Monday, June 29, 2020

Losing My Innocence, One Chunk at a Time


An old and wise friend posted this meme on Facebook today.  Of course my first reaction was doubt about the attribution.  One might think that an organization like UNESCO would never post a bogus quotation, but one has learned otherwise over the years.

So I looked it up, and sure enough, it is probably not an African proverb.  I found it attributed to the poet Maya Angelou, though in that version she went on to contradict herself: "I have respect for the past, but I'm a person of the moment. I'm here, and I do my best to be completely centered at the place I'm at, then I go forward to the next place."

I also found a version from the British fantasy writer and satirist Terry Pratchett: "If you do not know where you come from, then you don't know where you are, and if you don't know where you are, then you don't know where you're going. And if you don't know where you're going, you're probably going wrong."  And another variation by the novelist and essayist James Baldwin: “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”  It sounds to me like it's a platitudinous proverb that might have come from anywhere.

But, and I think this is more important, I don't think it's true, whether it refers to individuals or to societies and countries.  Life as a journey is a very old metaphor, but it makes little sense if you literalize it.  I know that I came from a woman's body, I'm going, ultimately, to a crematorium.  For many people, I think this platitude is connected to the poisonous metaphor of "roots," that people are determined not only by where they were born, but where their ancestors were born and who their ancestors were.  As far as I know, my ancestors came from two or three European countries, and none of them has much to do with who I am.  Where I was born -- northern Indiana -- is more relevant, but it doesn't determine who I am either, nor did it tell me what to do with my life.  In most respects, my background is utterly opposed to where I've gone: as a gay man, an atheist, an anti-racist, a critic of my government and my country.  Nothing of where I came from told me where I was going, and when it did, I didn't listen.

The same applies to history, especially since so much "history" in all cultures is myth and propaganda.  Nobody knows where we're going, because the future is not determined; the past can be and generally is used to discourage people from doing what they think right.  It's doubtful that the past has much to teach us, even if we have reliable information about it, because no one knows which lessons to draw from history.  Usually people construct a historical narrative to suit their wishes and plans, but to repeat: the future is not determined.  The events of the past few years, most dramatically the coronavirus pandemic, have shown us very forcefully how little we can predict the future from the past.  It was a good idea to prepare for future epidemics, and a very bad idea for Trump to dismantle the agency set up to make such preparations, but little specific knowledge of history was needed to know that.  Nor did it take much knowledge of history to know that the current economic system was going to lead to another crash and depression eventually; it only took working knowledge of events in living memory, and both Obama and Trump ignored that.

It makes me very uncomfortable to say all this, I admit: I grew up on Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", I've read a lot of history, it interests me and it feels important to me.  But when I think about it, I wonder how much it really matters, not despite but because I've read so much history.  And while experience can teach us some things, such as the necessity of planning for disasters, it can't tell us where we're going.

As Barack Obama's presidency destroyed the last remnants of my naive faith in the effectiveness of voting; as the flipflops of epidemiological experts on the value of masks (and other matters) have undermined what remained of my trust in scientific expertise; so this meme revealed the crumbling of my faith in the value of history.  What will go next, I wonder?

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Whom the Gods Wish to Destroy, They First Make Mad



"Our old friend Jon Stewart weighs in on the choice America faces at the ballot box this November, pointing out that only one candidate possesses the humility necessary to lead this country out of this moment of great struggle and sadness."  So says the description under the video, and it might even be true, but unfortunately the one candidate capable of leading this country out of the current morass was torpedoed by the DCCC, and now we're stuck with Joe Biden as the alternative to Donald Trump.

I broke my vow never to watch Colbert again to watch this clip. It's painful, much worse than even I expected, to see Stewart contorting himself -- literally! -- to make an absurd argument for Joe Biden's humanity.  Just for comparison, John McCain also suffered pain and loss, but he never stopped being a vicious racist bigot till the day he died.   I've never seen any reason to believe that Biden's personal losses taught him anything. They certainly haven't kept him from lying shamelessly about his political record, or from being truculent and abusive on the campaign trail before the pandemic shut him down.  I think those issues are what matter, not Stewart's febrile fantasies about the inner man.

I was going to say that Stewart is better than this, but he's never been able to hold Democrats to the same standards he applies to Republicans, let alone criticize them with the same conviction and glee.  His protestations that Biden wasn't even his fourth choice ring hollow to me: if Biden really has these well-hidden depths, why didn't Stewart (or anyone else) detect them before?  Once again, though not for the last time, I marvel at Democratic loyalists' irresistible need to convince themselves that a terrible candidate is really an inspiring demigod if you look at him or her with the eyes of the Spirit.  Can't they cast a vote without being drunk on their candidate's grooviness?  It's strange, after (but also before -- they'll play the theme again many times over the next five months) they've lectured critical voters that you shouldn't need to be inspired, just vote strategically, that they simultaneously insist that you adore the nominee without reservation.

One good thing about Biden, if he wins, is that he's not likely to get the indulgence Obama got.  Sure, toadies like Stewart and Colbert will try to attack anyone who criticizes Biden from the left, but I don't think they'll be very effective.  It's far too early to say right now, but it looks like some genuinely leftish candidates beat entrenched Democratic hacks in these primaries.  If they win in November, the voters may have some genuine representation in Congress.  I'm almost hopeful for the first time in years.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Taking It Spiritually

I found this in How to Read Nancy - you know, the comic strip.*
[Ernie] Bushmiller ... was routinely besieged with correspondence from his readers who searched for significance in his strip and found it: everything from tips on the ponies and lucky numbers for policy players to the theory of tectonic isostasy and the perfect names for their newborns.
When you encounter any esoteric spiritual reading of any text, remembering this should make you wary.  If such meanings can be read into a minimalist comic strip, then they can be read into any writing or image.  But I suppose it's possible that Bushmiller was the unknowing vehicle for a higher truth, just like the writers of the gospels or today's New Age channelers of past lives.

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* Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden, How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (Fantagraphics Books, 2017).

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Don't Blame Me, Bro!

Let me put it this way: Facebook is often a sewer, but it lets me keep a finger on the pulse of heartland America (not a place, but a state of mind) without spending much time there.

A Facebook friend with whom I went to high school passed this along the other day:


It gives some insight into some white people's reaction to the current surge of anti-racist activism: distraction and denial.

Apart from the shitty* versification, what makes this meme so offensive is its stubborn refusal to engage with -- well, anything, really: the actual complaints of Black Lives Matter and the athletes (not all of whom are black, by any means) who've taken a knee to protest institutional police violence, for one.  Apologists for racism love to complain when anyone brings up the American heritage of chattel slavery and Jim Crow; "I never owned a slave," they protest, and "Nobody now living in America has owned or been a slave."  But when someone criticizes racism in the present day, they try to change the subject to ancient history.

While slavery and Jim Crow are certainly relevant to racism today, taking a knee to protest police violence against black people and Black Lives Matter are primarily about abuses that are happening now.  Since people like those who made and shared the above meme don't want to grapple with or even acknowledge police and other racist violence, of course they resort to distraction and displacement.  I don't blame these people for slavery, but I do blame them for their attitudes now.  Despite all the Right's talk about personal responsibility, they panic when anyone holds them accountable for their own words and actions.

