Thursday, February 28, 2008

Katha Comes A Cropper

Oh, dear. I knew that liberal/progressive Democrats’ heads would explode when Nader declared his candidacy once again. I shouldn’t have been surprised when declared Obama partisan Katha Pollitt splattered her brains all over the page in the latest issue of The Nation, but still, it doesn’t make me feel any better to know that I could have predicted it.

Ralph Nader has a perfect right to run for President. And anyway it's hard to imagine that he will have the same effect in 2008 he had in 2000--which, he told Tim Russert, was very little, because the Republicans stole the election, which Gore rightfully won. Be that as it may, we've all had a seven-year crash course in just how much difference there can be between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

I’ve heard this line before. If Al Gore had taken the oath of office on January 20, 2001, there would have been no terrorist attacks on September 11, global warming would have been abolished, the economy would have blossomed and poverty would be no more, Republicans would have seen the error of their ways and become Democrats, the Israel/Palestine conflict would have ended in peace and brotherhood, Saddam Hussein would have resigned and petitioned for Iraq to become our 51st state, there would be freedom and equality for everybody, and the New Jerusalem would have descended from Heaven to establish itself in Washington D.C. In addition, we would meet a tall, dark stranger and go on a long trip in the coming year.

Nobody knows what would have happened if Gore had become President. But we do know what Clinton-Gore gave us during their tenure: NAFTA (which Pollitt, for some reason, dismisses as a concern of Left Coast elitists, instead of the ordinary citizens who gave Congress to the Republicans in 1994 as payback), DOMA, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (followed by greatly increased numbers of queers ejected from the military), welfare “reform,” the erosion of abortion rights, the blocking of the Kyoto Treaty, the gutting of the National Labor Relations Board, the Telecommunications Decency Act (fortunately overturned by the courts), the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (which increased domestic spying and wiretaps), more prisons, the terror bombing (twice) of Baghdad, the terror campaign in Serbia/Kosovo, a million Iraqis killed by sanctions (but "we think the price is worth it"), thousands more East Timorese killed by Clinton’s continued support for the Indonesian invasion, torture in Latin America and elsewhere, and a vast financial bubble which primarily benefited the already rich while most Americans slogged along, and which popped just in time for Clinton's successor to deal with it. The Clinton/Gore years were not good for most of us, or for the world. Since 2001, the Democrats in Congress have mostly been all too willing to go along with Bush’s worst, and the new day that was supposed to begin after the 2006 elections somehow never dawned, because the Dems were afraid the Republicans would call them bad names if they did anything with the mandate they’d been given.

Pollitt knows all this – she wrote some strong columns criticizing Clinton in the day – but now she seems to have forgotten it. Well, seven years of Dubya have been hard on Democratic brain cells. In the current column she’s making much of the differences between McCain and her guy Obama, which are real enough, but she’s a partisan now, which means she can’t be trusted to admit, or even recognize, her guy’s limitations. I’m worried by his evasive statements on Iraq, his bellicose noises toward Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, his desire to expand the US military. Is his health plan any good? Probably not; remember how badly the Clintons’ health plan, which was essentially a public subsidy for the HMOs, went down in 1993. If Obama has anything better in mind, it will be shot down even more handily, Democratic Congress or not; and if his plan is no better, then we don’t need it.

As for Nader, I’m not a fan or an apologist, and I concede the justice of some of Pollitt’s critique. I don't think Nader will make a dime's worth of difference in 2008, but I may vote for him in November anyway; or maybe I simply won’t vote for President at all -- there are other offices on the ballot, remember. Here in Indiana, it probably will make no difference, the electoral votes will go to McCain. I wish there were a real alternative, but I don’t see one.

P.S. A good piece, saying much the same thing but with less snark, at Counterpunch. Matt Gonzalez, Nader's running mate, weighs in at the same place.

P.P.S. Supporting Obama is already having an effect on Pollitt’s principles, it seems. Was a time when she took down pundits who made fun of (especially older) political women’s appearance, but if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em: “Besides, McCain's not so old that he couldn't get himself a much younger trophy wife, and even if Cindy McCain looks brittle and unhappy and like she hasn't eaten in a decade, she is always there by his side, a visual reminder of his manly prowess.” Before you know it, she’ll be talking about Hillary’s wattles and her unevolved heavy lower body. Well, all’s fair in love and elections.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Apocalisp Now

Another review for GCN, probably published sometime in 1988. I swiped the title from a panel of Gary Ostrom's chillingly hilarious "Homos at War" comic strip which had appeared in the great Toronto gay magazine The Body Politic a few years earlier. (It doesn't seem to be available online, alas.)

What I said about the vision of The Boiled Frog Syndrome turned out to be prescient: now more than ever, American liberals and progressives appeal to nostalgia for an America that never was: as Molly Ivins put it in January 2007: "What happened to the nation that never tortured? The nation that wasn't supposed to start wars of choice? The nation that respected human rights and life? A nation that from the beginning was against tyranny?" What indeed? I don't know which nation she was talking about, but it wasn't the U.S.

P.S. Jeez, I just took another look at the name of this book's hero: Stephen Ashcroft. Any relation to John? Marty Rubin must be a prophet.

The Boiled Frog Syndrome
by Marty Rubin
: Alyson Publications Inc., 1987
$7.95 paperbound
231 pp.

The time is the near future. Shortly after the assassination of a gay political candidate, the U.S. succumbs to a religious dictatorship led by a Pat Robertson-like Christian fundamentalist. As members of various groups, including gay men, are herded into concentration camps Stateside, a wave of refugees washes into Europe. Stephen Ashcroft, formerly a photojournalist and now a member of the Gay Resistance, is holed up in a hostel/leather bar in Amsterdam with his boyfriend Kiki, an Indonesian teenager with a penchant for running around in nothing but red bikini briefs. As the novel begins, Ashcroft is asked by wealthy diamond merchant Aaron Ten Eyck to amass documentation of gay oppression under the new U.S. regime. But Ashcroft is unhappy, for his wealthy advertising-exec lover of five years, Troy Anderson, hadn’t seen the writing on the wall in time, and languishes in a concentration camp back home.

In the end, of course, Ashcroft rescues Troy, but I see no point in describing the rather tortuous series of events which leads to their reunion. The real heart of The Boiled Frog Syndrome is political commentary -- even the (not very explicit) sex scenes get drowned in speechifying -- mostly put into Ashcroft’s mouth, and the adulation he gets from the other characters makes it clear that the reader is meant to take his chatter seriously.

On one hand there is lamentation for the glorious past, when America, slave state and slaughterer of its native peoples, “was once the arsenal of democracy” (52). “We want to see,” Ashcroft opines, “a Democratic party in the tradition of Harry S. Truman, who not only called a spade a spade, but, if he felt like it, a goddamn shovel” (137f) -- and who, I might add, was largely responsible for the national security state Ashcroft rightly deplores, installing and supporting vicious dictatorships worldwide and instituting a purge of reds and fags from our government years before Joe McCarthy. We had our chance but we blew it, thanks to the shadowy machinations of Them, Ashcroft’s unholy alliance of crooked politics, big business, and organized crime: “There was simply no way that ... they could have allowed John F. Kennedy to bring about world peace” (139).

