Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Top 16 of 2016

I posted less this year than during any year since I began this blog in 2007.  Unsurprisingly, traffic also dropped, but it mainly affected the average -- the numbers for the most-viewed posts were not much lower than normal.  And I'm pleased that several of the most-viewed posts are also among those I think are the best.

In addition to these, I want to recommend some posts that didn't get as many views, but which I think are worth your attention: my post on the Korean movie Sopyonje, which goes on to discuss cultural exclusiveness and (mis)understanding; which relates to this post about hostility to writers imagining other cultures; this one, on Clinton boosters' strange misreading of an Onion satire; my attempt to think about the buzzword "privilege"; this discussion of some contradictions in Chinese notions of masculinity; on the ongoing confusion about safe spaces and trigger warnings; on historical ignorance about gay male fiction; two posts on Pauli Murray, an important African-American lesbian activist and theorist; a detailed discussion of one model of social-construction theory; a follow-up on Buddhist collaboration with warfare and imperialism; more on the Science Wars, this time about a book declaring the supremacy of humanism over science;

16. This Time for Sure: A Kinder, Gentler Bigotry.  The local library just got a copy of the book I mentioned in this post.  I expect I'll write more about it when I've read it.  But since I wrote this I've noticed quite a few more books which take the position I criticized here -- a kinder, gentler bigotry.  It's only a public-relations stance, nothing new.

15. Surely, Comrades, You Do Not Wish Bush Back?  On the doublethink that was so widespread during the presidential campaign.  In other words, dog bites man; nothing to see here, folks, just a reminder of what was going on.

14. First They Came for the Politically Correct  Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic likes to seek out the human side of American bigotry, mostly with regard to antigay sentiments but sometimes, as here, the Trump supporter.  It's not a bad idea in principle, but his results are almost always embarrassing.  In the piece I wrote about here, it was a Trump supporter who projected his own antagonism to people with different politics onto them, and constructed a fantasy about the hatred they felt for him out of his own Political Correctness.  It might not be totally fantasized, since liberals are as a class no more rational than he is.

13. Racism As We Know It Today  This one probably got more views because it appeared in Vagabond Scholar's 2016 Jon Swift Roundup for bloggers, but I'm glad of that because I think it's a good piece.  It's not really news that liberal Democrats are willing to dismantle the New Deal and the other social programs it inspired, but it's been educational to watch how rabidly irrational they've become since Trump's victory in November.  It connects to this earlier piece about the same stereotypes as they were used to support white racism in the 1960s.

12. The Key to the Prison House of Gender Another piece I'm pleased with, though there's so much to say on this topic. (I'm working on another one right now, which I hope to post on January 1.)

11. Every Knee Shall Bend and Every Tongue Confess  Trump Derangement Syndrome kicked in among liberals -- even among those who, like the person I described in this post, would considr themselves farther left than liberals -- almost as soon as he declared his candidacy.  We can see how well it worked.

10. Thanks, Obama!  Almost everybody, his fans and his enemies alike, seems to think that Barack Obama is reluctant to resort to warfare.  This brief post points to the dissonance between Obama fans' vaunted concern about suffering children in Syria and their utter lack of concern about suffering children in Yemen, where American weapons are killing them, with Obama's overt assistance.

9It's All Fun Until Somebody Loses an Eye On the Obama administration's continuing foreign-policy feckless aggression.

8.  Neo-pro, Neo-con  On foreign-policy nostalgia (amnesia turned around) among pundits and political elites across the political spectrum; with a brief account of Eisenhower's disastrous (for Indonesians) interference in Indonesian politics during the 1950s.  Let no one tell you that only the Chinese are obsessed with "face"; Americans just call it by different (though related) names, like "optics."

7Clanging Symbols  On pro footballer Colin Kaepernick's protest against the national anthem, and the confusion about it fostered not only among professional sports pundits but by President Obama.

6.  Unraveling Offense One of the posts I'm proudest of this year, finished after much dithering and procrastination as always.  It follows a thought I've often had, that being offended is not something that can be escaped or suppressed, but an inevitable part of human life.  It's inherent in the social movements that have helped produce so much change in our society.  Instead of fearing either to give or receive it, we should concentrate on how to deal with it constructively.  Never happen, of course.

5. Wait, What? Fairly early in the 2016 primaries, as Trump began to accumulate victories, the corporate media began wondering How This Could Be.  The Guardian, a putatively progressive British newspaper with a following among American liberals, did a big article on supposedly "secret" Trump voters (see 14 above for another example), which I discussed in this post.

4. Mnyeh, Typical  On Israel and stereotyping.

3. When Clown Suits Are Outlawed...  Just a one-liner, inspired by the brief rash of panic over nasty clown sightings in middle America, but apparently a lot of people liked it.

2. Moderation.  Trump Derangement Syndrome wasn't universal this year.  Tariq Ali, whom I quoted in this post, didn't succumb to it, but he was one of the outliers.

1. Reading Reed.  Early in the year, as celebrities began moving like lemmings to another, higher plane, I wrote this post about the rumors of the late Lou Reed's bisexuality.  (Following up this post on the late David Bowie's bisexuality.)  Even in the Age of the Internet, we know less than we might have thought, but it is easier to examine and discredit what Everybody Knows than ever before.  The trouble is that not all that many people seem to care.  One other thing Everybody Knows is that the Internet has made it harder to know what's true and what isn't; I believe the opposite is true, that in reality it's easier than ever to expose error and falsehood, but "knowing" that you can't is evidently comforting to many people.  Though they pretend to lament our "post-truth" culture, they are quite comfortable in it.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Only Place Where Different Social Types Can Genuinely Get Along Is With David Bowie

It always baffles me.  When people make up religions, afterlives, and gods, they could imagine anything, and certainly better ones than existing religions offer.  Instead their substitutes tend to be worse.  This person basically imagines David Bowie's afterlife as an ectoplasmic Studio 54, where only the truly cool people get past the bouncer.

It's kind of like the Rapture.  If you're still here, you have been weighed in the divine balance and found wanting.  That includes Miss Texas 1967, who like the rest of us losers will get to experience the Tribulation to come, with all its horrors.  Does she (or the people who've shared this tweet) really find it comforting to imagine Bowie and, e.g., Carrie Fisher partying for eternity, with an inexhaustible supply of Ecstasy, coke, and cocktails, while she hovers in the outer darkness, with only a dwindling hope that The Thin White Duke will take her before midnight on December 31?  I wish I could take seriously the possibility that she meant her fantasy ironically, snarkily, satirically, but the person who shared it has been dead serious in cursing 2016 and all its works, and I doubt Miss Texas 1967 is any different.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Faith Is the Name We Give to Our Secret Terrors

As if things weren't frustrating, infuriating, and depressing enough already, many people chose to spend the past year throwing tantrums every time a celebrity died.  I've been wondering whether more famous people have died in 2016 than usual, or entertainment media have made sure that we hear about them, but it doesn't matter.  Someone (a friend of a friend, not anyone I know personally) posted on Facebook yesterday that 96-year-old Richard Adams, best known as the author of Watership Down, had moved "to a higher plane," and then cursed the year 2016 for killing off so many sublime artistes.

I decided to chicken out, and not comment under the post that inspired it.  I decided not to rain on someone's funeral, even though the poster didn't know Adams personally.  I also didn't feel like taking the spiritual hate that such people indulge to show how awakened they are. (Or "woke"? WTF is that about, anyway?) This time. There will be other times.  Choose your battles.  I'll just post it here as a more general reflection.

I always wonder when people use jargon like "leaving this plane" as a euphemism for death. If we don't really die, if we really go on to another, possibly better place, what is there to be upset about -- except for those of us who are still stuck here? It's one reason why I doubt whether people who claim to do so really believe in personal or other immortality. C. S. Lewis once argued that everybody believes in immortality, so it must be true -- something like that, I don't have the quotation to hand. I immediately thought that it cut the other way: those who claim to believe that death is not The End don't really seem to mean it, they still see death as something fearful and final.  Even those who claim to believe that Heaven is their destination are, for some reason, less than eager to cross that lonesome river.  Very well, but they don't want anyone else to die either, no matter how aged, infirm, and suffering they may be.

Some years ago I audited a summer course in the philosophy of religion.  Only two or three other people had signed up for it, so the professor welcomed another participant.  The student I remember best was a young woman who seemed determined not to learn anything from the course, but to get her spiritual preconceptions confirmed; we had some lively exchanges.  I learned something from her, though not what she probably expected.  I noticed that she alternated between seeing death as a sign of spiritual failure (rather like the apostle Paul) on the one hand, and as a sign of spiritual advancement on the other (like the person who thought Richard Adams had left this plane, but was still really pissed about it).  I pointed this out to her, and she spluttered and thrashed around for a moment, but couldn't reconcile her contradictory views.  I believe she said that it was both.  That doesn't work.  The class moved on to other topics.

