Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is Park Hyo Shin Gay? Now You've Got Me Wondering

In my first post for this blog, I explained why I wasn't enabling comments, and added: "Meanwhile, I'll try to answer any e-mail, though I also reserve the right to post anything I receive, especially if it's either very helpful or informative, or if it's abusive." Almost two years later, and this is the first time I've fulfilled that promise.

I got the following e-mail yesterday. What follows is the whole text, which (as you'll see) ends abruptly:
At this link: http://thisislikesogay.blogspot.com/2008/12/park-hyo-shin.html

you posted it, regarding Park Hyo Shin. Why are you accusing him of being gay ? What about his music is homosexual ?
I am writing as the designated person chosen by a Park Hyo Shin fan club, which has over 320 members.
Homosexuality is defined as:
(hō'mə-sěk'shōō-āl'ĭ-tē, -mō-)

1. Sexual orientation to persons of the same sex.
2. Sexual activity with another of the same sex.


I might have answered it in e-mail, but as you can see, my incoming messages are blocked. That would be easy enough to get around, but no need.

I've noticed, in looking at the online searches which lead some readers here, that some people are searching for "park hyo shin gay." From the message above it appears that some of Park's fans are self-appointed Image Cops, dedicated to preserving their idol's good name. Since Park's audience seems to be largely young women, I wouldn't be at all surprised if a good many boys, envious of his appeal, call him "gay." It helps their teen-macho posturing that Park is famous for weeping during his concerts. This has no bearing on his sexual orientation, of course.

But neither does his public persona. Entertainers are no different from the general population in this regard, and the few openly gay people in the industry are the tip of the iceberg. I seem to recall that the songs on George Michael's Faith were reported in the straight media to have been inspired by a woman with whom he'd had a painful affair. Videos like the one for "Father Figure" encouraged the impression. Michael didn't publicly acknowledge that he was gay until he was forced out of the closet by his arrest for a "lewd act" in 1998.

The Korean entertainment industry is even more reactionary than the American, and I do wonder idly from time to time which Korean stars are hiding same-sex desires and relationships behind straight façades. At this point it appears to be even more stressful for Korean entertainers to come out than it is for their Western counterparts, probably due in part to the lack of a gay movement and visible gay community in South Korea, so I'm not looking to see a lot of openly gay Korean celebs any time soon.

Whether Park Hyo Shin is gay or not, I have no idea, not even wishful thinking. Nor did I say anything about his sexuality in the post my critics mention. Children, how did you arrive at the conclusion that I did anything of the kind? I'm guessing that you saw it in a web search, read the name of the blog and the title of the post, and jumped to conclusions. So much for any notion that the young are more Internet-savvy. Next time, read for context, mmmkay?

The key thing is, it is not an accusation to say that someone is gay -- well, it is among overwrought homophobes, I admit, but I'm not one of their number. (I suspect the fans figured out that I'm gay -- hence the dark insinuation that "what [I] say at this point is tainted." Wrong, dears: your denunciation is tainted, though, with the lowest sort of bigotry.) And the trouble with antigay bigotry is that it makes it impossible to know for sure whether to believe someone's denials of submitting to homosexual advances. Maybe they're telling the truth, maybe they're just closeted. If Park Hyo Shin were a closeted gay man, though, his fan club would be the last to know.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Welcome Back to Bush Country

This morning, I read Alexander Cockburn's latest entry at Counterpunch, and was pleased to see that his take on Geithner is a lot like mine.
Obama wouldn’t be the first president to realize that it does no harm to have public odium pleasantly deflected onto a subordinate. Year after year George Bush watched the mud getting hurled at Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. It was the late great historian Walter Karp who argued that the most politically adept of all Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, conceived his notorious court-packing proposal – up to six new Justices on the Supreme Court – to deflect attention from serious difficulties on other fronts.

So Geithner gets pelted with mouldy cabbages, while Obama -- entirely responsible for the basic economic strategy of bailing out the banks rather than taking them over – charms the nation....

For now, Obama sails smoothly on, transferring wealth upward to the bankers from the rest of us.
Cockburn also mentions that while Obama's approval ratings remain high in general, they took "one spectacular dip into the low 40s, reflecting the public’s low opinion of his handling of the AIG bonuses." The low 40s, of course, are Bush Country.

And Whatever It Is, I'm Against It detects "the Bushian echo" in Obama's allegedly new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan:
Sometimes not even an echo, but a direct quote: “Al Qaeda’s offers the people of Pakistan nothing but destruction. We stand for something different.”
Riiiiight. I think I need to be more confident in my judgments, and feel free to hurl more cybercabbages at the Man Behind the Curtain.

Compared to the mainstream US media, the BBC looks comparatively skeptical of American propaganda. But when you compare it to other British media, the BBC's careful moderate-ness becomes clear. Here we have the opening of the Beeb's online story on the G20 summit, and the international protests that anticipate it.
US Vice-President Joe Biden has called for G20 protesters to give governments a chance to tackle the economic crisis.

At a G20 warm-up meeting in Chile, Mr Biden said heads of state would agree proposals [sic] to remedy the crisis at next week's meeting in London....

At a news conference in Vina del Mar, Mr Biden said he hoped the protesters would give the politicians a chance.

"Hopefully we can make it clear to them that we're going to walk away from this G20 meeting with some concrete proposals," he said.

Why should the protesters "give the politicians a chance", given the latter's solid record of collaboration with the elements responsible for the crisis? But Biden is missing the point of the protests. Since non-elites and non-collaborationists are denied direct input into the meetings, they have no real alternative but to make themselves heard in the streets. Though the article also quotes President Da Silva of Brazil, who said "that everyone was suffering from the recklessness of those who had turned the world economy into 'a gigantic casino'", it goes on to cite "reports that banks and other financial institutions could be targeted in violent protests," so "British officials have put a huge security operation in place."

Compare the Guardian's report:
Yesterday, the Metropolitan police was understood to have contacted a number of protest groups warning that the main day of protest, Wednesday, 1 April would be "very violent", and senior commanders have insisted that they are "up for it, and up to it", should there be any trouble.

The force has refused to rule out the use of anti-terror legislation, with Sir Paul Stephenson, the Met commissioner, conceding that the week ahead, in which President Barack Obama will lead a cortege of other world leaders to the UK, will be the Met's greatest challenge.

Senior officers insist there is intelligence that some activists demonstrating against climate change, capitalism, war and globalisation are intent on violence and will try to disrupt the summit. They say that some troublemakers who were active in the 1990s have emerged once more, and that chatter between groups shows they are forging alliances to take their message to world leaders. Some protesters have also promised to storm buildings, taking out their anger over the collapse of the capitalist economy with direct action designed to bring London to a standstill.

However, David Howarth, a Liberal Democrat MP who is leading a parliamentary group of observers at the protests next week, said: "I am increasingly worried that what the police are saying about the protests will end up in a self-fulfilling prophecy. By talking up the prospect of violence they will put off peaceful demonstrators and start to attract other sorts."

Andrew Dismore MP, who chairs the joint common human rights, said police language in recent days had been "not very helpful".

Or, as Richard Seymour put it at Lenin's Tomb (where he linked to the Guardian piece), what we have here is a promise of state terror. But it's understandable, since the recent unrest in Europe and elsewhere has shaken the complacency of corporatist politicians and media everywhere.

