Friday, July 31, 2020

Three War Criminals, All in a Row


It's been entertaining to watch the various vultures squabbling over the remains of the late John Lewis. At the memorial service, Bill Clinton praised Lewis for being moderate in not Going Too Far as Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) did.  This set off predictable fury in the left Twittersphere, but really, did anyone really believe the overall spectacle was going to be anything but embarrassing?  Clinton doesn't know or doesn't care (you decide) that Lewis was pretty extreme; his address at the 1963 March on Washington had to be pared back by Movement censors / PR people to avoid troublesome excess.  And of course, Martin Luther King was always Going Too Far for the comfort of white moderates, and Rosa Parks continued Going Too Far for the rest of her long life.

Then the Right threw tantrums over Barack Obama's eulogy of Lewis, which they claimed "politicized" the sacred event.  Leftists and liberals derided them, pointing out that politicians' funerals are always political, except when Bill Clinton is there. The fun part is that when Clinton and Obama croak, right-wingers will forget everything they said about keeping the memorials apolitical, and liberals will be furious that the Rethugs are dragging politics into it. I hope I live to see it. 

But Obama ... I heard a couple of clips from his performance, and I don't know if I have the strength to watch the whole forty-minute thing, so this will have to do for now.  The first one included a denunciation of the use of tear gas and clubs against peaceful demonstrators, which Obama was perfectly comfortable with while he was President.  (The crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street looked very much like the ones we've seen the past several weeks.)  In the second clip I heard, he did a very poor impersonation of a fiery black preacher, evidently under the impression that such low comedy was appropriate for the occasion - and I guess it was, because liberals have been wetting their pants over his inspiring and articulate oratory.  Some of what he said was unexceptionable, such as restoring protection of voting rights; but his support won't help it happen, and I would hope that no one needs his advice to see it as important.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Variation on a Theme

Last week Representative Ted Yoho (R-FL) approached Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on the Capitol steps and attacked her for some remarks she'd made about crime at a town hall earlier in the month.  "You are out of your freaking mind," he said, called her "disgusting," and according to a reporter who was present, turned away and muttered "Fucking bitch" as he moved along.

Ocasio-Cortez criticized him publicly for his obnoxiousness, and Yoho took to the House floor to make the standard fake apology for such occasions: he denied having used the obscenity, claimed he was just so upset he hardly knew what he was doing, and flaunted his wife and two daughters as proof that he'd never use such disrespectful language.  Ocasio-Cortez deftly raked Yoho over the coals some more.

Something odd, though.  Yoho said he was offended because of his own experience with poverty, and accused Ocasio-Cortez of equating poverty with crime.  Here's how The Hill reported what she'd said:
During the event, Ocasio-Cortez was asked about gun violence in New York, which has spiked this summer as the nation's largest city — which was clobbered by the coronavirus — slowly reopens from a months-long lockdown.

Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, has long advocated for policies that cut police budgets and shift that funding to education, mental health and other social services. In her response, she stuck to that theme, suggesting the surge in crime stems from the economic hardship facing New York's poorest communities — and a failure of policymakers to fund programs aimed at leveling economic disparities.

“Crime is a problem of a diseased society, which neglects its marginalized people," she said during the July 9 event. "Policing is not the solution to crime.”
Right-wing media attacked for, as they saw it, justifying violent crime as the result of poverty.

On Monday, Ocasio-Cortez defended her position, saying she made clear during the town hall that she was referring to "petty crime and crimes of poverty."
Conservative media, she said, has purposefully taken her comments out of context.

"I say, 'Listen, I'm not talking about violent crime, I'm not talking about shootings. But when it comes to petty theft, a lot of these are crimes of poverty, and people are desperate,'" she said. "So the right wing cuts up this clip, per usual, in a very misleading way. ... They basically [want] to make it seem as though I'm saying people are shooting each other because they're hungry."
Fair enough, I guess, but the question she answered was apparently about a spike in gun violence this summer in New York.  It seems, then, that she dodged the question before her as disingenuously as Yoho tried to justify his outburst: "I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country." 

Further, it appears that she didn't hear his parting epithet until it made the news.  A sitting politician should know better than to let off steam near a reporter, but I wonder if Ocasio-Cortez' vocabulary is squeaky clean when she's alone and thinking about her colleagues.  If Yoho had said it to her directly, it would be a different situation, but it seems that Ocasio-Cortez and sympathetic media framed the story to make it sound as if Yoho had cussed her to her face.  In any case, throwing a tantrum at a colleague on the Capitol steps was bad optics, though in the old days Congressmen were prone to strong insults and fisticuffs in the Congressional chambers.  Boys will be boys.

But the point I wanted to make here was, one more time, that a lot of the lefty-liberal-progressive types who jumped to Ocasio-Cortez' defense use misogynist language like Yoho's publicly, on Twitter, all the time.  (So do the right-wingers, but one expects that of passionately Christian patriots.)  They're in no position to cast the first stone at Yoho.  I've been tweaking some such by addressing them as Representative Yoho when I reply to their frothing.  It hasn't diminished in the regions I frequent since this story blew up.  Nor has homophobic abuse.  But of course, it's different when the good guys do it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A Cautionary Tale

This morning Amazon, like the Hand of Providence, threw into my path a book by James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Pitchstone Publishing, 2015).  Everyone except for James A. Lindsay, I figured, and I was right.  According to the accompanying blurb the book is:
A call to action to address people's psychological and social motives for a belief in God, rather than debate the existence of God  With every argument for theism long since discredited, the result is that atheism has become little more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. Thus, engaging in interminable debate with religious believers about the existence of God has become exactly the wrong way for nonbelievers to try to deal with misguided—and often dangerous—belief in a higher power. The key, author James Lindsay argues, is to stop that particular conversation. He demonstrates that whenever people say they believe in "God," they are really telling us that they have certain psychological and social needs that they do not know how to meet. Lindsay then provides more productive avenues of discussion and action. Once nonbelievers understand this simple point, and drop the very label of atheist, will they be able to change the way we all think about, talk about, and act upon the troublesome notion called "God."
I'm sympathetic with Lindsay's approach here.  I've benefited from reading the literature debating the existence of gods, but I was already an atheist when I began reading it.  I became an atheist quite young, at around the age of ten.  I was fascinated by Greek and Biblical mythology, and one day my father told me that I should know that some people don't believe in God.  "Why not?" I asked. "Well," he replied, "they don't feel any need to."  I took my time absorbing this information, and I don't know exactly when I realized that I was one of those people, but I did.  After all, I didn't have much of an idea of what God was before; he was sort of like Santa Claus, of whose existence I'd been disabused some years earlier, or the Greek gods.  Learning what it meant to be an atheist took a lot more time and thought.  I'm still learning, but debating whether gods exist doesn't interest me any more than debating whether homosexuality is okay.

The trouble with Lindsay's stance is that it cuts both ways; we atheists, when we say we don't believe in "God," are really telling theists that we have certain psychological and social needs that we don't know how to meet.  Everyone does.  Human beings aren't rational creatures at heart; we can learn to use reason, but our needs and drives are pre- or sub-rational.  Does Lindsay realize that he's echoing, almost parodying, a popular Christian missionary line here?  I don't think so.  But it's also reminiscent of Almost-New Atheist Sam Harris's conviction that people who criticize American foreign policy are "masochistic," and need to have our eyes opened to the healing light he brings, that we may have life more abundantly (and Muslims have it less).

