Thursday, August 31, 2017

And Don't Hold the Guacamole

There are writers who are known as writers' writers: they are appreciated more by their colleagues than by the general reading public, because of their technical expertise and willing to experiment with their art.  I was interested in "experimental" artists when I was a kid, though I was generally liked and appreciated their theories and their lives more than their work.  Now I see experimental art as an attempt to appropriate the prestige of the sciences for the arts.  At best, to support the metaphor, an artistic experiment should confirm an artistic theory, and in my opinion they rarely do.  When a writer I respect recommends such work, I often follow through, but I'm usually disappointed.  That probably reflects badly on me, not on the work, but there you are.  I'm not, I think, a naive or unsophisticated reader, but maybe I'm the wrong kind of writer.

Carol Emshwiller seems to be such a writers' writer.  Wikipedia, for example, refers to her fiction as "avant-garde", and she herself calls it "experimental", though she adds: "Now I'm passionate about what I think of as postmodern. (I've read all sorts of conflicting definitions of postmodern, so I'm not sure I'm right about what I think it is.)"  She's never won a Hugo (science fiction fans') award, but she has won a Nebula (the Science Fiction Writers of America -- hence, a writers' writer).  I believe I got interested in her work because Ursula K. Le Guin wrote some appreciations of it.  At some point I found her 2002 novel The Mount at the library, and found it impressive but rather icy and inhuman, which was probably intentional.  Then last year I read a Le Guin essay which mentioned Carmen Dog (1988), and I've been meaning to get to it ever since.  Finally, yesterday, I did so.

In Carmen Dog, women are turning into other animals and female animals are turning into women.  Emshwiller tells the story mostly from the viewpoint of one of the latter, Pooch, a family pet who's turning human while retaining many of the traits of her breed.  When one of her owner turns into a huge snapping turtle and bites its baby, Pooch runs away with the baby into New York City, where she almost becomes an opera singer, is captured along with other changing creatures by a male scientist who believes that they can be forced to revert if proper discipline is imposed on them, and then by a group of male scientists who want to recover motherhood for men, since women have in their view failed to do the job properly.  These are all familiar tropes in feminist science fiction, which Emshwiller exploits, turns on their heads, and otherwise plays with.  She's very much in control, and her writing is tight and ironic, with a satirical edge reminiscent of Jane Austen.

For example:
All those creatures that have been kept relatively germfree in the doctor's basement are scheduled for artificial insemination the day after tomorrow.  The Academy uses only the best genes in the nation, those belonging to governors, generals (three star or above), atomic scientists, as well as those of the directors of nuclear reactors, presidents of the largest corporations, oil magnates, and so forth.  The men picked are splendid, tall, and for the most part blonde.  All earning well over $100,000 a year, not counting perks. Of course it has taken time for these men to achieve status in their fields, so most of them are by now paunchy and bald.  (Since the imagination is suspect particularly at present, artist' and poets' genes are not used.  Besides, it is hard to tell where artists come from.  Some have dreadfully wizened little parents) [210-11].
Looking again at this passage out of context, I realize that it sounds like a cliche, thinking perhaps of various eugenic fantasies about breeding a master race, of scientists caricatured as soulless control freaks who mock the arts and humanities and so on.  Unfortunately, such fantasies and scientists are still with us, promoting themselves and very much in the public eye.  But it works in situ.  Let's try another passage, about Pooch's encounter with a sinister figure who manipulates her into a three-way with another changer:
Pooch does learn a lot, though, that she had not even suspected before.  Knowledge that may stand her in good stead later on, though she hopes she will be able to use it with someone for whom she had some real feelings.  She had not been aware until now, for instance, of the exquisite sensitivity of the breasts, and especially had not been aware that the nipples of the male are, or so it seems, as sensitive as those of the female; nor had she realized the potential of the backs of the knees, not to mention the toes and the bottoms of the feet.  She had also not realized the many ways that music, ribbons, belts, pepper, and guacamole could be used [143-44].
Better, eh?  "Guacamole" is a fine, Austenish touch.

In addition to The Mount, which I think I had better reread, I've also read Ledoyt (1995), Emshwiller's non-science-fiction novel about a young girl growing up in the American West.  She has several other books, which I'll get to before long.  Carmen Dog drew me in.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Endless War

According to the Associated Press, about a hundred self-identified anarchists entered an anti-racist rally in Berkeley, California, where they proceeded to beat up several people.
The group of more than 100 hooded protesters, with shields emblazoned with the words "no hate" and waving a flag identifying themselves as anarchists, busted through police lines, avoiding security checks by officers to take away possible weapons. Then the anarchists blended with a crowd of 2,000 largely peaceful protesters who turned up to demonstrate in a "Rally Against Hate" opposed to a much smaller gathering of right-wing protesters.
"No hate" -- don't you just love that?  The hypocritical piety is practically Christian.  Even better, these goons went after isolated individuals they could gang up on with minimal risk to themselves.  Better still: the first guy they attacked is Japanese-American, which makes their assault a racist attack -- a hate crime.  (Or a "no hate" crime, which makes a big difference, I suppose.)  Luckily, almost miraculously, the police didn't seize the opportunity to attack the rest of the crowd, which is the normal police response to such incidents.

It has been educational to watch liberal and left reactions to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As I've noticed before, many of them are blurring the already vexed line between speech and violence, and eager to give the Trump administration the authority to decide what speech is acceptable and what isn't.  (I'm being slightly disingenuous there, since of course they fantasize that they themselves will make that decision; which shows that they're delusional, given existing historical and political realities in the US.)  They also exploit an ambiguity in the word "fighting," which can refer metaphorically to any kind of organized effort (including sports) against something, or to actual literal violence.

So, for example, I've often heard it said that Heather Heyer was fighting hate (or fascism or racism or Nazism, or fighting for what she believed in, whatever) in Charlottesville when she was killed by a white supremacist who drove his car into the crowd of people she was in.  Fighting (literal) doesn't seem to have been Heyer's style.  In any case, she was killed as she crossed a street at an intersection during (I think -- the chronology is muddled) the counter-protest.  I don't say this to minimize her death or its significance, only for clarity's sake.  That she wasn't clubbing down neo-Nazis makes her murderer even more cowardly and despicable.  While simply pepper-spraying and chasing a non-resisting individual isn't in the same class of evil (except perhaps metaphorically) as driving a car into an unarmed and nonviolent crowd, it's also cowardly and despicable.  Like this.

So when Ted Rall posted on Facebook last weekend that, "Considering the history of fascism, the debate over whether the antifa movement should resort to violence seems, well, quaint", I wasn't terribly surprised, though I was a bit disappointed.  I generally like his cartoons, and thought his book on Afghanistan, After We Kill You We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests (Hill & Wang, 2014), was excellent and important.  But he got things wrong this time, starting with the cartoon itself, which depicts a French couple at a cafe as Nazi troops march by in the street.  The Frenchman says, "Violence? But that would make us as bad as them!"

This is disingenous.  First of all, it's not as if the centrist liberals in Trump's America who call themselves The Resistance have renounced the use of violence in advance: the name they've chosen for themselves deliberately invokes those who fought against the Nazis in occupied France, though so far they haven't done anything much more strenuous than wear pink pussy hats and make memes mocking Trump.  Second, the situation in occupied France was not about whether or not to counter "free speech" with violence -- Germany didn't occupy France through free speech.  (Plus, the actual French Resistance was dominated by Communists, and if there's anyone liberal Democrats hate more than Trump, it's a leftist.  Unless it's a Jewish leftist.)

Second, debates in the US over the use of violence by minorities and dissidents have always been inadequate at best, and I haven't seen anything to suggest that things have changed.  The increasing boldness of white racists since Trump's ascendancy has been met with a lot of chest-thumping rhetoric about fighting Nazis in the streets.  I'm not objecting to the use of violence myself; I am, however, concerned with other questions, such as: Who's going to fight the Nazis?  When and where?  Who will lead?  Who will choose the leaders?  Who will determine strategy and tactics?  The neo-Nazis are organized and armed; how will "antifa" (a term I find about as annoying as The Resistance) violence be armed and organized?  These are not idle questions.