There must be some mistake here. Ashcroft is talking about the man who brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962, who escalated the US invasion of Vietnam for fear of being thought soft on Communism, who invaded Cuba, who dragged his feet while American citizens were being beaten and murdered by racist bigots in Alabama and Mississippi. Robert F. Kennedy, another of Ashcroft’s heroes, declined to run for the Presidency in 1968 until Eugene McCarthy had toppled LBJ from incumbency; he then moved in to take what he and his fans supposed was rightfully his, as heir apparent to Camelot, though he’d done nothing to earn it. I can see no reason why They should have bothered to off two politicians who served Their interests so faithfully.

On the other hand Ashcroft is not unaware that the past is not so rosy, as witness this excerpt from his article “The Shame of Miss Liberty -- a Last Hurrah on the Brink of Fascism” (97f):

The glitzy extravaganza which was staged in New York this weekend was a psychological masterpiece. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed, it was perfectly programmed to make the mindless multitudes wallow in an orgy of patriotic fervor. Extolling an idealized and romanticized version of the history of our immigrant forebears which had absolutely no relation whatsoever to the grim reality, it turned the nation’s attention away from our human rights violations in Central America, our economic injustices at home, and the crippling national debt caused by the scandalous waste and outright criminal fraud of our bloated military procurement.

Does Ashcroft, I mean Rubin, really believe that glitzy patriotic extravaganzas designed to whip up nativist frenzy are a new development in the US? If he can’t think his way out of a paper bag, how can he expect the “mindless multitudes” to do any better? Evidently he thinks that those “lobotomized couch potatoes” disagree with a boldly independent thinker like him because they have been programmed by Them. But Ashcroft hasn’t an original thought in his head. His politics are received, his history is (yes) “idealized and romanticized,” and his political homilies are as flatulently platitudinous as a Reagan speech. And though he commiserates with the president of “a small South Florida private college of unusual academic distinction quite unequaled in the state” (107) about the “vast, ignorant functionally illiterate mass” (109) who don’t know Latin or Greek and therefore can’t write English good, Ashcroft/Rubin has a tin ear for English style. He makes George Will look profound and Ayn Rand seem lyrical by comparison.

As for Ashcroft’s sexual politics – we’ll leave S/M out of it, if he wants to kiss the boots of an Aryan superstud yuppie like his Troy Anderson it was still a free country last time I looked -- they seem to be the “I-may-be-a-homo-but-I’m-still-a-real-man” variety. He is contemptuous of “dizzy little twinkies [and] Cuban cha-cha queens” (though he “can assure you that my prejudices against Cuban cha-cha queens were strictly social, not ethnic” [31], what a relief!), in short of any fag who doesn’t or can’t act like one of those respectable Americans who want to put Ashcroft in a concentration camp. The word “manly” gets dropped on almost every page, and every significant character is a manly strapping hale fellow well met except perhaps little Kiki, Ashcroft’s fey Indonesian bumboy, but by page 162 even Kiki has “rolled on a condom and made manly love to Anton.” The only thing I'm going to say about Ashcroft’s insistence that AIDS is CIA germ warfare is that the evidence is imaginary (“We almost had it documented, but then they killed a few key people” [50]).

It’s tempting to dismiss The Boiled Frog Syndrome as all-too-typical gay-male soft-core porn, subgenre leather-and-discipline, with political pretensions -- which is what it is. But it's worse than that. The Boiled Frog Syndrome seems inspired by the kind of whining self-pity and convenient historical amnesia that I usually associate with the Reaganite Right, rather than the gay liberal-left. Yet now that I think about it, this nostalgia for an America that never was characterizes a lot of counterculture discussion. Marty Rubin has written a work of soft-core political porn, intended to stoke the political hysteria of middlebrow liberals.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Politics And Letters

I've begun reading Politics and Letters, a long collection of interviews with the great Welsh Marxist historian and critic Raymond Williams (1921-1988). Williams was born in Wales, but won a scholarship to Cambridge and moved to England at 18. After fighting in World War II he became involved in adult education (there's a fascinating essay on that topic in What I Came to Say), but in 1961 he returned to Cambridge to teach and write.
I first stumbled on Williams's work through his book Keywords (1976; new edition 1984), a sort of historical dictionary of key words (get it?) in the humanities. Keywords is a book that I think everyone who's interested in culture and politics should at least consult, if not read all the way through, because not only does it show how important concepts have changed their meaning over time, it reminds you that different meanings co-exist at any given time. I'd realized years ago that it was very hard to pin down the meaning of terms like "capitalism" and "socialism", though this didn't stop people from throwing such words around as though they were clearly defined and it was just a matter of knowing the definitions. More recently I'd been bothered to see writers using words like "identity", "sex", and "culture" without always being aware that they had different shadings and connotations, which led to a great deal of confusion. I thought people were supposed to learn to be careful about such things in graduate school, anyway, but evidently not.
I began reading Williams's The Country and the City (1973) a couple of years ago, but found it overwhelming, so put it aside for a while. (Not because it was hard to read or understand -- far from it -- but because it had great emotional power for me.) Since then I've read his book on George Orwell (first published in 1971 but updated several times) and a posthumous collection of essays, reviews, and speeches, What I Came to Say (1989), which, again, affected me very powerfully. I've also read his autobiographical first novel, Border Country (1960) -- about the son of a Welsh railway signalman (a veteran of the 1926 General Strike,) who becomes an academic in England but goes home when his aged father becomes ill -- and was tremendously impressed by it. A later novel, The Volunteers (1978), is a political thriller set in the early 1980s; not quite science fiction, and not as powerful as Border Country, but still good work. He didn't limit himself to conventional literature; I'm looking forward to reading his writing about television, for instance. There are a couple of essays in What I Came To Say on the news media which should interest anyone who's interested in how the media cover war and politics, especially those of us who've read Chomsky on that subject.
For Politics and Letters (NLB, 1979) Williams was interviewed at great length -- the book is over 400 pages of small type -- by members of the editorial committee of New Left Review.
The interviews begin with an account of his early life, and I was struck by this account (pp 34-35) of how this Welsh schoolboy, involved from the beginning in labor struggles, saw the world. The words in bold type still seem timely; I think a lot of people today make the same mistake about their political opponents. 
Reconstructing your vision of the world up to the time of the university, what would have been your most representative image of the ruling or exploiting class? 
The first one to come to mind would actually have been a very antique figure – the rural magnate or landlord, whom we mocked. The immediate cultural image was that of a Tory squire. 
Did they really exist within the compass of your experience? 
You could not go and see them. You could see a park wall, not beyond it. After that, we would characteristically have thought of bankers. I remember long discussions with my father about the ownership of industry by banks. Then, of course, there were the railway-owners and the mine-owners. But the rather archaic agrarian stereotype was still dominant. I don’t think that it was just because I lived in a rural area. This displacement away from the dominant class enemy of the last hundred and fifty years, the industrial employer, to older antagonists has been surprisingly persistent in the perception of the ruling class on the British left. In my case, I also had the natural adolescent reaction that the ruling class was not just wrong but out-of-date – the characteristic conviction of the young that the rulers are old, irrelevant and not of our world. I thought all Tories were stupid by definition. This was a very common rhetoric in the thirties. It carried certain real feelings. On the other hand, it disarmed people, including me and a lot of my friends, from understanding the intelligence and capacity of the ruling class, and its contemporary implantation. 
In my case, distance from London probably did have some importance. I never saw any of the central metropolitan power definitions. Of course, I knew of what the troops had done in the mining valleys – we were constantly told of it. But that was second-hand. We were in no doubt at all about the character of the employers, but the ruling class still did not seem very formidable. The result was to build up a sense, which was very characteristic of wide sectors of the Labour movement at the time, that the working class was the competent class that did the work and so could run society. That was said so much after the General Strike. It was disabling ultimately. But as an adolescent I remember looking at these men even with a certain resentment – they seemed so absolutely self-confident. I have never seen such self-confident people since.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

"Many Rioters Here Blame The US For Trying To Spread Democracy In The Region"

I don't usually do two posts in one day, but this was something I just had to share:

via John Caruso, who has good commentary, as usual.

