Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Trouble with Normal

We all have certain words or phrases that rub us the wrong way.  High on my list is "I. Can't."  Or better yet, "I. Can't. Even."  I first noticed these in the Facebook posts of some post-structuralist multiculti feminist academics on Facebook, used as commentary on egregious right-wing misbehavior, and since then they've turned up among some male leftists as well.  With the best will in the world I can't see them as anything but liberal whining, a First World Problem fueled by privilege.  Can you imagine someone in, say, Yemen responding to the latest horrific Saudi/US bombing with the Arabic version of those words?  Or an Afghan feminist writing it in Pashtun about a Northern Alliance attack on a teenaged girl for going to school?

But that's by the way.  The Word for this week in liberal-Democrat social media appears to be "normalize."  Okay, I know that it was used during the campaign, but it looks like it's taking off as a way of trying to put limits on political discussion.  If you point out continuities between Trump and Obama, Clinton, or the Bushes, you're "normalizing" Trump.

Look, it's really too late to worry about that.  I still feel like throwing up a bit in the back of my mouth when I remember that Donald Trump is now the President of the United States.  Even if his regime goes down in flames, even if he's impeached and removed from office (Hello, President Mike Pence! -- a thought which also makes me want to throw up) Trump will still be in the public record and in history books as an American President.  But I remember feeling the same way when George W. Bush became President, and Ronald Reagan before him.

And I'm annoyed when our gatekeeper media are unable to find "Trump voters interviewed" who were unhappy with the man.  As Jim Naureckas tweeted, "46% voted for Trump. He's got 36% approval. If you don't find unhappy Trump voters, you're not looking hard enough."  Or again, when the same media "express amazement that Republicans in Congress seem to accept Trump’s ideas—most of which are longstanding GOP policies."  Something about writing "President Trump" evidently shuts down many journalists' and editors' critical faculties.  He's POTUS, you have to respect him! You can't just go out and start screaming in the streets like a dirty hippie.

Pointing out that much of what Trump is doing constitutes continuity with Obama, Bush, Bill Clinton and Reagan brings on accusations of trying to "normalize" him, and I'm not sure why.  Of course it wouldn't do to recognize how many awful policies Obama, especially, could get away with without a peep of protest from most liberal Democrats, and often with celebration of his greatness.  Even when Obama took those policies, such as endless war, the surveillance state, and erosion of civil liberties, from Bush, loyalists didn't just ignore the continuity, they denied it.  So it follows that Trump's continuity with his predecessors must also be ignored and denied. It's in the interest of both his allies and his enemies to ignore it.

I was thirty years old when Ronald Reagan became president, so I remember that period very well, and I see the similarities: in the way the Religious Right celebrated Reagan's advent as their Vindication; in Reagan's cabinet of crony capitalists and reactionary crazies; in his chest-thumping, bellicose foreign policy; in his record of hostility to social programs and Civil Rights legislation.  (Clarence Thomas, one example of a Reagan legacy that keeps on giving, was appointed to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission deliberately to undermine and bring it down.  But there's also a resemblance in their shared media backgrounds -- Reagan's in Hollywood and TV, Trump's on TV -- their fondness for recreational lying, and gleefully provocative (but ostensibly playful) bigotry.

Jon Schwarz pointed this out at The Intercept, recounting some of Reagan's greatest hits.  He recommended "the truly essential 1989 book The Clothes Have No Emperor by comedy writer Paul Slansky," which is available online at a really ugly web page, but it starts in 1980; I prefer to point to Mark Green and Gail McColl's There He Goes Again: Ronald Reagan's Reign of Error (Pantheon, 1983), which provides numerous examples of Reagan's all-American bullshit from the 1960s.  That's important, because when Schwarz tweeted the article this weekend, the reactions were revealing.  "Normalizing Trump" was the least of it.

For example:
The claim that Reagan was senile, or suffered from Alzheimer's, recurs in the replies to Schwarz's tweet.  I'm not sure why it's less "dangerous" for someone with senile dementia to have access to the nuclear codes than for a supposed narcissist.  I say "supposed," because despite a great deal of remote armchair diagnosis, it's not clear to me that anyone has actually proven that Trump is a narcissist by the American Psychiatric Association's criteria.  Notice FUD Buster's claim that "Trump has a certified mental disorder"; what Buster presumably means is that narcissism has been "certified" by virtue of being listed in the APA's DSM-IV manual.  It doesn't mean that Trump himself has been "certified" as clinically narcissistic.  As a homosexual who was "certified" mentally ill by the APA until 1973, I tend to take such diagnoses with a grain of salt.

It also seems unimportant to me, because any person who runs for high office, especially for the American Presidency, should be suspect from the get-go as narcissistic.  The DSM-IV criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder seem to me to fit both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, yet Democratic loyalists never connected those dots.  Consider, for example, "(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations" -- doesn't that describe Clinton's conviction, shared and enabled by her fans, that she was entitled to be the Democratic candidate, and ultimately the President?  Or "(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others"; that is recognizably Obama joking about killing the Jonas Brothers with predator drones (to say nothing of those in the audience who laughed at his wit), or defending the mistreatment of Chelsea Manning (via).  The rest can be left as an exercise for the reader.

Reagan was a professional liar and fantasist long before dementia got him, which is why I point to There He Goes Again, with its examples of Reagan in his prime.  But he was also canny.  Gore Vidal wrote in 1983 that when he said "how odd it was that a klutz like Reagan should ever have been elected president," a California journalist who'd covered Reagan as governor told him:
He's not stupid at all.  He's ignorant, which is another thing.  He's also lazy, so what he doesn't know by now, which is a lot, he'll never know.  That's the way he is.  But he's a perfect politician.  He knows exactly how to make the thing work for him.

... You see, he's not interested in politics as such.  He's only interested in himself.  Consider this. Here is a fairly handsome ordinary young man with a pleasant speaking voice who first gets to be what he wansts to be and everyone else then wanted to be, a radio announcer [equivalent to an anchorperson nowadays (G.V.)].  Then he gets to be a movie star in the Golden Age of the movies.  Then he gets credit for being in the Second World War while never leaving L.A.  Then he gets in at the start of television as an actor and host.  Then he picks up a bunch of rich friends who underwrite him politically and personally and get him elected governor twice of the biggest state in the union and then they get him elected president, and if he survives he'll be relected.  The point is that here is the only man I've ever heard of who got everything that he ever wanted.  That's no accident.*
The correspondence between Reagan and Trump isn't perfect, of course -- Trump, unlike Reagan, was born into money -- but there are enough similarities to be worth noticing.  (Such as that "narcissistic" trait that I put in bold.)  I wince when I see people denouncing Trump as "stupid," and "idiot," "crazy," not because it's rude but because they're underestimating him.  (And overestimating themselves.) That his enemies underestimated Trump is why he won the nomination and the election.  We cannot afford to do that anymore.