(Image at top from OhMyNews, illustrating protests against the Korean government's arrest of union leaders at the cable news network YTN after wage negotiations broke down and a strike was being planned.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Poetry Friday - The Peaceable Kingdom

The Peaceable Kingdom

The morning in this place comes lightly in,
on tiptoe like your mother: getting up
before you do to pull aside the drape
so gently you don't notice til it's done.
And there you are: the morning laid before
you, not a fingerprint or footprint on
it, like an apricot whose downy skin
has not known teeth till now. And over here,
two naked children sleeping unafraid,
their bodies golden, never burned by sun
or wind to ruddiness. Against her spine,
his perfect nose. On such a day the world
is fit for anything: a lamb is sleeping
with a lion, and a snake is walking.

October 13, 1977

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

As a Dog Returns to Its Vomit

On second thought, I decided that the above gag wasn't fair. The big bankers aren't laughing at Congress and the American people -- that would imply that they're aware of us at all. They know we exist, but only theoretically. But on third thought I realized I was wrong, even drawing a false antithesis. There is no reason why people can't both regard the mass of humanity as mere ants, to be casually squashed because they don't bother to notice we're there, and laugh derisively at our vain squirming under their heels. Logically it may be inconsistent, but psychologically it's all too easy.

Several bloggers have quoted this "conversation" at the Council on Foreign Relations with Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner. Jon Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution focused on this exchange:
GEITHNER: Of course, we are all fiscal hawks now because of Pete Peterson. (Laughter.) There are no doves left on the fiscal side. (Laughter.)

ALTMAN: And he deserves credit for that.
Jon explains: "For those without a decoder ring, 'everyone' being a fiscal hawk means that due to the current financial disaster, they'll soon be coming after Social Security and Medicare". Not that that's exactly news; Obama and his people have been dropping hints in that direction since the campaign.

There are other choice bits in the transcript of Geithner's performance that deserve attention. I noticed this one, for example:
QUESTIONER: Benjamin Barber from Demos here in New York.

I'm a political theorist, not an economist. And when I teach the theory of capitalism, it suggests that profit is the reward for risk.

Whenever government --

ALTMAN: That sounds like an economist, sounds like an economist.

QUESTIONER: Well, that starts there. You'll see it doesn't end there however.

And where -- what seems to have happened recently is that whenever anyone talks about nationalizing the banks, people scream socialism. But the current administration seems to be wanting to socialize risk but keep profits private.

And that seems to be the new capitalism in the United States, where the taxpayers take a lot of the risk, but the market continues to enjoy profit, should there be any.

And the real question, I think, is whether there are mechanisms that would allow, if taxpayers are going to take the risk, for them to enjoy all, not some, of the profits, rather than a system in which you're trying to revive the markets on the taxpayers' back.

GEITHNER: Understand your concern, but let me just be clear about this. To solve financial crises, governments have to be willing to take risk, because the definition of "financial crises" is the markets are not willing to take risks that looks -- otherwise would be economic.

The central fact is that governments have to be prepared to take risks the markets can't take, for a temporary period of time, in order to get a firmer foundation for repair.

Of course you want to do that in ways -- doesn't have the government assuming all the losses in the system. And what makes these things hard to solve is because the world ultimately will want us to take more risk than we think is prudent for the taxpayer. And the programs we're designed -- we're designing or pursuing are very cognizant of the risks you said.

And again, just think about the alternatives that most people advocate in this kind of context. The mode -- the dominant alternatives that we're proposing would have the government come in and purchase these assets on their own, hold them on the government's balance sheet, take all the risk in that choice. And you know, the -- this is a system that's much, much more complicated than what we went through in the '90s and what other major economies went through over the last couple decades. And because of the basic complexity of these products, scale of these institutions, that, in our judgment, would pose much, much greater risk to the government; that taxpayers are assuming greater share of losses than is necessary or prudent, and taking risks they cannot effectively manage.

It takes a while to wade through Geithner's obfuscatory verbiage (which I've quoted in its entirety), but if you do, you'll see that he dodges Barber's question by changing the subject. This may or may not have been deliberate -- I've often noticed speakers miss the point of a question in all sincerity -- but Barber wasn't allowed a followup on it either, like some of the other questioners. It should be remembered that the original bailout plans promised just what Barber was asking about: that the bailout, like the US invasion of Iraq, and now Obama's stimulus plan, would pay for itself, that the American people would even make money from the troubled assets the government was taking on from the banks. However, "The notion that we will make a profit from the bailouts--which the financial sector tried to convince us were 'investments'--seems to have dropped from public discourse," Joseph Stiglitz wrote at the Nation in an interesting article. On rereading Geithner's remarks, I think it's safe to presume that his answer to the question, "Should the taxpayers enjoy any profits, as well as the risks, from this bailout?" is either "What profits? [Laughter]" or "Awww, hell no!"

Then there's this one:
QUESTIONER: I'm -- (name inaudible) -- from Columbia Presbyterian. You told us that you're looking forward to appearing before Congress tomorrow morning. (Laughter.)

GEITHNER: And I really meant it.

ALTMAN: Term of art, sir. (Laughter.)

GEITHNER: And I just want to -- this is important -- I'll answer your question -- but this is an important thing. You know, the debate that happens in those rooms is very important. We have to have that debate, and I actually enjoy it, because it's a necessary thing to go through.

It's not -- it's not -- well, I'll just leave it there. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: But as they say, seriously -- (laughter) -- specifically what do you see the role of Congress to help you execute and implement the framework?

GEITHNER: Oh, well, you know, under the structure of our government, Congress is necessary to everything. And, you know, as I said in response to one of the questions, you know, you don't -- you can't solve these crises without governments being willing to carefully deploy taxpayers' resources on conditions that protect the taxpayer but still do what's necessary to get through this kind of thing. And that's something that Congress is ultimately the arbiter of.

And they need to be part of this. And they will be, of course, because, you know, we're a great nation and when confronted by crisis, this country comes together and it does what is necessary. ...

And that's why I think the work of institutions like this and so many public policy institutions around the world is so important now, because we need to have a much higher level of public understanding about what it's going to take in terms of economic policy than exists today. And it's not something that can be just simply on the -- on the shoulders of the executive branch.

We wouldn't want the Executive Branch to shrug, no indeed. I trust I don't need to highlight the contempt shown here for even nominally democratic oversight of the process, a contempt that Geithner hardly bothers to hide. Given his audience, there's no need anyhow. So perhaps you can see why, after reading this material, I looked at the captioned photo above with a new perspective.

Last weekend Obama reaffirmed his faith in Geithner, amid calls for the latter's resignation or removal. Fine with me; it means that his man's intention to at most fine-tune our corrupt financial system is Obama's intention too. There's no need for fantasies that the Little Father has been misled by the Evil Boyar. It might be appropriate, or at least prudent, at this point, for me to clarify my position. I don't want Obama to fail, I want him to succeed; but by "succeed" I mean "repair the economy, and put it on a stronger footing for the future." Unfortunately, he seems to want to fail, and to take the country down with him.

Obama's "team of rivals" approach to building his cabinet was originally ballyhooed for his foreign policy appointees (for whom it was just as bogus), but it applies to the economy too. The president-elect claimed that "the 'strong personalities and strong opinions' that he had brought together would ensure vigorous debate, even disagreement, in the White House." Now, any group of alpha egos will be able to disagree and debate vigorously over tiny points -- running the gamut from A to B, as the cliche puts it. Over the Iraq War, for example, it is possible to debate vigorously this or that date for removal of US combat troops, and so on. But it's clear by now that basic disagreements are not allowed into the room. (We've seen this in the elite media apologists for the war who've complained that no one serious raised criticisms to the invasion of Iraq before it happened -- but reasons not to invade are explicitly excluded.)

