated sky, and shivered.  No, I was not, to word it temperately, much enamoured of this devil's nook, this baleful twelfth- or thirteenth-century pocket of provincial France, where superstitions and obscene mythologies, instead of just remaining quaintly decorative, had the unpleasant trick of springing suddenly alive and driving mad all those who brooded on them overlong [57].
In this passage from John Metcalfe's novella The Feasting Dead, originally published in 1954 by Arkham House, an widowed English father shakes his fist at the sky after discovering that his adolescent son Denis has become the willing prey of a sans-nom, a nameless not-quite dead thing that feeds on the living.  Denis had been spending his school holidays in France, where he met the sans-nom, which followed him back to England before the father, Colonel Habgood, drove it away.  The boy retaliated by running away to France to find the thing.  The father vacillates between believing what he sees and rebelling against it as superstition, but his question was one I sometimes ask myself: Who would invent such bogeys, such farcically loathsome things?  For the fact is that people do invent them, and even become obsessed with them, as if they really existed.

As Walter Kendrick wrote in 1992 when Anne Rice's vampire series "seem[ed] to be careening down a steep, sad slope and The Tale of the Body Thief read "like the pilot for America's first vampire sitcom, 'I Love Lestat'":
Despite their basic absurdity, they're also quite convincing; they've apparently sent some people right around the bend into belief. In "Vampire: The Complete Guide to the World of the Undead," Manuela Dunn Mascetti treats "Interview With the Vampire" not as a novel but as an operating manual. That "exceptional book," she writes, offers the "best account of the birth of a vampire"; it "gives a good account of the process occurring in the physical body during transformation."


At times, Ms. Mascetti seems dimly aware that "the process" is fictional. But she spends several pages summarizing J. S. Le Fanu's "Carmilla" (1872), E. F. Benson's "Room in the Tower" (1912), Fritz Leiber's "Girl With the Hungry Eyes" (1949) and other anthologists' favorites, without attributions or any hint, besides the present tense, that these stories are fictional.
I've never been a fan of horror stories.  In early adolescence I watched The Twilight Zone regularly for a while, but in retrospect it seems to me that its stories were about something else.  (One that haunted me was the episode where Burgess Meredith plays a mousy clerk who loves to read but is bullied constantly about it.  Then the world ends and he's the only person left alive, free to read as much as he likes ... until he breaks his only pair of glasses, without which he's effectively blind.  It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to figure out why that struck a chord with me, even though my parents encouraged my reading and I was never actually picked on for it; but I was still the only kid I knew for whom reading mattered.)  I read one Lovecraft story, "The Colour Out of Space," which I encountered in a science fiction anthology, and though I thought I should read more of his work, I didn't.  I saw House of Wax a couple of times on late-night TV before I was out of high school.  But that's the extent of my engagement with the genre, and compared to sf and fantasy and even detective fiction, it's barely dipping my toes in the shallows.

Kendrick's Voice Literary Supplement review turned me on to Rice -- her erotica and historical fiction as well as the vampire books -- but when I read other works in the genre, I quickly found that despite her literary limitations, Rice transcended it.  (For a while: as Kendrick said, she went downhill rather quickly.) The writers and fans inspired by her example seemed to be doing something else, getting some other kind of satisfaction from the stories.  Their work seemed like porn (remember written pornography?): hot stuff if it fit your kinks, bland and boring if it didn't.  Which it didn't.  Why would they invent such bogeys, such farcically loathsome things, unless ... ?  Colonel Habgood's "unless" presumably is meant to be followed by "unless they did exist after all."  But they don't.  So why invent them?

In Barbara Ehrenreich's Blood Rites (1997) she speculated (or maybe I inferred it from her speculations) that horror films appeal to atavistic ancestral memories of the distant past before human beings became hunters, when we were prey, and the night was full of dimly seen nocturnal predators ready to snatch us away and feast (or at least snack) on us.  Whatever I think of her baseless attempt to ground this in our genes, I think she was on to something here, though I also think of Erica Jong's paraphrase (in Fear of Flying) of Georg Groddeck's Book of the It: the fear of the intruder is also the wish for the intruder.  (In roughly the same way that the wish to possess the desired love-object is also a wish to be the desired love-object, which is wanted and feared at the same time.)

