Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Kindness Is Not Enough

I didn't grow up on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.  Even if I'd been the right age -- I was 17 when the show went national in 1968 -- there was no public television station near where I grew up, so my childhood TV companion was CBS' Captain Kangaroo.  And the new documentary about Fred Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, hasn't been booked in a local theater yet, but I'll see it when it does.  The publicity the documentary has been getting me led me to look at a number of clips featuring or about Rogers, and I want to see more.  He also wrote some books that I think I should look at.  Not necessarily to write about here, though I might, but childhood development and education are interesting topics to me.
A lot of what I have been looking at is reactions to the films. There's a genre of Youtube videos where people watch movie trailers and "react" to them, usually without anything interesting to say.
When these reactors take on the trailer of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, certain motifs recur.  Some wipe away tears; not only women -- heck, I did too the first time I watched it.  Another was the notion that "we need Mr. Rogers today."  Here's a pro version:

It seems to me that this dishonors Fred Rogers.  There's a tension in this clip between its sentimental picture of a nice guy (which he was) who taught the importance of being good neighbors (which he did), and the man who took on difficult, painful issues like death, divorce, disability, racism, and just "feeling blue."  That tension emerges in the commentator's portrayal of the present as an us vs. them time, when being nasty is common in social media and politics -- while showing images that contradict that neat dichotomy, that human beings were mean to each other when Fred Rogers was at his peak as a "superstar."  Like the racist motel manager who dumped muriatic acid into the motel swimming pool to try to intimidate black protesters.  But dig this:
Many people from that time remember Brock as more the victim in the incident. One moment of temper led to an unwanted legacy. “Jimmy kind of caught the brunt of it. He was a nice guy”. said Eddy Mussallem, a fellow hotelier and longtime friend. “They had to pick a motel, so they picked Jimmy’s motel. I always told him he did a foolish thing”. Brock found himself pressured by civil rights groups and militant whites fighting integration. On 2007, aged 85, Jimmy Brock died at his St. Augustine home.
This is not how you get past us. vs. them, but it's a popular attitude with a certain strain of liberal.  Contrary to the ABC commentator, Fred Rogers was not a "revolutionary," but he had firm beliefs and worked hard to express them in children's TV.  Washing and drying the feet of a black friend on his show surely upset many "nice" white people, and Rogers knew that.  Francois Clemmons, the actor who played Officer Clemmons, is gay, but he understood (however reluctantly) why Rogers cautioned him about being openly gay.  We can't ask Rogers himself why he made this decision, but it seems clear enough.  He doesn't seem to have been bothered by Clemmon's homosexuality, which is noteworthy in a Christian minister of his generation at that time; but he knew that a gay actor on a TV show for young children, even if the character he played wasn't gay, would be treated as a scandal that would probably have resulted in the show's cancellation.  (Compare the complicated case of the Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash, decades later.)  Not just turning off the TV, as the commentator says, but taking the show off the air altogether, so nobody could see it.

Fred Rogers died in 2003, but his programs and a good deal of other material by him are still available.  You and your children can watch them on PBS' website, and at least some are available on Youtube.  If we need him, he's still there as much as he was when he was alive. What bothers me, on reflection, is that so many adults expect him to save them somehow.  I understand fully the fond memories they have of his show, hut it wasn't all sweetness and light, and that was exactly where its value lay, and still does.  I wouldn't say this to children, of course, but these people are grownups.  If he's in their hearts (as one woman says in the ABC segment), then they should be able to take what they learned from him and live by it, act on it.  If they aren't doing that, if they aren't trying to make the world a better, safer place for children -- even just the children around them -- then they didn't learn anything from Mr. Rogers after all; they're just using him as a security blanket.  The past he represents for them was not a safe place, which is why he made TV for children, to help them cope with it.  Of course we all need our comfort zones, but once we've been comforted we have to go back out and deal with the world.  As Rogers said repeatedly, "Look for the helpers."  The helpers are not "them," but "us" -- you and I.

