Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Great Churn of Being

I was going to write about faith, especially about David Fergusson's Faith and Its Critics: A Conversation (Oxford, 2009), but my mind is still chewing its cud, as it were, over what I want to say. Besides, reading Fergusson sent me back to the great scholar James Barr's 1977 book Fundamentalism (Westminster Press), which had a great influence on me when I first read it in the early 1980s. For one thing, I'm pretty sure it was from Barr that I learned (or realized) that fundamentalists do not read the Bible literally. Fundamentalism is a big book, 340-odd pages of smallish type plus endnotes and bibliography, but for me it is fascinating, fun to read, and endlessly quotable. Here are some samples from the last chapter. Some of what he wrote is dated, but all too much of it is still relevant, more than thirty years later.
It is often argued by theologians that modern man cannot understand Christianity except where it is re-expressed in a form that takes account of the modern tendencies of modern thought. Fundamentalism shows clearly that this is not so. On the contrary, it is perfectly possible to form a version of Christianity which rejects or ignores large areas of modern thought and knowledge, but which works reasonably well for large numbers of people and is also reasonably stable. The decision between the two options is not at all a matter of inevitability: rather, it is a choice [314].
Barr also dismissed the idea, still popular among some of the New Atheists, that
one cannot listen to the radio or use the telephone and at the same time believe in miracles like Balaam's ass or the journey of Jonah in the belly of the whale[. It] is quite erroneous; thousands of people combine both of these things without the slightest difficulty [314].
I'd say, though Barr didn't, that this is the flip side of the reactionary Christian claim that atheists with moral values are unfairly and dishonestly piggybacking on religion.

This next passage has some bearing on the Atheist Bus campaign:
People say, for instance, that fundamentalism depends basically upon an attitude of fear, a sense of insecurity that demands something absolute and infallible to hold on to. This is said not only by critics of fundamentalism, but also by highly conservative people. … But, whether this is so or not, the position in this book does not depend upon it. I do not doubt that fundamentalism can be a reaction of fear, and that resistance to change can follow from fear of change. But I do not think that this is necessarily the case, and I do not see why fundamentalist convictions should not be found allied with a courageous and cheerful psychological constitution. The emphasis in this book falls not on the psychological states, but on the logical and methodological perceptions which go to form fundamentalism. This is surely a better approach, if only because it has a chance of doing some good; little is achieved by saying that such and such a religious trend is motivated by fear, except to irritate those concerned; the psychological argument is often paralyzing and useless. It is my opinion that fundamentalism can and often does go with a quite stable and balanced personality, and this fits with the point I have already made about the stability of fundamentalist ideology. I do think that fundamentalism is a pathological condition of Christianity; but that does not mean that it is psychologically pathological ... [317-18]

This immediately leads us to state a further reason why I have not in this book developed the ‘psychological’ sort of criticisms often made against fundamentalism: in so far as these criticisms are valid, they have to be levelled not only against fundamentalists but also against many other currents within Christianity. The idea that religious behaviour is motivated through fear rather than love or faith is one that could be quite broadly spread, as a criticism of the most diverse Christian traditions; the accusation of individualism has also been made on all sides; and as for pathological attitudes about sex and other matters of life-style, the less said anywhere in Christianity the better. In so far as these are difficulties for fundamentalism, they are difficulties that it shares with a variety of currents, especially minority currents and extreme currents, within diverse segments of Christianity [331-32].
On "extremism":
As with some other comparable social movements, there is always a position more extreme than the one you are talking with at any particular moment. A person whom an average mainstream Christian will regard as a rabid fundamentalist will often be found to consider himself rather moderate; beyond him there lie, it appears, whole tracts of belief that are much more intransigent and uncompromising. The fundamentalist polemicist thus puzzles people by assuming a pose of moderation. He affects to suppose, at least at times, that his is in fact a central position within Christianity. One the one side you have the severe distortions of Roman Catholicism, on the other you have the utter perversions of liberalism, and in the middle you have the sound, central and moderate position of his own conservative evangelicalism. There may indeed be persons who push the conservative evangelical position to unnecessary extremes, it is admitted, but the average sound conservative (i.e., the one you are talking to at the moment) occupies middle ground. It is thus not uncommon to find a person who holds absolutely all the tenets of fundamentalist belief, … but who nevertheless uses the term ‘fundamentalist’ not for himself but for some shadowy group of people who hold a yet more extreme position.
On human sexuality. This part probably will seem the most problematic to people who are concerned with contemporary anti-gay crusades by conservative Christians, or with abusive neo-patriarchal sects within fundamentalism. Even so, from my own observations (and books such as Heather Hendershot's excellent Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture [Chicago, 2004]), I'd say that Barr is still basically right:
In the matter of sexual relationships, the literature of central conservative groups gives little basis for the idea of a pathological prurience. My own criticism would be the opposite, that the material is childishly na├»ve in a pre-1914 schoolboy-idealistic manner, culminating perhaps in the immortal piece of advice, “To share a common interest in Sunday School work is not, in itself, a decisive indicator that you should get married.” This was published in 1964! At least as far as one can nudge from the published literature, the conservative evangelical view of sex and marriage, far from being haunted by sin and guilt, is light and superficial. What the conservative student gets from his reading matter is advice of a prudential kind about the unwisdom of playing with other people’s affections, holding hands unless one is serious, kissing before becoming engaged and, most of all, getting married hastily on the basis of a common devotion to the work of the Lord. All these are indeed not matters without any importance: but as an ethical implication of the (supposedly earth-shaking) gospel they are just laughably negligible in comparison with the perception of ethical issues in theologians in mainstream theology. I suspect that relations between men and women in fundamentalist groups are commonly quite happy and wholesome, but for this no thanks are due to the mediocre guidance on ethical questions handed out by the group. More can be ascribed to the common sense of purpose and neglect of self in common devotion to the work of the Lord [331].
The gay-marriage movement, I suspect, is partially driven by similar attitudes to human sexuality by younger GLBT Christians.

Finally, on quasi-fundamentalism among mainstream Christians:
The point is that many people in the church, though rejecting fundamentalism, continue to treat some biblical passages, or some sections of the Bible, in a manner that seems to be close to the fundamentalist understanding. This is quite a serious matter. People do not think, with fundamentalism, that everything is accurate, and they consider some passages, perhaps in the Old Testament, to have no value for the church today or otherwise not to be the Word of God; but when they come to the passages that are important for them they use them as if they were a direct transcript of the actual words of Jesus, or as if they were in the fullest sense the Word of God. Is there not therefore something that might be called a selective fundamentalism in the mind of moderate Christians? … It is quite doubtful, however, whether the cachet “selective fundamentalism” is deserved. … Nevertheless there is some cause for disquiet about this phenomenon [333-34].
Compare, for example, some of my posts on gay Christians and their use of the Bible.

It may seem odd -- it does to me, a little -- for me to be talking so favorably about a Christian writer, an elderly heterosexual one at that. (He died just a couple of years ago, and I very much regret that I never wrote to him to thank him for his work.) I should stress that Barr was on his own account conservative theologically, and I don't claim or believe that he would approve of my positions on these issues.

