Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Good News for Modern Persons

There was an interesting post at A Distant Ocean recently, about an American Iraq War veteran named Victor Agosto, who refused deployment to Afghanistan. As a result he was court-martialed and sentenced to a year in prison. He appeared on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, and explained how he got to the point where he began to resist.

VICTOR AGOSTO: It just didn’t make sense to me why we were there, why—why these contractors were making, you know, all this money. And eventually, I started making the connections between that and just the idea of empire. And I realized that what I was doing there was just that, just being a soldier for empire, basically, not to make America or Afghanistan a better place, I mean. So I read some books. I read some Chomsky. I realized that there’s absolutely no American moral superiority. There’s no—we were no one to impose anything on the people of Iraq or Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get a Noam Chomsky book in Iraq?

VICTOR AGOSTO: I ordered it on Amazon.com.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. Peter Pace was asked on Meet the Press about a former prime minister—I think it was Jaafari—that he said Chomsky was his favorite author, and Pace said, "I hope he has some other books on his bookstand."
So, John Caruso wrote at The Distant Ocean,
So think about that: there are people in Iraq and Afghanistan wearing American uniforms and carrying guns who are literally just one book away from changing their entire world view and refusing to kill. And that's one reason why writing about this stuff, speaking out, talking to people you know, spending time in discussion forums and so on really does matter—because you may never know what effect it will have on someone out there who's ready to hear it. ...

Assuming someone really was just one book away from an epiphany, what book do you feel would be most likely to get them there? Not limited to Chomsky, of course,
though it's hard to beat his combination of ideological orientation and information density if you've only got one book to change someone's mind.
An epiphany? Dewd. I'm all for encouraging people to read, and I agree with Caruso's remark about the importance of "writing about this stuff", but I found the evangelical tone here a bit off-putting, the sense that millions of ignorant savages go to sleep each night without ever having had a personal relationship with Noam Chomsky, but they are "just a book away" from salvation, if we give them the right book. What if Agosto had read a book by Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck instead? Oh noes! It's too awful to contemplate.

The discussion in comments was more of the same, with people saying things like:
Anyway, I did make the mistake of sending my father a copy of Manufacturing Consent; it was probably the wrong thing to start off with. Maybe The Umbrella of U.S. Power would have been a better choice. Especially given that he thinks Chomsky is a communist and a traitor to start with.
I have often thought about sending something by Chomsky to my career military brother, now retired. Then I realized that Chomsky can be read two ways: the way Chomsky wants to be read and the way that someone who thinks the US status quo is under attack from the left (and doesn't like that) would read it. Chomsky shows the left to be ineffectual. My brother would take it that way. He would be encouraged by Chomsky not 'converted'.

I can hear him saying "You want to give the country back to the Indians? That wouldn't work." Or something to the same effect.... And I think that Victor Agosto is rare and that Chomsky will find fairly few military converts in Afghanistan.

"Converts"? "Epiphany"? My dear. The writers seem to have missed Agosto's own account. He made it clear that he'd already figured out that something was badly wrong before he read the Gospel According to Saint Noam. I put it that snarkily, not because I would never recommend Chomsky to anyone -- I've put a few of his tracts into trembling hands myself -- or because I don't suggest reading materials if people ask me, but because of the rather patronizing implication that people like ourselves can lead a person out of political darkness by giving them the book that is all they need to have an epiphany. The older I get, the less faith I have in such a belief, or that much will be gained by reading any one book or article or author. I'd prefer to see more people explore a range of ideas and views, which seems to me a better way for them to figure out what they think or want to think, and will prepare them better to deal with people who disagree with them.

But that's just my own approach to things, which has become more routine as I've gotten older. Whether it was coming to terms with my homosexuality, deciding what I thought about Christianity, or about American politics, or many other topics, I prefer to canvass a range of views. For example, one of my personal turning points was seeing Tom Hayden speak at Notre Dame University in 1969 or 1970. This was when Hayden was still a left radical, before he became an all-too-mainstream American liberal politician. He explained how the US had become involved in Vietnam, how the US undermined the possibility of a political settlement in the 1950s and installed a subfascist puppet to rule the South. This was all news to me, so I went to the library and found a few books on the history of US involvement in Vietnam, and found that Hayden was right. Even though the authors of those books generally supported US policy, their account of the history agreed with Hayden's -- they just held that the US had to intervene, violating international agreements and law by doing so, because if there had been free elections, the Communists would have won. That had more of an impact on me than Hayden's speech had, because it meant that the historical facts weren't really in dispute.

The same thing happened with Christianity, though I'd been an atheist for years anyway. I'd say something negative about Christianity, and a Christian would tell me that I misunderstood Christianity, I shouldn't judge Christianity by this or that bad Christian, I should read this or that book and it would explain what Christianity really is. I read a number of books that such people recommended to me, each of which would be disparaged by the next Christian I talked to, who'd point me to the next one. Eventually I went to the source, the New Testament and its depiction of Jesus, which confirmed my atheism better than any atheist writer I'd encountered could have managed to do.

I know, most people probably aren't going to put that much effort into learning, even about things that they claim to take very seriously. So much the worse for them, and for the world we all inhabit. They baffle me, though: how can they care so little? How can they be so little interested in learning more about important issues?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Concentrate on the Future, Not the Past

It's Gay Pride Day, the forty-first anniversary of the beginning of the Stonewall Riots, and I've been reading parts of Philip Gambone's Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ America (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010). It's a collection of interviews with more than forty GLBTQ+ π Americans, ranging from young-ish to old, male and female and all points between. Unfortunately the interviews are quite short and don't go very deep, though part of the trouble might be that I've been reading the interviews with people I've already heard of, and they don't tell me much that's new. Richard Rodriguez is in there, for example, being as much of an asshole as usual. Gambone reports, "He tells me about the day at Berkeley when an African American student asked him why he was reading a novel by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. 'That's when I realized that I had entered a Dark Age. That I had entered an age when we were not allowed to know each other's literature'" (238).

What? The report is too sketchy for me to tell for sure, but I'd like to know why that "African American student" posed that question. I've sometimes been asked by Koreans why I read Korean literature and watch Korean films, and they're generally satisfied when I tell them that I find these interesting, and why. They ask, not to tell me I'm not allowed to know Korean literature, but because so few Americans (and too few Koreans) are interested in their culture. Even if Rodriguez' interlocutor really meant that non-Africans shouldn't be reading African literature, he was not speaking for the university. Students nowadays are expected to "know each other's literature": Achebe's Things Fall Apart is often assigned reading, and that's why we hear about culture wars, multiculturalism, and "political correctness." If there ever was a "Dark Age," as Rodriguez claims, it's over now. White students study Afro-American Studies (and join the African-American Choral Ensemble), men enroll in Women's Studies, heterosexuals do Queer Theory. The separatism that Rodriguez denounces simply isn't there in the academy.

There's also an interview with Frank Kameny, which further undermines Andrew Sullivan's claims about the history of the gay movement. Kameny tells Gambone that he "wants to watch the coverage of the city's gay pride parade. 'I may well be in it.' Indeed, that afternoon I watched from the sidewalk on P Street as Kameny, one of Capital Pride's 2009 'Super Heroes,' passed by in an open car, waving to the crowd" (171). Far from being ignored, Kameny's role as a founder of the gay rights movement is well known and celebrated, as it has been ever since I can remember.

Kameny told Gambone:
The homophile organizations that existed [in the 1950s and early 1960s] gave enormous credence to the so-called experts and authorities of the day. They weren't really militant. That wasn't me or my style... [171]
Kameny's "confrontational style became known as 'ferocious'", Gambone says. The radical gay movement of the 70s took that style and ran with it. Kameny's personal goals were what would be called assimilationist, since they involved gays serving in the Civil Service and military, and running for public office, but he also rejected the mainstream view of homosexuality as a sickness. Kameny joined the gay militants who took on the psychiatric profession -- again, far from being hostile to the post-Stonewall movement, he worked with it.
Kameny contends that these early demonstrations -- and the annual Fourth of July pickets in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, which Mattachine Washington joined -- paved the way for the Stonewall uprising in 1969. "By virtue of our coming out of the closet collectively, it created the mindset for protesting, so that when the events of the moment created the eruption on Christopher Street, people were primed" [175].
Sure, there was tension between left gay radicals and those whose politics fell into the American mainstream, but that is only to be expected. Kameny rejected the collaborationist approach of the homophile movement of the 1950s, and that was too much for much of the movement. As Kay Lahusen of Daughters of Bilitis told Eric Marcus, "We had one of our major contributors write to us in a private letter that only dirty, unwashed rabble did this kind of thing" (Making History, HarperCollins, 1992, p. 125) -- "this kind of thing" being picketing.
But of course, the new wave frequently tries to put the last wave out of business. Certainly, we had our differences with Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon at DOB [Daughters of Bilitis]. We had said to them, "You're over the hill. Your thinking is out of date." So GLF did the same to us.

