Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Taste Test

I've seen this mentioned a couple of times in the past few days. Band of Thebes covered it yesterday. Some comedian published a calendar based on gay male stereotypes, and as a result of many complaints, both Amazon and Barnes and Noble have removed it from their sites. I agree with BoT:
The product is ignorant, unfunny, in bad taste, and steeped in tired stereotypes about effeminate men. It does not libel, defame, spew false facts, or incite violence. At heart, the problem appears to be the silly and mean-spirited attempts at humor are offensive to some people. We are in for a world of trouble if the criteria for removing a product is that some people say it fails their personal taste test. As with the Hide/Seek debacle, I think the best response against offensive work is to make one's case articulately, and shun it, but not censor it.
After all, a lot of material produced by gay men is silly, mean-spirited, unfunny, ignorant, and steeped in tired stereotypes about gay men, whether nelly or butch. Much of this same material is considered to be an integral and precious part of our heritage and culture. If tastelessness were the criterion for removing material from the market, every drag show in America would have to be shut down, along with Mr. International Leather contests. Queer as Folk could never have been cablecast. All the little storefronts in gay neighborhoods displaying t-shirts bearing the legend "This Face Seats Five" would have nothing to sell anymore. The works of Tom of Finland would have to be locked away -- and that would only be the beginning. I've got a little list ... Why, this very blog would at least be hidden behind a warning label that declares it potentially offensive and off-limits to readers under 18.

[P.S. Now that I've seen it, I can add that Ru Paul's Drag Race also is silly, mean-spirited, unfunny, ignorant, and steeped in tired stereotypes about gay men.]

People have such short memories. Just a couple of years ago there was a huge kerfluffle because the Amazon search engine wasn't returning any results for GLBTQ material, except for titles like A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. I'm not sure we ever found out what caused the problem, which was fixed in a few days. But many dark conspiratorial speculations went around: Amazon was hacked! Amazon was capitulating to pressure from antigay organizations! Amazon had secretly been antigay all along, but now it had revealed its sinister true colors! Boycott Amazon!!!!

I expect that now, many of the same people will trot out the same kinds of arguments that they rejected two years ago. Like this person, commenting at BoT:
The calendar has not been censored (no change or editing to it's offensive content). There was a market protest against it being sold in the public market. Good. I'm glad this happened like this. Did you want a calendar using the "n" word etc?
Oh, so much stupid in so little space! I'm a little in awe. First, censorship does not mean only "change or editing to it's offensive content": it also means suppressing material from being sold in the "public market", whether by legislation or publisher's or vendor's fiat. Would the commenter feel the same way if Amazon refused to sell, say, Heather Has Two Mommies after a "market protest"? Second, the proper "market" response to offensive material is not to buy it. You can even speak out against it, as BoT suggested, urging people not to buy it. Attempts at censorship have been known to backfire: I've heard that the banning of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791) made it a bestseller, because people who wouldn't have bothered before wanted to know what they weren't allowed to read. At the very least, censorship allows even the author of tacky, tasteless material to present himself as a martyr, and who wants to give Joe King that kind of status?

"Did you want a calendar using the n word etc?" the commenter asks indignantly, perhaps imagining that she has trumped every possible objection. Perhaps she doesn't realize how much material available on Amazon contains the "n word", especially hiphop music but probably a lot more than that: fiction by black authors, movies by black directors, at the very least. So, no, I didn't want a calendar with the "n word," but if someone wants to produce and sell one, that's their lookout. Depending on who made it, and for what kind of audience, I might denounce it, or I might not pay a lot of attention. A calendar analogous to King's, but deploying similar stereotypes about African-American males, I'd denounce, but I'd be inaudible in the chorus of denunciations it would inspire. A calendar featuring pinups of sculpted "thugs", for a black female or black gay audience, would be another story, even if it referred to them by the "n" word.

