Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fool Me Sixty-Three Times, Shame on Me

Gareth Porter has a good article on the Obama administration's handling of the Qom nuclear facility. Sample:

A major question surrounding the official story is why the Barack Obama administration had not done anything – and apparently had no plans to do anything - with its intelligence on the Iranian facility at Qom prior to the Iranian letter to the IAEA. When asked whether the administration had intended to keep the information in its intelligence briefing secret even after the meeting with the Iranians on Oct. 1, the senior official answered obliquely but revealingly, "I think it's impossible to turn back the clock and say what might have been otherwise."

In effect, the answer was no, there had been no plan for briefing the IAEA or anyone.

What this means is that it was the Obama administration that was withholding information, not the Iranians, who notified the IAEA first. Our President sinks lower in my estimation daily.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Spheres of Influence

Returning to The Pure Society -- Pichot touched on a question that has been on my mind for some time now, ever since I read Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Ballantine, 1999). I've read most of his other books, and Rocks of Ages was the first I couldn't finish. Gould argued for a division of spheres of influence between science and religion, for what he called "non-overlapping magisteria" or NOMA. He actually drew a parallel between this proposed division and the infamous division of the New World into Spanish and Portuguese spheres by the Treaty of Tordesillas, which overrode Pope Alexander VI's bull granting most of the land to Spain. In both cases, there are other claimants to the territories involved, not least the people who are living in them to begin with.

Gould first declared that moral and social questions were the proper sphere of religion, and explanation of the universe was the proper sphere of science. As long as each magisterium kept to its knitting, all would be well. But then he backtracked, admitting that religion hadn't done such a good job with moral questions, and dropped the matter. The author of The Mismeasure of Man might have done better to point out just how badly science had done when it ventured into the moral and social arena.

Richard Dawkins attacked Gould in his normal manner, what Pichot calls the "idiotic hawker" (70) style, in The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). To some extent I agree with Dawkins, as when he asks why religion should be consulted at all:
I suspect that both astronomers were, yet again, bending over backwards to be polite: theologians have nothing worthwhile to say about anything else; let's throw them a sop and let them worry away at a couple of questions that nobody can answer and maybe never will. Unlike my astronomer friends, I don't think we should even throw them a sop, I have yet to see any good reason that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all.
Similarly, we can all agree that science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least. But does Gould really want to cede to religion the right to tell us what is good and what is bad? The fact that it has nothing else to contribute to human wisdom is no reason to hand religion a free license to tell us what to do. Which religion, anyway? The one in which we happen to have been brought up?
As I already pointed out, Gould had backtracked on the advisability of letting religion pronounce on moral and social questions. One might also ask, though, why anyone would ask Dawkins's advice on morality or any other matter. (Of course "theology" is a subject, if an eminently dismissible one; the idiotic hawker is letting his rhetoric run away with him, as usual.) His discourse on social matters, which has been abundant, is no better than that of "religion" (as though religion were a coherent body of discourse), notable for its incoherence when it isn't just good old-fashioned scientific racism.

I was even more startled when Michael Shermer declared in his The Science of Good and Evil (Holt, 2005, page 6):
Most people don’t go to church to hear an explanation for the origin of the cosmos and life (and if they did, and they knew something about the findings of modern science, they would be dismayed to be told that the Genesis myth of a six-day creation less than ten thousand years ago was to be taken literally). Instead, most folks go to socialize with like-minded friends, neighbors, and colleagues to contemplate the meaning of their lives and life and to glean moral messages from the homilies presented in stories, myths and anecdotes of the knotty problems that life presents to us all. To date science – even scientism – has had little to do or say in this social mode, …

As long as religion does not make quasi-scientific claims about the factual nature of the world, then there is no conflict between science and religion.
Why doesn’t this reassure me? The avoidance of turf wars between two vicious gangs doesn’t necessarily make a better world.

I am still boggled by Shermer's claim that science has had little to do or say in this social mode. As Pichot's book shows, this is completely false, though I knew that long before I'd read Pichot. Shermer lets the cat out of the bag when he says a few pages later (9), "As such, evolutionary ethics is a subdivision of a larger science called evolutionary psychology, which attempts a scientific study of all social and psychological human behavior." Evolutionary psychology is the current alias of sociobiology, the main intervention of "science -- even scientism" into the "social mode."

Pichot says it better (341):
Against these temptations and attempts, it has to be reasserted that the universality of human rights is not based on the genetic identity of the human species. Such a notion leads straight to the differentiation of social and political rights as a function of variations in the genome – whether these are racial variations or not. It is not up to biology to lay down the law, to make decisions of a political and social order, whether on matters of race or of ‘genetic correctness’.

As we have explained, there are two quite distinct social uses of biology … On the one hand, there are uses, such as Pasteurianism, that are essentially technical, and these are perfectly acceptable and even desirable. On the other hand, there are uses, such as those made of genetics and Darwinism, that claim the right (or even the obligation) to intervene in the social-political order and modify this to make it correspond to a [342] supposedly natural order – which in reality is more like an order of profitability. This second category of social uses is totally unacceptable.

In these matters of society and politics, geneticists have nothing to say; it is up to political philosophers to make comments and recommendations. As these latter keep silent and abandon the field to biologists, which they certainly should not do, I shall attempt, for better or worse, to step into their place and maintain that, although the objective physical and intellectual qualities of individuals may be different – whether this difference is hereditary or acquired – this does not affect these individuals in their essential being, because they cannot be reduced to a set of objective qualities. Persons are not objects, ‘human resources’ whose profitability or contribution to progress is to be measured. In this respect, they are neither unequal nor different; they are in fact incomparable. And it is because they are incomparable that they are equal, in an equality that is based neither on measurement nor on comparison, but on an equality of dignity and right. Biological criteria have no place here.
Of course, we mere humans needn't defer to political philosophers either...

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Difficult Concept for Many to Grasp

... I guess it's rocket science. But this guy summed it up neatly. (Thanks to PunkAssBlog for the image and the link.)

Lisa Kansas at PunkAssBlog also shared this bit of good news:

Operation Rescue says it’s broke, may shut down

Scott Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, Mo., faces charges of murder and aggravated assault in the slaying of Tiller as the Wichita abortion provider ushered at a Sunday morning church service.

Tiller’s killing has also been a public relations nightmare for the group — despite its public condemnation of the slaying — since the name and phone number of the group’s senior policy adviser was found in Roeder’s car when he was arrested. A television crew zoomed in on the scrawled note inside the car in images that made their way to the Internet.

This was a couple of weeks ago, but I hadn't been paying attention. I'll have to check out PAB more often.

Avedon at the Sideshow complained that nobody linked to her analysis of the New York Times poll on health care, so there's the link. Her podcast interview/conversation is worth a listen, too. (Someone mentioned that until they listened to it, they weren't sure how to pronounce her name, which is one reason I decided to listen to it; I'm gratified to find that I've been pronouncing it correctly in my head all along.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Smite the Amalekites

Intriguing little article here about former child star Kirk Cameron (later of the Left Behind movies) joining the campaign against Darwin and evolution. I liked this bit:
The 50-page intro [to the selections from Darwin's Origin of Species], written by evangelist author Ray Comfort, will present a "balanced view of Creationism with information from scientists who actually believe God created the universe." Those scientists include Albert Einstein and a host of thinkers whose lives predated 'The Origin of Species,' such as Isaac Newton and Nicolaus Copernicus.
It's open to question whether Einstein actually believed that "God created the universe" -- Einstein's concept of God was that of Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated from the Amsterdam synagogue for his heretical views. "In [his later philosophical] works, Spinoza denies the immortality of the soul; strongly rejects the notion of a providential God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and claims that the Law was neither literally given by God nor any longer binding on Jews. Can there be any mystery as to why one of history's boldest and most radical thinkers was sanctioned by an orthodox Jewish community?" I think Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort would side with the synagogue rather than with Spinoza or Einstein.

