Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Conspiracies for You and Me

RWA1 has been letting me down lately: I rely on him for links to wacked-out rightwing spew, and I wasn't getting anything I could use. The best was a link to an article about David Mamet's self-touted conversion from liberalism, with RWA1's comment "It will be interesting to see what this gifted writer has to say. I went down this journey 50 years ago." I didn't write about that one because I've seen little of Mamet's work; what I have seen, however, not only didn't interest me much but supported what numerous people have said online: Who knew Mamet was a liberal?

There was also a link to a piece by Stanley Crouch attacking Cornel West. Not exactly daring, since West has been getting a lot of flack from liberals for his attacks on Obama. RWA1 commented, "Stanley Crouch has him dead to rights. The man is a charlatan, down to his shiny gold cufflinks. Liberal guilt has gone too far in accommodating him." I've read more Crouch than I have Mamet, and mainly remember Crouch's homophobic attacks on James Baldwin. I've got my own differences with West, but I wouldn't call him a charlatan. But remember, RWA1 thinks David Mamet is "gifted", that Jay Nordlinger's mind is "worth spending time with," and that George Will, Peggy Noonan, and Joe Rehyansky are sober, rational political commentators.

Anyway, today RWA1 linked to this article, with the comment "The Internet is speeding the spread of arrant nonsense." I can't really argue with that; the Internet has made it possible for all kinds of material to spread with greater speed than ever before, and there's no reason why arrant nonsense should be an exception. But still, RWA1's own fondness for arrant nonsense makes his complaint seem rather ungrateful. He gets lots of nuttery for free from the Right's propaganda mills and -- also for free -- links to it on Facebook to help speed it on its way.

Even better, after another of his friends made a little joke, RWA1 added: "Apocalyptic hysteria is always cropping up, but the conspiracy fantasies are really getting out of hand with the internet." That's especially ungrateful, given his fondness for conspiracy theories. (NPR must continue to receive government funding so he can listen to opera, despite their liberal anti-American news programs.) RWA1 has always been scornful of religious "Yahoos" as he likes to call them, though as with Dan Savage's fury over hearing that being gay is a choice, I find myself wondering why he takes apocalyptic hysteria so personally.

And what does apocalyptic hysteria have to do with conspiracy theories? The Truthout article RWA1 cited, "Theories and Hoaxes Are Blurring Reality", by one Greg Guma, began with a trendy comment on Harold Camping's failed prediction of the Rapture, but moved quickly from there to "offbeat" theories:
There are so many out there. Obama is a secret Muslim – millions of people believe that, secular humanists want to repress religion, and liberals are plotting to confiscate people’s guns and push a “gay agenda.” At the opposite end of the political spectrum, there is the assertion that 9/11 was an inside job and all that this entails. No offense meant. I’ve been called a “conspiracy nut” myself, specifically for saying that we should know more about the attack on the Twin Towers. Still, a modern-day Reichstag fire at multiple locations does qualify as a radical conclusion.
I think Guma is somewhat confused about what a theory is. (To say nothing of "radical.") Believing that Obama is a secret Muslim, or even that he grew up in Kenya where he was trained in anti-colonialism doesn't qualify as a theory. The theory would lie in who conspired to hide Obama's true background, and how they did it, but the claim itself isn't a theory. The 9/11 Truthers have some theories about what happens or doesn't happen to tall buildings when airliners strike them, and they believe that the Bush-Cheney administration carried out the destruction of the Twin Towers to justify the War on Terror they wanted to start. In some broad sense of the word that could be called a theory, I guess.

Calling an idea, a belief, or even a theory a "conspiracy theory" is an easy way of derailing a debate. In the first place, conspiracies do happen, so speculating about conspiracy is not like claiming that the Second Coming is near. The hard part is finding evidence that a conspiracy did in fact happen, and the burden of proof lies on the advocate of any given conspiracy theory. But some nutty claims, such as the one that the US government has been involved in the narcotics trade, or that the Reagan administration conspired to evade Congressional prohibition of military aid to the Nicaraguan contras by selling weapons to Iran, or that the US tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, have turned out to be true.

In the second place, there are perfectly mainstream conspiracy theories, like the one that a network of Islamic fanatics around the world is conspiring to destroy Western freedom. When I was growing up in the 1950s, anticommunist conspiracy theories were part of the mainstream. And indeed, there were Communists who spied on the US for the USSR, just as there were American spies who spied on the USSR for the US. The difference is that these conspiracy theories were promulgated in the mass media, from the Reader's Digest to the TV networks; or by groups like the American Legion, the Roman Catholic Church, and the FBI, who had access to schoolchildren. Even after the decline of McCarthyism, the US left has never had such access to media.

That's leaving out the less respectable, but still popular beliefs that circulated widely, some of them still current on the Internet. The atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair has a petition before the FCC to ban all religious broadcasting, and if Bible Believing Christians don't send them a million postcards, the Word of God will be driven from the airwaves! The United Nations has created a World Bible with all reference to the saving blood of Jesus Christ removed, because "we do not wish that any man be saved"! Hippies spat on Vietnam War veterans! Rock music contains secret messages recorded backwards that will turn listeners into devil worshipers! Paul McCartney died in a car accident and was replaced by a guy called Billy Shears, but the Beatles scattered hints about the matter throughout their later work. (Many people who don't believe that Paul died still believe that the hints are there.)

The funny part of RWA1's comment about conspiracy theories is that the Right generally is quite fond of conspiracy theories. Muslims are stealthily imposing sharia law on America! Liberals are filling TV with gay teen propaganda so teenagers will want to get gay married! Liberal scientists invented the theory of global warming and the liberal media are trying to scare us with it so that ... what? I'm not sure what the Right thinks is the secret, anti-American payload of global warming theory. (RWA1 is scornful of creationists and the Academic Left for their rejection of science, but he freely denounces science that doesn't suit his politics.) The liberal media are suppressing news about the Tea Party Movement and trying to make Sarah Palin look bad! Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11! President Bush had to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons that were an imminent danger to the US! President Clinton had to bomb Iraq because Saddam had expelled the weapons inspectors!

The biggest irony, though, is that this griping about the spread of conspiracy theories is itself a conspiracy theory. So is Guma's conclusion, after he concedes that there is something to some of the nutty claims that have been going around:
In short, some theories may be distractions or even deliberate deceptions, but others are worth considering, as long as we stipulate that they aren’t necessarily facts and resist exaggeration. The problem is that it’s becoming more difficult to tell the difference in an era when facts have been devalued. There are so many possibilities, the standard of proof appears to be getting lower, and theories tend to evolve, expand and mutate rapidly in unexpected ways as they circulate through cyberspace. As yet, there is little follow up to see whether new facts reinforce or discredit a particular idea or prediction. Corruption of truth meanwhile contributes to social division and civic decay. Yet there are apparently no consequences for stoking paranoia, intentionally confusing speculation with fact, or perpetrating a premeditated hoax.
"Facts have been devalued," Guma says, but by whom? Them, I guess, the bad guys who want to distract and distort and devalue facts. He doesn't consider the possibility that many people don't trust the US government because the US government has lied, often, about matters of great seriousness. The Bush administration, with a lot of help from the corporate media, stoked paranoia, intentionally confused speculation with fact, and perpetrated a premeditated hoax about Weapons of Mass Destruction in order to get support for their invasion of Iraq. The human cost, in terms of lives lost, refugees fleeing into exile, and the destruction of a country was staggering, yet there still have been no consequences for the perpetrators. Nor was Iraq an isolated case: similar distortions and "corruption of truth" attended most if not all American wars. (I specify American wars because of American exceptionalism, which freely admits the lies and aggression of other countries, but denies that the US would do such awful things.)

But are things any worse than they used to be? I don't know of any reason to think so, and Guma doesn't give any.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Ignorance Is Strength

One of my Facebook friends from high school posted this on her status the other day:


As far as I can tell, it is false that "they" don't make kids recite the Pledge in school every morning. Attempts to block the requirement in court because of the "under God" clause (added in the 1950s) have failed. The cartoon I referenced in this post indicates that the Pledge is still alive and well in public schools; so do the younger friends I've asked about their own experience. So does the experience of Will Phillips, a ten-year-old who got national attention when he refused to recite the Pledge in class because gay people are discriminated against in America. If "they no longer do that", why did his teacher try to make him do it anyway?