The emotional logic here is of course flag idolatry: for athletes to protest white supremacist violence and terror by refusing to stand for "The Star Spangled Banner" infuriates these people.  They take it as an intrusion of "politics" into sports events, though obeisance to the Stars and Stripes is political if anything is.  If the people who vilify Colin Kaepernick and BLM really cared about the flag and the ideals it stands for, they would care about this country's refusal to put those ideals into practice.  They don't, and indeed they oppose putting those ideals into practice.

So they hide behind The Troops, who, they claim moistly, fought and died for the flag.  The only black soldier they are interested in is one who kept the flag from touching the ground in battle, though he was shot several times.  Stories like this one, which circulated on Facebook a few weeks ago, make the flag into an idol and a fetish, to be valued above and beyond mere human life, but many people eat such stories up with a spoon.  (Despite this, they'll wear US flag britches, and sit on the ground in them without a thought.)  They also love explications of the symbolism of the flag - the stripes, the colors, the stars - which have nothing to do with ideals or principles or human lives.  Acknowledging the yawning gulf  between American ideals and the American treatment of black people is impossible for them, it seems.  I don't know why.

And this meme really backfires, by invoking those who "fought and died for you."  I suppose the military cemetery in the picture is Arlington National Cemetery, where black soldiers were buried in segregated areas until President Truman ended the practice by executive order in 1948.  He didn't do it out of the goodness of his heart, but because civil rights activists like A. Philip Randolph pressured him -- and it was an election year.

The American armed forces were segregated for decades after that, however, thanks to resistance by the parents and grandparents of people like my Facebook friend and whoever made this meme.  "Your rights are still protected" was a lie when black soldiers were barred from combat and buried in Jim Crow military graveyards, and it continues to be a lie when police officers murder black people with impunity.  World War II was a tipping point for black Americans in many ways: many questioned the validity of fighting for a country that denied them their rights.  "There's no one here to blame"?  It's probably impossible to determine exactly which white soldiers refused to serve next to black soldiers, but it's certain that many of them are buried in white-only areas at Arlington and in other military cemeteries, and those who resisted desegregation are blameworthy if anyone is: it makes an obscene mockery of the claim that the US fought for freedom even in World War II.

Some of my white racist Facebook friends have black family members.  After the police murder of George Floyd, one of them broke her silence on the issue to mourn police cars that had been set on fire.  I asked her why the destruction of machinery bothered her when the taking of human lives didn't.  She denied it, claiming that all lives matter to her, she doesn't see color, she loves everybody!  I told her I don't believe her, and I mentioned numerous cases of horrific racist violence, such as Dylann Roof's slaughter of nine black worshipers (one of them a Vietnam veteran) in their church; or the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, or the Christchurch mosque massacre, and pointed out that like all my racist Facebook friends, she had never expressed horror over these attacks, or noticed them on Facebook at all.  Only the destruction of police cars moved her to speak out.  Something is seriously wrong there, and as I said, she is not alone in her lack of concern about human lives of the wrong color.  She had no good answer.  A few weeks later she posted some family photos, without comment, which included a couple of black (or more likely mixed) teenagers.  I've seen these kids in her timeline before, and I presume that one of her children married one of Them. (It would be interesting to know more of the background, but it's not really my business.)  I didn't probe, but maybe I should have asked what she'd do if that lovely girl were killed by a cop.  Doesn't she worry about her?  Does she believe that her own whiteness will somehow protect her grandchildren from racism?  She's a Trump supporter, so I presume she just doesn't think. 

I believe that this verse and meme are directed at black Americans, as shown by the reference to "your rights" and the admonition to take a knee before military graves.  Probably it was first made to attack Kaepernick and the other athletes who followed his lead.  If so, it's even more insulting than I thought at first glance.  Time's up.
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* I almost wrote "execrable," but decided it would dignify this doggerel too much.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Political Power Grows Out of the Posting of Memes

This fell into my virtual hands today like a virtual ripe apple, when a Facebook friend shared it to her timeline:

According to a Google search, the US invasion of Vietnam ended on April 30, 1975, when North Vietnamese Army tanks arrived in Saigon.  Not May 24, when Allie Johnson posted this meme; not June 21, when my friend passed it along.  So there's a reason why there's no mention of the anniversary today.  But you know, it's okay, time is just an illusion, and every day is a good day for Trump fans to play the victim.

I agree, though: let's also remember the millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians we killed, maimed, tortured, and made refugees. They are also veterans of the war, and should not be forgotten. Unlike the Confederacy, they didn't start the war, didn't attack the United States.  They only defended their country against an invader.  Yet our country is littered and polluted with monuments to the Confederacy, and its battle rag still waves in every state.

I especially want to salute those US Vietnam veterans who worked hard to make peace, by traveling there to help the people of those countries when our government was hard at work punishing them even more. American veterans helped them remove landmines, for example, which our government refused to assist. The history of the Vietnam war and its aftermath has been as distorted as the history and aftermath of the Civil War. So much needs to be done about that.

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Real Tinsel under the Fake Tinsel

In Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light (Henry Holt, 2020), p. 218, the cleric Robert Barnes, perhaps suspected of Protestant leanings, is summoned to the presence of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who up till now in Mantel's trilogy has appeared as a sympathetic character.
Outside, a bell pierces frozen air.  A man comes in with a tray of spiced wine.  The cardinal pours it himself, from a jug gaudily enamelled with a Tudor rose.  "So what do you want me to do, Barnes?  You want me to leave off the state and ceremony which honours God, and to go in homespun?  You want me to keep a miser's table, and serve pease pudding to ambassadors?  You want me to melt down my silver crosses, and give the money to the poor?  The poor, which will piss it against the wall?"

There is a pause.  After a time, faintly, Barnes says, "Yes."
You might argue that this exchange takes place in ancient, primitive times, when no one knew any better.  No, I'm afraid the attitude, and practice, is still with us, and not only among Papists.  I've written before about present-day Roman Catholics who get indignant at anyone who's put off by the state and ceremony of the Church's presentation: What?! You want the Holy Father to live in the gutter and starve to death?  Like Doctor Barnes, though more boldly since I can't be hanged for saying so, I say Yes.  But not really: I just want the Cardinal and the other princes of the Church to leave off the state and ceremony, go in homespun, and serve pease pudding to ambassadors.  A cardinal (remember that a Pope is just a juiced-up cardinal) doesn't piss money against the wall - he'll have a bejewelled chamber pot to piss in.  (The Church's taste in interior design, which is intended to be an earthly shadow of the Heavenly mansions, is roughly that of Donald Trump, as well as of pimps and drug dealers.  That may not be a coincidence.  As the story proceeds, we learn that at his death Cardinal Wolsey left behind as many unpaid debts as Donald Trump doubtless will.)

But I'm a well-known moderate: I don't ask Popes, cardinals, pimps, or Donald Trump to live in the gutter or starve at one extreme, or live in grotesque ostentation and gluttony on the other.  Doctor Barnes, like me, takes the middle path: homespun robes, a table that would be miserly only by Vatican standards, and keeping the vow of poverty that priests have always taken.  In twenty-first century terms, the cardinal can have a modest house with central heat and a flush toilet, a healthy diet, wardrobe by Walmart, -- hell, I won't begrudge him a flat-screen TV with cable if he wants it.  Prada shoes, though, are out, and I can't see how the church can justify such luxury while humble folk sleep in the gutter, starve in the streets, die for lack of basic medical care, or are massacred by death squads.

