Thursday, September 30, 2010

More Like Voter Antipathy Than Apathy

Ian Welsh has a good piece (via) with some useful reminders in it:
In a midterm election where they need the base to come out, they have spent the last six months insulting the base and engaging in policy after policy meant to enrage it. ...

It is, for whatever reason, more important to Democrats to “hippie punch” than it is for them to win elections. It is more important for them to serve Wall Street, even if Wall Street gives more money to Republicans, than it is to win elections. Further, they are very happy to do very non-liberal things, like restrict abortion rights, forbid drug reimportation, gut net neutrality or try and cut social security.
Hm, you know, this sounds familiar. Someone else said something similar not so long ago:
It just occurred to me that many (most?) Democrats would rather lose to a Republican than vote against the corporate agenda. Why should I deny them their druthers?
And since it appears that they will get their druthers in November, we should be prepared for the propaganda blast that will follow. One, the corporate media line, will be that the Democrats failed because they didn't move to the center, that is, to the right. The other, the Democratic line, will be because of all the treasonous whiners who sat on their hands in the face of "a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place ... But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place," said the Commander-in-Chief, and I won't bother to quote Biden. Those are pre-emptive strikes to excuse their own incompetence and villainy. And what is Obama saying there, anyway? That because the Republican party moved to the right of George Bush, it's okay for him and the rest of the Democrats to occupy the space where they used to be?

Welsh also addressed this matter.
Look, if the left is so powerful that is is responsible for Democratic fortunes, well, that’s not something we should shrink from. We should say “Yes, we can destroy Democratic prospects. If you don’t do what we want, we WILL do so.”

Powerful groups get what they want, weak groups don’t. If the White House wants to portray us as that powerful, we should embrace that description, because it is a blade which cuts both ways.

And there is an argument for it. While certainly the economy is factor one, the people whom left-wing bloggers reach are the sort of folks who traditionally don’t just vote, they volunteer, they give money and they are themselves influential, who convince others to be enthusiastic, vote, volunteer and give. When, last year, I felt parts of the blogosphere lose their patience with Obama, I knew it would cost him, and it has.

Don’t run from this, embrace it, wrap yourself in it. You are part of the left, and the left is capable of destroying governments which don’t do what it wants. And this is good, because objectively Obama has not fixed the economy, has presided over further destruction of civil rights, has reduced access to abortion, and so on.

Remember too Obama's Catfood Commission, as many libbloggers have called it, which is intended to present a brief for cutting Social Security benefits -- after the 2010 elections, of course. In the first article, Ian Welsh wrote,
Yes, the Republicans will do worse things, but that’s going to happen anyway. And in some cases, as with Social Security, it is better to have Republicans in power, because it is easier to fight Republican efforts to gut SS than it is to fight Democratic efforts to do so.

I know a lot of people don’t like this calculus, but the math is clear. These Democrats cannot or will not deliver. They cannot or will not do what needs to be done. They have to go.

Wasn't there a lot of talk before the 2008 election, about how progressives would be holding Obama's feet to the fire to make sure he didn't sell out to the big money? I believe Obama himself paid lip service to the notion. That's what they've been doing, and now the Democrats are complaining that they're uncomfortable. That's the whole idea, fools.

In conclusion, this nice bit addressed to Joe Biden, also via the Sideshow:
Thank you for your letter asking me to donate to elect Democratic candidates. I've given some money to the Democrats over the last two years. I think you should stop whining and get behind what I've already done.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Double-Obama, Licensed to Kill

Oh dear, I was going to get so much done tonight. In lieu of productive activity, let me quote Glenn Greenwald once again. Obama told Rolling Stone, "If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we'd better fight in this election."

Greenwald wrote:
To summarize Obama's apparent claim: the Republicans better not win in the midterm election, otherwise we'll have due-process-free and even preventive detention, secret assassinations of U.S. citizens, vastly expanded government surveillance of the Internet, a continuation of Guantanamo, protection of Executive branch crimes through the use of radical secrecy doctrines, escalating punishment for whistleblowers, legal immunity for war crimes, and a massively escalated drone war in Pakistan.
He also responded to
Obama supporters [who] often claim that those who object to this White House messaging are reacting emotionally and personally because they're "offended" by these criticisms. Speaking only for myself, that has nothing to do with any of this. I'm not the slightest bit "offended" when Obama officials and their apparatchiks voice these accusations. They have the same right to condemn their critics as their critics have to condemn them, and it's hardly a surprise that Obama officials harbor these thoughts about the "left." Contempt for the left is one of the unifying beliefs of the Washington establishment, which is why most conventional establishment journalists -- Maureen Dowd, Ruth Marcus, Dana Milbank -- cheered Gibbs' outburst about the "Professional Left." None of that is new; none of it is a surprise; and none of it is "offensive."

What is notable about it is what it reveals substantively. The country is drowning in a severe and worsening unemployment crisis. People are losing their homes by the millions. Income inequality continues to explode while the last vestiges of middle class security continue to erode. The Obama civil liberties record has been nothing short of a disgrace, usually equaling and sometimes surpassing the worst of the Bush/Cheney abuses. We have to stand by and watch the Commander-in-Chief fire one gay service member after the next for their sexual orientation. The major bills touted by Obama supporters were the by-product of the very corporatist/lobbyist dominance which Obama the candidate repeatedly railed against. Rather than take responsibility for any of this, they instead dismiss criticisms and objections as petulant, childish, "irresponsible whining" -- signaling rather clearly that they think they're doing the right thing and that these criticisms are fundamentally unfair.

That is what makes these reactions significant: not that anyone's feelings are hurt by the name-calling, but that they believe that this record merits gratitude rather than valid condemnation, and that anger over the state of the country is nothing more than irresponsible whining. It's fine to tout accomplishments and try to unify the base behind them -- it's election season and they ought to be doing that -- but it's just mystifying that they think they're going to accomplish anything other than feeling better about themselves with these incessant, name-calling attacks on those who are dissatisfied with their behavior -- their policies -- in power. Talk about "self-pitying and self-indulgent."
I've been seeing comments on a few blogs which try to explain how important it is to vote. Sometimes it's more in anger than in sorrow, but then there are the nice people like La Digs at Who Is Ioz? (no permalink to the comment, posted 6:43):
I'm sorry that we can't all be ecstatically singing along to a Will.I.Am video this time, but these just aren't inspirational good times. Right now it's about stopping something very ugly and bad rather than feeling all gooey and good. And that's an important part of politics too. It isn't all Oprah and hugging strangers in crowds.
That's very gooey and good, but how do we stop the ugly and bad Obama administration? Obama is, overall, worse than George Bush, who never claimed he was licensed to kill American citizens without any kind of due process or accountability -- not even to the courts, because his plan is a state secret. La Digs warns ominously that "The Democrats, sadly, will not learn the right lessons if a bunch of neanderthals take over and history shows that in times of great stress and transition, very bad things can happen when you let these people take the reins." If the Republicans are "neanderthals", the Democrats must be Ubermenschen, the superior race, and history shows what happens ... No, I take that back. It's enough to say that history shows what happened when the Democrats won Congress and the White House in November 2008. (If you've already forgotten, go back and reread Greenwald's summary above.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Okay, Something Besides Politics ...