The slasher subgenre didn't interest me either.  My boyfriend in the mid- to late 1980s had been into such movies to some extent, and pointed out to me that Ridley Scott's Alien was basically a slasher film in science-fiction drag.  Much later I read Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws (Princeton, 1992), and with its discussions in mind I finally saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  I then understood it, but I still didn't get it.  Joan Hawkins' Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde (Minnesota, 2000) illuminated the affinities between avant-garde cinema and horror films (think of Un Chien Andalou for an obvious example), and I still want to reread it and engage it in argument, but it didn't answer Colonel Habgood's question either: Why invent such bogeys?

Another thought: I happened to read Susie Bright's Inspired by Andrea Dworkin recently.  In one of those essays she tells of reading Bedtime for Frances to her young daughter.  Little Frances Badger's father, exasperated by her "bedtime phobias ... growls in his sleep and says, 'Do you know what will happen if you don't go to sleep right now?' 'I will get a spanking?'" Frances squeaks and runs back to bed.
"I wish they would show the part where Frances gets a spanking!" [Bright's daughter] says, with sadistic glee in her eyes....

Kids love stories and pictures about terrible crimes and punishments; they are fascinated by deep sensations and strong emotions, even though they have a terrible time learning to take the flak for their own mistakes.
Of course fascination with terrible crimes and punishments is partly a way of dealing with the fear of those things.  The same is probably true of the violent fantasy games five and six-year-old children invent, as described in Jane Katch's book Under Deadman's Skin (Beacon Press, 2002).  I had that fascination as a kid myself, sissy though I was and am.  But is this why many adults also have that fascination?  I don't know; I don't get it.  I seem to have left most of it behind somewhere along the way.

The same question applies to the gods and other spiritual beings and systems some adults make up.  What is the psychological meaning of the fantasies of judgment and torture they have put into their religions?  Why do even modern seekers, contemptuous of the amorality of the organized "Western" religions they grew up with, then invent sadistic cosmologies that resemble nothing so much as children's games of "Step on a crack, break your mother's back"?  Why do they prefer, as they evidently do (they choose the cosmologies they invent, after all) to believe in a booby-trapped universe, with themselves at the miserly mercy of the gods they invented, who set the booby traps in the first place?

The reason I decided to read The Feasting Dead was that Valancourt Books, the publishers who reissued it in 2014, touted it on Facebook as follows:
John Metcalfe may not have been a gay author and THE FEASTING DEAD (1954) isn't known as a gay book, but this novella is queer in every sense of the word. It has echoes of Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw', plus nameless horrors from beyond the grave and a rather sinister (and possibly ambulatory) scarecrow. The book has several truly bizarre and unforgettable moments, maybe the weirdest of which is when the main character, Colonel Habgood, walks in on his teenage son Denis and the handyman Raoul, a scene guaranteed to make you say 'Whoa, did I just read what I think I read? In a British novel from 1954?"
This is a slight misrepresentation of the scene, which is ambiguous to the point of incomprehensibility.  I didn't ask myself if I'd just read what I thought I read.  But I did wonder why gay readers should be excited about a horror story which might represent a gay-ish character (again, that oversimplifies and misrepresents what Raoul seems to be) sucking the life force out of a thirteen-year-old boy, so that I'm expected to see it as a metaphor for sex between a man and a boy.  Or between two men.  Granted that the censorship of the era made it difficult-to-impossible to present sex between men or between women as fulfilling rather than a doomed scrabbling after unnatural pleasure, given that homosexuality was commonly used in literature of this period as a metaphor for psychic vampirism and murky evil, why should I see an example of this homophobic regime as a literary attraction?  (Later some of these tropes were transferred to AIDS; not an improvement.)

This ties into the much older tendency to treat any kind of sexual interaction as unspeakable, even monstrous.  Marital sex could be alluded to (barely) without denigration, but any other sensual pleasure was a horror to be kept off-scene, and the participants were treated as monsters.  Which meant that when people were confronted with a real Sodomite who didn't smell of sulfur or have cloven hooves, they often couldn't recognize him as a Sodomite since he wasn't a monster.  Treating the meeting of bodies as a horror too monstrous to contemplate made it easier to avoid talking about the reality, keeping people in often-lethal ignorance.  Don't even look in that direction, it'll scare you too much, it's too horrible even to think about, you'll have nightmares forever.  Really.  Don't you trust me?  I know better than you do.  Someday you'll thank me for keeping you blindfolded.

