Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Social Construction Workers

Dan Savage's sex-advice column for February 8 was a compendium of brief answers he gave to questions submitted by live audiences recently.  This one caught my attention.
Why are liberals okay with people self-identifying their gender but not their race? Aren’t both considered social constructs?

“If race and gender are both social constructs,” Evan Urquhart writes at Slate, “and if both have been built around observable biological traits, then what is the crucial difference that makes a felt gender identity a true one, but a felt racial identity fraudulent? The short answer is that most trans people and their allies suspect that transgender people are born that way.” (Read the rest of the essay here.)
A full trifecta: neither the questioner, Savage, nor Evan Urquhart, know what they are talking about about, especially with regard to "social construction."  Urquhart gets a point or two for recognizing that social constructs are "built around observable biological traits," and also for not freaking out over comparisons between "racial identity" and "gender identity," but goes wrong from there.  And even "observable biological traits" is wrong, come to think of it.  Social constructs include language, religion, nationality, etc., none of which are built around observable biological traits.  I'm not sure how sexual orientation would fit in there either; probably it doesn't.  (It involves observable external biological sex -- whether one is male or female, and whether one's desired sexual partners are male or female -- and there's a common mythology about homosexuals as physiological sexual variants, to which I'll return.  But you cannot always or even usually tell a person's sexual orientation by looking at them; false positives and false negatives abound.)

As for "most trans people and their allies suspect that transgender people are born that way," well, it may be that this is what most trans people and their allies suspect (!), but there is no evidence that it's true, and Urquhart knows it:
I say that we “suspect” trans people are born that way because the science isn’t in, yet. When Caitlyn Jenner spoke vaguely of female brains in male bodies it was because there isn’t any clearer terminology that can be employed to speak about this hunch, but it persists in the minds of many trans people and their allies anyway. We do have increasing evidence for specific genetic and epigenetic differences between gay men and straight men that result in homosexuality, but so far scientists have yet to investigate the rest of the letters in LGBTQ as thoroughly.   For now, even those who are most familiar with this topic can’t say for sure what being transgender is, and what might cause it. There are, however, circumstantial reasons to believe it may also have a genetic and/or epigenetic basis. For one thing, many trans people report feeling that their assigned gender didn’t match their inner conception of their gender from earliest childhood. We also have evidence of individuals who dressed, acted, or passed as the opposite sex across many cultures and many historical eras. This, paired with the evidence that sexual orientations are innate, not learned, leads us to hypothesize that gender identities function similarly.
Urquhart is wrong about the evidence for a biological basis for homosexuality; he's also evidently ignorant of the history of "female brains in male bodies," which used to be a popular conception for male homosexuality.  (He presumably hasn't noticed either that the scientific "evidence" about inborn homosexuality is about sex/gender, not sexual orientation.)  Despite the ongoing scientific efforts to prove otherwise, however, there aren't "female brains," and a fortiori there aren't female brains in male bodies: the brain in a male body is a male brain.  Whatever differences have been claimed have been differences of degree, not of kind, just as with racial differences.  To assert otherwise is like claiming that a tall woman has a male height in a woman's body.  (Given the amount of hassle that tall women get, though, many people might accept that metaphor.)

Urquhart says that "science continues to be done that supports the idea of gender differences within the human brain, while the possibility of such differences existing between races has been roundly rejected."  This isn't true either.  Scientists continue to try to prove innate racial differences no matter how consistently such work is discredited, and popular media (and the public) are just as fond of the idea as they are of the idea of innate gender differences.  That scientists continue to try to find innate sex/gender differences, even though they consistently fail, says more about scientists' culturally-inculcated prejudices than it does about the validity of the idea, just as with race.

As it happens, the word Jenner used was "soul," not "brain," which is even less helpful for Urquhart's argument.  People do talk casually about the soul as if it were something that is known to exist, independently of the body, but it's not a scientific concept (for what that's worth).  Even if there is such a thing as the soul, we know nothing about it, and can't assign it a sex/gender, a race, a nationality, a political party, or any other trait.  It's not illegitimate to use the word as a metaphor, but it can't be used to prove anything.  As with height, just because there's a word for it, that doesn't prove it's a Thing.

Probably most gay people and our allies do believe that sexual orientation is inborn, but they're wrong too, so the same belief among trans people and their allies isn't evidence for anything.  In general, a conviction that one was born with a certain trait doesn't prove that it was in fact inborn. Nor, contrary to the equally widespread and equally false belief spread by Dan Savage and others, do civil rights depend on whether a given status is inborn, learned, or freely chosen.  (Or a social construct, a term which plays no role in civil rights legislation.)

Dan Savage's questioner probably was just trolling, though the troll was effective because it pinpointed basic incoherences in what trans people and their advocates say about gender.  Urquhart's article addressed chosen "racial" identity, occasioned by the controversy over Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who passed as black for several years.  As far as I can tell, though, Dolezal has not claimed that she was truly, essentially black (a black brain or soul in a white body?), or applied the other rhetoric typical of the transgender community and its allies; Urquhart doesn't, at any rate, report that she did.  (According to Richard Seymour, "Dolezal did not claim to be ‘trans-racial’; she claimed to be black, and still does.")  Trans people aren't claiming to choose their gender identities: as Urquhart says, they see their identities as innate and unchosen, forced on them by their genes or brain structure.  The term "self-identify" is unfortunate, though, since it does imply that some kind of choice is being made.  Yet the verb "identify as" has become normative, even epidemic, in LGBTQ discourse.  It's all very well to "identify as," but what are you really?  Are you Betty Jo Bialowsky, or are you Nancy?

So what about "racial identity"?  I can't see how it could be inborn, any more than any identity could be.  Identities are labels, names, and as such are cultural products.  However, many people do believe in inborn racial identities, and that someone's "felt" racial identity can be inauthentic.  There was controversy during Barack Obama's first presidential campaign, over whether he has really African-American because despite his Kenyan father he wasn't descended from slaves or because he was raised in African-American communities.  (He grew up with his white mother and her white parents.)  Leave aside the merits of these claims; I want to point out that they separate biology from racial status and identity as radically as transgender separates biological sex from sex/gender status and identity.  It would follow from these criteria that a white-appearing descendant of Thomas Jefferson's slave Sally Heming who grew up in an African-American community would be African-American, regardless of what she looked like, while a first-generation black Nigerian immigrant would not.  If you add to that a belief in the existence of the soul as a distinct and separate substance, then a person could plausibly claim to have a black soul in a white body.  And what about "mixed-race" people?  Do they have black brains and white brains in their bodies, fighting for supremacy?  Do they have "mixed-race" brains?  Or what?

People who invoke social constructs in these debates overlook something important in "social construction," namely the first word in the term.  "Social construction" doesn't mean that an individual can choose an identity (or whatever) at will.  If anything, it means the opposite.  "Social construct" means that there is more or less a consensus in your society about what it means to be (for example) a man or a woman.  There is a very great range of variation among actual individuals, so the social construct is often at odds with reality, and people learn to overlook the variation in order to maintain their stereotypes and the cultural solidarity those stereotypes support.  But the whole point of social construction theory is not that people "choose" identities, but that much of what feels natural to them is really learned, acquired, accepted -- not by conscious choice but by absorption of what they see around themselves as they grow up.  Which, come to think of it, undermines Urquhart's argument that gay or trans people's conviction that we can't remember having been otherwise, can't remember learning or choosing to be the way they are, constitutes evidence in favor of the conviction.  The whole point of social construction theory is that what feels natural and innate very often is not.

What this means is that recognizing that a trait is a social construct doesn't license individuals to choose another one.  Consider language.  Though the language I speak is a social construct, my inability to understand a language I don't know is not the result of false consciousness or a closed mind.  Though there is a great deal of variation within any given language, an individual speaker can't stray too far from the socially constructed norms of the language without becoming incomprehensible to others.  One can move around within the realm of one's language, passively acquiring or actively adopting variants that signal class, locale, gender, or other difference.  But that is exactly the point: by doing so, one signals the social meanings associated with those variations.  We can, and should, challenge the prejudices that devalue certain linguistic variants, but in doing so we'll come up against powerful essentialist beliefs about the nature of those variants.  If you say "ain't," for example, you are signaling to language bigots that you are an ignorant, uneducated, low-class person.  By nature.