This weekend a video began to circulate online, which showed a white supremacist in Charlottesville trying to shoot a black counterprotester who'd made himself an impromptu flamethrower by igniting the spray from an aerosol can and aiming it at the racists.  By amazing luck, the kind of luck that convinces me there is no god, the would-be shooter had forgotten to disable the safety on his weapon, which slowed him down, and when he did fire, nobody was hurt.  The guy with the gun is being sought by the authorities, as they say.

What I find interesting about this scene is that ever since Trump made it clear he was appealing to a white-racist base -- hell, ever since Obama attracted racist hatred as a candidate and as President -- there has been a lot of agitation about how extremely dangerous white supremacists are, how they're the new Nazis and if we aren't ceaselessly vigilant there will be a replay of 1930s Germany here in the Homeland.  I don't dismiss these concerns, but I find it extremely interesting and significant that many of these same alarmists nevertheless seem to believe that white supremacists are not really dangerous at all, that because Antifa's heart is pure they need only to chant some slogans and the Fascists will collapse and surrender; the Fascists' bullets will either bounce off Antifa's Breastplate of Virtue, be repelled by Antifa's wristlets of power, or simply dissolve into the air.  There were many warnings about armed neo-Nazis, with heavy-duty weapons, gathering in Charlottesville, intent on mayhem.  It appears that even so, the Antifa mostly didn't consider them a real, serious threat, and those who did brought some homemade weaponry that would have been useless if the threat turned real.  Since we're not pacifists here, I can say that I wouldn't have been felt much sympathy if the guy with the aerosol can had gotten shot, because he was putting his unarmed anti-fascist comrades in danger, presumably without their consent or planning.

Or he was giving the police, who everyone assumed were on the racists' side, an excuse to stomp some hippies. (In a real Resistance situation, he'd likely have been court-martialed and shot by his own organization for such stupid criminal recklessness.)  Emptywheel pointed out last weekend that Trump's pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio was intended to send a message to his real base, the police, who supported him during his election campaign and support him still.
So while feeding his explicitly racist base with hateful rhetoric is important, it’s even more important to ensure that the cops remain with him, even as he fosters violence.

There is no better way to do that than to convey to police that they can target brown people, that they can ignore all federal checks on their power, with impunity (this is probably one key reason why Trump has given up his efforts to oust Sessions, because on policing they remain in perfect accord).
There is no better way to keep the support of cops who support Trump because he encourages their abuses then by pardoning Arpaio for the most spectacular case of such abuses.
The history Rall appealed to isn't reassuring.  There were street battles between Communists and Nazis in Germany during the 1930s; they didn't impede Hitler's rise to power.  Historians can probably explain why; I confess I haven't read enough about the period to have an opinion.  But whatever the reasons, street fighting didn't work for the Left; only for the Nazis.  In general, that has been true in the US as well.  In principle I fully endorse and support the right of African-Americans to defend themselves against police and government violence; but those who did, in the 1960s, seriously underestimated the power and ruthlessness of their adversaries.  And that leaves aside intra-movement violence, among the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, for example.  And yet many antifa sympathizers, in between attacking the police (sometimes justly), believe that when push comes to shove the police will protect them from that Bad Ol' Nazis.  They should, of course; but the historical precedents indicate that they won't.

As you can see, I don't mean to suggest that violence never works.  After its defeat in 1865, for example, the Confederacy used violence very successfully to establish white supremacy all over the South, and eventually managed to sell most white Americans on their Lost Cause myth of elegant Southern heritage violated by the brutish Union.  As with the successful use of violence by the Nazis, I don't know the history well enough to explain why with any certainty, but I feel sure it's at least partly because most white Americans in the North (including educated elites) were racist, and weren't at all uncomfortable with white supremacy as ideology or practice.  There was a brief blip of anti-racist action in the 1950s and 1960s, and though some gains were made, white-supremacist resistance, violent and nonviolent, never ceased, and many of those gains are in danger of being lost again.

But this reminds me of an anecdote in a book I read a week ago, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won't Save Black America by Stacey Patton (Beacon Press, 2017).  It's about the popularity of violence against children by African-American parents, and it's flawed but overall very valuable.  Many black parents, like many white parents, believe that beating children is the only way to keep them out of trouble and turn them into responsible adults.  There's an anecdote toward the end, told by an African-American woman, a single mother and a parent trainer:
Alvarez says she gets the "usual bullshit" from other parents who criticize her for not hitting her son.  "Spare the rod ... yada, yada, yada ... ain't nobody here for that.  My son, my rules.  As a parent trainer, when I hear parents swear by whupping kids, I ask, "How many here were whupped by parents?" Most will raise their hands.  Then I ask, "How many were whupped twice?" Most raise their hands.  Then I say, "So then maybe it's not that effective.  If it were, we'd only have to get beaten once to get the message" [214].
I feel the same way about violence aimed at stopping white racism: the most horrific war in history up to that point didn't stop it -- it barely slowed it down, and only briefly at that.  Maybe other avenues need to be considered.

I've also been thinking of something Noam Chomsky wrote about political violence about fifty years ago, and published in American Power and the New Mandarins (Pantheon, 1969, pp. 398-399):
It is quite easy to design tactics that will help to consolidate the latent forces of a potential American fascism.  To mention just one obvious example, verbal and physical abuse of the police, however great the provocation, can have only this effect.  Such tactics may seem "radical" and, in a narrow sense, justified by the magnitude of the infamy and evil that they seek to overcome.  They are not.

In fact, it is senseless to speak -- as many now do -- of tactics and actions are being "radical," "liberal," "conservative," or "reactionary."  In itself, an action cannot be placed on a political dimension at all.  It may be successful or unsuccessful in achieving an end that can be described in political terms.  But it is useful to remember that the same tactics that one man may propose with high conscience and deep commitment to radical social change may also be pressed by a well-placed police spy, bent on destroying such a movement and increasing popular support for the forces of repression. Consider the Reichstag fire, to return to a day that is less remote than one would wish. Or consider the act of a seventeen-year-old Jewish refugee from Poland just thirty years ago -- of Herschel Grynszpan, who assassinated a German official in Paris in November 1938.  It is difficult to condemn this desperate act, which set off violent pogroms throughout Germany and helped entrench more deeply the Nazi regime of terror; but the victims of Nazi terror would offer no thanks to Herschel Grynszpan.  We must not abandon the victims of American power, or play games with their fate.  We must not consent to have the same repression imposed on still further helpless victims or the same blind fury unleashed against them.
It seems to me that those who want to use violent tactics against the racist Right need to make very clear how they intend to use those tactics, why those tactics and not others.  So far I've seen a lot of grandstanding and posturing by people I wouldn't follow ... well, anywhere.  It's not as if there isn't a long history of political violence from which to learn, but I haven't seen any indication that the advocates of violence today have paid any attention to it.  Advocating violence, even or especially against fascists, without showing that you know what you're talking about doesn't establish your gravitas; it makes me suspect that you've played too many video games, or watched too many action movies, and mistaken them for reality.  I don't have the answers myself, and I'm not ruling out violence altogether; but I need better rationales for violent action than I've been hearing so far.  The burden of argument lies not on those oppose the use of violence, or starting a war, but on those who want to initiate it.  It's certainly interesting to hear nominal leftists using the rhetoric of the Bush administration when it insisted that we must invade the existential threat of Iraq now.  They are trifling with human lives, and if (or more likely when) it blows up their face, they won't accept responsibility, let alone accountability.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Poor You Will Always Have With You, So Let Them Suck It Up Until I Come

A Dominican nun, Erica Jordan, asked Paul Ryan at a CNN Town Hall meeting how he reconciles his economic policies with his Catholic faith.  His predictable answer was that social welfare programs have failed the poor, but his "small-government" budget-cutting programs will succeed, so "For me — for the poor that’s key to the Catholic faith. That means mobility, economic growth, equality of opportunity."  According to ThinkProgress, he told the audience:
We have to fix that, by making sure we can customize these before the to help a person get to where she is to where she wants and needs to be…The model I’m talking about is the Catholic Charities model.  Cristo Rey parish has cafeterias that do an amazing job, in spite of government, doing wrap around visits for the poor to making sure they get to where they need to be. If government will help do that I think we can go a long way in fighting poverty.
ThinkProgress said this was an "awkward" response, though they went on to point out that it was also dishonest:
Moreover, Catholic Charities doesn’t do its work “in spite of” government. It relies on it: Catholic Charities USA gets nearly half of its operating budget from the federal funds, as do scores of other faith-based charities. When Ryan championed president Donald Trump’s budget proposal—which slashed welfare programs—earlier this year, an anti-hunger faith group released a study estimating that every religious congregation in America would need to raise $714,000 a year for 10 years to shoulder the burden of caring for the poor.
Ronald Reagan could be similarly "awkward":
One day in the 1980 campaign, Reagan visited the Santa Marta Hospital in a Chicano area of Los Angeles.  He told the institution's staff that he had asked a nun there whether the hospital got "compensation from Medicaid or anything like that."  According to the candidate, she answered "no."  "I appreciate your pride in that," he told the group.