But he was also an enthusiastic controversialist. His first book, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford, 1961), threw down the gauntlet against the apologetic use of the dictionary by mainstream biblical scholars, and he often returned to the theme, as in Biblical Words for Time (SCM, 1969). Several of his books, like Beyond Fundamentalism (Westminster, 1984) and The Bible in the Modern World (SCM, 1973), were intended for a general audience. The Times obituary says that "For one who was so critical and sharp with his pen he was strangely reluctant to engage in serious oral debate and discussion, either on the details of his own work or on matters of academic concern in general," but according to the Independent, "When Barr debated the matter [of fundamentalism] openly with his opponents one evening in Oxford at All Saints' Church, not surprisingly the meeting was well attended." And do I need to tell you how gratified I was to read this footnote (page 51, note 17) in Barr's Gifford Lectures, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (Clarendon Press, 1993)?
It seems necessary to say this, if only to notice and to counter the suggestions of John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), who thinks, for example, that St Paul 'never suggested that there was any historical or legal reason to oppose homosexual behaviour: if he did object to it, it was purely on the basis of functional, contemporary moral standards' (p. 106) -- especially since his work includes some discussion of Paul's use of 'nature' in our passage. Interesting as his work is in its gathering of material from the later history, in its handling of biblical texts and above all in its arguments from specific biblical words I can only say that I find it to be staggering in the degree of its misjudgment.
(The full text of the lectures is available online.)

I'd had a good many doubts about Boswell's discussion of the biblical material in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, but lacking all Greek and Hebrew I couldn't confirm them, so it was very gratifying to find that an expert like Barr felt the same way I did. For the same reason I was also pleased to find that Barr's discussion of the anti-homosexual passage Romans 1:26-28 agreed at key points with the conclusions I'd already reached on my own. And as far as I can tell from Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, Barr's criticism of Boswell was not based on homophobia, as so many conservative scholars' critiques were. That's notable and impressive for a conservative Christian of Barr's generation.

According to another obituary, "it is typical of him that to the very end he was looking for new projects. Left on his desk was the beginning of a major work about prophecy." I wish he could have finished it; Barr was one of those writers whose ideas and opinions I'm always interested to read.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


She has a point. But how much you want to bet that this young woman wouldn't have bothered with the sign if "Canada" hadn't been "defeated" at the Winter Olympics? I did a cursory search and am not sure which defeat this refers to. Maybe hockey? Eat my ice chips, Canuckistan! It's not so different from the fancy that the US invasion of Iraq was a strike against Saddam Hussein personally.

Dave Zirin was in a bit of a tizzy at The Nation a couple of weeks ago because Christopher Hitchens had pooped on Sports. I respect Zirin and have learned a lot from his writing, but here I have to part company with him, even at the cost of agreeing with Hitchens. "Yes there is much to detest in the world of sports," Zirin wrote. "But why then is it also such a source of solace, joy, and - heaven forefend – fun? Hitchens doesn't care to explore this question." Hell: public executions, bear-baiting, gladiatorial contests, the ducking stool, and feeding Christians to the lions used to be sources of solace, joy, and fun, not just to the "rabble" but to the better classes. That's not an argument, Mr. Zirin.

I'd say that "sport" is less the problem than competition itself. I'm not the first to notice that the vaunted Olympic spirit of transcending petty nationalism is bogus, that there's hardly even a pretense of it in the structure of the whole business, let alone the fans and the sports media. The pursuit of excellence is an excellent thing, and I'm as happy as anyone else to admire the photos of trained, buff bodies that are part of Olympic publicity.

I can't help wondering if the human cost is worth it, though, apart from the financial ruin the Olympics bring to the cities they prey upon every four years. The stress of competition at that level, following on years of incredibly demanding preparation, the elimination of large numbers of competitors along the way, and the rapid downhill slide after the Games, even for the winners -- it seems to me like using up a lot of people for not very much, but it's not for me to decide, is it? I'm particularly haunted by a video I saw some years ago of the men's diving competition. Even on the diving board, and immediately after diving, the divers had to have television cameras focused on their faces in closeup. It must be hard enough to perform in front of huge crowds, both in person and via television around the world, without having one's every facial tic analyzed by sports journalists who have to enliven the dead air somehow. (And as the Tiger Woods scandal has confirmed yet again, sports journalists are not the sharpest pencils in the box.)

Anyway, yes, a decent health care system counts for more than successful athletes. A country that provides health care, food, housing, and education for its least citizens might then be able to justify the cost of prepping athletes for international competition, if international competition still seemed worth bothering with. Despite my personal lack of interest in sports, though, I'm not opposed to exercise and play. Those would be included in the category of health care, of course. People will probably also want organized, social, group-oriented play, and that also is fine with me. What I'm objecting to is competition, especially the extremely high-stakes kind of competition involved in professional and Olympic sports. There are other ways for people to find solace, joy, and fun than such wasteful and destructive pastimes.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Love Me, I'm a Liberal

Today at Counterpunch there was a rather odd article by Clancy Sigal, complaining that liberals have "lost their thunder."
There is an astonishing lack of anger among liberals, progressives and radicals who have abandoned emotion to the right. Our role model continues to be not FDR, still less Malcolm X, but our "bipartisan" and apparently tone-deaf President Obama. In this second or third year of a devastating depression, not just recession, that has inflicted an epidemic of suffering on the lower half of the American nation, Obama is very busy being fluent and civil while being essentially untouched by the rage felt by so many of us. Our world, as we have known it, is being annihilated, and nobody in power shows signs of giving a damn.

The real anger is all on the right, kidnapped – or authentically voiced – by the all-white Tea Partiers, Palinites, Oath Keepers and "armed and dangerous" patriot groups, some but not all of whom are native-fascistic but also include pissed-off libertarians and the disappointed and dispossessed at the bottom of the pile.

I grew up in a boisterous, immigrant, loud neighborhood where everyone had an opinion and voiced it full throttle. Somewhere along the line, maybe when I shifted from working class to middle class, I lost my rough, grating, empowered, assertive voice – and maybe the anger that had fuelled it. If so, that's a pity.

We need liberal anger now more than ever.

I've written of my wish for a liberal backlash, though I realized long ago that it was like hoping for compassionate conservatism (though, as you'll see, that term sums up American liberalism very well). I've also written about the popular confusion between radical ideas and anger as a performance style, and Raymond Williams's reflections on his own Welsh working-class background are also relevant, I think.

I think that Sigal goes wrong from the beginning in lumping "liberals, progressives and radicals" together, since liberals have been at odd with radicals for as long as I can remember, and I remember quite a ways back. The oddest thing about his article is its apparent belief that liberals used to be angry, assertive, and rough-hewn -- when in fact, they have always been notorious for being wishy-washy and ready to sell out when the going gets tough (and it always gets tough). It's not necessary to go very far back to see this, since so many liberals fell into line behind George W. Bush before the dust had settled on the rubble of the World Trade Towers, and many supported his invasion of Iraq a couple of years later. That could be explained partly as their fear of being accused of pacifism, but that's why we have cruise missile liberals, to give their reluctant but enthusiastic support to mass slaughter. (Unfortunately, Edward S. Herman's original article delineating the species seems to have vanished from the web, but this piece is still up. CORRECTION: Here's Herman's original article.) Liberals are always quite ready to get angry at the left: the name of Ralph Nader still gives them conniptions, even more than those of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, and if you want to see an angry liberal, just badmouth Barack Obama or John F. Kennedy.

This is why liberals have such an enduringly bad reputation. As far back as the mid-1960s, the protest singer Phil Ochs wrote and performed "Love Me, I'm a Liberal." Updated covers have been produced by Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon, Daniel Cioper, Evan Greer, and others. I've always thought Ochs was overrated as a performer and as a writer ("Tears ran down my spine"?), but his heavy-handed satire catches the type in this song.
Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I've grown older and wiser
And that's why I'm turning you in
Long before Ochs, though, there was Langston Hughes, probably the best-known writer of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes has become canonical, and I don't think he's usually thought of as a radical. (Jonathan Kozol did get fired for reading one of Hughes' poems to fourth-graders in his inner-city Boston classroom in 1964, though, so who knows?) Hughes wrote a popular series of stories about Jesse B. Semple, or "Simple," commenting on the issues of the day, and one of them, from 1949, was called "Liberals Need a Mascot":
"Just what is a liberal?" asked Simple.

