Wednesday, December 11, 2019

If I Dood It, I Get a Whippin'...

I was on Twitter today when I came across this:

Whereupon this came instantly irresistibly to mind:

Am I saying that all reactionary Catholics are screaming queens?  Of course not -- only most of them, like their Protestant counterparts.  But if they came out, they'd stay just as reactionary.  We've often been told how radical and revolutionary screaming queens are, and in a narrow domain they may be.  But outside of that repressive gender order, my experience says otherwise.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Caress, Fondle, Nuzzle the Hair of Your Feelings

The American Civil Liberties Union is supporting four atheist students in Smith County, Tennessee who are resisting the imposition of Christian belief and practice by teachers in their high school: "school officials promoting Christianity through official prayers, Bible distributions, religious posters, and even a giant cross painted in one of the school’s athletic facilities." Three of the students were interviewed for the ACLU blog, and right off the bat they made it clear that their own understanding of the issue at stake was deficient.
What has your school environment been like for you?
Harleigh: Overall, it’s really uncomfortable. You feel like you don’t fit in at all.
Leyna: To be honest, it’s kind of awkward having to deal with everybody making it seem like you have to believe in one thing, just like them.
Pyper: Mostly it’s just uncomfortable and feeling like you don’t fit in.
I hope that their ACLU team has explained to them that their feelings are not the issue, and won't be helped if they win their lawsuit.  (It's likely, in fact, that their school environment will become even more uncomfortable in retaliation for making trouble and hating on Jesus.  Conservative Christians are very loving toward people who interfere with their theocratic aspirations.)  But maybe the ACLU doesn't know either, since they previously defended a student's suit to block official prayer at their high school commencement because "'They just wanted to be able to attend their commencement without feeling like an outcast,' ACLU NC legal advisor Chris Brook said."  Most of the comments under the ACLU's Facebook post were dispiriting in their historical and political ignorance, subliteracy, and mindless sloganeering.

I've complained about this kind of misunderstanding before, but as Christian Slater said in Heathers, I'll repeat myself.  The First Amendment doesn't guarantee that your sensibilities won't be offended, either by stray dissidents or by the majority of society.  It doesn't guarantee your god-given right to feel like you fit in.  Very much the opposite.  Nor is there any reason why it should, and I think that's most important.  If you adopt and express an unusual, let alone unpopular opinion, you're likely to find yourself on the outs with numerous groups in your vicinity: your school, your church, your family.  This probably won't be pleasant, but it goes with the territory.  It's not a secret: there are many role models, historical and fictional, religious and secular, for individuals who defied the crowd.

And with the best will in the world, the crowd isn't necessarily going to be able to reassure you much.  If everybody else in town is going to church and you refuse to, you're going to be left out, an outsider, a weirdo.  Even if the majority are nice about it, which may happen, you're going to be marginalized, because you marginalized yourself.  (They're certainly not obligated to stay home from church so you won't feel like an outcast.)  All the First Amendment does is protect you against official, government penalties for being a weirdo.  That may not seem like much, but it took many centuries for civilization to get to reach that point.

Worse yet, one of the kids complained "I respect other people’s religion, and I would like it if everyone else would respect my beliefs."  Does she, now?  She "respects" beliefs that, by definition, she regards as false and unfounded?  I think that, like many people, she doesn't know what "respect" means.  We are obligated to respect other people's right to hold their beliefs, but not to respect the beliefs themselves, nor are we entitled to demand that others respect our beliefs.  And if, in a small-town Christian-nominated high school full of adolescents, the worst she has to complain about is a lack of respect, she's pretty lucky. 

"Belonging" seems a rather iffy notion anyhow.  Isn't it subjective?  People often feel that they don't belong even when there's no evident exclusion going on.  Think, for example, of all the gay people who claim that they always knew they were "different," even before anyone else around them knew.  Perhaps they were right that if others knew their secret, they'd be ostracized, but not always.  In my adolescence I myself felt more alienated than was warranted.  When I graduated and started hanging out at a regional campus in a nearby city, I found a group of people among whom I felt as if I belonged for the first time in my life: the university club that ran a small coffeehouse near campus.  I was still a weirdo, but it didn't seem to matter.

When I moved to the flagship campus two years later and came out, I found that I didn't feel I belonged in the gay community there.  Partly this was encouraged by some of the gay people I met, but I also found I didn't care, because I wasn't going to let other people define and regulate gayness for me.  But all of this took place apart from First Amendment issues, because belonging is not a function of the state.