And -- surprise, surprise -- I downloaded the Kindle sample of Everybody Is Wrong About God, and found that Harris is for Lindsay one of "the most prominent atheist writers of the beginning of this century, among them Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, the late Victor Stenger, and Jerry Coyne."  "Prominent" seems to be damning this pan-atheon with faint praise, I must admit, but Lindsay thinks that they have definitively brought theism low.  He says he will work with a "clarified position on the term atheism, one that speaks back to the meaning originally put forward" by Harris et al.  This is also odd: did they -- does Lindsay -- believe that there was no atheism before the twenty-first century?  From what I've read of their work, which I admit isn't enough, they were just following in the footsteps of much smarter writers.  David Hume, for one.  And far from what you might call post-theists, which is what Lindsay seems to be aiming for, they are very noisily anti-theist.

Lindsay also says that "we need to understand myth.  Myth doesn't just mean a misinterpretation of a phenomenon."  (Actually, it doesn't mean that at all.  I'll return to that point shortly.)
At the core of myth is a blend of misinterpretation, obscuring ignorance, and yet clear apprehension, but what is most relevant about mythology is none of these.  True, myths are built out of ignorance, often due in part to the complexity of the subject matter at their cores, and, true, myths are a kind of misinterpretation of that subject matter.  On the other hand, and importantly, also true is that myths encapsulate some degree of understanding of what they represent -- otherwise they'd be far less compelling than they are.  What is most relevant about myths, however, is exactly what makes them most compelling: myths are culturally relevant narratives that simplify complex or unclear phenomena and that speak to people at the level of their psychological needs.  Narratives of this kind, though, are exactly what religions provide for people, and it is therefore precisely this observation that illustrates why God, at the center of so many religious beliefs, is a mythological construct.
This isn't far from the view of a theistic apologist like Karen Armstrong.  The main difference is that Armstrong allows more understanding and knowledge to mythology.  But they're both wrong.  There's a lot of scholarly debate about just what myth is, and at best Lindsay is addressing only a subset of the material.  It's not even sure how much the ancients believed their myths.  Some scholars argue that at least some myths encode not ignorance, but knowledge about the world, perhaps to keep it esoteric.  But it ill becomes Lindsay to dismiss ignorance, since everyone is ignorant of more than they know, including Lindsay.  Indeed, "ignorance" and "superstition" are both religious concepts.  Especially going by the mythos of Modern Science, everyone today is an ignorant savage compared to those who will follow us in centuries to come.  He has, as far as I can tell from what I've read of the book so far, a rather backward conception of religion, as a bunch of silly stories invented to keep the rabble happy and controlled.  It appears that he hopes to fill the shoes of the elites who developed religion for that purpose in the first place.

Take the last sentence I quoted, which has the form of a logical conclusion but isn't one.  First, mythology is only part of any religion, and it's likely that ritual predates mythology.  People create narratives for their own sake, and only rationalize them afterward.  Mythology is a part of epics like the Gilgamesh cycle, the Homeric epics, and the Torah, but only part; and I wouldn't care to pontificate as to their purposes.  In Greek drama, which originated as part of religious festivals, the gods are used as part of the stories, just like the human characters, who are also mythological though not divine.  Myth is part of the backdrop of any human society.

Second, because human beings think narratively, mythic narratives aren't specific to religion.  It's a cliche that nations have their own mythologies, and the United States is no exception: Columbus, who defied superstitious belief in a flat earth to discover America; the Pilgrim Fathers, who fled persecution to build a haven for religious freedom in the New World; the Founding Fathers, who in their wisdom created a new nation devoted to freedom for all men; and so on.  (I know that these are ahistorical; that's the point.)  So does science, not just with heroic tales about the Patriarchs -- all male, naturally -- who defied superstition to bring Man the light of knowledge, of Thomas Huxley totally destroying Bishop Samuel Wilberforce over Evolution in 1860, of Watson and Crick cracking the DNA code by themselves, down to bold cowboy geeks inventing the computer in their garages without a penny of government money -- but with a mythology of the Scientific Method, which bears little or no resemblance to what scientists actually do.  But scientists believe in it, because it speaks to their psychological needs.  The myth of evolution as a linear ascent from lower to higher, dumber to smarter, is also popular among those with Faith in Science.  You might be able to get rid of religion, narrowly and tendentiously defined, but mythology won't be eliminated easily, if at all.

Unwittingly supporting my position, Lindsay declares a little later, "We saw the idea of racism collapse long before the culture started really catching on, a process lamentably still continuing today." This, lamentably, isn't true.  The idea of the oneness of humanity is actually much older and is found in some universalizing religions, but in the late 1800s the "idea of racism" moved from "the culture" to science, where it's comfortably entrenched to this day, along with the "idea of sexism."  Lindsay has degrees in physics and mathematics, but he doesn't know much about history.

If the price of Everybody Is Wrong About God is marked down, I might try reading the whole thing, but so far it isn't promising.  As numerous people have said, including me: the trouble isn't that people are ignorant, it's that they know so much that isn't so.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Gentlemen Callers

This isn't the first variation I've seen on this theme, posted on Facebook by a gay male friend around 40 years old.  I have to remind myself that if social media had been around when I was 40, I probably would have posted such things myself. So let's imagine that I'm writing this to my younger self.

Actually, though, 40 was roughly when I realized that I wasn't really interested in a long-term committed relationship.  I already knew that the trouble (if it was trouble) lay with me, not with the men I met and dated.  I wanted someone to be there for me, but not all the time, just when I wanted him to be there, and that wasn't fair to him.  I knew some men who I wanted to be with more often, but not all the time, and probably not permanently.  It began to occur to me that I would be content if I had two or three occasional but ongoing partners -- the term Friends With Benefits hadn't been coined yet; "fuck buddies" had.  The trouble was that FWBs are hard to schedule: when I found several such a decade later, either I wouldn't see any of them for a month or more at a time, or they'd all come calling at the same time: feast or famine.  I also found that they had to be the ones who decided when to show up; if I invited them over, they'd get nervous.  But I realized I could live with that.

Sometimes one of the men I knew would drift away altogether.  He might move to another town, or get into a committed relationship, or just lose interest.  But before long someone else would find his way into my life.  I began to trust that I wasn't likely to be without willing partners for the foreseeable future.  Some of those FWB relationships went on for years, certainly longer than any attempted commitment I'd tried.  In some of them, the word "love" wasn't out of place, though it might have been if we'd moved in together.

Often I've encountered people who chided me, "What's going to happen to you when you're old and you're still alone?"  I pointed out that plenty of people get divorced or widowed: marriage, or even commitment is no guarantee over the long haul.  I didn't like the idea of someone staying with me out of guilt or fear; I didn't want to do it myself, so why would I inflict myself on someone else?  Admittedly, I have a greater tolerance for being alone than many other people, and conversely less tolerance for having company when I'd rather be alone, so the prospect of being solitary never terrified me the way it does other people.  I eventually realized that committed couples work out ways of getting time to themselves, they aren't joined at the hip 24/7.  For me, the amount of solo time I need is great enough that I preferred that it be the default: that I would rather be alone when I might have preferred company, than have company when I preferred to be alone.

But perhaps my chief objection to this meme is about the word "real," used as the opposite of "temporary."  I think my FWBs and one-night stands were "real."  Not only that, but I've had many nonsexual friendships that enriched my life wonderfully.  It was always a gamble, living in a college town with its transient population, whether I'd always find enough company to keep me going, but I did.  The words of Allen Ginsberg's psychoanalyst reassured me: "Oh, you're a nice person, there will always be people who'll like you."  I didn't believe that when I was 20, or 25 (me? nice?), but at about 30 I began to trust that I was likable enough: not to be smug about it, but to believe that I'd get by.  And so I have, though admittedly the current pandemic has thrown a wrench into the works.  Still, I know that it's not about me, and I'm doing all right, with enough friendly human interaction to warm my heart.