If I were going to criticize Rogers in any serious way, it would be that he doesn't seem to have stressed that enough.  (I could be wrong about that, since I am drawing on an insufficient sample of what he said over many years.)  Even small children need to know that they can be helpers too -- but most little children are empathetic and want to help.  It's one of the most basic forms of competence children have, and children want, more than almost anything else, to be competent.  I'm wary of reading my politics into Rogers', so let me quote from his 2002 commencement address at his alma mater Dartmouth College.  You can see it on Youtube, but the text is available online.
[B]eside my chair [in my office], is a French sentence from Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. It reads, “L’essential est invisible pour les yeux.” What is essential is invisible to the eye. Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who have helped you become the person you are? Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work, has had at least one person, and often many, who have believed in him or her. We just don’t get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.
There’s a neighborhood song that is meant for the child in each of us, and I’d like to give you the words of that song right now. “It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you. Not your caps and gowns, they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like. Every part of you. Your skin, your eyes, your feelings. Whether old or new, I hope that you remember, even when you're feeling blue, that it’s you I like. It’s you, yourself, it’s you. It’s you I like.”
And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see, or hear, or touch. That deep part of you, that allows you to stand for those things, without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.
I was six or seven when it occurred to me to wonder where moms and dads go for comfort when they have bad dreams.  Where does the buck stop?  It stops with each of us, but we have each other, with whom the buck also stops.  I understand the desire to go back to childhood when we could run to mom or dad to reassure us after a bad dream.  I feel it myself, living with everyone else in an international bad dream.  But we can't go back to childhood, and our parents (even when they are still alive) can't give their adult children the same kind of comfort they gave us when we were four or five.

In that commencement address Rogers also told a story of competitors at the Special Olympics who stopped in the middle of a race to comfort one of their number who'd fallen and was crying.  Then they all walked to the finish line together.  No losers.  No winners -- that's the hard part for many or most people to accept.  Rogers explained: "Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then."  So I don't think I'm reading my politics into his.  But they aren't just his, or mine: lots of other people have said and are saying the same thing.  We don't need Mr. Rogers to be here now to tell us these things; we just need to listen to what he already said, and then to tell each other.  The best thing about being an adult, as opposed to a child, is that we have much greater scope and ability to be helpers.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Useful Idiots

Another Democratic loyalist has gone on Twitter to rant about the evil "friends" who, "bragging about how at least they were smart enough not to vote for Hillary, voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnston."  She's the "Mayor of Zero F**Ksville" (asterisks sic) and a "2-Time NYT Bestselling Author," so you know she's not only really cool, she's really smart.  I did a little ranting myself in reply, and remembered something I left out out of my most recent post about such people.

During the twenty-five years I ran the GLB Speakers Bureau in Bloomington, people often failed to show up for panels they'd signed on to do.  I found that it helped if I sent out email at the beginning of each week to remind them: not individually, but a list of the week's panels with the names of those who were scheduled to speak.  This helped, though it didn't solve the problem entirely.  I'm not sure what would have, short of breaking down their doors and carrying them bodily to the location.  Speakers Bureau is an all-volunteer organization, including me as the coordinator, so the most I could do was remove from the mailing list those people who failed to show up too often.

But one of our volunteers, a woman about my age, objected even to the reminder messages.  Adults should honor their commitments, she declared, without having to be coddled or cajoled.  I'm not sure what she had in mind -- kick them off the mailing list the first time they didn't show?  To some extent I agreed with her, but as I saw it my first priority was not to try to force the volunteers to grow up, it was to do what I could to ensure that speakers showed up where and when we'd promised they would.  Since we didn't pay the volunteers, and were asking them to give their time (admittedly for a pleasant task, that of speaking about their lives in public), I believed a certain amount of coddling, even indulgence, wasn't out of line.  It's worth noting that this woman had some Native American ancestry, and was proud of what she saw as Indians' cultural superiority over deracinated whites; yet her position on this matter seemed to be rooted in Western Enlightenment individualism, with some Puritan punitiveness laid on for spice.

