Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The United States of Hysteria

It's been entertaining to watch the Obama administration's reaction to the latest batch of Wikileaks material, predictable though it is. This irresponsible behavior will cost many lives! Wait, diplomats' lives? They aren't usually on the front lines of battle. But this lie, that the material Wikileaks has released has somehow led to the death of our accomplices and collaborators, plays so well in the corporate media that Obama and Clinton and others apparently decided to use it again.

As Daniel Ellsberg once said, "It is inexcusable to take what [government officials] say at face value. You are not talking to pathological liars, you are talking to professional liars who should be looked at as skeptically as used-car salesmen or Pfizer or Merck spokesmen" (Myra MacPherson, All governments lie: the life and times of rebel journalist I. F. Stone [Scribners, 2006], 456.) Wouldn't you think, though, that professional liars would do a better job of it?

Speaking of I. F. Stone, over at alicublog, Stone's granddaughter, who goes by the nom de Web of aimai, could only splutter in frustration in the comments to this post.
I am so large with not caring. Over at Balloon Juice all the usual left authoritarians are shrieking at the left anarchists that they are as bad as the righties and wikileaks is total nihilism. Meanwhile: all government's [sic] lie. Basically. As true now as when my g-father said it.
Sure, a dedicated Obama fan and Democratic loyalist doesn't care. I'm not convinced.

For a good summary of the huffing and puffing and bloooooow Wikileaks' house down that's been going on, see Glenn Greenwald's latest, which has links to several other articles, especially this FAIR blog post which shreds the New York Times' claim that the documents show that North Korea had sold missiles to Iran that "
could for the first time give Iran the capacity to strike at capitals in Western Europe or easily reach Moscow." It turns out that this allegation was made in a meeting between American and Russian officials, and it seems to rest entirely on the word of the Americans, with no other evidence. Who wouldn't believe American officials warning about the apocalyptic peril of Iranian aggression? The Russians, for one. Me, for another.

My friend the ambivalent Obama supporter wrote on Facebook that "
if any of our intelligence assets ARE compromised someone should swing for this." I pointed out to him that so far, despite the government's claims, no one has been harmed by Wikileaks' activities. Is anyone going to swing for the vast bloodbath that the US has inflicted on Afghanistan and Iraq? The US helicopter crew who murdered unarmed Iraqis in 2007, revealed by Wikileaks earlier this year, not only didn't swing, they were exonerated by a military inquiry. Obama has ruled out any accountability for the Bush administration gangsters who tortured and murdered in violation of American and international law. But Wikileaks, who haven't killed anyone, they should swing.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Book Snob's Big 100

If you're on Facebook, you've probably seen this list. A number of my friends have 'done' it. One of them complained about strange repetitions, such as Shakespeare's Complete Works (14) and Hamlet (98). That and the way it was written reminded me of netlore and the popular "99 out of 100 people won't have the guts to put this in their status - will you" that turns up on Facebook so often, so I did a little search and found 1) it doesn't come from the BBC; and b) it probably comes from the Guardian, though their list says nothing about most people only having read 6 of the books. Still, I'm a book snob myself, so I did the list too:

Have you read more than 6 of these books? The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books listed here. Instructions: Copy this into your NOTES. Bold those books you've read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started but didn't finish or read an excerpt. Tag other book nerds. Tag me as well so I can see your responses!

1. Pride and Prejudice- Jane Austen

2. The Lord of the Rings- J.R.R. Tolkein

3. Jane Eyre- Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

6 The Bible

7. Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell

9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman

10. Great Expectations- Charles Dickens

11. Little Women- Louisa May Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy

13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare

15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulk

18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger

19 The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch - George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald

24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

25. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy- Douglas Adams

27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

30. The Wind in the Willows- Kenneth Grahame

31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

32. David Copperfield- Charles Dickens

33. The Chronicles of Narnia- C.S. Lewis

34 Emma -Jane Austen

35 Persuasion - Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe - CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden

40. Winnie the Pooh- A.A. Milne

41. Animal Farm- George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code- Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving

45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding

50 Atonement - Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel

52. Dune- Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck

62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy

68. Bridget Jones' Diary - Helen Fielding

69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie

70. Moby Dick- Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

72. Dracula- Bram Stoker

73. The Secret Garden- Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson

75. Ulysses- James Joyce

76. The Inferno- Dante

77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal - Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession - AS Byatt

81. A Christmas Carol- Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

83. The Color Purple- Alice Walker

84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web - E.B. White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom

89. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

92. The Little Prince- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks

94. Watership Down- Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl

100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

(54 read, 3 begun but not finished)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

I have no idea why I got so little done the past several days, despite a four-day Thanksgiving break. As usual when a holiday approaches, I had grandiose plans for reading, writing, watching movies, and visiting friends. I did manage to visit friends, which is probably the best use I could have made of the time, but that's about all. I watched the pilot episode of Glee and decided it was worth watching. Oh, and shopping: the going wasn't tough, but I didn't let that stop the tough from going shopping. I spent way too much on DVDs and books. (One factor probably was the knowledge that I've written 300 posts already this year, and something in my brain said I could stop awreddy.)

Anyway, it's back to work tomorrow, and that will probably get me back into the groove. There are a lot of things I want to write, and they'll have to be written on the run instead of at leisure.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Spirit of the Season

Today I had some business to transact at my bank, which gave me occasion to deal with a teller. She was wearing a printed card above the nametag on her uniform shirt that said, "Happy Holidays." I thought about it while I was making the deposit, and made a decision: I told her that I appreciated the bank's decision to make it "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas," since I knew there was pressure on some businesses to get rid of "Happy Holidays," and I wanted to let them know I approved of their choice. She looked a bit nonplussed -- probably no one had said anything about it to her before -- but thanked me.

Since I read this article about the pressure on retailers by some Christian groups, notably the American Family Association, to "recognize" Christmas, I've been pondering what ought to be done about it. I suppose one reason the pressure groups have had success, even if they may be exaggerating it, is that not many people really are anti-Christmas or want to "censor" Christmas. I don't object, or mind, when someone says "Merry Christmas" to me, whether they be stray individuals or employees in a business. As the Advertising Age reporter wrote,
This year's [National Retail Federation]/BigResearch survey found that 91 percent of consumers plan to celebrate Christmas, compared with 5% for Hanukkah and 2% for Kwanzaa.

"Retailers dipped their toe into the Christmas waters again last year, and there wasn't much push back. There wasn't a huge outcry from groups offended that retailers were saying Merry Christmas," said Ms. Davis. "We see the word Christmas being used much more this year than three or four years ago. The pendulum seems to have swung back."