A "puzzled senior administrator" later informed supporters that 95% of the patients at Santa Marta Hospital were subsidized by either Medicaid or Medicare.  (Time, 10/20/80)*
I have mixed feelings about this.  There's an American tradition of demanding that Roman Catholic politicians remain independent of the Great Satan in Rome, instead of letting its dogmas guide their decisions.  If a Catholic religious were to confront a straying Catholic (or even non-Catholic) politician for failing to conform to Catholic doctrine on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, or gender, I would certainly not cheer them on.  That I might agree with Sister Erica's opinions in this case doesn't mean that I think the Church has any authority in matters of morality or public policy.

What amused me were some of the reactions to the story on Twitter.  Quite a few said they wanted to commit violence (that one has a Ph.D.!) against Ryan.  That's how you know they're real Christians.  They're not the reason I'm an atheist, but they certainly do reaffirm and enhance my faith.  I've been to known to indulge in such rhetoric myself at times, but I'm not a Christian and I don't claim to be guided by a Higher Love.

I myself was reminded of Barack Obama's answer, at one of his town halls in 2010, to an African-American supporter who told him she was "exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."  Predictably, she was attacked for undermining her President, for being a spoiled privileged brat, for letting herself be used by the Lying Media "to create a meme and narrative pertaining to African American dissatisfaction with President Obama."

Speaking of Obama, there were several references to Ryan's "smirk" in those angry tweets.  I can relate to their anger about that issue too.  Obama also has an infuriating smirk when he's condescending to the victims of American power (some of whom are American nuns, killed with US government collusion), dismissing their concerns as mere "suspicions."

I doubt, however, that Obama would agree with either Sister Erica Jordan or the angry folks who attacked Ryan in social media.  After all, Obama appointed Ryan, along with a bipartisan array of deficit hawks, to a commission on reducing the national deficit, aka the Catfood Commission.  It was actually somewhat surprising that this handpicked group was unable to agree on recommendations; maybe, as with some Republicans' refusal to vote for Trump's repeal of the Affordable Care Act,  they thought the plans weren't cruel enough.  But not to worry: the chairmen of the commission submitted their personal wish list as a memo to the President, which he and the media accepted as if it were an official report of the commission itself.  In the 2012 debates, Obama declared that he and the Romney-Ryan ticket had a "somewhat similar position" on Social Security.  As late as 2016, the Washington Post was touting the substantial agreement between Obama and Ryan ("For two men of goodwill, this is a bridgeable divide") on addressing poverty.  All this had gone down the memory hole long before Donald Trump became President.

If Jordan had asked Barack Obama the same question she asked Ryan, would his answer have been very different?  I doubt it.  Most likely she'd be attacked for undermining POTUS by the same people who cheer for her now.

* Mark Green and Gail MacColl, Reagan's Reign of Error: The Instant Nostalgia Edition (Pantheon, 1987), p. 86.

Monday, August 21, 2017

I Was Born Ignorant, It's in My DNA

The following comment was posted under a meme that opposed the removal of Confederate monuments. The writer is my age and went to the same high school I did, so you can't blame the amazing ignorance displayed here on Our Crappy Schools today:
Yes American should remember the history off our great nation when people fought to make are country a better place to live for all of are people do think people of our older generations would put up with the bullshit that's going on in our country?? I think not!!
I posted a comment pointing out that the monuments being removed are not memorializing Union soldiers, but Confederate generals who fought to make this country a worse place to live, and were willing to tear the nation apart for that cause.  I'm of "our older generation" too, and you can be sure I'm not putting up with this bullshit.

I admit I was stunned at first by the Orwellian transvaluation of values in that comment.  Though it's also possible that this person identifies with the Confederacy, like many Americans all around the country, and believes that slavery and white supremacy "make are [sic, but the misspelling is the least of it] country a better place to live for all of are [sic] people".

Also this morning, a friend linked to this article. The article itself is good enough; it was the title, "How America forgot the true history of the Civil War," that bothered me.

People should learn accurate history, of course. But there are, as always, a couple of problems. One is that history, real history, is almost always contested: there's disagreement among historians over just about everything more complicated than someone's date of death. (And even that can be uncertain.) Which is why history must be taught with that in mind. Teaching the conflicts, as Gerald Graff puts it.  And I find it intriguing that so many liberal pro-science rationalists object to his suggestion.   As I've written before, most people "want students taught propaganda, not accurate history or Civics.  It's so much easier and safer to inculcate flag worship and to regard the Constitution as Holy Writ than to teach the complexities of American history and the controversies over the meaning of the Constitution."

The second problem follows from the first. Imagine the headline "How America forgot the true history of the Iraq War." That war is pretty well documented, of course, and most Americans now alive can remember it personally -- but how many Americans knew what was going on at the time it was happening? As usual with wars, even when the Bush regime and their defenders weren't simply lying in their teeth about why we must invade, they kept changing their story. Most Americans could probably have told you why we were going to war, and most of them are still alive today to remember it (badly, of course), but different Americans would have told you different things, and would have told you different things at different times.  The same is true of the Vietnam War; most Americans I've talked to have no idea how the US got into it, or when; the US propaganda during the war changed as our leaders found it expedient to gin up support.

Now, imagine a time without radio or TV or the Internet, when newspapers were frankly and openly biased in their news coverage, and political discourse was even less civil than now; when most Americans were barely literate and a sixth-grade education was a considerable achievement. The Confederacy was grinding out lots of contradictory propaganda on the issues that motivated it (and Southerners had been doing it for decades), and so was the Union. As always, the aim was to motivate the base, not to inform them. So, Americans didn't "forget" the true history of the Civil War -- they never knew it in the first place, in large part because no one did.

Noam Chomsky wrote about the problem towards the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, in For Reasons of State:
The government does not really hope to convince anyone by its arguments and claims, but only to sow confusion, relying on the natural tendency to trust authority and to avoid complicated and disturbing issues.  How can we be sure of the truth?  The confused citizen turns to other pursuits, and gradually, as the government lies are reiterated day after day, year after year, falsehood becomes truth.

The mechanism has been perceptively described by James Boyd in connection with the strange story of Dita Beard, Richard Kleindienst, and ITT.  The evasions were “transparent and ridiculous,” but that is irrelevant: “The idea is to bring the public to a point of bewilderment. …”  The lawyer seeks “not to convince, but to confuse and weary.”  In the same manner, the state is content to lose each debate, while winning the propaganda war.


Shortly after the Pentagon Papers appeared, Richard Harwood wrote in the Washington Post that a careful reader of the press could have known the facts all along, and he cited cases where the facts had been truthfully reported.  He failed to add that the truth had been overwhelmed, in the same pages, by a flood of state propaganda.  With rare exceptions, the press and the public finally accepted the framework of government deceit on virtually every crucial point [xxv-xxvi].
This doesn't mean that Chomsky was "prescient," of course; he was describing what was happening at the time.  That we face the same flood of government lies obfuscating the facts is probably not surprising; it's business as usual.  And that's one reason why history is so difficult to get right.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Hedge Fund Manager Shall Lie Down with the Miner

I generally only listen to NPR when I'm driving, and since I only drive when I rent a car to travel, that's not all that often.  Yesterday was one of those times, and I was reminded why.

