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 faith 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.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Best!

Lately I saw a little surge of talk about meritocracy on Twitter -- a surge in my little neighborhood, anyway.  I've had a lot to say on that subject here before, but this morning, as I was riding my bicycle to the library, I had a thought I don't think I've had before.

I suspect that there's a connection between faith/belief (they're not quite the same thing) in meritocracy and overrating the things or people to which we assign merit.  If you believe, as Chris Hayes for example does, that meritocracy means hiring the best, putting the best in charge of things, then you will probably feel an impulse to overrate the merit of those you nominate.  It may not be a simple cause-and-effect tendency.  You may want to give the person the job, the slot at your elite school, your money for their CD, because you think they're the best, rather than the other way around.  But they may not be the best, and it doesn't entirely matter.

For example, some years ago I saw that Bob Dylan had been ranked high in a Playboy readers' poll as a harmonica player.  Now, I like Dylan -- his early work anyway, up to 1970 or so -- but I never thought he was the best harmonica player around, or the best guitarist, or pianist, or singer.  He was good enough for what he wanted to do, and he violated norms for "good" singers in a good way: you don't have to be trained or have a pretty voice to be an expressive singer, and for some purposes having an ugly voice may be preferable.  But that doesn't mean you're the best singer, nor does it matter.

Now compare what Chris Hayes wrote on this subject in The Twilight of the Elites:
The same goes in a whole host of domains: the best opera soprano can, with the advent of MP3s and the Internet, sell to anyone in the world with an iPod, which spells trouble for the fifth best soprano. If you can buy the best, why settle? [143]
As I pointed out before, "best" is not the right word here.  Among seven billion people, there are going to be many thousands of operatic sopranos at such a level of excellence that it's really meaningless to call any of them the best.  The differences between them will be so tiny that most people can't detect them.  (This also applies to world-class athletes: the difference between the fastest runner and the tenth-fastest runner in the world is likely to be some tenths of a second, and some of that will be accidental, due to luck rather than "merit.")  To say that this "spells trouble for the fifth best soprano" is false; it doesn't spell trouble for the five hundredth best soprano.  As the example of Bob Dylan shows, you don't have to be the best singer or guitarist or harmonica player to make music that many people will want to buy -- more, most likely, than will buy the music of the best soprano.  Even in the domain Hayes elected to cite, his point is invalid, laughably so.  We often love things or people who are not the "best," and it would be ridiculous to claim that they are.  But they don't have to be.  We don't love them because they're the best.  We think they're the best because we love them.

This impulse emerges early in life, I think.  My mommy is the best mommy, the most beautiful mommy in the world.  I'm the best, handsomest, smartest little boy in the world.  These are conventions for expressing the intensity and sincerity of our love for someone.  But they're not literally true, and most of the time we know it.  It's believers in meritocracy who mistake metaphors for literal truth.

Is it even necessary to the concept of meritocracy that the best person should occupy a position?  Again, outside of a narrow range of fields, you cannot quantify qualifications for most jobs.  The fastest miler, for example, can be found.  (Next year, or the year after that, he won't be the fastest anymore, which is also important.)  The best CEO, the best accountant, the best IT manager, cannot. The best students for admission to elite colleges, or for that matter to community colleges.  One bit of evidence for what I'm suggesting here is the inflation of requirements for many positions: the applicant is expected to detail how and why denying insurance claims of the terminally ill is her passion, the goal on which she has focused, laser-like, since infancy.  Why he is very excited at the prospect of working the drive-through window at McDonald's.  (I've been allergic for decades now to the term "excited" in announcements; bullshit almost always follows that word.  But by now it too is a convention: if you didn't say you were excited to announce that this Friday will, once again, be Casual Friday, many people would feel that something important was missing.)  I've helped numerous friends fill out extremely long and detailed online applications, complete with a hundred personality-assay questions, to wash dishes in chain restaurants.  Something is wrong there, even leaving aside the invasion of privacy involved.

For many positions, what is needed is not the best, but someone who is simply good enough.  Often people grow into jobs; certainly we hope that students will grow into their educations.  All too often, despite the competition, the personality tests, the interviews, the trial-by-ordeal, the winning candidate isn't even good enough.  There are probably many things that need to be done to correct that, if it can be corrected; but one beginning might be to stop pressuring people to prove what can't in most cases be proven - that they're the best.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Buttigieg, Buttigieg, Buttigieg!

I didn't pay much attention to Pete Buttigieg until recently, but when I did I wondered how an openly gay man managed to be elected and re-elected mayor of a midwestern city.  I later learned that he didn't come out until he was already in office, but he still won re-election to a second term.  South Bend is a strongly Catholic city, but Buttigieg didn't take the Church-submissive line that he would abstain from sodomy; indeed, he got married to another man.  I still don't know how that happened without him being ejected from office, but it did, and that's one reason I was prepared to like him - until I learned more about his policies.

Then Nathan J. Robinson wrote a long critique of Buttigieg's memoir, explaining in careful detail why Buttigieg is not someone who should be in the White House, or in office at all probably.  He did an excellent job of it, and it has been interesting to see the responses he got from Buttigieg fans and other centrist Democrats.  There was the predictable passive-aggressive stuff, like why he was so divisive in a time when we must be united against Trump; the accusations of bias; the complaints that the piece was so long.  Several people declared that Robinson should have talked to Buttigieg's fans in South Bend, as though attending to and analyzing Buttigieg's own words was somehow unfair, as though Buttigieg's book was unrepresentative of him and of no interest.  There was a lot of proudly flaunted anti-intellectualism, which sometimes went hand in hand with a celebration of Mayor Pete's great intellectual gifts.

The complaints about divisiveness were amusing, and Robinson addressed them seriously in a follow-up article.  But they'd have come up no matter which candidate he criticized.  The strange thing to me is that there are a lot of Democrats with hats in the ring, and we have almost a year before the primaries begin.  What is any voter supposed to do in the meantime, just sit back and worship them all?  For that matter, what rational person imagines that the candidates won't criticize each other as they go for the gold?  I'm surely not the only voter old enough to remember Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton's attacks on each other in 2008, or Clinton and her fans' attacks on Bernie Sanders in 2016.  These people are just parroting talking points.

After the frantic anti-Trump homophobia of liberal Democrats, I wasn't exactly surprised to see some of the same directed at Buttigieg, and not (apparently) by Republicans. Try this one, from a grad student with "a focus on Marxism and the Middle East, a self-styled "E girl communist" whatever that is.

I'm not quite sure what it's supposed to mean, but it's extremely stupid and bigoted.  It's the kind of rhetoric I'd expect from a Trump supporter rather than an E girl communist if I didn't know better.

Then there was this one, even more blatant, from another self-identified Marxist.

