Saturday, February 15, 2020

Uh, What?



I was in the library this morning, trying vainly to get anything constructive done, when a middle-aged couple came into the Fireplace Room with their son, who was in a powered wheelchair, and began talking to an older woman they evidently knew.  First they talked about the boy, and then switched to politics.  The younger woman said that she objected to people who say that Trump isn't their president, she didn't like Obama but she never trash-talked him like some people did, and Trump is the president so he should be respected, he's the president.  I share her distaste for the Not My President Resistance, but that never stopped me from criticizing Obama or his predecessors, and it doesn't stop me from criticizing Trump.  Her husband remarked quietly that Obama was a "puppet of Congress" (what?). 

Next she said how glad she was that Trump had killed "that terrorist" (presumably Soleimani) - when Obama killed "that terrorist" (presumably Bin Laden) everybody thought it was great, and it's not fair.  We Do Not Negotiate With Terrorists, we kill them.  Perhaps she's just too young to remember Ronald Reagan negotiating with Iran to free American hostages, or again to get money for Nicaraguan terrorists.  It was a long time ago.  Frankly it's a stretch to claim that Trump's critics thought it was bad to kill Soleimani.  The objections from corporate media and the Beltway were not to killing Soleimani per se, everyone agreed that he was a Bad Man and a Terrorist who deserved to die in fire and fury, but because Trump didn't say "Mother May I" to Congress first.  There was also concern -- well, panic -- that the assassination might lead to war with Iran, which was not a consideration in the execution of Bin Laden as I recall.

But then I saw the video clip I embedded above, which reminded me that the Trump administration has been openly negotiating with the Taliban, the Evil Terrorists Responsible for 9/11, which drove America to invade Afghanistan to defend America against terrorism.  We did remove the Taliban for awhile, but they are back, and now we have to negotiate with them.  This will have no more impact on true Trumpians than Reagan's negotiations with Iran hurt him with true Reaganites, of course.  I wished I could have asked this woman about these little matters, but I stayed in my corner and held my peace.  Sometimes I romanticize my new/old town, and an episode like this is a bracing reminder. These people were perfectly nice, they didn't froth at the mouth, they were equable and mild, but they were still scary.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

I Don't Know How You Were Introverted

I like and agree with this meme, which a Facebook friend passed along the other day.  I've been critical before of the discourse around introversion and extraversion, which goes back to Carl Jung and that's not a recommendation.  It turns out that there's a lot of variation if not disagreement about the concepts among professionals, and the popular discourse is predictably even worse.  My only reservation about radicarian's suggestion is that it seems to assume that the maximum and minimum amounts of social interaction are fixed in each individual, as if we were measuring cups with limited capacity, which seems unlikely.  I think it's important to notice that "introverts" may crave quite a lot of social interaction until we reach our limit and need some solitude to recover, and I'd bet that even the most "extraverted" also have their limits and need to rest.

Some people commented that the concepts are meant to be a continuum, not a dichotomy, and while that may be true, I don't believe most people see it that way, or frame it that way when they talk about it.  Many people don't like the idea of a continuum and refuse to understand it -- compare the Kinsey continuum, a popular focus of misunderstanding -- and even those who like it and appeal to it tend to get it wrong.  Jung himself admitted that gendering his concepts of "anima" and "animus" was misleading, since those constructs are present in every person, but he evidently couldn't resist gendering them, and characterized traits as masculine or feminine anyway.  (Another reminder that "essentialism" doesn't have to refer to supposedly physical or biological traits: essences can psychological or spiritual.)

Another person climbed onto her hobbyhorse and commented:
I think the difference is still worth talking about as long as we live in a capitalist culture that celebrates and rewards only particular orientations. Who gets to have their introverted/extroverted needs met is also deeply bound up with class, race, gender, disability. Like all identities, these labels are political, and can help us describe and change the societies we live.
I don't see any reason to bring capitalism into it (let alone "orientations").  Pre-capitalist societies also categorized people, rationing rewards and punishments according to their ability or willingness to conform.  I don't agree that introversion and extraversion are identities, but when a trait or label becomes an "identity" it becomes problematic for other reasons.  Labels and identities are political, all right, but they didn't start to be with the rise of capitalism -- another label that is political, and difficult if not impossible to define.