But maybe I'm misreading it. I'm going to speculate, based on what I've learned about the way people (especially, but not only, those on the Right) see such things. Maybe the author of this status message (my friend, of course, was just reposting) wants every child to be forced to recite the Pledge. If even a few get away with not doing it (and there have always been people who refused, for religious and other reasons), then "they no longer do that for fear of offending someone!"

Stuff like this is why I am still on the Left, as vague as such labels are. The Left isn't perfect, and often gets things wrong, but the Right lies so consistently that you can generally look at its positions and claims, assume the opposite, and be pretty sure of being correct.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

I Can Talk to Strangers If I Want To, 'Cause I'm a Stranger Too

(The title comes from Randy Newman's "Have You Seen My Baby?", a song I'd almost forgotten until Ellen Willis mentioned it in her review of Newman's Twelve Songs.)

Some more quotable bits from Out of the Vinyl Deeps.

From a review of Song Cycle by Van Dyke Parks (102):
His most nearly perfect triumph is "Donovan's Colours," an exquisite three-and-a-half-minute instrumental track that sounds like a nice, simple piano piece played by someone with six hands.
I love that sentence, but I'm not sure it accurately describes the track; listen for yourself. Virgil Thompson reportedly said that music criticism should be done by simply describing the music, and the description will be the criticism. I'm beginning to think, as I reread Willis's criticism, that she was not a very good music critic in Thompson's sense, though she was very good on culture and politics.

For example, her realization about Bette Midler's concert at the Palace, 1973 (94):
The real test of Bette's genius was whether she could make me believe in palm trees and cricket noises, feather-duster fans, the Harlettes in their chorus-girl outfits, and -- oh, God, as Bette would say -- Hawaiian dancing girls. Although I thought I was prepared, the overblown production jolted me into exactly the reaction it was calculated to elicit: What is this? Then I remembered that Bette Midler grew up in Honolulu, and I wondered -- as I was sure I was meant to -- at how the schlockiest elements of our popular culture always relate in some way to some person's real life.
On Simon and Garfunkel and "rock poetry" (103):
Bob Dylan, so we kept hearing, had banished the infamous Tin Pan Alley cliche. Accordingly, Paul Simon ... became a "rock poet," dealing with such noncliche subjects as the soullessness of commercial society and man's inability to communicate.
On the generation gap (it comes so soon) between the Sixties and the Seventies (111f):
When Grand Funk [Railroad] was becoming the most popular son-of-white-blues band in the world, I listened some more, on the usually reliable theory that a band beloved of teenagers must be doing something right. The music still didn't do much for me; I caught myself thinking of it as abunchanoise, and I knew what that meant -- creeping senility. Hadn't my parents reacted the same way to Little Richard? (Little Richard was the supreme test: my mother liked Elvis, but she couldn't stand Little Richard.)
Finally, something written not by Willis but about her, by her former student Evie Nagy and her longtime fan Daphne Carr in the book's Afterword. In 1995 Willis co-founded the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.
CRC graduate Priya Jain remembers a shocking meeting of Ellen's Sex and American Politics class where she challenged liberals who argued that it was absurd to think gay marriage could lead to legal plural marriage or bestiality -- her suggestion, to everyone's extremely awkward horror, was that legally, perhaps it could. "What Ellen did was say those things with the full confidence that your liberal beliefs could withstand some of the more taboo arguments," says Jain. "It's not good enough to say there are areas where you're not supposed to make an argument -- all she really wanted you to do was articulate it, and once you articulate it, you realize how shaky it is, and from there you figure out how and where to draw the lines. And it doesn't mean you can't continue thinking that gay marriage, for example, is a good thing." For Ellen, as Lauren Sandler says, "there was no party line." Her consistency was in thought, not personal ideology, and it was one of the reasons she was so effective at putting herself in her work without indulgence, and teaching others to do the same [230-1].
It's hard to say whether I learned not to be afraid of following arguments to their conclusion from Willis -- there are other writers and thinkers who led in the same direction -- but she was surely an important influence on me. I tend to approach the kind of slippery-slope argument mentioned here from the other side, pointing out that plural marriage is a traditional Biblical value, so why don't conservatives support it? (Willis once wrote a satirical piece, "Toward a National Man Policy," reprinted in Beginning to See the Light, that played with the same idea.) But like her, I reject the common liberal response to many conservative arguments, Oh how can you say such awful things? because I believe that if those arguments are that absurd, they should be dissected, pitilessly. If rereading Willis these past two days has been somewhat less exciting than I expected, it's probably because so many of her radical ideas have become my common sense. Didn't I already know that? If I know it now, it's because I encountered it so compellingly in Ellen Willis's writing.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Out of the Vinyl Deeps

I found something today that I'd known I wanted, but didn't expect to turn up: a new collection of Ellen Willis's pop/rock criticism, Out of the Vinyl Deeps (Minnesota, 2011), edited by her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz.

Because her main interest was political (left/feminist/Zionist), Willis didn't write much about music after about 1980, though her rock criticism was always political. After her very professional essay on Bob Dylan was published in Cheetah in 1967, the New Yorker, of all places, hired her as their rock critic. She stayed on until 1975, writing fifty-six pieces for them. Her work was very influential but partly because she left the field and (mostly?) because she was female, it has been largely forgotten. This compilation and republication may help to remedy that situation -- I hope so.

As I read the book, though, I'm struck by some odd mistakes, especially in reviews of Bob Dylan's work. In the Cheetah article, for example, she refers to the "electronic beat" (11) of "Desolation Row", whose instrumentation consists of two acoustic guitars and an electric bass. Not exactly "Pump Up the Jam"; the arrangement owes a lot more to Marty Robbins's 1959 song "El Paso" than to the Rolling Stones. Again, she wrote that on 1970's New Morning Dylan "plays the piano for the first time since Highway 61 Revisited" (32) but Dylan had played piano on "Dear Landlord" on John Wesley Harding. (Hell, he's credited with playing piano on Blonde on Blonde.) These aren't big problems, just small annoyances, but couldn't they have been fixed for republication?

I'm also bothered by some more serious mistakes, as when she confused "bisexuality" with "androgyny" in a piece on David Bowie.
As for his self-proclaimed bisexuality, it really isn't that big a deal. British rock musicians have always been less uptight than Americans about displaying, and even flaunting, their "feminine" side. Androgynousness is an important part of what the Beatles and the Stones represent; once upon a time Mick Jagger's bisexual mannerisms and innuendos were considered far out. Bowie's dyed red hair, makeup, legendary dresses, and onstage flirtations with his guitarist just take this tradition one theatrical step further [39-40].
"Bisexuality" doesn't mean a man wearing a dress or wearing lipstick (strictly speaking, neither does "androgyny"): it means that one relates sexually to persons of both sexes. It's true that many male rock critics were upset by Bowie's theatrical effeminacy (Lester Bangs once referred to him as "the chicken-headed king of suck rock"), but Bowie's bisexuality involved writing songs about sexual/erotic love between males, most notoriously "Queen Bitch" from Hunky Dory. There were also rumors -- I'm not sure at this remove how seriously to take them -- of love affairs between Bowie and other male rockers. Willis doesn't mention any of this, and I don't believe she wasn't aware of it.

It occurred to me how much the job of writing has changed since the early 70s when Willis mentioned that Nils Lofgren looked "like a cross between Donovan and the lead singer of the McCoys" (36). The New Yorker's fact checkers were famous even in those days, so surely someone could have made a phone call and learned that the lead singer of the McCoys was Rick Zehringer (aka Rick Derringer), later to play with Johnny Winter, Steely Dan, and as a soloist; but nowadays you (or I, anyway) would expect a writer to do some Googling rather than leave out the name.

(Another mark of changing times: she refers to "the ten-dollar-top ticket prices" (37) for Elvis Presley's 1972 Madison Square Garden concert, clearly regarding that as a high price. It's like seeing an old movie featuring a gas station selling gasoline for under a dollar a gallon.)