The writer Mark Hertsgaard showed in his 1988 book On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) that Reagan and his team began courting the media as soon as he was elected, and Reagan enjoyed an unusually positive relationship with the press despite his blatant dishonesty and even inaccessibility.  If Trump had shown similar cordiality to the media, he'd be having an easier time of it now, but I wouldn't assume, given most Americans' hostility to the press, that being criticized by the liberal media will really hurt him with his base.

I'm noticing more and more liberals calling Trump "mentally ill" as an epithet, very much the way right-wingers used to hiss "Barack Hussein Obama."  To treat mental illness as a moral evil is itself a moral evil (though not a mental illness).  If Trump really were mentally ill, which I doubt, liberals should treat him with compassion rather than condemnation.  Why not simply condemn him morally? The English language has a fairly abundant vocabulary for moral judgment, so why do liberals find it necessary to throw in accusations of mental illness, of overweight, of the size of his hands and penis.  At least I haven't noticed them calling him retarded.  I can only suppose they haven't thought of it yet.

The irony in the fuss about normalizing Trump and trying to defend Ronald Reagan is that Reagan inspired the same apocalyptic warnings when he became president.  Liberals quickly adjusted, of course, and indeed hid behind Reagan to justify their own sexism, antigay bigotry, racism, and classism.  It wasn't that the country "swung to the right," as many pundits claimed; it was government and media elites who did so.  The Democratic Leadership Council, which gave us Reagan Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton, was intended to normalize Reagan's policies and assimilate them to the Democratic Party.  Barack Obama followed suit, claiming that Reagan would have been too liberal to win the nomination now, and praising what he thought Reagan stood for.  We can expect the Democrat leadership to do the same for Trump.  It won't be the left who will "normalize" him, it'll be the sensible middle.

The furious, concentrated response to Trump's executive order restricting entry to people from seven majority-Musim countries is an encouraging sign.  But we have a long haul ahead of us.

* Gore Vidal, "Ronnie and Nancy: A Life in Pictures," originally published in the New York Review of Books; as reprinted in United States: Essays 1952-1992.(Random House, 1993), pp. 986-7.  Boldface added.  On those rich friends who helped Reagan's political career, see Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal (Norton, 2009).

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Those Who Think They Remember History

A friend posted this to Facebook today:

Oh myyyy, as George Takei would say (but probably wouldn't, since he likely agrees with it).  Like I haven't heard liberal Democrats saying basically the same things about the media whenever they didn't like what the media were reporting.  If Hitler did denounce "the lying media," it wasn't because he was a Nazi, it was because he was a politician.  Like I haven't heard liberal Democrats demanding laws which would allow (require) the government to rule on whether the news being reported was "true," and to punish unruly media for "lying." (Meaning, again, saying things that the liberal Democrats didn't want to hear. As often as not, those things were true, like the revelations about Hillary Clinton during the campaign. But the truth hurts. And "lie" doesn't mean "what I don't want to hear.")

And like the media haven't discredited themselves by collaborating with the government, acting as stenographers for the powerful, passing on Bush's and Obama's (and their predecessors') lies.  I have to admit, though, the widespread unpopularity of the media in the US has little or nothing to do with the media's dishonesty or corruption; I'm not sure exactly why the media are unpopular -- which doesn't keep people from tuning in to them, either. But it hasn't got anything to do with their "corruption." Most Americans, like most human beings, are perfectly comfortable with corruption, at least the corruption of their own factions and buddies, and from what I see, most Americans wouldn't know whether what they saw in the news was true or not.

The same friend also shared this meme today:

My first reaction was that this was an accurate description of mainstream American politics over the past century and more.  It describes conditions under the Obama regime no less than under his predecessors or successor.  Outside our borders, American politicians and corporate leaders have liked, praised, supported, and protected right-wing dictatorships, including those with fascist or even Nazi leanings.  The US war with Nazism was an anomaly; at that, it wasn't until Hitler actually attacked the US that our elites were willing to fight him.  After World War II was over, the US supported Nazi, Fascist, and Japanese collaborators, using them to crush the socialists, Communists and Jews who'd led and fought in the resistance.  (Which is one reason why seeing the word "resistance" used by liberals to refer to their opposition to Trump sets my teeth on edge.)

Then I realized why the meme seemed oddly familiar to me: It was very much like, and perhaps even based on the "Communist Rules for Revolution" things that the fascist American right circulated when I was growing up.  We didn't have memes and Facebook in those days, but we did have mimeographs and photocopiers, and the propaganda mills of the Right took advantage of the available technology.  I'm often amazed, in fact, when I remember that the available media included the mainstream corporate media, but corporate bigwigs have always been happy to subsidize right-wing wackery.

Here's one version of the Communist Rules, allegedly codified by the Reds and discovered by Our Boys in Uniform in Germany in 1919:
1. Corrupt the young, get them away from religion. Get them interested in sex. Make them superficial. Destroy their ruggedness.

2. Get control of all means of publicity.

3. Get people's minds off their government by focusing their attention on athletics, sexy books and other trivialities.

4. Divide the people into hostile groups by constantly harping on controversial matters of no importance.

5. Destroy the people's faith in their natural leaders by holding the latter up to contempt, ridicule and obloquy.

6. Always preach true democracy, but seize power as fast and as ruthlessly as possible.

7. By encouraging government extravagance, destroy its credit and produce fear of inflation with rising prices and general discontent.

8. Foment unnecessary strikes in vital industries, encourage civil disorders, and foster a lenient and soft attitude on the part of government toward such disorders.

9. By specious argument cause the breakdown of the old moral virtues, honesty, sobriety, continence, faith in the pledged word, ruggedness.

10. Cause the registration of all firearms on some pretext, with a view to confiscating them and leaving the populace helpless. 
Like whoever composed the Early Warning Signs of Fascism, whoever wrote this simply made a list of current trends they disliked, and attributed them to the official enemy they wished to attack.  It could be seen as a subset of apocalyptic literature, in which someone attributes an account of recent history to a prophet who lived centuries before.  Here's another recent example, with the element of projection brought to the forefront:
Let’s say somebody were [in the White House] and they wanted to destroy this nation. I would create division among the people, encourage a culture of ridicule for basic morality and the principles that made and sustained the country, undermine the financial stability of the nation, and weaken and destroy the military. It appears coincidentally that those are the very things that are happening right now.
In any case, the resemblance between the incipient Trump regime and the supposed characteristics of fascism is due to fascist and proto-fascist sympathies and trends in America that have always been with us.  Those sympathies and trends have also always been opposed and fought, but that opposition has mostly been against the American mainstream, as exemplified by its leaders, business elites, and official media.  Donald Trump is frightening because he wants to extend and confirm those trends, but in so many respects -- his hostility to media, his love of big business, his disregard for civil liberties and civil rights, his embrace of state violence, and so on -- he represents continuity with his recent predecessors, including Barack Obama, and his defeated opponent Hillary Clinton.

