Tuesday, June 25, 2019

I Am the Only Atheist in the Village!

Sometimes I feel self-indulgent for posting about religion -- though why not be self-indulgent, after all? -- but then I remember that a lot of what I criticize is not really religion itself but history and other fact-involved subjects.  For example:

This gem ornamented a thread devoted to mocking the Christian group that petitioned Netflix to cancel Good Omens, a miniseries based on Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's 1990 novel, appearing exclusively on Amazon Prime.

In a way this tweet unknowingly honors Pratchett's own biblical illiteracy.  The Bible was not written by "white dudes."  The Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament, was written by a bunch of "Orientals," as European Christian scholars used to call them.  The New Testament was written partly by "Orientals" and partly by members of the swarthy Mediterranean races.  Neither group was considered white by the nineteenth and twentieth century scientific racists who tried to bar them from immigrating to the United States.  It's doubly ironic given the indignation among liberals
over right-wing claims that Jesus was a white guy.

More seriously, rating a text by the author's skin color, whether positively or negatively, is a paradigm example of racism.  Can't really accuse the biblical writers of bigotry when you've got such a large beam in your own eye.  This is a matter of judgment, but the Bible is an anthology of writings composed over almost a thousand years, and while some of its content is bigoted by any reasonable criterion, some of it opposes bigotry.  As I have often had to lament, my fellow atheists are such a disappointment to me sometimes.

Recently there was a New York Times article on white racism directed at Somali immigrants in Minnesota, which I haven't read yet because I've used up my ration of free articles for this month.  The author tweeted an outtake (not included in the article itself because he didn't have the quotation on tape): "a woman touching me (a black person) and saying 'we didn't love it when black people came, but at least they were christian.'"  It's a weird remark, and not only because the Somali Muslims in question are black, but because Minnesota has a history of racism, including the 1920 lynching of three black men in Duluth.  I presume the woman was talking about African Americans migrating north in the twentieth century, which indeed white racists "didn't love," resisted and fought.  That they were Christian didn't do them any good at all.

Someone, self-described as "a U.S. historian, educator, progressive, biracial," immediately jumped on the quotation:
Unbelievable. And ignorant if she's referring to black people being brought to the United States. They didn't come as Christians--they became Christian by indoctrination and the need for acceptance/survival. Christianity is not a native African belief system.
That's true, though I don't think that the woman was talking about black people being brought to the United States.  It's true that African slaves brought to the Americas "didn't come as Christians": about 10 or 15 percent are estimated to have been Muslims, the rest presumably practitioners of traditional African religions.  It's also true on a narrow literal level that "Christianity is not a native African belief system," but then neither is Islam. Christianity is "native" only in Palestine, Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia.  Like other world religions with a missionary bent, Christianity and Islam spread by trade, migration, proselytization, and conquest. Christianity isn't "native" in Europe, either, though many people, such as Jen, forget that. But Christianity came to Africa in the first Christian century, and spread over much of the continent before the rise of Islam; it's arguably more "native" there, in some sense of the word, than Islam.  (I'm sure this writer has heard of Saint Augustine; quite a few other famous early Church fathers were African.)  Most people, including adherents of traditional polytheism, "become" whatever religion they hold "by indoctrination and the need for acceptance/survival."  That doesn't justify the forced "conversions" of African slaves, but the fact of slavery itself is the greater problem.

The historian Kevin Kruse has been generously correcting right-wing falsifications of history on Twitter lately, providing free entertainment and education to many.  Unfortunately, Dinesh D'Souza and his ilk are not alone in trying to make US history conform to their political fantasies; liberals and progressives, atheists and liberal Christians, aren't innocent either.  The word "native" usually sets off alarms for me when someone uses it carelessly, and this was one more time it did so.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

What's in a Name, Etc.

I was pleased when I saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweet that "for the shrieking Republicans who don’t know the difference: concentration camps are not the same as death camps."  At least she knows the difference.  A lot of people don't.

That, I think, is the problem.  Of course Ocasio-Cortez was attacked by the Right, who claimed that she was comparing the Obama-Trump incarceration of migrants to the Holocaust, and she made exactly the right rebuttal.  She was referring not to Nazi death camps but to concentration camps, whose use by the United States and other countries predates the Nazis by a century or more.  (Unsurprisingly, controversy over the meaning of "concentration camp" isn't new either: some people have objected to the term's being applied to US camps for Japanese Americans during World War II.)  She was supported by numerous experts, including Jewish ones, on the point, though of course Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to undermine her with typical centrist-Democratic pusillanimity.  Probably she too believes that "concentration camp" refers to a specifically, even uniquely Nazi institution.  As one of the articles I quoted above points out:
Right-wing gentiles like [Lynne] Cheney are not credible advocates for Jewish Americans; their invocation of the Holocaust is a bad-faith ploy to distract Americans from the horrors of the current camps. But it’s a bad-faith attack that can easily find fertile ground in the American imagination because of a fundamental, and apparently widespread, misconception that the phrase "concentration camps" somehow belongs solely to the history of the Holocaust.
But it isn't only "shrieking Republicans" who cling to this misconception.  Quite a few of Ocasio-Cortez' fans and supporters believe, and say even in comments on her tweets, that she was in fact invoking the Holocaust, and was in effect lying about the distinction she drew so explicitly.  At best they ignore her denials and bring up parallels to Nazi Germany.  This isn't surprising, since Americans (among others) love to draw parallels to Nazi Germany, despite an ample supply of parallels in our own history, and every foreign leader who gets in our way will be compared to Hitler.  (Actual admirers of Hitler can be excused if they are Our SOBs.)  It's so much easier to dwell on the crimes of official enemies than to recognize or admit those of one's own country, and safer to blame whatever one deplores in one's countries on the evil influence of foreigners.  From anti-Papist agitation in the early 1800s to blaming Trump's presidency on Putin now, Americans have preferred to play it safe in this way.

So, for example: "Those soldiers on the train platforms in Germany loading the freight cars with people were just like this."  Why rely on foreign suppliers when such we have an ample collection of such behavior made right here in America? Those soldiers who massacred civilians in Korea and Vietnam and every other US war down to the present were just like this.  Those soldiers who drove Indians off their land on forced marches in which thousands died were like this.  Those Americans who returned escaped slaves to slavery were like this.  Those Americans who flocked to lynchings were like this.  Those Americans who did nothing when American citizens of Japanese descent were removed from their homes and sent to concentration camps were like this.

Besides blaming our problems on foreigners, it's easy and safe to rend one's garments over "what we've become," as though herding brown people into cages were a Trumpian aberration.  Again, there is nothing new about Trump's policies and actions; they're as American as apple pie.  There's been a wave of liberal fury, fully justified, at the federal government attorney who argued in court on behalf of the Trump regime that denying child detainees soap and toothbrushes, suitable food, and proper shelter, was compatible with the legal requirement to provide them with "safe and sanitary conditions."  But it must not be forgotten that the same attorney was in court four years ago, defending the Obama regime's policy of putting detained children into solitary confinement to punish their parents for insubordination.  Yet almost every day I see forlorn Obamaphiles lamenting that their god-king no longer holds the reins of power, and wishing he would return on clouds of glory to judge the quick and dead.

I've been wondering, though, how "concentration camp" came to be the standard name for the Reich's death camps. It feels comparatively euphemistic, though like most euphemisms it came to acquire negative associations.  It might have been partly because not all the camps were death camps, and "concentration" was chosen as an umbrella term.  It's not surprising that the pre-Nazi history of concentrations camps has been forgotten by most Americans -- it would be uncomfortable and so unnecessary -- and that they prefer to focus exclusively on the use of the camps by our enemies to the exclusion of our own.  And I can't help thinking that although Ocasio-Cortez knows the difference, the term has power for her because of its association with the Nazis.  I'm sure it does for her fans.

