Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Passion of the Sullivan

I haven't looked in at Homo Superior much lately. He's changed the layout several times, it seems, in interesting but still sometimes confusing ways. On the other hand I've neglected several places I used to visit almost daily, like a chat room where I used to be a contentious regular; I looked in there and found to my pleasure that it's still busy when most chat rooms have dried up. Now that I think of it, though, Homo Superior has been relatively quiet, and today I learned why, from his personal blog, now retitled Rick Has Cancer, which he'll be fighting for some time. I'm rooting for him.

But the main reason I'm writing about him today is that at HSB he posted a response to Andrew Sullivan fussing over a satirical Easter skit by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, mocking the Roman Catholic Church. Sullivan called it "bigotry," while loudly protesting his dedication to free speech and "the right to blasphemy", and then fumed:
You want to grow some balls? Hold a Hunky Mohammed Contest on Ramadan. And, by the way, thanks for doing your bit to empower every religious right prejudice about gays.
Oh, dear. As though the Sisters and all us trashy radical homos don't have balls already! We were born with them, which is more than can be said about our homosexuality. But Sullivan has very traditional views of gender, as of so many things except his homosexuality. Again: Roman Catholicism is a lifestyle choice, so those who adhere to it had better develop thicker skins, just as we queers, leftists, and atheists have to do. I find the digs many atheists make at religion childish, uninformed, and tiresome, but the defenses made by people like Sullivan are no better. And Sullivan has a long record of ignorant, childish attacks on people he doesn't like; as a First Amendment absolutist dedicated to the right of blasphemy, I defend his right to make them, but I don't have to respect his views.

Homo Superior mounts his own critique of Sullivan and Christianity. He recalls attending Easter Services with his mother at her Pentecostal church, "a night of theater depicting the Passion of Christ."

I thought it would be an easy way to assuage my mother’s worries over my backslidden state without having to hear the anti-gay rhetoric so common to churches of this type.

Instead, I was treated to an over-the-top presentation of the Torture of Christ, not his Passion: Tableaux after tableaux of suffering and death. Rather than being edified, I was embarrassed. I felt like my nose was being rubbed in the private, fucked up, quasi-sexual, sado-maschochistic fantasies of a cult; and they were using it to try to indoctrinate me.

The bloodless Resurrection, not surprisingly, got less than 30 seconds.

Oh, dear. The word "passion" in English, in the context of Christianity, means "suffering", specifically referring to Jesus' suffering on the cross. It only came to refer to sexual love in the 1500s, and to strong feeling of any kind a century later. So HS is drawing a false distinction. As he must know, "tableaux after tableaux of suffering and death" have been a standby of Christian imagery and story for centuries, as in the "passion plays" of the medieval church. I think it would be sensible to ask why people are so fascinated by dwelling on the details of Jesus' suffering, but why not? Depictions of tormented human bodies are common and popular in drama and other media for millennia, from the Greek tragedies onward. The problem of suffering is an ancient one: why is the world so ordered that people suffer and die? It's at the core of Buddhism too. Projecting human pain onto a god is one way of trying to come to terms with it, even if it's not one that I find useful. Stressing Jesus' suffering is, if nothing else, a dramatic device to make his resurrection all the more a relief, to make sure the audience knows that their god did really bleed for them. I don't think it's surprising or sinister that ordinary folk like the idea of a god who suffered as they suffer, bled, and died; his triumph over death is a promise that they will triumph over it too. I don't believe that promise, but I think most people want to believe it or something like it.

HS is making the same mistake so many of my fellow atheists make: he talks about religion as though it were some alien force or structure imposed by a conspiratorial organization on The People. As I've said before, religion is something that people make up (including the conspirators, if you want to see religious leaders and teachers that way), and themes that occur and recur in religion do so because they matter to people. The passion plays wouldn't have endured if people didn't find them affecting. People aren't passive receptacles for the Church to fill with its doctrines: they reject or dodge what they don't like. (A favorite example of mine is the prohibition of fornication -- that is, sexual intercourse between unmarried people, as opposed to adultery where at least one partner is married. The Catholic Church has been trying for centuries to get the laity to agree that fornication is a no-no, with limited success at best.) I believe that the atheists who like to see religion as purely a form of control from above are those who want to be controllers from above themselves.

HS continues with another popular infidel's cliche, a nonbeliever's counterpart of Sullivan's dig about a "Hunky Mohammed contest":
Further, it’s my understanding from my brief studies in Bible school that, had Christ been born and died in modern times, a shot to the head from a Kalashnikov would have done the trick just as well as days on the cross. It just wouldn’t have been as much fun for Christians to reenact later.
Really? You have to learn that in Bible school? So what? If Jesus had died by some other means, his followers would have rationalized that just as they did the cross. (When the 17th century messianic pretender Sabbatai Sevi converted to Islam rather than suffer execution, those of his followers who didn't fall away imitated his example, converting to Islam but practicing Judaism in secret. They found Biblical passages which they interpreted as prophecies of Sabbatai's apostasy, just as Christians did for Jesus' death and resurrection.)
It’s no accident that the two principal icons of the Catholic Church, and of much of the rest of Christianity, are on the one hand, a nearly naked man in agony and ecstasy eternally dying on a cross, and on the other, a virgin mother in a burka.
"No accident" indeed, since Jesus was probably crucified (it's not the sort of thing that Christians would have made up, it was too shameful, like, say, dying of AIDS would be now), not killed by firing squad or a bow and arrow. Icons of divine mothers are cross-culturally popular, and it's widely believed that the cult of Mary descends from the cult of Isis/Ishtar. But what does this "no accident" mean? HS obviously think it has some sinister significance, but doesn't say what, except that he thinks it should be "the empty tomb plated in gold and hanging around the necks of believers", instead of a cross. I'm surprised that Calvary Tabernacle dwelt on the Passion so much on Sunday instead of Good Friday, when such things usually are done. Easter, judging by what I hear from Christians I know, means sunrise services in commemoration of the gospels' discovery of the empty tomb at dawn.

Well, there's no reason non-theists should be any better informed about Christianity than Christians are. But we can't claim to be more rational, or wiser, or more realistic about the world than the religious if we aren't better informed. Homo Superior complains about the passion play he witnessed:
Rather than being edified, I was embarrassed. I felt like my nose was being rubbed in the private, fucked up, quasi-sexual, sado-maschochistic fantasies of a cult; and they were using it to try to indoctrinate me.
Why would anyone be "indoctrinated" by this spectacle? Wouldn't an outsider -- a genuine outsider, I mean, not a lapsed Christian -- simply be repelled by it? (This complaint reminds me of antihomosexual Christians who raise the alarm about how homosexuals are trying to recruit ("indoctrinate") outsiders with our disgusting sexual practices and our leather daddies, which I would think an odd way to entice potential converts. For all that Pentecostals are eager to make recruits, I'd take that performance as something for the already converted. (Much like the "Hunky Jesus" contest: it wasn't supposed to win bigots over, or to counter bigots' stereotypes about gays -- it was an event for the already "converted.")