Did I want, say, a calendar using the d word? As a spinoff from her long-running comic strip, Alison Bechdel put out several Dykes to Watch Out For calendars in the 80s. I own most of them, along with all her books. The calendars are probably collectible by now. But I find that commenter's remarks offensive; I demand that they be removed from BoT forthwith! And that's not censorship, since no change or editing to it's [sic] offensive content is involved.

Andrew Sullivan's Hippie Problem

Avedon linked today to this post (actually a couple months old) by Andrew Sullivan, which reminded me all over again why I hate him. That's a strong word, I know. I'd been mulling over writing a post on how easy it is for other people to hate Rick Santorum, but I can't work up a lot of bile over him. Yes, he's evil, but he's also a joke in the "mainstream"; hating him is like hating Fred Phelps -- easy, safe, conformist. Santorum couldn't even get re-elected to the Senate. Sullivan is also a right-wing Catholic, but he has more street cred in the corporate media. But I think I would hate him anyway, even if he were an obscure blogger with no traffic to speak of, just for his ongoing and unrepentant stupidity and dishonesty.

So here's Sullivan on his change of heart about the goddamned hippies of Occupy Wall Street:
A lot of us have to confess something about the Occupy Wall Street protests: we have a hippie problem. As a post-boomer, I’ve been trained to giggle at them my whole life. And anyone who has had to listen to an unsought diatribe about corporations in a line at Target, or has a friend who’s been trying to talk you into going to Burning Man for a decade, will know what I’m talking about. The crustier edges of the fringe can be as smug as they are alienating—from replacing applause in Zuccotti Park with silent finger-wiggling to the occasional, asinine assertion that the U.S. government is a greater evil than al Qaeda. I have to say I feel exactly the same ambivalence toward the Tea Partiers, with their strange 18th-century costumes, occasional racist diatribes, and gun-toting. Their cultural signifiers distract from their message—which is diffuse and vague enough to begin with. Before too long, I find myself inclined to move on, to zoom out.
I like the "a lot of us" in there -- what if Sullivan was one of us, just a slob like one of us? And "hippie problem" -- was that a conscious allusion to this notorious neocon polemic from 1963? Probably not, Sullivan is too ignorant of history for that. Ah, what a sign of his bold individualist stance, that he giggles at hippies because he was "trained to" do it all his life. He's such a bold freethinker. But didn't his parents ever tell him (however insincerely) that you shouldn't make fun of people's appearance? Even if they didn't, does it never occur to him that a guy who chooses to look like this:

shouldn't throw stones? (The shaved head to distract from the baldness; the bold bandido mustache -- everything that's risible about today's gay male culture.) And "as smug as they are alienating"? Physician, heal thyself. Sullivan's own smugness oozes from every word of this paragraph, as from his self-chosen photograph.

I suppose it must be very unpleasant to have to "listen to an unsought diatribe about corporations in a line at Target." (That's of a piece with his "If I hear one more gripe about single payer from someone in their fifties with a ponytail, I'll scream.") I do feel Andrew's pain. But those of us who live outside (or even, I should think, inside) the Beltway are more likely to hear unsought diatribes against hippies than against corporations in the line at Target, but unlike Sullivan I don't expect everyone in my vicinity to share my personal political convictions, or at least to refrain from saying anything that I disagree with in my hearing.

As for "the occasional, asinine assertion that the U.S. government is a greater evil than al Qaeda," well, asinine assertions turn up all over the place, and more than occasionally in Sullivan's writing.
Comparing evils is a treacherous enterprise, but there isn't any doubt that the U.S. government has killed far more innocent people than al Qaeda has, or that the U.S. government has on numerous occasions used jihadist terrorist groups (including many operatives who went on to form al Qaeda) for its own purposes. Whether that makes the U.S. government a greater evil is open to debate, but I think it means that the assertion Sullivan derides isn't necessarily asinine. It stands in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 assertion that the U.S. government was the greatest source of violence in the world, which was true then and I believe is true now. Sullivan has a record of indignant unthinking fury at anyone (except himself) who presumes to judge the morality of the U.S. government, of course. And as I've said before, I don't judge all gay people by Andrew Sullivan's frequent asinine assertions.