Another annoying motif is the Slippery Slope, that Hitler began with baby steps and became worse only gradually, because people elsewhere in the world didn't realize how bad it would get.  This comes partly from Martin Niemöller 's famous litany, and it's not entirely invalid.  But it overlooks that coming for the trade unionists was just fine with many people, not just in Germany but around the world.  So was stomping on Jews, and homosexuals, and Communists.  So was sterilizing the allegedly unfit, which had after all been pioneered by the US at the turn of the century.  There was widespread support for fascism in the United States in the 1930s, and that was a major reason why there was less concern about the implementation of fascism in Europe: not "isolationism," not "America First," not even myopia about how bad things would get; but active endorsement of Hitler's agenda, and a wish to emulate it here.

If Trump's concentration camps are a slippery slope, it's one that we've been careening down for some time now, on a bipartisan sled.  Perhaps bearing down on the accurate history would make many liberals uncomfortable. If so, so much for the worse for them. Take a cue from Martin Luther King Jr.: "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."  White liberals didn't like King's criticism of Lyndon Johnson's war, but so much the worse for them.  But it's more comfortable to draw a line between Us and Them, locating all the evil with Them, the Others, than to start looking for the source of the trouble at home.

There's been some complaint online about "quibbling over semantics" instead of acting against the camps.  I don't see them as mutually exclusive, and I believe that at least some people will learn something useful from the debate.  When the Right claims that "concentration camp" refers only to the Holocaust, they are lying, and it's always important to challenge lies.  Here's the thing: if the term you use for the US concentration camps makes them sound less bad than they are, it's the wrong term to use.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Identity Poetics

This post on "Graysexuality" (via) turned out to be somewhat better than I thought when I first looked at it, but it still has flaws.

They begin with the first sentence: "Graysexuality is fascinating because we get to watch the process of a new orientation being constructed in real time." The writer is using "orientation" as shorthand for "sexual orientation," which it isn't.  "Sexual orientation" means which sex one is attracted to erotically; it doesn't mean any particular variation of erotic object choice, desire, or practice.  I admit that the term has been inflated to cover such aspects of human sexuality, but that's inaccurate, confused, and confusing.  If "orientation" were correct in this case, it couldn't be a "new" one, because orientations are supposedly innate, part of our biology and nature; it might not have been noticed or labeled before, but like America, it was there before some sexological Columbus "discovered" it.  And the territory covered by "graysexuality" does not appear to be anything new in human eroticism.

The writer also seems to think that "orientation" is the same thing as "identity," for the two terms are used interchangeably in the post.  (This is not uncommon, unfortunately.)  It's quite possible that a new identity is currently being constructed around "graysexuality," but that's a very different matter.  When the New York Times published a long article on the "down low" in 2003, it occurred to me that a new erotic identity might be abuilding.  Not "orientation," because men on the down low were either homosexual or bisexual in their orientations and behavior, but because some men were clearly using the term as an identity, distinguishing them from exclusively heterosexual African-American men and from gay or bisexual African-American men whose flamboyant self-presentation embarrassed them.  (See Terrence Dean's autobiography, which I discussed here.  He seems to have adopted "gay" as a label since then, however.)  There was an interesting contradiction in the use of "down low" as an identity, because it means "secret" -- or "closeted," in gay jargon -- and if some men were going to refer to themselves publicly, openly, as "down low," the term's meaning was going to stretch pretty far.  Imagine someone telling Ellen and her vast TV audience that he was closeted.  Once you've told the world, you are not closeted anymore, by definition, though I can imagine some people would try to claim otherwise.  As far as I know, though, "down low" didn't catch on as an identity, though like "closeted" it is still an attitude and a practice.

What is "graysexuality," then?  The blogger Ozymandias provides numerous definitions in their post.  Here are some, from the Asexuality wiki: graysexuals
  • do not normally experience sexual attraction, but do experience it sometimes
  • experience sexual attraction, but a low sex drive
  • experience sexual attraction and drive, but not strongly enough to want to act on them
  • people who can enjoy and desire sex, but only under very limited and specific circumstances
Similarly, some people who might technically belong to the gray area choose to identify as asexual because it is easier to explain. For example, if someone has experienced sexual attraction on one or two brief, fleeting occasions in their life, they might prefer to call themselves asexual because it is not worth the bother of having to explain these one or two occasions to everyone who asks about their orientation.
Gray-As may also append a gender orientation to the label, as in "Gray-heterosexual".
It seems to me that these criteria are probably too diverse.  Some people will recognize themselves in one or two but not the others.  Ozymandias gives other examples, to which this also applies.  And before long, we'll see more new identities being constructed, using one criterion and excluding the others.  Then there will be gatekeepers, self-appointed boundary cops excluding those who, they believe, aren't real graysexuals.  We've seen this already with "gay" and "homosexual," which cover too much ground for some people and not enough for others.  Is the guy who penetrates another guy "a homosexual," or is it only the guy he penetrates?  Is he homosexual if he enjoys being penetrated by other males, even though he penetrates women "avidly"?  Is he "gay" if he's never danced shirtless in a Pride parade?  Is a male who calls himself a woman, dresses as a woman, and seeks out male partners "gay," as such males classified themselves in the US until about the 1980s, or is he "transgender"?  "Transgendered" used to be acceptable, but it was replaced with "transgender," and anyone who uses the former can expect to be the target of vitriol.

Similar considerations apply to "lesbian."  Some women-eroticizing women reject the term because they associate it with two femme women performing erotically together for a male audience; some, because they associate it with uncouth working-class butches and femmes.  I read somewhere the writing of an early twentieth-century womanizing woman who distinguished between "lesbian," "tribade," and "sapphist" as specific erotic practices; a tribade, as the term's etymology implied, rubbed vulvas with her partner; I don't remember which was which, but of the other two, one practiced cunnilingus and the other used her hand.  Were these the 'true' meanings of the words?  Of course not: words have no true meanings.  The interesting question is how widespread these meanings were.

All of these patterns of desire and behavior are much older than the contemporary American terms for them.  Even if you allow "orientation" as the equivalent of "identity," none of them are new, though many of them have been touted as new at various times. I have no stake in these disputes myself, I'm happy to be terminologically polyamorous, but I do expect people to use the terms they've defined consistently, and they mostly seem unable to do this.

Though I admit I wonder at times. Consider again "transgender," which is supposed to refer to having a gender identity at odds with the sex/gender one was assigned at birth.  It's about people's subjective sense of themselves.  So why do numerous academics, including trans academics, use it to refer to any and all gender variation, including visible behavior such voice, dress, body language -- what's known as "presentation"?  These may correlate with gender identity, but they are still conceptually or analytically distinct from "transgender" as it is officially defined.  (I might be trans by the official definition, for example, without modifying the way I dress, let alone seeking sex/gender reassignment surgery.  Or I might present myself in conventionally gender-discordant ways while still identifying with the sex/gender I was assigned at birth.)  The excuse I've seen is inclusion, but that's not valid -- especially since it's common for them to reverse course almost immediately, and fall back on the official definition.  That's equivocation, not flexibility.

When "queer" first gained traction as a reclaimed identity around 1990, there was considerable debate about whom it could include.  Was the heterosexually married Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, an important academic Queer Theorist, "queer"?  Could the straight women friends of gay men be queer?  Sure, why not?  I think that you can draw the line pretty much anywhere you like, as long as it serves some useful end in terms of thinking, discussing, or living.  The standards are, or should be, higher in professional academic discourse; in practice, as I've noted, they often are not.

It might be useful, for example, to distinguish between "label" and "identity."  Consider "men who have sex with men," which was invented during the peak of the AIDS crisis as a hopefully neutral label for the purposes of AIDS education.  It had numerous faults, among them that "sex" was not unambiguous: many people didn't think even of anal copulation as "sex."  But it was a label, not an identity; some men may have thought of themselves, "identified," as men who had sex with men, but I've never encountered anyone who did. A label can still be valid even if the person doesn't think of him or herself in those terms, perhaps to evade stigma -- consider "racist" for example, a label almost all racists try to reject -- or if it refers to a trait that isn't salient to his or her sense of self.  An example of this could be height: I am sixty-eight inches tall, but it's not my identity.