If Obama had really wanted vigorous debate and even disagreement in his cabinet, there are people on the left with expertise he could have appointed. But they'd have raised questions he clearly doesn't want to deal with. No one, we're told now, paid any attention to the corporate bonuses until just recently -- but that's not true. People on the left (and overseas, which is almost the same thing) noticed them early, as in this post by Chris Floyd from last October, drawing on a story from the UK Guardian. It should tell Americans something that Obama only detected a problem when it blew up in his face, and then he (or his "team of rivals", which means him) still worked to protect the bonuses while throwing out quasi-populist rhetoric and blaming everyone else but himself. As you yourself said, Mr. Obama: the buck stops with you. And the midterm elections are only eighteen months away.

Monday, March 23, 2009

I Adore Cheap Populism

It's depressing when a Republican makes sense, but Steve Latourette (R-Ohio) managed to do it for a couple of minutes. Of course this is something pols usually manage to do when they're out of power, but Latourette also voted against the original Bush-Paulson-Obama-McCain heist last fall -- you know, the one that Obama defended as "not a plan to just hand over $700 billion of your money to a few banks on Wall Street" -- while Bush was still in the White House. And pushing massive, complex legislation through Congress without permitting time to study it is a time-honored Republican strategy as well, though as with Obama's stimulus plan, the Patriot Act's partisans probably weren't interested in knowing what was in it anyway.

Last weekend Alexander Cockburn told the story at Counterpunch:

As Obama’s stimulus bill worked its way through the Congress, Oregon senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, joined with Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine to attach an amendment to the bill capping executive bonuses for companies taking bailout money at $100,000. This provision sent off alarm bells across Wall Street and inside the Treasury Department and it was mysteriously killed in the conference committee in order to protect the AIG executives. Wyden jokes, “it didn’t die by osmosis.”

So who killed the ban on AIG bonuses? This week all the major players swore, hand on heart, they never, ever knew that $165 million in bonuses had been assigned to AIG personnel. Out in Los Angeles President Obama told Jay Leno as much. Treasury Secretary Geithner claims he only found out last week. Senator Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, swore day after day that he too never knew.

The bonuses were not secret. These so-called “retention payments” for 130 people at AIG were approved two days after the September 16 bailout, disclosed in a September 26 federal filing. They soon became a focus of extreme interest to politicians like New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo, well aware of the smoldering public mood. On December 15 Bloomberg News quoted Representative Elijah Cummings of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, as writing that “Liddy [AIG’s CEO] should testify under oath on why retention payments are going to thousands more people than first disclosed." Cummings cited an earlier Bloomberg News report disclosing that AIG was scheduled to give as much as a year’s pay to about 10 percent of the staff at units that are being sold. Recipients were told to keep the awards secret.

On Wednesday Dodd came clean—sort of. Yes, he had accepted language in the recent stimulus bill which okayed bonuses consequent upon bailout money already released by the US government. Facing a tight reelection race next year and well aware that this admission would not play well with Connecticut voters, Dodd emphasized that he’d been pressured to okay the language by the Treasury Department, suggesting that Bush-era holdovers from Hank Paulson’s team warned that unless the AIG bonus contracts were protected the entire stimulus package could be vulnerable to a constitutional challenge. Dodd thus passed the poisoned chalice to Treasury Secretary Geithner, White House economic czar Larry Summers and… Obama.

At first the White House put up Summers to argue that America is a nation of laws, among them the law of contract, as applied to AIG employees. Only a man who had to resign the presidency of Harvard after claiming that woman are in some ways stupider than men would be capable of such idiocy. Obama is in the process of asking millions of Americans -- autoworkers, pensioners, veterans to accept annulment of contractual obligations to them by the US government. Suddenly they’re asked to respect retention contracts to AIG losers, many of whom have quit the company anyway.

Tossed on the third rail by Dodd, scorched by Republican jeers for hypocrisy and double dealing, the White House rushed into damage control. Invective against the executives of AIG poured from Obama’s lips, although not so fierce as the suggestion by the Republican senator from Iowa, Chuck Grassley, that the AIG top brass “follow the Japanese example and resign or go commit suicide.” After reading their constituent email, taking phone calls and watching the talk shows, on Thursday after about 30 minutes of debate 243 Democrats and 85 Republicans joined in voting "Aye" to a House bill that would impose a 90 percent tax on bonuses given to employees with family incomes above $250,000 at AIG and other companies that have received at least $5 billion in government bailout money. It would apply to any such bonuses issued since December 31. It was opposed by six Democrats and 87 Republicans. The senate is considering a slightly more restrained version.

House leader Nancy Pelosi was no doubt close to bursting from schadenfreude as she mousetrapped the House Republicans on that one. It’s a measure of just how terrified they are of the popular mood that no less than 85 Republicans voted for an individually targeted, retrospective tax levy on individuals which is probably the largest marginal rate ever imposed and certainly unconstitutional.

Rough though the week has been, there is a silver lining for the White House. It stems from the very word that has landed Obama and his team in such trouble - “bonus”. A bonus is something people can relate to. You hope to get it at Christmas. It’s a reward for working hard. You don’t give bonuses to thieves and deadbeats. Yet at the same time as the uproar over $165 milion in bonuses is in full spate, Obama has approved bailout of AIG to the tune of about $200 billion, much of it passed on to the infamous “counterparties” like Goldman Sachs and foreign banks.

In other words, Obama has been using the bonuses to divert attention from the vastly larger amounts of money he's throwing at AIG. (See also Glenn Greenwald's Salon article on the White House's scapegoating of Dodd.) So, for that matter, has Congress. Already the punditocracy and the blogosphere are urging Obama to fire Geithner and Summer, but of course they are merely members of his Team of Rivals, doing his will. But I shouldn't be sarcastic -- that's nothing more than the truth. No doubt they'll fall on their swords if it becomes necessary to safeguard the bailout, but ultimately it's the President's responsibility, not theirs.

As Whatever It Is I'm Against It pointed out, "In the larger scheme of things, it’s the need to prop up this criminally-run company with $170 billion of taxpayer money that’s the real scandal. Compared to that, $165 million in bonuses is kind of a sideshow, the insult to injury ratio here being 1:1,000."

No doubt, like Jon Stewart, Obama finds cheap populism oddly arousing; but Stewart was being satirical. (Like the title of this post, as I hope I needn't point out; it's a Boys in the Band allusion.) What worries me is that the best I can say for Obama's leadership (to be charitable) in this mess is that he's using such creepy diversionary tactics; the worst I can say is that I smell panic in his tactics, all the way from Washington DC to Indiana. Passing a blatantly unconstitutional law like the retroactive tax on the AIG bonuses is also a familiar tactic of the right: you not only get to pass the law, knowing that it will be overturned, but then you can denounce the courts that overturn it as elitist activist judges interfering with the will of the people. (Previously it was announced that the amount of the bonuses would be deducted from the next bailout payment to AIG. I'm sure that had the big boys shaking in their shoes! Any accountant who can't figure out how to get around that move doesn't deserve his, erm, "retention payment.")