Sullivan goes on to say that he saw the light, maybe because of "seeing a more diverse crowd in D.C. than I expected, or absorbing online testimonies from 99 percenters, or reading yet another story about how corrupt the banking system has become (Citigroup was the latest to have me fuming)." Ah, that's Andrew for you: shooting off his mouth before he knew what he was talking about, even though the information had been there for a long time. (The corruption of the banking system, for example, didn't suddenly become knowable this fall.) But you see, it was the hippies' fault. If they hadn't set up their drum circles, Andrew would have taken them more seriously. Then, of course, he backtracks:
The revolts in the West require nothing of the courage displayed by Egyptians or Syrians or Tunisians standing up to tanks and bullets and torture.
True, true: U.S. state violence has been less extreme (for college educated white folks, that is) than Egyptian or Syrian or Bahraini state violence. But it still takes more than a little courage to face the state violence that had already occurred by the time Sullivan posted this piece on October 22: random and unprovoked pepper spraying, beatings with clubs and fists by cops who had been trained in that work. Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was nearly killed by Oakland police a few days after the post went up, and we've seen a lot more police assault since then. And before then, too: anyone who wasn't blinded by hippie-hatred and love of corporatism would have noticed that a pattern of state violence, intended to intimidate dissenters, has been in place in the U.S. for many years. Not just Seattle, the various "globalization" summits, and the national party conventions, but America's long and violent labor history testify to it. But Andrew couldn't see any of that. It was the hippies, you know.

Warning to OWS: If this guy has suddenly decided that he likes you, you may be doing something wrong. But don't worry about it too much; it was probably a lapse on his part, and it isn't your fault.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The End of the Year As We Know It

Batocchio at Vagabond Scholar has carried on the late Jon Swift's custom of an annual roundup of the best blog posts of the year, chosen by the bloggers. I'm in there, of course, but there's plenty of material worth your attention; I've already read several good ones. I will probably put together my own retrospective, as I did last year, but for now I wanted to pass this along.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Beth Westboro Shul

Which reminds me. This story has been making the rounds, so maybe you've seen it already.

Ultra-orthodox Jewish males in Israel have been rioting again, this time because of women who dress like whores, like the eight-year-old girl above. The daughter of American immigrants, she attends a merely Orthodox school in the mid-sized city of Beit Shemesh, but is now "afraid of walking to her religious Jewish girls school for fear of ultra-Orthodox extremists who have spat on her and called her a whore for dressing 'immodestly.' ... The ultra-Orthodox consider the school, which moved to its present site at the beginning of the school year, an encroachment on their territory. Dozens of black-hatted men jeer and physically accost the girls almost daily, claiming their very presence is a provocation."

When the child's plight was televised, the government came under pressure to do something about it. The ultra-Orthodox fought back.

Several demonstrators were taken in for questioning after police and journalists were roughed up and insulted by ultra-Orthodox men telling them to "clear off," the journalist said.

There were also shouting matches between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews.

Beit Shemesh residents showered police and television crews with eggs and also set fire to the contents of refuse bins.

Here's some video.

Yep, some of these highly spiritual men are being arrested. But I can't help wondering: where are the batons, where is the pepper spray, where are the rubber bullets or even live ammunition, where are the water cannons, where are all the paraphernalia of twenty-first century police response to violence by extremists? Nowhere in sight, and it's not because Israel isn't up-to-date in that area. The rioters -- which is the right word to use for stone-throwing goons -- aren't even being put in choke holds. I suspect President Peres' expressed concern is merely cosmetic, and will disappear when the fuss dies down.