Like, oh my Ghod, there's going to be a remake of True Grit! That movie is totally a classic of Western Civilization! Why do They have to ruin everything!? Why can't Hollywood do something original, like another remake of Ben-Hur or A Christmas Carol?

Seriously, this trailer looks promising. I might even go to see the Coen Brothers' remake, though I've never seen the 1969 John Wayne version or read the Charles Portis novel both are based on. Here's a trailer for the first version, by the way. That was back in the day when Hollywood was original, so there was a spinoff version co-starring Wayne and Katherine Hepburn, sort of a 1970s Merry Wives of Windsor. According to imdb's trivia, "There had been plans for another film featuring the character Rooster Cogburn, to be entitled 'Someday', but it was canceled when this movie [i.e., Rooster Cogburn] proved to be only a moderate hit at the box office." Notice the incredibly cheesy drum-and-cymbals vamp over the Paramount logo at the beginning of the clip.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Yesterday Once More

I want to write about something other than politics, but life keeps throwing me provocations.

The other morning a right-wing acquaintance on Facebook posted a link to this article from the Commentary blogs, by Jennifer Rubin. According to her,
After the across-the-board defeats in 2008, conservative pundits didn’t rail at the voters. You didn’t see the right blogosphere go after the voters as irrational (How could they elect someone so unqualified? They’ve gone bonkers!) with the venom that the left now displays. Instead, there was a healthy debate — what was wrong with the Republican Party and with the conservative movement more generally? We had a somewhat artificial debate between traditionalists and reformers. If anything, the anger was directly (unfairly, in my mind) against George W. Bush (whose tax cuts even many Democrats now want to extend, and whose strategy in Iraq allowed Obama to withdrawal troops in victory), and to the hapless McCain campaign (which spent the final days of the campaign ragging on its VP nominee).
That's one way of looking at it, I guess. Another way is that the right was furious at their loss, and while they blamed their candidate, they attacked everyone else in sight. To say that they "didn't rail at the voters" is, well, bonkers. Roy Edroso, whose alicublog is most useful as a Rightwing Watch, started collecting the evidence right away. Here are a couple of his examples, the first from Ace of Spades:

America is a special country for going for the Jeremiah Wright's and Bill Ayers' most famous disciple.

We might have elected more qualified blacks to the presidency -- Colin Powell, Michael Steele, the guy who does the funny sound effects in the Police Academy movies -- but we went for the guy who would do his level best to demolish the country.

I couldn't be prouder.

Then this, from Dave Smithee at American Thinker (oh, click through anyway, to see the image of Uncle Sam):
The cyclical nature of human wisdom is well documented in both secular histories, and the biblical record. Blessing, Discontent, Rebellion, Suffering, Penitence, Restoration. Wash, rinse, repeat. As ancient Israel whined to have monarchs rule over them to be like their pagan neighbors, so too are American leftists smitten with the illusory sophistication of the crumbling European economic and social models. They salivate for the esteem of tyrants, socialists, and every manner of grandiose failure; the more extravagant, the better so long as the mission statement is sufficiently lofty. It's said that liberals are like any other people; only more so. In this case, it's their turn to perpetuate the ancient cycle of rejecting what works, turning their backs with disdain on America's incomparable blessings and crying "Give us what they have!"

Well, we've gotten it.
Admittedly, Smithee blames "American leftists" for Obama's election, but if 67% of the American electorate are leftists, then the Republicans have little chance now or ever. His claims only make what little sense they do if he is blaming the voters. (See also the comments on this post.) This sort of equivocal blurring all the American people and those the writer hates is also common among liberals and leftists, of course. In any case, a good portion of the right blogosphere, while they did ask what the Republicans did wrong, claimed that Obama had led the American people astray with his socialist promises and Jeremiah-Wright/Bill-Ayers anti-Americanism, which always goes over well with Liberals (though how did it win over the honest yeoman average Americans who also voted for Obama against McCain?) -- and they were quite willing, as these examples show, to blame the lazy, greedy American masses for being gulled by Obama.

Rubin also says:
When things go wrong for the left, it blames the people; when things go wrong for the right, it blames the governing elites. It is not in the nature of conservatives to demean and attack fellow citizens. To the contrary, conservatives’ vision is grounded in the belief that Americans are competent, decent, and hardworking, and it is the heavy hand of government that threatens to squelch American virtues.
First, as already noted, the right also blames the people; and the left also believes, or claims to believe that Americans are "competent, decent, and hardworking." Neither really believes it. The right favors government regulation of sexuality (laws against fornication, adultery, and sodomy, for example), marriage and divorce, and other private conduct (drug laws), opposes contraception and abortion, and wants the government to set a good example by exemplary religious observance: enforced school prayer, official days of thanksgiving (not fasting, though, that is so 18th century), and a President who pays lip service to Christianity even if he rarely attends church. (By "religious" of course they mean Christianity, and usually Protestant Christianity, though anti-Catholicism isn't the political force here that it used to be). They also want most Americans to suffer nobly when disaster (hurricanes, oil spills, catastrophic illness, old age, unemployment, bank failure, etc.) strikes. They also like officially enforced patriotism, except when their party is out of power; then they feel free to attack the government as vehemently as any hippie.

Second, the right enthusiastically supports government elites when the right is in power. They adore spoiled rich kids like George W. Bush and movie stars like Ronald Reagan. They celebrate captains of industry and are very worried that the rich might have to pay an extra percentage point or two in taxes. As Noam Chomsky says, when you hear about "special interests" in the media, what is meant is usually working people, the elderly, the young, people of color, the poor -- the overwhelming majority of Americans, in short. When you hear about "the national interest", that refers to a tiny minority of business and political elites. Something like that is going on with Rubin's claim that the right doesn't attack "the people," since by "the people" she means right-wing Republicans, an embattled and dwindling minority; by "governing elites" she means everybody else. Therefore the Tea Party movement, representing a rather small and not especially popular portion of the electorate, presents itself as We The People, and demands that the new administration listen to the voters who voted Republican, not those who voted Democratic. (On the other hand, the new administration has been happy to oblige.)

Rubin is correct that there is elitism on the left; I've written about that myself. But as with the essay by George Scialabba I criticized, in more charitable moods the right agrees that the People are good, but since they obviously don't know how to vote correctly they need to be educated. Thus we get jokes like the Pledge to America, which among other things proposes to replace the Affordable Care Act with the Affordable Care Act. The Republicans humbly present themselves as ordinary Joes who happen to be in Congress, and so will lead America out of the Wilderness and into the Promised Land.

However, rejecting elitism (as I hope I do) doesn't mean you can't criticize the people. White America is still pretty racist, in varying degrees of virulence. The United States has brought war, chaos and pestilence to much of the world through war, neoliberal economics, and multinational corporations; most Americans are either unaware of this or don't much care -- which has something to do with why they are unaware of it, I suppose. The passage from Joe Klein that Rubin linked (in the first paragraph I quoted) was not disrespectful and made a good point: that many Americans on the right (but also elsewhere) are noticeably ignorant about their government and what it does, and very inconsistent in what they want it to do. ("Keep the government's hands off my Medicare!" for example, as if Medicare wasn't a government program.) I'm not a fan of Joe Klein, but Rubin's blithe dismissal ignores some serious problems. I think Americans need to educate themselves; there's no one else to do it.