Someone else chimed in:
Margaret had a great response to this! I would just like to add, being an introvert is a positive identity for me. I have shared characteristics with other people who consider themselves to be introverted. And, frankly, I'm not concerned if other people think that identity is a negative or a positive.
Maybe I should have replied that I'm not concerned if this other person thinks that identity is a negative or a positive.  I'm not going to tell them that they shouldn't regard introversion as a positive identity, but they can't legislate for other people.  The bit about "shared characteristics with other people who consider themselves to be introverted" shows the problem with adopting identities.  What are those shared characteristics?  Are they inherent to introversion, or are they accidental, like, say, diva worship or cross-dressing among gay men, which encourages people to regard them as essential parts of the identity and promotes the imposition and policing of irrelevant boundaries?  I vote for the latter, and I consider it negative because not only does it promote groupthink (also known as "tribalism") but promotes ignoring that people outside the granfaloon share those supposedly gay, male, or introverted characteristics.  Such mischaracterization is not just false but harmful and counterproductive.

Someone else remarked,
I think the terms are efficient ways to identify those thresholds without having to say that entire sentence to describe yourself.
A chacun son gout, but efficiency in such matters tends to be oversimple.  To get any precision, you need ever more complicated classifications to describe yourself.  People will hear your term as they understand it, which may be very different from how you understand it.  If you realize the confusion, it will probably take more just one sentence to clear it up.

But you don't have to repeat that entire sentence.  You don't even need a label to do it.  You can just say something like, "Sorry, I'm burnt out on people right now and need some time to myself."  Yes, that's a longish sentence too, but it has the virtue of being accurate without relying on confusing and inadequate labels.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Sauce for the Goose, Sauce for the Gander

The composer, diarist, and critic Ned Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, a few months before my father was born in 1923.  At 96 and counting, Rorem has outlived my father by fourteen years.  He was still composing as late as 2010.  I've never been able to get much from Rorem's music, though I keep trying; but his books have given me a lot of pleasure, from the notorious Paris and New York diaries, down to Facing the Night: A Diary (1999-2005) and Musical Writings (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006).

Raised a Quaker, Rorem later became an atheist, but he is still a pacifist, and I was intrigued by these remarks in Facing the Night, dated 13 June 2000 (17):
With those feminists of yore [?] who claimed that men have it better than women, one must agree, but for this crucial disclaimer: Women are not subject to the draft.  The draft eats up young males, whether they will or not, forcing them to learn how to kill their brothers in ignorance of whatever they're fighting for.  Indeed, if their male superiors - inevitably above draft age - find women so dispensable, why not form our armies from exclusively female combatants?
No, "intrigued" is the wrong word; more like "mildly offended."  Rorem is annoyingly glib and simplistic here.  Biologically speaking, men are much more dispensable than women, since human females usually bear only one child at a time, and are tied up by gestation for nine months and by early child care for several years.  Men, by contrast, can inseminate many women in a short time.  A cultural materialist like the anthropologist Marvin Harris could argue that this fact explains the male near-monopoly on military activity.

But that's the least of it.  As I just indicated, men have fiercely maintained war as a male preserve.  A popular rationale is that women are what men are defending by killing each other, either directly by keeping their opponents physically away from them or, more piously by casting women as a holy good, like the Nation itself.  (I don't know if all countries are regarded as feminine, but the US definitely is.)  It's not very convincing.  First, women (and children) have never been exempt from the horrors of war: massacred, enslaved, or raped, they have been regarded as prizes.  (The word "rape" originally meant the carrying away of women, not their forcible use by their captors, though the distinction was notional: soldiers abducted enemy women in order to fuck them.)  This reality is all over the Hebrew Bible (and indeed world literature in general), which regulates the sexual use of female captives from areas where Israel had not been ordered simply to kill every living thing.  There's also the phenomenon of military prostitution: the US military requires the nations in which Our Boys are Protecting Democracy to provide them with comfort women, among other vital services.

Second, like male-homosocial spaces in general, the military has traditionally been regarded as a refuge from women who might nag men to wipe their butts, pick up their underwear, take out the garbage, or refrain from blowing their noses on the floor.  Ironically, perhaps, joining the army is just going from the frying pan to the fire in this respect, from the demands of nagging moms to abusive drill sergeants and endless chickenshit barracks policing.  I suppose that the deadly masochism of the male is a factor here; women express their version of this syndrome through heterosexual marriage.  So I don't take the claim of "defending our women" very seriously: military men and organizations view women as more dispensable even than men.

One reason I like the term and concept of "patriarchy" is that, as someone has defined it, it arranges people of both sexes by their relationship to older men.  Do the Fathers care about the young men they send to war?  Not very much, and they manfully subdue their care in the service of Higher Values like power and profit.  Do they care about the young women they claim to be defending and protecting against the buck Negro, the Mexican, the Hun, the Gook, the Hajji?  Oh, my dear, possibly even less than that.  Male supremacy might be the last survival of feudalism and its forerunners.  But Enlightenment values have not managed to improve things much in this area.