The ultra-Orthodox are an interesting phenomenon in today's Israel. Though they're only 10 percent of the population, they have disproportionate political power, both in the Knesset and in the Army. Israeli concern about what's delicately called "the demographic problem" among Israeli Arabs (that is, they have too many children, and will soon take over) doesn't extend to the no less prolific ultra-Orthodox.

There have also been numerous incidents over the years when ultra-Orthodox men have harassed women on buses for refusing to sit at the back. (Too symbolic, isn't it?) Now some ultra-Orthodox millionaires have proposed a private, segregated bus line to settle the problem.

American enthusiasts for Israel should be questioned about this issue. If President Obama can dodge it, perhaps someone might ask Secretary of State Clinton about, you know, human rights. But there's another side to this: why should the ultra-Orthodox be tolerated by everyone else? After all, "their very presence is a provocation." If they want to be bigots in their own enclaves, that's fine, but when they want to encroach on everyone else's territory, shouldn't the men be required to shave their forelocks and beards and dress like the majority? Shouldn't the women be required to dress like prostitutes? Conservatives are almost always the biggest moral relativists: they want to force everyone else to conform to their standards, but they don't want to conform to majority values. We who believe in pluralism and tolerance should continue to do so, but we shouldn't be impressed, let alone intimidated, when conservatives pretend to be loyal to their allegedly high principles. They don't really have any. Once again it's important to remember the difference between respecting others' right to their own opinions and beliefs, and respecting the opinions themselves. The first is an obligation in a free society, the second is not.

For the Love of D-g

Two new posts at Lambda Literary got my attention today, though the newsletter has been in my inbox for a few days. Both touch on sexuality and spirituality, and I wonder if the site editors noticed that they almost cancel each other out.

The first was an interview by Christopher Hennessey with the editors of two recent anthologies of gay and lesbian poetry with "spiritual" ambitions. One collection, Milk and Honey (Midsummer Night’s Press), edited by Julie Enszer, is devoted to poetry by Jewish women; the other, Kevin Simmonds's Collective Brightness (Sibling Rivalry Press), collects "LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality." I haven't read either one of them, though I might if the library gets copies; some of the poems described in the interviews sound interesting.

The other article was a review by Jeffrey Escoffier of a new biography of the gay S&M filmmaker and theorist Fred Halsted. I've never seen any of Halsted's films, partly because I'm not interested in S&M, but reading Escoffier's history of gay male film and video pornography Bigger Than Life has made me want to try to track down some of the classics. Many of them are available on DVD. But for now, I'm concerned with something Escoffier wrote in this review:
The one area of Halsted’s life that Jones doesn’t explore sufficiently is Halsted’s radical philosophy of sex. Several years ago Patrick Moore devoted a chapter to Halsted in Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality. Halsted believed that the erotic is transgressive and sacramental, that it is inherently violent and involves acts of violation. “Sex is not ‘coming,’ that is superficial sex,” he once explained. “Mine is personal cinema. I don’t fuck to get my rocks off. In the best scenes I’ve ever had, I haven’t come. I am not interesting in coming. … I am interested in getting my head off, my emotions off—and if I get my dick off, my rocks off, it really doesn’t matter that much to me. … I am interested in emotional satisfaction and intellectual satisfaction.” In some ways, Halsted seems to have anticipated Foucault’s view of S/M as a “creative enterprise” which imagined “the desexualization of pleasure.”
"Foucault's view of S/M as a 'creative enterprise'" reminds me of what Brian Eno, and others, have said about art as self-expression: that you express yourself every morning when you choose your clothes for the day. Anything can be a creative enterprise, from cooking to deciding how to organize your personal library, so it's no stretch to include sadomasochism in the list. I've also run across the notion that sex is "inherently violent and includes acts of violation." Sex, like most human activities, isn't "inherently" anything. One of our most troubling tendencies as human beings is the desire to define our personal tastes and quirks as the essence of the realms in which they occur; such ex cathedra claims can almost always be translated as the speaker's description of how he or she experiences something. For Halsted sex is is one thing; for someone else, it will be something different.