"Well, as nearly as I can tell, a liberal is a nice man who acts decently toward people, talks democratically, and often is democratic in his personal life, but does not stand up very well in action when some social issue like Jim Crow comes up."

"Like my boss," said Simple, "who is always telling me he believes in equal rights and I am the most intelligent Negro he ever saw -- and I deserve a better job. I say, 'Why don't you give it to me, then?' And he says, 'Unfortunately, I don't have one for you.'

"'But ever so often you hire new white men that ain't had the experience of me and I have to tell them what to do, though they are over me. How come that?'

"'Well,' he says, 'the time just ain't ripe.' Is that what a liberal is?" asked Simple.

"That's just about what a liberal is," I said ...
That's not to say, of course, that all liberals are pious hypocrites, or that all radicals live consistently with their principles; of course not. For that matter, conservatives often take surprising stands. But given the history of the term "liberal", I am mystified by Clancy Sigal's appeal to liberalism's shining, or gritty, past. Do we need "liberal anger"? I suppose it wouldn't hurt, if it could make President Obama feel pressure from somebody else than his corporate sponsors. I like anger, it's nature's way of telling us something is wrong, but I don't think one ought be a slave to it. I also think that dwelling on anger misses the point. If someone gives me that "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" line, I want to ask them what they're angry about, why their anger is any more interesting than mine or someone else's, and how throwing a tantrum is going to make things better. Smashing a plane into a government building, or blowing one up for that matter, may be dramatic, but who's going to get hurt? George W. Bush was angry at Saddam Hussein, and we know how well that turned out.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Postscript on "Race" as a Social Construct

As it happens, when I read and criticized Michael J. Smith's ruminations on race yesterday, I had just begun reading Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary America (3rd edition, Rowman & Littlefield, 2010). I'd picked it up off the new arrivals shelves at the university library because it included a new chapter on the "Obama Phenomenon", and then someone recalled it, so I had to read it soon. It's an interesting book, which draws on interviews about race with a wide range of white Americans as well as the usual scholarly literature.

I finished reading it tonight, and in the final chapter read this among a short list of examples of "how most whites think and talk about racism in contemporary America" (261f):
“Race is a myth, an invention, a socially constructed category. Therefore, we should not make it ‘real’ by using it in our analyses. People are people, not black, white, or Indian. White males are just people.”
Bonilla-Silva added in an endnote (272, note 1):
A colleague said something like this to me almost verbatim a few years ago in response to a presentation I gave about racism in sociology. Later on, the same colleague uttered a statement along the same lines to challenge a graduate student’s presentation on whiteness. Denying the social reality of race because of its constructed nature (see chapter 1), unfortunately, has become respectable in academia. This position, which has been uttered by conservatives such as David Horowitz, has now been adopted by liberals such as Todd Gitlin and even radicals (or former radicals) such as Paul Gilroy.
Nice coincidence, isn't it? Smith's complaint puts him in some distinguished company. Now, Smith did concede that it's valid to study the history of race and racism, as long as one doesn't indulge in excessive jargon (that is, more jargon than he himself employed) or create new departments with "studies" in their names. This, he held, somehow conformed to the worst tendencies in academia, and produced people like the African-American female writer he was denouncing in the first place, for usurping a page in The Nation that properly belonged to a white male writer. (I've been wondering if she was actually replacing Patricia J. Williams, a black female law professor. If not, surely The Nation doesn't need two black women writing for them on a regular basis! That's reverse discrimination!)

But the more I think about it, the more confusing it all seems, because Smith attacks academia while at the same time granting legitimacy to what I can only call traditional disciplines like history: "To demand that historians, say, should start paying attention to formerly ignored historical subjects was a great thing", as long as you didn't create new departments to study those formerly ignored subjects when the old white men refused to study them or to permit their students to do so.
But none of these critiques require you to be a race specialist: they require you to be a historian or a scientist or an organizer. If you are none of these things, your critique is going to be rather feeble, because you don't have the knowledge you need to make it stick.
It is, of course, possible, to be all of "these things." It seems that Smith is calling here for a return to, or the conservation of, traditional disciplinary boundaries in Academe (those pesky "studies" departments have a distressing tendency to be multi-disciplinary). Maybe I just stumbled onto the National Association of Scholars webpage by mistake?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Nurse, May I Have My Painkiller? Nurse?

I hadn't looked at Stop Me Before I Vote Again in a few months, but I was feeling masochistic today so I clicked and browsed, and hit pay dirt. Fovver Smiff let loose a rather Hitchensian fart of exceptional stankiness (recycled from an earlier comments thread, yet! not that I'm casting asparagus, I've done it myself) on the subject of "studies" departments in our institutions of higher learning -- you know, "women's studies," "race studies," "queer theory," and the like. Here he quotes himself:
To demand that historians, say, should start paying attention to formerly ignored historical subjects was a great thing. To demand that universities should have "departments" and "majors" for these things, however, reveals some of the limitations of a radicalism whose world is the campus -- particularly since the topics in question were defined in a way derived from the conventional worldview. There's History, which deals with the Duke of Wellington, and then there's African Studies, which is not my department, as Wernher von Braun says in the Tom Lehrer song.

And it gave the credentialling sector bureaucrats a glorious opportunity to professionalize and regulate the study of these topics. Are we well served by having the highly-credentialled and boneheaded Meshuggah Lacey-Bracegirdle set up as an anointed authority on "race" -- whatever that is -- rather than just discussing it amongst ourselves?

My problem with "race" as an academic subject is partly that it's a bogus concept -- there is no such thing as "race", as Ashley Montagu explained a long time ago.

The history of the concept, and the grisly stuff it justified, is something that historians study -- or ought to study. Critique of the concept, as pseudo-science, is something that biologists do or ought to do. But a Professor of Race Studies? It's like having a Professor of Phlogiston Studies.

And here he expands on his, erm, argument.

"Race" as a concept is purely a social construct; there's no entity in the outside world that corresponds to it. It's a fairly recent invention and has pretty clear roots as both reflex of, and justification for, certain human institutions (like slavery and colonialism).

Certainly the concept calls out for criticism -- thoroughly destructive criticism, in fact, since there are lots of people out there who still think that the human species is divided up into "races", and this belief, conscious or unconscious, still has considerable malign power.

There's a historical critique of the concept of race. There's a scientific critique. There's the organizer's critique -- it divides people mentally who need to be united in practice. No doubt there are plenty of others.

But none of these critiques require you to be a race specialist: they require you to be a historian or a scientist or an organizer. If you are none of these things, your critique is going to be rather feeble, because you don't have the knowledge you need to make it stick.

And I would go farther. To occupy a chair of "race" means that your livelihood depends on the continuation of the problematic of race. Demolish the concept, and Othello's occupation's gone. So having professors of race studies or whatever you call it tends to reify and hypostatize the concept, not destroy it.

Hm, well, let me see. First, I do agree with Smith that "race" is a social construct, though 1) it's not a "recent" one, except in its specifically Euro-American pseudo-scientific form; and b) it's rather ironic that he should use the term "social construct" (to say nothing of "the problematic of race"!), which is part of the academic jargon he deplores in his next paragraph ("a thin gruel of dull jargon-crammed papers in journals nobody reads"). Jargon, my dear Smith, is relative. One crank's no-nonsense plain-speaking is another crank's relativistic, post-modernist babble/babel. Talking about "race" as a "social construct" marks you out to other reactionaries as part of the problem you're attacking -- the takeover of the University by jargon-spouting epigones of French philosophical fads.