The analogy I'm drawing here will be evident, I hope.  As I wrote before, I agree that voting is a citizen's duty, one I carry out myself; but there are no direct consequences for not voting, and I'm not sure there ought to be.  But we also need a "None of the Above" option on the ballots, with consequences for the candidates if they can't beat NOTA at the polls.  In the meantime, it's reasonable to remember that voters are volunteers, even if that means voluntarily carrying out a duty.  And none of these frothers have shown me any reason to believe that berating the voters will win them over.  Just on general principles, I would expect it to have the opposite effect.  If you're not feeling particularly motivated to go to the polls, and some crank is calling you names for not loving their crummy candidate, why not just stay home?

For that matter, I thought the parties recognized this.  A lot of their volunteer work is aimed at making it easier to vote, recognizing that there are barriers.  This is not the airy-fairy fantasy of an aging hippie, it's what the parties actually do.   Do they still offer voters rides to the polls, or is that coddling and spoiling them, when they should act like adults and crawl on their hands and knees to the polling place, grateful to cast their vote for whatever corrupt hack the party leadership has in its wisdom placed on the ballot?

So I wonder who appointed people like Kathy Griffin and Stonekettle the Tough Love enforcers of the Democratic Party.  Are they useful idiots for Trump?  Or are they secretly, as I suggested sarcastically in a reply to Griffin this morning, being paid by Putin to depress Democratic turnout?  It's one thing to be uninspiring, and quite another to actively drive people away from the party.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Killing Me Politely With His Norms

Last Sunday's Doonesbury was appalling.  Embarrassing.  Repellent... I'm trying to find the right epithet, but you get the idea.  I've been trying to find a way to read it as sarcasm, but can't find a handhold.  "Did I mention that I was polite?" would give it away if it were the Onion, but Trudeau's not the Onion.  The same applies to the way Norm appears as a Rainbow Coalition parade of Diverse faces; could Trudeau be referring to the Obama campaign video featuring multicolored celebrity dreamers?  If only.  No, Trudeau's been hammering a pretty solid DNC beat since Trump became president, as subtle as a MAGA hat.

I thought that Corey Robin had posted a tweet to the effect that norms are conservative, in intention and function.  Which is not always a bad thing.  But I can't find it now.  I did, while looking, find this article by Robin at Jacobin, in which he invites the reader to imagine
that it’s 2020, and Sanders is elected with a somewhat radicalized Democratic Party in Congress. Or if that’s too much to swallow, imagine some version of that (not necessarily Sanders or the Democrats but an empowered electoral left) in 2024. Or a realignment of the sort the US saw in 1932. Realignments always involve a contestation over norms; realignments change norms; realignments erode norms. And all of these counsels against norm erosion and polarization — which many people in the media and academia are invoking against Trump and the GOP — will now come rushing back at the Left.

And how could they not? When you set up “norms” as your standard, without evaluating their specific democratic valence in each instance, the projects to which they are attached, how could you know whether a norm contributes to democracy, in the substantive or procedural sense, or detracts from it? How could you know whether the erosion is good or bad, democratic or antidemocratic?
As I've said before, it's not enough to stand by your principles: first you have to have good ones.  Norms gave us the 3/5 clause of the Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Act, the expulsion of Indians from their land, the restriction of the franchise, right down to endless war, state surveillance of citizens, and so on and on.  The furious protests of pundits and politicians, liberal and conservative alike, that Trump's behavior on this or that issue is unprecedented, are in large part attempts to deny the norms that characterize this country by denying history.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

