Sunday, November 21, 2021

Exchanging the Truth for a Lie

The October 2021 issue of the evangelical monthly Christianity Today contains an article on fundamentalists' struggle to come to terms with the homosexuals in their midst.  The author, one Greg Johnson, is gay, which makes the article seem a bit different from similar writings I've seen on the subject; but I think it only seems so.  As usual in such cases, the open-minded stance is really just a facade for the same old crap.

Johnson begins with a reminiscence from 1997:

"You know, Mike, I used to be gay," I said.  Mike stopped moving as the words fell clumsily from my mouth...

He'd asked me about my schooling, and we got to talking about faith.  Mike had explained to me how he felt he could never go to church because he was gay.

"I know they say that's not supposed to happen," I went on, after dropping the bombshell.  "But that's my story."  Mike stared at me with interest as he set the paint can down, gently balancing his brush on its edge.

Johnson doesn't tell us what happened next; I picture some hot gay-to-ex-gay action myself.  (It just occurred to me that it would be fun to rewrite my account of my conversation with a local bartender in the manner of Christian testimonies like Johnson's.  But as in other evangelical writings I've seen, the intention is to tout the missionary's supposed courage in speaking to an unbeliever.)

But here Johnson surprised me.

To be clear, my sexual attractions at the moment were drawn as exclusively to other men as ever.  I was still at the top of the Kinsey scale that researchers since the 1940s have used to classify sexual orientation.  What made me ex-gay was that I used the ex-gay script. I was trying to convince myself that I was a straight man with a disease -- a curable one -- called homosexuality.  A condition that was being healed.

My terminological maneuver was an integral component of conversion therapy.  Alan Medinger, the first executive director of Exodus International, described it as "a change in self-perception in which the individual no longer identifies him- or herself as homosexual."  It was all about identity.  The testimony made the man.  And, within my ex-gay framework, I wasn't lying; I was claiming my new reality.

I was ex-gay.

The emergence of Exodus International in 1976 had set evangelicals on a hopeful path toward curing homosexuality.  Founder Frank Worthen explained, "When we started Exodus, the premise was that God could change you from gay to straight."  What followed was a decades-long experiment on hundreds of thousands of human test subjects.  The movement collapsed after Exodus president Alan Chambers's 2012 statement that more than 99 percent of Exodus clients had not experienced a change in their sexual orientation.

These might seem bold statements to make in a conservative evangelical publication, but they still drip with bad faith.  Johnson denies it, but his tortuous rhetoric can't conceal the fact that he was lying.  He was still gay, even if he managed to abstain from overt sexual activity with other males; and that's doubtful.  The ex-gay movement was wracked by scandal from the beginning, with its "clients" relapsing, with each other or with movement leaders. Those relapses, naturally, were blamed on the subjects' lack of faith, never on God's failure to cure them.

It was always strange that an ostensibly religious movement should have relied so heavily on secular psychiatry.  Christians from Jesus onward have used medical metaphors for sin, but the ex-gay movement didn't bother with metaphors.  Sin took a back seat to sickness in the ex-gay imaginary, and movement leaders adopted discredited psychiatric theories about "confused" gender identity caused by overbearing mothers and absent fathers.  The ex-gay movement took off just as secular psychiatry officially stopped regarding homosexuality as a sickness, and there was probably a connection.  But even clearly physical illnesses, up to and including death, were subject to Jesus' healing power; if God had wanted to change sexual orientation, it shouldn't have been beyond him.  As gay Christians have liked to say, maybe he didn't want to - though that's not necessarily a sign of divine approval, as we'll see.

Even more intriguing to me is Johnson's adoption of relativist identity language: if you adopt an "ex-gay script," if you identify as straight while continuing to burn with lust for persons of your own sex, then that's reality.  Of course this was never the rationale of the movement at its beginnings; at most it has been promoted after it collapsed.  Conservative Christian theology always claims, however falsely, to be about reality, and that it's only unbelievers who live in a fantasy world of their own making.  I'll be interested to see if CT publishes any letters from readers on this theme.  At a time when reactionaries are furiously denouncing airy-fairy postmodernist denial of reality by unbelievers, it's funny to see that Billy Graham's flagship journal has let the devil into its pages.

