Saturday, January 25, 2020

Inappropriate Appropriation

I'm not sure why this cheered me up, but it did.

It seems that Elizabeth Warren's campaign recently announced an "Interfaith Advisory Council" made up of religious leaders of various stripes, and almost immediately took it down.  Even the Wayback Machine can't seem to find the original tweet, but the press release yet lives.  It drew criticism and mockery because the list included fourteen Christian clergy, a rabbi, and a partridge -- no, a Zen Buddhist teacher from North Carolina.

The thread I found on Twitter included a lot of boyish giggling because the Buddhist sensei is an apparently white American woman.

I don't know if that reply is accurate or just a snarky allusion to Warren's now-abandoned claim of Cherokee ancestry, but it doesn't matter, because Buddhism, like most religions, is not a race or even an ethnicity.  (Guess what, guys - Roman Catholics are not all, or even mostly, Roman!)  Buddhism isn't racially homogeneous even in Asia, and though it originally came to the United States with Asian immigrants in the 1800s, by the twentieth century Buddhist missionaries were coming here to bring enlightenment and salvation, yea, even to white people.  Before long they were ordaining clergy among the "natives."  (Just as Christian clergy in Asia are now usually Asian.)  The assumption that Buddhists aren't white is racist to the core.

This one too:

So, Matt, how about those Korean and Japanese Catholic bishops?  Are they "appropriating" Western culture?  (Of course not: they're just dupes of the imperialists!)  How about "Asian" Americans who speak English?  One person had the sense to point out: "I don't know who she is, but if she was legit ordained by a Zen master she has more right to wear those clothes than the average Japanese person."  This led to more discussion among people who don't know that "Christian name" used to, and sometimes still does refer to the new name converts adopted on baptism.

Or think of Malcolm Little, who first changed his surname to X when he joined the Nation of Islam, then adopted the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after his pilgrimage to Mecca.  Adopting a new name for religious reasons is not exactly an obscure practice, even in the US.  Of course a atheist like Matt LP may not feel it important to know such superstitious drivel, but I think that an atheist who wants to comment on religion should be at least as knowledgeable as his targets - especially an atheist who claims that "Constructive criticism and knowledge is my forte. A better world is possible if we fight for it. #NotMeUs".  (Notice: not his aspiration, but his "forte.")  It would also be good not be bluntly racist, but that's probably too much to ask of an American.

Yes, it is hilarious that Warren's campaign rolled out such a half-assed initiative.  One would think that a little more thought would have gone into a project by a well-funded, professional organization made up of educated people; I thought white liberals had tokenism down to a science.  Instead Warren got something like Pete Buttigieg's ill-starred attempt to inflate his support among African-Americans in North Carolina without bothering to consult the people whose names he, um, appropriated.  But then some of Warren's critics made equally big fools of themselves.

P.S. This was yesterday, but it fits:

As Jake and several commenters chortled, quite a few of those canonical Western artists were not straight.  (Many of the names named are 'known' to have been gay by gossip, not history, but never mind.)  Nor were the famous Eyetalians, at least, white by modern scientific-racist standards.  But aside from that, even as a canon-revisionist myself, it occurs to me that much of the attitude alluded to in that quotation is wrong-headed.  Yes, students should be exposed to and instructed about art from outside the Western traditions, and an introductory survey is one good place to do it.  But would they criticize, say, a class on Japanese art history for being overwhelmingly Japanese, let alone male?  As the Feminist Press found when they assembled textbooks on writing by women outside the West, they encountered not just resistance but outright denial that Chinese, Indian, or East Asian .women had ever written anything.  And I don't think it was only because the indigenous academics involved had often been trained in the West.  A lot of culturally-sensitive discourse turns out to be as knee-jerk uninformed and blinkered as the traditions it opposes.

The Bach Door

The Netherlands Bach Society has a whole bunch of videos of performances of Bach's music on Youtube, and I put one on now and then when I'm in the mood for that old-time rock and roll.  This one came up in my recommendations today, and since I like the Cello Suites I clicked through.



I like the design of the video, the small audience sitting impassively in the darkened background, the cellist's concentration under the light.  But then I noticed the cello itself: I obscurely expected it to be shiny, new-looking, but it looks old, much-used, perhaps antique.  It's not important - I was only half-watching it as I listened - but it pleased me.