I'm sure I'm not the only person who worries about the crossfire of arguments about the best way to deal with the economic crisis we're in, and the historical precedents that inform them. For example: Did the New Deal end the Depression, or not? I've seen arguments by economists taking either side, and it seems that their politics determine their answers. Which to me suggests that no one knows. I certainly wouldn't trust the Right, but since I can't trust the Center-Right either, I'm worried. In a system as complex as the US economy, it's very difficult -- maybe impossible -- to tease out cause and effect. I have to take it on faith that Obama appointed people who were competent to produce a plan that would work, and though I never had much faith in him, which decreased even more when he appointed hacks like Geithner and Summers, it's becoming increasingly clear to me that Obama has no idea what to do either, so he'll settle for saving Wall Street at any cost. Since most of the people who voted for him, I think, see Wall Street as part of the problem, he has to pretend to be boldly independent, and the pretense is becoming less plausible every day.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Poetry Friday - Copernicus


I hold at last in hands too weak to turn
its pages my Of Revolutions. Now
I publish with impunity, allow
the Church her rage. All that's left to burn

now is a dead man, dry and senseless, curled
and crisp. Let Holy Church endure forever:
mortal though I am, without a lever
or a place to stand, I move the world.

I'm not sure exactly when I wrote this, since I don't seem to have a dated draft. I am sure that I wrote it soon after reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in the fall of 1977. From Kuhn I borrowed the legend that "the first printed copy of De revolutionibus was placed in his hands on the very day that he died, allowing him to take farewell of his life's work." (The full title of the book was De revolutionibus orbium coelestium [On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.]) I also got the closing of the poem from Kuhn, either directly or inspired by something he wrote, playing off Archimedes' claim that he could move the world if given a lever and a place to stand. By this time I was deliberately writing poems on Biblical and religious subjects, intending to write a small book's worth of them, to be titled Quadragesima after the poem which started me on that track.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Take Me to the River, Civilly

Today I happened to reread this quotation from the New York Times in an earlier post:
As a Christian — he is a member of the United Church of Christ — Mr. Obama believes that marriage is a sacred union, a blessing from God, and one that is intended for a man and a woman exclusively, according to these supporters and Obama campaign advisers.
Something occurred to me. If marriage is a sacred union, then civil marriage is a violation of the First Amendment. And I thought of an analogy that may help to explain why this is so.

Imagine that there was such a thing as "civil baptism." You could go to City Hall, fill out a form, and swear an oath before the clerk to renounce Satan and all his works. The clerk would sprinkle some water on your head, pronounce you baptized, and hand you a baptismal certificate that would give you certain benefits under the law.* Anyone could get civil baptism -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists. No church would be bound to accept the baptismal certificate as proof of membership, and a church baptism wouldn't confer the legal benefits of civil baptism.

I think that if our government at any level were to try to institute civil baptism, there'd be an outcry from the churches as well as from secularists, though the objections might be muffled somewhat if its benefits and privileges were attractive enough. But the constitutional objections would be obvious: it would be an establishment of religion, prohibited by the First Amendment. Baptism is a "sacred union" between the believer and God/Christ. The state has no business establishing its own secular version of the rite. Many believers, I believe, would accept state intrusion in order to get the benefits, though they would also try to legislate their denominations' requirements and standards for baptism into the civil rite, declaring those requirements obvious and natural and traditional.

Why would an atheist or any other non-Christian submit to civil baptism, then? If the benefits were attractive and important enough, as they are for civil marriage (tax breaks, inheritance, legal kinship, etc.), that should be obvious: to get the privileges that the civil status confers. I can imagine the defenses one would hear of such an institution, as well: by getting baptized, people would show that they were serious, mature, committed citizens of our great nation, ready to shoulder their responsibilities by making this public renunciation of Satan. By contrast, those who reject civil baptism just want to get drunk, shake their booties, and blow kisses from Pride floats. Religious attempts to limit unbelievers' access to civil baptism would be denounced as an infringement of civil rights.

Of course, this analogy is (I hope) absurd; I offer it in the hope that it will provide some perspective on our current institutions of civil and religious marriage. I think that most Americans would reflexively reject the invention of a secular, legal version of baptism as a violation of the separation of church and state. And that's the point: why do we have a secular, legal version of a "sacred union" like marriage? If they want to convince me of their sincerity, those heterosexuals who, like Obama, believe that marriage is a sacred rite intended to bind together men and women only, should renounce their own civil marriages, get a civil but not religious divorce, and live together with benefit of clergy but without benefit of the state.

What about the children? What about inheritance and taxes and all the other legal benefits and protections that civil marriage provides? I'd follow the arguments of Nancy Polikoff in her book Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage (Beacon, 2008), and urge legal protections for all families, not just those constituted by sacred unions. She points out, for example, that
the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) ... already protects children raised in a variety of family structures. Any covered employee with day-to-day responsibilities for the care and support of a child is entitled to FMLA leave. The regulations say that neither a biological nor a legal relationship to the child is required. In other words, this law allows either parent in a same-sex couple to take leave to care for their child. Neither marriage nor adoption is necessary [101-102].
Polikoff argues that until the 1980s American law, at the federal, state, and municipal levels, had already been moving toward a broader conception of family and coupledom that reflected people's real lives rather than the straitjacket of reactionary religion, and away from the supremacy of marriage. The rise of the religious right reversed that trend, and in general the mainstream gay movement has let the religious right set the terms of the debate since then, by embracing marriage as a goal and the norm for relationships instead of seeking to value and protect all families. Obama's (and so many others') confusion of civil and religious marriage shows that he too has surrendered to the worst kind of religious narrow-mindedness. Those who want to order their lives according to religious dogma should be allowed to do so -- that also follows from the First Amendment -- but they may not require others to follow them, least of all by legislating their dogmas.

I realize that the abolition of civil marriage is politically impossible, now or in the foreseeable future. But if we recognize the problems involved in legislating a religious rite, we might be able to lessen its sway over our society. Civil marriage isn't "sacred," and so needn't be restricted according to the requirements of the churches. Let the God-botherers concern themselves with "protecting marriage" (or baptism), and distribute social goods according to other criteria.

*I haven't imagined what the legal benefits would be; maybe my readers would care to work out the analogy to the legal benefits of civil marriage. If so, please let me know. Maybe I should look into countries that have established churches, and see what legal benefits membership in their churches confer -- probably things like the opportunity for state-supported pastoral livings -- but it's not really important for the purpose of the analogy.

(Image from here. At first glance it's cute, but think what it says about this couple that the symbols they chose for their sacred union were those of upscale consumerism: Gucci, D&G, Martha Stewart.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Kinder, Gentler People, Goddamnit!

What happened to Phyllis Burke? I'm rereading her book Family Values: Two Moms and Their Son (Random House, 1993), and anticipate rereading her Gender Shock (Doubleday, 1996). Both of these books had made me look forward to what she might write next. She has published nothing -- certainly no books -- since 1996, and I can't find anything about her online from the past dozen years, not even an obituary. She seems to have disappeared.

Family Values describes Burke's radicalization and involvement in Queer Nation San Francisco in 1990 and 1991, while she was pursuing second-parent adoption of her and partner Cheryl's son Jesse. She had been scared into the closet by Harvey Milk's assassination in 1978, but becoming a parent had given her cause to rethink her approach to life. One thing I especially like is that she mostly doesn't try to make her earlier closeted hangups into virtues as some writers do -- but neither does she deprecate her younger self with I-was-blind-but-now-I-see evangelism. This compassion carries over to her involvement in Queer Nation: she's nonplussed and at times turned off by the flamboyance and adolescent excess of QN's militance, but she's also attracted by it, and never loses sight of the humanity of people whose style is different from hers. (Though she agrees -- as do I -- with Cleve Jones "that Queer Nation did not seem to know their history" [136], a problem that still is with us.)