But speaking of Graham, Johnson goes on to shake the dust of the ex-gay movement from his feet and try to raise "an older orthodoxy that included a paradigm of caring for believers who aren't straight."  (The homosexual-movement rhetoric of gay/straight is still in there, you can see.  And seriously, are we not all -- gay and straight alike -- twisted and broken by sin?)

What follows is a lot more interesting and informative to me.  Johnson tells how numerous 20th-century Christian celebrities taught that "a homosexual orientation was part of the believer's identity -- a fallen part, but one that the gospel doesn't erase so much as it humbles."  He discusses Henri Nouwen, John R. W. Stott, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Billy Graham, all of whom exemplify this supposed "paradigm of caring."  They regarded homosexual orientation as something inborn, not sinful (though still "broken") so long as it isn't acted on.

Two points about this: one, it confirms my claim that belief in inborn homosexuality is not the get-out-of-jail-free most LGBTQ+ Americans assume it to be.  It's perfectly compatible with the demand for total sexual abstinence that antigay Christians like to make of gay people, though not of straight ones.  Johnson laments what he and fellow gay Christian Eve Tushnet call "a vocation of No": "No sex. No dating. No relationships. Often, no leadership roles."  Spoiler: Johnson never specifies what his paradigm of caring offers as an alternative; he's carefully vague on the matter, though he refers to "celibacy" as part of his prescription.

Second, almost none of the comforting pastoral counsel Johnson reports was made in public during these celebrities' lifetimes.  It comes mostly from private letters and conversations that most of their audiences were unaware of at the time.  In public they took uncompromising positions against homosexual "sin" and the "born this way" claims of the gay movement.  That includes gay Christians, who seem not to have been aware of this concession any more than I was.  (I was aware that the Roman Catholic church regards homosexual orientation as inborn, and of course that concession has never stopped it from practicing antigay bigotry.)  I'd be more impressed by these posthumous revelations if Johnson's heroes had spoken out boldly and publicly while they were alive, instead of jumping on the culture-war bandwagons, to say nothing of endorsing the ex-gay movement.  Johnson shows them privately rejecting vulgar bigotry of the Jerry Falwell variety, but not taking a positive stance in public.

Most of the rest of the four-page article is hot air about caring for the homosexual with specifics left out, but towards the end Johnson quotes a 1978 book, Homosexuality and the Church, by the Christian historian Richard Lovelace,

There is another approach to  homosexuality which would be healthier both for the church and gay believers, and which could be a very significant witness to the world.  This approach requires a double repentance, a repentance both for the church and for its gay membership.  First, it would require professing Christians who are gay to have the courage both to avow [acknowledge] their orientation openly and to obey the Bible's clear injunction to turn away from the active homosexual life-style. ... Second, it would require the church to accept, honor, and nurture nonpracticing gay believers in its membership, and ordain these to positions of leadership for ministry.

(The interpolation of "acknowledge" and the ellipsis before the last quoted sentence are Johnson's.  "Avow" and "acknowledge" have different connotations, it seems to me, with "avow" being a lot firmer.  Or did he think CT's readers wouldn't know what "avow" means?  By the way, Lovelace published another book on this topic in 2003; I don't know if his position changed in a quarter century, but it's fair to doubt it.)

"Tragically," Johnson says, "I write this as a lament for a road not traveled on this side of the Atlantic."  I've seen other American evangelical writers take the same tack in the past several years, though they don't assert the innateness of homosexual orientation, and they're no more impressive than Lovelace or Johnson.  Except for leadership roles, Lovelace offered the same vocation of No -- "No sex. No dating. No relationships" -- that Johnson had seemed to declare unacceptable a couple of pages earlier.

Lovelace also played a little game that nowadays is known as "both-sidesing."  The church must accept, honor, and nurture celibate gays (I don't really see any "repentance" there), and gays must declare themselves openly while embracing a vocation of No (I presume this includes "repentance" for any sodomitical acts they've already committed). This is lopsided, to put it nicely.  It's as if white evangelicals were to "repent" showily for their historical support for slavery and Jim Crow, while demanding that black evangelicals repent for their resistance to and criticism of white Christian racism.  Or as if Christians repented for historical anti-Semitism, while demanding that Jews reciprocate by repenting for killing Christ.