Mostly, though, it's a pleasure to reread these pieces, many of which I read when they first appeared. I value Willis's writing so much because, as her New Yorker colleague Karen Durbin writes, she was "that wondrous creature, an intellectual who deeply valued sensuality". Even when I disagree with her, which I did more often later in her career as she became more of an apologist for Israel and even (to some extent, ambivalently) for the War on Terror, she's one of my most important role models as a writer and an intellectual.

(Which reminds me, I need to do a post about Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, and when I do, I want to address Willis's review of it.)

Friday, May 27, 2011

If Europe Is From Venus, Who's From Mars?

I've written before that straight men often find it difficult to distinguish between consensual sex and forced sex, and if you thought I was exaggerating, here's another example.

The Economist is a pro-business newsweekly from the UK, and of course the big news in its latest issue is what the cover calls "The damnation of Dominique Strauss-Kahn". There's an opinion piece on page 12 pleading, "Whatever the man did, do not forsake his ideas: they are more important," because Strauss-Kahn "was the candidate with the greatest chance of bringing the Paleolithic French Socialists into the modern age." If you detect some cognitive dissonance there, worry not, it's just concern trolling. The "modern age" the writer has in mind is the 19th century, the age of the robber barons. A longer article beginning on page 25, "The downfall of DSK", praises him for having "done more than any other recent manager to restore the IMF's reputation. ... His championing of the need to insulate the poor from the effects of fiscal austerity has, many believe, led the fund to become kinder and gentler." Many don't believe that, but I wouldn't expect the Economist to go there.

Then we have "Decoding DSK" on page 62 and online, by a columnist who calls himself Charlemagne.
When “DSK” moved to Washington, DC, in 2007 to take up his duties as the boss of the IMF, Mr Sarkozy is said to have told him to check his passions: he was going to a country that had come close to hounding Bill Clinton out of office for having an affair with a White House intern.

In matters of sex, as of war, Europeans are from Venus. They mock Americans’ puritanism about the sex lives of public figures. For a politician to cheat on his wife in America is a sign of dishonesty. Witness the opprobrium heaped on Arnold Schwarzenegger over the new revelation that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. In much of Europe, affairs can be a badge of virility. That is the insinuation of an interview given by none other than Mr Strauss-Kahn’s wife, Anne Sinclair. Asked in 2006 whether she minded her husband’s reputation, she replied: “No, I’m rather proud of it! It’s important for a politician to seduce. As long as he seduces me and I seduce him, that’s enough for me.”

... Americans (and, it is true, many Europeans) are mystified by Mr Berlusconi’s ability to survive the tales of his lurid “bunga-bunga” parties. Europeans are bemused by the uptightness of American public life, in which a blow job in the White House can lead to the impeachment of a president. But the case of Mr Strauss-Kahn is about more than sex. Dig deeper and you uncover a number of telling differences in transatlantic attitudes.
And so on. Never mind that the case of Mr Clinton was also "about more than sex", that the Republicans wanted to destroy him and used the only charge they could find that they thought would stick; payback for the impeachment of Richard Nixon was also probably a factor. Never mind that the impeachment failed to remove him from office, and that it was not "the country" but a cabal of hypocritically Puritanical (mostly) Republican politicians and corporate media that minded, or pretended to mind, about that "blow job in the White House." Never mind that politicians and other celebrities got away with a lot of illicit sex in the US, shielded by a corporate media that collaborated in keeping their escapades secret. John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and many others were able to romp freely and almost openly, secure in the knowledge that they wouldn't make the headlines. There's an old American political joke about the damage to a politician's career if he's caught in bed with a live man or a dead woman, but until the tabloid mentality took over the media completely, being caught in bed with a live woman was only likely to damage the career of an evangelist.

If Strauss-Kahn had limited himself to willing partners, chances are he could have cavorted to his heart's content in the US as he did in France. But it seems that he preferred not to, and in the wake of his arrest renewed attention has been paid, even in France, to evidence that he had forced his attentions on women all along. Sarkozy's warning was dishonest, unless he knew that Strauss-Kahn was a rapist, which quite possibly he did. But the warning would still have been dishonest, just like the bulk of Charlemagne's column, for pretending that mere consensual "affairs" would get Strauss-Kahn in trouble.

At the very end of his column Charlemagne gets pious:
Beyond such differences in legal cultures, one fact is inescapable. In America a modest African immigrant has obtained a swift response from the police to her complaint of sexual assault. Mr Strauss-Kahn’s innocence or guilt will be determined in court. But New York’s authorities have not shirked from arresting the head of one of the world’s leading international bodies, nor from demanding that he be kept in jail on remand. It is worth asking: would this have happened in Paris or Rome?
That's very nice, but it feels more like a swerve for an upbeat, pro-American closing rather than a real glimmer of sympathy for the victim of a crime, especially after the columnist's determination to confuse the central issue through most of the piece.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Be Rational, or the Gobble-uns Will Get You!

I'm reading Marge Piercy's The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme (Knopf, 1999), and one poem, "For each age, its amulet," took me back to the question of rationality. By contrast with the precautions her grandmother urged on her ("Circle yourself with salt and pray"), Piercy points to the fears and rituals of our modern, scientific society:
By building containers of plutonium
with the power to kill for longer than humans
have walked upright, demons are driven off.
Demons lurk in dark skins, white skins
demons speak another language, have funny hair.
Very fast planes that fall from the sky
regularly like ostriches trying to fly, protect.
Best of all is the burning of money ritually
in the pentagon shaped shrine. In Langley
the largest prayer wheel computer recites spells
composed of all words written, spoken, thought
tapped and stolen from every living person.
One of the perils of thinking yourself rational is that you ignore your own irrationality. As I commented at another blog, "rationality" is something you do, not something you are. No one is perfectly rational all of the time. Compare these observations from Joanna Russ's 1972 review of the science-fiction novel Moderan by David Bunch (collected in The Country You Have Never Seen, University of Liverpool Press, 2007, page 74):
We all know that Reason is superior to Emotion. (After all, look where it’s got us.) And that souls ride inside bodies, like people inside Edsels, right? And that Edsels often break down, leaving us to cry like Saint Paul, Who will deliver me from the body of this death? I have actually met engineers who told me (in all sincerity) that they lived their lives according to the dictates of Reason, and when I got them enraged – which is easy to do – they told me I was irrational. In Love and Will Rollo May describes a patient of his, a chemist, who had invented the perfect daydream erection: a metal pipe extending from his brain directly through his penis. The rest of his body was irrelevant.
And as David Noble wrote in The Religion of Technology: the Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (Knopf, 1997, pages 113-14),
The apocalyptic outlook of the weapons-designers is, in essence, no different from that of evangelists: the expectation of inevitable doom. And here too anticipation of annihilation of “blended” with a belief in salvation. For the weapons-designers, the bomb is a means not only of destruction but of deterrence, defense, and deliverance. If nuclear weaponry does not deter attack, it might defend at least some of the species from earthly extinction. And if that too fails, it might be used instead to propel a privileged few scientific saints to safety among the stars. For all their claims of building bombs to avoid disaster, at least some of the nuclear community were hedging their bets by seeking yet another form of technological transcendence, their own technical version of the Rapture: nuclear-powered spaceflight.
Bear in mind that there was never any possibility of getting significant numbers of human beings "to safety among the stars": the fantasy was that the Elect (the scientific self-chosen) would seed the stars with their superior genetic material.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Right to Choose

Dan Savage's latest column (via) contains what I can only call a tantrum, a Rumplestiltskin-style stamping of his foot in a two-year-old's fury. Which is nothing new, of course, for Savage. But as I read his outburst, I began wondering just why he was so angry.

The occasion of his tantrum was another antigay bigot saying that homosexuality is a "conscious choice." Savage challenged the bigot to prove that homosexuality is a conscious choice by sucking his (that is, Savage's) dick. No doubt the homophobic force behind one man's telling another man to suck his dick made Savage feel ultra-manly, and will allow many of his readers to feel ultra-manly by proxy. (Just as Rush Limbaugh's fans participate vicariously in his obnoxiousness: Yeah, man, what he said! Ditto, ditto, megadittoes.) But aside from that, what's the point?

