Monday, September 21, 2020

Shame Me Once, Shame on You; Shame Me Twice, Shame on Me!

2020 is turning out to be a replay of 2016, campaign-wise.  Specifically, the Democrats are running another superannuated party hack whose main selling point is that he isn't Donald Trump, and they're furious that voters aren't as enthusiastic about him as they think we ought to be.  Even more than last time, though, they're on the attack against anyone who declares his or her lack of enthusiasm and criticizes the candidate or the party for running a lackluster campaign.  They accuse the dissenters of wanting Trump to win, and their venomous attacks again lack factual truth, rationality, and even good political sense.  Among their targets are Susan Sarandon, Bernie Sanders, former Sanders staffers such Brianna Joy Gray, the journalist David Sirota, and the podcaster and organizer Ryan Knight.  I've been spending more time than I should on Twitter, just for the pleasure of attacking the attackers in turn.  

One thing that has begun to bother me is the term commonly used for the attacks: "voter shaming."  I suppose it fairly captures what they're trying to do, but I don't think it's an effective epithet if, as I've been seeing, they see it as a valid strategy:

Calling it "vote-shaming" lets them know they've scored a hit, and that you don't know how to fight back.  It's another version of the liberal standby, "Oh, how can you say such an awful thing, you're an awful person!"  This never works, and one would think liberals would have figured that out by now, if one didn't know better.

I think that if you want to get the "vote-shamers" to back off, if you want to defeat them, you need to find ways to put them on the defensive.  And I feel a bit uneasy about telling people to grow a spine, but I really think they need to grow a spine.  Why should you be ashamed of doing what you believe to be right?  If you are ashamed of not liking Biden and Harris more, if you are ashamed of wanting substantive policies rather than platitudes, if you're ashamed of being angry at the Democratic Party establishment for waging an inadequate campaign against the most dangerous President of the past century and possibly ever, then maybe you need to pause and take stock.

My preferred term for what these people are doing is "voter suppression."  They clearly are less interested in winning over undecided, let alone opposed, voters than in getting their licks in against people they blame for Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016: Sarandon, Sanders, and the like.  If you really want to persuade people to vote for your candidate, hurling abuse at them is exactly what you shouldn't be doing.  It's not as if this is some extreme-left, avant-garde, postmodern idea: it's the basic principle of canvassing and organizing.  Yet I'm seeing a lot of (admittedly anecdotal) reports of people telling Biden phonebankers that they're undecided, and being blown off, no attempt made to find out why they're undecided and persuade them to vote Biden/Harris.

I have to remember that people feel isolated and so find it hard to stand up to attacks from any direction, and I don't want to attack them myself.  I must have felt much the same way fifty years ago when I was just coming out and forming a left political stance, but although I did get attacked, from the left as well as from the right at times, I somehow kept bouncing back.  I know that within a year or two of coming out I was enjoying attempts by homophobes to try to shame me for being queer, even though there was in those days precious little solidarity from other gay people.  Somehow I felt that I was part of something larger than myself, a network of people who rejected bigotry and bit back at it, even if I knew few of them in my own locale.  I later learned that some of the writers and thinkers I felt connected to didn't live out their own rhetoric very well.  No matter: they gave me the courage to do it. The same was true of politics, though that took me longer to develop.

It just occurred to me that when I tried to get involved in local politics, the local party organization had nothing for me to do.  I left my name and phone number at the local Democratic Party office, but no one called me.  Maybe I should have tried harder, but why?  (Part of the problem was that I had an odd, irregular work schedule, and the local party was oriented to people who worked 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.)  The same happened in the 1990s when I volunteered for a new LGBT organization in town: I signed up, no one got back to me.  That organization, as I recall, didn't last very long anyway -- I wonder why!  One of the ongoing problems with left organizing is that it is more oriented to getting media attention, which the groups don't know how to exploit even if they get it, than to welcoming new members.

Then too, even if I'm not a joiner I'm still enmeshed in a network of left media that keeps me informed.  I don't sit around surrounded by hordes of the conventionally political, the inhabitants and devotees of the two-party system, without any sources of information to buttress me against corporate media propaganda.  I tend to forget that most people don't know about alternative media, which is why so many people are flocking to follow Ryan Knight's Twitter account.  But we've been there before: I'm seeing echoes of the exaltation many people expressed to Michael Moore, or Noam Chomsky: At last somebody dares to tell the truth!  They're looking for someone to follow, a hero or heroine who'll tell them what to think; and when they find out that their hero has feet of clay or, worse, doesn't want to tell what to think, he or she would rather they think for themselves, they'll fall resentfully away, looking for the next hero.  I went through something like this myself when I was younger, though I didn't usually reject those who'd taught me: I honored and cherished what I'd learned from them, and added on more teachers.

What to do, then?  I don't know, and I'm not optimistic.  But for now, I'd like people to stop using the term "vote-shaming."  They have nothing to be ashamed of, only the vote-suppressors do.  They also need to remember that you don't learn to do politics, winning politics at any rate, while standing on one foot.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the more inspiring success stories of late, didn't just stand on a street corner, give a speech, win a primary, and then win an election and go to Congress.  She got involved with Justice Democrats, who welcomed her (along with others), trained her, and supported her.  And then she defeated an entrenched, complacent incumbent and won the general and went to Congress.  Ignore the vote-suppressors, don't let them get to you; you aren't alone.  Look at how others are answering them, and work out your own response.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Become the Helper

I just finished reading The Hunt, by Maurice Sachs (1906-1945).  I picked it up, along with Sachs' previous book Witches' Sabbath, after reading about it on the Neglected Books Page.  Sachs was an odd but remarkable character: queer, notoriously charming, amoral, energetic, talented - even brilliant - but unfocused: he began many projects but finished few of them.  Witches' Sabbath was a memoir, fascinating yet exhausting as Sachs ran wildly about, cramming an immense amount of study, scamming, and socializing into his short life.  Like many queer French writers, he wrote openly about his affairs with men, and it's not surprising that Witches' Sabbath and The Hunt drew homophobic fire when they were published in France soon after the war, and in English a decade or so later.  I reminded myself as I read that these books would have been much more shocking then.

The Hunt picked up in 1940, a couple of years after Sabbath left off, as the Nazis invaded and occupied France.  Sachs was Jewish by ancestry, and though he knew the danger he faced, he not only backed away from escaping, he went the other way, into Germany itself.  He left only a fragment of The Hunt, which his publisher filled out with letters he wrote from Hamburg.  I found these letters the most interesting part of the book, especially this one:

The entry for April 23rd, 1860 in the Goncourts' Journal reads as follows: "A vague unease, for no particular reason, and it's pacing restlessly round inside me all the time.  Life is decidedly too flat.  Not two sous' worth of anything unforeseen to be had in the world. Nothing ever comes to me except catalogues, tiresome minor ailments, the same old migraines.  And that's all.  I don't inherit a fortune from someone I don't know.  That pretty house I saw for sale in the Rue La Rochefoucauld will not be presented to me this morning on a silver plate.  And when I look back over my whole past life, it has always been like that, nothing outside the usual humdrum flow of everyday events, and I have the right to call Providence a harsh stepmother.  I have only had one adventure in my whole life: I was in the arms of my nurse, looking at a toy, a very costly toy.  And a passing gentleman stopped and bought it for me."

I could not read this page without sadness and pity. What?  Could Edmond and Jules de Goncourt find no remedy for melancholy of that sort?

