Sunday, October 25, 2020

I See You; I Hear You

It's a good thing the Average Voter doesn't pay attention to Twitter (so I'm told); the prospects keep looking worse by the day.

The attempts to reassure us aren't persuasive.  Today someone scoffed at Left Twitter's concern about reports that Obama's hand-picked candidate Joe Biden is considering (so we're told) numerous Republicans for his cabinet, for diversity's sake.  The scoffer declared confidently that Biden won't actually appoint Republicans (though Obama did), he's just vetting them, you big sillies. I can't see any reason to vet them in the first place.

Then Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered himself of this great gob of liberal compassion:

I was going to link to Schumer's original tweet, which included video of his statement, but it has mysteriously vanished.  Maybe Left Twitter is more effective than we're told?  But let me get into why it was so offensive, not just to me but to numerous other people who piled on. 

That Rochester veteran didn't kill himself because he lacked access to suicide prevention counseling; he killed himself because he'd lost his job, couldn't make his mortgage payments, and was probably going to end up on the street.  Counseling isn't going to help.

Schumer's clueless response is part of a pattern.  Joe Kennedy helped tank his own campaign against Ed Markey by tweeting "Not a single patient should be forced to fight off medical bankruptcy in the midst of a global health pandemic without a lawyer by their side."  That didn't go down well, so next day he backpedaled: "Let me be clear here: We need Medicare for all. We need an end to medical bankruptcy. Period. But until we get there, we need assurance that every patient will have access to legal counsel and aid if they are forced to fight their insurer in court."

Maybe Schumer is cobbling together a similar clarification.  And yes, I know, the lack of financial assistance to people like that veteran is not entirely Schumer's fault, it's due to McConnell's obstruction.  The proper response is to hammer the Republicans as hard as he can, not to thunder that not a single unemployed American should commit suicide without a professional suicide counselor by their side, with maybe a "Hang In There, Baby!" motivational poster thrown in at cost.  (I mean, how much could it cost? Ten dollars?)

A self-identified mental health professional weighed in too, chiding Schumer for insensitivity: we mental health professionals prefer "died by suicide" to "committed suicide," she told him.  I knew I should screencap it, because I expected her to block me for jeering at her; but she deleted hers instead.  Maybe she realized how close she'd come to Trump's claim that if we stopped testing, we'd have fewer COVID-19 cases.  Incidentally, her response was a reminder that the most laughable "PC" terminology comes not from activists but from mental health professionals; the rest comes from management consultants.  When my employer began downsizing, they preferred the euphemism RIF, Reduction In Force.  They offered professional counseling to those who might be upset about losing their jobs.

Our leaders and their enablers are making it very difficult to miss that they aren't competent to handle a crisis like the one we're in.  How it's going to play out, I don't know, but it doesn't look good.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Naptime with Joe and Kammy

I'm anticipating the upcoming election with dread, partly because there's a real danger that Donald Trump will be re-elected and partly because the alternative is that Obama's hand-picked candidate Joe Biden will be elected.  Apart from Biden's own liabilities, I'm concerned about the class of Democrats who are rapidly becoming known as Brunch Liberals.

For me it began when I saw this tweet:

See that?  335,400 likes, 58,400 shares.  The replies were a mix of agreement from people who wanted to be able to sleep at night, to be bored, instead of "doomscrolling" constantly for fear of "missing something," and disagreement from people like me who remember eight years of Obama bombing wedding parties and hospitals, deporting refugees by the millions, offering Social Security and Medicare as hostages to the GOP, trampling on civil liberties, blocking equal rights for LGBTQ people until the courts took that one out of his hands, and so on.  There's no reason I can see to believe that Biden will be any better, but these people will be able to sleep at night, which is all that matters.

Actually such tweets have been around for some time, but they hadn't crossed my path.  And I think they've been getting more common in the past few weeks.


Some people whined that they weren't saying they wanted to tune out, it wasn't so bad to want like an hour of peace now and then after four years of Drumpf, what's wrong with that?  But they made it clear that they did want to tune out, and not for an hour but for a lifetime.

It went on, getting worse.

When was this, exactly?  Lurie didn't reply, but several commenters chimed in; it was apparently during the Obama years, and one person was more specific: "I totally checked out from 2013 till the 2015 primary-it was bliss."  Not for people being shot in the back by cops, or children being shredded by US bombs we'd thoughtfully supplied to Saudi Arabia, or kids being poisoned by lead in their drinking water; but who cares about them?

And so on, right down to the past week:

It takes some serious stupidity to believe that your crazy Trump-loving aunt and uncle will suddenly shut up if Biden becomes President.  Did they hold their tongues while Obama was in office?

I've been trying to look on the bright side: If Biden tucks these people into bed, gently puts a teddy bear into their chubby little arms, and tenderly sniffs their hair before he tiptoes away, maybe they'll stay out of the way while good people hold his feet to the fire, and yell bloody murder when he does wrong.  But I doubt it: they'll wake up, furious at being disturbed, and curse us out for ruining their peace.  Think of the midterms!  You're just helping the Rethugs!  Think of 2024!  Surely, comrades, you do not wish Trump back?

Friday, October 23, 2020

Why We Didn't Wait

There's been a lot of excitement this week after reports that a new documentary shows Pope Francis telling an interviewer that he supports civil unions for same-sex couples.  As usual when a Pope says something vaguely humane, many people exaggerated its significance, but for once they were roughly in the ballpark.  The interview was evidently snipped from a 2019 television interview that never aired in its entirety, but it appears that the pontiff did actually say it.

There are, as usual, some minor complications.  For example, Francis had spoken in favor of civil unions in 2010 while he was still a cardinal in Argentina, though this seems to have been partly a bargaining chip, a compromise to ward off legalization of same-sex marriage there.

Before he was elected pope, Francis served as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and in that role, he advocated for same-sex civil unions in an attempt to block a same-sex marriage law. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, which then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio called a “destructive attack on God’s plan.” But in meetings with other Argentine bishops, Cardinal Bergoglio urged them to support civil unions as a way to keep marriage distinctly heterosexual. Bishops rejected the idea, but an L.G.B.T. activist in Argentina said the cardinal called him to say he personally supported the idea of civil unions.

As you can see, the effort to prevent same-sex marriage in Argentina failed.  It's hard to tell whether Bergoglio "advocated for same-sex civil unions" publicly, or in conference with other princes of the Church.  I don't entirely trust the activist who claims the cardinal called him personally; people have a tendency to hear what they want to hear in these situations.

Anyway, the documentary shows Francis saying "What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered."  This is much clearer than his previous statements.  But here in the US, as in numerous other countries, we already have same-sex marriage; civil unions are beside the point.  And "we"?  The Pope isn't a legislator, and in any country where Catholicism isn't the state religion, his opinions should have no weight, any more than any other religious leader.

Francis also said in the film, “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”

This is nice, I suppose, but I don't need the Pope's permission to have a family.  And typically, it's ambiguous enough that some people got ahead of themselves. Did he mean that Catholic adoption agencies will have to place children with same-sex couples?  It's hard to say for sure, but probably not:

While the pope did not elaborate on the meaning of those remarks in the video, Pope Francis has spoken before to encourage parents and relatives not to ostracize or shun children who have identified as LGBT. This seems to be the sense in which the pope spoke about the right of people to be a part of the family.

Some have suggested that when Pope Francis spoke about a “right to a family,” the pope was offering a kind of tacit endorsement of adoption by same-sex couples. But the pope has previously spoken against such adoptions, saying that through them children are “deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God,” and saying that “every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.” 