For that matter, what's wrong with "sado-masochistic fantasies"? Again, they play a role in religion because they play a role in many people's lives; they play a highly visible role in gay male sexual iconography, however little they interest me. When antigay Christians fulminate about the disgusting aspects of gay life, we tend to suspect that covertly they find those aspects attractive, even exciting; I have similar suspicions about Homo Superior's (and other nonbelievers') fixation on the Passion drama -- and about Andrew Sullivan's outrage at the Hunky Jesus contest.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Woman of War

When I was much younger it was different, but nowadays I find that it's the passing of women that makes me feel like a chunk has been taken out of my life: Del Martin, Jill Johnston, Jane Rule -- and now Joanna Russ, who died this morning in an Arizona hospice after having suffered several strokes. Since I don't follow the science-fiction press or intertubes, I probably wouldn't have heard about her death for some time, but fortunately her longtime friend and fellow writer/teacher Samuel Delany is one of my friends on Facebook, and he passed along the news that she'd entered the hospice a few days ago, and was slipping fast.

There's quite a bit of information about her on this up-to-date Wikipedia entry, so I needn't add too much to it. I must confess that I usually liked her short stories better than her novels (though that's true of many sf writers), and her critical writings better than her fiction. Even her classic story "When It Changed", about a planet where all the men had died off centuries before, leaving women to carry on quite competently, is uneven; Russ herself said that she got the opening paragraphs quickly, as if by dictation, and then had to "finish the thing by myself and in a voice not my own." It shows, I'm afraid. "When It Changed" was the first thing I read by Russ, and it left me ambivalent, but then a friend referred me to an essay in which Russ argued that SF gave more scope to action by women characters than mundane fiction does, using examples of standard story modules with the sexes reversed: "Alexandra the Great," for example. That was what hooked me on Russ's writing, though I did track down and read all her fiction too. If I had to whittle down my library to its core, I'd certainly keep How to Suppress Women's Writing, (Texas, 1983), Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts (Crossing Press, 1985), and To Write Like a Woman (Indiana, 1995), though I'd probably also keep her fiction because most of it's out of print and hard to find.

One of the notable traits of her fiction is its anger, still unacceptable in women's writing to this day. A favorite exchange of mine comes from The Two of Them (Putnam, 1978), in which a female agent violates the Prime Directive by deciding to rescue/kidnap a brilliant, talented girlchild from a planet where girls and women are not permitted to be brilliant or talented.
"Which arm shall I break?" says the female jinn [Irene, the agent, from the perspective of the girl's father].

"If you break my arm, I will not be able to write the visa!" shouts 'Alee.

The female
jinn says, "I will not break your writing arm." ...

He cries, "I am a man of peace!"

She smiles; she says, "I am a woman of war" ... [122-3]
I still find this funny, though many of my friends disapproved. Russ's writing helped me to come to terms with my own anger, for she struggled herself with the taboo on women's anger and (even fantasized) violence, and wrote about it brilliantly, as in her essay on man-hating in the collection Amazon Expedition (Times Change Press, 1973, pp. 30-31).
That bad things are done to you is bad enough; worse is the double-think that follows. The man insists -- often semi-sincerely, though he has some inkling of his motives because if you question them, he gets mad -- that (1) he didn't do anything, you must be hallucinating; (2) he did it but it's trivial and therefore you're irrational ("hysterical") to resent it or be hurt; (3) it's important but you're wrong to take it personally because he didn't mean it personally; (4) it's important and personal but you provoked it, i.e., it's your fault and not his. Worse still, he often insists on all of them at once. In this sort of ideologically mystified situation, clarity is crucial. Let us get several things clear: hurting people makes them angry, anger turns to hate when the anger is chronic and accompanied by helplessness, and although you can bully or shame people into not showing their anger, the only way to stop the anger is to stop the hurt. The cure for hate is power -- not power to hurt the hurter, but power to make the hurter stop.

It's a mistake to think that man-hating is a delicate self-indulgence; it's very unpleasant. ...
That was 1973, and it's still cutting-edge, as you can see in some of the comments (especially this one) on this 2010 interview with the editor of a book of essays on Russ's work. I've had enough debates in the past decade with well-meaning (I know they're well-meaning because they tell me so, quite insistently) males in sf / fantasy fandom to know that things haven't changed much in the genre over the past four decades. Anger is definitely out in the gay and feminist movements we now have, dominated as they are by their therapeutic / professional wings, but they were never really in, not that much.

But back to Joanna Russ. She didn't write anything in her later years because she suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and arthritis. That was a loss, to her as much to her readers I'm sure, but the work she did manage to do is still with us, in used bookstores and libraries. Her short-story collections, especially the Alyx stories and The Zanzibar Cat, are probably the most accessible introduction to her fiction, and everybody should read How to Suppress Women's Writing. It's one reason I love books: even long after an author dies, even if I never met her in person, she can still speak to me on the page.

P.S. Nicola Griffith linked to this fine appreciation of Russ today.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Country, Right or Far-Right

It occurred to me again today that, much as they like to pretend to be patriots, right-wingers really hate the US government. It was RWA1's latest antics on Facebook that reminded me of this: he linked an article at the Washington Examiner, which laments that
Boeing is not free to make its jets at the factory of its choosing, according to the National Labor Relations Board -- it must make them in Washington state, using union labor.
As it happens, I'd just read another article on the same story, by Andrew Leonard at Salon. The National Labor Relations Board had ruled against Boeing's move to South Carolina, a "right-to-work" state, to avoid the kind of strikes it had faced in its Washington plant. Leonard quotes a New York Times article on the case:

Boeing executives had publicly said they were making the move to avoid the kind of strikes the airplane maker had repeatedly faced in Washington; Lafe Solomon, the labor board's acting general counsel, said the company's motive constituted illegal retaliation against workers for exercising their right to strike ...

Mr. Solomon, who has worked for board members of both parties, said this case was straightforward: Boeing had retaliated against workers for exercising their federally protected right to strike. "They had a consistent message that they were doing this to punish their employees for having struck and having the power to strike in the future," he said. "I can't not issue a complaint in the face of such evidence."

It tells you something about today's corporate arrogance, nurtured through years of pro-business administrations, that Boeing executives thought they'd be safe making such open declarations about their reasons for the move. Against the Washington Examiner's writer, I'd say it was Boeing, not the NLRB, that "overreached." The case isn't settled, though, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out.

But back to RWA1, whose comment on the story was: "Uncle Sugar giveth and Uncle Sugar taketh away." The implication being that, because Boeing executives and employees had not only donated to Obama's campaign, but the company has benefited from federal subsidies and loans, they are reaping what they sowed. As the Examiner writer put it, "And Boeing has pocketed even more taxpayer loot under Obama than it did under George W. Bush." (Maybe he thinks that the Bush administration would never "'use public office to make winners into losers and losers into winners' and 'bend, break and make the law to help their friends and punish their enemies." He's quoting an Examiner "colleague" on the special wickedness of the Obama administration there.) If they had not collaborated with the State and helped a Socialist into the Oval Office, Boeing could have violated federal labor law with impunity. I mean, it's so unfair! Corporations are supposed to be above the law! It's in the Constitution, along with "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"!