As Sappho so wisely wrote over 2000 years ago: We know death is an evil; otherwise, the gods would be mortal.  I can say that, atheist though I be.  But it's also inescapable.  Everybody dies.  We don't have to be happy about it, and I'm not, but it's annoying to see so many adults, their voices amplified in a chorus of panic, trying to deny human mortality.  If you scream and stomp your feet and hold your breath till your face turns blue, will you live forever?  Or as I did ask a couple of Facebook friends who anticipated that things would be better in 2017, did they mean that in 2017 nobody will have to die at all?  One replied, saying that only really terrible people would die.  The people he considered terrible, of course. Oh, my aching head.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Vagabond Scholar's Jon Swift Memorial Best of 2016

Once again, Batocchio has posted his annual Jon Swift Memorial Roundup, carrying on the good work of the late Al Weisel, alias Jon Swift.  Bloggers choose their own favorite post of the year, and Batocchio posts them.  I'm in there, of course, but so are a good many other writers you might not have heard of.  Take a look and see what you think.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Racism As We Know It Today



It was always safe to predict that when a Republican became President, Democrats and Republicans would switch places again.  Policies and actions that Democrats had denounced under Bush became not only acceptable but proof of Obama's greatness when he adopted them; now they will once more be proof of Republican evil.  What does feel a little odd to me -- once again I find I'm less cynical and more naive than I thought -- is watching so many liberal Democrats adopt Tea-Party-style paranoid conspiracy theories and McCarthyite red-baiting at such a peak of intensity, acting exactly as they warned Trump supporters would act if their candidate wasn't elected.

Since Election Day, Democratic stalwarts have exploded with rage at the white trash who voted for Trump, having honed their rhetoric while raging at their British counterparts who voted for Brexit a few months earlier.  Some liberal and especially left writers have pointed out just how badly off the working class, white and black, is nowadays thanks to the economic policies embraced by both parties.  Somewhere along the line the phrase "economic anxiety" caught on, and Democratic apologists jumped on it.

Yes, You're Racist, on Twitter, was perhaps the funniest, and also the most symptomatic.  He retweeted the following material, by an Igbo writer now resident in the US:


To be fair, he did not retweet Ms. Mbakwe's next post, which is an important addition to her thought:


See how selective quotation can skew a writer's intent?  (Shirley Sherrod would empathize, I bet.)  I think Ms. Mbakwe is mistaken here, though, because each group "is given the benefit of the doubt" by many Americans and "demonized" by others.  She's also mistaken in assuming that recognizing the grievances of a group equals either giving them the benefit of the doubt or justifying their bad behavior.  I recognize the grievances of elite Democrats, for instance, but I don't give them the benefit of the doubt or justify their bad behavior.

Since the 60s, at least, Democrats have never been very interested in the white working poor, except as punching bags.  (Republicans have mainly seen them as a hornets' nest of resentment they could exploit for votes, but they didn't care about their welfare any more than the Dems did.)  Democratic politicians' preference for "middle class" rather than "working class" was no accident; Bernie Sanders broke with that pattern, and now that I think of it, I'm surprised that his supporters didn't seem to realize who he was talking about.

It's especially ironic for Yes, You're Racist (henceforth YYR) to post Ms. Mbakwe's remarks, because he himself happily extends empathy to one group while demonizing the other.  "A riot is the language of the unheard," he replied to a tweet by a presumably white apologist for racism a couple of months ago, though it's certain that he would never say such a thing about riots by whites, and this remark goes beyond "extending empathy" -- it sounds like an endorsement.  But it's okay to be thoughtless if you're on the right side.

Anyone who knows anything about the history of American racism knows that white elites have often used racism to divide working-class and poor whites from working-class and poor blacks.  It's virtually a cliche.  Contrary to Robert Reich's optimistic declaration in that 2014 post that the strategy was "starting to backfire," it worked very well for Donald Trump.

So let's leave empathy out of it.  (I haven't read Paul Bloom's Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion [Ecco, 2016] yet -- should I?)  It's a valuable human capacity, but it's not the only one we have.  Just as Michael Neumann criticized "respect" (via), if empathy means not killing or starving people, fine -- but you shouldn't do those things even to people you don't empathize with.  American liberals are perfectly willing, indeed happy, to kill and starve people they disapprove of (or even, as in the case of Middle Eastern civilians, people who are too far away to be noticed).  It's easy to empathize with people who've been cast as worthily pitiful by a good propaganda campaign, as I've seen with the concern for Syrian children; and easy to ignore those who haven't: show liberals a picture of a starving Yemeni child, whose plight President Obama has worked hard to worsen, and they won't remember it five minutes later.

In the case of the white working class and working poor, many white liberals have gone beyond merely switching off their empathy into explicit punitive fantasies.  It has been pointed out that racism is too simple an explanation for Trump's election, that working class whites voted for Obama but not for Clinton, but leave that aside.  It doesn't matter.  Even if all those who voted for Trump or simply didn't betake themselves to the polls to vote for Clinton were racist, it remains true that bipartisan domestic policy of the past several decades has hurt working people of all colors and both sexes.  Since both Republican and Democratic elites have continued their destructive policies while knowing full well the effect they had, they can't claim they were unaware of their effects or that they deeply cared (empathized?) with the people they were hurting; they just cared more about the wealthy, and they empathize deeply with them.

Our society and our government owe to all citizens the resources to earn a living, to support themselves and their families, even if many of those citizens are bad people.  Many of them are.  I've noticed before how liberals tend to flounder when white racists justify racism by pointing out that poor black people often break the law, live improvidently, try to anesthetize themselves with drugs and alcohol, and engage in violence against each other.  Of course, poor white people do exactly the same thing, and they serve the same function for white liberals.  There's a heroin epidemic right now in the Midwest which affects whites no less than blacks, and the stereotypical meth user in liberal discourse was a poor white person; rather than stimulate empathy, this stereotype was used to justify contempt for poor whites, who were obviously just a bunch of toothless, cousin-marrying losers, not worth bothering about.  Memes featuring obese, badly dressed white people shopping at Walmart are a staple of white liberal Facebook pages, and they were invoked on the Internet well before memes became a thing.

Toothless, cousin-marrying losers need to be able to find jobs and support their families.  They need a roof over their heads. They need health care to fix their bad teeth and good public schools to educate their children.  To say so is not to minimize their racism or other unseemly traits, any more than good economic policy justifies poor blacks' frequent criminality and bad beliefs.  Nor is it to recommend, as the New York Times did recently, that the Democratic Party should reach out to working class whites by pandering to their racism instead of ameliorating their economic plight.  Middle class and wealthy whites also have bad beliefs and are frequently criminal, but they aren't held accountable as poor whites and blacks are.  We have to distinguish between poor whites' racism and their economic and political rights, just as we do between poor blacks' misbehavior and their economic and political rights.  Empathy doesn't entail uncritical approval, just as you can vote for a corrupt neoliberal as the lesser evil while criticizng her relentlessly.  Martin Luther King Jr. knew this, as did black radicals of the late 1960s; if today's white liberals don't know it, and it seems they don't, then they are not part of the solution but part of the problem.

It has already been largely forgotten that Trump's political success, like that of the Tea Party before him, signified a revolt against the Republican Party establishment.  Everyone who mattered expected Jeb Bush or someone like him to be the GOP presidential nominee.  Republican elites were as horrified by the trash who were supporting Trump as Democratic elites were.   The corporate media tried hard to establish an equivalence (see item 5) between Trump's supporters and Bernie Sanders's, and that was correct in that both appealed to people who didn't want to vote for another entitled rich person who was comfortable with the current economic and political situation in the world.  Discontent with the status quo is considered unforgivable by those who are satisfied with it.  It looks like a safe bet that Trump will disappoint those who voted for him in the hope that he would break with economic business as usual, as he packs his Cabinet and administration with corporate hacks -- just as Obama did before him, and as Clinton would have done had she been elected.  If that plays out as I expect, I'll feel Schadenfreude as much as any Democrat, but I'll also know that it means things are just going to keep getting worse.  Who will come along in 2020 or 2024 to capitalize on people's disappointment with Trump?

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Our Coups Are Just Little Love Taps, Because Our Heart Is Pure

It looks like enough killjoys have been pointing out the US governments' fondness for interfering in other countries' elections, for overthrowing other countries' elected goverments and replacing them with brutal dictatorships, that some Democrats are starting to find it necessary to respond.  What I've seen so far has pretty much been along the lines of "Two wrongs don't make a right" and "People who've done wrong things have the right to complain when wrong things are done to them."  Sound enough principles, but these people are overlooking something important.

The US government generally, and Hillary Clinton in particular, does not consider it wrong to interfere in other countries' elections -- quite the contrary.  Therefore we aren't dealing with two wrongs here, if it turns out that Russia did intervene in the election; we're dealing with two rights, the prerogative of great powers.  The same applies to the second retort: can people complain when someone does to them the same thing they consider right when they do it to others?  What isn't acceptable is to change the rules when your own chickens come home to roost.

Many Democrats declared during the election campaign that anyone who failed to support Clinton with the requisite degree of devotion and adulation, let alone anyone who criticized her in any way, was aiding Trump and would be responsible for the terrible things that would happen if he became President.  They were not willing to accept responsibility for the terrible things that would happen if Clinton became President -- that would have nothing to do with them, they insisted (when they deigned to hear the argument at all), and besides Hillary wouldn't do anything terrrible, since she was a true progressive who would keep America great again!