For example, she's "horrified" at first when she sees in a Pride Parade:
a man who looked exactly like a dime-store Jesus, except that his body was painted pink. He wore a loincloth fashioned from an American flag, and a crown of pink thorns. He was carrying a pink cross, with a green scroll across the top that said, MARTYR FOR ART. Behind him was a multicolored banner that stretched the width of the street. In bold letters it read, NOT SPONSORED BY JESSE HELMS. ... Pink Jesus had large, soft brown eyes, the eyes of a maniac or a theater master. It was impossible to tell whether he was brilliant or insane. Whatever he was, he was certainly an artist, meticulous in his preparations. As I looked closely at him, I realized that Pink Jesus was Gilbert Baker, the creator of the rainbow flag, which is flown internationally as the symbol of lesbian and gay pride. The rainbow flag had been a stroke of genius, but I did not think Pink Jesus was a good idea [36].
Her opinion of Baker and his theatrics changes as she gets to know him better and becomes more militant herself.

Burke also sketches a strong portrait of Jean Harris, then an aide to City Supervisor Harry Britt. (If you've seen Milk, many of the names in this book will be familiar to you. Gilbert Baker himself has a cameo part in the film. Harvey Milk's spirit hovers over the entirety of Family Values, as inspiration and as symbol of loss.)
Jean Harris can easily be mistaken for a man, which is part of her charm. She is the only complete cross-dresser in the history of City Hall, and I have actually heard her say that heterosexuality is a learned response. ...

"I wear a necktie because I want every man who sees to me to know I got the necktie on, I'm after their power, I want their money, and I want their women. Okay? And I will wear the necktie and wave it in their face," she said. "When I enter their offices, I'm not some girl coming in with sensible pumps on and a nice little dress to be a nice, sweet lady, and just sit down and try to get the boys to be nice to me. They know right up front, I'm a dyke, I'm tough, I'm here, I want to know exactly what's going on, and if you've got the power, I'm gonna try and take it from you."

... Perhaps my favorite moment with Jean was when she shouted into a microphone at the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, of which she was then president, "We're a kindler, gentler people, goddamnit." [106-107]
I love the way that Burke gently and humorously demolishes stereotypes of urban vs. rural, conservative parents vs. radical children, metropole vs. the hinterlands. When her mother back in Massachusetts asks her "if we were going to have the baby christened, I told her that I did not think it necessary to renounce Satan because I did not believe children came into the world with sin. She laughed and said that no one believed that anymore [if only that were so!], and she was asking only so she could know when to send birth presents. I told her I would christen him myself. Immediately" (29). And:
We heard from Shreveport, Louisiana, that they had held a Queer Pow Wow, and that New Orleans planned Queer Nights Out, plus their own shopping expedition. You could almost have expected chapters to crop up in Chicago and Boulder, Houston and Detroit, Cleveland and Atlanta. But Lincoln, Albuquerque, Tallahassee, and Salt Lake City? [117]
At the first domestic-partner registrations in San Francisco's City Hall on Valentine's Day, 1991, Burke observed the following couple, who might give pause to fans of Brokeback Mountain:
Two old fellows in their sixties, with rumpled baggy pants and John Deere hats, walked carefully down the stairs, their work-battered hands entwined, their eyes on their feet. They looked like they had just come off the farm. I looked beside me at Gilbert, who was now dramatically dabbing at his eyes with a white handerchief. "What's the matter?" I asked. "Weddings," he said, dabbing away, and although he was camping it up, there were real tears in his eyes [112].
(Incidentally, Burke had already mentioned that Baker was the only one present at the ceremony in a red ball gown. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.)

She also described her initial skepticism about the public ceremony for a status that, in 1991, had "no legal weight whatever in terms of health insurance, child custody, inheritance, or taxes" (104), but her cynicism crumbled as couple after couple used the event to declare their commitment publicly.
... I realized that I was crying. These were not people used to grand entrances, photographic flashes, televisions, and a crush of press. Yet these were people willing to perform this very public act, which had absolutely no material or practical gain attached to it, in order to affirm their love.
So far so good, though it should be remembered that among the first couples she describes were the vice president of the school board, Tom Ammiano, a longtime activist (and presently member of the California State Assembly), and his partner Mike Curbo. She continues:

Most of the people who descended these steps never have gone and never will go into the streets. They have never used and never will use the word "queer," or confront the Traditional Values Coalition or a President Bush who called them immoral and unfit to parent. They are our silent majority, and it was only in this way, only to express their love for each other, that they would perform such a public act [113].
This sentimentalizing of quietism and the closet rubs me the wrong way, and I know Burke knows better. I think more of these people should have gone into the streets, should have confronted the Traditional Values Coalition and George Bush. (Whether they call themselves "queer" or not doesn't matter to me.) Maybe they should have realized that by formally declaring their couplehood in public like this, they were doing essentially the same thing that Queer Nation was doing, to the equal fury of religious bigots. If they thought they were somehow different from the crazy radicals with their buttons and slogans, the Traditional Values Coalition would have set them straight on that point in a second.

Here's a 2006 TV interview with Gilbert Baker, the Pink Jesus of Family Values. It's interesting to remember that this (mostly) mild-looking fellow is the same person who shocked gays and straights alike with his street theater during the Queer Nation years. (You can almost see smoke pouring from his ears, though, as he listens to a bigoted Christian caller toward the end of the clip.)

Oh, and there's Burke's humor. While Cheryl was pregnant with Jesse, Burke was office manager at a law firm, one of whose owners was "the quintessential good old boy."
When I agreed to manage the office, the outgoing manager sidled up to me by the coffee machine and whispered, "Don't ever hire any gays, because Mr. O. hates them."

"Right," I said.

After about a year, unbeknownst to Mr. O., I had surrounded him with lesbians who were extraordinarily well paid. I did bring one identifiably gay male secretary into the office for a short period of time. Mr. O. came up to me and said, "If you want to hire a gay, go ahead. But you tell him I'm gonna call him names like 'fruit' if he stays here." Mr. O., who was rather plump, would stomp through the office, past this man's desk. As Mr. O. left the room, the gay man, who had a wonderful sense of humor, would look at me and gush, "I do love fatties!"

I drew the line with Mr. O. when he started making faggots-dying-of-AIDS jokes. In a fairly flat tone of voice, I told him that I had just lost a dear friend to AIDS, and I would appreciate it if he saved his humor for the Olympic Club.

When I announced to Mr. O. that Cheryl was pregnant and that she and I would raise the baby together, there was nothing in his mind to accomodate that thought. I could certainly not be a lesbian, as I did not have a mustache and I was Irish. [21-22]
So, Phyllis Burke, wherever you are, thank you for Family Values. And I urge all my readers to find a copy and read it, if you haven't already.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

American Exceptionalism Rears Its Head Again

I’ve been going through one of those phases where the prospect of sitting down (or standing up) to write is somehow unsettling. As some writer once said, “Writing? There’s nothing to it! You just sit down in front of a typewriter and open a vein.”

At first I thought I’d remembered this one wrong, but I think I like my version better than Gene Fowler’s “Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” And now, reading further through The Writer’s Quotation Book (ed. James Charlton, Penguin Books 1981), I see that Red Smith wrote the one I remembered. The trouble with mining one’s veins, as any needle-user knows, is that after a while your arm gets to be so worked-over that you can’t find a usable blood vessel anymore. Fortunately, the mind heals better than an arm. In the end, though, I agree with Peter De Vries: “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.”