First, a thought experiment. Suppose, just for the sake of figuring this out, that the bigot accepted Savage's challenge, knelt down before him in front of a large audience and video cameras, and orally received Savage's manhood, even unto completion. Would the bigot thereby become gay? Does having carnal knowledge of a person of the other sex (as many homosexual people have done) turn one into a heterosexual? Of course not: it's a virtual cliche that one homosexual experience doesn't turn you gay, or mean that you're gay -- unless it does, because the fact that you were even willing to try it proves that deep down inside you are really, truly, essentially gay, and wanted it all along. One of the benefits of relying on folklore is that it lets you have things both ways.

Where do you draw the line, though? Think of an actor like Ewan MacGregor, who has often played gay characters, kissing other men and even simulating sexual acts with them very convincingly. Does that mean he's really gay? Secretly gay? He once said in an interview that he found it easier to do sex scenes with men than with women, because there was no sexual tension with men. Whether or not he was telling the truth, this made sense to me, because I could imagine myself in the reverse situation. (Again, folklore comes in here: many people, gay and straight, still assume that anyone who plays a gay character must be gay. But as Lily Tomlin said of playing heterosexuals on one of her comedy records, "You don't have to be one to play one.") What about heterosexual people who've done homosexual sex work -- not just men who allow queers to pay for the privilege of bringing them to orgasm, but men who allow themselves to be penetrated orally or anally for pay?

It seems that some people are able to perform sexual acts with partners who aren't their first choice (oops) without revulsion -- even sometimes with pleasure -- for various reasons. It might be something that most people are able to do, depending on the act, the partner, and the reason. But then consider someone like Andrew Tobias, who wrote a memoir, The Best Little Boy in the World, under a pseudonym in the 1970s. It has been a long time since I read it, but Tobias went on working the same themes, sometimes under his own name, into at least the 90s. As I remember it, Tobias's coming out as a gay man was problematic because of his phobic reaction to intimate contact with other males. "Cowboys don't kiss" was his rationale for not be able to bring himself to kiss another man, and I remember a scene in the book where he tried to make a boyfriend's penis more orally appealing by covering it with syrup. (It didn't work: the gag reflex won out.) This raises all kinds of intriguing questions about what sex is, how people decide what to do sexually and so on, but the point is that just because you find a particular sex act repugnant, it doesn't prove anything about your sexual orientation or its origin.

If Savage's bigot were to accept his challenge, then, what would it prove? The Born-gay theories have always left room for people who engaged in same-sex eroticism only because they were in single-sex environments (boarding schools, prison, ships at sea, the army), distinguishing from those who did so of their (our) own free will, because we were inverts, constitutional homosexuals, whatever the current jargon was. (What is the Homosexual Constitution? Is it the charter of the Gay Agenda?) And I can't help noting that antigay bigots have shown an entertaining tendency to be hiding gay desires and practices. If this bigot were to chow down on Savage's manhood, it could at least be interpreted as a triumph of the gay gene.

I'm not sure, because Savage's fury renders him so incoherent, but I think he meant something like this: If a bigot finds the idea of sucking a cock repugnant, it's because he's right. Sucking a cock is inherently so disgusting that only a mutant could find it (barely) tolerable. This is why gay homosexuals should be regarded with pity, not contempt: because our genes drive us to submit to the disgusting, degrading, emasculating penetration of our bodies by other males. Except, of course, that as Andrew Tobias's experience shows, a good many gay men are just as revolted by the idea of being penetrated as any straight homophobe; and many straight men aren't revolted by it and can do it, even enjoy it, if they have reason to.

Another problem with Savage's diatribe is that he seems to be agreeing that choices are trivial, even whimsical. A good many gay people react to the "choice" line by denying that they just woke up one morning and decided to be gay. No doubt they're telling the truth, but that's not how most choices are made. Choosing a college, choosing a career, getting married, changing one's religion -- people don't wake up one morning and whimsically decide such things out of the blue. If homosexuality were a choice, people would have some kind of reason for choosing it. A challenge from an advice columnist to fellate him isn't a good reason. "If being gay is a choice, choose it," Savage taunted his subject. "Show us how it’s done. Suck my dick." I wouldn't do it, and I'm gay. (Should I claim that my genes forbid me?) If the bigot chose to fellate Savage, it would prove that he's a pervert, but it wouldn't make him gay.

Which brings me to my other big question about Savage's column. Why does the claim that homosexuality is chosen make him, and so many other gay people, so angry? Savage ranted that those who make the claim "would appear to be just another group of deranged conspiracy theorists who can’t be dissuaded by science or evidence or facts." Let him who's without sin cast the first stone, Dan: the born-gay science doesn't hold up, and has been refuted (often by gay scientists) many times. (In fact the whole nurture/nature divide is invalid, but that's another big topic in itself.) "Choice" is not the opposite of "born this way," and science has nothing to say about choice: it can't prove that anything is or is not a choice.

Granted, people do get worked up over differences of opinion and matters of fact, but you can usually find reasons why they're doing it. Many people are offended by evolutionary theory because they think it means they were descended from monkeys, and while I consider them foolish, I understand some of the deep-rooted feelings that such a scenario invokes. Many other people are offended by those who reject evolutionary theory; they seem to take the rejection personally, and while I consider them foolish, I also understand their feelings. And so on.

I suppose Savage would say that he's so enraged because of the destructive consequences of antigay bigotry. But Savage doesn't feel that way about the destructive consequences of US foreign policy in the Middle East, for example: if our support for dictators made many Muslims "irrational" and commit acts of "terror," then the US has an obligation to invade, kill a few (or many) thousands more, and make things right in some vague fashion. Another invasion will make them rational and peaceably inclined towards America, just as 9/11 made Americans rational and peaceably inclined toward Muslims. Or if it doesn't make them peaceably inclined toward America, at least the violence and oppression we visit on them will convince them not to fuck with us, as it did before 9/11. No, rationality is not one of Dan Savage's strong points.

So what's going on in this case? As I've indicated, I suspect that many gay people still feel very bad about being gay, and can only make peace with their bad feelings by thinking of homosexuality as something that was forced on them by their genes, that they can't help, something that they'd reject if they could, and that they would never have chosen. For men especially I believe that this is connected to the stigma of being a faggot, with all its degrading associations.

Savage fastened onto his target's argument to "a radio interviewer that gay people shouldn’t be covered by the [British Columbia] Human Rights Act because being gay is 'a conscious choice.'" Why counter his falsehood with another falsehood (that is, that we didn't choose to be gay, our genes made us do it)? In the first place, no one ever doubted that women and "racial" minorities are born that way, but it didn't shield them from discrimination; the same lousy science that is used to claim that homosexuality is inborn was also used to claim that women and "racial" minorities were incapable of functioning as full citizens. In the second place, why not point out that the BC Human Rights Act also forbids discrimination based on religion, which is surely a conscious choice? To say nothing of marital status, political belief, lawful source of income, criminal or summary convictions, and other conditions that are either chosen or the result of choice. If the law protects someone who consciously chose to become a Christian, why shouldn't it protect someone who chose to become gay?

I think this is a stronger argument. I don't know how effective it would be in affecting people's opinions, since bigotry is not based (as some people seem to believe) on mistaken assumptions: the mistaken assumptions are based on the bigotry. But I think it should be tried, if only because it happens to be true.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Awkward Age

I like this billboard, though I also suspect it was photoshopped, rather than a real billboard.

I also like this comment on the post the image illustrates:

My favorite quote thus far; “So we got the date wrong. It’s not like its the end of the world.”
But that's about as far as it goes. The post itself concludes:
What I am wondering is this: when the world did not end, did it cause anyone to become more rational? Or will the Doomsdayers become stronger believers (as sometimes happens in cults) – and more importantly, do moderate Christians feel their interpretation of the bible has been validated?
The word "rational" (not to mention "moderate") increasingly sets off alarms for me, as more and more atheists say and write and post ravingly irrational things in the name of rationality. I can't see any reason why the failure of the Rapture to take place last Saturday should "cause anyone to become more rational." As the blogger points out, "moderate" Christians who've been citing Matthew 24:36 as a warning about predicting a date for the Second Coming will probably see Jesus' non-appearance as a vindication of their interpretation of the Bible, not as a reason to abandon Christianity.

