Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Dear Mr. President Trump, Your Honor, Sir

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

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

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

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

Someone posted on Twitter the same day:


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 24, 2017

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Another Fine Myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

He's Been a Soldier for a Thousand Years


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

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Grassroots, Downhome Jesus People

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Which of These Two People Is Not Like the Other?

I see what Lisa Kron (who wrote the book and lyrics to the musical Fun Home) is trying to get at here, and I agree with it to some extent, but she has put it very badly.

Conflict -- which I think is what Kron means by "drama" here -- doesn't mean that the people involved aren't "like" each other.  If anything it means the opposite: if they were that different, they might not come into conflict at all.  Conflict often arises between people who are like each other: siblings, friends, etc.  In one sense, all human beings are like each other anyway.  One of the most harmful things people do is to try to defend their side in a conflict by Othering the person or people on the other side: in that falsehood is the germ of the most destructive human conflicts: You are not like me, therefore I can kill you.  Therefore I must kill you.

Even stranger, Kron switches in midstream and puts the supposed unlikeness between the audience and the characters onstage, rather than between the characters in the play.  It could be argued that one function of theater is to remind people that those they believe to be essentially different from themselves are really quite like them.  I don't think that's the only function of theater -- or of any other medium of narrative, another objection I have to what Kron is saying: the function she ascribes to theater isn't unique to it.  Theater, like any other art form (or any other human construction, probably) has no single function or purpose.  Even if it had one in its first prehistoric forms, people have done many different things with it since then.  And even if theater had a unique ability to bring the audience into a feeling of unity (though I imagine it shares that ability with any spectacle, e.g. sports), that unity will be against those outside whatever imagined community the experience creates.

This brings up issues of "universality," identification, and the like, which are involved in most art -- in the West, at least.  I believe that what one gets from a narrative will depend very much on what they bring to it.  If they are already predisposed to see the Other as like them, they will identify with the Other in the work; if not, they won't, and will find some other meaning in it.

I wouldn't be surprised if Kron contradicted herself about the function of theatre on another occasion.  Artists don't have to be consistent.  But it's generally a mistake to take too seriously what they say about what they're doing.  I once heard the recording of a panel discussion at a GLB writing conference, focusing on authors who write about characters "unlike" them -- a gay white American novelist writing about a straight Japanese student, for example.  Some of the writers said that they loved getting "inside" people who were unlike themselves and letting the characters take over, etc.  Then one of them said that he didn't get inside his characters at all, he gave them no agency, he decided what they were going to do and with whom.  Immediately the other panelists reversed themselves and agreed that they did the same thing.  I suspect that both descriptions of their approaches were true to some extent, though neither really was a fully adequate account.

I haven't yet seen Fun Home the musical, though I'm a great admirer of the Alison Bechdel graphic memoir it is based on.  If Kron's statement in this meme reflects what she wanted the play to do, and believes it does do, then perhaps I shouldn't see it.  Fun Home is much more complex than Kron's reduction would leave room for.  From her many public remarks about the book, Bechdel herself is ambivalent about its relation to its readers.  On some level she seems to have taken for granted that most people would not be able to see themselves in the story, and so was surprised by the rapturous response it won.  She wasn't even sure she wanted straight readers to be able to relate to her queer narrator, I think.  But to reduce Fun Home (the graphic novel) to an attempt to get its audience to "reach across that divide" does violence to its complexity and ambivalence.  That's The Well of Loneliness you're talking about, Ms. Kron, not Fun Home.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Revelation of Saint George

Sometimes I wonder what other people get from reading Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.  What made the biggest impression on me when I first read it at the age of twelve, fifty-some years ago, was the Two Minutes' Hate.  When I first had to go to pep sessions a year or so later in junior high school, I immediately recognized the TMH mentality in Indiana basketball fans, though it's also visible in partisan politics.  Over time, other elements of Orwell's allegory have come to the fore in my mind; nowadays it's doublethink and the notion of a well-controlled memory, the ability to forget inconvenient facts on demand.

There was hilarity over Donald Trump's remark about "what's happening last night in Sweden."  Nothing had happened in Sweden last night, that was the curious incident.  Swedes reacted with indignation.  Trump then claimed he was referring to a story on Fox News the night before his rally, and tweeted "Give the public a break–The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!"  More indiion and hilarity ensued, of course.  What I noticed what was, even though Fox News is evidently becoming more critical of Trump, the President let slip that he relies on "the FAKE NEWS media" for information about what is going on in the world.  Some in Trump's base obligingly now believe that "the FAKE NEWS media" are covering up terrorist attacks in Sweden.  (Just as about half of Democrats believe that the Russians hacked American voting machines to give Trump his victory last November.  I may return to this matter in a later post.)  Then look at this dishonest post from a liberal blog on the importance of a free press; Thomas Jefferson did not limit his criticism of the press to private letters, as Throckmorton claims, he acted.
“In his second term, in response to serious criticism from the New England newspapers … he instructed the state attorney generals in New England to prosecute the newspaper editors for sedition in the same way he had opposed such behavior when it was done by the federal government,” said Ellis, the historian.