Ah yes, that's how you show solidarity with gay and transpeople: with ferociously homophobic rhetoric right out of a locker room.  There are plenty of good reasons to distrust and oppose Pete Buttigieg, and plenty of good ways to express distrust and opposition, even on Twitter; this sort of frothing isn't one of them.

These are all I've seen so far, but I think it's safe to say there'll be more.  I have not yet seen any homophobic diatribes against Buttigieg by the Right, though they must be out there.  Just because a few right-wing standard bearers like Jennifer Rubin and David Brooks approve of him, that doesn't mean that the real conservatives, the people of the land, aren't seething over a sodomite presiding over the city of Notre Dame. But it doesn't excuse self-proclaimed leftists or LBGTQ allies when they fall back on the same vicious rhetoric as those they profess to hate.  Already it's impossible to say which is which.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Faithful and True; or, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

While I was working -- well, procrastinating -- on another, still unfinished post, I happened on this tweet:
I’m so glad you at least waited the customary 10 days after a massacre in a mosque to compare Islam to cancer.
It referred to this image:

And referred back to a previous tweet featuring Dawkins' letter to the editor of the London Times, denouncing Cambridge University's rescinding of a fellowship offered to Jordan Peterson, a well-known crank philosopher with arguably racist and sexist views.

I don't think it's accurate to say that Dawkins "compare[d] Islam to cancer."  He was attempting, with his customary tin ear, to draw an analogy.  True, the analogy depended on Islam being bad, but it's not exactly news that Dawkins is hostile to Islam.  Presumably, and I'll return to this, he is equally hostile to all other religions.  The point he was trying to make was something along the lines of "Hate the sin, love the sinner," which is no more convincing from him than it is from Christians.

Let me attempt to disentangle some of the threads of Stupid in Dawkins's tweet. First, bigotry does not necessarily refer to hostility to persons as opposed to their belief systems.  One can be bigoted toward belief systems too, for example by assuming that they are uniform and unchanging, and that all adherents share exactly the same implementations of their system of choice.  I reject Islam, as I reject all belief systems which claim the authority of a god to support their teachings and practices.  But I also recognize that its teachings are internally inconsistent, subject to many (including sectarian) interpretations, and that its adherents vary widely in their observances.  For simplicity's sake, consider the hijab, one of the practices that particularly exercises Dawkins: not all Muslim women wear it, and those who do vary widely in how much they feel God wants them to cover up.  I don't know Dawkins's opinion on this particular issue, but as I've said before, I object to secularist societies which ban the hijab as strongly as I object to societies which require it.  (Should I condemn secularism as a cancer because of its history of intolerance and oppression of, inter alia, women and homosexuals?  By Dawkins's logic, I should.)  A better analogy, though not useful for Dawkins's purposes, might be to "cellular growths" rather than cancer: some are benign, others malignant, some constitute more of a threat to the host than others.

Second, religion is not an "affliction."  Even if it were, we don't blame people with illnesses for their condition.  It is something that happens to them.  The whole point of the medical model is that the patient is a patient, not an agent, with respect to his or her disease.  We don't jail cancer patients, nor do we bomb hospitals to drive the cancer out of them.  Religion is a lifestyle choice, and it's appropriate to criticize morally the choices believers make, though not before we've examined our own.

Sometimes we bomb hospitals for the sheer hell of it, though.  I don't know the basis for Dawkins's claim that Muslims are the principal sufferers from Islam, but Christians and Jews have been doing their best to win that competition for centuries.  As Jimmy Durante used to say, "Everybody wants to get in on the act."  Perhaps Dawkins would acknowledge that Christians are the principal sufferers from Christianity, Jews the principal sufferers from Judaism, Hindus the principal sufferers from Hinduism, and so on, but such acknowledgement wouldn't play as well in a political context that demonizes Islam and Muslims while ignoring the religious component of Christian and Jewish and Hindu offenses.  Indeed, condemning the crimes of a Jewish state is a very serious thoughtcrime in Christian and secularist societies.

Third, and related: the first thing that occurred to me when I read Dawkins's remark about "homosexuals" was "Tell that to Alan Turing!"  Turing, you may recall, was forced by the State to take hormone "therapy" for the crime against Nature of having sex with other males.  Until the early twenty-first century, secularist science in the US was tolerant of secular attempts to "cure" homosexuals, decades after homosexuality was removed from the index of mental disorders and it was widely known that sexual orientation cannot be changed.  It's not clear to me why scientists changed their views on the status of male homosexuality; it doesn't seem to have been because of evidence, because whether a condition is an illness or not is not something that can be settled by evidence. And the whole edifice of psychiatry is of very dubious validity in general.  It reminds me of the way Bob Jones University, which insisted for decades on the Biblical doctrine of racial separation, suddenly awoke one day to discover that there was no such doctrine and they couldn't remember what it was supposed to be.

On women, the record of the "hard sciences" is comparable to that of "religion."  Not only were women regarded by (male, of course) scientists as a lesser breed than men, almost a separate species, but their health issues were largely dismissed.  I've pointed out before that militantly anti-religious scientists are terrible on issues like rape, which they seem incapable of understanding.  But male scientists, not only those of a certain age, still resist with great fierceness allowing women into the labs.  True, this guy is Not All Male Scientists, but he doesn't stand alone, and it's significant that a highly respected newspaper gave him a platform.  And as someone else pointed out, this scientist's claim that "it's not as if they ... build walls to keep women out," is false.  But maybe I should just conclude that scientists are the principal sufferers from science?  If that were so, I might have more sympathy for Dawkins, but it's not so.  Two words: eugenic sterilization.

Perhaps the worst error in Dawkins's analogy between religion and disease is that it's based on the assumption that religion is an external entity, like a radioactive virus, an "affliction" from which human beings "suffer."  Religion is, as an atheist like Dawkins ought to know, a human invention.  If a religion upholds male supremacy, even if all religions uphold male supremacy, a rational thinker should ask why they do so -- especially since Science also does so.  The conviction of female inferiority and the consequent belief that they should live under male tutelage (aka patriarchy) is plastic -- societies, including Muslims ones, vary widely and within themselves on how far women are disadvantaged -- but it's remarkably tenacious.  If it's a precept of many religions, including Science, it must be because male human beings put it there.  This presumption generalizes.