As for ambassadors ... if senior Catholic management must consort with such persons, why shouldn't they be served modest but healthy provender, in a comfortable but not palatial dining room?  Just from a Christian point of view, I can't see how obscene ostentation "honors God"; very much the opposite.  How would wearing homespun dishonor God?  If I look at the New Testament, I would think a Christian leader would honor his lord better by reminding secular guests how little worldly rank matters, if only by example.  I once read a Zen or Ch'an Buddhist anecdote of a master who, visited by princes or generals, made them sit on the ground, but put peasants and housewives in comfortable chairs.  Needless to say, as an atheist I feel the same way.  If pease pudding is good enough for the Poors, why not for cardinals and ambassadors?  Why would a rational being feel any need to conform to neo-feudal standards of hierarchical display, or dick-waving in plainer language?

The Left has often been guilty of puritanism, a drab aesthetic often honored more in the breach than the observance when leftists get control of the treasury, and I hope to make it clear that I'm taking a different position.  I want a socialism (or whatever you want to call it) of pleasure, comfort, and joy.  I don't think that people should be limited to bare subsistence: I want us to enjoy material as well as psychological comfort.  And come to think of it, "socialist" regimes from the USSR to Sweden have spent a lot of money on the arts and public space, while free-market capitalists have denounced such spending as communism, declaring that access to parks should be reserved for those who can pay for admission.. 

I also know that it's not easy to decide at which point comfort turns to gluttony, or decorating one's home or personal appearance becomes ostentation.  Nor is it easy to determine when someone is more interested in being cooler than one's neighbors, with an eye toward feeling superior to them, than in the pleasure of enjoying good things.  But I think that when the hierarchy of the church enjoys coziness with secular aristocrats while despising the porridge-eating rabble, the line has clearly been crossed.  The same holds for our nominally democratic rulers, who see themselves (and are seen) as a kind of royalty, entitled to the perks of monarchs, and for their sycophants who elevate them.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Those Who Learn the Past

I noticed that I've been accentuating the negative around here for quite a while -- okay, I did post about walking-tour videos last month, but that was the exception that proves the rule.

As it happened, though, this book arrived in yesterday's mail, and I read it before the day was out.

banned book club

Graphic memoirs are comparatively easy to read anyway, and this one was fascinating.  The main author, Kim Hyun Sook, was a student activist in South Korea during the early 1980s; she wrote Banned Book Club with her husband Ryan Estrada, and Ko Hyung-Ju drew the artwork.  The other characters, Kim explains in a note at the end, are composites drawn from the people she worked with.

Hyun Sook begins college in 1983, a few years after the assassination of Park Chung Hee, the accession of Chun Doo Wan, and the Gwangju Uprising.  A student of literature, she naively joins a Banned Book Club, which studies not just books that have been challenged in libraries or schools (as "banned books" mostly means in the US), but books it's illegal to own or read: mostly leftist works such as Chomsky and Herman's Counter-revolutionary Violence, Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries, and the works of Marx, Engels, and Mao.  Hyun Sook learns that professors and students alike are recruited by the police to spy on the university.  Most of the club members fall into the hands of the police, and some are beaten and tortured, though only one of them is actually sent to prison.  All of them participate in demonstrations, coping with baton-wielding cops and tear gas.

This was all familiar to me, of course, not just from my own reading of Korean history but from Korean friends who lived through the period, plus TV dramas and films set in the period.. I'm not so sure about the writers of the various reviews I found online, one of whom thought that "Kim" was Hyun Sook's first name rather than her surname (though she is never addressed as "Kim" in the book), and none of whom had any grasp of the history or the global context that cut Korea in half after World War II and turned the South into a military dictatorship.  Kim and Estrada fill in a lot of the background, which is reasonable enough because, as the story shows, most South Koreans were kept ignorant through the period.  But the book was written for an American, or at least an English-speaking audience.

Banned Book Club is often a harrowing read because of the interrogation scenes, but it's also often exhilarating, and just for that reason young Americans presently caught up in demonstrations and anti-fascist activism really ought to read it.  One of its weaknesses is that it doesn't give any idea of the breadth of the South Korean democracy movement, how students worked with labor activists, Christian churches, Buddhists, journalists, and others -- students didn't bring down the dictatorship by themselves.  Still, as an introduction to what an ultimately successful democracy movement looks like, it's a great place to start.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Send in the Drones

There have been several more killings of black people by police since the police murder of George Floyd, and I think the only reasonable conclusion is that these attacks are displays of defiance.  The police are letting us all know that criticism just makes them madder: they will continue to execute black Americans.

I've been seeing more online complaints from people who have police officers in their lives - spouses, partners, family members - who, they say, are good people sincerely dedicated to serving and protecting all citizens.  They may well be telling the truth, but if so they're talking to the wrong people. They should be angry at the supposed bad apples, the insular, violent police culture that kills without feeling anything.  Their loved ones in uniform should also be speaking out, though admittedly that would be more dangerous for them.  As bad as stereotyping is, killing innocent people -- declaring oneself the judge, jury and executioner -- is much worse, a deadly serious problem that Americans have known about for a long time but not tried to correct.

The same is probably true of the lesser racist incidents that we're hearing about.  The people who are behaving like this know what they're doing, they know it will be widely disapproved, but they do it anyway.  Remember when Ben Carson got in trouble for comparing homosexuality to bestiality and child molestation: I noticed then that bigots always get in trouble for saying such things, but they keep on saying them.  I suggested that it may be some strange compulsion, but I think it's also entitlement.

A day ago, someone posted this on a local Facebook group, including a pretty picture of a lake surrounded by mountains for some reason:
After reading some exchanges between people I knew from my hometown a long time ago, I struggled with how to respond. Then I also saw positive signs, and this came to me:

During these times of uncertainty, conflict, and diverging perspectives, a heartfelt Thank You:
To those who are listening more than talking (or shouting).
To those who acknowledge with peace that there are perspectives other than our own.
To those who understand that history cannot be changed,
and to those who understand that history must be reckoned with,
and that history is much more about people than it is about dates.
To those who can disagree without denigrating or dehumanizing those with whom we disagree.
To those who understand that strength is not always found in force or violence.
To those who can begin a sentence with, “I could be wrong…” and mean it.
To those on “the left” who seek common ground with those on “the right” for a greater good, and to those on “the right” who still see the humanity in those on “the left” for a greater good. And vice versa.
To those whose minds are open enough to understand that there is more than one side to the story on CNN, FOX, NBC, OANN and of course, Facebook or Twitter… as well as what our friend told us.
Thank you
To those who are being intentionally kind and positive, because we’ve seen those who have become hardened in their negativity toward others.
To those who are being kind to those who have become hardened… because they need it, too.
To those who believe that Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, because we recognize they do not have to be exclusive statements; that they (WE) are intertwined more than we might understand, and that each has the right to raise their sign and be heard.
And Thank You to those who believe in causes that lift up the Humanity in all of us.
And to those who continue to offer the best of ourselves, because right now we need our Best Selves.
Peace and Grace to all, including those who may disagree…
This is very well-intentioned.  My first response was that I appreciated it, and I could be wrong, but I sometimes think that "seeking common ground" is a problematic idea. Both-sidesing Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, and Blue Lives matter is problematic because All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter aren't meant to find common ground but to deny it.  And I could be wrong, but I think I'm just looking at a version of what Ellen Willis mocked forty years ago: "The male chauvinist bias is that women are inferior to men.  The feminist bias is that women are equal to men.  The unbiased view is that the truth lies somewhere in between."