I don't think there should be a "push back" at retailers who stress Christmas in their promotions or customer service scripts; for non-Christians to organize such a thing would be to sink to the AFA's level. But as I did today, I will try to praise businesses that use the generic "Holidays" label (even if they also mention Christmas -- Christmas is one of the holidays involved, after all). And I've been toying with the idea of a mild response to individuals who wish me a Merry Christmas. Not to workers in stores and such, who I presume are saying what they've been instructed to say, but individuals. Something like this, maybe:
OTHER PERSON: Merry Christmas!

ME: Oh, thank you for the thought, but I'm not a Christian.
This is bound to make people defensive, so I want to be as pleasant about it as possible, but many Christians evidently need to be reminded that they are not the only people in the world. That's why "Happy Holidays" came into use, if only for a while. If it's "politically correct," as the AFA spokesman calls it derisively (Christian love in action!), it's also good manners. What I have in mind is not so much a pushback as a "We shall not be moved."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I Was a Teenage Closet Case

Another good bit from Alan Sinfield's Cultural Politics - Queer Reading on gay neuroscientist Simon LeVay:
The drawback is illustrated in an exchange between LeVay and his father -- who is entirely persuaded by his son's work. So how does LeVay senior see gay men now? He says he regards Simon as he would a child born with spina bifida, a hare lip, or some other developmental deficit. LeVay finds this "pretty humiliating" -- though I don't see why he should, since it is a logical consequence of his theory. Indeed, the attraction of stigmatization is depressingly apparent; people with spina bifida may well feel their civil rights are violated when they are appropriated as the awful other by LeVay, senior and junior [70].
The exchange between the LeVays comes from a documentary, Born That Way?, which I haven't been able to track down. As Sinfield says, his father's attitude is perfectly reasonable. All that you establish if you prove that homosexuality is inborn is that homosexuals are not morally responsible for our condition: you haven't begun to touch the question of its moral status. And even that is doubtful, since human beings have so often managed to pass moral judgment on inborn conditions. Dark skin, for example, like other "racial" markers, has been read as the visible mark -- the stigma -- of inner wickedness. Most adults, at least, who throw around the word "retarded" as an insult are aware that mental retardation is a congenital condition, not a moral choice, but that knowledge hasn't had any evident effect on the word's popularity among our culturally-sensitive elites. For that matter, the word "sick" itself is commonly used as a moral cussword: just imagine someone spitting it out with ripe disgust.

LeVay, like many born-gay advocates, thinks that if homosexuality is somehow caused by the environment, if it's an acquired rather than an inborn condition, then it can be reversed by therapy. For born-gay advocates, the failure of change therapy is itself evidence, indeed proof, that homosexuality must be inborn. That doesn't follow either: psychiatry has a very poor track record in most cases. And even religious conversion is notoriously hard to undo, though it's a choice if anything is.

Also assumed is that if we can be changed, we must be changed, partly because who would reject the chance to be normal, to be spared the misery and persecution of gay life? I feel a terrible sadness when gay people talk like this. I don't feel that I'm missing out on anything by not being heterosexual, anymore than I feel I'm missing out by being an atheist. Maybe Homo-Americans don't really believe that desiring their own sex is being stuck with second-best -- which doesn't even make sense, when you think about it, since it would mean that heterosexuality was also settling for second-best. (If men are second-best, then straight women are stuck with second-best, and should turn to other women -- but wait! then they'd be lesbians, and stuck with second-best, just like straight men are, so they should turn to other men, but wait!...)

Even when I was a teenage closet case, gulled by heterosexual-supremacist propaganda, I knew that other males were what I wanted; and a crucial turning point in my coming out was the day I realized (admitted to myself?) that if I never got to touch a woman's body intimately, I wouldn't feel I'd missed anything, but if I never got to touch a man, I'd be haunted by the loss forever. The next crucial turning point was when it dawned on me that there was no reason why I shouldn't want to touch a man's body, and why I shouldn't do so if I could find a man who wanted me to touch him. The reason I'm gay is that the beauty of men takes my breath away -- not all men, but many men. Since the "science" of "sexual orientation" doesn't address that fact, which may be just as well (it's actually a mechanical theory of insertors and receptors), it's simply irrelevant.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When I Hear the Word "Pistol" I Reach For My Culture

Alan Sinfield is one of my favorite academic critics, and I'm currently reading his Cultural Politics - Queer Reading (Minnesota, 1994, though there's apparently a second edition out, which includes these words in its new foreword:
"The reader" is a coercive construct, designed to disqualify rival views. Its menu of exclusions is familiar. Othello should not be played by a black actor, A. C. Bradley remarks [in 1960], almost in passing. "Perhaps if we saw Othello coal-black with the bodily eye, the aversion of our blood, an aversion which comes as near to being merely physical as anything human can, would overpower our imagination" ... "We" in the audience may or may not be racist; in any event, Bradley assumes, we are all going to be white. ...

The assumed "we" is necessary for the conduct of literary criticism, because it embodies the supposition that the text simply yields its meaning to the (right) reader. Actually, I believe, it is the other way around: the literary is not a property of texts, but a way of reading. The text appears literary when it is read with literary criteria in view. Once it is admitted that different reading positions will produce different readings, easy claims for canonicity, the universal and essential qualities of literature, and the authority of the academy, become unsustainable, indeed embarrassing [xiv].
I had already come on my own to the conclusion that the literary is a way of reading, but it is pleasant to find that Sinfield agrees with me. I don't always agree with him, but he always has interesting things to say, including his reversal of the aphorism commonly attributed to Goering, which I borrowed for the title of this post. Or this, on the open secret in reviews of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which was originally staged in 1955:
Walter Kerr, in the New York Herald Tribune, acknowledged "the implication" of "an unnatural relationship" but complained that Cat exhibits "a tantalizing reluctance" to "blurt out its promised secret." In fact, the play is plain enough; Kerr needs there to be a secret. A standard tabloid story in the U.K. is the shock-discovery of the gayness of someone who has not in fact been hiding it. The need is to insist that it is the kind of thing anyone would conceal if they could [53-54].

Monday, November 22, 2010

Of Course You Realize This Means War!

I'd been wondering vaguely when the first salvo would be fired, and then I came across this photoblog post. The War on Christmas Season is once again upon us! (And we haven't even had Thanksgiving yet.) There's also a link to this subliterate piece by a writer for Advertising Age, on how "Happy Holidays" has been relegated to the dustbin of history, comrades.