Second, I can agree that "having professors of race studies or whatever you call it tends to reify and hypostatize the concept, not destroy it", but "whatever you call it" is the rub. Here at IU, I believe we have a Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, formerly Afro-American Studies, and that's not a category that needs to be destroyed even if the "problematic of race" were universally abandoned. There would still be all that History, and Literature, and Music to be studied, and there really doesn't seem to be much danger of its being mixed into the great melting pot of History tout court anytime soon. Second, the very tendency Smith here warns against is a commonplace of postmodernist, deconstructionist discourse. And I've found (though we all know I'm weird) that the more I've studied "race", the more clearly I see it as a social construct. Maybe it depends on how you study it.

Sure, "race" is a social construct, but so is America. Perhaps Smith would rather not have departments of American History or programs in American literature (let alone American Studies). But there are other bogus social constructs that have a secure place in the old-fashioned groves of academe: theology, for one, and from Smith's past condescending remarks about religion I presume he has no objection to studying the Christian Bible, as long as it's not in a "debased modern version." And so on. (That bit about "the highly-credentialled and boneheaded Meshuggah Lacey-Bracegirdle" is more of the routine netgeek misogyny I'd noticed before in Smith's oeuvre.)

A "Department of Phlogiston Studies" would be perfectly valid if phlogiston were still a live concept in our society, and if it had the kind of deleterious impact on people's lives that "race" does. What Smith appears to be complaining about is change within the University -- it's been taken over by hairy barbarians who don't teach things the way he remembers from his youth. A stroll through Lawrence W. Levine's The Opening of the American Mind (Beacon Press, 1996) might prove enlightening.

Finally, Smith's complaint is one I've often encountered in connection with queer and feminist studies in academe. Many critics of Queer Theory and Academic Feminism take for granted, generally without any actual knowledge, that queer and feminist academics are never activists or organizers, and are even hostile to activism and organizing. This may be true some of the time, but not always, or even most of the time. "To demand that universities should have 'departments' and 'majors' for these things, however, reveals some of the limitations of a radicalism whose world is the campus -- particularly since the topics in question were defined in a way derived from the conventional worldview." There's some justice in this statement -- I've said similar things myself -- though it applies just as much to conventional "radicalism," which tends to react to the conventional worldview; that's called working in the real world, I believe, though utopian theorizing can be useful in radical organizing and activism too. And the changes in American academia to which Smith pays lip service were often forced on the universities by radical organizing and activism. It doesn't mean that academic study is useless to activism; it only means that the two shouldn't be confused with each other. No one knows in advance which jargon-crammed monographs will be embraced by people outside the University. Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (Doubleday, 1970), to name just one famous example, was a revised version of Millett's doctoral thesis at Columbia, but it had quite an impact on American and other feminisms, and on public discussion on sex and gender.

"Gender" is a social construct too. It appears from the discussion in the comments that Smith hasn't really absorbed the concept of social constructs, nor does he know much about the "studies" departments he derides, as here: "['Queer theory'] is my favorite -- as if people couldn't be sufficiently queer without a theory to guide them." That's not what queer theory is for, or even thought to be for, but for a mini-Mencken like Smith, what counts is playing the Philistine.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Year of the Tiger

(Video -- or at least the audio part -- probably not work-safe. This man must be a prophet.)

The best part of the Dalai Lama's comments on Tiger Woods's promise to return to the values of his Buddhist upbringing was that the DL had no idea who Woods is. (Several news reports refer to Woods's "Buddhist faith," but that seems not be his word for it.)

Aw, hell... I wasn't going to say more on this subject, but I glanced again at this essay, posted months before the scandal broke, and it got my goat just a little bit. I don't know much more about Woods than the Dalai Lama does, but I had heard of his Mr. Clean image, so Reilly's article took me by surprise. Expletives on the golf course, eh? Temper tantrums and "slamming his club, throwing his club and cursing his club." Think of the children! ... This exaltation of sport into a near-religion makes me tired.

Reilly tells this little story:

I remember Tiger's dad, Earl, telling a story. One day, when Tiger was just a kid, he was throwing his clubs around in a fuming fit when his dad said something like "Tiger, golf is supposed to be fun." And Tiger said, "Daddy, I want to win. That's how I have fun."

Well, it's not fun to watch.

Isn't golf notoriously one of the more boring games on the planet? I don't think it's fun to watch at best. And Reilly carefully misses the point of his own anecdote (though I'd like to know the context in which Woods Sr. told it): Woods has evidently felt the compulsion to win since childhood. But competition produces far more losers than winners, and nobody thinks losing is fun.

As a Buddhist, Woods needs to learn to rein in his temper no less than his libido, but it could at least be argued that his craving to Win is a major part of the problem, and so is the competitiveness inherent in most sport. Sure, it's possible in principle to be a Zen golfer, totally unconcerned about winning or losing, just becoming one with the club and the ball, but the whole structure of sport at the level at which people like Woods play militates against it. Not only winning but large amounts of secondary money are involved. The stakes are enormous, and so is the stress. Maybe the Dalai Lama could play the Masters Tournament in a state of non-craving, but not many ordinary mortals can.

But this is what got my goat:
Golf is a gentlemen's game. Stomping and swearing and carrying on like a Beverly Hills tennis brat might fly in the NBA or in baseball or in football, where less is expected, but golf demands manners. It's your honor. Is my mark in your way? No, I had 6, not 5. Golfers call penalties on themselves. We are our own police. Tiger, police yourself.
Reilly may be right about the self-policing and "honor" in golf, I wouldn't know. But "a gentleman's game"? Ah yes, gentlemen. African-Americans have been involved in the sport for over a century, but they had to contend with the same racism that blocked them everywhere else. It's not dead yet, apparently. Even Tiger Woods faced it as a kid. Is my mark in your way? Get that black kid out of here. No, I had 6, not 5. There are all sorts of reasons why Woods needs to learn to control his temper, like his blood pressure, but being a "gentleman" is low on the list.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Who Would Barack Bomb?

Glenn Greenwald wrote a useful post at Salon on Wednesday, mocking Secretary of State Clinton's warning that Iran may be in the process of becoming a military dictatorship.
Reuters, February 15, 2010: "The United States believes Iran's Revolutionary Guards are driving the country toward military dictatorship and should be targeted in any new U.N. sanctions, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday. . . . 'We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the parliament, is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship,' she said."
As Greenwald pointed out, this is laughable. It even got some laughs from her audience, according to one commentator he cites.

Half a century of American foreign policy flatly contradicts this sentiment (which is why Clinton heard soft chuckles and a few muffled guffaws as she spoke). The US has adored military dictatorships in the Arab world, and has long supported states dominated by the shadowy world of intelligence services. This became even more obvious after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Washington intensified cooperation with Arab intelligence services in the fight against Al-Qaeda and other terror groups.

Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East are military and police states where men with guns rule, and where citizens are confined to shopping, buying cellular telephones, and watching soap operas on satellite television. Countries like Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Libya, as well as the entire Gulf region and other states are devoted first and foremost to maintaining domestic order and regime incumbency through efficient, multiple security agencies, for which they earn American friendship and cooperation. When citizens in these and other countries agitate for more democratic and human rights, the US is peculiarly inactive and quiet.