Contrast this clip from the same source, of a young man - a boy, really - playing the Third Cello Suite on a different but still banged-up-looking instrument.  There's no audience, the room he's in has large windows overlooking today's Amsterdam so you can't forget that you're in the twenty-first century.  Also interesting, not just a recitation of Bach's music but a comment on it.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Stuart Middle

The blogger Ampersand, aka the artist Barry Deutsch, linked to this New Yorker article on E. B. White's Stuart Little last week.  The article is even older than last week -- it was published in 2008 -- but I hadn't seen it before, it's about one of my all-time favorite books, and I learned a lot about the writing of the book, the state of children's literature in the mid-twentieth century, and other matters of interest to me.  It's well worth reading.

One thing bothered me, though.  Jill Lepore, the author of the article, doesn't like the ending of Stuart Little, and she boosts her dislike as if it were an objective fact about the book:
“Stuart Little” leaves you in doubt, a good deal of doubt, really; it doesn’t exactly end so much as it’s just, abruptly, over.  In Chapter VIII, Stuart falls in love with a bird named Margalo, and when she flies away he goes on a quest. In the book’s last chapter, he stops his coupe at a filling station and buys five drops of gas. In a ditch alongside the road, he meets a repairman, preparing to climb a telephone pole. “I wish you fair skies and a tight grip,” Stuart says, thoughtfully. “I hope you find that bird,” the repairman says. Then come the book’s final, distressing lines:
Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.
Stuart Little isn’t Gregor Samsa. He’s Don Quixote, turning into Holden Caulfield.
Lepore mentions Gregor Samsa because the critic Edmund Wilson told White that he "was disappointed that you didn’t develop the theme more in the manner of Kafka."  (Samsa is a man who turns into a giant insect in Franz Kafka's tale "The Metamorphosis.")  But Stuart isn't Don Quixote or Holden Caulfield either; I think Lepore is as deaf to nuance as Wilson or the librarians who objected to the book's blurring of fantasy and reality.

Lepore found the ending of Stuart Little "distressing," and I wouldn't be surprised if many child readers agreed.  Lepore quotes with delight the 'happy' ending written by a fifth-grade girl in 1946, which is well-done for a child that age but just as wrong for the book as Wilson's suggestion.  I can only report my own reaction when I first Stuart Little, on my own, in third grade, around 1960: I loved the ending.  It was, I suspect, the first unresolved ending I'd ever encountered, and it taught me something about what stories could do that I never would have learned if White had chosen for Stuart and Margalo to be "married back in New York and [raise] a family of half mice and half birds."  Lepore loves this; I don't; many people hate unresolved endings, it's a matter of taste.  But millions of copies of Stuart Little have been sold, and I don't believe that all of its young readers rejected White's ending.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Twitterverse of Hysteria

On Friday Donald Trump delivered himself of another rambling word salad to CNBC's fawning Joe Kernen.  As usual, there was little substance in his remarks, but the closing upset a lot of people, particularly people who hadn't read it.  Or people who can't read; take your pick.

Kernen approached his quarry cautiously:
JOE KERNEN: Do I dare-- one last question.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Go ahead.

JOE KERNEN: Entitlements ever be on your plate?

PRESIDENT TRUMP: At some point they will be. We have tremendous growth. We’re going to have tremendous growth. This next year I-- it’ll be toward the end of the year. The growth is going to be incredible. And at the right time, we will take a look at that. You know, that’s actually the easiest of all things, if you look, cause it’s such a--

JOE KERNEN: If you’re willing--

PRESIDENT TRUMP: --big percentage.

JOE KERNEN: --to do some of the things that you said you wouldn’t do in the past, though, in terms of Medicare--

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, we’re going-- we’re going[,] look. We also have-- assets that we’ve never had. I mean we’ve never had growth like this. We never had a consumer that was taking in, through-- different means, over $10,000 a family. We never had the kind of-- the kind of things that we have. Look, our country is the hottest in the world. We have the hottest economy in the world....
Some people on Twitter have suggested that Trump doesn't know what "entitlements" are.  That's plausible, but it seems more likely to me that he just wasn't listening, and he didn't let himself be diverted by Kernen's attempt to drive him the way he wanted him to go.  Trump didn't take up the subject of entitlements, and Kernen gave up on it.

However, some on Twitter panicked; I'm not sure why.  One business journalist, Pedro Nicolasi da Costa, said flatly "Trump told CNBC he wants to cut Social Security."  I imagine he does want to, but he didn't say so to Kernen.  For backup he retweeted a tweet from something called The Bridge Project: "realDonaldTrump admitted he’s coming for your Medicare and SocialSecurity at the 'end of the year.'"  No, he didn't, but who cares?  We've got an endless election campaign going on here, and there can be no lily-livered white-feather conscientious objectors.