And while I'm on a roll, there's also this, which probably helps to explain Why They Riot:
When asked if he ever witnessed American brutality in Haiti, General Ivan Miller replied that "you have to remember that what we consider brutality among people in the United States is different from what they consider brutality."

Nasty, Brutish And Short On Foreplay

(I swiped that title from Barbara Ehrenreich, bless her heart. See "How 'Natural' Is Rape?", Time, January 31, 2000, p. 88.)

I’ve been thinking more about Aaron Gillette’s book on the nature-nurture debate, and something occurred to me.

Gillette represents the debate as involving two sides, which he calls “evolutionary psychology” (including eugenics, sociobiology, and biological determinism generally; I’ll call it EP for short) and “environmental behaviorism” (cultural anthropology, behaviorist psychology, biological non-determinism generally; EB for short). EP he presents as non-ideological, though he pays lip service to the fallible humanity of science (in an explicitly religious analogy) and acknowledges the involvement of so many early evolutionary psychologists in unfortunate social movements. EB, by contrast, he presents as essentially ideological, pretty much without scientific content, the absurd posturing of people who can’t face reality and don’t want to.

This is false, and in fact Gillette is muddying the difference between scientific and political claims. (That’s apart from his weird, probably politically motivated conflation of “environmental” and “behaviorism.”) It isn’t like he doesn’t know the difference: he’s adamant about separating the two where EP and eugenics are concerned. But behaviorism is not an ideology, it’s an approach to the study of organisms, a research program even if a very limited one. The same can be said of biological determinism. Noam Chomsky wrote in his dissection of arch-behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity,

[I]t would be improper to conclude that Skinner is advocating concentration camps and totalitarian rule (though he also offers no objection). Such a conclusion overlooks a fundamental property of Skinner's science, namely, its vacuity.

While Chomsky is a Leftist, as I mentioned before, he also believes that innate mechanisms underlie such human behavior as language. He even wrote, while verbally garroting Richard Herrnstein in the late 1960s,

It is, incidentally, surprising to me that so many commentators should find it disturbing that IQ might be heritable, perhaps largely so. Would it also be disturbing to discover that relative height or musical talent or rank in running the hundred-yard dash is in part genetically determined? Why should one have preconceptions one way or another about these questions, and how do the answers to them, whatever they may be, relate either to serious scientific issues (in the present state of our knowledge) or to social practice in a decent society?

But mark those words, “a decent society.” Chomsky was under no illusion that we live in one.

Though Gillette repeatedly deplores the racism of his eugenicist heroes, he still finds it awfully unfair that they should have been criticized for the worthless scientific claims they used to justify it in their own day. But he has the situation backwards, asserting that the scientific claims of biological determinism have been criticized and rejected because of the ideology of the scientists who advanced them. In fact the critics have pointed out that, given the “poor data collection, glaring inconsistencies, and obvious statistical oversimplification” (Gillette, 65) that characterized the evolutionary psychologists’ scientific work, it is reasonable to suspect that the acceptance they achieved had more to do with ideology than science.

What the critics of biological determinism say is not “that human behavior is almost entirely molded by environment and culture, rather than instinct or heredity” (Gillette 171 note 4), but that what biological determinists hold to be controlled by instinct or heredity is affected (not necessarily determined) by environment or culture. As Noam Chomsky would say, that’s virtually a truism, and many contemporary evolutionary psychologists at least pay lip service to it. A wish to widen the gap between themselves and their opponents may help to explain why biological determinists try to confuse the issue by accusing their critics of believing that humans are a “blank slate.” Since their critics already agree that “there are genetic components to human behavior,” and the evolutionary psychologists admit that non-genetic components play a role, it might otherwise seem that their positions differ in degree rather than in basic approach.

I shouldn’t be too hard on them. These folks are simply unable to comprehend a middle ground between total genetic programming on the one hand, and a totally blank slate on the other. (Their disability might be a genetic blind spot, the result of millennia of evolution.) They also share the common human tendency to turn relative differences into absolute binary differences – going from data which indicate, for example, that girls score slightly lower than boys on math tests, to declaring that girls can’t do math, so there is no point in teaching math to girls at all. The fact that boys score lower than girls in verbal skills is never interpreted to mean that boys need not be taught to read and write; far from it. Instead they must be given more help learning these skills, and there is much lamenting the girl-friendly classroom environments that have made it impossible for boys to learn. Oh, the humanity!

As the sociologist Martha McCaughey points out in The Caveman Mystique (Routledge, 2008), the evolutionary psychologist David Buss

tells readers in his Evolution of Desire, … that his cross-cultural study found the predicted sex differences in human mating preferences universally. Internationally, men tend to value physical attractiveness and youth in a mate more than women, who are more likely than men to prioritize resources in a mate. Reading about the study, one would think that all men prioritize good looks in a mate above all else, and that looks don’t matter to women at all.

However, if you go back and read Buss’ boring old academic article, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 1989, you will see that the picture is more complicated than that, and he readily admits to several limitations of his study. For example, he did not have a random sample. He also concedes that self-reports are limited and must be checked by other studies. (A man may say beauty in a woman is highly important, for instance, but then will actually pair up with someone who is rich and not very good looking.) Buss also notes that male and female preferences overlap significantly. Not only do women also express a preference for good looks in a mate (just not as strongly as men), both men and women prefer, first and foremost, kindness and understanding in their mates. … [115-116]

Buss took relative differences between the sexes and turned them into absolute differences for a lay audience. Where sex is concerned, evolutionary psychologists have a crucial blind spot. As Gillette put it (pp 87f),

Though evolutionary psychologists discussed women’s mating strategies from time to time, they were less concerned with women’s mating desires than with men’s. There are several possible reasons for this. For one, their patriarchal society felt most comfortable considering men’s sexual aggressiveness as opposed to women’s. Also, since most of the leading evolutionary psychologists were men, or in a few cases were female students under the supervision of male professors, the focus on male sexuality might simply have reflected a male fascination with their own sexual behavior.

Gillette was referring here to the biological determinists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but things have changed very little since then. What gets the most attention, both from researchers and from media and popular culture, is work which claims to explain male sexual behavior in terms of our evolutionary heritage.

And as the biologist Marlene Zuk showed in her book Sexual selections (University of California, 2002), even the study of sexual autonomy in females of non-human species makes male scientists very nervous indeed. In 1990 a Canadian scientist, Lisle Gibbs, published a paper on his work with red-winged blackbirds. DNA testing revealed that “many, if not most of the chicks in a given blackbird territory were fathered by a male other than the territorial one” (68) – the results of what are now called “extra-pair copulations”, or EPCs. And, Zuk adds, “EPCs are now known to occur in every avian family. That means ducks, warblers, woodpeckers, wrens, orioles, the lot. This is that same group held up as a model of monogamy just a few short years ago. It was a real revolution, and it took place within less than a decade” (70). Zuk comments that “Telling my animal behavior students about this research triggers the strongest reaction they have to anything I teach them in the course. … They are horrified … Then comes anger. … When they do express it, it seems to be directed at the female blackbirds, a bit like Olin Bray’s denouncing the females as promiscuous while indulging the males in their sexual excesses” (68-9).