According to its caption, the photo above depicts
Michael Godsey, front, and his wife Deanna, portray Joseph and Mary with the baby Jesus, in front of Christian activists during a live Christmas nativity scene procession outside the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, Nov. 22, 2010. Faith Action, a Christian organization, staged the demonstration to illustrate that such displays are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Eight adult actors in biblical costume, two camels and one donkey took part in the scene.
I could have sworn the person carrying the baby Jesus in the procession was another man, and the term "adult actors" (no doubt fresh from a teabagging scene) took me aback for a moment too. The blog post, by one Robert Hood, who styles himself "a news photographer", is no better:
Religious displays on public property have been argued over for decades. The establishment clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” However, it also says Congress can’t impede the free exercise of religion, nor can it infringe on the freedom of speech. So, understandably there is considerable confusion around this issue.
And this post does nothing to dispel the confusion. In fact, it seems intended to increase it:
What do you think? Should Christmas be a federal holiday? Should religious displays be allowed on public property? If allowed, should we make distinctions between religions? If Christians can set up a Jesus manger on public property, can a coven perform Wiccan rituals on the steps of city hall? Am I favoring a religion if I participate in a Christmas giving tree, or am I helping a family during what would otherwise be a terribly painful morning on December 25th?
I wouldn't object to Christmas being a federal holiday if so many conservative Christians hadn't had hissyfits over the creation of federal holidays like Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday. Suppose there were a move to make some Muslim holiday (or, to use Hood's example, a Wiccan holiday) into a federal holiday; does anyone think that reactionary Christians would accept it as being on a par with Christmas? Believers should be, and as far as I know, are allowed to make "religious displays on public property" on their own initiative, and of course a coven should be allowed to perform Wiccan rituals on the steps of City Hall. If Hood participates in a Christmas giving tree, if he wants to 'favor a religion', that's his business as a private citizen -- why does he pretend it has anything to do with the First Amendment? I don't suppose there'd be any problem with, say, the workers at a Bureau of Motor Vehicles Office deciding to organize a giving tree. If the government at any level organizes charity, though, that is socialism according to the Christian frothers -- unless, apparently, it's done in the context of Christmas to undermine the wall of separation between religion and government.

Of course a procession like Faith Action's is protected by the First Amendment. But that has nothing to do with "religious displays" initiated and funded by the government. Would-be theocrats are always trying to get their cult of choice supported by the state, whether by getting it to set up Nativity displays for Christmas, official days of thanksgiving (though not of fasting -- that's so yesteryear), official prayers in school, and God all over government media ("In God We Trust" on money, which is fine if you put your trust in Mammon, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and so on). I'm not offended by these acts in themselves. What bothers me is that they are intended to get the camel's nose into the tent, by creating legal precedents for an official establishment of religion, which can then be built on and extended.

Why would a church want to set up a creche on "public property" anyway? The only thing I can think of is that they want to make it look like our government -- which under the Constitution is godless, and for very good reason -- has an official religion. Considering the hysteria ginned up by essentially the same people over the building of a Muslim community center, including a prayer room, on private property in New York City, and over the building of mosques, also on private property, around the country, it's pretty clear what these people want to do: they want official Christian supremacy in the United States. They already have freedom of religion, but they want to be able to impose their religion on others, and make us pay for its expression on the public dime.

There are ambiguities in the law, and room for disagreement about how to resolve them. But the Christian theocrats prefer to throw out red herrings, and as Hood's post shows, there are plenty of people who will take them for serious discussion.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Don't Humiliate Good Americans -- Just Bad Ones and Foreigners

Here's a good supplement to what I was trying to talk about yesterday. Glenn Greenwald linked to this story in his Twitter feed today, with the comment:
A new daily horror RT @andylevy: Add "being covered in urine" to the list of small prices we're being asked to pay by TSA
For a moment I thought some traveler had been covered in someone else's urine -- treated like a prisoner in one of our military dungeons, in other words, or a gay student in one of our high schools. But no. What happened was that a retired teacher from Michigan, "a bladder cancer survivor who now wears a urostomy bag," was chosen to submit to an "enhanced" patdown as he passed through Detroit Metro Airport, presumably because the scanner had picked up on the bag. He had to ask twice to be screened in private.
“One officer looked at another, rolled his eyes and said that they really didn’t have any place to take me,” said Sawyer. “After I said again that I’d like privacy, they took me to an office... And every time I tried to tell them about my medical condition, they said they didn’t need to know about that.” ...

“One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”

The security officer finished the pat-down, tested the gloves for any trace of explosives and then, Sawyer said, “He told me I could go. They never apologized. They never offered to help. They acted like they hadn’t seen what happened. But I know they saw it because I had a wet mark.” Humiliated, upset and wet, Sawyer said he had to walk through the airport soaked in urine, board his plane and wait until after takeoff before he could clean up.
It's a disturbing, even infuriating tale, but it's about inadequate training and incompetence on the part of TSA agents, not the more general issue of whether "we" are giving up "our" civil liberties by submitting to security screening when we travel. The article also quotes one
Eric Lipp, executive director of Open Doors Association, which works with businesses and the disability community, [who] called what happened to Sawyer “unfortunate.”

“But enhanced pat-downs are not a new issue for people with disabilities who travel," Lipp said. "They've always had trouble getting through the security checkpoint."

I find it difficult to write about this, because it seems to me (though I also know better) that it should be obvious that security screening should be organized so as to do as little violence as possible to people's dignity, whether they have complicated medical conditions or not. But then, such matters are decided at the top level by people like George Bush and Barack Obama (scroll down to Obama's remarks on the TSA there), through corporate Milo Minderbinder types like Michael Chertoff below them, and by people like you and me as you work down through the hierarchy, so it's not surprising that people's dignity is compromised by TSA and by institutions everywhere. When I read Sawyer's story I remembered this parable by Philip Zimbardo of the Stanford Prison Experiment:
It's like the elementary school teacher who didn't let you get out of your seat unless you raised your hand to go to the toilet. And it didn't matter if you peed in your pants. I still remember in first grade, a little girl raised her hand and said, "I have to go to the bathroom." The teacher said, "No, put your hand down." The kid peed all over herself. Everybody laughed at her.
But then I also remembered the political philosopher Michael Neumann's remarks about respect:
Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush.
I thought of this because Mr. Sawyer also told MSNBC, "I am a good American and I want safety for all passengers as much as the next person. ... But if this country is going to sacrifice treating people like human beings in the name of safety, then we have already lost the war." The term "good American" got my attention. We have already lost the war, then, because this country has failed to treat people like human beings throughout its history. I understand and sympathize with Sawyer's outrage at the way he was treated, but it sounds as though he only noticed that people were being dehumanized in the name of America's safety when he had a bad experience. It's probably a losing struggle even to get this country to treat air travelers with dignity, let alone dusky foreign children and their parents in countries that no one has ever heard of, but the two are intimately interrelated. (Remember that in the US, the murder of the father of the children in that video clip was regarded as a PR problem for "us," not a crime against them.) My personal definition of a "good American," if I were going to use that tainted term, would be someone who objects to his government hurting other people, not just himself.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Don't Touch Your What?

There's evidently reason to doubt the effectiveness of the full-body scanners that have been installed in many American airports, enough reason that the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly last December against funding them. The ACLU and the National Rifle Association (!) backed this decision. The TSA responded by using stimulus funds to purchase the machines. According to the GAO, the scanners would not have caught the more recent terrorist-wannabe's who are used as the excuse for buying and using them. The former head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, just happens to run a "consulting" firm among whose clients is the manufacturer of the scanners in question, but he prefers not to mention this when shilling for them. And now, as everyone has been hearing, persons passing through airport security must choose between a body scan and a thorough ("enhanced" is one adjective I've seen used) patdown by TSA personnel.