Recently I acquired a copy of a book I've wanted for a long time, a photographic essay about the Naked Festivals in Japan.  It includes some quasi-ethnographic articles about the history and rationale of these festivals, which prompted me to wonder why people decided that the gods wanted young men to strip to loincloths (or less, sometimes) and mass together for a giant game of Keep Away involving various sacred objects.  The visual appeal of such a rite is obvious to a pervert like me, but to the gods...?  At around the same time I saw some discussion of Roman Catholic High Mass.  We know more about the history of this rite rendering service to Yahweh and his Only Begotten Son, but again, people simply invented it in all its complex spectacle or music, costume, scent, and so on.  If one is an atheist, one can hardly claim that it is an expressive of, or compliant, with God's will.  It should be obvious to an atheist (though surprisingly often it's not) that none of the many religious rites or doctrines are the will of any god.  They are the will of the people who perform them.  In many cases, as with the Naked Festival, they are not imposed from above, let alone from outside, but are welcomed by the participants and observers, who not only enjoy the sight of massed naked men in the streets but are deeply moved and edified by it.  Blaming any human practice or belief on "religion" is an act of extreme intellectual and often moral laziness.

One more point, which actually was my starting point for this post.  Someone else commented on this thread:
Dawkins converts more atheists to agnostics than he turns away from faith altogether. Arrogant, dickish, islamophobic. Who would want to co-sign that unless you were one or more of those to begin with?
This annoyed me. I replied:
Any atheist who changes their opinion on atheism because Dawkins is an asshole is a sheep. Certainly can't claim to be an independent thinker. I'm an atheist on the merits, not because of who else is an atheist. If that's your approach, I wouldn't want to co-sign with you either.
Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think that the truth or falsehood of a claim about the world has anything to do with the personality of the person who makes the claim.  His or her personality may be relevant if he or she tries to make it so, but that can be a distraction, and certainly is here.  I've criticized philosophers before who complained that the New Atheists come across as unpleasant.  (Don't forget that Dawkins himself notoriously whined about the "inexplicable hostility of Mary Midgley's assault" in her review of The Selfish Gene.  "I deplore bad manners as much as anyone...", he complained dishonestly, and also claimed falsely that Midgley hadn't read the the book before she reviewed it.  But all of this only influenced my opinion of Richard Dawkins, not of atheism.

And why, now that I think about it, would Dawkins's obnoxiousness make people abandon atheism for agnosticism?  Is there any actual evidence for the claim anyway?  Someone, I think, doesn't know what these terms mean.  But there's a lot of that going around.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Appointment in Jerusalem

Easter is fast approaching, which means we'll probably be seeing village-atheist memes like this one:

Which is almost entirely false.  There's a nice dissection of it here, but on rereading it today I noticed a curious problem in the discussion.
In the Christian Bible, Jesus returned to Jerusalem from his forty days in the desert just before Passover. In fact, in the Gospel according to John, Jesus was killed on the day before the first night of Passover, at the time when lambs were traditionally slaughtered for the Passover feast (because Jesus was the Lamb of God, etc. – SYMBOLISM, Y’ALL). There are a few differing accounts of when Jesus actually died, but most Christian texts, philosophers and scholars agree that it was around the time of Passover. Easter is still celebrated the week after Passover, which is why it’s a different day each year, because the Jewish calendar is lunar rather than solar.
In the Christian Bible, Jesus did not return to Jerusalem after his forty days in the desert, not "just before Passover" or at all, really.  That's telescoping his admittedly rather contentious career just a tad too much.  In none of the first three canonical gospels did Jesus travel to Jerusalem after his period of fasting and temptation in the desert: rather, he returned to Galilee, where his hometown of Nazareth was located.  The gospel of John, the fourth in the sequence, doesn't include the temptation narrative at all, and casts no light on this matter. 

He did travel to Jerusalem later in his career, and that was (according to the gospels, with no real evidence to the contrary) "around the time of Passover."  John has him going to Jerusalem for Passover three times, which complicates the chronology because he drove the money changers out of the Temple on the first trip, two years before his arrest and crucifixion, instead of during his final climactic visit.  That's odd, because the cleansing of the Temple makes sense as a provocation that brought about his arrest; but in John he gallivanted around fairly freely afterwards for a long time.  Discrepancies between the first three gospels (known to students as Synoptic, because they have the same basic timeline) and John give scholars headaches as well as exciting dissertation topics.

The canonical gospels all agree that Jesus was executed around Passover.  Where they differ is that the Synoptics have him arrested and tried on Passover night, then executed before the next sunset -- remember that in Judaism days are reckoned from sunset to sunset -- which also is difficult to make sense.  For one thing, in the Synoptics, Jesus is tried before a Jewish court on Passover night, when it's forbidden to leave one's house.  Of course his judges might well have violated commandments and gone out anyway, but nothing in the accounts acknowledges the difficulty.  John addresses it, in effect, by having Jesus arrested the day before Passover, and executed as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered (as the blogger says, "SYMBOLISM, Y'ALL"), but this also means that the Last Supper is not a Passover meal as the Synoptics have it.

Luckily, I don't need to resolve this.  The point is that the blogger, while aware of some of the issues, gets some basic things wrong, just like the people she's criticizing.  Jesus didn't go to Jerusalem directly after his desert sojourn in any of the gospels.  Most of her discussion seems sound enough, but the biblical material is a lot less arcane, requiring less historical research.  All I had to do was look quickly at the relevant parts of the gospels, which took about five minutes.

Here's something else I thought was dubious at best:
Scratch the surface of just about any Christian holiday, and you’ll find pagan elements, if not a downright pagan theme, underneath.

Know what else? Most Christians know this. Or, at least, most of the Christians that I’m friends with (which is, admittedly, a fairly small sampling). They know that Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th, and they know that there were never any actual snakes in Ireland, and they know that rabbits and eggs are fertility symbols. But they don’t care, because they realize that religions evolve and change and that that’s actually a good thing, not a bad thing. The fact that many Christian saints are just re-imagined pagan gods and goddesses doesn’t alter their faith one iota; because faith isn’t about reason or sense, it’s about belief.
Most of the Christians I know and have communicated with (not a representative sample, admittedly, but better than hers) do not know this.  If they know that Jesus probably wasn't born on December 25th, they probably got that datum from sources like the meme above.  They don't know about the history of Christmas and Easter and their symbolism.  And they don't know that "religions evolve and change and that that's actually a good thing".  They are much more likely to believe, as a surprising number of atheists I've encountered also believe, that Christianity has devolved, that Jesus was a good man who taught Truth and Peace and Love, but bad humans distorted his teachings, added miracle stories and other distractions, and we need to get back to the original gospel.  They are usually confident that they know what that original gospel was, but they can't explain how they know it if the distortion begins with the scoundrel Paul and the evangelists.  They just know it in their hearts, I suppose.  But they are generally biblically and historically illiterate.  So are most of their atheist critics, though, so neither faction is in a position to cast the first stone at the other.  Which doesn't stop them, of course.