Barbara [Gittings, Lahusen's partner] We didn't do that in a public setting.

Kay: But we took their magazine in a totally different direction, and they weren't happy with that. We thumbed our noses at them -- almost [Making History, 215].
I realize that to some extent Andrew Sullivan is doing the same thing. The difference, and it's a serious one, is that he still chooses to distort the history of the movement that came before him. There's no excuse for that in a day when that history is so widely and easily available; if he doesn't know it, it's because he doesn't want to.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Living in the Catacombs: John Howard's Men Like That, part two

I really did mean to post more on John Howard's Men Like That in reasonable time, but time got away from me. So here's more now.


Somewhere along the line, "identity politics" has become a safe and handy term of abuse, like "political correctness" -- and about as free of content. Howard throws it around several times in Men Like That, without ever making it clear what he means by it.

Impenetrable, unkissable men involved in homosex -- men that [informant and self-identified "trade queen" Ron] Knight describes both as "supposedly straight guys" and as "men" -- should not be understood within the present-day psychoanalytic frame of denial or the identity politics category of closeted. They should not be read as essentialized gay men unable to accept it. As this and the prior two chapters show, in midcentury Mississippi male-male sexualities happened within complicated worlds of myriad desires. To experience or act on homoerotic desire did not necessarily define the person as gay....

As sociologist Steven Seidman puts it, "The very possibility of framing homosexuality as a site of identity presupposes sexual object-choice [the gender of one's sexual partner] as a master category of sexual and self-identity." For many in this time and place, this master category may not have been at work as an identity mechanism; although, certainly, sexual object-choice functioned more broadly in American culture in the framing of acceptable and unacceptable, normative and nonnormative sexual practices [122f].
This passage is a clotted mass of misinterpretations of data, and of misunderstandings of theory. Howard mentioned earlier the amazingly resilient "heterosexual will to not-know, the pretense of ignorance" (xvi); were only heterosexuals capable of denial in those days? I don't agree that it implies essentialism to suggest that someone is in denial over his participation in homosex. If anything, essentialism facilitates denial: "Yes, I'm screwing a man (or getting screwed by one), but it doesn't count because I'm not queer." This mindset has often been lethal for men who didn't believe they needed to use condoms while being penetrated, since only queers got AIDS. An anti-essentialist can point out (as Kinsey did), that someone is engaged in homosexual activity without necessarily implying anything about that person's inner nature.

As for "closeted," there may not have been a mid-century Mississippi equivalent to refer to men who declined to acknowledge (to themselves, or to others) what they were doing sexually. I see no reason not to use the accepted current label unless one is devoted to producing a purely emic account of midcentury Mississippi queerdom, which Howard is not.

Whether trade -- "Impenetrable, unkissable men involved in homosex" -- should be understood as closeted or in denial depends on the individual. For Howard's impenetrable and (initially) unkissable informant Mark Ingalls, who now sees himself as gay, both denial and the closet were definitely involved: Ingalls himself reports his mother's reproval on his second (!) heterosexual marriage: "Knowing what you know, why are you doing this?" (46) As Howard notes, "Avoidance of the topic did not indicate a lack of awareness on either side" (ibid.), and refusing to call something by its name doesn't remotely imply that you don't know that name. Trade don't refuse to think of themselves as queer because they are anti-essentialist: they are extremely essentialist, and in their social world they are essentialized Real Men. "Queer" represents what is outside manhood's carefully patrolled (because highly permeable) boundary.

And Queers were just as invested in that construction, as shown by Howard's informant Ron Knight, who says "A drop of sissy come would choke us. If we were going to go down on anybody, they would have to be men, trade" (122). (Another example, from Mexico City: "The vestidas disapprove of any signs of femininity in their partners. For example, bisexual men who are apparently manly but who secretly let themselves be penetrated as if they were homosexuales are often criticized by the vestidas, even when the vestidas are the ones who penetrate them" [Prieur 1998, 166]) Fellows like Ron Knight, incidentally, make it quite clear that "sexual object choice" – Men -- was a major and defining factor in their sexual identities.

A Real Man out looking for fun in postwar Mississippi would probably not consider a Queer equivalent to a woman as a sexual partner - but that might be part of the Queer's appeal. Women cost money, directly or indirectly; a Queer might pay the Real Man. This risked putting the Real Man in a feminized position, a fact which must never be mentioned, making it all the more important that his Real Manhood be maintained in bed. Or at least officially, out of bed.

The Real Man / Queer binarism is too restrictive to account for all sexual interaction between men, even in areas where that model is the norm. In parts of Latin America where the Real Man / Queer dichotomy still rules, there are Real Men who want to be penetrated some of the time, and who may seek out Queers to penetrate them. But this is a dread secret and may be denied in the act: "My experience of stubborn denial is indeed confirmed by Murray ... , who says he has 'been told by young Latinos with semen inside their rectums that they never get fucked.'" (Prieur 1998, 199). Howard, by contrast, seems unaware of such complexity -- he's at least as invested in the traditional dichotomy as any Real Man, or any Queer.

Finally, it simply is not true that "The very possibility of framing homosexuality as a site of identity presupposes sexual object-choice as a master category of sexual and self-identity." Despite its etymology "homosexual" originally referred to the invert, the Queer, the woman's soul trapped in a man's body – all quasi-heterosexual constructions of same-sex desire and behavior -- and only gradually and inconsistently was extended to all those who loved their own sex, regardless of "gender performance." The invert was an identity, and inversion as a "master category" encompassed both "gender performance" and "sexual object-choice" -- the latter being assumed on the basis of the former or vice versa, which is a reminder that sexual-object choice and gender performance were inseparable in the 19th century. (And still are in many cultures today, including much of the US.) This should not be news to anyone who really has been informed by queer theory, but it seems to be news to Howard.

Howard's insistence on the variety of motivations that brings men to sex with other males then (as now) is well-taken, but it hasn't been news since Kinsey (et al., 1948) at least. (It was an essentializing American society, which included an essentializing gay world, which assumed the 37% of males who'd had orgasms with other males must all be Queers.) More important, he seems to be unable to do anything but state and reiterate that insistence, renouncing essentialist binarism and its evil works. Yes yes yes, not all men who insert their penises into the orifices of other men's bodies, or who receive other men's penises into their orifices, are properly categorized as "gay" or "homosexual" -- so what? Howard has nothing new to tell us about how such men saw themselves, or even how they were seen by the men they penetrated. Nor does he cast any light on those "complicated worlds of myriad desires" in which his Queers and Real Men came together.

Even if we grant that there was "a heterosexual / homosexual dyad prevalent throughout American culture during the twentieth century", it's not obvious that the Real Man / Queer dyad which governed much sexual interaction between males in midcentury Mississippi "did not privilege sexual-object choice, or the biological sex of one's partner, a primary technique of categorization." While the Real Man may truly not have cared whether he penetrated a woman or a man (though I doubt it as a general rule), the Queer wanted to be penetrated by a Real Man, which sounds like a privileged sexual-object choice to me. (An essentializing Queer can explain away any heterosexual contacts he may have by recourse to the same strategies a Real Man uses: it doesn't count, because he really isn't That Way.)

Howard wrongly implies that "binarized conceptions of sexual identity" were something new to the US, or the Deep South; the Real Man / Queer binary disproves that. And the heterosexual / homosexual dyad hasn't become universally hegemonic in American society to this day; if nothing else, the "new" category employed in AIDS education, of Men Who Have Sex With Men, shows that. (See also Leap 1999.) As other writers have shown, George Chauncey among them, it was not just that "the" homosexual concept was transmitted to different regions at different rates; multiple concepts coexisted in any given place, and they diffused through different ethnic and class groups at different rates even in the same city. (It may also be that the Homosexual / Heterosexual dyad provides a touchstone of denial for many Men Who Have Sex with Men, creating more of the latter or letting them create themselves.)