If Iran is indeed becoming a military dictatorship, this probably qualifies it for American hugs and aid rather than sanctions and threats. Clinton badly needs some more credible talking points than opposing military dictatorships. (Extra credit question for hard-core foreign policy analysts: Why is it that when Turkey slipped out of military rule into civilian democratic governance, it became more critical of the US and Israel?)

Of course the US adoration of military dictatorships is not limited to the Arab world. Honduras provided a recent reminder of that, to which the Obama administration responded with resounding waffling, but the whole Western hemisphere south of the Rio Grande has a pretty consistent history of military dictatorships we could do business with, and elected governments we couldn't. South Korea was ruled by military dictatorships for a quarter century, and the US has never been very comfortable since that happy state of affairs came to an end. So many "Free World" leaders when I was growing up just happened to be, if not Generals, then military men: Chiang Kai-shek, Augusto Pinochet, Francisco Franco, Anastasio Somoza, Manuel Noriega, and numerous rulers of Argentina, among so many others. Typically, when Somoza's dictatorship was overthrown by the Sandinistas, the US evacuated as many of his military thugs as possible for use against the new government.

For that matter, the Iranian revolution was barely over when the US began selling arms to Iran with Israel as the middle man, in hopes of bankrolling a military coup against the new regime that would return Iran to the bloody days of the Shah. Clinton's remarks seem more an expression of US wishes than a warning.

Clinton's current remarks also seem to represent a change from past US government propaganda on Iran. I mean, I thought that the Islamofascist Ayatollah Khameini and President Ahmadinejad were the bad guys who were trampling on Iranian democracy and threatening gallant little Israel with nuclear weapons, but according to the Reuters story,
Clinton later told reporters in Riyadh that she hoped "this is not a permanent change but that instead the religious and political leaders of Iran act to take back the authority which they should be exercising on behalf of the people."
If you're not used to government lying and obfuscation, you might think that Clinton here was endorsing the authority of Khameini and Ahmadinejad. Consistency and honesty are not part of the toolbox of Secretaries of State, nor of the Presidents they serve.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Minor News

I've been writing more reviews lately for, partly because Darcy's been putting them up there. Today my review of The Shower (Sonagi), a 1978 film based on a story from the 1950s, was posted; a couple of weeks ago The Naked Kitchen (which I also wrote about here); and just before that, the TV drama Thank You.

That's it for now. As you were!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Weather and Posting Forecast

Maybe because of the snow and cold and generally wretched weather, I haven't felt much like writing or anything else; I was beginning to think I was coming down with something, but a night's sleep helped. I've got a couple of big posts in the works, but for now, this clip (to which I was pointed by a couple of different people) fits well. As good satire should, it cuts both ways.

New Law Would Ban Marriages Between People Who Don't Love Each Other

Monday, February 15, 2010

Battered USA Still in Hands of Democrats

Sam Wurzelbacher, aka "Joe the Plumber," has found a new hook to try to claw his way back into the media spotlight: he's attacking John McCain for "using" him in the 2008 campaign.
"He really screwed up my life is how I look at it ... McCain was trying to use me," Wurzelbacher said. "I happened to be the face of middle Americans. It was a ploy."
I'm not sure this ploy will do much for him -- it hasn't helped Sarah Palin much (via) -- but it is entertaining. The usage was mutual, after all; it enabled a right-wing white guy with no apparent qualifications to cadge himself a number of paying gigs even after his candidate was defeated, including a trip to Israel (via).

"I happened to be the face of middle Americans" -- priceless.

(This post's title is a slight modification of a Washington Post headline from January 2009 about Gaza and Hamas, and very possibly the Post would agree with my version.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gals Go Wilde

"... Perhaps I did not always love him so well as I do now. But in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable. This is the last time I shall ever remember it myself."
If I had encountered that line out of its context, I'd have guessed it was one of Oscar Wilde's aphorisms. But Jane Austen wrote it, for her character Elizabeth Bennet in chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice.*

Nor does it stand alone. There's also this one from chapter 60:
Miss Bingley's congratulations to her brother, on his approaching marriage, were all that was affectionate and insincere.
And then in chapter 61, the narrator informs us that after her marriage, Elizabeth's father "delighted in going to Pemberley, especially when he was least expected."

This line from chapter 20 isn't Wildean, but it jumped out at me as oddly "modern" the first time I read P&P:
"An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."
I've always thought of Wilde's humor as unique to him, maybe even invented by him, but I'm coming to suspect that I thought so only because I hadn't read enough 19th-century English literature. That suspicion was reinforced when I read Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1880 novel A Fair Barbarian, about a wild young gal of the American West who descends upon her father's sleepy English hometown of Slowbridge. Nineteen-year-old Octavia Bassett appears without warning (but with six trunks full of her wardrobe) at the door of her timid maiden Aunt Belinda. Her father, Martin, is a speculator in silver-mines of great but inconsistent fortune, and just as he was about to visit his sister Belinda for the first time in thirty years, his fortune went South, as we Yanks say, and he had to hurry back to America to build it back up again. (Do fortunes go North when they recover themselves?)

Slowbridge is ruled over, socially speaking, by the gorgon-like arbiter (arbitress?) Lady Theobald, a forerunner of Wilde's Lady Bracknell but lacking Lady Bracknell's greater wealth, station, and London address.
In Slowbridge, America was not approved of -- in fact, was almost entirely ignored, as a country where, to quote Lady Theobald, "the laws were loose, and the prevailing sentiments revolutionary." It was not considered good taste to know Americans, -- which was not unfortunate, as there were none to know; and Miss Belinda Bassett had always felt a delicacy in mentioning her only brother, who had emigrated to the United States in his youth, having first disgraced himself by the utterance of the blasphemous remark that "he wanted to get to a place where a fellow could stretch himself, and not be bullied by a lot of old tabbies" [8-9]
Martin Bassett must not have been the only Slowbridge gentleman who lit out for the territories, because there are hardly any left in town by the time Miss Octavia comes to visit. There is, of course, a working-class fellow who brings her trunks from the railroad station; Mr. John Burmistone, the mill-owner, a recent immigrant in small-town terms, of whom Lady Theobald doesn't approve any more than she does of Americans; and the mild-mannered (not to say milquetoaste) curate, the Rev. Arthur Poppleton. Since none of these are gentlemen, a love interest has to be imported, in the person of Lady Theobald's nephew, Capt. Francis Barold, who drops in to visit Slowbridge and becomes fascinated by the fair barbarian.

The first confrontation between Miss Octavia of Bloody Gulch, Nevada, and Lady Theobald of Slowbridge:
"You don't look like an English girl," remarked her ladyship.

Octavia smiled again. ... "I suppose I ought to be sorry for that," she observed. "I dare say I shall be in time -- when I have been longer away from Nevada."

"I must confess," admitted her ladyship, and evidently without the least regret or embarrassment, "I must confess that I don't know where Nevada is."

"It isn't in Europe," replied Octavia, with a soft, light laugh. "You know that, don't you?" [35]
Later, Lady Theobald takes note of the abundance of jewelry Miss Octavia wears:
"You are a very fortunate girl to own such jewels," she said, glancing critically at the diamonds in her ears; "but if you take my advice, my dear, you will put them away, and leave them until you are a married woman. It is not customary, on this side of the water, for young girls to wear such things -- particularly on ordinary occasions. People will think you are odd."

"It is not exactly customary in America," replied Octavia, with her undisturbed smile. "There are not many girls who have such things. Perhaps they would wear them if they had them. I don't care a very great deal about them, but I mean to wear them."

Lady Theobald departed in a dudgeon [39].
Miss Belinda remonstrates mildly with her niece.
But Octavia did not appear overwhelmed by the existence of the standards in question. She turned to the window again.

