Wednesday, April 26, 2017

For the Win!

Katha Pollitt has a new column at The Nation chiding those who use the word "McCarthyism" with regard to concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.  She makes some valid points, mainly that the power of the State is mostly not involved this time; indeed, as she says, "this time around, the state is firmly in the grip of the supposed victims of the witch hunt. Donald Trump isn’t a high-school teacher who once subscribed to The Daily Worker; he is president of the United States."  True enough, and I'm not worried about Trump or the members of his administration; nor, I feel sure, are the writers she's criticizing.

She overlooks some things, though.  I think they're important.  "But why," she asks rhetorically, "is it unbalanced, overwrought, irrational, or crazy to suspect that Russia hacked the DNC?"  It's not, and while I haven't read every writer she's criticizing -- they're mostly regulars at The Nation, which I hardly read anymore -- those writers I have read concede willingly and explicitly that it's not unreasonable to have "suspicions," and have called for a serious, nonpartisan official investigation into the accusations. " Which, she admits, "indeed, The Nation has called for in an editorial, albeit one that mostly debunks the possibility that anything happened or, if it did, that it mattered."

The trouble, which she doesn't address, is that the accusations surfaced in articles in the corporate media, almost all of which all turned out to be false and were retracted as soon as they were published, only to be replaced with new falsehoods.  Journalists who pointed this out were accused by Democratic loyalists (who seemed to have forgotten that the USSR hadn't existed for over twenty years) of being in the pay of Putin.  Having suspicions is one thing, unfounded attempts to smear critics are another.  Did that Nation editorial debunk "the possibility that anything happened," or the manufactured panic over the possibility?  I'd bet the latter, and that is entirely reasonable.

Pollitt can hardly be unaware of all this, so she must be conveniently forgetting it.  She dismisses the claim by some of her targets that the fuss has been a "distraction"
that focusing on Russia distracts Democrats from accepting the blame for Hil
lary Clinton’s defeat and appealing to voters by attacking Trump’s terrible policies. But why can’t we do both? Even Bernie Sanders, no apologist for Hillary, has asked what Russia might have on Trump.
Again, this is less than fully candid, as shown by Pollitt's characterization of Clinton's campaign.  Of course "we" can do both.  The trouble is that the Democrats haven't been doing both.  Focusing on Russia has allowed them not to attack Trump's terrible policies Because Putin.
In fact, alleged Russian interference in the election has been a pretty successful issue for the Dems. A Quinnipiac poll at the end of March found that 66 percent of Americans support an investigation by an independent commission, and 65 percent think the alleged Russian interference is “very important” or “somewhat important.” Keeping the heat on the issue has also helped destabilize the Trump operation—Manafort and Flynn are gone, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from any investigation into Russian meddling, as has Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, a Trump ally and chair of the House Intelligence Committee. I wouldn’t call that distracting; I’d call it fighting to win.
This tends to support, not refute, the suggestion of distraction.  Like The Nation's editors and other thought criminals, I also support an investigation by an independent commission, which is not the same as accepting that the accusations are true.  I notice that Pollitt doesn't mention the poll which found that 50 percent of Democrats believed that the Russians had hacked the American vote in November to give Trump the victory.  "I wouldn't call that distracting; I'd call it fighting to win."  Really?  What do ordinary Americans, to say nothing of ordinary citizens of other countries targeted by American bombs, get from this "win"?

Pollitt's tone is more reasonable than that of media hacks like, say, JoyAnn Reid of MSNBC or Keith Olbermann, but I think that's superficial.  (Never mistake moderation of tone for moderation of content.)  She tiptoes around the core questions, and is not quite honest about the position of the colleagues she criticizes.  She used to be one of the main reasons I subscribed to The Nation; now she's one more reason I don't.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Hm, They Left Out a Few Things Here ...

... You know, things like: war criminal, trampler upon civil liberties, Deporter-in-Chief, and unbelievably sanctimonious asshole.

And now the former President, hot upon interfering in another country's elections yet again -- even though he's not in office anymore! -- joins the ranks of Wall Street beneficiaries.  There's no need to miss him; he will be with us always, even unto the end of the age.

Monday, April 17, 2017

My Psychological Research Orientation

I'm not sure of the ethics of posting this material, so I'm going to err on the side of reticence.

This morning I received e-mail from the person who now runs the GLB Speakers Bureau I ran for a quarter-century, announcing a visit to campus by a distinguished academic psychologist who does research on gender, gay youth, and suchlike.  The visitor will be giving two presentations, one tailored for undergraduates and another for graduate students.  Copies of flyers for the events were attached.  Here's the description for the grad students:
Scientists and laypeople have recently taken great interest in sexual orientation, especially if the person is a parent, friend, or romantic partner. Despite the common belief that assessing sexuality is straightforward, it is a difficult construct to assess. The most traditional method is self-report. Alternative, tech-oriented methods have recently evolved to correct complications: genital arousal, implicit viewing time, fMRI scanning, eye tracking, and pupil dilation. These are briefly reviewed with consensus findings. However, they fail to distinguish sexual from romantic orientation and to assess the full spectrum of sexuality. Thus, the real lives of individuals are misrepresented. A new sexual identity, mostly straight, is used to illustrate.   
So, "great interest in sexual orientation" is "recent"?  I wonder what timescale he's using; I wouldn't call a century and a half (at least!) "recent" myself.  And that's only if you limit that interest to the modern European medicalization of sex.

The syntax of the first sentence is a trainwreck: where does "the person" come in?  Is a person equivalent to his or her sexual orientation?  Are scientists and laypeople all heterosexual?  By "sexual orientation" he seems to mean homosexuality only, as if heterosexuality were not a sexual orientation.

I wonder about "the common belief that assessing sexuality is straightforward."  That belief is evidently common among scientists as well as laypeople, given the amount of research that relies on self-report for classifying the sexual orientation of subjects.  Since there is no other way to "assess" a person's sexual orientation, I wonder how "tech-oriented" methods can be any better.  If, for example, someone's pupil dilation appears to be at odds with his or her declared sexual orientation, what does it mean?  Do pupils only dilate because their owner is erotically aroused?  Should a person be required to re-arrange his or her erotic life to conform to such data?  Given the very limited state of knowledge in this area, I'd be very wary of putting too much weight on these methods.  It's odd, at the very least, that scientists should believe (or be said to believe) in the ease of assessing sexuality, almost seventy years after Kinsey demonstrated just how difficult it is.

The visitor seems to have similar reservations: these methods, he says, "fail to distinguish sexual from romantic orientation".  Unfortunately he misunderstands the term "sexual orientation," which refers to the sex of the people one desires erotically.  Since "romantic" love involves erotic interest and desire anyway, it makes no sense to distinguish it sharply from the erotic.  (Of course, none of these terms are particularly precise, and the professionals who use them generally fail to define them with any clarity for their research or other purposes.)  If a person is "romantically" drawn only to people of his or her own sex, the sexual orientation of his or her "romantic orientation" is homosexual, or same-sex; and so on.

Unluckily, or maybe luckily, this presentation will be taking place while I am at work.  It would be interesting to see if this psychologist makes any more sense in person.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Social Injustice Warriors

A strange article at The American Conservative today: George Hawley, billed as "an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama," takes on the question of White Guilt.
One of the most persistent tropes on the racial right is that the major cultural institutions in the United States aggressively push a story of white guilt. The media and the education system—from pre-K to postgraduate—are the most frequent targets of this accusation, though increasingly churches are also charged with being strongholds of the “Social Justice Warriors.”

According to this narrative, white Americans face a constant barrage of derision, persistently hearing about the evils of their white-supremacist ancestors and the unfairness of their current unearned privilege. They are told that their racial sins can never be truly washed away, but they can achieve partial atonement by signing onto various progressive causes, especially generous immigration policies and policies designed to uplift African-Americans...