Lovelace continued: 

The church's sponsorship of openly avowed but repentant homosexuals in leadership positions would be a profound witness to the world concerning the power of the Gospel to free the church from homophobia and the homosexual from guilt and bondage.

Except that, as Johnson has acknowledged, the Gospel has no such power.  Lovelace's church is still homophobic, and a vocation of No is not freedom from bondage.

It's not for me to tell Christians what to do, only to criticize their mealy-mouthed paradigm of caring.  I agree that the Bible forbids sexual acts between persons of the same sex, but I don't see that's an obstacle for the church, which cheerfully ignores a great deal of explicit biblical teaching on any number of matters, from slavery to divorce and remarriage.  American evangelicals' embrace of divorced and remarried politicians from Ronald Reagan through Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump shows that the Bible is only as authoritative as they want it to be, which isn't very. I wouldn't criticize the churches for imposing the same official sexual ethic of monogamous marriage on gay believers that they impose on heterosexuals, though gays who slip into adultery and fornication should be extended the same latitude and indulgence straying heterosexual Christians, including clergy, enjoy.

Demanding total sexual abstinence of gays, but not of straights, is not going to witness the saving power of the Gospel to the world -- very much the opposite.  Gay believers will go on doing what they've always done: abstaining and feeling guilty for their desires until they finally give in to temptation, which will set in motion a new cycle of guilt and repentance.  Or alternatively, screwing around as much as they like but neglecting to mention it in church. In other words, exactly what the ex-gay movement produced.

Straights at least have a licit outlet, but there's no such thing for gays in traditional Christianity.  It's not the only reason Christianity has a bad reputation, but it's certainly part of it.  And Johnson's article is merely one more dishonest example of Christians being asked for bread, but offering a stone.  Its only novelty, that it was written by a gay man, is witness to the doublethink that religious belief fosters in all its adherents.  As the philosopher Walter Kaufmann put it, there but for the lack of grace of God go I.

By the way, the CT website has two new articles about denominations splitting over LGBT issues, the Brethren and the Reformed Church in America.  As the RCA article points out, other denominations verge on similar splits.  A book review is also relevant.  And the Southern Baptist Convention -- remember them? -- has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into an investigation of sexual abuse by clergy of their flocks.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Twelve Percent Majority

This tweet:

... set off a predictable and depressing thread in comments.

You can harbor all sorts of doubts about opinion polls, and I do.  The way the questions are worded can skew results in predictable ways.  People will say they want something but reject it when they're faced with its implications; for example, people who support a government-run universal healthcare program may change their minds when they learn that they'd have to give up their private healthcare insurance.  People will tell pollsters what they think they should say.  And so on.

But the comments on this tweet took a different tack.  For example: "Yes, but once it’s framed perniciously as a 'socialist plot against America,' that support evaporates. We are not a nation divided so much on policy as we are polarized due to false perceptions created by the proliferation of political disinformation."  This is absurd: the person seems not to have bothered to read the poll results.  But when you're so much smarter than the Sheeple, when you alone have 'scaped the media brainwashing, who needs to read?

Yes, Medicare has been been demonized as socialism, like just about everything else that benefits most Americans, but despite decades of propaganda against it, most Americans like Medicare and want to keep it and expand it.  There is, of course, intense corporate pressure against these expansions, but they don't seem to rely on ranting about socialism, and it's a bit late for that anyway.  And to repeat: despite the corporate media campaign against it, 88% of those polled favor lowering Medicare prescription drug prices, 84% support expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision, and hearing care; and so on.

This person agreed with the previous tweet: "absolutely. Facts don't matter, what those who you trust say, matter. It doesn't matter what they say since your trust is depending on what you are scared of.
Enough scare will overturn any kind of fact. So you lose."  It makes no sense either, because scare tactics have failed to dent people's approval of these policies.  As Molly Jong-Fast remarked, it's hard to get 88 percent of Americans to agree on anything, and you can't claim that they do so because of a media blitz pushing them to want paid family leave, universal pre-K for children, and the like, because the push has gone in exactly the opposite direction.  It appears that media brainwashing has failed to produce its intended results, except among a select group of liberals and leftists who know that people are stupid and don't want programs that would be good for them.  How they can believe this I don't know, except that they seem to believe the very media that they claim are brainwashing everybody else.