So I'd say it's rational to object to both the scanners and the patdowns. But instead working with the reasons, numerous liberal and progressive sources are being as alarmist as possible. The scanners are "x-rated," "porno scanners," "naked scanners." (Even the right-wing Washington Examiner likes that last one.) A good example comes from a travel blogger who heralds a new "privacy upgrade" on the scanners by opining, "I think most people would agree that the latest installation of full body (read: naked) airport scanners are … well … icky." Well, I'm not most people. I think that being blown into tiny little pieces is icky, whether it's done by an angry person on an airliner or by a crazed American President with a predator drone, but a full-body scan -- through your clothes, therefore not "naked" -- whatever else you can say about it, is not. Whether it's a necessary security measure is another question.

Ginger McCall, assistant director of the open government program at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Democracy Now! this morning:
What happens with the scanners is that you walk through it, you pose, the scanner will scan you and the picture gets sent back to a TSA official in a back room. It is a very, very invasive picture. It shows cellulite. It shows love handles. It is very detailed and very graphic.
This sounds to me like a Moral Majority mailing to warn decent Christians about the detailed and graphic and explicit Gay Pride Parades that will teach fisting to kindergarteners. I can say in all seriousness that if a TSA employee is sexually aroused by the sight of my cellulite and love handles, I'd like to meet him. (And bear in mind that we're talking about a picture like this one, or these, which don't look like porn to me. But everyone has their own kink!) The sexual panic here, and in John Tyner's account of his refusal to submit to a patdown, is interesting. (I've read it repeatedly, and it sounds to me as if he didn't object to the patdown as long as he thought a female agent would be doing it; only when a male agent walked up to him did he freak out. "I repeated that I felt what they were doing was a sexual assault, and that if they were anyone but the government, the act would be illegal." Yes, and if a prostate exam were done in a prison shower instead of your doctor's office, it would be sodomy. Nor does the description of the patdown sound like "groping" to me, but whatever turns Tyner on...)

As I said before, there are good reasons to be skeptical of the scanners, including health risks from the radiation. Why not attend to them, instead of trying to stir up a Christian-Right style sexual panic? What depresses me is that this is coming from the left(ish) civil liberties groups and venues, as well as the usual Republican "middle-aged outrageaholics who suspect TSA employees are leering at them", as Roy Edroso describes them -- apparently not having noticed that the outrageaholics are bipartisan. One of Edroso's commenters gripes, "What pisses me off is that the Republicans know exactly what to do with these panic/fear states and the Democrats never do." As if "these panic/fear states" were just, like, Acts of God, things that happened with no human input! Democrats are helping the Republicans stir up the fear.

A number of people have echoed the idea that "we" fly too much. How much is too much? A number of Edroso's commenters batted back and forth the discomforts of flight in these post-9/11 times. Por ejemplo: "If I'm going to fly, the destination had better be fucking awesome to make up for the shit one has to put up with to travel by air. I'm not just talking about security stuff. It's everything. Plus, some people just don't get off on the whole travel thing -- while not thinking their own little hamlet is necessarily the best ever. Me personally? I would love to travel lots of places, just not by air." That's all very well, but it's wilfully irrelevant. It would be nice if every seat were first class, but then air travel wouldn't be affordable for as many people as it is. And I'm not sure that the discomforts of coach class (with which I'm well acquainted) are greater than those of steerage a hundred or so years ago.

The question that needs to be addressed is: if people are going to travel by air in large numbers, what are effective methods of managing security without compromising passengers' rights? One way to lower risk would be for countries like the US to stop the wholesale murder of large numbers of innocent people in other countries, inspiring survivors to seek redress for their grievances through retail violence. That's not likely to change in the foreseeable future, but it is something to bear in mind over the long term. How much good the increasingly intrusive security measures actually do is questionable -- they're usually closing the barn door after the horses have gotten out -- and because of the insecurity and uncertainty involved in these decisions, they can't be resolved with any finality. As this writer says,
Advocates of the 'security' perspective see nothing objectionable in 'sacrificing' personal privacy to the imperatives of greater air safety and believe the new machines are an inescapable imperative, exhorting those who are unwilling to submit to invasive scrutiny to 'take a car or a train'. Rights activists, on the other hand, have taken recourse to emotive images of a 'virtual strip search' by what has evocatively been dubbed the 'naked machine', to create the threat of an intolerable invasion of privacy by a technology that would expose 'body shapes and private parts', and that would be susceptible to abuse - particularly in the case of celebrities - notwithstanding any safeguards regulators may impose. One rights activist thus argues, persuasively, "We would certainly all be safer on airlines if we all flew naked." Evidently, that is an option few of us would seriously examine, irrespective of threat assessments.

... Knee jerk reactions have been the hallmark of Indian responses - and there is no visible reason why anything will change in the case of full body scanners at airports.
Kneejerk reactions have been the hallmark of American responses too: liberals and Democrats jumped onto Bush's bandwagon of domestic repression and foreign killing immediately after the September 11 attacks. My usual assessment of those who rely on "emotive images" rather than rational argument is that they don't have any rational arguments, or they'd use them. I suppose I'm sympathetic to people whose bodily modesty causes them to panic at the thought that a TSA employee in a back room will 'see them naked', or who can't stand to be touched in a patdown, and I count myself lucky, not virtuous, that neither prospect upsets me much, any more than the prospect of having my genitals inspected by a doctor of either sex. (The same goes for men who go into hysterics at the sight of other men's genitals, or even a CGI simulacrum of same: sucks to be them. They should be helped, but their phobia should not be treated as principled, let alone as Natural Law.)

But I don't trust Homeland Security or the rest of my government either. It's legitimate to doubt their claims of expertise about security when, as another Edroso commenter pointed out,
A month before Abdulmutallab got on a plane, his father told the State Dept. he was a terrorist. End result? Never on a no-fly list and gets on a plane in Holland without a passport because someone says he's a Sudanese refugee, and now everyone randomly (ooh, that's smart!) has to be felt up or sprayed with x-rays. Is that a fix for the real problem--an incompetent and busted early-warning system--or is it more security kabuki to give Homeland Security the illusion that they're doing their jobs?
Just as with the idea of letting civilians around the world live in peace, the remedy for airline security is probably more low-tech: pay attention to the information they actually get. But expensive technology is highly visible, media-friendly, and creates profits for those who are already rich.