A fund-raising spot on the Indianapolis affiliate I was tuned to featured a young woman (some managerial person at some other station) who gushed that NPR includes everybody, hedge-fund managers and miners!  It reminds us that we're all in this together! ... A laudable sentiment, but how often do miners appear on NPR?  Not very often.  NPR has at least one program devoted to "business," but none, as far as I know, to Labor.  That would be showing favoritism to special interests, I suppose.

It was easy for me to think of this, because I'd been listening for more than an hour to one of NPR's main morning news programs, 1A, which I'd heard before on other trips.  Not only were no miners on hand for the discussion, all of the discussants were from commercial media: the New York Times was well-represented, and one was a former Olympic Gold Medalist who's now an "ESPN analyst."  I always thought that one purpose of public broadcasting was to provide an alternative to the Usual Media Suspects; instead the corporate media have been colonizing the alternative.  FAIR has documented this repeatedly over the years.  News sources like Democracy Now and The Intercept aren't perfect, but they do provide alternative viewpoints and voices, with DN especially hosting people who'd never be given space on NPR.

1A let me know from its opening seconds that Charlottesville would be discussed, but aside from the Times reporter, who'd actually been present at the violence, no one had much of substance to say about it.  One guy, an NPR White House correspondent named Geoff Bennett, was the only person who addressed the historical issue, that the Confederate memorials were erected as part of a campaign to rewrite the history of the war and as propaganda for white supremacy after Reconstruction.  There was no followup to his remarks, though: mostly the discussion was about how the controversy would affect President Trump.  There was a brief bit about Heather Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, and her denunciation of Trump.  Good for Trump?  Bad for Trump?  You decide.

A surprising amount of time was devoted to the two police pilots who died when their helicopter crashed as they returned to headquarters after the rally.  According to one report, the helicopter had been damaged years before, and this was thought to have some bearing on its failure.  There doesn't seem to be any connection beyond the chronological between the Nazi rally and the policemen's deaths, but the framing seemed to be intended to cast them, along with Heather Heyer, as victims of white nationalism.  Typical journalistic balance, I guess.  But while their deaths were tragic for themselves, their families, and their colleagues, the pilots were not martyrs, except perhaps to cost-cutting measures.

The second, international, hour of 1A was more of the same.  It was the morning after the terrorist attack in Barcelona, which also involved driving a vehicle into a crowd, so that was the lead story.  Once again the aim seemed to be to fill time, with relatively little substance, and the substance revealed the usual tunnel vision. The Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiya rightly spoke of the horror of families being targeted while they were just out enjoying a summer evening.  It wouldn't have done, I suppose, to notice parallels to families in other parts of the world being killed by US missiles and drones while they were celebrating a wedding, or children killed by drones while they gathered firewood on a cold day.  It's one thing to compare the Barcelona attack to the Charlottesville attack, and quite another to notice that killing innocent families living their day-to-day lives is standard operating procedure for the American imperium and its allies and clients.

There was also a disapproving reference to Trump's fondness for dictators.  There was no acknowledgment of President Obama's fondness for dictators and military coups, let alone the long history of Washington's fondness for dictators and military coups.  It wouldn't do to notice that; NPR never has.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

I Knew I Shoulda Taken That Left Turn at Albuquerque

I have always secretly admired people who could read a newspaper while eating.  It bespeaks co-ordination, dexterity, and automatic digestion, none of which attributes I seem to possess.  It also gives one an air of being a man of affairs, and I long ago abandoned the attempt to look like a man of affairs.  I even find it difficult, some mornings, to look like a man.
-- Robert Benchley, "Read and Eat"
So I was reading Robert Benchley's 1936 collection My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew tonight while I ate dinner, and I was amused by his references to his foil and imaginary friend Mr. MacGregor, who always seems to be handy though Benchley carefully states that "he doesn't sleep here."  On the other hand, Benchley complains that MacGregor always leaves "a lot of work undone (I am always the fall guy who ends up by doing the work around the house)".  I began to muse on subtexts.  I don't know (or care) anything about Robert Benchley's innermost desires, though I know he was heterosexually married; I'm talking about the milquetoast persona he created in his humorous writings.  I'm sure "Benchley" and MacGregor were just good friends, homosocial as could be.

So I switched to my old posts on the Birth of the Modern Homosocial, and the rather overwrought defenses of various historical and fictional figures' Kinsey Zeroness.  Which in turn reminded me that I'd heard reports that a recent biographer had suggested that Franz Kafka might have been That Way.  I did some searching to see if there was any substance to these speculations and found a few reviews of the historian Saul Friedlander's brief biography Frank Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt (Yale, 2013), which told me what evidence lay behind Friedlander's speculations.

That evidence turned out to be a bit more substantial than I expected, but there doesn't seem to be much of it.  For example, this passage from Kafka's diary, which his friend and executor Max Brod censored in the English translation (the censored bits are in brackets):
Struggle on the road to [the] Tannenstein in the morning, struggle while watching the ski-jumping contest. Happy little B., in all his innocence somehow shadowed by my ghosts, at least in my eyes [, specially his outstretched leg in its gray rolled-up sock], his aimless wandering glance, his aimless talk. In this connection it occurs to me—but this is already forced—that towards evening he wanted to go home with me.
It sounds like Kafka wanted B. to want to go home with him.  Again, this isn't much, but it seems to make clear that Kafka was erotically drawn to another male and knew it.  "There are also," the novelist John Banville wrote in his review of Friedlander's book, "some admiring glances thrown in the direction of a couple of handsome Swedish youths. It is hardly a damning testament. What is perhaps most significant is the fact that Brod felt it necessary to make these quiet elisions, since it suggests he had definite suspicions about his friend’s sexual inclination."

Where on earth does "damning" come from?  The striking thing here is that Banville treats Friedlander's speculations about Kafka's possible bisexuality as accusations.  A decent person would see Kafka's desire for B. and the handsome Swedes as rather sweet, and his "struggle" with it sad, just like his complicated, frustrated desires for women.

Here's another bit from another review, quoting Friedlander:
“Today in the coffee-house with [Franz] Werfel,” Kafka wrote in April 1914. “How he looked from the distance, seated at the coffee table. Stooped, half reclining even in the wooden chair, the beautiful profile of his face pressed against his chest … His dangling glasses make it easier to trace the delicate outlines of his face.”
Hey, can't a bro admire another bro's beautiful profile without somebody making a federal case out of it?  But this isn't all.
Later again, in mid-November 1917, Kafka wrote to Brod about a dream, the ambiguity of which he himself commented on: “If I go on to say that in a recent dream I gave Werfel a kiss, I stumble right into the middle of Bluher’s book. But more of that later. The book upset me; I had to put it aside for two days …” Bluher, a leading figure in the German youth movement, wrote about male erotic bonding in his 1917 work The Role of Eroticism in Male Society.
Ah yes, a manly kiss between normal manly guys.  And it was a dream, waddaya want anyhow?

The same reviewer continues:
Long before these confessions, Friedlander notes, Kafka was writing in his diary about posing for an artist in the nude at age 19 as a model for St. Sebastian. The picture of Kafka the serial womanizer stripping off his clothes in a Prague studio in 1912 and allowing another man to tie him to a post and paste fake arrows on his chest is slightly jarring even in the 21st century (actual pictures would be yet more jarring still – do they exist? If they ever surface, will we claim we were unprepared?). Friedlander shows that he knows this by presenting it all with becoming gravity, and he has a deeper purpose in doing so at all: his contention is that deep sexual ambiguities and doubt form yet another instructive layer in the complex literary gift prudish Brod bequeathed to readers everywhere.
Apparently there was more homoeroticism in Kafka's life (and perhaps his work) than this, but these examples are what the reviewers I found quoted.  Of course some gay writers and bloggers got all giggly about this, and treated Friedlander's speculations as gospel.  (I refuse to link to them.)  I hope I can fit Friedlander's book into my busy reading schedule sometime in the next century, but for now: What Kafka himself thought about his lust for other males isn't clear, and most likely we'll never know.  I think it's important, though, that he recognized what his feelings were, and it doesn't seem to me that he struggled with them quite as much as Friedlander and Banville, among others, wish he had.  Were these little stories really "confessions," I wonder?  On the surface that word is right down there with "damning."  I suppose one would have to read the diaries at length to get a sense of what Kafka meant by recording them, and whether these epithets come from him or represent the hangups of these guys who are writing about him.