Two main themes emerged in replies.  One was that Trump and the GOP want to get rid of Social Security and Medicare, and his base of old white people are stupid to support him because he's taking away their money and OMFG we have to vote Democrat in November!  It's true that the GOP wants to get rid of Social Security, Medicare, and your little Medicaid too, but so do elite Democrats.  The current Democratic favorite among older voters, Joe Biden, has been trying to cut these programs for forty years.  How will voting for Biden benefit me on this issue?  I spent some time pointing this out, and the few people who answered me said that Trump must go and they will Vote Blue No Matter Who so don't bother me with this trivia.  

They simply ignored the little problem of Biden, though I liked the person who wrote: "Interesting some claim Joe Biden is for cutting Social Security but ignore that Trump AND [McConnell]have been saying it for months and ARE CUTTING SSDI & EBT now. They openly say they will cut SS if they win the 2020 election. It should be a major scandal but is ignored!"  "Some claim" - that's funny, because Biden's record on cutting Social Security is well-documented, but his campaign claims that the videos have been misleadingly edited and are Fake News.  Even such Trumpian tactics are acceptable when Democrats use them.

Not only that, but Barack Obama wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare, blaming them for the deficitHe failed because the Congressional GOP was so determined to block him that they wouldn't accept a gift they'd long wanted.  (One person answered me, claiming that yes, Obama wanted to, but he failed and he realized he was wrong, so it doesn't count.  First, it's not true, Obama never changed his position; and second, this is exactly the argument Trump's defenders have made: that yes, he wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine, but he didn't get the investigation he asked for, and he released the aid in the end, so it doesn't count.  Again, it's okay to use such a worthless defense for Obama, but not for Trump.)  Trump's willfully blind base have nothing on these people.

The other theme was the familiar one about how Social Security and Medicare are not "entitlements," they're "earned benefits," and anyway, it's our money that we worked for and paid, so they are entitlements and we are entitled, so there, too!  If you don't like it, I want my money back!  You'll remember the suggestion that Trump doesn't know what "entitlement" means?  Well, neither do Democrats.  (To be quite honest, I'm not sure it's only Democrats who say this; pro-Trump Republicans do too, if they think a Democrat wants to put his government hands on their Medicare and Social Security.)

But really, the worst part -- both hilarious and terrifying -- is the claim that Democrats will protect our Social Security and Medicare so Vote Blue No Matter Who.  What Obama tried to do is down the memory hole, if they ever noticed it -- and it's not as if Obama weren't open about it and it weren't covered in the mainstream media.  Bill Clinton also tried, but was blocked by his impeachment.  But what must not be cannot be. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Cute War Criminal Pictures

I'd already seen these pictures online when a friend posted them on Facebook, gushing that you should leave politics out of it, they are just beautiful HUMAN BEINGS!  A couple of her friends gushed along with her.  I mentioned that Obama is a war criminal, and pointed out that Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was a human being too, but my comment has disappeared, along perhaps (I haven't checked) with the photos.  I'm impressed that my friend didn't unfriend me, but I think I was moderate to a fault.

After all, the people in the wedding parties Obama droned were human beings too.  So were the people in the hospitals he bombed.  So were the people in Libya killed by his NATO bombing campaign.  So were the Yemeni adults and children killed by the weapons and support Obama gave Saudi Arabia to wage war against them.  So were people in various countries on which he imposed sanctions.  So were the Central American refugee kids he callously sent back to danger and death in the countries they fled.  But their humanity doesn't begin to balance the sublime beauty of Barack and Michelle, and it's "politics" to remember it.

It would be one thing if Obama's cult acknowledged his murderous record but honestly declared their support for it.  It would still be heinous, but it could be engaged with.  But accurately describing a politician's (a Democratic politician's, anyway) record is a smear, racist, sexist, whatever.  What most appalls me is that they are unaware of his record.  Even when the stories were covered in the corporate media, they just slid harmlessly off the teflon brains of Obama loyalists and went down the memory hole.

Noam Chomsky has used the analogy of ants: when he (or anyone) walks down the street, he probably steps on and kills numerous small insects.  This isn't because he hates ants; they just aren't important enough to him to impel him to watch out for them.  Similarly, my friend and other Obama fans don't hate Afghan wedding parties or hospital patients or Yemeni children: their lives simply don't matter to them.  They might care a little more about Yemeni children now that it's Donald Trump helping Saudi Arabia to kill them, but not much more from what I see, and they didn't care at all when Obama was in charge.  It's like the "When Clinton Lied Nobody Died" bumper stickers I saw for a few years during the George W. Bush regime: many innocent people died because of Bill Clinton, but they were nobody, and Clinton's defenders easily brush aside any attempt to remind them of what happened to nobody.  Another friend was surprised when I recounted Clinton's record to her at length.  She didn't remember any of it, though she is my age and was sentient and conscious between 1992 and 2000.  I fear she's forgotten it again since then, and we haven't discussed Obama.