But then, why should they? Scientists are constantly making absurd and irrational claims about science and what it can do. A decade or so back, I read a lot of stuff by scientists who claimed that a Grand Unified Theory of Physics was right around the corner. They didn't specify the date and hour, of course -- they were as canny about that as the authors of the gospels -- but they were sure it would happen within a generation. It didn't. A little over a century ago, some physicists were making similar forecasts -- just before Einstein published his theory of relativity and knocked 19th-century physics ass over teakettle. Computer scientists have long made similar failed promises for the development of artificial intelligence. No one -- at least no scientist -- would argue that because these predictions failed, science should be scrapped.

I talked about this with an old friend who said that, confronted with harmful scientific claims about sex and race, she tries to talk about "scientists" rather than "science," since science isn't responsible for what scientists do or say. I agreed to an extent, but argued that you can't really separate the two: there is no such thing as "science", just a lot of scientists engaged in various projects. Then I pointed out that defenders of religion say the same thing she'd said about science: it's not Christianity's fault, it's Christians who you should blame.

A few years ago, Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation, "I actually believe in science. I believe we are clever enough to think our way out of the problems we make for ourselves." Pollitt has often attacked critics of science, whether Christian fundamentalists or members of the "academic left." But her statement of belief in science (which I've heard from many other people) isn't rational: it's an affirmation of faith, a credo. Whether "we" really are clever enough to think our way out of the problems we make for ourselves will have to be seen. (I have no such faith myself.) When people, especially scientists, proclaim what Science will do in the future, they are making statements of faith, not reason.

I don't "believe in science" any more than I believe in Christianity; nor do I "believe" in atheism. I don't even "believe" in Reason. I think reason is a useful tool, but like any tool it has its limits, and it's only as good as the premises one starts with. As the saying goes, "Garbage In, Garbage Out." ("Garbage In, Gospel Out," a computer-scientist friend of mine puts it ironically.) Raising Science or Reason to authority is another version of what Religion is for some people: an attempt to escape human limitations and achieve certainty by fiat.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

There's Got to Be a Morning After

The Harold Camping story has already gotten too much play, but I've seen a few things today that I thought were highly revealing about the non-Rapturists.

Someone on Facebook referred to this article on Slate, quoting this excerpt:

For those who draw their inspiration from the Bible, there is some small print in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 which wonderfully illustrates why a failed prophecy may not shake the foundations of a believer's faith, or cause him any uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.

You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?"

If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.

Only predictions that come true are from God, you see, while failed prophecies are just down to human slip-ups—a truly divine response to anyone who would condemn either a prophet or a whole belief system on the minor matter of a failed apocalypse.

Now, we all know that only literalist fundamentalists ever quote the Bible out of context, so I'm not going to judge. It must have been mere human error that caused the author of the article to miss the verse just before the one he quotes, Deuteronomy 18:20:
But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.
Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about. In context, the reason you need not be alarmed by a prophet whose predictions don't come true is so that you won't be nervous about executing him. This "divine response" sounds like condemnation to me. The Dread Pirate Yahweh takes no prisoners.

Back at Facebook, someone else commented, "When you look at the self-righteous freaks who expected to be taken aloft, I'd be overjoyed to be Left Behind." "Self-righteous," maybe, but "freaks"? Is it just me, or do people who accuse others of self-righteousness often come across as somewhat self-righteous themselves?

Avedon Carol at The Sideshow wrote:
If they all do ever get raptured, a big voice will come out of the sky saying, "Just tidying up the mess - carry on." And then since they're gone we can have a thousand years of peace.
A thousand years of peace? Oh, really? Just a few examples: the Vietnam War wasn't started or waged by Christian fundamentalists (except at the grunt level -- I'm talking about the policymakers and planners). Nice, moderate Christians (high-church Episcopalians, secularized Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, etc.) killed a couple million innocent people with bombs, napalm, chemical weapons, and good old-fashioned guns and stabbing weapons. The Shah of Iran was no Islamofascist; he was a murderous, torturing thug in Western suits and military uniforms. Modern Israel wasn't founded by ultraorthodox Jews but by non-observant, often atheist socialist Jews who wanted to be tough like the goyim. Such people would still be here after the Rapture, if it were to happen -- along with the Dawkinses, the Hitchenses, the Harrises, all of them thirsty for Saracen blood. Would the Rapture make much difference?

I also like the "they" in that first sentence, a lovely example of true Christian inclusiveness. It casts fundamentalists as Other, unlike the true Christians who are full of Love and possess the Truth. They are the source of all Our problems, and if They (the Jews, the Islamofascists, the Albigensians, the Communists, the half-Kenyan anti-colonialist usurper) just went away, everything would be hunky-dory.
Avedon's take is actually not that different from that of believers in the Rapture: they believe that by being taken into Heaven, they will enjoy peace, while the unsaved face natural disasters, plague, and war. It's so comforting when you can blame everything bad on Them: the bad people, who are of course completely, distinctly, essentially different from you. (A rereading of the parable of the Good Samaritan might be in order.)

From what I can tell, though, believers in the Rapture are more likely to be like Keith Bauer than Harold Camping, who himself appears to be harmless compared to the reasonable, rational, scientific people who want to cleanse the world of Them, the wrong people (they've got a little list, they never will be missed). Now that I think of it, I wonder why so many self-proclaimed rationalist people find this silly, irrational, often-disproven belief so threatening. Is it like homophobes who can't quite put The Gey out of their minds because they secretly find it ... attractive?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

You Never Call, You Never Write ... Are You Trying to Tell Me Something?

