Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Forbidden Desire and Blameless Friendships

I should know better than to write about reviews of books rather than the books themselves, but I've been lazy lately, and since this review irritated me enough to start me writing, I'll go with it.  Remember, though, that I haven't yet read the book in question, and that I'm writing about the review.

So I happened on this review at the Guardian's website, of Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe: Male-Male Sexual Relations, 1400-1750 by Noel Malcolm, published in December by Oxford University Press.  My beef is primarily with the reviewer, Peter Conrad, who writes as if he's never read a book about gay history before.  While that's true of many people, including gay ones, I expect a little better from a reviewer in a prestigious newspaper.

Evidently the book focuses on the brutal persecution of "the sodomites, as Malcolm grimly insists on calling them," and Conrad says it's all the fault of Christianity as he grimly but pruriently insists on detailing the punishments that our fore-uncles suffered.  "As Malcolm demonstrates, this paranoid bigotry derived from a misreading of scripture. The ungodly city of Sodom is condemned because its inhabitants committed a particularly abominable sin, but the Bible does not specify that this peccadillo was 'male-male sexual intercourse or desire."  Conrad here echoes gay Christian apologetics of the 1960s through the 1990s or so, which argued that the story of Sodom was not about male-to-male buttsex but about violations of hospitality.  This line reached its peak in John Boswell's influential Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago, 1980), which strained mightily to prove that Christianity was not hostile to homosexuality at all.  Boswell was effectively rebutted by numerous gay scholars, but his work remains popular (if largely unread) by gay laymen.  I'll just note that Conrad overlooks the prohibitions of male-to-male sex in Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13), which commands the execution of both partners, and in Romans 1, without referring to Sodom.  He also overlooks the hostility to receptive partners in Greek and Roman antiquity, expressed in heated rhetoric that presaged the ranting of medieval theologians on the subject.  That hostility is often found among gay men today.  While male-to-male sex was clearly common and popular in Roman society, an equally popular way to discredit one's political or other enemies was to accuse them of enjoying sexual passivity.  This let the accuser wallow in elaborate exciting fantasies about other people's practices, as bigots have done ever since.

The persecutions of sodomites weren't as consistent as Conrad implies either.  That doesn't excuse them, but it does indicate that religion wasn't the only or determining factor.  In Florence, for example, moral panics came and went.  According to Michael Rocke's Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (Oxford, 1996), authorities realized that draconic punishments made it harder to get convictions, so they changed the penalties to fines. "Sex here seems to be followed, almost automatically, by excruciating death," Conrad writes; well, sometimes, but not always or "automatically."  If the Florentine sex cops were driven by religious fervor, they should have maintained the beheadings and torture.  Conrad even acknowledges this: "The moral panic whipped up by these prosecutions often concealed squalid financial or political motives. A French assault on the secretive Knights Templar in the 14th century used sodomy as an excuse for confiscating their wealth."

Conrad may not be aware of it, but gay scholars have been investigating these matters since at least the 1970s.  In addition to Rocke, I think of a paper in The Gay Academic (ed. Louie Crew, Etc. Publications, 1978, pp. 73-78) on a sodomite hunt in the Netherlands that led to the execution of at least fifty-nine men, plus the harassment and expulsion of many more, in 1730.  Jonathan Ned Katz' Gay American History (Crowell, 1976) has a long documentary section on official violence against gay people. Louis Crompton's Byron and Greek Love (California, 1985) details the public torture and executions of English sodomites in the late 1700s. And so on: these are just off the top of my head.  I imagine Noel Malcolm is aware of his predecessors, even if Peter Conrad isn't.

I look forward to reading Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe, possibly this year; the Kindle edition is reasonably priced, so I intend to buy it soon.  But I found this bit, the end of Conrad's review, off-putting: "Announcing that he has 'come to this subject with no personal investment in it', Malcolm resists the wishful thinking of historians who double as gay activists and back-project 'anachronistic sexual significances' on to blameless friendships between medieval men."  For a moment it was as if I were reading about a publication from the 1970s or earlier, with the author distancing himself from his subject (he's not that way, he's impartial and objective!), as if anyone cared anymore.  Even worse is that bit about "anachronistic sexual significances" and "blameless friendships."  I've written about that before.  Erotic love relations between men are also blameless, and there's nothing anachronistic about wondering if same-sex friends were also erotic partners. The ancient Greeks, for example, were sure that the Iliad's Achilles and Patroclus were erastes and eromenos - though they couldn't agree on which was which.  If anything, gay scholars like Alan Bray and David M. Halperin have done the opposite of what Malcolm says, denying erotic elements in medieval friendships.  So I'll have to see Malcolm's remarks in their context.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Vagabond Scholar's Jon Swift Memorial Best of 2023

Once again, Batocchio has posted his annual Jon Swift Memorial Roundup, carrying on the good work of the late satirist and blogger Al Weisel, alias Jon Swift.  Bloggers choose their own favorite post of the year, and Batocchio posts them.  Have a look, and see what you think.