The first thing I wondered was what Francis thinks civil unions entail.  Francis said in the same interview that gay people "have a right to a family," before adding: "That does not mean approving of homosexual acts, not in the least." The Catholic hierarchy aren't known for their knowledge of the real world, so I would bet he thinks that civilly united couples won't do the nasty.  Marriage, whether civil or religious, is supposed to be consummated, but civil unions may not be.  However, it's reasonably certain that they usually will be, and the Catholic position that you can be homosexual as long as you abstain from any genital contact isn't binding in such unions.  Some same-sex Catholic couples may choose abstinence, but I don't believe most will, any more than most heterosexual Catholic couples eschew contraception or abortion.

So my take is that while Francis' remarks are a small advance, they also lag behind the real world -- even much of the Catholic world.  They are already infuriating reactionary Catholics who already hate him.  How much and what kind of effect they'll have will have to be seen, but I don't expect much.

This morning NPR's Morning Edition featured an "openly gay" Catholic priest named Bryan Massingale who was predictably "excited and even jubilant" about the news.  He asserted -- probably incorrectly, as we've seen -- that "I think what the pope is saying is that he is not opposed to the legal recognition of family life and the right for gay and lesbian persons to raise and have families."  And:

He has not changed church teaching regarding behavior or conduct. He still would see that as being morally problematic. However, he goes back to his question, do we focus on behavior, or do we focus on persons? And even sinful persons still have human rights that we're all called to respect and to protect.

This is really reaching, and "morally problematic" is the understatement of the day.  But he was on a roll:

I think for queer Catholics, it's a sign of hope that the church can change. It can grow. It can evolve. I think it's also a sign of hope that especially in places where LGBTQ persons are more actively persecuted, this is a sign of hope that that kind of persecution cannot be reconciled with the Christian faith.

Ah, hope.  That might be more salient for queer people who are "more actively persecuted"; in America and elsewhere, it's too little too late. As I wrote on a similar occasion a few years ago, "You can hope for anything you like, regardless of what the Vatican says, and you can make up whatever fanciful tales you like about what the pope says or believes, but that doesn't guarantee you'll get what you want."

Another thing that annoys me is the way many people scour Francis's statements for what they "hint" or may "imply" or "suggest," as if he were the Delphic Oracle and no one has any business pressing him to make himself clear.  Part of the problem of course is that even when he is reasonably clear, they still overinterpret him to suit their own fantasies.  Maybe that's it: if they got him to clarify, they wouldn't like what he'd tell them.

I kept thinking of the Southern Baptist Convention's very tardy abandonment of slavery and Jim Crow in the 1990s.  The excuses many people -- not only Catholics, to my surprise -- made and continue to make for Francis' footdragging are ironic, really: I recognize that you aren't going to move a dead dinosaur easily or quickly, but the Church claims to be a moral leader, not a follower.  Instead it shambles along in the wake of wiser people, many of them not even religious, and expects to be applauded when the Pope makes a half-assed concession to a better moral stance. Those who want to may do so, but if they expect me to join in, they'll find me with my arms crossed, tapping my foot: What took the Church so long, and why is it still clinging to bigoted positions on so many issues?  I'm glad the gay movement around the world didn't refuse to wait for the Vatican to come around: we not only challenged churches, we attacked them when they tried to interfere with progress.

Remember when John Paul II tried to prevent a gay pride celebration in Rome in 2000?  He delivered a diatribe against it, but it took place anyway, "amid heavy police security after threats by neo-Fascists to disrupt the proceedings."  There were reports, as I recall, of collusion between the Vatican and the neo-Fascists, but in the end nothing happened.  I had some online exchanges with some gay Catholics who asked why the homosexuals decided to have the parade when they did, during a Holy Year?  I reminded them that the celebration was scheduled for the end of Pride Week, commemorating the Stonewall Riots, a very holy day for the gay movement.  (For an entertainingly overwrought paleo-Catholic denunciation of that celebration, see this.)  And that was only one less-effective attempt by the Church to impose its will on people over whom it had real authority.

I don't get why so many gay non-Catholics invest so much emotion in Francis and other Popes.  Those I've talked to try to put in terms of their sympathy for others, but they take Francis' pronouncements too personally for me to believe them.  I think they're authoritarians at heart.  They love authority so much they'll welcome the yoke of people who have no authority over them at all.  It's like Americans who follow the British royal family, except that the Queen isn't telling Americans how to govern ourselves.  It's especially ironic at a time when so many Americans are having conniptions over alleged or (occasionally) real foreign interference in our political affairs.  Francis isn't likely to have much impact on us, but it's the thought that counts.

Monday, October 19, 2020

The Dirtbag Left You Will Always Have With You

Someone tweeted this today in reply to the question "Why do Democrats hate democracy so much?"

As you can see, ANTIFA Jeb didn't even bother to answer the original question, just robotically spewed out a typically elitist meme about the American voter.  Significantly, it's one that the establishments of both major parties would agree with.

Not "the average American," I'd say, but elite commentators.  Rich pundits say elections are all about which candidate you'd like to have a beer or dinner with, and they do love the framing of politics as a spectator sport - bread and circuses, without the bread.  Ordinary voters favor M4A and other "left" policies, but there's usually no candidate they can vote for, hence the low turnout we usually see. 

This isn't news, so why do I see nominal leftists claiming falsely that 'the voters' don't care about the issues?  This year we seem to have real alternatives to vote for in many downticket races, and that should be a positive development.  There are already numerous such people in office at all levels in the US, right up to Congress; isn't that grounds for cautious optimism, and further action to get more such people running and elected?  People like ANTIFA Jeb, who are quite common on the left, seem to prefer the status quo.  Maybe they'd like to be put in charge, so they could tell the ignorant rabble what to think.

Then I remembered something I've quoted before, from the economist Amartya Sen.  Sen was arguing against the common claim that people in poor countries don't care about political and democratic rights, a claim made without evidence by ruling elites in those countries.  Of course they ensure that their claim can't be tested, by having elections for example.

It is thus of some interest to note that when the Indian government, under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, tried out a similar argument in India, to justify the “emergency” she had misguidedly declared in the mid-1970s, an election was called that divided the voters precisely on this issue. In that fateful election, fought largely on the acceptability of the “emergency,” the suppression of basic political and civil rights was firmly rejected, and the Indian electorate—one of the poorest in the world—showed itself to be no less keen on protesting against the denial of basic liberties and rights than it was in complaining about economic poverty. To the extent that there has been any testing of the proposition that poor people in general do not care about civil and political rights, the evidence is entirely against that claim. Similar points can be made by observing the struggle for democratic freedoms in South Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma (or Myanmar) and elsewhere in Asia. Similarly, while political freedom is widely denied in Africa, there have been movements and protests about that fact whenever circumstances have permitted, even though military dictators have given few opportunities in this respect.*

To the countries Sen lists, we can now add the people of Bolivia, who just confirmed in a landslide that they prefer democratic socialism to a coup regime.  If only the average American were offered such a choice!  This year our only alternative to Trump is Obama's hand-picked candidate Joe Biden, who is the most minimal alternative and offers nothing to the average voter.  It appears to me that ANTIFA Jeb likes it that way, which means he or she is much closer to our ruling corporatist elites than he or she pretends.

Of course it's possible that most Americans really don't want that kind of freedom; but we won't know until it has actually been tried, and when anyone sneers about our ignorance and persistence in voting against our interests without acknowledging that our interests are not on the ballot, I know they're pontificating in bad faith.