Good Lord! what ignorance.  The remedy was to make themselves into the passing gentleman who stopped!*

That reaction seems uncharacteristic of Sachs, who was by his own admission a very selfish person.  Even when he was generous, which was often, it was with the expectation of getting something from his beneficiaries.  Yet here he recognized the importance of being a benefactor, with no evident return.

The passage reminded me of many people today who think of Fred Rogers's exhortation "Look for the helpers" as an invitation to look to others to protect and help them, rather than to help others. I'd thought that this kind of self-pity and sentimentality the Goncourts expressed in the quotation was a much more recent phenomenon, a paradigmatic First World Problem, but there it is, clearly expressed 160 years ago, along with its refutation.


* Witches' Sabbath and The Hunt, translated by Richard Howard, Ballantine Books, 1966, p. 371

Friday, September 18, 2020

Poetry Friday - Saul


This upstart shepherd boy, of no account
except that he is handy with a sling,
presumes too much.  The daughter of the King
he may not covet, much less may he mount

thereby the throne of Judah.  Let him keep
his place!  I have a son.  Let this boy dare
forget his station, I'll return him there:
he may do what he wishes with this sheep.

This upstart, in defiance of the Law
of Moses, came from nowhere to upset
my house.  I know I never shall forget
or banish from my dreams the thing I saw:

My son endured this shepherd's touch upon
his face.  My son kissed him.  He kissed my son.

November 9, 1977
[This is one more poem from my Quadragesima project, a series of poems on subjects related, often tangentially, to religion.]

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Is Your Hate Pure?

Samuel Moyn was referring, I thought, to Democratic loyalists' obsession with Trump and their evident belief that all criticism of Democratic politicians comes from the Right, and is therefore motivated by love of Donald Trump.  People on the left who vote Democratic but still criticize Democratic candidates must therefore love Trump and want him to win in November.

On reflection, though, I had to admit that I don't hate Trump all that much.  I want him out of office, I want him in prison, and he seems to be a completely loathsome person.  Is there anyone who likes him as a human being, let alone loves him?  He seems to have plenty of toadies, hangers-on, people who cling to him in hopes of scoring some money, prestige, or power: but asking whether they like him is like asking whether remora fish like sharks.  That's what a powerful man is supposed to be like, isn't it?

Perhaps since I'm at a safe distance from Trump, I don't feel a personal hatred or loathing for him.  I'd feel a profound satisfaction if he was convicted for his many crimes and spent the rest of his life in prison.  If he caught COVID-19 and died strangling in mucus, I'd feel a detached sympathy for him, but I would still say "Good riddance," and I wouldn't indulge in the eulogies that most people can't seem to resist about the worst human beings on the planet: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John McCain, etc.  I figure there's a good chance I'll outlive him, and after the terrible damage he's done to this country and the world, I'm curious to see if the usual suspects try to paint him as a good man despite everything.  How low will they sink? ... But the point is, I don't hate him the way so many of liberals do, he's not an itch I have to scratch 24/7 until I bleed.  As my mother always said, if you pick at it, it won't get well.

I used to feel the same way about Barack Obama, as evil as he is.  I admit, when I learned he'd been lying about the Affordable Care Act, claiming falsely that "if you like the policy you have, you can keep it," I felt great anger and disgust; but that was about me, because I'd been defending the ACA based on that claim.  In the end I was even angrier at liberal ACA apologists who defended Obama's lies.  But I didn't hate him; to me that would be as absurd as loving him, thinking he's my father and and that he loves and cares for me. 

Until lately, that is.  His interventions and comments on the political scene this past year have been progressively more obnoxious, and last week he gave us this:

Quite a few people quoted Obama's by-now notorious boast:

“You wouldn’t always know it, but it went up every year I was president. That whole, suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas that was me, people.”

This is funny, really: I thought that Obama couldn't do anything, he was totally helpless because the wicked Republicans obstructed him at every turn?  So apparently he could do some things: subsidize fossil fuel companies, open the Arctic to drilling, waffle on the Dakota Access PipeLine, okay other oil pipelines.  Ironically, though, according to the AP article which quotes Obama's boast, many don't agree that he can take the credit for America's increased oil production.

People threw Obama's terrible environmental record back in his face.  One of the pleasant things about Twitter is that you often can get up in a politician's face, or at least his account, and tell him or her off.  You'll almost never get a reply, but it's better than shaking your fist and yelling at the TV. 

I've said before that Obama unknowingly did serious damage to the claim that voting can bring about change.  That ultimately helped to give us Donald Trump, as large numbers of people lost faith in the promises candidates make.  It didn't help that Obama was openly contemptuous of the voters, especially poor black voters, once he was in office, and just as contemptuous of activists who organized to pressure him outside the electoral process.  His wife, friend to war criminals, seconded that contempt this year. 

So now Obama claims that "Protecting our planet is on the ballot."  Is it?  Biden's website (recently and miraculously updated after the actress and activist Susan Sarandon pointed out it had been neglected) promises lofty goals, even alludes glancingly to the Green New Deal.  Will he deliver, assuming he wins the election?  Who knows?  Given his past, I sure don't.  One would have thought protecting the planet was on the ballot in 2008 and 2012, but it didn't quite work out that way.  Like it or not, you're not voting for issues, you're voting for a candidate, and then you're expected to shut up and get out of the way -- until your candidate needs more money.

Now, though, when I see that Obama has tweeted something, I feel a twinge of hatred.  Hatred isn't something I give lightly.  Like a vote, it has to be earned.  And I'm finally recognizing that Obama has earned it.  Which, I admit, with a dollar, will get him on the bus.  But it's a milestone for me.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Return of Poetry Friday - Kismet


Worse things have happened to me, I admit,
than meeting you, and no doubt will again.
I tumble in, I clamber out the pit;
one does need entertainment now and then.

We never do suspect our endings, do
we, from the humble spots where we begin?
How karmically appropriate of you
to come by when you did, and push me in.

-- On metaphysics, though, I shall not dwell.
I clamber out, I tumble in -- such sport!
(And such good exercise for me, as well.)
The pit is deep, the fall is very short.

The fall is very short, but oh, the climb
takes just a little longer every time.

October 16, 1979

It's been over a decade since I ran out of poems to post here, but I recently had reason to go through my papers, and I turned up a number of poems I was afraid I'd lost.  So, while they last, I'll post them on Fridays.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

By Any Memes Necessary

Yesterday NPR's Morning Edition did a segment on antifa.  Noel King interviewed Mark Bray, a historian at Rutgers and the author of a new book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.  Bray seemed to have his head on straight, and was even able to resist King's repeated efforts to ignore what he said and turn the discussion in a direction she preferred. 

Bray pointed out right away that antifa is not a "singular organization.   It's a kind of politics or activity of radical opposition to the far-right that doesn't have any qualms about physically disrupting far-right demonstrations." King wasn't having it, though: she kept referring to antifa as a "group."  Bray corrected her, but she wasn't listening.