Let me remind my readers that I don't pretend to be a patriot; nor do I think there's anything wrong with hating America. RWA1 and others of his ilk do. Ronald Reagan, for example, notoriously declared that the most frightening words in the language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." Of course, when disaster strikes, the same right-wingers are first in line demanding to be frightened with government help. And you'd better not criticize a Republican President (unless, just unless you're a Republican yourself): the cult of personality around Reagan and George W. Bush belies the conservative claims to distrust government. (RWA1, like many other American rightists, believes that Julian Assange of Wikileaks should be executed -- perhaps summarily -- for treason, even though Assange is not an American citizen and owes this country no loyalty. I'd be surprised if I hadn't already noticed that many Americans think that "patriotism" means loyalty to the United States, no matter what country you happen to be from.)

The same conservatives are infuriated at any recognition of imperfection in the US government's conduct, unless it's conduct they dislike; I'm near the end of History on Trial now, and its account of right-wingers' insistence that school history classes avoid anything that reflects badly on the US and its past government officials was another inspiration for this post. The authors quote a letter printed in the November 8, 1994 issue of the Wall Street Journal, attacking the standards for American history classes:
The first [letter], by Balint Vazonyi, senior fellow at the Potomac Foundation, likened the standards to "an amnesia-inducing drug to be administered on a national scale without hypodermic needles." The standards writers, wrote Vasonyi, had taken a page out of the book "developed in the councils of the Bolshevik and Nazi parties and successfully deployed on the youth of the Third Reich and the Soviet Empire. The recipe called for schools that dispense not knowledge but a compendium of selected events, personalities and interpretations. More important, knowledge was eliminated of such events and personalities as were deemed to have no usefulness by the ideologues of the Nazi or Bolshevik party (which also gave us the concept of political correctness) ... [188-9].
The remarkable thing about this rant is that it perfectly describes the demands of the right-wing ideologues who were attacking the history standards: they wanted students to be taught a compendium of selected events, personalities and interpretations (Columbus, the Pilgrim Fathers, our glorious Revolution, the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the glorious march to the Pacific, etc.) while eliminating events and personalities as were deemed to have no usefulness by the ideologues of the Republican party (the Injuns, the slaves, Harriet Tubman, the Seneca Falls women's suffrage convention of 1848, working people that nobody has ever heard of). I'm being just a wee bit unfair there -- some well-known Democrats, like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., have made the same complaint, demanding that American history classes should leave white American children feeling good about themselves, presumably on the assumption that their self-esteem would trickle down to children of color. Or something.

As I say, I'm not a patriot, and I certainly don't object to criticism either of the United States, of its government, or of the officials in that government. I am bemused by the doublethink of my right-wing fellow citizens, their ability to demand abject adoration of America and its government from everyone else while making hatred of its government a basic postulate of their own political discourse. I believe that this doublethink, and the cognitive dissonance it entails, may explain some of their fury when anyone else fails to genuflect before America -- or when they simply suspect someone else of insufficient reverence before the idol of the American State. (Balint Vazonyi's letter, quoted above, is a textbook case.)

At the same time, I'm conscious of analogous tensions in my own stance toward my country, my government -- hell, toward my species. I'll try to write more about this before too long.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Regime Change

There's a good op-ed in the Boston Globe, containing this poignant line:
On March 31, NATO formally warned the rebels to stop attacking civilians.
Now, in fact the rebels had been attacking civilians even before they attracted US attention. Doesn't that mean that President Obama has a moral obligation to bomb the rebels? (Yes.)

Someone, I can't recall who, pointed out that despite the official rejection of "violent protest", the only protestors against the Arab dictatorships who've gotten US support have been the violent Libyan rebels. Nonviolent protestors have been on their own, and the US has stood complacently by while Bahrain imported foreign mercenaries to kill its own people. (How sad -- the Crown Prince of Bahrain will not be attending the Royal Wedding because of the unrest in his country, and perhaps coincidentally because "Human rights campaigners had petitioned against his attendance because of his government's treatment of protesters." There's so much hate in the world, isn't there?)

Monday, April 25, 2011

To Lose One Art Might Be Considered Misfortune

I should know better than to read jeremiads about the decline of reading, or the decline of The Book, but for some reason I picked up LA Times critic David L. Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Seattle: Sasquatch Press, 2010). Looking again at the Rain Taxi review of the book featured at Powells Books' site, I can't remember why I thought it would be worth looking at. Maybe because it's short? Though it's only about 151 small-format pages, it seemed longer when I read it.

There are a lot of annoying things about The Lost Art of Reading, but chief among them is that Ulin tends to admit the weaknesses in his arguments (for example, reading has never been a majority pastime, and the kind of literacy associated in the West with printed matter is only a few centuries old, even younger when you take into account how few people were literate until the 1800s or so), then to forget his concessions and go back to playing Ain't It Awful? I also noticed that he is blind to the possibility that the difficulty with reading he sometimes experiences might not just be the fault of Teh Intertoobz and videogames, not even related to his job as a professional book reviewer, but simply what I'd call Life-Cycle changes.

I've been reading for about fifty-five years now, voraciously and promiscuously but not steadily. Sometimes (like the past week or two, for example) I just don't feel like reading much. This is not because of Teh Intertooobz or videogames but because I'm reading some books that are slow going: The Lost Art of Reading was one that acted like a brake, but I'm presently in the middle of History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (Knopf, 1998) by Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross E. Dunn; and of Khatru Symposium: Women in Science Fiction, originally published in the 1970s but reprinted in 2009 by the James Tiptreee Award. Both are intensely interesting, but slow going for some reason. Every time I slow down like this, and it happens a few times each year, I feel a twinge of panic that I'm losing my ability to read or my interest in reading. (Omighod! Incipient Alzheimer's! Old age!) But then soon enough I move on to something more digestible, and I'm zooming along as usual. I also remind myself that since I began keeping my reading log in 1977, there has never been a year when I read fewer than 150 books. That's more, I suspect, than many Americans read in a lifetime. What for me is Molasses in January, is for most people "Gee, Duncan, you sure read a lot!"

And what's more, I still get a lot of pleasure from reading. I still get immersed in stories, intoxicate myself with good writing. And I often get great pleasure from non-fiction, even scholarly writing. I blazed through Jonathan Arac's Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target as if it were a Jane Austen novel (and I went through Pride and Prejudice in one evening last fall). It's true that I don't read unselfconsciously, the way I did in grade school, but that's not a bad thing. Growing up is on the whole a gain, not a loss, and when I read something good, I get as lost in it as I did when I first read Stuart Little or The Boxcar Children in third grade.

Ulin recalls how he read as an adolescent, and quotes at length from Frank Conroy's 1967 memoir Stop-Time this account of "his own initiation into literature as a high school kid on the Upper West Side (12):
Night after night, I'd lie in bed, with a glass of milk and a package of oatmeal cookies beside me, and read one paperback after another until two or three in the morning. I read everything, without selection, buying all the fiction on the racks of the local drugstore -- D. H. Lawrence, Moravia, Stuart Engstrand, Aldous Huxley, Frank Yerby, Mailer, Twain, Gide, Dickens, Philip Wylie, Tolstoi ... and dozens more. I borrowed from the public library ten blocks away and from the rental library at Womrath's on Madison Avenue. I read very rapidly, uncritically, and without retention, seeking only to escape from my own life through the imaginative plunge into another. Safe in my room with milk and cookies I disappeared into inner space. The real world dissolved and I was free to drift in fantasy, living a thousand lives, each one more powerful, more accessible, and more real than my own.
Ulin enthusiastically seconds this account, and I recognize a lot of myself in it too. (The overlaps in the reading list are interesting too, even though Conroy is fifteen years my senior and I am ten years older than Ulin. Ulin's admission that only "(certain) adolescents read" like this is telling. There was no golden age when most Americans read widely, as far as I can tell. When I was a kid, I had to dodge the attentions of adults who tried to get me to put down my book and go out and get some fresh air, play like a real boy. Which I wasn't, dammit. Most of my peers couldn't wait to get outside at recess or at the end of the school day; I wanted unobstructed access to the books I couldn't get enough of. Ulin knows this, but he can't helping looking back wistfully to a time when things were different, and better. As I remember them, they were always terrible.