"Common ground" is a tactic of the lazy. Too much ground has been ceded to racists and other bigots all along. "Oh, that's just how he was raised." "She didn't mean any harm." "He doesn't see himself as a racist, that's so harsh." "You don't want to sink to their level." And so on. The result has been that half a century after I graduated from high school, we have an open white supremacist in the White House. Racists and other bigots aren't interested in finding common ground except with each other.

Bigotry doesn't "lift up the Humanity in all of us," and I know this poster didn't mean to imply that it does; but they need to remember that we're dealing with attitudes that deny the humanity of all of us. We've let them go unchallenged for far too long. I never forget the humanity of bigots, and that is why I won't let them get away with it. Bigotry is a lifestyle choice; you're not born that way; you can change. Change is often difficult and painful, and well-meaning platitudes will only delay it.


That was the easy part.  But on reflection it's even clearer to me that I, at least, am addressing two different tasks.  One is engaging with people whose views I disagree with in varying degrees, from disputing facts to distaste to outright enmity.  I am capable of great patience with someone who wants me to explain why I don't agree with them, and over the years I've put a lot of effort into listening to opponents and trying to keep the emotional temperature low.  I don't always succeed, but then neither do they.  One difficulty, of course, is that so many people don't know how to have a serious, reasoned discussion.  As I've noticed often before, they believe that simply declaring their opinion is as far as a discussion can go, when it's really only the beginning.  They tend to get upset when someone rebuts them, because real discussion is beyond their comprehension.  I do my best to help them learn, though.

But when someone says, as someone did in the same group yesterday but in a different thread, "Who cares about the niggers anyway?" -- then I see no point in worrying about their feelings, seeking common ground, trying to see things from their perspective, being kind and generous.  That person is old enough to know what they are saying, and if they still think that racism is acceptable or cool, it's unlikely that any amount of considerate explanation will change their mind.  If such a person wants to have a discussion, I'm willing to give it a try, but they almost never do.  The first thing I want them to know in the meantime is that I will not tolerate bigotry, I will not pretend to respect them or their views, I will shun them if I can and urge everyone else to do so.

I admit that this isn't satisfactory.  Since 2015 we've known that millions of Americans have been seething for decades over the official liberal rejection of racism, and they welcomed the rise of Donald Trump as a license to let their bigotry run free.  Just telling them they're wrong, they're bad, and shunning them will not change their minds.  There has been a hope that bigotry is generational, and that as older generations die off, so will bigotry.  First, I doubt it - my racist peers are of the younger 60s generation that we hoped would leave racism behind. Second, we can't wait.  If someone is beating a child, you don't hold off and hope that the assailant will change over time; you stop the assault.  It's not unfair, after you've removed the victim to safety, to ask the assailant what they thought they were doing.  Dialogue can happen only after the power to harm has been taken from them.

But another factor that must also be addressed is the nice, superficially reasonable person who tries to deny or minimize bigotry, like nice, liberal, but insane Michael Kinsley, who tried to paper over Ben Carson's bigotry; or nice, sensible, but craven Wes Alwan, who defended Alec Baldwin's homophobic raving; or the godly white moderates who urged Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement to wait a few centuries until racism withered away by itself.  Such people are part of the problem.  They are more concerned with protecting bigots than the targets of bigotry, and they should be called out and challenged, even attacked (verbally) no less than the Ben Carsons, the Alec Baldwins, the White Citizens Councils they serve and protect.

Monday, June 15, 2020

In the Best Interests of the Scorpion

You know the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog, don't you?  A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river; the frog refuses, knowing that the scorpion will sting it; the scorpion declares that it wouldn't be in its interest to do that because then they both would die in the river; the frog consents, and halfway across the scorpion stings it anyway.  As they sink below the water, the frog asks why, and the scorpion replies, "I can't help it -- it's my nature."

Today I overheard one old man telling this story to another old man; the second man had never heard it before, which made me feel better that I hadn't known it before Forest Whitaker told it in The Crying Game thirty years ago.  The storyteller today made an odd change to the story: in his version the frog was a turtle.  But the outcome was the same: the scorpion stings, both die.  (The story does not, as Internet folkore may tell you, date back to Aesop. There may be versions which pit a turtle against the scorpion, but they apparently have different outcomes.)

Maybe I should have asked him about it, but I was more interested in how I thought the ending should have changed.  The scorpion stings the turtle, the turtle keeps on going.  The scorpion says, "Wait, I just stung you, why aren't you dying along with me in the water?"

The turtle replies, "I'm a turtle, not a frog; I didn't feel a thing.  But since you tried to kill me, I'll just throw you off and let you drown."

"No!" wails the scorpion.  "I was acting according to my nature!  It's not fair that you should let me die! What about my life?"

"Life is unfair," says the turtle, as it ducks quickly under the water.  The scorpion is washed off into the current and drowns.  The turtle climbs out onto the opposite bank and lives happily ever after.

What the original story means depends on who each character is made to represent.  Five years ago the capitalist propaganda outlet Forbes published an article which hilariously cast Big Government as the scorpion, Free-Market Entrepreneurs as the frog, and Larry Kudlow as a wise sage.  The idea, however, seems to be that Free Enterprise is a brutal fight between scorpions who turn into tender frogs if they let the Dang Gommint step in as referee.  (I know: What? The writer, who modestly bills himself "one of the leading tax experts in the political world today," can't even use a metaphor consistently.)  In this blog post, the scorpion is a business owner who just has to sell, no matter what - but that's a good thing.  A concern-trolling article at Daily Kos warned Congressional Republicans that they are the frog and Donald Trump is the scorpion.  And so on.

My modified version, of course, is also an interpretation, and reflects my biases.  I agree with these writers, who appear to be Randites (they quote the prophetess' word as Scripture) that the fable doesn't accurately reflect human nature, but I don't agree that human nature is a tabula rasa, which isn't necessary to make their point: that human beings can make choices.  One could also point out that the fable's message is about interactions between human beings, not different species.  In Rand's mythology rational individualists are at war with collectivist parasites, with whom they seem not to share a common nature.  But that's how animal fables work: human traits are assigned to different species.

Independently of this tale, we're commonly told that human nature makes us scorpions or frogs.  There are winners and losers, elites and the canaille, superior richies and inferior Poors, "those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are; without imposing on themselves toward perfection".  Those who ride on the backs of others, stingers at the ready, comfort themselves with the belief that it's their nature to be on top.  No one knows where individual differences in temperament come from, but they're not set in stone.  The turtle can throw the scorpion off.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Love Me, Love My Culture

American discourse on "race," "ethnicity," and "culture" stinks to high heaven, because it's rooted in concepts that are antiquated to begin with, and flat wrong beyond that.  (Things are no better in other countries, but I'm talking about us.)  I sympathize, since I'm trying to make sense of these issues too, but I recognize that the categories are incoherent at best.  I'm not sure they can be fixed.

On Thursday morning NPR posted this story, about racial divisions among churches around Washington DC.  They interviewed the pastor of a church that's trying to work toward a more "multicultural" approach.  What seems to be the problem isn't so much overt racism as cultural differences between white and black churches, and the expectations of the worshipers from each.  As I listened to him, I began to suspect that the problem might not be a problem after all, and that racism is not going to be eliminated by erasing cultural differences.