The move further alienated Jefferson from the journalists, as well as the clergy.
When I think about it, I wonder how new the supposed collapse in mainstream media credibility really is.  How long have we had "mainstream media" in the US anyway?  What that term usually refers to is elite corporate media like the New York Times and the Washington Post, along with the Associated Press, United Press International. and the national broadcast networks -- just three of them when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.  But how many Americans read the Times?  How many New Yorkers, even?  I can't imagine it was that many, surely not a majority.  So how were the "mainstream media" mainstream?  Only, I think, in the sense that elites see themselves as the real, mainstream people, and the vast majority of the population as the fringe, barely human at best.

The Internet didn't exist when I was growing up, but there were many other ways to disseminate information: local newspapers, local radio and TV, churches, unions, the American Legion and other veterans' organizations, fraternal organizations, and schools -- and most of these were illiberal in their politics, and careless about facts (to put it mildly).  If you poke around Snopes.com for a while, you'll find that many falsehoods you see in your Facebook feed go back to the pre-Internet period.  This one, for instance, still circulates long after Madalyn Murry O'Hair died, and the FCC still gets mail and phone calls about it.  You probably wouldn't hear much about it from the mainstream media, but such rumors play an important role in many, many people's political beliefs.

Think of Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest whose radio program drew 40 million listeners in the early 1930s.  He attacked President Roosevelt, who he claimed was really a Jew (a popular accusation by the Right in those days), incited violence against Jews, and was only silenced by the Cburch after the US was already at war with Nazi Germany.  He remained a priest, however, retiring in 1966, and continued to denounce Roosevelt into the 1970s.  Yesterday I saw an item linked on Facebook which called evangelical Christians "the American Taliban."  Aside from the evil of stereotyping all evangelicals, it included Rick Santorum -- a Roman Catholic, not an evangelical -- in its denunciation. 

Which reminded me of some late-night TV shows I've seen when I'm in northern Indiana, on the NBC affiliate out of Notre Dame University: they feature grim, bearded white men fulminating about the diabolical secularization of our society, with recreational abortion, unisex bathrooms, gay marriage, and the like; the only hope is return to the True Roman Catholic Church.  Sometimes I wonder if they are aware that not so long ago, people like them would have been seen as agents of the Papacy, trying to impose Canon law on America.  Which is what they are, in fact; they're just not much of a threat right now.  But when I think of candidates for the American Taliban, I think of these guys.  (Note: these programs don't appear on public-access cable at 4 in the morning, but are broadcast at 11 p.m. or so on a major-network station.)

But back to Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four.  The book is often called "prophetic," but it's really a kind of apocalypse, like the biblical book of Daniel or the Revelation.  A prophet, technically, is a person through whom a god speaks.  Prophets do sometimes make predictions, but very seldom about the distant future, and even their predictions are warnings of what will happen if they aren't heeded.  So, for instance, Jonah warned that Yahweh would destroy the city of Nineveh in thirty days if the Ninevites didn't repent.  They did so, from the King on down, and the city was not destroyed.  Jonah sulked about this, and Yahweh chided him for lack of humanity.  (That's how you know the book of Jonah is a fable, not actual prophecy: ordinarily Yahweh demands mass murder through his prophets, ordering his servants to set humanity aside in the name of purity and obedience.)

There isn't a sharp dividing line between classical prophecy and apocalyptic, but one of the characteristics of the latter is that its "predictions" are generally backdated, ascribed to someone who lived in the more or less distant past.  You can tell when the "revelation" was written by noticing the point at which the "predictions" stop being true.  Producing repentance isn't the intention, because God planned everything before the creation of the world; the destruction will come, with only a faithful remnant saved, no matter what people do.

It has often been pointed out that in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell wasn't predicting.  Except for the telescreens, almost everything he wrote about was already present in 1940s England during and immediately after the war: the rationing, the missiles raining random death and destruction, the surveillance, even the ability to forget what had happened minutes before for political purposes.  (The occasion was the way the Soviet Union went from being an ally of Hitler to an enemy of Hitler, pretty much overnight -- and the Enemy of Your Enemy Is Your Friend, in wartime anyway.)  There has been a lot of criticism of Orwell's relationship to the Left, much of it apparently justified, but to my mind the important thing was his attempt, however inadequate and biased, to criticize his own side.   Attacking the Other is always safe; attacking Your Own is not.  That, too, is still with us.

So seeing Nineteen Eighty-Four as a prophecy or prediction, and praising Saint George for his anticipation of things to come, is as mistaken as praising Daniel for predicting what would happen to Israel centuries in the future.  The "predictions" in Daniel were written after the fact, with 20/20 hindsight; once the book's future history catches up with its present, the predictions fail.  In the New Testament Revelation, the predictions fail immediately; the author was avowedly writing about his own present, and the End did not come.  Whatever strikes a reader now about Orwell's imagined future is most likely the things he saw in his present.  Which doesn't mean I don't value the book, or his criticisms of political culture; Orwell could be called a prophet in the original sense, one who addresses the present to pronounce judgment.  Except that Orwell, an atheist, didn't claim to speak in the name of a god.  He used other conventions.