I do not challenge the veracity of any of these stories, though I am not sure how one would objectively, numerically, and conclusively demonstrate that the leading cultural institutions in America are pushing an anti-white message. People who attempt to do so typically just gather collections of anecdotes, and that is a game that both sides can play. The left, after all, has long argued exactly the opposite, proclaiming that white supremacism is pervasive throughout society.
Hawley then cites one study, which finds "only a minority of white Americans admit to feeling any kind of guilt about race ... This was even true of young whites that supported Bernie Sanders."  This susprises him: "even though I believe that most white Americans do not really feel guilty about race, I did expect more to at least pretend to do so."

Hawley's argument seems thoroughly muddled to me.  

1) Right-wingers claim that Social Justice Warriors want white people to feel guilty. 
2) Some rather spotty evidence suggests that white people don't feel guilty.  
3) Therefore the SJWs have failed in their quest to make white people feel guilty, Q.E.D.

Since Hawley's major premise is at best dubious and probably false, he has no argument.  It's worth noticing other strange moves he makes: what do "generous immigration policies" have to do with white guilt?  Most anti-immigrant policies in the US have historically been directed at people we'd now consider kind-of-white: Italians, Greeks, Jews.  The Middle Easterners that racists are now trying to keep out of the country are as "white" as those groups.  The bit about "policies designed to uplift African-Americans" is also revealing.  The primary aim of the Civil Rights movement was to stop racism; racial "uplift" was supposed to come from within the "race."  I suppose Hawley has affirmative action in mind; if so, he doesn't understand that policy.

Notice too the false equivalence of "The left, after all, has long argued exactly the opposite, proclaiming that white supremacism is pervasive throughout society."  I think one can make a better case that white supremacism is pervasive throughout American society than the "opposite," since after all white supremacy was enshrined in the law and other institutions for most of our history, and attempts to de-institutionalize it met with intense organized opposition that haven't stopped to this day.


But even if this position were false, it isn't the "opposite" of the "racial right" claim that the Social Justice Warriors hate white people and want us to feel guilty.  Hawley couldn't even phrase his straw man to include the term "guilt."  Invoking guilt is, as I said, a distractive move.  The white racist denunciation of collective guilt in this case is amusing, given their own fondness for assigning collective guilt to their opponents, real and fancied.  Blacks, Muslims, feminists, liberals, homosexuals, Social Justice Warriors are faceless collective entities.  Only straight white males are atomistic individuals with no connection to each other.  Any similarities between the behavior of one straight white male or another (or millions of others) are purely random and coincidental.

One of the commenters who agreed with Hawley (not all did) declared that "the Christian notion of original sin has been transposed by secularism from something that is common to all humans to the property of white, straight, males."  Blaming "secularism" is odd, given the prominent role of Christian ministers from conservative denominations in the Civil Rights movement.  Whether this transposition happened or not, I take it that the commenter accepts the notion of collective guilt -- except for straight white males, who are responsible for nothing, especially not their own attitudes or behavior.  Racism is just part of original sin, I suppose, and nothing can be done about it until the Kingdom comes and we all have new, resurrected spiritual bodies.

I'm a 66-year-old white male of leftish politics.  As far as I can remember, the Civil Rights movement never aimed to make white people feel guilty.  Nor did the women's movement.  I myself have never been asked to feel guilty for being white or male.  (That's not to say that it has never ever happened in all of history; movements for social justice have their share of irrational doofuses, just as movements for social injustice do.)  What the Civil Rights movement asked for was an end to racism.  White racists and apologists for racism often reacted by trying to characterize this as a demand for them to feel guilty, which would of course have been a useless demand since they have no conscience.  But it was a distractive move, whether conscious or unconscious.  I don't want them to feel guilty, though: I just want them to stop.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Cooler Than Me

I spotted The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band (PM Press, 2016) on display in the window of a hipster bookstore in San Francisco last year, and made a note to look for it when I got back home.  I found it in the public library and just got around to reading it.  It's by Michelle Cruz Gonzales, former drummer of Spitboy, a female punk band that, I confess, I hadn't heard of before, though they got around a lot, touring most of the US, Europe, and Japan in the early 1990s.  Spitboy didn't consider themselves part of Riot Grrl because "we had formed Spitboy in the Bay Area [as opposed to the Pacific Northwest where Riot Grrl spawned] during the early days of their movement [therefore independently of Riot Grrl], we didn't endorse separatism, and we didn't want to be called girls" (10).  She's now married and a mom, and "teaches English and creative writing at Las Positas College" (135).

The Spitboy Rule is a good read, with plenty of anecdotes from the life of a female punk band on the road.  It seems to me that Gonzalez downplays the sexism she had to deal with, giving more space to stories of support from male musicians, roadies, and fans; which is fine, it's her book, and it's good to know that so many guys were supportive.  Gonzalez had plenty of other issues on her plate, having grown up brown in small-town California, daughter of a single mother.  So when she encountered punk rock in the late 80s, it inspired her.
Punk rock: the loud, hard, angry, fast music attracts angry people, angsty teenagers, social misfits, kids whose parents are too strict, straight, Christian; ... seemingly normal kids who don't feel so normal on the inside.  Interestingly, punk rock attracts working-class kids, kids who grew up in poverty, and kids from privileged families  [2].
Yet it seemed to me that in many ways, by identifying with punk she jumped from the frying pan into the fire.  She presents punk as a highly conformist (though she doesn't use that word) environment, obsessed with coolness and one-upmanship.  That the movement gave breathing room to kids like Gonzalez is to its credit, though I suspect it was more because it stood on the shoulders of the politics of the 1960s than because many white male punks were all that enlightened.  (The ambivalent politics of punk has often been discussed, inside and outside the movement.)  Kids who'd grown up hearing about feminism and the Civil Rights movement were readier to imitate and build on those precedents. Punk also stood on the shoulders of the economy of the Sixties even as that economy was collapsing.  But there were lots of relatively cheap instruments and other equipment, you could press your own records more cheaply than before, and the cassette made it even easier for DIY musicians to record and distribute their own music.  The proliferation of copy shops facilitated the production of zines.

But punk was a youth movement, so it was simultaneously rebellious and fiercely conformist.  It's not easy to tell from Gonzalez' account how much of her hangups about fitting in were due to the punk scene and how much was due to her personal insecurities -- assuming, of course, that those can be separated.  Gonzalez was poor and dark-skinned, and though "I was never allowed to fit in" (3), fitting in was what she craved.
In the 1990s, before we understood race and class privilege, we just thought it wasn't cool if you grew up in the suburbs.  It wasn't cool to be from Walnut Creek, Concord, or Fremond, but a lot of punk kids who hung around the East Bay Gilman scene grew up in those cities.  It wasn't cool to be from Walnut Creek because that meant you came from money, and it wasn't cool to be from Fremont because that was total suburbia.  But of course not everyone could be from Berkeley, Oakland, or San Francisco.

It wasn't cool, especially in my mind, to be from a small town either.  Small towns were too quaint, not gritty enough, too provincial.  The only person who thought it was cool that I was from a small town, from Tuolumne, was Aaron Elliott of Crimpshine.  He even thought it was cool after I took him there one summer.  I worried that after taking him to Tuolumne that he'd think otherwise, but he didn't... 

Aaron was also the rare guy who thought it was cool to date a girl drummer ... [15-6]
As I read this I kept trying to remember if I'd had the same insecurities about being a Midwestern small-town / rural kid when I was growing up in the 1960s.  I certainly wanted out of that environment, but when I did I don't remember believing that I should be ashamed of my background.  After all, children don't get to choose where or by whom they are born or raised.  (Their parents aren't in total control of those factors either.)  Because of my reading I knew that city people could be every bit as provincial as rural people.  Despite my personal insecurities, I don't think I'd have been intimidated if anyone had sneered at my background, which isn't personal.  Being queer, being smart, being an atheist, being a compulsive reader -- those are personal.  But I don't recall ever encountering anyone who sneered, or worrying about it.