Terms including “adultery,” “infidelity,” “betrayal,” “cheating,” “fooling around,” and more have been applied to findings like those of Lisle Gibbs in the popular press, and sometimes the scientific literature is not far behind. … Either males were roaming around and taking advantage of hapless females waiting innocently in their own territories for the breadwinner males to come home with the worms, or else females were brazen hussies, seducing blameless males who otherwise would not have strayed from the path of moral righteousness. Bray’s “female promiscuity” label is just one example. A paper published in the prestigious journal Nature refers to young in warblers as “illegitimate,” as if their parents had tiny avian marriage licenses and chirped their vows. That some scientists in our society take this view should come as no surprise to us; after all, it was Hester who wore that scarlet letter, not her partner, and the double standard of judging adultery in humans has received much attention from sociologists and feminist scholars [70-71].

This double standard obtains in work on primates, especially human beings. Evolution apparently has affected men almost exclusively, making us a sex of horndogs, a pair of giant goggling eyes that swivel after every nubile female that comes in range, and if we can’t win her heart by heartfelt cries of “Hubba-hubba! Oh, you kid! Does your mother know you’re out?” – well, then, we will very likely take her by force. (Taking other males by force is generally not on the agenda, except among insects. The straight boys who study evolutionary psychology would mostly prefer not to go there.) At most, evolutionary psychologists have conceded that women have evolved to prefer wealth in their (male, of course) partners, and to be “coy” (a word that rightly annoys feminists no end) so as to inflame their/our ardor more. Aside from that, women apparently have no agency whatsoever: they just sit around, filing their nails and eating bonbons, until Alley Oop sneaks up behind them, clubs them over the head, and slips it in.

As McCaughey shows repeatedly (and as anyone who’s read books like Buss’s will recognize), male sociobiologists insist that men can’t help ourselves, that we’re driven by our genes and our evolutionary heritage to sow our seed wholesale. Take this revealing bit from Robin Baker’s Sperm Wars:

Some things, of course, will never change. Nothing – short of castration, brain surgery, or hormone implants – can remove a person’s subconscious urge to have as many grandchildren as they can. So, nothing will remove a man’s subconscious urge to have as many children with as many women as his genes and circumstances will allow.

I think that last sentence shows that the initial gender-neutral “person” with the “subconscious urge to have as many grandchildren as they can” is male, not female. What about women? Well, they don’t have sperm. Presumably they have a complementary urge to replenish the earth, but their desire not to wear themselves out with childbearing, and to enforce that desire with contraception and abortion, must be conscious and of no evolutionary account. In any case, what if a woman doesn’t want to be inseminated by all those roaming males with their subconscious urges? Tough luck, it appears.

Craig T. Palmer and Randy Thornhill, authors of an infamous (and hot-selling) EP book on The Natural History of Rape (MIT, 2000), “see their policy solutions – such as having the state teach boys, before they get their drivers’ licenses, about their biological propensity and teach girls not to incite that propensity with provocative clothing – as superior because their theory of rape is scientific” (McCaughey, 69). In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker dismisses this idiocy but defends Palmer and Thornhill against their evil feminist critics – they are so not justifying rape! (Pinker, 371) – before quoting Camille Paglia on the subject, which discredits him more effectively than anything I could say. Pinker forgets that feminists are, like, women, and women’s distaste for being raped is every bit as well-founded as men’s supposed “subconscious urge” to commit the deed. But women simply don’t register on these boys’ scientific radar, except as targets in a Sperm-Gets-Egg video game.

In general the EP boys are understandably defensive about rape – after all, they won’t get to perpetuate their own genes if women think they’re soft on rapists. Apparently they believe that if they condemn it vehemently enough they can then throw up their hands helplessly – What can you do? it’s in our genes – and their fatalism doesn’t constitute a justification. Which only shows how dumb they are, not just in terms of social policy, as Pinker assumes, but scientifically as well. Men have always condemned rape, though traditionally it’s as a crime against (their) property and by extension against themselves: the rapist has trespassed on and polluted another man’s property, his virgin daughter or his faithful wife, and therefore virtually raped them. The EP boys can’t seem to recognize that women are people, with interests of their own.

McCaughey also quotes (32) Naomi Weisstein, who points out sensibly enough:

evidence from hunter-gatherer societies suggests that deep into our prehistory women knew who the fathers of their children were, and aborted, neglected, abandoned or killed those infants they did not want to raise. Children conceived by rape may have been highly valued in some cultures. Most likely, they were snuffed out before they could reach the gene pool.

Interestingly in this connection, Marlene Zuk tells us about a biologist named Nancy Burley, who found that among zebra finches, males

often forced copulation on females with which they were not paired; in fact, 80 percent of all extra-pair copulations were aggressive, which she defined in a rigorous and repeatable way. These matings never resulted in any offspring, which is interesting by itself. Even more interesting, though, was that 28 percent of chicks in the aviaries were from the remaining 20 percent of EPCs that were not forced, an astounding success rate. What were the females doing to influence the fate of sperm from different males? No one knows. The cloaca of female birds is clearly capable of some sophisticated maneuvering; in several species, females have been observed ejecting sperm after a copulation. The organ’s structure and function has, however, been relatively little studied by scientists [84-5]

That’s male scientists, I bet, and those female zebra finches must be a bunch of man-hating pro-abortion feminazis, with their brutal disregard for the evolutionary heritage and subconscious urges of their males. There are other possible ways to prepare girls to deal with rapists besides putting them in burqas. Self-defense classes, for example. Martha McCaughey also has written a book on women’s self-defense classes, which I’m hoping to get to before long. But Nicola Griffith’s novel Always features a powerful account of the whys and wherefores of women’s self-defense, well worth reading.

So, maybe it isn’t an ideological bias that leads male evolutionary psychologists to ignore women. Let’s just say it’s a flaw in their science, which by their lights is even more damaging.

More on this next time; or if not, the time after that.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lest I Come And Smite The Land With Peace

Especially since the War in Iraq, this quotation has become fairly well-known:

Why, of course the people do not want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece.

Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. …

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

The speaker is Hermann Goering, Hitler’s Field Marshall, in Nuremberg on April 18, 1946, quoted by the psychologist and U. S. Army Captain Gustave Gilbert in Nuremberg Diary, originally published in 1947, reprinted by Da Capo in 1995. It doesn’t come from Goering’s trial testimony, but from conversation with Gilbert in his cell.

It’s almost too good to believe, isn’t it? By now I’ve learned to be suspicious when this sort of smoking-gun quotation is attributed to some political figure or other, in which he admits his conscious and deliberate wickedness. But this one does seem to be genuine.

Rereading the quotation recently, I noticed the word “pacifists” in the next-to-last sentence. A pacifist is someone who is opposed to all war or violence on principle. If you think about it, you’ll probably recognize that not everyone who opposes a given war is a pacifist. Certainly not everyone who opposed the Iraq War, or the various U.S. wars of recent memory, was a pacifist; some were active members of the military. When Clinton attacked Kosovo, he was opposed partly by the Usual Suspects on the Left, some (but not all) of whom really are pacifists, but he was also opposed by numerous figures on the Right who I’d be very surprised to learn are opposed to war or violence in principle. Their rationale was along the lines of, ‘There’s nothing in the Balkans worth the blood or life of one American boy.’ Whatever you think of that statement, it isn’t pacifistic; it implies that in other places – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, for example – there is something worth the lives of many American boys, to say nothing of the lives of vastly greater numbers of Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians.