"Well, anyway," she said, "I think it was pretty cool in her to order me to take off my diamonds, and save them until I was married. How does she know whether I mean to be married, or not? I don't know that I care about it" [40-41].
Octavia is more of a Huck Finn than a Gwendolyn or a Cecily, but Lady Theobald is very much a Lady Bracknell-wannabe. Burnett, though born in England, moved with her family to the US at the age of 16, and spent most of the rest of her life there, with only occasional residence in England. She has a nice touch with the clashing provincialisms of America and Britain, and though A Fair Barbarian drags a bit towards the end -- Burnett seems bored with the story -- she wraps it up neatly enough, with some small surprises.

This was the first book I've read by Burnett with an adult protagonist, and it's a hoot. She's best-known now for her "children's" books Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden, which in their day were read and loved by adults as much as children. I think A Fair Barbarian would make a great film. There's a 1917 silent version, but someone today with the right feeling for a comedy of manners could make something very entertaining out of it. It's quite different in its tone and attitudes than I expected from 19th-century fiction, just as Jane Austen's novels shook me out of my preconceptions about what an English spinster would write about 70 years earlier.

Which brings me to something that kept occurring to me as I read Pride and Prejudice last night. The writing drips irony, and some fairly intense sarcasm. Do most Austen fans notice it? After re-watching Ang Lee and Emma Thompson's very fine and successful Sense and Sensibility a month ago, which missed or left out the irony too, I'm inclined to doubt it. As Jane Eyre is often mistaken for a proto-Gothic romance novel ("Always to be a governess and always in love," Virginia Woolf sneered in the 1920s), so Austen's novels seem to be thought of as simple proto-Harlequin romances.

For example, though Austen accepted her society's ideas about class and breeding, she knew very well that a title and thousands of pounds did not automatically make a good person. The Bennet parents in Pride and Prejudice are human failures in their different ways, but there is also the affectionate but insincere Miss Bingley, and even more there is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who despite her august station is not really different from the empty-headed Mrs. Bennet. I've been wondering what Miss Austen would have thought of the great working-class critic Raymond Williams's impression of his class 'superiors' at Cambridge:
The class which has dominated Cambridge is given to describing itself as well-mannered, polite, sensitive. It continually contrasts itself favourably with the rougher and coarser others. When it turns to the arts, it congratulates itself, overtly, on its taste and its sensibility; speaks of its poise and tone. If I then say that what I found was an extraordinarily coarse, pushing, name-ridden group, I shall be told that I am showing class-feeling, class-envy, class-resentment. That I showed class-feeling is not in any doubt. All I would insist on is that nobody fortunately enough to grow up in a good home, in a genuinely well-mannered and sensitive community, could for a moment envy these loud, competitive and deprived people.
*I'm referring to chapters in P&P rather than page numbers because there are so many editions of Austen's novels, and besides, the chapters are short enough to make it fairly easy to find a passage. I quote A Fair Barbarian from a 1995 facsimile reprint, by the University of Idaho Press, of the 1880 original, but it can also be found online.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Letting the PFOX into the PHenhouse

Irony, anyone? This post at (not to be confused with complains about fliers being handed out at a public school near Washington DC by a group called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, or PFOX (is there a corporate tie-in? if not, there should be). The poster claims that the fliers were handed out "officially", quoting a Washington Post article:
The schools are required to distribute literature that isn't deemed hate speech from any registered nonprofit organization four times a year, the result of a 2006 lawsuit, said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Public Schools.
Fair enough. Are gay non-profits distributing handouts at these schools? How about atheist or secularist groups? Are there gay-straight alliances in those schools? If not, why not?

The writer provides a quotation from the ex-gay flier.
"Every year thousands of people with unwanted same-sex attractions make the personal decision to leave a gay identity through gender affirming programs, including therapy, faith based ministries, and other non-judgmental environments," the PFOX flier stated. "No 'gay gene' or gay center of the brain has been found. No medical test exists to determine if a person is homosexual. Sexual orientation is based on feelings and is a matter of self-affirmation and public declaration."
This, of course, rouses the ire of the writer: "Huh, maybe next week the Montgomery County Public Schools would like to hand out fliers suggesting that the world is flat? Because that carries about as much scientific fact as what PFOX is saying."

Well, no, actually. It happens to be true that no "gay gene" or "gay center of the brain" has been found, and that no medical or other test exists to determine a person's sexual orientation. I don't even see what is wrong with saying that sexual orientation is based on feelings (what else could it be based on?) and is a matter of self-affirmation and public declaration (okay, that one's iffy, but just about everybody conflates sexual orientation and sexual identity). "Sexual orientation" is a pseudo-scientific term intended to give the impression that some physical mechanism has been identified which directs people's erotic and romantic interests, but the actual research being done shows that the researchers don't know what they're looking for, and the term has no coherent scientific basis.

The trouble with the quoted material is that, while many people do "decide to leave a gay identity", there is no evidence that they succeed. (By the way, remember what I said about confusing "sexual orientation" and "sexual identity"?) The history of the "ex-gay" movement is a litany of failure and scandal, including sexual exploitation of its clients by the people who run it. Back when it was a secular phenomenon run by psychiatric and other mental health professionals, the most it could claim was to change people's sexual behavior, and it didn't even succeed at that. Oh, and of course the claim that faith-based ministries and therapy are "non-judgmental environments" is absurd.

The ex-gay hustlers like to claim that they just want to give a choice to people who are beset by "unwanted same-sex attractions", and to tell the truth I'm sympathetic to that idea in principle. I've known many gay people over the years who hate being gay and do their best to make gay society unliveable for everyone else as a result with self-pity, self-destructive behavior, passive-aggressive acting out, and general tediousness. And of course there are those who marry heterosexually in hopes that it will normalize them, at great emotional cost to their spouses and children. If it were possible for those who want to change to do so, I'd be all in favor of their changing.

Plus, of course, gay laypeople who buy into the pseudo-science of "sexual orientation" accept the anti-gays' assumption that people have no right to make choices about their sexual lives: if we can change, they agree, we must change. But that doesn't follow, any more than people must change their religious "orientation", even though religion is a lifestyle choice, not an inborn condition.

But to repeat, there is overwhelming evidence that people don't change from gay to straight. This is actually rather odd, given the much vaunted "fluidity" of sexuality, which people who claim to believe in the biological fixity of sexual orientation often proclaim out of the other side of their mouths. The failure of change "therapy" doesn't mean, however, that homosexuality (or heterosexuality for that matter) is inborn or otherwise biologically fixed. Many acquired conditions are permanent. But no one knows why people are drawn to persons of one sex or the other, or to both. A case against the ex-gay movement can be made without relying on bogus science.

I agree that the false claims in PFOX's literature need to be countered, but so do the false claims on which the writer bases his article. The ex-gays should be challenged, especially on the issue of "choice": do they also support the choice of other gay people with wanted same-sex attractions to live our lives happily and openly, and do they oppose religious bigots who want to silence us? The Montgomery County school officials should be given pro-gay material (not compromised by bad biology) to distribute with the next batch of report cards. Surely the Human Rights Campaign or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force could work on such a worthy project?