The polemic heats up when Howard discusses gay activism in Mississippi. Though gay organizing in Mississippi began as early as 1959, the Mississippi Gay Alliance (MGA) offered the first sustained activist visibility the state had seen. But:

In the 1970s MGA membership never totaled more than a few dozen, with white membership always vastly outnumbering black. Influenced as it was by identity politics, most notably an increasingly national lesbian and gay movement, gay organizing clashed with local sensibilities, queer and nonqueer. For decades sexual deviants and gender nonconformists in Mississippi had functioned quietly but effectively within rural and small-town contexts, outmaneuvering hostile forces. [Except, of course, when those "hostile forces" -- which according to Howard were never inherently hostile -- arrested, harassed, beat, or killed them. And "effectively" at what?] Queer Mississippians even in remote parts of the state were nonetheless visible and available to one another. Gay politics required a different sort of visibility. Most disturbingly, it required clear-cut identity statements, individuals' open and public avowal of homosexuality, a speech act that some belligerent lawmakers and law enforcers interpreted as a felony in and of itself (attempted sodomy)....

Further, the category gay didn't well encompass the range and inventiveness of sexual and gender nonnormativity in Mississippi. And it made few allowances for those whose sexual and gender nonnormativity served as a relatively insignificant component of identity. For African Americans, for example, to participate in gay organizing meant to participate in yet another white-controlled, white-dominated institution. Though homosexuality and gender insubordination clearly weren't just a white thing, gay political organizing for the most part was [239].
All the evidence Howard musters indicates that non-involvement in MGA had much more to do with wholly rational fear and hopelessness than with a distaste for "identity politics." (As shown, for instance, by the terrified small-town resident who wrote anonymously to the Jackson Daily News advice columnist, asking him to publish MGA's contact information instead of mailing it to him directly: "'I can't reveal my name ... because of the small town in which I live'" [238]. Not because homosexuality was "a relatively insignificant component of identity" -- just the opposite.)

And how is gay African-Americans' reluctance to get involved in one more white-dominated institution -- as though it were utterly unthinkable that they start their own! -- an "example" of people whose queerness was "a relatively insignificant component of identity"? It was significant enough to produce conflict in people who felt they had to choose between one component of their identity and another. Also, since "gay", like "queer," has always been multivalent, including significant amounts of gender insubordination (and certainly did in the early 70s), in Mississippi as elsewhere, how can Howard say that it doesn't "well encompass the range and inventiveness of sexual and gender nonnormativity in Mississippi" etc.? Once again, his evidence just doesn't support his conclusions.

Nor does the "different sort of visibility" and "individuals' open and public avowal of homosexuality" required by gay activism have anything to do with "clear-cut identity statements." Rather, as Howard is aware, the difference is between being visible to other gay people and being visible to straights. Such visibility meant a whole new way for queers to think about themselves, but that was as true, as challenging, and as disturbing to college-educated white professionals in New York City as it was to preachers' sons with an eighth-grade education in Mississippi. Chanting "identity politics" like a mantra obscures the real issue, which is that being visible to straights as a Queer formerly happened only involuntarily, through arrest or murder. What the gay movement advocated was not "identity" -- that was already present -- but a rejection of shame in being gay. It also wrested the power to label from straight society, and put it into queers' own hands, an act of insubordination that bothered many straights for a long time after.

Finally, Howard cites the nascent Metropolitan Community Church as a corrective to MGA's thoughtcrime: "They [the MCC] found fertile soil in Mississippi" (245). "Such ecclesiastical gatherings, in stark relief to in-your-face activism, could generate the support of some liberal politicians" (240). But the binary opposition he hopes to construct collapses almost immediately, since "The leadership of the two organizations [MGA and MCC] was intimately intertwined..." (248), and the MCC became involved in "in-your-face activism" by opposing Anita Bryant's late-70s antigay crusade and the Mississippi Moral Majority. In other words, it may not have been that the MCC itself was so attractive, as Howard implied earlier in the chapter, but the visible threat of organized bigots that got Mississippi homos off their butts. But with that came once again the serpent in the Garden, the spectre of "identity."

"While the enumeration and articulation of gay institutions appeared an invitation to many, it seemed a barrier to others, a signal that an identity-based community, by its very nature, excluded some as it smoothed differences among the elect ... Where gay identity politics flagged, a gay social gospel flourished" (251f). This is a false antithesis, and anyway, it ain't true, as the next quotation shows. The "gay social gospel", Howard laments, included "gay identity politics":

Some visitors to MCC felt particularly unwelcome. As Kathy Switzer recalls, the congregation was entirely white. Though African-Americans visited, "they would always go back to their home churches because they felt more comfortable there." One black worshiper explicitly stated the dilemma to the group: "It's hard enough to be black. You want me to be gay too?" "Yes," came the response. "You play with the boys, honey. Don't you think it's time to identify yourself?"

Indeed, identity was the issue... [253]
Indeed, was it? It wasn't that the MCC whites wanted that "black worshiper" to "be gay" -- he was already, and he knew it. What was going on there was not a conflict between those who espoused "identity politics" and those who didn't: it was about conflicting allegiances to different identities. Howard approvingly tells the story of an African-American community leader whose political career managed to survive repeated homosexual scandals. This was a triumph of African-American identity politics -- the demand that racial solidarity should trump every other consideration, a demand that finally ran aground on the controversy over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court. Howard seems not to be aware that racial solidarity is the paradigm case of "identity politics" in the US, or that such "identity politics" were what kept so many gay African-Americans closeted.

We're now seeing the rise of specifically African-American lgbt organizations, which is probably the only solution to the problem, and long overdue, since there are plenty of gay and lesbian and bisexual African-American exemplars. This will only confuse those who, like Howard, insist that you can only have one "identity" at a time. Like being bisexual, being gay and African-American is a multiple identity: the solution is to choose both, or more than both -- lesbian, feminist and black; gay, black and Muslim; and so on.

Kinsey, Alfred; Pomeroy, Wardell; Martin, Clyde. Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1948.
Leap, William L. "Sex in 'private' places: gender, erotics, and detachment in two urban locales." In Leap, William L. (editor), Public sex / gay space (New York: Columbia UP, 1999), 115-140.
Prieur, Annick. Mema's House, Mexico City: on transvestites, queens, and machos. [Worlds of Desire: The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender, and Culture] Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Social Justice for Me, But Not for Thee

Once again Andrew Sullivan demonstrates his aggressive fondness for disinformation. As he slouches toward his 50th birthday, that becomes less and less pardonable because of his youth.

In a June 16 post Sullivan writes:
The salience of the drag queen revolt in the West Village in June 1969 is not in any historical dispute. It was a cultural and psychological breakthrough - an empowering moment that clearly shifted something deep in gay America's psyche. But the notion that before this, there was no gay rights movement, that those amazing drag queens were the first gay Americans ever to stand up for their rights in public, is as preposterous as it is now deemed indisputable. Take this quote from Eric Marcus in the NYT today:
“Before Stonewall there was no such thing as coming out or being out,” says Eric Marcus, the author of “Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian & Gay Equal Rights.” “People talk about being in and out now; there was no out, there was just in.”
Has Eric Marcus heard of Frank Kameny? Many Dish readers have....
Why yes, Eric Marcus has heard of Frank Kameny. His oral history of the gay movement, Making Gay History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights 1945-1990 (HarperCollins, 1992), mentioned in that Times quotation, includes a lengthy interview he did with Kameny. (And extended interviews with several other pre-Stonewall-era activists.  It's a safe bet that Marcus knows more about that period than Sullivan does.)  Kameny told Marcus, "I was not open about being gay at that time -- no one was, not in 1957. But I was certainly leading a social life. I went to the gay bars many, many evenings. I've never been a covert kind of a person, and I wasn't about to be someone simply because I was working for the government" (94). He also said:
First of all, up to this time, homosexuality had never been publicly discussed. ... Virtually from one end of the decade to the other, outside the medical books, there was nothing anywhere on the subject. It was blanked out, blacked out. It wasn't there! ... And so the movement, predictably, in retrospect, did not take strong positions. It gave a hearing to everybody, saying, "As long as it deals with homosexuality, all views must be heard, even those that are the most harshly and viciously condemnatory to homosexuals. We have to defer to the experts." My answer to that was, "Drivel! We are the experts on ourselves, and we will tell the experts they have nothing to tell us" (97-98).
Kameny somewhat overstated his case there. There had been public discussion of homosexuality before he was radicalized. The Kinsey Reports (1948, 1953) had led to some public discussion of homosexuality, but gay voices didn't participate in it, partly because the media would not have permitted them to do so, and almost no gays would have done so openly if they had. The closest to such a gay contribution was Donald Webster Cory's The Homosexual in America (originally published in 1951), but Cory was also a pseudonym. By Sullivan's standards, Kameny himself would have been saying that there was no gay rights movement before Stonewall. And Kameny's attitude did not define the movement in those days -- it put him at odds with it.  Readers who've learned about Kameny only through The Dish should be skeptical about what they've learned.