Monday, October 9, 2023

If Corporations Are People, What About Black Holes?

NPR strikes again.

I've noticed before how their news programs use astronomy as an excuse for flights of erotic fancy.  Last Thursday, though, they took a further step into feel-good, Culture-of-Therapy inanity, giving three minutes of their valuable airtime to an astrophysicist named Regina G. Barber.  Google News kindly sent it my way, showing that the Internet is malicious (if that wasn't already obvious).  "Black holes can teach us how to live our best lives," read the headline, and it was entirely accurate. 

One of my favorite celestial objects in the universe is the black hole.

Granted, I'm an astrophysicist. But I know I'm not alone. People love black holes. They seem to hold a near-mythic status in movies and pop culture.

People, movies, and popular culture love serial killers and zombies too.

What lessons do black holes have to teach us, according to Barber?  Here's the first one.

Lesson One: Push the limits, even if others doubt you

From there she tells how black holes were theorized and their existence eventually confirmed.  Apparently they were sitting out there, light-years away, patiently waiting to be found, pushing the limits against old meanie Albert Einstein's doubt about them.  But his obstructionism "didn't work," and they emerged to take their place in the sun.

And so on.  If you want to know the other two lessons, click through.  Barber concludes:

So, next time you're feeling unsure about your place in the world, remember: "Just because you are not seen, it doesn't mean that you are not there or that you are not, you know, playing a very, very important role," says [fellow astrophysicist Priyamvada] Natarajan.

Black holes have feelings too, just like you.  They too are Somebody.

This is of course all bullshit.  Planets don't dance with each other or kiss each other, and black holes were not waiting for astronomers on Earth to prove their existence.  I'm working on a blog post about meaning and purpose in scientific accounts of the universe, and despite what some philosophers and scientists will tell you, there was never any danger that personification of Nature was going to go away.  I don't know what Barber thought she was doing here; I suspect it's another attempt to make Science and Scientists look like nice guys instead of mean old grinches who want to take away all your illusions.  Luckily for us, black holes are too far away for people to try to pet them.  Barber and Natarajan would be first in line.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Democratic Establishment Also Believes, and Trembles


This is pretty good, but I think it's misleading to take all the "Red Wave" predictions from Fox. I don't watch Fox. I do listen to NPR every morning, and they were just as sure as Fox News that the GOP would win big last November; also as disappointed when it didn't pan out. And I can't help wondering what Chris Hayes was saying before the fact. Don't misunderstand me, I think the lefty-Democratic resurgence is great news and I hope it continues. But corporate news coverage is mostly terrible, and Hayes himself as a booster of "meritocracy" is opposed to democracy.

This morning, for example, NPR's Morning Edition aired a brief interview on the UAW strike with Bernie Sanders, which they sought to balance with comments from a guy from the Brookings Institution. Does NPR "balance" its interviews with right-wing politicians and pundits by talking to people from the left? They do not.  If they can, they'll talk to commentators who are further to the right.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Oceania Has Always Been at War with Democracy

A few days ago the MSNBC pundit Mehdi Hasan jeered at the very idea of democracy, with a bogus quotation from Winston Churchill.  Yesterday:

Kissinger infamously said, “I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people."  But what, on Hasan's assumptions, is so bad about that?

P.S. Mehdi Hasan has shown a symptomatic confusion about democracy before.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Surely I Am Coming Literally; or, the Messiah Has All the Lines

Then there was this one.

Followed by:

And later by:

"Simplistic" isn't the word I'd use, but ...