There's something sexual, in this sense, in literature of terror and the supernatual, if only because you're not supposed to look at either sex or the monstrous.  If there really were undead predators rising from the grave, the bogeys Colonel Habgood refers to, the superstitious avoidance that the French peasants and the local curate he meets deploy against it would be even more obviously useless.  (After all, the Church is supposed to have infallible, God-given countermeasures against the demonic.)  I suspect that the real function of horror literature is not to help its users to confront their terrors, but to encourage them not to.  It's too horrible.  Be afraid, be very afraid.  The gobbl'uns'll get you if you don't watch out.  Hide under the bed... (It occurs to me that a certain craving for the adrenaline rush of fear is also a factor.  Not my drug of choice, folks.)  The light of day brings many horrors into a better perspective.  Sometimes they stop being horrors.  Sometimes they turn out to be nothing but a deck of cards.  Sometimes they vanish altogether.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Don't Count Your Hope and Change Before They're Hatched

I suppose I'm glad that Justin Trudeau won the Canadian elections, but I'm wary of the celebratory response his victory has been getting among liberals, both in Canada and in the US.  I don't know much about Trudeau, but I'm not really talking about him anyway.  I'm talking about liberal reaction to him, which I think bears a very uncomfortable resemblance to the liberal reaction to the election of Barack Obama, of Pope Francis, and to the campaign of Bernie Sanders.  I could add the election of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the election of Bill DeBlasio as Mayor of New York, and others.

I guess what I think is that the celebration is premature.  Trudeau's Canadian supporters, those who worked in his campaign to get him elected, are entitled to cheer before buckling down to the hard work ahead; we outside of Canada, mere spectators, aren't.  Even if Trudeau doesn't reveal himself to be the kind of corrupt hack that Obama turned out to be, even or especially if Trudeau really means to make a decisive break with his right-wing predecessor Stephen Harper and has some idea of how to do it, he's going to face strong opposition every step of the way.  Liberals love to fantasize that their heroes will be assassinated, for some reason, but I'm not talking about that possibility; I'm talking about hysterical smear campaigns, massive amounts of corporate money from within and without Canada poured into funding his opponents, and attempts to block his every move.  Those attempts may come from unexpected quarters.  Think of the pressure exerted on Greece after Syriza was voted in, defying the Eurobankers: they caved in almost before they took office.  Or think of this poignant bit about South Korea from Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine (Holt, 2007, page 270):
[T]he end of the IMF negotiations coincided with scheduled presidential elections in which two of the candidates were running on anti-IMF platforms. In an extraordinary act of interference with a sovereign nation’s political process, the IMF refused to release the money until it had commitments from all four candidates that they would stick to new rules if they won. With the country effectively held at ransom, the IMF was triumphant: each candidate pledged his support in writing. Never before had the central Chicago School mission to protect economic matters from the reach of democracy been more explicit: you can vote, South Koreans were told, but your vote can have no bearing on the managing and organization of the economy. (The day the deal was signed was instantly dubbed Korea’s “National Humiliation Day.”)
It's not news, to anyone who pays attention, that most citizens of most countries want more economic equality, more social services, less war.  But political and business elites don't want those things, and are very effective at blocking their implementation.  The mass media reflect the views of those elites, so it's not necessarily a deliberate conspiracy that they tend to go into attack mode when anyone to the left of Ronald Reagan is elected to high office: they're just doing what comes naturally, as anyone else would do.  It's common to hear liberals complaining that American voters often seem to vote against their interests, less common to hear the same liberals complaining that they themselves rely on corporate media for most of their news, though corporate media do not reflect liberals' interests -- at least, as they claim to see their interests.  There's no reason why corporate media shouldn't report from the point of view of the investor class; there is plenty of reason why non-investors should look elsewhere for information about the world.