Gonzalez, by contrast, was obsessed with being cool -- which, ironically, means standing out, not fitting in -- so she found the parts of the movement that shared her obsession.
Even though neither the suburbs nor a small down got you punk points, being from a small town like Tuolumne was the opposite of being from a place like Walnut Creek ... Until the age of twelve, we didn't have a TV in the house.  For many years, my mom did not believe in television, an idea she learned from her Bay Area hippie friends.  It was convenient not to believe in something that she couldn't afford.  The first TV we had in our house belonged to her first serious boyfriend after she separated from my sister's father.

Even before the punk points system I was influenced by own set of standards, and for somebody who had become interested in politics and social issues, not having a TV was actually quite a detriment [17] ...

When Nicole, Suzy, and I got to San Francisco inn 1987, everyone seemed so much more sophisticated, so much more punk. We weren't hicks, but we had grown up in a hick town and we didn't want it to show [18].
"Punk points system"?  There's Anarchy for you.  I grew up far from the epicenters of cool in my own generation, and I began to suspect as early as my first years in college that I'd gained as well as lost by that. 

Paradoxically, though, the punk scene gave Gonzalez room to grow in positive ways.  So she was able to stand up (though not alone, she had her band) against an entertaining attack that came from within the scene:
When we released our Mi Cuerpo Es Mio seven-inch, a riot grrrl from Olympia accused Spitboy of cultural appropriation.  The riot grrrl had ties to the Bay Area and she was white.  Maybe she really believed the accusation. Maybe cultural appropriation was a new concept to her, one that she learned at Evergreen College and felt applied to us, or maybe she was just pissed off at Spitboy because we had distanced ourselves from her movement.  She objected to our use of Spanish for the title of our record and accused us of stealing from someone else's culture, in particular the words "mi cuerpo es mio," which translates to "my body is mine."

Apparently my body was invisible [86-7].
This isn't the best rebuttal, as it dodges several issues.  Gonzalez knew very little Spanish herself, mostly picked up from her grandmother; her ownership of Spanish, mostly acquired by study, is about like mine.  Her anxiety about being brown, the only Mexican in her band and one of few in punk at the time, indicates that for a long time she wished her body was invisible; if she'd been more güera, more able to pass as white, she probably would have.  (She goes so far to say that "there was something self-hating about" the fact she'd "really only dated white guys in bands" before the guitarist José from the Latino punk band Los Crudos from Chicago [117].  Maybe, but the shortage of brown guys in the Bay Area punk scene might have had something to do with it too.)  I'm not sure whether she dismisses the concept of cultural appropriation altogether, or was just scoring easy points against a critic.  But it is funny, and not uncommon, for protectors of cultural purity to run afoul of their own ignorance about the ancestry or other salient traits of people they criticize.

But I like the way that The Spitboy Rule grapples with, skates over, dances around these issues.  I'm glad I happened on it.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

It's the Stupidity, Stupid!

Mehdi Hasan points to some important information and makes a good argument in this article at The Intercept.  The title sums up his claim: Trump voters were motivated more by racism than by the economy.  He's critical of Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and especially Bernie Sanders who've claimed the contrary.

His colleagues Glenn Greenwald and Lee Fang are somewhat skeptical, and Greenwald says that "there's a lot of debate - generally & at the Intercept - about this argument."  That's as it should be, but I think that even if Hasan is right about everything he says, he's accepting and fostering a confusion of issues that is all too common in American politics.

Here's an example from the article:
Both Sanders and Warren seem much keener to lay the blame at the door of the dysfunctional Democratic Party and an ailing economy than at the feet of racist Republican voters. Their deflection isn’t surprising. Nor is their coddling of those who happily embraced an openly xenophobic candidate. Look, I get it. It’s difficult to accept that millions of your fellow citizens harbor what political scientists have identified as “racial resentment.” The reluctance to acknowledge that bigotry, and tolerance of bigotry, is still so widespread in society is understandable. From an electoral perspective too, why would senior members of the Democratic leadership want to alienate millions of voters by dismissing them as racist bigots?
Sanders and Warren might disagree with me, but I don't see a problem here.  I think Sanders was constructing a false dichotomy, but then so is Hasan.  I have no difficulty accepting (if that's the word) that millions of my fellow citizens are racist, but I don't think it's limited to Trump voters; many Democrats are also racist, and Democratic presidential candidates routinely pander to their racism.  I'm not surprised by Sanders's trying to downplay American racism, since like many Socialists he's always been weak on issues other than the US economy anyway.

It's important to point out, as Hasan does, that much of Trump's base wasn't suffering economically anyway:
Look, if you still believe that Trump’s appeal was rooted in economic, and not racial, anxiety, ask yourself the following questions: Why did a majority of Americans earning less than $50,000 a year vote for Clinton, not Trump, according to the exit polls? Why, in the key Rust Belt swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, did most voters who cited the economy as “the most important issue facing the country” opt for Hillary over the Donald? And why didn’t black or Latino working class voters flock to Trump with the same fervor as white working class voters? Or does their economic insecurity not count?
This reminds me that when Rush Limbaugh first became nationally famous at the end of the 1980s, he and his critics tried to cast him as the voice of disaffected blue-collar American whites, though his audience had an average income of $53,000 (which was worth considerably more then than it is now).  That was no surprise any more than Trump's fans should be now.  Much of the really toxic American Right is at least middle-class and college-educated, like Limbaugh himself, which is another reason to harbor skepticism about the efficacy of a college education.

According to Philip Klinkner, a political scientist whose research is Hasan's main source,
the best way to identify a Trump supporter in the U.S. was to ask “just one simple question: is Barack Obama a Muslim?” Because, he said, “if they are white and the answer is yes, 89 percent of the time that person will have a higher opinion of Trump than Clinton.” This is economic anxiety? Really?
No, claiming that Obama is a Muslim does not equal "economic anxiety," and I'm not sure anyone has really said it does.  But it's not necessary to confuse these things.  (Especially if, as Hasan claims, voters who expressed concern about the economy, whether or not they were racist, voted Democratic anyway.)  Denying that racists are racists is a popular tactic, of course, and it's alarming when liberals and leftists try to use it.  I have friends on Facebook who are Trump supporters and racists; I challenge and criticize them on both matters as I see fit.  It doesn't seem that any of them are suffering much economically, and most of them are dependent on the Big Government Teat, but it's typical of the Right to poor-mouth themselves.

Ironically, though, many Trump-haters are just fine with thinking of his fans as low-rent white trash, often shading into overt racist stereotyping and imagery, and I find myself challenging them as often as I do the Trump fans.  It's not necessary to confuse racism and economic anxiety, but it sure is fun. This comment, for example, was posted on Facebook today under a post by a source one of my liberal friends relies on:
No one ever believed Trump...we know why the ones who voted for him did...Now they are at home looking at the news...chewing tobacco..drinking moonshine...rubbing their cousins ass....safe and sound...the wealthy ones waiting on the check to clear safe and sound...but people lives were taken...no human no matter what status you are life is more valuable than the next...He started with lies he will end because of lies...America is alot more fun...when we aren't divided by race so in the words of a great man......Fuck Trump
Democratic elites are also "waiting on the check to clear safe and sound," but it wouldn't do to remember that.

So, to repeat myself, 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 criticizing 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's possible in principle, and I hope in practice, to push for good economic policy without pandering to white racism or other forms of bigotry.  As I indicated, we shouldn't justify good economic policy by claiming that it will eradicate bigotry.  It won't, but I'm not sure what will.  Without reliable employment, health care, education, and infrastructure, though, the country (and the world) will continue our agonizing slow downhill slide into immiseration; in which case people's energy to fight for a better world will be diffused into so many areas that they'll become hopeless.  Which, of course, is just what the rulers want.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Style of Rhetoric Common to That Subculture

Another placeholder post while I procrastinate.  But it's related to a bigger one I hope to get to soon.