The pastor makes some remarkable admissions here, perhaps unawares.  That worship is not a pure, timeless and ahistorical expression of service to deity but a human construction shaped by culture and habit.  That culture is not something "natural," fallen from heaven, but the product of human choices.  If white churches should modify their liturgy and other practices to make them more "multicultural," then why shouldn't black churches do so as well?  Of course, black churches are already heavily shaped by white culture: the services are performed in English using a religion that channeled Jewish and other west Asian sources through centuries of European culture, appropriate dress is European, church buildings are European, the musical instruments are European.  The Pentecostal elements, in those churches, aren't African either.  But I don't know, maybe African-American Christians have already compromised enough?  One could make the case, except that they seem not to be aware of it. African-American culture generally is also largely assimilated.  It's not very persuasive to invoke cultural survival of a culture that is already 'impure.'  But all cultures are.  Whether he knows it or not, this guy is moving toward atheism: I'm rooting for him.

The same applies to the white churches, of course: their Christianity is already a patchwork stitched together from many disparate sources.  You know, all those "pagan" elements that have found their way into Christian celebrations - "Christmas" trees, Yule logs, Easter eggs, and so on?  But also: Christianity originated in Palestinian Judaism, but the versions we know now came through Gentile ("Greek," as the New Testament writers call it) churches, with considerable conflict between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians (it all hangs out in Paul's letter to Galatians), and then through Rome (a catch-all for the multicultural Empire) and Western Europe.  The Eastern churches, lumped together as Orthodoxy, reflect other cultural differences.  More differences are emerging as Christianity spreads through Africa and Asia, and as Evangelical Protestantism competes successfully with Catholicism in Latin America.  Would people from these churches feel at home in a majority-white, middle- to upper-class D.C. service?

In all these cases, social construction relies on a heritage of forgetting that what feels comfortable, natural, neutral, is the current state of many centuries of change and learning.  Just within a given stream of tradition, whether the church be white or black, there are details that will trip up a visitor from one denomination to another.  A white Episcopalian who visits a white Presbyterian church will find many things about the service that feel 'wrong,' and indeed people have died over such things, though from a larger perspective they're of no more moment than how to hang a roll of toilet paper (over? under?).  Where does the burden of adaptation lie: on the visitor, or on the host?

I don't think white churches should have to assimilate any more than non-white churches should.  If a congregation wants to develop liturgies and worship practices that will work for an ethnic rainbow, that is their choice, but it's likely that they'll end up with everyone feeling dissatisfied, at least until they adjust to the changes.  What we need is not the erasure and elimination of differences, but respect for differences, and that inevitably means judgment about which differences matter and which don't.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Shangophobia?

Here's another example of why framing questions through religion is a bad idea.

On Thursday, NPR aired this poetry podcast.  The poem itself was pretty meh, but it was put into a  troubling context by the announcer, the poet Tracy K. Smith.
My sister visited Cuba once with a friend, and spent part of their time among followers of Santeria, people who take the Orisha, or Yoruban gods and goddesses, quite seriously.  Back at home, over drinks with her travel companion, my sister brushed off the half-joking request to pour out a little of her mojito as an offering to Shango.  Later that night, driving home in a thunderstorm, my sister's car suffered a broken axle.  She ended up having to replace the car with a new vehicle altogether.  She now tells the story as if it was all just a strange coincidence, but that very same weekend, for good measure, she laid out an offering of cornmeal and rum for the aggrieved deity.

In the Yoruba tradition, Shango is the god of thunder and lightning.  He is known for his strength, formidable anger,and love of justice, as well as for his prodigious appetite.  In the Americas, his strength was called up to bolster Africans who were brought to the New World in chains.  In today's poem, "On the D Train," Jacqueline Johnson, the speaker imagines seeing Shango all around her: on the subway, or walking city streets on his way to work.  Inevitably, the poem brings my sister's Shango kerfluffle to my mind.  


But in a more serious way, the poem also asks me to take a better look at the black men around me, moving through their days at work and rest.  Aligning men like this with the figure of Shango urges me to acknowledge the honor, respect, and even the awe that ought to be their everyday due.  Black men are misjudged and mischaracterized every day.  This poem offers a powerful antidote to that tendency.
Since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, I've decided that it's time to criticize and oppose religion more aggressively.  I've been collecting material for several months now, yet I've hesitated to pull it together and write about it, for reasons I can't quite identify.  I don't think it's just because the subject is religion.  I've written critically about it often before, and I have a backlog of other topics I've been blocked on.  Whatever the reason, this podcast broke the logjam.

The popularity of "phobia" to refer to almost any kind of opposition or criticism needs to be challenged.  It's sort of like the way the suffix -gate for any scandal, large or small, has metastatized since the 1970s - it makes great clickbait.  The invention of phobias is part of the general medicalization of all areas of contemporary life.  Now, I admit that many people do exhibit strong emotional affect toward competing religions that could loosely be called "phobic," but I don't think most people who speak of "Islamophobia" realize that they're using a metaphor, and a problematic one at that.  After all, different Muslim sectarians display the same sort of "phobic" hostility to each other that some outsiders display toward Islam generally; so do sectarians in other religions.  I suppose one could speak of Shi'aphobia or Sunniphobia, but why bother?  As with genders, the alleged phobias would multiply ad infinitum, and a clinician with access to professional journals can easily invent or appropriate new ones, in hopes that they will make it into the DSM and become billable for insurance.

That way lies madness, though, and it's bound to backfire.  Liberals and progressives who furiously denounce conservative Christians are going to be diagnosed with Christianophobia, Catholophobia, or Evangelophobia, getting into trouble on social media as they are accused of racism.  Since such people tend to racialize evangelical Christianity as white even though a sizable proportion of American evangelicals are black, and growing numbers are Asian or Latino, the accusation would have teeth.  It doesn't help that most Christians are biblically and religiously illiterate, so their hostility to competing sects is driven by emotion rather than information.  The same is true of most atheists.  Right-wing Christians have already borrowed diversity-management and culture-of-therapy rhetoric to present themselves as the victims of prejudice by liberals, and weaponized diagnoses of Evangelophobia are bound to show up if they haven't already.

As an atheist, I reject all religions.  Am I religio-phobic?  I don't think so, and not just because the term is basically meaningless.  Am I bigoted against religion?  I don't think so.  I'm certainly more knowledgeable about religion than most atheists and most believers, and I'm happy to learn more; if I'm wrong factually or am overgeneralizing, I welcome correction.  I know, and insist, that religious believers vary among themselves, and I also insist that they are not as different from atheists or competing cults as they like to believe.  But as with other belief systems, I find that believers who hope to educate me rarely know as much as I do, and are misinformed about their own sects.

In this case I'm relying on the NPR podcaster for the account of Orisha and Shango that I'm responding to; if I get anything wrong, blame her.  I listened to the episode with mounting bafflement.  She doesn't exactly claim that Shango broke the axle of her sister's car because she failed to pour out a libation; I suppose she was aiming for plausible deniability.  Religionists of other stripes, including Christians, do the same thing.

But really, I thought, I'm supposed to see Shango as a positive deity?  With his "strength, formidable anger, and love of justice, as well as ... his prodigious appetite," this "god of thunder and lightning" sounds like a dead ringer for Yahweh, the god of the "Abrahamic" religions.  Morton Smith once referred to Yahweh, as the Hebrew Bible describes to him, as "a North Arabian mountain god who traveled in thunderstorms and liked the smell of burning fat."  I'm sure that's just a strange coincidence.  Many of Yahweh's devotees also like to blame misfortunes large and small, national and personal, on us, for not spending enough time on our knees and building up his tender ego.  The offerings we give are of terrible quality, and such small portions.  And so on: this earth-based Yoruba deity is not as different from Yahweh as people like to think.  Having a small-time hood offering protection is not an improvement on a more megalomanic one ("Nice little car you have there, Missy; be a shame if something happened to it...").

