Saturday, June 30, 2018

I'm Tolerant of Kinks, But Civility Fetishism Goes Too Far

Sarah Wilkinson, the owner of Red Hen restaurant, has stepped down as head of the local downtown improvement association in Alexandria, Virginia.  Meanwhile, Sarah Huckabee Sanders's supporters are showing their devotion to civility.  I nearly added "and Christian values" there, before I remembered that incivility is a Christian value based in Jesus' teachings and conduct, so no sarcasm.  I must say, I'm pleasantly surprised that the Alexandria police arrested one of them for dumping a bag of chicken shit on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.  Usually the police let the bigots run wild while beating up and arresting their opponents.

I expect that many of the guardians of civility who've been lecturing America for the past week will inform us that Wilkinson should have expected that her action would have consequences -- one such is quoted in the article I linked above -- while insisting that Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the rest of the Trump administration should never, ever have to face even the mildest consequences for their actions.

If anyone still wants to take that stance, fine; it's a free country, sort of.  But anyone who does so without acknowledging up front that Sanders, her supporters, and the rest of the Christian Right are scum, has (it seems to me) forfeited any claim to be taken seriously.

Rereading that last sentence the morning after I wrote it, I wonder if it might be a bit ... excessive.  But as far as I've seen, most of the guardians of civility have done their best not to criticize Sanders.  They don't have to call her "scum" specifically -- I leave it to them, as professional writers and articulate citizens, to come up with their own contumely -- but ignoring her defense of and participation in Trump's agenda, treating her as if she were just an innocent bystander unjustly declared guilty by association by Stalinist oppressors, is dishonest and, again, discredits them as commentators.

Speaking of guilt by association, remember that the Red Hen did not eject the rest of her party; they could have stayed if they wished, though it would have been surprising if they had.  But the Red Hen discriminated between Trump's paid liar/collaborator and her guests.  Deciding questions like to whom it's proper to refuse service is complex and difficult, but the staff and owner of the Red Hen showed infinitely more discernment than those who are now wringing their hands over their supposed incivility.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows -- and Vladimir Putin's Little Pony

It's interesting that the usual suspects among LGBT advocacy groups have not condemned the New York Times depicting Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin as lovers.  I mean, GLAAD, our own anti-defamation league?

Under Greenwald's challenge I find the predictable absurd defenses of the Times cartoon.  This one , for instance:
i dont really have an issue with it. it clearly gets under his skin and im 100% more for making fun of trump by calling putin his boyfriend than...not doing that (i am a queer male and i speak for the trees)
I'm not sure I fully understand the bit about being "more for making trump by calling putin his boyfriend than ... not doing that."  So "not doing that" would be a bad thing?  The only way to mock, let alone criticize Trump is to fag-bait him?  The Resistance is more intellectually, morally and comedically bankrupt than even I thought.

This one was somewhat original, though:
I don’t think they’re going to condemn a depiction of 2 people in love. It mocks Trump bc Trump does seem to be in love w Putin sometimes. But trying to claim making out, nipple twisties & unicorns riding thru 🌈 as gay stereotypes is a stretch. All lovers so [sic] those.
So the Times was just trying to depict Trump and Putin in a positive way, as a loving couple?  Ooookayyyy.  I'll admit that I'm not sure I agree with Greenwald's rhetoric about "disgusting gay stereotype[s]"; I'm always wary when gay people denounce stereotypes.  Just as straight bigots who denounce Teh Gay often turn out to be gay themselves, gay people who denounce the stereotypes generally aren't as non-stereotypical as they like to think they are.

As always, the best way to evaluate the Times animation is to plug some different values into the equation.  Imagine that the Times produced an animation which depicted Trump and Putin according to the grand American tradition of the minstrel show.  The comedic possibilities are considerable: Trump and Putin as a pair of shuffling, watermelon-eating, handkerchief-headed darkies, robbing the sacred henhouse of Democracy to fill their bellies -- until a haint played by Robert Mueller comes along, Don and Vlad's eyes bug out, their hair stands on end, and they cry "Feets do yore stuff!" as they light out.  Pretty cool, don't you think?  I bet a lot of white Resistance liberals would eat it up. But there'd certainly be an outcry, condemnation, righteous denunciation of the Times for using these disgusting stereotypes.

There'd be defenses too: of course every woke liberal knows that being black or eating watermelon or raiding the henhouse aren't bad things in themselves, but Trump (and probably Putin as well) would surely see the depiction as degrading, so degrade away!  I believe, though, that the condemnation would win out, because white liberals are better trained in rejecting racist humor than straight liberals are in rejecting antigay humor.  Fag jokes, as I've pointed out before, are common and acceptable among straight liberals who piously support gay marriage and gays in the military, just good clean fun, and this was true years before Trump ran for the Presidency.

I just remembered Barry Blitt's infamous New Yorker cover depicting the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad reacting with consternation as another man taps his foot under a restroom stall.  This was supposed to be sophisticated satire, but I thought it was clumsy and tone-deaf.  I still think so, and I think it revealed a lot about the artist, the magazine, and its audience that a mere linking of an official US enemy to homosexuality is worth a sly chuckle.  That cartoon, along with the even more controversial Obama cover, featuring Barry and Michelle as black militants sharing a terrorist fist bump as a US flag burns in the White House fireplace, are for me further evidence that, contrary to Jon Schwarz's claim, liberals don't necessarily do analogies or humor any better than conservatives do.  "I'm just trying to make myself laugh," Blitt told NPR.  I thought he gets paid to make other people laugh as well?

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Feelilngs ... Nothing More Than Feelings

Something just occurred to me about this picture, which I used in a previous post:

I don't know if it's genuine; it seems too good to be true.  It would be foolish to rely on it too much, and most of the more genteel right-wingers I know would disassociate themselves from these trailer trash anyway.

What occurred to me is that "Politically Correct" as used by genteel right-wingers and centrists is code for "Fuck your feelings."  Their feelings, by contrast, are virgin and must remain intact until the Lord Jesus comes.  But your feelings, most specifically the feelings of women who've been grabbed by Harvey Weinstein or drugged by Bill Cosby; the feelings of parents and children pulled apart at the border by racist goons; the feelings of black kids shot in the back by cops; the feelings of Palestinians gunned down by the IDF, Iranians, Hondurans, poor Cubans (as opposed to the paleo-Batististas in Miami), poor Venezuelans (as opposed to the fascist rightists to whom the US has been funneling money ever since Hugo Chavez became President and down to the failed coup against Nicolas Maduro just a few days ago); trans people cast by vicious Christian thugs as sexual predators -- all these and more don't count.  Only the feelings of Trump's base matter.  Be civil to them, but fuck your feelings.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Constructive Criticism

I'm sorting out some ideas I might post to Facebook.  If they turn out to hang together, I'll just post them here.  It may take a while, but I hope that before too long I'll finish venting and can return either to slacking off or writing on other subjects.  For now I'll try to be entertaining, at least.

It's easy enough to pick on people who are upset because Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service at a small restaurant in Virginia.  I've tried to explain why they are fundamentally wrong, but it might help to suggest how they could do a better job.  A better job of framing the problem and the controversy, if you will.

For example, instead of fixating on the nonexistent injustice Sanders suffered, let's try a different perspective.  Having been ejected, civilly and politely, from the Red Hen restaurant, Huckabee Sanders decided to use her bully pulpit as White House Press Secretary, her government Twitter account, to stomp on the restaurant and its owner.  A worker at the restaurant had already posted about it on Facebook, but most of the corporate media didn't pick on it until Sanders notified her vast audience that she'd been treated with disrespect.

If a journalist really wanted to raise the alarm about civility, he or she could have begun by pointing out that, inconvenient and unpleasant as it was to be refused service, it was incomparably more unpleasant for the Red Hen to be put in the crosshairs of the Trump base, and vastly more uncivil for Sanders to put it there.  So a really fair journalist might say something along those lines: We sympathize with Mrs. Sanders for having her dinner plans interrupted, though of course she is completely in favor of less godly persons being refused service, but civility and indeed democracy are under threat when a powerful government official takes petty revenge on a small business for putting her to inconvenience.