True, some responses went in another direction, such as "I’ll bet 88% would agree that raw cookie dough is delicious," which I presume is meant to imply that just because the Sheeple want something, it doesn't mean it's good for them, they're like children.  This poster claims to be ex-CIA, so of course it bothers him that the masses aren't responding to his firm but brutal guidance.  A reporter for Bloomberg chimed in: "Both raw cookie dough and icing are disgusting," and others agreed.  I don't know; it may not be good for you (it's what we're told), but a lot of people like raw cookie dough, and if icing were disgusting, why would it turn up on cakes and other goodies?

Another genius weighed in: "'Make murder legal' probably polls at 85% against 14% for 1% unsure."  Sure, making medicine more affordable is objectively morally equivalent to murder.  If only the rabble would listen to their betters!

And so on.  I've come up against this before, when I got into a fight on Facebook with my nephew's boyfriend over the same point.  If this poll were telling us something new, the incomprehension wouldn't be as surprising.  But it's just repeating what polls have shown us for decades, and outside the usual suspects (corporations and their bought elites) most people resist the propaganda we've been subjected to all that time.  It seems that the media brainwashing I hear so much about doesn't work, but it's kinda fascinating to see who does succumb to it: the portion of liberals and leftists who fondly believe they're immune. 

I'm reminded of Edward Herman's and Noam Chomsky's notion of manufactured consent, though they didn't invent the idea that a government that doesn't want to control the population by force must rely on subtle persuasion and manipulation: it goes back at least to the American founders.  At this point that manipulation seems less effective than ever before. While that is in many ways a good thing, it gives me forebodings about the future.  Deranged conspiracy theories about elite media lies aren't all on the Trumpian right, they're bipartisan, just like support for these supposedly socialist policies: Republicans like them too.  The trouble isn't so much that people are being lied to and they know it: it's that they know their government is unresponsive to their needs and wishes.  That knowledge makes them cynical and fatalistic, which will make them tolerant of movement towards authoritarianism and ultimately fascism.  

The genuinely populist, people-driven movements represented by Bernie Sanders are a hopeful sign, but they are fiercely resisted and attacked by the Democratic Party leadership as much as by the GOP.  The trouble is less ordinary Americans than it is rich ones and their hangers-on, yet many on the left prefer to blame the majority rather than the few.  I almost called the majority "left-of-center," but by definition the center is where most people are; the few who oppose, e.g., lowering Medicare prescription drug prices, are by definition extremists.  It's telling that the corporate media insist on calling Democrats like Kristen Sinema and Joe Manchin "moderates" instead.

Monday, October 25, 2021

The Trouble with Normal

As I've gotten older, I've worried about my memory.  As far as I can tell, it hasn't gotten much worse.  I've always had trouble with some names, and when I catch myself fretting I remind myself that in my 30s I sometimes made large to-do lists that I'd tape up on the door before going to bed so I'd see them as I left my apartment each morning.  I don't feel the need to do that now.

If anything, I think other people need to worry more about their memories.  I quoted this in a post on this blog eleven years ago, for example:

At "Mechanical Devices, which supplies parts for earthmovers and other heavy equipment to manufacturers such as Caterpillar Inc., part owner Mark Sperry says he has been looking for $13-an-hour machinists since early last year," the Journal reports. Thirteen dollars an hour, 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year—that comes to an annual salary of $26,000. (In the adjacent Peoria, Ill., metropolitan area, per capita income was $39,965 in 2008.) Or take Emirates Airlines. When it held jobs fairs in cities like Miami and Houston, only about 50 people showed up, "compared to a global average of about 150 and as many as 1,000 at some events in Europe and Asia." The jobs don't require much in the way of education, and they come with benefits, free accommodations, and a starting salary of $30,000. But you'd have to move halfway around the world, to Dubai—an alien and expensive place. Would you uproot yourself and your family for $30,000 a year? Don't you think both of these employers would find many more interested applicants if they offered higher wages? 

That should sound familiar.  We're hearing roughly the same complaints about lazy Americans who "don't want to work" right now, from media and individuals who think that society owes employers not just a living but ever-increasing profits.  The pandemic blew a huge hole in people's mental space, and I keep hearing talk about "returning to normalcy" almost every day.  They have evidently forgotten a theme that even the corporate media played before 2020, about Americans "living paycheck to paycheck," that a sizable minority didn't have enough savings to cope with a thousand-dollar emergency, or even less.  Sometimes those concerns still surface in news reports, but always as artefacts of the pandemic and its effects in the economy, rather than issues that have been with us for decades.