As far as I know, though, no one has so far claimed a 'felt racial identity' at odds with the one assigned them by society.  It doesn't appear that Rachel Dolezal did.  Quite a few people are claiming a 'felt gender identity' at odds with the one they were assigned, but as we've seen, their rationales are not convincing.  There's no reason to believe that any gender identity is inborn.  This doesn't have to be a problem, just as it doesn't matter whether sexual orientation is inborn.  It seems that people react differently to claims about racial identity than they do to claims about gender identity, and that's an interesting problem in itself.

It seems pretty clear to me that people generally invoke biology and culture, social construction and essentialism, as expediency requires.  But that's not unusual when vexed issues are being discussed.  Perhaps it's a mistake to take them literally, since they aren't interested in rationality or evidence: they 'reason' backwards from their conclusions, to put a sheen of reasonability on what they believe for no reason, or for bad reasons.

I'm not sure that social construction theory is compatible with the political needs of trans people, or of gay people.  To assert an identity is essentialist, even when the identity is clearly not genetic or epigenetic: nationality, religion, etc.  This doesn't mean that trans people are wrong, nor that they must prove that gender identity is inborn before they can affirm the identities they have constructed and chosen.  But it is wrong to make claims about nature or cause that have no evidence to back them up; making false statements isn't good on general principles, and it's imprudent to hang political demands on grounds that don't exist and may be disproven, let alone on bad science that has already been discredited.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

What's the Safe Word?

When I look back at what I've written here, I wonder how I did it, especially the long discursive posts.  It feels like it takes me longer to write than it used to.  I hope I'm wrong.  At any rate, I'm writing this post partly because I'm stalled in the middle of a post I began while stalled in the middle of yet another.  I've also been busy with some non-writing tasks that kept me from simply sitting down and pushing on through.

Yesterday I saw most of a 2014 movie called Whiplash, which I seem to remember some of my musician friends mentioning and liking.  I hated it, perhaps even more than I might have before I wrote the previous two posts about talent, achievement, and status.  I may get some details wrong here, because I don't intend to watch it again, though if readers point out anything important I'll try to correct it.  Also, bear in mind that there will be spoilers in what follows.

Whiplash is about Andrew, a young guy who wants to be a great jazz drummer.  His father is a failed novelist, and is presented as ineffectual but loving.  The kid, played by Miles Teller, wins admission to an elite conservatory, where he becomes the student of Fletcher, a famous musician, composer and bandleader, played by J. K. Simmons.  Fletcher is what I'd call an old-school kind of teacher and conductor, who bullies his students maniacally, playing them off against one another, screaming obscene and homophobic/misogynistic abuse at them.  The character has been compared to the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and it's a fair comparison except that Fletcher never actually hits them.  (He does throw a folding chair at Andrew at one point, but Andrew ducks.  Shades of another abusive prick of a teacher.)  Why that should be I don't know -- is it to make him less unsympathetic in some strange way?

There are numerous segments where Andrew practices maniacally at home until his hands bleed; now I know why I see drummers with bandages on their hands.  Some of this is reminiscent of the training sequence in Rocky, except that there's no exultation in it.  It's just pain, more pain; abuse, more abuse.  The class rehearsal scenes are excruciatingly long, intense, and infuriating, culminating in one where Fletcher makes three drummers switch off, screaming at them, until one of them shows that he can play a passage the way Fletcher wants him to; it takes them hours, though not, blessedly, in screen time.  Andrew wins out, and gets to play at an upcoming competition, though Fletcher warns him that if he is a millisecond late, if he makes an infinitesimal mistake, he'll be out.  So, of course, Andrew's bus gets a flat tire; he manages to rent a car, and arrives at the competition with a few minutes to spare, but without his drum sticks, which he forgot at the rental place.  Fletcher screams that he has to have his own drumsticks, so Andrew drives back, gets his sticks, speeds back, is hit by another car as he runs a stop sign, crawls out and runs bleeding to the competition, arriving just in time.  But one of his hands is hurt so that he can barely hold the stick, and Simmons kicks him out with contempt.  Andrew finally breaks and attacks Fletcher, for which he's expelled from the conservatory.  But then he's called back in for a meeting because other parents have complained about Simmons; one of his former students hanged himself, and they need someone living who can testify -- anonymously -- about Fletcher's mistreatment of his students.  Andrew agrees, but he also gives up music.

Now, we've already been informed about the dead student.  In one of the rehearsals, a subdued, tearful Fletcher plays the class a CD featuring the dead boy, who he says had just died in a car accident.  (Andrew's accident is surely meant to echo this.)  The boy had won a spot playing with Wynton Marsalis, and Fletcher saw him as one of his great successes.  But the parents tell Andrew that the boy had been anxious and miserable for a long time.

This is important, because the film isn't over yet.  Andrew passes a jazz club and sees that Fletcher will be featured that night.  He goes to hear him play, Fletcher sees him, they have a drink together.  Fletcher says that he resigned from the conservatory.  He invites Andrew to join an orchestra he's putting together for a jazz festival at Carnegie Hall; he hasn't been able to find a drummer who knows the charts, and he knows that Andrew memorized them long before.  Andrew gets his drums out of the closet, and goes to the festival to play.  Fletcher tells the assembled musicians that this is their big chance, there are people in the audience who will notice if they do well, and who will never forget if they make even a tiny mistake.  They go on stage, Andrew at the drum kit, and Fletcher announces to the audience that they will begin with a new piece, his composition, never played before.  Panicked but controlled, Andrew looks at the chart before him.  No one told him about this, no one gave him the chart.  The other musicians have the music in front of them; they look unruffled.  Andrew miserably tries to fake his way through the piece, without success.  I wondered if this scene was supposed to be Andrew's nightmare, and if he would wake up from it.  As far as I could tell, it's not.  (The reviews I've looked at don't mention it.)  At this point there was some distraction and I couldn't follow the film closely, but I could tell that Fletcher didn't eject Andrew from the band, the show went on, and Andrew triumphed as Fletcher beamed at him proudly.  Finis. Credits.

As I watched Whiplash I felt regret that Band of Thebes is no longer blogging, because I'd love to read what he'd have written about it, likely something in the vein of his mocking review of the historical Romans-in-Britain The Eagle, which cast it as an S&M romance between the two gorgeous young male leads.  Whiplash went much farther than The Eagle, stopping short only of overt beatings of the bottom by the abusive top daddy Fletcher.  I thought too of Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty trilogy, an extended S&M fantasy, which struck me when I first read it by the role that "normal" schooling echoes standard S&M practice.  If you've read any S&M porn, from Rice to John Preston, the parallels are impossible to miss.  The use of homophobic epithets made it even harder to ignore the sadomasochistic text, though the critics I read managed to do so.  I gathered from the reviews that the writer-director has a background in jazz before he switched to film, and that Whiplash is in some degree his manifesto about Excellence.  I'm not sure, if so, what I'm supposed to make of the fact that he shows Fletcher lying to his students about the dead student, the student he effectively drove to suicide.  There's no hint that he feels any remorse, or doubt about his methods of producing what he considers excellence.  It's as if Andrew's triumph at Carnegie Hall also vindicates Fletcher.

None of the critics I read questioned his methods either; rather there was a certain amount of Whoa, dude, awesome, radical in their reactions.  As far as I could tell, Fletcher was maybe a bit extreme, but not excessive.  Several mentioned a story Fletcher tells to justify himself, involving a cymbal thrown at the head of a teenaged Charlie Parker by drummer Jo Jones on stage in 1937.  (According to this account, the cymbal was thrown at Parker's feet, not his head, and didn't connect as Fletcher claimed it did.  This writer dissects the claim further.)  As far as I'm concerned, Fletcher is a vicious sociopath.  His students aren't remotely consenting to the mistreatment he metes out, though they endure it: partly perhaps because they already were to some extent driven, prepped and self-selected by the time they entered conservatory, but mostly because he's the teacher, the authority figure, and everything they know encourages them to see him as their path to success as musicians.