Reiner Stach, another recent Kafka biographer, told the Guardian that Kafka's fears and obsessions about sex were "perfectly normal."  I'm not persuaded.  Yes, fear of venereal disease and unwanted pregnancy were widespread, and quite reasonable, and in that sense normal.  Yet those fears didn't stop men from going out and having sex anyway.  There were many brothels in Europe and the US back then, and syphilis and gonorrhea were epidemic scourges.  One might almost call having a sexually transmitted disease "perfectly normal."

Stach said:
“I don’t know why it persists. Kafka had homosexual fantasies, but everyone does. He had a really intense access to his own subconscious, more than we might have, and this is why he is such a great writer. So, he had homosexual, bisexual, sadistic, masochistic and voyeuristic fantasies and all of these appeared in his works, which is typical for writers like Kafka. But you can’t conclude that he was any one of those things himself.”
I think this is nonsense.  Even if "everyone" has homosexual fantasies, that wasn't accepted in Kafka's day, and probably not now.  I'm always suspicious when someone tries to brush aside potentially embarrassing information with "everybody does that."  "Typical for writers like Kafka" is also a red flag: how many "writers like Kafka" are there?  His fans generally treat him as sui generis, and he was certainly very unusual.  I don't know that he had more access to his subconscious than most people, or how that in itself would make him a great writer.  And if someone has, and cultivates, homosexual, "bisexual," sadomasochistic and voyeuristic fantasies, it's not damning or an accusation to say that he was homosexual, bisexual, sadomasochistic, or a voyeur, even if he didn't act them out.  Stach reveals himself here to be, not a sophisticated, cosmopolitan observer, but a rather crude and provincial one.

The idea that it doesn't count if you don't have overt sex is one of the older "defenses" in the book, used by the crudest most bigoted sexual cops when someone they like turns out to be not quite the paragon of purity they want him to be. "You don't have to be one to play one" is also standard.  At least no one -- that I've seen so far -- has invoked "The modern homosexual hadn't been invented yet."  Kafka lived in the milieu of the newborn Modern Homosexual, and he was evidently well-read enough to know it.

I find it depressing that this embarrassment over, yes, "perfectly normal" areas of human experience is still so much with us.  Of course the embarrassment is perfectly normal too.  It's just nothing to be complacent about.  Meanwhile, I'm saying nothing about "Benchley's" confessed relationship with his imaginary dachshund friend Friedel Immerman.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Would You Like a Nice Progressive Punch?

This meme baffles me.  At times I wonder if it was intended as a Zen koan, a saying that deliberately makes no sense in order to frustrate and derail one's logical thinking, and ultimately force one into Enlightenment.  But most of the time I think it's just another glitch in human thought.

I regularly encountered another example of this sort of thing during and after the Sixties, when people would dismiss the hippie slogan that you should do your own thing as long as nobody gets hurt.  Someone would triumphantly riposte: "But what about Altamont?  What about Charles Manson?"  Yeah, what about them?  People got hurt in those and other cases, so they didn't show that it's a bad idea to do what you like as long as no one gets hurt.

I suppose the idea was that someone will always get hurt when human beings aren't policed and regulated and overseen and held in check by Authority.  But even in the most tightly patrolled societies, people get hurt -- often enough, by the Authority.  And who watches the Watchers?  One important lesson of history surely is that people given power over others will often abuse it.  I don't think that "Do your thing as long as nobody gets hurt" implies that there shouldn't be consequences when you do hurt someone, though as we also should know, there are rarely consequences for Authority when it hurts people.  You're just not supposed to notice it.  (What, your unarmed child was shot to death by a policeman?  Oh, look over there -- a Mexican took your job!)

I admit that the Sixties counterculture, at least its rank and file, didn't seem to think much about what consequences should follow from breaking its golden rule.  It's the kind of question that most people don't like to engage, because it involves judgment and gray areas and other messy complexities; the kind of core philosophical question that children ask and adults can't answer, because like most core philosophical questions there is no simple, firm answer.  But in one form or another, that maxim is virtually proverbial.  "Your freedom ends at the end of the next person's nose," for example.

Lately I've been seeing the same kind of diversion being used in the wake of the Charlottesville killing, as people try not to grapple with the limits of free speech.  Apart from the misconception that "hate speech" isn't free speech, people have trouble applying their own limits consistently.  Speech is free as long as it doesn't carry into action that hurts other people -- most people I know agree with that in principle, but their next move is to point to acts of violence.  Violence hurts other people, so it doesn't count as free speech.  Yeahbut the Nazis in Charlottesville pepper sprayed other people!  Yeahso that's violence, not speech -- where's the problem?  There are hard questions that can be raised about freedom of speech, but this isn't one of them as far as I can see.

On the other hand, sucker-punching a Nazi is so good that it's probably protected speech, all peace and love and shit.  So many liberals and progressives squealed with delight when Richard Spencer was punched that I believe their confusion over the boundary between speech and and action (which, I admit is another one of those messy complexities) is willed.  As the philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote, "Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal."

As I wrote yesterday, I could be classified a nihilist in certain realms, like the heat death of the universe.  Choosing, deliberating, and applying principles is hard; but to throw them out altogether at the human level is nihilism at the human level, of the most destructive sort.  Yet the people who are now agitating for further restrictions on freedom of speech fancy themselves principled advocates of justice.  It never occurs to them that the government at all levels is much more likely to suppress their speech than the speech of the Right; that's how it has always played out before. (They disagree with what you say, but they will defend to the death the right of the Trump gang to crush them like bugs.)  They'd be more honest to admit that they want a war of all against all, which (typically) they assume they'll win, and people caught in the crossfire will be glorious martyrs.  No, thank you.

It appears that I've never quoted this passage from Jean-Paul Sartre's essay "Anti-Semite and Jew" here before.  It was written in 1944, just after the Nazis withdrew from France. The anti-Semite as Sartre analyzed him stands for all anti-rational people, as you'll see:
Do not think that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of these answers. They know that their statements are empty and contestable; but it amuses them to make such statements: it is their adversary whose duty it is to choose his words seriously because he believes in words. They have a right to play. They even like to play with speech because by putting forth ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutor; they are enchanted with their unfairness because for them it is not a question of persuading by good argument but of intimidating or disorienting. If you insist too much they close up, they point out with one superb word that the time to argue has passed. Not that they are afraid of being convinced: their only fear is that they will look ridiculous or that their embarrassment will make a bad impression on a third party whom they want to get on their side. Thus if the anti-Semite is impervious, as everyone has been able to observe, to reason and experience, it is not because his conviction is so strong, but rather his conviction is strong because he has chosen to be impervious [13-14].*
I've encountered such people from the political right -- but also, alas, from the center and the left.  Sartre wasn't being "prescient," of course; he was describing people in the France of his day, who also exist in all countries and eras.

What Sartre described here is also what Patricia Roberts-Miller calls demagoguery.  If it worked as a way to bring about social justice, we wouldn't be in trouble now.

*Anti-Semite and Jew.  New York: Schocken Books, 1948.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

I noticed this poster in the window of a local business I patronize: hip, edgy, liberal-lefty.  Their hours of operation are rather limited, so I couldn't ask where it came from just then.  Most of the stuff in their windows announces events, with institutional or other affiliation included somewhere; there doesn't seem to be any such information on this one.  This isn't any kind of deal-breaker for me -- I'll certainly keep supporting them -- but I am curious.

To be blunt, this poster is pretty damn stupid, a word salad of buzzwords.  I expect better from my counterculture.  Which "lies of the alternative truth" should I reject?  There are so many to choose from these days.  The propaganda use of the word "alternative" is high on my list right now; it's the latest Newspeak for "politically correct" and "doubleplus ungood."