Of course, what Marcus said to the Times in no way claims that there was no gay rights movement in America before Stonewall: he was talking about being out, being openly gay. While a few people were out in that way before the Stonewall riots of June 1969, it was not characteristic of the movement. Kameny was, if memory serves, one of the few activists in the pre-Stonewall era who didn't use a pseudonym in their movement work. Sullivan concedes that "There was 'out' before Stonewall. It was a different kind of out. But I'd argue that the courage of a civil servant* in a suit and tie marching outside the White House in 1963 deserves just as much respect and focus as Village bar patrons six years later." True, but who said it didn't? Kameny was widely known as an important pioneer and respected (though there were of course dissenters) by younger activists when I came out in 1971, included in movement writing about the history of the gay movement, and the IU gay organization invited him to speak at its Midwestern Conference in the mid-1970s.

Typically, Sullivan refers to the Stonewall riots as a "drag queen revolt." In a follow-up post he admits that it wasn't: "It's also worth noting that many of those who fought back that night were not drag queens, but just regular homos who had had enough." "Regular homos"! In Sullivan's world there's no middle ground between "regular homos" (presumably white men like himself) and drag queens.  (It might be enlightening to ask Sullivan what difference it would make in his mind if Stonewall had been the work of drag queens only.)

He repeats his core falsehood: "My point was to push back against the idiotic - and politically loaded - notion that the gay rights movement began with Stonewall." No one that I know of, certainly in the gay movement, has ever said that it did. Sullivan's Exhibit A is the quotation from Eric Marcus that says something quite different, so I presume he has no real evidence to support his claim. He points to gay rightist Bruce Bawer's notorious essay "The Stonewall Myth," which makes the same false claim about the same straw men, and was demolished nicely (along with an early article on the subject by Sullivan) by Tony Kushner in his 1994 article "A Socialism of the Skin." (All but the last three pages of Kushner's article is available at that link. The Nation, where it first appeared, doesn't have it online. Shame on them.)
And the concerted attempt to erase the history of this older, more centrist (and therefore more radical) gay politics is itself a political move - to co-opt the gay rights movement for the New Left, rather than seeing it as a much more complex and diverse movement, that often used radicalism and revolt, but also deployed argument and logic in the long and winding road to equal dignity. In fact, this fusion of proud and openly gay engagement with American society with sporadic revolt against it has been the key to the movement's astonishingly swift success.
Sullivan's hobbyhorse, which goes back to the beginning of his career as a gay writer, is that "the gay rights movement" has been hijacked by the Left. This politically loaded claim is about forty years out of date: the US gay movement was dominated by the left for a very brief period right after Stonewall, and almost immediately abandoned Gay Liberation for a single-issue focus. Many New York activists left GLF to form Gay Activists Alliance within a year, and for most of the decades since, the movement has been dominated by "centrists" and assimilationists.

Those people are still too far left for Sullivan, though; that's his complaint. But it's Sullivan, not those forever unnamed gay leftists, who is trying to "erase the history" of the US gay movement; his picture is not only at odds with the history but even with the account of his own personal friend Frank Kameny. The Gay Liberationists also "deployed argument and logic in the long and winding road to equal dignity"; it's the gay Right that has relied mostly on ad hominems and fantasy. (And pseudonyms -- the leadership of the Log Cabin Republicans were still using fake names into the late 80s at least -- from fear of retaliation not from the Gay Left, but from members of their own party.) Sullivan's history of reaching out to the most bigoted elements of the Right is a sign not merely of naivete but a studied refusal to learn from experience. He's constantly shocked! shocked! to discover that so many conservatives, from the Pope on down, are hardline bigots; he continues to blame their bigotry on the "politics of performance art," and can't understand why they won't accept a nice Catholic boy like him as the true face of the gay movement, power glutes and all.

*P.S. There's another significant distortion here: I presume the "civil servant in a suit and tie marching outside the White House in 1963" is supposed to refer to Kameny.  Kameny was fired in 1957, and he wasn't a civil servant in 1963.  He had nothing to lose on that score by marching outside the White House by then.  Apart from that, Civil Rights demonstrators in the 1950s and early 1960s also wore suits and ties or respectable skirts, but racist right-wingers like Sullivan still trashed them and the government still beat and gassed them.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

American Exceptionalism

(Showing the spirit in Myeongdong, Seoul, 17 June 2010)

Korea's in the throes of World Cup fever, of course. The night their team played Greece, thousands of people went out in the rain to watch the game on a giant screen TV downtown. I stayed in and watched with my host and his family, who were much more excited than I was. Another friend told me he'd watched with his son and some other kids -- all boys, except for one girl who didn't know anything about soccer, and said she was sad for the Greeks when they lost. (A person after my own heart.)

Thursday, the night before I returned to the US, the weather was clear, if hot and humid. I'd seen lots of people swarming around the center of Seoul, getting ready for the outdoor gatherings. I was heading back to my host's when the game with Argentina started, and even at that hour the subway was only about half full of people. Several were watching on those small handheld TVs, and the whole car cheered when Korea scored its only point of the game.

My host's thirty-story highrise is on the outskirts of Seoul, in one of the New Cities (also called bedroom cities because too often the salarymen only go home to sleep, and to see their families on the weekend), so the towers stand in groups of three separated by some distance. As I approached the building I could hear cheering from a nearby highrise, and then cheering, yelling and screaming erupted from every building around me, in eerie multichannel surround sound. I thought the Red Devils must have scored another point.

As the whole world knows by now, they didn't, and the Argentinians won, 4 to 1. I felt most sorry for the Korean goalie, who is new to the team and probably felt the stress more than the other players did. When the same Argentinian player scored a second goal just a few minutes after his first, the Korean goalie flopped miserably on his face and covered his head with his hands for a few seconds -- just before getting back up to play again. It wasn't really his fault; the Argentinians really ganged up on the goal, and the Korean defense was so weak even I could see it. But not too sorry. Did any Koreans feel for the Greek goalie who saw two Korean goals go past him the week before? Only that little girl, that I know of.

I can enjoy watching soccer and some other sports, but only when I'm watching with friends who care about it. Otherwise there's no reason to, because I don't care who wins. Whoever wins, someone else must lose. (There was a lot of displeasure when the World Cup's opener, between the Ivory Coast and Brazil, ended in a tie.) I see the pain in players and fans on all sides, and I don't see any good reason to inflict it.

That's not why some other Americans are reacting to the World Cup with disdain, of course. Roy Edroso at alicublog linked to the legacy blogger Jonah Goldberg sneering at soccer, not because he's a racist but because it's like, foreign.

That being said, Goldberg has a tiny point in that latter post. Racism is a problem among soccer fans. But I don't idealize soccer or soccer fans, or sport generally; and admittedly sports fans tend to do both things with the sports they like. Is Goldberg claiming that racism isn't a problem in American sport, or is he simply asserting what he laughingly calls "balance"? (Yeah, we're racists, but you're racists too!) And just because the worldwide spread of soccer has something to do with British and other European imperialism doesn't mean that American imperialism doesn't have something to do with American lack of interest in soccer; if anything, it suggests that it does. Goldberg also protests that "First, the charge of racism as a motivator behind anti-soccer feelings is pretty bizarre given that the sports the rightwing trogs do champion – baseball, basketball and football – are dominated by nonwhites. And yet conservatives still champion them." Conservatives like this guy, right? In general it looks like conservatives "champion" those sports without abandoning their racism, complaining that the colored have taken over and are getting special treatment because it's PC. Though what matters is not the sport but the racism.