I took the above photo of a notice on the door of a "gender-neutral," single-occupancy restroom in the dormitory where I work.  The point of interest is the comment, "Collins sucks titty milk."  (Collins is the name of the dorm.)  I think it's likely that the graffitist is male, and not a resident of the dorm, though that's not really important.  It's not a truly nasty, incendiary remark; it's just stupid.  But it's what passes for clever repartee, or even rational debate in some circles.

Monday, April 3, 2017

#Resistance Is Futile

The mental and moral decline of American liberals inexorably (and irreversibly?) continues: two of my friends have shared this meme in the past week.

The enthusiastic stupidity of this item boggled my mind.  It's so convoluted that it's hard to get a grip on it to explain what's wrong with it.  Most obviously, Lex Luthor is a fictional character, who does what his writers and artists want him to do; Donald Trump is, unfortunately, a real person, who's dedicated his life to doing what he wants to do.

I haven't followed Superman comics since I was in junior high school, something like fifty years ago now.  So, while I figured that the plot twist this meme referred to wasn't as simple in its significance as its author wanted it to be, I had no idea where to begin to find what its complications were, and didn't care enough to pursue it.  But thank Cthulhu for anal-compulsive comic book nerds, one of whom posted this excerpt from a Wikipedia article on on LexCorp as a comment:
"When CEO Lex Luthor was elected President of the United States, Talia al Ghul took over the company, who donated a large portion of its profits to the Wayne Foundation during Superman and Batmans’ year-long absences.[4] Following his dismissal as president he fired her and took back his place, though she secretly kept a portion of stock."

So no he didn't he just had someone else run it for a while like trump.
Quibbling over the virtually-actual details of the career of a comic book villain is almost as depressing as watching people crow triumphantly at totally destroying Trump with a meme, but it's like quoting the Bible: if you're going to put the discussion on that level, your quotations had better be accurate.

The larger problem is the mentality (if that word can be applied to such knee-jerk reflexive behavior) that reduces every issue to Our Team vs. Their Team.  Trump's obnoxious behavior on Twitter, ironically, is exactly what Obama and Clinton fans wanted their guys to do: speaking their minds, trashing the opposition with pithy putdowns.  Bam!  Boom!  Oh, burn!  You totally shredded and destroyed those Reichtards!  Remember the "Texts from Hillary" memes?  Some of them were mildly amusing, but it was plain that many Clinton fans thought they were real, because they wanted them to be.  Given Obama's record on trying to be funny and snarky, he'd have been just as embarrassing as Trump if he'd taken to Twitter.  His fans would have been delighted, though, not embarrassed, because he was Their Guy, the Captain / Coach of Their Team.  His enemies would have been appalled and outraged.  It's not the content, ever, for partisans; it's the team.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

And Consequently Meant for Publication

Back in 1921, Dorothy Parker was reviewing Broadway plays.  She panned a musical called The Right Girl, for (among other offenses) featuring "a song which exploits the rhyme:
I wouldn't give five cents
For a marriage license."
I'd thought rhymes like this were an innovation of rap; I guess it's worth knowing that they were sung on the legitimate stage a century ago.

Last night I went to a poetry slam at a local venue, mainly because a friend wanted to go, under the impression that it was going to focus on work by LGBTQ youth, which sounded interesting.  It turned out he was wrong -- the youth slam had taken place elsewhere, earlier in the evening -- and he decided not to go anyway.  Though I've been to numerous poetry readings, professional and amateur, I don't think I've ever actually attended a poetry slam before, so I paid the $5 cover.  (The event was a benefit for undocumented youth, so I don't regret the money I spent.)  I don't like the idea of poetry slams, which seem to be an attempt to win an audience for poetry by foregrounding the worst kinds of macho poetasting, combined with competition: poetry reading as pro-wrestling.  That's a doubly toxic cocktail as far as I'm concerned.  I have watched a video of a West Coast semiprofessional slam, which confirmed my bad impression.  But hey, give the kids a chance.

In a way it was reassuring: bad poetry is forever.  (Or as Christ might have said, the bad poets you will always have with you, and they'll be first in line for the open mike.)  First up was an avowed straight white boy who announced that he usually writes depressing stuff, but had decided to give the audience a break by reading something humorous.  He then warned about content, the poem was about sexual objectification, but it was a joke, right?  He was right: it was a bad joke, the content could have come straight from some asshole's Twitter feed, and you don't get a pass for sexist objectification just because you know what you're doing and admit it in advance.  I was depressed; maybe some of what he thought was his "depressing" stuff would actually have been funny.  But, happily, he did only the one.

Next up was another skinny white boy.  He did two rapid-fire raps of no distinction, and wanted to do a third but the MCs called time on him.  (I must give the organizers credit: the event was well-arranged, and it seemed they were not going to allow the great pitfall of many open mikes: the poet who bogarts the mike to read one dreadful screed after another.)   He surrended the stage readily, to his credit.

Next was a young woman in a buzzcut whose poem, she informed us, was about "trans identity."  (I'm referring to her as "she" because she didn't specify a pronoun, and it wasn't clear whether the poem was about herself -- she left that vague.)  The poem was undistinguished, and could have been written by any of the myriad poet-wannabes I've heard at open mikes over the past five decades.  One innovation: she read the text from her phone.

Finally (for me) a "proud bisexual" male poet took the stage.  His contribution was also a collection of cliches; sincere and well-meant, no doubt, and well-done for what it was, but basically it was MFA fodder.  No doubt he'll go far.  Next up after him was an acquaintance of mine, a local politician around 50 whom I've known since he was in college.  That confirmed my feeling that maybe I should have signed up to read myself -- I could have read a poem from my tablet, since I have most of my work on this blog.  But I had other things to do with the evening, and scooted out, freeing my seat for someone else.

I gather there will be another slam in a month, so maybe I'll sign up for that one.  I would not spend any time introducing my poem, as the other readers felt compelled to do.  That's another cliche of poetry readings that is still evidently with us.  (I began that post with an explanation, because the poem included has confused many people over the years.  It's atypical of my poetry posts here.)  One that wasn't in evidence last night was audience members chattering while the poets read: the audience was quiet and attentive, which was gratifying and a nice change from what I've observed in the past.

So, I'm venting.  But on the whole I was relieved to find that the college poetry scene has not changed, that Sturgeon's Law still applies.  I don't think I've succumbed to old-person nostalgia (which as Adrienne Rich said is just amnesia in reverse), since as I say, only the styles of body ornamentation has changed since the 70s.  Maybe if I'd stayed longer someone would have provided the surprise and revelation that you get when a really good poet, something with something of their own to say, takes the stage.  If I go to another of these, I'll stay for the duration and find out.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Dear Mr. President Trump, Your Honor, Sir

An old friend posted this on Facebook the other day.
As a general rule, (not necessarily 100% of the time), I will refer to the person holding the office of the Presidency as President or occasionally POTUS, out of respect for the office itself. I have a 'friend' on FB who, most of the time that I've seen refers to President Trump as... Cheetolini. Unfortunately, I currently am not advanced enough as a human being to not laugh at this every time I read it. I am working on it...
One thing that has become plainer than ever during the Trump presidency is just how situational such notions as "respect for the office itself" are: You must respect my president, but I don't have to respect your president, because he's Not My President!  My friend has been better than the average non-Republican on this, but I think he's still confused, and that confusion comes busting out in this post.

I don't get the whole idea of "respect for the office itself," first of all, partly because I don't think it inheres in the office.  The qualifications, powers, and responsibilities of the President are set forth mostly in Article 2 of the US Constitution, and while they are considerable, they don't seem to me to define a role that requires deference, reverence, or the other attitudes that so many people confuse with "respect," especially for "their" president as opposed to yours.  The American president isn't a monarch, he's an executive.  As the anarchist Paul Goodman put it fifty years ago, "I regard the President as my public servant whom I pay, and berate him as a lousy employee."