One doubt nags at me, though: Do people really need to know accurate history in order to oppose and work against Trump?  I suspect not.  Sometimes I think that lies motivate and mobilize people more effectively than truth.  Could people oppose Trump effectively if they admitted the ways in which he simply continues many of Obama's policies, as Obama continued so much of the legacy of George W. Bush?  I don't know.  Maybe it makes no difference, but I think it could make a difference in what the Resistance would do if they defeated him: a kinder, gentler, less uncouth Trumpism, most likely -- but that means Obama and Clinton.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

#She'sNotWithYou

A quick* postscript to the last post, inspired by some reactions I received to it.

I may have come across as more dismissive of the Women's Marches than I am.  To repeat: the global turnout was no mean accomplishment, and such demonstrations give the participants an exhilarating feeling of connection and community.  It's important for people to have that feeling, especially if they don't have everyday access to it, if they don't know many like-minded people where they live.  Despite the popularity of social media, most people know the difference between reading Twitter or Facebook and being with a huge crowd of human bodies that share politics and aims.  Certainly my Facebook feed has been crowded with participants exulting about how good it made them feel.  Which is fine.

My reservations concerned where the participants will go from here; nor was I alone in my concern.  (Gosh, I feel empowered!)   I compared the marches to evangelical revivals, which have the same problem: it's one thing to gather a crowd and get them Full of the Spirit through preaching and singing and dancing in a crowd, and quite another to build organizations that last beyond that initial rush of feeling.  Billy Graham's Crusades, I've read, came under criticism from fellow fundamentalists for just that reason: he would come to town, get people excited, and move on to his next stop without helping build churches, which is a lot less exciting.  Substitute "organizations" for "churches" in that sentence, and you can see what I mean, I hope.  I've written about this before, citing Sarah Sobieraj's book Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism (NYU Press, 2011).  Movement-building for the long haul is a lot less glamorous than organizing even a huge international rally, but the rally is useless if it doesn't foster and support movement-building.

P.S. I see that I must still not have made myself clear, because I received a very civil and helpful e-mail from a reader who informed me that "If a million people can march, then a million letters can certainly arrive at the WH" and supplied me with a list of online ways to "stay involved," so I would know that "people ARE willing to stay active after January 20."  I don't doubt that a million letters can arrive at the White House; my question was whether they would arrive, and my correspondent didn't address that matter.  Nor do I doubt that people are "willing to stay active after January 20"; I was asking whether willingness would translate into action.  That remains to be seen, along with the effectiveness of online activism generally.
 
People are making much of the huge numbers of people who turned out for the Women's Marches, and to repeat in hopes I'll be clear, they're not wrong to do so: those marches were a considerable achievement.  But what comes next?  The Internet reminded some of us yesterday about huge marches that have been forgotten by the fickle collective memory, such as the Million Women's March of 1997, which drew 750,000 women to Philadelphia -- or maybe not 750,000.  The numbers, like all numbers for such events, are contested.  But there's no doubt that it was big.  Yet it's nearly forgotten now, no doubt because it was a march by women, and by black women at that.

I'm also concerned about what you might call the content of the marches, and I'm not alone in that either.  Yves Smith wrote at Naked Capitalism yesterday:
... the protests against Trump and the Republicans look unlikely to succeed since it’s the same coalition, people from upper middle income groups and/or people living in blue cities, that already managed to lose a winnable election to traditional Republicans and the Trump base. And this loss came despite the presidential campaign sucking resources and dollars out of down-ticket races, with the results that the Democrats continued to bleed losses at all levels of government. 

Worse, much of the messaging is all about stirring up hatred, too often on dubious claims, with Russia scaremongering one of the biggest, while underplaying serious, legitimate causes for concern, like the rise of oligarchy and the threat to gut regulations on a widespread basis.
That many marchers and their supporters may have used the word "love" of their motives and attitudes means nothing; religious bigots of the Right do the same.  As a big hater myself, I think hate is just fine.  What isn't fine is pretending that your hate is love.  Self-deception is not, it seems to me, a good driver for a movement; but what do I know?  Like Freddie DeBoer, I think that what matters is not "hate" or "love," but what you intend to do with your hate and love.

Then, this morning, I saw this fine article by Lizzy O'Shea for Salvage:
As impressive as the protests were, many of the slogans on display were less than promising. Predictably, there was a bulk of #ImWithHer sentiment, referencing Clinton’s victory in the popular vote. It is a fair point, but in the context of a mass mobilisation, it seems rather limited to direct energy towards a woman who was at the inauguration festivities and conspicuously absent from the protests. The limitations of her centrist, establishment politics surely had something to do with bringing us to this threatening nadir. There was a strong current of alt-centre-style hostility to, and scapegoating of, Russia. This trope, offered as a ready-made anti-Trump meme by an increasingly frantic media, has cast a long shadow over our collective capacity to come to terms with Trump’s political appeal.

But the anti-Russian animus also indicated a deeper problem. Shepard Fairey’s majestic portraits of women, commissioned for the march’s placards, notably included a woman in a hijab that was also an American flag. The ACLU’s placards proclaimed ‘Dissent is Patriotic.’ Signs demanded that ‘Make America Smart Again’ or ‘Make America Tolerant Again’ or ‘Make America Kind Again’ – which, like a similar Daily Show skit, begs the question: when exactly was America any of these things?

Liberal patriotism is a bad strategy for building a resistance movement.
You may be #WithHer, but she's not with you: she was with her buddies at the Inauguration.  Though I did rather like this sign, which played on the Clinton slogan in an intelligent way.

I think my reservations are supported by various Democratic Congressional leaders' collaboration with Trump in the past few days.  Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown voted to confirm Ben Carson -- Ben Carson! -- as HUD secretary.  All but four senators voted to confirm Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the UN, and Warren was not among the four who voted against her.  As I've said before, Democrats are the collaboration party, not the opposition party.  As Jake Bacharach said this morning:

*Well, maybe not so quick.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Zombie Liberalism



Last night I watched the 2016 Korean film Train To Busan, newly out on video.  I'm not a fan of horror movies, let alone zombie movies, but I've seen my share of each type, and this one made an impression on me.  Though it wasn't intended to be, it worked as an allegory of Trump's America.  (But don't worry, it's primarily a fast-moving action film; I'm just imposing my post-modernist, deconstructionist mindset on it.)