I posted a snarky comment to my right-wing acquaintance's Facebook status when he linked Rubin's post, thanking him for giving me a laugh to start the day and expressing surprise that the Right was into glossolalia. Maybe I shouldn't be snarky; but remember, Rubin is the kind of conservative that my acquaintance considers "sober" and rational, as opposed to Koran-burning Yahoos.

Know Your Enemy

It's always good to have your excuses ready and your enemies in your sights, and at least some Democrats are getting ready for defeat in November:
Actually, have been havinbg a conversation with friends who are really deeply involved in political work, who see a lot suspect about the pushing from leftie appearing commenters to keep Dems from voting. Seen too many dirty tricks. No, Avedon, I know you well enough to know you're every bit on the up-and-up, but the rest of you...not.
Another (former?) Dem blogger posted this comment to Avedon's latest at The Sideshow. Avedon begins by reporting how Democratic blogger Susie Madrak took on Obama's senior advisor David Axelrod in one of those conference calls where the White House "reaches out" to alternative media.
My favorite part was where Axelrod - who is essentially talking to leftish bloggers to beg them for money and support - had the temerity to imply that being criticized on a few lefty blogs was equivalent to a continuous stream of insults and kicks from the White House, via both policy and pigeon-droppings in the pages of the Newspapers of Record. Right, David. Get back to me when you guys can start pumping for something that isn't a GOP policy goal, huh? David Dayen's response to it is more straightforward than Susie's retelling, but hers is funnier.

However, I think Susie was too kind to Axelrod. What I'd be saying is, "You have to give us a reason not to want to see you primaried, and it has to be a better reason than the one you've been giving, which appears to be that the Republicans will be less polite about passing exactly the same policies, and will show even less remorse than you do." (Although calling it "a historic victory" isn't exactly remorse, is it? A historic victory for whom?)

And I see Atrios just found another fine example of motivating the base - by fighting to keep Don't Ask/Don't Tell. Why should we support this administration when they so obviously want to lose?

The commenter's reaction? If she didn't know Avedon, if she hadn't been reading her for years, she'd suspect that she is a Republican plant trying to "keep Dems from voting."

Now, it's certainly true that the Republicans have done underhanded things before, as have the Dems. Most recently we've seen California Republicans recruiting street people to run as Green Party Candidates for Arizona Corporation Commission. But it's not as if the Democrats haven't done plenty, of their own free will, to alienate Democratic voters.

Hey. Maybe Barack Hussein Obama is a paid Republican agent whose mission is to keep Dems from voting. Who knows? It would explain a lot of things ...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Let's Do Another One Just Like the Other One

There are a lot of things I've been meaning to say about the upcoming midterm elections, especially now that the Republicans have announced their Pledge to America, but this evening my right-wing acquaintance posted a link on Facebook to Peggy Noonan's latest exercise in glossolalia at the Wall Street Journal. His comment: "This rings true." Of course you all know that the Opinion page of the WSJ has always been a fantasy world, but this header really did wonders for my mood:

If you thought the 1994 election was historic, just wait till this year.

If I believed in omens I'd be diving for the storm shelter. The 1994 election was not historic. The Republicans did hand a humiliating loss to the Democrats, but it was an off-year election and turnout was low, as such elections usually are. True, Bill Clinton had, like Barack Obama now, collaborated shamefully with the Republicans, especially on NAFTA, disillusioning his base and keeping Democrats away from the polls in droves; there is that similarity to our depressing present. In 1994 the Republicans put out something they called the Contract with America, which few voters had heard of, let alone accepted as a political manifesto, and which had nothing much to do with their victories at the polls. And what happened?

Why, the Republicans tried to shut down the Federal Government at the end of 1995 by demanding budget cuts in various social programs, which Clinton refused to accept. Robert Reich writes at TPM Cafe,
I was there November 14, 1995 when Newt Gingrich pulled the plug on the federal government the first time. It proved to be the stupidest political move in recent history. Not only did it help Bill Clinton win reelection but it was a boon to almost all other Democrats in 1996 (Gingrich's photo was widely used in negative ads), and the move damaged Republicans for years.
So, Peggy Noonan (a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, for those who've forgotten) and numerous other right-wing wackos want a replay of the mid-1990s, in which the Republicans had their heads handed back to them on a platter: their attempt to gut social programs failed spectacularly, the President they hated won re-election handily and continued to push through various Republican programs, like "welfare reform," while nursing numerous economic bubbles that made the rich even richer while just barely improving the economy for the rest of us. The Republicans also failed to impeach Clinton on trumped-up charges, and sexually tinged scandals toppled several Republican leaders, including Gingrich himself. They had to steal the 2000 election to regain power.

There's certainly no love lost between me and the Democrats, but if this is what the Republicans want for the 2010s, I'd be the last person to deny it to them. Some of the Republican leadership are denying that they have anything like a government shutdown in mind, which in politics is a virtual confirmation that it's exactly what they have in mind. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) told The Kudlow Report, "It's absurd. And I think this is just the left trying — you know, the media trying to create an issue that doesn't exist." Absurdity, of course, is what the Republicans and the Democrats have been giving us for a long time now. "But understand, if we continue to run up all this deficit and debt, the shutdown will come because we'll basically be bankrupting the country," Gregg said in an apparent attempt to sound reassuring. "That will cause the shutdown."

Meanwhile, the Democrats are doing their best to help the Republicans in this difficult campaign, most recently by postponing the vote on the extension of Bush's tax cuts until after the elections, which spares both sides the painful necessity of going on record about what they stand for.

Oh, and one other thing: if the Republicans were able to be "obstructionist" with just 40 votes in the Senate, one would think that even if the Democrats lose 20 seats this November and the tables are turned, the Democrats could then obstruct any Republican efforts to do bad things, threatening filibusters at every turn, making outrageous left-wing demands to undercut the Republicans programs, and so on -- especially with a Democratic President wielding a veto to back them up. But no, looking at the Dems' recent record, one wouldn't think that at all, would one? They're the collaboration party, and they'll just surrender absolutely.

Two self-destructive parties on a collision course. I don't know whether to cry or laugh.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Wide Stance Prophet?

Avedon Carol at The Sideshow has linked to this verse (16:49) from the book of the prophet Ezekiel:
Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.
The link is to the Skeptic's Annotated Bible, which apparently trades in pointing out the icky parts of Holy Writ, a useful service to be sure. I presume Avedon's point was to follow the popular progay-Christian argument that Sodom and Gomorrah were nuked for the sin of inhospitality, not for men doing the nasty with each other. Like most progay-Christian arguments, it's an oversimplification, especially if you do what everyone always tells you and read for context.

Despite that stuff about neglecting the poor and needy, most of this part of Ezekiel is concerned with other sins. Personifying Jerusalem as an exposed infant whom Yahweh rescued and raised to nubile womanhood, whereupon he "spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord GOD, and thou becamest mine" (16:8). But alas, unlike Sodom, Jerusalem turned out to be all too hospitable. Yahweh complains through his prophet that Jerusalem is a whore whore whore whore whore:
But thou didst trust thine own beauty and playedst the harlot because of thy renown, and pouredst out thy fornications on every one that passed by; his it was.

And of thy garments thou didst take, and deckedst thy high places with divers colours, and playedst the harlot thereupon: the like things shall not come, neither shall it be so.