The Constitution, far from elevating the Executive over the other government branches or the citizenry, provides for his removal in case of serious misconduct, which is enough by itself to show that the office, let alone the person holding the office, is neither sacred nor exempt from oversight and criticism.  John Adams reportedly wanted to style the president "His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties," as did George Washington himself at first, but they didn't speak for all the founders, and it never quite caught on.  (The same goes for the Constitution.  I've had some disagreements with people who wanted to treat it as above criticism or change, which makes no sense for a document that contains provision for amending it.)  Why "the office itself" should be accorded respect more than any other office, from members of Congress to County Clerk to school bus driver, I don't understand.  I imagine many people, including perhaps my friend, would claim that all government offices deserve respect, but I don't think I believe them.

"Respect" is an ambiguous word.  I once saw an attempt to derive from its etymology the idea that it involves a relation between equals.  But the history of a word is not its meaning, and while it can still have that original (?) sense, "respect" in English quickly began to mean "treat with deferential regard or esteem" or a "feeling of esteem excited by actions or attributes of someone or something; courteous or considerate treatment due to personal worth or power."  That's the sense implied in usages like "respect your elders" or "respect the President."  Since hierarchies are not natural phenomena but social constructions, it's not surprising that defenders of hierarchies would guard jealously the perquisites of those in the upper levels.  In a nominally egalitarian society, I don't see that such deference is desirable or defensible.  But many Americans wish we still had a monarch.

Someone posted on Twitter the same day:


This person, probably all unawares, was describing Donald Trump.  Myself, I disagree that "we" "need" such a "leader," especially one who will tell us "what we should fight for."  Nothing I can see in the Constitution indicates that the President was supposed to be such a person.  We've had enough of such leaders, and enough people have died because of them.  More important, though, this conception of the Presidency is incompatible with a non-hierarchical, democratic society; it's a holdover from the Big-Man conception of the ruler as the head of the social body.  It's not surprising that many people still cling to it, but it needs to be left behind.

I don't believe that many people are all that interested in observing the distinction between the office and the office-holder.  When you refer to the office-holder as (say) POTUS, without his or her name, you're confusing the two, obliterating the distinction.  (That new abbreviations like FLOTUS also caught on indicate that "respect for the office itself" is not involved, since First Lady is not an office.)  In this blog I've generally referred to presidents by their last names more than by their titles to avoid that obfuscation.

Recently the same friend I quoted above linked to a post by one of his favorite online commentators, who declared angrily that he was not going to respect President Trump because Trump's supporters had not respected President Obama.  What this implies, though I don't think he realized it, is that he doesn't consider it obligatory or maybe even desirable to respect the current President.  I could go along with that, but I don't think that my friend or the pundit really meant it.  What the pundit meant was that he was going to take Republicans as his role model in talking about Trump.  Considering how very badly the Republicans behaved toward Obama, and to the Clintons before him, you might think he'd rather take the high road, but evidently he's content to wallow in the pig shit with them.  To each his own; knock yourselves out.

None of this is new in American politics, of course: lobbing feces (sometimes literally) at the opposition is Tradition.  One reason for parties and leaders, especially in a non-egalitarian and non-democratic system, is to personalize politics so that the voters will identify with their their team and its stars and leaders, concentrating not on issues (which are supposedly beyond our grasp and not our business) but on personalities. The most interesting thing for me about George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo were the quotations from Lincoln's contemporaries ranting about POTUS' vulgarity, nastiness, ugliness, etc.  They sounded like today's Democrats frothing about Donald Trump.  What partisans want for their politicians isn't "respect" but uncritical, slobbering adulation.  Maybe there is no way to have a nation in which politics isn't a spectator sport, but let's not pretend that it's anything else right now.  As the political philospher Michael Neumann wrote during the Bush administration,
Respect is not a duty; it is not even desirable in many cases. Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt.
I agree completely, but this flies in the face of everything that most people hold dear.  It is vitally important for them to have someone they can beat or put in jail or drive from their homes, to insult freely and without limit.  Demanding respect for their own heroes is just the flip side of withholding it from the other guys' heroes.  It's a game, however seriously people take it, and they do take it very seriously.

That said, I don't condemn my friend for being amused by "Cheetolini," though I don't find that epithet funny myself.  He's better than most liberals on this (though with all due immodesty, it's partly because I've kept him honest).  I do condemn the many liberal Democrats who demanded total deference to Obama (or to the Clintons), but entertained themselves by mocking Bush, and now Trump.  But then I also condemn the equal and corresponding hypocrisy of right-wing Republicans.  Even as cynical as I am, I was surprised at quickly they flipped from deploring Trump's fans to talking and behaving exactly like them.  Both factions will, if pressed, whine "But they started it!"  That's not important.  Both started it, long ago; it's part of the game of American politics.  The question is who will end it.  But hardly anyone really wants to see it end, because obsessing over people is so much easier than attending to issues.  Indeed, most people can't tell the difference anyway: they believe that personal attacks are rational discussion, and vice versa.

Friday, March 24, 2017

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

Speaking of mythology, I just read George Saunders's highly touted new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017).  If you haven't read it yet and would like to do so without learning details of what happens in it, some of what I have to say here will probably count as spoilers, so be aware.  It was fun to read on the whole, well-written and entertaining, so if you're curious, check it out and then return to this post if you wish.

I hadn't heard of him until I saw Lincoln in the Bardo mentioned somewhere, but Saunders has apparently made quite a name for himself.  In 2013 he was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine for his short stories.  Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel.

Here's the historical background: Willie Lincoln, age 11, died in the White House on February 20, 1862 of typhoid fever.  This was early in the Civil War, and in the second year of Abraham Lincoln's presidency.  His death was tied to a big party his parents threw in the White House, under some criticism because of the war.  His doctor assured his parents that he was recovering, and "Both the President and First Lady took turns slipping away from the party to sit with their sick son."  He died a few days afterward, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown.  (After his father was assassinated three years later, both were moved to Springfield, Illinois.)  The night after Willie's funeral, his father visits the graveyard, opens Willie's coffin, and cradles the dead boy in his arms before returning to his duties in the White House.

Lincoln in the Bardo is set mostly in that graveyard, told mostly by the dead but with snippets from historical and contemporary writings about Lincoln and his son's death.  It's more like a radio theater script than a conventional novel, though judging by numerous complaints about the audiobook by customers on Amazon, it doesn't work well in that mode.  It has obvious forerunners in Spoon River Anthology and Our Town, two other works composed of the voices of the dead.  As indicated by his title, Saunders explicitly draws on Tibetan Buddhist notions of the afterlife, as Euro-American laypeople understand it anyway: the bardo is a limbo between death and rebirth into another life, where the soul's responses to its experiences will affect one's next incarnation.  But one must move on, hindered neither by attachment to the previous life nor by the visions and hallucinations that induce confusion and terror while in the bardo.  It's a trial by ordeal, as set out in the Bardo Thodol, the fourteenth-century Tibetan manual known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for which the living must train themselves.  (According to the Wikipedia article, tradition claims that the Bardo Thodol was composed several centuries earlier and the manuscript "discovered" in the 1300s. This sounds suspiciously like West-Asian apocalyptic literature, so I'm supposing that the date of "discovery" is most likely the date of composition.) 

Saunders's premise is that Willie's ghost hovers around as most ghosts do at first, and his father's visit encourages him to stay on.  The other shades crowd around, hoping that Lincoln will hear them and respond to their complaints.  Others, hungrier and even angrier, try to bind Willie to the spot.  With help from the three main narrators, Willie is freed so he can merge with his father's living body long enough to realize that he is not just sick, but dead.  (The conviction that they are not really dead is the rationale used by many of the shades for staying where they are.)  After his father leaves the cemetery, Willie announces his realization to the other shades, and moves on, as do numerous others.  The ghost of one African-American man merges with Father Abraham and possesses him as he rides back home.  That may be creepiest detail in the novel: the suggestion that Lincoln finally abolished slavery (a year later, in a half-assed way) because he was occupied by the spirit of a black person.  (This even though the novel makes clear that the ghosts are unable to make the living obey them.)  Saunders' treatment of race and racism is not terribly good, it seems to me: it's white-liberal sentimentalism of the sort that informed Uncle Tom's Cabin and many similar works since.