So, for example, Ulin cites something called The Sabbath Manifesto, which articulates ten principles "open for your unique interpretation ... as we carve a weekly time-out into our lives" (86) One is "Avoid technology." (Like movable type?)  Another, number 4, is "Get outside." (Nuh-uh! Just let me finish this chapter...) "Avoid commerce," "Light candles," "Drink wine," "Eat bread," "Find silence" (I could, if Ulin would just quit noodging me all the time!), and "Give back." Not a bad bunch of ideas, I concede. But Ulin wails, "At the same time, the idea that we have to give ourselves these sorts of conscious reminders tells us something about the culture in which we live" (87). Why does he think the original Sabbath was codified, if not as a conscious reminder to provide such space in very different times and cultures? And for all that, the scholars had to erect a fence around the Sabbath to make sure that people didn't start stretching the boundaries a bit and getting busy again when they were supposed to be resting. Ours is not the first culture to have too much to do and too little time to do it in.

Ulin also quotes from another jeremiad about the death of literature, Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (102-3):
When we talk about the death of the novel, what we are really talking about is the possibility that empathy, however, minimal, would no longer be attainable by those for whom the novel has died. ...

My guess is that mere technology will not kill the novel. It is too different from movies and other forms of visual entertainment to be replaced by them, nor do I believe that novels are bannable. Too many of them reside in private hands: they would be as hard to get rid of as guns and bullets. But novels can be sidelined -- dismissed to the seraglio, where they are read by women and children and have no effect on those in power. When that happens, our society will be brutalized and coarsened by people who speak rather like us and look rather like us but who have no way of understanding us or each other.
This quotation saves me the trouble of reading Smiley's tract, and maybe her novels too. My first reaction was that the novel is, like print, a relatively young and technologically dependent phenomenon. (Yes, novels were written before there was printing, but can you imagine making your own handwritten copy of, say, The Tale of Genji?) What did people do for empathy before The Novel came along? Why, they listened to bards, to storytellers, to ballads, and when they could they watched plays. The idea that the novel uniquely gives us access to empathy seems willfully dismissive of other methods of access to the feelings of others. My second reaction is that the novel is capable of eroding empathy -- Ayn Rand's potboilers are monuments to the hermetically-sealed ego, and I just recently found this chilling discussion of the best-selling John Ringo, whose books I've seen but never looked into, and probably won't; and they're merely one especially degraded pole of a subliterature (or paraliterature, as I think Samuel Delany would call it) of very popular books for overgrown boys. Barack Obama seems to have read his share of serious novels, yet he seems to have lost all empathy and most of his humanity.

As I said, I should know better than to read books like The Lost Art of Reading. There are alternatives, like Laura Miller's The Magician's Book (Little, Brown, 2008), a wonderful account of what it means to become a reader without the whining about how it's all going downhill and oh my god we're doomed as we all turn into Morlocks except for a few superior beings hiding in the catacombs until we are hunted down and killed. Meanwhile, I'm going to keep reading, except when I'm writing, and vice versa.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Conservatism - The Limits of Tolerance

The Greeks had a word for it, probably, but in this case I don't know what it was.

There are times, and they seem to be coming along more often lately, when I despair of my fellow whatever-we-ares: leftists, liberals, progressives, queers, atheists. This weekend has been another one of those times. When Professor Ellen Lewin of the University of Iowa got an e-mail announcing a "Conservative Coming Out Week," she responded with a rousing "F*** YOU, REPUBLICANS." (I'm presuming that her actual e-mail didn't include asterisks. Shit, I hope not, that would be just too gay.) This led to repercussions, and Professor Lewin apologized.
"This is a time when political passions are inflamed, and when I received your unsolicited email, I had just finished reading some newspaper accounts of fresh outrages committed by Republicans in government," she said in an email to the Republican group after the incident. "I admit the language was inappropriate, and apologize for any affront to anyone's delicate sensibilities."

Lewin was also upset that the group had appropriated the language of the LGBT rights movement, despite Republicans general disapproval of same-sex marriage.

I appreciated the delicate sarcasm in her apology, and I'd like to think that its echoes of right-wing rhetoric -- I was just so outraged by these dirty commies' disrespect for our flag, our nation, and our fighting men that everything just went black, Your Honor -- were intentional. But somehow I doubt that too.

It's not as if this sort of thing is new. As the Daily Show clip above shows, the first Conservative Coming Out Day took place at UC Davis in 2003. (Straight Pride events sponsored by campus right groups are even older.) Given the historic ties between homophobic conservatives and the closet, I can't help wondering if cute little George Andrews later became a member if not an officer of UC Davis' Queer Students Union. More Conservative Coming Out Days were organized around the country, and some met with abuse eerily similar to that which gay campus events often receive from conservatives. Professor Lewin played right into the Iowa group's hands, allowing them to look like the aggrieved victim. (And then Lewin complained that the College Republicans' chairwoman addressed her by her first name, not as "Professor Lewin"! The Des Moines Register article reads like a parody of the handwringing over civility we've been hearing lately.)

I don't accept conservative behavior either, but there are better ways to deal with these people than throwing a public tantrum (and sending abusive e-mail is public; of course the College Republicans printed her message in their newsletter). One way I've always favored, but never have had a chance to try, would be to offer oneself as a Conservative Ally, and volunteer to serve as Marshall if they have a Pride march. (After all, members of PFLAG or straight celebrities are usually chosen to lead Gay Pride parades.) A good many of my Facebook friends are conservatives, and while their aberrant behavior is abhorrent, we must realize that they are God's children too. ... Why not appropriate the Right's rhetoric, as they appropriate ours, and turn it back on them? Why not point out, say, that conservatives and Republicans weren't born that way, are not a true minority, but chose their unnatural lifestyle?

I don't object to Professor Lewin's e-mail because it was mean; I heart meanness. I object to it because it was stupid, and we (leftists, queers, human beings) can't afford to be stupid.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Grasping the Nettle

Sorry I've been so quiet the past week. I actually began a couple of posts that I couldn't seem to finish; let's see if I can do any better tonight.

Easter, like the other big Christian holiday, has to be covered in the media, so it's a good time for all kinds of non-news and general wackiness. A couple of weeks ago the Wall Street Journal gave comedian Ricky Gervais space to explain why he's an "excellent Christian," even though he's an atheist.
I am of course not a good Christian in the sense that I believe that Jesus was half man, half God, but I do believe I am a good Christian compared to a lot of Christians.

It’s not that I don’t believe that the teachings of Jesus wouldn’t make this a better world if they were followed. It’s just that they are rarely followed....