Another example is "monosexual," referring to people who relate erotically only to partners of one sex as opposed to "bisexuals" who relate erotically to partners of both sexes.  I am certainly a monosexual, but it's not an identity.  The word can be useful in discussion, though, and I can imagine situations where I might identify myself as monosexual, though it hasn't happened so far.

Ozymandias writes:
Indeed, we can see this with people whose experiences are equally far from the norm on the other side. A person with hundreds of sexual partners who’s had anonymous sex and who prefers to have sex two or three times a day might call himself “horny” or “slutty” or say he really enjoys sex; he will not characterize himself as having a sexual orientation related to being really really into sex.

Of course, this is very similar to the experience of gender-based attraction before the invention of heterosexuality. An ancient Roman man who is exclusively attracted to men might call himself a boy lover or say he doesn’t like women; he will not call himself “gay” and consider himself to be part of a group with all other gay men, opposed to all heterosexuals.
An ancient Roman man "will not call himself 'gay'" mainly because he speaks Latin or Greek, not English.  It's not clear -- scholars are still debating it -- exactly what linguistic, social, cognitive space terms like "boy lover" or "woman hater" (or their local equivalents) occupied or demarcated in their historical context.  In Japanese samurai male love stories, it seems that the Japanese equivalent of "woman hater" was used precisely to indicate that a man was interested erotically only in other males.  "Boy lover" and "woman hater" seem to have functioned as identities for men who preferred other men as erotic partners.  But in the 1950s and 1960s I used to see the English "woman hater" used in popular journalism to signify the same kind of males, males who would probably have labeled themselves "gay," "homosexual," perhaps "inverts."

For that matter, as I indicated above, it's not clear what space "gay," "homosexual," or "queer" demarcate.  They are disputed, contested, wrangled over.  All three of them have become loan words to other languages, generally with some alteration of meaning.  And, of course, "gay" went from an in-group code word to a neutral public term to a schoolyard insult within a generation, to the extent that some younger gay men thought it had always been pejorative.

Returning to Ozymandias, I'd also like to know why people who have a lot of erotic partners shouldn't have an identity for their particular life/erotic pattern.  It's not as if they are considered the unmarked positive norm, after all.  Some people, of both sexes I think, have tried to reclaim "slut" for just that purpose.  "Promiscuous" can be and has been used for such people, but it tends to equivocate between being a descriptor, however badly defined, and a pejorative.  Or remember how the sex-advice columnist Dan Savage had a conniption over a reader who identified as a "poly," or a polyamorous person.  "Poly is not a sexual identity, PP," he scolded, "it’s not a sexual orientation. It’s not something you are, it’s something you do. There’s no such thing as a person who is 'a poly,' just as there’s no such thing as a person who is 'a monogamous.'"  But an identity is not a "thing," it's a self-labeling and if I say I am something, it's one of my identities.  (Savage backtracked later, after his readers criticized him.  Notice that he too seemed to equate or confuse "identity" and "orientation.")

I don't object to people defining themselves as graysexual, demisexual, or other identities that people have invented (and all identities are invented), since they clearly feel important to them, and I'm in favor of people defining themselves.  I am interested, however, in having contexts where these labels and identities can discussed and contested.  That extends, of course, to labels I apply to myself, such as "gay" or "fag."  Whether it's okay for men to fall in love with other men, to have sex with other men, to build communities of men-loving men, is one question; whether the origin myths and other rationalizations we have invented to support and justify our loves are valid is another.  I have my doubts about the discourse surrounding asexuality, just as I have doubts about the discourse surrounding gay men.  I've criticized, for example, the attempt by one advocate for asexual visibility to come up with an evolutionary basis for asexuality -- not because I'm an anti-Darwinist but because I reject the Darwinian fundamentalism of his argument, and because he showed a disturbing ignorance of basic aspects of human sexual biology.  None of which means that I reject people's right to refrain from sexual activity for whatever reason.

Once other people start using the term you've defined with such care, you lose control of its meaning and definition.  Not because they intentionally distort it: it will drift regardless.  That's the case, mind you, among academics writing for professional publication, where some rigor in language is to be expected, even if it doesn't occur in fact.  Move outside of that restricted space of discourse, and the sky's the limit.  When you enter the arena of public discussion at any level, though, you had better be prepared to justify your definitions and your arguments.

Which takes me back to the Asexuality Wiki's remarks about graysexuality vs. asexuality: some graysexuals, it says, might identify as asexual instead "because it is not worth the bother of having to explain these one or two occasions to everyone who asks about their orientation."  Again: neither graysexuality nor asexuality is an "orientation."  They are identities, and avowing an identity is supposed to inform other people of things about yourself that are important to you, if not to them.  "Not worth the bother"?

Who asks you about your orientation anyway?  Potential sexual partners?  When you've reached the point where it's going to matter, it seems to me that a potential partner is entitled to a fuller and more accurate account of where you stand than a one-word brand name.  As I've said before, if you can't give an accurate, honest answer, no classification system will help you.  If you're not talking to a potential partner, your orientation or the level of your erotic drive is not their business.  One of the really useful things I learned from the advice columnist Miss Manners is that you don't have to give detailed reasons why you're not going to have sex with someone, and there are many reasons besides asexuality or graysexuality why that should be.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Right to Be Silly, Part 2: Is It a Lifestyle Choice?

Owen Jones is a youngish gay left British journalist and the author of a fine book on class prejudice in England.  He's written and said a lot of things that I like, but he's a bit erratic, and yesterday on Twitter he linked to an article about a Brexit Party MEP, Ann Widdecombe, who has a long history of antigay bigotry.
The former Tory home affairs chief was hauled up on a 2012 article that defended "gay conversion" therapy, and said the "homosexual lobby" was stopping people who want to turn straight from doing so...

But Ms Widdecombe today defended her comments and went further, telling Sky News science may yet "provide an answer" to the question of whether people can "switch sexuality"...

Ms Widdecombe suggested today that it would be wrong to "deny people the chance" to change if they are "discontented" with being LGBT.
Ah yes: advocates of conversion "therapy" have long pretended that they care about poor downcast gays and just want to give them a chance to be happy, as opposed to hateful gay activists who attack them.  There may be exceptions, but in most cases critics of conversion therapy do not attack those who want to change -- we attack the quacks who falsely claim to be able to change them.  Of course, in many or most cases, especially the very young, the patients are forced to undergo the "therapy," and people like Widdecombe take for granted that if homosexuals are unhappy being gay, the correct remedy is to turn them straight.  That might even be true, if it worked; but it doesn't.  Since it doesn't, the proper alternative is, first, to help the unhappy person learn to be happy, and second, to change the social pressures that cause or contribute to their unhappiness.

Jones's comment on Widdecombe was predictable, and was echoed by numerous people quoted in the Mirror article:
Ann Widdecombe suggesting "science may produce an answer" to being gay shows why the Brexit Party is such a threat: they are going to reopen debates about the rights of minorities which were supposedly settled long ago. We must fight them.
I agree that such people must be fought, but I was amused by Jones's remarks anyway.  The key word might be "supposedly": those debates were never really settled, for a number of reasons.  One is that bigotry may retreat, but it never goes away, and Jones knows full well that antigay bigotry is still alive in the UK and in Europe.  "Long ago" could only feel like the right term to someone as young as Jones.  Another is the appeal to science: gay people have been extremely excited about "science producing an answer" to the nature of homosexuality for a century or more, and like our opponents we have mostly gone with the wrong answers.  Though biological explanations of homosexuality are constantly being refuted, along with biological explanations of race and sex/gender, many gay people and our allies still find something very satisfying in the false (meaningless, really) belief that we were born this way.  And they cling to it no matter how often it's refuted, just as people like Ann Widdecombe cling to the hope that science will find a way to make us straight.

Oddly, Widdecombe seems to accept transgender and transsexualism: she tries to draw an analogy between scientifically changing a person's sex and changing their sexual orientation.
Asked about her 2012 remarks, she said: "I also pointed out there was a time when we thought it was quite impossible for men to become women and vice versa.