What bothered me enough to set me writing about Lincoln in the Bardo was a sequence near the end, in which the three main speakers address a woman who has entrapped herself in the hallucination of "a scaled-down smoking wreck of a rail car [with] several dozen charred and expiring individuals trapped within her barking out the most obscene demands as Miss Traynor's 'wheels' turned mercilessly upon several hogs, who (we were given to understand) had caused the crash, and possessed human faces and voices, and were crying out most piteously as the wheels turned and turned and crushed and re-crushed them, giving off the smell of burning pork" (page 331)  They apologize to her for not having encouraged her to go on to the next stage.
We are sorry this happened to you, I said.

You did not deserve it, Mr. Bevins said [332].
One of the three then sacrifices himself, and he and Miss Traynor go on.  Many of the shades remain, however.

According to the cosmology that underlies the novel, however, if Miss Traynor and all the others didn't "deserve" their condition, they had nonetheless done it to themselves.  By clinging to their memories, frustrations, grudges, and desires, they kept themselves in the bardo; all had to do was click their heels together three times, realize that they were dead, and all would be well.  C. S. Lewis tried to get around the traditional Christian conception of Hell in The Great Divorce, by postulating that the damned, too, could free themselves from their torment, but they refuse to submit and abandon their selfish selves.

The novel makes much of the importance of love and sex and human relationships, which seems to me a distortion of traditional Buddhist teaching.  (Another odd thing: Abe Lincoln himself is not "in the bardo" in this story.  I don't think the title is meant to refer to Willie.)  If you want to escape suffering, you must give up attachment, which includes not only erotic desire but family ties as well.  The sentimentalization of children, centered on young Willie, who frees himself and some of the other shades simply by his naive declaration of the truth (The Bardo Has No Clothes!), is also a form of attachment rather than an escape from it.  Caleb Crain, reviewing Lincoln in the Bardo for The Atlantic, summed it up as sentimental sadism, a phrase which sums up most popular religion.  Saunders has cobbled together a liberal American Buddhism that will appeal to many readers, but then this is a mashup, along the lines of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  It's really meant only to entertain, and it does that well enough.  But it's no deeper than its predecessors.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Another Fine Myth

Ian Welsh usually blogs about contemporary politics and economics, and quite well.  Recently, though, he wrote a bizarre post about the myth of Balder (which I've always seen spelled "Baldur," but "Balder" is apparently a common variant) and the function of mythology that baffled me.  It seemed to reveal some very odd beliefs about myth on Welsh's part.

Welsh begins by recounting a version -- evidently his own, which differs in some details from ones I've seen -- of the Balder myth.  That may not be too important, because most ancient mythology doesn't have a canonical form.  Even in the Hebrew and Christian bibles, myths often appear in more than one version, and some of the differences affect their meaning.  It appears that the Balder myth, at least in the versions now available to us, is much more recent than Jewish, Christian or Greek mythology, so it may have been influenced by Christian or other mythology.  In any case, its motifs are familiar from other traditions: the invulnerable warrior killed by a wound in his Achilles heel, the grieving mother harrowing the Land of the Dead to try to bring the dead beloved back, etc.

Welsh then exhorts his readers, "Please consider the meaning of this story before continuing…"  He leaves a blank space in the post to give us time to reflect, and laments: "We live in a world where we have de-mythologized and, as such, we rarely consider the truth behind many myths or what they were trying to say."  That seems to me a totally absurd statement.  We -- I presume "we" refers to modern Euro-North-Americans -- still have plenty of myths.  Indeed, our entertainment industries mine Greek and Norse mythology for characters, stories, and themes, with great success.  The new versions may be "trying to say" different things than earlier versions were, but the earlier versions didn't have one "truth" in them, or one thing they were trying to say.  To repeat: there are no canonical versions of the Greek and Norse myths, and the different versions we have vary widely in their stories, meanings, and messages.

Even secularists have their myths, such as the heroic tale of the Darwinian defender Thomas H. Huxley bearding Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at Oxford in 1860.  According to the canonical version, Wilberforce asked Huxley rhetorically through which grandparent the latter was descended from an ape.  Huxley totally owned Wilberforce by his brilliant reply, which won the debate and saved the day for Science.  There were giants in the earth in those days!  I remember encountering this sacred story as a kid in the 1960s, but "Since at least the 1980s, historians have widely regarded the traditional account of that day as a myth or legend."  Even if it were historically acccurate, though, it would still be a myth in the sense that the Greek and Norse stories are -- a story meant to encapsulate and foster the values of the Darwinian community (among them, that the truth of a theory is established by combat and witty comebacks in debate).  Not only does it show that Evolution is true, it shows that opponents are superstitious pushovers, easily demolished by a true Gnostic (or agnostic, in Huxley's case).

And what is the precious meaning Welsh finds in the Balder myth?
Peace is the most precious and beloved of all things, and the most fragile. All it takes to kill peace, is one person who does not agree to keep the peace. And peace cannot be restored so long as even one person does not want it restored.

Obviously this is not quite true, but it nonetheless contains a great truth worth thinking on.
I don't think we need a medieval Norse myth to recognize this "great truth," and I wouldn't take for granted that these platitudes are encapsulated in the tale of Balder.  Was the world of the Norse gods a peaceful place before Balder died?  More important, the notion that war must inevitably follow from his death is false, and harmful.  It's always possible to make more choices.  Welsh's interpretation is a version of the game See What You Made Me Do: I get to decide what will be the consequences of your refusal to do as I tell you to do.  No matter how extreme, absurd, or harmful what I decide to do about your disobedience, I am not responsible -- it's all your doing.  (This game is popular among religious bigots.  A woman who goes out alone is Asking To Be Raped.  If she becomes pregnant, she must carry the child to term.  Contraception is not allowed, and a fortiori neither is abortion.  A woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock has chosen to be ostracized as a slut; if she or the child dies in childbirth, so much the better.  SWYMMD is also popular with parents: Because you disobeyed me, I can invent baroque punishments that bear no relation or proportion to the offense, but You Asked For It.)  Better still, I get to invent the consequences after you disobey, so you could not have known what they would be.  Peace is fragile, but it can be patched back together as often as necessary.  The trouble is less the fragility of peace than the determination of some people to wage war no matter what.

There's no reason I know of to suppose that ancient mythologies were ever consistent in the lessons they contained, or even that teaching lessons was the primary reason for telling them.  Even more, I don't trust anyone who claims to know what "the meaning" of any story, ancient or modern, is.  That's not how stories work.  Stories do often imply lessons, but if you want "great truths" encoded in narratives, look to Aesop's fables.  That these are considered a separate genre, and not as profound as epic or tragedy, indicates that teaching lessons is not the primary purpose of myth.

What surprised me most about Welsh's complaint is that such a smart person would embrace this basically fundamentalist approach to mythology: it is full of true wisdom if you interpret it rightly, but we have fallen away from the great spiritual values that men once held.  I don't think he would write such a post about the Bible, for example, or the Book of Mormon.  During the past Christmas season I got into a minor dustup on Facebook over a detail of the gospels.  I made a cynical but still valid interpretation of the story of Joseph and Mary's inability to find a place to stay in Bethlehem before Jesus' birth: I pointed out that, according to the gospels and later Christian theology, everything that happened in Jesus' life had to happen, to fulfill Old Testament prophecy.  If Jesus was born in a manger, it was because his heavenly father planned it that way from before the creation of the world.  I was informed, angrily, that if I studied some serious theology I'd know that such a simplistic, snarky interpretation was wrong.  But first, my interpretation was based on the theology of the gospel of Luke (where that story appears) and the rest of the New Testament: it was a higher understanding of those events according to the flesh.  I was just pointing to a factor, one of many, that liberal Christians prefer to ignore.  Second, and more important, you can make a more sophisticated interpretation of any text, from the Book of Mormon to Madonna's "Express Yourself," and a skillful exegete can interpret anything to mean just about anything he or she wants. This is what Walter Kaufmann called exegetical thinking, the fallacy of reading one's own ideas into a text and getting them back endowed with the text's authority.  My reading at least had the limited virtue of pointing to a real biblical theme.