* In Development as Freedom, Knopf, 1999), page 151.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Both Sides Now

There's a Saturday-night radio program out of Chicago that I listened to when I was in high school.  It featured a range of music I hadn't heard before, from show tunes to cabaret to folk to blues to jazz, and occasional standup.  Rock was the only genre it excluded, because there were plenty of other outlets for that.  I first heard Tom Lehrer on this show, Tom Paxton, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and many other performers.  When I moved to Bloomington it was too far out of range to listen to, though I'm surprised I never looked for it when streaming became an option. When I moved back to northern Indiana last year, I tracked the station down on the Internet.  The host I remembered was long dead, but it continues in the same format.

I find it less fascinating than I did fifty years ago, probably because other stations and programs offer the same kind of musical variety, and the rock press and Bloomington record stores had encouraged me to range even further.  If anything, the program now seems parochial to me, with too many sanctimonious folkies preaching love and brotherhood and too many cabaret artists serving up toothless satire.

Last night the problem started with the song above, and I nearly shut off the station.  It's intolerably dishonest. What's wrong is summed up by a comment under another video of the song posted to Youtube: "i really wish people on both sides of the argument would listen to this song. if we want change, we MUST be that change".  It's a paradigmatic example of "both-sidesism": the song puts George Floyd on one side, and Derek Chauvin on the other, and blames them both equally.  It puts Andrew Jackson on one side, and the Cherokees trudging along the Trail of Tears on the other, and blames them both equally.  It puts Harriet Tubman walking to freedom on one side, and her former owner, deprived of his lawful property, on the other.  It puts Richard Speck on one side, and the eight student nurses he murdered on the other.  It puts the Klan on one side and the NAACP on the other side.  It's reminiscent of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's infamous duet "Accidental Racist" with its iconic rhyme "If you don't judge my do rag, I won't judge your red flag" -- "that whole let bygones be bygones" thing, as Paisley put it.

Now, I admit that there is a problem with some people on the left (for lack of a better word) stereotyping people who may or may not be their antagonists, by assuming that all West Virginians are Donald Trump supporters, ignoring West Virginia's tradition of left-wing activism; or gloating that poor whites are suffering under Trump's destructive policies.  This is what Patricia Roberts-Miller calls "demagoguery", the radical division of people into mutually exclusive groups, with all humanity on one side and none on the other.  But rejection of these tendencies in no way obliges me to postulate that the racist and the anti-racist are equally at fault, equally intolerant in the same way.  Bigots have been pushing that false equivalence for decades, and it's not only fair, it's necessary to reject their tactic.  I don't quite know how to contend with someone who thinks that black people demanding to vote is as intolerant as white people refusing to let them vote, but if you grant them that claim, you've already lost.

Copeland didn't write "Uncivil War," as you can see if you last till the video's end credits: it was written by her producer.  But she chose to record it.  I think perhaps she didn't really listen to the word, didn't think through what she was singing.  That itself would be a moral failure.  The song itself certainly is.

Friday, October 16, 2020

He's Not the Boss of Me

It's a venerable political tradition by now:

I can remember seeing people -- not only celebrities -- saying that they'd move to Canada or Australia or the UK if they didn't like who was elected president, since 2004 at least.  They always pick the wrong countries, too: Australia's current Prime Minister is a Christian fascist, and Republicans wanting to flee Obama's socialist Obamacare chose Australia (which has universal healthcare, like most developed countries) or Canada (Obama's bugbear too).  Or they threaten to shut down their businesses, like the Atlas Shrugged Guy of blessed memory.

As some people pointed out, moving to another country doesn't fit very well with Springsteen's blue-collar persona; nice for the rich, not really an option for real working-class paycheck-to-paycheck shlubs.  It's all just talk, like a child threatening to run away from home.  They never actually make the move; I don't expect Springsteen to be an exception.

Nor will this guy, at least not voluntarily.  He might need to flee to someplace like Riyadh; they owe him.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Get Your Park Geun-hye Tote Bag with Your Pledge

Recently YouTube has been sending a trove of vintage Korean TV music programs my way, from the 60s through the 80s.  They offer a whole extra perspective on Korean society and entertainment in the darkest years of the Park and Chun dictatorships.

This one is different, but it especially delighted me: it reminds me of PBS pledge drives that put elderly classic rock stars up there to bring in the bucks.  I remember when WTIU first showed Woodstock during pledge drive: the hosts were very apologetic, and looked terrified that their regulars would burn the station down.  They got record donations instead. The fall of Western culture followed immediately.

I recognize the first song in this clip, but I don't remember where I heard it. In a movie, I think, but which one: Waikiki Brothers? GoGo 70? Miss Granny?

And why does the singer, Ham Chung Ah, look like former South Korean president Park Geun-hye?  (A Korean friend agreed with me on this.)  Old Korean men often dye their hair black -- I was planning to do it myself on my next trip -- but I think we're looking at hairpieces here.


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Take Off and Nuke Lake Woebegon from Space; It's the Only Way to Be Sure

I've had a bad opinion of Garrison Keillor for quite a while now, but he'd largely slipped from my notice until today, when he evidently posted this on Facebook and it found its way onto Twitter:

This is basically gibberish.  It is false that 40% of Americans believe that the world is flat; Keillor seems to have pulled that number from his capacious ass.  What he considers "cultural war" issues, and it's interesting that a poetry fan would consider culture to be trivial, are not trivial to most Americans.  Only a minority want to overturn Roe v. Wade, a majority are okay with same-sex marriage, and I don't think a majority want to "criminalize LGBTQ" either.  And those are matters of life and death for many people, even if they don't matter personally to him.

"The economy and tax policy and environment," etc. are not going to become easy issues if the "cultural war" ends tomorrow.  The Republicans would only take it as a sign that they'd won a significant victory and move to destroy everything else.  Since liberals like Keillor have already surrendered to them, they can be sure they'll get everything they want in no time, and they'll be right.  The economy, tax policy, the environment, education, homelessness, etc. are not areas "where we agree" -- who is "we" here?  Maybe he means the rich elites like himself, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, who agree that that the lives of the vast majority of citizens don't matter.  From his conclusion it's clear that Keillor is a Brunch Liberal who thinks that once Trump is out of office, everything will be fine.  It won't.  By the same token, exiling Keillor to a bare rock in the middle of the ocean would be satisfying, but it wouldn't solve all our problems either.  Like Trump, Keillor is just a symptom of a more profound, more pervasive rot.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Good Parts

Yesterday was the first day of Amy Coney Barrett's COVID-19-laden confirmation hearings before the US Senate.  I didn't watch or listen to them, of course.  Whatever I need to know will be reported in the news media -- what else are they for?  And she will most likely be confirmed, because Mitch McConnell wants it done and even if there's anything the Democrats could do (which there is), they aren't interested in doing it.  So here we are.

In the meantime, I've been impressed by the liberal caterwauling over Barrett's religious beliefs.  I take for granted that she wants an American theocracy as run by far-right Christian theocrats, which I don't want either, but Mitch McConnell wants her on the Court and the Democrats refuse to do anything but wail and gnash their teeth.