Jesus was a man. (And if you forget all that rubbish about being half God, and believe the non-supernatural acts accredited to him, he was a man whose wise words many other men would still follow.) His message was usually one of forgiveness and kindness.

These are wonderful virtues but I have seen them discarded by many so-called God-fearers when it suits them. They cherry pick from their “rulebook” basically.

Quite a few atheists say such things, but they're generally vague about which teachings of Jesus would make this a better world if they were followed. In Gervais' case, he cherry picks "forgivenness and kindness," which do feature in Jesus' teaching as they do in the teaching of just about every religious teacher except Ayn Rand, but they are surrounded by a lot of stuff that is not so kind or forgiving at all. Hellfire and damnation (you'd better be kind and forgiving, or I'll condemn you to eternal torture!), which make up quite a bit of Jesus' teaching. Or the stuff about plucking out your eye if it leads you to sin, because even a lustful look at a woman will end you up in Hell, or becoming a eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven because marriage, while allowed, isn't a good idea. Or hating your family if they get in the way of your salvation, because the time is short and Judgment is at hand, and Hellfire awaits those who dawdle. Did I mention that the fire is not quenched there, and the worm is not sated? And so on.

Did Gervais grapple with this small issue? No. I can't say I blame him much, because it's one thing to attack Christians (Christians do it all the time), and another thing to attack Jesus. Because Jesus was, like, way cool. So how did Gervais fill out his space in the Wall Street Journal? By going after the Ten Commandments. You know. The Old Testament stuff. It's true that Christians at least pay lip service to the Decalogue, as Jesus did, but there's a whole pile of interesting stuff in the New Testament that is a lot more relevant to Gervais' issues with Christians than the Ten Commandments. According to Wikipedia, for example, Gervais and his girlfriend of twenty-nine years have cohabited without getting married because "there’s no point in us having an actual ceremony before the eyes of God because there is no God"; I think they'd run afoul of Jesus on that one, with his dim view of fornication and all. (And there's also this little thing called civil marriage, which I think they have in England too.)

One reason I have a soft spot for the Noble Engineer Robert A. Heinlein is that he recognized this little obstacle and took a couple of swings at it, most notably for me in Stranger in a Strange Land. In that book his alter ego Jubal Harshaw is having a conversation with another, more naive character about a recently invented religion known as Fosterism. The disciple is outraged by the Fosterite scripture, which she considers just "hateful." Harshaw asks her if she's ever read the holy books of any other religion.
"... I could illustrate my point from the Bible but do not wish to hurt your feelings."

"You won't hurt my feelings."

"Well, I'll use the Old Testament, picking it to pieces doesn't usually upset people as much." [Stranger in a Strange Land, Putnam, 1991, p. 318]
Maybe that was Gervais' motive; but I don't think so. I think he's simply ignorant and dishonest, dodging the hard questions in favor of the easy ones. Or maybe it's just that he has no quarrel with any of Jesus' teachings -- so, Ricky, when are you planning to become a eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven? Or sell all you have and give to the poor?

But more in the spirit of the season, MSNBC had a couple of winning examples of non-news. This article announced that a perennial biblical difficulty has been solved: the discrepancy between the date of the Last Supper according to the gospel of John, and and the date according to the other three (Matthew, Mark and Luke -- known collectively as the Synoptic gospels). According to Mark, Jesus ate a Passover meal with his disciples, was arrested later that night, and crucified the next day. According to John, Jesus was crucified on the Passover itself. This creates many complications for those who want to treat the gospels as not just history, but eyewitness accounts by Jesus' followers.

Colin Humphreys, a "a metallurgist and materials scientist and a Christian" at Cambridge University, claims to have solved the problem:
Humphreys' research suggests Jesus, and Matthew, Mark and Luke, were using the Pre-Exilic Calendar, which dated from the time of Moses and counted the first day of the new month from the end of the old lunar cycle, while John was referring to the official Jewish calendar of the day.

... With the help of an astronomer, Humphreys reconstructed the Pre-Exilic calendar and placed Passover in the year AD 33, widely accepted as the year of Jesus' crucifixion, on Wednesday April 1.
I am deeply suspicious about this. First, I've seen this explanation before, in scholarship going back to the 1960s at least, so I doubt the originality of Humphreys's "research." Second, as Humphreys says himself, the problem then becomes how to explain how such an inconsistency found its way into texts supposedly written by Jewish followers of Jesus. Why were they using different calendars? (Third, I suppose I'll have to try to find whatever Humphreys is going to publish and see what his evidence is. The gospels are pretty explicit that they're talking about the same calendar.)

There's a famous quip of the distinguished English New Testament scholar Vincent Taylor to the effect that if certain critical scholars were correct, Jesus' original disciples "must have been translated to heaven immediately after the Resurrection," since they supposedly contributed nothing to the gospels as we have them. But Taylor's witticism applies no less to more conservative scholarship, which has to account for the fact that the gospels disagree on so many important matters -- not just the date of the Last Supper, but the Resurrection stories: the gospels disagree almost totally about to whom Jesus appeared, when, and where. If, as Taylor also wrote, "for at least a generation [the disciples] moved among the young Palestinian communities, and through preaching and fellowship their recollections were at the disposal of those who sought information”, it's very hard to explain the discrepancies. ("Difficult?" as Doctor Johnson cried out in another context, "I wish to heaven it were impossible!")

In other non-news, MSNBC reported controversies surrounding the release of some new versions of some English translations of the Bible. "Mary a 'virgin' or a 'young woman?'" asks the title of the page; "Bible edits leave some feeling cross," puns the title of the article. (Well, Christianity is supposed to be the Way of the Cross.) The article contains a lot of minor errors, such as the claim that the new editions are "separate 'official' updated translations of the Christian Bible." One, the New American Bible, could conceivably be called "official," since it's produced by Catholic translators for Catholic readers, but there are other translations produced for Catholics, and the new one "isn't yet approved for use in the Catholic Mass, the bishops conference said, because only the Vatican can grant such approval — a process that can take years."

The other new edition, of the notorious fundamentalist-friendly New International Version, is even less "official." The Southern Baptist Convention adopted earlier editions of the NIV for use in the "pews", but members of other denominations have used it too. According to the article, both the Baptists and many Christian bookstores are unhappy with the new edition, and won't use or stock it. So -- "official", how?

The controversies are also old hat: should 'almah in Isaiah 7:14 be translated as "virgin" or "young woman," a matter of great import for Christians who see the verse as a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus. The Revised Standard Version came down on the side of "young woman" fifty years ago, and Jewish translations never went with "virgin." The NIV has come under attack for using "inclusive" language -- that is, mostly inclusivity of gender, as in words like "mankind" or "son" as opposed to "child." There's a lot of room for disagreement in translation of specific cases, since Greek and Hebrew words don't necessarily match English ones. But people who grew up on the archaic King James Version often throw tantrums at any changes made in what they may consider the original Biblical text.

These are, as I said, old controversies, often very old. (How to translate 'almah is as old as Biblical translation, which means a couple thousand years.) But if you're writing the news, you have to come up with something for Easter, I guess.

So, tomorrow's Easter, when Jesus rises from the dead and comes out of his tomb. If he sees his shadow, we get six more weeks of winter, so let's hope for cloudy skies!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

... Cluster bombs, of course.