Something similar occurred to me as a writer.  I took a couple of writing classes, first at the regional campus and then at the main one.  I "belonged" there because I'd signed up for the classes.  At the main campus, I tried to get my poems published but without success, though I don't think that's why my writing dried up.  Several years later, I began writing poetry again, and made some inroads in whatever poetic community could be said to exist around the campus and town.  But I didn't fit in, and the exclusion was mutual: other poets didn't seem to know what to do with me, nor did I.  I realized that I wasn't interested in being one of the gang, at least not theirs. This again wasn't anything that the ACLU could have helped me with.  But it wasn't traumatic for me.  I had friends and community of my own anyhow, including a couple of doctoral students in English who praised and encouraged my work.

Later, as I learned and thought more about these matters, I found that atheists were as varied a bunch as gay people, and that I'm not sure I belong among atheists -- except that we aren't, for the most part, organized and there's no one to force an atheist orthodoxy on me. Which doesn't mean I haven't encountered atheists who would like to excommunicate me, but at worst I find it puzzling.  I also wonder if I ever really expected that there was a warm, welcoming atheist community where everyone agreed about everything; I may have, on some unconscious level, but not seriously.  Some atheists are dogmatic, but they have no power over me as atheists, and I don't need their respect.

If these high school atheists in Tennessee expect to find an environment where their beliefs are respected, they are going to be sorely disappointed.  Being a dissident in any domain is not likely to be comfortable, and the First Amendment will only take you so far.  The rest you have to negotiate for yourself.

Amusingly, the religious-right pundit Rod Dreher has been complaining again about the lack of respect "traditional Christians" get in America, and I'll try to write about that next.  The general situation is not unlike what these kids in Tennessee are facing, except that I have even less sympathy for the likes of Dreher.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Conan Goes to Washington

You may have to click through to see this short video:
 I'm not sure how much can safely be read into a fifteen-second video clip, but it does look to me like Willis is right.  As someone who gets along very well with cats and not all that well with dogs (though some dogs are friendly to me anyway), I'm not unsympathetic to Trump in this situation.  Not exactly sympathetic, of course.  And the Secret Service would have had to shoot Conan if he'd gone for the President of the Free World; bad optics!.

The responses to Willis's tweet were predictable.  Quite a number were variations on this theme:

Oh, really?  If dogs can detect humans' evil character, how could Mike Pence stroke Conan's ear without losing a finger or two?  One other commenter raised this point; no one so far has responded.

This one, however:
Ah, the stink of liberal homophobia on a mild November afternoon.  "Weird, no?"  No.  "Such an intimate gesture for a man to make to another man?"  Not particularly intimate, and anyway, I watched the clip again: Pence touched the handler's back only fleetingly.  If he'd lingered, caressed, maybe slipped his hand under the man's jacket, Persistent Woman would have had a point.  And I wouldn't be surprised if Pence, like so many antigay fundamentalists, did have something to hide.  As it is, her reaction says a lot more about her than about Pence.

American society is diverse.  Of course some are, but not all straight men are homophobically chary of physical affection with other men.  From what I've seen, there's a lot more affectionate touching between them than is officially supposed to happen.  But also, homophobic societies are likely to permit a great deal of affectionate same-sex touching, going far beyond Pence's gesture in this video. I'd rather encourage it than discourage it, but people like Persistent Woman, by fixating on it and mocking it, however lightly, are not going to discourage it.  I prefer to discourage homophobia.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Smarter Than Mayonnaise

I'm caught up with pretty much everything except reading (which I'll never catch up with), so I've run out of excuses for not writing.  Then the Subway where I ate lunch was tuned to a broadcast of one of those Nuremberg rallies we call American professional football, one of the broadcasters announced that people would stand for the National Anthem, a lugubrious basso began singing it badly, and I had the impetus I needed to push me to the keyboard.

A few weeks ago, the notorious Fasco-American provocateuse Tomi Lahren attempted to mock US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by tweeting that she -- that is, Lahren -- was going to dress as Ocasio-Cortez for Halloween.
Sensibly, Ocasio-Cortez wasn't offended by Lahren's costume.  She drew attention to Lahren's attempted slur, "former bartender."  Lahren backed down while pretending not to back down:
Responding to critics, a seemingly unphased Lahren refused to back down, tweeting: "I mean this truly and sincerely, being a former bartender is the best and most admirable thing about @AOC."
She lied, of course.  Like most Republicans, she believes that having been a service worker somehow discredits Ocasio-Cortez. But then, so do right-wing Democrats. Numerous AOC fans and supporters pointed out that though elites pretend to care about working people, putting us in our place is one of their go-tos.  They'll usually back down, as Lahren did, when they get called on it, but if they didn't believe it, their ids wouldn't spew out the contemptuous dismissals in the first place.  What it amounts to is that while they value proles in our place, we had better not get too big for our britches by, say, getting elected to Congress.