My Right Wing Acquaintance, RWA1, lamented on Facebook that "We are all the losers" when this kind of incivility takes place.  He was not, of course, referring to Sanders's abuse of her office to trash a small business, though one might have thought that as a (retired) small business owner himself and a critic of big-government abuses (when they hurt the wrong people, that is), he might have thought of the chilling effect her behavior could have on small business owners who dare to disrespect POTUS and his crew.  He might write something like: I would never refuse service to anyone, but Mrs. Sanders's conduct is uncivil and inexcusable, even if she does feel that she should have been served.  As a believer in small government, I shudder to think that small business owners should hesitate to exercise their rights for fear of being attacked by some unaccountable bureaucrat in Washington.

The important thing is, this never seems to have occurred to either RWA1 or the centrist pundits who've been piling on the Red Hen with Sanders.  It's not surprising, of course: RWA1 and his kindred spirits always side with the bigots first.  They may pay lip service to the bigots' targets, but only on the way to offer comfort to the already comfortable, who suffered so greatly by not receiving the obedience and servility that is their due.

RWA1 was very indignant, for example, when Ben Carson encountered resistance to his giving a commencement address at Johns Hopkins and decided to forego the honor.  "I'm for gay marriage," RWA1 commented as he linked to a fatuous and mendacious essay by the centrist writer Michael Kinsley, "but Kinsley is right about PC heresy-hunting in academia and elsewhere."

Carson took flak for a Fox News appearance in which, among other pleasantries, he compared same-sex marriage to bestiality and pedophilia.  He addressed these themes further soon afterwards on MSNBC.  In addition to declaring that they don't make homophobes like they used to, Kinsley pointed out that Carson is a distinguished neurosurgeon and not your stereotypical toothless redneck bigot.  As if he suddenly realized the absurdity of that defense, Kinsley doubled back and acknowledged that even a university-educated military officer of impeccable pedigree can be the commandant of a death camp, but hey, this is America and we should be tolerant of bigots as long as they have advanced degrees and dress nice.  Kinsley also claimed that he and Andrew Sullivan invented gay marriage in 1989, I suppose to establish his bona fides as an Ally, howbeit a delusional one.  That claim was revised in the online version, but only the first time (of two) he made it; as far as I know, the second instance is still there, later in the text.

But I dissected Kinsley's claims at length at the time.  What I still find interesting is that 1) though antigay bigots must know by now that they will get in trouble if they compare homosexuality to bestiality on national TV, they just can't seem to stop themselves from doing it; 2) though apologists for bigotry will admit the absurdity and viciousness of the bigots' discourse, they will still insist that no one should get upset about it and the bigots should suffer no consequences whatever ("why can't [gays] just laugh off nutty comments like Carson's...?" Kinsley asked); and 3) RWA1, who is not as stupid as he often seems (though as time goes on, I'm beginning to reconsider that judgment), could still post Kinsley's gabbling as an exemplary diagnosis and refutation of "PC heresy hunting in academia."  I was going to wonder just how vile someone would have to be for RWA1 and his ilk to refuse to defend their freedom of expression, but then I remembered the Westboro Baptist Church: RWA1 is always ready not just to place them behind the pale, but to deny their First Amendment rights and to hint coyly that it would be nice if someone were to shoot them in the face or something.  So there are limits, but only for "demon-possessed preachers" and unruly rabble on the left.

There's the consistent pattern in the centrist-media outcry about the death of civility in America, into which people like RWA1 fit comfortably: they always side with the bigots first.  Their balanced, but-on-the-other-hand analyses may admit that perhaps the bigots have gone too far now and then, but that's no reason to say mean things about them or make them uncomfortable in public.  This is a consideration that they do not extend to left-wing agitators, let alone the bigots' targets.  We are supposed to grow thicker skins; the bigots and their apologists can feel a pea through thirty mattresses, and that sensitivity is protected by all the norms of democratic society.  It doesn't take an advanced degree to detect where their sympathies lie.  They're entitled to lay their sympathies wherever they like, but so are the rest of us, and if they want to be taken seriously, they should start being honest about their real allegiance.

Identity Politics Observed in the Wild

Now, this is ... interesting. In a Facebook comment on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez' primary win in New York, someone wrote (angrily? I think so):
'working class New York.' By which she did not mean ethnic white hardhats but multicultural, multiracial men and women who have to kowtow to other people just to make ends meet." You just couldn't not exclude the white working class from the working class, could you?
This is a lovely example of a common attitude, most visible among Trump's base but also evident in certain Democratic circles. "Working class New York" includes the white working class on its face. So does "multicultural, multiracial," unless you assume that whites, even white hardhats, are not a "race." But to this mindset, if you include people of color in the working class, you are excluding whites. If you let women into the big tent, you are driving out the men.  I've seen it often, but rarely spreading its plumage so openly in the wild.

While I'm on the subject of Ocasio-Gomez, several people passed along the reaction of a leading liberal cable-news pundit (and voice of the #Resistance!) to her victory.

Bear in mind that Reid is referring to a woman of color running for office in her own city.  But of course she hadn't paid any attention to her campaign before.  Another funny thing is that, as a commenter pointed out with links under her tweet, Ocasio-Gomez has actually received a fair amount of coverage.  But political journalism, c'est Joie.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

This Is Not a Story / Ceci N'est Pas un Histoire

Now, this is symptomatic of political discourse in our elite media.  "This is exactly why Trump won" is frankly idiotic, and when challenged, Peters admitted, "There are countless, unquantifiable reasons he won" before doubling back down: "But my problem with the bulk of these criticisms about reporting on the Trump coalition is that the left doesn’t want to hear it explained unless the answer is 'they’re all racist and stupid.'"

To see why it's idiotic, try reversing the terms.  The mainstream, to say nothing of far right-wing opinion in the US, has constantly "dismissed controversies that seemed small and exaggerated" when they involved the complaints of minorities: gay people, transpeople, women, people of color, the poor, and so on.  "But they were galvanizing for [those groups,] who are highly reactive to being told by the media 'this is not a story.'"  Which is exactly what we have been told by the corporate media, sometimes explicitly, sometimes simply by neglect.  Poisoned water in Flint, Michigan?  Unarmed people being shot in the back by police?  Stagnating wages and underemployment?  Not a story.  I myself sometimes forget how much this is true, because I forget that most people don't use the alternative media that I rely on to fill in the vast, gaping omissions of the mainstream.

I agree with Peters that we shouldn't call people "racist" or "stupid" at random.  The trouble is that Trump and his base are overwhelmingly, demonstrably racist and often stupid (which is why Trump keeps calling his enemies stupid and "low IQ", as kneejerk denial).  They want to be racist, but they don't want to be called racist.  They want to be stupid, they hate the pointy-headed intellectuals, and they don't want to do the necessary work to be smart.  (This is not to say that people who are less intelligent should be insulted or derided -- I've written before about the misuse of the word "ignorant" as an insult. Everyone is ignorant of more than they know; everyone has some valid and important knowledge that must be respected.  But it's patronizing to pretend that they know what they don't in fact know.  On the other hand, the Right refuses to respect the knowledge that others have.)

"But my problem with the bulk of these criticisms about reporting on the [vast majority of the population] is that the [center and right don't] want to hear it explained unless the answer is 'they’re all [lazy welfare moochers, Social Justice Warriors, and communist elitists].'"  The corporate media are terrified of offending the Right, who, while they are certainly numerous, are not the majority of Americans.  They are not even the majority of the voters, who, I have to keep reminding almost everybody, did not vote for Trump. The anti-democratic, anti-majoritarian Electoral College is "exactly why Trump won."  Anyone who chooses to ignore that is lying.

Significantly, the corporate media are not only not terrified of the mass of Americans outside Trump's base, they reject and ridicule us when we too become "highly reactive."  Or even slightly reactive.  It's just unbearable to them that the Right should be upset by a little restaurant in Virginia that refused service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  The feelings of Trump's base are sacrosanct and must be handled with kid gloves.  Everybody else's feelings?  Mnyeh, who cares?  We are just oversensitive, humorless injustice collectors.  No story here.