“And the fact we now think it’s quite impossible for people to switch sexuality doesn’t mean science may not yet produce an answer at some stage.”
The analogy breaks down when you remember that people adjust their bodies to conform to their gender identity because they want to, not because someone makes them do it -- that would be just as unethical as forcing people to change their sexual orientation, even assuming that it could be done.  It seems that she's willing to scuttle anti-trans conservatism in order to preserve her anti-gay beliefs.  If Widdecombe ever denounces forcible attempts at orientation conversion, I might take her more seriously.  I won't hold my breath.

Many gay people become furious when the failure of the born-gay paradigm is brought home to them, and they declare that if we aren't born gay then They could legitimately force us to change.  This isn't true, any more than sex-reassignment surgery can be imposed on people who don't want it.  It's common for both pro- and anti-gay people to claim that if we aren't born gay, then it is a choice (which is an invalid leap anyway), and we can't be protected by civil rights laws, which only cover immutable conditions; this is also false, since civil rights law also covers religious affiliation and marital status, both of which are lifestyle choices.

I don't know how many gay people would like to become straight, but I believe the numbers are not small, even among those who claim to be happy as they are with their gene-given sexuality.  I've mentioned before the self-proclaimed proud gay man who said that if it were proven definitely that homosexuality was a choice, someone would make a lot of money helping him undo that choice.  He said this publicly, in front of a class of prospective social workers, which was pretty remarkable for him to do.  No one attacked him, and I -- militant faggot though I be -- felt only sadness for him, not anger.  That depression, suicide, and substance abuse are still widespread among us are also indications that there would be a market for change if it could really be done.  I believe that a lot of declared gay pride is basically whistling in the dark.

Back in in the mid-1990s, a gay journalist named Chandler Burr wrote an article, later expanded into a book called A Separate Creation, defending the position that homosexuality is inborn.  That in itself wasn't surprising, given the high profile of that position generally.  What shocked many of Burr's readers and reviewers was that he went on to argue that Science would eventually be able to modify our genes and make us straight, and he declared that on that happy day he would willingly undergo gene therapy, in order to conform to Society as a good person should.  I was wondering what became of him, and I see that not only has he become a famous perfume maven, but he's married to another man and has two adopted sons.  I guess he got tired of waiting to be changed.

But you know something?  Those people have a right to want to change, and as I've said for many years, I think the gay community would be better off if they could.  It can hardly conduce to anyone's quality of life to have so many people who are here because they feel trapped by their biology, who are miserable and often take out their misery on other gay people.  But Ann Widdecombe to the contrary, there is no reason to believe that science or any other institution will ever be able to change us.  We're here, we're queer, get used to it.  There are bigger problems in the world.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Right to Be Silly

So I was in San Francisco this weekend, and on Sunday I went to the Castro to meet an old friend who lives there.  I arrived early, and found a curious event in progress.

It took me a while to learn what was going on: it was fan-dancing, in connection with various Pride Month events.  A DJ provided music, mostly techno mixes of 80s standards such as Abba's "Lay All Your Love on Me."  (A longstanding guilty pleasure of mine, that one.)

My first reaction was "Oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to make something tacky."  I sat down to watch while I waited for my friend to show up.  It was blustery and chill in San Francisco this weekend, and the performers had difficulty controlling their fans in the wind.  All of them were middle-aged, including the woman who joined them soon after I arrived.  She was the only one who really coped with the wind.



As I watched I took pleasure in the sight of these older, mostly bearded men playing, seriously but lightly, laughing as the wind blew their fans over their heads from time to time.  I remembered, not for the first time, that the music and the pastime are old-people stuff now.  "Lay All Your Love On Me" was recorded in 1980, almost forty years ago!

It must have been tiring, but they kept going for quite a while; they were still at it when my friend turned up fifteen minutes or so after I got there, and for some time after.  They didn't draw much of a crowd, but those who paused to see were appreciative, some singing and dancing along -- including some family groups.  I noticed one little boy who stood stock still, watching warily but intently, while his father encouraged him to join in.  I expect that after they left, the boy relaxed, and opened up about it.  Some little kids did right there.  The amateurishness of the performance was part of its appeal: if they'd been a Rockettes-style precision line of drag queens, people would still have enjoyed it and danced and sung along, but I doubt the same fellow-feeling would have been there.  It's tacky, but it's also lovely, and I was charmed by these people having such uninhibited fun, exercising our Constitutional right to be silly.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Remember Why the Good Lord Gave You Eyes - Fetishize!

There's a lot of talk about erotic fetishization, usually across ethnic or "racial" lines, and I've written about it before.  While the term can apply to an actual thing, most often it seems to me to be in bad faith.  I think that "fetishization" now occupies the conceptual space formerly taken by "objectification," which also had its problems.  "Fetish" used to mean eroticized inanimate objects, usually because of their sexy associations: shoes, stockings, and the like.  It wasn't much of a stretch to extend the concept to the eroticization of physical traits (breasts, legs, hair, skin color), but for better or worse that seems to be within the realm of normal human sexuality.  It's almost never apparent where the line is being drawn between valid eroticism and fetishization, and there tends to be an indignant refusal to discuss the distinction.

As a writer, I've always been interested in how to write about bodies and sexuality without relying on objectifying cliches.  What surprises me is how many people don't even try: they embrace it.  It's okay to write or talk in praise of the desired person in order to excite yourself, but it's not necessarily going to excite the person you're courting, let alone your readers.

So I found this article intriguing.  It's hardly unique, but it's the first time I've come across such blatant intra-ethnic (or homoethnic?) fetishization online, rather than merely in print, so I can link to it for present and future discussion.  It might also be extreme -- though again, not unique -- in its blatancy.
The midday light against skinny musculature. Wide jawline converging to a chiseled point. Full set of teeth, the broadest smile. The torso and the hips and the groin a triangular continuity. Wanting to touch all his geometry.

What’s his name? He told me somewhere in our initial messages but I forgot. But can you forget what you really don’t care to remember to begin with?

J, the name started with a J, so Jesus or José or Juan. One of those. I know what needs to be known of him: his body, the photographic parceling of chest, face, dick, legs, ass, that he sent me; tell me what that tongue can do, I ask him, and he responds in detail, poetic prose of the body; a video sent giving motion to the body in gravity, its rotations, its gyrations, its penetrations; my descriptions in text of what I will do to him, how I want to do it, how I need him to be when my body is on his, in his, indistinguishable from his.

Call me shallow, girl, but I like it how I like it.
The writer is queer, Latinx, working on his Ph.D.  That probably explains, not the bad writing itself, but the particular kind of bad writing.  I think I'd rather read the messages from his paramour, their "poetic prose of the body."

Notice "the name started with a J, so Jesus or José or Juan"; the author repeats it more than once later in the post.  If a white guy wrote like this, he'd be roasted, and rightly, for dehumanizing his piece of trade; this writer would probably argue that it's different when you're from the same barrio, but he overlooks his own privilege (a word that doesn't appear in the post).  He's not completely unaware of it, but only with respect to his mother and father, not to his sex partners.  I've seen this before in other writing by immigrant / outsiders, including gay ones; indeed, I've come up against the same class and education issues myself.  When the writer says "I am an anomaly," he's wrong, even as a queer "college-educated MexiRican"; the territory he occupies has often been explored, agonized over, written about for close to a century now.

Ah well, he's young, I wasn't any better at that age myself.  It's curious though, in these days when there's so much complaint about the way college education supposedly dwells on race and class and other such issues, that the writer's schooling apparently skipped that stuff, even in graduate school where it supposedly runs rampant.  Nor am I condemning him for fetishizing his barrio boys.  I'm just citing his post as an example of ethnic/racial fetishizing within his own community.  The person who linked to it on Twitter blocked me when I pointed it out.  That's not how you fix the problem, kids.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Remember Pearl Harbor! or, When in Danger, When in Doubt

I know we're doomed, but I do hate being reminded of it.  In large part I must blame myself for giving in to clickbait.