Just a few weeks ago I was talking to a local bartender in her 30s.  She complained about the shortage of service workers in town, adding that people don't want to work, and blamed it on the additional unemployment benefits of the pandemic.  I pointed out that those extra payments had ended a month before, and reminded her about the paycheck to paycheck theme from before the pandemic; she said she remembered that, and looked thoughtful.   I told her about the great increase in people starting their own businesses in 2020, the increase in retirements, and so on, which she hadn't known about. 

Myself, I also remember that in the 1980s, after Ronald Reagan drove unemployment up to Great Depression levels to stop inflation, I heard breathless reports about the jobs recovery and dropping unemployment rates.  It was less often acknowledged in corporate media that the new jobs were mostly low-wage no-benefits gigs, often only part-time, so that many people were working two or more jobs to get by.  When it was admitted, it was usually in the context of an end to the fat, entitled post-World War II years, that American workers had become spoiled and took for granted that a man could support a family on his wages alone.  In fact wages had been stagnating since the 1970s, but Reagan, and Clinton after him, accelerated that trend.  It continued through the Bush, Obama, and Trump years until the COVID pandemic arrived.

That, I suppose, is the "normal" we're supposed to return to.  I'm glad that so many people remember it, and don't want to go back.  I'm not very surprised that corporate news media, whose job it should be to remember the recent past, have forgotten it; a lot of people never knew it, but the media reported the facts now and then.  That's why I rely on left media, who do the job so much better.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Literalism on the Left; or, Let Them Eat Squid

Alan R. MacLeod has done a lot of good work.  His book Bad News from Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting (Routledge, 2018) is an excellent exposé of American and British elite media propaganda against Venezuela, and his articles for Mint Press News are a very useful resource.

But nobody's perfect.  Sometimes his Twitter posts sink into schoolyard humor -- not that I'm in a position to cast the first stone -- and today he misread a corporate-media op-ed in a way that he'd pounce on if the roles were reversed.

MacLeod's target was a Washington Post piece by Max Boot, whose right-wing hackery has often been dissected by Daniel Larison among others.  "How," MacLeod thundered, "could anyone watch Squid Game and think 'the message of this is that the system is working well?'"

The article is paywalled, and even my university library account couldn't get me past it, but I was able to sneak a look at the first two paragraphs.  Boot acknowledges that Squid Game is a dystopian satire of unrestrained capitalism.  His point is not about the content of the series, but about the corporate machinery and international policies that made it available to US viewers. I suspect that MacLeod wasn't able to read the entire article either, but he doesn't even have the excuse that he failed to read past the headline, which states Boot's point explicitly; he just read sloppily, and wrote dishonestly.
That's not a defense of Max Boot.  Without being able to read the entire piece, I can't analyze his argument in any detail, but "free trade" is not what made Squid Game available in the US; not even "globalization."  The process of bringing a Korean TV drama to English-only US audiences doesn't seem to have involved "trade" at all: Netflix is an international corporation, so like much of what is called free trade, Squid Game was simply moved around within the company.  Promotions had to be repackaged and of course English subtitles had to be provided, but this is normal; Netflix must also subtitle its US products in Korean, for example, for audiences there.  Most Korean movies and TV dramas get English subtitles for DVD release, even or especially those with no US distribution deal.  There have been fan-driven organizations which subtitle TV dramas in English and other languages, including Asian languages for access throughout the continent.  Korean entertainment is very popular in China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia. This process involves negotiating the complications of international copyright law -- remember that copyright, though defensible, is anti-free-trade -- and a huge company like Netflix has a taxpayer-supported advantage there.
As for "globalization," that's generally as much of a misnomer as "free trade."  Dividing the planet up and selling it off to huge corporations is something else, more like the Pope dividing the American mission field between the Spanish and the Portuguese.  Too many writers on the ostensible left forget this, often distorting the issue and letting the Right frame the discussion in a pre-emptive surrender.  We need to do better.  I just wonder if we can.