To Bray's report that "the antifa argument is that we need to treat all far-right and fascist groups as if they could be the seeds of a new genocidal regime", King countered: "The rebuttal would be nonviolent protest has a history of working - right? - and no one gets killed."  If I'd been in Bray's place I have pointed out that it's false that "no one gets killed" as a result of nonviolent protest: there's a long list of nonviolent martyrs in the Civil Rights Movement.  She can hardly be unaware of them, so what she presumably meant was that the movement's opponents don't get killed.  This is an attitude typical of US news media, which report that things are "calm" in Israel-Palestine as long as no Israelis are killed, no matter how many Palestinians are killed.  There's a long history of white-supremacist, arguably fascist violence in this country, and right now police officers all over the country are defiantly killing unarmed people, despite the growing backlash against them.  Police are meeting nonviolent protest with batons, chemical weapons, and other violence -- rioting, in a word -- and apologists like Noel King never seem to fret that they're just hurting their own cause.

Does nonviolent protest work?  There is a good case to be made that it doesn't.  Violent white racists succeeded in terrorizing African-Americans and their white allies with impunity.  Only after decades were some of them tried and convicted.  Segregation receded in the South, but it's hard to find a direct connection between the protests of the 50s and 60s and the changes that finally took place.  A combination of factors, including legislation, court orders, and economic pressure played as much of a role as direct mass action, and as we're seeing now, white supremacy just went underground.  The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the iconic action usually cited as proof of the efficacy of nonviolence, has been overstated.  Terrorist violence by whites continued, and hasn't ended to this day.  Rosa Parks -- you've heard of her, I'm sure -- had to leave Montgomery, moving north, to escape threats and retribution.

I recently read a classic work, Negroes with Guns, by Robert F. Williams, a North Carolinian who returned home in 1945 after serving in the Marine Corps, determined not to accept racism anymore.  He joined the local NAACP chapter and moved it in a more militant direction.  He also formed an NRA-chartered gun club to prepare for black self-defense. This led to some exchanges of gunfire with white racist vigilantes, and ultimately to trumped-up kidnapping charges that drove Williams and his wife into exile, first in Cuba, then in the People's Republic of China.  They returned to the US and the charges were dropped in 1975.  Along the way the Williamses became friends and allies with Rosa Parks.  His account of his activities is interesting and inspiring, but I ended up doubting just how successful his embrace of self-defense really was.  Does nonviolent protest work?  Sometimes, maybe; but often not. Does armed self-defense work?  I'm not sure it does, and it certainly doesn't if you don't have local police, state troopers, and the FBI on your side, as white racists did.  As we've seen this summer, they still have the police on their side.

There have been a few more recent, scholarly books on black anti-racist self-defense in the South during the Civil Rights era, and I'll be reading them soon.  As I've said before, I don't rule out violence as a form of protest or resistance, but I don't get the impression that most of those who talk about it have a clear idea how to do it and make it work.  It doesn't help that mainstream voices, like NPR, are so malignantly ignorant and dishonest.  But I'm increasingly convinced that babbling "by any means necessary," a popular slogan of the 60s and 70s, is just posturing.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Were They or Weren't They?

I was procrastinating this afternoon when I happened on an old column by Slate's former movie reviewer David Edelstein.  He had recently reviewed The Return of the King, the final installment of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the vexed question of the bond between Frodo and Sam had stirred up a reaction in Edelstein's email.

Here’s scholar Jeanette Zissell on the tabloid antics of Sam and Frodo: “The intense relationship between Sam and Frodo, for example, is exactly of the same kind as Patroclus and Achilles, or Roland and Charlemagne. These men were extremely close, bonding in situations where their lives depend on each others’ actions. Their relationships read as verging on the homoerotic to a modern reader, and yet fall short of actualizing that tension. In Sam and Frodo’s case, as Tolkein was a devout Catholic, this relationship also reflects the communion between believers, and the respect, self-sacrifice and love they owe to each other. And while such sexual tension may or may not be present in any instance, each has a theme of friendship it is easy to miss. If these were stories of women, would we be so quick to discount feelings of loyalty and sentimental love in this way? As a culture we are often uncomfortable with male sentiment, something medievals had no difficulty in expressing. And while I understand your assertion and to a large extent agree, I would bring attention to the complications of these concepts that modern culture does not understand. We could well benefit from an inspection of that kind of bonding, and to look further at the self-assurance and lack of shame at male feeling that it involves.” Bravo. Gimme a kiss, Jim.

I wonder what Ms. (or Professor?) Zissell is a "scholar" of.  She ought to know that though Homer's Achilles and Patroclus weren't depicted as lovers, they were widely read as lovers by Greeks just a couple of centuries later.  This was not a confusion engendered by "modern culture," nor was it due to discomfort with "male sentiment."  It was an ancient culture revising its forebears, and since the characters in question are fictionalized if not fictional, it's as much a waste of time to insist that they weren't 'really' having sex as to insist that they were.  She should also know that sentiment and loyalty between women, historical or fictional, makes many people uncomfortable too.

As I've discussed before at length, ease with intense male bonding has coexisted with unease about it through most of Western history.  Even now in our supposedly more enlightened day. there are turf wars over the sexual orientation of this fictional character or that historical personage.  Where Frodo and Sam are concerned, I find it very interesting that so many modern readers devoured The Lord of the Rings without apparently being bothered by their closeness.  Maybe they were comfortable as long as they were immersed in the story, and only got nervous when for some reason they had to think about it.  As Jeanette Zissell's remarks show, even specialists in ancient or medieval literature don't think about it very well.  Maybe I should get around to reading The Song of Roland.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Fall of the House of Kennedy?

Incumbent Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) decisively beat back a primary challenge by Joe Kennedy yesterday, and I very much liked this take on his victory:
Corporate Democrats want to make the left out to be purity-obsessed and unwilling to compromise, but the left rallied around a longtime politician with a mixed record because he actively courted their support and became a champion of one of their major legislative priorities.
Someone else tweeted, before the results were in:
It's not that Markey is some democratic socialist, and no need to revise him as such. It's that he made a bet that the young left would redefine and save him, leaned into it, and so far that bet seems to be paying off. That is validation and power on its own.
Kennedy lost despite Democratic establishment support.  Nancy Pelosi endorsed him, for example, despite her former opposition to Democrats primarying Democrats, so Kennedy's defeat was among other things a rebuke to her, and a sign that her faction is losing its influence.  As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “No one gets to complain about primary challenges again.”

What had Markey done to draw Pelosi's opposition?  Presumably, he'd become friendly with Ocasio-Cortez and the other leftish Democratic newcomers known collectively as the Squad, and adopted some of their policy proposals such as the Green New Deal.  As a result he won support from the kind of activists and workers whom centrists denounce as purists.  You'd think that the Dem establishment would be celebrating their willingness to compromise, but I haven't seen that happening yet.  As someone else commented, "Liberals don't believe in compromise or coalition building or democracy... they want a 'party' that is entirely authoritarian dictates by their favorite oligarchs."

The corporate media have been singing one note about this primary: Kennedy's status as a scion of a political dynasty.  The Boston Globe, for example, called it "an unprecedented defeat to a Kennedy in Massachusetts."  It's the first time in decades that Massachusetts hasn't had a Kennedy in office!  And some backseat drivers have been saying things like "He was impatient. He should have waited", or "Let him wait his turn. There was no need for a change" (this from a "Sports columnist emeritus" from the Globe).  "His turn" implies that the seat was Kennedy's by right, perhaps by birthright, and when the time is fulfilled he can claim it.  I heard similar claims about Hillary Clinton: it was her year.  (There was a funny thread a couple of weeks ago, culminating with "He who can draw this golf club from the bag will be the Rightful Senator from Massachusetts!")  But it's not how a democracy, or even just a republic is supposed to work, and reminding the political establishment of that fact is one of the best things about Kennedy's defeat.