Thou hast also taken thy fair jewels of my gold and my silver, and madest to thyself images of men, and didst commit whoredom with them. ...

Thou hast built thy high place at every head of the way, and hast made thy beauty to be abhorred, and hast opened thy feet to every one that passed by, and multiplied thy whoredoms.

Thou hast also committed fornications with the Egyptians thy neighbors, great of flesh; and hast increased thy whoredoms, to provoke me to anger [16:15-17, 25-26].
I've left this in the 17th-century English of the King James Version, because otherwise it might be too NSFW; as it is, you can just explain that you're reading Scripture for your spiritual benefit. Yeah, that's it.

I especially like that bit about the Egyptians being "great of flesh," which means what you think it means, because it ties in to a later verse, 23:20, which is one of my favorites in the entire Bible:
For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.
Yahweh appears to be somewhat obsessed with the, um, endowment of the Egyptians (conceived, of course, as allegorical rivals for the favors of Jerusalem). As you can see, the theme of Jerusalem's whoredom runs for chapter after chapter in Ezekiel. Whatever the "sin of Sodom" might have been, inhospitality seems to have been only a passing concern for Yahweh and his prophet. Big Egyptian donkey phalli and buckets of semen being enjoyed (in the divine mind, anyway) by the nubile Jerusalem were clearly much more important.

And yes, I know, this is an allegory, not meant to be taken literally. The point is that the allegory is built on imagery that is best described as pornographic. I'm not shocked by it, but I should think that the people who regard the Bible as the inerrant word of God would be appalled by it if they dusted off the archaic verbiage of the Authorized Version and considered what it was saying. And the Skeptic's Annotated Bible follows a venerable tradition of collecting the icky bits so that Enlightenment rationalists can be appalled by the brutal, obscene language of so-called Holy Scripture -- over and over again as needed. (I should track down the lovely story reported by Emma Donoghue in Passions Between Women [HarperCollins, 1995], of the headmistress of a respectable girls' school around 1800. She assured concerned parents that their daughters would not be reading improper parts of the classics, because she had carefully marked those passages, so that the girls would know which parts not to read. I'm sure it worked.)

All this reminds me of a passage from a Charles Bukowski story I saw quoted in a review somewhere in the 1970s. A man and a woman are arguing about their relationship. (I quote from memory.)
"You're a whore, you're a whore, you're nothing but a goddamned whore."
"Sure I'm a whore, or I wouldn't be living with you!"
"Hm, I never thought of it like that."
Maybe Jerusalem should have sassed Yahweh back in just those terms.

Their Glory Is In Their Shame

Incidentally, there's a good post by Richard "Lenin" Seymour at Lenin's Tomb on the British protests against the Pope's visit, with some sharp criticism of Richard Dawkins. (Thanks to Jenny for the reference.) Lenin writes:
I also know imperial condescension when I see it - when I first came to England and found that people here believed that Northern Ireland was torn apart for thirty years or so because of religious sectarianism, because Prods didn't get on with Tims, I was shocked. And I was offended, as I still am when I think of it. When Dawkins et al repeat this ridiculous canard and apply the same logic, mutatis mutandis, to the explanation of the Israel-Palestine conflict (or worse, to the 'civil war' in Iraq), I know all too well that this isn't really about atheism, or secularism. It is about representing those who do not partake of the relative wealth and stability of the Anglophone imperial core as tribal-minded, bloodthirsty, backward idiots. We do not have conflicts based on rational interests, each making a claim to universalism, in which imperialist powers have weighed in on one side. We have petty, parochial struggles over atavistic ideas which are childish premonitions of modern, scientific truth claims, and where imperial power is invisible. Indeed, as Eagleton suggests, part of the whole basis of Dawkinsian befuddlement and outrage over religion is the feeling that things couldn't be so bad as to require a spiritual, much less messianic, solution. Class privilege benights its beneficiaries in this respect.
(Of course I don't have much use for Eagleton either.) Lenin also wrote:
Thus, some of those assailing religion have themselves played a key role in naturalising patriarchy and white supremacy, even though they always insisted that this was not their intention. Dawkins would argue that "genetic kinship" and reciprocation offer an explanation of, and evolutionary basis for, solidarity, equality and altruism amid the cruel, harsh and competitive world that his version of Darwinism evokes. But this is neither orthodox Darwinism, nor is it adequate. It does not explain the range of sacrifices that some people are prepared to make for others. The theory of gene kinship entails, as per Haldane's quip, that one will sacrifice oneself for other people who are genetically close to oneself. That would lead us logically to insularity rather than universalism. Indeed, for Dawkins' case to work, he has to suggest that we can subvert our 'selfish', competitive, vicious biological basis through a metaphysically strong 'free will', which is ultimately every bit as idealist as any statement made from the Vatican.

Dawkins' own free will still seems to be constrained by his selfish, competitive genes, however. To the imperial chauvinism mentioned above, we could add his intolerance of cultural difference - he has said, for example, that he experiences a visceral revulsion at the sight of a woman in a burqa, a sensation which is probably similar to that which I feel on witnessing an upper middle class white Oxonian telling Muslim women that what they're wearing disgusts him. In relation to the Pope's visit, he described his Romanness as the head of the second most evil religion in the world. What, I wonder, might come first? Buddhism? Judaism? Hinduism? Jainism? Zoroastrianism? No? Ah, right - so it'll be Islam again. One form of religious intolerance informs another prejudice, one which is bound up with race-making processes across the 'white' world. Such a ranking of religions according to alleged harm is not really to do with atheism.
This reminds me of Andre Pichot's book The Pure Society, which contains some excellent criticism of evolutionary psychology generally and of Dawkins in particular, and which I also learned about from Lenin.

P.S. Looking again at that weird photo above, of Ratzinger's robes being held open to reveal the lacy garments beneath while he holds rampant a crucifix on a stick, I wonder if I shouldn't have titled this post "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes." I guess I'll save that one for another day.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Accentuate the Obvious

Today I was one of the speakers on a GLB panel for a college class, and the question of choice came up again. It occurred to me as I listened to the other speakers that they were even more confused than I'd thought. They talked about people who'd had bad coming-out experiences, and who would choose that? No one, perhaps. This was a variation on the familiar rhetorical question, "Would anyone choose a 'lifestyle' that causes them to be hated, condemned, and vilified?" Why, yes, they would, and they have. But I hadn't heard it applied to coming out before, which has nothing to do with the question whether being gay is a choice.

Or does it? Coming out -- the process of telling other people, gay or straight, that you are not heterosexual -- is pretty clearly a choice. When I started that process, four decades ago, I anticipated that I would have some bad experiences (rejection, hostility, malignant ignorance, etc.), and did my best to prepare myself to deal with them. I was lucky: very few people reacted negatively. But when I did have bad experiences with straight people, it wasn't my choice, it was theirs.

At the risk of distracting the reader, let me suggest an analogy. Anti-choice bigots often try to confuse the issue by conflating the choice of having sexual intercourse with the choice to have a baby: if a woman has sex with a man, they claim, she should expect to get pregnant, and therefore her decision to have sex was a decision to have a baby, regardless of her actual intent -- and if she does become pregnant, she has forfeited all choice thereafter, except the choice of putting the baby up for adoption after its birth. Not all sex leads to conception, however, so choosing to have intercourse is not equivalent to choosing to have a baby. Nor is driving a car equivalent to deciding to die in a fiery collision. Nor is coming out a decision to be disowned by one's parents. Nor, for that matter, is expressing anti-gay opinions a decision to have those opinions derided, rebutted, and vilified -- bigots can usually recognize that distinction, at least!