While it's probably not fair to pick on student journalists, except that so many of them will grow up to work for the corporate media without getting much smarter, I must cite this opinion piece from the student paper here.
What about soccer is even remotely interesting? I guess you could say it’s a funny game to watch when grown men try their hardest to hit a ball with their faces. But other than those few NASCAR moments, it’s a low-scoring, boring game. But once every four years, Americans have to care about it.

... But let’s be real. There are only two sports in this world that are worth following: basketball and football.
Erm, sonny, "football" in most of the world means "soccer." Of course you meant "American football." Everyone's entitled to their own tastes of course, but I can't see how soccer is any more boring than American football or basketball or baseball. I personally would sooner watch paint dry than an American football game, but that could be because I like the look of soccer players more; and I don't even watch soccer unless my Korean friends sit me down in front of a TV set during World Cup. And if soccer is so boring, why is it so popular in most of the world? The writer seems to explain this in terms of "the weight of the rivalries countries have with each other, like the England-Germany rivalry and that of Brazil and Argentina", but you could do the same with the rivalries in the Big Ten, the Ivy League, Notre Dame versus Navy, and so on.

But on to a more serious thinker. The most attention Noam Chomsky has ever gotten in the US corporate media was for speaking lightly of sports.
[PHIL] DONAHUE: There's a part of the documentary [Manufacturing Consent] which has you on the podium, reliving the experience of going to a high school football game when you were in high school. And you sat there and you said, "Why do I care about this team? I don't even know anybody on the team." Here, Professor Chomsky, you go too far. You are cranky, you're anti-fun. We wonder if you ever knew the experience of a hot dog with mustard and a cold beer. And it is much easier, then, to dismiss you as the Ebenezer Scrooge of social commentary. Go away. You're not a happy man. You're scolding us for rooting for the high school football team.

CHOMSKY: I should say, I continued to go root for the high school football team -- the reason I bring it up is, it's a case of how we can somehow live with this strange dissonance. I mean, you conform to the society around you, and you're part of it, and you have the hot dog and you cheer for the football team. And in another corner of your mind you notice, "This is insane. What do I care whether this ..."

DONAHUE: What is insane?

CHOMSKY: What do I care whether this group of professional athletes wins or that group of professional athletes wins? None of them have anything to do with me.

DONAHUE: I don't know. I grew up with the Indians [baseball team], I was a kid in Cleveland ... it was a social experience, it was the smell, this huge Cleveland stadium. ... Those are memories. What's wrong with this? Why wouldn't you want to celebrate this?

CHOMSKY: I did the same thing. I can remember the first baseball game I saw when I was 10 years old, I can tell you what happened at it -- fine. But that's not my point. See, if you want to enjoy a football game, that's great. You want to enjoy a baseball game, that's great. Why do you care who wins? Why do you care who wins? Why do you have to associate yourself with a particular group of professionals, who you are told are your representatives, and they better win or else you're going to commit suicide, when they're perfectly interchangeable with the other group of professionals. ...

DONAHUE: You had a relative in New York City who had a kiosk which wasn't quite on the main street, it was behind the train station. And God knows what kind of radical literature he was selling. And you're there, this little kid listening in -- no wonder you grew up to be such a radical who doesn't like high school football.

CHOMSKY: Unfortunately, I did like it. I'm sorry for that.
It's always been hard for me to tell whether Donahue means half of what he says; often it seems that he's playing devil's advocate, or dumbing himself down to speak for what he imagines his audience to think, and that might be the case here. (His audiences often seem to be more thoughtful than he is, judging from their questions.) Chomsky's response is interesting to me, though. When I first read this exchange, I mainly noticed that Chomsky'd had the same adolescent revelation I did, at about the same age -- that it was crazy to root for one team rather than the other, though I was reacting not to professionals but to my school's team. It's not their status as professionals that is the problem for me, it's the pretense that the enthusiasm of the opposing team and their fans doesn't matter. But rereading it tonight I noticed that Chomsky seemed to be reassuring Donahue and his audience that he was really normal, he did enjoy the game. I never did, and I don't care if I'm normal, so I don't feel any need to prove it.

As so often, Donahue misses the point: "it was a social experience, it was the smell, this huge Cleveland stadium. ... Those are memories. What's wrong with this? Why wouldn't you want to celebrate this?" Neither I nor Chomsky denigrate the social experience or the smell or the memories. It's the artificial structure of dividing people against each other on no real basis -- Cleveland fans versus St. Louis fans, Arsenal fans versus Manchester, Mexico versus Greece -- and the belief that it matters on some objective level who wins. Why would you want to celebrate one of the worst human tendencies, the tendency to believe that your group is better than another group because of trivial and often imaginary differences? The difference between a fan of one team and a fan of another -- to say nothing of the teams themselves -- is just that: imaginary.

Contrary to one popular apologetic argument, the obsession with sports is not about encouraging and celebrating excellence, nor is it about sportsmanship. If it were, the crowds would cheer the team that is playing well at the moment, regardless of its name, place of origin, team colors or mascot. (The association of teams with locations has long seemed funny to me, since the players are recruited from all over the place. And if I were to move to another city or university, I'd be expected to transfer my loyalty to the team there. This is one reason why I recognized sports enthusiasm as Orwellian doublethink.) There are other ways to celebrate excellence than competition. In non-team sports especially, competition isn't necessary for achievement, though it is imposed on the players and the situation.

If we want to encourage communal enjoyment, which is fine with me, there are other ways to do it. It is pleasurable to lose oneself briefly in the crowd, singing or chanting with many other people, and so on -- my preferred way of doing so was the dance floor -- and it is possible to do that without hating (even ritually) the crowd in the next town. That's what we need to do, but organized sport as it's now constituted does the opposite.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Back Home to Indiana

I'll be leaving tomorrow morning for the US, so there won't be much opportunity to do anything here for a day or two. Meanwhile, my review of a good new Korean film is up at Koreanfilm.org. I saw it in a theater in Seoul, with English subtitles -- a nice service provided for the Korean-challenged for a few new films. It turned to be quite popular, as I say in the review -- dislodging Prince of Persia from the top-grossing spot, and it's still doing well.

Here's a trailer for the film.

No subtitles, the tango music gives the wrong idea about the film's tone, and it's probably Not Safe For Work.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

For Watching TV Without Nausea, Try Dramamine

Just to keep things in perspective it's useful periodically to point out that one cannot watch TV without frequent nausea. One tunes in for a run-of-the-mill fifteen-minute broadcast of evening news on "NBC, the Community Minded Station" -- this is part of the station's public-service obligation -- and what does the newscaster Merrill Mueller show us? First governor Rockefeller and his bride returning from their honeymoon, looking merry enough; the Governor's first piece of official business will be a conference on Civil Defense. We cut to the President going into his birthday dinner in a New York Hotel; the dinner is at $1,000 a plate, and brings in $550,000 for the Democratic campaign fund; the President goes past a charming crowd of pickets demanding jobs and rights for Negroes and carrying a Jim Crow coffin; the President turns to grin at the camera. Cut directly to a suburban kitchen where a mother and her two children demonstrate the advantages of certain two-ply paper towels. We are back with the President in New York, dedicating a war-memorial at the Battery, and he is explaining that it is more natural for sons to bury their fathers (somehow this is especially disturbing coming from his mouth, but "it means that every generation must defend our freedom"). ... Next to some stock-market figures and a graph; and so to Gordon Cooper, the astronaut, reviewing boy-scouts in his home town and urging them to become Eagle Scouts, though he never made it himself.
This is from a column on TV that the anarchist man of letters (as he liked to call himself) Paul Goodman briefly wrote for the New Republic in 1963. It's collected in Format and Anxiety: Paul Goodman Critiques the Media (Autonomedia, 1995). Every now and then a liberal will yearn publicly for the days when the news media were the adversary of power, independent and fiercely critical. I always wonder when those days were. As this excerpt shows, very little has changed in the past 40-odd years.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Look to the Future, Don't Dwell on the Past

This morning, while I was getting ready to leave for Gumi, my host's TV set was on, tuned to the news. Although my Korean is rudimentary to the point of nonexistence, I could tell just by the sound that something was up, so I looked at the screen. It was President Lee Myung-bak, solemnly intoning something or other. For a while I was nervous that he might be announcing a declaration of war against the North, but my host's wife, who was watching and listening, didn't seem perturbed, so I figured it wasn't too big a deal, and left for the bus station.