By a remarkable coincidence, today is not only the fourth anniversary of this blog, but it's the day that, according to the eighty-nine-year-old evangelical broadcaster Harold Camping, will see the Rapture, the day when the Saints will be taken up to Heaven to be with Jesus, thus avoiding the Tribulation to come. (The Tribulation will no doubt include further posts here.) It's now about 6 p.m., Indiana time, and so far the god of Christianity has failed to deliver once again. I don't think we should blame Camping for the debacle, since Jesus has a long history of breaking appointments. Christians have been stood up by him time and again over the past two thousand years or so. Many have dealt with the cognitive dissonance by pretending that he never promised to show up, trying to rationalize the cycle of abuse in which they are trapped. But blaming the victim isn't fair. It's the abuser who should be the object of public contumely. Lots of people, including Christians, are not terribly clear about the difference between the Rapture, the Day of Judgment, the Second Coming, the Millennium, and so on. That's not surprising, since the Bible is anything but clear about them; and to be fair, the Rapture isn't a biblical doctrine but a construction by modern Christians out of the confused welter of biblical end-times teaching. (That doesn't count decisively against it, of course: numerous perfectly orthodox Christian teachings don't come from the Bible, such as the Trinity, the expulsion of Satan from Heaven, and so on.) And it's so much easier to make fun of someone like Camping and his followers if you don't know what you're talking about. Which is not very different from a lot of political and pop-science discourse, come to think of it. End-times speculation and prediction has long been an embarrassment to established Christianity. Partly this is because the predictions and speculations always turn out to be wrong, which is bad PR, so there's a strong temptation, often indulged, to associate the belief with dirty, crazy fanatics, rednecks, "the fringe of the fringe," the "uneducated," and any other handy scapegoat. The trouble is that this stereotype is false, like most stereotypes. I've quoted before Paul Boyer's book And Time Shall Be No More (Harvard, 1992, page 100):
Nor did premillennialism in the 1865-1920 years appeal solely to the poor and disaffected; it also found support among the middle classes, the well-to-do, and even the elite. The signers of an 1891 memorial to President Benjamin Harrison written by premillennialist William Blackstone and urging support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine included Cyrus McCormick, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Two Los Angeles oilmen, Lyman and Milton Stewart, financed the publication and distribution of The Fundamentals. Chicago department-store owner John Pirie hosted Cyrus Scofield's annual Bible conferences at Sea Cliff, Pirie's estate on Long Island. The head of the Quaker Oats Company, Henry Crowell, chaired the board of trustees of the Moody Bible Institute. Large middle-class Baptist and Presbyterian churches in New York, St. Louis, Boston, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and many other cities were bastions of premillennialism in these years. As Ian Rennie has written, dispensationalism attracted some of the most outstanding evangelicals of the day – and some of the wealthiest. Whatever else may be said of, belief in an imminent Second Coming, in punishment of the wicked, and in a Millennium when the injustices of the present age will be set right, cannot be dismissed -- in the Middle Ages, in the pre-World War I, era, or in the late twentieth century -- as merely the desperate creed of the disinherited.
Those who are interested in this subject could do worse than begin with Boyer's book. They'll learn, among much else, how many distinguished scientists and mathematicians, Isaac Newton among them, have taken end-times speculation seriously and devoted a lot of study to it. While this shows that geniuses are not immune to the lure of falsehood, it also shows that you can't dismiss the belief as the deranged fantasy of poor, uneducated trash. Nor, as I've also written before, is end-times doctrine the result of what ex-fundamentalist Frank Schaeffer called "a literalist interpretation of the biblical Book of Revelation." If the Revelation were excised from the New Testament, there would still be plenty of grist for the end-times mill, since teachings on the subject feature prominently in three of the gospels (and are assumed in the fourth) and in every other book of the New Testament. Schaeffer must have known this, so it's a mark of his own discomfort with the whole issue that he tries to blame it all on the "weird book" of Saint John of Patmos. Numerous Christian writers dealing with Camping's prediction have quoted Jesus' teaching that no one but God the Father knows the date of Jesus' return. This writer at MSNBC, for example:
The Bible contradicts itself on the date of the Rapture, and on whether or not that date is knowable in the first place. Matthew 24:36 states, "Of that day and hour knoweth no one, not even the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only," while Matthew 16:28 clearly suggests that Jesus would return during this disciple's lifetime: "There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
This passage is riddled with errors. First, Matthew 24:36 is not referring to the Rapture, but to the coming of Jesus on clouds of glory, seated at the right hand of power. Second, Matthew 16:28 isn't referring only to "this disciple's" (presumably Matthew's) "lifetime." Third, only two verses before 24:36, Jesus tells his disciples that "this generation shall not pass away, till all these things be accomplished." In context, "these things" refers not only to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, usually dated to 70 AD, but to Jesus' appearance on clouds of glory, seated at the right hand of power. Very similar versions of the same saying appear in Mark 13:30-32 and Luke 21:32. (Luke omits the saying that no one knows except the Father.) No writer I've seen during the recent media fuss who cites Matthew 24:36 mentions the declaration in 24:34, which doesn't speak well for their biblical knowledge or their honesty. This material has troubled Christians for centuries, and those who haven't simply ignored it have tried to explain it. Some scholars argue that the Greek word translated as "generation" means something else, like "people," "nation," or "race," meaning that Israel would not be removed from the earth before Jesus returned. Leaving aside the difficulty that Israel was eliminated by the Romans, the word in question usually means "generation" and probably means it here, as shown by the similar saying in Matthew 16:38 that "some" in his audience would not "taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." And the New Testament writers, as I've said, believed the same thing -- that Jesus would return within their lifetimes, even if no one knew the exact day and hour. This means that the problem with Jesus' promise can't be explained away as the result of a modern misunderstanding of the biblical text. It has led to quite baroque attempts to explain why, although everything else in the gospels is accurate about Jesus' teaching, the New Testament writers misunderstood (or even invented and added) this theme, and only this theme. As Morton Smith declared in a 1955 review of a scholar who tried to get rid of the end-times material in Mark, "to accept the great majority of the sayings in [Mark] as substantially accurate reports of Jesus' ipsissima verba [i.e., his own words] ... is implausible. But to do this and also get rid of the apocalyptic sayings, is impossible." Another recurring theme that I've seen in the recent commentary on Harold Camping's very successful media campaign has been that this is all just a concern of "fundamentalists." Some North Carolina atheists who are organizing a party to mock the "absurdity" of the whole business posted on their website that "it's a great opportunity to highlight some of the most bizarre beliefs often put forth by religious fundamentalists and raise awareness of the need for reason," said a posting about the party on the group's website." Belief in the Second Coming is not just a bizarre belief put forth by fundamentalists: it's inextricable from the New Testament, which is why most non-fundamentalists pay lip service to it, while stressing the unknowability of the exact date. There's a wretchedly bad book that got a lot of attention a few years ago, The Rapture Exposed (Westview Press, 2004) by Barbara Rossing, a Lutheran theologian and minister. It got a warm welcome from non-fundamentalists; Rossing was even interviewed on PBS by Bill Moyer. I've been meaning to dissect it in detail for years, but for now, the most entertaining aspect of The Rapture Exposed was that while Rossing dismissed the Rapture and certain competing interpretations of the Second Coming as obviously disreputable fantasies of wicked extremists, she declared very firmly her belief that Christ would return, just as the Bible says. (I think this is analogous to guys who will fool around with other guys, they'll let themselves be penetrated in every orifice, but they won't kiss, because that would be queer.) In a web article on "Rapture bombing," the creation of pictures of empty clothing purportedly Left Behind by the Raptured, the author concluded:
Again, religious beliefs are nothing to laugh at, and there will be very serious repercussions in the days ahead, particularly for folks who spent their assets with the expectation that they'd enter immortality on Saturday. I hope Rapture bombing isn't seen as a criticism of Christianity. Think of it as a stress-reliever for the people who have been inundated by all the hype over the past week.
All well and good, but why shouldn't Rapture bombing be seen as a criticism of Christianity? For that matter, I don't agree that "religious beliefs are nothing to laugh at": the religious themselves have never refrained from laughing at competing beliefs. In the Judeo-Christian tradition this goes back at least to Isaiah's mockery of idols [44:9-20]. Besides, if you're going to believe absurd things, you can't really demand that nobody laugh at you. End-times fanaticism isn't a bug introduced into the Christian operating system by extremist fundamentalist hackers -- it's a feature that has been there since Version 1.0. As long as those teachings are in the New Testament, there will be people who will try to apply them. They may be foolish, they may be gullible, they certainly lack historical perspective, but they're just following in their Master's steps. What Would Jesus Do? Judging by the gospels, he'd be teaching that the end is near.

Four Years and Counting

I put up my first post on This Is So Gay on May 21, 2007. This one will be the 964th post, which -- considering that a fair number have been reposts of old book reviews, poems, and other material I'd written before I began the blog -- is not bad. I should reach another milestone, the thousandth post, before the summer's out. Thanks to the people who've clicked on the site, to the people who've read it now and then, to those who read it regularly, and to those who've sent e-mail. I hope to make it worth your while to read in the future.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


In appreciation of George Takei's video interventions against bigotry, I'm going to rename the blog for a few days.

Playing the Victim Card

Ex-IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of trying to rape a hotel maid in New York City, was granted granted bail today. The amount is high, and the conditions are stringent, which seems only fair considering that he'd already tried to bolt the country once. His attorney, according to the BBC, answered the prosecution's objections thusly: "The prospect of Mr Strauss-Kahn teleporting himself to France and living there as an accused sex offender, fugitive, is ludicrous." Of course! Who would do such such a ludicrous thing?

Even worse than the other attempts to make Strauss-Kahn seem a victim is this vile story from the New York Post:

The IMF chief's alleged sex-assault victim lives in a Bronx apartment rented exclusively for adults with HIV or AIDS, The Post has learned. ...

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control: "It is possible for either partner to become infected with HIV through performing or receiving oral sex."...

The humiliated, 62-year-old suspect was ordered held without bail Monday and placed under suicide watch at Rikers Island -- reduced to wearing shoes without laces and a medical device to make sure he's breathing.
True, it is remotely possible to contract HIV from the act of fellatio, but the receptive partner is much more at risk than the insertor. And there's something outrageously funny about a rapist, even a "humiliated, 62-year-old" one, worrying that he might, you know, catch something from his victim. Someone like Strauss-Kahn, who appears to have quite a sexual history of his own, is more likely to put his partners at risk. There's no indication in any of the stories I've seen that he showed any interest in condom use when he assaulted the woman. If, as Strauss-Kahn's attorneys allege, the encounter was "a consensual romp," then surely an experienced married man having an extramarital fling would have the prudence to protect himself (to say nothing of his wife) with a latex barrier, right? So there's nothing to worry about, except that swill like this will keep turning up in the trial process.