It's also well-established by now, thanks to James R. Moore's The Post-Darwinian Controversies (Cambridge, 1979) and David Livingstone's Darwin's Forgotten Defenders (Eerdman, 1987), that the initial Christian response to The Origin of Species was often quite positive, and that among the Christians who embraced Darwin's theory were such exemplars of conservative evangelical thought as Benjamin Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary. (The Theopedia article on Warfield, significantly, forgets to mention Warfield's embrace of Natural Selection.)

Comfort's introduction "paints Darwin as both racist and misogynistic and explicitly highlights 'Adolph Hitler's undeniable connection to the theory.'" This is a hot-button topic, of course: it's okay for evangelists and teabaggers to play the Hitler card, but not for anyone else, and Comfort's historical sloppiness about Einstein should warn the public to be skeptical about anything else he says. The Hitler connection is tricky, and of course contemporary Darwinists will reflexively deny it. In a new English translation of his 2001 book The Pure Society from Darwin to Hitler (Verso Books, 2009), the historian of science Andre Pichot undermines the denial, though not in a way that will give any comfort to today's Creationists or Intelligent Designers. (Thanks to Richard Seymour at Lenin's Tomb for bringing Pichot to my attention with this post.)

The eugenic laws that were enacted by Hitler and his regime didn't derive directly from Darwin, but they were endorsed by many if not most Darwinian biologists of the early 20th century, who connected them to Darwinian theory. It's important to remember that forced sterilization of the "unfit" and "inferior" began not in Hitler's Germany but in the United States -- the first such law was passed in Indiana in 1907. As Pichot writes (page 179),
It is probable, therefore, that even without the Nazis, Germany would at some point or other have adopted and put into effect legislation of this kind. Besides, it was only the Catholic Church that made any institutional protest, particularly in the person of the bishop of M√ľnster, Clemens August Graf von Galen – whom we shall meet again later on, and who condemned eugenic sterilization in a pastoral declaration of 29 January 1937.
Comfort's guilt-by-association doesn't work very well in any case. Pichot reminds us that eugenic research in the US and Germany was supported by
fairly characteristic individuals and groups: Krupp (steel and armaments), Harriman (railways), Carnegie (steel), Rockefeller (petrol), Wickliffe Draper (textiles), to list only the names already encountered. The mildest comment would be that these fairy godparents who watched over the cradle of eugenics made a mistake in their philanthropic aim, and that the Rockefeller Foundation’s funding of Nazi biology is at the very least a sign of a certain blindness – comparable to that of the Carnegie Institution, which did not put an end to the eugenic activity at Cold Spring Harbor until 1940, when the laboratory was drifting into becoming a centre of Nazi propaganda. ... [185]

And to the extent that this work involved reputable scientists rather than mere fantasists, there was no reason why Rockefeller should not fund it. After all, a journal as prestigious as Nature published in 1936 an article signed E. W. M. (perhaps E. W. MacBride), which proposed to resolve social problems by way of social sterilization, with a view to punishing people who appealed to state aid for raising their children [188].
Worse still for the Creationists, some of the same wealthy philanthropists who funded the eugenic research that Hitler used as a springboard for the Final Solution, also funded and supported "end-time prophecy" work in the US. Paul Boyer wrote in And Time Shall Be No More (Harvard, 1992, page 100):
Nor did premillennialism in the 1865-1920 years appeal solely to the poor and disaffected; it also found support among the middle classes, the well-to-do, and even the elite. The signers of an 1891 memorial to President Benjamin Harrison written by premillennialist William Blackstone and urging support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine included Cyrus McCormick, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Two Los Angeles oilmen, Lyman and Milton Stewart, financed the publication and distribution of The Fundamentals. Chicago department-store owner John Pirie hosted Cyrus Scofield's annual Bible conferences at Sea Cliff, Pirie's estate on Long Island. The head of the Quaker Oats Company, Henry Crowell, chaired the board of trustees of the Moody Bible Institute. Large middle-class Baptist and Presbyterian churches in New York, St. Louis, Boston, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and many other cities were bastions of premillennialism in these years. As Ian Rennie has written, dispensationalism attracted some of the most outstanding evangelicals of the day – and some of the wealthiest. Whatever else may be said of, belief in an imminent Second Coming, in punishment of the wicked, and in a Millennium when the injustices of the present age will be set right, cannot be dismissed -- in the Middle Ages, in the pre- World War I, era, or in the late twentieth century -- as merely the desperate creed of the disinherited.
And why not? As Boyer also points out (page 95), "Some interpreters even saw union-made labels as the Mark of the Beast."

B. B. Warfield, the Calvinist divine who embraced Darwin's theory, was anti-racist and used evolutionary theory to argue for the unity of the human species. (See Livingstone's Darwin's Forgotten Defenders, page 120-1.) Proto-creationists like the geologist and paleontologist Louis Agassiz, on the other hand, were often explicitly racist; Agassiz defended slavery, and his writings were used by slaveowners to justify their lifestyle. (It wasn't until 1995 that the Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded in 1845 when the SBC seceded from the mainstream Baptists, repudiated its original defense of slavery and racism.)

Pichot doesn't mention misogyny in connection with Darwin, but though it wouldn't surprise me, it should be a point in his favor where conservative Christians are concerned. Pichot says that like his contemporary and co-inventor of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Wallace, "Darwin himself shows an astonishing (and very Victorian) mixture of religious moralism and intellectual poverty, along with a colonialist racism quite lacking in soul" (85). As for racism, Pichot quotes (63) Darwin from The Descent of Man (689 in the 2004 Penguin edition):
The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely that man is descended from some lowly organized form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many … For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs – as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
Again, this is not the kind of racism that most conservative Christians, either in Darwin's day or the present, would object to. Considering what Christian English and American society were like then, or now, complaints about savages torturing their enemies, offering up bloody sacrifices (read the history of European war for the bloody sacrifice of millions of human lives in the cause of Christianity and democracy), subjecting their women, knowing no decency, or haunted by gross superstitions obviously boomerang on Darwin. And on today's Christian Right: has Cameron or Comfort had anything to say about the use of torture by the Bush administration, for example?

Coming from American Christians, complaints about Darwin's racism ring especially false. The Protestants who colonized the English colonies were quite happy to equate the original inhabitants of the land they claimed with the Canaanites and Amalekites, to be exterminated without compunction or mercy, and their present-day successors haven't really repudiated that view, preferring at most to try to ignore it. Pichot also quotes Wallace from his Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (Macmillan, 1875, 318-319), which he says Darwin praised in The Descent of Man:
It is the same great law of “the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life”, which leads to the inevitable extinction of all those low and mentally undeveloped populations with which Europeans come into contact. The red Indian in North America, and in Brazil; the Tasmanian, Australian, and New Zealander in the southern hemisphere, die out, not from any one special cause, but from the inevitable effects of an unequal mental and physical struggle. The intellectual and moral, as well as the physical, qualities of the European are superior; the same powers and capacities which have made him rise in a few centuries from the condition of the wandering savage with a scanty and stationary population, to his present state of culture and advancement, with a greater average longevity, a greater average strength, and a capacity of more rapid increase, -- enable him when in contact with the savage man, to conquer him in the struggle for existence, and to increase at his expense, just as the better adapted, increase at the expense of the less adapted varieties in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, -- just as the weeds of Europe overrun North America and Australia, extinguishing native productions by the inherent vigour of their organization, and by their greater capacity for existence and multiplication.
Pichot comments acidly, "We might of course remind Wallace that many American and African plants were introduced to Europe and prospered (which is more than people from these lands ever did), but the suspicion is that the purpose of the botanical comparison is simply to naturalize the extermination of indigenous Americans and Australians, reducing this to as natural a phenomenon as the disappearance of a plant in a habitat colonized by another" (56). The trouble with Wallace and Darwin, then, is not that they broke with Christianity, but they didn't break with it decisively enough. But given the divisions on race among both Darwinians and anti-Darwinians, it's clear that Pichot is right to say (page 266) that "As we have already seen in the case of eugenics, Darwinian genetic theories were an inexhaustible sophistry, on the basis of which anything and everything could be justified." You could say the same thing about Christianity.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Doomed to Repeat It, Before It's Even History

President Obama ranted to the G20 Summit about Iran's nuclear program the other day. "Rant" is the right word, too. Where did Obama ever get his reputation as an effective speaker? Every time I hear him, I cringe: the hectoring tone, the mechanical Daddy-Won't-Stand-For-This-One-Second-Longer attitude. And when I read him, the obfuscations and lies drive me up the wall.