Indeed, it's one of the major complaints of the Trump base that they've had to hold in all their bigoted opinions for too long, afraid of being called names by Social Justice Warriors, and they're not going to tolerate it any more.  Their complaint is not that they want their feelings to be respected also; they want only their feelings to be respected, and everyone else's ignored.  It's summed up very well by this photo; as the person who posted it to Twitter noted, the operative word is "your," not "feelings."

If you disagree with me, consider: Trump and his base are so furious about Huckabee Sanders's being refused service, not because they believe that businesses should serve everybody without exception - they believe the exact opposite - but because they are outraged that anyone should disapprove of them and refuse service to them. When their own rules are applied to them, it doesn't make them reconsider their beliefs, it makes them more determined to punish everybody else.  They demand civility from everyone else, but they pursued what they wanted by being assholes.  And it worked, so why should they change now?

I suggest that one problem is that the vast majority of people, no matter where they are on the political spectrum, don't know what do when their opinions are challenged, disagreed with, criticized, condemned.  It's not pleasant, but hey, I've gotten used to it.  Activists and writers and intellectuals are constantly denigrated because we know how to debate, by people who can only flail around frantically when someone disagrees with them.  It's not enough to say that you're mad as hell and you're not going to take any more: the question is what you do after you've declared your complaints and your anger.  That's harder, and it can't be done with slogans and memes and a neat ending.

I'm willing to let the Trump base frame the refusal of service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders as a major controversy if that will make Jeremy Peters happy.  In fact, I agree that it's important, and it seems to me that most people who approve of the Red Hen staff's decision feel the same way.  This is not trivial.  It is important that the Right get some pushback and some accountability for their actions, as much as they hate the idea.  The American "mainstream" -- really corporate media, political, and corporate/financial elites -- has been tiptoeing delicately around the feelings of the Republican Right for too long, while dismissing the concerns of the rest of the country. I'm not going to wax prematurely triumphant about this and claim that the culture war has been won before it has properly been fought, but there are many signs that the rest of America (those who are neither media/business/political elites nor the Trump base) have been "galvanized" and are looking for ways to confront, engage, and challenge the forces of American reaction.

Unlike many people, I know that my opponents will never go away, but then, my opponents need to learn that everybody else won't go away either.  It's clearly what they want, but it's not going to happen.  So, the lines are drawn.  The question is what to do now.  We can't exterminate each other, and I don't really think that most non-Trumpers believe that we can or that we should.  I believe, though, that it's the Trump base constitute the real threat to everybody just getting along in this country and in the world.  I don't know how to get along with them without surrendering to them -- even total surrender wouldn't be enough for them anyway, they are unwilling to tolerate the presence of most of their fellow citizens -- but we're going to have to find a way if at all possible.  We are, I believe, in a very dangerous time, though all times have been dangerous if you look at our history.

The trouble with people like Jeremy Peters is that they are appeasers.  They hope that if we give the Right what they want, they'll let everyone else live in peace.  I think that the rise of Donald Trump is strong evidence to the contrary.  But literal war won't stop them either, even if they are finally defeated, and I'd really rather not see our cities firebombed and our towns leveled in the attempt.  We need to know where we stand, however, and anyone who exculpates the Right while telling everybody else that it's all our fault for upsetting the the Right is distorting reality.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Poverty of "Moderation" and "Civility"

The media haven't yet found something to distract them from the horror of Sarah Huckabee Sanders being refused service at a little restaurant in Virginia, and far be it from me to wander away from the fold.

I'd wondered if any of my Facebook friends would have anything to say about it yet, but so far most of them haven't, as far as I've seen.  My Right Wing Acquaintance did not disappoint: he weighed in with a lament about the lack of "civility" in our society today, and the divisiveness we face.  I pointed out that Sanders was treated civilly by the owner of the Red Hen, and that refusing service is not in itself considered incivility by the Right as long as the right people are refused service; in that case, it's objecting to the refusal of service that is uncivil.  I also pointed out a couple of instances of RWA1's own incivility, along with the example of Ronald Reagan: a bigot and recreational liar much like Trump, whose attacks on the poor and other safe targets delighted his base in his day.  We haven't gone beyond that yet.

As for divisiveness, Jon Schwarz tweeted yesterday that the Right "never imagined that their all-out attack on America might one day have the most mild consequences imaginable."  Conservatives have been at war with most of their fellow citizens, sometimes literally, for most of American history.  When Fred Hiatt, editor of the Washington Post editorial page, tweeted "Breaking up families is repugnant.  But hounding public servants in their private life isn't the right response," among the replies he got were these:

Invoking "consequences" is slippery, though.  It's a popular move on the forced-birth Right, when they say that a woman who has sex needs to take responsibility for the consequences of her sin.  I put it ambiguously there because, though they prefer to forget it, most women who get abortions are married and already mothers.  Just having sex, in their eyes, is the offense for which a woman must be punished.)  It was also popular at the height of the AIDS epidemic: if you engage in dirty sodomitical sex, you must live with the consequences.  They never imagine that their own actions might have consequences that make them uncomfortable.

At the same time, I'm wary of using their own move against them, because it relies on the fallacious assumption that "consequences" are always a natural result of someone's action, rather than something imposed on them by the judgment and choices of others.  (It's a variant of the mind game "See What You Made Me Do," identified by Eric Berne.)  Those who want to impose consequences on Sarah Huckabee Sanders or other Trump team members must remember that they (we) are deciding what the consequences ought to be, and take responsibility for their (our) choices.  I can say, more in anger than in sorrow, that I'm not seeing much of that.

It's like karma, which despite all the caveats and disclaimers, seems always to be invoked for other people.  If I understand the concept correctly -- of course there are many formulations -- it includes not only what other people bring on themselves, but on how we choose to respond to their actions.  If I burn down your house because you're a bad person, I might be an agent of your karma, but I'm also building up bad karma for myself.  One could, I think, make an excellent case that the presidency of Donald Trump is the karma not just of America generally, but also specifically of those Democrats who arrogantly assumed that such a loser could never beat Hillary.

With that in mind, and with considerable fear and trembling, I agree that it's appropriate to put the GOP in the hot seat.  Which doesn't mean I'm approving in advance every sadistic or violent "consequence" liberals and progressives decide is appropriate for the Trump team.  Nor should we forget that Trump and his base will strike back.  That's the trouble with starting a fight: your opponent will hit back.  You need to think about how you'll conduct yourself after that happens, and it seems to me that few people do, especially among those who are nominally on my side.

Still, it's worth remembering that the American Right has been at war, sometimes literally, with most of their fellow citizens for a long, long time.  There are many possible responses to them, but it must be remembered that verbal "combat," even pretty heated, is acceptable.  So are shunning, exclusion, refusing service or fellowship.  I wrote yesterday that if Sarah Huckabee Sanders were starving, I would feed her -- but she's not starving.  If she were homeless and living rough, I would favor giving her shelter and proper clothing -- but she's not homeless; she's all too comfortable.  If Donald Trump were lying in the gutter on fire, I would not piss on him: I would try to put out the flames and call an ambulance -- but he's not (alas?) on fire in the gutter.  I think it's important not to trade in irrelevancies, like mocking people's appearance -- but even if someone did, it's not as bad as separating children from their parents and putting them in cages.  I would deplore fat-shaming Sanders, for example, but I'd still have a sense of proportion in my criticism of the tactic.

And I'm worried about the panicky and yet weirdly complacent irrationality I see among many liberals and progressives, even leftists.  It seems that they feel that Trump's crimes license them to do anything in retaliation, without any bounds.  I've quoted before Walter Kaufmann's paraphrase of Freud, "Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal."  I don't have my copy of Without Guilt and Justice at hand now, but that sentence occurs in the context of a discussion of the human impulse to punishment.  The law of talion, "an eye for an eye," not only demands punishment, it limits it: no more than an eye for an eye.  Kaufmann noted that historically and cross-culturally, this limitation has often been needed, that people delight in inventing and executing baroque, sadistic tortures on people as a "consequence," as what they "deserve."  He also critiqued the very concept of "deserving," though not only with regard to punishment.  Given some of the gleeful fantasizing I've been seeing in social media the past few days about what Trump, Sanders, and other people "deserve," I worry about my putative allies' lack of self-awareness and its consequences.  This is not because I believe that we should be nice and give warm fuzzies to the Nazis (the straw man so beloved of many), but because failing to think about what we're doing will result in innocent people getting hurt.  We've had enough collateral damage already, thank you very much.  I can believe all this while rubbing RWA1's nose (figuratively) in the dirt and reminding him that Sanders got (a much milder version of) the same kind behavior she defends and supports for other people.