I've said it before: the elites and their sycophants claim that the dumb voters just care about personalities, while they care about issues.  They keep reminding us that we should vote for the guy we'd like to have a beer with, not the one whose policies we support.  Again and again we're seeing the opposite, and I find that heartening.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Without the Bottom of the Pyramid, The Top Is Nowhere

This may be obvious; I think it ought to be.  But I haven't seen anyone stressing it, so here goes.

The outcome of the Presidential election in November is important.  But the downticket races are more important.

If Biden wins but the Republicans keep the Senate and, worse, retake the House, we can't expect much to improve during his administration.  Biden's famous (or notorious - take your pick) for his ability to work with Republicans, but that doesn't bode well for the country.  And I expect that the Republicans consider it one thing to work with a right-wing Democratic Senator, but quite another to work with even a right-wing Democratic President.  Biden has already said he's good with fracking and fossil fuels, he will veto a universal healthcare bill even if it reaches his desk, and his foreign policy is even worse.  A Democratic Congress, especially if more progressive and left members are elected, might even be able to push Biden in a better direction.

If Trump wins but the Democrats take Congress, they will be able to block him.  They might be willing to impeach him again, and possibly remove him.  They might be able to pass halfway good legislation over his veto, refuse to confirm the judges and others he wants to appoint, and so on.

The same goes for all the downticket races around the country: governors, state legislatures, judiciary, city and county governments.  The national Democratic establishment neglected them for decades, with results that everyone can see.  Even this year, that establishment has tried to block progressive and left candidates and officials, by backing corporatist challengers to such figures as Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  That they failed is a very hopeful sign, it seems to me.

I mention all this because, though some candidates and races have gotten coverage, at least in my part of the Internet, I don't see many commentators looking at the larger picture - the necessity of booting out the Republicans who've taken over most of the country, with dire effects.  Dangerous as Trump is, and feckless as Biden is, there is more to our government than the Executive branch.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Do You Believe in Science in a Young Boy's Heart?

A friend of mine posted this meme on Facebook recently, and I'm afraid it annoyed me more than perhaps it should have.  That's partly because "believing in science" has become a mantra in our culture wars and especially in electoral politics.  Biden supporters, like Obama and Clinton supporters, say that they want a President who believes in Science, just as Trump supporters want a President who honors God.  Of course Trump, like his Republican predecessors, puts God after his donors (just as Democrats do), and Obama put his donors before the science about climate change.  Biden has made it clear he'll do the same. Obama also put his religious beliefs ahead of Constitutional principles about equality in order to block same-sex marriage during his first term; how can you honor God more than that?  But then his deeply held beliefs threatened to get in the way of his re-election, so he ditched them.

On its face I can't disagree with most of what this meme says, though it's disingenuous and ultimately dishonest.  Its account of how scientists work is incomplete: scientists do collect data and are supposed to revise their conclusions in the light of new information.  But scientists also work out hypotheses without working in the laboratory at all.  Einstein and other physicists are the most famous examples of this aspect of science; Einstein did math, published papers, and waited for others to do the experiments that would confirm or disconfirm his theory.  When the first tests failed to confirm his predictions, Einstein didn't go back to the drawing board.  As the physics-trained philosopher Paul Feyerabend tells it, "Einstein's theory of special relativity clashed with evidence produced only one year after its publication. Lorentz, Poincare, and Ehrenfest withdrew to a more classical position. Einstein persisted: his theory, he said, had a wonderful symmetry and should be retained. He gently mocked the widespread urge for a 'verification by little effects.'"  This isn't a bad thing: If scientists threw out promising theories when they encounter obstacles, no theory would last for long.

It's also been argued - I'm not sure how accurately - that many scientists never adopt newer, better theories such as Relativity.  They do their best to cling to what they learned in their youth, and bitterly attack the crazy new ideas that students are wild about.  This suggests that the young scientists aren't necessarily wiser, they just go with the flow, to get jobs and teaching posts and grants - and in their time, become a drag on the field, refusing to adopt whatever comes next.  But again, some conservatism is necessary.  Every theory has holes in it, anomalies it can't explain, and its adherents simply have to have faith that eventually those holes will be patched over.

And you know that joke that compares scientists to a drunk looking for his lost keys under a lamppost instead of looking in the dark where he actually lost them, because the light is better around the lamppost?  Scientists tell that joke on themselves.  There's a similar one that compares scientists to a besieging army that encircles a walled town, and if the walls hold out, the army moves on to the next town, hoping for easier prey.  It's okay for scientists to joke about such things, just as clergy and other professionals do about their respective domains, but the laity had better not.

Scientists are also, let's say, inconsistent about the self-scrutiny they brag about.  Consider this example, from Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (William Morrow, 2016, p. 178). It refers to engineering research, but you'll find similar descriptions of the peer review to which scientific journals subject submissions.
Building an airplane was nothing compared to shepherding research through Langley’s grueling review process. “Present your case, build it, sell it so they believe it”—that was the Langley way. The author of a NACA document—a technical report was the most comprehensive and exacting, a technical memorandum slightly less formal—faced a firing squad of four or five people, chosen for their expertise in the topic. After a presentation of findings, the committee, which had read and analyzed the report in advance, let loose a barrage of questions and comments. The committee was brusque, thorough, and relentless in rooting out inaccuracies, inconsistencies, incomprehensible statements, and illogical conclusions obscured by technical gibberish. And that was before subjecting the report to the style, clarity, grammar, and presentation standards that were Pearl Young’s legacy, before the addition of the charts and fancy graphics that reduced the data sheet to a coherent, visually persuasive point. A final report might be months, even years, in the making.
Even after publication, we're told, scientists, are ruthless in tearing apart each other's work in their dedicated pursuit of truth.  And that's good.

Except when it isn't.  When the entomologist Edward O. Wilson published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975, the book inspired controversy and searching criticism from other scientists.  Scientists who were attracted by Wilson's doctrines protested that this wasn't fair, as if a scientific publication wasn't supposed to be scrutinized by colleagues in the field.  In Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior (Oxford, 2002), evolutionary biologist Kevin N. Laland and psychologist Gillian R. Brown complained that even colleagues in Wilson's own department picked on him.
[They] vehemently attacked the book in the popular press as simple-minded and reductionist. Yet most biologists could see the potential of the sociobiological viewpoint, which had paid great dividends in understanding other animals, and many were drawn into using these new tools to interpret humanity. The debate became polarized and highly political, with the sociobiologists accused of bolstering right-wing conservative values and the critics associated with Marxist ideology [5].
Laland and Brown concede that there were a lot of scientific problems with Wilson's book, but they try to explain away the criticisms as politically motivated.  Wilson's highly speculative application of his ideas to human beings in the final chapter, with no real scientific support, were somehow exempt from suspicion of ideology.  Laland and Brown lament what they represent as emotional, "knee-jerk reactions" to Sociobiology, which not only confuses moderation of tone with moderation of substance, it erases the scientific objections that were made.

It's doubtful, though, that pronouncements about human beings and the societies we live in can ever be free of politics.  Consider BiDil, a blood-pressure drug that the FDA approved for use by "patients who identity as black".*  NitroMed, the company that owned BiDil, "funded the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Medical Association, the Association of Black Cardiologists, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, all of whom encouraged the FDA to approve the drug."  Critics "described BiDil as a cynical effort to exploit race and loopholes in patent law and FDA policy to extend patent protection on an old drug ... Defenders of the drug went so far as to accuse social scientists of trying to kill black people by sowing controversy about BiDil and misrepresenting it as a racial drug, even though it was Cohn [the cardiologist who had patented the drug] and NitroMed who had pursued the race-specific approvals in the first place" (164).