This Man Must Be a Prophet

Cornel West has been lashing out at President Obama, at least partly on the grounds that Obama spends too much time around Jews and "has a certain fear of free black men…" Why, Professor West, do you know any? At The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry wrote a nice takedown, pointing out that despite his protestations, West 1) has been sniping at Obama in similar terms for years; and 2) is no position to criticize Obama for spending too much time with white folks and Jews:
This comment is utter hilarity coming from Cornel West who has spent the bulk of his adulthood living in those deeply rooted, culturally rich, historically important black communities of Cambridge, MA and Princeton, NJ. And it is hard to see his claim that Obama is “most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they” as anything other than a classic projection of his own comfortably ensconced life at Harvard and Princeton Universities. Harvard and Princeton are not places that are particularly noted for their liberating history for black men.
Harris-Perry says that West's complaints are "deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness," and allows that he "may have had principled, even prophetic reasons, for choosing this outsider position relative to Obama," but concludes that West's vendetta "looks more like a pissing match than prophesy [sic]." I'm not sure who (besides West himself, maybe) has claimed prophetic status for West, and I'll give Harris-Perry points for evidently understanding what a prophet originally was, namely a person through whom a god speaks. (Nowadays most people confuse prophecy with prediction, foretelling the future, which is often part of the job description but isn't its core.) But whatever else I may think about the content of West's critique, it sure sounds to me like he's channeling Yahweh: the whining self-pity, the outbursts of rage over real or imagined slights, are unmistakable.

Similarly, Joan Walsh at Salon asked rhetorically, "Is this how identity politics ends?"
It couldn't possibly be that any of these people, whatever their age, race or social class, wherever they went to school, have genuine differences with the president? (Or conversely, in the case of Obama defenders being attacked racially and personally, have wonderful and sincere reasons for continuing to support him fervently.) No one can be given credit for speaking from genuine moral or political conviction anymore; everyone can be dismissed or derided with a nod to their personal background. This may be the logical end of identity politics, where ultimately we're each locked inside whatever little box we check, tiny caucuses of one, and common ground is impossible.
Walsh has a point, but "identity politics" is at best an excuse, not a reason for the ad hominem attacks that keep infecting political and other discussion. (I can't even say "in the US" there, for it isn't confined to our borders.) The Obama White House, as she surely remembers, deals with its critics in exactly the same terms, and the same tactics are standard in Western culture and its biblical background. Reasoned discourse exists aplenty, but when reason is just too much work, or you're afraid that a reasoned argument lacks punch, there's nothing like personal attacks.

Walsh concludes:
Former Biden economic advisor Jared Bernstein wrote a really great piece about why he left the White House: It's pro-Obama, it's compassionate, it's fair-minded and it's also critical. This is the discussion we're supposed to be having. That West mess is a lamentable sideshow.
I agree about the sideshow part, but "pro-Obama" is identity politics.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Man Needs a Maid

From Diana Johnstone's article on l'affaire Strauss-Kahn at Counterpunch:
In his comments, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan was the first public person in France to express concern for the victim. “If the facts are proven, it is very grave, all the more in that nobody speaks of the victim. If it had happened in France, I am not sure that the police would have dared to arrest DSK.” Dupont-Aignan deplored the fact that France “will go on having that image of a culture of impunity for important personalities. … The United States”, he concluded, “has a lot of faults but in such sex cases they have much less of the culture of impunity which prevails in our country.”
Of course, much of the media in France and elsewhere is expressing concern for the victim, only they think the victim is Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Par example, the BBC has a post up comparing Strauss-Kahn to Roman Polanski (who, you'll recall, drugged, raped and sodomized a thirteen-year-old girl).
"In the US they don't play around with sex cases, it's very aggressive," the [unnamed French government] source is quoted as saying. "It's as though Dominique Strauss-Kahn were a war criminal, they won't let him go."
Admittedly I haven't been exhaustive, but I haven't seen anyone denying that Strauss-Kahn bolted his $3000-a-night hotel room, leaving his personal belongings behind, and had already boarded his flight out of the country when he was arrested. There are other possible explanations for this behavior, I suppose, but the best one I can think of is that he was trying to escape punishment for what he'd done. France doesn't have an extradition agreement with the US, so he'd have been home free if the plane had taken off. That's a very good reason why he should be denied bail. (I see that he's getting another bail hearing on Thursday morning.) I don't consider him a war criminal, let alone assume his guilt, but under the circumstances I don't see why he shouldn't stand trial.

You don't have to go to France to find sympathizers, though. Take Mike Whitney, also at Counterpunch:
Dominique Strauss-Kahn is effectively finished as a political force, even if he doesn’t draw a guilty verdict in New York, where a 32-year-old maid says she was attacked and forced to perform oral sex on him.
He’s finished as IMF chief and his candidacy against Sarkozy also looks to be in ruins.
The IMF chief certainly has enemies in high places who will be cheering his predicament. He had recently broke-free from the "party line" and was changing the direction of the IMF.
Well, too bad he screwed up, then; if convicted, he'll be able to reflect on how his sense of entitlement where women are concerned not only ruined his career, but interfered with his plans to reform the IMF. (As if.)

Ben Stein, bless his pointed little head and forked tongue, also considers Strauss-Kahn the real victim in this scandal.
People who commit crimes tend to be criminals, for example. Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes? Can anyone tell me of any heads of nonprofit international economic entities who have ever been charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes? Is it likely that just by chance this hotel maid found the only one in this category? Maybe Mr. Strauss-Kahn is guilty but if so, he is one of a kind, and criminals are not usually one of a kind.
Thanks to James Urbaniak (via), we know that the answer to Stein's first two questions is "Yes." Not that that proves Strauss-Kahn guilty; it only proves that Stein is a lazy, ignorant fool.

In a piece that Salon titled "A bad week for the male of our species", Gene Lyons showed his inability to distinguish between rape and "philandering." Men are just "randy roosters," and it's a shame (I think that's what he thinks -- he do ramble here) that "Voyeurism is a sadistic activity: mean, relentless and stupid. Millions will demand to know things about the Daniels marriage [and the private lives of every other candidate] they scarcely know about their own." Lyons, like so many other journalists, confuses his profession's obsessive voyeurism with the will of The People.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Sexual Orientation That Won't Shut Up

Heterosexuals just can't seem to shut up about their sexual orientation. A few weeks ago, the straight media were obsessed with the sexual relationship between an unemployed English girl and a soldier from a welfare family; now they are talking about the end of a sexual relationship between a Republican actor and his wife, and the lust child produced by the actor's inability to restrain his animal impulses. Will the revelation of his heterosexuality hurt his movie career? MTV asks. Not to mention the wealthy, powerful man awaiting trial on Riker's Island for forcing himself on a hotel maid. (Seriously: this morning at the store I saw two female anchors on CNN expressing their shock at the fact that a heterosexual attempted rapist was being held without bail after he was arrested while trying to flee the country: "He's one of the most powerful men in the world!" they spluttered. "Can they do that to him?")

But all this is invisible, not just to heterosexuals but to many gay people. So when another CNN anchor, Don Lemon, publicly acknowledges his homosexuality, it's news even though a celebrity's coming out is not exactly a novelty anymore. Part of this is the corporate media's short-term memory, but part of it is the ongoing struggle by heterosexual society to push us back into silence and invisibility: Oh, you are not! Shut up! Lalalalala I can't hear you! Why do you have to tell us you're gay -- you don't see heterosexuals going around saying "Hi, I'm straight!" (Sure you don't. What you see is incessant, obsessive babble about their sex lives, which are heterosexual because sex is assumed to be heterosexual.)