Most of the comments on MacLeod's tweet followed his mistake.  That's not entirely the commenters' fault, since MacLeod led them astray to begin with.  But that doesn't excuse the person who wrote that "The show literally proves that money is poison to friendship, just to name one of the things it has shown".  Fiction doesn't prove anything, certainly not "literally."  This has been a peeve of mine ever since I was assigned to write in high school English about how Silas Marner 'proved' that Good always triumphs over Evil.  (That commenter blocked me for pointing it out.)
MacLeod wasn't the only person who was confused, though.  Another commenter linked to a German media report on a labor demonstration in Seoul, in which union workers dressed as masked Squid Game employees: "They said they identified with the characters in the dystopian Netflix blockbuster."  So they identified with the executioners?  This is like anti-imperialist protesters dressing as Imperial Storm Troopers from Star Wars, and declaring that they identified with them.  Seriously, some hospitals bring in volunteers dressed as Imperial Storm Troopers to walk with children cancer patients when they go to chemotherapy: that's tone-deafness on a similar galaxy-brain level.

Then there were the Netflix executives who dressed in green Squid Game jumpsuits -- which are worn by the player-victims in the game -- for a Zoom call.  It's like Marie Antoinette and her court ladies dressing up as milkmaids, with whom they also no doubt "identified."  I know that many proles identify with the rich and brutal, from Donald Trump to Bill Gates and Elon Musk, which is part of the problem.  Maybe some in Squid Game's audience do identify with the executioners, who knows?  Americans, even progressives, don't want to identify with losers.  On the other hand, everybody -- no matter how rich and powerful -- loves to identify with victims.

Some apologists for capitalism did try to twist Squid Game's content into a condemnation of communism, but that's not what Max Boot did (this time, anyway).  MacLeod's rhetorical question, "How could anyone watch Squid Game and think 'the message of this is that the system is working well'?" has an easy answer: No one did.  At least, MacLeod hasn't shown me any.

Friday, October 22, 2021


Marquess Brownlee produces the best electronics reviews I've seen.   They're so good that I'll sometimes watch them just to see what he has to say, even when I have no interest in the products he's discussing.  It has been over forty years since I owned a car, and the chances of my buying this vehicle are nil. If I had $70K to throw around I might consider it, though I'd probably wait for the upcoming SUV. 

I'm being only slightly snarky when I say that Brownlee's comments here about how quiet the Rivian R1T is offroad made me wonder if that's a negative for many (mostly male) potential buyers and owners of electric trucks. Every day I'm reminded that revving the engine, making lots of noise, and blowing out clouds of toxic black smoke are part of the pickup truck experience for many owners. The EV company that finds a way to include those features as an option, which could mostly be software, run through the kind of speakers shown for this truck in this video, will conquer the world.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Why We Can't Have Nice Things

I'm feeling cranky today, which means it's time to get started on this one.

NBC News reported on Thursday that a school administrator in Texas told schoolteachers who worried -- "terrified" was their word -- about the state's new "guidelines" regarding controversial issues in the classroom:

"Just try to remember the concepts of [House Bill] 3979," [Gina] Peddy said in the recording, referring to a new Texas law that requires teachers to present multiple perspectives when discussing "widely debated and currently controversial" issues. "And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust," Peddy continued, "that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives."

"How do you oppose the Holocaust?" one teacher said in response.

"Believe me," Peddy said. "That’s come up."

Oh, I believe her.  This is America, after all, and that is Texas.  There's a lot of Holocaust denialism in this country, so I'm not at all surprised to hear that some parents have objected to their kids being taught about the Holocaust.  I'm concerned that these teachers don't know it, just as so many good liberals are determinedly ignorant about a lot of things they don't want to think about.

The rest of the article is mildly entertaining, in a horrible kind of way.  The meeting where Gina Peddy said this was recorded secretly, so the reader gets to watch numerous Texas officials and politicians scrambling to do damage control, and doing it badly, because that's the American way.

Just as bad, and possibly worse, is the way liberals react to bigotry: by panicking.  For example, this "Journalist & historian. Pub musician. Dad. Husband. I also do dishes" posted on Twitter:

It’s important as a historian to help people understand why and how people in the past understood themselves and made decisions. It is important to understand antisemites and racists and genocidaires and slavers. But not to teach as opposing and equal views, as controversy.