False Equivalence for Dummies

I heard a lot about supposed false equivalence during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, and in almost no case were the allegations accurate.  I believe, however, that I've been seeing some genuine specimens lately, in connection with the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.  Here's a good example, from a reasonably sober commentator:
As someone who supported Trump-Kim summit it’s important to stop referring to outcome of Singapore as a “nuclear deal.” It was a handshake based on a few understandings between two men with few, if any, expert input on the details that typically cause most real deals to collapse.
It's the "two men with few, if any, expert input" that I want to draw your attention to.  I don't dispute that Trump had no expert input from his side, though that was because he wasn't interested in it.  I don't know what input, expert or otherwise, Kim Jong Un drew on, and I doubt this writer does either.  But North Korea has a long history of negotiating with the US, and until there's some evidence to the contrary, I see no reason to suppose that Kim didn't draw on it.  Kim definitely appears to have prepared for his earlier meeting with ROK President Moon Jae In, and behaved sensibly even while he was staging a performance for the cameras. 

And this is milder than most discourse I've seen, which routinely calls both Trump and Kim "deranged" and the like.  I think that's wrong about both men.  Trump is an evil clown, and the cascade of accusations about his mental health have been mere abuse; deserved abuse, but not accurate because of that.  About Kim Jong Un we know less, but I see no reason to think that he's insane either.  Yes, he postures and provokes, as North Korean leaders have often done in dealing with the West (and so did Hugo Chavez, who wasn't insane either).  Similar claims were made about Kim's father, Jong Il, and he definitely wasn't crazy: he also managed negotiations with the US, getting an agreement that only "collapsed" because of US refusal to keep its commitments.

Bruce Cumings wrote about Kim Jong Il in North Korea: Another Country (The New Press, 2003):
Way back when, Kim Jong Il was the same Mad Dog he is said to be today [2003]: a drunk, a womanizer, a playboy, Stalinist fanatic, state terrorist, unstable, psychotic, another David Koresh, Jim Jones, or Charles Manson—“Public Enemy Number One,” running a country always making “one last lunge for survival.” When the father died, the American media dredged up all these things, but Newsweek perhaps outdid them with its racist cover article: “Korea after Kim: The Headless Beast” (July 18, 1994). According to “one U.S. diplomat,” the son was “irrational, far more dangerous than his father.... No one in his right mind wants to see Kim Jong Il in charge of a nuclear-armed North Korea.” South Korean “experts” told the magazine that the end of the regime was nigh; “great turmoil is on the way.” As for the deceased father, Newsweek’ s intrepid researchers had uncovered what no one else ever did: Kim’s presence with “Stalin’s military” in the Soviet Far East in the 1930s. But “whether he actually fought against the Japanese is a matter of debate.”

Then, six years later, top American officials actually met the Dear Leader, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in preparation for President Bill Clinton’s (aborted-by-Bush) summit with the younger Kim: “He is amazingly well-informed and extremely well-read,” an American who met him related to a reporter; “he is practical, thoughtful, listened very hard. He was making notes. He has a sense of humor. He’s not the madman a lot of people portrayed him as.” A State Department official said, “He can talk about almost any subject . . . market economics, the Internet, coming technologies.” Madame Albright presented him with an NBA basketball signed by his basketball hero, Michael Jordan; Jong Il immediately wanted to take the ball out and dribble it around [Kindle edition, location 796ff].
I quoted this at length partly because I couldn't resist including that bit about Michael Jordan and basketball; the interest in the sport evidently runs in the Kim family.  Cuming's book is out of date by now, but it's short and readable, and if you read it you'll still be better informed about North Korea than most people in the US media or government.

I wouldn't want to take too seriously the "top American officials'" evaluation of Kim Jong Il, but at least they make it clear he was not the cartoon that South Korean hardline and American mainstream propaganda made him out to be.  We don't know much about his son, but I suspect he also is smarter, more serious, and better prepared than Donald Trump.  Obviously that sets the bar quite low, but equating the two men is almost certainly mistaken, another example of the enduring American tendency to underestimate and caricature Koreans, both in the North and the South.  (The US media aren't terribly happy with South Korean President Moon Jae In, either, for presuming to put the interests of his own country and people ahead of American wishes and fantasies.)