I don't remember where I first saw a link this weekend to the claim that loyalist (that's pro-Qaddafy) forces in Libya have been using cluster bombs. I do remember thinking that I should see if the article mentioned the fact that the US has often used such weapons, but I didn't get around to it until I found this post on the FAIR blog.

The Times article is indignant about the barbarity of Qaddafy's forces, with inflammatory details:
Where a crowd had assembled for food, bits of human flesh had been blasted against a cinder-block wall.
“I jumped onto the ground when the explosions started,” said Ali Hmouda, 36, an employee of the port. “My friend did not. His head came off.”
As the FAIR blog post said, the article does mention US use of cluster bombs, in connection with "conflicting pressures" that may be brought to bear on President Obama:
At the same time, the United States has used cluster munitions itself, in battlefield situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in a strike on suspected militants in Yemen in 2009.
"Battlefield situations" is bogus, considering the circumstances: "battlefield situations" are wherever US forces happen to be fighting "suspected militants," such as cities, farmland, villages, and roadsides. As FAIR pointed out, the suspected Yemeni militants turned out to be "'21 children and 20 innocent women and men'" (, 12/9/10)--all killed in the U.S. attack." The same post listed past US use of cluster bombs in Serbia as well as Iraq and Afghanistan; it might have added northern Laos, where as Noam Chomsky says, civilians are still being killed by bomblets forty years later.
In Laos the Pentagon would not even provide instructions on how to defuse them to a volunteer British de-mining group that was working there. In Kosovo as well, the U.S. refused to remove cluster bombs.
(It's probably not entirely irrelevant that "In fact, one of the last acts of the U.S.-Israeli invasion [of Lebanon in 2006], right after the ceasefire was announced before it was implemented, was to saturate much of the south with cluster bombs. There’s no military purpose for that, the war was over, the ceasefire was coming."
UN de-mining groups that are working there say that the scale is unprecedented. It’s much worse than any other place they’ve worked: Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, anywhere. There are supposed to be about one million bomblets left there. A large percentage of them don’t explode until you pick them up, a child picks them up, or a farmer hits it with a hoe or something. So what it does basically is make the south uninhabitable until the mining teams, for which the United States and Israel don’t contribute, clean it up. This is arable land. It means that farmers can’t go back; it means that it may undermine a potential Hezbollah deterrent. They apparently have pretty much withdrawn from the south, according to the UN.
But it's probably anti-Semitic of me even to mention it. And it occurs to me that, considering how long these weapons have been in use, the manufacturers and the countries that use them -- that includes us, remember, as well as Israel -- must be fully aware that they represent a long-term threat to civilians, including children, who are said to pick them up because they look like toys. In which case, the countries that use them -- including the US and Israel -- are responsible for the injuries and deaths of those civilians: they're an indirect but intended consequence of their use.)

So, where did Qaddafy's forces get these cluster bombs? According to the Times article, they were manufactured in Spain, just before Spain banned them.

How the Qaddafi military came to acquire Spanish cluster munitions, banned in Spain soon after their manufacture, was not immediately clear. But the war has shown what has long been known or suspected: that Colonel Qaddafi’s military, flush with oil money, has amassed stockpiles of arms from all manner of sources.

On the front lines in Libya, the government’s stockpile, whether used by loyalists or rebels who looted government armories, has included a full suite of former Eastern bloc arms beside former NATO munitions.

Like, Oh My God! By US propaganda standards, then, NATO is supplying Qaddafy with munitions! But that is probably true, since just a couple of years ago Senator John McCain went on a junket to Libya to discuss the possibility of supplying "non-lethal defense equipment to the government of Libya."

In March, the BBC innocently ran "Libya No-Fly Zone: Coalition Firepower," one of those stories on military hardware that give boners to little boys of all ages. It listed by country the newest, hottest war toys that would be deployed against the Libyan Hitler. Key US hardware included the A10 Warthog, a "[s]imple, effective and survivable twin-engine jet aircraft that can be used against all ground targets, including tanks and other armoured vehicles. A-10 - close air support, A-10C - airborne forward air control."
Weapons: 30 mm GAU-8/A seven-barrel Gatling gun; up to 16,000 pounds (7,200 kilograms) of mixed ordnance including cluster bombs, Maverick missiles, and laser-guided bombs
The B1-B Lancer, a "Long-range, multi-role, heavy bomber", has the "to carry up to 75,000lbs of munitions including general purpose bombs, Quick Strike naval mines, cluster munitions, Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles." (Bold-type on the cluster weapons is mine, in both cases.) Excuse me; like all war fans, I think I'd better go have a lie-down for a moment.

Of course, the US would never use those cluster bombs on Libyan civilians -- we're there to protect them, not shred them and blow their heads off. Except that, of course, we have used such weapons many times before, often on civilians. According to the Wikipedia entry on cluster bombs, they were developed independently during World War II by the Germans, the US, the USSR, and Italy. I couldn't find whether the US used them during the Korean war; the Wikipedia article on cluster bombs includes a photograph of an American soldier loading "a munition with 22,500 Korean language leaflets in 1950 for use as psychological warfare during the Korean War", but contains no reference to their use for scattering bomblets.

The Times article mentions that cluster bombs "have been banned by much of the world", but the US has resisted such bans. That FAIR blog post points out:
As for cluster bombs being "banned in much of the world," that includes Britain. But as WikiLeaks revealed, the U.S. colluded with the British government to circumvent the ban and allow U.S. cluster bombs to remain on British soil. WikiLeaks also disclosed that the U.S. has been lobbying for countries to keep cluster bombs legal, arguing that they are "legitimate weapons that provide a vital military capability" (Guardian, 12/1/10).
Well! If the US regards cluster bombs as legitimate weapons with a vital military capability, it can hardly condemn Libya for using them, especially since they were evidently acquired legitimately with that good "oil money." Either that, or we'd better look into implementing no-fly zones over London and Washington, DC.

Friday, April 15, 2011

And Then I Sez to Him, I Sez, "Lissen, Youse ..."

You can tell that President Obama is in campaign mode, because he's putting on his populist act again. And you can tell who the Obama loyalists in the media are, too, because they're buying it. This story is making the rounds today, both at the Huffington Post and at MSNBC. Here's the HuffPost version:

President Barack Obama was caught on an open mic making some blunt and intriguing remarks about the actions of Republicans in recent budget negotiations that produced a deal to avert a government shutdown at a fundraiser in Chicago on Thursday, CBS News reports.

In audio relayed by the network, the president can be heard addressing unsuccessful Republican maneuvering to roll back portions of health care reform, as well as restrict Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funding, in reaching an agreement.

"I said, 'You want to repeal health care?'" Obama revealed at the private event. "Go at it. We'll have that debate. You're not going to be able to do that by nickel-and-diming me in the budget. You think we're stupid?'"

Both stories make it sound as though that live microphone picked up Obama telling off the Republicans themselves. But then you realize that he's boasting to a "private event," a fundraiser, about how he gave them mugs what for. The ninety-five pound-weakling is standing up to the worst bully on the beach at last! Barack Obama has stopped playing eleven-dimensional chess and is going to show the Republicans what he's made of!