It's pointless to squabble about "who started it."  I attack the Right for what they say and do, and I won't let them cast themselves as victims.  At the same time, the Mom's response to "He started it!" is "And I'm ending it."  We also need to think about ending this.  We won't get a better society merely by punishing, trampling, humiliating the Right.  Again, this has nothing to do with warm fuzzies, though there's nothing wrong with warm fuzzies per se: the point is that punishing and humiliating your enemy won't work.  You just get a punished, humiliated enemy who will plot revenge, waiting until your back is turned to restart the fight.  (Paradigm cases: the US Civil War and World War I.)  It's even open to question whether humiliating your enemy will make you feel better in the long run.  But leave feelings out of it -- the real challenge is how to end a conflict without just setting up the pieces for the defeated enemy's payback game.

I also remember that any pushback against our not-so-Shadowy Overlords is unacceptable to them and their lackeys.  Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic is busy chiding the uncivil on Twitter right now: "If civility were more highly valued in our political culture Donald Trump would not be president. If it becomes significantly less valued in the next two years he is a shoe-in [sic] for reelection."  When challenged he replied "on the 'civility works better' side I cite Ghandi [sic] and MLK and Nixon’s re-election. What would you cite for 'incivility gets it done'?"

Friedersdorf is conveniently confusing civility with an avoidance of conflict. Civility is how you handle conflict.  Granted, the Civility Police prefer it that our rulers never face repercussions or any kind of pushback at all, but they shouldn't get their way.  He's also buying into the confusion of moderation of tone with moderation of substance, which is beloved of apologists for harmful policies. E.g., it's okay to kill children with drones as long as you do it politely as Obama did, not nastily like Trump does. Since Friedersdorf's a Christian, he should remember a saying that goes "Because you are lukewarm, I will vomit you out of my mouth." Or look at MLK's remarks about extremism in the letter from Birmingham jail, addressing white moderates who sounded a lot like Friedersdorf does today.

His citation of Gandhi (why is that name so difficult for many people to spell, by the way?) and King is actually absurd. Both men were radical troublemakers whose activism was seen as extremely uncivil by the nice, moderate public servants they opposed and by their servants in the media.  The civil disobedience King practiced was deplored by reasonable moderates while he lived -- I mean, the sit-ins, interfering with Bidness, so extreme and uncivil!  I feel sure that if he'd been active then, Friedersdorf would have lectured him on it.  King embraced the label of "extremist" in his letter from the Birmingham jail, and his rhetoric there, while free of "fuck" and "cunt," was anything but conciliatory.  It's only in retrospect, with considerable deliberate amnesia, that King and Gandhi can possibly seen as "civil" by Friedersdorf's standards.  It might be possible to make a good argument against the Red Hen owner's ejection of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but so far I haven't seen one.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

My House, My Rules

Y'know, I think I've learned a lesson this weekend, watching some of the fuss over a Virginia restaurant's refusal to serve Trump's press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  That lesson is that many reasonably well-educated people have no idea what "civility" means.

If you haven't heard, Sanders and seven other people drove up to Lexington, Virginia (pop. 7,000), and walked into a small (26 seats) restaurant called the Red Hen.  The staff recognized her and called the owner, who was at home. The owner arrived, asked Sanders to step aside with her, and politely asked her to leave. Sanders politely agreed.
Sanders went back to the table, picked up her things and walked out. The others at her table had been welcome to stay, Wilkinson said. But they didn’t, so the servers cleared away the cheese plates and glasses.

“They offered to pay,” Wilkinson said. “I said, ‘No. It’s on the house.’ ”
One of the servers mentioned the incident on his Facebook page, and the shit hit the fan.  Sanders tweeted about it: "I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so ... Her actions say far more about her than about me."  Other reactions were predictable: Trump fans were outraged, predicted that the Red Hen would soon close for lack of business, many Trump haters were delighted.  Large numbers from both groups posted reviews of the restaurant on social sites like Yelp, even though as the Washington Post article notes, few if any had ever eaten there or ever would.  Some Democrats, also predictably, attacked the owner for lack of "civility," saying that Sanders should have been served no matter what.

I saw a lot of online complaints about the lack of "civility" the Red Hen's owner supposedly showed.  I don't think there was any incivility or lack of respect (as I presume Sanders meant) involved.  The owner was both civil and polite, even respectful.  She explained her reasons and politely asked her to leave.  One of the basic mistakes many of the commentators make is their apparent belief that you can't disagree with, let alone cut off socially or in other areas, a person without being civil -- that civility means maintaining friendly relations with anyone, no matter how vile.  And while Sarah Huckabee Sanders isn't as vile as Donald Trump himself, she's his press secretary, lying for him, defending his vilest policies.  She's personally and professionally complicit in his evil.  Even if you believe (as I do not) that the Red Hen should not have refused her service, civility is a separate question.  The same goes for "respect."  If Sanders meant (as I presume she did) that she'd been treated disrespectfully, she was mistaken.

The owner of the Red Hen did not scream profane abuse at Sanders.  She didn't punch her in the nose. She didn't overturn the table, spilling cheese and drinks over the party.  She didn't invite other patrons to throw food at them.  She didn't lock them into a wire cage and beat them, starve them, inject them with drugs to make them docile, or throw them out on the street months later, unwashed and infested with lice.  Since Sanders and her boss and the people they represent support the right of small businesses to refuse service to anyone whose lifestyle or beliefs they disapprove of, Sanders in particular has no ground for complaint at all.

If Sanders were starving, I'd give her food.  But she's in no danger of starving, now or ever.  There are, as her fans crowed on social media, many restaurants where she and her friends and colleagues will be welcome.  Someone, in a tweet I can't find now, speculated reasonably that she'd traveled outside Washington, where "everybody hates her," to find a place to eat.  It seems she made a small blunder in her choice of the Red Hen, and I wonder who recommended it to her.  According to the Washington Post article, "Lexington, population 7,000, had voted overwhelmingly against Trump in a county that voted overwhelmingly for him."  So Sanders somehow lighted on one of the few places in Red America where she might not be welcome.

Another theme that raged in the line exchanges was Who's A Hypocrite Now?  Both Trumpists and liberals invoked the Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision.  The Trumpists asked how libs could object to refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay male couple, yet accept refusal of service for Sanders.  The liberals asked the reverse: if it's okay to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, then why isn't it okay to refuse to serve Sanders?  Of course I think the liberals have the stronger case.  Some liberals argued that the two cases are obviously totally different and if you can't see that then there's something wrong with you.  I agree that there are differences but I don't agree that they're relevant: the refusal to serve Sanders doesn't constitute legal or unjust discrimination.  And since the Right has been opposed to civil rights laws all along, they can't suddenly change their mind without some pretty hefty explaining.

Contrary to some complaints, it is not clear that "discrimination" was involved, and certainly not "prejudice."  "Prejudice" means pre-judging someone without evidence, or based on irrelevant evidence -- assuming that a pale, rather chunky woman will be a Trump supporter for example.  But the objection was to Sanders herself, a public figure, who has defined herself by her words and her willingness to defend the indefensible.  "Discrimination" is similarly slippery.  Some opponents of public accommodation laws like to point out irrelevantly that we all discriminate all the time.  That's true.  But unlawful discrimination is determined and defined by civil rights laws, and it's rather narrow.  People may use the word sloppily, but Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service because of her words and actions, the kind of person she has shown herself to be.  Someone irrelevantly quoted Martin Luther King's "judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" line at me.  I don't like it much, because we can never really know the content of anyone else's character.  But they (and we) do show something of our character by our actions, our words, the people we choose to associate with and work for, and Sanders has shown us enough about her character to judge her by.  It's discrimination, all right, but not the kind of discrimination civil rights law is meant to prohibit.