And anyway, we are all temporary.  Few long-term couples manage to die at the same time, which would be the best you could hope for if you demand that neither you nor your partner checks out ahead of the other.  And what does it mean to say that one shouldn't "entertain temporary people"?  How do you know that the person you've met will last for the rest of their life?  I've challenged some people on this point, and never got a convincing answer. "You just know" is the best they come up with, but I've learned as I observe their romantic careers over time that they don't know.  It seems to me that to find a serious partner you often have to audition many others who turn out not to be serious -- or you aren't serious about them; there's something very egoistic about this meme, as though one's own feelings are the only ones that matter.  Besides, the need to entertain people whose seriousness is unknown is proverbial: think of memes like "In order to find a prince you have to kiss a lot of frogs."

The only remedy I can think of is arranged marriage.  It works for some people, apparently, but I'll pass.  And I don't consider the men I've kissed over the past half-century to be frogs -- well, one or two, but in general they were perfectly fine people I just didn't want to spend the rest of my life with, or vice versa.  But that doesn't mean they were worthless, and the dismissive attitude toward ordinary humanity in this meme is disturbing.  If you aren't permanent, you're unreal, a waste of time.  The person who made this meme might just be projecting.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

COUNTERPOINT: Duncan, You Ignorant Slut!


A friend posted this meme on Facebook today.

Though I agree with the importance of wearing masks, I have a lot of problems with the rhetoric here. Businesses are not friends of freedom, and are really the biggest threats to freedom today.  They're not natural friends of safety either, for their workers or their customers: there's a reason for the safety regulations we have, to limit the freedom of businesses.

As for "consequences," that's a popular word with authoritarians too. "You had sex, you're pregnant, so you have to accept the consequences - no abortion for you!" "You got raped? Well, you shouldn't have been out alone at that hour of the night.  Accept the consequences of your sluttishness!" "The police shot you in the eye? You should have stayed home, there are consequences for protesting!" How we frame these issues is as important as the issues themselves; maybe more so.  The people who refuse to wear masks, to stay away from crowds, to keep distance from others, are practically begging to be despised and scorned, but that's not a good reason to indulge them.  The same goes for the refusers who hassle others.  Punishment is an ineffective way of changing people's behavior, and if we really want to get people to wear masks, we want effective measures, not ineffective ones.  Demagoguery isn't going to close the divisions that everyone deplores. 

The use of "asshole" reminds me of another creepy authoritarian, anti-freedom meme, that famous xkcd comic that also used "asshole" as a punchline.  Who is it that decides when you're an asshole for behaving badly, or speaking out of turn?  It's usually not the audiences; to the extent that it is, it's called "cancel culture," and our guardians of free speech are deeply concerned about it.  It's the corporations, the bosses, the rulers. The rest of us shouldn't side with them.  When the cruelty becomes the point, it's time to stop and think for a while.  The law of talion (an eye for an eye) is meant to restrain our sadistic fantasies, not indulge them.

If you jump off a high building, getting squashed is what you might call a natural consequence.  If you refuse to wear a mask during a pandemic, the natural consequences are the risk of getting sick, and of passing it along to someone you may care about.  I read today about a young woman who went to a party, contracted COVID-19, unknowingly gave it to her grandfather, became ill and was intubated in the hospital.  Her grandfather died of it, a day or two before the girl was taken out of the ICU.  That would be very hard to live with for the rest of your life.  We need to think twice before inventing and delighting in artificial consequences.  Deciding where to draw the line isn't easy, but if I want to be better than the assholes, it's what I have to do.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Sir, This Is Blogger

A thought: If you really had a medical condition that made it unsafe for you to wear a mask, would you want to fight your way into a store crowded with unmasked people sneezing, coughing, talking, yelling virus-laced droplets into the air? This is why I think most of the people who claim such conditions in order to get out of wearing a mask are lying.  It's also why I am always skeptical when people talk about "common sense," since so many opponents of masks or of any effective measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 invoke it.  But maybe I'm missing something, feel free to fill me in.

Earlier this year I saw a meme to the effect of "If Walmart is safe, why aren't churches considered safe"? WALMART WASN'T SAFE, nor were other stores - they were needed, which is why people were urged to wear masks at the time, to go in and get out as quickly as possible, and not to enter if they were sick. But I realize that just yelling 'WHY CAN'T I DO WHATEVER I WANT" doesn't sound as good.

I can understand that wearing a mask makes some people anxious, fearful of being asphyxiated. It's beyond their control, and I sympathize with them. So do businesses, and the government. That's why curbside pickup and home delivery were ramped up, so you can get your necessities without having to wear a mask. It's also why I believe most people who make the claim are lying.

But, you know, you're entitled to lie: lying is protected speech, believe it or not. Other people, however, are entitled to disagree with you, mock you, and yell at you when you harass store employees who have to make you wear a mask or leave.

Side note to all any edgy, rad people who may read this: notice that it doesn't contain the word "fuck" even once. Now, I love that word, but using it doesn't make an argument any stronger. In fact, it's the edgy, elderly-rockstar equivalent of "wearing a mask violates my freedom!!!"

Thank you for reading my TED talk.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Apostrophobia

I don't know why "Have we murdered the apostrophe?" popped up in Firefox recommendations on my tablet today.  The article was posted at BBC.com in February.  But it was effective clickbait, and it's not without interest.

I learned from it that the apostrophe was invented in the early 1500s, evidently by a French printer who also invented the cedilla and the accent.  At first it was used to indicate the omission of one or more letters, as in contractions.  "And sometimes they were added in for no obvious reason, for example in this line, by 17th Century poet Robert Herrick: 'What fate decreed, time now ha's made us see.'"

It wasn't until the 1600s and 1700s that the apostrophe began to signify the possessive in nouns and pronouns.
But it clearly took some time for the apostrophe to take hold. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were among the many authors inconsistent in their apostrophe use. And there was confusion or disagreement from the very early days of its deployment – that has not entirely cleared up five centuries later. It’s worth remembering that there has never been a time when people agreed on the ‘correct’ function of the apostrophe. "Not only does such consensus not exist in the past, it doesn’t exist now: the role of this troubling little punctuation mark is still in flux," as Merriam Webster puts it.
"Take hold" seems wrong somehow.  It sounds to me like the apostrophe took hold quickly, and ran riot in the fields of English writing.  But yes, writers of English evidently didn't quite know what to do with this rambunctious little Frenchman.

As the article acknowledges, one difficulty is that the apostrophe has different functions - omission, to signal the possessive, and though author Hélène Schumacher doesn't mention it, in British usage it signals direct quotation (though then it's known as a single quote, but it's the same mark; in American usage it's a quotation mark when a quotation is nested within another quotation).  I'm not sure how important this particular issue is.  I'm more inclined to blame ineffective and sometimes wrongheaded teaching, with the expectation that students should pick up the complexity of apostrophe use quickly.  With schools more and more dominated by standardized testing, there's even less time than there was formerly.

I'm a grammar / punctuation / spelling neurotic myself, and it annoys me when I encounter "it's" as the possessive of it.  But I still want to advocate what I consider the best solution to the problem of "misuse" of the apostrophe:

Get rid of it.

This is not a Modest Proposal.  I'm serious about it, so let me anticipate an obvious objection.  Schumacher quotes "Colin Matthews, head of English at Churchfields Primary School in Beckenham, England," who huffs that
he doesn’t think the evolution of language is "an excuse not to be clear and unambiguous". For him, teaching grammar is about avoiding ambiguity; it’s not about "knowing how an apostrophe is used; it's about clarity in meaning." ...