Numerous writers have been pointing out the errors in Obama's tirade (with this defender), but does he care? He's the President. For all I know he may have the support of most Americans on Iran (though not on Afghanistan, probably because we have American troops dying over there while we don't - yet -- in Iran; but does he care?), but he's still wrong. And I've known just how bad he was since I read his New York Daily News op-ed piece (via SteveB's comment under this article) from 2007 (see "discussion" here); it prepared me to be skeptical of him and his acolytes forever after. As I wrote in comments at A Tiny Revolution (no link to the comment, alas):
Reading SteveB's diary and the comments was interesting too; it made me notice some things about Obama's op-ed that I hadn't before. For example, Iran as a "challenge to American interests" -- "American interests" meaning, of course, the usual elite corporate interests. As Noam Chomsky likes to say, when national politicians and the media denounce "special interests" they mean working people, racial minorities, women, the elderly -- in short, the vast majority of the American population. By "the national interest" they mean the wealthy, the corporate, a tiny percentage of the population.
Bearing this in mind, the main threat to American interests in the Middle East is the government of the United States of America. It is also the main threat to peace in the Middle East, with Israel a close second. The foreign country most responsible for violence in Iraq, including arming Shi'a terrorists, is the United States of America. That Obama would single out Iran, in the face of this well-known reality, shows just how dangerous he is.
His insistence on diplomacy is not reassuring. Some of the Kos commenters yelled that Obama was calling for diplomacy, not war! But by chance I looked at Jon's post of April 19, 2007, in which he quoted George Bush saying, three days before the invasion of Iraq: "Tomorrow is the day that we will determine whether or not diplomacy can work..." Bush always pretended -- not very convincingly, of course -- that he only went to war because diplomacy had failed. (So did Clinton, so did Bush Sr.) So, who'd trust Obama? Not me.
There's another thing I've been meaning to mention here, from Whatever It Is I'm Against It, this quotation from an interview Obama gave to the Toledo Blade:
I was always a big believer in - when I was doing organizing before I went to law school - that focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people’s lives is what really makes a difference and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally, is not really going to make much of a difference.
It's not exactly new to hear Establishment figures (and you can't get much more Establishment than Barack Obama is now) deriding popular protests on any subject. Just stay at home, you silly-billies, and let us professionals work out the hard issues! Often you can tell by just how peeved they are that the protests are indeed making them feel the pressure. It's hard to say just how much effect the worldwide protests against globalization have, but it seems that they did support the heads of state who rebelled in the late 1990s against US domination of the IMF and WTO, and that is not a bad thing. Katha Pollitt once did a great piece in The Nation (March 16, 1998, though it's not on the site unless you're a subscriber -- you can see part of it here) about a small, well-organized protest during a "Town Hall meeting" (sound familiar?) at Ohio State University meant to drum up support for Bill Clinton's plan to bomb Iraq. It worked so well, to the consternation of Clinton himself, his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and CNN (who helped stage the spectacle) that heads of state from other countries declined to support US warmongering. "Global capitalism" isn't really an "abstraction" in the sense Obama means anyway: the protesters have very concrete notions about what they're against.

What's most offensive about Obama's statement is that, judging from his autobiography, his community organizing in Chicago was based more on his need for a job than for any clear sense of what was wrong and what needed to be done: rather, he went in to try to find something to protest. And even worse, his remarks are a slap in the face to his many earnest and idealistic supporters, who on his recommendation should have stayed home and pressured their city councils instead of joining the campaign of a cynical opportunist who made vague, pretty, and abstract promises that led them to believe he was more than just another politician on the make. Sorry, grassroots -- you were astroturf all along.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Poetry Friday -- King Duncan

Who'd guess that I had so much blood in me,
or that I would disdain a tourniquet?
Out of the depths I cry, Lord, unto thee:
Let this thing pass from me -- but not just yet.

Who said that love is pleasure? Well, they lied.
It's nothing but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
Myself I could not save, nor have I tried.
Someday it has to end -- but not just yet.

If this is love, who needs it? Not this boy.
And should I find myself again beset,
I'll muster all the force I can deploy,
put love to rout -- but not just yet.

I know I should grow up, calm down, forget,
and be more sensible -- but not just yet.

May 13, 1979

Thursday, September 24, 2009

That's Guilty -- Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!

I was listening to Democracy Now! this morning, and guess who their guest was? Why, Michael Moore, pimping his new movie Capitalism: a Love Story. His discomfort was audible if not palpable. On the one hand, he recognizes that Obama has not lived up to Moore's many hopes. On the other hand, he still hopes that Obama is playing eleven-dimensional chess with his opponents; he just doesn't realize that he and the American people in general are Obama's opponents. So, when he was listing the many crimes involved in the Bush junta's handling of the economic crisis, he couldn't quite bring himself to include Obama among the conspirators, the enablers and collaborators, the accessories before and after the fact.

IOZ writes this morning:
Since taking office, he has ratified the policies of domestic surveillance that supposedly marked his predecessors as uniquely intrusive, has continued their policies of detention, has expanded a war, has reaffirmed rendition, i.e. kidnapping, is building a bigger, better concentration camp at Bagram, etc. etc. Practically speaking, he is at least Cheney's equal, with two exceptions. One: he is the president. Two: he is immensely popular.

Many liberals and progressives and suchlike will tell you, and not without some reason, that they oppose these policies now as they did before, that they condemn them in this administration as they did in the last. But it takes no special powers of discernment to see that their hearts aren't in it, that the frequency and fervor of their criticism is greatly diminished, that the prospect of some or other bullshit, half-assed, health-insurance subsidy causes them to pull their punches, and that their temperamental preference for Obama is a fine substitute in their minds for substantive improvement. When they begin suggesting that he be impeached, as they yowled about Cheney, I will take them more seriously in their complaints that I and others like me target them unfairly. They remain "supporters" of this president. Well, why does he need, and why does he deserve anybody's support?
I'd been thinking along the same lines earlier this week, thinking about Obama's international terrorism, but IOZ, who's bolder than I, threw down the gauntlet first. So yeah, impeach him, I'm game.

When the time comes (and you know the Republicans have been working on it all along), the impeachment will probably be for irrelevancies, like Clinton's. There's the rub. Maybe it will emerge that Obama smoked in the White House, violating all kinds of non-smoking ordinances that the Republicans always opposed as a violation of personal liberty. It always pissed me off, during and after the Clinton administration, to have to correct the lies of the Right (including the Democratic Right) about the malfeasance of the Pudgy Satan. (Just as my Korean friends complained of having to defend former President Noh Mu-hyeon when he was impeached.) I suppose I'll end up in the same position with Obama.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mother Superior Jump the Gun

Yoko Ono has a new album out; it looks promising, and I'll probably buy it next payday. I don't think I've bought anything by her since the 45 rpm single of "Walking on Thin Ice" that I bought in 1981. I have a couple of her early albums on vinyl: Fly and the first Plastic Ono Band studio album, plus a few others.

There's another video of "Walking on Thin Ice" on Youtube, with an animation of a girl and a rabbit; it seems to be a different mix as well, very pretty and arty, and it might be more accessible than this longer version. There are a few videos from Fly, but not, unfortunately, my favorite song from that album, "Midsummer New York." This one of "Mind Holes" is pretty good, though.