I also thought of Starship Troopers -- the book, not the movie, which I haven't seen -- which Robert Heinlein wrote for what would now be called the Young Adult market.  It glamorizes military service, and includes a long account of Marine boot camp, which Fletcher's classroom resembles in its methods, though admittedly it isn't the same kind of total environment.  Heinlein had to tone things down a bit, since he couldn't include the screaming of obscenities and homophobic abuse in a romance written for teenagers, not in the 1950s anyhow.  And perhaps he chose to, to make his story more appealing or at least less off-putting to his readers.  (Similarly, one segment of War, the military historian Gwynne Dyer's miniseries which aired on PBS in the 1980s, depicts Marine boot camp at Parris Island.  I was amused to watch the drill instructors visibly biting back the fucks they obviously wanted to spit out.)  Prurient accounts of flogging, which Heinlein did include, could be included in an SF novel in the 1950s; verbal obscenities could not.  Heinlein also showed his drill sergeants as consciously, deliberately planning and calibrating the abuse of their trainees, making them older, sadder wiser fellows just doing a job; perhaps they were, just like Nazi SS goons.  Even so Scribner, his usual publisher for the "juveniles," turned Starship Troopers down and it was published by the nominally adult publisher Putnam.  That's the thing, though: Fletcher might be an outlier, though I'm not sure even of that.  He's certainly not an aberration.  As I said, he's old-school, if you studied with De Sade.

But, as I indicated before, I mainly connected Whiplash to Freddie deBoer's discussion of the scarcity of academic talent in the population, and to other discussions of elitism and meritocracy.  I'm not saying that either deBoer nor Christopher Hayes would approve of Fletcher's methods -- I don't know one way or the other -- but it seems to me that they both make the same general mistake Whiplash makes, namely that "creativity [is[ just a matter of tallying up practice hours, musicianship [is] just athleticism, and it [takes] flinging deadly objects at someone to motivate them."  (I'm reversing what the writer at Slate, previously mentioned, said in denial of Fletcher's philosophy.)

Whiplash inadvertently raises questions that go beyond the acceptability of abuse and humiliation of students by their teachers, into areas where Chris Hayes, for one, screwed up.  The viewer has to take it on faith that Andrew is all that good, let alone that he'll become the "great" musician he wants to be.  The world is big, much bigger than the hermetically sealed conservatory classroom he and his rivals are trying to claw their way to the top of.  Even a major jazz festival is a microcosm.  The standards of excellence in jazz are different from those in other arts, even if we stay within the bounds of European art music.  What would, say, an Indian classical tabla player think of Andrew, or of Fletcher?  And, as always, even if you could claim to be the fastest drummer in the West, you would have to go on defending your title against upstart newcomers.  Is "greatness" in the arts (or anywhere else) solely a matter of technical proficiency, playing more beats per minute than anyone has ever played before until someone else comes along and plays a tiny fraction faster than you did?  I recall reading that the composer Maurice Ravel lacked the chops to play the piano concerto he wrote for someone else; was he therefore a total loser, a mediocrity, a fuckup who should have had a grand piano thrown at his head?  To return to deBoer, is academic ability a matter of scoring a wee bit higher on a multiple-choice test than the next kid?  Of course not, and deBoer knows it; so why does he write as if he didn't know it?

If a consenting adult chooses to work with a maniacally demanding, abusive teacher in the belief that he can achieve greatness or merely better-ness thereby, that's up to him.  (I forgot to mention before that the musicians in Fletcher's classroom are all male.  No doubt in Fletcher's mind, and in his creator Damien Chazelle's mind, greatness can't be cultivated in women.)  Maybe they can both get off on it.  There are stories of famous, possibly great conductors who browbeat performers, bringing them to tears.  Toscanini comes to mind.  But Toscanini wasn't the only great conductor, just as Bob Knight wasn't the only great coach.  Both of them, and other authoritarian scum like them, might have achieved their results without debasing and humiliating their charges -- who knows?  It's certain that others achieved great results by other methods.  And students can't really consent, especially outside of elite institutions; or even inside them.  Do the students attending Whiplash's conservatory know in advance what they were signing up for?  Were they given a safe word?  Responsible sadomasochistic practice demands one.

Chazelle has said: "There is a moral question in the movie that I wanted to pose which is: 'If we accept that sometimes terrible means lead to good ends, do we accept that the ends justify the means?'" It would seem that he thinks that the answer is "Yes."  I don't.  Even the way he poses the question is fallacious, since in order to say that the ends justify the means, one would have to be able to show that the terrible means led to the good end.  In general, they obviously don't, or they would always (or mostly) lead to good ends.  If all of Fletcher's students became great muscians, he could argue that his methods produce greatness; most likely, as in the real world, most do not.  So his means can't be justified by their ends.  It appears to be purely accidental that some of the survivors become great.  In much the same way, some people have tried to connect substance abuse and other problems causally with artistic achievement; but even if all great artists were junkies, not all junkies are great artists.

There's an old fable about a young violinist who plays for a famous older violinist to get his advice whether to coninue with music.  The Maestro says, "You lack the fire," so Junior gives up music and becomes a bank clerk or a life coach or something.  Years later, they happen to meet again, and the Maestro says that he tells everybody they lack the fire; if they give up, that proves him right.  Those who stick with it prove him wrong, though, and he can't take credit for their success since he did nothing to help it or bring it about.  In fact, it can be argued that neither he nor anyone else can tell in advance whether someone will be great.  The same is true of Fletcher.  Do those of his students who succeed do so because of his abuse, or despite it?  The burden of proof lies on him.

Even if one could establish a causal link between Fletcher's methods and the few students who achieve greatness, it could and should be questioned whether the means are justified.  Does the success of a few balance the misery he inflicted on them, or on the many who fail?  Is becoming a great jazz musician even that important an end?  There are clearly people who believe so, but are they right, and how do we decide?  Since we don't know, I think I may reasonably suspect that Fletcher's means are for him, and perhaps for the few who seek him out, the end in themselves.  Making a great musician, which rarely is the result anyway, is at best an accident.

That so many reviewers praised Whiplash so lavishly is to me a symptom of what Adrienne Rich called the deadly masochism of normative masculinity.  Apparently a good many men secretly long for an abusive daddy who'll whip them into line.  Something like that longing draws many into the military, for example.  Which is fine -- everyone has a right to their kinks -- but we should not confuse ourselves about what is really going on.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Number of the Best

There were a couple of issues I meant to discuss in Saturday's post, but they slipped my mind.  I'll address them here.

One is deBoer's apparent assumption, implicit in passages like "What do we do with differences in academic achievement after they no longer fall along traditional lines of inequality?" that people with less academic talent or achievement aren't fit for anything: only the top of the top, the cream of the crop, will have any kind of future in his Brave New World.  If we eliminate the old forms of discrimination, we can then guiltlessly discriminate against the true unequals.  Chris Hayes said something similar, if more extreme, in his book The Twilight of the Elites: people want the Number One Best in everything, and in the age of the Internet they can have it.
The same goes in a whole host of domains: the best opera soprano can, with the advent of MP3s and the Internet, sell to anyone in the world with an iPod, which spells trouble for the fifth best soprano. If you can buy the best, why settle? [143]
DeBoer tries to demur with his disclaimer that "This condition does not entail some sort of overall difference in the inherent value of different people. There are many more ways to be a good, worthwhile, positive person than simply to fit into our current Procrustean metrics for what makes you a good student."  If he really meant this, there would be no problem, but if he really meant it, why all the handwringing?