So, for example, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez added to her recent run of righteous indignation: "When politicians use faith as an excuse to pass and uphold laws that seize control of people’s bodies but not guarantee them healthcare, feed the poor, shelter the homeless, or welcome the stranger, you have to wonder if it’s really about faith at all." Right-wing theocrats do a lot of charitable work, and Barrett is apparently no exception.  It's a safe bet that she would agree with AOC about the importance of feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, and welcoming the stranger; but she wants that work left in the hands of private charity, which is always inadequate over the long haul -- that's why we have government programs.  Not for religious reasons, but for practical ones.  Even though I might get along better with AOC than ACB on theology, I don't like her using her faith as the norm for government or social action.  It is worrisome that she takes for granted that "faith" means her faith, to the exclusion of anyone else's.

And I don't think I really do get along with Ocasio-Cortez theologically.  She exhibits the usual liberal-Christian bad faith about Jesus:

Sick and tired of Republicans who co-opt faith as an excuse to advance bigotry and barbarism.

Fact is, if today Christ himself came to the floor of Congress and repeated his teachings, many would malign him as a radical and eject him from the chamber.

She's probably right on that point, but she'd be among the many.  If Jesus stood up before Congress and proclaimed, "The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand!  Repent and believe in the good news!" and denounced them for not keeping every jot and tittle of the Torah, I don't think she'd find it any more congenial than most of her colleagues would.  If he ranted about plucking out their eye if it leads them to sin, I'm sure she'd consider that radical.  And if he singled her out and said, "Go, woman, and call your husband," she'd have to reply that she has no husband.

Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.
Would that go over well?

I suppose she was thinking of the usual stuff about love and charity, and ignoring all the less cuddly stuff, as liberal Christians do.  When they imagine Jesus appearing in our midst, they never imagine him reading them the riot act, or demanding that they hate their own families if they want to be his disciple.  That's for the bad, false Christians, the Pharisees, not for good noble Christians like them.  It's pointless to tell them to read the Gospels, because they'd just skim, looking for the good parts about love and suffering the little children and stuff.  Which is there, but it's not all there is, and if you claim you follow the teachings of Jesus, you're stuck with all of them: fire and brimstone, the final judgment coming soon, the self-mutilation (it doesn't matter whether it's literal or figurative, it's still draconic).

As I started reading the replies, I noticed something else. Some of her antagonists accused her of claiming to know what was in their hearts.  And you know, they were right.  But then, they did the same, accusing her of not being a Christian, for example.  But that doesn't let her off the hook for being judgmental, it just means she's not as different from them as she wants to think.

Then there's "faith," as in "You have to wonder if it's really about faith at all."  Ocasio-Cortez assumes that faith means what she thinks it is, just like her antagonists.  But faith has no specific content.  The word means trust, loyalty, without regard to what or whom you trust or are loyal to.  A Mafia goon is loyal to his boss, and trusts his boss to take care of him and his family.  The religious Right are loyal to Yahweh as they conceive him, and they trust him to take care of them.  He doesn't, but they don't let that weaken their trust.

Somewhere along the line "faith" came to refer to sectarian affiliations, and it always sets my teeth on age when I encounter that usage.  But it has no inherent content either.  It contains whatever doctrines and ritual practices a sect pours into it, and that's historically a source of "interfaith" friction, best avoided by not thinking about the weird things Those People do: how they pray, when they kneel and when they get up in services, whether they cover their heads or not, the hymns they sing, the foods they won't eat or how they prepare the foods they will eat.  It's like what your married neighbors do in the sack at night, better not to think about it.  Better indeed not to think about what you do in the sack at night, because it's simultaneously beautiful and holy and gross and unnatural.  Better not to think at all.  

Ocasio-Cortez and Barrett are both Catholics, which shows you how little it means to share the same "faith."  It's like "gender," which quickly shatters into a million pieces if you examine it too closely.

It bothered me to see Ocasio-Cortez carrying on so shallowly, because she's usually very good at demolishing Republicans.  Religion is something else, though.  People of faith confronted with people of a different faith generally try to paper over their differences under a vague ecumenicalism; if they have to deal with differences, they don't do very well.  You're supposed to pretend that all roads lead to the same god, so you discreetly don't specify which god.  Politics has a better tradition of debate, and anyway Ocasio-Cortez isn't trying to pretend that they're all brothers and sisters in America.

It doesn't matter what Jesus taught, or what Christianity demands, as Amy Coney Barrett sits before Congress determinedly refusing to answer pertinent questions, because we have separation of government and religion here.  We don't have it because secular humanists tried to drive God out of the public sphere, but because the framers knew from recent history that without it, Christians will literally tear each other apart: it was Christians who wanted religious freedom the most, for just that reason.  But the same applies to Ocasio-Cortez.  

If someone declares their intention to use their office to advance the will of God, they've disqualified themselves.  It doesn't, of course, take much intelligence to avoid such a declaration. Arguing about the proper relation between Christians and the state, or about what Jesus really wanted, breaks down that uneasy truce among the cults.  It's also a waste of time that should be spent sorting out policy, especially in the cocktail of crises we're in now.  It's not up to the government to decide what is true Christianity, or what President Jesus would do. I've been bothered by Ocasio-Cortez' occasional flaunting of her faith, but she's going further now, and that's disturbing.  I expect and demand better from her, as I do from all people who are concerned about the threat posed by the religious Right.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Hugh Briss Is Back in Town

Sometimes you encounter a book that, for various reasons, sends mixed messages.  For me today it's A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).  Doudna and Sternberg are among the scientists who developed a technique for gene editing known as CRISPR, though I see that just who should get credit for it has had to be litigated in some messy patent cases.  I discovered the book because the electronic version is on sale today, so this is not a review, just some thoughts about its marketing and the selling of science in general to the public.

I'd like to know who's responsible for that title, which is misleading in numerous ways.  It's very common to refer to "creation" and "god" in and around popular science writing.  In the first instance, if you're talking about evolution, you're ruling out creation.  I take it that the publisher figured that many readers are content to blur the two concepts together.  Or they hoped to reassure some of the public that although the book is about Science, it still maintains a stance of hushed reverence before the Mysteries of the Universe, giving us the worst of both domains.

The subtitle is even worse: is the ability to edit genetic material - or, more broadly, to fiddle with biology - really "unthinkable"?  On the contrary, it seems to be pretty easy to think about, even if an aura of superstitious dread still attaches to it.  (But maybe it's just the self-promoting author who wants you to think it does, to magnify his or her daring: I, a Scientist, dared to think the unthinkable.)  Just a few centuries ago, it was quite daring, even for free-thinking intellectual rationalists, to climb a mountain: high places were for the gods, and mortals trembled when they approached the tree line. Would they be struck dead for their irreverence? (I think that's part of the appeal: it gives you shivers, like a ghost story or a horror movie.)  Hans Blumenberg tells in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (English translation, MIT Press, p. 342) how,

Even when Goethe climbed to the summit of the Brocken in December 1777 and saw "the environs of Germany" spread out below him, this had not yet become a commonplace diversion but was still, as he stylized it in writing to Merck in August 1778, "naturally a most adventurous undertaking."  The forester responsible for the area "could be persuaded only with difficulty" to guide him to the summit, and the letter writer claims to have observed that the forester "himself was lost in wonder ... because while living many years at the foot of the mountain, he had always considered the ascent impossible."  Goethe carries no Confessions with him [as Petrarch did on his own ascent of a mountain 400 years earlier]; he has to meet his own needs in this respect, through half a month of painstakingly staged withdrawal from the world: "There I was for fourteen days, and no man knew where I was."  The great gesture of Sturm und Drang still presupposes a 'position' of extraordinary behavior that had once been labeled blasphemous lingering.