Oh, and that circular bit about "faith isn't about reason or sense, it's about belief."  I think that most people who will try to excuse their ignorance by talking about leaps of faith and the like only do it when they get caught in misstatements.  Think of the people Winnifred Fallers Sullivan wrote about in The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, who insisted on the cemetery arrangements they were used to, or at any rate wanted.  They were sure that their customs went back to the Bible, without significant change.  You can call this faith, you can call it belief, but you could just as well call it stubbornness born of ignorance, or of knowing so much that isn't so.  That's faith: believing in what you know isn't so, and doubling down on it when you encounter opposition or disagreement.  In many cases it's all we have, but how many of us know our ignorance for what it is?  I'm not casting the first stone either; I know some of the expanse of my ignorance, but not all of it.  If I did, I'd be less ignorant.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Anomie, Anoma, Life Goes On Brah!

Glenn Greenwald has found another Pete Buttigieg position he likes.
Typically thoughtful answer from @PeteButtigieg to @ThePlumLineGS about white nationalism, the causes of it, and the solutions for it:
I've used up my free access to Washington Post articles for this month, but Greenwald included screengrabs of some excerpts, highlighting the bits he approved.  Buttigieg said:
As we see dislocation and disruption in certain parts of the country, from rural areas to my home in the industrial Midwest, and in the economy, this leads to a kind of disorientation and loss of community and identity.  That void can be filled through constructive and positive things, like community involvement or family.  And it can be filled by destructive things, like white identity politics...
At another point:
I don't want this to slide into the idea that some of these racist behaviors can be excused because they can be connected to economic issues.  But I do think it's easier to fall into these forms of extremism when you don't know where your place is. 

There's this very basic human desire that historically has been supplied by the workplace. It's been based on the presumption of a lifelong relationship with a single employer.  This isn't just a blue-collar phenomenon.
This is, I think, another iteration of the "economic anxiety" argument that was mooted in the wake of Trump's victory in 2016.  Buttigieg's aware of that, and tries to hedge by rejecting "the idea that some of these ideas can be excused because they can be connected to economic issues," but that's a straw man. There may have been some who "excused" Trump voters by pointing to the stumbling US economy, but the usual motive was explanation, not excuse.  In very much the same way, pointing to worldwide Muslim anger over US foreign policy was not intended to excuse the 9/11 attacks, so critics of Bush's wars tended to try to forestall attacks by saying things like "I'm not one to blame America for everything that's wrong in the world."  It never worked, of course

So yeah, economic anxiety is probably a factor in some racism, and policy should attempt to provide a strong economy, not to prevent racism but because it's what people need and it's the job of those who run the country to give people what they need.  But I dislike Buttigieg's talk of not knowing where your place is.  I mean, my place?  Who decides what my place is?  At best this is a very clumsy way of putting it; at worst it's feudalism, which is also a "lifelong relationship with a single employer."  Capitalism, by contrast, has always regarded workers as disposable materials, except when organized workers were able to force their bosses to do otherwise; but that is the exception that proves the rule.

And what about racial minorities?   Buttigieg, who's a bright fellow, must know that economic insecurity and anxiety have been the norm for African-Americans and other non-whites in the US.  They have not been immune to the appeal of racist nationalism, but they have lacked the numbers and power to oppress the majority. But white supremacy has been endemic in this country since the first whites arrived four hundred years ago; economic downturns may aggravate it, but it never goes away.  I don't know how to get rid of it, or if that's even possible, but I think it will have to be targeted directly.

Perhaps, instead of alluding to highbrow literary totems like Finnegans Wake, Buttigieg should try reading something like Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields' Racecraft or even Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind: the latter work would inform him that the fear of losing status, no less than money, drives the well-to-do and highly educated no less than Joe Sixpack.  A tanking economy can exacerbate and inflame racism, but I think it's our human nature as social critters, rather than economic anxiety, that produces the us/them dichotomy of which racism is one form.

So, "thoughtful"?  No, and not "heterodox" either.  Buttigieg's remarks are straight outa the Washington Post or New York Times op-ed pages: they're the slogans someone repeats before thinking, as a prophylactic against thinking.  While some of his positions, such as his endorsement of US-imposed regime change in Venezuela, are hateful, some are I suppose arguable, though I'm not seeing much argument.  But they're all totally safe among American elites, and it baffles me that Glenn Greenwald is impressed by Buttigieg.  Read as many of the comments under this tweet as you can stand, for example.  I'm reminded of the way so many people went nuts over Barack Obama a decade ago, and that really worries me.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Fetishize Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar

A creepy Dan Savage column this morning.

Here's part of the first question.
I’m a straight white woman in my early 30s. In theory, I’ve always been into men of all races—but in practice, most of my exes are Latino and white. In September, I met this really handsome Chinese American guy, and I feel like he rewired me. I’ve been exclusively attracted to Asian guys since. I’m not writing to ask if this is racist, because I’m not asking these guys to, like, speak Korean to me in bed or do any role-playing stuff. We just date and have sex, same as my past relationships. But if any of these dudes saw my Tinder matches, they’d be like, “This woman has a thing for Asian guys.” Which I do, but it’s pretty new. Is this normal? Do people just change preferences like that?...
Here's the beginning of Dan's answer:
Here’s my general take on race-specific sexual preferences: So long as you can see and treat your sex partners as individuals and not just as objects—we are all also objects—and so long as you can express your preferences without coming across and/or being a racist shitbag, and so long as you’ve interrogated your preferences to make sure they’re actually yours and not a mindless desire for what you’ve been told you’re supposed to want (i.e., the currently prevailing beauty standard or its equally mindless rejection, the “transgressive” fetishization of the “other”), then it’s okay to seek out sex and/or romantic partners of a particular race.
There are okay things here, like "we are all also objects", and the prescription of treating one's partners "as individuals and not just as objects".  But there are problems.

For one, the demand to interrogate one's preferences "to make sure they're actually yours" etc.  Imagine how Dan would react if someone told a young gay kid to interrogate his or her preferences.   Couldn't being gay be just "a mindless desire for what you've been told you're supposed to want ... or its equally mindless rejection"?  (I was interrogated along these lines myself by heterosexuals when I first came out, in fact.)  And certainly one could demand the same of heterosexuals: are you sure your desires are yours, and not just what you've been told to want by the society, the media, et al.?

As for fetishization, that also characterizes mainstream heterosexuality, and mainstream homosexuality if there can be such a thing.  (Gay men are doing their best to make it a thing.)  Dan would cluck over it, but I don't think he's interrogated his own desires and discourse enough.  Once you start being suspicious of your or other people's motives for a pre-rational phenomenon like sexual desire, you'll find how deep the rabbit hole goes, because there is no bottom to the mind.  As I've discussed before, my own tastes in men have excited criticism from other gay men because I wasn't as excited by certain types as they were, and attracted to types they didn't like.  So, was I just "mindlessly rejecting" the norm?