So someone I know liked a post on Facebook, and it showed up in my feed.  The writer is a woman of color; her post in full:
I'm so sick of de no slut shaming Melania shit Michelle Obama had to have degrees many of them let's face it if she were a model or an escort or a hooker or sex worker or gold digger or whatever it would never have happened nada nothing no Obama Black Presidency-zilcho. Anyway I saw Hidden Figures tonight and I'm feeling empowered ????
Bigots are always "so sick of" being told not to bigot.  If you have any exposure to right-wing opinions, you've seen the same complaint from them many times.  If this is an example of the "empowerment" that comes from seeing Hidden Figures, then Cthulhu help us.  (I haven't yet seen Hidden Figures, but I read the book, and it's excellent.)  And it's far from the only example I've seen in the past week from liberals justifying behavior they attacked, rightly, when Republicans indulged in it.  But now they invoke Republicans as role models, and they're imitating them very well.  I can hardly tell the difference; only the names of the guilty have been changed.

Someone else responded to my criticism on this point:
You can criticize my guy all day because regardless of your opinion about how the country is run, the results can be quantified. The same can't be said about asking when an 11 year old is going to get her first abortion. If that make me a hypocrite, well, Hi, Hypocrite, party of 1.
That was exactly what I'd said.  You can, and should, criticize and attack Trump on his policies and behavior -- it's not as if he hasn't given potential critics plenty of fodder for criticism -- without slut-shaming, fat-shaming, being racist, being misogynist, etc.  It's not really that difficult.  Plenty of people have done so, from ordinary citizens to published writers.  That many liberals and self-styled progressives prefer to fall back on these old reliables says a lot about how deep their principles go.

Now, I don't know this latter person, so she may be an exception, but in general I have not found that liberals are okay with criticism of their guy on his policies -- very much the opposite.  This may be partly because they're as ignorant of their guy's policies as any Tea Party Republican.  The best that can be said is that they are really comfortable with abusive personal attacks on their guy and his family, because they know how to react to those: Oh, how can you say such awful things? You're a terrible person, etc., followed by abusive personal attacks in kind.  Like their right-wing opponents, they're on comfortable ground here because it requires no knowledge, no ability to construct an argument, just ragegasms.  Confronted with principled criticism of their guy from the left, they are helpless, assume the critic is a Republican, and fall back on what they know best, namely personal attacks.  As I said of the right after Obama's election, personal attacks are the best they have to offer.

Ironically, this stuff is proliferating just a few days after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  Many of the same people who piously celebrated King's legacy are now pissing on it. (Well, they have a good role model for that in President Obama, after all.)  It's perfectly legitimate to reject King's legacy, of course, to repudiate his methods and style; but paying lip service to him while behaving in exactly opposite ways is not.  (I can imagine people replying that King lived in a different era, and faced different obstacles and dangers.  That's true: the America he lived in was even more dangerous for people of color than the one we live in now.  Yet King took the high road, instead of wallowing in pigshit with the White Citizens' Councils.)

The word "unprecedented" turns up a lot in liberal discourse about Trump.  I'm not so sure of that myself, but what I want to point out is that the same word was common coin in Bush and Obama's War on Terror: We face an unprecedented enemy, so we cannot be bound by outdated scruples and limits on our conduct of this war.  This trope was used to justify torture and other crimes against humanity, though of course the US was never really constrained by those supposed scruples and limits before anyway.  It seems to me that invoking "unprecedented" with regard to Trump has a similar function: to excuse and justify unethical, irrational, dishonest speech and behavior by his liberal opponents.  I would have thought, when I was younger and more naive, that if you face an unprecedented threat, the proper and natural response would be to think carefully and rationally rather than to panic and resort to abusive, destructive methods from the past.  Now I know better.

I was impressed by the international women's marches that took place around the world this weekend, but I wonder what will come of them.  So does Ian Welsh, who wrote today:
Trump doesn’t need to be popular with everyone. It doesn’t matter that the women’s march produced more people than his inauguration, despite his squealing about it: it is irrelevant because those people couldn’t produce enough people in the right states to with the election AND, as with previous great protests, nothing appears to have been built on top of the protests. It’s nice they all showed up, but they aren’t being asked (and organized) to do things that matter in the future, for all the talk of “the resistance”. If you wanted power, you’d want to be able to get one-fifth that crowd to show up when needed to oppose specific bills and actions by Congress, for example.
Mass demonstrations are useful for producing a feeling of community, that one is not alone, and they can be used to build organization.  But they're also old-fashioned, reflexive responses -- basically, they are religious revivals -- and if Trump is an unprecedented threat, shouldn't people be coming up with unprecedented tactics and strategies to fight him?  I've become skeptical of the actual usefulness of such demonstrations since I saw how ineffective the South Korean candlelight vigils were in stopping the corrupt neoliberal regime of then-President Lee Myung-bak several years ago.  And that was in a society with plenty of organizations at all levels, where the mass protests really represented groups that could worked after the protests were over.  Vigils on the same breathtaking scale have taken place to call for the removal of current President Park Geun-hye, whose corruption and lawbreaking have been even more egregious than Lee's.  It remains to be seen if the prosecutors will be able to follow through.

For example, how's the abolition of the Electoral College coming along?  A few weeks ago liberal Democrats were up in arms about it, but I haven't heard much lately.  The last I saw on Facebook was a political cartoon of the Founders deciding to set up the EC in order to prevent a "fucking moron" from becoming President; the person who shared it thought it was very clever, though they apparently overlooked the small detail that by their standards, the Electoral College had just put a "fucking moron" in the White House.  I don't blame people for having short attention spans, or for lacking the stamina for hard, day-to-day political work; that's me to a T.  But the posturing and strutting, the waving around of words like "Revolution" and "Resistance" by people who think that wearing pink "pussy hats" for a day in Washington DC is a revolutionary act, doesn't make me feel hopeful.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Respect Deficit

Lucky him.  I haven't had a President I respected since JFK, and that was mainly because I was too young to know how bad he was.  Maybe I respected LBJ at first, for his Great Society programs and the Civil Rights Bill, but his foreign policy eventually outweighed those accomplishments.  I have some respect for Jimmy Carter, but only since he left office, so it doesn't count.

This doesn't mean I'm looking forward to the Trump regime, of course.  (Which I only mention because there are many people who assume that if you don't love Obama, you love Trump.  The Stupid has been very strong in the media, both corporate and social, these last few months.)  Trump will become President with a major respect deficit; he'll probably have to import it from China or something.