What good does Shango's protection really do?  Where was he while Africans were being brought to the New World in chains?  Probably getting high and watching Internet porn, like his competitors; sorry about that, guys.  I've seen the same pattern among neo-pagans and Native Americans: their gods were out to lunch while the rapacious Christians were conquering the world.  As he's described here, Shango is also a god of toxic masculinity, again a lot like Yahweh.  Thanks, but I'm not buying it.  And he's not a good role model for African-American men, who need more respect and care, as black women and everyone else does; being "aligned ... with the figure of Shango" is one of the last things they need.  As for "awe," forget it.

This isn't a question of facts, of course: Shango, like Yahweh or any other deity, doesn't exist. I'm making a judgment, and anyone is welcome to disagree with me.  I'd be interested to see what kinds of arguments they could offer.  Meanwhile, I see no reason to respect Santeria any more than I do Christianity.  I suppose someone could re-interpret Shango, as Christians do with Jesus, to make him more attractive, but he'd still be a fiction.  Is it phobic of me to say so?  Not unless it's phobic to object to "so-called Christians" on the right, as liberal Christians do all the time.  I'm not interested in hearing about new phobias, I'd like to have some more intelligent, informed, thoughtful discussion of these questions.  I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

More Good Gals with Cameras

Also today, Morning Edition interviewed Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma.  Lankford is one of a "working group" of Republicans who are "putting together a legislative package to address the U.S. policing system."

Gee, you know I hate to stereotype people, but I don't expect this working group to come up with anything worthwhile.  (To be fair, Congressional Democrats aren't likely to produce something better.)  Lankford, who is evidently an NPR regular, didn't say anything that would lead me to change my mind.

You could tell he was trying to be reasonable and moderate and sensible, which shows once again that it's a mistake to confuse moderation of tone with moderation of substance.  But to be fair, I suppose he was moderate if I set one extreme as putting a bounty on police heads and the other as putting all African-Americans into concentration camps.  Remember that, as Jim Hightower says, there's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.

The best thing Lankford mentioned was a provision for penalties (but what kind? a stern gaze from Vice President Mike Pence?) for officers who turn off their body cameras.  In the end, though, he fell back on evasion and both-sidesism when reporter Noel King asked him if he believed "that the U.S. policing system is inherently racist?"
Uh, no, I would not say that police officers are systemically racist.  [She did not ask him that.] This has been a big conversation that we've had around the country lately.  To me, calling all police officers or all police departments racist is like calling all protesters rioters. There are some rioters that are in the middle of some peaceful protesters, that are frustrated. There are some police officers that are bad apples in the middle of some police departments, and those police officers are frustrated that they've got some bad apples in the mix as well. So part of what we're focused on is how do we get greater training, how do we work through better transparency, so we can expose those individuals that in the middle of good police departments, among good officers that really do want to serve and protect the community, that are working very hard and we are grateful for the work that they're doing, but those officers also get frustrated, when someone commits a murder clearly as a police officer or does a racist act.  So this is one of those issues that we can't all paint all protesters with a broad brush or paint all police officers with a broad brush, we've gotta be able to treat all people as individuals.
The Senator overlooked a few things here. The first is that the protesters are not a taxpayer-funded and -armed, hierarchical organization; they are not, and can't be, their brothers' keepers. The police are under orders, the protesters for better or worse are not.  (Leave aside that an unknown number of rioters were outsiders, some white supremacists out to discredit the protests while having a little fun, and some were police provocateurs.)   Second, the police hierarchy, including police unions, has protected police misconduct by "losing" and suppressing evidence, closing ranks against outside efforts to impose accountability and certainly not imposing any themselves.  A prime example of this is the 57 officers who resigned from the Buffalo Emergency Response Team to protest the suspension of their colleagues who'd shoved and injured a 75-year-old protester, but there also been furious denunciations of any criticism by police leadership; I'm not aware of anything analogous from protestors.)  In general, those good, "frustrated" cops have not distinguished themselves by expressing their frustration or doing anything about it, though that too is probably due to fear of retaliation from their brothers for snitching.  It would be a service to those good officers to help them by breaking the grip of police culture with stronger accountability for the "bad apples."

To her credit, King pushed back when Lankhorn claimed that "even in the situation that happened with George Floyd, within hours those officers were fired and as they worked through the criminal justice system, being held to account."  King interrupted him:
Yeah, I would note though, I would note that the original police writeup on Mr. Floyd's death, er, killing was completely inaccurate, and it was because a girl, a 17-year-old girl, was recording it that we have that video, not because of body cams.  So I think when people talk about ending qualified immunity, it's that kind of thing that they're really after.
Lankhorn replied weakly, "I completely understand that, that's why we're trying to increase the use of body cameras so we can get more footage and get every situation and not have to rely on a bystander to get that."

But this is the problem: police reports in incidents like the killing of George Floyd are so routinely inaccurate -- that is, lies -- and body-camera footage has been "lost" or suppressed, often with city-government connivance, that we will need to rely on bystanders with phone cameras for the foreseeable future.  (Why is Rahm Emanuel still at large and an active Democratic Party insider, instead of being held to account?)

Some of the proposals Lankhorn described were mere cover-your-ass stuff, but it seems to me that penalties for turning off body cameras and the anti-lynching provision he mentioned could be encouragingly strong stuff, especially from Republicans.  I just don't expect them to go anywhere, certainly not on their own initiative.

Just Like Me, Kind Of; or, What Would You Do With a Self?

If I had dictatorial powers, I think banning the word "identity" is one of the first things I would do.  I'd be tempted to make an exception for its use in formal logic and mathematics ... but on second thought no, a substitute would just have to be found.

I'm particularly displeased with the use of "identity" as a vague handwave for every kind of human variety, where it's at best irrelevant.  What got me going was a gay male novelist interviewed on NPR this morning, who used "identity" to refer to being gay -- I think.  He was saying that when he wrote about being a heavy substance abuser and going wild sexually in his teens, hating his body and himself, many readers told him that aside from the "details," they saw a lot of themselves in his character.

This interested me, because one of the favorite cliches of so many writers and their readers is that audiences want to see "someone who looks like them" in the entertainment they consume.  I've been mulling this over for a long time now, first because many consumers will refuse to see themselves in a character because it doesn't represent them perfectly, or doesn't conform to what they wish  they looked like.  So, for example, gay men have demanded butch, buff, impossibly-hung, monogamous-but-slutty, rich gay male characters so they can see "someone who looks like them" in fiction, movies, and TV - even though that is damn well not what they look like.  Consider the hostility many gay men and our allies have for Will and Grace's Jack McFarland, which I suspect is largely because he looks too much like them.  This carries over to other human variations, but I'm speaking for my own category here.  I think that what people want in entertainment is not really "someone who looks like me," but something else.