It's certainly possible, and not uncommon, to treat people badly by objectifying them, but I don't think "fetishization" is the right word or idea for it.  I think there's a great deal of what we used to call puritanism in this interrogation of (usually) other people's desires: it involves a suspicion of desire and pleasure, especially other people's desires and pleasures: I like what I like because it's natural, you like what you like because it's your fetish, your paraphilia.  I've read, though I haven't checked it carefully yet, that some authoritative Christian divines postulated that the ideal, Edenic copulation would be done under control of the will, without irrational pleasure caused by the Fall.  (This distrust of pleasure is not only a Christian, or "Abrahamic" impulse, of course.)  Dan's Catholicism, even though he's left it behind, has not entirely left him.

But back to Dan.  He drags in an Asian American "writer and comedian whose work often touches on race and desire," and the guy helpfully piles on:
“It’s not uncommon for people later in life to discover that they’re attracted to something they’d never considered sexy before—full-grown adults are out here discovering they’re bi every damn day,” said Booster. “But she went 30 years before she saw one Asian man she was attracted to? And now this guy has ‘rewired’ her to be attracted only to Asian men?”
First, I don't think the lady said she'd never been attracted to any Asian men before.  Read it again: she's been "into men of all races" "in theory." Most of her exes have been white or Latino.  Since she's evidently dating around, I see no reason to suppose that she's never dated an Asian man before, let alone never seen "one Asian man she was attracted to."  (I've seen many men I was attracted to, but didn't have sex with because they weren't available for various reasons.)  But who knows?  We both might be reading too much into a query that doesn't answer every question we might like to ask.

Second, I take her claim that she's been "rewired" with a grain of salt.  She met the guy in question in September, six months ago.  Who knows when her letter was written, how long it sat around before Dan answered it?  Six months is a very short time for an adult to decide that her life has been permanently changed.  For comparison, Dan usually advises couples to live together for at least a year before they get married, because marriage is a big, quasi-permanent commitment.  And this writer is not even making a commitment.  No one, I hope, would criticize her if she starts dating non-Asian men again in another six months, or a year or two, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if she does.  My own tastes and desires have changed over the years, and I don't expect them to be permanent.  We hear a lot about the "fluidity" of desire and sexuality, but hardly anyone seems really to believe in it.

Dan's consultant is concerned that "she has shifted to exclusively fucking Asian guys and feels the need to write a letter about it. That feels like a red flag, and yet I can’t pinpoint why."  Well, maybe she feels the need to write a letter about it because she has experienced a seismic change in her attractions, which is interesting, and also because many people including Dan and his consultant would like her to feel uneasy about it, so she wants some reassurance.  I don't see any red flags in her letter myself.

What takes this particular column over the line from annoying to creepy is the second letter, from a white guy married to an Asian woman.  They have great sex, but she doesn't like to give blowjobs, and now the husband is fantasizing about getting a blowjob from a man.
How do I convince my wife to agree to this? She’s afraid I might like it; I obviously hope I do. There’s nothing I want more than to get head on the way home and then be able to tell her about it and fuck her later that night. How can I convince her to let me do this while also being able to tell her about it and be truthful?
Dan's answer focuses on an issue the writer hadn't actually raised, whether he would be bisexual or still straight.  This distracts him from what I see as a red flag, the writer's repeated wish to "convince [his] wife to agree to this" despite her anxieties.  Dan does at least say that if she says no and sticks by it, the answer is no.  I think he should have borne down a little harder on the husband's entitlement and even obliviousness.  As the first letter writer's experience shows, a good erotic experience can have a powerful effect on a person.  There is no guarantee that one hot blowjob from a guy won't lead this husband to want more of them, and as Dan would ordinarily stress, opening up a relationship increases the risks of STDs and other problems.  The wife's worries are well-founded.  (That she teased him about getting a blowjob from someone else before they were married doesn't change that.)  The trouble isn't that the husband is fetishizing anyone -- though fantasizing specifically about getting a blowjob from another man indicates that some of that is going on -- but that he's minimizing his partner's concerns and interests.  I can sympathize, Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd and all that, but Dan's take here lacks a certain amount of conviction.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

On the Shoulders of Settler-Colonialists

Here's a question: At what historical point do "colonizers" become "immigrants"?

This morning on Democracy Now! a New Zealand Muslim scholar discussed, among other matters, the history of Muslim colonists there.  Apparently the first known Muslim colonists arrived in New Zealand in 1850, about a decade after the first British invasion force.  She didn't use those terms, of course; I believe (it's too early for the transcript to be up) she used the term "immigrant."

Yesterday someone posted on Twitter something to the effect that there are no "settlers," only "colonists."  I think this was meant as a comment on terms like "settler-colonialist society," used to describe countries like the United States, Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa, and New Zealand.  Apparently the tweeter considered "settler" a relatively neutral term, though I don't think that's the case in "settler-colonialist"), and "colonist" the hard word that speaks truth to power.  So I began wondering about the status of those first Muslim colonists in New Zealand. True, they weren't the initial shock troops, they followed in their footsteps as it were; but why, if the British were invaders (as they were), why were those who followed under their aegis seen as somehow legitimate, even innocent?

This is not, of course, to imply that the Christchurch massacre was justified because Muslims are invaders; very much the opposite.  (If I had meant to imply such a thing, it would mean that massacres of "white" settler colonialists in New Zealand and Australia, inter alia, would also be justified.)  As the DN segment made clear, many of the Christchurch victims were refugees.  But as many critics have noted, the "nation of immigrants" motto is problematic for settler-colonialist societies.  I raised the same question a couple of years ago about a Canadian Muslim college student who overlooked her own dubious status as a settler-colonialist polluting "sacred" First Nations soil.  She seemed to assume that she stood with the aboriginal inhabitants by virtue of being a person of color, though I doubt she'd thought that deeply about it.  She herself has massacred no Natives, but she stands on the shoulders of those who did.

What I am saying is that evidently at some ill-defined point, the non-Polynesian settler-colonialists in New Zealand, or their descendants, seem to have metamorphosed into a nation of immigrants who are entitled to welcome yet more settler-colonialists as immigrants to the land their ancestors stole.  I am genuinely curious to know what that point is.  There is a great deal of confusion about this, and I'll try to explore it further soon.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Who Wants to Be the Last to Go Bankrupt Before Medicare for All Kicks In?

Pete Buttigieg (it's not actually that hard to pronounce) has been getting attention from a number of people I respect, and from some I don't.  Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city I lived near for the first twenty or so years of my life and lived in for two of those years, so I'd heard of him before he decided to run for the American Presidency.  He came to my attention first because he's gay; getting elected to a traditionally Republican, Roman Catholic city like South Bend is an impressive achievement for a gay man, even a married one, even a veteran.  It recently occurred to me that none of the right-wing Christian frothers I'm friends with on Facebook freaked out when he was first elected, even though some of them live in South Bend.  How'd he do it?