BiDil did not turn out as expected. Despite projections of a billion-dollar bonanza, the drug proved to be a commercial failure. NitroMed lost $108 million in the first year after FDA approval. It is not clear which of several factors contributed most to its demise. NitroMed priced the drug high—$1.80 per pill, or $10.60 per day for a common dose. Since BiDil was simply a fixed-dose combination of two existing drugs, each of which was available as a cheaper generic, many insurers simply substituted the generics whenever physicians did prescribe BiDil. Moreover, the controversy over the “black drug” was read in many ways by patients and doctors. While some saw it as something valuable, others saw the “special treatment” as uncomfortably reminiscent of Tuskegee. Whatever the causes of its failure, NitroMed laid off most of its workforce and stopped marketing BiDil in January 2008 [165].
After discussing some other examples of "racial differences in drug response, Jones notes that "in every study, however, the amount of variation within each racial group was far larger than the differences between the between the groups ... As a result, 80 to 95 percent of all black and white patients will likely have indistinguishable responses to each medication.  Although racial differences might exist, they are irrelevant for the majority of patients" (167).

Several years after NitroMed stopped marketing BiDil, however, I heard it touted on an NPR science program as a casualty of 'politically correct' hostility to race as a scientific concept.  The popular complaint that the Left has politicized the science of racial difference and made it professionally dangerous to study it, reverses the facts.  Despite the ongoing and consistent failure to find meaningful racial differences, scientists still pursue that Holy Grail, and have no evident difficulty getting funding to do so.  Even if science weren't political, funding for science always will be.  The same thing goes for sexual differences, which male scientists continue to assert while claiming to be not only Scientists but Feminists.  Is this Science to believe in?

Scientists and their apologists do admit their fallibility - but usually only after they've been caught in some egregious error.  Before that happens, they demand that you respect their authoritah, else you are (gasp) Anti-Science.  The more loudly they demand it, the more skeptical I become.  (I lost a lot of respect for the philosopher John Searle when he referred to the historians Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend as "anti-science," and hinted darkly that the difference between them and the "pro-science" Karl Popper wasn't "as great as many philosophers and scientists think.") **  It's a lot like religious authorities admitting their human fallibility when they're confronted with some issue on which they have proven embarrassingly wrong - race, for example.  Or the question of wearing masks in this pandemic: early on, Scientists brushed aside their value for protection.  This was primarily because they wanted them to be reserved for front-line healthcare workers, but if they weren't effective, why would the doctors and nurses need them?  The severe shortages of PPE made it reasonable to give priority to health care workers, but Anthony Fauci and others waffled and confused the issue.  "Waffled" is too kind, since they knew very well that masks are effective.  I think it's fair to suspect that they are so used to asserting authority, instead of treating the public as adults who can understand what's at stake if it's explained seriously rather than condescendingly, that they simply saw no reason to bother.  Is that Science to believe in?

(Some will probably reply that all the idiots and morons out there have no Faith in Science and are too stupid to understand it anyway.  They should remember that Fauci was addressing them, the wise sheep with true Faith, no less than the morons.  Maybe they do consider themselves stupid, and want to be lied to for their own good if Science is doing it.  The concept of the Holy Lie is familiar in religion, too.  But such people are in no position to cast the first stone.)

As an atheist, I insist on remembering human fallibility in science, religion, politics, and any other area.  I also insist that dissent must be informed and rational.  But then, so should assent, and I find that most people who wave around their faith in Science don't know much about the Science they believe in.  Think of the LGBT people and allies who continued to talk about the Gay Gene long after the scientists they relied on had abandoned the concept for vague talk of "epigenetic factors" and "genetic predisposition."  Trans people have taken up the claim that trans identity is genetic, totally without evidence.  Home DNA testing has become popular among African-Americans, although it doesn't really reveal the Roots they're hoping to find -- just as racially-specific drugs were pushed by prominent African-Americans who, it's safe to say, had no idea whether the Science was valid or not.

Faith in Science can't be reconciled with recognizing its limits.  If you recognize that scientists can be wrong, then you won't and shouldn't have faith in them.  You should take their claims seriously, but skeptically, and skepticism is the opposite of faith.  As the examples I've given show (and they can be multiplied), scientists don't welcome skepticism, especially from outsiders no matter how well informed.  It's my position that science is not something anyone should have faith in, and those who say we should have faith in it don't understand science.

* David Jones, "The Prospects of Personalized Medicine," in Genetic Explanations: Sense and Nonsense, ed. Sheldon Krimsky & Jeremy Gruber (Harvard, 2013), p. 163.  Future page numbers refer to this article.

** "Twenty-One Years in the Chinese Room."  In Views into the Chinese Room: New Essays on Searle and Artificial Intelligence, ed. John Preston & Mark Bishop (Oxford UP, 2002), Kindle edition loc 914.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

But We've Got to Do Something!

I imagine you've heard that a couple of protesters against police violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin, were shot to death, allegedly (but pretty certainly) by Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old armed with an AR-15.  He was arrested in his hometown, a half-hour drive from Kenosha in Illinois. There are numerous infuriating aspects to the case, such as that he was welcomed by police on the scene, and then allowed by them to walk away unhindered after the shooting.  But he's in custody now, charged with first-degree homicide.

In Bloomington, Indiana, where I lived and worked for many years, there was a "Defend the Police" rally last Saturday, which was countered by Black Lives Matter supporters.  According to an interview I heard with the mayor, some people on both sides were armed, but though there were some scuffles that produced minor injuries, no one was seriously hurt.  In the days before that rally, I saw some people I knew and others I didn't vowing that they would stop those Nazis from using Bloomington as a platform for their hate.  It appears that they failed.  I can't understand why - don't these middle fingers kill fascists?
I guess they were canceled out by these hippie-stomping middle fingers:
Ghod, I feel so inspired.  (The above photos were taken by Zachary Kaufman for The Bloomingtonian and appear in this gallery.  Credit where it's due.)

What I want to discuss is the reaction the killings in Kenosha have gotten from the antifa / BLM left.  Two days ago almost all such people I see online were talking up fighting in the streets, Enough Is Enough, burn it to the ground, etc., and scorning anyone who questioned their wisdom, and the wisdom of The People.  Oh, and guillotines.  And that hasn't gone away:
Oh no, someone did a bad optics. Time to stop criticizing police departments that are brutalizing protests so we can shame this powerless protesters and play into the hands for the far-right.
As I've said many times in many contexts, struggle is not a zero-sum game, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, and I can attack the police while criticizing the stupid tactics of those who oppose the police. Just as I can, say, attack Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

 Another one:
The Left is going to have to realize that there is no justice.

The Right is going to have to be shown that leftists have firearms too.

That's the course we're on and it's likely inevitable at this point given there is no leadership seeking any other course of action.
Exactly: there is no leadership, except perhaps for some white kids who fantasize that they are Che Guevara or Robespierre.  I've seen a lot of talk about how Kyle Rittenhouse was acting out various media soldier fantasies, but less about Antifa's media fantasies.  Can't one pure girl take down a brutal dictatorship with a hunting bow?  Or destroy Him Who Must Not Be Named with their, uh, wands?  Oh, and video war games are part of the common cultural heritage of testosterone-poisoned nitwits on all sides.