And really, shouldn't the person who posted the above lament respect Trump anyway once he becomes POTUS?  Aren't we supposed to respect the President?  Partisans always confuse respect for the office with respect for the person who occupies it.  Obama devotees were furious that Republicans drew the distinction, though the Republicans were just as incapable of doing so when a Republican was in the White House.  Some Democrats were even ready to defend George W. Bush against disrespect from Hugo Chavez, though; touching.  I was listening to Democracy Now! this morning, and some remarks by one interviewee reminded me that Dem loyalists were not only ready to overlook Benjamin Netanyahu's ongoing and explicit disrespect for Obama, they supported and agreed with it.  But it's pretty clear that we need to learn to distinguish respect for the office from respect for the office-holder, and that's not going to be easy for most people.

One symptomatic example of this confusion has been the #NotMyPresident bandwagon that some Americans are jumping onto.  This is a two-year-old's response: You're Not the Boss of Me!  More amusing in a twisted way, it's exactly what numerous Republicans said from November 2008.  Like it or not, and I don't like it either, Donald Trump is going to be the President of the United States starting tomorrow.  That makes him my president, your president, Garrison Keillor's president.  It's worth remembering Keillor went easier on George W. Bush, who was as weak as Trump in the things that matter to Keillor.  But Keillor still defended Bush's sweetheart-deal reading program for kids that mainly put federal money into the coffers of McGraw-Hill, without improving children's reading ability.

I am very happy that Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, though some Democrats were not, and even one of his subordinates went on the public record to disagree with the decision.  Does approving of certain isolated policies and actions of a president constitute respect?  I don't think so.  I've inveighed often against the cult of personality in politics, because it's anti-democratic and destructive, but it will probably always be with us.

P.S. Jon Schwarz linked to this article by William Greider from the Nation, trying to reassure us.  I think. 
The fright and gloom are understandable, but I have a hunch Donald Trump has already peaked. He won’t go away, of course—he will be Mr. President—but the air is already seeping out of Trump’s balloon. The president-elect has amassed a huge inventory of dubious promises, and I expect this powerhouse of American politics to get smaller and less influential as the broken promises pile up.
Pundits all across the political spectrum have been assuring us for the past year and a half that the Trump phenomenon was already over, that he couldn't possibly win the nomination or the election.  And here we are.  Far from reassured, I'm more worried than ever.  Could you guys please just ... stop?



Sunday, January 15, 2017

I'll Be Your Mirror

I just finished reading an interesting little book by the essayist Kristin Dombek, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).  Dombek explores the current fascination with narcissism, which we're told is spreading through American society and thence to the world like a radioactive virus.  (And of course, it's going to take over the White House in less than a week: "narcissist" is a Homeric epithet for Donald Trump in the alarmist discourse about him.  Which doesn't mean he's not an awful person, only that narcissism is the least of the things wrong with him, especially since narcissism is virtually a prerequisite for seeking the presidency.)

There's a lot of quotable and useful information in The Selfishness of Others.  Probably the overarching theme is awareness that what people evidently fear and denounce is other people's narcissism, not one's own.  Dombek begins by discussing The Bad Boyfriend/Girlfriend, the Demon Lover who takes our devotion and then tosses it aside, who is analyzed, identified, and excoriated in innumerable books, TV, and websites.  I wondered as I read if Dombek would draw the conclusion that I thought begged to be drawn from the phenomenon, and to my relief and satisfaction, she did:
Maybe we do so [i.e., "exaggerate the ease with which we can get accurate, non-pseudo, empathy in ordinary cases"] especially when we believe (because all our conventional narratives of romance and friendship and mental health and intimacy tell us so) that someone should be for us the most familiar person in the world.  The irony is that the kind of empathy that many women who believe themselves to be hooked up with narcissists describe themselves as having (calling themselves in contrast to their narcissist an "empath," a "clairvoyant," a highly sensitive person) then gets in the way of their understanding the narc at all [106-7].
This is good, but I don't think Dombek goes quite far enough.  If someone is really an "empath" or "clairvoyant" [!], then why doesn't she recognize that a prospective lover is a narcissist before getting involved with him?  (This is one of those times when a genuine gender-neutral third-person pronoun would be handy; it is certainly not only heterosexual women who encounter Demon Lovers.)  Why doesn't her clairvoyance reveal that the prospective soulmate in fact has no soul, but is an empty shell pretending to be a person?  As Dombek indicates in her tongue-in-cheek proposed "entry for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" at the very end of the book, such people are themselves suspect of believing "that he or she is 'special' and uniquely unselfish and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other people with low-selfishness scores" (137).  It seems to me that such people are at least as likely as their "narcissists" to have a personhood deficit, which they think an ideal lover (or mother-substitute?) will make good.

I'm not casting the first stone here; I recognized myself, especially my younger self, in Dombek's discussion.  I was also reminded of the way that many people, including many gay men, demand that other people recognize their inner beauty but feel entitled to lovers with a surfeit of outer beauty.  I have some minor disagreements with Dombek, such as her embrace of the unproven and dubious claims for "mirror neurons," but on the whole The Selfishness of Others is an exemplary critique of a current pop-psychological fad, and fun to read besides.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

In His Steps

Just a brief thought that popped into my head recently.  Compare this:
"We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated," [Donald Trump] said.
With this:
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants..."
This is, I think, a fair comparison, because Jesus was at odds with the educated, respectable elements of his society: the priests, the scribes (which means literate men), Torah scholars.  His first followers were also "unlettered."  The apostle Paul, whom most liberal Christians hate while drawing on his doctrines, was unusual among early Christians in this respect. This pattern continued for a long time in early Christendom.  Yet the same liberals who tout Jesus as if he were one of them nowadays are utterly contemptuous of the kind of people Jesus appealed to.

It shouldn't be necessary to point it out, but unfortunately it probably is: to say this is not to endorse Trump.  If anything, the similarity counts against Jesus.  And the reactions of many educated liberals to Trump's victory have certainly shown the limitations of being well educated.