Are the lives of nobody "politics"?  I'm not sure.  I don't think one can or should separate politics, whatever that means, from recently-former Presidents.  Now that Dubya himself has been taken under the shelter of the Obamas' wings, his crimes forgiven and forgotten, so that liberal Democrats consider it unfair to bring them up, what are we allowed to remember?  I doubt that they'll grant the same amnesty to Trump when he's out of office, however he leaves.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Rage of Consent

I stumbled on a strange sex-advice column at Slate the other day.  A "22-year-old autistic queer woman who has never been sexually active" reported that she's periodically told by
friends—even progressive, feminist friends—who are older than me and try to take on a bit of a “mom friend” vibe, about whether women and gay men under 25 are able to consent to sex. I am told, at least once every couple weeks, that if you’re under 25, you’re incapable of consent because your “frontal lobes are still developing.” When I point out they suspiciously only apply the argument to women and gay men, they either tell me I am too young to understand, too inexperienced to understand, or too autistic to understand. 
The columnists - a man and a woman who write the column together - came down on what I consider the right side of the question: the friends are condescending and flat wrong.  They consulted various experts who confirmed that while some parts of the brain may continue to develop until the age of 25 (though women usually mature faster than men), there's no evidence that those parts have anything to do with a capacity to give consent to sexual interaction.

It's hard to see how they could, because "consent" is such a muddy, muddled concept in the first place.  As a legal concept it's a fiction: remember that in the not very distant past, American white women of any age couldn't consent to have sex with black males; men of any age could not consent to anal sex with other males in the US; at various times, no one of any age could consent to oral sex with anyone, and so on, no matter how developed their frontal lobes were.  Contrariwise, women who had once given consent, especially in marriage, could never withdraw it afterward. "Marital rape" was a hotly contested concept for just that reason: a husband might respect his wife's reluctance to let him exercise his marital rights, but he wasn't obliged to.  A good many people confuse the legal definitions of consent with what might be called the 'common-sense' definition (and you know what I think of 'common sense'), partly out of ignorance, partly because they find it convenient to do so.

I suspect that Underage's older, progressive, feminist friends set the bar at 25 for "women and gay men" because of penetration, which Andrea Dworkin hinted was inherently violent in her 1987 book Intercourse.  When this notion was challenged, Dworkin's defenders denied that she had actually said so, because she'd cannily relied on innuendo and rhetorical questions.  Plausible deniability, in other words, which was odd because Dworkin was not renowned for indirection.  But see this essay by Nona Willis Aronowitz (Ellen Willis's daughter), which I might give more extended attention sometime.  Aronowitz is, in my opinion, wrong about numerous matters, especially when she claims that "the pro-sex side had won" the war for the soul of feminism.  That's an oversimplification at best, as Underage's complaint shows.  But then, unlike Aronowitz, I actually read Dworkin's work from Woman Hating through Intercourse, and to a lesser extent beyond.

I also suspect that if Underage's friends got their way -- suppose that the legal age of consent for women was raised to 25 -- they'd soon find reasons why it should be even higher.  And then they'd argue that because the brain, having finished developing, promptly begins to deteriorate, no one over 25, or 30, is competent to give consent either.  Since their strictures aren't based on any actual evidence, but just their personal (and yet shared, which is the disturbing part) hangups, it's fair to suppose that they don't want anyone to seek erotic pleasure: so much can go wrong.  Except themselves, I presume.

It would be interesting to ask them at what age straight men and lesbians become capable of consent.  What are straight men under 25 supposed to do for sexual partners?  Older women?  Older gay men?  What about erotic play between children of more or less the same age?  I suppose that 'progressive, feminist' women of a certain age would simply consider that to be abuse.  My late Tabloid Friend on Facebook declared dogmatically that any child who is interested in playing with another child's body must have been abused already, and was simply continuing the cycle of abuse.

I don't think that Dworkin led feminists astray: she spoke for many women - feminist, non-feminist, anti-feminist.  From what I've seen, many women, often but not always older, white, and educated, shared her disgust for sex.  Aronowitz quotes Dworkin to the effect that men must "forgo their 'precious erections' and 'make love as women do together.'"  This is disingenuous, because Dworkin also wrote about lovemaking between women as grinding misery.  (Again, I have the advantage over Aronowitz of having read a lot more than the one-volume selection of Dworkin's work that she reviewed.)  Dworkin liked to walk both sides of the street, as it were, in a way that later came to be known as "triangulation."