I'm not a pacifist, I think; I don't rule out violent response to state violence a priori.  But I don't think the left should resort to violence, especially armed violence, without a lot of thought and planning.  Which I'm not seeing now.

So, for example:
Please allow me a moment to break down this wicked conflation that folks are engaging in, Lisa Goodman ran this today. It is horrible and it is not helpful. These folks constantly and purposefully conflate the intent of rage, rioting and looting with the intent of protesting or advocating for systems change. They are both forms of action, direct action. but so are voting and rioting actions if you use that reductionist mind. Intent ( that is absent of any moral judgement argument) just factually don’t put them in the same sentence.
The thread continues, but doesn't get any more coherent or honest.  Many of the ACAB supporters of BLM have constantly and purposefully conflated the intent of rage, etc. with the intent of protesting or advocating for systems change.  Rioting, burning small businesses, property damage have been confused deliberately with direct action aimed at systemic change -- even after we have seen repeatedly that much of the violence has been the work of police agents provocateurs and/or white supremacists aiming to escalate the conflict and draw more police repression.  Someone (I've lost the tweet) jeered that when you're a poor black person rebelling against the cops, thinking coldly about strategy is a luxury and it's white privilege to criticize them.  That's pretty obviously racist, but it also overlooks that the protests and the riots have been going on for months, the heat of the moment has had time to pass, and serious thought about tactics and methods is not only possible but necessary.  Also, a lot of dubious action has been done by some privileged-looking white kids who always seem shocked when the police they purport to hate fail to protect them from the Nazis.

One exception: Benjamin Dixon, a black writer and activist I see on Twitter, declared a few weeks ago that he appreciated Antifa, because they put their bodies on the line between police and BLM protesters.  That certainly deserves appreciation, but it's not what I've been seeing lately.  I see people claiming to be antifa because they are opposed to fascism, which is kind of like pointing triumphantly to the "socialism" in "National Socialism", but these people's activism consists entirely of posting memes to Facebook.  As many have pointed out, "antifa" is not a centralized organization, so you have a lot people operating under that rubric: some doubtless courageous and principled, others who think that wearing a pink pussy hat or giving rednecks the finger is the kind of antifascism that won World War II.

This obfuscation has been with us for a long time, and it's getting worse.  I'd add that armed rebellion doesn't have a great record of success in this country.  From Daniel Shays' rebellion to the Civil War to the Bonus Marchers to the Black Panthers to the Branch Davidians, rebels have come up against the vastly greater firepower of the American state, and ended up dead or in prison, with a lot of collateral damage, but in the struggle against the Man you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.  Or, as one Black Panther purred to a student audience during my first year at Indiana University fifty years ago, "We must be cruel, so that others can be kind."  But the time for kindness, like the time for criticizing Democratic politicians, never seems to come.

There is leadership by black people in BLM, but the white leftists I see online aren't deferring much to them.  They are more aware of what's at stake.  The mother of Jacob Blake, the man shot in the back by Kenosha police, has condemned the violence there, but what does she know compared to the wise revolutionaries?

By the way, I noticed that for about a day after the shooting, numerous people on Twitter were reporting that Jacob Blake was dead.  It is, as they say, a mercy that he is not dead; but their eagerness to have more martyrs -- not themselves, of course, someone else - shows how much they really think Black Lives Matter.

It was a relief to encounter the writing of this woman:
1994, the women in my village created underground tunnel for every1 to live in. I was born in that same tunnel in 1995. The day I was born was the day Charles Taylor came to slaughter my people but instead he was met by an empty village not realizing we where all underground.

Im saying this to say that people who have never fought in wars need to actually start talking to the Black people here that know what a civil war looks like and the strategize we used back home.

My mom came here in 2018 and she went through an escape plan with me. My sister didn’t take it seriously bc she doesn’t remember seeing our older brother being hit by a rocket but I do. She doesn’t remember our mom getting shot five times but I do. I’m grateful for her

My mom really had me go through everything over and over again until I could remember how to get to each place without my phone or my car. You could see the sadness in her eyes. Can you imagine saving your child from war just for her to be planning for another one?
This is worlds away from the macho posturing, the giggly excitement at being bad and rebellious, that I've seen seeing online.  Things are getting bad in the US, probably worse than they have ever been before, but only refugees from US wars know what it's like to have search-and-destroy missions slaughtering whole families, bombs and other anti-personnel weapons dropping on your town for months and years.  Some have said that the right-wing militias are like the death squads the US has trained and supported in other countries for over a century.  Probably true, but not nearly as bad -- yet.  I don't see any reason to believe that these people have begun to think about what it would mean to live in a real war, or they wouldn't be so eager to start one.  I see them as being like the planners of Bush's invasion of Iraq; it'll be a cakewalk, over in a few weeks, maybe we don't have the people or equipment we should, but you work with the army you have.

I was going to leave it there, but this tweet sums up for me how serious our young revolutionaries are: "I was outside by my house with my roommate for about 5 minutes and OUT OF FUCKING NOWHERE 20 bike cops rolled up and yelled at us about curfew."  So, you're living in a fascist police state, but you're surprised that they mean it?  Good thing you weren't living in Liberia when Charles Taylor came calling.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Just Say "Noh"

In the interest of full disclosure, let me inform you that as I write this, I'm dressed in women's clothes.  That is, I'm wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  Got it?  Here we go, then.

The other day someone reposted this meme, which they'd found circulating in right-wing circles.

The best comment in the ensuing thread was that what we need nowadays are firearms-safety classes taught by drag queens.  But few reached that level.  Most were as mindless as the meme itself.

A recurrent theme was that drag queens break gender stereotypes.  For example: "ahhhh gender inclusivitiy [Loudly crying face] [Loudly crying face] [Loudly crying face]  how dare we teach our kids that going against societal norms is ok".

Most obviously, if schools teach children to go against societal norms, then going against societal norms is a societal norm and obeying societal norms is therefore going against societal norms...  But there's nothing more complicit with societal norms than a drag queen. Drag queens are the loyal opposition of the dominant gender system: the whole rationale, as expressed here, is that there are men's clothes and women's clothes, and it's a big deal if you wear the "wrong" outfit, but it's a completely conformist way of "going against the societal norms."  Theatrical cross-dressing is ancient and can be found in many cultures, from ancient Greece to China and Japan to Elizabethan England to single-sex schools in England and the US to music halls and vaudeville to Bugs Bunny to Daffy Duck doing Carmen Miranda.  As those latter examples show, it's considered perfectly appropriate for entertaining children, and it's totally compatible with homophobia and extreme gender conservatism.  Cross-dressing has many meanings and drag is only one of them, but they are almost all reactionary.  They are a feature of Carnival for example, as in Mardi Gras: roles are flipped, but only to affirm them.  That's what drag is: I look like a woman but I'm not, and when I take off the gown, the headdress and the layers of pancake makeup I'm a man again.

Drag performance in the US, however, is adult entertainment -- not because of the gender play, but because traditionally it features venomous misogyny and a lot of expletives.  When I first heard of drag-queen story hours I admit I was taken aback for just that reason, though I didn't suppose that the performers waltz into an elementary-school classroom and gaily shriek "Suck my pussy, bitchez!" as an intro.  But maybe not; the Bloomington Pride Fest featured a performer who cheerfully sang ditties about sucking cock on an outdoor stage in front of young children. Two years in a row.  I don't suppose their young minds were permanently traumatized or warped by such antics, but the event was advertised as "family friendly." I wouldn't have thought that singing about dick size qualified, but I'm out of the loop these days.