There's no agreement among scholars about the nature or purpose of myth.  I wouldn't be surprised if Welsh has been influenced by the Jungian Joseph Campbell, who has been very popular as an exponent of myth as a fount of eternal wisdom; but there are other scholars who take other positions, and no one really knows who is right.  It doesn't help that the people whose myths Welsh extols didn't think of them in the way that modern scholarship does.  There's a fine controversial book by a French historian, Paul Veyne, called (in English translation) Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths? (Chicago, 1988).  As the anthropologist Jonathan Mair sums it up,
[Veyne's] answer to the eponymous question is ‘yes and no’—the ordinary Greek did not believe in myth in the same way that he believed in things he had experienced directly, but he still believed that the events recounted in myths were true. The different modes of truth were distinguished by different truth conditions.

Veyne neatly demonstrates the importance of understanding the plurality of modes of belief or ‘programmes of truth’ by contrasting the attitudes of the Greek in the street with those of classical historians such as Pausanias and Thucydides. The historians no less than hoi polloi believe the events described by myths were true, but their activity was motivated by a second-order imperative that insisted that there could only be one programme of truth. The aim of their practice was to apply reason, logos, in order to reconcile the apparent contradictions between mythos—myths about gods and heroes—and stories of the contemporary lives of ordinary people.
I'd bet that most people responded to myth in Greek antiquity or Norse culture more or less as people respond to today's myths (The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.).  The spectacle, the violence, the romance makes an impression first, and people then find morals and messages in the story.  Fan subcultures are devoted to celebrating, re-enacting, interpreting, and preserving the glorious traditions.  They 'read' their mythology differently than priests, philosophers and academics do, but with as much attention to "the truth [as they see it] behind many myths or what they were trying to say" as Welsh could wish.  Their readings aren't less valid than those of the professional theologians, but they aren't more valid either.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Why Can't a Woman Be Less Like a Man?

“Wouldn’t the males in the room like to think that the Y has some more enduring contribution to maleness?” It is 2001, in Bethesda, Maryland. Y chromosome geneticist David Page looks out at the audience’s young men—high school honors students. In the beat following Page’s question, they visibly twinge with anxiety and anticipation. With a beaming smile, Page breaks the tension, reassuring the boys that new research in his lab has, fortunately, “intellectually rescued” the Y from “years and years of misunderstanding.” The faces relax and nervous giggles titter around the room.
This anecdote comes from Sarah S. Richardson's Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (Chicago, 2013, p.149 of the Kindle version).  It's followed by another anecdote from five years later, in which another researcher retails a newer improved model of the Y chromosome, thereby putting "broad smiles" on the faces of the women in the audience while "the blokes are shifting uncomfortably, unnerved by the prospect of their fundamental redundancy."  Which supports what I've been saying for a long time now: it's not a good idea to hitch your self-esteem or your politics to scientific claims, which have a way of changing with the winds of fashion.  That's especially true since as Richardson herself insists repeatedly in the book, the X and Y chromosomes have nothing to do with the social status or value of men and women, nor do they determine our behavior, gender expression, or much of anything else.  That young scientists and scientist-wannabes are being encouraged by their elders and teachers to think otherwise is not good news.

Why would "the males in the room" be stricken with anxiety if the Y chromosome doesn't make "some more enduring contribution to maleness"?  Males are males, and females females, regardless of what role the Y chromosome plays.  I presume, going by other quotations from Page in Richardson's book, that he means that the Y chromosome causes in some obscure fashion the stereotypical masculine traits and behavior that he casts as caricatures when he's not advancing them himself.  (This is common coin in masculist propaganda, of course: if you criticize male violence, you're stereotyping men unfairly and subsisting on their tears; if you celebrate male violence, you're ultra-cool and recovering primal male energy.)  So, for example, when talking to the laity, Page 
is quoted saying that “the Y married up, the X married down,” and “the Y wants to maintain himself but doesn’t know how. He’s falling apart, like the guy who can’t manage to get a doctor’s appointment or can’t clean up the house or apartment unless his wife does it [Richardson, 159].
But even in one of his journal articles:
Figures depicted X-transposed genes as pink, X-degenerate genes as yellow (representing an ancient mix of male and female—presex, neutral, or neither-nor), and Y genes as blue. X genes were characterized as "housekeeping" and "ubiquitous" while Y genes "acquire" and "maintain" male-specific functions and experience "abundant" palindromic recombination [Richardson, 162; boldface added].
That, remember, is a professional publication, aimed at his critical-thinking scientific peers, not throwing dust in the eyes of the credulous and irrational sheeple.

One of the funniest symptoms of male anxiety Richardson discusses is the reaction to a prediction, by the Australian geneticist Jennifer Graves, that the Y chromosome is degenerating and will go extinct -- in about 14 million years.  That is a prospect to keep you up nights, isn't it?  Graves seems to be Page's mirror image, with her equally loaded descriptions of the Y chromosome as a "wimp," a "genetic wrecking yard," and the like (Richardson, page 170).  The disappearance of the Y chromosome wouldn't mean the extinction of males, by the way: there are mammalian species without Y chromosomes, but they still have fertile males.  The curious thing about this emotional reaction -- you'd think they were facing execution the next morning -- is that extinction is as much part of evolutionary theory as the change of species itself.  Everybody dies, and most species eventually go extinct.  If men vanished from the planet, it would simply mean that we had lost the struggle for existence, that Nature had weighed us in the balance and found us wanting and blah blah blah. 

The ascription of sex/gender stereotypes to genes and chromosomes as if they were fully-developed organisms is about as ridiculous as anthropomorphizing subatomic particles.  (Our Friend, The Quark.)  Evidently it doesn't keep people like Graves and Page from doing valid scientific work.  Richardson argues: 
Perhaps Graves’s and Page’s research on the Y has been lively and productive at least in part because of the gendered models they have drawn on. We have here a case of competing biases, each productive in channeling particular programs of Y chromosome study. As these biases are the subject of active and open debate, they do not carry with them the same threat to scientific objectivity as do biases shared by an entire research community and thus invisible to its participants [174].
She points out, though, that Graves is avowedly feminist, while Page casts himself as a neutral, objective, just-the-facts-Ma'am "nonideological scientist" (173). The lack of self-awareness on Page's part, given how freely he throws around the most cliched Blondie/Dagwood gender stereotypes, is troubling, but also old news to anyone familiar with the history of sexism in the sciences.

One of the first things I thought of when I read about this controversy was the attitude expressed by one of my readers, that the idea that he was born gay appeals to him emotionally.  I'm not sure what that appeal is.  I'm weird, as we all know, but my own change of heart, when I was twenty, had nothing to do with any theory of why I'm gay.  It was inspired (though not caused) by the writings of people like the lesbian writer Jill Johnston, which helped me to decide that my desire for another young man was as valid as desire for a young woman would be.  I say "decide" rather than, say,  "realize" because it was a decision about how I was going to regard my homosexuality, rather than an objective claim about its nature or status.  A moral decision, which is what is at issue.  Thanks to other reading I'd done, notably Martin Hoffman's The Gay World (Basic Books, 1968), I knew about the then-current dominant theory of the origin of male homosexuality, that it was due to faulty relationships with one's parents; I also knew that this theory was flawed and invalid, and that homosexuality was not an illness or disorder.  I believe I also knew about the born-gay theories of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, and that they had been discredited too.  But it doesn't seem that I cared why I was homosexual; what mattered to me was that it was all right to be attracted to other males, and to try to find one who'd be attracted to me.