Yeah, no.  I've seen numerous attempts to solve the problem by definition, as here.  The word "controversy" doesn't remotely mean that the views at issue are "equal," let alone equally valid, as I think David M. Perry wants us to believe.  Nor does "opposing" imply it, as Perry seems to assume.  It just means that there's a disagreement going on.  (For example, the pronunciation of "controversy," but I'm not going to go into that.)  I wonder why Perry gets that so wrong -- no, actually, I don't.

The real trouble with "opposing," I'd say, is that it implies that there are only two sides involved.  Usually there are more, and often all of them are arguably wrong.  For example, in American controversies over slavery, not all white abolitionists wanted emancipated slaves to be free and equal American citizens: there was widespread sentiment, including in high places, for relocating them to Africa. Many white liberals have found this fact unsettling and have tried to suppress it, because it made history less simple and more confusing.  To insist on telling the historical truth is not even close to saying that resettlement is an "opposing and equal" position, and one should be suspicious of anyone who tries to end a dispute by pretending otherwise.

I'm not saying that teachers should keep books denying the Holocaust in classroom libraries.  I'm saying that teachers had better be prepared to refute Holocaust denialism among their students.  The same goes for erasure of American white supremacy; of Creationism and Intelligent Design; of opposition to masking and vaccination to contain COVID-19; of antigay bigotry; of anti-Islamic bigotry; of any and all historical or scientific distortions, because sooner or later they will come up.  That has always been my answer, in speaking to classes, when students ask why elementary school kids should be taught about LGBT issues: because the kids themselves will hear about them in the media, from parents and other adults, and from other kids, so teachers should be prepared to address them. Take the current hullabaloo over Critical Race Theory: it's not really teachers who are ensuring that students will have questions about the topic, it's right-wing racist media and parents.

As the teachers told Gina Peddy, they are frightened for their jobs, and they have good reason to be.  I don't believe Peddy when she told them that she and school administrations would fight with them: some will, I suspect most will not.  That means that teachers will need allies among parents and students.  Unfortunately many liberal parents sit out school board meetings, even before Joe and Kammy took office and those parents announced their determination to take a four- (or better, eight-) year nap free of concern about politics.  It seems, for example, that when Central York district in Pennsylvania "essentially banned" anti-racist books, parents did nothing until the students mounted a protest.

What really baffles me is that there's an obvious response to right-wing initiatives demanding "differing perspectives" on controversial issues.  I'm all for differing perspectives, and liberals pretend (as right-wingers also pretend) to want them too.  If your school's curriculum teaches that slaves were mostly contented and well-cared for by their kindly masters, demand that differing perspectives be given a fair hearing.  Demand that your state-approved textbook be supplemented by the differing perspective of the 1619 Project.  If your school's curriculum teaches Intelligent Design, demand that the differing perspective of Darwinian theory be taught as well.  If your school teaches that the USA is a Christian nation, if your school teaches Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, if your school teaches abstinence from all sexual expression until marriage, there are differing perspectives, and these laws and "Academic Bills of Rights" actually require that they be made available to students.

Of course this all means more work for parents and teachers and administrators and students.  I've acknowledged before that there isn't time to teach all the conflicts.  (Note: when liberals and progressives sneer at the idea of "teaching the conflicts," remember that they are authoritarians at heart and really don't care about freedom, including your freedom to disagree with them.)  Exploring complex issues will take time away from the standardized testing that right-wing authoritarians have imposed on our educational system, precisely and often knowingly to take time away from classroom time for actual teaching.  That means we have to get rid of those standardized tests, no small task.  

But there's a lot of bad faith in liberal objections to teaching the conflicts.  Some of it comes from simple authoritarianism, as just noted.  Some of it comes from ordinary human laziness and ignorance. Do those liberals who oppose right-wing objections to their beliefs do so because they've examined the evidence and arguments themselves?  Almost never as far as I have observed.  Often they're actively misinformed, as with avowed Darwinists who are really Spencerians or even Lamarckians, rejecting actual Darwinian theory unawares in favor of scientific racism.  And in general, like their opposite numbers, they have no idea how to debate: they can declare their beliefs and principles against their opponents, but neither side knows how you proceed after that.  (This is why I'm critical of Noam Chomsky's strictures on debate: Yes, many or most people do it badly.  The remedy is not to refuse to do it at all, but to learn to do it better.  One could say the same thing about thinking.  Chomsky's somewhat hypocritical, since he himself often debates, and not always very well.)