Now I've had a chance to find out what was going on. As I prophesied here a couple of weeks ago, the ruling party did badly in the recent local elections -- spectacularly badly, in fact. So President Lee was making an apology to the nation and promising to be better in the future. He said he will accept the results of the election -- which is big of him, don't you think? He will reshuffle his cabinet. (Again.) He promised to give up the Sejong City boondoggle (which was originally a pet project of his disgraced but martyred predecessor Noh Mu-hyun) and let the legislature dispose of it. There were hints that he would abandon his big Four Rivers restoration project, which is opposed by many if not most Koreans. Do I believe him? Nope. Nor do many Koreans.

The Hankyoreh reports that Lee's tax cuts benefited only the top twenty percent of Korean households. (No wonder he got along so well with George W. Bush.) And it's an interesting coincidence that Lee and his administration trumpeted the sinking of the Korean ship Cheonan in the run-up to the elections: the accusations against North Korea were first publicized on the day the election campaign began. Oh, and the Korea Times, striking another blow for journalistic integrity, reports (in a story the required the efforts of two staff reporters) that sales of condoms increased dramatically on the night Korea defeated Greece at the World Cup.

More and Better Democrats!

But oh yeah, we had some elections in the US too a few weeks back, didn't we? Just primaries, though. The most depressing thing I read about them was this piece on the apotheosis of Blanche Lincoln.
Lincoln's comeback strategy was twofold: She took the anti-incumbent mood head on — "I know you're angry at Washington," she said in one ad — while making out-of-state unions a political boogeyman more scary than even, well, a Washington incumbent.

These outsiders, she said, "try to tell us who we are and buy our votes."

Former President Bill Clinton, still popular in his home state, especially among black voters, echoed Lincoln's messages.

With Clinton and Arkansas business leaders behind Lincoln, the race became a fight between the state's establishment (Lincoln, Clinton and the Chamber of Commerce) and the Washington establishment (unions).

Washington lost.

No, "Washington" won; the people lost. Of course, if they could listen to Obama and Bill Clinton and Lincoln, and forget that they are all three Washington insiders, the voters deserve what they will get. If all it took to defuse the voters' anti-incumbent fury was the sort of transparent lies Lincoln and Obama and Clinton told, then their anti-incumbent fury doesn't amount to much. (I admit, I thought for a moment I detected a trace of sarcasm in this writer's prose, but after reading it again, I think I was wrong after all.)

Glenn Greenwald had this to say about Lincoln.
She repeatedly joined with Republicans to support the extremist Bush/Cheney Terrorism agenda (from the the Protect America Act to the Iraq War and virtually everything in between), serves the corporate interests that run Washington as loyally as any member of Congress, and even threatened to join the GOP in filibustering health care reform if it contained the public option which Obama claimed he wanted. Obama loyalists constantly point to the Blanche Lincolns of the world to justify why the Party scorns the values of their voters: Obama can't do anything about these bad Democratic Senators; it's not his fault if he doesn't have the votes, they insist. ...

So what did the Democratic Party establishment do when a Senator who allegedly impedes their agenda faced a primary challenger who would be more supportive of that agenda? They engaged in full-scale efforts to support Blanche Lincoln.
This reminds me of what I've said before about Democratic party loyalists: when they talk about "we", they mean Democrats. They don't mean Americans, or human beings. They mean the party. That's okay, I guess, but it's important to remember for everyone who might have larger concerns.

Then, on Monday Greenwald linked to this video clip of a Democratic Congressman assaulting a college student who politely asked him a question. As Greenwald says, even if the kid was a right-wing stooge, it wouldn't justify Etheridge's behavior.

But they're not Bush! And surely, comrades, you do not want Bush back?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Doomed to Repeat It

Noam Chomsky has a statement up about the Israeli hijacking of the Mavi Marmara, with this important reminder:

It is worth bearing in mind that the crime is nothing new. For decades, Israel has been hijacking boats in international waters between Cyprus and Lebanon, killing or kidnapping passengers, sometimes bringing them to prisons in Israel including secret prison/torture chambers, sometimes holding them as hostages for many years. Israel assumes that it can carry out such crimes with impunity because the US tolerates them and Europe generally follows the US lead.

But remember, we have to look forward into the future, not backward into the past!

Incidentally, though the Israelis thought they'd confiscated all video and other potentially embarrassing evidence from the surviving passengers of the Mavi Marmara, some got through anyway. Even in the future nothing works!

And as a reminder that our brave armed forces, border police, and paramilitaries are ever-vigilant to protect America against the threat of terror, one of them shot a Mexican teenager on the other side of the border in the head. As usual, the initial government reports were lies.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Having Faith in Faith in Faith in Faith

I just finished reading 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. It's Goldstein's seventh novel (she's also written two nonfiction works on Godel's Proof and Baruch Spinoza), and it's the first book since her first, The Mind-Body Problem, that I've felt like re-reading. I want to write about it in more detail another time, but for now I want to focus on one of the issues it touches on without real depth.

The climax of 36 Arguments is a debate between the protagonist, lapsed-Hasidic atheist author Cass Seltzer and flamboyant Christian economist Felix Fidley on the existence of God. Fidley builds his case around the old chestnut that it takes as much faith to be an atheist as it takes to be a theist, and Seltzer doesn't do much with that in his rebuttal. I think I can do better.

(Incidentally, Goldstein puts into Fidley's mouth the claim that the philosopher Bertrand Russell "said that the difference between faith and reason is like the difference between theft and honest toil" [302]. Actually what Russell said was: "The method of 'postulating' what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil." He was writing about mathematics here, not religion. This is the kind of misrepresentation that is common among debaters, religious or otherwise. Goldstein, who's a philosopher herself, must surely have known the correct statement; I guess she decided to undercut her character. But she doesn't have Cass correct the error either.)

Many atheists respond to this move by arguing that atheism is not a matter of faith, that they believe nothing without good reason, and so on. Christopher Hitchens contributed a blurb to 36 Arguments, which sits atop the totem pole on the back cover: "You do not have to perpetrate an act of faith to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It is faith itself that consists of nothing. Rebecca Goldstein, on the other hand, is quite something." (A blurb from Hitchens, by the way, is as discrediting here as a blurb from Alan Dershowitz was for Sam Harris's The End of Faith.) Of course "faith" consists of nothing -- like numbers, words, ideas, or any other abstraction, including reason.

Anyhow, I don't think this move really succeeds. The traditional arguments for the existence of God have been attacked so effectively in the past few centuries that most theistic philosophers have largely abandoned them. It seems to me that for the same reason, while atheism -- starting from the absence rather than the denial of god -- is a reasonable position to adopt, it can't be proven. It's a stance, an approach, rather than certain knowledge. I can't prove that the god of Christianity (for example) doesn't exist; however unlikely I think it is, for reasons that seem solid to me, it is conceivable that I'm wrong and that the universe is ruled by such a being; I don't mind saying that I hope not. I'm not sure what I'm talking about is faith, but I think I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'd rather accept the theist's claim for the sake of argument and see where it leads. Let's grant for the sake of argument, then, that atheism involves faith that there is no god. Where does that take us? Not very far. First, it means that atheism and theism are on an equal footing. As Antony Flew argued in God and Philosophy forty-odd years ago,
The claim about the different provinces of faith and reason is presumably to be construed as implying that it is either impossible or unnecessary to offer any sort of good reasons ….

If this is the correct interpretation – and unless it is, the claim would seem to lack point – then it must be regarded how enormously damaging to faith this contention is, and how extremely insulting to all persons of faith. For it makes any and every such commitment equally arbitrary and equally frivolous. They are all made, it is being suggested, for no good reason at all; and every one is as utterly unreasonable as every other. [ix-x]
Outside a debating club, few theists really want to stand by this position, for the reasons Flew gives. To take it seriously would trivialize their own beliefs, and they do not really think that their religious commitment is on a par with believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Santa Claus. (I think that at its core this claim is really an expression of contempt for non-theists, whose "faith" they don't take seriously, though they demand that we take theirs very seriously.)