The whole "meritocratic" slogan of "the best person for the job" is built on this assumption: somewhere out there is the Best Person, endowed by his or her genes to fit the square hole you want to plug; all you have to do is weed out all the losers, for they are many, put the right peg into that hole, and everything will go perfectly.  Look again at deBoer's remark about "our current Procrustean metrics for what makes you a good student."  The real problem is that schools are torn between education, which is not Procrustean, and institutional demands, which are.  As I wrote before, punctuality, neatness, obedience, willing to think within the box, able to give the answer the teacher expects.

The other issue is interest.  It's well-known that people might want to have a career for which they lack the aptitude; it's less often noticed that someone might have an aptitude for academic skills but no interest in using them to make a living.  You can be tall, yet have no interest in playing basketball; you can have a womb, yet not want to bear children.  There are plenty of anecdotes about people of my generation who grew up in enriched middle-class homes, did well in school, pleased their parents and their teachers, and went into professions or other high-status and high-paid work, only to realize that they hated such work and left it, for carpentry, mechanics, or cabinet-making.  Or perhaps they have a talent but are, for whatever reason, unable to make a living at it, so they moved to another job -- perhaps one of those vacated by former lawyers and MBAs who decided they'd rather run a Bed and Breakfast than a hedge fund.

The person who wants a career for which they lack skills or aptitude is really only a problem if you demand that the Number One person, the Best, should have a job.  Most jobs don't require the Best,  and despite all the metrics, the IQ tests, the aptitude tests, and so on, it doesn't seem to possible to know in advance who will do a job well anyway.  DeBoer may be correct that "human beings are remarkably static in how they are sorted relative to others in all manner of metrics of academic achievement," but (leaving aside the significance of "sorting" people in the first place), people are evidently pretty flexible in situations where they are not being sorted.  When you want someone to cut your hair, say, do you go looking for The Best, or someone who can do it competently?  How would you find The Best Hairstylist anyway?  Even if such a person existed, what would they do when everybody in your city flocked to their salon?  Answer: they'd hire more help, who might be thoroughly good at what they do, but they wouldn't be The Best.

I think that most people, most of the time, don't really care much about The Best; Good Enough is good enough for them.  But we are susceptible to caring about The Best, and this susceptibility is cultivated and exploited by business interests and others who push competitive ranking and the creation of artificial scarcity.  So the commercial media bombard us with rankings, not just of athletes but of best sellers, top-grossing movies, winners and losers.  Once you've accepted the validity of ranking what can be quantified, it's easy to suppose that we should rank what can't be quantified: the value of art, ideas, people.

(Another popular slogan along these lines is that fifty percent of the population is "below average."  This is true by definition, and therefore irrelevant.  The relevant question is, how smart do you have to be to do your job well?)

It seems to me that it's precisely at the stratospheric level of government, corporate, and other elites that competence is a problem, partly because at that level there's no accountability worthy of the name.  CEOs who destroy their companies generally get their bonuses anyway, and move on to destroy other companies.  Whether a President of the United States is competent is of no interest to his fans, as many can see with regard to President Trump but had trouble seeing with regard to President Obama.  What matters is whether the current president is the Greatest President Evar, and partisans are always ready to make that claim for their incumbent.  As for legal accountability when they commit crimes, as they often do, forget it.  Holding them accountable would do irreparable harm to the credibility of the institutions they're busy destroying -- or so the defenders of meritocracy warn us.

Our cultural obsession with ranking -- which is not quite the same as sorting -- would be harmful even if we knew how to rank people accurately and objectively.  As Alfie Kohn wrote, criticizing President Obama's harping on the importance of America's international competitiveness:
You may have noticed the connection between this conception of education and the practice of continually ranking students on the basis of their scores on standardized tests. This is a promising start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Twenty-second-century schooling means that just about everything should be evaluated in terms of who’s beating whom. Thus, newspapers might feature headlines like: “U.S. Schools Now in 4th Place in Number of Hall Monitors” or “Gates Funds $50-Billion Effort to Manufacture World-Class Cafeteria Trays.” Whatever the criterion, our challenge is to make sure that people who don’t live in the United States will always be inferior to us.
But not only "people who don't live in the United States" -- we must also know which people who live in the United States are inferior, and keep them in their natural place.  I think deBoer believes that we can rank people without making invidious judgments about their "inherent value."  I disagree: I believe that ranking people encourages and justifies such judgments.  This is partly because people (even highly trained professionals) find it impossible to distinguish between "inferior" in the sense of lower (the literal meaning of "inferior") on a constructed scale and "inferior" in the sense of having less inherent value.  If ranking people had some positive uses, one might be able to make a case for continuing the practice while trying aggressively to prevent its harmful effects.  But I don't see that ranking has any positive value.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

I'll Show You the Life of the Mind

One of the more interesting American phenomena to me is the way many of the same people who pay lip service to equality and other all-American values will, at other times, glumly but complacently declare that confidentially, y'know, everybody isn't equal and we need to learn to abandon sentimentality and live with reality.  Those who take this position range from jingoes like the late Robert A. Heinlein to nice mainstream liberals like Christopher Hayes to intellectual leftists like George Scialabba.  Most recently I came upon a post by the blogger and academic Freddie deBoer, written in a familiar more-in-anguish-than-in-exaltation mode.  DeBoer has taken some good, brave stands, but here he fell on his face.  I'm going to quote from his post at some length because deBoer has taken down his blog, and I don't know if this post in another venue will remain available:
To me, the hard political question is the gap after the gaps — the question of what to do with differences in academic and intellectual potential after we have closed the racial and gender achievement gaps. What do we do with differences in academic achievement after they no longer fall along traditional lines of inequality?

Perhaps it’s easier to say that I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that hoary old bigotries about the inherent intellectual abilities of different groups are wrong, and though much work remains to be done, as a society we are increasingly coming to shared public understanding that this is the case. Black people are not less intelligent than white, women have no less inherent talent for science, Asian people do not have some sort of genetic superiority in math. Those ideas seem to have largely been discredited and discarded by thinking people, and for that I’m glad.

The bad news is that there now appears to me to be overwhelming evidence that there are profound individual differences in academic potential, that different individual human beings have significantly unequal likelihoods of ascending to various tiers of academic performance. Educational philosophy for centuries has assumed great plasticity in the academic potential of any particular student, that given good teachers and hard work, most anyone can reach most any academic pinnacle. And the case that I would someday like to make, that I have been tinkering with making for many years, is that this appears to be substantially untrue. Instead, it appears that in general and on average, human beings are remarkably static in how they are sorted relative to others in all manner of metrics of academic achievement. In education, with remarkable consistency, the high performers stay high, and the low performers stay low. And it seems likely that this reflects some complex construct that we might call academic talent, which whatever its origins (whether genetic, environmental, parental, neonatal, circumstantial, etc) is far less mutable than has traditionally been understood,

There are many, many things that are implied, and crucially not implied, if we imagine a world where different individual students possess profoundly different academic talents.
  • This condition is not rigid, certain, or unalterable; we live in a world of human variability, and individual students will always exist who start out low and go on to excel. There are undoubtedly many exceptions, in either direction. And in fact the degree of plasticity of outcomes itself is likely highly variable. The question, particularly from the standpoint of public policy, lies in trends and averages.
  • This condition may be a matter of strict genetic determinism, but it doesn’t have to be. Simply because a given trait is not genetic in its origins does not mean that it is inherently or permanently mutable. Environmental and parental factors are not genetic but neither are they therefore necessarily mutable.
  • This condition does not imply educational nihilism, a belief that teaching is pointless or learning is impossible. All students can learn, consistently over time, even as relative position remains stable. Indeed, I would argue that is in fact the reality in which we live.
  • This condition does not mean that inequalities in environment are not real, important, or a problem. Individual academic talent is subject to the influence of external forces like any other. Poverty, abuse, affluence, chance — all materially impact outcomes, raising the less talented and restricting the more talented, or amplifying privilege and disadvantage alike. The existence of talent does not imply the irrelevance of external factors, nor does the impact of those factors erase the reality of differences in talent.
  • This condition does not imply that our metrics are the correct ones, that the abilities and knowledge that we select for in our tests and schools are the only real, useful, or valid means of sorting human minds. It does not require use to believe in the wisdom or benevolence of our education system or economy. It only requires us to believe that the socially-designated, contingent abilities we have decided are worth rewarding are not equitably sorted or equally available to all.
  • This condition does not entail some sort of overall difference in the inherent value of different people. There are many more ways to be a good, worthwhile, positive person than simply to fit into our current Procrustean metrics for what makes you a good student.
  • This condition does not imply a conservative, you-get-what-you-deserve attitude towards economics. Indeed, I think it amounts to a powerful argument for socialism
So: good news and bad news, he's been struggling for years with the empirical facts, we have to leave behind romantic illusions and face the cold, hard but still potentially socialist music.