To begin with, let me say that I have read Marie Kondo's book but have not watched her TV series.  As an accumulator if not a hoarder, I look from time to time at books on de-cluttering, so when I saw The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up at the library a few years ago, I checked it out and read it.  The only notable things about it were that the author was not an American, but I supposed that was a selling point; and that Kondo is a paid de-cluttering coach, who comes to your house and helps you get rid of your excess stuff.  Other than that, her advice was about the same as any other author I've read on this subject.

A couple of months ago the socialist-feminist writer Barbara Ehrenreich set off a shitstorm when she posted a couple of mildly snarky tweets (now apparently deleted) about Kondo.  She suggested, for example, that the fact that Kondo works in her native Japanese rather than learning English indicates a decline in US imperial prestige.  Though I basically agree, I'd have put it somewhat differently, as a reflection of increased confidence by non-English speakers in our sphere of influence.  Ehrenreich also suggested that there's some Orientalism at work among Kondio's American fans, attracted by her winsome style (I believe Ehrenreich used the term "pixie-like").  Not having seen Kondo's show, I can't say for sure, but I find the suggestion highly plausible.  The response from Kondo's fans was a freakout: they accused Ehrenreich of demanding that Kondo learn English, when she was actually praising her for not doing so, and of Orientalism for detecting their Orientalism.  This response was, to my mind, the typical white-liberal, culture-of-therapy response to unacceptable statements: Oh how can you say such awful things you're a terrible person!!!  USA Today titled its piece on the brouhaha "In deleted racist tweet, author Barbara Ehrenreich attacks Marie Kondo."  That's how it's listed in the results of a search I did, and the URL indicates it was the original title of the story, but somewhere along the line "racist" was changed to "xenophobic."  I find this very significant, because in their coverage of actual racism by right-wing figures, corporate media almost never use the word "racist": they prefer euphemisms like "racially tinged," and even "xenophobic" is unusually direct in that world of discourse.

But that's by the way.  What got me started on this post was an article linked by some bookstores I follow on Facebook.  Published on the UK Independent's website (though at the end there's a copyright notice for the Washington Post), it extolled some "book hoarders who defy Marie Kondo."  Yeah, it's probably clickbait and shame on me for clicking through, but I thought I recognized a not uncommon pattern of reaction, not just in corporate media but in many people in other areas.
On an episode of her smash-hit Netflix special, Kondo advised a couple to edit their shelves, maybe get rid of a few. The Internet did what it does best: It went bananas. How dare she come for books! #TeamClutter, meet #TeamCensorship. Of course, there was a backlash to the backlash, with the expected explanation from Kondo that not all books gotta go.

The visceral reaction, even without the social-media hyperbole, was hard to ignore. Books are more than objects. They are filled with ideas, stories, versions of ourselves, memories. Bookshelves are like your wardrobe: they send a message. And the message these famous book-lovers shared with us is loud and clear: Books spark joy. 
Well, of course they do.  I have several thousand books myself, and I wouldn't really feel happy in a home that didn't have at least one wall lined with them.  But I never felt as I read Kondo's book that she was telling her clients, let alone me personally, to get rid of all of them.  Even the linked article says only that she "advised a couple to edit their shelves, maybe get rid of a few."  The problem for me is that books are the heaviest possession, taken collectively, that I have.  Like most renters, I don't own the stove or refrigerator in my apartment.  It's the books that make my upcoming move a daunting prospect.  If I had more money, I could hire movers to shlep them for me, but I don't.  I have to decide how far to "edit" my library, and even if I were the kind of person to pay a coach like Kondo, she could not make that decision for me.  I have to decide which of my possessions "spark joy," and there was nothing in her book that indicated that all my or your books have to go.

So where does this nonsense about "defying" Marie Kondo come from?  As if she went around to random residences, flanked perhaps by two armed Japanese grandmas, breaking down doors and bagging possessions for disposal while her victims stand by, wailing helplessly.  As if she even said that people had to get rid of all their books. Would anyone read her book or follow her show if they didn't have it mind to pare down their belongings?  Most ridiculous is that the bookstores that linked to the Independent article on Facebook are used bookstores.  That means they rely on people to "edit" their libraries for the books they stock.  Yet they linked to the article not to encourage people to sell them their unjoyful books, but to stir up panic that Marie Kondo will come for their books, as Obama in the minds of Trump supporters is coming for their guns.

Granted, the article is clickbait, and only one of the book lovers they interview even mentions Kondo, but as the Trump example indicates, paranoia that some evil figure wants to take your cherished stuff away is a real tendency.  So is the fantasy that the same evil figure wants to force birth control pills down your throat, or make you gay-marry even if you're not gay.  But so is the weird word-fu by which many people misread simple statements until they mean the opposite of their plain sense, or no longer make sense at all.  This particular example is harmless enough in itself, but it keeps the paranoia muscles toned up for other imaginary threats.  People aren't this stupid just over trivia; they are also stupid over things that matter.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Moral Exemplars

I want to post a slight revision to part of an earlier post that dealt with questions of what, if anything, happens to us after we die.  It won't affect my larger point, but I think it's worth bringing up.

That earlier post was inspired by the notice on Twitter of the death of an elderly Jesuit, James Schall, "a great, good, and holy man ... the best of men, and a good and faithful servant."  The name seemed familiar to me, but I couldn't think how, so I merely said that I'd never heard of him before that morning.  I was wrong, but it's not surprising that I'd forgotten him.

I've been meaning for some time to read The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest by John Gerard, a sixteenth-century Catholic priest who'd fled persecution under Queen Elizabeth I.  I don't remember how I first heard of it, but I was intrigued by the prospect of a glimpse into the mind of such a person, so I picked up a copy of the 2012 Ignatius Press edition at the library book sale.  I hadn't gotten further than the 2011 introduction, which lamented "the utter brutality of the English Protestants determined to stamp out the traditional faith of the English people" (x).

It was a fair enough complaint, but the writer was significantly silent about the utter brutality of English Catholics determined to stamp out religious dissent among the English people.  I suppose the writer considered Protestantism a novelty and therefore unworthy of toleration or humane treatment.  But then one would have to remember the utter brutality of Catholics around the world determined to stamp out the traditional pre-Christian faiths they encountered.  The mistreatment of Jews in Christian Europe is a prominent, scandalous example of such cruelty.  The writer must have been aware of this history; but only the martyrdom of Catholics by Protestants outraged him enough to mention.  "The list of English martyrs from this period is long and distinguished," as he remarks, but only Catholics count as martyrs for him.

"The legal penalties against Catholics lasted into the nineteenth century and some minor form still exist," he laments.  "The Church of England is but a shadow of its former self."  This brought me up short at first -- he seemed to be regretting that the Church of England no longer tortures or executes Catholics; but then I realized that he was referring to the Catholic Church of England, the only true faith, which isn't what it used to be.  (In general the writing in this Introduction is just that sloppy.)  True that -- as Berlioz once observed, now that the Catholic Church no longer inculcates the burning of heretics, her creeds are charming.  I don't see this falling away as a bad thing, but I'm not an elderly Roman Catholic who presumably never got over the heretic Pope John XXIII and his assaults on traditional faith.

It was only when I came to the end of the Introduction, which I'd decided to reread for its moral myopia, that I noticed the author's name: Father James V. Schall of Georgetown University.  I looked at my post from April, and behold, it was he!  I suppose Schall was not obliged to balance out his denunciation of the English Protestants with an acknowledgment of the contemporary cruelty of their Catholic countrymen, and I wonder if a hardcore Catholic publisher like Ignatius would have permitted it anyway.  But I doubt it ever occurred to him.