Anyway! Probably what has bothered me most recently has been Obama’s speech on education to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. As Whatever It Is I'm Against It (who has an unerring ear for pomposity in Presidential pronouncements, honed over three administrations) pointed out,
“I think you’d all agree that the time for finger-pointing is over,” he said, in what sounds like an exercise in finger-pointing if ever I heard one.
Obama didn't stop pointing his finger there. The speech is laden with traditional bipartisan attacks on American schools and students. “Let me give you a few statistics. In 8th grade math, we’ve fallen to 9th place. Singapore’s middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one.” Gerald Bracey offered some corrections to Obama's statistics at the Huffington Post: "The reference here has to be to the most recent TIMSS which tested in 45 nations. But in the original TIMSS from 1995, published in 1996, U S 8th graders ranked 23rd in math among 41 nations. If that's falling, let's go down some more, fast." (Be skeptical when Obama proclaims that he's raising chocolate rations from 30 grams a week to 20.)

Obama declared that our academic "calendar may have once made sense, but today it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children -- listen to this -- our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea -- every year. That's no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy." One could also question whether the Korean academic calendar works all that well, since the Korean economy is tanking rapidly. President Lee Myung-bak promised to raise per capita income in Korea to $40,000 a year by 2012, but it appears that in 2009 it will drop below $15,000, from a 2007 high of $20,000. Of course, the fault in Korea, as in the US, lies less with its schools than with its corrupt and rapacious elites. So, President Obama, if a longer school year is good preparation for a 21st century economy, why is South Korea in trouble?

The President also called, again, for merit pay for teachers, pointing his finger at Democrats who resist "rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom." Do we? Given his general factual inaccuracy, I wouldn't take Obama's word for it. Alfie Kohn has given good reasons to doubt the value of merit pay, not just in teaching but in any job.

I realize I'm not being entirely fair here. Obama was addressing a room full of businessmen, who eat this kind of crap (competitiveness! 21st century! reward achievement! partisan bickering! entrepreneurship!) up with a spoon, so maybe he was simply pandering to his audience. Indeed, contrary to his claim that "for decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline," Obama was repeating the same propaganda that bipartisan Washington has been grinding out all along.

What most annoyed me about the speech, perhaps unreasonably, was this bit:
So let there be no doubt: The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens -- and my fellow Americans, we have everything we need to be that nation.
It is surely unfair to take this bit of speechifying gasbaggery literally. Again, Obama was pandering to his audience with the sort of America-Is-Number-One cheerleading that every politician indulges in. If it had no real-world consequences, it could safely be brushed aside. I'm sure that if someone were to corner Obama and ask him if he really thinks that only one nation owns the future, and that other countries are fit only to be our footstool, he would backtrack immediately and insist that he is willing to share the future with the rest of the world. He might well offer the same old saw my less-ambivalent Obama-supporter friend invoked when we were talking about this on the phone today: A rising tide lifts all boats. Even if this were true, it would be at odds with Obama's line about America owning the future. My point is that the future belongs to everyone: every country has to feed and house and educate and protect the health of its citizens, and construct an economy that will generate enough jobs and wealth to allow them to support themselves and their families. To think of one country sucking the whole future into its maw like Jabba the Hut is batty at best. Unfortunately, many Americans are just that batty, and President Obama is nothing if not an American.

Alfie Kohn noticed this syndrome too:
You may have noticed the connection between this conception of education and the practice of continually ranking students on the basis of their scores on standardized tests. This is a promising start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Twenty-second-century schooling means that just about everything should be evaluated in terms of who’s beating whom. Thus, newspapers might feature headlines like: “U.S. Schools Now in 4th Place in Number of Hall Monitors” or “Gates Funds $50-Billion Effort to Manufacture World-Class Cafeteria Trays.” Whatever the criterion, our challenge is to make sure that people who don’t live in the United States will always be inferior to us.
Before I close this rant, I want to mention another attack on American education by another beloved faux-liberal figure, Garrison Keillor. In a syndicated column that appeared at Salon last year, the folksy Keillor attacked his fellow Democrats and the "perfectly nice, caring, sharing people, with a smattering of yoga/raga/tofu/mojo/mantra folks like my old confreres" who, Keillor says, run the schools (but not the Department of Education, he should have noted) for not giving children the Gift of Reading.
Reading is the key to everything. Teaching children to read is a fundamental moral obligation of the society. That 27 percent are at serious risk of crippling illiteracy is an outrageous scandal.
I agree completely, as far as this goes. I am the Promiscuous Reader, after all, though not so indiscriminate that I read Keillor often -- a boy has to have some standards. You have to draw the line somewhere. The trouble is that Keillor is here advocating something called the Reading First Program, which he claims all his nice, liberal tree-hugging confreres reject simply and only because George Bush supported it, even though it works. "It is morally disgusting if Democrats throw out Republican programs that are good for children." The trouble is, Reading First doesn't work, and the program became involved in some nasty conflict-of-interest scandals besides -- a major reason why the nasty ol' Democrats cut its funding.

So there you are. It isn't, as far as I can tell, the schools which are responsible for the Dumbing Down of America; it seems to be moving among government elites and writing New York Times best sellers that rot the mind.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Poetry Friday - A potter shaped this little pitcher so

A potter shaped this little pitcher so.
Who knows what name in what tongue it was called,
what potions or libations it has held --
the potter may have known. We do not know.
The Holy Grail was made by human hands:
unknown, unknowing hands that never guessed
how their produce would seed crusade and quest.
Between the maker and the made the bonds
are short-lived: delicate and quickly frayed,
then cut. Then down the timestream floats the ware,
to new adventures -- talismans employed
as paperweights, and even timely fore-
casts of apocalypse become a guide
for day-to-day existence evermore.

July 1977
November 1977

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Sentimental Education

The video of Amy Goodman's interview with economist Ha-joon Chang is worth watching. Having read Chang's Kicking Away the Ladder and Bad Samaritans, I was curious to see him speak. But the site provides links to the audio alone, as well as a transcript of the interview.

Asked about President Obama's defense of his "recovery package" last Friday in Columbus, Ohio, Chang commented:
I agree with this sentiment, but the people he put in charge of the economy, like Paul Volcker and Larry Summers, I mean, these are people who actually created this problem. You know, Volcker is, if you like, the godfather of monetarism in this country. And Larry Summers, when he was at the World Bank as the chief economist and then when he was at the Treasury later, I mean, was going around the world preaching to other countries that they have to deregulate their financial market, open up their borders to the American and other rich country financial flows. Now, what they are doing now isn’t what they were doing before, but if they have started believing in something else, they should come clean and apologize, don’t you think? I mean, because these are the people, with others, who created these problems.
Chang pointed out the effectiveness of nationalization in developed countries around the world, and argued that America should "play by the capitalist logic. If the taxpayers are paying the money, you have to nationalize them. You know, I mean, the whole problem, people say, is that all these bankers were playing with other people’s money. So now, I mean, that they are being paid by the taxpayers, it is only right that the taxpayers control these companies. If they don’t want this money and they don’t want to be nationalized, they should go bankrupt."
Well, basically, the myth is that America has been founded on the free market; the government has done very little; it has thrived under free trade. But actually, if you look at the history, this is actually the country that has succeeded most with protectionist policies. This is a country which has huge industrial policy, only that it’s called research funding in defense industry and research funding in health research. It actually spends, in proportional terms, a lot more money than Japan or European countries in supporting research and development, thereby steering the industries into certain directions. So let’s put it this way. I mean, this country has to basically come to terms with what it has done. I mean, it has been haunted by this ideology that, “Oh, we never did anything other than free market and free trade.” It’s time to give that up.
Despite Obama's call in his inaugural sermon for Americans to "give up childish things," the myth of free markets and free trade is one childish thing you'd have to pry from his cold, dead fingers. Toward the end of the interview, Chang mentioned the Marshall Plan, and it occurred to me that the Marshall Plan (whose official name is the Economic Recovery Act of 1948) is often brought up by people who want to prove the benevolence of the US. That can be debated, apparently, but it was also a massive government intervention in the international economy, of exactly the kind that Obama is making now. It would be interesting to ask conservatives who oppose Obama's stimulus plan as "socialism" what they think about the Marshall Plan.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Who Watches the Watchmen?