Myself, I don't see any news here at all, bad or good.  DeBoer anticipates that reaction:
This claim is strange in that it prompts both reactions that it is obvious, that “everyone knows” that different individual humans have different academic abilities, and reactions that insist it is offensive, undermining of human dignity, dangerous. What is clear, however, is that in the world of policy, the notion of fundamental differences in the academic potential of different individual students seems bizarrely ignored.
The first thing to notice here is deBoer's focus on "academic abilities."  Though he disclaims it in his bullet-point qualifications, he seems to take for granted that academic abilities are "the socially-designated, contingent abilities we have decided are worth rewarding," and that they the only abilities that matter.  I don't agree that "we have decided" these abilities are "worth rewarding," except in school, and the rewards they receive there are mostly of the gold-star, teacher's-pet variety.  People who excel in school are generally regarded ambivalently in our society; it's proverbial that book smarts aren't worth as much as common-sense smarts; and they are not necessary for worldly or commercial success; not even to get a job and do it well.  The most that can be said is that the years of schooling required to get many "good" jobs have increased over the past century, but this has little or nothing to do with the skills or knowledge those jobs require.  The same high school diploma that used to be a sign of unusual achievement and intelligence will now, maybe, get you a job at McDonald's.  And even that is more because schooling is intended to inculcate obedience, punctuality (the ability to regulate oneself by the clock), neatness (the ability to color within the lines), willingness to take orders, and tolerance of boredom, not the academic abilities deBoer is concerned with.

It's certainly true that "'everyone knows' that different individual humans have different academic abilities."  DeBoer says it's mainly "in the world of policy" that this platitude is ignored, but I'm not so sure.  I recently read the biologist Ernst Mayr's One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought (Harvard, 1993), and Mayr discussed the interesting problem that although individual variation is a pillar of Darwin's theory, scientists have often tended to ignore it, preferring to view populations as uniform; which, aside from being empirically false (as any naturalist could and did point out), rejects a crucial part of the theory they are using.  Ignoring individual variation in groups is a common, perhaps normal human trait.  It persists, I think, because it simplifies whatever question you're thinking about, but it also leads to false and often destructive answers.  Additionally, as I said, a remarkable range of people say, in public, things like "kids are not created equal," trying to give the impression that they are bravely saying the Unpopular Things that 99% of those in public life haven't got the guts to say.

While 'everybody knows' that students have differing abilities and potential, 'everybody' also tends to ignore this knowledge.  Attending to students' individuality costs more money, for instance, and those who want to destroy public education are always seeking ways to cut costs, especially for the schooling of Other People's children.  But it also conflicts with a traditional model of schooling, that of rote memorization and drill, part of whose function is to sort students, though much of it is intended to even out individual differences.  Those who stand out in approved ways may get special, individual attention and permitted to advance to actual education; the rest will not.

The traditional model is also compatible with deBoer's insistence that his "condition does not entail some sort of overall difference in the inherent value of different people."  Traditional, hierarchical, Great-Chain-of-Being models of humanity generally pay lip service to the notion that everybody has his place in God's great creation: red or yellow, black or white, all are precious in His sight.  Know your place, tug your forelock, don't be ambitious, the nail that sticks up gets the hammer.  Let me stress that deBoer isn't pushing such a model; his point appears to be that, given individual variation, he doesn't know what to replace it with.  I suggest that we already know what to replace it with, at least in practice: attention to individuals with full awareness that they have different talents and abilities.  Plenty of teachers and educational writers have addressed this over the years.

That's why deBoer's crucial question is misconceived: "What do we do with differences in academic achievement after they no longer fall along traditional lines of inequality?"  First, in the traditional model of schooling I mentioned, "traditional lines of inequality" often weren't a problem; such schools functioned in 'racially' uniform communities, and their very purpose was to sort students according to academic achievement.  This is true in modern Japan, South Korea, Europe, and other countries with programs to sort students into various vocational tracks or niches; numerous Americans have argued that the US should follow their example. Sexist discrimination was a factor in Japan, for example, but not racial discrimination.  Class discrimination also was a factor, and I am struck by deBoer's failure to mention it, especially given the role class plays in recent efforts by biological determinists to justify stratification based on IQ and other dubious metrics.  In fact, it seems to me that his crucial question is basically that of The Bell Curve, which contrary to what you may have heard, was primarily meant to address the same question deBoer asks, using the same assumptions: What will we do when we've eliminated unfair discrimination and every student, every citizen, is evaluated not by sex or skin color but by their innate ability and merit?

DeBoer also has a short post about a study of Head Start, also available at medium.com, which begins by reassuring the reader that he's
in favor of universal Pre-K on social justice grounds and believe that it’s worth it even if there’s no demonstrable educational gains, as parents should have governmental help in rearing children, particularly so that they can go back to work and be more economically secure. And I’m also in favor of broadening our definitions of success as the study’s authors call for.
But in the second paragraph he bemoans "the complete absence of any frank acknowledgment that there is such a thing as natural academic talent," etc. etc., "And until we recognize that there are persistent inequalities in natural talent, we’re not engaging in a productive discussion about real-world problems."  In the longer post he writes:
Yet consider that society: if even a moderate portion of this difference in talent lies outside of the hands of the students themselves, the basic moral architecture of our supposed meritocracy has been undermined. A system that portions out material security and abundance according to the fickle distributions of academic talent, which children do not choose, is a system that has no basis for calling itself fair. Yet if we successfully combated the forces of white supremacy and sexism to the point that we achieved a racially and sexually equal society, many people would content themselves that the work of social justice had been done. But we would continue to live in a world of terrible and punishing inequality. It would simply be distributed on different lines.
The reference to "our supposed meritocracy" may be the giveaway; it shows that deBoer is evidently as confused as most people who talk about meritocracy.  So let me explain.

First: America is not a meritocracy.  Propagandists and apologists for every society will tell you that rewards and punishments are distributed fairly in their green and pleasant land, no matter how unfair the actual distribution may be.  Whatever differences you observe in the distribution are the result of people's merit or lack thereof, though of course there are malcontents who claim otherwise.  They're just jealous of their superiors and want to drag them down to their miserable level.  Just about everybody seems to agree that people should be hired, admitted to university, etc. on the basis of their merit; the trouble is that most people are convinced that merit is connected to class, race, sex, test scores, and other markers that are not, in fact connected to merit.

Second: DeBoer is confusing inequality and difference, as so many people do, and assuming (probably unconsciously) that you can't have a society of equals as long as there are any differences between individuals.  If you believe that, you do indeed have a problem, but if you jettison that assumption the problem evaporates.  He pays lip service to the contrary position in his bullet points, but abandons it when he sums up the Problem.  In the classroom, for example, equality doesn't mean that every child must earn, let alone be gifted, an A regardless of his or her performance -- even assuming for the sake of argument that performance reliably reflects "potential."  The utility and fairness of grading should not be assumed either; there are good reasons why grading, especially competitive grading, should be abolished.