They believe that their faith is superior to my faith. I believe the reverse, but I also don't believe that faith is as independent of reason as they pretend to believe it is. So I modify the question I ask Christians about different varieties of Christianity. Here is your faith; here is mine. Since they are both, according to you, equally unfounded and trivial, why should anyone else choose yours over mine? If they are consistent, the theists will reply that there's no reason, and there's an end on't. But few theists are really that consistent. They have what they consider reasons, and that takes us full circle to the debating ground -- not debate as a sport for the sake of scoring points, but debate in earnest over the choice between life-and-death positions. And once you're there you've got to decide what reasons will count and which won't.

As I indicated earlier, I'm not sure that my disbelief is faith, because it's not clear what "faith" is. At one point Goldstein's Fidley says, "A man like Bertrand Russell, and presumably a man like Cass Seltzer, is faithful to logic" (303). That doesn't make much sense to me. Primarily "faith" means either trust or loyalty. In the Bible, faith means both, sometimes both at once: to trust Yahweh no matter what, and to be loyal to him no matter what. I don't think Russell was loyal to logic, any more than any worker is loyal to his or her tools. Russell was also more aware than most people of the limitations of both logic and mathematics; he wrote in his autobiography that he began by seeking certainty in mathematics, but "after some twenty years of very arduous toil, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing more that I could do in the way of making mathematical knowledge indubitable." Faith also has come to be a sort of euphemism for a specific religion, or for any religion, as in Dwight Eisenhower's infamous declaration, "Our form of government has no sense unless it is grounded in a deeply felt religious faith -- and I don't care what it is!"

I, however, do care what faith it is. Another thing that occurred to me as I read Goldstein's debate was that most people's religious life has little to do with faith; it has more to do with practice. A Pew poll I've quoted before reported that people who move from irreligion to religion offered reasons "such as the attraction of religious services and styles of worship (74%), having been spiritually unfulfilled while unaffiliated (51%) or feeling called by God (55%)." But people who began as believers often change their "faith" frequently. The same poll found: "In total, about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives. ... Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once." Faith by itself isn't enough, it seems, and it's the channels into which people pour their faith that leads to problems.

Unsurprisingly, believers love to tell of atheists who feel empty inside, with a God-shaped hole yearning to be filled. I used to doubt those tales until I encountered such atheists myself. I don't feel empty, and I don't think that believers have something good that I don't have. All they seem to have is something I don't want, a monkey on their back that often fails them when the going gets tough. When I look at the horrors of the world, I don't have to try to understand why such things can happen if there is a god, with all the unsatisfactory answers to that question believers have on offer. Among the least satisfactory of which is that God tortures his creatures to "send us the disaster to overcome." I'd much prefer to mark the disaster "Return to Sender" and let God overcome it; it might be good for his character. My objections to theism, especially Christian theism, are really more moral than they are about whether the deity exists.

In the sense of "trust," no, I don't trust the universe; since the universe is not a person, there's nothing to trust. And it would be foolish to do so, since the sun could go supernova, another asteroid could collide with the earth, there could be an earthquake or a tsunami or a volcano tomorrow. It's just Mother Nature's way of telling us to go fuck ourselves, for those who want to personify nature, which seems to me to combine the worst of religion with the worst of science. Which is a reminder that atheists are as different from each other as believers are.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Out with the Old Rascals, In with the New Rascals

Over at The Sideshow, Avedon Carol wrote:
...I was going to write about how documenting the atrocities is all very well (information is important), but the frustration of not being able to come up with a coherent response aside from telling people to organize (think about how vague that sounds: What does "organize" mean?) just made it hard to write. I may be somewhat hampered in my ability to form plans by the fact that I don't expect to be alive long enough to see any such plan come to fruition. My own generation just didn't see the developing threat from the right-wing coming - or rather, those of us who did see it coming were not in a position to do anything about it, no matter how much we kept warning people about media consolidation (which, don't kid yourself, has a paramount place in all this). We should all have been buying radio and TV stations or something, I don't know, but the wingers did it instead, and now here we are. I don't think we can rely on the internet as our sole organizing tool, and I think too many people do. I'm not saying it's not good to make use of the internet, I'm just saying there's not really a good way to focus information to specific audiences who wouldn't otherwise look for it when the net as it currently stands is a melee and there's a very strong chance that our owners are going to stop that by not letting us continue to participate in it with the freedom we have had so far. I still think people should do what I've been saying they should do for the last ten years: When you see something you wish your neighbors understood, make a flyer, print it out, and distribute it on doormats and through mailboxes, at church picnics, or wherever you can place them. It's what our Founding Fathers did, after all....
This is a problem that has concerned me for some time. One of The Sideshow's commenters was more sure of himself. I'm going to quote him at some length because there are no permalinks to the comments.
As for organizing in response to the increasing probability of a complete breakdown of representative democracy, what I say is that the True Pure Left is so small that it is manifestly incapable of doing much of anything other than being a nuisance to itself and small dogs. If it is going to accomplish anything, it will have to find allies.

In trying to make allies, it does well to remember that people tend to treat as enemies those who attack them. Therefore, if centrists are attacked by both right and left, they are likely to regard both as enemies. Only if the True Pure Left debases itself enough to admit that other people might have a f--king clue and leaves off being total a--holes in its search for absolute purity, it might have a chance at persuasion. I know for a certainty that you understand this, but some younger and dumber people may not.

However, even if the True Pure Left does all the right things to try to form alliances, sometimes the political/economic situation has to become right for potential allies to hear what they're saying. When that happens, people may not remember exactly whether the positions enunciated by the True Pure Left were sufficiently True or sufficiently Pure, but they will remember who was sympathetic to their concerns, and who behaved like an ass. That will determine whether they decide to work with the right or with the left.
This sounds persuasive, especially the part about "people tend to treat as enemies those who attack them." Ain't it the truth! Referring to people sarcastically as "the True Pure Left" is not going to win this commenter any friends, though it has the advantage of avoiding the necessity of making it clear just who he's talking about. It's, you know, them, the "a--holes." In fact the whole comment is laced with such emotive but vague labels: "centrists," "who was sympathetic to their concerns," But it's also a truth universally acknowledged that the Left in the US and Britain is vanishingly small, and unlikely to have much influence on political reality in the foreseeable future.

But as I pondered the commenter's words, something occurred to me. Again, the Left is vanishingly small in the US; no dispute there. But "centrists" -- we all know who is a centrist, trying very hard to be a centrist, though perhaps slightly favoring the center-right. That enabled me to decode the commenter's subtext. I wrote a reply, which I'm going to work from here.

It was good that he used "centrists" rather than, say, "Democrats." In the US context, "centrists" have embraced too many of the practices and rationales of the right, while still remaining True Pure Centrists, for me to want to build alliances with them. (Not that this matters much, since I am a True Pure Leftist with no political base, so who needs to build an alliance with me? Who even needs my vote? Not the Democrats, I'm sure.) That must be why the Democrats have been so successful in building alliances with the Republicans over the years -- they didn't insult them, but rather tried to understand their positions and ultimately to support them.

There's something else, though. I think that the commenter was confusing factions in the political establishment -- where, it's true, the left is vanishingly small -- with political beliefs and wants in the general population. Those of us who favored single payer, for example, were commonly caricatured by True Pure Centrists as ideological fanatics obsessed with a marginal position that most Americans couldn't care less about. The trouble with that claim was that polls have shown consistently for decades that most Americans want a government health plan or system. The difference seems to be that what he, with his alliance-building generosity of spirit, call the True Pure Left, talks about it, writes about, criticizes the political classes for ignoring it, and points out their relation to big Pharma and the insurance companies. Granted, doing so isn't going to win the TPL any friends in the political classes, but I'm not sure that's an entirely bad thing.

The same goes for Social Security. The True Pure Centrists want to downgrade it, privatize it, cut benefits, get rid of it. The mass of Americans want to keep it, and the TPC are unhappy that most Americans are too stupid to realize the political necessity of cutting back "entitlements." Again, it's mainly the TPL who write, argue, blog, about it and make unkind inferences about the political/financial interests of the TPC. And so on, from issue to issue.