Reading IOZ' recent posts on this subject reminds me that I really need to read more of the literature of anarchism, because leaving aside the question of how we get from here to there, I am not sure what an ideally coercion-free society is supposed to look like. How would airline security be handled under anarchy -- or would there be airlines, or air travel, at all? John Tyner reports that the agent who was supposed to do his patdown "said that I gave up a lot of rights when I bought my ticket. I replied that the government took them away after September 11th." Really? Does he think that an event like the September 11th attacks would have no effects on air travel if the government hadn't done anything? Airliners are expensive babies, and using them as projectiles to kill thousands of people is bad PR, bad for business. I would expect the corporations that handle air travel to take security measures of their own whether the government did anything or not, and since corporations are totalitarian organizations with little accountability, I wouldn't assume that they'd be less draconian, more sensible, or more effective than those of the TSA. (Remember, it wasn't "the government" who asked for the full-body scanners -- it was some companies that invented them and found ways to sell them to TSA (which -- surprise, surprise! -- was intimately connected to the corporations), over the objections of Congress.) Does buying a ticket give one a "right" to walk onto an airliner just as one wishes? Or does the vendor have the "right" to impose conditions under which they will allow you onto their property? Is there an implied contract, or a real one, in the fine print when you buy a ticket, that does waive certain of your rights? If we decide, kneejerkwise, that air travel should be a government-run project, I still am not sure that would change things much.

We come up against questions like: What are "reasonable" security concerns? What is a "reasonable" search? Does submitting to a search in order to board a plane constitute overt collaboration with Big Brother? I don't think consensus would be reached easily under the best imaginable conditions, and the quality of the discourse at the moment reminds me that we don't live in the best imaginable conditions.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Was She Doing Behind a Video Game, Anyway?

What perplexes me about things like this is what they're supposed to prove. Why was the Virgin Mary hiding behind a video game? Was she waiting to be found, and what was supposed to happen then? What would have happened if Mr. Rivera hadn't moved the game and she'd just stayed back there in the dark? And why does the newscaster keep mispronouncing Mr. Rivera's name as "Riviera"? There are some things which I guess Man was not meant to know.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I may have made a mistake on Monday when I wrote about Obama's political rhetoric and the recommendations of his Catfood Commission:
Certain "choices," like cutting back on his wars and his surveillance state, are not going to be involved.
Overall, I think that's probably still a safe bet, but today Glenn Greenwald linked to a report that
In a draft proposal presented to the 18-member debt commission, the panel’s leaders suggested slashing $100 billion from defense spending by 2015 to get the nation’s finances in order. Some of the cuts would come from a portion of the savings that Gates wants to pour back into modern weapons systems and toward U.S. troops at war.
Not that $100 billion over a four-year-period amounts to much of a cut for aggression spending. I figure that Obama is learning to bargain, and those suggested cuts will be among the first he abandons in order to save higher gasoline taxes, higher deductibles for Medicare, lower corporate taxes, and other vital choices. I just wanted to mention that the Commission did recommend cuts in military spending, contrary to my expectations.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Apocalypse Right After I Get My Social Security Check!

If I had any sense I'd be in bed now -- I have to be up early tomorrow -- but I have no sense. Besides, my right-wing acquaintance, RWA1, posted a link on Facebook to this review of a forthcoming book by Reid Buckley, a brother of the late "fons et origo of the Right" William F. Buckley Jr. (According to this rightblogger, the 80-year-old Reid is "an analog conservative in a digital age.")

The review is a hoot, in its way; I am still not sure it is serious. I asked RWA1 (who commented that it "sounds like a stimulating book - just the antidote for euphoria") if the post hadn't really come from The Onion. No answer yet.

The reviewer, one Joe Rehyansky, declares himself tempted to tell Buckley to "Lighten up" (at least he doesn't want him to "Chill"), but concedes:
Still, all ’round us is the overwhelming and irrefutable evidence: a population unable to write coherently, speak clearly, or even think rationally; instant communications which have hyped us along the way toward a mass anti-culture that seeks the lowest common denominator in all things, finds it, and lowers it further still; a national debt approaching $100 trillion when one factors in the unfunded looming liabilities of Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security; the most arrogant and ignorant president in, well, forever, and a universal suffrage composed largely of the Gadarene swine that elected him; a conservative movement revived but led to only a temporary victory by another of Reid’s older brothers, the late irreplaceable William F. Buckley, Jr. (nothing more than a rear guard action in the author’s view, now carried on by a National Review that has suffered a “terminal descent of the magazine’s wit”); and men who wear baseball caps at meals.
He can't be serious, can he? Rehyansky's prose is prime evidence of his own complaint about "a population unable to write coherently, speak clearly, or even think rationally," to say nothing of that "lowest common denominator", but who would judge the US by him? He goes on:
Reid believes that a return to small-government conservatism is impossible, and points out that even the founding fathers discussed the proposition that the republic they birthed and for which we now yearn was workable only in a small country with, the author adds, a homogeneous population. We fit the bill in those days: a population of 2,500,000 mostly rural freemen of primarily Anglo-Saxon stock who were at least aware of the Magna Carta and the freedoms passed down from their ancestors who had wrung it out of King John. Put it plainly: They were proud, you betcha. With the emancipation of the slaves and the mass migrations from continental Europe — especially Eastern Europe — and Asia, our national identity changed with our racial heritage, and so did our expectations of government. Our population is a hodgepodge of racial and ethnic incongruity, and is 124 times what it was when the founders established a government to serve white yeoman farmers.
I'm impressed that the Daily Caller gives space to such open and unapologetic racism in this day and age, but I wonder how RWA1, who is an immigrant from the Eastern Europe that Rehyansky sees as part of our problem, can read it without at least feeling a twinge. The Buckleys, it should be remembered, aren't Anglo-Saxons but Irish Papists, the kind of people about whom a distinguished Anglo-Saxon historian wrote around 1881, America "would be a great land, if only every Irishman would kill a negro, and be hanged for it." For that matter, "Rehyansky" is not the name of a "white yeoman farmer," but something more like a bomb-throwing nihilist from Petrograd. Yet he doesn't see this as interfering with his own grasp of the Magna Carta, or the freedoms other people's ancestors wrung from King John. Whatever the reason, that grasp is pretty feeble.

I like that bit about the US Constitution being "established ... to serve white yeoman farmers." Well, maybe a bit. But the Framers of the Constitution themselves were anything but yeomen.
Two were small farmers. A dozen ran plantations or large farms worked by slaves. Others were land speculators, financial speculators, thirteen were merchants, and "Thirty-five were lawyers or had benefited from legal education, though not all of them relied on the profession for a livelihood. Some had also become judges.[9]" While some of them may have been altruists concerned only to serve the yeoman, I think it's fair to suppose that the Constitution was also established to serve the interests of the kinds of men who wrote it. And so it has done, though I realize it's highly Politically Incorrect of me to say so.