This is just as true of spirituality. (I'll bet you saw that coming.) It's virtually a cliche that the spiritually-minded person finds God (or whatever) everywhere. As William Blake put it:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
I've seen this quatrain on wall posters illustrated with pretty pictures of green blades of grass, crystal-clear drops of water, and other beauties of nature. But everything, and I do mean everything, has a spiritual dimension: self-mutilation, fasting, flagellation, the extremes of asceticism; but also highly oppressive social systems, which are of course ordained by the gods; wars and other forms of human sacrifice. The Bhagavad-Gita, for example, spiritualizes war: Krishna tells Arjuna that the warrior slaughters his opponents not for self-glorification or bloodlust, but in the service of one's temporal duty, so go get 'em champ! And Arjuna did. As the Gita's American admirer "Winthrop Sargeant explains, 'In the model presented by the Bhagavad Gītā, every aspect of life is in fact a way of salvation.'" As the Gita itself put it: "No work stains a man who is pure, who is in harmony, who is master of his life, whose soul is one with the soul of all." Such a man could be a torturer, could drop napalm on children, could set fire to bums, as long as he stayed pure. (I'm not being cynical: see my remarks on the New Age teacher Chris Griscom here.)

Spiritual aspirants have also contemplated mortality, decay, rot, the yucky stuff of life; as well they ought. There was a guy Margot Adler mentioned in her survey of American neo-paganism, Drawing Down the Moon (I read the 1986 revised edition published by Beacon Press; Adler has updated the book several times since then), who argued that there were gods of cities as well as of the countryside, and pagans should acknowledge them; but he was the only person she wrote about who thought so. It seems to me that the kind of spirituality with the most commercial potential among educated (and mostly white) Americans today tries to ignore these matters, presenting a cleaned-up, sanitized product. That's not all there is to spirituality, including the ancient sources it invokes to give it authority.

If Halsted and others sought transcendence through an erotic theater of abjection, abasement, explicit power relations, costumes, and paraphernalia, including "acts of violation," fine for them. They could do much worse. But they have no more business legislating this as the essence of sex for everybody than an evangelical Christian has legislating his or her peculiar interpretation of the Jesus cult as normative for everybody.

As with many spiritualistas, I'm skeptical about the effectiveness of Halsted's praxis. He was, says Escoffier, "alcoholic and tortured by self-doubt and insecurities that undermined his public persona as the ultra top—the role he chose to play in his own movies." Like every god I know of, Halsted's failed him; it couldn't stop him from destroying himself. But then I remind myself that self-destructive tendencies are common among religious seekers and teachers; think of St. Francis of Assisi, who died of complications from stigmata, eye disease, and fasting at the age of 45. Halsted was 47 when he died by his own hand, of an overdose of sleeping pills. It's not exactly news that the spiritual quest isn't necessarily good for the body.

To her credit, Julie Enzser resists the boxes her interviewer tries to put her into.
Sensuality and the lesbian body are big themes in my own writing and in what I love to read. I’m drawn to poetry that includes erotic writing about lesbian experiences; I am interested how we write about our bodies and the physical and sensual experiences of our bodies. Although I would like to say that I think that this is a hallmark of Jewish lesbian poetry, I think it is more of an idiosyncratic characteristic of me as a reader and editor.
She also acknowledges that some of the poems' spirituality, or even Jewishness, emerges mainly in the context of the anthology. By analogy, if I sing a set of songs which explicitly express romantic love between men, then sing one which is ambiguous, you're more likely to hear it as a song of romantic love between men than you would if you heard it in a heterosexual context. (Unless you're absolutely determined to hear heterosexuality except when homosexuality is explicitly invoked.) What presumably makes these poems "spiritual" is that they are labeled so. Hennessey asks her at one point, "Eleanor Lerman’s poem’s ending really complicates what we think about God" (because she writes "God" instead "G-d", as religious Jews often do), and as usual my first reaction was "What do you mean 'we'?"