I’ve noticed that defenders of Bush’s war -- the conservatives who are still defending it, but also various cruise missile leftists and liberals who jumped on board, especially at first – often referred to the opponents of the war as pacifists. I don’t think they meant ‘people who oppose war on principle’ by the term, any more than Goering did. What they meant was something like ‘dirty hippies and lily-livered cowards who are afraid to fight and would let Saddam Hussein conquer our Great Nation without firing a shot.’ Some of Noam Chomsky’s liberal critics, for instance, have said that Chomsky would oppose any American use of force; not on principle, it seems, but just because he Hates America and doesn’t want it to have any fun. One former friend of mine, a self-styled liberal, said basically the same thing to me in the weeks after 9/11; I countered that he would support any American use of force, as he had during all the time I’d known him.

The underlying assumption is that war is a good thing (its fans will hotly deny that they think so, even as they rattle the sabers) and that very compelling reasons are needed to oppose any given adventure. (In the case of Kosovo, the Right’s very compelling reason seemed to boil down mainly to its being Clinton’s war and not a Republican President’s.) To my mind, it’s the other way around, with the (very heavy) burden of argument lying on the advocate of violence; and no, “We’ve got to do something” is not an argument, especially not when “something” means bombing random civilians and destroying infrastructure. The cheerful readiness of war advocates to believe transparent propaganda about surgical strikes and smart bombs is good reason to believe that they really do love war. And once the killing’s underway, well, you can’t expect them to stop now, bellus interruptus is bad for the nervous system, as well as an abomination to Yahweh.

The use of “pacifist” as an all-purpose insult for anyone who opposes a given war, whatever the reasons, is one more sign of this preference for war. It’s a slightly more genteel way of calling the opposition a bunch of faggots – unmanly, lacking stomach for bloodshed, devoid of warrior values – and most important, it allows the war lovers to evade any serious debate. Debate might give people’s blood time to cool, they might start to think about the consequences of the proposed war, and vital momentum might be lost. That Goering’s tactic works as well in the US as it did in Nazi Germany (of course it works well just about everywhere) doesn’t speak well for us.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Exactly What Things Were Made For

LADY BRACKNELL: I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing.
I just finished reading the new edition of James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Taught Me, and I feel both inspired and infuriated by the experience. Page 327:

Most teachers do not like controversy. A study some years ago found that 92 percent of teachers did not initiate discussion of controversial issues, 89 percent didn’t discuss controversial issues when students brought them up, and 79 percent didn’t believe they should. Among the topics teachers felt children were interested in discussing but that most teachers believed should not be discussed in the classroom were the Vietnam War, politics, race relations, nuclear war, religion, and family problems such as divorce.

Many teachers are frightened of controversy because they have not experienced it themselves in an academic setting and do not know how to handle it. “Most social studies teachers in U.S. schools are ill prepared by their own schooling to deal with uncertainty,” according to Shirley Engle. “They are in over their heads the minute that pat answers no longer suffice.” Inertia is also built into the system: many teachers teach as they were taught. Even many college history professors who know well that history is full of controversy and dispute become old-fashioned transmitters of knowledge in their own classrooms.

… and so on. Not that I’m casting the first stone here. I’m not a teacher, and I don’t suppose that I’d be any braver about controversy in the classroom with my job on the line. And yet as a speaker on gay issues, I’ve been allowed to bring controversy into many college classrooms over the past three (nearly four) decades. (Much to the displeasure of some other gay people in my community, I should mention.) When our panels speak to education classes, especially, we encourage those future teachers to do exactly what, according to Loewen, most teachers don’t want to do. (Whether they do it when they become teachers is another question.)

So in some ways what Loewen wrote there surprised me. But on the other hand, not so much. Once I was on a panel speaking to a personal health class, and one of the students said she thought it was fair, if the majority in some community thought that gay people made unfit parents, for that community to take our children away from us. I asked her to look at it from another perspective: suppose the majority in some community thought that evangelical Christians, or Roman Catholics, made unfit parents – would she approve taking away their children? As I was saying this, I could see that she was upset by the suggestion, and there was rising tension among the other students too. Several of them, including the questioner, accused me of religious intolerance. One or two spoke up, pointing out that I was drawing an analogy, not actually advocating taking away people’s children. The instructor was unhappy too, and she sent an e-mail afterward to the colleague who usually moderates the panels, saying that I was too “combative.” Which I often am, of course, but not that time.

What bothered me about this incident was that the instructor, a graduate student, apparently couldn’t follow the analogy I was drawing. It isn’t exactly encouraging that most of a roomful of undergraduates had apparently never encountered such a form of argument before, but that it was new, and upsetting, to a graduate student, was disturbing.

Dealing with controversy, it seems to me, is a basic skill (or set of skills, probably) in a free society. But as I’ve noticed, and pointed out here before, it’s a basic skill that isn’t being taught, or learned. (A nice liberal fellow once told me that lower-class folks don’t need to think critically; I pointed out to him that they [we] vote, and they [we] shop -- tasks that require critical thinking to be done well. He hadn’t thought of that.) I know I didn’t learn how to analyze and debate in school; I absorbed these things from reading, especially political writing and scholarly publications. Often what I read taught me what not to do, but that’s okay too; like Gerald Graff, I’m a believer in the pedagogical and civic value of bad argument – but only so I can figure out how to answer and, hopefully, demolish it. Later on I found books that cover the subject, like Antony Flew’s How to Think Straight (2nd edition, Prometheus Books, 1998) and Alec Fisher’s The logic of real arguments (Cambridge University Press, 1988). From them I learned that I’d taught myself reasonably well, and that it wasn’t just my imagination that I’d learned something valuable – or that most people hadn’t.

Often, when I’ve engaged in debate in various online fora, I’ve been chided for doing it in an inappropriate place. (In the movie Love and Death, newlyweds Diane Keaton and Woody Allen are in bed on their wedding night. He puts his hand on her breast; she says, “Please – not here.”) I always ask what is an appropriate place, so I can go there. I don’t think anyone has ever recommended an alternative, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually carried out a dispute in a forum that wasn’t, in fact, intended for serious discussion. It’s just that so many people are uncomfortable with disagreement, either directed at their opinions or at anyone else’s. I was taught while growing up that politics, religion, and sex weren’t discussed in polite company, so I began looking for impolite company where such things could be discussed. It’s mighty hard to find.

The standard explanation for the embargo on these topics is that people get emotional about them. True enough; but these are also topics that centrally concern people, so shouldn’t they learn to analyze and discuss them anyway? If these things can’t be discussed, what happens is that decisions are made and people’s lives are affected without any discussion, often with unpleasant consequences for those affected. The ban on discussion seems not to extend to abusive and inflammatory outcries, witch hunts, and the like. The undesirable elements are suppressed, the better sort of people can sniff derisively at the vulgar canaille who did the dirty work, and all’s right with the world. I’ve also found that the people who take this line are quite happy to attack me, or other people whose views or lives they dislike, even in polite company. It’s only when I defend myself effectively that they back down and try to stop what they started but couldn’t finish. The trouble is that even the most vicious bullies get sympathy from polite company if making trouble backfires on them.

So, once again I’m confronted with my own idealism and naiveté. What disturbs me about teachers’ unwillingness to deal with controversy, is that schools are exactly the kind of place where people should learn to disagree with one another without panicking. Many teachers are frightened of controversy because they have not experienced it themselves in an academic setting and do not know how to handle it” – what an indictment of American universities! If not there, where? If not now, when?