I still don't know whether I'll see Watchmen in a theatre. A friend pressed the original book on me back in the mid-90s when it first appeared, and I didn't think much of it. In retrospect I'm not sure I even read the whole thing. I'm not a snob about comics -- I grew up reading them, and was a big childhood fan of Superman, Green Lantern, the Flash; but being the sissy I was, I also liked Little Lulu, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Disney comics, Archie and his spinoffs, and Classics Illustrated -- the Promiscuous Reader even then. But I didn't make the DC-to-Marvel transition that many comics readers -- boys at least -- made in the 60s. Marvel comics never have worked for me. I welcomed the rise of underground comics, and later the much-hyped "serious" works like Maus. So why didn't I like Watchmen? Probably because the idea of flawed, conflicted superheroes had already been done by Marvel, and Watchmen had nothing to add to it that I could see. I did like V for Vendetta, though, quite a lot. Call me a comics reader, not a fan.

So I didn't share the interest that news about a Watchmen movie aroused in many. (After all, many people also got excited about the news of a Transformers movie, expressing exactly the same reservations that They would ruin a great work of art that had shaped the fans' lives from childhood.) When it became clear that the movie would be released, I checked out the book from the library and read it again. This time I liked it rather better, but still thought it was mediocre.

One bit of data caught my attention in the rising hype, though: the question of Dr. Manhattan's penis. For those who don't know, Dr. Manhattan is a character in Watchmen who was transformed by a nuclear accident into a brilliant blue muscleman -- a sort of amalgam of Dr. Solar, Mr. Spock, and the Smurfs. Since he is pure intellect, increasingly alienated from human concerns, he generally doesn't bother wearing clothes. So the filmmakers had to decide whether they'd be True To The Book in this detail. To their credit, I guess, they chose fidelity to the text.

In my local Borders I found a new coffeetable book, Watchmen: the art of the film by Peter Aperlo. Browsing through it, I noticed that except for one photo, all the pictures of Dr. Manhattan showed him wearing superhero briefs, in a color matching his total blueness. (A similar posing strap has been added to this trailer, which makes sense for something aimed at a general audience; but why such bowdlerization in an expensive book ($40 list) that isn't aimed at children?

After Watchmen was released last weekend, I began reading reports of young males in theaters reacting with fits of giggling to the sight of Billy Crudup's (reportedly CGI-enhanced) blue penis. Of course that's just to be expected. It surprised me a bit more when a reviewer complained: "Speaking of distractions, it was difficult to ignore Doctor Manhattan's big blue penis, dangling like a participle with no tomorrow." So did several commenters to that review. "Three hours of staring at a blue man's penis bouncing all around was not what i was less than thrilling for me," wrote one, less than fully coherently. Another agreed: "Why is there a big blue dong throughout this movie......not cool. Besides the fact that I had to stare at some dudes pecker for however long the movie wasn't all that great. Deff NOT as action packed as I would have expected/wanted." In this context, "action packed" probably means "More violence, dewd!" But from what I hear, the film is pretty violent already.

[P.S. After seeing the film, I can report that Dr. Manhattan's penis is onscreen for only a few minutes out of more than two hours' runtime. So where did these people get "a big blue dong throughout this movie" and "three hours of staring at a blue man's penis"? Out of their personal neuroses, I guess.]

I happened to be at the Cinematical site to look for an article there that I'd stumbled on some months ago, about gender differences in reactions to frontal male nudity in films. The consensus was that males are more uncomfortable seeing male nudity in films, and the reactions were interesting.
The sight of naked men [on a TV screen] sent my male cousin running for the other room, gagging -- whereas his sister shrugged off the bare flesh and set to work trying to block the stuff. And I'm now realizing all that throat clearing and awkward squirming I heard around me during Eastern Promises wasn't because Viggo Mortensen's back was being sliced open (which is what made me wince) -- it was because his manly bits were visible.
"Gagging"? What does that cousin do when he takes a shower, or pees? Does he avoid looking at himself? (I've read that in the good old days, Catholic girls in convent schools had to wear a garment when bathing, lest they see their own bodies.) A couple of male commenters opined on the general ugliness and "grossness" of male genitals, including their own. Another wrote, "Actually, I heard about a brain scan study done that said that male brain has similar reactions (in terms of brain activity) to being exposed to gay pornography as it does to seeing someone's own parents having sex." Someone else asked how the (probably apocryphal) researchers had obtained pictures of the subjects' parents having sex to show to them, but 1) again, the subject under discussion was primarily male nudity in commercial entertainment, like Forgetting Sarah Marshall; and 2) who does this guy think watches "gay pornogaphy," if not males, with "male brains"?

Granted, seeing something on a screen is not the same as seeing it in real life, but the males who commented on this article tended to mix up the two: one spoke of seeing his roommate naked from the shower by accident, for example, which was "awkward", though he allowed that "I think it'd be awkward if I walked in on anybody (other than a girlfriend/wife in my situation) naked in person." Yes, but a roommate? This reminds me that American men generally seem to have become more shy about being seen naked by other men, in locker rooms and communal showers, than they were when I was growing up. It's as if in America, nudity has become all about, and only about, sex. But now that I think of it, I guess it has.

Of course, this is partly an American hangup, since movies made in Europe have long been much more casual about showing the penis, and not necessarily just for sexiness. Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, for example, made in 1973 as a miniseries for Swedish TV, showed a dumpy, middle-aged Erland Josephson undressing for bed. Once I became aware of this, I noticed how carefully male actors in Hollywood films are positioned, when shown naked from the rear or side, to ensure that there's no hint of penis.

Hmmmm. Maybe I will go to see Watchmen in a theatre, just to observe other people's reactions to Doctor Manhattan's blue weenie.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth

Okay, so the Right is having a fairly good time these days. A week ago there were "Boston Tea Party" demonstrations around the country, (via) drawing literally dozens of patriotic Americans who sought to sound the alarm about Barack Hussein Obama's plan to turn America into a Socialist Worker's Paradise and Islamoterrorist Shooting Gallery. These drew gales of righteous laughter from the liberal and left blogosphere, and for what it's worth, the laughter was well-deserved. The protestors were clearly not just ignorant but wilfully misinformed, parroting talking points from the right-wing propaganda mills. "No taxation without representation" is one of the funnier ones. (Eye-candy above from Roy Edroso's coverage of the New York Tea Party.)