There are, of course, multitudes who survive perfectly well without knowing how to use apostrophes, but Matthews believes that while there are still prospective employers "who will throw a job application in the bin if the apostrophes are wrong," we need to continue teaching children how to use them correctly.
Ah, there, you see -- it's not him, it's those "prospective employers," and he's thinking only of the children and their futures.  This just tells me that he's just throwing objections at the wall in hopes that one of them will stick.  If the issue really were clarity in meaning, then it wouldn't matter what employers think.  Many of them don't know or care how to punctuate or spell either: Schumacher mentions companies like the British bookseller Waterstones, which recently dropped the apostrophe from its name to make it "more 'versatile' for online use", and the American company Lands' End, which "has maintained the use of an incorrect apostrophe and built it into its heritage. Wouldn't the same objection justify racial or religious bigotry: I would never discriminate, all are precious and equal in my sight, but there's no point in sending Jews to apply when "prospective employers" won't hire them.  Just convert all the kids to the C of E.

(An aside: the article includes a photograph of the New York Times building, with the caption, "Publications such as The New York Times serve to arbiter what is wrong or right when it comes to apostrophes and other grammatical usage."  According to my Merriam-Webster's College Dictionary, Tenth Edition, "arbiter" is a noun, not a verb.  The unabridged agrees.  Does the BBC trump their authority?)
However, as Tom Hyndley, the headmaster of Churchfields Primary School notes, the apostrophe is certainly valuable in its ability to aid comprehension in written English: "my view, probably like many in education, is that grammar [such as apostrophes] is useful because of its ability to clarify, change or convey meaning not as an end in its own right.”
I agree.  As a writer, I love the way that subtle use of punctuation, word order -- all kinds of factors -- can be used to convey meaning in writing.  But when I thought about it for a while, I had trouble remembering or thinking of instances where an apostrophe did such a thing.  Far more often, it seems to me that I am tripped up by the "misuse" of apostrophes, annoyed when someone writes "it's" for "its", puts an apostrophe into a plural, and the like.  At a minimum, if I had dictatorial power I would make "it's" the possessive form of "it."  It shouldn't cause confusion with "it's" as a contraction, since it doesn't seem to with other nouns.  The irregularity of the form confuses far more people than it clarifies, and it mainly serves as a club for language snobs to bash other people with.  I think we should take that club from their well-manicured hands and throw it away.

Still, I want to go further.  I don't think we need the apostrophe for possessive nouns either, or for contractions.  Bernard Shaw, among other writers, insisted on printing contractions without apostrophes, and it doesn't seem to confuse anyone for more than a minute or two.  Context will signal whether a noun is a possessive or a plural.  If teachers can't develop ways to teach students how to use the apostrophe "correctly" -- and centuries of confusion argue that they can't -- then it creates more confusion and ambiguity than it prevents.  I come to bury the apostrophe, not to praise it.  I'd miss it, but I'm willing to sacrifice my comfort for the greater good.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Gay 70s?

Armistead Maupin linked to this appreciation of his first novel, Tales of the City, from the Advocate's website.  I hadn't heard of the writer, Kurt Niece, before, but that doesn't mean much.  I'm a big fan of the series, which I began reading when only two of the ultimately nine volumes had appeared.

It's odd, but although I enjoyed them Maupin's books never made me want to visit San Francisco very much, and I didn't go there until the late 1990s, when the series was in hiatus; so I don't remember the City of that era.  But I don't recognize gay life in the 70s from Niece's reminiscence at all, even if I make allowance for the "rose-colored glasses" he looks through.  He remembers
casual sex, cruising and bars. When I was very young, being gay was illegal. Homosexuality was viewed as a reprehensible and allegedly treatable psychiatric condition. But even so, being gay felt easier and far less complicated then.

I met my partners in person. The internet was science fiction and screen time was devoted to a handful of broadcast television stations and basic cable. There was a perception that since we were outlaws and criminals, and since most STDs could be treated with a big dose of antibiotics, then what the hell? Whoop it up! Go for it with the understanding that Auntie Mame is right – life is a banquet and most of those poor suckers are starving. 
Everyone has their own experience, and their own perspective.  But being gay was never illegal in the US: what was illegal was sex between males.  The line was blurred in practice, of course, and probably most straights as well as most gays were probably vague about the distinction.  I remember a bit in Martin Hoffman's important book The Gay World (Basic Books, 1968), which I read in 1969 or so: one of Hoffman's informants says "Maybe I'll move to San Francisco, gay kids are legal there."  Hoffman comments, as I just did, that it was sex, not being gay, that was illegal.  California's sodomy law wasn't repealed until 1975, so Hoffman's informant was wrong however you think about it.  As I remember, Hoffman also stressed that homosexuals were usually not charged with sodomy, but with lewd behavior, indecency, and other (probably unconstitutionally vague, but go figure) offenses, and those statutes weren't affected by the 1975 repeal.

San Francisco police had laid off to some extent by the time Tales of the City was written, but not entirely, so there was a very real sense in which gay men especially were criminals and outlaws in those days.  I don't believe Tales or its sequels had much to say about this aspect of gay life; a gay cop is an ongoing minor character later on, when the makeup of the police force was changing.  Antigay violence was an ongoing threat, including the gay ghettos, and there's a gay bashing in the third book of the series.  Then there was the assassination of City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by an antigay bigot in 1978, followed by the White Night Riots after the assassin was let off lightly by a jury.  I don't recall that Maupin ever touched on those events in the series.  "Less complicated"?  In the eye of the beholder, I guess, especially when the eye is hazed over by nostalgia.

As for meeting one's partners in person, that too is a slight oversimplification.  Gay men developed a number of ways to "meet" without getting too personal about it: the baths (with orgy rooms that let you "meet" in the dark in groups; bars also featured these), the public restrooms.  The Advocate's personal ads were notorious for their reduction of desired partners to a few fetishes; the Internet is just the evolution and fulfilment of that aspect of gay male life.  Niece reports a conversation with a much younger friend, presumably gay, and his uneasiness comparing the promiscuity of the 70s with what he assumes to be the wholesome domesticity of today:
I wondered what it would be like to have been settled and married and have had only one or two sex partners for the entirety of my life. What would it have been like to live life devoted to just one person? There was an unsettling regret that perhaps my life was not as well lived as I’d imagined.
This is baffling.  Young gay men are not, as far as I can tell, any less interested in promiscuity than their foreuncles were; what does he imagine they use the Internet for? That men can marry each other doesn't mean they're automatically going to be monogamous, any more than married heterosexuals are.  The male couples in Maupin's series aren't monogamous, certainly, but they remain devotedly together for years. Niece is viewing the past fifty years not through rose-colored glasses so much as through blinders that distort present and past alike in the service of stereotypes that are no tribute to Maupin's work.

Niece says his favorite passage in Tales is the one where Michael Tolliver and Brian Hawkins, gay and straight respectively, are sharing a joint and speculating about the future.  Michael says, “People like you and me…we’re gonna be 55-year-old Libertines in a world full of 20-year old Calvinists.”  Alas (or maybe not), it's a false prophecy.  If he weren't a fictional character, Michael would be 69 this year, and a good many of the real-life 20-year-olds are chasing each other on Grindr and other "dating" apps.  A lot of them are partnered, engaged, even married.  Things haven't changed that much. Even AIDS didn't bring about the utopia of terrified monogamy that so many Calvinists pretended to want, though I suspect like their nominally heterosexual counterparts, many of them violated their own strictures when they thought no one was looking.

My favorite scene from the series (well, one of them; I have several) involves the gay cop, Bill Rivera, who's visited by his brother's ex-lover's brother from somewhere out east.  The visitor has brought a bunch of fetish gear with him, and spends his entire vacation "trashing around."  Before he leaves, he tells his host: "You know, Bill, I could never live here - it's just too decadent!"  This perfectly sums up to me the ability of many people to dissociate their actual behavior from their pretenses about themselves.  No virus can eradicate that.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Honeymoon? We Aren't Even Married Yet!