I'd have thought that all this was obvious, but it obviously isn't, worse luck. I was disturbed by this mutation of the "Would anyone choose a 'lifestyle' ..." meme, which is obnoxious enough in its own right. If gay people (and their allies, presumably) are going to start trying to claim coming out and gay identity as non-choices, then where will we go from there? Evidently the trend is to deny any responsibility and choice in their lives at all, but in order to do that consistently they would have to exempt antigay people from responsibility and choice too, and I don't think that will happen. (Freedom and responsibility for thee, but not for me!) As I said in my own answer to the question about choice, no one knows what choice is, and the science which is used to claim that homosexuality is not a choice doesn't recognize that human beings make any choices at all, since it considers free will an illusion. But the people who claim they were born gay don't realize this: they do believe they make choices, but being gay isn't one of them... and now, it appears, coming out wasn't a choice either.

I must admit, of course, that this has to do with a blind spot of my own. To quote myself:
... unlike most gay people I’ve known, I did not expect everything to be easy when I came out. There’s a weird paradox there: most people who, like me, made a conscious move to come out to straights, seem to have delayed that move as long as we did because we feared the consequences: that our friends, our families, random strangers would hate and despise us for being queer. And yet, after coming out, a good many gay people express shock and dismay that not everyone treats them with respect, let alone acceptance. I’m deliberately echoing Captain Renault’s famous line from Casablanca: I am shocked! shocked, I tell you! to find that there is homophobia going on here. Their shock may be as theatrical, as fake, as Captain Renault's; what I don't get is what it's supposed to achieve.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Obama Code

Actually, this possibility bothers me more than the usual crypto-Muslim Kenyan anti-colonialist fantasies.

The Happy Endings for Homosexuals Club

More than any other single person, Jill Johnston inspired me to come out.

It was early 1971, and I was twenty, in the throes of my latest crush on a conflicted straight boy. I had heard about the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, but they were in New York City a thousand miles away, and I don't recall paying enough attention to the developments in the gay movement that ensued. I do remember some articles on Gay Liberation in The Seed, a Chicago underground newspaper I bought in a South Bend newsstand / head shop. That was also where I sometimes bought the Village Voice, though I mostly read it at the library. (Public libraries were the Internet of those days: a place where you could get information from all over the world. Compared to the net these days, even the best library was limited, but compared to the rural area where I grew up, even a small public library was an exciting portal to the world.)

I remember reading the March 4, 1971 issue of the Voice at IU-South Bend, either in the library or in the snack bar. The title "Lois Lane Is a Lesbian" jumped out at me, and I started reading the article. Of course I'd read other things about being gay, but nothing like this. I had no idea who Jill Johnston was, and I hadn't read the earlier article by the Voice's heterosexual film critic Andrew Sarris that she was replying to. I'd never read anyone who wrote the sort of things she'd written.
Now I suggest you go up to a black person and say White People Have Problems Too and see what kind of response you get. I'm going on record here to notify every heterosexual male and female that every lesbian and every homosexual is all too aware of the problems of heterosexuals since they permeate every aspect of our social political economic and cultural lives. That we were in fact educated on these problems. That we were brought up and spoon fed or pitch forked on the crucible of the problems of thousands of Romeos and Juliets radiating outward from all our sublimely miserable and broken families into the movies and the funnies and the histories and the psychologies and the novels and our great Western classics. ... I think all of us are authorities on the heterosexual problem. Knowledge on the subject is instantly available, in case you've missed out, in every daily newspaper with their front page accounts of the Wars. We are bored with the news from the heterosexual fronts. We want to hear from the lesbians and the homosexuals now. I want homosexual movies and novels and funnies and histories and songs and classics. Even problem stories. Certainly the songs. Let all those gay rock artists come out from behind their phony lyrics. But the movies! The big medium. I don't expect the next batch of gay ones to show us nothing but the doomed clandestine affair of Therese and Isabelle in boarding school, and the wrecked life of Sister George whose girlfriend leaves her for a great white witch of the west whose cold clawing sexual advances constitute the only sexual revelation in the film ... This film critic a few months ago wrote in the context of some review that "although I don't belong to the happy-endings-for-homosexuals club ..." which made me ask him when I saw him "why don't you belong to the happy-endings-for-homosexuals club?" Exactly. Can you imagine me saying, in any context, "although I don't belong to the happy-endings-for-heterosexuals club"? ...

Just a year ago I permitted Rosalyn Drexler at a small dinner party to convince me I'd been a dope for revealing myself at an artists' colony where I'd been I was not being self protective as Rosalyn pointed out "Oh Jill, can't you keep a secret" and I was not yet able to reply immediately "Do you keep your marriage to Sherman a secret?"
As I look at what I've typed here I see how much of what Johnston wrote has stayed with me, ventriloquized itself through me as a speaker and a writer about gay and lesbian issues. Those who've read much of this blog, for example, may recognize Johnston's ideas from things I've written. Of course it's also because the attitudes she railed against remained potent in heterosexual culture, and remain so to this day; it's still necessary to talk back to them, and Johnston's answers still work for me.

Anyway, not long after I read this article I read a notice in the Chicago Seed of the Chicago Gay Alliance's monthly meetings in their community center on West Addison. I took a couple of vacation days in April, and drove to Chicago -- the first time I'd ever gone there on my own, instead of with my family or on a school trip. I remember it being a clear, sunny, hot day. I found the CGA building, then explored Old Town, and killed time until the meeting. I sat toward the back of a half-finished room upstairs and watched and listened, and after the meeting ended I paid $5 for a membership. (I liked the idea of being a card-carrying homosexual.) I didn't talk much to anyone, being too overwhelmed by the experience of being in a room full of other people like me, though I wasn't sure how much like me they were. An hour later I was on the road back to South Bend, my head buzzing with excitement and confusion. I didn't go back to Chicago for several years; the following fall I moved to Bloomington and got involved in the gay community here.

Alison Bechdel has a new post on her blog which mentions that Jill Johnston died on September 18th at the age of 81. I hadn't known she was that old, thought she was maybe ten years my senior rather than twenty, almost as old as my mother in fact. She wrote many books after she inspired me to come out; I guess I need to read some of them.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Traditional Values

Sunday morning I was listening to a locally produced Native Americans program on the community radio station, and they played this song by the Apache flute player Andrew Vasquez. (It was a shortened version for a Putomayo compilation CD.) It's not really a song, though, it's a recitation over plaintive flute music and the sound of surf. Vasquez' words jumped out at me:
I long for the days when the world had four corners --
when you would ride to the horizon line with the wind in your hair
and would never hit a fence

Recall the age when the young maiden
and the distinguished warrior defined
the perfect union.
And so on. I found it somewhat comforting to be reminded again that Native American spirituality is as full as shit as anyone else's. Before the white man came, when the world was flat, there were no horses to ride on, and after the world became round it was only a matter of time before you hit a fence. That bit about the "young maiden and the distinguished warrior" (I picture them played by Q'orianka Kilcher and Jack Nicholson [in redface makeup and braided black wig] respectively) is hilarious but creepy.