Monday, January 9, 2017

What That Word It Means To Me

Disrespect invites disrespect, violence invites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.
There's been a lot of predictable kvelling by liberals about Meryl Streep's denunciation of Donald Trump at the Golden Globes last night.  I haven't bothered to watch the video or read a full transcription, because frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.  Just as predictably, the Right has responded by telling Streep to shut up and act, though they're just fine with right-wing actors and other celebrities expressing their opinions.  As Glenn Greenwald tweeted today:
Of course, the content of actors' and other celebrities' opinions is open to criticism, just like cable TV or talk radio hosts, or corporate media pundits for that matter.  Someone posted a meme on Facebook quoting Streep's words that I quoted at the opening of this post, and I thought, Oh, really?  Where were you, Ms. Streep, when Barack Obama joked about killing the Jonas Brothers with predator drones?  When Obama and his toadies mocked gay people who protested in Washington about the antigay policies he clung to for most of his first term?  When they denounced his left-wing critics as "fucking retarded" and drug-addled losers?  When his goons were harassing and beating protesters at various public events?  When Obama was not just joking about killing people, but actually killing them, as he has been doing for his entire time in office?  Did it bother you when Obama bragged about being the first two-term war president?  Do you worry about the consequences of Obama's fondness for mass killing and high-tech violence, either directly or through proxies?

By all means, pick on Trump; he deserves it and will continue to deserve it.  But I'll reserve my respect for people who speak out against disrespect and violence committed by Democrats no less than Republicans.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Theory-Bombing

I've begun reading Transgender China, edited by Howard Chiang, published in 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan, but I'm not sure I'll finish it.  What I have read, however, crystallized conclusions I've been moving toward for some time now after reading academic queer theory and its relatives.

Editor Chiang begins the introduction to the book with a brisk summary of Euro-American scholarship on gender, beginning with "Magnus Hirschfeld's Die Transvestiten (1910)" (page 3), and proceeding to various twenty-first century landmarks.  "These newer studies," he opines, "demonstrate a remarkable measure of analytical sophistication and maturity, whether in terms of critical ethnography, synthetic history, clinically based psychoanalytic theory, materially grounded phenomenology, or social scientific empiricism" (4).

As I read those words, it occurred to me I would never use "analytical sophistication" to describe the works I've read among those he lists.  I've complained before about scholars who do good research in the field, whether ethnographic observation or oral history in the metropole, or in the archives, but do not understand the theoretical frameworks they invoke, so that their analysis never makes contact with, let alone accounts for, their data.  This makes reading their work extremely frustrating for me, as the authors keep intruding on fascinating accounts of their subjects' lives with undigested and often irrelevant theory.  It's an academic version of what's called "photo-bombing," where someone intentionally or accidentally ruins a photograph by walking into the field of view or making rabbit ears from behind the subject.  In theory-bombing, scholars randomly drop chunks of theory into their texts: a reference to Foucault's paragraph about the Modern Homosexual, say.  It ruins the picture but they can't resist.

In Chiang's case, one problem is the inflation of the term transgender.  He acknowledges that as
transgender studies came to be consolidated and widely recognized as an independent area of academic inquiry ... debates ensued among activists, popular authors, academics and other writers regarding what transgender means (and the more general question of who fits into what categories has deeper historical ramifications in gay activism, feminism, and the civil rights movement).  But with an expansive (even ambiguous), institutionalized, and collective notion of transgender, the actors shared a commitment to advancing the political and epistemological interest of gender variant people [5].
It would be interesting, if probably not fruitful, to borrow Foucault's approach to the medicalization of sexuality and apply it to Chiang's account.  What seems to be going on here is something very similar to the nineteenth-century turf wars between doctors, the church, and the (more or less) secular law over who would get to define, surveil, and police women, erotic outlaws, the mad, Jews, "natives," and other troublesome groups.  The proliferation of academic fields of study exhibits similar conflict over authority (including the authority to name) and, not least, budget appropriations.  That's why I say such analysis wouldn't be fruitful, in terms of publication, tenure, and promotion: as Rita Felski noted mischievously in The Limits of Critique (Chicago, 2015), the critical tools one applies to one's subject matter must never be turned on one's own institution, department, or self.

I've noticed that numerous scholars, including trans ones, have inflated "transgender" so that it applies to almost every human being.  In The Lives of Transgender People (Columbia, 2011), for example, Ginny Beemyn and Susan Rankin wrote:
To be inclusive of all gender-nonconforming people, we defined “transgender” broadly as “anyone who transgresses or blurs traditional gender categories” [22].
In Transgender China, Pai Kee Eleanor Cheung wrote:
However, as the influence of the transgender movement is becoming stronger in Hong Kong, more people have begun to use the term ‘transgender’ as ‘an umbrella term including many categories of people who are gender variant,’ ranging from cross-dressers to intersexed people to transsexuals [263].
The most obvious objection to this expansive use of "transgender" is that almost everybody "transgresses or blurs traditional gender categories" in some respect, so almost everybody could be classified as transgender by these criteria.  When I've had the opportunity to point this out, I've been told that "transgender" doesn't really mean that, and that it only refers to a specific, limited population.  Yet the scholars to whom many trans and trans-supportive people point for intellectual and academic legitimacy disagree.  I suspect that most of the trans advocates I encounter have not read any of the literature, or at best ignored the more inclusive definition these scholars posit; besides, having given their definition, these scholars then mostly ignore it, focusing on the kind of people the term was coined to denote in the first place.  Cheung, for instance, goes on to say, "I adopt this latter definition of transgender throughout this chapter, but the emphasis of my analysis will be on those who were about to, or had already undergone, SRS [sex-reassignment surgery] at the time of the interview" (ibid.).

Another problem is that "transgender" originally referred not to gender expression but to subjectivity:
What it means to be transgender is that your innate gender identity does not match the gender you were assigned at birth. This might be the case even if you are perfectly happy and content in the body you possess. You are transgender simply if you identify as one gender, but socially have been perceived as another.
Yet in "transgender studies," the term is applied to people who lived in the distant past, about whose subjectivity we know nothing.  Or scholars simply ignore the issue and refer to any behaviors or expressions that "that look 'transgendered' to contemporary Eurocentric observers," as trans historian Susan Stryker puts it in her contribution to Transgender China (292).  Cross-dressing for Carnival, for example, will be adduced as transgender behavior without any evidence about the celebrants' motives or subjectivities -- they must be transgender, I suppose, or they wouldn't do it.  This sort of thing can hardly be lauded for its "analytical sophistication."  It tells me something about the observers' subjectivity, but nothing about the subjectivity of the people they're writing about.

Chiang admits that there could be objections to slathering the very Western concept "transgender" over non-Western cultural phenomena and (to use the trendy word) bodies.  He quotes the trans scholar Susan Stryker, who suggested that "the conflation of many kinds of gender variance into the single shorthand term 'transgender,' particularly when this collapse into a single genre of personhood crosses the boundaries that divide the West from the rest of the world, holds both peril and promise" (7).  Myself, I'm not into these East-West binaries, and I think Stryker should have left out "promise."  What she said could as easily be said (and probably was) about the previous candidate for World Assimilation, "queer."  There too a potentially useful term was stretched and inflated by people who hadn't thought with any care about it, even though it was their profession to do so, and who violated the principles they invoked in its favor.  For example, it was supposedly an improvement over the supposedly culture-bound "gay" despite the dispersion of "gay" around the world among people who'd adopted it rather than had it imposed on them. "Queer" was imposed on cultures and periods where it wasn't used, and to describe people who would have rejected it as a label for themselves -- who indeed had local labels of their own for themselves. What's going on here, I think, is not analysis but the very Western practice of branding.

