Friday, July 31, 2009

A Mad Tea Party

Photo from Whatever It Is, I'm Against It, who added a link to this leaked, top-secret, eyes-only transcript of the foursome's conversation. It's a pretty good effort, which I expect to see quoted by the clueless, but one giveaway (as well as the chief weakness of the satire) is that it makes Obama seem a lot smarter than he is.
For fuck’s sake, Henry, do you know how far this ridiculous incident has set me back? A month ago Americans were still patting themselves on the back and saying, “Can you believe we elected a black guy as president?” Now they’re pissing their pants in fear and saying, “Can you believe we elected a black guy as president?” I should be out there making the case for hea[l]th care and urging patience on the economy. Instead you’ve turned me into some horrible combination of Al Sharpton and Oprah fucking Winfrey.
"Making the case for health care"? I think virtually all Americans know the case for health care, and almost as many know the case for health care reform. (Some probably even know the case for heath care.) But what Obama is stumping for isn't health care reform; right now it looks like he hopes to convince the American people that "single payer" means "subsidizing the HMOs."

Poetry Friday - Circus


Come one and all, to witness the renowned
and shocking marriage torture, set by mandate,
in which two people let themselves be bound
together for as long as they can stand it.

Observe behind the female player's veil
her staring eyes, her strained and wooden smile;
observe likewise the trembling of the male
participant as she comes down the aisle.

And now all eyes are on the referee,
who cautions one and all before the bout:
The time is now, before this company,
to speak if any one feels any doubt.

And now the gathered crowd draws in its breath.
Will there be blood? For this one's to the death.

1 June 1979
25 June 1979

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Coming Up Snake Eyes

I'm currently rereading two books: Fred L. Pincus's Reverse Discrimination: Dismantling the Myth (Boulder: Rienner, 2003), and Mary Midgley's Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and its Meaning (Routledge, 1992). Midgley is an interesting character, and though I have some disagreements with her she's one of my favorite living philosophers. She has the distinction, minor though significant, of having hurt Richard Dawkins's feelings in what Dawkins called a "highly intemperate and vicious paper", and I'd love her if she'd never done anything but goad that pot into calling the kettle black. Besides that, and more important, I've learned a lot from her, and I hope I'll be as lucid at 90 as she is.

Anyway. On page 14 of Science as Salvation Midgley quoted C. S. Lewis (from Christian Reflections, page 89):
We find that matter always obeys the same laws which our logic obeys ... No one can suppose that this can be due to a happy coincidence. A great many people think that it is due to the fact that Nature produces the mind. But on the assumption that Nature is herself mindless, this provides no explanation. To be the result of a series of mindless events is one thing; to be a kind of plan or true account of the laws according to which these mindless events happen is quite another ...

Unless all that we take to be knowledge is an illusion, we must hold that in thinking we are not reading rationality into an irrational universe, but responding to a rationality with which the universe has always been saturated.
I think Lewis has it backwards here: why not say that logic obeys the same laws matter does?  Lewis seems to be falling prey to the Shabby Friar fallacy, where one marvels that the Lord has so arranged things that rivers flow past the larger towns.  He also conveniently ignores traditional Christian polemic against logic, "the Devil's bride, Reason, that pretty whore" as Martin Luther called it.

Earlier, on page 12, Midgley had repeated a famous anecdote about Albert Einstein's resistance to the indeterminacy of quantum theory:
Disturbed by the implication of real disorder in Bohr's interpretation of quantum mechanics, Einstein said, 'God does not play dice'. Bohr replied, 'Einstein, stop telling God what to do.'
Midgley says that those who tell this story "seldom offer a carefully secular paraphrase to show just what [Bohr] had established, nor do they explain why this language struck these great men as so well fitted for their purpose." What occurred to me as I read it, and again when I turned the page to read Lewis's remarks about a rational universe, was that this was the only time I've encountered Bohr's rejoinder to Einstein's quip. Probably I just hadn't been paying enough attention. (In Rebecca Goldstein's philosophical novel The Mind-Body Problem [Penguin reprint, 1993], the narrator says that later in life, Einstein conceded, "Who knows, maybe He is a little malicious" [225-6].)

Einstein's position was circular: he didn't believe that God played dice with the universe because his concept of God, like that of the heretical seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, was deterministic, and he held "that a person's actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star. 'Human beings in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free but are as causally bound as the stars in their motions,' Einstein declared in a statement to a Spinoza Society in 1932." He rejected the notion of a personal "deity who could meddle at whim in the events of his creation. ... Scientists aim to uncover the immutable laws that govern reality, and in doing so they must reject the notion that divine will, or for that matter human will, plays a role that would violate this cosmic causality." But this was Einstein's conviction, one that he shared with many other scientists, not the result of his scientific work but a preconception he brought to it. It looks like C. S. Lewis, who thought of matter obeying "the same laws which our logic obeys", agreed with Einstein on this issue.

On the other hand, I can see that for many people, theist and non-theist alike, an impersonal universe is too disturbing to face. Later in Science and Salvation, Midgley notes that for some scientists "the prospect of an eventual end to human life, however distant, is so awful as to deprive life now of all meaning. And the belief that some kind of post-human being, somehow produced by us, will in some sense survive seems to [them] enough to render it meaningful again" (21). Which reminds me of Wittgenstein's rhetorical question about 'eternal life' in the Tractatus (6.3412), "[I]s some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life?" I've noticed that quite a number of science fans believe, against all likelihood, that the human race will survive until the Heat Death of the universe, which is not expected for a few billion years yet, and are eager for us to migrate throughout the universe to make sure that the human race won't die out when we blow up this planet. (As though we wouldn't do the same to the new places we moved to.)

A good many people look to belief in God for stability in the world, to give them absolutes, to give them a reliable ground for their values and other beliefs. Such people seem to think that if there's no god, the universe is chaos. "If there is no God, then everything is permitted!" Dostoevsky warned in The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe so, but you'd never conclude that from looking at how people, including Christians, imagine their gods. (I've argued that if God exists, just about everything is permitted.) Maybe God does play dice with the world; Christians and Jews attribute a great deal of not just irrationality, but outright capriciousness to their god. God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform, etc. -- there's a rich vein of proverbial lore about how irrational God is, and I don't find that comforting.

In his book Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Harper, 1958), for example, the philosopher Walter Kaufmann retold a rabbinical parable in which God shows Moses a vision of the second-century rabbi Akiba, who was martyred by the Romans. Akiba interprets the Torah so wonderfully that Moses marvels, "Lord of the world, you have such a man and yet you gave the Torah through me?" "Be still," God replies, "that is how it entered my mind." Moses asks God to show him Akiba's reward for knowing the Torah so well, and God shows him Akiba's horrible death. Shocked, Moses protests: "This is the Torah, and this is its reward?" "Be still," God replies, "that is how it entered my mind." (Notice that in this story God does not reply that Akiba's martyrdom wasn't his fault, that he couldn't interfere with anybody's free will, that he suffered along with [and even more than] Akiba -- he declares that it was his whimsical doing.)