Recently a lefty tree-hugger friend of mine, an IU alumnus but now resident in the Bay Area, linked to Buttigieg's recent appearance on Stephen Colbert's Late Show.  My friend was highly impressed by Buttigieg's performance; I was more concerned that a homophobic "centrist" Obama toady like Colbert found Buttigieg acceptable.  Then Glenn Greenwald began praising him, which I take more seriously.  Greenwald is temperate in his praise:
There are specific policy views expressed by I disagree with, but have been very impressed by him from the moment I began paying attention. I couldn't put my finger on why. Part of it was his heterodox thinking. But now I see the crux: he only speaks authentically...
As he links to Buttigieg's statement to South Bend's Muslims in the wake of the Christchuch massacre.  Fair enough, I guess, but this really just strengthened my doubts.  First, while he doesn't use the word, it seems that Greenwald is impressed by Buttigieg's charisma -- and he should know as well as I do the dangers of charismatic politicians.  There's an uncharacteristic lack of focus on Buttigieg's actual positions here ("I couldn't put my finger on why"), focusing on the claim that he "only speaks authentically".

To speak as authentically as I can, I'm not sure what that means.  Buttigieg's statement is fine, the kind of thing that any halfway experienced politician should be able to produce in his or her sleep.  That many such can't do so wide awake, with their staffs working on it at white heat, only means that the bar is pretty low.  (Compare this appalling screed by an Australian Senator to see how low the bar can go.)  Mayor Pete clears that bar, but it's not a sterling achievement.

Greenwald also wrote of Buttigieg's "heterodox thinking."  Heterodoxy is relative only to a respective orthodoxy, and I wonder which one Greenwald has in mind.  So I began looking for some of Buttigieg's specific policy positions, and found this interesting summary of his performance at a recent CNN town hall, reprinted in the Chicago Tribune from the Washington Post.  Notice that it's the work of Jennifer Rubin, a far right-wing writer, which makes her positive take on Buttigieg all the more disturbing.
He was asked about Venezuela. "Well, the situation in Venezuela is highly disturbing. And I think that the Maduro regime has lost its legitimacy," he explained. "That's why it's not just the U.S. but 50 countries that have declined to recognize the legitimacy of that regime."

He continued, "That being said, that doesn't mean we just carelessly threaten the use of military force, which is what it appeared the national security adviser was doing at one point, kind of hinting that troops might be sent to South America."

... "I don't mean to disagree that we need to support democratic outcomes in that country. And so to the extent that sanctions can be targeted and can be focused on trying to bring about new free and fair elections so that there can be self-determination by the Venezuelan people, that puts in a government that I think has that legitimacy, then we should do our part not through force but through the diplomatic tool kit in order to try to bring that outcome about."
Rubin gushes, "That might be the best answer on Venezuela I've heard from any Democratic candidate — maybe the best foreign policy answer, period."  Really?  It looks to me like the standard "centrist" answer to questions about US interference in Venezuela, and it's anything but "heterodox."  Buttigieg disavowed "carelessly threaten[ing] the use of military force" (maybe careful threats are okay?), which the other Dems would agree with, while endorsing the use of sanctions to starve the mass of Venezuelans into submission.  The kinds of sanctions that might target only government elites would probably also affect the wealthy, right-wing creoles of the opposition, and that would not go down well.

As far as "free and fair elections," Venezuela already has them, and that's why the US wants to overturn them: they produce outcomes we don't like.  Buttigieg says that "the Maduro regime has lost its legitimacy."  First, it never had any in the eyes of the US government, its lackey states, and its tame media; nor did Chavez' "regime," which the US began trying to replace with more corporate-friendly authoritarians from the time Chavez took office.  Second, the most recent election Maduro won was certified fair by international observers; presumably Buttigieg, like the rest of the US mainstream, chooses to forget that.  Finally, the US' designated hitter Juan Guaidó has no legitimacy whatsoever: he has won no election, has no mass base, and only has a platform because of US support.  He also says he's "not afraid of civil war" and hoped to incite US military intervention by staging provocations at the border with Colombia.  Whether Buttigieg likes it or not, that's the "self-determination" he's calling for and supporting.  This is not a minor issue either, because it indicates what Buttigieg's approach to other official enemies (such as North Korea, Iran, or Syria) would look like.

Next Rubin quotes Butttigieg's position on Medicare for all.  He praised the Affordable Care Act, which he said "made a great difference."
"That's why I believe we do need to move in the direction of a Medicare-for-all system. Now, I think anyone in politics who lets the words ‘Medicare-for-all’ escape their lips also has a responsibility to explain how we could actually get there, because as you know, from working on this day in and day out, it's not something you can just flip a switch and do.

"In my view, the best way to do that is through what you might call a Medicare-for-all-who-want-it setup. In other words, you take some flavor of Medicare, you make it available on the exchange as a kind of public option, and you invite people to buy into it. So if people like me are right that that's ultimately going to be more efficient over time and more cost-effective, then you will see that very naturally become a glide path ..."
Ah, the "public option."  Again, that's hardly a "heterodox" position, any more than his gradualist "move in the direction."  Medicare itself was "something you can just flip a switch and do," both in the US and Canada.  Yes, it will take planning, but my impression is that the politicians who are spearheading the drive to Medicare for All are working on the planning and the details.  But it's not really hard to explain "how we could actually get there," since we could learn a great deal from Canada's implementation, not to mention the fact that we already have Medicare in this country for people 65 and older.  It's extremely popular with voters, as is the idea of a national single-payer system.  The basic infrastructure is already in place; it would not be a radical move to expand it.  I'd have a bit more respect for Buttigieg's gradualism if he balanced it by noting how much money and energy we waste on, say, the military.  Instead he went on to say:
"You know, we as a country pay out of our health care dollar less on patient care and more on bureaucracy than almost any other country in the developed world. And so it's very clear that we've got to do some unglamorous technical work. Actually, some of the benefits of automation could come in this sense. You think about how many hands have to touch a prior authorization sometimes. And the right answer to that should be zero, but we're not there yet. So we've got to do that, that kind of unfashionable technical work within (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) to make the system more efficient."
This is extremely misleading.  He may not have meant it that way, but in context Buttigieg gave the impression that the "bureaucracy" that runs up the costs of healthcare in the US is located within "the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services," so we need "to make the system more efficient."  I have no doubt that the Medicare administration has room for improvement, but it's hardly obscure that the wasteful bureaucracy that runs up costs so that too "many hands have to touch a prior authorization sometimes" belongs to the private insurance companies that Buttigieg wants to preserve until the Messiah comes.  A smart technocrat, as he presents himself to be, must know that. Again, there's nothing heterodox here, it's just centrist boilerplate.