"Believe the evidence of your eyes and ears" is worse: it's painfully obvious that someone wasn't thinking.  Urging the marks to believe what is right in front of their eyes is one of the oldest cons in the book.  (Nothing up my sleeve!)  It's used by the Right ("Obama looks like a terrorist, it's his name") as much as by the Left.  Any political or other ideological position will be based not only on visible evidence but on interpretations and theories that offer to connect the dots, drawing the hitherto invisible lines depicting the Truth that They don't want you to see.

There is a speck of truth here, though: when something looks, feels, seems wrong to you, you should take the intuition seriously.  But that is only the beginning.  From there you must apply the canons of critical thinking.  I collected some of them here; you could begin with the educator Deborah Meier's version, taught over decades to kids at Central Park East Secondary School:
They are: the question of evidence, or "How do we know what we know?"; the question of viewpoint, in all its multiplicity, or "Who's speaking?"; the search for connections and patterns, or "What causes what?"; supposition, or "How might things have been different?"; and finally, why any of it matters, or "Who cares?"
Now I can add a passage I didn't quote last week from Patricia Roberts-Miller's Demagoguery and Democracy:
Trying to be fair in an argument -- enforcing rules, including the rule that the rules are applied to everyone equally -- will lead to arguments about the rules.  And that’s a good sign. Participants often need to argue about how we should argue, what we will count as relevant evidence, what constitutes disruptive behavior or unfair moves, and what “stases”are the most relevant. In fact, arguments about how we should argue most interfere with demagoguery, especially if those arguments concern whether the rules are being applied to all participants equally—if argument by insult is allowed for us, then it is also permitted for them ... We can be mean, angry, vehement, and highly critical, as long as we don't whine if they are just as mean, angry, vehement, and critical with us ... We need to enter the conversation willing to be wrong, willing to admit the limits of our own knowledge, willing to reconsider our evidence, sources, and premises.  That is self-skepticism [15-17].
Of course I realize that this goes against common sense, the evidence of our eyes and ears, the foundations of all civilization.  But common sense, the evidence of our eyes and ears, has brought us to the pass we're in, where we've pretty much always been, unable to see why They (you know, Them) are screwing things up for everybody, when all We want is to just get along.  Why do you have to insist on not letting me and mine have all the goodies? Can't we all just get along? ... No, we can't, until we start looking beyond our clan, our tribe, all our granfalloons, and recognize that they're made up of people too.  What Roberts-Miller, Meier, and others I've quoted and discussed offer are ground rules for moving beyond Us and Them; they can be debated too, but they have to be debated.

Somewhat curiously, someone -- a Facebook friend, whom I don't know at all in the meat world -- commented yesterday on something I'd posted by depositing a verse he'd composed.  (I long ago unfollowed him to keep his smug doggerel out of my feed; I'd forgotten that we hadn't unfriended each other.)  His reaction on the Charlottesville killing was to declare the final supremacy of Us and Them, and if You are Them, you ain't shit.  I disagreed, saying that Us and Them is always an invalid move; he disagreed with me, and declared that we must leave it there.  I agreed, and asked him not to post more of his verse on my page.  He then unfriended me; big of him.

Some readers will certainly conclude that I'm denying that white racists are a threat (much as some of the same people concluded that because I didn't think the US should invade Afghanistan, I didn't consider Al Qaeda a threat).  I'm not doing anything of the kind.  Because white racism is a pervasive, endemic threat, we need to come up with better ways of confronting and blocking it than we have so far.  Some people can't be argued with or compromised with.  But I don't see a "bloodbath," as one commenter on a post at the Intercept argued recently, as a sane way out of our situation.  As usual with wars, the people who initiate the war will probably be among those who suffer least.  We tried that approach in 1861, and even though white nationalists lost on the battlefield, they fought their opponents to a standstill in the years afterward, and took control of America by working within the system.  (It didn't hurt, of course, that white nationalism wasn't confined to the Confederacy.)  We're still living with the consequences.

In the end, I suppose I'm something of a nihilist.  To the universe it doesn't matter whether human beings blow ourselves up, enslave each other in some dystopic system, become extinct through natural selection, or are immolated when the sun goes nova, or an asteroid hits the earth.  There's nothing in Darwinian theory (or in religion) to say that we will have a happy ending, and in the long run we are all dead.  But it matters to us -- doesn't it?  It matters to me, and to some others, how things go while we are still alive.  Frankly, I'm not sure it does matter to most people.  The poster I saw today is, to me, one more slice of evidence that it doesn't: that they can't think ahead any farther than the next ragegasm.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

At Least He Didn't Live to See Reddit ...

I saw this image posted to Twitter yesterday when Daniel Larison retweeted it, though it turns out it was posted to Reddit a couple of days before that.  The guy who posted it remarked, "Carl Sagan wrote this in 1996, and now I think he’s either a time traveler or a witch."  Well, that tends to confirm Sagan's totally cliched forebodings about superstition.

I don't remember what, if anything, I thought about this passage when I read The Demon-Haunted World twenty years ago, but this doesn't make me want to reread it now.  On the whole I remember liking the book, though there were some things, like a stupid denigration of pre-literate people's intelligence, that annoyed me.

As usual with apocalyptic "predictions," Sagan was describing his present and recent past, especially the Reagan regime.  I was about to say that the panic over Donald Trump has wiped out memory of Ronald Reagan's ignorance, superstition, racism, and appeal to the Common Clay, but then I remembered that the human historical memory has always been short, and Reagan was rehabilitated by Barack Obama.  I've been wondering if I'll live long enough to see Trump, like George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, embraced by liberals: hugged by Michelle Obama, schmoozing with Ellen DeGeneres.

Do I need to point out that the US has been moving towards a service economy since the 1800s?  (And what's wrong with an information economy?  Why did Sagan hate Science?)  Like many of his generation, and mine as well, Sagan may have thinking of the brief manufacturing boom during and just after World War II; that was a blip, not the normal state of US economic activity.

The stuff about dumbing-down is also standard, and speaks badly for Sagan, because it's mere demagoguery in the sense Patricia Roberts-Miller described and criticized in Demagoguery and Democracy.  I immediately thought of another critic's remarks about a 1932 lament over the emptiness of Popular Entertainment In Our Time, that I've quoted before: "It is surely a great deal better to like the trashiest fiction than to enjoy seeing a witch burnt, or to go to the silliest cinema than to soak in an eighteenth-century gin-shop."

But maybe Sagan had a point.  I like his science popularizations well enough, and I still remember fondly his appearance on a TV panel after the original broadcast of the 1983 nuclear-war movie The Day After: the political pundits who participated with him were in a state of panic and nearincoherence, and Sagan was sardonic but sensible.  Or so I remember it; I just found that the broadcast has been reconstructed and posted to Youtube, but I haven't re-watched it yet.  Maybe it will disappoint me when I do.  But compare Sagan to some of his science-for-the-masses predecessors: Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein.  There were giants in the earth in those days!  And then think of who followed him: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye.  Maybe we are going downhill.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Blood Will Tell, Roots Will Show

I'm reading a fascinating book by the anthropologist Circe Sturm, Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century (Santa Fe: School For Advanced Research Press, 2010).  It's about controversies over who is and isn't Cherokee, mainly involving the federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma and North Carolina on one hand, and other tribes elsewhere, some of which are state-recognized and some of which are self-recognized.  These latter, who often claim Indian ancestry but can't always document it, are generally considered "wannabes" by federally recognized (or "citizen") Cherokees, and Sturm spends some time explaining the complicated categories involved.  She doesn't pretend to resolve any issues; what she seeks to do, and does very well, is talk to people on all sides, trying (in words she quotes from Clifford Geertz) to "figure out what the devil they think they are up to" (14).  She's not afraid to point out the contradictions and inconsistencies in everybody's positions, and to recognize how inextricable they are - not just due to bad faith, though they are often that as well.  I was deeply gratified, for example, when she criticized one Cherokee informant's gleeful account (pages 113-114) of his viciously misogynist takedown of a white woman who'd claimed to be a descendant of "a Cherokee princess."  To do this takes some guts, and my respect for Sturm went way up when I read that passage.