Yes, I am glad to see gay male characters in entertainment, but I admit I'm not sure what I expect from them.  I was always interested in seeing gay love stories that ended happily, but it wasn't all I wanted, though I'm not sure what that was.  What most people want from entertainment isn't all that clear.  The popularity of superhero entertainment suggests to me that many of us want images of people who aren't like us, because they can do things we can't, fulfill fantasies of power that no one can carry out, even though they face the same obstacles that we do: being misunderstood, judged, kept from doing what we want to do.  What does it say about audiences that so many people loved Hannibal Lecter as Anthony Hopkins played him in Silence of the Lambs?  Did he "look like them"?  In some ways I think he did: he gratified his every selfish wish with class and diabolical eloquence, authority couldn't restrain or hold him, and in the end he avenged himself on his enemy with a childish bon mot: "I'm having an old friend for dinner."  I don't remember which reviewer called Lecter's character "infantile," which captures his indiscriminate egoistic orality.  More than ever since Donald Trump's ascension, it's safe to say that Hannibal Lecter does "look like" a sizable chunk of America.



I don't mean to suggest that this is only characteristic of Donald Trump and his base, nor do I think it's what most people are thinking when they use that phrase.  My point here is that it has little to do with how they, or the character, looks.  But second, as this writer said, people find useful common ground with people who don't look like them, partly I think by blotting out differences and creating a mental simulacrum who looks more their wishful self-image.  This may be easier to do in print, where we have to invent mental images of characters anyway.  It would be interesting to ask some of those people why they identified with the character, how they thought he was like them.

Beyond that, as I've already suggested, consumers of entertainment are able to relate to characters they know very well are different from them: characters of a different sex, a different class, a different culture, and so on.  Seeing the world through the eyes of someone one may have thought was The Other can be revelatory, but that we often do it without thinking is important to remember.  As I've often said, "universality" is a mirage.  No one is obligated to sympathize with a given character or situation, but one's ability to do it is not determined by the trivia of "identity."  That the character is "not like me" is not an excuse, and is probably not the reason anyhow.

Let me stress: I'm not saying that it's not important to have gay characters, black or brown characters, female characters, et cetera, in entertainment or in art.  I think that in the absence of overt censorship by the law or by marketing departments, such characters will turn up naturally (to use a problematic word), and will exhibit a reasonable amount of intra-group variety.  There will be a problem with dominant-group refusal to empathize across the divides; it's notorious that males of all ages refuse to read work by women, or featuring female protagonists, for example.  I'm not sure how to correct this, but it won't be helped by buying into the assumption that nobody will find interesting the stories of those who 'don't look like them.'  For now, I would be perfectly comfortable guiding consumers (especially young ones) toward work that will make them comfortable, though also with guiding dominant-group consumers (especially young ones) toward work that features characters who don't look like them. 

A few years ago I read a memoir by a writer much like (or was he?) this novelist: he was gay, spent several years in New York City drinking and drugging, screwing around frenetically, and building a career as a female impersonator.  Eventually he sobered up, found a boyfriend, and moved to the country or at least the suburbs.  I didn't enjoy the book or get much out of it: not because the author wasn't like me, but because his story was exhausting, repetitive, and not very interesting.  I'm not judging him - well, yes, I am, but I find it difficult to understand people who seem to have no inner lives, nothing that gives them any meaning or satisfaction, and this memoir didn't shed any light on them.  He's written a second book about his life as a homesteader/country squire, which I haven't read, but at least he stayed sober that long.

The writer NPR interviewed located the body issues mostly in his or his persona's weight, though apparently this didn't involve obesity, mainly it was in not having 0% body fat.  The interviewer pressed him gently: why get so upset about being not obese but carrying a couple of extra pounds?  He explained that it was a feeling of not belonging in his body.  "Why did I have to be born in a body?" was his lament and his refrain.  "Why couldn't I have been born in a haunted suit of armor or something?"

This also baffles me, though I'm familiar with what he's talking about.  And yes, I know that the problem arises from something other than rational reflection, because it makes no sense.  There is no "I" prior to the body: the body produces the "I."  This illusion of inner division (is "dysphoria" the right word?) is widespread, and has found expression through religion and philosophy; I'll be forever grateful to the writings of Alan Watts and Dorothy Dinnerstein for pinpointing it and defusing it for me, because as a highly verbal intellectual I would have been vulnerable to it, but it has never bothered me much.  Which doesn't mean I've been perfectly comfortable bodily, only that I've never tried to cut myself in half in this way.

It occurred to me that this dualism is part of the current doctrine of transgender: that human beings have a self that is separate from their bodies.  For trans people, when the two come into conflict the self wins, but when other dysphoriae are involved, the self is expected to adjust to the body.  I don't have any idea how to resolve this, but I think it should be noticed.  People's distress is real and must be taken seriously, but I wonder how helpful false beliefs like dualism really are in dealing with them.  I've wandered far afield from my original gripe, but "identity" is another fiction.  It might be useful but has become meaningless through inflation and is frequently worse than useless as a result.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Just a Thought...

It seems to me that the people who counter "Defund the police" by claiming that not all police are bad still spend most of their energy defending the bad ones. Those who claim that their brother or boyfriend or buddy or uncle is a good cop don't seem upset enough by the bad ones to attack them for giving the good ones a bad name.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Time's Up!

Someone posted it yesterday somewhere on social media, I don't remember whether it was Facebook or Twitter:  "You can't change people's minds overnight."

It's the first time I've heard it in a long while. The last time I remember must have been around twenty years ago, when it kept cropping up on a diversity program on the community radio station.  The host was a liberal white professor of sociology, I think, and the guest was a minister from a nearby city that has a bad reputation for racism.  (Bloomington, where the radio station is located, has a better reputation for not being racist than it deserves, because of the university.)  This would have been before all the station's programs were digitized and archived online, so I doubt it's accessible, but I made some notes on the episode at the time for a letter I never sent, which I was able to find on my old computer the other day.  (Or did I send it?  I'm honestly not sure.  If I did, I didn't get a reply.)

There had been another incident in a long series recently, where fans and possibly players of the high school basketball team had yelled racist abuse at players of a visiting team. The host and the minister clucked indignantly that people shouldn't stereotype a whole town over such things.  The minister insisted that many black people lived contentedly in the city, and reported that his daughter had met a young black man at college who assumed she was racist when he found out where she was from.  That was bad, though I wished I had a version of the story from a more reliable source.  And they repeated, several times: You can't change people's minds overnight.

I began to feel I'd gone through the looking glass: was this an anti-racist program, or a racist-apologetics program?  Our neighbor city has been lamenting its racist reputation for decades, usually when another unfortunate incident occurs.  But the funny thing is that "You can't change people's minds overnight" assumes that the people in question are racist.  I kept waiting for the diversity-educator host to ask how long the night could be allowed to last, but no dice.  They spent the whole segment congratulating each other on how enlightened and reasonable they were.

I'd already noticed in the 90s that forty years after Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thirty years after the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, thirty years after the eruption of Second Wave feminism, twenty-five years after the Stonewall riots, the lessons they should have taught had not been learned by large numbers of people, including significant numbers of the people who run our government at all levels.  Some version of "You can't change people's minds overnight" has been an ongoing refrain throughout those decades.  And I thought I was good at procrastinating.  It's been one hell of a long night.

And you see, here we are.  Various people from the very small town where I went to high school were fuming about anarchists and rioters and looters in the pay of Soros coming there, and they'd be ready to defend their property with their Second Amendment rights.  I remember hearing this crap before, in the 60s.  After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, my mother was afraid that Negroes were going to flood into our rural area from Chicago (a hundred miles away) or South Bend (25 miles away) and burn it to the ground, and she wasn't the only one in our very white area.  It probably was spread on the radio by right-wing commentators.  Fifty-odd years later, the same bigotry is alive and well, all the more furiously resentful because it was partially stifled for a few years in the 1960s.