I've never seen Democratic loyalists of this stripe really object to US interference in other countries' elections or government anyway (except, sometimes, when the President is a Republican), so I can't take seriously their sudden discovery that it's a bad thing. They were at most silent, and more often celebratory, when the US and its proxies overthrew elected governments.  So, like Clinton, they can't really claim that Russian interference in US elections would be a bad thing.  (I'm obviously leaving aside the question whether Russian intervention took  place, and if so whether it gave Trump the Electoral College victory; that too is open to doubt, but it's not my concern here.)  Barack Obama, to whom these considerations also apply, has occasionally admitted that in the remote past the US has been less than saintly in its dealings with smaller, weaker states, but he never let this admission interfere with continuing the tradition.  Of course this is just typical American exceptionalism: it's different when we do it, because we have good intentions.

(Why, yes -- I'm still procrastinating.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Some Further Thoughts on "Lesser Evils"

Another procrastinatory post, but it also fits in with the one I'm trying, slowly, to write.

A few weeks ago I posted on Facebook that I'd voted for Bernie Sanders as "the lesser evil."  This upset a friend who worked for Sanders in the primaries.  He conceded that Sanders was flawed but he couldn't see him as evil.  I pointed to Sanders's support for no-fly / no-buy (a no-due-process policy that would mainly target Muslims), his ambivalent criticism of Israel, his support for the Iran nuclear deal based on some odd assumptions about America's right to order other countries around.  (In this position statement Sanders spends most of his time on a tirade about George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, but never acknowledges that Iran didn't have and wasn't pursuing a nuclear weapons program in the first place.  In general, supporters of the agreement from Obama on down have deliberately confused "nuclear program" and "nuclear weapons program.")  I got bogged down in other things and didn't continue the conversation, but something occurred to me today.  Perhaps, having clarified this in my mind, I'll return to the exchange with my friend.

I want to ask my friend and all other Democrats, whether Sandernista or Clintonbot, what is the proper response when someone tells them that he or she intends to vote for their candidate -- but as the lesser evil.  I think the answer is obvious.  It should be something along the lines of "Thanks for your vote.  Will you need a ride to the polls on election day?"  It's revealing that, on the contrary, their first (and last, for that matter) impulse is to attack the prospective voter, as though his or her vote is not wanted unless it is offered in a spirit of total and unconditional adulation.  A vague admission that the candidate is "flawed" may then be permitted, provided that no flaws are specified or acknowledged.  It seems to me that a vote is a vote, but Democrats evidently don't agree.  My friend was much less hostile than Clinton or Obama devotees, but that may be because no one had ever called Sanders "the lesser evil" around him before, and he wasn't ready to break out the vitriol yet.

My original remarks on Facebook were partly satirical anyway, which I thought would be obvious to anyone who'd been conscious during the past election season.  It now seems to me that anyone being asked for their vote should refer to the candidate in question as the lesser evil, and see what reaction they get.  If you encounter resistance, you're dealing with a personality cultist who is unable to see their candidate clearly, and who is hoping to elect a messiah, not a politician.  This is why there was a good deal of disappointment (exactly how much, I'm not sure) among his supporters when Sanders kept his promise to campaign for Clinton after she won the nomination.  (My friend wasn't one of these, I should mention.)  It's why Obamamaniacs were unable to hold his feet to the fire when he was elected and began breaking his promises, selling out his base -- though of course he'd begun doing that during the campaign, and met almost no resistance, so why not continue? If you can't vote for someone while being as critical of them as need be, but must attack all their critics -- even those who vote for them -- something is wrong; you're probably pushing a bad candidate, and the angrier the criticism makes you, the worse your candidate probably is.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

This Is the Dawning of the Age of the Internet

Let me procrastinate a bit on another post I'm in the middle of by writing this one.  It all ties together in the end anyway.
I disagree rather strongly with a recent post by Bodhipaksa on Fake Buddha Quotes on the more general issue of misquotation in the age of the Internet.  He quoted a paper by Giovanni Gaetani, on misquotations of the philosopher Albert Camus.  Like so:
Nonetheless, we underestimate [the] Internet’s impact on literature and philosophy: ever since everyone has the power to say his personal opinion about everything, even when he is a total incompetent about the subject; ever since everyone can quote a writer without feeling the need to report the source and ever since everyone seems to not care at all about sources, believing in everything he sees on Internet, every quote has completely lost reliability.
There's a fair amount of Occidental hyperbole in this paragraph: "everyone seems to not care at all about sources," etc.  But everyone has always had the power to say his personal opinion about everything.  Before literacy became widespread, anybody could stand outside and announce that he (less often she) was filled with the Holy Spirit and you'd better listen.  Often people did.  Often they didn't.  There was always rumor, and folklore, and sources had a way of disappearing after a couple of iterations.  You could never be sure who had said something, and the same sayings were attributed to different sages.

After writing was invented, there was the problem of forgeries, or pseudepigrapha as they're more delicately known.  Who composed the Homeric poems?  No one knows, so it's convenient and not unreasonable to ascribe them to Homer.  Other poems were ascribed to the same author, though probably they were not his.  Works were written in the name of Plato and other philosophers.  You'll find that many ancient works from the Greco-Roman world were written by Pseudo-guys.

Only those who believe everything they see in print take for granted that all the books in the Bible were written by the authors tradition assigns to them.  All but the most conservative scholars believe that not all the letters ascribed to the apostle Paul in the New Testament were actually written by him, and many enterprising people wrote in the name of this or that patriarch, apostle, or hanger-on; many people took their word for it.  Some scholars will tell you that it was commonplace and accepted to write pseudepigrapha in those days, but while it was commonplace, it wasn't accepted. Many writers denounced such works.  Whoever wrote Second Thessalonians, for example, warned readers not to be fooled by letters "as though from us" (2.2), indicating that forged letters in Paul's name were already circulating in his lifetime -- which is ironic if, as many scholars believe, Second Thessalonians was not itself written by Paul.  (How better to distract attention from one's own deception than by calling someone else a deceiver?)

Before the Internet came along in my own lifetime, many rumors and legends circulated: that queers wore yellow (or was it green?) on Tuesdays (or was it Thursdays?), for instance.  That Franklin Delano Roosevelt was actually a Jew, who had syphilis not polio.  At about the time I graduated from high school, the myth that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by a lookalike began to circulate, and it persists to this day; even many people who don't believe it still think that the Beatles were responsible for the story and had put clues about it in their songs and on their album covers.  Some of these canards circulated orally, others were mimeographed or printed cheaply on offset presses.  It was often impossible to track such falsehoods to their source, and not many people cared much.  If they liked what they heard, they believed it; if not, they scoffed.   And although most people are acquainted with the concept of "urban legends," popularized by the folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, they still readily believe them.  The people who post lists of criteria for discerning fact from deception generally fail to observe them themselves.

The Internet has increased the reach of ordinary people, and the speed with which information travels and spreads.  But the difference is one of degree, not kind.  True, anyone with Internet access can express his or her opinions, regardless of competence, but most that is posted on the Internet will never be seen by more than a few people.  No one can predict when a given posting will go viral.

Do people believe everything they see on the Internet?  Of course not; that's more Occidental hyperbole.  People believe what they want to believe, and ignore what they don't want to believe.  So, for example, my Third Right-Wing Acquaintance boasted that since she couldn't tell who was telling the truth on the Internet, she just believed what she found congenial.  Many other people do the same, but are less forthright about it.

Bodhipaksa quotes another passage from Gaetani:
During my research I have contacted many bloggers, asking them where Camus should have written/said this or that; their answer was always the same: «check it on Google». Indeed, their reasoning was simple but tremendously na├»ve: if a quote is reported by so many people – millions of references in some cases – the author of this quote “must” be Albert Camus.
I believe that it's much easier now, in the age of the Internet, to find out whether a given quotation is authentic or not.  It helps that there are sites like Quote Investigator and Wikiquote, to say nothing of Fake Buddha Quotes itself, where people do a lot of the necessary detective work.  But something else is going on here.  Bodhipaksa remarks, "I paraphrase this attitude as 'It must be true. I read it on the internet.'" It's true, many people believe this, or act as if they do.  But how different is it from saying, say, "It must be true, I read it in the Bible"?  Or "I heard it on the news"?  Much of the current concern about "fake news" is explicitly intended to recall people to the fold shepherded by traditional authority: print media, the three big television networks, government officials -- the right government officials, meaning those of one's favored party.  Yet these authorities have discredited themselves again and again, with no accountability, and have never been particularly reliable.  Who is competent to have an opinion?  The general answer is: the same wise, credentialed, responsible commentators your parents trusted.  But those people got us into the mess we're in now, and have no idea how to get us out of it except to proffer more of the same.