It raises another important question.  Public officials at all levels almost never face any accountability for crimes even greater than Trump's, for moral cowardice even greater than Sanders's.  The feeling of many Democrats (leave the Trump fanatics aside) that Sanders should face no accountability, no consequences for her actions or words, also has to be evaluated in the context of the refusal of the Obama administration to punish Bush-era figures who justified and ordered torture and other war crimes, or to punish the fraud and other crimes of business figures who nearly destroyed the economy in 2008.  Between doing nothing at one "extreme" and, oh let's say public execution by fire (the kind of extreme that centrists will think of to show the impossibility of doing anything other than nothing), there are many possibilities.  Compared to the imaginable extremes, being ejected from a restaurant is pretty small accountability for Sanders, and one that I'm sure she will be able to live with.

Glenn Greenwald posted a challenge today:
Everyone accusing each other of hypocrisy over the gay-wedding-baker and Sarah Sanders cases: please state the general principle you support when it comes to the right of business owners to refuse service to customers. That would be a more constructive way to have this discussion[.]
I think this is a good question.  As I expected, the responses were mostly not very constructive, to put it mildly, except insofar as they showed that most people have no general principles on this issue.  People they dislike should suffer, those they don't dislike should not suffer, and there's an end on't.  "It's very simple," one person said to me, and "Seems pretty straight forward," another said to Greenwald, thus showing how little they had thought about it.  Which is understandable -- how much do most of us think about difficult issues?

This takes me back to a question I've been grappling with for some time, namely under which circumstances it is all right to refuse service to someone, or to remove them from a job for actions or words committed outside (or even during) working hours.  Someone scolded me online that it's never right to refuse service to anyone.  This is obviously false, and absurd.  Bartenders refuse service to people all the time, for example.  At the same time, I disagree, and I think most people would disagree if they took it seriously, that any business owner should be able to refuse service to anyone for any reason. The absolutes are unworkable, so we have to judge actual cases in the middle.  This bothers many people, not only on the Right, who want moral absolutes, with no middle ground.

I don't think that general principles can definitively answer Greenwald's question.  That may be our problem.  General principles are useful but they only take us so far, and from there we must wing it, make judgments that may or not turn out to be right.  There don't even seem to be reliable ways to decide whether a judgment is right or wrong.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Kindness Is Not Enough



I didn't grow up on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.  Even if I'd been the right age -- I was 17 when the show went national in 1968 -- there was no public television station near where I grew up, so my childhood TV companion was CBS' Captain Kangaroo.  And the new documentary about Fred Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, hasn't been booked in a local theater yet, but I'll see it when it does.  The publicity the documentary has been getting me led me to look at a number of clips featuring or about Rogers, and I want to see more.  He also wrote some books that I think I should look at.  Not necessarily to write about here, though I might, but childhood development and education are interesting topics to me.
  
A lot of what I have been looking at is reactions to the film. There's a genre of Youtube videos where people watch movie trailers and "react" to them, usually without anything interesting to say. When these reactors take on the trailer of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, certain motifs recur.  Some wipe away tears; not only women -- heck, I did too the first time I watched it.  Another was the notion that "we need Mr. Rogers today."  Here's a pro version:



It seems to me that this dishonors Fred Rogers.  There's a tension in this clip between its sentimental picture of a nice guy (which he was) who taught the importance of being good neighbors (which he did), and the man who took on difficult, painful issues like death, divorce, disability, racism, and just "feeling blue."  That tension emerges in the commentator's portrayal of the present as an us vs. them time, when being nasty is common in social media and politics -- while showing images that contradict that neat dichotomy, that human beings were mean to each other when Fred Rogers was at his peak as a "superstar."  Like the racist motel manager who dumped muriatic acid into the motel swimming pool to try to intimidate black protesters.  But dig this:
Many people from that time remember Brock as more the victim in the incident. One moment of temper led to an unwanted legacy. “Jimmy kind of caught the brunt of it. He was a nice guy”. said Eddy Mussallem, a fellow hotelier and longtime friend. “They had to pick a motel, so they picked Jimmy’s motel. I always told him he did a foolish thing”. Brock found himself pressured by civil rights groups and militant whites fighting integration. On 2007, aged 85, Jimmy Brock died at his St. Augustine home.
This is not how you get past us. vs. them, but it's a popular attitude with a certain strain of liberal.  Contrary to the ABC commentator, Fred Rogers was not a "revolutionary," but he had firm beliefs and worked hard to express them in children's TV.  Washing and drying the feet of a black friend on his show surely upset many "nice" white people, and Rogers knew that.  Francois Clemmons, the actor who played Officer Clemmons, is gay, but he understood (however reluctantly) why Rogers cautioned him about being openly gay.  We can't ask Rogers himself why he made this decision, but it seems clear enough.  He doesn't seem to have been bothered by Clemmon's homosexuality, which is noteworthy in a Christian minister of his generation at that time; but he knew that a gay actor on a TV show for young children, even if the character he played wasn't gay, would be treated as a scandal that would probably have resulted in the show's cancellation.  (Compare the complicated case of the Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash, decades later.)  Not just turning off the TV, as the commentator says, but taking the show off the air altogether, so nobody could see it.*

Fred Rogers died in 2003, but his programs and a good deal of other material by him are still available.  You and your children can watch them on PBS' website, and at least some are available on Youtube.  If we need him, he's still there as much as he was when he was alive. What bothers me, on reflection, is that so many adults expect him to save them somehow.  I understand fully the fond memories they have of his show, hut it wasn't all sweetness and light, and that was exactly where its value lay, and still does.  I wouldn't say this to children, of course, but these people are grownups.  If he's in their hearts (as one woman says in the ABC segment), then they should be able to take what they learned from him and live by it, act on it.  If they aren't doing that, if they aren't trying to make the world a better, safer place for children -- even just the children around them -- then they didn't learn anything from Mr. Rogers after all; they're just using him as a security blanket.  The past he represents for them was not a safe place, which is why he made TV for children, to help them cope with it.  Of course we all need our comfort zones, but once we've been comforted we have to go back out and deal with the world.  As Rogers said repeatedly, "Look for the helpers."  The helpers are not "them," but "us" -- you and I.

If I were going to criticize Rogers in any serious way, it would be that he doesn't seem to have stressed that enough.  (I could be wrong about that, since I am drawing on an insufficient sample of what he said over many years.)  Even small children need to know that they can be helpers too -- but most little children are empathetic and want to help.  It's one of the most basic forms of competence children have, and children want, more than almost anything else, to be competent.  I'm wary of reading my politics into Rogers', so let me quote from his 2002 commencement address at his alma mater Dartmouth College.  You can see it on Youtube, but the text is available online.
[B]eside my chair [in my office], is a French sentence from Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. It reads, “L’essential est invisible pour les yeux.” What is essential is invisible to the eye. Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who have helped you become the person you are? Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work, has had at least one person, and often many, who have believed in him or her. We just don’t get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.
There’s a neighborhood song that is meant for the child in each of us, and I’d like to give you the words of that song right now. “It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you. Not your caps and gowns, they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like. Every part of you. Your skin, your eyes, your feelings. Whether old or new, I hope that you remember, even when you're feeling blue, that it’s you I like. It’s you, yourself, it’s you. It’s you I like.”
And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see, or hear, or touch. That deep part of you, that allows you to stand for those things, without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.
I was six or seven when it occurred to me to wonder where moms and dads go for comfort when they have bad dreams.  Where does the buck stop?  It stops with each of us, but we have each other, with whom the buck also stops.  I understand the desire to go back to childhood when we could run to mom or dad to reassure us after a bad dream.  I feel it myself, living with everyone else in an international bad dream.  But we can't go back to childhood, and our parents (even when they are still alive) can't give their adult children the same kind of comfort they gave us when we were four or five.

In that commencement address Rogers also told a story of competitors at the Special Olympics who stopped in the middle of a race to comfort one of their number who'd fallen and was crying.  Then they all walked to the finish line together.  No losers.  No winners -- that's the hard part for many or most people to accept.  Rogers explained: "Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then."  So I don't think I'm reading my politics into his.  But they aren't just his, or mine: lots of other people have said and are saying the same thing.  We don't need Mr. Rogers to be here now to tell us these things; we just need to listen to what he already said, and then to tell each other.  The best thing about being an adult, as opposed to a child, is that we have much greater scope and ability to be helpers.