After someone on Twitter criticized the Biden campaign's decision to invite the Republican governor of Ohio, John Kasich, to address the upcoming Democratic convention, a stable genius replied:

Kasich is anti-union, so it's hard to see how he's going to inspire the Democrats' union base; he's also an antigay bigot, and a former failed Republican Presidential candidate and therefore of Satan.  Or so you'd think.  Are Democratic voters such weak reeds that they need to know that Republicans dislike Trump too, or they won't be able to drag themselves to the polling stations?

Notice too that dismissive "spar over policy."  No doubt he'll say the same thing after Biden is elected and guts Social Security and Medicare, forces workers to work in a pandemic or starve, bails out Wall Street again, and vetoes the new voting rights bill.  That most people aren't just sparring, which is to say playing, but concerned about their lives and their families' lives and the lives of everyone who isn't at least a multimillionaire, escapes him.

We went through this in 2008, I remember.  Before Obama was elected, we skeptics were told that after he won we could hold his feet to the fire and make him enact good policies.  But as soon as he was elected, before he even took office, we were told to back off, give him a chance, it was too soon to judge him, wait and see what he'd do.  As I pointed out at the time, his corporate donors and friends weren't backing off: they were making sure he made the appointments they wanted, pushing him in the direction they wanted him to go.  True, he would have done it anyway, because his priorities lay in corporatism and protecting the powerful from accountability.  And it's doubtful how much pressure anyone to his left could have brought to bear on him.  His few good appointments, such as Hilda Solis, were quietly eased out in a few months.  Anyone the Right disliked had to go; Obama was very obliging.

So this is all annoyingly familiar.  Biden is already surrounding himself with some of the same people Obama gravitated to, such as Larry Summers.  His sycophants are telling us to wait and see, to give him a chance.  I look forward to seeing the last of Trump, though former Presidents rarely disappear from public life altogether.  But as Biden has said, nothing will fundamentally change under his presidency, and those who try to push him in a better direction will face not only his inertia, but the vindictive fury of his Democratic cult.  It won't be pretty.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Shhh - Be Vewwy Quiet, I'm Hunting Weds

So an acquaintance of mine posted a link to this Fresh Air interview with the author of a new biography of Joseph McCarthy, the Red-hunting, queer-hunting Republican Senator from Wisconsin who gave his name to political witch-hunting.  I bogged down about 8 minutes into the 36-minute recording, because both interviewer and interviewee are pretty annoying.  While I agree, however quixotically, that it's important to know our history, Larry Tye seems an unreliable guide.

For example, at the point where I quit listening,  he cited Donald Trump's infamous claim that he could kill someone on the street in broad daylight and not lose any of his supporters; then quoted the pollster George Gallup, who in the 1950s said essentially the same thing about McCarthy.  Well, of course. Tye calls this a chilling prediction, but it's not a prediction, it's a standard political slam.  We leftists said the same of Barack Obama, and there's an ancient joke to the effect that the only sure career suicide for a politician is to be caught in bed with a live man or a dead woman.

Maybe I'll slog through the rest of the interview later, but for now I'll go with the accompanying text, which seems representative.  If we're going to learn from our history, we should be aware that Red scares and homosexual scandals long predated McCarthy.  From 1917 to 1920, Woodrow Wilson stirred a panic over Communists, anarchists and socialists threatening the body politic; Wilson's Attorney General Mitchell Palmer became a byword for repression, and J. Edgar Hoover's career as an anti-Communist cop took off. The Wikipedia article says that in 1920 Hoover told "the nation to prepare for a bloody uprising on May Day.  Police and militias prepared for the worst, but May Day passed without incident."  The recent attempts by police and politicians to stir up panic about Antifa attacks that turned out to be imaginary are just the latest example of this sort of thing.

Then there was the House Un-American Activities Committee, founded in 1938 to root out Communists and Fascists, which abused its powers for more than three decades, ruining lives and careers.  This was separate from McCarthy's escapades, since he was a Senator and had his own committee for a playground.  Meanwhile, in 1947, President Harry Truman instituted a Loyalty Program to harass government employees.  According to one author on this period, "During the loyalty-security program’s peak years from 1947 to 1956, over five million federal workers underwent screening, resulting in an estimated 2,700 dismissals and 12,000 resignations… the program exerted its chilling effect on a far larger number of employees than those who were dismissed."  The Truman Library still defends this action as necessary and appropriate to protect America from the Red Menace, as you can see on the page I just linked:
It is common today to look at events like McCarthyism, HUAC and the Loyalty Program as products of hysteria. Yet this hardly was the first time the federal government restricted civil liberties in the name of national security. In 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts as concerns grew over a looming war with France. During both the Civil War and World War I, individuals suspected of disloyalty faced prison. The liberty vs. security debate is a continuity in American history, and even though we live in a post-Cold War world, some of these issues are still part of the discussion in an age of global terrorism. Truman’s Loyalty Program must be viewed and debated with this understanding, and the understanding that historical context drives presidential decision making.
While I disagree with the apologetic tenor of this paragraph, it does at least acknowledge that McCarthy didn't simply come out of nowhere to sow fear through demagoguery.  He used a strategy and narrative that had been developed by numerous people before him, and would be used again after him.  Tye talks about McCarthy's and Trump's manipulation of the mass media.  I think the media love to be manipulated: they gave Trump billions of dollars' worth of free publicity in the guise of news coverage during the 2016 campaign, continuing down to the present, broadcasting his campaign rallies disguised as press conferences on the COVID-19 pandemic.  Tye also dwells on Trump's genealogical connection to McCarthy through Roy Cohn, McCarthy's former assistant and ultimately Trump's lawyer.  But for all his feral cunning, could Cohn have survived McCarthy's fall if there weren't a corrupted environment of anticommunist grandstanding sustained by big money?

McCarthy embarrassed some of the anticommunist Right by his vulgarity and playing to the rubes, much like Trump today, and I imagine they were as glad to see him self-destruct as the bipartisan Republican-Democratic establishment will be glad when Trump is gone.  Then they can busily write history to make Trump the problem, rather than the system he exploits.  NPR is part of that great product, and Larry Tye is already doing his share.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Fascinating Rhythm Nation


On the whole, I think Michael Rosen has it right here.  The trouble is that many people, even ostensible non-fascists, think of Nazis as having the coolest look: uniforms, shiny jackboots, medals, riding *gasp* crops, precision marching corps.

Which is why this video from the 1980s has always disturbed me:



I'm not going to say that uniforms, boots, etc. are necessarily, essentially fascist, but the look here is not good, to put it mildly.  Are you lost, broken?  We will teach you the steps, and make you one of us.  Don't ask questions, there's no time for your doubts.  Join us now before it's too late.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Ignorant Armies Clash

Over the weekend a young Asian-American man told me and some other white men about an experience he'd had in college -- graduate school, perhaps.  A paper he'd written was rejected by his professor because the professor considered its vocabulary too advanced or complex, so he assumed either that it was plagiarized or written by someone else.  (Compare his experience to that of the neurobiologist Ben Barres, who before transitioning to male in the 1990s was accused by an MIT professor of getting her boyfriend to solve a difficult test problem, because of course no woman could have done it.)  Luckily the young man had the courage to stand up for himself, and the professor wasn't so far gone as to refuse to let him prove his competence: which he did, and the professor changed his grade from F to A.

Now, the young man speaks English with a standard mid-American accent.  I don't know where he was born, but he was likely born in the US, or at the latest came here early enough to acquire English as fully as one would expect from a native speaker.  Maybe the professor hadn't heard him speak?  Or if he did, his preconceptions may have overlaid a Chinese accent in his mind's ear.  I don't know exactly what kind of racism drove him to this unfounded, unjustified conclusion, and it doesn't much matter, because my point is that this story gives me one more reason to cringe when someone speaks or racists or other bigots as "ignorant." 