Aside from that, gene editing does not confer "the power to control evolution." At most it might make a sneaky end-run around evolution.  Selective breeders can't produce traits that aren't already somewhere in the genome.  Directly manipulating DNA could perhaps produce something new in the gene pool, but that's not controlling evolution, any more than wearing corrective lenses is.  To do that, you'd have to be able to cause the new phenotype to multiply and become prevalent in the environment, which we can't do. The new phenotype would have to pass muster before natural selection, by being tossed out into the wild to participate in the struggle for existence over a long period of time.  It would help a lot, I think, if science fans would stop using the word "evolution" when what they mean is "descent with modification through natural selection," Darwin's preferred term; but I doubt most of them understand the difference.  The popular understanding of "evolution," even among many scientists, is the opposite of Darwin's.

The description of A Crack in Creation at Amazon surprised me when I looked at it, however:

Not since the atomic bomb has a technology so alarmed its inventors that they warned the world about its use. Not, that is, until the spring of 2015, when biologist Jennifer Doudna called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the new gene-editing tool CRISPR—a revolutionary new technology that she helped create—to make heritable changes in human embryos. The cheapest, simplest, most effective way of manipulating DNA ever known, CRISPR may well give us the cure to HIV, genetic diseases, and some cancers, and will help address the world’s hunger crisis. Yet even the tiniest changes to DNA could have myriad, unforeseeable consequences—to say nothing of the ethical and societal repercussions of intentionally mutating embryos to create “better” humans.
Writing with fellow researcher Samuel Sternberg, Doudna shares the thrilling story of her discovery, and passionately argues that enormous responsibility comes with the ability to rewrite the code of life. With CRISPR, she shows, we have effectively taken control of evolution. What will we do with this unfathomable power?

That Doudna called for a moratorium on use of CRISPR is interesting, though not enough to make me want to read the book.  Nor does the concern-trolling about the "ethical and societal repercussions of intentionally mutating embryos".  Despite all the talk about the unprecedented problems in ethics, I don't see much serious engagement with those putative problems from scientists or professional ethicists.  Where the genome is concerned, what interests them most is who's going to make money from it.  That editing DNA "could have myriad, unforeseeable consequences" is a familiar concern, but it has less to do with evolution than with researcher- or physician-caused failures in the modified organism.  If the subject grows leafy branches from her back, or her head becomes water-soluble, it's not going to have evolutionary consequences.  As usual, I see a scientist overstating the magnitude of her new knowledge, and there's little real concern about the ethical ramifications of such false advertising.  (Mary Midgley once joked that there had been interest in prosecuting Daniel Dennett's book Consciousness Explained under the laws against false advertising; the joke, though I'm not sure she realized it, is that it would never happen.)

A Crack in Creation got a blurb from George Lucas, touting "the celebrated biologist whose discovery enabled us to rewrite the code of life.  The future is in our hands as never before, and this book explains the stakes like no other."  I don't think Lucas is an authority on this subject.  The hyperbole is typical though: first you inflate the significance of the science wildly, then you fret about "the stakes."  There are stakes, but they're rarely acknowledged.  Scientists and commercial interests insist on their inalienable right to experiment on the world, to pollute the planet with the detritus of their products, and to make vast amounts of money on discoveries that wouldn't have been made without taxpayer support.  Laypeople are allowed to quibble about this, but they will dismiss our quibbles out of hand: as hostility to Science, to Socialist hatred for business, as a superstitious desire to turn back the Clock of Progress.  

It's to Doudna's credit that she called for a pause in this normal order of business, but did it have much effect, or did it amount to virtue-signalling?  I don't know how responsible she is for the presentation of her book and her work.  But that presentation is part of what's wrong with the place of science in media and society.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Critical Thinking Is Hard, Let's Do Brunch!

This morning I saw this on Twitter:

"Migrants" is a dogwhistle, of course; as I've often pointed out, racists don't think any immigrants are legal, except for their great-grandparents.  "Civil societies" indicates that she's a bit vague as to what she's talking about; that should be singular.  And she's confirmed my increasing intolerance for  misuse of the term "third world."  It's not Witzke's fault that it has become totally meaningless, with so many leftists helping out, but she's not doing better.  

(I admit I'm being a bit disingenuous here: I know that whatever its origins, "Third World" now means "poor countries where people work for fifty cents an hour without safety precautions in order that we First Worlders may have marginally cheaper electronic devices, so keep them there because poverty is contagious."  That meaning is now drifting over to "essential workers.")

Most important, the burden of argument lies on Witzke, not on anyone rebutting her.  Numerous people stepped up with bad arguments in reply.  There were several in this form:

And this, from someone else who despite his Ph.D. doesn't know what the Third World is either:

If Witzke were as dumb as these guys think she is, she'd have posted something like "No Third World migrants can assimilate."  If she had, one or two examples of assimilation would have sufficed to refute her.  But she was canny enough to say "most."  She still needs evidence to support her claim, of course.  But the occasional success story not only doesn't prove her wrong, it's the sort of exception-that-proves-the-rule that racists use to attack less successful members of minority groups: Oprah made it, why can't you?  It's also used by more successful members to signal their allegiance to bigotry, as in Barack Obama's castigating poor people for, as he liked to think, having cell phones instead of medical insurance... But, unfortunately, being a smart, educated liberal doesn't in itself teach you basic statistics or critical thinking.

One of Witzke's defenders wasn't really helpful to her, despite being a self-identified "techie":

I'd agree that 100% assimilation is at least unlikely, but "abiding by the the law is important" is hilarious.  It seems to be well-established that immigrants have a lower crime rate than the native-born. My own observations aren't statistically valid, but I've been following police-blotter departments of local newspapers for some years, but the overwhelming majority of those arrested in Bloomington, Indiana, had Euro-American names.  In Northern Indiana, mug shots were posted on Facebook, and around 99% of them were white Euro-Americans.  They don't follow our laws and that's a problem.  Or maybe those "migrants" who break the law are just assimilating to Euro-American norms: not just among trailer dwellers and meth-lab entrepreneurs, but among our Thin Blue Line and our ruling elites. 

P.S. The liberal historian Kevin M. Kruse gleefully posted a screencap of Viet Van Nguyen's tweet.  I was relieved and gratified to see how many "third world immigrants" were critical of it in comments.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Do Modern Christians Believe Their Myths?


The blogger Susan of Texas commented on this, "'This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'  That’s a little too Jim Jones for me."

I don't know about Jim Jones, and frankly I'm not sure Trump knows the Bible well enough to make an allusion like this one.  But once again I'm amused by the way that liberal secularists brush aside the less modernism-friendly elements of the New Testament.   Like so many on the left, Ms. of Texas focuses on the teachings of Jesus that touch on (or at least can be interpreted as touching on) social justice, or express the kind of kissyface-huggybear gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild G-rated Jesus taught in children in Sunday school.  (Maybe Sunday school was their last contact with official Christianity.)  This requires or enables them to ignore the vast majority of the New Testament, while attacking conservative Christians for reading the Bible selectively.

Myself, I have no stake in any version of Jesus, because I know there's no way to get at the "right" one.  And I find that fascinating.  The New Testament was written from twenty to a hundred years after the death of Jesus, and it's surprising that it contains so many conflicting takes on Jesus: rabbi, prophet, King of the Jews, messiah, high priest, miracle worker, exorcist, end-times preacher, fire and brimstone preacher, teacher of esoteric wisdom, Man from Heaven, and more. (And that leaves out the hostile portraits concocted by outsiders trying to discredit his cult.)  Most people try to establish one or two of these as the real deal, which doesn't work.  I'm interested in how all these roles got packed into one figure -- or, alternatively, how one figure attracted so many roles -- in a relatively short time.  True, a century is a fairly long time, but we can see from Paul's letters, the earliest surviving Christian writings, that conceptions of Jesus had proliferated wildly in just twenty years, while Jesus' original followers were still alive, leading to some intense conflicts within the movement.