Worse yet, mythology about every god I've ever heard of depicts them as erratic, vengeful, malignant -- Yahweh as abusive husband, for example, in the Hebrew Bible, or as abusive father in the New Testament. And who knows? Maybe this is the true state of the world. My point is that a personal God, like the god of Judaism and Christianity, gives no warrant for a secure, stable, rational world. I think his existence would make the world no less frightening than his non-existence would. If the universe is orderly, it doesn't need a god to run it; if it's chaotic, I'm not reassured that it entered Someone's mind to make it that way. When I consider the images of divine beings that human beings have created, or the distant scientific futures they've imagined, I wonder what kind of "meaning" they're looking for.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Like a Horse and Carriage

Counterpunch had an article on same-sex marriage the other day, by an Episcopal clergyman named Raymond J. Lawrence. Lawrence announced that "the Bishops of the Episcopal Church have finally granted permission for blessings of homosexual relationships, and also of homosexual marriages in those states where such marriage is permitted legally." I found the latter development more interesting, because it apparently puts same-sex and mixed marriages on an equal footing, instead of the union ceremonies some churches have foisted on same-sex couples. I've argued before that same-sex couples who want to can and should have wedding ceremonies even where civil marriage isn't available to them, just to highlight the difference between civil and religious marriage. Maybe they could enlist the Church's help in doing this; but that's not what caught my attention about Lawrence's article.

"There's a catch," he warned, to this new Episcopalian openness:

Contingent on the ecclesiastical blessing is the requirement of those receiving the blessing to commit to a life-long, sexually exclusive relationship. The Church is imposing on homosexuals the same burden it places on heterosexuals. The Bishops could hardly do otherwise unless they rethink their entire approach to sex. They could not grant more sexual freedom to homosexuals than they grant to heterosexuals. Thus they have now decided to impose the same medieval burden on both: sexual relationships limited to one exclusive relationship for life. This is an instance of the proverbial new wine poured into old wineskins. It’s as if the leadership of the Church has not read any of the recent scholarship on the ethics of sex and marriage.

In spite of the fantasies of the Bishops, the old Christian medieval dream is gone for good and will not return. The traditional Christian doctrine of sex and marriage has more holes than Swiss cheese. Premarital virginity and lifelong sexually exclusive relationships have gone the way of the abacus. A bride decked out in white symbolizing her virginity, processing down the aisle to be joined to her husband, after which they will have their first sexual experience, and forever after cleave only unto each other, is so anachronistic as to be funny.

I find this ironic. Pouring new wine into old wineskins is exactly what the same-sex marriage movement is all about, as far as I can tell. Despite the movement's official focus on secular civil marriage, many of its spokespeople, pundits, and hangers-on make it clear that they have fantasies much like those of the Episcopal episcopate. This blogger, for example, whose well-received fantasia on love and marriage I've quoted before:
The campaigns against gay marriage reason that gays already possess civil rights, that we may procure civil unions. (When in history has love been civil?) And so we are relegated to using the technical term, Partner. It is a word with business connotations, and not romantic, certainly not spiritual inference. Husband. Wife. These are words we gay men and women long for because they signify the validity of choice: they are garlands of a ceremony in the interest of a sacred pursuit; they validate and defend a deep intimacy in the public realm; they are shield and banner.
Obviously the Bishops aren't the only people who haven't read the recent (and not-so-recent) scholarship on the ethics of sex and marriage. Lawrence mentions the not-so-recent theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), who he says "urged the churches to get out of the marriage business altogether and leave it to the civil authorities," but Mark Jordan's Blessing Same-Sex Unions (University of Chicago Press, 2005), despite my atheist disagreements with his standpoint, would be a good place to begin for those interested.

I think it's significant that Lawrence repeatedly refers to monogamous marriage as "medieval," which I think is at least partly an attempt to avoid dealing with some basic facts. He claims that "the biblical texts fail [to] support the medieval dream of an exclusivist lifelong monogamy," but this is over-simple to put it nicely. Sure, the Hebrew Bible doesn't expect males to have only one (female, of course) sexual partner during their lives, but it holds women to stricter standards. The New Testament is a different story, with both Jesus and Paul not only demanding monogamy for both sexes but seeing any kind of erotic life as incompatible with true devotion to God. (To paraphrase an old joke about Unitarians, Jesus and Paul taught that a person should have at most one spouse.) Christianity rejected the polygyny that Judaism had regarded as normal, not for moral reasons but in order to conform with Roman custom, and many early Christians went further, choosing to reject marriage altogether. Lawrence thinks that the church should adapt to human sexual needs, which is reasonable enough, but Christianity was never a reasonable faith. Rather than promising fulfilment of the flesh, Christianity offered and demanded its purification. That probably is "anachronistic," another word Lawrence likes, but so is exhanging any kind of vows in front of a clergyman.

Lawrence continues,
When I was a young Episcopal cleric just out of seminary, the older priest whom I assisted once blessed a newly constructed highway overpass at an opening ceremony in Newport News, Virginia. He did not even inspect the overpass to see if it were well built. He wasn’t competent to make such an inspection. I thought at the time and still do that the blessing was a silly gesture, but it was what some people wanted. The point is that an Episcopal priest has traditionally been free to bless anything without approval from bishops and without close inspection of the value of the blessed object. They bless houses, animals, treasured objects, …and overpasses. Why, then, all the fuss about blessing sexual relationships? If a kangaroo and a silver medallion, why not a human relationship? The Church could bless homosexual relationships, heterosexual relationships, and an occasional ménage a trios [sic] if so requested. Certainly more deserving of a blessing than an overpass might be. The clergy need not inspect the integrity of any object of their blessing.
Indeed, why is a clergyman needed at all? Many laypeople bless the meals they are about to eat, dining without benefit of clergy. They could do the same with one-night stands, without any lack of seriousness. Doing so might be a reminder that all human contact can be significant, and even transitory relationships still involve human beings who deserve to be taken seriously.

If Christian gays want religious blessings for their marriages, though, why shouldn't they conform to the general standards of their cult? Some will no doubt go with current trends and revise wedding procedures to suit themselves, as many heterosexuals do, but it's clear that many same-sex couples want to be part of tradition, even when (like Raymond J. Lawrence) they're poorly informed about the vagaries of their traditions. Monogamy is probably more honored in the breach than in the observance, but that may just mean that same-sex couples will also participate in the ancient tradition of marital and sexual hypocrisy, where today's vows are stretched or ignored when it becomes convenient.

Monday, July 27, 2009

It All Could Have Been Prevented So Easily

(Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s cat? -- though, to my amazement, none of the commenters -- 89 so far -- drew the connection that I immediately did.)