I'm going to skip his remarks on impeachment, which are more safe on-one-hand/on-the-other hand stuff, perfectly compatible with the Democratic establishment.  Speaking of Buttigieg as smart technocrat, though:
"As to what Gov. (Mitt) Romney was talking about, look, we do need to work to make government more efficient. One of the things we did when I came in, in South Bend as mayor was — kind of a banned phrase around the county city building was 'We do it this way because we've always done it this way.'"

"We subjected everything we do to rigorous analysis, because at the city level, I don't get to print money. We legally have to balance the general fund budget. And if I want to do more, we just have to figure out a way to do what we're doing more efficiently or else we'll have to do less of something else. And sometimes that's the right answer, too.

"So I think that on-the-ground knowledge of how to get something done that I maybe began to get in the business community, but really put to work in public service at the local level, will be useful at a time when, frankly, in federal budgeting we're being told we can get something for nothing. And things that are completely unaffordable, like the tax cuts for the wealthiest, are being passed off as though they're worth just as much as things that if we ever do deficit spending would be a better use of it, like investing in infrastructure and education and the things that we know have a payback and will pay for themselves in the long run."
"We've always done it this way" is of course a stumbling block in private enterprise too, regularly attacked in books on management.  Wherever Buttigieg got his "on-the-ground knowledge of how to get something done," it wasn't "in the business community."  Beyond that, these remarks are standard centrist prattle about running government like a business, you can't get something for nothing, we have to balance the budget.  Many arguments can be made against these slogans, but the key point is that they are not heterodox, not bold path-breaking authentic proposals that no one has had the guts or imagination or passion to advance before.  Far from it: they're routine parts of every election cycle as far back as I can remember.

Maybe Buttigieg is better than these remarks indicate, but again, he made them on his own, in a showcase where he evidently felt free to say what he thinks.  Contrary to Glenn Greenwald, I don't see a lot of exciting authentic substance here.  When my Bay-Area friend was upset by my skepticism toward this shiny new guy, I made it clear that I don't think he's totally evil, he might amount to something someday, but I really think he should at least run for a legislative office, state or federal, before aiming at the Oval Office. Much of the excitement I see over Buttigieg, like the excitement I see over Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, whom he resembles, is based on his presentation, his aging-elfin cuteness, his undeniable intelligence rather than his positions, which I think are ground for concern rather than celebration.  O'Rourke has been compared to Obama in his vacuousness, but thanks to his political history O'Rourke's unsavory record is there for scrutiny for those who care.  But many don't care: they'd rather daydream at their desks, practicing writing their married name in their notebooks (guys, Mayor Pete already has a husband).

Which brings up what is by now a familiar paradox: smart liberals who denounce Joe and Jane Sixpack for focusing on personalities rather than issues, generally have very little interest in issues but swoon over personalities.  If a candidate has no personality or a repellent one, no problem -- they'll work very hard to persuade themselves that he's really the most charismatic candidate ever!  Pete Buttigieg doesn't have that problem, he's evidently an engaging person.  Speaking seven languages, I admit, is a refreshing change from the monolingual Trump and Obama.  If you like a candidate, invite him to dinner, ask her out for coffee, paper your room with posters, but that is no reason to overlook his policies, let alone a reason to vote for him.  It bothers me, because it's so reminiscent of the rise of Barack Obama over a decade ago, to see this pattern repeating itself among people who really are smart enough to know better.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Born Free

I stumbled on a video clip from the Jimmy Fallon Show, featuring a couple of comedy characters invented and played by Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon.  It took me a few minutes to figure out exactly what was going on, but eventually I did.  (Here's an explanation for those who, like me, are not up to the minute on pop culture.)

At one point Ferrell's character announces emphatically that he's "single by choice," though he respects "a woman's choice not to want to go out with me."  Of course what he meant was that he's not single because no one wants him, it's his decision.  But what immediately occurred to me was that he, and I, and everybody except for conjoined twins, is born single.  Being in a couple is a lifestyle choice, being single is in our DNA.

Yes, I know, this was comedy, but I'm not analyzing Ferrell's character's claim as a philosophical position.  I'm interested in it as it refers to a popular motif.  One of many reasons why the whole "born this way" shtick annoys me is that it blurs distinctions that matter.  What, for example, does it mean to be "born gay"?  What proponents generally mean is "conceived gay," which is why they are still hunting the ever-elusive Gay Gene.  Or the Gay Epigene.

It's seldom stated baldly, but in many cultures, including the US until fairly recently, marriage has been not so much a choice as a duty.  Some might shirk it, and the call to celibacy could be a useful lever in doing so, but you had to have a damn good excuse: if not divine appointment then having lost one's testicles in the war or having had a hysterectomy.  Matrimony was just natural, you know? (Some of today's Christians are trying to claim that having a homosexual temperament constitutes a call to celibacy, much as Roman Catholics might find that an inconveniently unruly woman had such a call and so could be forced into a convent.)  Remember, the whole point of social construction theory is that what is called "natural," built into the structure of humanity if not of the universe, is in fact the result of human will and decisions.

Back in the old days, dating to the early days of the Modern Homosexual but still when I was scouring libraries for information about homosexuality in the 60s and 70s, the medical profession often distinguished between "situational" homosexuality and "obligatory" (I think that was the term) homosexuality.  "Situational" mean prison and other homosocial environments, where the other sex was unavailable by policy or stereotype.  The assumption was that once the inmates had access, they would revert to heterosexuality (though this was not always true).  "Obligatory" meant that because of inborn temperament or perverted upbringing, a person was uninterested in the other sex even when it was available, and so had to be an invert.  But this, it seems to me, is what "choice" actually means: I have access to members of the other sex, but I choose members of my own.  I could put it in Christian terms: like those who are "called" to celibacy, I am called to be queer, and single.  But that also means that I choose them.  People make all kinds of choices for all kinds of reason, and we are usually not required to explain why unless someone wants us to make others.  Rather than justify ourselves, we should make them justify themselves.

People who are bent on splitting themselves in half will continue to insist that their sexual desires and behavior are imposed on them, externally by Nature or internally by Gay Gene.  The reasoning resembles the endless regress of some of the the traditional arguments for the existence of God: everything has to have a cause, and when you get to the first cause it's either God or if you're a scientist, the genes.  (The biologist Susan Oyama has shown how genetic determinists have largely secularized the First Cause by assigning it to biology. That doesn't make it a valid argument.)  Maybe everything does have a cause, but we don't always know what it is, and maybe we never will.  Maybe the craving to assign causes is one of those limits of the human brain/mind, an itch that some people feel compelled to scratch unceasingly.  But not everyone does, and there's no reason why we should have to.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Stand By Your Man

I saw this last night:

So true! If Obama had embraced dictators ... no, wait, he did that. If he'd killed US citizens with predator drones... no, wait, he did that too.  If he'd joked about killing US citizens with predator drones... damn... If he'd supported coups against elected governments ... no, wait... If he'd cozied up to Wall Street... no ... If he'd, uh, packed his cabinet with corporatist neoliberals... if he'd deported record numbers of immigrants... if he'd given massive tax cuts to the rich when the economy was staggering after a major crash... if he'd sought to cut Social Security and other vital services in order to "lower the deficit" ... if he'd escalated and started wars of choice based on lies... if he'd suppressed whistleblowers... give me a minute...