When Avedon talked about organizing, I don't think she means finding common ground with centrists like Barack Obama and being nice to them so he'll be on our side. The problem, I believe, is how best to organize outside the True Pure Centrist political classes, who are not "the average person" and indeed are quite contemptuous of that mythical construct. It seems to be concerns about the well-being of most of our fellow citizens that prompt accusations of political Purity, revealingly enough. President Obama will find this out to his dismay, I believe, because as the economy continues to slog along without real improvement for most people, as our two wars continue and possibly are joined by more, when it comes time to go to the polls, they will "remember who was sympathetic to their concerns, and who behaved like an ass."

The voters' dilemma is that neither party is sympathetic to the concerns of the mass of Americans, so there's nothing to do but vote out incumbents. But that will hurt the party in power (currently the Democrats) more than the opposition party. President Obama owes his office and the Democratic majority in Congress to just that anti-incumbent sentiment; it gave him time to make the voters pro-Obama, but he's preferred to worry more about the good feeling of his corporate donors, which sooner or later will hurt him at the polls. When that happens, the True Pure Centrists, true believers all, will blame it not on Obama's failures but on the wickedness of the True Pure Left.

By the way, I've been seeing more and more talk lately about the perception of President Obama as a wimp, a wuss, etc. Even Avedon linked to another blogger's post entitled "Some Suggestions for Our Inert President." Inert? I don't think so. He's been quite assiduous in working for the interests of the corporate branch of our government, in bombing civilians, in anything which does not serve the needs of most people. Alexander Cockburn summed it nicely at Counterpunch this weekend, but I think he concedes to much to the public-relations concerns of media professionals and the politicians who depend on them.
The White House press corps – until recently without a presidential press conference for ten months – quizzes Obama’s press secretary about Obama’s evident inability to project anger about BP’s oil spill, now bidding to be the greatest environmental disaster in the nation’s history. Obama’s flack claimed his boss was “enraged” at BP. “Can you describe it?” asked Chip Reid of CBS. “Does he yell and scream? What does he do?” The best Gibbs could offer was evocation of Obama’s “clenched jaw”.

At least half of any US president’s job is play-acting, pretending to be in charge, on behalf of We the People.
I don't want Obama to put on a show of anger, which he could do without actually doing anything about the object of his anger. I don't want him to groom his image, I don't want him to "send a message", I want him to take effective action in service of the people who voted for him. Having done so, he can do his Joe Smooth routine for the media, and it might even be more convincing if he had something positive to be smooth about. One reason he's so visibly uncomfortable now, I think, is that on some level he's suffering the effects of saying one thing but doing another.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Genealogy of Morals

I can't now remember how I came across Morality as a Biological Phenomenon: the Presuppositions of Sociobiological Research, edited by Gunther S. Stent and published by the University of California Press in 1980, but I'm glad I did. Stent's introductory essay, which I want to write about later, is especially interesting, and I'm still working my way through the book.

"The Biology of Morals from a Psychological Perspective," by P. H. Wolff, seems at odds with the general approach of the collection. Wolff, a developmental neuropsychologist in Boston, puts his foot in it on the very first page.
Like other natural scientists, biologists are guided by an ethical code of procedure, but they usually take for granted the values implicit in the scientific method. The scientific study of human morals, however, makes values themselves the subject matter for investigation, and therefore requires an explicit definition of morality and of the criteria by which various behavior patterns can be categorized as moral. The ultimate criterion applied by biologists to evaluate the relevance of social behavior is survival of the genotype. Natural selection operates on social behaviors that promote reproductive advantage, whereas the individuals whose moral behavior has evolved are not, or need not be, aware of the reasons for the selective fitness of their behavioral genotype.
By contrast, moral philosophers, and at least some psychological theories of morality, consider as moral only those forms of human behavior for which intention, deliberate choice among equally determined actions, and awareness of the social consequences of alternative actions can be assumed. Social behavior that is so rigidly determined by biological mechanisms as to be involuntary is considered to have no more moral content than the human sucking reflex or the gaping response of the herring gull. Yet, from a rigorous biological perspective, both reflex behaviors would have moral relevance. The biological and psychological approaches to human morals may therefore diverge so greatly as to be irreconcilable.
By positing survival of the genotype as a necessary and sufficient sufficient criterion of moral behavior, the biological approach either trivializes the central problems of human morality, or dismisses them as irrelevant epiphenomena. ... We are inclined to absolve transgressions of responsibility when medical diagnosis identifies the physiological causes of antisocial behavior, but we insist on moral responsibility when no such causes can be demonstrated. Thus, we arrive at a classification of human morals under which only social behavior is considered to have moral content for which no causal mechanisms can be demonstrated. Should progress in biological research eventually all varieties of pro- and antisocial behavior in terms of metabolic processes, the belief in moral autonomy and freedom of choice would itself be shown to have genetic determinants, and the traditional views of human morality would evaporate as historical curiosities [83-85].
It's true that the ultimate criterion in evolutionary theory is survival of the genotype, but I can't see any reason to call it moral. Scientists are of course free to grab any term they like, redefine it to suit their research program, and use it happily. Physicists who refer to the "color" or "beauty" of subatomic particles are in little danger of confusing non-physicists or themselves with the possibility that beauty in a quark is the same as beauty in a person, let alone that quark beauty is True Beauty, and that traditional views of human beauty are curiosities suitable for museums and the scrap heap of history.

When biologists and wannabes borrow terms like "moral" or "selfish" for their own use, though, trouble usually ensues. Not only the ignorant masses but the scientists themselves have trouble distinguishing between the different meanings, and it doesn't help when scientists claim that their definition is the real deal, and the "traditional view" just a superstitious vanity. So you get someone like Richard Dawkins insisting that the "selfish gene" isn't selfish in the same way people are, that in any case having selfish genes doesn't make individuals selfish, though he also says that we are born selfish, but are able to "transcend" our genes in some mysterious way.

While "the sucking reflex" that enables a newborn to get nourishment from its mother's breast is valuable for its own survival and so for the survival of Homo sapiens as a species, it really doesn't make any sense to call it "moral", even biologically moral. I suspect that behind such redefinition there lurks a Platonic conception of "species" as some sort of transcendental entity more real than individuals, whose survival isn't just a metaphor but a higher truth. I also suspect that the biologists who do this believe that they really are using "moral" correctly according to its platonically true meaning, and that any other use is not just unscientific but wrong, and superstitious nonsense to boot.

To put it bluntly, where the biological and psychological approaches to human morality clash, the biological approach should lose. Wolff should have included the philosophical approach among the alternatives, though, because moral philosophy is the field of study that actually addresses the meaning of human morality on its own terms (however badly it often does its job).

The really bad thing about positing biological morality as genotype survival is that biologists are perennially tempted to apply biological morality to social morality. If survival of the genotype is true morality, then anyone who chooses not to have offspring is immoral for not doing their part -- except for biologically inferior individuals however they are defined, who should not reproduce at all. Homosexuals, the celibate, all are biologically immoral if they don't reproduce; the sick, the lame, the halt are biologically immoral if they do. It also means that biological morality, far from applying to social behavior -- that is, between individuals of the same species -- is really about the relation between the individual and the Genotype. We've been there before.

Also, it doesn't take Darwinian theory or modern medicine to claim that some individuals, because of their physiological condition, are not responsible for their acts. What we suppose to be the true cause of that condition has changed over the centuries, but it's not a modern development to make allowance for people who aren't in their right mind. What is somewhat new is the scientific notion that biology determines behavior totally, and that no behavior whether pro- or anti-social is the result of "metabolic processes," so that choice is an illusion.

I'm not sure to what extent Wolff actually believes all this. After surveying "social learning theory" for a few pages, he advocates "a more flexible approach to sociobiology," and concludes that
The capacity to reflect on and choose among alternative outcomes is inherent to mature human intelligence. ... Biological evolution does not specify what forms of social action regulate moral conduct, but it defines the boundaries of ethical behavior compatible with species survival. Biology does not specify the choices made, but it prepares the structural conditions without which there can be neither intention or deliberate choice [91-92].
It seems, then, that Wolff considers intention and deliberate choice to be realities, rather than the illusions many sociobiologists and other scientists suppose them to be. His conclusion is basically a platitude, though, which requires neither biology nor psychology to state. Like too many scientists, he seems to think that a person with scientific training doesn't need to be informed philosophically about issues like morality, even though science is nowhere near encroaching on them. That was true in the 1970s when Wolff wrote his paper, and it's still true now.