I've always liked Ono, partly I suppose because I'd heard of her before she got involved with John Lennon. I remember reading about one of her performances in Evergreen Review when I was in high school, so her name was already familiar to me when she became notorious on a grand scale. Because I was interested in avant-garde art as well as popular music, I didn't find her work threatening as many Beatles fans did. And I wasn't alone: one of the great ironies, as unexpected in its way as the Beatles' survival and endurance as a cultural phenomenon, is that Ono has had a remarkable -- oh, call it something else, "insidious" if you like -- influence on young women singers, from the B-52s to Jaurim. Not all female singers have to be ingenues, babes, sex symbols. Obviously, though, a lot of men always found Ono sexy. As one of the commenters on the AV Club Review pointed out:
She was already one of the more prominent artists in the Fluxus movement in Japan and New York in the early 1960s. She'd already secured at least a footnote in history for starting up the whole downtown loft scene in NYC (and being married to Toshi Ichiyanagi). Then she hooked up with a guy who inadvertently threw her under the harsh gaze of approximately one billion uncomprehending fanbois with unrequited bro-lust who neither know nor care about her work, in itself or in relation to the work of her peers.
"One billion uncomprehending fanbois with unrequited bro-lust" nails it perfectly. It seems that many of the fanbois' sisters took a different view, and learned from her.

(P.S. I forgot to mention that the Beatles had been interested in weird noise that isn't considered music by normal people, well before John met Yoko. John and Paul were both fans of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the pioneer of electronic music -- he was one of the icons they put on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. John met Yoko at a preview of one of her exhibitions, so evidently he was interested in avant-garde art generally.)

I was a bit shaken to recall that Ono is now 76 years old. John Lennon, had he lived, would be 69; the rockers of the Sixties are becoming elderly.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Quoting Scripture to One's Purpose

A loyal reader passed along this link to a funny protest sign, headed "Gay People Can Quote the Bible Too." Why, sure we can; I'm fairly good at it myself. And many gay people are Christians, a detail as often forgotten by Barack Obama as by the Religious Right, so of course they quote the Bible. And it's good to remind Christians of all sexualities and denominations that there are parts of the Bible they'd rather forget, which I guess is the point of this sign.

But why do gay Christians so often pick on the Hebrew Bible, their "Old Testament"? It's not as if there aren't plenty of embarrassing passages in the New Testament, including the Gospels. This had occurred to me before, when I was writing a column in the student paper, and it might still be relevant today. It was originally printed on April 6, 2001.
"Dr." Laura Schlessinger's television show has ceased production, to the jubilation of many gay people. I'm not going to go into the free speech issues involved in the "Stop Dr. Laura" campaign, nor the misogyny in so many gay men's hostility to her.

I've noticed that many of the same gay men who railed against Schlessinger are now discovering that Marshall "Eminem" Mathers' antigay rhymes are really brilliant satire and are invoking the First Amendment to attack anti-defamation groups for criticizing him. I guess it's the rough-trade factor: a dirty-talking tough boy makes many gay men go all trembly. But I digress.

What I want to address is the severe selectivity with which Schlessinger's gay critics poked fun at her use of the Bible to prop up her bigotry. A widely-circulated bit of netlore, "A Letter to Dr. Laura," sarcastically asked Schlessinger's advice on application of certain Torah passages to matters such as animal sacrifice, slavery, sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman, the eating of shellfish and so on -- familiar topics from gay Christian theology. I suspect that the writer of this "letter" is a Christian, not a Jew; but even if I'm wrong, this sort of polemic, when circulated among Christians, has overtones that are absent when one Jew disputes with another.

Gay Christians generally attack either Judaism (identified with the Torah) or the Apostle Paul, a wicked Pharisee who supposedly sold out Jesus' simple and beautiful teachings by making Christianity conform to Judaism. They treat Jesus either as if he were not a Jew at all, or at least completely emancipated from supposed Jewish legalism and superstition. They stress that Jesus never directly spoke about homosexuality (true, in a narrow literal sense), and that he taught "love" -- unlike his fellow Jews, who presumably thought hatred was a good thing. Evidently they're unaware that when Jesus said to love one's neighbor, he was quoting the Torah in the book of Leviticus.

Gay Christians often say they follow Jesus' teachings rather than those of Paul or "the Old Testament." Fair enough. I submit here my own letter to gay Christians, asking for their help in following some of Jesus' commandments.

How, for example, am I to obey Jesus' command (Matthew 5:29) to pluck out my eye if it leads me to sin? Am I allowed to use anesthetics? What sort of tool should I use? And what if my remaining eye leads me to sin?

Similar questions arise from his order to lop off one's hand (Matthew 5:30) or his endorsement of those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12). Ouch. But what shall it profit a man if he keep his testicles, yet lose his soul?

According to Mark, Jesus refused to meet his mother and brothers, saying that his followers and disciples were his mother and brothers. Jesus forbade one of his disciples to return home for his father's funeral, ordering him to leave the dead to bury the dead (Matthew 8:22). He declared that he had come to cause strife among family members (Matthew 10:35-36); that anyone who came to him but did not hate his family could not be his disciple (Luke 14:26). Isn't this the sort of cultlike teaching that got the Moonies in trouble?

On several occasions Jesus said unkind things about the rich (Luke 6:24): that it is virtually impossible for them to go to heaven (Mark 10:25) and that, to become his disciple, they must sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor (Mark 10:21). He told his disciples not to bother providing for their futures (Luke 12:32): what they would eat, where they would sleep and so on. I don't see too many Christians obeying these commands. At most they let a few religious professionals live simple lives, but this has no basis I can find in Jesus' teachings. So, gay Christians, how about it?

Finally, Jesus taught that marriage was forever -- or at least, for a lifetime. A divorced person who remarried, he said, committed adultery against his or her former spouse (Mark 10:11-12). I haven't heard gay Christians say much about this in their quest for same-sex marriage: Are they ready to renounce divorce?

Some will protest that I'm taking these verses out of context. Perhaps, but so did the author of "A Letter to Dr. Laura," which many gay Christians considered a devastating and hilarious rebuttal. Or perhaps I'm taking these passages too literally? Dear gay Christians, I'm not taking them any way. I'm challenging you to live up to all of Jesus' teachings, as you challenged Laura Schlessinger to live up to the Torah.

Monday, September 21, 2009

It's a Bourgeois Town

The other day IOZ linked to a column by George Will fulminating against Obama's politicization of the National Endowment for the Arts. IOZ called it "truly incoherent"; I'm not sure I agree. It's highly dishonest on several fronts, but its agenda is clear enough (viz., to attack Obama). Will ignores the political wars fought against the NEA by Republicans from Reagan to Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan and others, to force the NEA to support only the blandest work. ("Inoffensive" is not quite the word, since it all comes down to who gets to be offended.) This was not consistent, of course -- the closet Republican Bill Clinton cut funding for the NEA, while George W. Bush raised it throughout his administration, much to the indignation of his Christian-right base.

Even stranger, Will claimed (maybe tongue in cheek?):
Time was, artists were proudly adversarial regarding authority, the established order, etc. "Epater le bourgeois!" and all that. Now they are just another servile interest group seeking morsels from the federal banquet. Are they real artists? Sure, because in this egalitarian era, government reasons circularly: Art is whatever an artist says it is, and an artist is whoever produces art. So, being an artist is a self-validating vocation.
I wonder when that time was? As IOZ pointed out, "For most of recorded human history artists and performers and musicians were at best craftsmen, more often servants, and almost always worked in the service of some state or church or local nobleman." Will is also conveniently forgetting just how hostile conservatives have been to artists who produce shocking or offensive work; surely he isn't calling for government funding for these people and their work? No, of course not -- they should be left to their garrets and absinthe. Would Will support federal funding of the arts if Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman and their ilk could be excluded? Certainly not. And both he and this rightblogger forget earlier times when American artists sought morsels from the government banquet: the 1930s, the New Deal, the WPA -- and even better, World War II, when patriotic artists and entertainers went to work for Uncle Sam. I guess Will would prefer that they'd stayed proudly adversarial regarding authority, and sat out the Good War?