So let's take a quick look at the institution of the eucharist, the holy meal of wine and bread initiated by Jesus at the Last Supper just before his arrest and crucifixion according to the first three gospels.  The fourth gospel doesn't mention it there, but has Jesus announcing the necessity of eating his body and drinking his blood to outsiders in public -- which, as you might imagine, didn't go over well.  Here's the version in Mark, the second gospel (Mark 14:22-24, KJV):

And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.  And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
The story is so familiar, even to many non-Christians, that it's easy to miss how bizarre it is.  Investing the bread and wine with symbolic meaning is one thing, but then telling his disciples to eat his body and drink his blood is weird.  Imagine yourself in the disciples' place, being told in the middle of the Passover meal to violate -- even symbolically -- one of the strongest taboos in Judaism, that against consuming blood.  I should think that even, or especially, a twenty-first century secularist, would react strongly to such a pronouncement, out of nowhere.  I think that when I first read this story, as a kid, I assumed that it was part of the Passover meal; very much the opposite -- in that context it's more like a desecration.

Matthew's version (26:26-28) is very similar to Mark's, almost word for word, as is Luke's (22:19-20).  John, the fourth gospel, has a very different version, perhaps because John's last supper is not a Passover meal.  The eucharist comes up in John chapter 6, following Jesus' miraculous feeding of the multitude (6:50-56):

This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.
"From that time," the gospel says, "many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him" (6:66).  In context, this is meant to indicate how wicked the unbelievers were, but it also reflects how shocking the eucharist was at its inception.  Remember Karen Armstrong's claim that people in those days knew better than to take religious pronouncements and scripture literally?  Only left-brained moderns would take Jesus' hard sayings at face value.  We can see from John's account that they tried unsuccessfully to interpret his talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, but Jesus didn't help; indeed, he seemed to bear down on the literal sense of the words.

We have another account of the eucharist, from the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church (11:23-27).

For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.

For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.
This was written (or rather, dictated) before any of the gospels.  Paul is supposed to have become a Christian within a few years of Jesus' death, so it's pretty early, and it's close to the versions in the first three gospels.  Even if you follow Armstrong and see the gospels as symbolic narratives, Paul's letters are something else, and he draws a different lesson from his story (vv 28-32):

But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.   
"Sleep" is a common Christian euphemism for death, so Paul is telling the Corinthians that if they take the eucharist "unworthily," they are eating and drinking "damnation" to themselves, and may sicken or die as a result.  I see no reason to suppose he's talking figuratively about that.  But if they do die, at least they will still be saved, and "not be condemned with the world."

Another point: Paul says that he received this teaching "of" -- that is, from -- "the Lord."  He says the same about his account of Jesus's resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.  Most interpreters take him figuratively, and assume that he learned it from Simon Peter and Jesus' brother James during a visit to the Jerusalem church a few years after his vision of the Risen Lord.  No one knows for sure, but Paul was emphatic that he got nothing from human teachers: he began his letter to the Galatian church by declaring himself "an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead)" (Galatians 1:1).  He mentioned his visit to Jerusalem (verses 15-19) not to acknowledge human teachers, but to deny he owed them anything, and to insist that he owed his apostolate only to Jesus and God.

Conservative scholars brush Paul's words aside nervously; a much-quoted joke is that when Paul spent two weeks with Peter and James, they presumably didn't talk about the weather.  These same scholars are disdainful of radical critics who deny the reality of the miraculous, but in this case it's they who have cold feet about the miraculous.  What's the matter, don't they believe that the Risen Lord appeared to Paul?  Don't they believe the Lord could have taught Paul his gospel without human intermediaries?  That joke is an appeal to common sense, which Paul and Jesus both rejected. I don't believe that Paul learned his gospel from the resurrected Jesus either, but I'm not a conservative Christian. It's strange that such people would prefer to see Paul as an exaggerator if not a liar ("Oriental hyperbole" used to be the usual scholarly euphemism), but I think as men think, not as God thinks.

I took this little detour because it's relevant to the eucharist too.  If you believe in the miraculous power of God, there's nothing outrageous about the idea that drinking Christ's blood and eating his body would, if done worthily, preserve believers from fleshly sickness and death.  What Jesus had in mind when he instituted the rite, it probably wasn't merely symbolic.  To accept Jesus' miracles, the reality of demons and their exorcism, heavenly choirs announcing the birth of the son of a virgin, and Jesus' resurrection from death, while denying the miraculous (don't say "magical") aspects of the eucharist is quite a stretch; but Christians are very good at straining at gnats while swallowing camels.

The same applies, however, to liberal Christians and to unbelievers (even atheists, oddly) who try to extract from the New Testament a Jesus who makes sense to them: a brown-skinned socialist liberal rationalist who only did miracles because he was dealing with primitive tribes who had to be cajoled with magic tricks. Or a mystical disciple of the Ascended Masters, an unworldly fellow who somehow blundered into the hands of the Romans.  Or a devotee of the Mother Goddess, married to Mary Magdalene, whose wisdom was distorted by the patriarchal church.  Or a humble rabbi whose message of Love and Kindness infuriated the superstitious Jooze, so of course they crucified him, and then distorted his pure teaching into a superstitious cult in order to control the gullible masses.  Or a radical insurgent whose anti-imperialist mission against Roman oppression got turned into a superstitious cult in order to control the sheeplike masses. What intrigues me is that all of these Jesuses can be extracted from the New Testament with some plausibility as long as you ignore most of it, and avoid dealing with alternative accounts.

I don't believe it's possible to get past the legendary and mythological accretions around the Jesus who lived and died (if he did actually exist, which some deny).  The more I read and thought about the many reconstructions others have attempted, the more it became clear to me that the historical Jesus isn't recoverable.  Most people, Christian or not, are evidently content with one or another of these phantoms.  If you still want to try to uncover the Jesus who lived and died in first-century Palestine,  you have to begin by seeing him in that historical and cultural context.  Not only the ignorant masses but Jesus himself believed in the supernatural, and for that reason alone he's going to be unacceptable to modern non-theists. That's why I find their Jesuses as entertaining as the Jesuses of conservative Christians.  Like most people who try, they end up with a Jesus in their own self-idealized image.  I believe that if you apply yourself to the problem seriously, you'll find that you can't honestly claim to know what Jesus was like.  And for a non-religious person that shouldn't be a problem. Why are so many atheists and agnostics determined to find a Jesus who'll mirror and ratify their own beliefs and principles? ... I suppose that question answers itself.

If you want to claim Jesus as your role model, you don't have to believe in the literal or even figurative truth of the New Testament, but I believe you have to account for what you keep and what you reject, and why.  Most of the people I know or encounter who reject conservative Christianity are sure it's not real Christianity, not what Jesus wanted or taught; but because of their biblical illiteracy, which they share with most Christians, they can't do much with the less appealing parts of Jesus' teaching except ignore it.  Just like the bad Christians they abhor.