Third: The preceding is true when we move from schools to society at large.  Equality doesn't mean that everybody has the same things.  To begin with, everybody doesn't want the same things.  Nor does everybody need the same things.  I've had some revealing debates with people who confused equality of outcome with political equality, and who couldn't or wouldn't grasp that equality doesn't mean that everybody must get open-heart surgery or take insulin or get an abortion; or that everyone must live in a penthouse apartment in a big city, or alternatively in a farmhouse with a white picket fence surrounded by amber waves of grain.  None of these is more meritorious than other alternatives.

It could be said as truly that there is such a thing as natural athletic or musical talent, or other talents that are not equally distributed through the population.  As Noam Chomsky wrote decades ago, this is not really a problem either.
... The question of heritability of IQ might conceivably have some social importance, say, with regard to educational practice. However, even this seems dubious, and one would like to see an argument. It is, incidentally, surprising to me that so many commentators should find it disturbing that IQ might be heritable, perhaps largely so. Would it also be disturbing to discover that relative height or musical talent or rank in running the hundred-yard dash is in part genetically determined? Why should one have preconceptions one way or another about these questions, and how do the answers to them, whatever they may be, relate either to serious scientific issues (in the present state of our knowledge) or to social practice in a decent society? [from For Reasons of State, Pantheon, 1973, p. 361-362]
There lurks in deBoer's declaration of the Problem the assumption that the difference in potential he refers to must be expressed or discovered in competition, whether in the classroom or in the workplace, and that "material security and abundance" should be parceled out to the winners, with the losers getting less or nothing at all.  If you share that assumption, deBoer's objection that such "a system ... has no basis for calling itself fair" collapses: such a system is fair by definition.  If you don't share the assumption that social "rewards" should be parceled out to the winners of the Game of Life, then deBoer's Problem simply disappears.

Ellen Willis put it very well years ago in a review of The Bell Curve: "If I bought the authors' thesis, I would still be allergic to their politics. I don't advocate equality because I think everyone is the same; I believe that difference, real or imagined, is no excuse for subordinating some people to others. Equality is a principle of human relations, not Procrustes' bed" (40).*  Nor is equality a statement about the talents or other endowments of human beings; individuals are different, but political and social equality has nothing to do with such things.  It means that the person who is less gifted has the same right to a fulfilling life (to say nothing of basic human and civil rights) as the person who is more gifted.  (By which I mean a life that fulfills him or her, even if it wouldn't fulfill me or Freddie deBoer.)  I find it interesting that deBoer, who makes much of his commitment to socialism and the left, has somehow managed to miss that.  But then, the academic talents of which he makes so much have often served to make excuses for political inequality, by fostering confusion between equality and sameness, inequality and difference.

It may be that by "hard political question" deBoer merely means the difficulty of getting American society to accept the principle of political equality.  That will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, I would agree.  But it's so difficult because people resist it so strongly.  Empirical research can't settle it, because as Ellen Willis said, equality is a principle, not a fact.  That Freddie deBoer is so confused about it is further evidence of people's difficulty in grasping the difference.  So I'm not sure that he is referring to the practical difficulty of getting the idea of equality across; he sees it as a problem because he wants it to be a problem.  And because so many intelligent and educated people agree with him, that's a problem.

* In Don't Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial (Beacon, 1999).

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Middle East, an Issue That Has Plagued the Region for Centuries

There's been justified hilarity on the Intertoobz over POTUS's clumsy, clueless remarks on Israel-Palestine the other day.  (Plus, of course, predictable scrambling by The Commander-in-Chief's lackeys and apologists to make it seem that his remarks were competent and statesmanlike.)  Quoth POTUS:
So, I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two but honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians — if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.
Sad.  But being cursed with an undisciplined and out-of-control memory, I couldn't help thinking of remarks made in answer to a college student's question by another POTUS in January 2010.  I know, I know, it was a long time ago, another lifetime, practically another century, who could possibly remember that far back?
The Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries, and it's an issue that elicits a lot of passions as you have heard. Here's my view. Israel is one of our strongest allies, it has...[applause] let me play this out. It is a vibrant democracy. It shares links with us in all sorts of ways. It...it is critical...for us...and I will never waver from ensuring Israel's security, and helping them secure themselves in what is a really hostile region. So...so...so I make no apologies for that.
Note especially that first sentence: Trump couldn't have bettered it.  By 2013, Obama had his act down.  Asked a hostile but not unreasonable question (which he didn't understand, since it was in Hebrew), Obama mocked the questioner, an Arab-Israeli student from Haifa University, joking, "I have to say we actually arranged for that because it made me feel at home ... I wouldn't feel comfortable if I didn't have at least one heckler."

I hold no brief for Trump.  But isn't it nice to know that, far from the upheavals that Democrats warned we would face, we have so much continuity between POTUS Barack Obama and his POTUS successor on this and other vital issues?  The issue here isn't their lack of eloquence in response to questions, but that there's not a lot of daylight between Obama and Trump on Israel-Palestine.  Obama talked prettier, but he still let Netanyahu more or less whatever he wanted.  The outcome for Palestinians was terrible, as it will probably be under Trump.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Christian Gematria

What a dazzling line of bullshit this guy spins.  (As the DJ who played the song the other day said, the soldier neglects to mention the games of Strip Poker he also organized.)  He should have run for office, and taken the public for everything they had.

I'm mystified by the popularity of routines like this, which go way beyond 1950s country music hits.  It seems to go beyond their usefulness as mnemonics, which often is undermined by their complexity.  People often talk as though they reveal hidden mysteries in the words or numbers used, and such beliefs aren't limited to toothless hilljacks who didn't finish second grade; numerology has fascinated highly intelligent and educated people from Pythagoras onward.  Since the mystic significance of numbers turns up in parts of the Christian Bible, the churches have never quite managed to extirpate speculations about such things.

This connects to something else I've been thinking about and may write about at some point, namely the ways that people read.  Michael Rosen wrote an interesting post suggesting categories for the way pupils approach, respond to, and interpret the texts they read in a classroom texts.  Often when I'm arguing on Facebook and other social media about what a book or article or other text means, I realize that other people aren't reading the same way I've learned to do.  Those ways aren't necessarily wrong -- they're often ancient and, in certain traditions, respectable, even academically -- but they help to explain why people misunderstand each other.  "Deck of Cards" also provides a glimpse into a different mindset that I reject, but need to understand better.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Speaking of tribalism, tribes, and primitive people, Samuel R. Delany wrote a long post about circumcision on Facebook the other day.  His father, he says, was not circumcised; Delany is.
Again and again I have wished I were not cut and have spent money on attempts to restore my foreskin. That presents two problems. First, it is purely for looks. It does not restore all the nerve endings that were removed in the circumcision itself. And further surgery would only destroy more—so that, for that reason, I have never thought about it at all seriously.
I've often encountered complaints like this, and they baffle me.  I'm circumcised, and I don't mourn my foreskin at all. I'm not aware of any decreased sensitivity (how could I be? I have no basis for comparison). When I first saw uncircumcised penises, I thought they were gross and ugly, because they weren't like mine; we had a mix of cut and uncut in my junior-high PE class shower room, so I thought the differences were just 'natural' variation. (Not least because foreskins, like all natural features, vary widely. Some still look ugly to me.) I disagree that (as one commenter on Delany's post claimed) an "intact lover is a rare treat in the USA" -- I've encountered plenty, and I have not noticed any difference in their skills.

I say this just to offer a different perspective, one I very rarely see when circumcision is discussed. If I were consulted about a newborn male, I would respond with something like Delany's position:

As a tribal decision imposed on males before they can consent to it, I will never believe it’s a good thing. Nor do I believe most men would consent to the surgical mutilation of their genitals once they pass the age of reason, at what ever age it was set—especially when it is NOT the way of the tribe.
There isn't any good reason to do it, so don't do it, let the kid decide for himself when he's old enough to do so. But I don't feel deprived, mutilated, damaged, disabled, incomplete, etc. I also don't feel bad because I'm different from some other males in this detail. (Which apparently is a major factor in parents' decision to circumcise their sons: so they won't feel different from other boys in the locker room.  Not really a problem, since boys don't usually see each other naked in the locker room anymore -- we now protect their privacy, and have abandoned group showers so boys won't be traumatized by the sight of other boys' naked bodies.  But what a terrible rationale!  If everyone else jumped off a bridge ...)  I'm different from other people in so many ways, and this one seems minor to me by comparison. I feel sorry for those circumcised men who feel impaired by it; feelings are, and that can't be argued with. But I myself am totally comfortable with my lack of foreskin.