Well, not really. I don't believe that the microphone feed was accidental, and I don't believe that Obama really said such things to the Republicans. I've heard that sort of thing before. In December of 2009, for example:
"If they wish to fight common sense consumer protections, that's a fight I'm more than willing to have," Obama told reporters in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the executive mansion.
As Glenn Greenwald wrote at the time:
One can say many things about these bankers, but they're typically quite perceptive about matters of self-interest. They don't exactly seem frightened -- or even remotely concerned -- by the presidential "dressing down" they're about to receive. In fact, they seem to think it's all a sham for public consumption. I wonder why they think that.
And before that, in January 2009, when he was still flushed with his election and the control of both houses of Congress by his party:
President Obama listened to Republican gripes about his stimulus package during a meeting with congressional leaders Friday morning - but he also left no doubt about who's in charge of these negotiations. "I won," Obama noted matter-of-factly, according to sources familiar with the conversation.
"Sources familiar with the conversation" is a little better, but still shaky. Some of us professional leftists, including me, got our hopes up when we read that. And then of course Obama proceeded to dilute the stimulus with tax cuts and other concessions to the beaten Republicans. What a guy. Makes you cry. But I won't.

Talk's cheap. There's going to be a lot of it in the next two years. Having been through this before, I'm even more skeptical than I was then.

Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos

Good old Dana Milbank strikes again.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus made their own budget proposal the other day, a counter to Paul Ryan's far-right proposal and President Obama's near-right proposal. As Milbank summarizes it,
A $4 trillion tax increase over 10 years. An increase in the top tax rate to 49 percent. A $2.3 trillion cut in defense spending – and an increase in domestic spending. Oh, and they would revive the “public option” to offer government-run health care.
Sounds good to me. And, according to the polls, it's the sort of thing that most American citizens want. But it's obviously wacky as far as Milbank is concerned.
Still, it gives a sense of how things would be if liberals ran the world: no cuts in Social Security benefits, government-negotiated Medicare drug prices, and increased income taxes and Social Security taxes for the wealthy. Corporations and investors would be hit with a variety of new fees and taxes. And the military would face a shock-and-awe accounting: a 22 percent cut in Army forces, 30 percent for Marines, 20 percent for the Navy and 15 percent for the airforce. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would end, and weapons programs would go begging.
Again, this is what most of us want (via), even though I agree that the prospect of "weapons programs" huddled in the streets with signs that read Will Kill For Food gives me pause and raises the trace of a compassionate tear to my eye.
It’s difficult to evaluate the liberals’ dream scheme because they don’t make projections beyond 10 years (after which entitlement spending problems become larger), and, rather than having the proposal “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office, they used as their referee the Economic Policy Institute, a like-minded think tank.
Paul Ryan's plan, by contrast, was vetted by the CBO, which found (via) "that by the end of the 10-year budget window, public debt will actually be higher than it would be if the GOP just did nothing." (And just in passing, "If the current Medicare system were allowed to continue, CBO found that an average 65-year-old beneficiary's costs would be only 25 percent of what it'd be in the individual private insurance market. Under the GOP plan, those costs would jump to 68 percent." But what do those Commies at the CBO know?)

Milbank finds a silver lining to the Red Menace's proposal, of course: "Obama ... may find their proposal useful because it gives him a far-left counterweight to the far-right Ryan plan." Being in the middle of the road is always a good thing, right?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I Left My Heart at the New York Times

According to Dennis Baron, the Oxford English Dictionary has updated "the definition of the verb to heart to reflect a new sense referring to 'the symbol of a heart to denote the verb "love."'"

Not too surprisingly, the New York Times got the story wrong. Baron quotes an editorial that claimed, "Last month, OMG and LOL were inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, along with the heart symbol". It wasn't "the heart symbol" that the OED included, but the use of the word itself to mean "love." (I hadn't realized that "heart" was already a verb, if an archaic one. According my tenth-edition Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, it used to mean "hearten" or "to fix in the heart." Fancy that.)

But that wasn't all the Times got wrong. OMG isn't a new Internet or cell-phone "corruption and evolution of the English language." The OED, Baron says, traces OMG back to 1917, though it didn't become widely used until the 1990s.

I love -- or "heart" -- stuff like this. I'm a recovering grammar obsessive, which means that although I often encounter uses of English that annoy me, I don't take them as evidence of the morbidity or corruption of the language. When someone complains about the conventions of phone texting, I remind them of the abbreviations that were normal in educated writing of (for example) the 18th century. "Yr Hmbl & Obdt Svt" is one of my favorites. I wonder if the typewriter lessened the need for such abbreviations. For a competent touch typist it doesn't take a lot more effort to write a complete word than an abbreviation; for someone using a quill pen, the less effort expended the better. In my handwritten notebooks I often use & for "and," and shorten "could" to "cd", "with" to "w", and so on; when I transcribe them on the computer, I fill the abbreviations out.

And now that I have a cell phone, I've become a lot more sympathetic to the abbreviations that people use in text messages, though I still resist using them most of the time. It's tiresome to cycle through the letters on a phone pad, but I'm neurotic enough to do it anyway. Usually. That may change if I start doing more texting, though I might revert to full words if I upgrade to a phone with a QWERTY keyboard.

I've also noticed that my younger Mexican friends, who frequently post to Facebook from their phones, abbreviate their Spanish: "k" for "que", "kiero" for "quiero," "xk" for "porque", and so on. It stretches my mind to figure them out. I also get to see that even native speakers of Spanish have trouble spelling it, confusing "b" and "v" for example. Again, it helps my comprehension to figure these things out.

I sympathize with my fellow grammar obsessives, but there are things in the world that matter more than "U" being written for "you", "4" being used instead of "for." Or even the confusion of "they're," "their," and "there", which came up in my feed on Facebook the other day.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Confirmation Bias

My friend the Ambivalent Obama Supporter posted a headline from Fark on Facebook, as he often does: "Evangelicals, conservatives, and NRA members are shunned from academia, reports a study by the Wedgie Institute for Nerd Studies." I found the link on Fark, to a blog post by Peter Wood at the Chronicle of Higher Education. It purports to be a review of Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education (Baylor, 2011), a recent book by George Yancey, "a professor of sociology at the University of North Texas." Wood crows:
A new study presents evidence that more than a quarter of sociologists (27.8 percent) would “weigh favorably” membership in the Democratic Party by a candidate for academic appointment, and nearly 30 percent would weigh favorably a prospective candidate’s membership in the ACLU. More than a quarter (28.7 percent) would disfavor hiring a Republican, and 41.2 percent would weigh negatively a candidate’s membership in the National Rifle Association.
I'm not an academic and a fortiori not on a hiring committee for academics, but I'm not sure I'd hire Peter Wood for anything. Notice how he chooses his numbers in the paragraph above. How many sociologists would "disfavor" hiring a Democrat, for example, and how many would weigh positively a candidate's membership in the NRA? If Democratic Party membership would please 27.8 percent, it's a reasonable conclusion that the other 72.2 percent includes some nay-sayers. If academia is as overwhelmingly liberal as Wood believes, shouldn't the pro-Dem bias be higher than 27.8? I suppose I'd have to look at Yancey's book to find out, and I don't really have much interest in doing that.