In narrow domains, where comparatively little is at stake -- Camus studies, say -- credentialed authority can be relied on much of the time.  It's fairly easy to tell whether a saying ascribed to Jesus is authentic or not, if you agree to limit authenticity to the contents of the four canonical gospels: they're not very long, they've been studied and indexed exhaustively, and it's easy enough to look up a saying you're not sure about to see if it can be found in them.  The same is true for the Buddhist scriptures, though there are more of them.  But where much is at stake  -- the national or world economy, international conflicts that could turn into war, etc. -- it's harder to know whom to trust  For one thing, the credentialed authorities disagree with each other.  As with the variety of religions in the world, they can't all be true; how can you know whose claims to believe?  For another, they often lie, and it's difficult for us ordinary schmucks to know when they're lying. These are problems that, like the poor, have always been with us and probably always will.  It's not because of the Internet that we don't know what to do about them.  I'd say, however, that anyone who blames the Internet for our difficulty in knowing what is true is probably not to be trusted.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

It Is Written

I just finished reading an intriguing little book, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem (HarperOne, 2010), a translation by Brent Landau of an old story that apparently had never been translated into English before.  The eighth-century Syriac manuscript Landau worked from has been in the Vatican library since the eighteenth century, but few scholars had paid any attention to it.  Landau's book came to my attention when it was offered at a sharp discount on Amazon; I checked out a print copy from the public library and when I found it worth my two bucks, I ordered a digital copy.

Briefly, Landau thinks that the Revelation of the Magi was probably written in the late second or perhaps the third century.  The Magi, of course, are mentioned in the gospel of Matthew: the word is often translated as "wise men."  When Jesus was born they came first to King Herod, asking for the whereabouts of the newborn "King of the Jews."  They had seen a new star in the heavens, which had led them to Judea.  Herod's experts said that the prophets had foretold that such a person would be born in Bethlehem; Herod gave the Magi this information, and asked them to let him know when they'd found the child.  The star they'd seen led them to the very house where Jesus and his parents were staying, and they "offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."  A dream warned the Magi not to report back to Herod, so they returned directly to their own country.

The Revelation of the Magi invents a backstory for the wise visitors.  Instead of the Persian astrologers / magicians / sages they were usually thought to be, the Revelation's Magi are from the distant land of Shir, by an unnamed ocean.  According to the text, their name meant that "in silence, without a sound, they praised the God of all" (page 36).  They were descendants of Adam's son Seth, custodians of books of prophecy and wisdom that he had bequeathed to them, as well as of treasures that they were to give to the Messiah when the star finally appeared to them and led them to him.  (Personally, I find this detail the most interesting one in the book: the gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the Magi are said to have been assembled by Seth and kept in storage for thousands of years, just so that they could be brought to the baby Jesus. Why? It obviously seemed important and reasonable to the author, but it makes no sense at all to me.)  When that day arrived, they had a vision of the star, which appeared to them as a child with a cross, who gave them instructions and led them to Judea.  They found that their provisions were miraculously restored, that mountains and other obstacles were leveled to let them pass, so that the journey passed quickly and easily.  Years after they returned to Shir, Jesus' disciple Thomas visited them, baptized them and their people, and bade them bring the gospel to their whole land.

This edition is intended for a general audience.  (Someday I may take a look at the scholarly version, his dissertation, which is available online.)   Landau does a fine job of giving the document a context, explaining its relation to the story of the Magi in the gospel of Matthew, and its remarkable influence on Christian imagery of the Nativity and the Wise Men.

All this is interesting enough, but I must say that the Revelation itself would be a disappointment if I'd had great expectations for it.  I expected it to be fan fiction filling out a fictional story, and so it was.  Whatever differences from or additions to Matthew's story it contained wouldn't matter except as they revealed something about the mindset of the author.  The structure of the story seems very much like today's Tolkien-inspired fantasy fiction, which often feels similarly pointless to me -- the authors create worlds for the sake of creating worlds, and then are not sure what to make happen in them.  Often they hope to teach beautiful lessons about how people should live, which while usually unexceptionable are nothing new, and the imaginary backdrops don't add anything to the lessons.  Luckily, the author of the Revelation had a plotline ready-made in the gospel.

What surprised me was that there was very little content.  Pages are filled with references to the "mysteries" and "treasures" of which the Magi are worthy to be custodians --
And when it became the first of the month, we ascended and went to the top of the mountain and stood before the mouth of the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries. And we knelt on our knees and stretched forth our hands to heaven, and we prayed and worshiped in silence, without a sound, to the Father of that heavenly majesty that is ineffable and infinite forever. On the third of the month we entered the cave up to the treasures, the treasures that were prepared as the star’s own [gifts] and for the adoration of that light that we awaited. And what we read and heard from the revelation, when we returned, descending in joy, we said to and instructed our sons, our families, and everyone who gave themselves with love to learn.
-- along with quotations from Seth's instructions to their ancestors and from Adam's instructions to Seth.
"For there will be from my family and my children glorious and honorable people, (the reciters) of the mysteries of the majesty. And they will find great mercy and will pray, ask, and be heard. And [text missing] of the majesty, but at the end times of that generation they will again be [rebelling,] and they will not be afraid of my foolishness and of the judgment that I have. Instead, they shall be headstrong and shall speak blasphemy unto the heavenly majesty. And they will say many things, and shall also make painted idols and graven images, and shall even serve the sun and the moon, and they shall speak words of blasphemy. And all these things that are among them from the deceits of my treacherous deceiver, because he will offer the love of his fraud and his deceit filled with poison to each of the generations that will be after me. And he will [show] and make them desire the empty praise of great riches, pride, clothes, property, fornication, boastfulness, injustice, greed, and various possessions. And he will appear to them like a lover or a friend and entice them. And again, with reveling, drunkenness, impure and defiled feasts, which are an illusion [of his] empty [apparitions,] and again, with possessions of assorted excesses, he will take hold of them with fraudulent affection, which is not virtuous, just as also to me through Eve."
As usual in apocalyptic literature, an ancient authority "predicts" what the reader (or audience -- this text was probably meant to be read aloud) can see in his or her present day.  Also as usual, what is predicted occurs in every generation, so that the predictions are hard to prove wrong.  Not that it matters -- most people are perfectly happy to overlook falsified predictions.  The New Testament contains multiple assurances that the End is near, that Jesus will return within the first Christians' lifetimes to judge the world, and so on, yet most Christians are able to overlook them, and indeed to miss them entirely.

Landau believes that "whether one is a born-again Christian, a Latter-day Saint, a 'religious seeker,' or a Buddhist, the Revelation of the Magi raises challenging questions about divine revelation, religious pluralism, and the uniqueness of religions—questions that merit deep, sustained reflection."  In particular he finds an endorsement of religious pluralism in the story, though I think he's overreaching there.  But even if he's right, that aspect of the story had no detectable influence on Christian doctrine over the centuries.  Its influence appears to have been limited to details of the representation of the Magi in Christian art: the Star of Bethlehem was often represented as the Christ Child with a Cross in the sky above the travelers, for example.  The theologian and saint Thomas Aquinas also was influenced by it, according to Landau.  It also influenced European invaders'  understanding of the peoples they met in the New World.  To me, however, this indicates that the Revelation was understood to be about Christian universalism, the doctrine that the whole world would come to worship Christ (and had unknowingly been waiting for his missionaries to arrive all along), rather than about religious pluralism, and that's probably what the story's writer meant to convey.  As Stephen Colbert mockingly put it, there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.

Any text can be and will be understood as its readers wish to understand it, and this extends far beyond an old Syriac manuscript.  I'm trying to figure out what people take from the Revelation.  The customer reviews of the book at Amazon are instructive.  Quite a few readers take for granted that the Revelation, though apocryphal, supplies authentic information on Matthew's Magi, filling in details that he left out.  "The story of the Magi, their preparation for the events that would change history, their description of the trip to Bethlehem, and their re-telling of their conversations with all involved, for me, had a feeling of truth about it," wrote one.  "Fascinating unknown information on the Magi, which contributes to ancient Christian tradition," wrote anotherAnother, after dismissing "A lot of introductory material that was of less interest," reported that she "personally treasure this manuscript as filling in much description no more astonishing than the virgin birth of the Messiah."  "I love to learn about books that have been left out of the bible to figure out what really happened," wrote another.  "I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in learning about where the Magi might have come from," wrote yet another.  

And so on.  Even if you insist that Matthew's Nativity story has some basis in fact, there's no reason to suppose that the Revelation adds any factual information to it.  The Revelation of the Magi is a fictional expansion of a fictional story -- fan fiction, in short.  Yet many people jump to the conclusion that because it's not in the Bible, it is the truth, long forgotten or (better) suppressed by the Church.  (That the story influenced orthodox conceptions of the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem for over a thousand years shows that it wasn't suppressed, by the way.)  We can see the same thought process at work today, in readers' objections to the revelation that Dumbledore was gay.  Even though this information was handed down by the Creator herself, many readers (including gay ones, to my amazement) rejected it in favor of their own fantasies and prejudices.  Other readers proved to their own satisfaction that Rowling was wrong in pairing Harry Potter with Ginny Weasley, since Scripture itself showed that he should have married Hermione Grainger.  Though they knew on some level that the Potteriad is fiction, they demanded that it conform to their wishes.  It's not surprising, then, that people would take for granted that any ancient text, "apocryphal" or not, contains fact.  This is how many (most?) people respond to stories they find attractive.