The hubris of naming their peaceful little rallies after a well-known act not just of civil disobedience but of major property damage may have something to do with these folks' acceptance of the established American view that all nonviolent public protest is violent rioting: therefore, they could imagine that by carrying signs and listening to speeches, they were engaged in armed insurrection, just like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin! (Thug violence against peaceful protesters is another matter, of course: that's self-defense by decent Americans upholding their way of life.) When I heard about these forthcoming anti-Obama protests, I entertained fantasies of their being greeted with yells of "Faggots!", "Get a job!", "Take a bath!", or "Go back to Russia!" -- this last, now that post-Soviet Russia has become a capitalists' paradise, would be as relevant as ever. But apparently the worst the Teabaggers had to face at their rallies was boredom, and disappointment that their vast numbers and moral force didn't impel Obama to resign on the spot.
I guess I expected to be more fired up by the crowd and the speakers. I don’t think it was that the crowd was small or that the politicians who took the mikes weren’t sincere, but I think I am becoming cynical, because the party for which I have voted has rolled over and played dead, even when they were in control. Although the Republicans rejected the stimulus package overwhelmingly, I really hoped to see some Korean Parliament-style outrage at its passing. I hoped a senator or two would at least jump over a seat with his fists flying in a fury over our country sliding so rapidly into socialism.

But there was no outrage. Just a lady with a sign wondering along with me.

"No outrage"?! What about those thousands of Real Americans who took to the streets, like the patriots of old, to get in Obama's face and warn their fellow citizens of his totalitarian plans to enslave them with socialist oppression?

The blogger's reference to "Korean Parliament-style outrage" is generous, considering that it was the liberal opposition party in South Korea that got outraged against the right-wing
ruling party for trying to drive through legislation they didn't like. (As opposed to the US, where Obama actively courted the opposition party's cooperation with his program.) No doubt she confuses the very popular Obama with the still very unpopular Korean President Lee Myung-bak, whose approval figures have been as low as Bush's for some time now. (Incidentally, the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea is a former Peace Corps volunteer who actually knows some Korean, obviously a paid agent of Kim Jong-il.)

Another rightblogger crows that Obama has "brought us together. Joe the Plumbers, Santelli & the traders and Sue the entrepreneur going 'John Galt' are embracing a hippie anthem", namely Woody Guthrie's Old-Left anthem "This Land Is Your Land." Our Ms. Brooks quotes one line, "And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin' if this land's still made for you and me." Of course, she conveniently ignores the Depression-era context of that line:
In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.
I've seen several anti-Obama commenters talking about food lines and relief offices as if they were imposed on the people by the will of the socialist State (apparently forcing them to eat government-issue cheese instead paying for quality at MacDonald's?), instead of necessities forced on them by the failure (or more exactly, the disinclination) of capitalist institutions to provide for most people. One commenter at alicublog prophesied, "Have fun standing in bread lines and bleeding out in the over worked over crowded emergency room!" to the cyber-assembled liberals -- as though increasing numbers of Americans hadn't already been standing in bread lines and and overcrowded emergency rooms during the Bush years.

(Photo from here via TBogg. No cell phones for these guys! They had better quality poor people in those days.)

Brooks also ignores the now-notorious verse from "This Land Is Your Land" in which the singer tells of ignoring a "No Trespassing" sign on a wall: "But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!" But who listens to song lyrics, really? (The shocking thing is that she got these Communist-Socialist lyrics from an unofficial Scouting site, which she mistakes for "the Girl Scouts.")

But this sort of memory and thought control is a very American thing. If Republicans have wiped from their minds the Bush administration's responsibility for the current economic situation, Democrats have sent Bill Clinton's policies (which were essentially Reaganite, from NAFTA to welfare "reform") down the memory hole. At his CPAC apotheosis last week, Rush Limbaugh declared that
We love and revere our founding documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. [Applause] We believe that the preamble to the Constitution contains an inarguable truth that we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life. [Applause] Liberty, Freedom. [Applause] And the pursuit of happiness. [Applause]
As IOZ delicately pointed out, those inalienable rights are invoked by the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. Details, details. The thing is, I've often had to correct liberals on the same point. A similar amnesia turns up in discourse about Obama's tax policy. The die-hard Republicans are quite hysterical about the prospect of a 40 percent marginal tax rate, which they regard as the lodestar of socialism. Do they really not know that the top marginal rate was never lower than 50 percent from 1932 until 1987, when it was lowered to 38.5? Though even a circumspect libertarian like Will Wilkinson allows that "it’s a bit hard to see tax rates somewhat exceeding the Clinton era’s as a move over some inflection point from the tolerable to the completely outrageous", he frets that under Obama "our money, which might otherwise have gone to capitalize real innovation, will be confiscated in order to finance government directed 'investment' instead." The possibility of a return to, say, the Eisenhower era is obviously not a threat, or even imagined.

Which brings me to the other reason the Right is feeling flush: Limbaugh's ascendancy as a force in the Republican Party, to the point that he's been able to exact submission from senior Republicans who withheld obeisance. There's been some dispute in the liberal blogosphere about how much the Obama administration is exploiting, even fostering this perception. I'd rather dwell on the fact that Limbaugh's celebrity is nothing new. Driftglass, which has some nice discussion here and here, also shares this video clip and Washington Post article from 1994, when the Republicans, having taken control of Congress, thanked Limbaugh for his services and leadership. In the video you can see Limbaugh pronouncing the final defeat of liberalism: every college should have one liberal and one communist professor, he declares, living fossils who will remind students of what they tried to do to America.

This Nostradamus-like prediction should, I think, be borne in mind now as liberal pundits celebrate the end of the conservative movement. Just on general principles, this is never a good idea. The arch-reactionaries who now define conservatism in the U.S. were supposedly defeated for good when Barry Goldwater was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential elections -- but sixteen years later Ronald Reagan proved those claims premature. Yes, the Republicans are in serious disarray now, which suits me just fine, but I don't think that Obama is in office, or that the Democrats now control Congress, because the Democrats or his center-right policies are superior to the Republicans' -- it's because the Republicans screwed up the economy so spectacularly. (I say "the economy" because in foreign policy Obama clearly intends to continue screwing things up as Bush did.) The Dems now have a chance to do better, and I hope their timid approach is enough to right the damage that the Republicans inflicted (with Democratic collaboration), because it doesn't take long for the voters to become disgusted with Democratic ineptitude. In particular, Obama is going to have to stand up to the banking system, but so far he only seems to be interested in throwing more money at it. Clinton was elected in 1992 because of Americans' disillusionment with Reaganomics, and he lost his mandate in just two years.

As I said, liberals have jeered at the right's paltry showing in their tea parties, and it's been entertaining to watch the indignant right-wing response to the jeers: Big trees from little acorns grow! There may be just a few of us now, but there will be more! One, two, many Pinochets! ... And after all, the Civil Rights movement, the opposition to the Vietnam war, the women's movement, the gay movement all started with little bands of nutty extremists. The same is true of the conservative movement William Buckley Jr. built, which ultimately took over this country for three decades. So, for that matter, did Christianity, which is a reminder that, contrary to what one commenter argued at the Village Voice, it is not necessary to have realistic or coherent ideas to build a frighteningly successful movement. Irrationality can be a strength. And forty-seven percent of the electorate voted against Obama last November; they lost the election, but they are not a negligible part of the population.

I don't think that the Teabaggers constitute a movement in ovo, not really. But they're also not just a few voices crying in the wilderness -- they have corporate-media allies apart from Limbaugh, and if Obama does put too much pressure on the corporate sector generally, it will be happy to fund and support any opposition it can find. That is not true of the anti-corporate movement, which really does need moral capital and good ideas. What I'm saying is that Democratic/liberal triumphalism is as unattractive, and as short-sighted, as Republican/reactionary triumphalism. Remember Limbaugh gloating in 1994. Complacency is not a luxury the left can afford.