Highly intelligent (for some sense of the word) and educated (for some sense of that one) people can harbor the most squalid prejudices and biases.  "Minority" people eager for status need to recognize, I think, that a doctorate isn't quite the crown of glory they take it for.  If you really mean that unschooled people can be, hell, are smarter than these pointy-headed professors with their diplomas and fancy words, then don't regard those diplomas and titles as signs of superiority.

It also occurred to me that this must have happened in this century.  The professor must have lived through the Civil Rights movement and other movements against entrenched attitudes; he could hardly claim to be too old to be aware of these matters, though as an academic who evidently was ready to harbor racist stereotypes, he no doubt chose not to learn from them.  Perhaps he was one of those academics who fumed against the culture wars of the 1990s, feeling embattled and persecuted for his attachment to traditional values.  Sometimes I think we need a little more cancel culture, not less.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

"Cancel Culture": "Political Correctness" for 2020

And political extremists roam the land, abusing the privilege of free speech, setting citizens against one another on the basis of their class or race.
-- George H. W. Bush, commencement address at University of Michigan, May 4, 1991
The fussin' and fightin' over That Letter hasn't flamed out yet, days later.  A few intelligent contributions have been made, but on the whole the level of discussion remains embarrassingly low.

I'm not going to say that there's no such thing as cancel culture; that would be like claiming that there's no such thing as the "Democratic establishment"; or from another perspective, that there was no such thing as a "homosexual" before the word was invented in 1869.  What I want to challenge here is the common claim that the attempts to silence disliked opinions and people are new, a feature of the Age of Trump.  (Because, as we all know, history began on January 20, 2017 and nothing happened before that date.)  This is a false claim, and it baffles me that anyone over the age of ten can make it.  But we live in the United States of Amnesia, so of course they do.

I just found a good essay by Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson, responding to an article by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi from almost a month before That Letter appeared.  Taibbi's examples of Political Correctness Run Amok are about the same as those That Letter, though it's impossible to be sure because That Letter is carefully unspecific about them.

Robinson dissects Taibbi's cases.  For example
Often, I’ve found that when you actually click the links on stories about how the “social justice warriors” or “wokescolds” or “cancel culture” doers are getting wildly out of control, you find that the facts are far more nuanced than critics want you to believe. For example, Taibbi cites an instance of “a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ out loud.” This sounds so extreme that I doubted whether it was true, and indeed it isn’t. The students actually complained because when the (white) professor read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” aloud, he chose to say the n-word rather than censoring it. And when Black students told him they would have preferred if he’d omitted the word, he apparently doubled down and said being white didn’t mean he couldn’t say the n-word. (Students were apparently also upset that he had shown them a video containing the n-word and graphic pictures of lynchings, apparently without having had a conversation about it.)
And so on.  I suddenly experienced a dizzying moment of deja vu: I'd read essentially the same article many times during the 1990s, when a range of writers (some journalists, some scholars, and a vile hack named Dinesh D'Souza - you may have heard of him) were claiming that America's colleges and universities had been taken over by Communist deconstructionists who hated Western culture and were brainwashing our young people with their gay feminist multiculturalism; and a range of other writers, mostly scholars but some journalists carefully exposed the inaccuracy of their accusations in detail.*  Not all those who jumped on the Culture Wars bandwagon were right-wing; some were liberal and some were even some kind of leftist.

For example, the distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward gave D'Souza's mendacious book Illiberal Education (excerpted in the liberal magazine The Atlantic) a favorable review in The New York Review of Books.  NYRB has a long tradition of publishing letters, often very critical ones, addressing their articles, with responses by the reviewers.  Several critical letters were published, detailing errors by Woodward and D'Souza.  Interestingly, Woodward admitted that when he checked he found numerous falsehoods in D'Souza's account of the activist Rigoberta Menchu, but he doesn't seem to have done so with the book as a whole.  His patronizing sneer at the distinguished historian John Hope Franklin -- "John Hope Franklin must have got up on the wrong side of the bed the day he wrote his letter", and it gets worse as he proceeds -- wasn't a great example of serious discussion either.

What the accusers of PC had in common was not a political stance but a disregard for factual accuracy and reason, which they projected onto their targets.  One of my favorite falsehoods was the claim that Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple was being taught in college literature courses more than Shakespeare was.  John K. Wilson refuted the claim in The Myth of Political Correctness (Duke UP, 1995, pp. 84-5):
Perhaps the most famous inaccuracy was written by Christopher Clausen, chair of Penn State’s English department, when he said, “I would bet that The Color Purple is taught in more English courses today than all of Shakespeare’s plays combined.” Clausen’s statement is cited by NAS [National Association of Scholars] member Thomas Short, who agrees that “it is possible that Walker’s black lesbian saga is now assigned more often in college courses than all of Shakespeare’s plays combined.”

My own survey of reading lists for English classes at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) in 1991 found that Shakespeare was the most popular author by a wide margin. In addition to five sections of “Introduction to Shakespeare,” five sections of an advanced Shakespeare class, an honors seminar, and a graduate seminar, eight non-Shakespeare classes also included Shakespeare in their list of readings. Only one class read The Color Purple. Using a conservative estimate of eight plays assigned in each Shakespeare class, nearly one hundred Shakespeare plays were read for every copy of Alice Walker’s book.
Something to notice here: Clausen wrote "I would bet," and Short said "It is possible."  When I first encountered this claim it was from other people, mostly online, who simply declared it as fact.  That's how these things spread.  Someone might argue that Wilson only surveyed one university and things might be different elsewhere.  That's certainly possible, but neither Clausen nor Short bothered to look at even one school.  The burden of proof lies on the person who affirms: it was up to them to provide evidence, but phrasing it as they did allowed them to avoid that obligation.  They were just, y'know, having a good time, so chill!

Before D'Souza, the right-wing scholar Allan Bloom set off a similar shitstorm with his The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1987), which claimed that American higher education had been taken over by leftist barbarians during the upheavals of the 1960s.  Bloom's claims also were dubious and refuted by many academics and other writers.**  The idea that American democracy is endangered by wild-eyed Reds, anarchists, women, and Negroes is much older, and generally expressed in similar terms, generation after generation.

The writers of That Letter chose not to specify actual cases to back up their complaint, which gave them similar plausible deniability.  When people have attempted to pin down specifics, there's been disagreement among their critics as to what is meant.  But one of the allusions seems to be reasonably clear: "Editors are fired for running controversial pieces".  This probably refers to Senator Tom Cotton's (R-Ark.) notorious op-ed piece for the New York Times which urged that the US military be used against "rioters" protesting police violence.  Calling such a stance "controversial" is the sort of thing that Noam Chomsky, among others, would ordinarily mock.  But on top of that, the Op-Ed page editor confessed that he had not read the piece before it was published; and that the board had solicited it from Cotton, though they would not have been obliged to run it if he'd simply submitted it on spec - corporate media apologists love to remind us that no one can demand to appear in their pages.  It should also be remembered that objections to the op-ed process came not just from the Twitter mob but from Times reporters and writers.  Whether editor James Bennet should have been made to resign can be debated, but his competence is certainly open to question; it wasn't just because he published something "controversial." So the clause in That Letter is highly dishonest, like much of the rest of it.  Which is not how you call for better, more open, more responsible debate.

Which takes me back to That Letter's claims that we (whoever 'we' are) are faced with a new problem: "a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity"; "The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted"; "it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought"; "it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought."