This would be enough to baffle me, but even more, I don't get what other readers get from Revelation of the Magi.  I know that stories are important tools that people use to make sense of the world, but they aren't the only ones, and since any story can be interpreted in mutually contradictory ways, no story can authorize any doctrine or principle.  People ignore even the most direct commands in canonical writings, so an ambiguous passage in one non-canonical story mandates nothing.  

Recently I got into another dustup on Facebook when a friend posted a meme about how nice it would be if we had a story in the Bible about a "Middle Eastern" family looking for shelter, like today's refugees.  I disputed the meaning of the story the meme-maker had in mind (Joseph and Mary unable to find a room at the inn), and was chastised for supposing that it had the meaning I suggested.  My accuser advised me to study some theology, unaware that I've spent many years doing that.  Which is unimportant; what is important is that he violated his own stricture by assuming that the story had one meaning, a meaning congenial to his political principles; the assumption of the meme was that the right story, understood rightly as any right-thinking liberal would, could settle a contemporary political question.  Reading theologians will quickly show you that biblical stories can be interpreted to endorse almost any principle you like, including mutually contradictory ones. Whichever one you happen to like will conform to your "faith," and that, I've often been told, is beyond the reach of reason or even persuasion.  So whatever you want to do about refugees, the Bible cannot settle it.

There are plenty of good reasons to value religious pluralism, and I don't see that the Revelation adds anything to it other than the very dubious possibility that one writer may have endorsed it.  I'm intrigued too when I find "modern"-seeming arguments in old writings, because people will often claim that the ancients had no such concept and couldn't possibly have seen things that way.  Such examples show that in fact, the ancients could and did (and many moderns don't), but they don't settle anything, and they especially don't settle anything in religious doctrine.  

This is important right now, as people of all political positions wax indignant about the lies and myths their opponents accept, while credulously accepting the lies and myths spread by their own faction.  I'm not going to specify which ones just now.  The reader will surely be able to think of several, according to his or her own predilections and affiliations.  Readers' reactions to the Revelation of the Magi indicate that the problem is much more general than religion or politics.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thanks, Obama!

The photo comes from a not-bad article in the Washington Post.  It's not-bad because it focuses closely on the suffering of Yemeni families; not-good because it reduces US complicity in the atrocities to a passing reference to "airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition helped by the United States" - blink and you'll miss it.

But I don't mean to give POTUS (genuflect) all the credit. I must also remember the US Congress, which has let numerous Presidents do these things and has been notably submissive to Obama; the corporate media, who've done their best to ignore these atrocities (they have plenty of practice!); and the millions of liberals whose well-disciplined memories ensure that they will simply refuse to acknowledge what their President is doing.  Thanks to you all for your service.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Key to the Prison House of Gender

Richard Seymour wrote recently:
From a certain perspective, notably that of radical feminism, all gender socialisation is child abuse.
When he quoted that line on Twitter, I remarked:
In the same way, though, child gender self-identification is self-abuse.
To which he replied:
you're accusing children of abusing themselves.
I answered:
No, I was playing on an antique term that I thought was no longer in serious use. ("Accusing"!)
That, thankfully, was the end of that exchange.

Maybe I was slightly disingenuous, however.  I can't see any reason not to say that children may (and do) do things that hurt themselves and others, as adults do.  It's not an accusation (a term that in this context still perplexes me), and "abuse" is a problematic word: like much of the terminology of regimes of control, it's ambiguous and so is often used carelessly, as in "drug abuse" and "self-abuse" itself.  So let's toss it aside and try to focus on what is really at stake here.

The sentence I quoted from Seymour was the overture to a discussion of, or around, a recent court case in Britain, in which "a judge took a child out of the care of its mother because it was deemed that the child was being forced to 'live as a girl' while in fact identifying as a boy."
We have the text of the judgment to go on, and we have the reactions of trans activists, who have expressed concern about the value judgments implied in the judgment and the absence of gender specialists consulted in court. There is a petition seeking to reverse the decision. 
And that's about it; privacy concerns, I presume, have limited the amount of information accessible to the public.  Seymour therefore decided simply to "ask: what if everything the judgment says is true? I doubt that it is that straightforward, but supposing it is: what conclusions should we draw? For the sake of argument, then, I will assume the factual accuracy of everything that is claimed by the judge."

The ensuing discussion is murky and confused, which is unusual for Seymour.  He's usually exemplary in the clarity and directness of his writing but gender, like religion, is one of his weak areas.  He begins:
In particular, I will assume that the child identified as a boy, and did not consent to live as a girl. Or, more precisely, that the child would have preferred to identify as a boy, and only consented to live as a girl in order to please his mother.
"Identified as" is intensely problematic.  "Identify" is not an analytic term, despite its popularity as a political one.  If the child considered himself a boy, then he continued to "identify as" one despite his mother's pressure.  "Identify" and "live as" are not the same thing at all.  I "identify as" male and as a man, for example, but what does it mean to say that one "lives as" a man?  A child (or an adult) might very well "identify as" one sex while neglecting or refusing to fit the stereotypes (i.e., "gender") associated with it.  I myself violate numerous expectations of masculinity, some of which require more steadfastness than others.

The confusion that runs through the post, though, is the equation of gender socialization and abuse.  Seymour evidently assumes that "socialization" is explicit and overt and probably punitive, though most of the time it's implicit and covert and enforced by approval and reward.  The mother who praised her young son for announcing that he wanted to be Queen of New York was socializing him into her own assumptions about gender.  (I still wonder if she'd have been as delighted if he wanted to be Butch, King of the Cowboys.)  But parents socialize their children by speaking to them in their native language; by living in a given locale with its language and customs, by feeding them some foods and not others, by singing them songs and telling them stories, by providing examples of what people are and how they live.  Parents also socialize their children by teaching them to resist norms and stereotypes: if you teach your sons to cook and clean, and your daughter carpentry and small-engine repair, that is also socialization, and I don't think Seymour would consider it abuse.

It's impossible to raise children without socializing them.  Children can't survive without intensive interaction with other human beings, socializing themselves and being socialized by them; so socializing them cannot be categorized as abuse if "abuse" has any meaning at all.  If it really was the radical feminist position that all gender socialization is abuse, that's a critical flaw in radical feminism. I presume that Seymour is aware of this, and that he was using "socialization" in a narrow sense, such as punishing a child for failing or refusing to conform to some norm.  By "abuse" he presumably meant something like mistreatment and cruelty; mistreatment and cruelty are unacceptable whether they're meted out to children or adults, and regardless of what sort of norms (or none at all) they are used to enforce.

I suppose that some radical Second Wave feminists did imagine that it would be possible to raise children without socializing them into gender norms.  In 1972 the novelist Lois Gould published a fable, X: A Fabulous Child's Story, about a child who was raised without gender socialization as a part of a $23 billion scientific experiment guided and evaluated by "Xperts."  Because it was ostensibly written for children, it's written in an obnoxious cutesy style (another kind of socialization: because you are a child, I will talk down to you).  The child X has to wear red-and-white checked overalls, and after X overcomes the other children's false consciousness, they all want to wear them too.  And after X is evaluated by Xperts who conclude that X is just about the least mixed-up X evar, the neighborhood parents still aren't satisfied:
"But what is X?" shrieked Peggy and Joe's parents. "We still want to know what it is!" "Ah, yes," said the Xperts, winking again. "Well, don't worry. You'll all know one of these days. And you won't need us to tell you."

"What? What do they mean?" Jim's parents grumbled suspiciously. Susie and Peggy and Joe all answered at once. "They mean that by the time it matters which sex X is, it won't be a secret anymore!"
This makes no sense.  When it "matters which sex X is," will X give up the overalls and walk around naked?  Or in sex-appropriate clothing to signal X's sex?  Will X have to give up the freedom X had as a child, and adopt sex-appropriate pastimes and career?  A person's sex continues to matter a lot to adults; children are often granted a fair amount of gender freedom until they reach adolescence, at which point they're supposed to get serious, knuckle down, and conform.

The best I can say for Gould's fable is that she recognizes that raising a child without gender expectations would be very difficult -- as difficult as raising a child to conform to gender norms.  X's parents are given a manual thousands of pages long (they're up to page 85769 by the time X is in first grade), and are guided throughout the experiment by the scientists.  They must maintain a rigorous balance at all times -- indeed, their scientist-guides are as rigid in their prescriptions for socializing an X's gender as any conservative:
Ms. and Mr. Jones had to be Xtra careful.  If they kept bouncing it up in the air and saying how strong and active it was, they'd be treating it more like a boy than an X. But if all they did was cuddle it and kiss it and tell it how sweet and dainty it was, they'd be treating it more like a girl than an X.  On page 1654 of the Official Instruction Manual, the scientists prescribed: "Plenty of bouncing and plenty of cuddling, both.  X ought to be strong and sweet and active.  Forget about dainty altogether".
I almost think that Gould was satirizing the premise of the experiment there, and the idea some people hold that if we just left children to their own innate wisdom and goodness, racism and sexism and all bad things would disappear.  This belief begs the question of where all those bad things come from.  The usual response is that these attitudes are the result of having been carefully taught by wicked or, at best, misguided people.  But where did those careful teachers come from?  Where did their bad ideas come from ? Why are the ideas they teach so tenacious?  Why are they nevertheless so ineffective much of the time? The usual answer entangles us in an infinite regress that doesn't explain anything, but distracts the questioner long enough for the explainer to change the subject.  In Gould's story, after some initial confusion the children around X follow X's example, to the dismay of their parents, but the good guys win easily.  As we know, in real life it's not that easy.