Maybe I should just leave it at that? The fuss over the incident involving Gates and a Cambridge policeman who arrested him for disorderly conduct has been covered, like the waterfront, exhaustively, in the corporate media and the blogosphere. The blizzard of conflicting opinions, often presented as fact, gets boring after a while. Quite a few people insist that Gates was in the wrong for not presenting his ID when Sergeant James Crowley asked him to, even though Gates did present his ID on request; both men's accounts agree that far. These folks don't seem to be bothered that Crowley evidently refused to show Gates his badge when Gates, with equal propriety, demanded to see it. Quite a few casually assert that Gates behaved badly by yelling at Crowley (though Gates claims he had a bronchial infection that prevented him from yelling at anybody, even a policeman), and some will go so far as to declare that he should have been arrested for doing so, or at least had no reason to complain if he was arrested for doing so. This attitude can be used to excuse anything a policeman might do to anyone, up to and including anal rape with a broomstick or plunger handle, or riddling him/her with bullets. And indeed, many Americans are willing not merely to avert their gaze from such unfortunate incidents, mumbling about a few bad apples, but to applaud actively them with Catch-22 justifications. (You must have been doing something wrong, or you wouldn't have been arrested / beaten / tortured / shot.) One commenter on this article about Abner Louima complained about the $8 million settlement he received from the city and the police, paid for "by all tax paying New Yorkers-we didn’t harm Mr. Louima". Well, you can't have it both ways: either the police force is the responsibility of the people it protects, or it's a well-organized gang of armed men and women accountable to no one -- if the latter, then something needs to be done to curb it.

Gates apparently called Crowley a racist, and there's been the expectable hysteria over "the race card" by whites. It turns out that Crowley is a trainer in racial sensitivity, highly regarded by black and white colleagues alike, but then the white policeman who raped Abner Louima with a plunger handle had a black fiancee and was very concerned about racism in the world. Compared to the Louima case, the Gates case is small potatoes indeed. But does it matter, really? As IOZ has pointed out, American police have brutalized people of all colors, including whites, with multicultural gusto. If police brutality has become color-blind, I suppose it's as much a cause for celebration as having a President of African descent presiding over the violence of the American Empire: our victims are just as dead, maimed, and homeless as they are when the President is white.

To add to the fun, the novelist Ishmael Reed has an attack on Gates at Counterpunch today. Some of his charges may have weight, but I couldn't help noticing that Reed took special exception to Gates's currying favor with feminists and "Gays", all of whom he evidently assumes to be white -- at least, all of those who like Gates. He cites Marlon Riggs and Barbara Smith as witnesses to white gay racism, while allowing that "Undoubtedly, there are pockets of homophobia among blacks but not as much as that among other ethnic communities that I could cite." Oh, well, that's all right then! It's a bit late in the day for such tunnel vision.

President Obama has invited Gates and Crowley to the White House to meet him and discuss the case over beers. (What is it with Obama and beer? I wouldn't want to have a beer with him because I don't like beer; and whether we talked over alcohol or not, I'd have some hard questions to ask him.) Both men have agreed to the meeting, which I suppose is a good thing. But none of that, including the current media circus, should affect the investigation of the case.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Poetry Friday - This House of Words

This house of words is made of ink and air:
of ink on paper waiting to be read,
of air that breaks in waves against the ear.
It cannot hold a man of flesh and blood.

I change the layout, trying to make you fit.
You pass through walls, defying my designs,
defying me. I can't contain you yet.
I'm locked inside while I refine my plans.

This house of words is made of air and ink,
and in it dwell a you and I of words,
our voices hollow and our faces blank,
as near, as separate as index cards.

This house of words is made of empty space,
of understanding that surpasses peace.

4 May 1979
I've never been satisfied with this poem, the more so since I think the basic idea is a good one. Maybe someday the right words will come to me, and I'll dwell in the house of words forever.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Alcoholic Succession

Hey, Jon,

Wasn't it you who first introduced me to Spider Robinson's Callahan books? I'm pretty sure it was you, but it must be twenty years ago now. I also don't remember for sure if I'd already read any of Robinson's other books; I remember a glowing review of Stardance that I know led me to read that one.

But the early Callahan books did draw me in. It's a lovely fantasy, of a small tavern that attracts a misfit bunch of space and time travellers, run by a wise and solid publican. I was still young enough to want to find a place like that, where I'd belong, among my peers, watched over by an ideal father figure. Robinson's writing was light and clear, seemingly effortless; if he wasn't a new Heinlein, as he has often been called, he still seemed to have learned the right lessons from the Noble Engineer.

But something went awry over the years, as Robinson began taking his Heinlein association too seriously. In a tribute to Heinlein -- oh yeah, the title was "Rah Rah R.A.H.", wasn't it? -- I encountered Robinson's overwrought defense of the Great Man. As I remember it, he scored some points against Heinlein's less intelligent critics, but forgot that just because your opponents are wrong, it doesn't make you right. And by the time I read that, I'd noticed Robinson's own fiction starting to go soft. Still, as with Heinlein himself, I could read Robinson with pleasure even when his opinions annoyed me. And they did, they did -- the only thing I remember from the later books was the information was that Mike Callahan, the saloon's patriarch, would not tolerate anyone's referring to the Strategic Defense Initiative as "Star Wars."

By the time Callahan's Key appeared in 2000, even the storytelling had worn thin, and I missed the latest installment, Callahan's Con, when it was published in 2003. But I found a copy at the library book sale last weekend for $2 and thought, What the hell -- it won't take more than a couple of hours to read. Which it didn't, and they weren't unpleasant hours either. Robinson seems to have lost the US jingoism, which was always odd in a Canadian resident, albeit an American-born one. I suspect the accession of George W. Bush may have jolted him closer to reality again. The infamous puns were no more than a minor annoyance; I'm not constitutionally revolted by them, to each his own, yet they were tiresome, composed specifically to inspire groans, I thought. But I was zipping along too quickly to be bothered much. The characters are, as a Publisher's Weekly reviewer once noted, "collections of eccentricities rather than real people." The plot complications are obviously mechanical, and Robinson has to switch to the point-of-view of his villain for extended passages in order to keep things moving in sequence.

One thing really tripped me up, though, and that was the lapses in continuity. The least of these involves a parrot-sized toilet, fully functional, located behind the bar for the hyperintelligent parrot Harry to use. On page 106 Robinson describes it as though it were new to the narrative -- but he'd already introduced it on page 23. More serious: on page 91 we're told that "the gate Little Nuts had destroyed" had been repaired -- but it was actually destroyed by the novel's faux-baddie Bureaucrat, Field Inspector Ludnyola Czrjghnczl ("the accent is on the rjgh") on page 36. The narrator Jake Stonebender's daughter Erin has "long curly chestnut hair" on page 94, but on 141 it is suddenly blonde. On page 92 Jake's wife Zoey is frightened by the villain: "I could not blame her. This was her first encounter" with him -- but she was present, arguing with Jake and Erin, when "the man monster" first walked in on page 63. These don't affect the plot, such as it is, but I found them jarring. For a while I wondered if they were deliberate, maybe to suggest changes in space-time continua or something, but I can't see any rhyme or reason in them.