What led me to write this post, however, was something else.  I began thinking about the ways that people use the past, and famous people from the past, to borrow authority for their beliefs and prescriptions.  This isn't necessarily invalid; history is important to human beings.  If you're going to talk about the Constitution, you're talking about past authorities.  What I'm talking about is the invention of history, as in the blogger who elided Thomas Jefferson's overt actions against the freedom of the press.  This tactic appears to me to be as popular an approach on the Left, broadly defined, as on the Right; among secularists and atheists, no less than among the religious.  Quotations from illustrious historical figures, modified to fit the present better or simply invented altogether, are more compact versions of apocalyptic thinking.  Our Founding Fathers foresaw the future in every detail, and we need only recover the true meaning of their words to conduct ourselves rightly, according to their wisdom.

I was also moved to write this post by someone's reference to Nineteen Eighty-Four as a "political allegory," which it is, but the context made me suspect that the person thought of an allegory as something like Scripture as fundamentalists think of it: all Truth and Wisdom is encoded there, and it is up to us to interpret it rightly.  If we can, we can save ourselves, and so on.  But an allegory is a conscious construction, and Nineteen Eighty-Four is no exception.  (Nor is Atlas Shrugged, or Stranger in a Strange Land, among other novels which have been used by some of their readers to guide their lives.)  Orwell had no special mystical knowledge; he wrote the book out of what he knew, or thought he knew, and out of what he saw.  He threw in plenty of sex and violence, just as you'll find in the New Testament Revelation, and made it a good read, with enough ideas to provoke some thought.

What this suggests to me is that, as I've long thought, much of what people (including me) think of as religious is not specific to religion.  The use of quotations -- often invented or taken out of context -- from long-dead authorities, usually called "proof-texting" in a religious context, looks to be as popular among the non-religious and anti-religious as it is among the devoutly religious.  Stories, allegories, fables too; officially we secularists know that our stories are fictional, but that knowledge often falls by the wayside.  Or the use of monumental, hushed spaces intended to humble and awe mere humans before the greatness of the geniuses who brought us the wisdom of Heaven.  To say nothing of Us/Them and scapegoating the Other. These are all human tendencies and (sometimes) failings.  They come naturally to most of us, and it takes work to learn to depersonalize and abstract ideas for thought -- though that, too, is part of religion, its philosophical and theological arm.  People who draw on books like Nineteen Eighty-Four for thought are not different in kind from people who draw on the Bible, the Quran, the Sutras; nor do they differ in the ways they use these authorities, only in the specific authorities they use and interpret.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

My Country, Drunk or Sober

I had a small difference of opinion today over the slogan "Not my president," a childish phrase that annoys the hell out of me.  It reminds me of those pseudo-legal notices that periodically go viral on Facebook, announcing the user's legal ownership of his or her posts.  (I saw a new variant of those on Facebook today, in fact.)  If I say that Trump is not my president, then that is #Resistance!  It will weaken his demonic power, praise Jesus, every time I say the magic words.

Alas, Trump is the President of the United States, which makes him my president, your president, our president, like it or not.  (Which I don't.)  We've gone through the looking-glass to 2008, when the Far Right chanted the same mantra, only now it's the Near Right doing it.  It was laughable when Republicans said it, and it's laughable when Democrats said it.

But there occurred to me one other reason why the slogan annoys me so much.  I think that the people who are saying "Not my president" believe that if you claim a president as yours, you can't criticize him.  You stand behind your president, you defend him against any and all criticism whether valid or invalid, you might occasionally concede that he's a disappointment in some trivial way, but while he may not be perfect he is still the Greatest. President. Evar.  These are the people, I believe, who reacted to criticism of Obama from the left by accusing the critic of having voted for McCain or  Romney, of being a Republican, etc.  The main reason I voted for Obama, twice, and for Clinton once, was so that I could tell such people that I had done so.  It was a useless gesture, of course: they couldn't hear it.  It did not compute.  If you didn't adore their president, you had to be a Republican.  The only way you can criticize a president is if he's not yours.  If he isn't yours, anything goes.

Connected to this, of course, is the belief that Your President is your friend.  You feel not just proprietary about him, but you feel intimacy with him and his beautiful family.  You identify with him, so of course an injury to him is an injury to you.  This cult of personality is traditional in America politics, as probably in all countries, and it ensures that people will only deal in personalities, not issues.  The president may not be a monarch, but he (or she, when the day comes) is the Nation, the head of a body whose members we citizens are, and shall the members criticize the head?

So the reason "Not my president" bothers me is not just its petulant childishness, but its rejection of principle and reason in favor of personal fidelity to the Sovereign.  If the United States is ever going to be something like a democracy or even a republic, we need to focus on issues rather than people.  Acknowledging that Trump is our president doesn't mean we can't criticize him, resist him, fight him.