I'll quote again the woman who told a symposium in 1971: “This short haircut, because it is mine, is a woman’s hairstyle. These so-called men’s boots, because I am wearing them, are women’s boots. This pipe, because I am smoking it, is a woman’s pipe. Whatever women wear is women’s wear. It is a matter of individual choice – and comfort.”*  To "live as a man" is any way a man lives; to "live as a woman" is any way a woman lives.

When Richard Seymour wrote about the boy from the court case living "as a girl," he meant living so as to conform to prevailing gender stereotypes.  By his logic, living either as a boy or a girl, as a man or a woman -- regardless of your body configuration or your sex chromosomes -- must be the product of bad faith at best, of abusive socialization at worst.  (Oddly, though, people who reject their assigned stereotype in favor of the opposite one are seen as heroic, free, non-binary.  And can a child "consent" to either?)  Adopting any gender identity apparently means accepting the stereotype, agreeing that certain modes of dress, certain body language, certain occupations, and so on have a gender.  They do only by the same social agreement and processes of socialization that Seymour characterizes as abusive.  Perhaps they are, but we can't get rid of them.  If we don't teach children sex roles, they'll invent their own.  Children aren't passive objects of socialization.  They resist, they create options, they socialize each other.

Seymour mentions "the absence of gender specialists consulted in court."  I find this curious, since expert testimony on gender is always culture-bound, and the results will be largely predetermined by which gender specialists are allowed to testify.  As a gay liberationist influenced by radical feminism I wouldn't trust a child's (or adult's) fate with them; call me old-fashioned if you like.  The only authority Seymour quotes in the post is the psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi (1873-1933), who might or might be right in his opinions, but I wouldn't look to a Freudian or any other mental health professional for guidance on sexism.

Seymour says that the same parents who are "evasive and anxious in answering questions about sex, particularly if they are unhappy about their sex lives"
are usually strangely emphatic, insistent, about who is a boy and who is a girl, and about the strict relationship between birth-assigned sex and one’s future gendered life trajectory. They leave no doubt about the matter, even though many children quietly entertain the gravest doubts. Simply, where children want knowledge and independence, parents often communicate ignorance and obedience.
This seems to me to sentimentalize children.  Of course one might suggest that adults "leave no doubt about the matter" exactly in areas where they have many doubts, and little knowledge.  No one has much knowledge about gender, and it would be better to "communicate ignorance" than certainty (which is not the same as knowledge) where one is ignorant.  Most adults are no better informed about sex and reproduction than they are about gender, and their evasiveness comes partly from uncertainty about how best to answer the questions they're asked, and partly from anxiety about bodies, their own and their children's.  If they are insistent about "who is a boy and who is a girl," it's probably because it's how they were socialized, and I'm not sure that most children are any more interested in complex, indeterminate answers on that matter than adults are.  A lot of research has been done on children and gender in the eighty-plus years since Ferenczi died, and it indicates that even very young children are active participants in their construction of gender and other matters while they are still infants.  Children who vary from the prevailing norms aren't necessarily interested in ambiguity either.  They are often quite sure what is girl stuff and what is boy stuff.  While they should be allowed as much freedom as possible to chart their own course, their gender theories are as likely to be bullshit as their elders' are, and for the same reason.  Children who stray from official norms can be every bit as "emphatic" and "insistent" as the adults who try to confine them to those norms; I think Seymour takes for granted that the children are right and the adults are wrong.  I don't.

Against Seymour's stricture on "the strict relationship between birth-assigned sex and one’s future gendered life trajectory," I've noticed that advocates for gender atypical children, and at least some transgender adults are claiming a biological basis for gender variance.  They equate biological sex with the sex chromosomes or a tiny region of the brain and equate it with gender.  One such person, for example, claimed that "science is increasingly revealing to us that gender identity is more or less inborn"; a transgender friend told someone who asked her why she was trans that it was "a matter of brain structure"; both of these claims are false, just like the claim that homosexuality is more or less inborn and a matter of brain structure.  I don't know what Seymour thinks about this, but the current trend even for gender nonconformists is as hostile to the radical feminist position as any traditionalist, seeking to root gender in the body.  Failing that, they try to reify gender, as a pre-cultural autonomous essence rather than a cultural construction.  Both positions are incoherent and quickly become entangled in their contradictions, as Seymour's does.  A radical feminist position would be to abolish gender, but though I consider that desirable I'm not sure it's possible.  Even the radical Second Wave feminists who argued for the abolition of gender kept falling back on gender stereotypes.  It will be no more possible to abolish the socialization of children; the best we can do is try to make the process more flexible, open and humane.

*Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons, Lesbian/Woman (Bantam Books, 1972), page 81.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Thank You for Pressing the Self-Destruct Button

It turns out this meme backfires on itself, as so many do.

I didn't notice at first that it's partly an exhortation to vote for the lesser evil if that will "shift your country as much closer to your ideal as possible."  That's pretty funny right there, since Dem loyalists were furiously denouncing the Lesser Evil option so recently.  I guess that if you don't actually say the words, it's okay.  (But if you say them three times quickly ...?)

The main thing, though, is that the meme amounts to a denunciation of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the DNC, and Democratic partisans.  Clinton most of all, though, who put her determination to be President ahead of every other consideration, including the probability that Sanders had a better chance of beating Trump.  Her ego, her entitlement, her notion that it was her turn now.  I can't think of a better example of "extreme individualism."  To ensure that she won the nomination, she played dirty, which some of her fans even thought amusing.  It's their party, after all, one such person wrote, which at least was honest: the party belongs to its elites and big donors, not to the rank and file who do the scut work of making phone calls, knocking on doors, driving voters to the polls -- let alone the voters themselves.  It's not about you, you individualist with your silly notions of government by the people.   Don't believe the fairy tales the elites told you, that elections are meant to choose the best candidate for office.  Don't believe the fairy tale drummed into your head since childhood, that American values and ideals have anything to do with the running of our government.  It's like the Bible: you're not supposed to take it literally, just have faith in your leaders.  Just don't reject the fairy tales during election season, or in the hearing of the real owners of the party.

I guess I'm more or less functional again, after spending a day walking around feeling stunned.  I needed to write to find out what I thought about Trump's victory, but I wasn't sure I wanted to know what I thought.  I stayed off Facebook yesterday, and timidly logged in today.  Before long my liberal friends' reactions had me angry again, and I was back in the fray.

Most notable, as I expected, were Democrats blaming everybody but themselves for the debacle. Paul Krugman was apparently leading the charge, but I hear Rachel Maddow was in there too.  If I'm not mistaken, that was one of the tendencies that drove Germany into the hands of the Nazis.  Did Germany lose the Great War?  It wasn't their fault, it was the Jews and the homosexuals and the Reds stabbing the Fatherland in the back, and women spitting on Our Troops.  Did Hillary lose this world-historical election?  It wasn't her fault, it was the Bernie Bros and Julian Assange and Jim Comey and all the haters who made voters stay away from the polls.

Most entertaining are the Dems who yell "Don't play the blame game!" when their own attempts to play the blame game are rebutted.  We can blame everybody, but don't you dare blame us -- that's being judgmental.  We aren't being judgmental, we're just pointing out who stabbed Hillary in the back...  Really, they are acting as we were warned Trump's followers would react if he lost.  I imagine I'll be seeing a lot more of that.

Meanwhile, what to do?  I don't have any answers, but some writers are making sense.  There are others, of course, but these two were close to hand.  It's alarming that so many liberals and progressives and near-rightists and neoliberals are freaking out, lashing out almost randomly, but that was only to be expected.  I can't go on, I'll go on.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Campaign 2020 Begins in Just Two Days!

The dishonesty of this meme is outrageous.

Whence (to unleash my Inner Grammar Nazi) did so many Americans get this idea?  Like so many rhetorical questions, it's easy to answer: Along with belief in Santa Claus, we get it from the official propaganda we're dunned with from childhood onward, down to the marketing campaigns of the candidates themselves. 

Partisans only drag out this line when they're dealing with voters who don't find their candidate inspiring, or even worse, who've criticized their candidate substantively.  Or, worst of all, that they will vote for their candidate as the lesser evil.  I suppose it's preferable to the vicious abuse they indulge in when this one doesn't work. It's what we saw in 2008 and 2012: "Barack is dreamy! He's all about Hope and Change! He could have big positive repercussions for progressive politics!  He'll make us feel good about being Americans again! He can pronounce 'nuclear'!  He'll end the wars!" Anyone who pointed out that Obama was a center-right corporatist and war-lover was a Republican troll or a cynical non-voter. Then, after he was in office and showed himself to be a war-lover and a center-right corporatist, his fans asked who'd been so foolish as to think he'd be any different from any other politician -- what did you expect, Che Guevara?  Weren't you paying attention?