Will's "epater le bourgeois" distracted IOZ and his commenters, which brings me to the real point of this post. The matter arose of Socialist Realism in art -- the officially sanctioned style in the old Soviet Union, which influenced art elsewhere, including the United States during the 1930s. It's easy to make fun of this stuff, though it seems to me that the real issue isn't its style or its aesthetic, it's the content. A nice picture of King Edward or the Pope or Ronald Reagan instead of Stalin with schoolchildren would please most anti-Communists, depending on their particular ideology. Norman Rockwell's paintings are not so different in their style from Socialist Realism, or even in the kind of people and situations they depict; they've often been used as Americanist propaganda. The difference between what might be called "bourgeois realism" and Socialist Realism is not the manner, or even always the matter, it's the address of the artist. Consider this painting (via) of a schoolroom back in the USSR:

If you didn't know it was by Norman Rockwell, wouldn't it pass for Soviet art?

Anyway, the discussion reminded me of this passage from William H. Gass's essay on Sartre and theater (published in Gass's The World within the Word, Knopf 1978, page 200ff):
Sartre explains that Beckett’s plays are admired by the bourgeois because the bourgeois enjoy being told that man is a depraved lost vicious lonely bored but frightened meaningless creature. Such a view will justify the severe social order: the cage man is to be safely kept in. Yet the bourgeois do not like Beckett. The vast mass of the middle class like The Sound of Music. Those few self-selected members of the class who respond to Waiting for Godot are hardly characteristic of the whole. They are, furthermore, the same intelligentsia who provide Sartre with his audience and readers. It was a collection of clercs who nearly made existentialism commercial. ...

Sartre insists that “you always have a right to speak evil of the bourgeois as man, but not as bourgeois,” but I should have thought that no one spoke well of the bourgeois … not under that rubric. Of course everyone has his own bourgeois (Sartre his, I mine, you yours), but to prefer content to form – what could be more bourgeois? to be an intellectual good Samaritan – what could be more bourgeois? to dislike plays that are too gloomy and pessimistic – what could be more bourgeois? to believe that the artists holds some sort of mirror up to nature, or like Taine that a successful work must be in harmony with its era – what could be more bourgeois? and then to feel that plays ought to do you good, that the aim of theater should be “telling the truth” – what could be more bourgeois? to hector, to teach, to drag morality into everything like the worst Victorian Pa – what could be more bourgeois? above all, to put on plays which will be eaten like ice creams at intermission (and for new times there will be new plays, new plans, new truths, and new demands) – what could be more bourgeois, or more in keeping with our consumer society, where long novels burn like cigarettes, poems don’t outlast their speaking, paintings fade into the walls they hang on as though the sun were their only patron, and sculpture is made to look as if it had been thrown away? to use up the whole the present and dispose of it in history like trash thrown in a can – what could be more bourgeois, more vulgarly commercial, more nightschool, more USA?
It's hard to believe that it's been thirty years since I first read The World Within the Word. This section has stayed with me, though I'm not as impressed by Gass as I was in the Seventies. Especially I don't agree with his idea of what art should be, but I do like his smackdown of a certain kind of dismissal of this kind of art or that kind of politics. I've also read more on the history of the rise of the bourgeoisie, most notably George L. Mosse's Nationalism and sexuality: respectability and abnormal sexuality in modern Europe (Howard Fertig, 1985), and have some idea of what "bourgeois" means when it actually means something, rather than simply functioning as a term of abuse, as both Sartre and Gass use it here.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eunuchs to the Left of Me, Eunuchs to the Right of Me

The "Would Jesus Discriminate?" campaign (hell yeah, he would) does more than claim that Jesus "affirmed a gay couple." Two of its billboards try to claim a gay-positive early Christianity by reconceptualizing eunuchs -- castrated men -- as gay men.

The passage of Acts cited here tells of an encounter between the apostle Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch. After converting Samaria, Philip was directed by an angel of Yahweh to go to the desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza. There he encountered the eunuch, an official of the court of the Ethiopian queen, on his way home from worshipping in Jerusalem. He had stopped his chariot to read from Isaiah 53:7-8:
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
8By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
(This passage has been interpreted by Christians as a description of Jesus and his mission; it's not very convincing, but that's another topic.)

Philip preached Jesus to the eunuch, converted and baptized him, and "When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing" (Acts 8:39). That's a handy means of transport; the early Christians could have used a good deal more of it.

It's an interesting story. If the Queen's treasurer had gone to Jerusalem to worship, he must have been Jewish; there was, and still is, an Ethiopian Jewish community of great antiquity. Although Deuteronomy 23:1 forbade any emasculated man from entering the assembly of Yahweh, Acts is vague as to whether the Ethiopian had been allowed to worship or not. In a later interview, with Isaiah, Yahweh had promised that the eunuch who kept his covenant and his sabbaths would be given a name that would never be cut off. (Unfortunate pun, that, but it's in the text.)

So, what does this have to do with a gay man? Castrated men were often assumed to be sexually receptive to other men -- or at least sexually accessible to them. The page at Would Jesus Discriminate, apparently also excerpted from Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley's tract The Children Are Free, which expands on the billboard slogan first tweaks people who stereotype:
Once they find out someone is gay, it is as if that person has a neon sign on his or her forehead, flashing, “Gay! Gay! Gay!” But God sees people differently, looking past incidental labels and seeing into the core of each being.
But the writers then do exactly that. They write, "It is clear from the ancient literature that eunuchs as a class had a reputation for being attracted sexually to men, rather than women", and assume that this reputation was accurate. They support this by claiming that eunuchs were castrated because (and evidently after) they had shown a "disinterest" in women and an interest in men, and conclude:
This does not mean all were gay. But clearly, as a class, they were strongly associated with homosexual desire in the popular mind. To introduce one’s self as a eunuch in ancient times was roughly akin to introducing one’s self today as a hairdresser from San Francisco.
Evidently the writers are as invested in stereotypes as the people they criticize. (This is clear from their attack on "radical fairies," which I quoted before.) If eunuchs had a reputation for sex with men, then by golly, the Ethiopian eunuch must have been gay, and Philip knew it, and that settles it.

As far as I can tell, they have it backwards. The authorities they cite that I've been able to check don't back up their claim. At best, it appears that the idea of men who were eunuchs as it were by nature developed later in antiquity, after the time of Jesus and long after Acts of the Apostles was written. I'm hoping to look into this more before long, though as you'll see, it's not all that important to this issue.

There's another problem with their account. If Miner and Connoley were correct and eunuchs were primarily men who were not interested in women, if they were naturally impotent -- then why did anyone bother to castrate them at all? Women in the harems would have been safe from them even if their testicles were intact; they wouldn't have been interested in them, and if they were impotent, couldn't have done anything with them anyway.

Gay men, however, are generally not impotent -- certainly not with other males, and often not with females. (When I was younger and more naive, I was surprised at how many drag queens and other effeminate gay men had been heterosexually married and were fathers. There are powerful social and other reasons why this should be true, but it belies any notion that gay men's reproductive organs don't function.) It seems that Miner and Connoley are also buying into the batty, if popular, notion that "gay" men are only and always penetrated by other males, and that the men who penetrate them are not gay. This sort of confusion is hard to understand from two gay men, Christian though they be.

They confirm their confusion in their explication of the next billboard, "Jesus said some are born gay."

In this passage, Jesus forbade divorce, overturning the permission Yahweh had given to Moses. Marriage was indissoluble, and a person who divorced and remarried was committing adultery against the former spouse.
10The disciples said to Him, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry."

11But He said to them, "Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given.

12"For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it."