It's difficult to find the right balance here.  I'm not denying that Kim Jong Un is a dictator, presiding over a horribly repressive state with many serious human rights abuses.  One can say all that without caricaturing him or lying about him; isn't the truth enough?  Not, it seems, for the American mainstream.  The same could be said of Trump, after all: he's quite bad enough that it shouldn't be necessary to lie about him. It could be said of Obama, or Hillary Clinton.  I find it interesting, though also profoundly depressing, that so many people prefer the fantasies to the truth.

Ignorance about North Korea by Americans is understandable: it's a closed society, and reliable information is hard to come by.  Ignorance about South Korea, which saturates most American coverage of the peninsula, is inexcusable.  But again, it appears that most Americans prefer fantasy to reality in politics.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Crooked Timber of Psychological Man

A quick note:

Pocket referred me to this article about Philip Zimbardo's infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment today.  It's very much worth reading.  I wrote a post on an interview with Zimbardo some years ago, and found a lot wrong even with his official account of the experiment.  That much of the official account was actually lies is startling, but I don't think it has much effect on my critique; some the article even confirms my suspicions.

For example, I wrote that Zimbardo "played his own role to the hilt, probably as he'd learned it from old movies," and that he "seems to have relished playing The Warden from a Jimmy Cagney movie while the game lasted."  I also suggested that, far from spontaneously creating their roles as tough guards and prisoners, the student subjects were also drawing on cultural cues they'd grown up with:
Plus, as my reference to old movies suggests, we've grown up seeing these roles played, even practiced them in "play" as children. (In a smart review of the 1990 movie version of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, an allegory of Original Sin and innate human depravity in which pubescent boys are stranded on an island without adults and turn into Savages, Gary Giddins pointed out that the boys were not blank slates: they knew from stories and TV shows and movies how Wild Indians and African Savages were supposed to behave, and followed the script.) By the time we are adults we've had two decades of training in exercising and submitting to authority.
 It turns out that at least one of the student guards was studying acting, and treated the experiment
as a kind of an improv exercise,” Eshelman said. “I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do, and I thought I’d do it better than anybody else by creating this despicable guard persona. I’d never been to the South, but I used a southern accent, which I got from Cool Hand Luke.”
Also, one of Zimbardo's main assistants "explicitly corrected guards who weren’t acting tough enough, fostering exactly the pathological behavior that Zimbardo would later claim had arisen organically."

It's fascinating to learn how much Zimbardo has lied about the project over the years, and I'm inclined to view his claim that he regrets its prominence in his public reputation as a lie too, since he worked long and hard to publicize it and to block criticism from colleagues, including a replication of the experiment that came up with very different results.  It makes me more inclined to doubt the validity of his later work, including a trendy book in the downtrodden-males genre.

There's much more to the article, and it's worth reading.

Legitimize Me All Night Long

The US/DPRK summit has enraged a lot of people in the US, and one of their favorite themes is that Trump "legitimized" Kim Jong Un by meeting with him.  I've seen many complaints about North Korea's undeniably bad human rights record, almost all of them from people who have nothing to say about the undeniably bad human rights records of so many US friends, allies, and clients.  When Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia visited Washington, for example, he was fawned on by Democrats and Republicans alike, by the full range of American corporate media, and hailed as a "reformer."  (This is typical of elite US reception of right-wing dictators for a century or more.)  Justin Trudeau and the Canadian establishment followed suit. The word "legitimize" was not to be heard, as far as I know, though it surely applied.

So, Glenn Greenwald wrote contemptuously today: "US foreign policy elites have invented a whole slew of meaningless phrases to justify a state of permanent militarism & aggression in the world, then trained people to recite them. That US should avoid negotiating with Bad Guys because it gives them 'legitimacy' in a good example".  He continued: "It's critically important that the country which lavishes the Saudi regime with weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover, and constant praise not do anything to give legitimacy to dictators."