Chiang also quotes the scholar David Valentine: "The capacity to stand in for an unspecified group fo people is, indeed, one of the seductive things about 'transgender' in trying to describe a wide range of people, both historical and contemporary, Western and non-Western" (6).  "Seductive" is double-edged, and I wonder if Valentine was being as celebratory in context as Chiang wants him to seem.  But you could substitute "queer," or even "gay," for "transgender" in this sentence and get a vague feeling of nostalgia for the terminological nostrums of yesteryear.  I'd love to know how "transgender" is different from "gay" or "queer" in this respect, but that question doesn't seem to be on anyone's agenda.

Having paid lip service to these questions, Chiang breezily ignores them.  Later he writes of "trying to imagine China in a transgender frame," and I wonder how he can justify imposing a culturally imperialist Western category on the helpless people of the Middle Kingdom.  How does this differ from subjugating China as "the sick man of Asia," helpless before foreign cultural and political domination?  His own contribution to Transgender China is a long piece on Chinese eunuchs, who were seen by Western observers and Chinese advocates of modernity as symptoms of China as "a castrated civilization."  The piece does include a Chinese eunuch's account of his own castration as a child by his father, which doesn't seem to have been the result of the boy's gender identity; rather, it imposed one on him.

I can imagine that throwing around an unspecific term could conceivably be justified by the results of the discussion; but not only don't these discussions shed any light on their subjects, the initial caveats are simply forgotten once they've been uttered.  I have the impression that they are like crossing oneself or kissing one's scapular before beginning a fateful project, to ward off misfortune.

I've also discussed and praised scholars who avoid these pitfalls, who really make sense of their subjects; but these people are outliers in their fields.  I'm glad they exist, though, so that I know it's possible to do meaningful work without making the mistakes I'm criticizing here.  But Sturgeon's Law evidently applies to critical theory as much as it does to science fiction.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Found Poem from an Online Review of a Book on Poetry and Pottery

The book met most of my expectations
                                                                        except
for having a written inscription
                                                               on the first page
I was not informed about.

This was an oversight and
                                                I would not
                                                                      have ordered it
if I had known.

Monday, January 2, 2017

One Wants One's Gender-neutral Pronoun

There's been a fair amount of talk in the past several years about the need for gender-neutral pronouns in English, and as usual when people talk about gender, the talk has mostly been confused and unproductive.  I'm going to touch on some of the confusion today, without trying to be comprehensive.

English already has gender-neutral pronouns: "I," "we," "you," and "they."  It's only in the third person singular that a speaker has to keep track of gender.  Compared to speakers of many other languages, English speakers have it easy.  We don't have to make adjectives agree in gender or number with the nouns they modify, for example, let alone master a maze of honorifics for elders and juniors.  And gender mostly becomes a problem for our pronouns only when we're composing a sentence that doesn't refer to individuals but to people in the abstract, as in: "Everybody should be free to vote for the candidate of ... choice."

As Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois whose Web of Language blog is in my blogroll, wrote in 1981,
The absence in English of a third-person, common-gender pronoun became apparent when grammarians in the eighteenth century began objecting to the apparently widespread use of they, their, and them with singular, sex-indefinite antecedents on the grounds that it violated number concord...

Only [he, the masculine third-person singular pronoun] satisfied the demands of both number concord and style; so despite the fact that it violates gender concord, a requirement the logical-minded prescriptivists were apparently willing to waive, it has become the approved construction.
There was always resistance to that approved construction, however, both principled on the ground that generic "he" is sexist, and populist as many if not most people clung to generic "they" for everyday use.  At the moment (because dictionaries always change with the changes in language), "the major dictionaries tell us that the plural pronoun they can function as a gender-neutral singular too."  In my own writing I boldly waffle, sometimes using "his or her" and variations, sometimes generic "she" (after all, the majority of Americans are female, and majority rules), sometimes "they," sometimes alternating "he" and "she," sometimes invented pronouns from literary sources, and sometimes I just rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem.  ("All people should be free to vote for the candidate of their choice."  Wait, "choices"?)  The issue is unlikely to be resolved in my lifetime, so I don't feel a need either to choose finally or to take a stand on which solution should prevail.

Something has changed, however, over the past couple of decades.  With the increasing visibility of transgender people and people who claim to reject or transcend the gender binary, there have been many calls for new pronouns to refer to them.  Many such pronouns have been invented and proposed.  This is fine with me, but again, the issue is unlikely to be settled in my lifetime.  I'm happy to comply more or less politely with other people's preferred pronouns for themselves.  I'm not sure how much difference it makes in practice, since most of the time I'll be using the gender-neutral "you" to address them anyway.  Since this is probably true for others as well, I'm not sure how often "Ask me about my pronouns" is going to affect discourse in the real world, except when someone gets written up in the student newspaper and their pronoun will be the main subject of the article.

What I've noticed in most of the coverage I've seen is that most people, whether frothing right-wing gender cops, well-meaning liberals, or frothing left-wing gender cops, don't seem to have noticed that the epicene "they" and the proliferation of supposedly non-binary pronouns are dealing with different phenomena.  This well-meaning blog post is typical.  For example:
“He,” “she,” or “it” won’t do, “one” doesn’t work when speaking of a specific person, e.g. “Sam washed one’s dishes,” and in some cases even a singular “they” just won’t work – specifically when a name is used, e.g. “Charlie tied their shoes” or “Sam thought they were late to the party.”
True enough, but that's because these are different cases, and the writer seems not to realize it.  Epicene "they" doesn't refer to "a specific person": it's not really a singular.  It's a common-gender pronoun, as Dennis Baron called it.  It's not supposed to refer to an individual.  (Though sometimes it does with reference to a person of unknown sex/gender, as in "I was chatting with someone on the internet and they said...")  On the other hand, if "they" achieved acceptance as the gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun in English, it would be the appropriate pronoun "when a name is used, e.g. 'Charlie tied their shoes'".  The real reason why "Sam washed one's dishes" doesn't work is that "one" is a periphrasis for the first person; the sentence would mean that Sam washed my dishes.  I also saw an article linked on Facebook which was headlined something like "Every mother should feel free to breastfeed in public if they want to."  I can't see any good reason why "she" shouldn't be used in this case, but a common-gender pronoun is the solution to a different problem than the special pronoun being sought for non-binary, agender, or other people.