This little witticism has given Christian interpreters no end of difficulty. For now, it's enough to notice that if Jesus was saying that "some" are born gay, then he was also saying that others are made gay by men, and others become gay for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven -- in short, for "some", being gay is a "choice", an idea that is anathema to today's gay Christians and the American gay rights movement. But it's probably truer to say that, read in context, Jesus was not talking about gay men in this passage. (And where do lesbians come in? That's another post, coming soon I hope.)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Gay people should not be spreading misinformation -- that's what bigots are paid to do. The misinformation about Christianity that gay Christians spread is their business, I suppose, but it doesn't distinguish them importantly from their opponents.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Soundbyte Atheism vs. Soundbyte Religion

Here in Bloomington -- long-known to area evangelists as a secularist Hellmouth, which the pious enter at peril to their immortal souls -- we have an atheist bus campaign too, after a brief struggle. (Too "controversial," doncha know -- unlike, say, this!) It's the American version, "You can be good without God."
Yesterday, though, I saw a bus with another sign on its side: "You can be good without God, but you can't be saved without Jesus!"

I later overheard a couple of bus drivers talking about signs that had appeared on the buses without having been authorized, and I wonder if they were talking about these Jesus bus signs. If so, more power to the god-botherers for being a little bit more decisive (without, for once, hurting anyone) than the wishy-washy atheists and their non-committal slogans. (P.S. But evidently not.)

I'd been expecting just that kind of response to "You can be good without God." Despite the efforts of many of its adherents and its opponents, religion is not a simple thing with one function. It's not just about feeling good about yourself as you go to work in the morning, as the original atheist bus campaigner thought; it's not just about being good. It's about different things at different times, like art or science or any other complex human institution. Missionaries will switch their emphasis freely on the side issues, because what they really want is that you buy their product.

Sticking to Christian terms for the moment: On the one hand, God loves you and wants you to be happy; on the other, you're a disgusting sinner, evil to the core, and you'll burn burn burn for eternity if you don't return his love, do his bidding, and join the right church. (Last week I watched again Michael Tolkin's controversial, flawed 1991 film The Rapture. When Sharon, the lead character, enters into her personal relationship with Jesus Christ, at first she's rapturous, like a giddy schoolgirl in love. Jesus is all she needs! But after a while she realizes that Jesus isn't enough. In fact, it's another Christian who, having divined that she lost her old friends when she was saved, asks her point blank: "You're alone, aren't you?" Of course she isn't alone -- she has Jesus! But she joins a church, and when its chaste spiritual communion fails to deliver what she needs, she tracks down her old fuck buddy Randy and marries him. Christians have all kinds of excuses for giving into loneliness and other fleshly concerns, but it wouldn't be a problem if they didn't oversell their religion in the first place.)

Besides, the Christian bus sign is just a bit disingenuous. It's a longstanding and mainstream Christian doctrine that you can't be good without God. Or even with him. To quote another Christian bumper sticker: Christians aren't perfect -- just saved! The churches have struggled with the troublesome fact that Christians still sin even after they've officially died to the sinful flesh in baptism, but there's no getting around it: they do. Jesus washes away your old sins and, hopefully, forgives the new ones you commit after you've converted, but a saved Christian goes to Heaven in spite of his or her sins. Not all Christians accept this position, I know, but it's both orthodox and ancient, and compatible with the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

My main objection to "You can be good without God", then, is that it's really beside the point, even for atheists. As I've asked before, "And what is good? How do we know? When people disagree in their moral judgments, how should the disagreement be resolved? Not all religious people worry about going to Hell or obsess about going to Heaven; different believers believe for different reasons and in different ways. Many of them are not at all comforted by the idea that there is no god out there to take care of them, to tell them what to do, to reward them for being good and punish other people for being bad." From what I've seen, atheists aren't dealing with these questions any better than theists have; which is not surprising, because right and wrong, good and evil, are not easy to define or determine. For many people "You can be good without God" may be reassuring; for others it will just confirm them in their complacency, their feeling of superiority to people who hold different views. For still others it's simply irrelevant. I really don't think that this soundbyte atheism is going to advance the discussion much. Besides, I always want to ask, "Good at what?"

Friday, September 18, 2009

Poetry Friday -- Voodoo Doll

This poem is not unlike a voodoo doll.
See how I seek the form: I croon and coo
caressingly to it, to you. I call
it by your name. I think it looks like you.

How do you like your likeness? Is it apt?
Not flattering, unfair perhaps a hint
of malice in the lines? I have you trapped
at last: in ink, perhaps someday in print.

I knead my memories of you into the page --
such memories I have of you, my friend! --
long-simmered in my helplessness and rage,
which until now I lacked the means to end.

No matter where you go, you'll feel the twinge,
the pinch, the bite, the burn of my revenge.

From sometime in the late 70s. I'd been reading Sylvia Plath again, and was trying to get some of her fury into my own work. But it wasn't completely sincere -- more trying on the anger, to see if saying these things would let me know that I felt them. I found I didn't, and the poem ends up being hollow because of it. Still, I think it turned out well technically, and maybe some other person might find that it expressed his or her feelings more than it expressed mine.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I'd Like to Join the Party, But I Was Not Invited

Actually, I was invited, but I didn't like to join the party -- either party -- that much. Here's a story which may help to explain why, from Driftglass via the Sideshow:
Once upon a time, there was a President named Bill Clinton, who was, by most historical standards, a typical Centrist Republican, although by a fluke of geography and circumstances he ran for public office with a "(D)" after his name. Under his Administration, many Conservative ideas which had long gathered dust on the shelf -- ideas such as welfare reform, a balanced budget, debt reduction, a strict 'Pay as You Go' fiscal regime, a boom in technology jobs, budget surpluses, NAFTA, GATT, official bans on gay marriage, etc. -- were finally realized. And for all of his good work on behalf of their ideology, Conservatives spent eight, long years treating Bill Clinton -- a Southern, White, Christian man -- as if he were a case of flesh eating nuclear syphilis. Because he did not run for office with an "(R)" after his name.
The writer is absolutely correct: Clinton (and now Obama) was subjected to the kind of sliming that Democrats reserve for Ralph Nader, and even then, not with the same whole-hearted dementia. Reading the whole post, I'm inclined to think that I don't rant enough.

Oh, and then there's this, from Whatever It Is, I'm Against It:
Monday, the Obama admin filed a brief in District Court arguing that prisoners at Bagram Airfield have no habeas corpus rights because it is located an active war zone, glossing over the fact that some of the prisoners were only in an active war zone because they were kidnapped from other countries and brought there. Reminds me of the 2,264 ethnic Japanese the US seized from Peru and other Latin American countries during World War II and transported to the internment camps in the US. When the US began paying reparations to interned Japanese-Americans in 1990 it excluded these internees because they had been... wait for it... illegal immigrants.
But the truly faithful (via) can overlook such small peccadilloes.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thought for the Day

Do I repeat myself? Very well, then, I repeat myself.

This one from James Wolcott, thanks to Dear Leader:
Part of the crazy cognitive dissonance of this summer is the rabid conviction the tea baggers and conservative bloggers possess that Obama is a suave-talking, solid-core radical socialist who practices Chicago-thug hardball, when in fact if Team Obama was the steamroller they claim, they never would have acquired the momentum they've mustered this summer--a true Lenin would have squashed them out of the gate and hardly would have allowed this much slippage this fast. They want Obama to be ruthless and authoritarian because they want to think of themselves as a heroic resistance. They evoke Hitler not because they fear another Hitler, their very obsession with Nazi imagery betrays their attraction; no, they're longing for a Leader, a Hitler of their own. Even a Hitler in high heels, if you can picture such a lady, and I think we all can.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thought for the Day

From journalist Doug Henwood, liveblogging Obama's health care speech, via Dennis Perrin:
A friend pointed out to me earlier today that the market capitalization—the value of all the outstanding stock—of the publicly traded health insurers is about $150 billion. Add a little premium to sweeten the pot and you could nationalize the lot of them for about $200 billion. The total administrative costs of the U.S. healthcare system, which are greatly inflated by all the paperwork and second-guessing of docs’ decisions generated by the insurance industry, are about $400 billion a year. Those administrative costs are about three times what a Canadian-style single payer system would cost. So that means we’d save about $250 billion a year by eliminating the waste caused by our private insurance system.