But hey, this is a fantasy novel after all, and the clearest sign of that is that it takes place in Key West, whither the saloon migrated from Long Island a few books back -- yet it's a Key West without any gay men in it. Until Robinson needs some (more?) comic relief, that is, and produces four gigantic drag queens from a van, just to scare the villain. It's now been six years since Spider Robinson entered the world of Callahan, and that is probably a good thing.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

That's Not the Way It Is, Actually

Walter Cronkite, the doyen of broadcast news anchormen, has died at the age of 92. The response has been predictable, from eulogy among liberals to vituperation on the farther right, conveniently summarized by Roy Edroso. You can also find denunciations of "Che" Cronkite the far-left "surrendercrat" in comments at the liberal sites. (I take it that the "-crat" in "surrendercrat" is meant to imply that Cronkite was a card-carrying Democrat, though in fact he wasn't -- according to the New York Times obit, he was so friendly with Dwight Eisenhower that John Kennedy, no liberal himself, took for granted that Cronkite must be a Republican.)

Me, I'm somewhere between these extremes. I was eleven years old in 1962, when Cronkite became the face of CBS Evening News. I think I remember when the program was expanded from fifteen minutes to half an hour each night. I barely remember the man himself, though; he was so bland, so white-bread, that he was virtually invisible, which I suppose was his intention: to be "balanced," "objective," as a newsman should. His closing line for each broadcast, "That's the way it is," summed up that ethos neatly. Eric Sevareid, the program's resident pundit from 1964 to 1977, was more memorable, just because he was so annoying.

It was only later that I began to have any opinion on Cronkite's news coverage. Roy Edroso is vexed with a rightblogger who prefers "to have a big, giant, sloppy mish-mash of information available for the public to pick through than a carefully managed stream of news being spoon-fed to us by talking heads on television who became so trusted nobody dared question them." I'm inclined to agree with the rightblogger there, though the right generally prefers a managed stream of news, passing along the Republican line, that (trusted or not) nobody dares question; it's only when a Democrat is in the White House that the right wants a thousand flowers to bloom, news- and opinion-wise. But Edroso feels differently:
While I enjoy the big scrum as much as the next guy, as my coverage ceaselessly shows, it is also full of bullshit, and there are disadvantages as well as advantages to the caveat lector approach, particularly considering the dangerously elevated public relations and permanent campaign components of the blogosphere.
I can agree with Edroso too. I would only submit that the corporate media also exhibit "dangerously elevated public relations and permanent campaign components" (not to mention plenty of bullshit) and Cronkite was no exception. There's a tendency among liberals to lament the decadent state of the corporate media nowadays, and to cite Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow as exemplars of how serious news coverage should be done. But the news in the 60s was really just as corrupt and subservient to government and corporate agendas as it is now, and the range of information available from corporate outlets was as limited. I had to go to alternative sources, mostly in print because it's less capital-intensive than TV broadcasting, for other views.

The main focus of both the adulation and the condemnation appears to be Cronkite's editorial comment on the war in Vietnam on February 27, 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offensive, a nationwide campaign by Vietnamese insurgents that began on the Vietnamese lunar new year. Cronkite had just returned from a visit to South Vietnam, where he witnessed the collapse of the consensus that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the commies were on the run. Wikipedia sums up the result nicely: "Although the offensive was a military disaster for the communists, it had a profound effect on the American administration and shocked the American public, which had been led to believe by its political and military leaders that the communists were, due to previous defeats, incapable of launching such a massive effort." Cronkite remarked:
To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
This is hardly a radical assessment; it's well within the mainstream of official American opinion about the war, beginning with the limiting of viewpoints to "optimists" who believed the US could win to the "pessimists" who believed it couldn't, at least not at an acceptable cost to us. It's why President Johnson reacted to the broadcast by saying that he'd lost Middle America -- because Cronkite said what other middle Americans believed, not because he told them what to think. There's also the characterization of the US as "honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy" -- in fact, the war in Vietnam was anti-democratic at its root, a refusal to allow the Vietnamese to determine their own government. It also ran roughshod over American public opinion, which had rejected the re-imposition of French colonial rule over Indochina after World War II, in 1945. 
Yes, 1945. In September and October of that year, eight troopships were diverted from their task of bringing American troops home from Europe to transport US-armed French soldiers and Foreign Legionnaires from France to recolonize Vietnam. The enlisted seamen on those ships immediately began organized protests. On arriving in Vietnam, the entire crews of the first four troopships met in Saigon and drew up a resolution condemning the US government for using American ships to transport an invasion army "to subjugate the native population" of Vietnam.
After the French finally gave up in 1954, the US took on the white man's burden, imposing a dictator on the South in violation of the international agreements -- a dictator we finally removed in 1963, when he showed insufficient dedication to our aims. The coup that killed Ngo Dinh Diem, a few weeks before the assassination of John Kennedy, disproves the standard claim that the US was in Vietnam only because our "allies" there asked for our help against Communist aggression. In reality, when our ally could no longer carry out his expected duties, we tossed him aside.

Cronkite had already shown his willingness to go along with government propaganda on Vietnam when he filed a report in 1965 lauding then-dictator Nguyen Cao Ky. In his biography of the maverick journalist I. F. Stone, D. D. Guttenplan describes Cronkite hailing Ky as "a hero to the Vietnamese people" who "doesn't even go out to lunch but, like an American businessman, eats off the corner of his desk". Stone reported that "the playboy Air Force general" Ky considered Adolf Hitler to be his only hero (American Radical, page 443-444). Cronkite's personal reaction to the Tet Offensive was to shout "What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning this war!" (op. cit., 420). It's worth comparing Cronkite's 2004 take on the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, used by President Johnson to justify US escalation in Vietnam, with I. F. Stone's take, written in August 1964, showing what a journalist not subservient to the government and armed with healthy skepticism could know. In 2004 Cronkite was still calling the Tonkin Gulf incidents a "misunderstanding that became the tipping point for the entire Vietnam War," even though he showed that Johnson and McNamara understood very well what they were doing. As Stone wondered in 1964, "Who was Johnson trying to impress? Ho Chi Minh? Or Barry Goldwater?" (P.S. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the answer to that question would be that he was trying to impress Walter Cronkite.)

This rightblogger criticizes Cronkite's 1968 broadcast without quite explaining why he was wrong. In this commentary, he writes, Cronkite
overtly and figuratively stepped out from behind the microphone to add his personal commentary to the news. We had not seen this before. By doing so, Cronkite issued an implicit license to his journalistic colleagues to interject personal opinions into their factual reporting of the news. The difference is that Cronkite clearly labeled it as personal opinion, while many MSM news personalities today weave their opinions into reporting. His sentiment registered with many, perhaps most, of his viewers that night. He changed opinions by offering his own. But in hindsight, his analysis was wrong – dead wrong for some.
On the contrary, journalists often put personal opinions, as well as other value judgments, into their factual reporting of the news. When I hear old broadcasts by the likes of Edward O. Murrow, for example, I'm struck by how much commentary is woven into his supposedly factual reporting, such as his broadcasts from England during World War II. And as the writer concedes, Cronkite explicitly distinguished his editorial remarks that night from straight journalism.