One of my favorite pastimes is observing people online who misread satirical posts, often from self-labeled parody or satire accounts, by taking them at face value. This is often known as being Waltered, in honor of the great account Walter(OwensGranp.  Admittedly, actual responsible media are generally beyond parody, which may make it difficult to tell if New York Times Pitchbot's "Whether it's liberals wearing masks outdoors or conservatives teaching opposing perspectives on the Holocaust, both sides have an extremism problem" is real or Memorex, but damn it's fun to watch people who can't parse sarcasm.

To be fair, sarcasm puts a lot of strain on cognition.  It takes young readers years to learn to recognize it, especially in writing where they can't hear the tone of voice that may signal it, and many adults never do. But it's a very common tactic on social media, especially Twitter, and even after it has been explained to them many times, many adults persist in take posts from the Onion as straight news.

Is it unfair to expect adults to recognize satire and irony?  I say it's not only fair but obligatory that they learn.  I've noticed that even scientists seem to dream of a world where all problems will present themselves neatly and cleanly, so that they can be solved like the most basic arithmetic problems.  (Though they also like to congratulate themselves on seeing past Nature's sneaky attempts at deception.)  Even when there's no attempt to deceive their opponents, debaters will often deceive themselves.  Critical thinking involves learning to recognize fallacy and error, even or especially when they aren't deliberate.  (It also involves learning to recognize fallacy in your own beliefs and arguments.)

So when liberals demand that satire and sarcasm be labeled for them so they won't get confused, they're not only undermining public discourse, they're announcing that they're too dull to read for comprehension above a first-grade level.  (I single out liberals here because everyone knows that this is true of conservatives.)  Yet these same people often congratulate themselves on their power to see past the lies and escape media brainwashing, which you can't do if you expect the media (let alone other people) to tell you in advance when they're lying or joking.  And don't right-wingers delude themselves that they have seen past the media lies?  If you read Twitter, or the New York Times, in the expectation that you can take it all at face value, you're going to fall on your face regularly.

An old friend, a graduate student in philosophy, used to chide me for being skeptical of religious claims, saying that she felt I was 'afraid of being fooled.'  As if that's an unreasonable fear, even if she were right about me.  It's a very common fear expressed by Christians, historically and in the present.  But that can only be part of it.  More of it is a self-critical desire not to be mistaken about the world I live in.  I'm not afraid of being mistaken, I want to learn from my mistakes, and I know that takes effort.  I can't think of many more valid and interesting pursuits for any human being, and I remain unable to understand why a philosopher of all people would consider that aim discreditable.

In any case, if you misread a satirical statement on Twitter, there will be plenty of people who will correct you, with varying degrees of empathy.  Most of them, whether they'll admit it or not, have been Waltered themselves at some point, and will be again.  And that most definitely includes me.

All this, I think, casts some light on why so many liberals are eager to suppress free discussion about disputed (I won't say "controversial") topics.  It's a desire they share with the Right, because they don't know why they believe what they do and don't know how to think about it.  The possibility that someone might disagree with them, rightly or wrongly, makes them very uncomfortable.  They don't mind making others uncomfortable, but they must never experience the discomfort of uncertainty or knowing they're wrong about anything important.  When they say that learning history should make you uncomfortable, they don't include themselves, just as when Trumpies say "Fuck your feelings," the operative word is "your."

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Standing Tall in a Kneeling Position

While I was downtown on Saturday I saw an elderly man (five or so years older than me, mid- to late 70s) shuffling along in a t-shirt that said:

I STAND for the Flag 

I KNEEL for the Fallen

So he kneels for Satan, the Fallen Angel? Or maybe he wants to insult our Fallen Heroes, because kneeling is an insult according to the racist Right?  Yeah, I know, the meanings of kneeling and standing are variable and context-dependent.  It's the racist Right that overlooks this, but that's not really it either: the racist Right deliberately chooses to ignore what kneeling athletes were saying.  No surprise there.

That leaves aside the fact that Colin Kaepernick and other athletes are kneeling for the fallen: George Floyd, Michael Brown, so many more.  The elderly vet doesn't care about them, of course. My question is not whether to mock people like him; it's how to mock them the most effectively.