JACK: Well, I won't argue about the matter. You always want to argue about things.

ALGERNON: That is exactly what things were originally made for.

JACK: Upon my word, if I thought that, I'd shoot myself . . .

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sunshine Lollipops -- Not

(I may be posting a bit less for the next few days -- I'm having connection problems.)

I always vowed never to become the sort of crabby old geezer who’d sit around yammering, “Ah, they don’t make rock’n’roll the way they used to! Why can’t they play something like ‘Heroin’? That was a pretty song, they don’t write songs like that anymore. It’s just a bunch of damn noise, what these kids are playing these days.”

So far I’ve managed to keep that vow. I take heart from Pete Townshend, who said when The Who were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame: “We don’t have to like hip-hop. We don’t even have to listen to it. All we have to do is get out of the way.” (I suppose the bleeped expletive was “fucking.”)

Today, however, I’m going to indulge in some shameless nostalgia, for music that got to me when I was in high school. I liked all sorts of things then, as I do now, from Led Zeppelin and the Mothers of Invention at the hard extreme to the Beatles, the Stones, Motown, and … the Association.

I’m surprised to find the Association classified as “sunshine pop”, for while I don’t deny the relentless cheeriness of songs like “Windy”, their music always had a shadowy side. Even their first hit, “Along Comes Mary” was hardly Leslie Gore (who wasn’t exactly Leslie Gore herself): its rapid-fire lyrics, the urgency of the music, and the rumor that “Mary” was actually “marihuana” all sit uneasily in a bubblegum pigeonhole. Later songs like “Requiem for the Masses” and “Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies” also indicate the the group had more serious themes in mind. One band member has recalled that they were criticized for being too “squeaky-clean”, which must have grated, though in the video below they’re all grinning like an “Up with People” ensemble; the smiles look painfully forced. But “Cherish”, whose overwrought choral grinding always got on my nerves, "Never My Love", which is sheer cheese to my ears, and “Windy” seem to be what most Association fans associate with the band.

My own favorite is “Everything That Touches You”, one of the first pop songs ever to move me close to tears. I don’t know which boy it made me think of; maybe none in particular, maybe just what seemed then to be the impossibility of getting as close as I wanted to any male. And even now that I’m a cynical old jade, the music of this song still gets me.

I think I must have seen this performance, since I watched The Smothers Brothers Show regularly, and I still remember seeing the Who, the Doors, and Cream there. But if I saw the Association, I don’t remember noticing the presence of an Asian guy (Filipino by ancestry, I now see, but born and raised in Hawaii), very unusual in American pop music, then and now. [P.S. The version I referred to has been removed from Youtube, and I couldn't find another copy of it there. For now, I'm replacing it with a video of the song with an album cover.]

I also stumbled on this performance of “Along Comes Mary.” They’re actually performing live here: it sounds distinctly different from the studio version, and it even swings a bit. Very nice, huh?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Bosie And The Danger Queen

Jesus, what a foofy outfit!

I slowed down drastically in my book reviewing after 1984, but I'm not sure why the next Gay Community News review I can find wasn't published until 1987. (The May 10-16 issue.) I'll have to dig some more. Meanwhile, here's the next one I have.

Lord Alfred Douglas
by H. Montgomery Hyde
Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1985
$19.95 cloth, 366 pp.

Oscar Wilde: an illustrated biography
by Martin Fido
Peter Bedrick Books/Harper and Row, New York, 1985
$9.95 paper, 144 pp.

More Letters of Oscar Wilde
edited by Rupert Hart-Davis
The Vanguard Press, New York, 1985

On the day that we stand before the Goddess to give account of our lives, Oscar Wilde will have a lot to answer for. He was the centerpiece of probably the biggest homosexual scandal in modern Western history. While the severity of his punishment - 2 years at hard labor - won some sympathy for homosexuals generally and for him in particular, it also scared uncounted English gay men deeply into their closets for years afterward. He reinforced the association of male homosexuality with a sickly, gilded aestheticism which collected and mounted sins like dried butterflies - and Wilde never seriously challenged the idea that diddling boys was sin. (He could have. Walt Whitman's poetry is free of the taint, and it was earlier than Wilde's work; Wilde had even met Whitman.) Numerous writers have suggested that it was this sense of sin that led Wilde into the disastrous libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury which backfired and sent him to Reading Gaol. This may well be true. Wilde was clearly a danger queen, as can be seen from his fondness for "feasting with panthers" (i.e., consorting with blackmailers). But his personal pathology is of interest mainly as it relates to his pernicious and long-lived influence on other gay men's lives and art.

Of course, blackmail, scandal, and ruin are perennial money-makers, so Wilde has also been the subject of a minor publishing industry devoted to his life and art. Since his story had a gloriously unhappy ending, publishers could safely titillate the public with books about Wilde, his sin, and its wages. This had its flip side: for while writers about Wilde could and must deplore unnatural and unspeakable vice, all those books and articles led to homosexuality's becoming less unspeakable. While the only books about homosexuality a young gay kid might be able to find in the public library (aside from Bieber-Bergler clinical bigotry) would be about the Wilde scandal, at least there would be some nonmedical books about homosexuality there, and a bright kid might realize that if Wilde had had brain one, he could have stayed out of trouble. Nowadays, in our allegedly more enlightened and permissive times, the accounts are a little more lurid and detailed, but the stench of formaldehyde still hovers over the analyses.

An example of what I'm talking about is Oscar Wilde: An Illustrated Biography, by Martin Fido. This large glossy paperback, originally published in England in 1973, tosses out a few details of Wilde's sexual tastes and practices, but thanks one "Dr. Sumi Verma [who] gave me expert advice on the psychopathology or homosexuality." In researching his books on Dickens and Kipling, I wonder, did Fido consult experts on the pathology of heterosexuality? Despite its mildly patronizing tone, however, the book does give an adequate brief account of Wilde's life and times, and the illustrations (many in color) are well-chosen. Not bad for $9.95.

More Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, illustrates another aspect of the Oscar industry. Anyone who possesses a copy of Hart-Davis's huge 1962 edition of Wilde's letters will probably want this addendum for completeness' sake: 164 of the two hundred-odd letters which have turned up since 1962. Wilde always wrote gracefully, and More Letters can be read with pleasure, but the fact remains that most of them are on the level of this 1889 telegram to Clyde Fitch ("Prolific and successful American dramatist [1864-1909]," Sir Rupert helpfully informs us): "What a charming day it has been Oscar." I don't think this is a good place to start if you are interested in Wilde's letters; look for the 1979 Selected Letters, which is available in paperback, instead.

In the case of a martyrdom like Wilde's there is always the temptation to look for a villain, and for a long time Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas was cast as Judas by Wilde's admirers. While in prison, Wilde had written Douglas a long letter, later published as De Profundis, in which he accused the boy of having ruined him by spending all his money, distracting him from his art, goading him into suing Queensbury (Douglas' detested father), and abandoning him to his fate. But Douglas had his own admirers, who have done their best to rehabilitate him, with some success. The chief work was done by Rupert Croft-Cooke, who showed in Bosie (1962) that many of Wilde's charges simply were not true. Croft-Cooke, who had known Douglas personally, also insisted that he was a kindly man, capable of generous encouragement to young writers, and a talented if old-fashioned poet. Now H. Montgomery Hyde, an English barrister who has become one of the pillars of the Oscar Wilde industry with important books on Wilde's trials and on male homosexuality in Victorian England, has published a biography of Douglas which follows in Croft-Cooke's footsteps.