Today We Have Naming of Parts

The title of this post, of course, comes from Henry Reed's World War II poem, "Naming of Parts." (Which, until I looked it up, I somehow thought was written by Philip Larkin.) That occurred to me while I was reading Peter Silverton's Filthy English: The How, Why, When and What of Everyday Swearing (London: Portobello Books, 2009). The book generally tends to ramble, but it contains a lot of interesting lore, and every so often I encounter a nice little stand-alone passage like this one, from page 5:
I studied psychology. Often, when you tell people you’ve studied psychology, they say something like: Oh, you can look right into my mind, can’t you? Usually, I say: Yes, I can.
Or this one, pages 87-8:
A good number of penis words involve the naming of the part. The old man, the old feller. Some are purely personal ones. A man called George, for example, might refer to his penis as little George: I am my penis, my penis is me. Or at least a mini-me. Or from another, perhaps, female point of view: his brain’s between his legs. In the intimacy of the sexual encounter, this naming of the penis is, I guess, another part of the arousal dialogue. (Which might explain why American researchers have found men not named Elvis but who do have a Little Elvis.) Beyond the bed, though, it can be something different. It’s hard not to think that by giving a personality to a penis, you are also giving it autonomy, an independent life beyond the rest of the body’s control. Desire is outsourced and can therefore be partly disavowed. It wasn’t me, guv. In the 1980s, there was a series of comic books about a man and his Wicked Willie. It was a dialogue – mostly about women, of course – between the two. Its irony is that the ‘dreadful little trouser mole’ is by far the sharper of the two brains.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Gaze in the Military

A friend sent me a link to this interesting article at MediaMatters.
WorldNetDaily columnist Mychal Massie advanced the dubious claim that if Don't Ask, Don't Tell were repealed, 25 percent of the military would decline to re-enlist, based on an unnamed poll of "military folks." But Massie's claim is refuted by the experiences of several other countries that lifted their bans on gays and lesbians serving but saw no such re-enlistment reductions, even when earlier polling had predicted such reductions.
Lots of useful information in the rest of the article. I was struck by this quotation from Massie's column:
Why is it so important to Obama to have homosexuals openly identified as such in the armed forces? Sexual orientation is a basic foundation of compatibility in battle. This is not a small issue. It will literally destroy the integrity of combat units, whether they be in the field, onboard ships, in airplane cockpits or in submarines.

A reader who is in a position to know told me that the "last survey among military folks [revealed] that 25 percent won't re-up if this happens. This means that to allow [the] 2 percent of those out there who choose this lifestyle into the military, we'd lose 25 percent of the experienced military folks who have morals."
Oh, really? "Military folks who have morals"? We're talking about an organization dedicated to perpetrating mass violence, or as Arlo Guthrie put it 40-odd years ago: "You wanna know if I'm moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after being a litterbug." Or as Naomi Klein wrote more recently, about people who fretted that a photograph of an American Marine smoking a cigarette set a bad example to young children,
Yes, that's right: Letter-writers from across the nation are united in their outrage--not that the steely-eyed smoking soldier makes mass killing look cool but that the laudable act of mass killing makes the grave crime of smoking look cool. It reminds me of the joke about the Hasidic rabbi who says all sexual positions are acceptable except for one: standing up, "because that could lead to dancing."
But that's trivial. I was more interested in Massie's rhetorical question, familiar to me from decades of debating homophobes: "Why is it so important to Obama to have homosexuals openly identified as such in the armed forces?" The point of repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell and the prior ban on homosexuals serving in the American armed forces is not to have homosexuals openly identified as such. Many will surely choose not to come out. The important thing is that no one should be penalized when they do, that no one should have to sneak around for fear of being discharged or imprisoned. It also means, for those who care about American military effectiveness, that the US armed forces will not have to deprive themselves of qualified personnel because they turn out to be gay. (The ouster of gay translators expert in Arabic has been something of a scandal since the first Gulf War.)

This has nothing to do with Obama. The justice of the ban on gays in the military has been under attack for a long time. Allan Berube's important book Coming Out Under Fire, Arthur Dong's documentary based on it, and Randy Shilts's book Conduct Unbecoming were important in showing the participation of gay men and women in the US military throughout the 20th century. As the rest of the MediaMatters article shows, there is no reason to believe Massie's unsourced claim that lifting the ban will cause an exodus of "military folks with morals" (giggle snort), based on the experience of other countries that have permitted homosexuals to serve. And I agree that gay people should have the same right as heterosexuals to participate in aggression against the people of other nations -- burning women, kids, houses and cities after being sodomites and sapphists.

Gay visibility has been a sore point for bigots ever since I can remember. I came out, in various senses of the word, in 1971, and have often fielded questions from straights and gays alike who just couldn't understand why I couldn't be discreet about my sexuality, the way heterosexuals are. That modest request has always struck me funny, since heterosexuality is anything but invisible in American society, including the military. It's probably not surprising that straights are unconscious of their inability to shut up about their sex lives, but it still startles me that so many gay people can't see it. When I point it out to them, they commonly respond that we shouldn't sink to Their level, turning straights from Role Models to Bad Examples in the flap of a wrist. And while I have no objection myself to public orgies, by "gay visibility" I mean nothing more blatant or radical than declining to pass for straight. During a recent Facebook dust-up over Proposition 8, someone about my age wrote to me that he had no problem with gays as long as we don't "put it in the street", whatever that means. I suspect he meant nothing more or less than secretiveness, shame, and vulnerability to being outed by bigots at their pleasure. No, thanks. Whatever my objections to gay patriots, I don't want them to be subject to official homophobic repression. If anyone is going to pick on them, it should be me.

P.S. A reader pointed out that the first link led to the wrong article; fixed.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Paradise by the Dashboard Light

I have mixed feelings about Rebecca Solnit. I like her when she's writing critically, as she does in her essay "Men Explain Things to Me Facts Didn't Get in Their Way" or her contribution to The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle. I'm not so pleased when she starts getting spiritual. Take her new and important book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (Viking, 2009). Her project there is to counter the myth of people reverting to "savagery" when things get tough -- you might call it the Lord of the Flies myth. The corporate media dusted this one off right after the earthquake in Haiti, partly to support a US military occupation but also because media people believe it, as most elites do. That's probably projection, because it is elite groups who live in a constant state of Hobbesian war of all against all. The myth also did yeoman's duty in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as the media tried to depict black residents of New Orleans (rather than white Blackwater operatives) as violent looters.

Anyway, early on in her book Solnit writes:
Few speak of paradise now, except as something remote enough to be impossible. The ideal societies we hear of are mostly far away or long ago or both, situated in some primordial society before the Fall or a spiritual kingdom in a remote Himalayan vastness. The implication is that we here and now are far from capable of living such ideals. But what if paradise flashed up among us from time to time -- at the worst of times? What if we glimpsed it in the jaws of hell? These flashes give us, as the long ago and far away do not, a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become. ... The door to this era's potential paradises is in hell [page 9].
Eeeuuuw. I'm sorry, there are just so many things that I object to here. I'm not interested in an "ideal" society, which almost by definition is a society that exists only in ideas. Yes, a man's reach should exceed his grasp and blah blah blah, but I think that in trying to imagine a society worth living in, we must also attend to what is possible. (I think Paul Goodman said something to that effect once.) The good news of Solnit's book (and others like it -- see also Alfie Kohn's The Brighter Side of Human Nature) is that solidarity, consideration, empathy, kindness and generosity are possible, are workable.

But y'know, it isn't just "now" that paradise is used to refer to something far away or long ago. It has been used that way for a couple of thousand years. Ultimately it comes from a Persian root meaning a walled garden, which tells you something right there: it's a hiding place, a refuge from the unpleasantness outside. Luke's gospel says that Jesus assured the good thief on the next cross over that "today you will be with me in paradise," presumably meaning Heaven -- which is something remote and impossible if anything is. But I also see from the Wikipedia article that in contemporary secular use the term refers to "'a society (whether it be hypothetical or otherwise) whose organizational features serve to render, and are fully calibrated towards, the harmonious luxuriating development of the psychological, physiological and creative natures of mankind. As such, a society, continent or planet so constructed, naturally provides a suitably nourishing and convivial social and educational formulae apt to bring about unconditional joy and happiness within that populace'."