It's thoroughly reasonable to be grossed out by the idea of eating Christ's body and drinking his blood.  But if you don't know that it's part of Jesus' teaching as much as "Love your neighbor as yourself," you're as ignorant as the Bible thumpers you despise -- more so, really.  The great scholar James Barr said that fundamentalists should be held responsible for the whole Bible, including the inconvenient details they'd prefer to ignore, such as the conflicting numbers of King David's chariots and horsemen; but the same holds for liberals and for atheist nonbelievers: they too are responsible for the parts of the gospels they reject no less than the stray sayings they yank out of context because they find them appealing.  

Monday, October 5, 2020

My Farm, My Rules

Another grim novel, Gerbrand Bakker's The Twin (2008), made a strong impression on me, enough that I've read it twice and probably will read it again.  I'm not sure the plot contains any spoilers, but I'm going to summarize it here, so be forewarned.  (There's a good interview with Bakker here.)

The Twin is narrated by Helmer, a Dutch farmer in late middle age, who lives with and cares for his ailing father.  The novel begins with Helmer moving his father to an upstairs bedroom and taking over the downstairs bedroom for himself.  Partly this is an assertion of his will over his father's: decades earlier, the literature-minded Helmer had hoped to escape the farm for college, but his twin brother Henk was killed in an auto accident: Henk was the designated and apparently willing heir to the farm, and Helmer felt he had no choice but to help his parents keep it going.  There had been a farmhand on whom teenaged Helmer had a reciprocated crush, but his father figured it out and sent the man packing.  Doomed to a life of milking cows and shearing sheep, Helmer let his resentment seethe, aggravated by his father's abusiveness.  But as his father fails, he can no longer impose his will on anyone, and Helmer savors the power he now has, though he's not sure what to do with it.  He has a few friends, mainly the trucker who collects each day's milk, and a neighbor woman with two young sons, but mostly he has no social life.

Suddenly he's contacted by his brother's fiancee, whom he hasn't seen since the funeral.  Her teenage son Henk is a handful.  She asks Helmer to take Henk on as a farmhand, for reasons as tangled as Helmer's acceptance. The boy is no happier to be stuck out in the country than Helmer was in his youth, and they have a mildly rocky time until Helmer's father dies and Henk rides off to make his own way.  The lost farmhand returns, and he and Helmer start a relationship.  I found when I reread the book that this was less explicit than I remembered, but at any rate they go on a road trip to Denmark together, and Helmer finally has his own life.

The Twin is less grim than The Pull of the Stars, but it's still permeated by sadness, loneliness, anger, a life sacrificed to circumstance and family pressure.  I was intrigued when I learned that it had been adapted for film in 2013, as It's All So Quiet (a closer approximation of the original Dutch title) so I tracked down the DVD.  In some ways it's a good adaptation: it catches the mood of the novel and Helmer's frustration and isolation, and Jeroen Willens, the actor who plays him, is well-cast and does a fine job.  Film heightens some of the story's themes: when Helmer hauls his father clumsily up a narrow stairway to his new room, the two men are face to face, forced into physical intimacy despite their mutual dislike. Willens conveys the uneasiness of a man so used to isolation that he's not sure he wants to be close to people anymore.

But at the same time the film is frustrating, like most adaptations only more so.  The director, Nanouk Leopold, is known for her minimalist work, but It's All So Quiet goes beyond bare simplicity to truncation.  If I hadn't read the book I think I'd have found it very hard to follow.  Young Henk, for example, simply shows up unexplained.  The farmhand is never mentioned and never appears.  A different love interest for Helmer is spliced in.  When the end credits rolled I noticed that the film was dedicated to the memory of the lead actor, Jeroen Willens, who died at the age of 50 the year the film was released.  So I wonder if he died before the film was finished, and it had to be patched together from the footage Leopold had completed.  But maybe not; I haven't found any information about it.  Maybe someone who hadn't read the book would be less confused than I was, since the omissions would be obvious to them.  It's All So Quiet is still worth watching, especially if, like me, you enjoy bare-bones films with little action or exposition; I appreciate it as it is, but I think it needs a bit more.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Women and the Blood Tax

The Irish-Canadian-Lesbian novelist Emma Donoghue is probably best known for Room (2010), about a young woman kidnapped and imprisoned in a one-room outbuilding until she's old enough to bear her abductor's child.  The story is told from the son's perspective.  It became a best seller and was made into a movie, which I skipped.  The book was well-done, but abuse porn is not my genre of choice.  I'm relieved that I'm not the only person who feels this way; I do wonder about people who eat it up.)

Since 2010 Donoghue has published seven more books in a variety of genres -- young adult, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, and a collection of stories.  Her newest one, The Pull of the Stars (Little, Brown), was published only a year after its predecessor, Akin, and by a remarkable coincidence she completed it just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning.

The narrator and protagonist of The Pull of the Stars is Julia Power, a midwife and maternity nurse in Dublin in 1918.  The novel begins at the end of October, a few weeks before the armistice that ended World War I, and a few months into the great American influenza pandemic that would eventually kill millions of people around the world.  The marks of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 are still on the city, with bombed-out buildings and the memories of hundreds killed still a sore presence.  Hospitals were already overtaxed by wounded soldiers, and the the onslaught of people sick and dying of flu strains the hospitals and the city to the breaking point.  Nurses, doctors, and staff are falling sick, so those who can still work are exhausted and fearful.  Julia has already had the flu, so she's immune, but that mainly means that she must go on working until she almost literally drops.  She's usually assigned to a small ward for women on the verge of giving birth who also have influenza, which is where most of the novel takes place.  

On the first day of the novel she's the only nurse on the ward, but then a new volunteer comes in, a much younger woman named Bridget (Bridie) Sweeney, who turns out to be a very effective assistant, quick and eager to learn.  Even so, a large amount of action is packed into three days, as patients try to survive long enough to give birth and Julia and Bridie try to keep them and their newborns alive; not always successfully.  Most of the action is obstetrical, as none of the cases are uncomplicated, with a lot of detail that may make some readers queasy; be warned.  

Donoghue began writing the book in 2018 for the centennial of the epidemic, with no idea of what was to come.  I was impressed by the amount of research Donoghue put into it; it's intense but not gratuitous.  The aim is to depict the lives and deaths of ordinary people in a poor country in wartime crossed with an epidemic, and The Pull of the Stars succeeds vividly.  It's not pleasant, but it's important, and it's not abuse porn either.  The many parallels to the present pandemic enhance the story's power: people who go from healthy to dead in a day or two, or who linger on, with "recovery" that amounts to lifelong damage; people who refuse to protect themselves or others (masks were as political an issue in 1918 as they are today); the aggravation of the disease by poverty and dirt, the contempt for the poor by the better-off.

There's more to The Pull of the Stars that I haven't gone into here because it's new, so anyone who might be moved to read it will still find some surprises.  But one theme worth pointing out is sounded about halfway through.  One of the male hospital orderlies mocks the idea of women voting.  Julia snaps:

Haven't we proved our worth to your satisfaction yet?

The orderly grimaced.  Well, you don't serve, do you?

I was taken aback.  In the war?  Many of us most certainly are serving, as nurses and drivers and --

The orderly waved that away.  Don't pay the blood tax, though, do you?  Not like we fellows do.  Ought you really get a say in the affairs of the United Kingdom unless you're prepared to lay down your lives for the king?

I saw red.  Look around you, Mr. Groyne.  This is where every nation draws its first breath.  Women have been paying the blood tax since time began.

He snickered on his way out [179-80].