----
P.S. After I wrote this post I found Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), which devotes an entire chapter to this issue, "'He Understood': Homosexuality and Gay Friends."  Rogers had numerous gay friends, including one from his college days, and seems not to have been at all uncomfortable with gay people; he also was supportive of "inclusive" ministries when they emerged in his own denomination. I think his extreme caution about Clemmons was completely understandable for someone working in children's television in 1968, when a gay actor could have been quietly fired and very few people would have taken it amiss.  That Rogers instead kept Clemmons on, befriended him, encouraged him to be happy, and learned from him, speaks very well for him.

We all grow at our own pace, yet I was mildly surprised when Long mentioned the death of Rogers's gay college friend, a operatic baritone named James Reardon whom Rogers also invited to appear and perform on the show.  Reardon died around 1988, and Long writes "the newspapers reported that he died of pneumonia" (148).  From this we may infer that Reardon died from complications of AIDS, yet Long doesn't say so, even in a book for adults published in 2015.  We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Useful Idiots

Another Democratic loyalist has gone on Twitter to rant about the evil "friends" who, "bragging about how at least they were smart enough not to vote for Hillary, voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnston."  She's the "Mayor of Zero F**Ksville" (asterisks sic) and a "2-Time NYT Bestselling Author," so you know she's not only really cool, she's really smart.  I did a little ranting myself in reply, and remembered something I left out out of my most recent post about such people.

During the twenty-five years I ran the GLB Speakers Bureau in Bloomington, people often failed to show up for panels they'd signed on to do.  I found that it helped if I sent out email at the beginning of each week to remind them: not individually, but a list of the week's panels with the names of those who were scheduled to speak.  This helped, though it didn't solve the problem entirely.  I'm not sure what would have, short of breaking down their doors and carrying them bodily to the location.  Speakers Bureau is an all-volunteer organization, including me as the coordinator, so the most I could do was remove from the mailing list those people who failed to show up too often.

But one of our volunteers, a woman about my age, objected even to the reminder messages.  Adults should honor their commitments, she declared, without having to be coddled or cajoled.  I'm not sure what she had in mind -- kick them off the mailing list the first time they didn't show?  To some extent I agreed with her, but as I saw it my first priority was not to try to force the volunteers to grow up, it was to do what I could to ensure that speakers showed up where and when we'd promised they would.  Since we didn't pay the volunteers, and were asking them to give their time (admittedly for a pleasant task, that of speaking about their lives in public), I believed a certain amount of coddling, even indulgence, wasn't out of line.  It's worth noting that this woman had some Native American ancestry, and was proud of what she saw as Indians' cultural superiority over deracinated whites; yet her position on this matter seemed to be rooted in Western Enlightenment individualism, with some Puritan punitiveness laid on for spice.

The analogy I'm drawing here will be evident, I hope.  As I wrote before, I agree that voting is a citizen's duty, one I carry out myself; but there are no direct consequences for not voting, and I'm not sure there ought to be.  But we also need a "None of the Above" option on the ballots, with consequences for the candidates if they can't beat NOTA at the polls.  In the meantime, it's reasonable to remember that voters are volunteers, even if that means voluntarily carrying out a duty.  And none of these frothers have shown me any reason to believe that berating the voters will win them over.  Just on general principles, I would expect it to have the opposite effect.  If you're not feeling particularly motivated to go to the polls, and some crank is calling you names for not loving their crummy candidate, why not just stay home?

For that matter, I thought the parties recognized this.  A lot of their volunteer work is aimed at making it easier to vote, recognizing that there are barriers.  This is not the airy-fairy fantasy of an aging hippie, it's what the parties actually do.   Do they still offer voters rides to the polls, or is that coddling and spoiling them, when they should act like adults and crawl on their hands and knees to the polling place, grateful to cast their vote for whatever corrupt hack the party leadership has in its wisdom placed on the ballot?

So I wonder who appointed people like Kathy Griffin and Stonekettle the Tough Love enforcers of the Democratic Party.  Are they useful idiots for Trump?  Or are they secretly, as I suggested sarcastically in a reply to Griffin this morning, being paid by Putin to depress Democratic turnout?  It's one thing to be uninspiring, and quite another to actively drive people away from the party.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Killing Me Politely With His Norms

Last Sunday's Doonesbury was appalling.  Embarrassing.  Repellent... I'm trying to find the right epithet, but you get the idea.  I've been trying to find a way to read it as sarcasm, but can't find a handhold.  "Did I mention that I was polite?" would give it away if it were the Onion, but Trudeau's not the Onion.  The same applies to the way Norm appears as a Rainbow Coalition parade of Diverse faces; could Trudeau be referring to the will.i.am Obama campaign video featuring multicolored celebrity dreamers?  If only.  No, Trudeau's been hammering a pretty solid DNC beat since Trump became president, as subtle as a MAGA hat.

I thought that Corey Robin had posted a tweet to the effect that norms are conservative, in intention and function.  Which is not always a bad thing.  But I can't find it now.  I did, while looking, find this article by Robin at Jacobin, in which he invites the reader to imagine
that it’s 2020, and Sanders is elected with a somewhat radicalized Democratic Party in Congress. Or if that’s too much to swallow, imagine some version of that (not necessarily Sanders or the Democrats but an empowered electoral left) in 2024. Or a realignment of the sort the US saw in 1932. Realignments always involve a contestation over norms; realignments change norms; realignments erode norms. And all of these counsels against norm erosion and polarization — which many people in the media and academia are invoking against Trump and the GOP — will now come rushing back at the Left.

And how could they not? When you set up “norms” as your standard, without evaluating their specific democratic valence in each instance, the projects to which they are attached, how could you know whether a norm contributes to democracy, in the substantive or procedural sense, or detracts from it? How could you know whether the erosion is good or bad, democratic or antidemocratic?
As I've said before, it's not enough to stand by your principles: first you have to have good ones.  Norms gave us the 3/5 clause of the Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Act, the expulsion of Indians from their land, the restriction of the franchise, right down to endless war, state surveillance of citizens, and so on and on.  The furious protests of pundits and politicians, liberal and conservative alike, that Trump's behavior on this or that issue is unprecedented, are in large part attempts to deny the norms that characterize this country by denying history.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

False Equivalence for Dummies

I heard a lot about supposed false equivalence during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, and in almost no case were the allegations accurate.  I believe, however, that I've been seeing some genuine specimens lately, in connection with the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.  Here's a good example, from a reasonably sober commentator:
As someone who supported Trump-Kim summit it’s important to stop referring to outcome of Singapore as a “nuclear deal.” It was a handshake based on a few understandings between two men with few, if any, expert input on the details that typically cause most real deals to collapse.
It's the "two men with few, if any, expert input" that I want to draw your attention to.  I don't dispute that Trump had no expert input from his side, though that was because he wasn't interested in it.  I don't know what input, expert or otherwise, Kim Jong Un drew on, and I doubt this writer does either.  But North Korea has a long history of negotiating with the US, and until there's some evidence to the contrary, I see no reason to suppose that Kim didn't draw on it.  Kim definitely appears to have prepared for his earlier meeting with ROK President Moon Jae In, and behaved sensibly even while he was staging a performance for the cameras. 

And this is milder than most discourse I've seen, which routinely calls both Trump and Kim "deranged" and the like.  I think that's wrong about both men.  Trump is an evil clown, and the cascade of accusations about his mental health have been mere abuse; deserved abuse, but not accurate because of that.  About Kim Jong Un we know less, but I see no reason to think that he's insane either.  Yes, he postures and provokes, as North Korean leaders have often done in dealing with the West (and so did Hugo Chavez, who wasn't insane either).  Similar claims were made about Kim's father, Jong Il, and he definitely wasn't crazy: he also managed negotiations with the US, getting an agreement that only "collapsed" because of US refusal to keep its commitments.