I've also seen some confusion about some literary examples, like my personal favorite from Marge Piercy's 1976 science-fiction novel Woman on the Edge of Time.  In utopian 22nd-century Mouth-of-Mattapoisett, the third-person single pronoun is "person" (for the nominative) and "per" (possessive and accusative).  For children, "child" was used, and their species for non-human animals.  ("If Tilia [the character's cat] takes a flying leap onto my chest at first dawn from the top of the wardrobe, I get a clear notion that cat is dissatisfied with my conduct.")  There was no separate pronoun for persons of ambiguous or unknown gender; from the viewpoint of Connie, the 20th-century visitor to Mattapoisett, most of its citizens were of unknown or ambiguous gender anyway.  I think I've seen some references to this novel as a possible model for gender-neutral pronouns, which also seemed to misunderstand what was going on.  It wouldn't fit with many people's demand for separate pronouns to reflect their gender identities, and I rather suspect they would reject the one-size-fits-all of person/per.

The same would be true of another 1970s feminist literary experiment, The Cook and the Carpenter by June Arnold under the pseudonym The Carpenter.  Arnold substituted na (nominative) and nan (possessive) for "he" and "she" for most of the novel, though she switched to standard pronouns about towards the end.  Though I like na and nan, Arnold used them not as proposed changes in English but to stymie readers' attempts to stereotype the characters by sex; hence the reveal toward the end to show who was female and who male.  Again, I don't think this alternative would satisfy advocates of separate pronouns for their gender identities.  If, as the blogger just cited says, there's a "need for a gender-neutral pronoun" in English, it isn't the same "need" felt by those who want not "gender-neutral" but gender-specific pronouns for their multiplying genders.

There are other possibilities, of course.  I seem to have misremembered some details from Samuel Delany's 1984 science-fiction novel Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand.  What I thought he posited as part of the grammar of one of his planets' languages was that "she" was used for any object of erotic desire, regardless of body configuration; to refer to a person as "she" was to acknowledge that one desired him or her; otherwise the person would be "he."  Looking at the text now, I don't think that's what Delany had in mind, but I think it could be a valid grammatical principle.  After all, in America when I was growing up there was a general consensus that only women were beautiful or erotically desirable, so that men felt their masculinity was compromised if anyone of whatever gender called them "beautiful."  To be desired was to be objectified, a position socially reserved for women.  So why not choose pronouns according to the current status of the person you're talking about?

Remember the neutralization of breastfeeding mothers in an Internet magazine: someone pointed out that "she" rather than "they" was appropriate as a generic pronoun, and someone else replied that not all mothers were women, that men could mother too.  Granting that, almost no men can breastfeed (though in Woman on the Edge of Time Marge Piercy imagined a future society where we could and did), why not just refer to all mothers as "she," regardless of their plumbing?  Why not gender pronouns according to the task being performed by a person at the moment, so that anyone fixing a carburetor would be "he" and anyone changing a diaper would be "she"?  Since most of the ostensible nonconformist discourse on gender nowadays is still mired in gender stereotypes and essentialism anyway, why not stop fighting it and go with what people actually think and feel?  The idea that "he" and "she" refer to social status rather than body configuration is a tenet of radical feminism (as well as of gay male culture and of traditional male supremacy), so there's no reason why language couldn't reflect it.

Underlying most of this discourse is a naive version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about language, that language determines thought and reflects the values and assumptions of a culture.  I think the theory of language created by George Orwell for his novel 1984 is similar: human beings are trapped in the cage of their language, and can't think outside of it.  Orwell's account was seriously flawed, if only because language is not that rigid, and human thought is not absolutely controlled by it.  (The linguist and pundit John H. McWhorter wrote a short book with a misleading title, trying to refute strict versions of Sapir-Whorf; it's worth reading, but critically.)  The fact that people are proposing alternative pronouns to suit their personal politics both disproves the thesis that our thought is absolutely controlled by language (or else they wouldn't be to think about, let alone invent new pronouns) and shows its popularity (because they believe that gender pronouns have thought-controlling power -- if we change them, we change gender norms).

In particular, I'm intrigued by people's evident belief that their gender (conceived as an innate essence) dictates the pronoun that should be used for them, and vice versa.  This shows their general ignorance about language and its relation to culture; they barely know their own language and society, never mind others.  Some years ago I read an awful book I'm not going to name here, in which the author claimed that because some Native American tribes don't have gender-specific pronouns, they do not have sexist expectations about men and women.  I immediately recognized the absurdity of that claim (which I've encountered elsewhere a few times since then).  Apart from the fact that many tribes (including the ones he praised) did have sharply-defined gender expectations, I knew that languages like Chinese and Korean don't have gendered pronouns -- yet those societies are extremely sexist and highly gendered.  There is a loose, variable and very changeable relation between language and culture, so deliberate changing of pronouns might have some effect on gender norms if it's part of a larger program of social change, but by themselves pronouns don't really have any effect.  (The same goes for customs like wives' taking their husbands' name on marriage.  They don't do so in China or Japan, yet they still traditionally lose their separate personhood when they marry anyway, and the different custom is not evidence of a lack of sexism in the culture.)

The blogger I cited before mentioned the case of "Ms.", which is probably an exception that proves the rule.  It gained currency because so many women liked the idea of a title that wouldn't define them by marital status.  In that respect it is more like epicene "they" than it is like "ze."  That there weren't a multitude of alternative possibilities, as with pronouns today, was surely a factor in the success of "Ms."  But why gender the title (indeed, why have a title) at all?  It's as problematic to distinguish between Mr. and Ms. as between "he" and "she," isn't it?  Don't we need a gender-neutral alternative to Mr. and Ms. for the non-binary?  Apparently at least one has been proposed.  I imagine more will follow, as with gender-specific pronouns generally.

Maybe, as with genders, we need a separate third-person pronoun in English for every individual.  I say this not to mock the anxieties that drive these proposals, but to point out their confusion and indeed incoherence.  Instead of progress, concern with pronouns and multiplying genders seems to me a distraction, spinning our wheels in place.  The "need" for new third-person-singular pronouns seems to be psychological rather than grammatical (as is the case with epicene "they").  That doesn't invalidate the felt need, but it needs to be kept in perspective.  By all means, let people choose the pronouns and titles they wish, and I'll use them out of courtesy, but I'm not obliged to agree that they represent even a partial or provisional solution to the problem of gender, in language or in the rest of life.