Becoming Indian is relevant not just to Native American cultural conflicts, but to most confusions and squabbles over "identity," drawing boundaries and gatekeeping.  I was struck by one citizen Cherokee of the Eastern Band's take on the role of "blood" and upbringing in the debate:
Consider, for example, what [Robert] Thompson said about interracial adoption: “Let’s just say I found this little white baby, and I fell in love with this little white baby and raised him as my child, and I spoke to him in Indian, and I told him the stories, and he knew my whole family history.  He played with his so-called pseudo-cousins.  When he’s all grown up, don’t tell me he’s not a Cherokee” (October 22, 2003) [144].
In an endnote, Sturm remarks:
In this hypothetical example of interracial adoption, the baby who becomes Cherokee through a family’s love and devotion begins life as white, not black or some other explicitly marked identity, such as Hispanic or Asian.  Not surprisingly, white seems to operate as the default normative category, second only to Cherokee [228 note 14].
But something occurred to me.  "Interracial" adoption is a vexed issue in many contexts, and much of the controversy involves the notion that a baby has not just an explicitly marked identity but an explicitly marked essence.  A baby is already "Hispanic or Asian" or "white" or Indian by "blood," and it's raised outside of its ancestral culture, it will feel alienated and displaced as it grows up.  This is a recurrent theme in Becoming Indian, after all: many of the wannabes, no matter how little Cherokee ancestry they had, felt lost in white culture; and felt that their "blood" called them "home." The citizen Cherokees, no matter how dismissive they were of wannabes and "Thindians," tended to agree that if these unfortunates did have Cherokee blood, they would certainly have felt that something was wrong.  In another context, Sturm tells how, when confronted by some very white-looking Cherokee claimants at a public event, many in the audience clucked, "Well, if you've got the blood, it'll call you home" (150).

From this standpoint, wouldn't it be wrong for Robert Thompson to raise a little white baby in a Cherokee environment?  Surely when he grew up, his blood would call him back to his real people, no matter how hard Thompson tried to assimilate him.  Wouldn't that be just as wrong as taking an Indian baby and raising it white?  I don't think so, because of my white, European, postmodernist, homosexual values, and Thompson seems to be less obsessed with blood than most of the Cherokee Sturm talked to, but the idea of blood as an almost sentient racial essence runs through most of the debate about Indianness in this book, among both the wannabes and the citizens.  But so does culture: it's not enough to have the blood, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk.  Part of Sturm's achievement is that she bears down very hard on the contradictions.  (Does this remind anyone else of the debates over whether Barack Obama, who had a black father but was mainly raised by his white grandparents, was "really" black or African-American, because he wasn't a descendant of slaves and hadn't grown up in a black community?)

Yet I do have a bone to pick wth Sturm.  Early in Becoming Indian she writes:
Although the term “queer” is often [!] used simply to denote same-sex desire and sexuality whether lesbian, gay, or bisexual, in this instance I borrow Eve Sedgwick’s (1993:8) definition: “The open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” If we apply this definition to the case of racial shifters and examine the way in which they narrate and construct their own Cherokee identities, then we can see how their very refusal of normative definitions of Cherokeeness might be considered queer.
I decided to look at the context of Sedgwick's "definition," which Sturm quotes from Tendencies (Duke, 1993).  First I noticed that what Sturm quotes is "one of the things 'queer' can refer to" (Tendencies, 8); there are a couple more.  Then I noticed that Sedgwick referred to "the constituent elements of anyone's gender," etc.  Which means, for everybody, pretty much all the time: Everybody's queer, including me and thee.  I believe Sedgwick was aware of this. I'm not sure any human category signifies monolithically: the differences within a category are almost always more numerous and more significant than the average differences between categories.  Having invoked queerness, Sturm never mentions it again, and I think that's just as well.  Some of the wannabes / race shifters refuse normative definitions of Cherokeeness; others want their definitions to be normative, even though they may be more inclusive than those of citizen Cherokees.  The final question might be where those normative definitions (of Cherokeeness, or of any human group) come from.  As Sturm shows, the citizen Cherokees know that their definitions don't really have a firm indigenous foundation, especially insofar as they include being recognized by the white Federal government.  The blood quantum was originally imposed by the whites, too.  As for walking the walk and talking the talk, the Ojebwe/Dakota scholar Scott Richard Lyons wrote in his brilliant X-Marks (Minnesota, 2010):
That is precisely the “problematic” part of the peoplehood paradigm.  If you do not conform to the model – land, religion, language,and sacred history , ceremonial cycle, and so on -- if you happen to live away from your homeland, speak English, practice Christianity, or know more songs by the Dave Matthews Band than by the ancestors, you effectively “cease to exist” as one of the People [139].
According to Sturm, some Indian scholars are now trying to resolve this conundrum by describing "Cherokee identity politics as 'a battle over sovereignty'" (181). The Cherokee anthropologist Michael Lambert, whose discussion of sovereignty she quotes, argues that "A sovereign people [does] not have to meet any cultural expectations" (ibid.).  I think that's a good point, but I wonder how many Cherokee will agree with him.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Books for Industry! Books for the Dead!

This turned up in my Facebook feed today:

I immediately thought, "Wait! Aren't millennials too busy staring at their smartphone screens to use a library?"  Of course, this item turned up in my feed because it had been shared by the same person who posted the bogus Orwell quote to that effect a couple of weeks ago.

And since when are libraries an "industry"?

It's All Fun Until Someone Loses an Election

Happily, there's another newly-published book that does what Brooke Gladstone failed to do in The Trouble with Reality: Patricia Roberts-Miller's Demagoguery and Democracy (The Experiment, 2017). Roberts-Miller is Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of a couple other books that I'd like to read.  Though she's an academic, you mostly wouldn't guess that from the way she writes; she uses little jargon and defines clearly what she does use.  And though she's surely a liberal, probably a liberal Democrat, she's not interested in pandering to her side.  Though she recognizes and deplores the current state of political discourse in the US, she also recognizes that instead of providing an alternative to it, most media and public figures have gone along with what the cool kids are doing:
It’s a commonplace that we live in an era of demagogues, and it’s a commonplace that demagogues are successful because they mislead dupes and “sheeple”with what is obviously pandering, dishonesty, and irrational rhetoric. Demagogues sucker them. We’re all agreed on that point. We just disagree with them, since those benighted fools think we’re suckered by demagogues! Of course we aren’t. That accusation just shows what mindless Flavor Aid drinkers they are. Our leaders are honest (even if sometimes mistaken), well intentioned, and authentic. Theirs are lying, malevolent, and manipulative. And we are in a terrible situation now because our political scene is dominated by their demagogues. 

The underlying narrative is that our political culture has been damaged because a demagogue has arisen and is leading people astray. If we accept this narrative (one that doesn’t actually hold up to scrutiny), then we try to solve the problem of demagoguery in ways that worsen it: We call for purifying our public sphere of their demagogues, often in very demagogic ways. That narrative misleads us because it reverses cause and effect. We don’t have demagoguery in our culture because a demagogue came to power; when demagoguery becomes the normal way of participating in public discourse, then it’s just a question of time until a demagogue arises. So, this book is not about a demagogue but demagoguery—how it works, how to describe and identify it, how good people can find themselves relying on demagoguery, and what we can do about it [1].
For Roberts-Miller, "Demagoguery is about identity.  It says that complicated policy issues can be reduced to a binary of us (good) versus them (bad).  It says that good people recognize there is a bad situation, and bad people don't; therefore, to determine what policy agenda is the best, it says we should think entirely in terms of who is like us and who isn't" (7-8).  One can dispute Roberts-Miller's definition of demagoguery, which she admits is "not the conventional view" (7); but as she shows, the conventional view is part of the problem.  She mentions the first-century essayist Plutarch, who "insisted on an absolute distinction between demagogues and statesmen": demagogues are greedy hustlers just trying to make money off the gullibility of the masses by appealing to their emotions.  Since it focuses on the (alleged) character of the demagogue, rather than the truth or rationality (or lack thereof) of his claims, this approach is itself demagogic.