I've written before that Barack Obama has done more damage to the dogma of the vital importance and effectiveness of voting than any other American politician since Lyndon Baines Johnson.  What's the use of "voting the rascals out" if there are only rascals available to be voted in to replace the old rascals?  So far I haven't noticed any of my liberal friends crowing that Trudeau's victory vindicates the importance of voting, though I'm sure they will start soon.  But as I say, it's too early to declare victory now: the struggle in Canada is just beginning with Trudeau's election.  I would be delighted if my pessimism is proven wrong by events, but history is on my pessimism's side.  At the very least, let's not ignore the pressures that will be brought to bear on Canada's new PM, and save the celebration until he actually succeeds in facing them down and defeating them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Korean Grandpa in Training

How do you like my ride?  Sweet, eh?

I'm in South Korea, in the same area of Seoul where I stayed last year.  I have the bike above on loan from the friends I'm staying with; they have a couple of spares, and I may switch to another one, but for now this one works for me.

Yeah, I know, it's a "women's" bike.  But it's also the bike my host's father rides when he's in town; the basket in front makes it good for running errands.  And I've noticed quite a few old Korean men riding "women's" bikes, so I fit right into the scenery.  That's not to say that Koreans aren't uptight about gender -- it's a very sexist, male-supremacist culture -- but I suspect that for people around my age, who grew up when Korea was still a very poor country, fussing about what a bicycle has between its legs is a luxury they couldn't afford, and don't worry much about now.  (P.S. My Korean friends agreed with my speculation.)  I get a fair amount of attention as I ride around Godeok, and I'm not sure whether it's because my bike is a lady or because I'm a foreigner riding a battered old Korean bicycle.  So I smile back, and nod, and have a great time.

Having the bicycle increases my mobility wonderfully.  I routinely turn down side streets that I wouldn't ordinarily have time or energy to explore, and I've found some interesting places as a result: a little bike shop for repairs and such, a second-hand store that will be useful when I get a place of my own, a restaurant I mean to try for lunch.  I'm also saving money on transit fares, though I haven't gone very far yet.  I'm thinking of riding up to Jamsil, a few miles away but closer by road than by subway oddly enough.  Just riding around Godeok has occupied my energies for the past several days, and I'm not finished yet.

This is where I want to live for a while.  I can't yet -- I'll return to the US in mid-November -- but I'm more certain than ever that this place feels like home to me.  Not for the entire rest of my life, perhaps, but for a man in his mid-sixties, who knows how long that will be?  But for a while.

No-Thought Zone Enforced in US Political Discourse

Daniel Larison has written several strong pieces condemning those politicians who prattle about enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria.  (Don't forget that Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of them.)  In one of his earlier pieces he'd said that he wasn't sure they really knew what they were calling for (which is probably true), and "Many of them would probably be horrified by the suggestion that they are endorsing a policy that could require shooting down Russian jets over Syria, and yet that is exactly what they are doing."  I commented that, unfortunately, "many of those who favor a no-fly zone are delighted by the idea of shooting down Russian planes."  And within a few days, several of them obligingly confirmed my understanding.  Just to make sure we know where he stands, Jeb Bush repeated himself:
“The argument is, ‘Well, we’ll get into conflict with Russia,’” former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said on CBS last week, referring to what critics say about the no-fly zone idea. “Well, maybe Russia shouldn’t want to be in conflict with us. I mean, this is a place where American leadership is desperately needed.”
Larison expressed the hope that candidates who expressed these dangerous views would be rejected by the voters.  One of his commenters countered:
Don’t count on it. If you aren’t belligerent you are weak. America’s bout of pacifism before the two world wars is long gone, and advocating caution and patience is blasted for failing to lead. I think you are spot on with respect to your views on Syria, but there are precious few people in power who espouse it.
I really don’t think so, but first of all this person is misusing the word “pacifism.” It’s a word that gets thrown around in contexts where “pussy” and “faggot” wouldn’t be appropriate, and it means anyone who opposes, for any reason, a war that the speaker wants to fight — or rather, wants to send other people’s sons and daughters to fight. Quite a few military men opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and I don’t think any of them were pacifists, but they were vilified by the chickenhawks anyway.

So, let’s lay to rest the idea that Americans had a pacifist period between the World Wars. As Larison has said several times, and so have I, it is not pacifism or (another favorite epithet) isolationism to lack enthusiasm for a war where your country’s interests are not at stake. Contrary to the chickenhawks’ claims, the burden of argument lies on the proponents of any war, not the opponents. And it took pretty hefty propaganda campaigns to fossick Americans up into support for both World Wars.