It's 3:26 p.m. on Tuesday in Seoul as I write this, which means it's just after midnight on Tuesday in Indiana.  The polls will open in a few hours.  In twenty-four hours this foully dispiriting election campaign will be over, and the next one will begin.  If Clinton pulls off a decisive victory, Trump voters will throw tantrums; we can hope it won't get any worse than that.  Clinton fans will be kvelling about her greatness, the world-historical moment of a female President (sure, other countries have elected female heads of state, but they aren't us) and the glorious peace and prosperity she'll give us.  If the results are close, if Clinton wins in the Electoral College or something, everybody will be throwing tantrums.  If Clinton loses, the recriminations will be "epic," as the Internet says: everybody but Clinton herself, or the Democratic Party Leadership, will be blamed.  I'll be back in the US a week later, if I haven't applied for political asylum in the meantime.  By then, I hope, the dust will have more or less settled.

Monday, November 7, 2016

It's a Korean Thing, You Wouldn't Understand; or, The Master's Tools


Cecily. I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.
Miss Prism. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
Someday I should write a serious discussion of the Korean director Im Kwon-Taek's 1993 classic Sopyonje, but for now I'm interested in the way critics and audiences have tried to situate it as a Korean film - or as not-a-Korean film.  In doing so, I have to give away the ending, because it has been one of the most discussed aspects of the film.  So if you've put off watching Sopyonje for twenty years but want everything to be a surprise, stop reading now.  (The entire film, with English subtitles, appears to be on YouTube.)

Sopyonje, made on a small budget by a commercial director as a personal project (but also to cope with the "quota" system on Korean movies at the time), was enormously and unexpectedly successful, on the international film-festival circuit but especially in Korea. Without any promotion at first, it opened on one screen but quickly became a word-of-mouth phenomenon.  The soundtrack CD was a hit, and the film was credited with sparking a revival of interest in p'ansori.  A book (in Korean) on the making and significance of the film, edited by Im and released a few months after its release, was also successful.  It did not break through as an art-house success outside Korea, though it got a lot of critical attention.

Sopyonje mostly takes part during the colonial period (1900-1945), when Korea was under Japanese occupation.  It's the story of an itinerant singer and his two adopted children.  The singer is an exponent of p'ansori, an old Korean musical form, involving one singer who tells a story to the accompaniment of one drum.  Partly because of Japanese cultural imperialism, which sought to wipe out Korean culture, and partly because of the Dread Pirate Modernity, which takes no prisoners, p'ansori and other traditional Korean arts are on the ropes.  (There's a funny scene where a little brass band walks through a village, trying to play Besame Mucho, a song which seems to have become popular in Korea over the years.)  Eventually the boy (the drummer) runs away, and the father feeds the girl singer a poisonous plant that renders her blind, both to keep her dependent and (he tells her) to make her a better artist by increasing her han, the supposedly essential Korean blend of bitterness and sorrow.  Years pass, the old man dies, and the two young people finally meet again in a small town.  They play together without acknowledging that they know each other, and separate again, probably forever.

It seems to me that a deliberately frustrating ending like this is no big deal, but numerous critics have felt it that it's a problem and have spent a fair amount of energy trying to figure out what it means.  In the collection Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema, edited by David E. James and Kyung-Hyun Kim (Wayne State, 2002), no less than three of the papers devote space to the ending of Sopyonje.

In "Sopyonje and the Inner Domain of National Culture," Julian Stringer writes:
When we showed Sopyonje at Indiana University in the spring of 1996, the post-screening discussion raised an interesting problem of cross-cultural analysis ... [W]e -- most of whom were non-Koreans -- felt "cheated" by the film's climactic moment ... [158]

Halfway through the p'ansori recital in the reunion scene, there is a startling effect that indicates a curious stylistic decision.  Im chooses to shut off all diegetic sound, compelling his characters to be mute.  We see Song-hwa sing her song and we see Tong-ho bang his drum, but we no longer hear them.  A non-diegetic, "traditional" Korean piece -- performed on flute and synthesizer [!] -- is brought to the front of the mix, and the most climactic moment of this musical reunion is denied to the listening subject ... No wonder some of us felt cheated.  With all the fuss made up until now about the authenticity and beauty of p'ansori, why don't we get its full expression at this crucial juncture?

In short, what some of us felt at that screening in Bloomington in 1996 was that here is an example of a film not quite delivering all we had been led to expect from it.  Sure, we could rationalize our response, appreciate that there are perfectly good aesthetic reasons for blocking the soundtrack in this way.  Because we see the rapture of a blind woman experiencing an easing of her pain, doesn't the emphasis on sound manipulation approximate Song-hwa's own heightened sense of perception?  Yet we also couldn't help feeling that perhaps we just didn't "get it."  Given the narrative's overall reliance on the importance of Korean national culture, there seemed to be a level to Sopyonje that, as foreigners, we did not have access to.

This thought also came to me when I subsequently read some of the English-language critical reviews [160].
However, the "English-language critical reviews" Stringer goes on to quote are all by Korean critics, and none of them actually addresses the technical point that bothers him so much.  (I should perhaps mention that I wasn't at that screening, alas.  I might have heard about it from Korean friends, but I probably had to work.  I didn't see Sopyonje myself until it was released on DVD a decade later.  Nor, as far as I recall, have I ever met Julian Stringer.)

It seems to me that burying a diegetic (that is, within the film's world) performance under a non-diegetic (the viewer's perspective, unheard by the characters in the film) overdub is not unheard of in Western movies.  Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't express the character's inner world; it can be the filmmakers' comment on the action, or can be meant to manipulate the viewer.  To ascribe Im's decision to some mystic Korean cultural essence that "we, as foreigners, did not have access to" is to fall prey to the very Orientalism that post-colonial academics as supposed to avoid -- especially when it can hardly be a traditional Korean device, relying as it does on some pretty advanced technology.  (It happens that the diegetic performance in that scene was also a technological artifact: Stringer mentions later that the actress, though a p'ansori singer, didn't sing her part, which was overdubbed by another p'ansori singer.  The character's singing is in fact a composite of three different singers.)

Further, Stringer's remark about "the film's overall reliance on the importance of Korean national culture" overlooks the significance of the film's title.  "In pansori, there are Sopyonje and Dongpyonje," the critic Chung Sung-il writes in his monograph on Im (Korean Film Council, 2006).  "The former is the sound of the western side of Korea and the latter is the eastern."  Im was trying to recover not a national culture but a regional one, namely Im Kwon-taek's own.  Though Korea was a small country even before it was divided at the 38th parallel, it had numerous regional divisions that went back centuries and that persist to this day.  Chung writes, "Sopyonje isn't new in the perspective of aesthetics but it is the first film to declare IM's work in his sixties."

It seems to me that Stringer's reaction to his first viewing of Sopyonje was both naive and arrogant: if he didn't understand the reunion scene, it must have been because it involved some mystical Korean aesthetic which he, as a foreigner, could not have understood.  (I suspect that the "we" who "felt cheated" by it were really "I," Stringer himself.)  This is what is commonly called Orientalism, treating Asian cultures as radically, essentially Other from the "West," and each region as monolithically homogeneous.  It's also unlikely for numerous reasons.  Film is an international "language," developed in the twentieth century in numerous countries at the same time, and South Korean filmmakers (to say nothing of audiences) even of Im's generation were heavily influenced by Hollywood and European cinema.  There are different approaches to filmmaking and narrative, but they coexist within each country.  (See, for example, Robert Ray's How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies [Indiana, 2001], and Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media [Routledge, 1994/2013].)  Stringer concedes some of this, but he still tries to find a specifically Korean filmic syntax in the scene.

Ultimately, Stringer says, "I no longer feel disappointed [by the reunion scene]; rather I am impressed with how Im Kwon-Taek and his composer, Kim Su-ch'ol, have manipulated the soundtrack so as to suggest the presence of national thematics" (172).  He also concedes that "As a Western film student, my sensitivity to formal questions (as well as 'orientalist' fascinations?) may produce rupture where no rupture actually exists" (173), but still holds that "Such possible objections do not invalidate the interpretation of Sopyonje offered in this chapter" (174).  I disagree.