Liberal Christians and secularists love to mock conservative Christians for taking the Bible literally.  They're wrong about that, since conservatives believe the Bible to be inerrant, an illusion that requires a lot of non-literal interpretation to sustain.  Ironically, perhaps, Julian Sanchez here takes the Bible literally: he assumes that the gospel of John is a literal, factual report of Jesus' interaction with Jewish elites.  Anyone who has had any contact with New Testament scholarship will find that especially amusing, because the Fourth Gospel (as scholars often refer to it; it was probably not written by the disciple John) is known as the most "spiritual" gospel, even in Christian tradition.  It doesn't match up with the other three in chronology, style, or its portrayal of Jesus.  Yet, despite their dismissal of the Bible as the fantasies of illiterate Bronze Age shepherds and peasants, they frequently do as Sanchez did here, and take it as straight reportage.  The commenters under his posts follow suit.

The great teacher who must contend with the foolishly literal-minded inquirer is a staple literary device of "spiritual" writing, from Plato's Socrates and the Buddha down to Zen masters and Carlos Castaneda's equally fictitious Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan.  It's also common in any kind of propaganda, religious or political: of course the outsider or unbeliever is a foil, dumber than a box of rocks and existing only to be schooled, though it's probably a vain effort.  The trope allows the teacher to hold forth at great length, and it doesn't hurt that the script is written so that the teacher gets all the gotcha lines, while the opponent can only gape helplessly and confess his stupidity.  It's fun to chuckle at Nicodemus, as Sanchez does, but it's disturbing to realize that he thinks Nicodemus was really that dumb and Jesus was really that smart, and that he himself is very clever to have spotted it.

In one post Sanchez balks at taking John's anti-Jewish polemic at face value, but this is straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel.  I agree that "It’s [sic] seems awfully unlikely, e.g., that the historical disciples really went around talking about 'the Jews' like some foreign group," but I see no reason to take the rest of the gospel material as gospel either.  Does he really believe that a writer who caricatured Jesus' opponents in this one respect would depict them accurately in others?

Another irony is that apologists like to claim that in olden days nobody took religious statements literally, that everybody from high priests on down knew better than that.  This is probably false, but it's true that people in Jesus' time and region were given to elaborate interpretations of religious teachings.  Not only the Hebrew Bible (the New Testament came along later) but the epics of Homer were treated as inerrant texts to be mined for hidden wisdom.  It's said that the Sadducees, the Judean faction who controlled the Temple at the time, insisted on interpreting the Torah literally.  That's unlikely in practice, even if it was their principle, but Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a sect very fond of non-literal readings of Scripture.  The Dead Sea Sect also had secret spiritual teachings, and interpreted the Torah for their own ends.  In all disputes, though, propagandists find it convenient to mock the literal absurdity of their opponents' beliefs and practices (the heathen believe that their graven idols can hear their prayers!).

The gospels do contain material that shows Jesus teaching in riddles so as to confound his hearers, not only those outside but his inner circle of disciples.  The fourth chapter of Mark consists of the Parable of the Sower, the disciples asking what it means, and Jesus explaining the parable while declaring that he teaches in parables in order to prevent outsiders from understanding, repenting, and being saved.  The parallel versions of the story in Matthew and Luke soften this as much as they can, but they retain the idea that no one could understand Jesus' teaching until after he died and was resurrected.  Only then could the Scriptures be opened to their true meaning.  But this idea isn't sustained throughout the gospels.  Most of the time the crowds and Jesus' opponents understand his meaning entirely too well, for example in Mark 12:12 and parallels: "And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them." 

I also think that Julian Sanchez gives Jesus far too much credit for profundity.  Why should Nicodemus have understood Jesus' claim that one must be born again to see the kingdom of Heaven?  His question about it, far from being stupidly literal-minded, is simply feeding Jesus a chance to explain himself -- which, as usual, Jesus takes, though his follow-up is as usual as clear as mud.  Does Sanchez thinks he understands Jesus' pretentious bloviation about sin and salvation in the Fourth Gospel?  He recognizes that "born again" is a pun in the original Greek -- it can also mean "born from above," which isn't self-explanatory either -- but still thinks it means something.  Maybe it does, but what?  I can understand a Christian apologist taking this stance, but why would a self-styled secularist do so?  What does Sanchez thinks "the kingdom of Heaven" refers to?  It's a Christian commonplace that Jesus' Jewish contemporaries had wrong ideas about the Messiah and the kingdom he would establish, but I don't agree that Jesus' ideas, whatever they were, were correct.  Considering that the kingdom he promised did not arrive within a generation, as he promised, it's a safe bet that his ideas were wrong.  (Trying to interpret his teaching to get around that basic stumbling block is a hallmark of fundamentalism, not of secularism.)  The Christian churches have changed their understandings of Jesus' teaching over the millennia, and modern scholars disagree on just about everything aspect of it. 