Notice the word "tribal" in Delany's remarks.  There's a lot of ambivalence about tribes in educated American discourse.  I see a lot of stuff on the Internet and elsewhere about the primal wisdom of tribal people, about how we shouldn't assume that we modern white Westerners are smarter than they are -- unless, as in this case, we don't agree with or approve of their wisdom.  Which is good, because no authority should be exempt from doubt or criticism.  It appears, however, that circumcision was a widespread though not universal practice among the ancient Egyptians, who can hardly be dismissed as "tribal" primitives.  (Warning: scary uncut mummy photo at that link.)  They were truly civilized!  They built the Pyramids!  They cut off their foreskins!  How dare barbaric modern Westerners disrespect them?

Delany continued: 
From a notoriously active sex life in my younger years—age 18 to (arbitrarily) 65—with many thousands of partners, here and in Europe, I gained the impression that, in the U. S. at least, circumcision as an extension of our anti-pleasure society has taken over. 
Not only Delany but several of his commenters remarked on the "anti-pleasure" culture that practices  circumcision, as opposed to -- Christian Europe?  All cultures, from what I can tell, are at best ambivalent about pleasure.  The apostle Paul is usually seen as "anti-pleasure," but it was he who rejected and forbade circumcision for gentile converts to Christianity.  Not, I'm sure, because he cared about their sexual pleasure; but at least he didn't endorse "becoming eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven" as Jesus did.  Catholic Europe was anything but pro-pleasure, but neither Catholics nor the most repressive Protestants mandated circumcision as part of their anti-pleasure agenda.

A certain amount of anti-Semitism tends to lurk beneath the surface of contemporary anti-circumcision discourse, and there's an interesting debate about that question in Susan Miller Okin's Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (Princeton, 1999).  Though of course circumcision also mandated by Islam, the religion of 1.2 billion people worldwide; so condemning circumcision as a primitive tribal practice is Islamophobic, right?  I know of some South Korean men who chose circumcision for hygienic reasons as adults, during their mandatory military service; but I have no idea how common that is, or whether it predates the influence of European medicine in Korea.

But if there's anything to the "anti-pleasure" trope in connection with circumcision, it would have to connect to Science.  That's the current rationale for its prevalence in the United States, and you cannot go against the word of Science.  According to an article in the Washington Post, younger Americans ("millennials") are much less in favor of circumcision than their seniors: "The age gap on circumcision is of a piece with millennials' skepticism about vaccines."  Which ought to set off alarms for all good believers in Science, shouldn't it?  As of 1999 the American Academy of Pediatric Association no longer recommends infant circumcision as a medical default, but they seem to be waffling, and in 2012 they recommended it again.  In 2014 the Mayo Clinic published new data on (slightly) declining rates of circumcision in the US, which it deplored.
"Infant circumcision should be regarded as equivalent to vaccination," said Brian Morris, coauthor of the new report and professor emeritus in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Sydney, in a press release. "As such, it would be unethical not to routinely offer parents circumcision for their baby boy. Delay puts the child's health at risk and will usually mean it will never happen."
I guess Australian doctors are anti-pleasure too.  It's curious how lightly scientific consensus can be dismissed by highly educated Americans who'd jeer at anti-vaxxers, climate-change deniers and Creationists for rejecting the consensus of Science.  Delany himself is not a reflexive Science worshiper, but I'm not so sure about his commenters.  In comments, Delany also talked about the wisdom of Nature, to which I don't defer.

So, how interesting.  When you have contradictory categorizations of a practice, and opposition to it on contradictory (if not incoherent) grounds, something is going on: on the one hand, circumcision is "tribal"; on the other, it's the product of an "anti-pleasure" society.  Also Science, but we can ignore Science when we want, as long as we accept evolution and climate change.  To repeat: I am not endorsing, recommending, or mandating circumcision.  I'm just not sure of the quality of the objections I'm seeing to it.

Much of what people were saying in this discussion, about circumcision and its effects and significance, reminded me of some things people say about gay men.  That if you're not a particular physical type, no one will have sex with you because all gay men are obsessed with looks.  Or that if you're older than twenty-five or so, no one will have sex with you, because gay men are obsessed with youth.  Or that gay men are incapable of committing themselves to long-term relationships.  All these claims are common knowledge among gay men, even among gay men who know from their own experience that they aren't true.  Much of what people (and not only gay men) were saying about circumcision felt to me like the same kind of folklore.  I began to wonder if some of what other circumcised men were saying was stuff they'd heard and absorbed, even if (or because?) it made them feel bad about themselves.  The oddity would be that I, who have always been ready to feel bad about myself, never bought into the folklore about the inferiority of the (my) circumcised penis.  To repeat: I don't think that the uncircumcised penis is inferior either.  I do get the impression that they're working hard to convince themselves, and each other, that they are hopelessly damaged, which seems to me out of all proportion to what was actually taken from them.  Perhaps, as a very wise man once said, what they need is a good facial.

But maybe not.  I don't want to go too far in the other direction and tell them what they ought to feel.  I can't tell gay men who feel that being gay is a curse what they ought to feel either.  Just because I feel differently, doesn't mean that they must feel as I do.  If anything, I'm surprised that I don't feel a "morose delectation," as the Jesuits and Andrew Holleran might call it, over either condition.

In the past gay men could and did blame their parents, especially their mothers, for having made them gay.  With belief in gay genes hegemonic among us now (though just as bogus as belief in the Close-Binding and Intimate Mother), they can't do that anymore.  But they can blame Mom and Dad for letting the doctors snip away their foreskin.  Just as long as they blame Science too.  And tribalism.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A Voice in the Wilderness

Life is full of educational surprises.  I was greatly amused by this tweet, which I thought summed up Keith Olbermann's pretensions very neatly, so I shared it on Facebook.

Then this morning I noticed more tweets from J Burton on my Twitter page; apparently I'd clicked on Follow without realizing it.  And those tweets were not remotely as amusing as his swipe at Olbermann, or at least not in the same way.  For example:
At first I agreed with that one, because I agree that there is no moral parity ("equivalence," I believe, is the word normally used nowadays) between a Mexican crossing the Rio Grande to look for work, or a Guatemalan trying to escape death squads, and the religious bigots, convicts, and greedheads who settled the original thirteen British colonies.  But as more of Burton's tweets showed up, I realized that he meant it the other way around:
Speaking of historical illiteracy, the "original Americans" crossed the Bering Land Bridge more than 10,000 years ago.  Spaniards and Frenchmen also beat the English colonists to North America by more than a century, though they weren't good guys either -- the point is that the English were not "original" in any sense of the word.

"Pilgrims," first of all, is a misnomer.  According to Merriam-Webster, a pilgrim is "one who journeys in foreign lands," which better describes the French trappers and traders than the English religious separatists who settled in Massachusetts because they had made themselves obnoxious by their fanaticism and bigotry in Britain and the Netherlands.  Nor were they "one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee," the other M-W definition.  "Colonists" and "homesteaders" don't describe all the English intruders either; some came here, as in Virginia, as employees of corporations or as indentured servants (before the latter were replaced by African slaves); some were convicts, transported here as their sentence.  Burton is purveying a hoary quasi-historical origin myth here, not offering historical literacy.