Once again, trying to subsume all kinds of religious (or other) experience under one word -- "spiritual," in this case, which functions along with "faith" nowadays much as "gender" does with regard to "sex" or "ethnicity" to "race", and "identity" does with just about everything -- ends up homogenizing difference into grey mush. Judaism is historically a religion about practice, not faith, doctrine, or even "spirituality." I don't say that to imply that it's a deficiency (or as some Jewish partisans would infer, a superiority); it's just a difference.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hey Pontiff -- Leave Those Kids Alone!

(For years now, I've wanted to write a new set of lyrics for Pink Floyd's The Wall. Mine would be called The Mall. "Can I take the station wagon / Mom, let me use your MasterCard ... All in all, it's just another day at the mall.")

I wasn't going to write today, but then I found this picture and some other things, so here goes. The picture comes by way of Whatever It Is I'm Against It, who notes that the Holy Father doesn't settle for superficial glitter, he wants and gets gold. The Guardian says that he urged his audience "to look beyond the holiday's 'superficial glitter' to discover its true meaning", which reminds me of the old joke about looking below the fake tinsel of Hollywood to find the real tinsel underneath.

I guess I really am a Scrooge, in a narrow sense of the word: I am not a Christian at all, and the story of the birth of a child in a manger doesn't do anything for me. Too many people can coo over that legend while real children go hungry or are burned in drone attacks and scarred for life (look for the story and photo of Shakira) for me to think it has much positive effect on the world. Christians of progressive politics often try to find a left-ish significance in Jesus' supposedly humble beginnings, but the point of that story was that this kid was really King of Kings. In order to make all this turn out right, Jesus' heavenly Father arranged the Slaughter of the Innocents at the hands of King Herod, who was merely an instrument in the divine plan. (The deaths of "all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under" were sad, but fulfilled what Yahweh had said through the prophets, so we think the price is worth it.) Remember that Father Zeus spent his childhood in a cave hiding from his murderous father Cronus, eventually emerging to seize his birthright and his glory. Likewise, the relatively insignificant (his birth signaled by a supernatural star and recognized by Magi and heavenly choirs) Jesus suffered (Son of David), but was exalted to Heaven to bide his time until the day he will judge the nations and take his vengeance.

But back to Pope Rat for a moment. A lot of people like the gold and jewels and rich robes and spectacle, it's part of what they want from religion and from life; if they can't have it themselves, they can at least get it vicariously through others. The Church's ostentation is a symbol and a promise of the glory of God and his heavenly kingdom, and so on; but I'm not interested in kings, earthly or heavenly. (And this kind of thing isn't limited to Catholicism; Buddhist temples, for example, are often decorated lavishly with gold leaf. One of my neo-pagan friends sighed recently and covetously over a photo of a "laurel" crown made of gold.) With the best will in the world, a Pope who tried to live simply would probably be denounced and reviled not only by the hierarchy but by the laity. Some lay Catholics, when I've suggested that Popes ought to tone it down a bit, indignantly accuse me of wanting the Holy Father to live in the gutter and starve to death! The typical reduction of alternatives to extremes, you'll notice, but I'm suggesting a middle path for once. Still, once there are no hungry people in the world anymore, the Pope can have his fancy robes back.

Several online writers have been discussing our other big Christmas myth, Dickens's A Christmas Carol, in connection with JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon's whining about how rich people are being hated for no reason at all. This, as the writers explain, isn't true at all. Fred Clark at Slactivist (via) reports this year's bandwagon of anonymous donors who've been paying off layaway accounts at various stores around the country, and says,
We like good-hearted rich people. We like them very much. ...

It’s certainly true that we don’t like Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, but that dislike has nothing to do with the fact that he’s rich or that he’s “been successful.” We hate the Scrooge we meet at the beginning of the story not because he’s rich, but because he’s a cruel, selfish, greedy miser enriching himself from the toil of the employees he mistreats.

