Thursday, July 2, 2020

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Cognitive Dissonance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 29, 2020

Losing My Innocence, One Chunk at a Time


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Whom the Gods Wish to Destroy, They First Make Mad



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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Taking It Spiritually

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Don't Blame Me, Bro!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Political Power Grows Out of the Posting of Memes

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

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

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

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