It occurred to me as I was mulling over this post that there's a lot of indignation in this country about "guilt" -- white guilt, male guilt, over discrimination and oppression that happened long ago (say, fifty or fewer years).  Most of this spleen seems to be vented by Christians, usually conservative Christian males.  Yet recognizing, repenting, and making atonement for guilt, both individual and collective, is a traditional part of Christianity and Judaism.  By their own standards, why shouldn't Christians feel guilt over the offenses they and their forebears have committed in the name of their faith?  Instead we get the saintly George H. W. Bush, who declared that he would never apologize for anything America had done ("I don't care what the facts are") and dear Joe Biden, who complacently declares he's not sorry for anything he's ever done.

Am I saying that James Schall was a bad man?  I still don't know enough about him to say.  What I'm saying here is that he evidently was "a good and faithful servant" to some of the less edifying tendencies in the past of his church, and that led him to forget, conveniently, matters that were relevant to his topic of persecution and martyrdom.  Catholic persecution of Protestants doesn't, of course, excuse the Protestant persecution of Catholics -- or the Protestant persecution of other Protestants, which was going on at the same time.  Such internecine violence is not unique to Christianity, but it does seem to be endemic to it.  That's what led to the rise of religious toleration in Europe: as I've said before, in order to end persecution of themselves, Christians had to forgo the pleasure of persecuting others.  Some Christians today are still nostalgic for those days of moral relativism, when you could burn someone else at the stake and be outraged if someone burnt you.  I suspect that Schall was one of these.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

May Day

For International Workers' Day, as it's known in most of the world, let me commend to you Park Kwang-su's 1996 biopic of the South Korean labor activist Jeon (or Chun) Tae-il, who in 1970 immolated himself as a protest against the oppressive and illegal conditions in the garment sweatshops of Seoul.



A Single Spark was my introduction to South Korean film.  A Korean friend, a student at IU, rented it on VHS from a local Oriental grocery to show me.  He told me it was important for me to see, and he was right. I'm very grateful for his guidance.  The videotape had no subtitles, and my friend interpreted for me -- not just the dialogue, but the history and politics, about which I knew little at the time.  I later learned that the film had been partially crowdsourced; if you watch to the end credits, you can see a long list of contributors.

Later, I read the biography of Jeon Tae-il that had inspired the movie.  It was translated into English by Jeon's sister Soon-ok, who after his death went to university and became a professor of Labor law.  The Korean original was written in the 1980s, during the dictatorship, and circulated semi-clandestinely.  The frame story of the film, involving a writer and his worker wife, is fictional, but on Jeon's life the story stays remarkably close to the book.  It remains one of my favorite films.  Eventually it was released on DVD in Korea, with some good extra features, but that, like the book, is out of print.  I'm glad it can still be seen on YouTube.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Am Too, Are Not

On the whole I'm fond of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, despite her lapses, for who among us is perfect?  And I realize that she probably had little choice but to slap back at Kellyanne Conway for this attempted slur:

But still, public disputes about who's a good Christian and who isn't discredit everyone involved.  (Which applies also to Pete Buttigieg.)  A politician's religious affiliation or lack of it is not a qualification for office. The Constitution (Article 6, par. 3) explicitly rules out religious tests, and while that's not binding on voters, we should be able to balance personal creed with political judgment.  "Should" is the catch, of course; "should" and a transit pass will get you on the bus.

One of the very few matters on which I (an atheist, remember) agree with C. S. Lewis was his refusal in Mere Christianity to define "Christian" in any but a very formal sense, "to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity" (xii).  (It's almost a behaviorist definition.)  He didn't do this because he didn't think that heartfelt faith was important, but because:
It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served. 

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to ‘the disciples’, to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were ‘far closer to the spirit of Christ’ than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian [xiv].
This is worth quoting at length because of that dig at unbelievers who will, Lewis believed, "cheerfully" use "Christian" as a compliment, to mean a good person.  I'm one unbeliever who won't. For one thing, I don't think "Christian" has any moral content. (The same applies to "atheist.")  For another, as an atheist, I'm not interested in judging who's a real Christian and who isn't.  If someone "identifies as" a Christian, to use the current buzzword, I'm not going to tell them they aren't.  But many believers and unbelievers still do, and Lewis here shows why they shouldn't.

Someone else had a good take on the proper response to personal attacks, namely C. P. Snow in a postscript to his book The Two Cultures:
However, the problem of behaviour in these circumstances is very easily solved. Let us imagine that I am called, in print, a kleptomaniac necrophilist (I have selected with some care two allegations which have not, so far as I know, been made). I have exactly two courses of action. The first, and the one which in general I should choose to follow, is to do precisely nothing. The second is, if the nuisance becomes intolerable, to sue. There is one course of action which no one can expect of a sane man: that is, solemnly to argue the points, to produce certificates from Saks and Harrods to say he has never, to the best of their belief, stolen a single article, to obtain testimonials signed by sixteen Fellows of the Royal Society, the Head of the Civil Service, a Lord Justice of Appeal and the Secretary of the M.C.C., testifying that they have known him for half a lifetime, and that even after a convivial evening they have not once seen him lurking in the vicinity of a tomb.

Such a reply is not on. It puts one in the same psychological compartment as one’s traducer. That is a condition from which one has a right to be excused.
But then, as self-admitted, card-carrying Christians, Ocasio-Cortez and Buttigieg predictably will see their claim to good standing, indeed to goodness (though there is none good but God, as somebody declared), on the line.  In the US, it's only what their fans will expect, since they no less than their opponents put a high premium on religious affiliation and proving their superior spiritual discernment.  That, as Lewis and Snow both said in their different ways, is not on.  It would be nice if Americans paid more attention to matters of more importance, but we're not likely to change overall in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Man of Destiny

So I've been trying to find the context of Pete Buttigieg's remarks, delivered in Nashua, New Hampshire last week, which have been interpreted as a comparison, if not an equation, of Donald Trump voters and Bernie Sanders voters. It's not an entirely unfair reading, but what Buttigieg said appears to be worse than that.

As I say, it's been hard to find the context.  What I first saw was a 20-second video clip that obviously needed filling out.  The most I've found is this New York Post article, drawing on reporting by the Washington Examiner, which quotes Buttigieg at greater length.
“I think the sense of anger and disaffection that comes from seeing that the numbers are fine, like unemployment’s low, like all that, like you said GDP is growing and yet a lot of neighborhoods and families are living like this recovery never even happened. They’re stuck,” Buttigieg told high school students in in Nashua, N.H.

“It just kind of turns you against the system in general and then you’re more likely to want to vote to blow up the system, which could lead you to somebody like Bernie and it could lead you to somebody like Trump. That’s how we got where we are.”
Buttigieg has just about everything wrong here, which is a minor achievement in itself but not a reason to vote for him.

First, while some of his younger and more excitable fans might have mistaken his "Revolution" slogan for a promise to "blow up the system," Bernie Sanders is a thoroughgoing reformist in the mainstream New Deal tradition.  Far from blowing up the system, he has worked for decades within the system, in elected office, and seeks to bring about his goals through legislation, not revolution.  Medicare For All, student debt forgiveness, tuition-free education through college, raising the Federal minimum wage to $15/hr., extending Social Security, raising taxes on the richest, even withdrawing support for the US-Saudi war in Yemen, all are either extensions or returns to established American practices associated with the post-WWII period viewed by many people as the fulfillment of the American dream.  They are also very popular with voters as far as we can tell, and I don't believe Buttigieg is unaware of that.  As with so many centrist hacks, I wonder if he is unaware, in which case he's incompetent, or trying to persuade voters that they don't want what they do want, in which case he's trying to mislead them.  Trump and his fans were more likely by all accounts to really want to blow up the system, which is typical of American conservatives of the Goldwater-Buckley-Reagan stripe.