Stuff like this sends me back to Sherman Alexie's poem "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel", which sends up the mindset very effectively:
All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms.
Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food.

The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably
from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory.

If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. ...

.... She should be compared to nature:
brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water. ...
Everybody, it seems, wants to be an Indian, including Indians.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dance, Dude, Dance

It just entered my mind that Forbes magazine published Dinesh D'Souza's piece on Barack Obama's "Kenyan anti-colonialist mindset" simply for the pleasure of watching the liberals fuss about refuting it. The President is so fit to eat with the hogs! He is not anti-colonialist! But wait -- it's good to be anti-colonialist, so he must be anti-colonialist after all! I mean ... It's an entertaining spectacle, one that repeats itself from administration to administration. It happened during the Clinton administration, and it happened in South Korea when the Right there went after late President Noh Mu-hyeon.

It's a mistake, of course, to suppose that the good folks at Forbes are that clever. Back in the early 1970s Philip Roth wrote some hopefully satirical pieces for the New York Review of Books, later collected in book form as Our Gang, which depicted the Nixon White House as a gang of sinisterly knowing conspirators. It was a long time ago, so I can't remember who it was that pointed out that when the White House recordings were released, they revealed the Nixon gang to be a bunch of clumsy, malignant but not very competent thugs who wished they were sinisterly knowing conspirators. Which, considering all the Obama fans who assured the wavering faithful that the President was playing eleven-dimensional chess with his opponents, is a decent fit with the Obama administration too. Obama's problem is that he just doesn't play eleven-dimensional chess very well.

Nor do his supporters. Vide this guy (via), who does a game job of refuting D'Souza's multifarious lies and distortions. In order to do so, though, he has to dredge up some of Obama's lies and distortions. D'Souza claimed that Obama doesn't believe in American exceptionalism (i.e., is not fit to eat with the hogs). Ryan Chittum has to show that Obama does believe in American exceptionalism (i.e., is fit to eat with the hogs). To which end he quotes the Prez in noxious gasbag mode, showing that Obama doesn't understand (or chooses to misunderstand) what American exceptionalism means (though, like many abstractions, it does have different meanings to different people, which makes D'Souza's charge even more pointless). In practice "American exceptionalism" means the belief that when the US does the same horrible things as our official enemies, it's regrettable but doesn't mean we're bad, because we're different thanks to our historical values, and anyway, while we may have made some tragic blunders, our virtues outweigh our defects. Obama said:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.
That's very nice, though it elides the uncomfortable fact that our troops have not defended the US in my lifetime, and have generally been sacrificed in aggressive wars, killing and maiming millions of people who never harmed the US. Aside from that, any imperialist state makes the same claims. Rome brought civilization to the barbarians. The European invaders of the Americas brought Christianity to the benighted Indian savages who -- typical -- didn't appreciate the Europeans' sacrifices; it's not like they benefited from their thankless mission. Ditto for the English in India, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Belgians in the Congo, the Americans in the Philippines and Latin America. The Nazis sacrificed to preserve Christian civilization from Jews and Communists, taking over France and numerous other countries for their own good. The Soviet Union sacrificed to protect the freedom-loving peoples of the world from capitalist imperialism.
And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

The Constitution may well be "exceptional," though not in the sense meant by "American exceptionalism." And that "core set of values" is honored more in the breach than in the observance, with Obama himself tirelessly working to undermine them. But that's okay -- those values are there to be admired for their exceptionalism, not observed!

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

It would be interesting to know some examples of times that Obama thinks the US has compromised in dealing with other nations. (Other than Israel.)

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.

The US has not led the world towards peace and prosperity; it has overthrown or tried to overthrow numerous elected governments, invaded numerous countries or sponsored mercenaries to do the dirty work for us, and imposed destructive and immiserating economic policies that have created poverty not prosperity -- except for tiny elites like those who benefit in the US itself. Only a corrupt, undemocratic regime would collaborate with a murderous invading army, so of course the Obama administration works with the Karzai government while complaining that it's corrupt and undemocratic.

Chittum's comment on this quotation: "Apparently, D’Souza thinks that anyone who doesn’t think we should impose our views on the world or who thinks other countries have patriots, too, is a loinclothed, communist Luo tribesman hiding behind a Western suit and tie." Nice, but Obama doesn't believe that those who fight us are "patriots," or that we shouldn't impose our views on the world, if it's for their own good. I'd no sooner take Obama at his word than I'd take, say, D'Souza at his.

Whether or not Forbes's editors were deliberately being mischievous, they could hardly have been under any illusions about the quality of D'Souza's scholarship. ... Oh, damn, I know, of course they could have. D'Souza keeps getting published, often by liberal or "liberal" publications like The Atlantic, even though he always keeps getting discredited as a liar and a fraud. The corporate media have welcomed right-wing know-nothings all along, treating Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Falwell (among so many others) as competent, responsible commentators and spokesmen, often in the name of "journalistic balance." Just as liberals will fall for the latest well-spoken, halfway young, halfway glamorous politician with progressive-sounding slogans and Republican politics, and defend him energetically against all criticism.

Oh well, it's up to each person to decide how to use his or her energies. But really, is it such a good idea to spend one's energy defending a lying corporate hack who is more concerned with protecting the executive branch against any limits on its power, extending US aggression and terror, and attacking most gleefully his critics on the left? I'd think it would be better to work on finding ways to undermine both the far right (Obama's Bush-era politics) and the extreme far right. Trying to defend Obama against charges that he's a leftist just seems to me to be a distraction.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Catholic Chutzpah

This morning on NPR I heard Pope Rat "apologizing" for the child abuse scandal during his UK tour. He went so far as to deliver his performance in English, which you can hear in this fawning report. Now, these official apologies are seldom convincing, and they're probably not supposed to be; they are supposed to "send a message," "convey an image," and other public-relations jargon for fake sincerity.

What makes Ratzinger's performance even more repugnant is that once again, it's all about him.
I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes, along with my hope that the power of Christ's grace, his sacrifice of reconciliation, will bring deep healing and peace to their lives. I also acknowledge with you the shame and humiliation which all of us have suffered because of these sins.
I know it's too much to expect this man or his apologists to acknowledge that, bad as the abuse was, the problem is not so much that the church failed to act to protect children -- it acted to protect the abusers. As Alexander Chancellor wrote in the Guardian, the revelation of the scandal and its coverup
also makes the church look more interested in its own reputation than in the welfare of its flock. And that, indeed, was what the Murphy commission, set up by the Irish government to investigate abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, concluded last year when it said that the church authorities had engaged in "the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church, and the preservations of its assets". This was a terrible verdict, but the reluctance of the church to admit fault or to hang out its dirty washing in public is, however reprehensible, not difficult to understand. A hierarchical institution claiming to have the sole right to interpret the Word of God does not lightly jeopardise its authority in such ways.
(There's a striking resemblance to Barack Obama's pretense that he's criticized by other Democrats for not doing enough, rather than things he has done. I suppose that's how the powerful think: they see themselves as victims rather than victimizers.)