Oh, I know, Rev. Dr. Barber isn't thinking of such trivia, nor are his followers on Twitter.  They're more interested in Trump's payoff to a porn star with whom he'd had an affair.  Which is not insignificant and I suppose it's true that if Barack Obama had done such things he'd have been attacked by the Right pretending to care about sexual morality even as they embraced Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and eventually Donald Trump.  But his fans would not have stumbled; they'd have stood by him, as Dem loyalists stood by Bill Clinton, and still idolize the serial adulterer John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Let's not forget Martin Luther King Jr., a major cockhound, or Jesse Jackson Sr.  White privilege should always be borne in mind, but I think it's a distraction here.

I think party loyalty and the personality cult that surrounds successful politicians are much more relevant.  In Obama's case, it's so effective that even George W. Bush gets to bask in his glory, his crimes forgotten and forgiven by centrist Democrats.  If we're going to talk about "Teflon," Obama's crimes and right-wing policies just don't exist for his devotees. They were largely ignored by the same elite political culture and corporate media that made Donald Trump a star. There is a double standard here, but it cuts both ways according to party affiliation or other commitments. And despite it, Trump has encountered much more effective principled opposition, in the streets and in Congress, than Obama did, even though the media especially are doing their best to accentuate the positive.  (I almost posted a link to the article there, but the title may have been changed.)  If Obama were a white Republican, I doubt William Barber would be as amnesiac about his record.

Barber expresses some good opinions elsewhere in his feed, including strong support for Representative Ilhan Omar, currently under attack by Democrats and Republicans alike for her criticism of the Israel lobby.  Obama, by contrast, was wholly subservient to AIPAC and cozy with Israeli strongman Benjamin Netanyahu.  (Netanyahu spurned him, though. Oh, the humanity!) It would be interesting if Obama were to defend Representative Omar, but it'll never happen; he prefers to boast (inaccurately, as it turns out) about his service to producers of fossil fuel.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Trouble Isn't that Curmudgeons Are Ignorant ...

I'm reading Edmund White's latest book, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading (Bloomsbury, 2018).  It's as well-written and engaging as I expected, and also as studded with White's customary misplaced animadversions on Society Today.

This one's my favorite so far.  Recalling his youthful absorption in East Asian culture and art, White declares:
Like most educated Americans of the period, I had an almost holy respect for other cultures. That was the main difference between the solemn, diffident Americans and the mocking, ethnocentric English—our cultural relativism is deeply rooted [53].
This isn't "cultural relativism" at all, however: it's cultural absolutism.  White doesn't think that one culture is as good as another, he believes that American has been weighed against Chinese culture and been found wanting.

I dug out the anthropologist Clifford Geertz' great 1982 essay on relativism, in which he quoted (among others) his colleague Robert Edgerton's complaint about "our inability to test any proposition about the relative adequacy of a society. Our relativistic tradition in anthropology has been slow to yield to the idea that there could be such a thing as a deviant society, one that is contrary to human nature."*

However, it seems that many anti-relativists are as confused about relativism as White is.  Geertz also quotes the very distinguished Melford Spiro (page 55):
[The] concept of cultural relativism . . . was enlisted to do battle against racist notions in general, and the notion of primitive mentality, in particular. . . . [But] cultural relativism was also used, at least by some anthropologists, to perpetuate a kind of inverted racism. That is, it was used as a powerful tool of cultural criticism, with the consequent derogation of Western culture and of the mentality which it produced.**
It's odd to conflate a concept with its misuse by "at least ... some anthropologists."  I'd expect a relative absolutist to deny them title to the concept, rather than cede it to them.  But this is a common theme in anti-relativist discourse, and it appears to be rooted in indignation that anyone should rank Euro-American culture below any other.  America is the norm against which deviant cultures are supposed to be measured, for heaven's sake!  Ironically, it's Spiro and Edgerton who are the real relativists here, criticizing cultural absolutists.

There's nothing wrong with White, or anyone else, finding features of other cultures that he prefers to features of his own.  I, for example, enjoy the varieties of bows that are customary in some East Asian cultures, from slight nods of the head to bowing deeply from the waist. (I've never been in a position where prostration would be appropriate, except in Buddhist temples.)  I enjoy doing it because it pleases the people I bow to.  But I know it makes a difference that I don't have to do it.  I don't have to worry, for example, about being beaten if I fail to bow, or bow incorrectly. I don't love every aspect of these cultures, and indeed am critical of many of their ways and customs -- just as I am of my own culture.  Nor do I consider these cultures superior to the West because of this custom.  It's a matter of temperament, an aesthetic judgment rather than a moral one.

I noticed that when White and his friends acted out certain details of Japanese culture, they played the roles of upper-status people, not servants or slaves.  Much of what he liked about the East was limited to scholars, priests, and rulers, not those who made their comfort and leisure possible.  When I read Tale of Genji, for example, I noticed that when the noble title character goes out into the rain to find a branch with flowers to send as a gift to some lady he hopes to rape, he is protected by oilcloth while his servant, who does the actual work, is not.  (White read a different translation than I did, but I think his failure to notice that Genji often coerced his lady loves into having sex with him has more to do with the rose-colored glasses through which he viewed Japanese culture than any significant difference in the translation.)  This isn't an unusual blind spot for those who romanticize other cultures, or even their own; how many Jane Austen fans identify with the servants in her novels, rather than the lovely, delicate young husband-hunters the servants care for?  (Jo Baker's 2013 novel Longbourn, which retells Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of a servant girl in the Bennet household, is a fine corrective.)

White also has some rather standard, but no less annoying for that, remarks about the American educational system; maybe I'll pick on those in another post.  I'm now about halfway through The Unpunished Vice, and while it's an interesting read, I think I'll take a break from it for a day or two.  Other books await.

* C. Geertz, "Anti-anti-relativism," in Geertz, Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (Princeton, 2000), page 56, quoting R. Edgerton, “The Study of Deviance, Marginal Man or Everyman?” in Spindler, ed., The Making of Psychological Anthropology, pp. 444–471.  The quotation from Edgerton is from page 470.

** M. Spiro, “Culture and Human Nature,” in G. Spindler, ed., The Making of Psychological Anthropology, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, pp. 330–360.  The quotation here is from page 336.