Someone calling himself "Vincent Adultman" riposted: "So is giving weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover and praise to Saudi Arabia wrong, or is legitimizing dictators OK? Which lane are you picking?"

The most obvious point is that Greenwald doesn't endorse "giving weapons, intelligence, diplomatic cover and praise to Saudi Arabia."  Not only Trump, but most of the American political and chattering classes do favor doing so, however.  The question for such people, then, is why they don't favor giving the same benefits to Kim Jong Un; as a brutal dictator with no regard for human rights, he would seem to qualify.

Nor, as far as I know, does Greenwald believe the US should treat North Korea like Saudi Arabia.  Nor do I.  The Onion recently mocked the very idea.  The two cases are dissimilar in many ways.  Unlike Saudi Arabia, North Korea is not attacking another nation or creating a vast humanitarian catastrophe with US support.  The only country North Korea has attacked is South Korea, which is not a separate nation, in 1950; that was a civil war, not a war between nations.  I would certainly oppose the US giving or selling weapons or technology to North Korea, but I doubt Trump or most of the US political and business community have any such reservations.  I think the only nation, except perhaps Japan, that feels threatened by North Korea's nuclear weapons is the US, because of our own paranoiac fantasies.  Like much (most?) of the world, North Korea has much better reason to feel threatened by the US.

I believe that Vincent Adultman was trying for a version of a popular attempt to flummox those who oppose the US starting another aggressive war: Don't you libs want the US to "intervene" in Saudi Arabia?  Aren't you always complaining about the human rights in American client states? So why do you now object if the US bombs Kosovo, Iraq, Libya?  You have a double standard.  This line is often accompanied by a admission that America has not always got it right before, but this time we'll do it right.  Shouldn't we at least try?  Can't you just give America another chance?  I've heard this sort of thing at least since the US invasion of Panama in 1989, though I'm sure it's older, and every time it quickly became clear not only that America had blown another chance to get it right, but that our leaders didn't care.  They had other concerns on their agenda.

Here we come to another popular buzzword, "whataboutism" (or "whataboutery").  It comes in handy when someone points out real hypocrisy and double standards in US policy and conduct.  Given that we're not talking about parallels that are distant in time but are quite recent, it seems entirely fair to ask why it was horrible for Trump to meet Kim Jong Un but not Mohammed bin Salman, especially when meeting and praising Kim Jong Un is decried as an atrocity unprecedented in American history.  Some of these preachers get a bit testy when they're corrected as to the American record, too.  But then they never meant to be taken literally.

Admittedly, nobody can denounce, let alone work effectively against every bad thing in the world.  But think of all the nice, sincere liberals I interacted with online who were distraught over wounded Syrian children and asked why America couldn't do something about them.  When I asked them, they mostly said they didn't know what we could do, though some were up for bombing Syria (and some others didn't say so, I suspect, because they knew it would sound bad).  I then asked them what they thought about wounded Yemeni children, since the US is partly responsible for their suffering and could mitigate or even stop it simply by stopping our direct support for Saudi aggression.  None answered, and most of them stopped posting even about Syrian children before long, thanks to the famous American short attention span.  Even granting that nobody can do everything, how hard could it be to admit that US involvement in killing and starving Yemeni children is a problem, and maybe post a meme denouncing that involvement?  And pretending that Trump's behavior is unprecedented makes life easier by erasing all the other evils you need to keep track of, doesn't it?