I want to stress that I'm not telling women, or anyone, of any age, that they must enjoy sex, or engage in it at all if they don't want to.  Erotic/sexual freedom means the freedom to say no, to abstain, to set limits.  It's the traditionalists, actually, who reject nuance and the right to say Yes to this person or at this time, and No to another person or at another time: if you say Yes once, you can never say No again, and if you say Yes but have a bad time, you brought it on yourself and deserve no sympathy.    I don't know how far Underage's older, progressive feminist friends would go in that direction, but I bet they'd go pretty far. When ostensible progressives take traditionalist positions, they need to be challenged and shut down.  Like Dworkin, who was apt to vilify women who claimed to enjoy intercourse as (Aronowitz quoting her again) "'left-wing whores' and 'collectivized cunts'".  I'm old enough to remember the lesbian/feminist sex wars of the 1980s, where such epithets and more were hurled by older, progressive feminists at other women.

Underage's story stuck with me because it fits with other symptoms of reaction I've noticed: panic about nudity, panic about touching.  I realize that my Sixties-generational optimism about a better, freer, less screwed-up sexual world was naive, but I couldn't understand why anyone would want to police other people's sex lives.  I later realized, and learned, that sex is scary.  Especially for heterosexual women, for reasons that are well-known.  But for men too.  Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976) taught me so much about why people distrust, even hate the body: it can't be relied on to feel pleasure or give it; it fails us, it breaks down, it disappoints, eventually it sickens and dies.  So I don't blame religion, or feminism, for what looks to me like resurgent prudery in many corners of society; I see it as part of our human nature and heritage, which needs to be examined and criticized and resisted, especially when people mobilize bad science to try to frighten and restrict the sexual lives of other people.  If freedom means anything, it means the right to say No, but also to say Yes; and clearly many people don't think we should say Yes.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You Propaganda

A few days after his skirmish with the Iranian ambassador to the UN, NPR's Steve Inskeep interviewed Trump's National Security Adviser, Robert O'Brien.  It's instructive to compare the two.  Inskeep put his foot in it immediately, asking O'Brien about the briefing about the assassination of Qasem Soleimani he gave to lawmakers the day before.  O'Brien noted that it wasn't he but Mike Pompeo, Mark Esper, Joseph McGuire, and Gina Haspel who gave the briefing.  Inskeep's full response: "Right."  O'Brien went on:
I've heard from a lot of people that it was a fantastic briefing. So there's always mixed reviews on those, depending on what people's viewpoint is on the subject matter. Mike Lee's a friend of mine, and someone who I greatly respect and the president really respects. And so I was disappointed to hear that he wasn't happy with the briefing. But I've also heard from other senators, including Chairman [James] Risch of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — he thought it was one of the best briefings he'd ever had. So I think there's there's always mixed reviews on these things.
I think these claims should be taken with a grain of salt.  It wasn't only Mike Lee who was displeased with the briefing, quite a few other Senators were unhappy.  If James Risch thought well of it, he should say so publicly.

O'Brien, it should be remembered, is the fellow who tried to help Trump cover for Anne Sacoolis, a US diplomat who ran over a young Englishman, by tricking his parents into meeting with her.
The Dunn family blames National Security Adviser O’Brien for the misstep. “It struck us that this meeting was hastily arranged by nincompoops on the run and in particular Mr. O’Brien, who appeared to be extremely uptight and aggressive and did not come across at all well in this meeting which required careful handling and sensitivity,” [Dunn family spokesperson Radd] Seiger wrote. “The family remain open to the possibility of meeting Mrs. Sacoolas one day in the future but in a neutral and appropriately controlled environment.”

In other words, not in a reality-TV setting. 
More recently, O'Brien got attention for his apparent belief that the family name of the leader of North Korea is "Un" rather than "Kim."  To be scrupulously fair, numerous better-informed individuals, such as the lefty journalist Amy Goodman, have made the same blunder.  But O'Brien's gaffe fits so well with the general level of professionalism in Trump's White House that it deserved the whoops and cackles he got for it.  (And really, "the most notorious dictator in the world"?  More notorious than Mohamed bin Salman, Sisi, and other US buddies?)

O'Brien basically bullshitted his way through the interview with Inskeep, who was not totally subservient (just mostly) but still collegial as his subject repeated Trump / US propaganda.  It's different when a bold journalist is shooting the breeze with one of our guys.