That Donald Trump's style is demagogic is obvious to his Democratic enemies; that their response ("orange," "tiny hands," "narcissist," "hateful," "in the pay of Putin") is also demagogic is, unsurprisingly, not.  The tricky part is that by adopting a demagogic stance, Brooke Gladstone's The Trouble with Reality will appeal to a good many more people than Roberts-Miller's book will.

Of course, there's nothing new here.  It fits with Noam Chomsky's discussion of the importance of concision in corporate-media news coverage, for instance, and with any number of accounts to critical thinking.  It's easy to see too that many invocations of freedom, rationality, critical thinking, and the like are framed demagogically: We are rational, reality-based; They are credulous, superstitious; We support science and evidence; They are Flat-earther Creationists, "climate deniers."  Why even bother to try to have a serious, rational discussion with such idiots?  And very quickly, since anyone who disagrees with one's construction of truth and reason is obviously an idiot, no serious, rational discussion is necessary at all.

Here's part of Roberts-Miller's suggestions for what to do against demagoguery:
There are, loosely, four kinds of things we can do, and no one needs to do all of them, and none of us needs to do any of them all the time. First, we can try to reduce the profitability of demagoguery by consuming less of it ourselves, and shaming media outlets that rely heavily on it. Second, we can choose not to argue with family or friends who are repeating demagogic talking points, and simply give witness to the benefits of pluralism and diversity. Or, third, if it seems interesting and worthwhile, we can argue with family or friends who are repeating demagogic talking points. Fourth, we can also support and argue for democratic deliberation. 

Historically, cultures insist on non-demagogic political processes after a devastating war (consider the rise of arguments for religious tolerance after the English Civil Wars or the marginalization of racialist “science” after World War II). It would be nice if we could find a different solution [94].
Unfortunately, the rise of Trump to the Presidency apparently wasn't devastating enough; many Democrats, including most of the party leadership, have chosen instead to embrace and escalate demagoguery to a deranged level.

Roberts-Miller then proceeds to give a brief course in critical thinking, and concludes:
Notice that I’m not saying you will thereby persuade them they are wrong. After all, they might not be. You might be wrong. You might both be wrong. You might both be somewhat right. You’re trying to persuade them to engage in deliberation, and that means you have to be willing to engage in it, too [123].
But I've already quoted too much from this short book, which has only about 130 pages of text.  It's full of good analysis and information, though, and if what I quote here looks good to you, you should read it.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Unreality-based Community

I recently read The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time (Workman, 2017), by Brooke Gladstone, the co-host of an NPR program called On the Media.  The portentous title fooled me, to my discredit, but once I read a few pages of this short book I realized it was symptomatic of the present state of American political discourse.  Also of every past state of American political discourse.  Gladstone drops a lot of impressive names (Thomas Szasz in the book's epigraph, Philip K. Dick, Arthur Schopenhauer, Walter Lippmann, Hannah Arendt, and -- course -- George Orwell) and indulges in professionally overwrought rhetoric ("moral panic" in the title; Dick was "America's most determined architect and annihilator of reality", [3]) that she seems not to understand very well.  (She uses the term "moral panic" exactly once, near the end of the book, without context or evident meaning.)  So, for example, she quotes a 1978 speech by Dick:
"... because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups ..."
And, he might have added, by science-fiction writers turned gurus. "Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured"?  When didn't we live in such a society?  Besides, "spurious realities" is at best an oxymoron: if it's spurious, then it's not reality.  This is a hustler playing a shell game.
"Very sophisticated people are using very sophisticated electric mechanisms.  I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power.  They have a lot of it.  And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.  I ought to know. ... It is my job to create universes. ... And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later.

"... And in there somewhere is the other topic, the definition of the authentic human.  Because the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly -- as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides.  Fake realities will create fake humans. ... It's just a very large version of Disneyland [3-4]."
Dick claimed that his novels and stories "asked the question 'What is reality?'" All he could come up with was "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."  But, Gladstone says, "he knew we urgently needed a better answer", though I don't see what's wrong with that one.  Dick confused the issue by equivocating between the "reality" that "doesn't go away" and the "spurious realities" that he and other "very sophisticated people" invented; but since human beings only have direct access to the inventions, we do have a problem.

Gladstone then declares:
What Dick saw forty years ago many of us see now, at least of those whose reality embodies liberal values [4].
Later in her book, Gladstone gestures at conspiracy theories, citing research which found that "conservatives [were] more likely than liberals to believe conspiracy theories, especially apocalyptic ones" (31).  It says something that she begins her book by declaring allegiance to an apocalyptic conspiracy theory.

She then unreels a breezy survey of the failings of the media, as if she weren't part of the media herself, and starts explaining how The Demagogue Trump did his wicked work.
Which explains why so many of the rest of us [that is, Not-Trump-Supporters] are still reeling.  We also knew the system was rigged.  But once the bad behavior was exposed, the guilty were supposed to pay the consequences, at least in the court of public opinion.  That Trump's misconduct actually would help vault him to the White House was inconceivable [40; link added by me]
And no, she doesn't seem to recognize the irony in her use of that word.  I admit when she invokes the fantasy that "the guilty were supposed to pay the consequences," it's as a "stereotype" that "those whose reality embodies liberal values" clung to in the face of disconfirming evidence, though I don't think she wants to recognize that American political, business and media elites almost never do pay the consequences.  And then she says that Trump's "system clearly was unmoored to facts" (44)..

Even as an anti-Trump jeremiad, The Trouble with Reality is a failure.  Gladstone skims over the weighty history and political theory she discusses, getting them wrong most of the time.  She misses the import of much of it, for example:
"Oddly enough, the only person likely to be an ideal victim of complete manipulation is the President of the United States," said Arendt.

"Because of the immensity of his job, he must surround himself with advisers ... who exercise their power chiefly by filtering the information that reaches the President and by interpreting the outside world for him" [61].
Gladstone applies this to Trump, which is fair, though I wonder if (say) President Obama spent as much time actually watching Fox News, CNN, and other media as Trump seems to.  It also appears that he watches them as most people do, inattentively, only perking up when a buzzword gets his attention, and he doesn't bother to make sure that what he thinks he heard was what was said.  It's not as if he was any better-informed before he went into politics.  He also, as we've seen repeatedly, bullies and fires his advisors when they don't tell him what he wants to hear.  But the point is that Arendt was not talking about Trump; she was talking about all US Presidents.  The quotation appears to come from a 1978 interview with Arendt published in the New York Review of Books, so she most likely had Richard Nixon chiefly in mind.  Barack Obama also entered a bubble when he moved into the White House.  Remember when he jumped to the conclusion that the Supreme Court had overturned the Affordable Care Act, because CNN (and other media) mistakenly said so?

All of Gladstone's polemic is directed at Trump and his reality-challenged base, but her book is clearly written for a liberal-Democrat, NPR and PBS-supporting readership.  Few of them need to be told that Trump is a very bad man, the worst, a big-league demagogue who will destroy democracy if he isn't stopped, who became President because his conspiracy-theory-loving base were (willingly, don't let them off the hook) fooled by his propaganda.  Gladstone's intended readers are in no danger of being fooled by him.  But she betrays no awareness that her discussion of American politics also applies to the Democratic leadership; even when she cites a nineteenth-century critic of the press like James Fenimore Cooper, she does so because of his "eerie prescience" (39), not because his complaints show that the abuses he identified go back to (or even before) the beginning of the Republic.  In short, Gladstone is preaching to the choir, flattering and stroking their fears and prejudices, while believing that she's taking a courageous stand for Truth, Justice, and the American way.

Imagine -- well, you probably don't have to imagine -- that some Fox News personality wrote a book about the peril demagoguery poses to America, citing the same authorities Gladstone does, warning his or her readers not to be fooled by Barack Obama's or Hillary Clinton's manipulations, propaganda, and doggone-it undermining of reality.  Some, even most of their criticisms of the Adversary might well be justified, though that's purely optional.  But like Gladstone, they would never think of turning their analytical gaze on their own side.