Now let's look at the Korean critics who contributed to this volume, and how they read Sopyonje's reunion scene.  In "Sopyonje: Its Cultural and Historical Meaning" the sociologist Cho Hae Joang quotes reactions to the Sopyonje phenomenon by numerous Koreans, ranging from students to other critics.  Cho claims that Korean "viewers seem to have easily accepted [the reunion] scene," quoting praise from the novelist Pak Won-so.  She also quotes Im himself: "The reason that they can't meet but can't bring themselves to reveal their identities is that they know all too well that neither can be of any help to the other in the future" (143).  "This," Cho comments,
is definitely a view of humanity that is far from the "Korean" way of thinking.  This "wordless parting" scene is an astonishingly new feature of South Korean movies, though it is found quite frequently in Italian and French art films.  Considering that not too long ago South Koreans wept copiously while watching the televised reunions of families separated during the Korean War, this final scene is not "Korean" at all [143].
This is a rather astonishing claim in its own right.  First, if the scene is so un-Korean, why did Korean audiences accept it so easily, as Cho says they did?  Second, it is one thing to weep at the reunions of real families separated by war and national division -- I see no reason to suppose that Americans wouldn't weep at such a spectacle, as I have myself when watching the televised reunions while in Korea -- and another to accept a different resolution for two fictional characters separated by the demands of art; one might very well weep at the scene anyway, because the two choose not to reunite.

Nor is it certain that all Koreans found the scene easy to accept.
In reply to a student who, during an invited lecture at Yonsei University in fall 1993, asked Im why he didn't allow the brother and sister to unburden their hearts in reunion, he said that his personal familiarity with the drifter's life had taught him that there were times when it was better for separated relatives not to meet [144].
Judging by the different individuals quoted by Cho, it seems likely to me that Korean audiences (like audiences everywhere) did not react to the reunion scene uniformly: some accepted it easily, some resisted.  Some probably overlooked it because they were more interested in other aspects of the film, such as its focus on traditional Korean culture and its usefulness as a spur to Korean cultural nationalism.  Im's answer to the student at Yonsei University indicates that he didn't see the scene has having universal applicability anyway: it was his opinion, based on his experience, that there are times when it is better for separated relatives not to meet -- which implies that there are times when it is better that they should meet.  Cho ascribes the protagonists' failure / refusal to reunite to Im's "modern and Buddhist perspective on life" (144), and on his "humanism," worldviews that are not exactly compatible.  Korean culture before modernity is a hybrid of "indigenous" elements, Buddhism, Confucianism; since Buddhism has been part of Korea for hundreds of years, it's hard to see how this perspective is "not 'Korean' at all."

Cho claims that "by focusing on aesthetic obsession and the drifter lifestyle ... the movie actually touch[es] the sensibilities of modern urbanites who feel that 'life is ultimately a sojourner's road and a lonesome journey'" (145).  Perhaps modern urbanites do feel this way, but neither aesthetic obsession nor the drifter's life are specifically modern phenomena.  Traditionalists love to imagine a past when everyone was settled, but Korea's history is pretty turbulent, and even if most Koreans stayed in one place throughout their lives, many did not.  Not that Cho is a traditionalist: she has a Ph.D. from UCLA and is a professor at a modern university in Korea.  As she recognizes, "The movement to revive traditional culture is really an indication of modernity and an effort to rescue oneself" (146).  And similar tensions exist in the West, including the US.  Which indicates that a film which focused on settled, stable peasants instead of drifters would also touch the sensibilities of modern urbanites who'd like to escape the unsettledness of their lives; in either case, American urbanites no less than Korean ones could have their sensibilities touched by it.  There's more to say about this, but I'll try to address it in other posts to come; for now I want to stick with the significance of Sopyonje's ending.

The third contribution to Im Kwon-Taek that focuses on Sopyonje is by Chungmoo Choi, an exponent of critical theory and an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine when this book was published.  In "The Politics of Gender, Aestheticism, and Cultural Nationalism in Sopyonje and The Genealogy," Choi summarizes the film's ending as follows:
In place of a melodramatic ending, the film depicts them performing together the Tale of Simch'ongi, a piece in the p'ansori repertory that Song-hwa has perfected. The two thus sublimate han.  The next day they set off in different directions, and we learn that Song-hwa has been raising a daughter [106].
Choi declares that Sopyonje "elicited a collective outpouring of han -- and an abundant flow of audiences' tears" (107), which undermines Cho's claim that weeping at real family reunions is somehow incompatible with weeping at a refused reunion in a fictional narrative.  But did Im reject melodrama in the ending of Sopyonje?  

Julian Stringer says that "the reunion scene is so effective partly because it represents the culmination of a narrative process that has built up themes of loyalty and desire and then resolved them in a satisfyingly melodramatic fashion" (165).  I think he's right here.  Renunciation is as melodramatic as reunion.  Think of a classic Hollywood weeper like Stella Dallas, which ends with Stella accepting her daughter's estrangement for the latter's own good.  If Song-hwa and Dong-ho going their separate ways inspired "an abundant flow of audiences' tears," Sopyonje fits comfortably into the category of melodrama, which is at least as popular in Korea (albeit disparaged) as it is in the West.

As a postcolonial theorist, Choi is deeply invested in opposing West and East, colonizer and colonized, "scientific rationality" and "non-articulative, aesthetic felicity."  I'm always bemused when Western-trained academics, using concepts and methods and citing authorities from the West, try to set up and perpetuate these binaries.  As Choi is aware, the modernizing, rationalizing changes that overcame Korea also overcame Western cultures, and are evaded and resisted here no less than there.  The past of rural traditional innocence is cast as the Good Other, menaced by the Bad Other of urban industrial rationalism.  (It's not clear in this formulation just who, or where, the Self is.)  Previous foreign impositions, like Confucianism, are brushed aside, though they had their own deleterious effects: Choi seems to blame the patriarchal violence in Sopyonje on colonialism, for example, though she must know better.  The father's sexual use of his adopted daughter has its counterpart in the pre-modern, non-Western, anticolonialist prophecies of Ezekiel; equating patriarchy, let alone violence, with modernity is a basic error that undermines the rest of Choi's argument.  But, again, more on this another time, I hope.

Cho Hae Joang thought that Im Kwon-taek's intention in the reunion scene was "un-Korean."  Since Im is Korean, Cho's essentialism is both misleading and harmful.  Im probably isn't a typical or "representative" Korean, but given Sopyonje's immense and unexpected popularity in Korea, being atypical is clearly no barrier to Koreanness.  But Koreans took away many different meanings and lessons from their viewing of the film.  Like any other nationality, Koreanness is a historical accident of birth, not a mystic essence inscribed in blood or, in the currently fashionable metaphor, DNA.  That doesn't mean that misunderstanding is only a failure to engage, of course: I can't apprehend the Korean language simply by adjusting my consciousness, I must put in time, study, and effort.  Nor am I saying that human nature is the same everywhere; there are numerous human natures within each culture.

I must confess my own naivete and arrogance in approaching Korean and other foreign media: it never occurred to me that I couldn't in principle understand them, that some Korean essence would render Korean film's meanings inaccessible to me.  That's not to say that I understood everything I saw without difficulty; of course not.  The Korean friends who introduced Korean films to me explained much of the historical and cultural background, some of which affected my understanding and some of which didn't.  The more I learned about Korean history and culture, the more Korean films and TV I watched, the better I understood.  My understanding will never be perfect, but as the widely varying reactions to Sopyonje by Koreans show, that would be just as true if I were Korean. (After all, I don't share or understand many of the values assumed in American media and art either. The current electoral campaign has brought home to me very forcefully that many of my fellow citizens, Republicans and Democrats alike, might as well be from Uranus.)  I think that assuming in advance that one won't be able to understand a foreign artwork is like assuming in advance that one won't be able to understand someone's foreign accent: it's a refusal to understand, rather than an inability.  I believe that approaching a film or any other work with the attitude that understanding is possible is much more productive.

Here's another possibility, from Im Kwon-taek himself, quoted in Chung Sung-il's monograph:
However, if it was simply contemplating while giving up the past, Sopyonje couldn’t have gained so much attention from the public. I had to let the accumulated resentment and grudges from giving up oneself to surface in a bright way. I had to show the bright light of willing to win and overcome the past. When I say giving up, I don’t mean just the unfair and sad han. I meant it including the bright and joyful side as well. If Sopyonje only displayed despair from giving up, it wouldn’t have touched the hearts of so many people. I saw that in pansori. Pansori itself is lonely and sorrowful and it sounds like that too at first. However, if you put it in a motion picture and let your ears become familiar with it, the listener begins to accept it as a great form of song. Once you start to feel inspiration, you can feel humor and joy. I believe that’s what the public saw.
As I read this, one can see the ending of Sopyonje as a resolution of the story: Song-hwa and Dong-ho have been trapped by their painful past, but their meeting enables them to leave it behind and move into their respective futures.  (One reason for the tears of the "reunited" families Cho Hae Joang mentioned is that they aren't really reunited: they've been brought together briefly for a televised spectacle, but they will once again be separated, and have to return to their respective sides of the 38th parallel.  The national division leaves them frozen in the past; if reunification of North and South took place, they too would have to face the future.)  I don't know how many Koreans saw it that way, but it's a reasonable and helpful message to take from it.  A major problem of postcolonial critics like Choi Chungmoo is their assumption that colonized people have no agency: they are totally determined by the forces that rule their countries.  In reality, people not only resist those forces, they select which aspects and products of modernity and foreignness they will adopt, as their ancestors did with previous foreign imports.  This is a more hopeful approach to postcolonial theory; I think it has the added benefit of being true.