The blogger goes on to complain:
Many of those of us who served in Vietnam do not look upon its ending as reflecting “honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy.” A compelling case can be made that we should never have sent troops to Vietnam in the first place. But we did. And then, after nearly 60,000 U.S. deaths and countless Vietnamese casualties, we bugged out. There’s no way to put an honorable face on that unavoidable truth.
It's not clear what this has to do with Cronkite's commentary. If Cronkite ever said that the US war in Vietnam ended honorably, the blogger doesn't offer any quotations. Cronkite called for the US to negotiate in good faith, which it never did; at most this means he was too optimistic about the outcome. As influential as he may have been, he didn't decide how US policy in Vietnam was going to play out during the decade after that broadcast, and that appears to be the blogger's complaint.

Nor does the blogger explain how the US might have achieved an honorable end. He complains that the US abandoned our South Vietnamese allies, "cut off their military aid, and watched while they suffered the consequences when the North Vietnamese blatantly ignored the negotiated resolution (they never intended to honor) that Cronkite advocated." The US had been violating negotiated resolutions in Vietnam at least since we undermined the 1954 Geneva Accords (we never intended to honor), and did so right through 1973, when the Nixon administration began violating the January Paris agreements (we never intended to honor). Under those circumstances the Vietnamese were no longer bound by the agreements anyway, and began fighting back -- not only the Northerners, but Southerners who opposed the Saigon regime. But you wouldn't have learned that from Walter Cronkite either.

True to form, in 2006 Uncle Walt was saying that the war in Iraq was unwinnable and we could and should leave honorably, though a year later he was at least admitting that it had been "illegal from the start." That's progress of a kind, I guess.

"College students nowadays get their information from blogs and Comedy Central, not CBS," writes a pundit at the New York Times. She says that like it's a bad thing. The Times also quotes the current president of CBS News to the effect that "Viewers and Web readers now ... 'are so used to being assaulted by so many streams of media that it’s hard for them to imagine that there were only three or four ways to get news and information on TV.'" But the news I got from CBS, NBC, and ABC in the sixties and seventies was blinkered, biased, and often inaccurate. The crazed, paranoid leftists who criticized those institutions usually turned out to be right.

Even now, the range of news and information in the corporate media is severely limited. More voices are better as far as I'm concerned, but you still have to treat them critically. "Objectivity" is like a rainbow -- it can perhaps be approached but never attained, and in human affairs it may not even be desirable. Better to recognize that people have their interests and biases, instead of trying to find the kindly, calm, avuncular anchorperson who will spoon-feed you the truth each night for half an hour. The encomia to Cronkite kept mentioning the time he wiped away a tear while announcing the death of John F. Kennedy, as though pretending not to feel emotion 99% of the time were some kind of ideal, and the occasional lapse was proof of the robot's inner humanity. The adulation of Cronkite has more to do with nostalgia, and perhaps childish fantasies of a good daddy figure, than with whatever virtues he had as a newsman.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Poetry Friday - Valhalla


the prison of their loving: in a crush,
crammed in a booth, around a table with
the guys. loosened by beer, their elbows brush.
they feel their closeness, breathe each other's breath.

they talk about their grades and basketball
and girls and cars, you know the kind of stuff.
in a more perfect world, talk would be all,
but in this one it isn't quite enough.

if they could rise above their bodies' needs
they'd always stay here, clothed in glory, fresh
together, and rehearsing mighty deeds:
a world of words and visions, not of flesh.

the waitress brings another pitcher round,
not guessing in what guise the gods are bound.

[1978 or 1979]

Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Sentiments Exactly

This looks a lot like me this week. I have no idea why I've been so lazy. I've noticed that some other bloggers have been less active of late, which makes me feel a little better, but then some of them have had connection problems, and others are evidently busy in the real world. I don't have either excuse. Anyway, I posted this just to mark space. I promise I'll try to do better in the future.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Poetry Friday -- The best in this kind

The best in this kind are but shadows. Here,
then, I direct who am in life directed,
resolve what, truth be told, I'm nowhere near
resolving. Though in fact you're unaffected
by my affection, here I pull the strings,
and when I tell you "Dance", then boy, you dance.
I wrote the script, I'm waiting in the wings
to take my bow. You haven't got a chance.
But I can't see you clearly anymore.
It isn't you I've got on paper, someone
hollow with a mask, a metaphor,
which you refuse steadfastly to become.
There's no one here to giggle or to gawk.
Reality's a dumbshow. Here we talk.

[From sometime in the late 70s, beginning with a line from A Midsummer Night's Dream.]

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Press "1" for English

Subtitled for the Spanish-impaired, and probably not safe for work or other sensitive locations even if you you don't know Spanish. But very entertaining.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dancing Queen

Okay, this clip gets points for 1) having some major queens as teaching authority figures and 2) showing two boys dancing a waltz together on network TV.

Not many points, but still. I was amused by Bruno's introduction to the second segment as 'how professionals do it.' And just as I expected, it's as romantic as watching two "professionals" have sex together.

Someday, I'd like to see two boys dancing together like this:

For a romantic effect, the dancers should look at each other instead of playing to the audience or camera, as the reigning champions do in Strictly Ballroom, and as the Show and Tell dancers do. Meanwhile, check out this little number, about two guys who pick each other up in front of a statue in the park, a standard cruising site. After some cautious initial foot-tapping to establish their mutual interest, they chat briefly, call each other by women's names (in-group "code" among homosexuals), and finally dance together -- though not till after 5:26 do they take each other in their arms. Not very romantic, but then, they're professionals.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Atheists Still Say the Darnedest Things!

In today's edition of the local paper (not available online except to subscribers, or I'd link to it), there's a letter defending the morality of atheists. We can so be moral, just like believers! declares the writer of the letter. It's not a comparison I'd be inclined to make: theists not only don't have a monopoly on morality, they don't even have significant market share.

The writer isn't terribly coherent.
Consider the Ten Commandments as a sole source of moral truth. Don't rape. Don't molest children. Those missing moral truths are more profound than "remember the Sabbath." Searching the sacred text beyond the Commandments, one enters the realm of textual interpretation. Atheists also interpret texts in the search for moral guidance: think the Golden Rule.
What? But maybe the letter was edited for length.

First I have to object to the term "moral truth." Whether truth or falsehood apply to moral commands, or to any commands is dubious, and has been debated for a long time. Is "Keep off the grass" true or false? "Speed Limit 65"? Such sentences can be recast as statements -- "It's wrong to commit rape," "It is forbidden to walk on the grass here" -- but that doesn't necessarily make it easier to evaluate their truth, or their profundity.

Does anyone really think that the Ten Commandments are "a sole source of moral truth"? Does the Bible present them as such? The Torah, after all, contains about 600 additional commandments, so whatever the function of the Decalogue in religion, it's not the sole moral canon.

a prohibition of rape more profound than a command to keep the Sabbath? The rest of the Torah prescribes penalties for rape, and for many other sexual transgressions. How fundamental is sexual conduct to morality anyway? I'd say it's less an issue in itself than a subset of how we treat other persons and respect their integrity, but that is open to debate, since many people -- not all of them theists -- disagree. (I have to harp rather often on the point that religious morality was invented by human beings, so whatever we atheists don't like in religious morality can't be blamed on some nebulous entity called "religion" but rather on the human beings who invented it. If sexuality is a hot-button issue in religious morality, that's because human beings thought it was, and constructed their morality accordingly.)