At first this felt a bit too neat, almost cliched.  But, for what it's worth, around 1500 women nurses from various countries died in the Great War.  I can't find how many ambulance drivers died, but it looks like a similar number.  Many more men died, but remember that women were barred from combat, and even their driving ambulances met with opposition; on the other side of the coin, most soldiers who died were killed by disease and famine, not by 'enemy' weapons.  What drove men to enlist, when they weren't conscripted, was not necessarily a desire to serve the King or President Wilson but a longing for adventure, machismo, and other less edifying motives.  Nor is military service a prerequisite for men who want to vote.

Then it occurred to me that The Pull of the Stars is a war novel - not merely a wartime novel, but formally similar to stories about combat: the courage needed to care for the sick when death might strike down the caregiver, working in gushes of blood and other body fluids, camaraderie among the grunts and conflict with higher-class superior officers.  I've been reading some World War I era fiction recently, and The Pull of the Stars has a lot in common with those stories.  It has been speculated that men perpetuate war partly out of a desire to face the same mortal dangers women have historically faced whenever they went into childbirth, hence the sexual division between war as men's work and childbearing as women's work.  Whether Donoghue intended the parallel or not, I detected it, and it lends added force to her story.  If other readers don't see it, fine.  In any case, The Pull of the Stars is worth reading.  I started reading Donoghue with her second novel, Hood, and she keeps getting better.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Hell Yeah I Have Schadenfreude, and I'm Not Afraid to Use It!

As I'm sure everyone knows by now, Donald and Melania Trump have both tested positive for COVID-19, along with Trump's assistant Hope Hicks, Notre Dame University president (and Trump booster) John I. Jenkins, Utah Senator Mike Lee, and probably others.  Initially it was claimed that the Trumps are asymptomatic, but there have been reports that Trump had been tired-looking and unsteady a few days ago, and now that they're both at least mildly symptomatic.  We'll see; it's too early to say much for certain, but it looks like last week's meet-and-greet announcing Trump's nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court may have been the spreader.  None of these people wore masks at the event.  Nor, it appears, did the Trump family at this week's debate.

I was a bit hesitant to check social media this morning after I heard the news, anticipating a flood of sanctimonious drivel from Democratic liberals and centrists.  I needn't have worried.  Most of the people I follow are hard-hearted leftists and satirists; Trump and his toadies got no sympathy from us.  The only outpourings of hopes and prayer I saw were quotations from the predictable suspects: right-wing Trump supporters demanding that "the radical left" (liberals and centrists) behave better than the Right, and liberals either virtue-signalling or motivated by childish, superstitious fear that they'll be punished for having hated Trump so vehemently.  They compared him to Hitler, now they wish Hitler a speedy recovery.

It's mildly surprising: I'm a guilt junkie since childhood, probably thanks to my Catholic mother, but I feel no qualms about saying that I don't care what happens to the Trumps or his followers, especially the highly-educated elites.  I still feel guilty for many things I've done in my life, but withholding good wishes from Trump isn't going to hurt him or anyone else.  He'll have the best treatment available if he gets sick, as will his wife and Jenkins and the rest.  If he dies, so have 200,000 other Americans (along with even more people around the world), and so have adults, children and babies in his concentration camps who didn't get any medical treatment at all.  As various people have said, if you want to pray, pray for the White House and Capitol staff, or for people in prison or concentration camps or cramped workplaces who can't keep a safe difference from each other.  After eight years each of Dubya and Obama followed by four years of Trump, I don't have any guilt left where the troubles of the mighty are concerned.

One presumable Christian quoted Galatians 6:7, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.”  This is false, of course, like all invocations of judgment and karma, and a Christian of all people should be wary about wishing judgment on others.  On the other hand, I've read the gospels, and I know how callous and delighted Jesus was about the suffering of the damned.  I'm not a Christian and I don't believe in Hell.  If Trump dies, he dies; but so do we all eventually.  I wouldn't have wished for Trump to catch the virus, but I won't pretend to care that he has.  If I myself catch the virus, get sick, even die, it won't be because I didn't pray for Trump.

This clip from exactly four years ago is entertaining: Trump mocking Hillary Clinton for her bout of pneumonia.  Pneumonia isn't COVID-19, but it does kill old people (and Clinton, like Trump, is an old person; on the other hand, it must be balanced against Clinton's obscene gloating over the lynching of Muammar Qadafy: "We came, we saw, he died!" If it will make liberals feel any better, I'd have the same reaction if Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Joe Biden caught COVID.  Or Jeff Bezos for that matter.  They are all murderous elites who, as Susan of Texas always says, kill us for money, and the virus is no respecter of persons.  Meanwhile, it's fun to think of the Trumps quarantined together (though the White House is big enough to give them plenty of space), with Melania blaming Donald for giving her the virus.  And you know he'll be trying to find a way to sneak out of Walter Reed and play golf.

But, as some are already protesting, isn't that just sinking to their level?  I don't really think so, but I can't say I care.  But if we're going to worry about such things, let's talk about double standards.  It's fascinating how selective liberals and centrists are in these matters.  Someone pointed out: "Bernie Sanders had a heart attack and Dems were questioning his fitness to serve. Trump gets coronavirus and Dems pray for a speedy recovery."  When the left historian Howard Zinn died, National Public Radio ran a scurrilous obituary that quoted the odious right-winger David Horowitz attacking Zinn with his usual disregard for facts. It's hard to imagine them, or any other respectable media outlet, doing the same for the most depraved right-wingers.  Remember the outpouring of dishonest eulogies for John McCain? Or Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan?   By contrast there wasn't much empathy on display for Hugo Chavez, the legally-elected president of Venezuela, when he died of cancer at a relatively young age.  I'm all for critical evaluations of the prominent dead, but they should be honest, and that seldom happens regardless of the politics of the deceased.

So far I've seen one remarkably good report from corporate media on the Trumps' status, this factual and unsensational NBC story. NPR, which I woke to this morning, didn't do nearly as well: they did their typical personality-driven, faux-predictive coverage, including a bizarre segment on what "Trump's Coronavirus Means for National Security."  "The president, of course, is the commander in chief of our nation's armed forces. So what could this development mean for the military?" anchor David Greene asked. Correspondent Tom Bowman reassured him:

Well, we've heard nothing from the Pentagon at this point or the White House about the continuation of, you know, the military. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is traveling overseas. I reached out to his spokesman; no word from him yet. But it's important to note, David, that the president is still carrying out his duties as commander in chief.

And more of the same, for anyone who might fear that Communist Venezuela or China might be poised hope take advantage of our Commander-in-Chief's potential incapacity and pour across our undefended borders.  This is, among other things, the result of seeing politics as the domain of One Man, the Head of the Nation, instead of a vast hydra-headed network of experienced people both civilian and military, who can carry on even if the Head is struck off.  I was only twelve when John Kennedy was assassinated, but I remember the same kind of inane fuss at the time and thinking that it was ridiculous, as it is now: the country isn't going to fall if the President gets sick or died - something which has happened numerous times in our history and, for better or worse, here we still be.  The mainstream media love to stroke this kind of genteel panic.  The New Yorker, for another example, is hoping for chaos.  And the liberal rehabilitation of Donald Trump, which leftists have been warning about, has already begun.

The liberal muckymuck Jeff Greenfield, Fox News and seemingly some commentators on CNN have called for Joe Biden to suspend his campaign while Our President fights for his life.  Ah, what would we do without Rachel Maddow?  I expect nothing from far right-wing media, of course, but it's going to be an education to see our responsible mainstream media showing their mettle (or rather, their asses) as this story plays out.  Meanwhile, I'm grateful to the commentators of Left Twitter for their savage and on-target mockery of Trump and his liberal apologists.  You can have my Schadenfreude when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.