Were Americans un-pacifist after World War II? There’s reason to doubt that idea. Almost immediately after the Japanese surrender in 1945, US rulers wanted to get us involved in Southeast Asia, and there was a public outcry, in Congress and elsewhere, against using US forces and equipment to support the re-imposition of French rule on Vietnam.  The War in Korea wasn’t popular either, and the ruling elites knew it. During that period, into the 1950s, there was also a tendency in popular culture to look askance at men of veterans’ age who had had enough of bloodshed and just wanted to live quietly with their families for a while — see the lousy movie Shane which glorifies the professional killer at the expense of the solid father and family man, and centers on the loathsome little boy who wants to see a gunfight.

And surely we've all heard of the Vietnam Syndrome, much lamented in the corporate media and in elite government planning circles, which meant they had to find ways to get around the public’s disinclination to send their children off to be chewed up in the military meat grinder. Most Americans, like most people, aren’t really very interested in war, but there are always a few who never heard of a war they didn’t like, as long as someone else had to fight it -- and such people end up in decision-making positions far too often. Again, the burden of argument lies on someone who wants us to get into a shooting war with Russia in Syria, and as Larison keeps showing, they have no good arguments, and are frustrated that anyone should demand any.

Monday, October 19, 2015

My Really, Truly, True Sexual Orientation

Nobody will deny that the sentences of science can be classified into long sentences and short sentences, or that its statements can be classified into those which are intuitively obvious and others which are not.  Nobody will deny that such distinctions can be made.  But nobody will put great weight on them.* 
If only this were true!  I think that by "nobody," the philosopher and historian of science Paul Feyerabend meant "no sensible person."  But many people aren't very sensible.

My Facebook friend A posted a link to this item yesterday.  On Facebook it had the header "The Kinsey Scale Is Dead -- Here's What's Taking Its Place"; at least the post itself made no such claim.  That's the best that can said for it, though I must admit at the outset that it's on a site that has no real pretensions to seriousness.  A herself is very serious, however, a very very serious young person, so I expected something less fluffy.

Fluffy doesn't necessarily mean harmless, though.  The article begins:
When reality TV dumpling Honey Boo Boo Child declared that "everybody's a little bit gay" three years ago, she was unknowingly taking a page out of sexologist Alfred Kinsey's book. His famous Kinsey scale, which identifies people's levels of same- or opposite-sex attraction with a number from zero to six (zero being exclusively straight, six being exclusively gay), has been a favorite cultural metric for measuring sexual orientation since it was created in 1948. 
I presume that the author, Nicolas DiDomizio, believes that Kinsey found that "everybody's a little bit gay."  He didn't.  Half of his male sample were exclusively heterosexual in thought, word and deed throughout their lives; even more of the female sample.  The "Kinsey scale" doesn't measure sexual orientation, it's a graphic representation of sexual behavior.  If "gay" and "straight" are identities rather than quantities of sexual behavior, the Kinsey scale has nothing to say about them.  There's no way to measure sexual orientation, though I hear the Tarot is well thought of in some circles.

I was about to add that one's position on the Kinsey scale is not something one assigns oneself, but the result of taking Kinsey's lengthy interview protocol to collect one's sexual history.  That interview is not limited to homo/heterosexuality, by the way: it covers a lot more ground than that.  (Something to bear in mind when someone claims that the scale doesn't describe all aspects of sexuality: it's true, but then it wasn't intended to. It wasn't intended or designed even to represent all the varieties of sexual behavior on which Kinsey collected his data.  It was intended to make it easier to visualize the fact that many people's sexual histories are not either exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual.)  But then I noticed that the link to "Kinsey scale" in the quoted passage went to the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research, and I clicked through.  That page includes this information:
How do I take the Kinsey test?
There is no ‘test.’ The scale is purely a method of self-evaluation based on your individual experience, and the rating you choose may change over time.
The scale ranges from 0, for those who would identify themselves as exclusively heterosexual with no experience with or desire for sexual activity with their same sex, to 6, for those who would identify themselves as exclusively homosexual with no experience with or desire for sexual activity with those of the opposite sex, and 1-5 for those who would identify themselves with varying levels of desire or sexual activity with either sex.
There's nothing to stop people from assigning themselves a place on the scale, of course, but that's not what Kinsey invented it for, and it's not how it was used in his big books.  To see the Kinsey Institute endorsing self-evaluation in their official site boggles my mind.  For one thing, according to today's popular folklore, you don't "choose" your position on the Kinsey scale, you're born there.