Bruce Cumings wrote about Kim Jong Il in North Korea: Another Country (The New Press, 2003):
Way back when, Kim Jong Il was the same Mad Dog he is said to be today [2003]: a drunk, a womanizer, a playboy, Stalinist fanatic, state terrorist, unstable, psychotic, another David Koresh, Jim Jones, or Charles Manson—“Public Enemy Number One,” running a country always making “one last lunge for survival.” When the father died, the American media dredged up all these things, but Newsweek perhaps outdid them with its racist cover article: “Korea after Kim: The Headless Beast” (July 18, 1994). According to “one U.S. diplomat,” the son was “irrational, far more dangerous than his father.... No one in his right mind wants to see Kim Jong Il in charge of a nuclear-armed North Korea.” South Korean “experts” told the magazine that the end of the regime was nigh; “great turmoil is on the way.” As for the deceased father, Newsweek’ s intrepid researchers had uncovered what no one else ever did: Kim’s presence with “Stalin’s military” in the Soviet Far East in the 1930s. But “whether he actually fought against the Japanese is a matter of debate.”

Then, six years later, top American officials actually met the Dear Leader, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in preparation for President Bill Clinton’s (aborted-by-Bush) summit with the younger Kim: “He is amazingly well-informed and extremely well-read,” an American who met him related to a reporter; “he is practical, thoughtful, listened very hard. He was making notes. He has a sense of humor. He’s not the madman a lot of people portrayed him as.” A State Department official said, “He can talk about almost any subject . . . market economics, the Internet, coming technologies.” Madame Albright presented him with an NBA basketball signed by his basketball hero, Michael Jordan; Jong Il immediately wanted to take the ball out and dribble it around [Kindle edition, location 796ff].
I quoted this at length partly because I couldn't resist including that bit about Michael Jordan and basketball; the interest in the sport evidently runs in the Kim family.  Cuming's book is out of date by now, but it's short and readable, and if you read it you'll still be better informed about North Korea than most people in the US media or government.

I wouldn't want to take too seriously the "top American officials'" evaluation of Kim Jong Il, but at least they make it clear he was not the cartoon that South Korean hardline and American mainstream propaganda made him out to be.  We don't know much about his son, but I suspect he also is smarter, more serious, and better prepared than Donald Trump.  Obviously that sets the bar quite low, but equating the two men is almost certainly mistaken, another example of the enduring American tendency to underestimate and caricature Koreans, both in the North and the South.  (The US media aren't terribly happy with South Korean President Moon Jae In, either, for presuming to put the interests of his own country and people ahead of American wishes and fantasies.)

It's difficult to find the right balance here.  I'm not denying that Kim Jong Un is a dictator, presiding over a horribly repressive state with many serious human rights abuses.  One can say all that without caricaturing him or lying about him; isn't the truth enough?  Not, it seems, for the American mainstream.  The same could be said of Trump, after all: he's quite bad enough that it shouldn't be necessary to lie about him. It could be said of Obama, or Hillary Clinton.  I find it interesting, though also profoundly depressing, that so many people prefer the fantasies to the truth.

Ignorance about North Korea by Americans is understandable: it's a closed society, and reliable information is hard to come by.  Ignorance about South Korea, which saturates most American coverage of the peninsula, is inexcusable.  But again, it appears that most Americans prefer fantasy to reality in politics.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Crooked Timber of Psychological Man

A quick note:

Pocket referred me to this article about Philip Zimbardo's infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment today.  It's very much worth reading.  I wrote a post on an interview with Zimbardo some years ago, and found a lot wrong even with his official account of the experiment.  That much of the official account was actually lies is startling, but I don't think it has much effect on my critique; some of the article even confirms my suspicions.

For example, I wrote that Zimbardo "played his own role to the hilt, probably as he'd learned it from old movies," and that he "seems to have relished playing The Warden from a Jimmy Cagney movie while the game lasted."  I also suggested that, far from spontaneously creating their roles as tough guards and prisoners, the student subjects were also drawing on cultural cues they'd grown up with:
Plus, as my reference to old movies suggests, we've grown up seeing these roles played, even practiced them in "play" as children. (In a smart review of the 1990 movie version of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, an allegory of Original Sin and innate human depravity in which pubescent boys are stranded on an island without adults and turn into Savages, Gary Giddins pointed out that the boys were not blank slates: they knew from stories and TV shows and movies how Wild Indians and African Savages were supposed to behave, and followed the script.) By the time we are adults we've had two decades of training in exercising and submitting to authority.
 It turns out that at least one of the student guards was studying acting, and treated the experiment
as a kind of an improv exercise,” Eshelman said. “I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do, and I thought I’d do it better than anybody else by creating this despicable guard persona. I’d never been to the South, but I used a southern accent, which I got from Cool Hand Luke.”
Also, one of Zimbardo's main assistants "explicitly corrected guards who weren’t acting tough enough, fostering exactly the pathological behavior that Zimbardo would later claim had arisen organically."

It's fascinating to learn how much Zimbardo has lied about the project over the years, and I'm inclined to view his claim that he regrets its prominence in his public reputation as a lie too, since he worked long and hard to publicize it and to block criticism from colleagues, including a replication of the experiment that came up with very different results.  It makes me more inclined to doubt the validity of his later work, including a trendy book in the downtrodden-males genre.

There's much more to the article, and it's worth reading.

Legitimize Me All Night Long

The US/DPRK summit has enraged a lot of people in the US, and one of their favorite themes is that Trump "legitimized" Kim Jong Un by meeting with him.  I've seen many complaints about North Korea's undeniably bad human rights record, almost all of them from people who have nothing to say about the undeniably bad human rights records of so many US friends, allies, and clients.  When Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia visited Washington, for example, he was fawned on by Democrats and Republicans alike, by the full range of American corporate media, and hailed as a "reformer."  (This is typical of elite US reception of right-wing dictators for a century or more.)  Justin Trudeau and the Canadian establishment followed suit. The word "legitimize" was not to be heard, as far as I know, though it surely applied.

So, Glenn Greenwald wrote contemptuously today: "US foreign policy elites have invented a whole slew of meaningless phrases to justify a state of permanent militarism & aggression in the world, then trained people to recite them. That US should avoid negotiating with Bad Guys because it gives them 'legitimacy' in a good example".  He continued: "It's critically important that the country which lavishes the Saudi regime with weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover, and constant praise not do anything to give legitimacy to dictators."

Someone calling himself "Vincent Adultman" riposted: "So is giving weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover and praise to Saudi Arabia wrong, or is legitimizing dictators OK? Which lane are you picking?"

The most obvious point is that Greenwald doesn't endorse "giving weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover and praise to Saudi Arabia."  Not only Trump, but most of the American political and chattering classes do favor doing so, however.  The question for such people, then, is why they don't favor giving the same benefits to Kim Jong Un; as a brutal dictator with no regard for human rights, he would seem to qualify.

Nor, as far as I know, does Greenwald believe the US should treat North Korea like Saudi Arabia.  Nor do I.  The Onion recently mocked the very idea.  The two cases are dissimilar in many ways.  Unlike Saudi Arabia, North Korea is not attacking another nation or creating a vast humanitarian catastrophe with US support.  The only country North Korea has attacked is South Korea, which is not a separate nation, in 1950; that was a civil war, not a war between nations.  I would certainly oppose the US giving or selling weapons or technology to North Korea, but I doubt Trump or most of the US political and business community have any such reservations.  I think the only nation, except perhaps Japan, that feels threatened by North Korea's nuclear weapons is the US, because of our own paranoiac fantasies.  Like much (most?) of the world, North Korea has much better reason to feel threatened by the US.

I believe that Vincent Adultman was trying for a version of a popular attempt to flummox those who oppose the US starting another aggressive war: Don't you libs want the US to "intervene" in Saudi Arabia?  Aren't you always complaining about the human rights in American client states? So why do you now object if the US bombs Kosovo, Iraq, Libya?  You have a double standard.  This line is often accompanied by a admission that America has not always got it right before, but this time we'll do it right.  Shouldn't we at least try?  Can't you just give America another chance?  I've heard this sort of thing at least since the US invasion of Panama in 1989, though I'm sure it's older, and every time it quickly became clear not only that America had blown another chance to get it right, but that our leaders didn't care.  They had other concerns on their agenda.