So coming out is always a beginning, not an ending. After you've broken the ice, the water starts to freeze over and you have to keep chipping, chipping, chipping away at it. Ideally, it's nice to be able to do it casually, as heterosexuals do, by speaking about your relationships and interactions: not "I'm gay" so much as "My boyfriend and I ..." Except for speaking on panels, I think most of my comings-out to straight friends, relatives, acquaintances, and coworkers have been that kind. In Lemon's case it appears to be more or less the same: he'd agreed to write a book about the path to success, which turned into a memoir, and that meant talking about his love life among other things. To his credit, he chose to tell the truth. Marketing the book meant that his sexual orientation would be a hook, but that's not his fault, it's the fault of a heterosexual society that still hasn't learned that not everyone is heterosexual, and insists on reacting to every coming-out as if it were the first in history.

Lemon said some good things in this interview with the annoyingly flirtatious heterosexual Joy Behar:

For example, Behar says "There's a lot of homophobes out there, you know..." and Lemon comes right back with "Who're you telling?" I've lost count of the heterosexuals who've warned me and other gay people that not everyone approves of our Lifestyle, as though this was news to me. (If I bring it up, though, I'm being an injustice collector.)  He also handles well Behar's question of how this revelation will affect his "objectivity," and her prurient question about the Down Low; he even pointed out that the Down Low is a phenomenon in other communities than the African-American: there are plenty of white men on the Down Low, but in my culture we call it The Closet.

He falls down in other areas, as when he talks about the perception that a gay man is "effeminate" or "weak," and the "I was born gay, just like I was born black." More embarrassing is his belief that the suicide of Tyler Clementi (the Rutgers freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge last fall after a fellow student put a sex tape featuring him and another man on the Internet) could have been prevented if more prominent people would come out. This is a little kid's fantasy: If I were there, I could have saved him. Gay visibility can't fix all our problems. Heterosexuals torment each other too, and bullying is not limited to the persecution of gay or gender-nonconformist kids. And black people have always been visible, and no one doubted that they were born that way, but that never inhibited racists in the slightest. But part of the problem is the murky zone of corporate-media discourse: it's meant to dumb down almost any issue, and you can see Behar hard at work doing so.

Keith Boykin's response has similar problems:
The popular narrative about gay men depicts a community of affluent, educated city dwellers who have come out of the closet and begun to flex their political and economic muscle. But this image doesn't hold up for black gay men, who often lack access to the same resources and support structure available to their white counterparts.
Um, Keith? Most white gay men aren't "affluent, educated city dwellers" either. And I know you know better.

I'm glad Lemon came out, and good luck to him. But the only way coming out has a chance of stopping bigotry is for people in all walks of life to stop tolerating bigotry, and actively express their intolerance of it. The PSA at the head of this post sets a good example. You don't have to be gay to criticize antigay bigotry, just as you don't have to be black to criticize white racism, or a woman to criticize sexism -- in fact, what is more important than gay visibility is visibility of straights who won't put up with bigotry, men who won't tolerate sexism, and whites who won't tolerate racism.

In practice such intolerance will be resisted. Consider all the people who are trying to claim that "gay" as an insult has nothing to do with homosexuality, and even trying to reclaim "faggot" for Fag Discourse. A straight friend on Facebook reacted strongly when his son's wife said something about her husband (newly posted to Iraq) going after "towlheads" (sic). First the son asked, "What's the point in being free if the wives can't express themselves"; when that didn't work he used the old "Dad relax its fine she was just joking" evasion. (At least he didn't say "chill.") We should expect this resistance and refuse to let it succeed.

But again, good for Don Lemon; good for Will Sheridan; good for Rick Wells; good for all the people who are refusing to be invisible anymore. And good for NBA Commissioner David Stern for putting his foot down.

Lord Help the Sister Who Comes Between Me and My Man

Speaking of homosexuals, Brent Bozell, a Buckley-nephew-by-marriage and right-wing media watchdog, recently warned (via) his readers that homosexuals are spreading their propaganda on the TV to suck America's teenagers into the gay lifestyle. His first target is Glee, of course, and Entertainment Weekly magazine for putting Glee's gay male characters on its cover.
Gay "Glee" actor Chris Colfer and his boyfriend on the show, Darren Criss, lovingly put their heads together on the cover.
I just realized that Bozell slipped significantly here: "lovingly"? Maybe he intended it as sarcasm. Decent people know that homosexuals don't love each other, we only feel degrading, degraded lust. That should have read "lustfully put their heads together on the cover." Better get your act together, Brent: you can be replaced with someone who'll toe the party line more consistently.
Colfer just won a Golden Globe for his part, which is another way the Hollywood press rewards propagandizing the youth of America. In his acceptance speech, he lamented anyone who would say a discouraging word about teen homosexuality, somehow putting all of those words in mouths of bullies: "Screw that, kids!"

Their most controversial scene was the two private-school boys singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" to each other on the Fox show. "That was the gayest thing that has ever been on TV, period, " Colfer boasted. The magazine touted this was the hottest-selling track on the "Glee" Christmas album, which gives you a flavor of Hollywood's reverence for that holy day.
(Wow, that's badly written.) If this is true, then it's not just Hollywood that lacks reverence, but TV audiences, or at least Glee fans, for being so eager to buy this gay teen propaganda. But Hollywood's lack of reverence for "that holy day" is nothing new. Anyone else remember Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye's "Sisters" semi-drag duet in White Christmas? "Baby It's Cold Outside" has nothing to do with Christmas, but neither do many popular winter songs that are part of the holiday marketing blitz. If Lea Michele and Cory Monteith had sung "Winter Wonderland" and the song had been included on the Glee Christmas album, I doubt you'd have heard a word of complaint about it from Bozell.

From what I've seen (I just finished watching the first season on DVD), Glee is hardly a commercial for gay teens, at least in the sense that Bozell means. He wants you to believe that watching Kurt Hummel get thrown into a trash dumpster, receive death threats on the telephone, and suffer the throes of unrequited love will make young heterosexuals want to turn gay.

So, in what sense could Glee be called "gay teen propaganda"? From the viewpoint of antigay propagandists like Bozell, any depiction of gay people is propaganda. Back in the good old days of Hollywood's Production Code, it was forbidden to mention homosexuality, along with a slew of other topics. Radclyffe Hall's notorious but classic 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, which ends with the tormented heroine driving her girlfriend into the arms of a straight man for her own good, and then shaking her fist at Heaven, was banned for being too positive, for implying that such degenerates found even transient solace in each other's arms. Antigay propagandists object even to such cries for pity and sympathy, which is basically what Glee is about, seventy-odd years after Radclyffe Hall.

When you understand this, you see what a rear-guard action people like Bozell are fighting. Like Rick Warren holding the line against same-sex marriage but waffling (at least publicly) on civil unions and hospital visitation, Bozell writes as though it's enough to keep gay characters out of mass media. "They are not celebrating diversity. They are intimidating dissidents," he complains.
As you might suspect, Entertainment Weekly didn't plan to debate gay teen propaganda, but to encourage it, energetically. Not a single soul had anything critical to say. Not even a question. If this magazine weren't so earnestly in the tank, the story could come with a disclaimer: "This issue is an advertisement bought and paid for by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation."
That's too bad. I'd love to debate "gay teen propaganda" with Brent Bozell. It's funny to see how low Bozell's standards for "debate" are: apparently even a single quotation from "a single soul," perhaps a spokesperson for some right-wing Christian group, would suffice. I expect more, myself.

But that's the normal form of journalistic balance in the US: every non-Right position must be "balanced" by quoting a Right spokesperson. Not the other way around, though. Our student newspaper, for example, can't run an article on atheism without including a quotation from a Christian minister deploring unbelief and endorsing Christian faith. I have never seen an article on religion that included a balancing quotation from an atheist. I once wrote them a letter pointing this out, and offering myself as a resource for future articles on religion; never heard back from them, though. When I wrote a column on gay parenting for the same paper, criticizing the Christian-Right group Focus on the Family, the paper printed a response from their spokeswoman, deploring my closed-minded criticism but not even trying to answer it.

Now, I don't favor the intimidation of dissidents, not least because I'm a dissident myself. But Bozell appears to be one of those people who consider any disagreement with their beliefs to be intimidation. And that's what makes me uneasy, because it's something he has in common with so many of his opponents.