I've often come up against versions of this pattern myself, from my liberal law-professor friend who refused to recognize that mocking college dropouts was not only invalid, it included me.  "It didn't refer to you," she protested, "You're not a newscaster."  But I am a college dropout, so it did refer to me.

I came up against this same mindset several times earlier, on a university-owned BBS in the 1990s, which was open to university staff, students, and faculty.  Someone would dismiss my opinions by pointing out that I was a dishwasher, what did I know?  Usually some of my friends would defend me as being real smart anyway, and the offender would backtrack and protest that he (it was always a he) totally respected me and would be proud to have me teach his children.  This was still irrelevant, and I don't think I ever got an answer to my follow-up question, which was why, if these people respected me so much, why did they begin with a pointless ad hominem dismissal?  The important thing, I take it, was that they should never actually have to engage with a rational argument.  That's a right guaranteed by the Constitution, you know.

The worst thing about social media, as far as I'm concerned, is not the right-wing loonies, toadies, and thugs who populate it, but the liberal and left loonies, toadies, and thugs who populate it. That's a personal reaction, since both do equal harm to rational discourse, but it bothers me more because the liberals and leftists are supposed to be on my side, my allies and shields against the Trump threat, defenders of reality-based, fact-based discourse in a post-truth world. 

Take my liberal law-professor friend, who posted authoritatively on Facebook just last week that hate speech is not Constitutionally protected.  She was either ignorant or lying, and in either case I'm concerned for her students, just as I am for the students of right-wing bigots who teach in public universities.  Even in the red state where she teaches, even in law school, she may encounter people who disagree with her from the left, the kind of people liberals hate even more than they hate Donald Trump.  I don't know that she'd fail a student who corrected her factual errors, but I'm confident that she'd try to pull rank based on her education and authority as a professor. 

That doesn't work on me: she can't hurt me by giving me a low grade, and I don't even give her the benefit of the doubt anymore.  But it could intimidate her students, and that's not good.   I hope none of them have worked as bartenders, table servers, or in other low-class jobs.

Friday, November 1, 2019

There Was an Old Woman Who Traveled the World

I just read Patti Smith's new book, Year of the Monkey (Knopf, 2019), a memoir of her seventieth year.  I've been following Smith's career since she wrote record reviews for Creem magazine in the early 70s, when she was a poet and not yet a singer, and while I'm ambivalent about her, she's made some great records and I find her very interesting.

Year of the Monkey begins with Smith in San Francisco for a New Year's Eve performance.  She and her guitarist Lenny Kaye had intended to work with their old friend and colleague Sandy Pearlman, but Pearlman didn't show up and they only learned later that he'd had a stroke and was in the hospital in a coma.  (He died the following summer.)  Smith hung around in the Bay area for some time, staying in a motel by the ocean, fretting over Pearlman, trying to work.  As the book goes on, she returns to her home in New York City, prepares for a tour; spends time in Kentucky with the playwright Sam Shepard, who was dying of ALS, helping him to edit the manuscript of what turned out to be his final book; mourns the election of Donald Trump, observes her seventieth birthday.  She recounts dreams and visions and internal conversations with the sign of the Dream Motel, keeps running into a pompous drifter/shaman called Ernest - whose literal existence I somewhat doubt, but hey, Smith is a poet.

Year of the Monkey is an interesting book, though I find her prose unsatisfying. I can't quite put my finger on the problem.  Somehow she writes in such a way that she seems less intelligent than she obviously is.  But what I mainly took away was the realization that Smith was writing as an old woman, a widow with two grown children as well as an artist with decades of achievement.  It says something positive about the changes of the past fifty years that a woman of her age could write about drifting around, staying in cheap motels, finding rides, walking through the desert -- it's the kind of itinerancy that Jack Kerouac dreamed of, but that was traditionally a guy thing, especially a young guy thing. 

Of course Smith is also a settled, financially comfortable adult with an apartment in New York; she's not a hobo, but she has the freedom of movement that is not conventionally associated with women.  It's a picture of an old woman very different than what I find in other old women writers like May Sarton or Doris Grumbach.  I can't imagine either of them packing for a European lecture tour "six Electric Lady T-shirts, six pair of underwear, six of bee socks, two notebooks, herbal cough remedies, my camera, the last packs of slightly expired Polaroid film and one book, Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg" (page 98).  Aging isn't what it used to be, and what a good thing that is.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry...

I'm just too lazy to write at any length, but this might be worth noticing:
As numerous people pointed out to O'Brien, the Dante quotation is bogus.  It's the opposite of the case in fact, though Dante didn't know any more about what happens after we die than anyone else does.  But if you are going to cite fiction, you should at least get its details correct.