I also noticed that at the time Rorem wrote those words, the United States hadn't had a draft for decades.  (Though, true, young men were and are required to register in case the draft is reinstated.) And of course, increasing numbers of women have been going into combat to defend Our Oil Companies (which really are sacred), where they too can be maimed and killed, or maim and kill others.  Equality, yay!  Maybe I shouldn't expect even a gay man of Rorem's vintage to have a very nuanced grasp of sexual politics, but his view of war and the military also leaves a lot to be desired.

Men have been whining that they have it rough too at least since the advent of Second Wave feminism ("feminists of yore"?).   They tend to ignore the fact that feminists have been vocal about the harm done to men by patriarchy all along, and have tried to engage them in the effort to eradicate sexism.  I suppose the problem is that feminism is run by, y'know, girls, and they want their own show; even collaboration as equals seems unacceptable.  A men's movement against sexism is fine with me, but what we've had always ends up blaming women for men's disadvantages, perhaps because blaming other men is so much scarier.  Dorothy Dinnerstein wrote a lot about this problem in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976).  I've quoted her before, but today I'll add this observation; rereading it reminds me just why I found Rorem's remarks so faulty.
I have seen on the faces of some men who are on the whole quite likable a certain smile that I confess I find deeply unattractive: a helpless smile of self-congratulation when some female disadvantage is referred to. And I have heard in their voices a tone that (in the context of what women put up with) is equally unattractive: a tone of self-righteous, self-pitying aggrievement when some male disadvantage becomes obvious. This sense of being put upon that many men feel in the fact of evidence that the adult balance of power is not at every point by a safe margin in their favor seems based on the implicit axiom that to make life minimally bearable, to keep their very chins above water, to offset some outrageous burden that they carry, they must at least feel that they are clearly luckier and mightier than women are [215ff].
"Self-righteous, self-pitying aggrievement" says it very exactly.  If I were like many people, I'd call Dinnerstein prophetic; but she was describing a problem of her own time, and much older.  I'm not putting Rorem down, however; I enjoyed Facing the Night very much overall, and it gave me more than just this bit to write about here.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Pursuit of Happiness

This morning I was browsing through a listing of discounted e-books I don't need, when I noticed this review excerpt, quoted to tout B. F.'s Daughter by J. P. Marquand:
“No one can write more engagingly of their search for happiness. Or of their sulks when they discover—too late, alas—that happiness must be earned.” —The New York Times Book Review
Wait a minute, I thought, since when does happiness have to be earned?  For that matter, how do you earn it?

There's no agreement about what happiness is, but I think most people recognize that it's elusive.  You can be unhappy despite having all the conventional advantages -- wealth, comfort, a loving family, etc.  You can be happy despite the lack of such advantages.  People work hard, dutifully, all their lives hoping to achieve or earn happiness, either in livelihood or in personal relationships, and then find themselves wondering why it didn't work.

In English, at least, "happy" and "happiness" originally meant "good fortune" or luck.  But it also meant "a pleasant and contented mental state."  The first sense, which I often encountered in English literature from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, hadn't completely died out by the time B. F.'s Daughter was first published in 1946, but I suspect most Americans have forgotten it by now.  I suspect that the second sense, though, derives from the first: if you are content and feel pleasant, it's not something you've achieved, it's something that happened (same root) to you, by luck or good fortune. So the idea that happiness "must be earned" is, it seems to me, obviously ridiculous. Perhaps (same root) you can improve your chances by judicious action, but happiness is ultimately beyond your control: in the hands of the goddess Fortune, who like all gods will knock you over just to hear the splat.  (Read the book of Job sometime, if you haven't already: the malignant whimsicality of gods is not specifically a 'pagan' idea.  Nor is it limited to Job: doesn't Yahweh say somewhere else, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy"?  [Yep: Exodus 33:19, quoted by Paul in Romans 9:15.])  I'm almost tempted to find the original review to learn who wrote such a silly thing.  Maybe I will.

What makes that second sentence not merely silly but pernicious is the implication that if you aren't happy, it's your fault.  You didn't work hard enough. You were lazy.  You thought the world owes you a living.  Or Catch-22: You must have done something wrong, or you wouldn't be sad.  Or a theological version: You thought you could compel God to give you happiness through your own efforts, so you deserve to be miserable; the beatings will continue until your morale improves.  Stop whining or God will give you something to cry about!

I'm not blaming Marquand for the foolishness of his reviewer, mind you.  But I do wonder why this vendor, seventy-odd years after the book was published, chose to highlight this quotation to recommend it.