Here we come to another popular buzzword, "whataboutism" (or "whataboutery").  It comes in handy when someone points out real hypocrisy and double standards in US policy and conduct.  Given that we're not talking about parallels that are distant in time but are quite recent, it seems entirely fair to ask why it was horrible for Trump to meet Kim Jong Un but not Mohammed bin Salman, especially when meeting and praising Kim Jong Un is decried as an atrocity unprecedented in American history.  Some of these preachers get a bit testy when they're corrected as to the American record, too.  But then they never meant to be taken literally.

Admittedly, nobody can denounce, let alone work effectively against every bad thing in the world.  But think of all the nice, sincere liberals I interacted with online who were distraught over wounded Syrian children and asked why America couldn't do something about them.  When I asked them, they mostly said they didn't know what we could do, though some were up for bombing Syria (and some others didn't say so, I suspect, because they knew it would sound bad).  I then asked them what they thought about wounded Yemeni children, since the US is partly responsible for their suffering and could mitigate or even stop it simply by stopping our direct support for Saudi aggression.  None answered, and most of them stopped posting even about Syrian children before long, thanks to the famous American short attention span.  Even granting that nobody can do everything, how hard could it be to admit that US involvement in killing and starving Yemeni children is a problem, and maybe post a meme denouncing that involvement?  And pretending that Trump's behavior is unprecedented makes life easier by erasing all the other evils you need to keep track of, doesn't it?

Whataboutism has an honorable history, going back to Martin Luther King Jr.'s declaration in 1967:
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
It becomes a dishonest tactic when the comparison is invalid, as they often are. Vincent Adultman provided a good example: he seemed to think that Greenwald was being inconsistent in denouncing US support for Saudi aggression while favoring peace in the Korean peninsula.  Another example is someone who responded to Greenwald's criticism of US commentators who "really believe that the US owns, or at least is entitled to exercise supreme dominion over, the Korean Peninsula."  Someone called Bohique replied: "I have not heard you reporting on the concentration camps Trump is setting up in Texas. Have you seen thebimages [sic] of children in cages? Maybe that will give you better context."  Of course Greenwald has criticized the viciously inhumane US immigration policy, going back at least to the days when it was Obama's policy.  I presume that Bohique was alluding to North Korean prison camps, on the assumption that US should exercise supreme dominion over the Korean peninsula because of them.  Leaving aside that there's no reason to believe that the US government or most mainstream pundits care about human rights (except when pretending to care for propaganda purposes), I don't see how US Korea policy has, or could, produce any improvement in North Korea's behavior.  But then it's not meant to.

You could go with Arash Karami, who very properly wrote today, "I can’t believe North Korea negotiated with a regime that just helped launch another catastrophic bombing campaign against Yemen."

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Marilyn Monroe Died for Our Sins

I've just begun reading what looks to be an interesting book, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell (Holt, 2004).  Churchwell's an academic, and her aim is not "to reveal the real woman behind the image, the truth behind the myth", but to tell "the story of the stories of Marilyn Monroe" (10), the mythology that has been constructed around her. 

So far, she's doing a good job.  For instance she notes the popular trope that Monroe was a "natural" woman, perhaps the last sex symbol to to be "'allowed' to be 'womanly': ... 'She would be told now to go on a strict diet and sent for liposuction, because we are no longer supposed to look womanly'" (28).  This particular version comes from an essay by Marge Piercy, who's one of my favorite writers, but flat wrong this time: she knows very well about whalebone corsets, and has written about the days of her mother's youth, when flappers bound their breasts and tried to have boyish figures.  As Churchwell shows, Monroe was attacked throughout her career for being messy, "overripe," overweight; Churchwell quotes a 1953 anti-fan letter which denounced Monroe for being fat, and "waddl[ing]" (29).  Once again, nostalgia is just amnesia turned around.

But this bit brought me up short:
Monroe also posed for what were then euphemistically referred to as "art" photographs, which was a code for pictures of nudes (the pinup would tend to be in a bathing suit, or at most seminude).  Art pictures were not pornographic; in fact, the difference between art photography and pornography at that point was whether pubic hair was visible; art pictures would reveal breasts, and perhaps nipples. (Playboy would make history when it first published a picture in which the model's public hair was barely visible, in January 1971) [36].
I'm not sure about this.  I think the distinction Churchwell wants to draw is between "pornography" and "obscenity."  Pornography is as imprecise a term as obscenity, of course, but I think Merriam-Webster's definitions would still fit the 40s and 50s, the period Churchwell is referring to: first,  "depictions of erotic behavior ... intended to cause sexual excitement"; second, any material that "depicts erotic behavior ... and is intended to cause sexual excitement."  The third is more metaphorical: "depictions of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction."  I suppose that even just standing there buck nekkid could count as "erotic behavior."  In this sense, even the pinups were pornographic.  But the big legal controversies of the twentieth century involved the legal category of obscenity, and many lines were drawn in the sand, only to be erased and replaced with newer ones.

What causes sexual excitement is highly variable and subjective, after all: those relatively chaste pinups of girls in swimsuits were meant to produce sexual excitement, so as to remind Our Boys what they were Fighting For.  It's a commonplace, which may or not be true (though it's supported by a famous episode in James Joyce's Ulysses, published in 1922), that in the Old Days of long skirts, a man could be excited by the mere sight of a woman's ankle, even though it was covered in stockings.  Half a century later, young women still chanted, "We must / We must / We must work on our bust / We better / We better / So we can wear a sweater!"  A pair of breasts covered -- though not concealed; rather enhanced -- by bra and sweater could still excite a man.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that the European edition of Playboy, whose models had smaller breasts and bigger hips than the US ideal, also broke the pubic hair barrier before the American one did.  I could well be wrong.  And this isn't important to the interest of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, I'm just thinking.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Old Balancing Act

I've been ruminating about a post on the Rosanne Barr / Samantha Bee foofooraw, and I may yet do something more extensive.  But the AV Club had a post yesterday, about Jon Stewart's reaction: "Jon Stewart Says the Samantha Bee Outrage Was Bullshit."  Stewart says that the Trump administration
"don’t give a shit about the word cunt,” Stewart said of the Trump administration, adding that he expects Trump himself “say that instead of ‘please.’” That comes from The Daily Beast, which says Stewart also implied that Bee should never have apologized, saying that the phony outrage game conservatives love to play is a “strategy” and “it’s working.”
Well, he's entitled to his own opinion.  What interested me was what the AVC writer, Sam Barsanti, had to say, namely that "it should be clear to everyone that saying something racist is worse than saying a bad word."  This, I think, indicates a what liberals / progressives fail to get about a lot of matters.  "Cunt" is not just "a bad word," it's a misogynist insult, fully as nasty as a racist epithet, and Samantha Bee used it as a misogynist insult.  She doesn't get a pass on it because she's a woman.  I'm a bit bemused by the way so many women see the word as ultimately, soul-destroyingly horrible in any context, but that too has to be taken into account in evaluating Bee's remarks.

Sally Field got it right, I thought:


(If you want to groan and bang your head against something, though, read some of the angry responses by Rosanne Barr fans to Field's tweet; the first one is typical.)

Should Barr's show have been canceled?  Should Bee have apologized?  Should she have been fired?  I've been thinking and writing about questions like these for a long time now, and I am no closer to answers than I ever have been.  I don't think there is a simple answer to the questions of when someone should lose their TV show or their job and when they shouldn't, of what is going too far, and the like.  But I also think that most people, regardless of their political affiliation, jump to demands that whoever offends them should be fired, and that alone is a good reason to reject those demands on principle. 

I'm inclined to say that Bee was not only indulging in misogynist abuse, which in itself is certainly free speech and therefore protected, but incredibly tactically stupid.  Calling Trump a cunt was self-indulgent, but it also played into the hands of the Right, and pandered to widespread misogyny among liberals.  I don't believe she should be fired for that; I do think in addition to pandering to specific audiences' prejudices, we need more rational discussion of just about everything in politics today, and that neither Bee, Stewart, Comedy Central, nor the media in general are interested in that.