As an atheist, I am free not to think "the Kingdom of Heaven" has any real referent.  Based on my experience with both modern scholarship and lay atheists' confused efforts to appropriate Jesus' teaching for their own purposes -- efforts which make no sense to me at all -- I don't think they know any more about it than Nicodemus did.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Liberals in Flames

This is pretty funny.  Mehdi Hasan is a British broadcaster who moved to the US in 2015 to work for Al-Jazeera.  He built a reputation as a fiery liberal commentator who boldly Speaks Truth To Power, became a US citizen, and I admit I was surprised when he got a regular spot on MSNBC.  Didn't they already have a fiery liberal commentator who boldly Speaks Truth To Power?  I suppose one more won't hurt.

On Labor Day, Hasan posted on the platform formerly known as Twitter:

First off, Churchill probably didn't say this.  It's a good thing the leftish media are more accurate than Faux News, isn't it?

But, second, that quotation may accurately reflect Churchill's views.

I don't mean to single out Churchill, of course. Much of the English ruling class liked fascism, and so did much of the American ruling class.  From David F. Schmitz's Thank God They're On Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965 (University of North Carolina, 1999) :

American businessmen were no less enthusiastic about Mussolini and his government.  Thomas Lamont of J. P. Morgan remarked after his first meeting with Mussolini that the Italian dictator was “a very upstanding chap.”  He wrote later that Italy was “going to be a great country despite its very limited resources.”  Otto Kahn, of Kuhn, Loeb, praised the recent change of government in Italy at the 1925 meeting of the International Chamber of Commerce.  “Parliamentary wrangling and wasteful impotent bureaucracy” had been replaced by an “efficient and energetic … government,” which had united Italy in “a spirit of order, discipline, hard work, patriotic devotion and faith.”  Ralph Easley of the National Civic Federation wrote to Thomas Lamont after visiting Italy, “I think, were we in Italy, we would all be with Mussolini.”  And Judge Elbert Gary of United States Steel remarked while in Rome in 1923 that “we have here a wonderful renaissance of youthful energy and activity.  A masterhand has, indeed, strongly grasped the hand of the Italian state.”  Gary added that he felt “like turning to my American friends and asking them whether we, too, need a man like Mussolini” [40].

In this case, Mehdi Hasan was complaining because most respondents to a Wall Street Journal poll don't believe that the US economy is in good shape, that inflation has continued to rise, and the like.  I saw some criticisms of the poll's methodology, but I'm less concerned with that here than with an elite journalist's contempt for his audience and for democracy.

He followed up the first post with this one.

I've written before about corporate media hubris, its practitioners' fantasy that their job is to instruct the public in what they consider the correct direction, and their outrage when the rabble doesn't go along with them.  Why does Hasan think that "the media," bad as they are, are responsible for this state of affairs, or that they could fix it?  The corporate media have been pushing corporate propaganda for many years, yet voters reject that propaganda on issues like taxes, health,care, education, "wokeness," etc. The most liberal media outlets were sure there'd be a Red Wave last November, and they were very disappointed when it didn't happen.  They also were sure the US economy would go into recession, and there too their hopes have been frustrated. Does Hasan despise the voters who voted down anti-abortion initiatives, or those in Ohio who rejected a GOP attempt to make it harder to amend the State Constitution? The same media boosted Donald Trump but he lost the popular vote both times. (It was the anti-democratic Electoral College, meant to keep elections in the hands of elites, that gave him the presidency in 2016.)  The fascinating thing about this multibillion-dollar industry is that it is largely irrelevant.  How can the news media instruct the public in the first place when so much of their information is skewed at best, wrong at worst?

The best argument against elitism is a five-minute conversation with an elitist.

P.S. One major reason I've been inactive the past couple of months is that my eight-year-old laptop had slowed down to the point where it was almost unusable: it would freeze for several minutes, and I didn't have the patience to try to write anything more than brief social media posts.  I found a good replacement online, and after a few days transferring files to it from the old one I'm slowly getting used to having a working computer again.  I hope to get back to work here, I have a lot to say.