It appears that not everyone considers the born-gay doctrine emotionally appealing.  In An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society (Chicago, 1999) Jennifer Terry wrote:
Among those gay men who are economically and socially powerful in the world, conceding that nature makes them gay is apparently less damaging than it might seem to working-class gay teenagers. A social worker who works with gay suicidal teens recently remarked that the biology-is-destiny line can he deadly. Thinking they are "afflicted" with homosexual desire as a kind of disease or biological defect rather than thinking of it as a desire they somehow choose is, for many gay teenagers, one more reason to commit suicide rather than to live in a world so hostile to their desires.
If you're born that way, after all, it's incurable.  I've noticed before how bleakly many born-gay dogmatists portray gay life: we are hated by all, rejected by our families, persecuted by the law and religion, and so on.  It's remarkable how similar this is to the 1950s' pulp cliche of the Third Sex, doomed to a life of loneliness in murky bars, trapped in the Twilight World Between the Sexes ... Far from replacing the moralizing judgments of the religious and legal approach to homosexuality, the medical model merged with them, like the joining of an egg and a sperm.

What it would mean if it were proved that we are born gay is simply that we are not morally or legally responsible for our condition.  But no one would claim seriously that inborn conditions are necessarily positive: the same science that produced the born-gay theories also "discovered" genetic causes for schizophrenia, alcoholism, and other disorders.  ("Discovered" is in quotes because those discoveries are as dubious as that homosexuality is inborn.)  When a child is born with a disabling, congenital condition, no one but perhaps a member of Donald Trump's administration would argue that it should be left untreated.  And, of course, being born dark-skinned or female has never shielded African-Americans or women from discrimination or oppression.  Facts, let alone theories or speculation about causation do not establish anything about the moral status of the condition involved.  Yet it appears that many people do feel that as long as they can't help themselves, they are not only exempt from blame but from any criticism at all -- hence the bluster of masculists like David Page: not only is the refusal to ask directions, or to put their clothes in a hamper rather than on the floor, in their genes, it is a sign of male nobility.

It's easy enough to see why people who know nothing about science would fasten onto media reports that sex/gender cliches are "natural" and therefore unchangeable, and wouldn't blink at the ascription of those cliched traits to chromosomes and genes.  Personifying the inanimate and impersonal is a widespread (perhaps inborn and natural, who knows?) human tendency, so it's not surprising that scientists succumb to it too.  But I still don't understand the emotional appeal of seeing men and women as natural (at the genetic level) opponents, even enemies.  (Richardson also discusses the claim by some geneticists that men and women are more different genetically than Homo Sapiens and chimpanzees.  In addition to the flaws she finds in this claim, it seems to overlook the fact that men also have an X, or Lady, Chromosome, so we have the genetic difference right in our genes.  The Enemy Within, I guess.)  The War Between the Sexes, contrary to some propaganda, is not an invention of radical man-hating feminists, but a cherished fantasy of gender traditionalists; and as with American Exceptionalism, Male Exceptionalism demands that the Other always lose.

Given that genetic manipulation is the Holy Grail of the genetic research establishment, the biology-is-destiny fatalism of people like Page is rather curious.  Surely Science will someday make it possible for men to ask directions, wash dishes, and get their own beers from the refrigerator, thus freeing them from dependence on the women they want to view as an alien and malignant species?  Instead it appears they want to remain as they are.  That's up to them, but Natural Selection never sleeps.

Friday, March 17, 2017

He's Been a Soldier for a Thousand Years


 
A good (if unfortunately routine) post by Daniel Larison today:
One of the more striking things about the paltry foreign policy debate in the 2016 campaign is that the war in Afghanistan was never mentioned in any of the presidential debates, and scarcely came up at any other time. As I recall, neither candidate said anything substantive about the longest foreign war in our history, and neither of them was ever asked to say anything. That was consistent with the overall neglect of our ongoing involvement in multiple foreign wars. The problem here isn’t just that both major party candidates would have taken conventionally hawkish positions in favor of continuing the war indefinitely, but that they didn’t think they had to take a public position because unending war is now simply our default mode of operation. Our political leaders and our media don’t just consider perpetual war to be tolerable, but for the most part seem to find it so unimportant as to not be worth their time. This is irresponsible neglect on their part, but almost no one notices their negligence because the immediate costs of the war are borne by a small number of Americans.
That last sentence I quoted may surprise a lot of people, and offend some. But it seems to me that those people who do bear the immediate costs of the war by serving in the military, are not interested in questioning it, even when the war is being waged by a president and a Congress they profess to hate. It's an article of faith that all our wars are defensive, that our military is fighting to defend our freedoms, and so on.  To deny that any given war should not be fought will be denounced angrily as lack of Support for Our Troops.  Those who have given their bodies and are ready to give their children's bodies as weapons to the war are just as dedicated to waging war forever as DC elites.

That's an oversimplification, of course, because many veterans do oppose American wars.  When I point this out to my militarist friends, they ignore it.  I haven't yet been able to get them to say something about the range of views among veterans, no doubt because it complicates their certainty that they, and only they, are Americans and speak for America.  Like many on the left, I've been accused of living in a bubble and not talking to those with different views.  That's not true for me, and not for many others.  The trouble is that those we talk to refuse to listen to different views; when they demand that their views be listened to, they mean that they will talk and others must listen.  No other views exist for them.  If you want to talk about people who live in bubbles or echo chambers, you're talking about the grassroots Right, Donald Trump's base.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Grassroots, Downhome Jesus People

I've seen versions of these meme before, and when I see it I usually point out that "entitlement" doesn't mean "some kind of charity or handout."  It's true, I suppose, that some government and corporate elites have turned the word "entitlement" into a cussword; but then they also consider any form of government assistance, for anyone except the rich and big corporations, to be an intolerable drag on taxpayers' money that could better be spent subsidizing Wall Street.  The people I know who post memes like this generally regard everyone who receives government assistance (except themselves and their families and friends, of course) as lazy parasitic free-riders, so I don't take their political acuity for granted anyway.  So, it's the same old same-old, the "Get Your Government Hands Off My Medicare" syndrome.  Probably these people are ineducable, but they should at least be confronted and challenged when they lie.

But this time something else occurred to me.  What's wrong, exactly, with "some kind of charity or handout"?  There seems to be a general social consensus that charity and handouts are Very, Very Bad Things, and that people who accept charity or handouts should be ashamed of themselves; so, they often are.  Of course, people who believe this will pay lip service to help for those in genuine need.  The former Welfare Prince (son of a Welfare Queen) Ben Carson told The View, for example:
I have no desire to get rid of safety nets for people who need them. I have a strong desire to get rid of programs that create dependency in able-bodied people.
Snopes.com, in a convoluted post, tried to defend Carson against charges of dishonesty and hypocrisy by pointing to this quotation among others.  But it's a meaningless evasion, typical of the Right.  Judging from their attitudes, I suppose they wouldn't mind providing that safety net as long as those to whom it's provided are relentlessly and heartlessly reminded of their shame for not being able to care for themselves.  It's this attitude that has put the stench into the word "charity," especially when it's preceded by "Christian."

The thing is, the people who post the above meme and others with the same agenda are mostly obnoxiously devout Christians, studding their Facebook pages with declarations of their faith in God and the certainty that he is looking out for them.  (Which are often the less creepy of their religious declarations.)  Yet Jesus himself did works of charity, provided food and healthcare handouts without (mostly) asking anything in return.  The daily bread mentioned in Jesus' prayer is provided by God, not by human effort.  The earliest Christian groups did a lot of charity work, supporting widows and orphans and the poor; ostensibly they didn't limit this support only to their fellow Christians.  This is all in the New Testament, including the gospels. There is no indication I remember that those who received such handouts were supposed to be ashamed of doing so.

Yet right-wing Christians tend to be extremely hostile to works of charity that benefit other people, people they judge unworthy of receiving help.  (Especially children.  Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?)  Given their hostility to some fundamental Christian values, it's not surprising that people like those behind this meme regard "charity" and "handout" as cusswords.  Nor are their hypocrisy and inhumanity any surprise.  This is just one more point on which to challenge them.