And what about the Golden Rule? It certainly must be interpreted, but how? Why should it be privileged, and which version does this writer favor? The positive, Do-unto-others, version, or the so-called Silver Rule, "Don't do to others what you don't like"?
The common suggestion that atheists have no moral sense is a dangerous idea, dangerous because it is wrong and encourages harm to atheists and because it chills atheist expression. ... Let the discussion begin with facts, not with the innuendo that atheists lack morals.
These are odd objections. I wouldn't say that the claim that atheists lack a basis for morality was either a "suggestion" or an "innuendo" -- too many theists say it outright. But is a "dangerous idea" necessarily a bad thing? (Daniel Dennett celebrates Natural Selection as a dangerous idea, using "dangerous" as a term of approval.) If it's "wrong" (by which I take it the writer means "incorrect") that "atheists have no moral sense," then it hardly matters whether it "chills atheist expression" or even "encourages harm to atheists." It would probably do the same even if the claim were true.

To be fair, the letter writer began by answering another writer's rhetorical question, "What is 'good' for atheists?"
Answer: Mostly, the same things that are "good" for believers.
The trouble here is that believers disagree among themselves about morality. So do atheists, of course. And one vital good for theists -- belief in deity -- is not a good for atheists. That's why this dispute is taking place. Brushing aside that core disagreement is especially disingenuous, considering that many atheists agree that believing in deity or not has serious moral implications.
To atheists, like theists, things can feel deeply wrong or right.
Moral subjectivism is not a reliable approach to morality. Eating pork can feel deeply wrong if one has been socialized not to eat it. Atheism feels deeply wrong to many theists. That's what has to be dealt with; a specious appeal to common ground won't resolve the issue.
Humans probably have a moral instinct, but, even if not, neither atheists nor theists need religion to tell right from wrong. Atheists have parents who distinguish good from bad.
Ouch. Indeed we do, and just as fallibly. And like theists, we may or may not accept our parents' moral choices.
Atheists belong to communities that communicate norms.
Atheists contemplate morality and learn from the words and behaviors of those around them.
Better. And just like theists, we respond more or less responsibly to our social and cultural environment. I think this writer was headed in the right direction, but I think he's still drawing back from the abyss of non-foundationalism. Morality isn't a matter of truth, for better or worse; it's a matter of choice, and disagreements can't be resolved by appeal to any authority -- not to gods, to reason, to profundity. The buck stops here, with us. I'd call that a dangerous idea, but I think it's also true, and it's no surprise that so many people have tried to find a solid place outside ourselves on which to stand morally. Which doesn't mean we can't have morality, only that it's going to be a lot harder to make it work than we'd like.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Getting Back to Speed, I Hope

One reason -- at least it's the excuse I've made for myself -- that I haven't been writing much is that I haven't felt qualified to have much of an opinion about the big recent media events. One reason it's not really an excuse is that there have been other things going on closer to home that I could have written about. But, as usual, as the hoopla dies down, I begin catching up. Sorry I'm so late, I know the whole world has been waiting for me to comment on these things.

Take the death of Michael Jackson. I hadn't really paid much attention to his career since Thriller, though I'd noticed the child-abuse trials and the latter paparazzi madness. I hadn't heard any music by him that gave me the urge to buy it, and the videos I saw didn't help. I don't like the quasi-military drag he affected, the marching steps in some of the dance numbers, the attempts to look tough when in fact he was apparently a very gentle person. Even gentle people get angry, of course, but he never could make it look convincing in front of a camera.

And Jackson had plenty to be angry about. We'll probably never know the full truth about his relations with children, for example, though now that he's dead and so many of them have grown up it should be possible to hear their sides of it. Maybe some of them will come forward. There's no doubt now that the 1993 trial was a put-up job, an attempt at extortion by some shady people who -- even leaving Jackson out of it -- were willing to put accusations of molestation into their children's mouths and subject them to a media circus. Well, given Jackson's wealth at the time, I suppose the potential rewards seemed worth it, to the parents. But to this day, though Jackson was acquitted by the jury as the prosecution's case fell apart, a good many people take it for granted that he was guilty. The scumbag Michael Musto, for example, reports a stupid mechanical joke by Joan Rivers, and then drools over one of Jackson's now grown-up accusers. Even Greg Tate, a writer I've long respected, can't resist a dig or two in a mostly thoughtful piece:
Of course, Michael's careerism had a steep downside, tripped onto a slippery slope, when he decided that his public and private life could be merged, orchestrated, and manipulated for publicity and mass consumption as masterfully as his albums and videos. I certainly began to feel this when word got out of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber or trying to buy the Elephant Man's bones, and I became almost certain this was the case when he dangled his hooded baby son over a balcony for the paparazzi, to say nothing of his alleged darker impulses.
As I indicated earlier, I haven't done the homework to have a fully informed opinion of my own, but (largely thanks to Tate's article) I watched Jackson's 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey (starting here at Youtube), and see no reason to take the tabloids' word against his that he didn't sleep in a hyperbaric chamber or try to buy the Elephant Man's bones. At least dangling the baby for the paparazzi took place in public, so that at least is certain, but what did it mean? The more important question, while we're on the subject of "darker impulses," is why people clearly want to believe such things. No matter how thoroughly some falsehoods are debunked, large numbers will hang on to them, and Tate shows that this extends to the eddicated classes.

On the previous page Tate wrote:
I have always wanted to believe that Michael was actually one of the most secretly angry Black race-men on the planet. I thought that if he had been cast as the Iraqi nativist who beat the shit out of Marky Mark in Ridley and Russell's Three Kings while screaming, "What is the problem with Michael Jackson? Your sick fucking country makes the Black man hate his self," Wahlberg would have left the set that day looking like the Great Pumpkin. I have also come to wonder if a mid-life-crisis Michael was, in fact, capable and culpable of having staged his own pedophilic race-war revival of that bitterly angry role? Especially during those Jesus Juice–swilling sleepovers at his Neverland Plantation, again and again and again? I honestly hope to never discover that this was indeed the truth.
I mean, what the fuck is up with that? It looks to me like Tate is projecting his own murky "pedophilic race-war" fantasies onto Jackson, which I guess is what celebrities are for, but what the fuck!? When someone says he honestly hopes to never discover that his fantasies about a celebrity are the truth, you know he wants his suspicions to be vindicated. This is the kind of concern-trolling I associate with right-wingers, not liberal intellectuals like Tate. But then I have to remember that Tate went off the deep end over Jackson as far back as 1987. (Let me credit him anyway, if only for sending me to look for the Winfrey interview and the "They Don't Really Care About Us" video, which along with "Jam" to some extent renewed my respect for MJ.)