The trouble is that while Douglas was not quite as bad as his enemies claimed, he was still an amoral, paranoid little scumbag who in later life became a self-righteous prig without sacrificing one iota of his amorality or paranoia. Both Croft-Cooke and Hyde try to build Douglas up by running down Robert Ross, who earned a reputation as the man who stood by Wilde through thick and thin and restored his good name years after his death -- and, not incidentally, published De Profundis.

It is true that Douglas remained in England at risk to himself after Wilde's arrest, visiting him in jail, raising money for him, trying to defend him in print after his conviction, and helping to support him after his release from prison. It is also true that Ross had not been linked sexually (and therefore criminally) to Wilde. We know now that Ross boasted privately of having been "Oscar's first boy" and that his homosexuality was more or less an open secret, but his later rehabilitation of Wilde did not put him at risk as it would have Bosie, who also had to rehabilitate himself. It is also true that Ross behaved very badly, not only keeping incriminating letters that legally and morally belonged to Douglas, but supplying those letters to Douglas's adversaries in his many court battles. (Douglas, on the other hand, would probably have destroyed the letters, so posterity's debt is to Ross.) But both Croft-Cooke and Hyde tend to minimize the fact that, unlike Douglas, who in a few years was denouncing Wilde as "the greatest force for Evil that has appeared in Europe during the past 350 years" (Hyde, p. 225), Ross worked devotedly to return Wilde's work to public attention and raised his estate from bankruptcy. Ross also helped many living writers, and he was rightly honored for his services to literature when Douglas was trying to expose him as a bugger.

Now, Ross was no prize: his private life was as seamy as Wilde's. Douglas, by contrast, lived a mostly "respectable" private life after Wilde's death: heterosexual marriage interrupted by one brief adulterous (but heterosexual) fling when his wife left him, followed by years of - so he claimed - chastity. (I don't know whether to credit Samuel Steward's story of tricking with the elderly Bosie.) His public life, by contrast, was spectacularly nasty. Aside from his protracted campaign to destroy Robert Ross, he drifted into yellow journalism as the patron and disciple of T.W. Crosland. This involved him in numerous libel suits both as plaintiff and defendant, culminating in a prison term for proclaiming that Winston Churchill had been in the pay of Jewish bankers during the First World War. (Both Hyde and Croft-Cooke try to distinguish Douglas's anti-Semitism ["the Belloc-Chesterton variety"] from the "racialist" variety implemented by Hitler. This is horseshit. The lies Douglas - and Belloc and Chesterton - helped to circulate were the same paranoid fantasies used by the "racialists," who simply availed themselves of eugenic pseudo-science as an additional prop for their bigotry.) The point is that, his defenders to the contrary, Douglas never reformed, since homosexuality is not reprehensible. His most unappetizing qualities - vanity and bigotry - he hugged close to himself throughout his life.

If you are curious about Alfred Douglas, Hyde's book is a good successor to Croft-Cooke's now out-of-print biography. It's useful to see Douglas in the round, rather than as the boy who betrayed St. Oscar; and it's a real challenge to practice recognizing the humanity even of villains by contemplating the example of Bosie, a man who made a virtual career of denying the humanity of everyone who ever got in his way.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

History's A Punk

Something else I wanted to say about the Times article on Susan Jacoby. She told the reporter that she first decided to write The Age of American Unreason on September 11, 2001, in a New York City bar:
As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

If true, this story is depressing, all right; but then I have to balance these men’s historical ignorance with Jacoby’s, since she believes that people are more ignorant now than they were – I don’t know, fifty years ago? a hundred? Even if American schools aren’t teaching World War II in history classes, which is possible for reasons I’ll go into in a moment, that war is ubiquitous in commercial media. The Hollywood blockbuster Pearl Harbor was released with plenty of fanfare in the summer of 2001, and it enraged a number of American critics and audiences who thought it was too historically accurate, that is, not hostile enough to the Japanese. And then we have Tom Brokaw’s best-selling book on the Greatest Generation, the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers about American fighter pilots, Schindler’s List, the History Channel, and much much more. Despite all this, I suppose it’s possible that basic information about World War II has not sunk in to most younger Americans’ psyches, compared to really important knowledge like the records of professional and Division I college athletes.

It’s hard for me to believe that the men Jacoby overheard hadn’t picked up on Pearl Harbor by osmosis, as I did, long before it could have been covered by my American history class; but I’m 57, just five years younger than Jacoby, and I was born ten years after Pearl Harbor. My father and uncles served in the military during the war, though none of them ever talked to me about their experiences, and the war was common coin in all sorts of media, from TV to comic books to the newspapers. On the other hand, though I was born during the Korean War, I never heard anything about it as I was growing up; it wasn’t a Great War, and its American veterans weren’t lionized as a Great Generation.

When I had American history in my junior year of high school (1967-1968), I don’t recall that we got very far into the twentieth century. The history textbooks were massive even then; and they’ve become enormous since. My teacher made a valiant effort, but it was impossible to slog through the entire text in a school year. I know we got as far as Woodrow Wilson’s administration, because I remember the book’s mentioning US warships shelling some Mexican city in 1912 or so, because the local officials had disrespected the American flag. I was appalled, but then I was already coming under the baleful influence of the Dirty Fucking Hippies and the Blame America First Crowd. I don’t remember that anyone else was bothered by the incident, and when I mentioned it to my mother, she also thought it was fair and just.

So I think it’s quite possible that American history classes today don’t get as far as World War II either. If they do, it could only be at a dead run, with facts to be memorized no longer than the weekly quiz and the final exam. That has always been the standard approach to teaching history in American schools, and it has never worked very well. (See the indignant quotation from the New York Times in 1943, in my previous post, for an example of what I mean.) I doubt that high school students in past generations were any better informed or educated about wars that occurred 30 to 40 years before they were born, and that wasn’t because of post-modernist relativism that held all truths are created equal. This is not a new problem, nor can it be simply explained with sloganeering about “junk thought.” Indeed, Jacoby’s book appears to be one more example of junk thought.

Something else occurred to me when I read about Jacoby’s business-suited ignoramuses. Consider the Vietnam War. When I was growing up during that conflict, the standard line all over the media was that the Communists had attacked our ally in South Vietnam, and we were only there because our ally had asked for our help in defending itself against Communist aggression. This account was a complete fiction, as I learned from better sources around the time I graduated from high school. Now that the war is officially history, I wonder how the textbooks explain it. I run into few people of any age, even now, who know anything like the historical truth. That’s a subject for further research, I guess. (I’m thinking of asking students in the dormitory where I work what they know about Pearl Harbor and Vietnam. They’re not a representative sample – it’s an academic dorm – but it will be interesting to ask them anyway. I’ll report back in a week or two.) The origins of the American Civil War (or as I prefer to call it, the Confederate Rebellion) are still controversial, with revisionists trying to whitewash the South to this day; I doubt that the accounts taught to high school students today are any more adequate than the one I was taught.

Imagine, too, how our present adventure in Iraq will be described in the history textbooks thirty or forty years from now. Half-a-dozen different, and often conflicting, justifications for the US/UK invasion of Iraq were floated in the months just before we attacked. Now, even elite media can’t quite make up their minds how we got there, or why we have to stay, and it’s well-established by now that they were eager to be misled by the Bush gang. American history texts prefer to avoid controversy in favor of neat, preferably glorious soundbytes, partly because they must please adopting committees that prefer propaganda to sound history, so I wouldn’t expect much from their coverage of Iraq in years to come. I won’t blame the students if they don’t learn much from it, either.