And "a population of 2,500,000 mostly rural freemen of primarily Anglo-Saxon stock"? The 1790 Census, one of the first intrusions of Big Government into American citizens' lives, also showed about 700,000 slaves living here. But they didn't count as part of that homogeneous population. Neither did the Indians, but there's no way to know how many were living in what would later become the Continental US. I doubt either Buckley or Rehyansky is interested in assimilating either group, but if the freed slaves were ill-prepared for freedom, that was hardly their fault, and white racism ensured that they would be denied proper education after they were emancipated.

Rehyansky relishes the prospect that "those at the bottom will continue to dwell there, mired in sloth and indolence, squalor and ignorance, while the top gets lower and eventually we 'run out of other people’s money,' meet at the bottom and … Then what? Cannibalism, I suppose." But not before he gets his own loot from "other people's money" -- he welcomes government gridlock in the coming two years but, he adds frankly, "always provided, of course, that there be a residue of surviving federal activity sufficient to get my Army pension and Social Security payments into our bank. (Tennessee has not been allowed to print its own currency since 1865 and must therefore balance its budget, so my tiny state pension is secure.)" But then he's from the government and he's here to help, being "retired from the United States Army and the Chattanooga, Tennessee, District Attorney' Office." Productive work, like self-reliance, is for other people, as it was for William F. Buckley Jr. and his rich family.

This all reminds me of a charming passage from the Canadian-American journalist and Bush speechwriter David Frum's tract Dead Right (Basic Books, 1994) in which he complained in all seriousness:
Just as little Vietnamese children began their history lesson with "Nos ancetres, les gallois" during French colonial times, today little Vietnamese children in New York learn about "our ancestors who built Zimbabwe" and draw maps of Africa.
He had a point, in a way, but I've always wondered why it was any less strange to him that "little Vietnamese children in New York" should learn instead about, say, 'their' ancestors who landed on Plymouth Rock. I'm another one of those American mongrels that Reid Buckley deplores (German-Irish-French, according to my parents), and if I could learn about 'my' Pilgrim forefathers, why not also about my African forefathers who built Zimbabwe and my Asian forefathers who built the Great Wall? For that matter, Egyptian, Greek and Roman history were taught to me as part of my heritage no less than the Magna Carta and Shakespeare, and they are no more or less foreign to me than Zimbabwe or the Han Dynasty. But if the Magna Carta is inaccessible to people of Asian and African descent, it's just as inaccessible to Reid Buckley, Joe Rehyansky, and RWA1.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Think of the Starving Children in Africa Who'd Love to Have That Catfood!

If I still needed a reason to consider Barack Obama a congenital cheap pig*, I'd have it in the now well-circulated remarks he made last week about negative reactions to the draft report of his Catfood Commission:

"Before anybody starts shooting down proposals, I think we need to listen, we need to gather up all the facts," Obama told reporters.

He added: "If people are, in fact, concerned about spending, debt, deficits and the future of our country, then they're going to need to be armed with the information about the kinds of choices that are going to be involved, and we can't just engage in political rhetoric."

Now, "political rhetoric" is exactly what Obama was engaging in there. (I think he wanted to say something like "partisan bickering", but the criticism he was addressing came from his own party.) Notice that even though he hadn't seen the draft report when he started defending it, he still said that its recommendations are "the kinds of choices that are going to be involved" -- not even "may be involved." Certain "choices," like cutting back on his wars and his surveillance state, are not going to be involved. But he doesn't mind going after Social Security and Medicare, or raising the federal gasoline tax by 80 percent or so (which is highly regressive -- that is, it will hurt people in lower income brackets more). To counter discrimination against the vulnerable Corporate-Americans (corporations are people too, you know! they have feelings! they can hurt!), the corporate tax rate will be cut by about 25 percent, from 35 to 26 percent. The hike in the gasoline tax is intended to make up for the loss of revenue that will result from that generous gesture.

Another thing to remember (and there are many) is that while the Catfood Commission was meeting in quasi-secrecy, most of what it turned out to recommend was anything but secret, and was being discussed publicly. Critics of "the kinds of choices that are going to be involved" are already armed with information. Obama isn't interested, of course. You already know his attitude to his Democratic and 'left' critics. All that interests him is whether he's giving enough to his corporate and banking buddies. (Gee, do you think 26 percent is low enough?)

I'm using the pejorative name "Catfood Commission," by the way, because of the confusion in certain media -- well, most of the corporate media, it looks like -- about what its mission is. This writer at Bloomberg, for example, equivocates between the "deficit" and the "debt" -- and the two are not the same thing. And, of course, Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit; it's already fully funded by our contributions. Obama's owners just hate the idea of all that money going to the wrong people. They love the idea of privatizing it, and giving it to Wall Street (who are, remember, among Obama's major owners) to play with, so that it can all disappear during the next big crash, just as so many people's 401k accounts did a few years ago -- but not before it is diverted to executive salaries and bonuses, where in these people's minds it really belongs.

*I had the odd difference with Hunter S. Thompson, but I will always love his gift for invective. "A congenital cheap pig" was what he once called the despicable Reagan toady Ed Meese: "a person without any honor, a fat bastard, really a congenital cheap pig in the style of and on the level of Richard Nixon." Change "fat" to "skinny," and the whole line describes Barack Hussein Obama to a T.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

Band of Thebes had a post this past week about the decline of print.
Did you buy a physical book in September? Was it a lonely experience? The Association of American Publishers announced their September results, showing drastic declines in printed book sales, whether purchased in a store or online. Electronic book sales have nearly doubled.
In addition, phone companies are phasing out physical phonebooks -- a mixed curse, as BoT concedes, and numerous big publications are going to stop publishing print editions: U. S. News & World Report in December, and the New York Times "sometime in the future." "Enjoy it online while it's still free, this month and next," BoT warns darkly. "The NYT website pay wall is coming in the first quarter of 2011."

There are (at least) two different things going on here, I think: one is the apparent decline of ink-on-paper publication, another is the question of free online resources. I see no reason why the Times necessarily ought to be free, and of course nothing is free, someone is paying to keep those pixels glowing. I haven't been paying that much attention, since I've never read the New York Times with anything like regularity, but I seem to recall a pay firewall for NYT content not all that long ago, in human as opposed to Internet years. I was surprised when I learned that the firewall had come down, but that was at the same time that we began hearing about the crisis of the Newspaper.

Unlike many people, I don't seem to have this sense of entitlement which decrees that all media should be available on the Web for free, even though I grew up in the age of broadcast media, with radio and TV available to all for no more than the cost of a receiver. But you got what you paid for, and you always had to deal with commercials. (Not so long ago one of my right-wing Facebook friends complained about advertising on TV and on the Internet, and claimed that he'd pay more for ad-free access to both. Pardon me if I don't believe that, if only because he loves complaining too much to give it up, and preferably complaining over trivia rather than substance.) On the other hand, print media were available for free (supported with tax dollars, of course, not really free) in public libraries. It was in libraries that I discovered print news media far superior in terms of information and variety of views to TV and most radio.