The author laments:
"While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters."
The irony here is that many of the signers (Chomsky, Katha Pollitt, Cary Nelson among them) have been attacked in just these terms themselves.  Maybe it's true that Today's Kids Are Going Too Far, but I could wish for more self-awareness from these sadder-but-wiser elder spokespeople, and in its absence it's hard for me to take them seriously, especially the bit about valuing "even caustic counter-speech."  It's exactly what this letter opposes: not from the signers, but from those who disagree with them.

I don't deny that censoriousness, intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, etc. occur in American society and often inhibit free debate.  Certainly the Internet in general and social media in particular have enabled unprecedented numbers of people to show their asses to the world.  They were always there, however, as anyone familiar with US political and intellectual history should know.

One thing that may have changed is that cancel culture used to conduct its working behind closed doors: senior faculty deciding that they already had enough Jews or women or blacks in the department, upper management quietly pulling reporters off stories because, as George Orwell put it, "it wouldn't do" to put such things into print; troublesome athletes cut loose for being uppity; arrestees having mysterious fatal accidents in police custody.  While there isn't really much outside input in such matters now, there's a lot more than there used to be, and our self-styled meritocratic elites hate that.  Of course they yowl that they're being persecuted by the rabble.

Having said that, I think we need more openness and more rational debate.  Their lack is nothing new, which is not surprising: critical thinking and responsible debate are hard.  Because of this difficulty, neither is really very popular among the people who recommend it to others; scientists, for example, should be its most regular practitioners, but they evade it when they can.  Our celebrity scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Bill Nye, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, are actually prominent in cancel culture: they prefer snarky comebacks, a victim's stance, or vitriolic abuse to reasoned debate.  (Of course they are cast by their fans as the victims of cancel culture.)

When you encounter something like That Letter, which proclaims a new problem, you know you're dealing with grifters.  Not everything in it is false: a smart hustler knows that the best way to lie is with half-truths.  Yes, there are immense pressures against free exchanges of ideas and opinion; yes, many people on the left are hostile to free exchanges; but the biggest pressures come from our big institutions.  Numerous people have pointed out that employment-at-will is a major factor: if your boss can fire you because you're inconvenient, you've given the company bad publicity, then of course you're vulnerable to abuse from the Twitterverse.

Remember how casually Barack Obama jettisoned Shirley Sherrod after a right-wing site released a doctored video that made her look bad.  He didn't even try to find out if the accusations had any validity.  (I suspect he wanted to get rid of Sherrod anyway for some reason, and the Breitbart video gave him an excuse.)  Investigating such questions isn't cost-effective, either financially or politically.  To see Obama now denouncing cancel culture just shows his ongoing dishonesty.  We know from history that false accusations and bad-faith arguments are ancient; they aren't going to go away because Barack Obama or Noam Chomsky or J. K. Rowling scolds them.  Investigating them before acting is not a luxury, it's a necessity; but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Ellen Willis addressed this B.I. (Before the Internet) in a discussion of the firing of the right-wing CBS commentator Andy Rooney, which I quoted at some length in a previous post:
This was seen in some quarters as a victory for the left.  Yet the real reason Rooney got into trouble was that he violated the media establishment's bland, centrist criteria for acceptable speech.  In demanding Rooney's removal, lesbian and gay activists appealed to precisely those standards of "civility" -- that is, niceness -- regularly used to marginalize their own speech.  While Rooney was slapped down for expressing bluntly illiberal views, it's hard to imagine anyone comparably left of the mainstream -- particularly in a libertarian direction -- ever having his job in the first place.  And suppose such a person did slip through and then wrote a letter to the editor defending illegal drug use or attacking organized religion as tyrannical -- can anyone doubt that he or she would have been not suspended but fired, and with little public protest at that?
This is relevant to the Tom Cotton op-ed.  It's hard to imagine anyone "comparably left of the mainstream" ever being invited to contribute to the Times Op-Ed page, though it is well-populated with regular columnists as far right as Cotton.  Yes, a lot of people on the left are hostile to open debate, and I attack them constantly; we all know about the right's hostility to open debate; but I say that the biggest, most intractable threat comes from the Center.  The Center silences you because you're uncivil, because what you're saying is just crazy, and the Center however it's constituted will have the most money and clout.  As Willis indicated, the Centrist media could sponsor and broadcast open, serious discussions; they know how to do it; but they almost never do, because they don't fit their business model.  But then, serious, open discussions aren't part of American culture in general either.

--------------
*  Most accessible are Beyond PC: Towards a Politics of Understanding, ed. Patricia Aufterheide (Graywolf Press, 1992); Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses (Delta, 1995).  For more academic discussions, see Higher Education Under Fire, ed. Michael Berube and Cary Nelson (Routledge, 1995); Michael Berube, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (Verso, 1994); PC Wars: Politics and Theory in the Academy, ed. Jeffrey Williams (Routledge, 1995); After Political Correctness: The Humanities and Society in the 1990s, ed. Christopher Newfield and Ronald Strickland (Westview, 1995).

*** See Essays on The Closing of the American Mind, ed. Robert L. Stone, Chicago Review Press, 1989.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Circling the Wagons; or, All These People Who Aren't My Boss

I've been meaning to write about freedom of expression here for some time.  Several recent events pushed me - Trump claiming that Twitter or Facebook had censored him; my Twitter account locked for a few weeks; etc.  I'll try to return to these matters later, but today the Twitterverse is aflame over an open letter published by Harper's Magazine and signed by numerous celebrities, among them Noam Chomsky.

I probably shouldn't write about it, because I agree with those people who've declared the letter a distraction, like the Gravel Teens: "pretty incredible that amid mass joblessness and a deadly pandemic all our 'leading intellectuals' can talk about is the deadly threat of 'cancel culture'".  But one: this isn't entirely fair: many of the signatories, including Chomsky, are talking about joblessness, a deadly pandemic, climate change, war, and other important issues.  Many of us can multitask.  Two: it's clear that many of our random non-intellectuals are all too ready to be distracted by it.  Include me in that company if you wish.

Among the many issues raised by the responses I'm seeing to this rather vacuous and dishonest document is the anger, even fury, over it.  There's a lot of babble about "thought control" and "manufacturing consent" on the Internet, and whatever else you can say, this open letter doesn't do either.  The signatories are a motley bunch, with a variety of complaints and motives, but the letter represents an Establishment that is crumbling under the weight of its own incompetence, so it's lashing out at its critics.  I can point and giggle and make rude noises at them, or I can ignore them; I don't think they will make anything happen by attaching their names to this complaint.  I think that many of their left critics have been echoing their position: these people are trying to silence me!  Perhaps they are, but I don't think they will succeed.

In particular many left-identified persons are attacking Chomsky for setting himself up as some kind of shining example of the Left, or anarchism, whatever, and this old guy who doesn't know anything about the Internet is telling them what to think!!!  Before this particular kerfluffle, Chomsky was getting heat for arguing that people should vote strategically, as if anyone had to do what he said.  I've written about this before, about people who say that Chomsky treats his opponents with contempt (oh noes!), or that he demands unquestioning obedience to his authoritarian declarations (false), that you can't disagree with him (also false).  Interestingly, these claims come from individuals on the right, the center, and the left. Whatever influence Chomsky has, he can't make you do anything: you don't have to listen to him, you don't have to read him, you certainly don't have to agree with him.  Yes, if you're on the left, you'll probably encounter people who will cite him as Scripture. which is probably annoying, but that just gives you an opportunity to refute him -- if you can; rational debate is hard work.  But I don't see how it could more annoying than encountering people who attack him inaccurately and irrationally, and I run into a lot of people like that, in person or online.