And then there's Rudy Giuliani.  You can't tell me he's any kind of rebel.

One of my favorite responses in the thread was "Teach both. Kids should be able to strip and clean a firearm AND read at a high school level by age 6, don't @ me".  I quite agree: kids should be able to strip and clean a firearm AND a drag queen by age 6.  Alas, such essential traditional skills have been tossed by the wayside.

But many of the comments were incoherent, such as "Oh no, someone is dressed strange and reading to kids, maybe it'll teach kids to have confidence to be who they want to be."  How would this "teach children to have confidence to be who they want to be"?  Or: "Traditional values are children being instructed in the culture of their tribe by a shaman, as opposed to cold modernity where children are taught to operate machinery as preparation for becoming part of the social machine."  That reads like parody, but I'm afraid it is probably serious.  I wonder if it was meant to suggest that a drag queen is a shaman, instructing children in the culture of their tribe?  I do wish people wouldn't post when they're high.

Or "as a queer person this is great! but my problem is when the education system teaches them the different sexualities and like.. it's super complicated, and there's different ways of combining the sexualities. So I say just teach kids the frame work, and they'll figure it out!"  As a queer person myself: how does a drag queen story hour in elementary school "teach them the different sexualities" -- any more than watching Bugs Bunny do drag did when I was a kid? It's not even supposed to. "Combining the sexualities"?  They lost lost me there.  It's strange that we hear a lot of griping from gender radicals about "media stereotypes" confusing children and leading them astray, but drag is part of that stereotyping system, not a remedy for it.

Drag has little or nothing to do with real women.  Look at the costume that fellow in the photograph is wearing.  It may say "five-horned demon Queen," but it doesn't say "woman," any more than a guy in a Superman costume says "man."  It's a theatrical caricature of gender.  Which is fine, because exaggeration and caricature are routine parts of theatrical performance.  But it's not a model for living gender, doing gender, in one's life.

Friday, August 21, 2020

O Fickle Democrats!

This just in: George W. Bush has endorsed Susan Collins, a Republican Senator from Maine, for re-election.  Collins has been a frequent target for Democratic ire, because despite the occasional lapse she has been a reliable supporter of Donald Trump's agenda.  This is, The Hill reports, Bush's "first endorsement of the 2020 cycle."  I presume this means there are more to come, and for the first time I'm genuinely curious to see what will happen next.

I'm also looking forward to reactions from the Democrats who've rehabilitated Dubya these past few years.  Already on Twitter there's been some consternation.  The word "disappointment" recurs.  So do versions of "I was just praising Ol' W. this morning. Well.... so much for that." Why were they praising a war criminal who killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, made refugees of millions more, crashed the world economy, and fiddled while New Orleans drowned?  You might well ask.  Of course, it's because he gave Michelle Obama a cough drop, she declared him her "partner in crime" who shares her values, and Ellen DeGeneres is his good friend and you don't have to agree with someone on every little thing to be their friend.  (They may have more in common than some of us thought.)  But never mind all that, they'll throw him under the bus now.  Cancel culture is real.

Another person remarked that Bush is "only reminding us what a disaster his presidency was."  Funny how many Democrats have forgotten.  But as I suggested recently, Democrats seem to have cheesecloth memories, and if you don't reminding them, they forget things.  I therefore have to hope that Bush will come up with more disappointing endorsements to keep their memories refreshed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Orange Cheetoh Man Bad, Pale Gropey Man Good!

Someone linked to video of Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention, and I listened to a minute or two before I thought: Huh -- Democrats must be pretty slow.  At least their leaders think so, because they find it necessary to repeat, over and over, how bad Donald Trump is, lest Democratic voters forget between now and November, and accidentally vote for the wrong guy.  It reminds me of the private sessions Squealer, the pig's propaganda chief in Animal Farm, has with the sheep to teach them new loyalty chants.  The sheep aren't very bright, so a lot of drill is necessary to get them to remember such complex cheers as "Four legs good, two legs better!"

I made the above meme in 2016, and it has occurred to me that one reason people would keep making anti-Trump memes could be that it's a way to cope with Trump's omnipresence in the media, to scratch the itch.  But they just add to his omnipresence, making things worse, which impels them to repeat the old ones even more, and create new ones.  Ostensibly part of the idea is to win over the fabled independent voters, but do they watch the Convention?  I'm technically an independent, and I sure as hell don't.

Then too, Democrats do have bad memories, as do Republicans.  They remember an Obama administration that never was, a Bush administration of empathy and care, a Bill Clinton who lied but nobody died, a statesmanlike Bush I, a decent Ronald Reagan, and so on.  (Someone said that Michelle Obama invoked Reagan in her speech; I'm not going to try to verify it, but it would be no surprise.)  That's one function of the Convention, to celebrate that imaginary past and promise an imaginary future.  Even so, is it really likely that Democrats will forget to hate Donald Trump and vote for Joe Biden?  I don't believe it.  But if it is, no wonder we're in trouble.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Le Peuple, C'est Moi

It happened that when this meme was posted on Facebook today I was listening to the left economist Richard Wolff's radio program, and in comparing feudalism, capitalism, and communism Wolff kept referring to what a communist society "is" like. But there are no existing communist societies, are there? It's like talking about a unicorn society/economy.

I agree with Michael Parenti on that point. Any real-world socialist or communist society will be tainted by reality. Which probably explains why the "No True Scotsman" move is as popular among socialists and communists as it is among Christians and scientists: confronted with serious problems, they just say "But that's not real socialism!" And maybe they're right.

I haven't read much Parenti. But if he's excusing real crimes and atrocities by real-world socialist governments, that won't do either. I've often talked to people who do that, and they too point to an ideal, pie-in-the-sky socialism that won't and can't ever exist. We have to criticize the crimes of socialist regimes as doggedly as (I hope) we criticize the crimes of capitalist regimes. I support the Cuban Revolution, for example, but I'm critical of the imprisonment of homosexuals there. One important difficulty, of course, is getting accurate information about those places when the air is full of propaganda. The same is true of Venezuela: I'm perfectly willing to criticize Maduro, but in order to do that I have to have accurate information about what he's doing, and the US corporate media publish an endless stream of lies about him and his predecessor Hugo Chavez.  Some of the accusations might turn out to be accurate, but many are certainly false. 

I also know that the US government, not only Trump but Obama and Bush before him, care nothing about the rights and freedoms of Venezuelans, so I know that their attempts to remove Maduro aren't motivated by concern for human rights.  For that reason I'm not interested in criticizing Maduro until the US and their clients stop trying to strangle Venezuela, and that is not likely to happen.  Since any criticisms I could make of Maduro could only serve to justify further US violence in Venezuela, I'm not particularly interested in trying to evaluate the accusations against him, let alone join the chorus of toadies denouncing him.