But again: none of this is in any way new. All the copies of The Age of American Unreason at the local Border’s had been sold today, so I couldn’t browse through it any more. But now I see, from reviews on, that Jacoby was consciously extending Richard Hofstadter’s thesis in Anti-Americanism in American Life, which was originally published in 1963. Why, then, did she tell the Times that she was dealing with a new problem? Because newness is more marketable? If so, she’s lying; if not, she’s ignorant. I agree we have a problem, which has always been with us; I don’t see that dishonesty or sloppiness are going to help any.

P.S. Now there's this review at Salon, which doesn't make Jacoby or her book look any better. But I will read it, when the library gets it. And then there's an interview with this guy, who brings to mind Molly Ivins's remark anent some Texas pol that, if his IQ gets any lower, we'll have to water him. I don't deny that we have a lot of stupid people in this country, but it seems they're all writing books about how dumb everybody else is. But that just reminded me of this exchange from The Importance of Being Earnest:
Jack. I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.
. We have.
. I should extremely like to meet them. What do they talk about?
. The fools? Oh! about the clever people, of course.
. What fools!

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Mad As Hell Tea Party

What, another book on the dumbing down of America? Why does no editor ever seem to dismiss a hopeful author of one of these with “It’s been done”? Because, you know, it has been done, and done, and done to death, in an endless session of “Ain’t It Awful?

Even more symptomatic, the author of this admits that it’s been done, but that didn’t stop her from doing it again, because things are like really different this time, okay? Susan Jacoby, “one of a number of writers with new books that bemoan the state of American culture”, said:

But now, … something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.

One commenter on the Times article wrote:

College professors are routinely confronted with students (not all, thankfully) in need of remedial assistance, let alone individuals possessing critical knowledge of global matters. And yes! College! A college professor (often an overworked adjunct) has all of three months to teach a subject to adults who have spent their formative years learning how to be demanding, adroit pleaders who know the system and their rights and understand that they need a diploma as fast as possible to force a future employer into a slightly higher salary category. Few are interested in learning for themselves, let alone in acquiring the mental self-discipline that analysis and critical thinking foster.

Yes, indeedy, things used to be different. The Greatest Generation, for example.

A large majority of the students showed that they had virtually no knowledge of elementary aspects of American history. They could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or Theodore Roosevelt. ... Most of our students do not have the faintest notion of what this country looks like. St. Louis was placed on the Pacific Ocean, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, the Atlantic Ocean, Ohio River, St. Lawrence River, and almost every place else.

This, however, was on the front page of the New York Times on April 4, 1943. Gerald Bracey, from whose Setting the Record Straight (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997, page 68) I swiped this quotation, adds:

What particularly galled the Times was that these ignoramuses were not high school students, they were college freshmen. The Times did not take note of the fact, but we can, that in 1943, the high school graduation rate was about 45 percent. Of these, about 15 percent went on to college. So these ignoramuses were an elite group of ignoramuses - the upper 7 percent of the student body. It is worth noting that the Times did not blame the public schools for the students’ poor performance; such laying of blame would begin shortly after World War II. Rather, the Times seems to have assumed that the students forgot information that they once had known.

And before that? “Bad spelling, incorrectness as well as inelegance of expression in writing, ignorance of the simplest rules of punctuation, and almost entire want of familiarity with English literature, are far from rare among young men of eighteen otherwise well prepared for college.” So said Harvard President Charles William Eliot, complaining in 1871, when elite colleges like Harvard were mainly finishing schools for the sons of the rich. . . just the sons, of course, since conservatives knew that higher education rendered women sterile or insane. Only the occasional very talented and very docile male of African descent attended Harvard or Yale. Jews and the Irish had not yet become Honorary White People. (If I recall correctly, in his Opening of the American Mind Lawrence W. Levine showed that in the Good Old Days, students at the best universities who were actually interested in study and learning were ostracized by the rich men's sons who were there to kill time, drinking and earning their Gentlemen's C's, until they were ready to take over the control levers of the Nation. So no, American apathy -- or antipathy -- to knowledge is not a new development.)

Jacoby’s book just came out in the past week, so it’s not in the local libraries yet, and I’m sure not going to shell out money for it. But I did poke through it standing up in Border’s today, and it surprised me a bit. She spent several pages on Larry Summers, the President of Harvard who took heat for claiming that “innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.” Instead of attacking the PC feminists who want to destroy our great Male Chauvinist traditions, she lit into Summers himself, calling his scientifically-based beliefs “junk thought.” While I agree that Summers’s claims are bogus, they are not evidence of a new ignorance “about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge.” If anything they count against Jacoby’s thesis that people are dumber than they used to be, since even fifty years ago Summers could have said the same things without raising an uproar.

Nor do I agree with the other positions attributed to Jacoby in the Times article. As it happens, I’m now reading the revised edition of James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me (Simon & Schuster, 2007), and Loewen reports (page xviii) that the original edition was useful to many students who wanted their history courses to be accurate, as well as to teachers and general readers. Loewen holds that the reason history is such an unpopular school subject is that it’s taught badly and inaccurately, which also is not a new development in American or other cultures. The point is, kids want to learn, even in the face of an educational system that has always been set up to make learning more difficult -- maybe not all kids, but enough to make hash of Jacoby's claims.

Jacoby’s gripe about the academic “decision to consign African-American and women’s studies to an ‘academic ghetto’ instead of integrating them into the core curriculum” seems off too. Couldn’t that situation have something to do with the intense and ongoing resistance to such integration by the white males who still mainly run American universities, and the whole society for that matter? As for her claim that “students in many other countries consistently outperform American students in science, math and reading on comparative tests,” that’s simply false. It’s a big topic, but for a start, look here and here and here.

I suppose I’ll have to read her book, or at least skim bigger chunks of it, to see if she can actually back up her bogus claims. But so far it looks like she’s her own best evidence.

Oh, wait, I can’t resist quoting this comment on the article on Jacoby:

Because we have so many foreigners in this country in our Universities, especially from Europe, teaching in our Universities who really have a grudge against America and are finding subtle ways to work their wiles. By being extreme on the “Divirsity” issue, pushing “Gay Rights”, and anything else that causes division, the “extremist” are helping America slide down the same path as Rome did.

And this one:

I share your lament. I sometimes ask people new into the workforce, “When was the Magna Carta signed?” After a blank stare, this will always lead to a conversation about King John, Runnymede, and the march toward democracy. Sometimes combating illiteracy is hand to hand combat.

If I started a new job, and someone asked me out of nowhere when the Magna Carta was signed (1215, for what it’s worth, though it has nothing to do with "illiteracy"), I’d start edging away and looking for a desk to hide behind.

Earlier I mentioned “Ain’t It Awful?”, one of the Games People Play identified by the psychiatrist Eric Berne. In “Ain’t It Awful?” two people complain about the sorry state of the world / humanity; the payoff of the game consists in the shared “good feeling that comes from blaming and finding fault...” as Berne described it. Ain’t it awful that there are all those people playing “Ain’t It Awful?” Seriously, I recognize the pleasure that comes from complaining that the world's going to Hell in a Handbasket, but I'm also well-informed enough to know that our problems are not new and weren't caused by videogames or postmodernism. If Susan Jacoby (and Master of Sockpuppets Lee Siegel, and Eric G. Wilson, along with all the other tillers in this field) want to vent, fine, but why commit their whining to print? Jacoby told the Times, “I expect to get bashed,” as well she should be, for wasting trees on one more useless book.