I respect Chomsky, I honor his dedication and persistence, but he's not my boss and I don't always agree with him.  If I feel strongly enough, I write a critique of him. Therefore I don't feel threatened when he says something I disagree with.  Funny that so many bold free-thinkers have such a different reaction.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Cruelty Is the Point: It's Not Just for the MAGA Crowd




Every day there are more reports of people throwing tantrums because they've been asked to wear masks while shopping.  The most recent I've seen is a woman in a Fort Worth Seven-Eleven who spat on the counter to show the cashier who was boss.  That's better than the California woman who coughed in the face of a bartender rather than comply.

Then there's the woman in a Hollywood Trader Joe's who claimed she had a medical condition that precludes wearing a mask, and ran to the media to claim she was scared for her life, which reminds me of a white woman who called the police on a black man who'd asked her to leash her dog in Central Park, claiming he had threatened her life (he hadn't, but she threatened his).  This woman's story is excessively complicated, and I don't believe her.  The store rejects her version too.

The woman in the video I've referenced above is more of the same, but what really got my attention were the comments under the tweet that spread the clip.  The bulk of the comments point out that she committed vandalism and should be charged for the food she damaged, if not prosecuted, with deploring of the anti-mask faction.  That's okay, but it does become repetitive. Such comments were less prevalent when I first noticed the incident, though.

I was struck by remarks like "This is a nationwide phenomena [sic]. We need to start tagging and tracking Karens, study them. Spay & neuter. Science!"  When challenged, this person qualified it somewhat:  "Not if it's the crazy Hitler eugenics. But if it's only people who act like shitheads in public, or that treat employees like this, I'd be kinda ok with it."  Sterilizing people is the "crazy Hitler eugenics," and as with Hitler's victims, there's no reason to believe that this woman's bad behavior is determined by her genes. 

Then there was "No wonder we are the laughing stock of the planet. I hope they got her license plate number and called the police", followed by "If there’s life on other planets we are probably the laughingstock of the galaxy".  Someone has a wildly inflated idea of the significance and interest of events on our little rock.

A related theme: "Does anyone realize we are the only country that acts like this when they are asked to do something? Unbelievable".  No, we aren't the only country seeing behavior like this.  The South Korean churches that spread the virus through church services, Israeli ultraorthodox fanatics, European politicians scolding their citizens for ignoring the danger, and so on; the difference is probably that this person can only read English Twitter, but also that they don't pay attention or forget disconfirming cases. This is just another form of American exceptionalism.

What really got my goat, however, was this theme: "She’s a spoiled brat. Her parents probably never told her ‘no’. This is the result."  Or: "Such bratty, hardly ever been told NO - behavior! Shame".  Or: "She needs an Asian mom's whopping."  Or: "why does no one punch her in the face?"  Or: "How is it that parents in this country have raised such rotten young people?"  Or: "Why is smacking these people illegal ? It might even reset factory settings".  Or: "Her house needs eggs on the outside. Also maybe some Oreos on her car's windows? Hopefully she gets doxed."  Or: "jesus christ her parents never said 'no' to her did they",  And a lot more; I was hoping to find again the people who said this woman hadn't been spanked enough as a child, but no luck yet.

No matter: my point is that I got the feeling some MAGA types had wandered into the wrong thread: the tut-tutting over people's upbringing, the claim that Kids These Days have no respect or self control, they should have been beaten more by their parents and that's where this country went wrong.  The fantasies of violent punishment.  That's MAGA, as I know from the sewers of Facebook; so why are ostensible Trump-hating liberals parroting the same vindictive garbage?  It's nothing new, alas -- I remember the same phenomenon during the Reagan years -- but I think it's getting somewhat worse, and it's dispiriting to see liberals once again imitating the people they claim to despise.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Cognitive Dissonance

Dan Savage's latest column is an interesting study in contradiction.  It consists of two letters, both from gay men dealing with "kinks" (i.e., light sadomasochism) in their relationships.

The first man has found a good but apparently vanilla boyfriend whom he's afraid of scaring away if he asks to introduce his "need to engage in power exchange with someone."  Meanwhile, keeping his desires bottled up is stressing him out seriously.

Dan is supportive: "Your kinks are an intrinsic aspect of your sexuality and repressing them—not having any way to explore or express them—does take an emotional toll."  So far so good.

The second man has "a new boyfriend who just opened up to me about his kinks."
What’s interesting to me, Dan, is how often this happens. My boyfriend is easily the fourth guy I’ve dated in the last few years who laid down the exact same kink cards: wants to be tied up, wants to be called names, wants to be hurt. I’m learning to tie knots and getting better at calling him names when we have sex, and I actually really enjoying spanking him. But I was talking with a friend—our straight lady mutual (with the boyfriend’s okay!)—and she told me she’s never had a straight guy open up to her about wanting to be tied up and abused. Are gay guys just kinkier?
Dan takes a different tack in response.
I have a theory…

When we’re boys… before we’re ready to come out… we’re suddenly attracted to other boys. And that’s something we usually feel pretty panicked about. It would be nice if that first same-sex crush was something a boy could experience without feelings of dread or terror, TOP, but that’s not how it works for most of us. We’re keenly aware that should the object of our desire realize it—if the boy we’re attracted to realizes what we’re feeling, if we give ourselves away with a stray look—the odds of that boy reacting badly or even violently are high. Even if you think the boy might not react violently, even if you suspect the boy you’re crushing on might be gay himself, the stakes are too high to risk making any sort of move. So we stew with feelings of lust and fear.

Sexual desire can make anyone feel fearful and powerless—we’re literally powerless to control these feelings (while we can and must control how we act on these feelings)—but desire and fear are stirred together for us gay boys to much greater degree than they are for straight boys. We fear being found out, we fear being called names, we fear being outed, we fear being physically hurt. And the person we fear most is the person we have a crush on. A significant number of gay guys wind up imprinting on that heady and very confusing mix of desire and fear. The erotic imaginations of guys like your boyfriend seize on those fears and eroticize them. And then, in adulthood, your boyfriend want to re-experience those feelings, that heady mix of desire and fear, with a loving partner he trusts. The gay boy who feared being hurt by the person he was attracted to becomes the gay man who wants to be hurt—in a limited, controlled, consensual, and safe way—by the man he’s with.
Here Dan explains what appear to be essentially the same kink he described as "intrinsic" to the first guy's sexuality as an extrinsic, contingent result of the fears gay boys grow up with.  His theory isn't implausible, and he's far from the only person to theorize masochism like this, but although I don't have a better explanation, I don't buy it.  For one thing, I think masochism is much more common among heterosexual males than either Dan or his questioner recognize: usually it's expressed without getting genital.  The hierarchical games of dominance and submission between males that play an important role in patriarchy are sadomasochistic at core, even if no one has an orgasm.  (A number of theorist-practitioners of gay male S/M have claimed that genital sex plays less of a role in their erotic lives than the theater of dominance and submission, the cosplay, and so on.)  Expressing these roles through fucking and sucking is very difficult to negotiate between straight males, for the same reason that gay men find it necessary to closet themselves.  The straight female friend the questioner had discussed this with claimed she'd never encountered a man who asked her to dominate him.  That may well be, but it doesn't guarantee that none of them wanted her to. and they had good reason to be afraid to ask.  Some women are happy to play the dominatrix, but many others freak out over even a little kinkiness.  I bet Dan will get some letters about this from straight male and female readers alike.

But I digress.  The point for me is that Dan equivocated in the same column between claiming kinks as "intrinsic" and "explaining" them in the very same suspect way that homosexuality used to be "explained."  If kinks aren't inborn, that means they're acquired or (gasp) learned, and maybe they can be unlearned as well.  I don't think Dan intends or wants to say anything like this, but it follows from his armchair psychologizing.  Physician, explain thyself!

P.S.  This is the 2500th post of this blog.  No biggie, but a milestone nevertheless.