In other words, the nationalization could pay for itself in well under a year.

Will Obama propose anything like that? Of course not. Instead, he’s going to propose that Americans be required to buy insurance, probably with some government subsidies. So instead of euthanizing the private insurance industry, Obama & the Dems are going to provide them with tens of millions of new customers—compelled to by their product by law, and with some degree of public subsidy. That’s lunacy.

Sweet. Spread it around.

Just a reminder, though: Suppose for the sake of fantasy that Obama and the Democrats were not corporate collaborators, and were willing to nationalize American health insurance in this way, just because it would be more efficient and affordable. There would still be a lot of opposition to such a move, the insurance companies and the corporate media would go berserk, and the Teabaggers would be foaming in the streets. Just as they are now. Much of the reason why most Democrats and Obama are worthless is that they don't want to confront opposition, or to be an opposition themselves. (To be fair, many Republicans are the same: stand up to them, call them a few choice names, and they run for the exits, screaming "Political correctness!" But the Democrats' refusal to be an opposition party is leagues beyond this.) If a measure can't be passed by consensus ("bipartisan" in Obama's terminology), it's just too scary, it's not viable, it can't be done. The Republicans generally know better. But since the Dems are so terrified of opposition and criticism, it is going to be necessary to put them under pressure from the other side: if Obama's unwilling to do the right thing because the Republicans will be mean to him, then liberal Democrats and independent progressives and liberals must be mean to him too. There must be no shelter for him or for any other Democratic politician who wants to collaborate with the corporatists and the Republicans.

The same would apply if, by a miracle, some sort of substantial health insurance and health care reform were passed. The Republicans, with lots of corporate funding, would promptly start trying to undermine the reform and ultimately to roll it back. (Look at the history of the Right's opposition to Social Security, for example: in principle, the Right wants to get rid of Social Security, and in practice they just try to chip away at it until it's not worth saving.) This should surprise no one, yet the Democrats and a good many independents are constantly surprised when they encounter opposition. There is never going to be an America, or a world, without conflict; we might as well recognize this, and decide how to deal with the conflicts we must face.

In his What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, Michael Berube quoted his fellow English professor, the conservative Mark Bauerlein (page 88): "Being the lone dissenter in a colloquy, one learns to acquire sure facts, crisp arguments, and a thick skin." I'd like to think that I've acquired sure facts and crisp arguments, but that's not for me to say. I have acquired a thick skin over the years, and if Democrats want to keep Congress and the White House, they should do the same. Some sure facts and crisp arguments would help too.

That being said, back to the real world. Obama and the Democrats are, as a party, corporate collaborators. It's fair to doubt that Obama wants meaningful health care reform, any more than he wants an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or peace in the Middle East, or ... If he did, he'd do more than the posturing he's been doing since before he took the oath of office.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Does Starbucks Have a Right to Exist?

The leaves in Bloomington -- at least outside my door -- began turning color and falling last week. Fall isn't officially here yet, but it's beginning.

Naomi Klein was on Democracy Now! this morning, and the segment contained a delicious moment courtesy of the BBC. They played a clip of Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor complaining that the Durban Declaration blamed all bad things on Israel. Julian Marshall of the BBC commented that the Declaration didn't seem to contain any such material. Here's the exchange:
AMY GOODMAN: And Naomi Klein, in your article in Harper’s, you quote the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor. One day before the conference opened, he was interviewed by the BBC Radio. During the interview, he was questioned for asserting that the Durban conference declaration singled out Israel.

    YIGAL PALMOR: Look, in the previous conference, Israel was singled out as the most racist state on earth, probably almost the only racist state. And all the problems that we were facing here in the Middle East were not historical or political or military or geographic or anything else; they were all attributable to one unique factor: Israel’s innate racism.

    JULIAN MARSHALL: And this was speakers—

    YIGAL PALMOR: [inaudible] this is absurd enough—

    JULIAN MARSHALL: This was speakers, was it, at the Durban conference, rather than any final declaration?

    YIGAL PALMOR: No, it was also included in the final declaration.

    JULIAN MARSHALL: Because I’ve been looking at that final declaration, and I can see nothing that comes anywhere near to what you are saying.

    YIGAL PALMOR: I don’t have the text in front of me, but in all the—

    JULIAN MARSHALL: Well, I do have the text in front of me, and I can see nothing that comes close to what you are saying. I can see a final declaration that speaks out against anti-Semitism, that says we will never forget the Holocaust, that says we are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people, but nonetheless recognize the right to security for all states in the region, including Israel, and call upon states to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.

    YIGAL PALMOR: [inaudible] we talk about the same conference.

    JULIAN MARSHALL: That is a mention of Israel in the final declaration.

    YIGAL PALMOR: Right. I’m not sure we’re talking about the same conference, because even though I don’t have the text in front of me, I remember quite precisely some quotes that were completely contrary to those that you’ve just quoted. So we must be speaking about two different documents.

One reason this tickled me, aside from its inherent neatness, is that many Americans use a similar line about left critics of the US: they blame America for everything that goes wrong in the world. The best response is to ask such people for specific examples as Marshall asked Palmor, and let them squirm and try to lie their way out, because I don't know of any people who make such criticisms. It would be nice to know who they are, so I can criticize them too. I and the people I read and listen to are all very specific about what the US does wrong. ("But Mom! All the other murderous imperialist states are doing it!" isn't an acceptable excuse either, no matter how popular it is. It's interesting how easily the US and Israel go from being beacons of enlightenment and moral perfection to guys who are no worse than their enemies, as the necessities of debate require.)

Speaking of Naomi Klein, I have had Starbucks on my better-to-avoid list for years, ever since I read Klein's No Logo. The photo above is indicative: it's the Starbucks in Insadong, an artists' district in Seoul. According to my Korean friends, this is the only Starbucks in the world whose sign is in the local language -- company policy collided with Insadong's cultural protection policy which required the local language, and Starbucks capitulated. Avoiding Starbucks is easier since I don't drink coffee, but coffee places have their uses, especially for free wifi. In Bloomington we have numerous non-Starbucks coffee shops that I rely on for Internet connectivity and pastry, from the venerable Runcible Spoon to the relatively new Pourhouse Cafe. (I most often use the latter, despite its church connections, because the atmosphere isn't oppressively religious -- quite the contrary, it's comfortably secular -- and because it's nearby.) Jim Hightower renewed my distaste for the chain with the commentary I heard this morning, with an up-to-date list of the chain's offenses against humanity.
The corporation calls its workers "partners," but pays them only $15,000 to $20,000 a year for full-time work. Then there's the "optimal scheduling " policy, which means you never know when or for how long you'll be called in to work. Health care? Starbucks insures a lower percentage of its employees than Wal-mart does. And don't even think of talking union – you'll get harassed and possibly fired for that. Indeed, Starbucks is a leader in a corporate lobbying blitz to sidetrack the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers who want to form a union a way to stop the bullying, union-busting tactics of corporate bosses.
As I said, I'm not a coffee drinker, but everyone I've heard express an opinion agrees that Starbucks' coffee tastes burnt. So what's the appeal? Hightower went on to tout an online campaign called "Stop Starbucks!" which probably deserves support, but stopping Starbucks seems, I don't know, a little extreme, y'know? I'd think some harsh restraint would suffice.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I Can Haz Slave Boy?

The Advocate has an online article about four billboards on Interstate 30 in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas that tout the message "Would Jesus Discriminate?" The billboards are the work of some local Metropolitan Community Churches, a gay evangelical denomination, and I give them props for getting pro-gay messages on Clear Channel billboards in Texas, let alone Dallas. But I disapprove of the way they decided to frame their message.