Even when cable TV came along, you were paying (at least at first) for reception, not for content. That never offended me in principle, especially with the promise of access to more stations than most of us could get outside of large cities. But all that promise quickly faded, and of course I hadn't been watching TV since the mid-Sixties. Most Americans seem to have embraced the explosion of junk content on TV (ESPN! ESPN2! Reality TV!), which didn't keep them from complaining about it. Cable ended up carrying the logic of centralized electronic media -- and really, of commercial media in general -- to its conclusion. Audiences were and are the product, to be sold to advertisers. Premium channels like Showtime and HBO have apparently provided limited niches for real creativity, but capital-intensive media are always going to have this problem.

Somewhere I saw an interview with the genius Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who remarked philosophically that making movies is expensive, and he wasn't really surprised if investors didn't want to support his habit, since the movies he made were not particularly commercial and wouldn't repay the investment. This has always been the problem for artists who want autonomy to do what they want, but need patronage to produce what may have no (or insufficient) audiences waiting for it. But that, I suspect, is another post.

What worries me about the decline of print is the changing model of distribution that goes along with it. You don't buy a copy of the book that you then can dispose of more or less as you please -- lend, hand down to another reader, give away, sell, or for that matter chop up or burn if you want to -- you get a license to a digital copy that you don't own and which the distributor can legally recall at will. (This is presumably a legacy of software licensing, which works according to the same model.) According to this article, which crystallized my personal wariness of the Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook reader allows for some book sharing, but in general libraries are still figuring out to how to adjust to e-books. Many readers blame the libraries, says the blogger, but the real roadblock lies with the publishers. (One commenter, who accuses the blogger of being "innacurate" [sic], thought that the fuss was about prices. If it weren't that so many people are so dumb, I'd suspect the commenter of being a shill for the publishers.) It's all very well if you have a Kindle and a credit card and live within range of Amazon's wireless signal, but not everyone does; and with the economy not looking good, I'm not reassured by the promise of cheaper e-reading devices or e-books. I worry about the future of lending libraries, as they used to be called, if books can't be lent anymore.

By the way, I notice that the local Borders bookstore will be closing in January. This doesn't concern me much, except to sympathize with the staff who'll be losing their jobs, partly because the store had been paring back its stock for some time. Maybe it will help the independent bookstores, mostly downtown, who always got most of my business anyway. (I bought books at Borders with discount coupons; if I was going to pay full price, I went to an independent.) Big bookstores, much as I love them (I nearly fainted the first time I walked into the University of Chicago's Seminary Book Co-op, but that was a very different kind of place), are dinosaurs; independents may be like those little ratty mammals that survived the big extinction that wiped the thunder lizards out.

By the way, lest it seem I'm dodging BoT's provocative opening questions: Yes, I bought nineteen physical books in September. Nineteen. Four new books: two from independent local bookstores, one from a chain with a discount coupon, one ordered online from an independent dealer. The rest were used, from a mix of local dealers (including the public library's book sale), and online independents. Was it a lonely experience? Not particularly -- buying books has usually been a solitary practice for me. But I'm not a typical American (surprised?).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How I Spent My Saturday Night (Slight Return)

Well, I'm getting into Armistead Maupin's new novel Mary Ann in Autumn (HarperCollins 2010), so I don't feel like doing a lot of writing tonight. It's been a busy day, with a run out to the Mall for some necessities that I hope will make it possible to install some more RAM and a new hard disk in the laptop, then watching Lee Chang-Dong's most recent film Poetry with a Korean friend, then a dash to a nearby restaurant, partly in hopes of making eye contact with a friendly waiter there. (No luck -- he wasn't on my table tonight, and he looked tired. After a hellish week of my own, I could sympathize.)

But here are a couple of links. First to a Democracy Now! interview with economist Ha-Joon Chang on the G20 summit in Seoul and Obama's failure to conclude the "free trade agreement" that supposedly was all set to go during the Bush administration. (The second Bush term, I should say, since we're now in the third.) I'd thought it was odd that even the corporatist Lee Myung-bak couldn't or wouldn't give Obama what he wanted, and Chang explains a lot.

Second, this BBC article on Obama in Yokohama, warning "nations not to rely on the US for exports." Wotta yob. Of course, the US has been relying on other nations as markets for our exports since the 1800s. (Overproduction is one of the troublesome features of capitalism.) Which is not a bad thing in itself, of course, but they get to return the favor. And just today I saw a reference to Obama as an "intellectual," but maybe, as I've suspected, high political office is bad for the brain.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Think of the Starving Children in Appalachia!

Roy Edroso gave some coverage to a rightblogger who was up in arms about the notion of "white privilege." Edroso remarked:
Actually, I find it useful to contemplate my white privileges, and any other privileges into which I was born, like being a citizen of the richest country on earth, and did not obtain for myself. In fact, when I was growing up, it was customary for adults to remind children of such luck as they had inherited, like the food we had and "people starving in other countries" didn't. This was meant as a spur to gratitude and humility, and to not being such a whining little shit. I guess things have changed. Everyone's a victim now, even (perhaps especially) the most privileged among us.
I agree that it's useful and edifying to contemplate one's own privilege, though I don't think I agree that the "people starving in other countries" line, used to cajole kids into eating food they didn't like (as though the adults in those homes didn't have their own personal food neuroses), was even meant to get kids to "remind children of such luck as they had inherited." It was meant to shut them up. I know I wasn't the only kid who thought (but would have gotten a clout in the mouth if I'd said it), "So why don't you send this stuff to those starving people in other countries?"

I don't recall my parents, decent folks who'd grown up poor in the Great Depression, ever acknowledging their white privilege; and the white people I know who are indignant at the very idea that their white skin gave them luck they hadn't merited, are still quite pious about the suffering poor in whatever country is on the news these days. But bring up white privilege, and it's "Nobody ever gave me anything because I was white! I had to work hard for everything I've got! Why shouldn't They?" Ah, but They do. But hard work alone won't open certain doors.

I must say, though, I liked this comment (no permalink, but Nov 11 at 8:15:17 a.m.) by Big Hank53:

Q: What's the best thing about an investment banker?

A: Even a small one will keep your dog fed for a month.