[P.S.  If you click through the Kinsey Institute's link, you'll find a very different text at the site.  I wrote to them about the questions I've raised here, and they not only replied graciously, they revised the page.  The new version is much better, in my opinion.  I'm leaving the previous version here for comparison.]

My next question, which also follows from DiDomizio's article, is why people would be interested in assigning themselves a place on the Kinsey scale in the first place.  DiDomizio's next sentence suggests one possibility: "But even though asking someone where they fall on the Kinsey scale is now a common dating website opener, the Kinsey scale is far from an all-inclusive system."  If there's one thing the scale was not intended for, it was a dating opener.

Asking someone where they fall on the Kinsey scale might be a bit more informative than asking them their sign or their major or where their grandparents were born, but not much.  Just because I am exclusively homosexual, for example, it doesn't follow that I will be attracted to any given male.  I can describe certain looks that often attract me, but even among those "types" there are many I'm not attracted to at all.  Contrariwise, I'm attracted to many males who don't fit those types.  For sorting through the people on a dating website, the Kinsey scale has no evident use.  The same job could be done by having people specify whether they're interested in dating males, females, or both.  The exact percentage of each -- and remember, a self-assigned Kinsey number provides no exactness at all -- is not going to help.  In my limited experience with dating sites, many men who label themselves "straight" are seeking out other males to have sex with.  I suspect that they call themselves "straight" in case anyone who knows them sees their profiles, to avoid stigma.  "Bisexual" would be more accurate, but (aside from not wanting anyone who knows them to see it on their profiles) many people have weird squickiness about that word; not because it doesn't sufficiently describe them, but because it has some kind of cooties that they can't or won't specify, or that make no sense when they try.  (The same is true of "gay" and "straight.")

All this is just prelude to DiDomizio's touting an epic new classification system, "the Purple-Red Scale of Attraction" (sounds like something you'd see at The Onion, doesn't it?), invented by a "Southern California man [named] Langdon Parks [who] recently realized, the [Kinsey] scale fails to address other aspects of human sexuality, such as whether or not we even care about getting laid in the first place."  (Goodness, all these labels!  Why can't we just, you know, be like, ourselves?)

So Parks designed a grid that "[l]ike the Kinsey scale, ... allows you to assign a number from zero to six to your level of same-sex or heterosexual attraction, but it also lets you label how you experience that attraction on a scale of A to F. A represents asexuality, or a total lack of interest in sex 'besides friendship and/or aesthetic attraction,' while F represents hypersexuality."

As I've already noted but might as well insist again, the Kinsey scale wasn't designed to allow you to assign a number to yourself.  But leave that aside.  Here's the product:

Complicated enough for you?  Amusingly and predictably, Parks has been criticized for not including more variables.  As with gender, once you start multiplying names for differences, it's hard to know where to stop.  It's easy to make fun of these ramifying categories, and maybe it's a little unfair, but by the time you've gone to the lengths Parks did here, you're already in the realm of the comic.

For example, it's certainly valid to notice that some people are slower than others to be ready to copulate.  (This has been named demisexuality, for no reason I can make out.)  It's important to be considerate of other people's limits if we want to have a relationship with them.  But is that a "sexual orientation," or even a major chunk of one?  Some men I'm ready to have sex with right away, in the institutions of promiscuity that gay men have cultivated.  Even in those zones, I may hesitate over whether a specific man will do for the moment's play; maybe he gives me bad vibes.  Outside of those zones, I may be much more reluctant, because outside of those zones copulation brings with it expectations of commitments of various kinds.  Or I may not be reluctant, depending on the man and the situation.  But again, even if I were much more consistent, would that count as sexual orientation?