Would Jesus discriminate? Why, he sure would, honey! According to the gospels Jesus was all about discrimination: between the sheep and the goats, the foolish virgins and the wise ones, the saved and the damned, his true followers and the false ones. The gospels aren't even sure how Jesus, a not-so-nice Jewish boy from Galilee, felt about Teh Goy. Sometimes, as when a poor Greek-Syrian woman came to him to beg help for her sick daughter, he was brusque to the point of racism (Mark 7:25-30):
"Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." 28 But she answered him, "Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." 29 And he said to her, "For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter." 30 And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone.
Fortunately for her daughter, the Syrophoenician woman was a better person than Jesus was.

However, there are pagans and then there are pagans. When a centurion in the Roman peace-keeping force in Galilee approached Jesus with a similar petition, he got a very different reception (Matthew 8:5-13).
5 As he entered Caper'na-um, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him 6 and saying, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress." 7 And he said to him, "I will come and heal him." 8 But the centurion answered him, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it." 10 When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth." 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, "Go; be it done for you as you have believed." And the servant was healed at that very moment.
Jesus could tell the difference between a mere mongrel pagan wench and an authoritative man of quality. In Luke's version (7:1-10) of this story, Jesus is out the door and halfway to the centurion's villa before the centurion, through messengers, tells him just to reach out and touch someone by long-distance. That's Jesus for you, no respecter of persons. There's what is probably a third version of the story in the gospel of John, where the patient is a court official's son -- a reminder that we shouldn't fixate too much on the details, since we're dealing with stories that were modified during transmission. On the other hand, though, the details that a given gospel supplies were probably significant to the writer, whether or not they are historically accurate, and can be studied in that light.

The MCC's interpretation of this story, based in some scholars' speculations, is that the centurion's servant was actually his boyfriend, so that by healing him "Jesus affirmed a gay couple." That's moving just a bit too fast, I'm afraid. I've been encountering this claim for some time now, and it has problems.

The key to this interpretation is the Greek word pais, translated here by the Revised Standard Version as "servant." Pais really means "boy," but it can connote either a slave (the use of "boy" toward social inferiors, especially racial, has its own history in English, including the United States) or a male sexual/romantic partner, especially in age-stratified relations where one partner is the "man" and the other is the "boy." (The "boy" doesn't even have to be an immature male, as many older African-American men who've been called "boy" by whites can tell you.) Gay and pro-gay Christians have argued that Matthew meant pais in this second sense, so that Jesus preserved a homosexual relationship by restoring the boy to health. Maybe they're right, but since the word is ambiguous, they're trying to hang a very heavy argument on a very slender thread. In his version, the author of Luke uses the word doulos, which is unambiguously "slave," but then slaves have often been used for sex by their owners, as Sally Hemings among others could tell you.

Even granting that there was an erotic relationship between the centurion and his boy, which is possible, I'm not happy about calling them a gay couple. Readers will note that we only hear about the centurion, not about the boy and what he wanted or felt. Until just a few years ago, gay Christians were fulminating about the inequality and exploitativeness of male-to-male eroticism in the Greco-Roman world, the sexual use of slaves, and so on. The word "pedophile" was thrown around a bit too freely, since the boys involved were not children but adolescents, sexually mature if not full adults even by the standards of contemporary American law. Now, rather suddenly, gay and pro-gay Christians have decided that if pederasty was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for them.

For example, this article from the "Would Jesus Discriminate?" site. It's an excerpt from The Children Are Free: Re-examining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships, published in 2002 by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Community Church, written by MCC Minister Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley:
To our modern minds, the idea of buying a teen lover seems repugnant. But we have to place this in the context of ancient cultural norms. In ancient times, commercial transactions were the predominant means of forming relationships. Under the law, the wife was viewed as the property of the husband, with a status just above that of slave. Moreover, in Jesus’ day, a boy or girl was considered of marriageable age upon reaching his or her early teens. It was not uncommon for boys and girls to marry at age 14 or 15. Nor was it uncommon for an older man to marry a young girl. Fortunately civilization has advanced, but these were the norms in the culture of Jesus’ day.

In that culture, if you were a gay man who wanted a male “spouse,” you achieved this, like your heterosexual counterparts, through a commercial transaction — purchasing someone to serve that purpose. A servant purchased to serve this purpose was often called a pais.

Talk about cultural relativism! As a matter of fact, commercial transactions were not the predominant means of forming relationships "in ancient times." To support their claim that pais was used for slaves purchased for sexual use, Miner and Connoley cite K. J. Dover's Greek Homosexuality (Harvard, 1978), page 16.
In many contexts [wrote Dover], and and almost invariably in poetry, the passive partner is called pais, 'boy' (plural paides), a word also used for 'child', 'girl', 'son', 'daughter', and 'slave'. The pais in a homosexual relationship was often a youth who had attained full height (the vase paintings leave no doubt about that) ...
However, though there was prostitution of both sexes in ancient Greece, the ideal love-object celebrated in classical Greek writing and art was a free-born boy, not a slave or a bought sexual partner. This ideal was still influential in Rome in Jesus' time, and the patterns of behavior were more complicated, but we still have cases like the poet Catullus' poems addressed to the presumably free youth Juventius. In Petronius' Latin novel the Satyricon, written at around the same time as the gospels, the protagonist (and former gladiator) Encolpius is constantly trying to keep his boyfriend (and slave, called "brother", not "boy") Giton from being lured away by other men. While marriage "in ancient times", as in ours, involved the exchange of property and other goods (dowry and bride-price) between families, a man who wanted to make a good marriage didn't go looking for a slave girl -- he wanted a free one whose status as wife certainly wouldn't be confused with that of a slave. No doubt many Roman men purchased male slaves or rented prostitutes, but no one would have thought of them as 'spouses.' (And slaves were anything but complacent about their status as slaves: buying their freedom was a major dream, and slaves formed cooperatives to accumulate money for that purpose.)

Miner and Connoley also mislead by speaking of "the culture of Jesus' day." There were numerous cultures in the eastern Mediterranean, and Jews ran their sexual affairs very differently than Romans or Syrians or Greeks or Egyptians, even though there had been a lot of multicultural mixing since the conquests of Alexander the Great three centuries earlier. Jews professed to be shocked by 'pagan' homosexuality, for example; Romans professed to be shocked by Jewish polygamy.

Oh, and about discrimination: Miner and Connoley know a thing or two about that as well. In The Children Are Free they discriminate sharply between good Christian gays and bad, unnatural gays:
And we know of hundreds of other gay people who could tell stories of struggling with their same-sex attractions while diligently serving God. These are not idolaters, people who hated God, and pursued their own desire for new and greater sexual thrills. These are lovers of God who, nevertheless, have been attracted to people of the same sex from early in life. They are innate (i.e., natural) homosexuals [page 16].

We’re not talking about the common stereotype of a radical fairy, riding half-naked on the back of a float in some Gay Pride parade, looking for his next sexual conquest. We’re talking about ordinary human beings wanting into loving relationships with the blessing of God – for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do them part [page 68].
It seems that for Miner and Connoley (and many other gay Christians) Jesus would only disapprove of discrimination against nice, middle-class Christian gays who get married in church. The trashy "radical fairy" (a term they don't seem to understand) who participates in Gay Pride parades is fair game.

Some of the "Would Jesus Discriminate" billboards have been defaced with the word "lie." I'm afraid that's not far from the truth. The squib accompanying that photo says,
The sign is one of 22 billboards and 2,000 yard signs that aim to eliminate scripturally-based religious doctrine as an argument against efforts to win civil rights protections for Indiana's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
How do you "eliminate" an argument with misinformation? Besides, the Bible is irrelevant to "efforts to win civil rights protections for gay people"; the Bible is not the law of the land. The gay and pro-gay Christians behind this campaign are ceding too much ground to their opponents. As Miner and Connoley's snide remarks show, that's at least partly because they agree with their opponents on so many things. Let them work out their disagreements without dragging the state into it. Arguments for civil rights should not be based on biblical interpretation, especially when it's as sloppy, biased, and discriminatory as the gay Christian standard.