Hadn't heard that one before. But the same commenter also asked rhetorically in another thread: "
Jesus, do you think there's enough smug superiority for everyone?" Why sure: there's an endless supply of smug superiority, and it's free to boot. This doesn't seem to detract from its popularity, however. Everyone seems to think they've got a corner on the market.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


I'm still reading James Baldwin's The Cross of Redemption, and while I think there's a good reason many of these pieces remained uncollected so long -- they're just not his best work -- they still make interesting reading. Take "To Crush a Serpent," published in 1987, the year Baldwin died. It's partly autobiographical, telling of Baldwin's brief career as an adolescent preacher and how it ended. Baldwin is, as usual, reticent about his own desires and loves, writing as one who was acted on rather than one who acted:
My sexuality was on hold, for both women and men had tried to "mess" with me in the summer of my fourteenth year and had frightened me so badly that I found the Lord. The salvation I was preaching to others was fueled by the hope of my own [160].
Reticence, of course, is anyone's right, though as with so many of the openly closeted men of Baldwin's generation, his enemies never respected it while he was alive. By 1987, Baldwin was ready to say that "rather than betray the ministry, I left it" (160).
It can be supposed, then, that I cannot take seriously -- not, at least, as Christian ministers -- the present-day gang that calls itself the Moral Majority or its tongue-speaking relatives, such as follow the Right Reverend Robertson.

They have taken the man from Galilee as hostage. He does not know them and they do not know him [160-161].
Oh, Jimmy, the Moral Majority was like so early Eighties! By the time he wrote this piece, the Reagan administration had already mainstreamed the Christian Right, though Reagan disappointed them as much as his admirer Obama would later disappoint secular liberals. Such is politics in the US of A.

And come on: "taken hostage"? Jesus can't be taken hostage. In the first place, he's dead. If you're one of those people who believe he's still alive, then it's even more obviously impossible to take him hostage. If he's alive, and he objected to the Moral Majority or to Pat Robertson, he should have spoken up. Bart Ehrman had a much better take on Robertson after the latter's offensive remarks about the Haitian earthquake last January: "If that happened to the Haitians because they're so sinful, then why hasn't it happened to him?" Any comment, Mr. Of Nazareth? No? Maybe Jesus liked palling around with Falwell and Robertson. But this is too much like Anne Rice's recent complaint that she wasn't going to call herself a Christian anymore because the bad Christians have roont the name. Which is also like the Christians who say that if Teh Gay are allowed to marry, it'll roon marriage for the Decent People.
Nowhere, in the brief and extraordinary passage of the man known as Jesus Christ, is it recorded that he ever upbraided his disciples concerning their carnality. These were rough, hard-working fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Their carnality can be taken as a given, and they would never have trusted or followed or loved a man who did not know that they were men and who did not respect their manhood. Jesus ... appears not to have despised Mary Magdalene and to have got on just fine with other ladies, notably Mary and Martha, and with the woman at the well. Not one of the present-day white fundamentalist preachers would have had the humility, the courage, the sheer presence of mind to have said to the mob surrounding the woman taken in adultery, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone," or the depth of perception that informs "Neither do I condemn thee: Go, and sin no more" [161].
You can tell Baldwin was a preacher, can't you? But this is all bogus. First, it is certainly recorded that Jesus did upbraid his disciples concerning their carnality, a word that Baldwin is using here as a euphemism for sexuality. But there's more to the flesh than copulation or lust. Jesus' disciples are frequently portrayed in the gospels as the Twelve Stooges: squabbling over status, failing utterly to understand his teaching, lacking the faith to drive out a teeny little demon much less to move mountains, saying foolish things out of fear or confusion, falling asleep during his final vigil in Gethsemane, running away in terror when the cops arrive, and denying him three times before his enemies. "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," he sighs (Mark 14:38) resignedly as he rouses the dozing Peter one more time.

Second, Jesus frequently (though not, I admit, constantly) fulminates against the flesh. From the Sermon on the Mount:
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29“If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30“If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.
Got that? Lust, hellfire -- check. Better to cut off some of your flesh than to burn in hell -- check. Then, on the question of marriage and divorce, Matthew 19:
8He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
10The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” 11But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. 12“For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.
There's more, but this gives you some idea what I mean. So, those carnal disciples (some of whom were married, as we know from a reference to Peter's mother-in-law and a complaint of Paul's) said that if you couldn't divorce your wife, it was better not to marry at all, and Jesus didn't argue: he even urged them to become (figuratively, figuratively, we're not literalists here!) eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. I think it's reasonable to say that Jesus was a wee bit ambivalent about carnality, and didn't encourage his male disciples to indulge it.

Third, about the women Baldwin mentions. We don't really know much about Mary Magdalene or the sisters Mary and Martha. Mary Magdalene's reputation as a loose woman is post-biblical legend as far as I know, and Jesus kept her at a safe distance anyway ("Touch me not," he told her after his resurrection at John 20:17, "for I have not ascended to the Father," but he let the boys touch him and stick their fingers in his wounds). I'm not impressed by his attitude toward the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4: her love life was all that seemed to interest him, and rather pruriently at that. As for the woman taken in adultery, the story was probably added to the New Testament about 300 years after the gospels were written, but if it's authentic it's not much comfort. She was still sinning, and she'd better mend her ways, for hellfire awaits.

Baldwin goes on to tell of a threatening encounter, when he was thirteen, with "an aging, gaunt white woman", the only white person in his church, who warned him of "the eternal torment that awaited boys like me" (163). This was because of his close friendship with the son of a deacon whom "the elders of the church" had accused of "walking disorderly" (162). "I was in love with my friend, as boys indeed can be at that age, but hadn't the faintest idea of what to do about it -- not even in my imagination ... perhaps I simply refused to allow my imagination to wander, as it were, below the belt" (163).
But Jesus had nothing to do with it. Jesus would never have done that to me, nor attempted to make my salvation a matter for blackmail. The motive was buried deep within that woman, the decomposing corpse of her human possibilities fouling the air [163].
To analyze everything that is wrong here, the aging Baldwin's ongoing inability to embrace his own human possibilities, would take more energy than I feel like expending right now. But really, that he couldn't accept his own thirteen-year-old's carnality -- had to speak of it so slightingly -- forty years later, is heartbreaking.

For a Christian like Baldwin, the idea that Jesus would forgive him for drinking, smoking, and dancing the hoochie-koo, to say nothing of lying in the gutter with men, was surely reassuring. But why should those things be sins, putting a person in peril of hellfire, in the first place? This is one of the reasons why I don't feel that I'm missing anything by being an atheist. First you have to believe that you're in danger, then you have to believe that someone has the magic formula to get you out of danger. I know very well that this is not all there is to religion, or even just to Christianity, but it's a major element, well supported in Jesus' teachings, and one that is often used in missionary work and revivalism.

At the same time, I want to stress again that I don't blame "religion" or "Christianity" for these distasteful elements: I blame the people who put them and keep them in their faith, and that includes Jesus and the authors of the gospels. Religion is not an alien, autonomous force that makes people believe bad (or good) things: it's a human creation, and if religions are ambivalent about the flesh, as they very often are, it's because human beings are ambivalent about the flesh. Getting rid of religion won't get rid of the ambivalence, it will only displace it. That's where we need to begin -- by facing our ambivalence about having bodies -- if we want a better, more humane ethic of sexuality.

By the way, "To Crush a Serpent" originally appeared in Playboy magazine. I don't know how ironic that is; I leave that to the reader.