Ditto for "arrived at a wilderness" (!).  North America was not a wilderness, though it contained some.  It was inhabited by millions of people, who had villages, towns, even cities; farms; and complex systems of government and social organization.  The English interlopers (I won't call them "immigrants" either) would have had a harder time displacing the original Americans if the latter hadn't been decimated by diseases brought to the Americas by those who preceded the English.  It's even part of the American origin myth that the "Pilgrims" nearly died off in their first year due to their ignorance and incompetence as homesteaders, but were saved by the generous help of the surviving original Americans.  Much of the land they eventually farmed had been cleared and prepared by those original Americans; as their successors learned, clearing a real wilderness is a lot harder than taking over other people's lands.

Most of the hard work of MAKING a country was done not by those first arrivals but by later generations of (yes) immigrants and slaves, along with the descendants of previous French and Spanish colonists who already lived in the territory and became "Americans" through land purchase or conquest.  Burton overlooks -- or maybe he approves of -- the enduring hostility to each new wave of immigrants, from the Scots and Irish to the Swedes, Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Japanese, and others, whose labor was desperately needed by business elites who didn't want to pay fair wages to the workers who were already here.  But without those immigrants, the United States as we know it today would not exist.  As I've noticed before, the hostility of today's nativists confuses (partly strategically but mostly through ignorance) "undocumented" and legal immigrants, to say nothing of internal migrants like the Okies and Southern blacks who moved west or north to find jobs and escape Jim Crow.  Even though they were already Americans, they were treated as if they were "illegal" immigrants -- badly, to put it concisely.

I agree with some of Burton's points, mostly when he's trying to skewer liberal hypocrisy.  But then he endorses right-wing hypocrisy, or exemplifies it himself.  He's critical of our corporate overlords, but seems to overlook that Trump is one of them, and has packed his administration with his peers.  He criticizes the corporate media, but mistakes them (along with Democratic elites) for the "left."  And then there's his curious literalizing of a typically ham-handed Wuerker cartoon: "Wow! Didn't realize you can radicalize Muslims with a mean poster or two. Maybe it's wise to not bring large quantities of them into the US."  He's not totally ignorant, since he elsewhere criticizes the craziness of those who "wanted to shoot down Russian jets over Syria," so I have to suppose that he's deliberately forgetting about the US murder of countless people in various Middle Eastern countries, which leftists have been pointing out does more to win recruits for ISIS than "a mean poster or two." Or that Trump didn't try to ban entry by Muslims from countries like Saudi Arabia, whose citizens masterminded the 9/11 attacks.  A well-disciplined memory is as essential for a Trump devotee and apologist as it is for any liberal Democrat.

Ah, there's more.  This is one of the first I saw that made me reconsider my initial impression of where Burton was coming from:
Well, no, "gay marriage" isn't "in" the Constitution, any more than "interracial marriage" is; but then maybe Loving v. Virginia also occupies a prominent spot in Burton's Wall of Shame.  The Constitutional issue is what limits governments can put on marriage.  By analogy, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints isn't "in" the Constitution either, but it is still covered by the First Amendment.  As for "the right to control our borders," well, "control our borders" isn't "in there" either, and like so many right-wingers Burton is hostile to "activist courts" that invent rights based on Political Correctness.  But I'm fine with the idea, which I'd have thought to be in line with article 8's "provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States."  Is there anyone who genuinely disagrees?  The Devil's in the details, however, like what constitutes rational control of our borders, what is prudent or necessary to defend the country, whether establishing a garrison state is a good idea, and so on.

Speaking of activist judges, Burton is displeased that some of them dared to obstruct "the majority-supported exercise of a duly-elected President's rightful powers."  Considering that the Framers were extremely wary of majorities, and put numerous brakes on majorities "in there," this complaint is as funny as Obama's very similar (and similarly unfounded) "Ultimately, I am confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress."  What part of "checks and balances" doesn't Burton (like Obama) understand?

I could quote more, but this is probably enough.  For now, anyway.  It might be worth noticing that Burton writes well, in grammatically correct, properly spelled English.  That should please liberals, many of whom can't do as well themselves.  He even makes a valid point here and there, but on examination they turn out to be inspired by partisanship and Führerprinzip: he can't see the same errors when they're made by his side, or by himself.  Just like your typical liberal Democrat.

P.S. I just saw, to my horror, that I wrote "their" for "they're" in that penultimate sentence.  Luckily I noticed and fixed it in time.  I blame Putin.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Scattering the Tribes

I'm not sure if this is an improvement over Greenwald's normal use of "tribalism."  Probably it isn't, because he still is using the word to refer to something like "an unthinking, primal attachment to kin."*  It might be that he intends it sarcastically, to suggest to "über-nationalists" that they're not as evolved as they like to think they are, but if so, I suspect they'll miss the snark.  And though I like "über-nationalists," I suspect it gets its punch from the association with Germany and Nazis.  Greenwald also knows that xenophobia is not limited to Germany.  I've griped about this before, but it's still a problem.

What is a tribe, exactly?  Curtis Keim, whose fine book Mistaking Africa I've mentioned before, helpfully explains:
One anthropology textbook designed for college students has defined tribe as one of five major types of political organization: band, tribe, chiefdom, confederacy, and state.  A tribe, says the author, is "a political group that comprises several bands or lineage groups, each with similar language and lifestyle and each occupying a distinct territory ... Tribal groups contain from 100 to several thousand people."  Tribes consist of one or more subgroups that have integrating factors but are not centralized upon a single individual, as they are in a chiefdom [114].
Keim devotes a chapter to discussing what tribes are, and correcting the stereotypes many Americans have about them; anyone interested could do worse than to read Mistaking Africa.  Needless to say, Greenwald is not using "tribal" in anything like this technical sense; he can only mean to imply that people who exhibit unthinking loyalty to their nation or other community are acting like primitives, be those primitives African, Pacific Islander, pre-Columbian American, or Cro-Magnon.  He'd be properly contemptuous of anyone who used such stereotypes of actual tribal people, or who stereotyped non-white people generally in those terms, but he persists in using "tribal" as a pejorative that relies on racist stereotyping for whatever force it has.  This is another one of those cases where a trope backfires: using "tribal" to distinguish Us from Them, the civilized from the unevolved, is itself an example of "tribalism" as Greenwald uses the term.

And yet this time he concedes that tribalism, in the sense he uses the word, "is a natural human trait."  I think this is a bit disingenous.  I'd agree that dividing the world into Us and Them, is probably natural to our species, but it also probably goes along with being a social species, as we are, so it's not limited to human beings.  Nor does this natural trait determine social organization: as Keim indicates, human beings "naturally" form a variety of social organizations, and our ability to form large complex ones indicates that we can transcend narrow parochialism, clannishness (another freighted word), clubbiness, when it suits us to do so.  Belonging to a social species doesn't automatically cause xenophobia; xenophilia, a fascination with the stranger or outsider, is equally part of our human heritage.  The boundaries of the group are only drawn sharply under certain circumstances.  Using "social" or "socialism" to refer to unthinking loyalty to one's own group doesn't carry negative connotations, though, so it can't be used in place of "tribal."

What substitute can I propose?  Well, "xenophobia" might work, but it lacks the vernacular punch of "tribal."  We need an adjectival form of Kurt Vonnegut's coinage "granfalloon," which is intended as a pejorative but has no historical baggage.  A granfalloon, as Vonnegut defined it, is "a proud and meaningless association of human beings," based on "some circumstance of little or no real significance."  Of course the question then arises of what circumstances are of real significance, and who gets to decide.  I find it intriguing that social scientists have found that people will invent commonalities for groups to which they've been randomly assigned.  (Also that people have used "granfalloon" in ways that have nothing to do with its original meaning, even seemingly as a positive term.)  This suggests to me that granfalloonery is, if not "natural" to human beings, at least a tendency that comes easily to us.  Is "human" a granfalloon, I wonder?

But whatever word we replace it with, and there are numerous possibilities, "tribal" needs to be retired as a putdown for those who take granfalloonery to what one perceives as harmful extremes.  I expect better from Glenn Greenwald, with whom I agree on most important matters.

* Curtis Keim, Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind (3rd edition, Westview, 2014), p. 113