Amusingly, Catholic League president Bill Donohue has demanded that atheists apologize for the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, because those men killed millions. "
By contrast, a grand total of 1,394 were killed during the 250 years of the Inquisition, most all of whom were murdered by secular authorities." Of course, those "secular authorities" acted at the behest of the church, and the Inquisition wasn't the only way that Roman Catholicism has killed people. Donohue goes on:
Why should atheists today apologize for the crimes of others? At one level, it makes no sense: apologies should only be given by the guilty. But on the other hand, since the fanatically anti-Catholic secularists in Britain, and elsewhere, demand that the pope—who is entirely innocent of any misconduct—apologize for the sins of others, let the atheists take some of their own medicine and start apologizing for all the crimes committed in their name. It might prove alembic.
It isn't only "fanatically anti-Catholic secularists" who have criticized the Pope and the church's mishandling of the abuse scandal: a good many Catholics have also spoken out. And it's false that Ratzinger is "entirely innocent of any misconduct": he sheltered at least one predatory priest from prosecution, and preferred to blame the gay movement for the abuse. There's also a basic difference between the Roman Catholic Church -- a hierarchical and authoritarian organization -- and atheism, which has no centralized authority, indeed no authority of any kind. The head of such a hierarchy is responsible for the acts of underlings, even if he himself hasn't so much as french-kissed a choirboy.

Though it's true that atheists need to stop claiming that the world would be a more peaceful place without religion, which is obviously false. There was a rally against Ratzinger's UK tour that featured Peter Tatchell, Ian McKellen, Richard Dawkins, and "human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson."

At the rally, Mr Robertson said: "We are here today to celebrate our faith in liberty of conscience; our faith in equality; our faith in human rights.

Of the Pope he said: "He's been met with the most utter, exquisite, grovelling politeness and with that somehow we are in an uncivilised third world country."

"Equality"? I don't think Mr Robertson understands what a "third world country" is. The term "Third World" is usefully unclear in its meaning, of course. Originally it referred to a grab bag of countries that were aligned neither with the US bloc nor the Soviet bloc immediately after World War II. Now, as Wikipedia says, the term "continues to be used colloquially to describe the poorest countries in the world." But poverty doesn't equal lack of civilization, and the role of the "civilized" big powers in keeping the Third World poor shouldn't be overlooked: such countries are a rich source of natural resources and cheap labor. Or was Robertson saying that politeness is somehow uncivilized, perhaps along the lines of effete "oriental" manners compared to robust British directness? Either way, Robertson was teetering on the edge of overt racism in that comparison, which unfortunately is all too common among scientific secular thinkers, and shouldn't be tolerated or excused any more than a Christian's bigotry.

Which doesn't mean it's not a scandal that the Pope can travel to Britain on the public dime, or that he deserves a far less welcoming reception than he's been receiving. But he's far from the only head of state who can do such things: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and other butchers are routinely treated the same way.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Har, Har, Har!

I guess that when President Obama leaves office, be it in 2013 or 2017, he can build a new career in standup comedy. Here he is wowing a $30,000-a-plate audience in Connecticut the other day:
Democrats, just congenitally, tend to get -- to see the glass as half empty. (Laughter.) If we get an historic health care bill passed -- oh, well, the public option wasn't there. If you get the financial reform bill passed -- then, well, I don't know about this particular derivatives rule, I'm not sure that I'm satisfied with that. And gosh, we haven't yet brought about world peace and -- (laughter.) I thought that was going to happen quicker. (Laughter.) You know who you are. (Laughter.) We have had the most productive, progressive legislative session in at least a generation.
Lots of laffs there. Judging by that transcript, he had 'em rolling on the floor. Some call them elites, he calls them his base. But as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, after quoting a New York Times article about lack of enthusiasm for the Democrats as the November elections approach:
This may sound like a serious problem, but I'm sure it's nothing that can't be solved by just a couple more Obama speeches delivered at $30,000 per plate dinners in Connecticut, at which the President derides their concerns as nothing but the by-product of congenital grievances and insufficient gratitude -- maybe he can even throw in a couple strawmen: "these union workers won't be satisfied until I've seized the means of production and abolished capitalism" -- followed by a celebratory column in the Post from Stephen Stromberg giving the President a reverent high five for slapping down those petulant union ingrates. That'll do the trick.
It evidently needs to be explained, again and again and again, because the President and his toadies (to say nothing of the corporate media) don't get it. It isn't that there's a lot of enthusiasm for Republicans, it's that there isn't a lot of enthusiasm for Democrats. In the case of Obama, it's not what he may or may not have failed to do, it's what he has done. But hey, I'm just a disaffected professional leftist who sees the glass as half-empty and probably needs a drug test, just a crank on the margins. The Democrats don't need my vote -- and they're not going to get it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Beating the Tea Party at Their Own Game

In the past I've been drawn by such contenders as Cthulhu and Fred Nietzsche, but I've come to realize that the time for such adolescent rebellion is done. It's time to come down from Mount Disdain and support someone who's electable, a candidate with name recognition and a proven track record, someone with experience. And I think I've found him.

Accept no substitutes.

By the way, some Canadian researchers have found that even four-year-olds can grasp irony. Canadian four-year-olds, maybe.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Librarians at the Gates

I'm not sure what pointed me in the first place to Ed D'Angelo's Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education and the Public Good (Duluth MN: Library Juice Press, 2006). An "recommendation", or one of their "Readers Who Liked This Item Also Liked"? A Powell's Review-a-Day? I don't remember now; no matter. It may not matter at all: who else is going to read this turkey, anyway? Well, someone did -- it was checked out the first time I went looking for it at the library.

The key word in the title, I think, is "postmodern" (though as you'll see, "gates" is important too, as D'Angelo's chief proposed defense against the barbarians). D'Angelo uses the word "postmodern" a lot, referring to the growth of corporate power and what he calls "market populism" -- by which he seems to mean that if something sells well, it is the Will of the People:
Nobody forces me to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster. And nobody forces the Hollywood movie producers to sell their product to me. We each get what we want. The Hollywood movie producers get what they want. The Hollywood movie producers get my money and in exchange I get a pleasurable experience [48].
"A pleasurable experience" is an excessively mild way of putting it, but then D'Angelo seems to disapprove of pleasure, so maybe not. Corporate entertainment walks a difficult line, between pandering to potential customers and offending too many of them. It's not as easy as it looks, especially in what I suppose D'Angelo would call a "postmodern" age where the potential audience is worldwide. For example, Michael Bay's 2001 blockbuster Pearl Harbor offended many Americans by being insufficiently anti-Japanese, but even if Bay didn't care, a blockbuster costs a lot of money to make, and investors and marketing people have their eye on foreign as well as domestic sales. But if you get rid of everything that might conceivably offend someone, the result will be a bland product that won't sell tickets. And despite the best efforts of the marketing people, despite all the test marketing and focus groups and so on, a lot of corporate product loses money; the big moneymakers subsidize the losers. Media companies have always defended themselves against critics of various stripes by claiming that they were simply giving the Public what it wants, but they don't really know what the Public wants. All they can do is keep throwing product at the Public and see what sticks, then imitate what sells well in hopes of duplicating the previous success.

Current example: the success of James Cameron's Avatar in 3-D spawned not just new 3-D product but the conversion of old product to the new technology. Audiences flocked to see the first few big 3-D releases, and 3-D was touted as a revolutionary technology that would take over movies and TV -- but the numbers dropped off quickly. If the corporate media know how to to give us what we want, why did 3-D flounder? It's part of the marketing process to claim that they knew what they were doing, that they're in control, but it's worth remembering that much of Hollywood was rooting for Cameron's latest blockbuster to fail -- until it succeeded, and then they tried to jump on its bandwagon. D'Angelo gives the corporate media way too much credence, but then it's in his interest to do so: he needs villains.