Whataboutism has an honorable history, going back to Martin Luther King Jr.'s declaration in 1967:
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
It becomes a dishonest tactic when the comparison is invalid, as they often are. Vincent Adultman provided a good example: he seemed to think that Greenwald was being inconsistent in denouncing US support for Saudi aggression while favoring peace in the Korean peninsula.  Another example is someone who responded to Greenwald's criticism of US commentators who "really believe that the US owns, or at least is entitled to exercise supreme dominion over, the Korean Peninsula."  Someone called Bohique replied: "I have not heard you reporting on the concentration camps Trump is setting up in Texas. Have you seen thebimages [sic] of children in cages? Maybe that will give you better context."  Of course Greenwald has criticized the viciously inhumane US immigration policy, going back at least to the days when it was Obama's policy.  I presume that Bohique was alluding to North Korean prison camps, on the assumption that US should exercise supreme dominion over the Korean peninsula because of them.  Leaving aside that there's no reason to believe that the US government or most mainstream pundits care about human rights (except when pretending to care for propaganda purposes), I don't see how US Korea policy has, or could, produce any improvement in North Korea's behavior.  But then it's not meant to.

You could go with Arash Karami, who very properly wrote today, "I can’t believe North Korea negotiated with a regime that just helped launch another catastrophic bombing campaign against Yemen."

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Marilyn Monroe Died for Our Sins

I've just begun reading what looks to be an interesting book, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell (Holt, 2004).  Churchwell's an academic, and her aim is not "to reveal the real woman behind the image, the truth behind the myth", but to tell "the story of the stories of Marilyn Monroe" (10), the mythology that has been constructed around her. 

So far, she's doing a good job.  For instance she notes the popular trope that Monroe was a "natural" woman, perhaps the last sex symbol to to be "'allowed' to be 'womanly': ... 'She would be told now to go on a strict diet and sent for liposuction, because we are no longer supposed to look womanly'" (28).  This particular version comes from an essay by Marge Piercy, who's one of my favorite writers, but flat wrong this time: she knows very well about whalebone corsets, and has written about the days of her mother's youth, when flappers bound their breasts and tried to have boyish figures.  As Churchwell shows, Monroe was attacked throughout her career for being messy, "overripe," overweight; Churchwell quotes a 1953 anti-fan letter which denounced Monroe for being fat, and "waddl[ing]" (29).  Once again, nostalgia is just amnesia turned around.

But this bit brought me up short:
Monroe also posed for what were then euphemistically referred to as "art" photographs, which was a code for pictures of nudes (the pinup would tend to be in a bathing suit, or at most seminude).  Art pictures were not pornographic; in fact, the difference between art photography and pornography at that point was whether pubic hair was visible; art pictures would reveal breasts, and perhaps nipples. (Playboy would make history when it first published a picture in which the model's public hair was barely visible, in January 1971) [36].
I'm not sure about this.  I think the distinction Churchwell wants to draw is between "pornography" and "obscenity."  Pornography is as imprecise a term as obscenity, of course, but I think Merriam-Webster's definitions would still fit the 40s and 50s, the period Churchwell is referring to: first,  "depictions of erotic behavior ... intended to cause sexual excitement"; second, any material that "depicts erotic behavior ... and is intended to cause sexual excitement."  The third is more metaphorical: "depictions of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction."  I suppose that even just standing there buck nekkid could count as "erotic behavior."  In this sense, even the pinups were pornographic.  But the big legal controversies of the twentieth century involved the legal category of obscenity, and many lines were drawn in the sand, only to be erased and replaced with newer ones.

What causes sexual excitement is highly variable and subjective, after all: those relatively chaste pinups of girls in swimsuits were meant to produce sexual excitement, so as to remind Our Boys what they were Fighting For.  It's a commonplace, which may or not be true (though it's supported by a famous episode in James Joyce's Ulysses, published in 1922), that in the Old Days of long skirts, a man could be excited by the mere sight of a woman's ankle, even though it was covered in stockings.  Half a century later, young women still chanted, "We must / We must / We must work on our bust / We better / We better / So we can wear a sweater!"  A pair of breasts covered -- though not concealed; rather enhanced -- by bra and sweater could still excite a man.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that the European edition of Playboy, whose models had smaller breasts and bigger hips than the US ideal, also broke the pubic hair barrier before the American one did.  I could well be wrong.  And this isn't important to the interest of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, I'm just thinking.