An old friend, who was in Philosophy before she switched to Political Science, took a similar stance, which now that I think of it helps me understand why that last sentence I quoted especially sets my teeth on edge. We were discussing the problem of suffering (or the problem of evil, as it is more commonly called), the dilemma which asks how an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good god could permit so much misery in the world. My friend argued that this world is Hell: it's a test, or a purgatory, or something. Apparently she believed that when we die the testing will be over and we'll go to a better place. I've run into numerous people since then who've said the same thing. But according to the standard justification of Yahweh's relation to suffering, we suffer here because it's the best of all possible worlds: as the conservative Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga put it, God could not create a world with less suffering in it. That doesn't mean this world is perfect, only that it is the best that poor, helpless, bumbling but well-meaning Yahweh can provide for us. This argument has troubling consequences for belief in a paradisiacal afterlife, because it means that this life is Heaven -- it can't, or at any rate doesn't, get any better than this. If that is true, we're in deep trouble, but I don't think it is true; and I don't believe in other worlds or an afterlife anyway.

Oh, maybe it does no real harm to use words like "paradise" and "hell" in connection with human societies, but it still makes me put my guard up. I know that it's probably impossible to avoid the use of symbols and metaphors, but these strike me as notably ill-chosen. "Hell" is particularly troublesome when applied to disasters, natural or artificial, since Hell is a place made by Yahweh for the punishment of the wicked; I don't think Solnit wants to suggest that the residents of New Orleans or Haiti were wicked and merited horrific punishment -- that's the attitude she opposes. As for "Paradise," I would like to live in a world where people had enough to eat, had suitable shelter, received adequate and acceptable medical care, were encouraged to educate themselves and provided the resources to do so; where conflicts were resolved without violence, where people renounced vengeance, and treated one another with empathy and compassion. But I don't think it would be Paradise -- for one thing, I suppose that in such a world there would still be conflict, still illness, accident, and ultimately death.

there would be conflict. I don't think a world without conflict would be a good place to live. So we must learn to live with conflict, not to fear it, even to welcome it as a way to learn from others and from ourselves. So I reject that secular definition of an earthly paradise which requires that such a society would be "harmonious" with "unconditional joy and happiness" in its citizens. Even if such a society were truly "ideal", it's not my ideal. But neither is the kind of society I just briefly outlined; I submit that it would be better than ours today, that it is possible and could be worked toward if not fully achieved. (How to work toward it is another question too complex to address now; I'll try to begin to address it some other time.)

And I had better concede right away that I haven't yet read all of A Paradise Built in Hell. It might be that at some point in that hefty volume she addresses questions like these. I've put the book aside for the time being, however, because I realized Solnit didn't need to convince me of her primary thesis about human cooperation during disasters -- I already believe it -- and I didn't feel like wading through her supporting evidence yet. I have too much else to read right now.

P.S. Solnit has a pretty good article at The Nation this week. I hope I'm not being too hopeless when I say that I think I'm actually pretty hopeful about human possibilities, even though I remember that Hope was the final evil to emerge from Pandora's box, and that the word "Hope" was co-opted by the Madison Avenue election campaign of our current President. Don't let him have it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Individualists of the World, Unite!

Now that the Heterosexual Oscars are over, many Colts fans are in deep mourning. Such is life -- you can't have a winner without a loser, or many losers. At alicublog Roy Edroso reports on rightbloggers' reactions to the big game, and quotes one Troy Nelson:
What happened to the days of pulling for organizations, teams, and players whom [sic!] best demonstrate the virtues of team work and heart and will power? Who overcome the challenges of a determined opponent on the level playing field of competition? Of blood, sweat, and tears? I guess in our coddled, emasculated, socialist society any overt demonstration or celebration of these qualities is offensive, too Darwinian, too Randian, too capitalistic.
Ah yes, professional sports are certainly capitalistic, with the heroic players working for the Ellsworth Tooheys of America. But "Darwinian"? I thought good conservatives repudiated Darwin. What the Creationist/Intelligent Design take on team sports would be I don't know. "Randian"? Ayneleh was apparently ambivalent at best about Darwin. I'm not sure what she would have thought of the Superbowl -- surely it would have been too corporate for her, though she never let herself be hobbled by consistency -- but one of her disciples assures the faithful that "no guilt is called for, because watching sports satisfies a vital human need." And this acolyte somehow manages to turn subordination and sacrifice in the service of the group into selfishness and self-glorification; that's fundamentalism for you, which manages to interpret a text until it means its opposite. (Not all Objectivists agree, however.)

That is why the economist John Kenneth Galbraith took on the subject years ago:
I once wrote a piece of which I was at the time very proud (I maybe shouldn't go back and read it again), arguing somewhat ironically that socialism in the United States was the result of organized sports. It takes people at a vulnerable age and makes teamwork, more than individual work, the thing. It subjects people to the authority of the team captain or the coach, and as I say, this is at an age where people are vulnerable. And therefore, team sports are the breeding grounds for socialism and must be watched very carefully. And I had an organization in the piece -- this ran in Harper's -- called "the CIA": the Congress for Individualist Athletics. It was written under a pseudonym because I was then an ambassador, I couldn't write under my own name. One day the postman struggled into my room at Harvard with a pile of letters this thick that had been sent on from Harper's from people who, well, they fell into three classes:
  • people who wanted to know whether it was real or not;
  • people who wanted to join; and
  • people who demanded that I exclude baseball from the list because baseball is not, as they said, a "socialist" sport: when you're up at bat, you're on your own.
Well, it's an example of the dangers of using irony. Under the best of circumstances, many people are going to take it seriously.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Party of Populist Anger -- The Envelope, Please

Glenn Greenwald has some good commentary on a New York Times article about Wall Street's "buyer's remorse" -- that is, they bought and paid for Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress, but now they don't think they got their money's worth, so they're going to buy some Republicans instead. As Greenwald points out:
that Wall Street is dissatisfied with the Democrats and the Obama administration reveals how extreme are their expectations of control of the Government. The second-highest-ranking Democratic Senator, Dick Durbin, recently conceded of the Democratic-controlled Congress: "frankly, bankers own the place." It's impossible to find a more loyal and attentive servant to bankers than Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. As the NYT article this morning details, Wall Street executives and their lobbyists have virtually unfettered access to the administration and to the President himself. You would think they'd be satisfied with the state of affairs in Washington. Yet so extreme are their perceived entitlements of control that even mere symbolic and rhetorical disobedience from the politicians they own -- he said some mean things about us -- creates a sense of righteous grievance: our government employees do not behave this way toward us and will be punished if it continues.
note that, more than a year later, Wall Street can only complain about "rhetoric," not any actual legislation that has been passed ...
As the Times writer says, "Bankers, unhappy at the president’s proposals for tighter financial regulations, are shifting donations to Republicans." That's proposals. By the time Obama gets through being bipartisan, it's not likely those "tighter financial regulations" will amount to anything that could trouble a banker's sleep or digestion. Read all of Greenwald's article. Every voter should be aware of the Times article, the bankers' threats, and the Republicans' (and the Democrats') readiness to do the bankers' bidding.

And not that it matters, but this might come in handy:

But don't forget that Obama also supported Bush's bailout. It's easy to make fun of the ignorance of Palin's fans, but Obama's fans are no better.