Second, if you're going to compare Trump to anyone, Pete Buttigieg himself is a better choice.  He has only slightly more political experience (mayor of a small midwestern city) than Trump, and part of his appeal, like Trump's, is the image of outsiderness.  (The same was true of Barack Obama.)  Buttigieg wants to be the (white) man on a white horse, riding into town from nowhere to fix everything.  Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has worked for decades in political institutions, and he's been fairly consistent in his positions and policies.  The attempt to cast him as a long-shot dark-horse outsider makes more sense about his 2016 run, and indicates that someone is still stuck refighting a lost battle.  Trump also had a long, well-documented history, and his actions as President haven't been very surprising to anyone who knew anything about his career.  For what it's worth, though, the more time Buttigieg spends in the glare of national publicity, the worse he looks.  He's also ready and eager to work within the system that brought us to "where we are", as shown by his participation in a private meeting of Democratic insiders seeking to block Sanders from getting the nomination.  He's not in the elites yet, but that's clearly how he sees himself and what he wants to be.  To paraphrase Huckleberry Finn, we been there before.  Even if Buttigieg were to win the nomination, and against all likelihood the election, we'd be back in 2016, only worse off.

I rather think that Buttigieg is projecting.  He himself has said he favors expanding the Supreme Court, abolishing the Electoral College, and over the weekend he endorsed impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump.  These may be worthy goals, but they're more of an attack on the system than Medicare for All.

Third, the rhetorical strategy in Buttigieg's remarks is reprehensible.  My first response was to substitute some other terms for "Trump" and "Sanders."  People are upset about racism.  Their anger could lead them to support the White Citizens Councils, or it could lead them to support Martin Luther King.  This is not an unfair analogy, I think, because Martin Luther King was demonized by white self-styled moderates as an extremist from the beginning of his public career, a label he ambivalently embraced in his letter from Birmingham Jail.  Perhaps I'm unfair to the White Citizens Councils, who no doubt presented themselves as the middle road between the extremes of the Klan on one side, and Martin Luther King on the other; if so, I can live with it.  On a strictly literal level, Buttigieg didn't actually say that Trump and Sanders, or their fans, were alike, but he certainly wants to be viewed as a reasonable voice of civility and unity in our troubled times compared to those emotional, misguided souls who want to blow up the system.

Buttigieg isn't alone in working this line; most establishment Democrats have used it against Sanders (and now Elizabeth Warren, who as Doug Henwood says is a liberal but has good ideas and is making the right enemies), and will again in the coming year.  By using it, though, he shows where he stands.  He sees himself as entitled not only to prominence but to the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, despite his lack of qualification and experience.  I hate to be so negative about anyone, but these are perilous times, so I wish a decisive and humiliating defeat for Mayor Pete.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Your Get-Out-of-Hell Free Card

Here's an unremarkable, everyday example of what I mean when I insist that religion is a human invention and should be evaluated in that light.
A great, good, and holy man has passed. Friends know well, he would sign every note, “pray for me.” I ask the same - please pray for the repose of Fr. James Schall, S.J., the best of men, and a good and faithful servant.
I had never heard of James Schall before this morning, but this memorial to him turned up in my Twitter feed this morning.  I don't doubt that he was a great, good, and holy (whatever that means) man, though any Christian ought to remember that their Lord said that no one is good except God.  (On "the best of men," see my recent reflections on that kind of inflation of merit.)  What interests me are the assumptions underlying the request to pray for Schall's "repose."  One is that death is like sleep, and that the person somehow is still there.  Another is that the default of the after-death state is restlessness, whether it's conceived as a hungry ghost craving revenge on the living or torment in some placeless place. Yet another is that the living can help the dead find repose, either by appeasing the vengeful spirit or, as in this case, praying for them to receive an upgrade to first class, where they'll be able to rest.

It's common for infidels like me to explain such beliefs by claiming that those who hold them have been "brainwashed" (people keep using that word) by the Church, by wicked Priests, by fairy tales written by Bronze Age shepherds.  (Those shepherds are evidently immortal, and amazingly powerful.)  I don't think that explains anything.  Why did those wicked people invent the belief, and more important, why is it so durable?  Christian churches have been trying for two thousand years to brainwash believers to do or refrain from doing many things -- calling people good, for an easy example -- but without much success.  In many cases the offenders feel no guilt at all.  I think it's reasonable to suspect that when believers conform, it's less because they were brainwashed than because they are the kind of people who'd invent those beliefs in the first place.  Either they feel strong anxiety about their own lives, or are full of resentment toward others they'd like to see punished.

The belief in a painful afterlife is not only Christian, after all.  It may not be universal, but it's very ancient and widespread.  Even biblical Judaism, which supposedly has no doctrine of the afterlife, imagines the dead in a dark, shadowy place called Sheol; if you want to invoke Bronze Age shepherds, that seems to have been how they thought of it.  I've written before about Korean Buddhist beliefs and practices that were not very different in principle from Roman Catholicism.  I once read a scholar who claimed that in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which revels in fantasies of eternal post-mortem torture, Jesus didn't mean to describe the geography of the afterlife but simply borrowed imagery from Egyptian sources among others.  It's a false distinction anyway, but I would ask why Jesus preferred that imagery.  Why not imagine both Lazarus and Dives comfortable, reconciled, at an eternal and joyful banquet?  Why believe that anything happens to them after their deaths at all?

But not only that: along with belief in Hell (or whatever you want to call it) goes the belief that the living can help the damned to escape from it by what I can only call magical means, by prayer, by Masses for the dead, by baptizing the living on behalf of the dead, and so on.  Christianity, like other religions of salvation, is at its core preventive magic to keep you from being sent to Hell in the first place.  I don't know how accurate the accounts I've read of ancient Egyptian religion are, but the idea that the hearts of the dead will be weighed to decide their posthumous fate can hardly be blamed on Christianity, and the basic principle is the same: to learn the password, the secret handshake, the necessary bribes to get past the gatekeeper to eternal safety.  But the default setting is torture; "punishment" may not be the right word, because the suffering is free-floating, apart from anything the sufferer may have done.

So: why all this?  Death is scary, whether it's our own or the death of other creatures.  Nobody knows why we die, nobody knows if there's any kind of existence after we die.  When I've raised this point with some believers, they often invoke a version of Pascal's Wager: well, we don't know, so we're playing it safe, it does no harm to pray for Father Schall, etc.  Like the original form of the Wager, there are problems, highlighted by the variety of beliefs and practices people have.  What good will it do to light lanterns so the dead can find their way to paradise more quickly, if they're going to Hell anyway because they weren't baptized in the name of Jesus, the only name in which we are saved?  If there is a real danger of posthumous suffering, we need accurate information about how to avoid it, and there is none.  (If we knew that this was the geography of the afterlife, it would be different, but we know nothing about it.)  Yet many (most?) people cling desperately to belief that the danger is real.  Some get very upset at the idea of giving up the belief, of admitting that no one knows and that there's no reason to believe that we go on existing after we die.  Certainly my skepticism about the call to pray for the dead will upset some people.

A common reaction is to demand "respect" for the dead.  I am not sure what that means, but I have as much respect for Father Schall as it's possible to have for someone I've never met and know nothing about.  I don't think he should go to Hell; I don't think anyone should go to Hell.  Demanding "respect" is just flailing around.  My point is that we should be aware of and examine the assumptions that lie behind these beliefs and practices.  Getting rid of "religion" -- whatever that would mean, given that no one knows what religion is, where it ends and not-religion begins -- won't help.  In principle you could have religion without these strange and (I think) malign assumptions about death, but I think there would be powerful resistance to getting rid of them.  Many, probably most people, prefer to think of the universe as a giant booby-trap, laid for us by a Cosmic architect who loves us and wants to see us slip on the banana peels he put in our path, and you can't change that preference simply telling them they're stupid, brainwashed, and superstitious.

I think that resentment is a major factor in that resistance.  If Donald Trump or Ilhan Omar isn't going to be punished horribly, if the bully who took your lunch money in third grade or the stuck-up girl who didn't invite you to her birthday party is just going to get away with it, then what is the point?  Again, this resentment can't be wished away; I feel it myself.  The trouble is institutionalizing it in our moral systems, as all the systems that postulate punishment after death do.  Nor will you find it only among fundamentalists: think of the liberal Christians who fantasized violence against Paul Ryan for his views on poverty.  Think of this biblical scholar, showing his superiority to an antigay Christian who spoke against Pete Buttigieg in Iowa.  Such resentment is a cause of (certain aspects of) religion, not an effect.  It's easy for me to see why it's so tenacious.  Making the world better (by ending poverty, for example, which you recall Jesus had no interest in doing) is hard, perhaps impossible.  Making it worse, by throat-punching a bigot with the binding of your Scripture, or punching Paul Ryan in the face, or - better -- fantasizing about it, is so much easier. If you hang on to an unsupportable belief so doggedly, it's because you like it: you want to see the world that way.  A lifestyle choice, if you will.