It's now well-established, I gather, that Jackson's whiteface appearance after the mid-80s was due to the skin condition vitiligo, yet it still bothered a lot of people. And even to me, I admit, the makeup he used to cover the patchiness seems excessive, along with the hair-straightening. Why not use dark makeup, instead of making himself look like a bust of Nefertiti or a silent-movie star? But as he told Winfrey, show-business people play with their appearance all the time, so why shouldn't he? I suppose one of the reasons why people, especially black ones, found it difficult to deal with his changing appearance was that he had been so beautiful before, not just as a child but as a young man.

Another factor in the hysteria about Jackson was his effeminacy. In the interview with Winfrey, his body language as he enters the room, the sweep of his hair, are reminiscent of a young Lauren Bacall. All traces of inner-city accent are gone from his voice (though you can hear it in the old clips with young Michael played between Oprah segments), and the timbre and cadences make Prince Rogers Nelson seem butch by comparison. On the one hand, Jackson could never have stayed the beautiful child of his early career, but on the other he would never become the macho thug so many of his straight male fans wanted him to be.

It wasn't just that he wasn't macho, though -- he was almost girlish, and that, combined with his made-up appearance, drove many straight boys crazy. (Not so much straight women or most children -- who, despite the endless media depictions of Jackson as a predatory molester, apparently never stopped loving him or began fearing him.) After his death, I found a reference to some boy yammering about Jackson grabbing "his nonexistent crotch" while dancing; of course the whole crotch-grabbing thing is a sign of a certain insecurity to begin with, except when Madonna does it, but I'd often heard variations on that line before. Jackson's crotch was surely not non-existent (accounts of his endowment, verified by police investigation, circulated during the molestation scandals); these boys were terrified that such a girlyman might turn out to be hung, not for the sake of The Children but from anxiety for their own tender rosebuds. Yet when I think about the many thousands of children killed by governments around the world, most especially my own to this day, I can't help thinking there's something false in the ranting and the jokes about Jackson: even if he had molested those children, he wouldn't have done nearly as much harm to kids as any single American President in his lifetime, none of whom are routinely called child-killers. It also occurs to me that the scandals around him erupted at about the same time as the Satanic Ritual Abuse witch hunts of the 80s and early 90s, which were also fraudulent media circuses. Something is terribly wrong when I find Stanley Crouch making more sense, and being less homophobic, than Greg Tate.

Michael Jackson is not, never will be, in my personal pantheon, but many people were paying attention to his greatness all along. Like Fred Astaire or Michael Jordan, to whom Jackson has fairly been compared, his brilliance is in areas that don't resonate much for me. But it doesn't matter; for uncountable numbers of people, he was one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Whether he matters like that to me just doesn't matter.

(image credit)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Poetry Friday - The weaker sex

The weaker sex

How delicate, how easily upset --
they go to pieces when you least expect it --
how easy to despise they are, and yet
there's that in them that cries to be protected.
How hard, how tough they seem to be at first,
how brawny, noisy, hairy and unwashed.
Respect their armor and they'll face the worst,
but break that shell and they are easily squashed.
There is no there, there. Someone must have erred.
Narcissus was a man, remember. An
indulgent smile or sigh, a careless word
can make a tapioca of a man.
Without their womenfolk's cooperation
they never would have gained their reputation.

April 2, 1979

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

And Even Thee's a Little Queer

I've complained before about the strange caricatures of American gay life that appear in academic writing about culture. I notice them most often in the writings of postcolonialist scholars of Third World extraction, recognizable in Aijaz Ahmad's discussion of "the incoming graduate student who comes from elsewhere, who studies under the full weight of the existing canonicity, who rebels against it, who counterposes other kinds of texts against the so-called canonical text," and who finds that the "liberal, pluralistic self-image of the university can always be pressed to make room for diversity, multiculturalism, non-Europe; careers can arise out of such renegotiations of the cultural compact. But this same liberal university is usually, for the non-white student, a place of desolation, even panic; exclusions are sometimes blatant, more often only polite and silent, and the documents of one’s culture become little sickles to clear one’s way through spirals of refined prejudice" (In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures [Verso, 1992], 84-85).

But these distortions also appear in the writings of well-settled scholars who seem quite comfortable with a gay or lesbian identity, As We Know It Today. (One of these days I must get around to a post about John Howard's award-winning 1999 work Men Like That, about darkest but still mostly white gay Mississippi in the years just after World War II.) I've often suspected that the conception many academics, whether they come from abroad or from the US, have of American gay life is formed by having come out either in college towns or in urban gay enclaves. They mostly meet, socialize with, and date other professionals, which is fine in itself, but gives them a skewed picture of what it means to be gay here.

Héctor Carrillo is a good, even exemplary, example of this pattern. He wrote an excellent book on sexuality and HIV prevention in Mexico, The Night Is Young: Sexuality in Mexico in the Time of AIDS (Chicago, 2002), so I settled down happily to read his contribution to the new volume of writings on engaged GLBTQ anthropology, Out in Public (ed. Ellen Lewin and William L. Leap, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). A "Mexican national" who had "led a somewhat open gay life" and "provided support to emerging AIDS-related services in Mexico City during the late 1980s", Carrillo also spent "eight years studying and working in the San Francisco Bay Area" (35). In 1993 he went to do fieldwork in Guadalajara, and discovered that "I was bringing with me more baggage than that which filled my suitcases."

Carrillo became aware of this when he
showed up at the office of CHECCOS, a local AIDS agency, to volunteer. The CHECCOS office was located on the second floor of a house in an urban, middle-class neighborhood, on a block where most houses had been transformed into commercial spaces. Seated at the only desk in a large room was the coordinator, with whom I had spoken a few days before over the phone to make an appointment for a volunteer interview. As I would have done when applying for a volunteer position in AIDS organizations in the Bay Area, I arrived with a copy of my resume and an elaborate speech about my skills and experience conducting HIV-prevention work in San Francisco and what I could offer to the organization.

... Looking a bit puzzled, the coordinator let me make my speech, while the other CHECCOS members listened attentively. When I finished, I asked what volunteer opportunities she might have for me. She simply pointed to the table where the brochures were being folded. In the AIDS organization where I had worked, folding brochures was a task given to the less-skilled volunteers. I had come with expectations of a "higher-end" volunteer job. But here all volunteers participated in all activities, most of which were of a rather basic nature. Despite my initial disappointment, this proved to be a large blessing in disguise. Activities such as collective brochure-folding or, as I later learned, even just hanging out in the office for hours, provided valuable opportunities for socializing and making contacts with people who later gave me entry into a number of social networks, gay and heterosexual [39].
Fancy that! I'm not quite sure whether Carrillo even now recognizes the comic aspects of this anecdote. Professionals writing for professional publication must be quite earnest, even in these postmodern times. At any rate, he never seems to recognize the downside of the professionalization that has overtaken AIDS and GLBT services, in the US and internationally, which was already ascendant when he got involved in AIDS work in the US. Folding brochures is for the "less-skilled volunteers"; I wonder what sort of skills the more-skilled volunteers exercise. Writing grant proposals, maybe, or negotiating with other professionals. I've never reached such skill levels myself, and I've become pretty suspicious of the way that such people take over the organizations, making them more concerned with the comfort levels of the professionals who run them than with serving the needs of their ostensible clientele. But of that, more another time.