(I just remembered that northern Indiana is very Roman Catholic, and I wonder how many of the parents of my peers grew up listening to the pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic Catholic priest Father Coughlin in the 30s.  I wonder if my mother did.  Coughlin was based near Detroit, close to where I grew up.  He had forty million listeners around the country before he stopped broadcasting in 1940, and continued to publish Nazi propaganda until he was shut down by the Feds in 1942.  It seems likely that he had fans in South Bend - home of Notre Dame University - and my hometown.  I should ask around on Facebook.)

Maybe twenty years ago I decided that my motto for the future would be No Safe Space for Bigotry.  Now I want to update it: Time's Up.  White racists have had a very long time to get over their refusal to share the world with non-white people; male supremacists ditto with regard to women; antigay bigots with gay people; and so on.  They don't get to delay any longer.  Time's up.  When your racist aunt or uncle or grandpa or grandma starts to attack the blacks, just say No.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Ah Yes! I Remember It Well..

Liberals: I miss President Obama SO much! I wish we could be back in those wonderful days, when we had a real President!

Leftists: He was a war criminal, killed children, deported millions, stomped on civil liberties, toadied to Wall Street... 

Liberals: WHY DO YOU KEEP DWELLING IN THE PAST?! LET IT GO!!!

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Let's You and Jesus Smash the State!

Last weekend I saw a number of people in social media endorsing street violence by invoking the cleansing of the Temple Court by Jesus, a story that appears in all four canonical gospels.  I've written about the episode at length before, and won't go into much detail today.

What first got me going was the reaction to Donald Trump's use of a Washington, D.C. church as the background for a photo op (and probable campaign ad) proclaiming "law and order" as he waved a Bible around.  There were cries of "sacrilege," and the Episcopal overseer of that church denounced Trump to the Washington Post: "I was not given even a courtesy call that they would be clearing with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop, holding a Bible, one that declares that God is love and when everything he has said and done is to enflame violence."  The Bible also contains many divine commands to commit genocidal violence, plus threats of eternal punishment in fire and fury, the likes of which the world has never seen.  "God is love" appears once, and not very convincingly in such a context.

There has been less outrage over Joe Biden's appearance in another church, the Bethel AME Church in Wilmington Delaware, in which he taught the true meaning of love: "Instead of standing there and teaching a cop when there's an unarmed person comin' at 'em with a knife or something to shoot 'em in the leg instead of the heart is a very different thing."  You know - the thing.  So far I haven't seen anyone denounce as sacrilege this endorsement of violence in a holy place, but I might have missed it.

So, those guys who encouraged undefined violence against unspecified targets with Jesus as their role model: what do they have to say about Donald Trump's invocation of the Bible to justify smiting evil?  This is one more example of why the Bible has no authority: you can use it to justify almost anything, but an informed reading isn't going to be kind to selective, biased quotation by anybody.

Monday, June 1, 2020

I'm with Slur

There are bigger, more important issues facing us today, but I want to take on something bite-sized.  It has ramifications that are a bit bigger than that, though.

Lately I've been baffled by a social-media trope that isn't new, but is turning up in circles that surprise me: the denial that slurs are slurs.  A few samples, which I began collecting only after I'd noticed this pattern:






I regret not having grabbed a tweet I saw a couple of weeks earlier which listed several terms that, according to the poster, were totally not slurs, but which I thought clearly were.  "TERF" (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) and "Nazi" were among them, along with the now-viral "Karen."  I think "cis" was also on the list, and possibly "cishet."  (Someone recently opposed "cishet" to "queer", which is a miscategorization, because one can be both queer and cisgender; probably most queers are, but as we'll see that is being forgotten by some of us.)

Whether a word is a slur or not can be tricky: few slurs are innately, always slurs.  Take "gay," which homosexuals adopted as a neutral, self-chosen term for ourselves.  Within a decade it had become a playground epithet, and as those kids carried the slur with them into adulthood.  A decade or so after that, a surprising number of gay people rejected "gay" because they thought it had always been a slur.  So whether "gay" is a slur depends on who's using it and how they're using it.

TERF is less innocent.  It was coined in 2008 to refer to feminists who deny that transgender women are really women.  Since those feminists didn't coin the term themselves -- they tend to prefer terms like "gender critical" - and since the intention of those who apply it to them is hostile, I think it's fair to call TERF a slur.  On the other hand, its component parts are pretty neutral terms, and I see no reason why a "gender-critical" feminist shouldn't answer to it, even reclaim it.  That they get defensive about the term indicates that they're not as sure of themselves as they want to be seen, like white racists who reject the term "racist" in favor of "racial loyalist," "racial nationalist," and the like.

As for "cis," at first I liked the term, along with the long-form "cisgender," as a useful contrast to "transgender" and "trans."  (An analogous case would be "monosexual," referring to those people who aren't bisexual; I like it and find it useful, but some gay people have complained that it's a slur; it could be, but I haven't seen it.)  Then I noticed that it had drifted from its original meaning, as a gender identity, to refer to what had been called "gender presentation," the gendered ways people present and are seen by others.  So, for example, the trans academics Ginny Beemyn and Susan Rankin wrote that, "To be inclusive of all gender-nonconforming people, we defined 'transgender' broadly as “anyone who transgresses or blurs traditional gender categories." *

But then it appeared to me that some people, not all of them trans, were using it to imply that people who aren't trans, whose gender identity is the one they were assigned at birth, or whose gender presentation goes along with their cisgender identity, were at best uncool - conformists, sheep, instead of bold, free trans people who aren't slaves to the gender binary.  This amused me more than it bothered me; we queers, including moi, had often used "straight" in the same way.

But I don't think I would have denied that using "straight" to connote narrow conformism was a slur.  It's a relatively mild one, since heterosexuals aren't harmed by it; I think those who were bothered didn't like discovering that as free-thinking as they thought they were, they had their own kinds of conformism.  Which is as true of "cis," and that's why I'm not bothered by it: conformism is never total, nor is nonconformism.  I find that many trans people are fiercely conformist in their gender ideology, their ideas of what their gender identity entails -- how they dress, how they speak, how they carry themselves.  Take someone like Laverne Cox, who fits conventional gender norms for women extremely well: you might say it's her brand.  Trans people are as variable in this respect as cis people, however.  So far the use of "cis" to imply something negative or inadequate about cis people has been on the level of innuendo rather than anything overt; so far.  When and if it becomes more overt, it won't hurt me.  But it will definitely be a slur.

Similarly, "cracker" first caught on more as a class slur than a racial one.  (Bear in mind, though, that the dividing line between "class" and "race" isn't a sharp one.)  But it's hard for me to see how anybody could deny that it is a slur.  And that's what is weird to me about the argument the tweets I quoted were referring to.  A slur is an insult, and TERF, "cracker," and small-n "nazi" are certainly insults which put people into devalued and despised categories.  The people denying that a slur is a slur remind me of racists deny that they're racists, who define troublesome terms so as to exclude themselves from being covered by them.  It's at least a failure of nerve, a refusal to take responsibility for one's language, and I think it also reveals a refusal to examine one's own attitudes that the Left should never indulge.  Nor should anyone else, but the Left, broadly and amorphously conceived, is where I stand.  I expect and demand more from myself and from those I stand with.
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*The Lives of Trangender People (Columbia UP, 2011), p. 22.  By this definition, I and most human beings are transgender.