Wood mentions some other recent research by "Neil Gross and his colleagues" which indicates that there is no liberal bias in academia. I'm not particularly interested in reading Gross et al.'s work either. But under the circumstances, Yancey's work doesn't settle the question, though Wood seems to think that one conflicting study, by an evidently interested if credentialed party, not only must be taken into consideration but proves that the Libs and the Leftists control the Academy. No, I wouldn't hire him to help me wash dishes.

The discussion in comments under Wood's post is marginally better, and certainly better spelled, than much Internet discussion. It's the Chronicle of Higher Education, after all. Unfortunately there are no permalinks to the comments (that I could find, anyway), but this one, by one tsb2010, stood out for me.
and is this book any news to us (closeted) conservative professors? While people are coming out of the closet left and right, we are shoved right in...
What I find interesting here is the writer's apparent assumption that "coming out of the closet" doesn't encounter any resistance. "We are shoved right in ..." Gay people also encountered plenty of efforts to shove us right back in; we fought back. Conservative professors like tsb2010 evidently want everything given to them without any work on their part; typical.

Speaking of which, there was this comment at Fark, 2011-04-08 04:33:00 PM (Leslie, how do I find permalinks for comments on Fark?):
I talked with an educated, 22 year -old kid fresh out of college who was both a tea party conservative and openly gay. It was a interesting conversation, but the one thing that lept out at me was how he was going on about what a great president TR was, and in the same breath how we needed more leaders that weren't "Harvard and Yale educated liberals."

It was only later that I made the connection between Roosevelt and Harvard. And this from a kid who had just finished his own higher education about three weeks prior.
Ah yes, liberal leaders like the Yale-educated George W. Bush...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

You Don't Say!

From the BBC, on the US acquittal of Cuban terrorist Luis Posada-Carriles:
The US has previously refused to send Mr Posada Carriles to Cuba or Venezuela, saying he could face torture.
There's less danger, as far as I can tell, of Posada being tortured in either Cuba or Venezuela than of anyone's being tortured by the US or our agents. So, what I want to know is, why wasn't he tortured in the US?

And does this mean the US, I mean NATO of course, will have to enforce a no-fly zone over Egypt?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Alley Oops

(Two gay cavemen do the Hokey-Pokey)

Even Andrew Sullivan, nay even Mary Elizabeth Williams, the Salon blogger, occasionally gets it right. I see that I haven't written about Williams's posts as often as I thought I might, but let me give her props today.

It seems that some archaeologists found a 5,000-old-skeleton near Prague, which the English-language media have labeled a "gay caveman." "First homosexual caveman found," the London Daily Telegraph headed their story (via). This will no doubt thrill Andrew Sullivan, who wrote in his first book that "recent scholarship has unearthed examples of it ['homosexual identity'] ... as long ago as the Stone Age" (Virtually Normal [Knopf, 1995], 30). Virtual confirmation!

The reason this burial is touted as gay is that the skeleton was found "with its head pointing eastwards and surrounded by domestic jugs, rituals only previously seen in female graves." "[L]ead archaeologist Kamila Remisova Vesinova" said that this means that the skeleton "was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transsexual." Vesinova may know her Corded Culture, but as Williams complained, she doesn't know shit about human sexuality: there's reason to be "skeptical about any person who studies human culture for a living -- and any newspaper that writes on it -- who can't differentiate between being gay, transgendered, intersexed or "third gendered." So let me help out here: They're not the same things." Transsexuality is not a sexual orientation: sexual orientation refers to which sex a person is oriented toward erotically. Transsexuals and other transgendered people, like the cisgendered, come in a variety of sexual orientations. (Me, I'd like to know how Vesinova is so sure that the skeleton belonged to a male.)

I can't say I'm surprised, though: the mainstream media are still pretty much in the 1950s where sexuality and gender are concerned. Williams links to the blog of Kristina Killgrove, an "archaeologist, bioanthropologist, and classicist" at UNC, who neatly fillets the misconceptions and misinformation in this media dustdevil:
... "caveman" is generally applied to either Neandertals or Cro-Magnon (the first early modern Homo sapiens). And both of those date to about 35,000 years ago. So, no, this person wasn't a caveman.
And confirms my suspicion about sexing skeletons:
There is, of course, no reporting on how the archaeologists estimated sex - or even a hint at the fact that sex can only be estimated, never determined conclusively without DNA testing.
So, kudos to Mary Elizabeth Williams for getting it right this time. When religion or Bristol Palin comes up, though, she'll probably relapse.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Break On Through To The Other Side

Where the hell did the time go? I can't believe I haven't posted since last Wednesday. I don't really have an excuse, either. (The dog ate all the postings I wrote -- but I don't have a dog.) Some odd things have been going on in my life, and I may write about some of them in due time; but I think something in my mind simply said "Enough!" at the end of March.

So, I'm going to take the easy way out and point you once more to Lenin's Tomb. His latest post, "Springtime for NATO in Libya", is very good. For example:
This is one reason, incidentally, why it never even occurred to them to wonder how it is that - unlike in Iraq, which war they castigate as irresponsible - there was never even the pretence of diplomacy. I am no pacifist, but I don't like to be told that there are no alternatives to air-borne death when the alternatives haven't even been tried.
I don't think you have to be a not-pacifist to agree with that.
If the issue was the minimisation of bloodshed, then a logical solution would have been to allow Turkey and others to facilitate negotiations. Yes, I know. A negotiated settlement would be a step back from outright victory for the rebels. But that is an increasingly improbable outcome anyway, and I thought we were trying to save lives here? And as it happens, a diplomatic solution seems to be exactly what is on the cards now. The transitional council leadership in Benghazi has acknowledged as much. Qadhafi is sending ambassadors to talk to interested parties about a ceasefire settlement. If this is how the situation is going to be resolved, then it would have been better that it had been resolved this way several weeks ago. If the aerial bombardment was supposed to stop massacres, it doesn't seem to have done so. From 'Save Sarajevo' to 'Save Benghazi', however, the liberal imperialists are in their glory when on the warpath, and as facile with rationalisations and false consolations as they are contemptuous of the same when deployed by the right.
After all, we've got to do something, right? And "something" always seems to involve the creation of corpses. (Richard Seymour, the proprietor of Lenin's Tomb, is also the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder [Verso, 2008], which is relevant to this case.)
Worse still are the wised up comments to the effect that "the world is a murky place, blah blah, which should not be seen in black and white terms, yawn yawn, and we can't force people to die for the sake of some purist anti-imperialism, etc etc". No, indeed, but it's hardly better to expect people to die for the sake of a woolly platitude.
[P.S. Compare RWA1's "world is a murky place" remarks that I quoted here.]

It's occurred to me quite a number (though not all) of the writers on politics whom I like are Marxists, and I wonder why that is, since I'm not a Marxist myself. I'm not all that sure what a Marxist is. (Reading Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism last summer made me less sure, not more.) From what I can tell, few on the Right know what a Marxist is either: they only know that Marxism is doubleplusungood, and what more do you need to know? Aside from stray bits of terminology like "anti-imperialist," I can't see anything in Seymour's post that seems specifically Marxist. Just as you don't have to be a pacifist to object to the NATO war on Libya, I don't think you have to be a Marxist to object to imperialism. But it sure seems to help.

(Image via The Sideshow)