Anyway, the other volunteers began asking Carrillo questions over the brochures. In 1993, at any rate, "by my presenting myself forcefully as a successful Mexican who attended graduate school abroad and who had expertise in the field of HIV prevention, people in the room were ready to accept what they thought was a necessity among homosexuals who were professionals: that I might be rather discreet about my sexual orientation" (40). In other words, gay Mexicans had their own "baggage," as Carrillo discovered forcefully, though he never puts it that way. (Why is it that only Americans have cultural baggage in accounts like this?)
For instance, one time I drove him [a younger gay friend called Enrique] to his English school, which was located on a street that was fairly dark and empty at night. I stopped about one hundred feet from the entrance and there was no one around. As Enrique made a motion to step out of the car, I moved to kiss him socially on the cheek, just as I did customarily when I said goodbye to my male friends in San Francisco. His reaction was vehement. Extremely upset by my action, Enrique asked me never to do that again in a public setting. He was very angry and concerned that someone from his school could have seen this happen. When I recovered from the shock of his reaction, I fully empathized with him. I would have done exactly the same when I was his age and living in Mexico City, as I was struggling to accept how to manage disclosure of my sexual orientation [42].
Later on, though, when Carrillo returned to Guadalajara from San Francisco, he
was greeted upon arrival with social kisses at the airport from Enrique and two other friends. This happened in front of a crowd of onlookers, likely most of them heterosexual, who were waiting for their friends and relatives to come out of the customs area. This time I was also shocked because I was not expecting that these men, who were now my friends, would take this deliberate action and turn the banal event of picking me up at the airport into an opportunity to make a statement about gay liberation. I took this to be as much about them as it was about them showing me that change in Mexico is possible. As we crossed, arm in arm, through the crowd that had witnessed this "openly gay" act, and in the absence of any negative reactions, we were all ecstatic about our newly achieved visibility [43].
As Carrillo recognizes, the change in Enrique's behavior probably had as much to do with what might be called "life-cycle" changes in Enrique as in Mexican society. I don't have any direct experience of Mexican culture, but I wonder if "social kisses" between males are always the big deal there that Carrillo makes them out to be, let alone "a statement about gay liberation" and "newly achieved visibility." The US appears to be the most hysterical about male-to-male affection of any society I know, but an airport is probably a bit more cosmopolitan than normal spaces, and social kissing wouldn't necessarily draw a lot of attention unless it was accompanied by screams and feather boas. Besides, even in the US, Carrillo would probably get much the same reaction to a social kiss of another gay man outside San Francisco or other gay enclaves. There is a wide range of out-ness among gay people in the most "liberated" locales.

Carrillo also discusses his experience of homophobia in Mexico, such as the time the police raided a workshop on HIV transmission and risk assessment he had been invited to lead in Guadalajara. They had been informed "that a homosexual orgy was going to happen there that morning" (45), but withdrew when informed that they'd been misinformed, and "the training was able to continue without further incident."

"Perhaps the most blatant form of homophobia that I experienced while in Guadalajara" -- more blatant than a police raid? --
was during a talk to college students in a Jesuit university. ... This university has a reputation for being rather progressive, in part because the Jesuits are regarded as being among the most progressive and socially-conscious among the Catholic orders. The students were great, and they had some good points to make and many questions. What I did not anticipate was the bomb that the professor threw at me in the last minute when, after more than an hour of presentation and conversation with his students, he asked me if I was gay and, upon learning that I was, proceeded to disqualify everything that I had said in class by suggesting, rather directly, that my sexual orientation made me less than credible. This was a blow, and one that stayed with me for days after, because it came from someone who I did not expect could hold gay people in such low regard [46].
I have to remind myself that Carrillo is at an awkward age, gaily speaking: old enough to be an assistant professor, yet too young to remember when it was simply taken for granted that only heterosexuals could be "objective" about homosexuality. (This tactic isn't dead yet.) It might not be appropriate to ask an older colleague in his own classroom if he is straight, and if so, to declare that his opinions on homosexuality are therefore biased and "less than credible" -- or even better, to point to his clerical celibacy as disqualifying him from saying anything about human sexuality, hetero or homo. In Carrillo's place, I'd only have fumed at myself for not having challenged the man's bigotry. Maybe San Francisco is too sheltered an environment? This event could not have occurred more than a few years after the Vatican's PR assaults on the gay movement, attacking antidiscrimination laws and legal recognition of same-sex couples; are the Jesuits so "progressive" that Carrillo could have expected one to dissent that much?

I don't believe so. Carrillo says that
Only once ... did I experience the raw violence of the insults that heterosexual strangers sometimes feel entitled to shout at gay men. As we left a restaurant after a very enjoyable lunch, a car with four young men shouted at us several gay derogatory epithets as they drove by. They did not stop, and this form of violence took place took place in a fleeting moment and rather unexpectedly. ... I thought that it was an important event as part of my research. As an adult I had never before been called names because of my homosexuality, and this was a reminder of what many men and women, particularly those who do not conform to gendered expectations about demeanor, suffer on an ongoing basis [45].
First, I object to the inflationary rhetoric in this account. Language can be upsetting, but if being called names is "raw violence", what can you call being hit in the head with a gun butt? Second, Carrillo has led a charmed and sheltered life if he'd never been called names because of his homosexuality before. Most of us don't escape it by hiding in gay enclaves either. An anecdote of my own: During my first (and so far only) visit to San Francisco about a decade ago, I was waiting for a traffic light to change on Castro Street. A young blond woman, well-dressed, in a shiny red convertible, screeched "Faggots!" as the light changed, and sped away with her tires squealing. This in the very heart of Gay Mecca.

Antigay violence, real violence as opposed to the "raw" kind, is far from unknown in places like San Francisco and New York. If anything, gay enclaves are sitting-duck targets for bigots; people were assaulted as they left one of Bloomington's gay bars, in the heart of the downtown area. If it took being called a maricón in Guadalajara to bring this reality home to Héctor Carrillo, then it was a relatively painless lesson. I wouldn't wish a more painful one on him.

I realize that I probably sound more harshly critical here than I really mean to be. Let me repeat that The Night Is Young was a fine book, and I have great respect for Carrillo's work. The essay I'm dissecting here is intelligent and it's to Carrillo's credit that he reveals his own limitations and ignorance so honestly. It just baffles me that someone can do gay activism and AIDS work in two different countries for decades, and teach at a university to boot, while retaining such deeply rooted ignorance of the day-to-day realities of gay life. (Sometimes I wonder if it's a literary convention of professional writing to be Shocked! shocked! about such things. Sort of like the Ignorant Disciple trope of much spiritual-path writing, which requires that the novice be dumb beyond all credibility so that the Teacher can instruct him -- and the reader -- patiently.) If he were the only person of whom this is true, it wouldn't be worth mentioning here; what bothers me is that the pattern is so common, so widespread. Even worse, it is perpetuated in the publications that still-younger GLBT students will be given to read.