Now, I'm as hostile as D'Angelo to corporate influence on the Commons -- the public institutions that enhance the quality of life for everyone, rich and non-rich alike, but especially benefit those who can't afford season tickets to the Met, elite private schools, and other private goods. (Which are nonetheless often publicly subsidized in one way or another.) I just don't think it has anything to do with postmodernism or populism, and it's not relevant to the other part of D'Angelo's argument, which is that librarians are supposed to be Gatekeepers of our culture, "to establish the canon, the original works of ideal beauty, and to divide them from what is vulgar" (54). His thesis seems to be that Postmodern Corporatism and the Mob (short for mobile vulgus) have united in an unholy alliance, and only embattled Librarians stand between Truth and Beauty (huddled in library stacks) and Armageddon.

Once Upon a Time, D'Angelo claims, the publication of books was a holy vocation: "Publishers served as gatekeepers, deciding what entered the culture and what did not" (56). But nowadays "Books are no longer published because they enlighten but because they sell" (57). Really? I know enough about the history of publication to know that this is at best an oversimplification.
Not surprisingly, given who owns them, the chain bookstores operate like a retail business. Books are arranged according to their potential to generate sales revenues and are attractively displayed to catch shoppers’ attention. Muzak plays in the background. Sales people are trained in customer service but know nothing about books. Book purchasing is handled in the same way a retail business manages its inventory. There’s no need for a critical gatekeeper who selects books on the basis of qualitative judgments [58].
This is just plain weird. Independent bookstores also "operate like a retail business", perhaps because that is what they are. It's true that corporate reorganization and the growth of the chains have had a deleterious effect on publishing, but people like Alfred A. Knopf stood out in the business because they were different from other publishers, not because they were typical.
Stores (that is, retailers) like Brentano's were in big cities, not in small towns. I first bought books from small-town drugstores in the 1960s, from small displays with little variety; from a local newsstand, which did somewhat better; and from an office supply store that also sold books, mostly aging copies of Modern Library classics. In none of those stores did I find staff who were knowledgeable about books. But the last thing I wanted was a "gatekeeper" who would tell me what I should or shouldn't read.

"To cross the line separating the aesthetic from the vulgar was to challenge the authority of the gatekeeper," D'Angelo says (54). Fine with me; I'm not big on authority to begin with, and a healthy disrespect for self-appointed authority is (I thought) a pillar of the "democracy" D'Angelo claims to want to save. He often cites Plato, but Plato was hostile to democracy, and I think that's an indication of D'Angelo's true agenda. Like the corporate managers and marketers who claim that they're on the Public's side, giving us what we want, D'Angelo claims to be on our side too, for our own good, bringing us enlightenment on his terms, not ours.

For the question always arises, Who guards the gatekeeper? Who watches the watchers? D'Angelo cites Library: An Unquiet History (W. W. Norton, 2003) by Matthew Battles, a librarian at Harvard's Houghton Library, which gives a compact history of the development of libraries and the conflicts over their mission. There have always been different ideas of how inclusive a library should be in the materials it houses, from the purely canonical (however conceived) to a more universal vision of containing everything, or as near to everything as it's possible to do. The more selective vision held by Ed D'Angelo is much more manageable, with gatekeepers, philosopher-librarians so to speak, making sure that the vulgar aren't exposed to anything that might stress our tiny brains too much and lead us to rebel against true authority.

The public library as we know it in the US, with open stacks in which patrons may browse, is a recent development, and librarians have been ambivalent about it. In the 19th century, for example,
The reform-minded librarians wished to interpose themselves between the masses and the books, to provide guidance in appropriate kinds of reading. [Melville] Dewey [the inventor of the Dewey Decimal classification system for libraries, and an advocate of 'efficiency' in library organization generally] agreed with this motive. But he felt that to achieve it, libraries needed to focus more on the titles of the books they chose and more on the ways in which they organized those books and made them available. To a very great extent, this was a matter of the standardization of everything: not only the cataloging schemes but the size of cards and cabinets should be the same in all libraries. ... A visitor to a library organized along Dewey's lines finds her way around without difficulty. To Dewey, local interests and special needs were less important than the efficient movement of books into the hands of readers. And while his undying and eccentric reliance on the bromide of efficiency undeniably led libraries to greater economies -- adopting not only his furniture and his system of classification but the newly invented card catalog as well -- such reform came at the cost of the sort of local diversity that makes individual libraries worth visiting and reading in [141].
So, the tendencies D'Angelo deplores are not "postmodern" but nineteenth-century (if not earlier) in their origins. Battles also quotes librarians who were annoyed at being interrupted in their scholarly work of cataloging by importunate patrons who wanted help in using the library, accessing information, and indeed asking them to exercise what D'Angelo calls their "gatekeeper" function by recommending books to them.

D'Angelo seems to share this annoyance:
Whereas before, clients were expected to adhere to the bureaucratic rules and procedures of the library, today they are increasingly viewed as customers in a marketplace. Features of a bureaucracy include impartiality, comprehensive written rules, and impersonality. [He actually thinks those are unambiguously good things!] Rules are objectively defined and applied impartially to all members and clients of the organization. But in a market all terms of service are negotiable at the point of transaction. Thus, under a market model, if a customer owes the library a fine, he can negotiate with the library to reduce or eliminate his fine. In the interest of “good customer service” and preserving its relationship with the customer the library may agree to reduce the fines owed by some customers who aggressively negotiate lower fines, while others pay the standard fine. The library might even choose to overlook stolen material if on balance it gains by doing so. Indeed since public libraries receive funding from third parties there is little incentive to do otherwise. This same laissez-faire attitude applies to all the rules of the market-oriented public library.

The basic principle of New Economy management theory is to replace bureaucratic structures with market mechanisms, or as Tom Peters put it in his 1992 book Liberation Management: “blasting the violent winds of the marketplace into every nook and cranny in the firm.” ... The market-oriented library prefers that its employees relate to one another as they would in the marketplace. Full time permanent employees are encouraged to view one another as “customers.” But the market-oriented library hires relatively few permanent full time employees with benefits. It prefers to draw labor from the marketplace as needed on a temporary contractual basis. It does not value loyalty and discourages long term employment. It offers early retirement incentives to long term employees and then hires them back as temporary workers. It hires part time paraprofessionals or even opens its doors to poorly qualified volunteers [113-4].
D'Angelo is so overheated here that he seems to trip over his own argument. Are "full time permanent employees" really "encouraged to view one another as 'customers'"? Or are they supposed to view patrons as customers? The context suggests the latter. I also object to libraries' going along with the downsizing trends D'Angelo deplores here, but why shouldn't a public library "open its doors to ... volunteers"? How advanced a degree is really needed to shelve and reshelve books that have already been catalogued? Why shouldn't a democratic community support its public institutions with its labor? Indeed, why shouldn't such mechanical work be delegated to volunteers or "part time paraprofessionals", so that professional librarians can do whatever it is that D'Angelo thinks they should be doing? Presumably guarding the gates to keep non-librarians out.