Then there are the pitfalls of self-evaluation I've already alluded to.  Often I've met men who said they 'liked to get to know the other person before having sex.'  In practice, this usually meant five to fifteen minutes of conversation before they grabbed my crotch.  Which reminds me of Annick Prieur's wry account of vestidas in Mexico City:**
Some added that they enjoyed being reserved during the initial flirt, letting the man take the initiative. As far as I can judge, however, this is far from true; they are about as coy as starving ravens. Flaca is one of those who claimed to be coy. But when I asked her how she expresses this, it all boiled down to her not actually grabbing the sexual organs of the men she accosts.
I also suspect that some people fend off their prospective partners' advances because for temperamental reasons they want to make the first move. Maybe that wish is also a sexual orientation.

DiDomazio claims that Parks's grid "acknowledges the shades of grey in sexual orientation and sexual interest. Both, he explained, are fluid and largely dependent on context."  Actually, nothing in the article shows how the grid covers either fluidity or context-dependence: the two axes insist on putting yourself into a particular box.  Taking fluidity and context into account would complicate the grid impossibly, though.  "I'm not interested in sex until the fifth -- not the fourth, not the sixth -- date, for purposes of pleasing my partner until I get bored with them, whereupon I start looking for another -- unless my partner decides to break up with me first, in which case I will fasten myself to them like a leech" is one possible case, and I can't see how to fit it into Parks's system.
But Parks believes that having a simple tool like the Purple-Red Attraction Scale can be useful, particularly as a way to improve communication in the dating world. "The scale was designed to provide a quick and easy way of scoring a person's view of relationships on forums and dating sites," he said. Imagine, for instance, if you logged onto OkCupid and entered your sexual orientation as D5, instead of simply self-identifying as "gay," "straight" or "bisexual." 


Parks also noted that the Purple-Red scale is a great way to match partners who have similar or compatible sex drives. "Attraction type is every bit as important as orientation," he told Mic. "We see it all the time: John wants sex, sex, sex, while Jane doesn't have the feeling right away."
The Purple-Red grid isn't really simple, in my opinion.  From what I've seen of dating sites, including OK Cupid, they already try to account for differences in erotic style.  Where "sex drive" is concerned, Parks's system is really no help, though that was something Kinsey studied even if it wasn't a factor in the homosexual/heterosexual continuum.  One of his primary goals in studying human sexual behavior to was to get a sense of its range.  One person might need several orgasms a day, another might feel the urge once a month, or less often.  As for that closing sentence about John and Jane, remember the scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall where his therapist asks him how often he and Annie have sex, and he replies "Hardly ever -- three times a week"; her therapist asks her how often they make love, and she replies, "All the time -- three times a week."  Frequency is subjective, and it often changes over the life of a relationship: at first you can't keep your hands off each other, but after a few months you can.  The quality of the sex changes too.   For some couples it changes differently, but that's one more variation that Parks doesn't map.

I suppose there's something to be said for this parlor game if it encourages people to recognize the variety of sexual tastes and needs, to feel better about their own differences, and to communicate with each other about them.  But it seems to me that these schemes are as likely to have the opposite effect: to encourage people to put themselves in ever-smaller boxes.

Parks's system reminds me of other popular self-classification schemes I've heard about.  In the 90s there was the Bear Code, a maniacally complicated system favored by some men I talked to online.  I mean, isn't your beard or the lack of it a crucial factor in your sexual orientation?  Why didn't Langdon Parks factor it into his scale?  Before that there was the Hanky Code, by which a (usually) gay man signaled his erotic tastes (oral, anal, piss, fisting, dominance) by the color of the handkerchief he carried in his back pocket, and his role (top/bottom) by whether it was in the right or left pocket. (Q: What if you can't distinguish between a purple, a lavender, or a magenta hanky?  A: Then you're not really gay, bitch.)  His key ring also signified something or other, depending on which side he wore it.  Of course reality was more complex, with the signficant sides reversed on the East and West coasts.

When a gay politico couple from New York came to speak at IU in the early 70s, one hopefully sophisticated young queen (not moi, if you're wondering) asked them about the hanky and key codes and which side was which.  One of our visitors gave the standard reply, that they varied depending on which coast you were on; the other then chuckled, "Except in February, which hath twenty-nine," and added, "In general, if you want to know, you ask."  Exactly.  And if you can't give an honest answer, no classification system will help you.

*Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (Verso, 1975), page 168. Quoted in Feyerabend and Scientific Values: Tightrope-Walking Rationality by Robert P. Farrell, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, p. 158-9.
** Annick Prieur, Mema's House (Chicago, 1999), page 174.