In the economist Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom (Knopf, 1999, 151), he wrote:
Are the citizens of third world countries indifferent to political and democratic rights? This claim, which is often made, is again based on too little empirical evidence ... The only way of verifying this would be to put the matter to democratic testing in free elections with freedom of opposition and expression -- precisely the things that the supporters of authoritarianism do not allow to happen. It is not clear at all how this proposition can be checked when the ordinary citizens are given little political opportunity to express their views on this and even less to dispute the claims made by the authorities in office. The downgrading of these rights and freedoms is certainly part of the value system of the government leaders in many third world countries, but to take that to be the view of the people is to beg a very big question.
Indeed, Sen continues:
It is thus of some interest to note that when the Indian government, under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, tried out a similar argument in India, to justify the “emergency” she had misguidedly declared in the mid-1970s, an election was called that divided the voters precisely on this issue. In that fateful election, fought largely on the acceptability of the “emergency,” the suppression of basic political and civil rights was firmly rejected, and the Indian electorate—one of the poorest in the world—showed itself to be no less keen on protesting against the denial of basic liberties and rights than it was in complaining about economic poverty. To the extent that there has been any testing of the proposition that poor people in general do not care about civil and political rights, the evidence is entirely against that claim. Similar points can be made by observing the struggle for democratic freedoms in South Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma (or Myanmar) and elsewhere in Asia. Similarly, while political freedom is widely denied in Africa, there have been movements and protests about that fact whenever circumstances have permitted, even though military dictators have given few opportunities in this respect.
In principle, existing self-identified socialist governments are valid targets for criticism just as existing capitalist governments are, and anyone who claims otherwise is arguing in bad faith. It seems to me that apologists for socialist regimes oscillate between "Those reports are false - imperialist, counterrevolutionary propaganda!" and "Those reports are true, but the comrades don't want your bourgeois human rights! They're happy to sacrifice themselves [and others] for the Revolution!" And that's a giveaway.  To repeat: mainstream news media promulgate US propaganda against official enemies, which makes it hard to criticize their abuses fairly.  When someone agrees that abuses are happening and justifies them in the name of the Revolution, however, then the question of the reliability of the reports has already been set aside by the revolutionary apologists. 

I don't know where Parenti comes down on this question.  His basic point seems valid if I understand it correctly: a real-world socialist government will be flawed.  But that's exactly why it would be necessary to criticize it.  Many criticisms will be invalid, in bad faith, unrealistic.  There's no way to decide which are bad in advance, so the hard work of informing ourselves and making judgments, with full awareness of our own limitations, can't be shirked.

Anyone who treats criticism as improper in principle might as well work for the US government or its subordinate states: the playbook is the same.  Noam Chomsky likes to point out that when US media talk about the "national interest," they are referring to the interests of the richest people, a tiny minority of the population.  Likewise, when many socialists (I'm not going to judge whether they're "real" socialists or not) speak of "the people," what they mean are small groups of revolutionary elites.  So be it; but let's be clear about it.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Light Your Faith

There's a lot of weird religious stuff in my Twitter feed tonight.  I swear they're just doing it to drive me crazy.  I have no idea what "incendiary apologetics" is supposed to mean.

Then there was this one.  Elizabeth Breunig, along with Daniel Larison, is one of the less tiresome Christians on Twitter.  (The historian Kevin M. Kruse, alas, is becoming a bit more tiresome as time passes, but I'll go into that some other time; tomorrow is another day.)

I sympathize with her on the hatemail thing; that shouldn't be happening to her.  But hate is just Christian love.  And why isn't she anti-Catholic?  If the rapists "hate the faith," why did the faith protect them for so long?

By contrast, the SF writer Cory Doctorow (who isn't a Christian as far as I know), posted some good news.  I knew that the Satanic Temple has been doing good work against religious fascism in America, which Doctorow sums up in that thread.  I've noticed before the 1984 Equal Access Act, which was intended to give Christian groups access to spaces in public schools, ended up as a lever to force schools to allow Gay-Straight Alliances to form and meet in the schools.  I'd hoped that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would boomerang in the same way, and the Satanic Temple has found a way:

"A Satanic Abortion," Doctorow explains, "is a religious ritual that is totally indistinguishable from a normal, medical abortion, except that the participant says a few self-affirming words about her bodily autonomy.  Oh, also: the ritual absolutely forbids, as a bedrock matter of religous conviction, any waiting periods, the withholding of medically necessary advice, mandatory counseling, required readings, and unnecessary sonograms. Also forbidden: mandatory fetal heartbeat listening sessions and compulsory fetal burials. If you want an abortion and the doctor tries this bullshit, hand them one of these exemption letters explaining how the law doesn't apply thanks to the RFRA."

As a result, Doctorow says, "Now, the religious right could fight this. But if they win...they overturn the RFRA, and Hobby Lobby has to provide its employees with contraception and all the other theocratic exemptions go poof, too."  I don't know if it would work out so neatly, but it should.  This is what happens when instead of resorting to the preferred liberal tactic of throwing tantrums about the wickedness of the religious Right, you turn their methods against them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Our Childlike, Emotional Leaders: The Latest Episode

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, posted a thread on Twitter yesterday in which he blasted Donald Trump for botching the coup in Venezuela.  That's right: he doesn't object to the coup itself, or to interfering in the elections of other countries, he is just pissed that Trump failed to bring it off.  He doesn't seem to recognize the Venezuelan opposition's failure in the job; like them, he presumably thought the US would do the heavy lifting and hand the country over to them.  It's a remarkably petulant performance, and would be amusing if real people's lives weren't at stake.

Aside from calling coup frontman Juan Guaidó "charismatic," and thereby continuing the tradition of American male elites going all moist over brown-skinned strongmen, Murphy made an interesting admission:
Then, it got real embarrassing. In April 2019, we tried to organize a kind of coup, but it became a debacle. Everyone who told us they’d rally to Guaido got cold feet and the plan failed publicly and spectacularly, making America look foolish and weak.
It's remarkable because respectable US media have been working hard to deny that there was, or had been a coup against Maduro -- as they also have about the later coup in Boliva.  Mainstream US coverage of Venezuela has been dishonest and anti-democratic for years, so this is no surprise.

I'd like to know who Murphy had in mind as the "we" who "tried to organize a kind of coup."  Bipartisan support for a coup in Venezuela is not exactly a surprise.  Most senior Congressional Democrats were onboard for removing Maduro with Guaidó while distancing themselves from overt military action, and even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hesitated to speak out against American interference with other countries' politics.  By making a big deal of their opposition to an invasion, they could distract from their acceptance of the US' right to control other countries in other ways.  But Murphy has let the cat out of the bag: whoever "we" were, he's one of them.

Murphy tries to put all the blame on Trump, but some of it has to fall on "we," including him.  And he's no angel: he's been agitating for the overthrow of the Bolivarian government for some time, as in this January 2019 op-ed for the Washington Post, co-authored with the former Obama flunky Ben Rhodes.

It's no surprise that there was a lot of pushback to Murphy's thread.  Notable to me were the number of people who believed that if Biden is elected, everything will be okay.  In some cases they made it clear that they wanted to overthrow Maduro and were just angry that Trump had failed to do it because of Putin.  (Murphy also blamed Putin for Trump's failure to bring off the coup, though it's more likely, given Trump's notoriously evanescent attention span, that when Maduro didn't fall right away, he just lost interest in the game.)  Some were sure that Biden would be better in some undefined way, but this isn't likely: Biden also wants Maduro removed by any means feasible.  He has differences with Trump on Venezuela, but they're minor and technical.  A Biden administration will continue the strangulation of Venezuela; it's what Barack would wantCorporate media also have faith.

The corporate media covered the hearings Murphy referred to in this thread, but not his talk about his "kind of coup."  I suppose it's not news.