To try (perhaps vainly) to make myself clear, I'm not saying that people who encourage us to pray for the dead are wicked.  I'm asking that we, and they themselves, pay attention to the assumptions that lead them to encourage it. They are not benign assumptions. They express some weirdly negative attitudes towards life and the living that I imagine these people would repudiate. But they hold them nonetheless.  Those of us who reject religion need to be aware of those attitudes, in the conventionally religious and in ourselves, if only to understand them in hopes of correcting them.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Nickname Stylists; or, Which of These Two Is Not Like the Other?

What a relief!  I was kicking myself for not having made screengrabs of these tweets, because I thought I'd been blocked.  But so far, no.  Anyway, here's the Progressive Mind at work:
The first tweet is okay, though he's really describing Obama, not Clinton: swift and self-serving political climb, meticulous public image, padded experience like a CEO resume.  (Unless he maybe meant Bill, not Hillary?)  And it's a fair complaint, except that it should have been fairly obvious from Buttigieg's first entrance into the national spotlight, and "dread" doesn't feel like the right word.  But whatever.

It's the second one that got me going.  "[A]nyone making fun of his name will be called a homophobe, like anyone calling attention to Clinton's atrocious record was called a sexist."  So, let's see what's on the slab. The first clause is exactly what one hears from bigots who've been called out for their expressed bigotry: Just because I called him 'Martin Luther Coon,' that doesn't make me a racist!  You're taking it out of context!  Your Politically Correct purity tests are destroying civil discourse!

In fact, you're not likely to be called a homophobe for mocking Buttigieg's name if you work from the similarity in sound to "Buddha."  Call him "Buddha-judge," say, and you will probably not be accused of homophobia.  Or you can do something with his first name, like this one, which I approve.  But if you work with "Butt," as so many do ... well, you may just be betraying the straight-boy panic/obsession with buttsex that is endemic in this kind of discourse, and symptomatic of homophobia.  It's been entertaining to see so many people protesting that straight people do anal sex too, so it's totally not homophobic to bring it into a discussion of a gay politician.

What's downright hilarious is Yusuf's equation of making fun of Buttigieg's name with criticizing Hillary Clinton's policies. Jon Schwarz has claimed that conservatives, as against liberals and progressives, can't do good analogies; I say that liberals and conservatives can't do them either, and Yusuf's tweet is evidence for my position.  I noticed, and disparaged, the Clintonite habit of accusing critics of Her policies of sexism, just as Obama cultists accused critics of his policies of racism, whether or not sexism and racism were actually evident.  But a name is not a policy.  If you have objections to Pete Buttigieg's policies -- and many people do -- then state them, and be prepared to defend them.  If you can't do so without referring to him as Buttchug, Buttface, etc., then you are not in control of your own discourse.  If homophobic epithets just naturally burst to the surface when you're talking about politics, then it's probably accurate to say that you have some unresolved issues about gay men.

Twitter is the home of quick, relatively thought-free writing.  Donald Trump's fondness for abusive schoolyard-style nicknames has often been deplored and mocked by his opponents.  It's okay when they do it, of course, because Trump Is Worse; letting him be the benchmark is the very emblem of liberal/progressive moral and intellectual bankruptcy.  If you're working in a longer-form medium and you can't edit out these little blorts of revelatory anxiety, then get someone to do it for you.  If nothing else, you're putting in a distraction that will allow your opponents to discredit you without answering your well-considered policy criticisms -- and you don't want to do that, do you?  (Or do you?)

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

A Thousand Milliseconds of Peace

I'm actually kind of glad that Pete Buttigieg is running for President, because it gives me an answer to a question I didn't really expect to see answered.

A number of black friends have complained since 2008 that I just don't understand how much it means to them to have a black President, and that my lack of enthusiasm for Barack Obama is at least partly because I'm white.  During the 2016 campaign, a number of women I knew had the same complaint: because I'm male, I just didn't understand how important Hillary's candidacy was to them.  In both cases they regarded the candidates' policies and record as minor distractions compared to the historic significance of a black or female president: they found it irritating, even upsetting, to be pressured to think about them. 

I still think they were wrong, and that I did understand very well what it meant.  I just thought that their candidates' policies were more important than his race or her sex, and that the boost to the self-esteem of their fans was, while not completely unimportant, much less important than the lives of the many people (including women and people of color) their policies would materially harm.

Just in the past few days, a woman argued angrily on Twitter that white male contenders (Sanders, Biden, O'Rourke, Buttigieg) were once again getting all the attention, and that it was time women of color had a chance to show what they could do.  I didn't think this was entirely unfair until I remembered that similar claims were made for Obama and Clinton.  Obama did not, as far as I can tell, govern differently than a white male of his class.  Clinton was not elected, but her record of warmongering and her glee over other people's deaths does not inspire confidence in me that she'd have brought woman-wisdom and Earth-based grandmother-compassion to the Oval Office.  (See her gloating over the death of Qadafy in the clip linked here, for example.)  That doesn't mean that we shouldn't elect another black man or a woman of any color to the presidency, only that sex and race are not qualifications for the office.  I think that the examples of Obama and Clinton confirm this.

Still, I admit to some qualms about my position.  If an openly gay person became a viable candidate, would I cut him or her more slack than I have to Obama or Clinton?  Would the world-historical significance of a homosexual presidential candidate, and what that would mean to young gay kids in America and around the world, sweep away my concerns about such a person's policies and record?  I couldn't deny that until it happened, I wouldn't know for sure, and I didn't really expect to see it happen in my lifetime.  So it's mildly gratifying, for selfish reasons, to find that my faculties remain intact in the face of Pete Buttigieg's campaign.  And what I saw during the Obama and Clinton campaigns is happening again: Buttigieg's fans don't care about his policies, they care about irrelevancies (often charming ones, but irrelevancies nonetheless) and their fantasies about him.

Jacob Bacharach wrote an entertaining essay on the gayness of Mayor Pete, and while it's not his best work, nor is it as good as Nathan J. Robinson's close reading of Buttigieg's autobiography, it's worth reading.  It reminds me of Sarah Schulman's discussion of American commodification of homosexuality in her 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America (Duke), which was brilliant then and feels prescient now.  I may return to that some other time, but for now I want to mention one other thing about Buttigieg that concerns me.

One of his selling points, one he stresses in public statements and that is echoed by many of his fans, is that people are tired of divisiveness, and that he can bring us together.  That's how Barack Obama marketed himself, and it's how many of his fans see him to this day.  And if that's what Pete Buttigieg wants to be, he should not be president, because while he wants to play nice, his Republican opponents do not.  Obama and his crew claimed to be, and maybe were, taken totally by surprise at how mean the Republicans were: You guyzzzzz!!!  This is so unfair!  Why won't you work with me instead of against me?  Obama threw staff they targeted to the wolves, rather than fight for them.  If the Republicans can't keep Pete Buttigieg out of office, they'll set out to block him from the get-go, as they did with Obama.  It'll be comforting to blame the Rethugs for the next Democratic President's failures, but it's a comfort we can't afford.  We need a president who can fight back, and it doesn't appear that Buttigieg has had to deal with that kind of total war yet, so there's no way to know how he'll cope if he's elected in 2020.  Of course, he'll also need good advisors and a Supreme Court and Democratic-controlled Congress that will work with him.  Playing board games, having a husband who's followed on Twitter by Lin-Manuel Miranda, liking Joyce's Ulysses, performing with Ben Folds -- all these are cute, but if we get a third Obama term, we are truly doomed.