As I thought about it, however, it occurred to me that highly placed Republicans, including Trump himself, are anything but neutral about the impeachment inquiry: they are attacking quite fiercely the process and those who are carrying it out.  So I guess they'll be going to Heaven, right?  If anyone has tried to maintain neutrality, it's the Democratic Congressional leadership, notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who did her best to block and retard impeachment until her neutrality became untenable.

There's also dear Barack Obama, last seen being moderate and neutral and reasonable about "cancel culture."  (It should be remembered that he's always been dismissive of those who don't stop with clicking on the Intertubez, but organize and mobilize and take to the streets  -- especially in opposition to his policies.)  But I'm not being quite fair, because Obama isn't neutral: he's ready to act in support of the people who share his values.  

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Fighting Middle-Aged Skater Who's Not Afraid to Talk to the Young in Their Own Language

The laundromat I used to use had no televisions, because a lot of college students used it and wanted to study there, not be distracted.  Remarkably, the owner chose to cater to them.  I'm not sure whom the owner of the laundromat in my new town is catering to, but this one has televisions on every wall so that the clientele can feast on CBS fare.  I can sit where the screens aren't visible, but the sound follows me everywhere.

Among the riches available today on CBS Sunday Morning was a human-interest story by a 42-year-old podcaster on the supercool skateboard his wife surprised him with on his birthday.
Without a doubt, it was the best present I'd ever gotten, and also the one that most necessitated me updating my will. Because you see, while inside I felt like a kid again, outside I remained very much a middle-aged man with a sense of balance that could only be described as intermittent.

I didn't let that stop me, though, and despite more than a few falls I felt like it was coming back to me.
So far, not bad; I thought it was rather sweet.  But then it turned pathetic:
Heck, I even skateboarded past a bunch of teenagers one time and I swear I heard one of them say, "That guy is cool!" 
Then he encountered this well-known meme:

And behold, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, and "I knew it was time to hang up my skateboard."

Until he happened to meet the celebrity skater whose name his new skateboard bore.  This man is fifty years old, and still skates daily, though he feels "nervous before jumping his board 30 feet in the air and completely rotating it two-and-a-half times."  Our guy immediately felt better!

I suppose everybody has their own philosophy about aging.  Some want to be a young among the young again.  They can't do that, but try to stop them from trying.  My feeling is that if you're fifty and you want to do something, whether you did it as a kid or are only taking it up, you should go ahead.  Don't expect your fellow kids to embrace you as one of them, and don't cringe or retreat if you overhear them sneering about the old guy or gal trying to relive his or her youth.  If you're fifty and you want to skate, skating is a middle-aged thing.

It's like gender in that respect.  I keep citing the "woman-identified woman" who,
at the 1971 Council on Religion and the Homosexual symposium, was challenged by someone in the audience because of her apparently masculine attire. But Lynda explained, “This short haircut, because it is mine, is a woman’s hairstyle. These so-called men’s boots, because I am wearing them, are women’s boots. This pipe, because I am smoking it, is a woman’s pipe. Whatever women wear is women’s wear. It is a matter of individual choice – and comfort.”*
Your skateboard, because it's yours, is a forty-two-year-old's skateboard.  Or a fifty-year-old's.  You do what you want to do, and you don't worry if it's somebody else's idea of age-appropriate or not.  If any kids want to claim that it's like totally theirs, and you're engaging in cultural appropriation, they're wrong.

Gender is also a good analogy because skateboards were originally a boy thing, and girls encountered pushback when they took them up.  Ditto for electric guitars, but that's another story.  So now there's a group for girls and women based in Venice, California, with a worldwide online presence and regular group outings:
"You don't have to, like, rip. You don't have to do tricks. We're just asking to kick push. We're there to, like, support you in it. The whole idea is we're trying to make this less intimidating for women," Osinski said. "When you're a woman alone on a skateboard, it's very different. When you're a woman together, with all these other people… you really create girl power. Girl power is real. You can change things in your community."
But there shouldn't be any need to gender skating, or to tie it to age or subculture.

Of course, I hope you'll wear protective gear, as serious skaters do.  And when you fracture your hip in a fall, then it may be time to hang up the board.  (Not necessarily, though: some people bounce back from such injuries.)  I've written before about the bodily realities of aging.  At 57 my body had begun to slow down; now, at 68, my age is written on my flesh more than ever, and it's not going to be erased.  Still, as much as possible I negotiate between my body and my mind.  If I want to do it, and I can, then it's what an old person does.  This old person, anyway.

*Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons, Lesbian/Woman (Bantam Books, 1972), page 81.