And you know who else really hates Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of the story? Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s one of the most miserable, joyless, wretchedly unhappy figures in all of literature.

Scrooge tries to comfort himself by telling himself that he’s just a cool-headed rationalist who sees the logic of greed. He tries to make himself feel better about his abuse of poor Cratchit by thinking of himself as a “job creator.” It doesn’t work. It can’t work. He’s miserly and, therefore, miserable.

This is good, but if I recall correctly Scrooge is a miser because he's miserable; unable to control his life, he can at least hang on to his money. And as several of Clark's commenters pointed out, Scrooge wasn't as bad as he could have been: his harried employee Bob Cratchit gets Christmas off, which wasn't the Victorian norm. Eric Oppen wrote (no permalink that I can find; sorry):
My own take on Scrooge was that he'd been badly traumatized early on. It's often not remembered, but the late 1700s/early-1800s (roughly 1790-1840), when he'd been young, were not good times in Britain, Regency Romances notwithstanding. The economy had been bled nearly white by the Napoleonic Wars, and then you had the disruptions of the Industrial Revolution. Scrooge always reminded me of old people I've known who'd been through the Depression and still were haunted by it.

And he'd earned a reputation for honesty such that his signature was worth any amount he cared to raise, which is not the sign of a crooked man. He's grumpy and cranky...but not everybody likes Christmas, and he has some particular reasons not to. A real hard-heart wouldn't be thinking of his dead-five-years best pal to the point where his door-knocker suddenly looked like Marley's face. It also wasn't his fault that Bob Cratchit had a sick son, or more children than he could comfortably support. And le[a]ve us not forget...he did give Cratchit Christmas off, with pay, which was not the norm in early-Victorian Britain...the holiday had been badly damaged under Cromwell, and many Dissenters and Scots still scorned it.
(Before you sneer at Oppen for dragging politics into the discussion, remember that what he's talking about would have been well-known to his original readers, just as the Great Depression should be well-known to us now.) Backed up by commenter fraser:
Which probably explains why he denounces his nephew as poor when the guy appears to have a very nice middle-class life: In Scrooge's eyes, the very fact he's spending his money on frivolous things like a pleasant home and Christmas dinner presumably means he's heading for poverty.
Still (like some other commenters) I'm wary of the "Satisfied Mind" meme which holds that despite all their wealth, the rich aren't really happy. It's to Dickens's credit that he didn't think Scrooge was unhappy because he was rich; after all, though he grew up poor, Dickens himself become a best-selling author and lived comfortably.

But back to Jamie Dimon. Clark linked to this open letter to Dimon by Joshua Brown, who laid out some obvious home truths:
America is different than almost every other place on earth in that its citizenry reveres the wealthy and we are raised to believe that we can all one day join the ranks of the rich. The lack of a caste system or visible rungs of society's ladder is what separates our empire from so many fallen empires throughout history. In a nation bereft of royalty by virtue of its republican birth, the American people have done what any other resourceful people would do - we've created our own royalty and our royalty is the 1%. Not only do we not "hate the rich" as you and other em-bubbled plutocrats have postulated, in point of fact, we love them. We worship our rich to the point of obsession. The highest-rated television shows uniformly feature the unimaginably fabulous families of celebrities not to mention the housewives (real or otherwise) of the rich. We don't care what color they are or what religion they practice or where in the country they live or what channel their show is on - if they're rich, we are watching.
So true, and it helps to explain why so many Americans (though by no means a majority) worry that tax rates for the ultra-rich might go up a few percentage points, even though they themselves are in no danger of such a fate; they'll never see $100,000 a year, let alone Dimon's $23 million in 2010. These people feel more sympathy for the rich than they do for themselves.

Brown goes on:
Likewise, when Steve Jobs died, he did so with more money than you or any of your "job alliance" buddies - ten times more than most of you, in fact. And upon his death the entire nation went into mourning. We set up makeshift shrines to his brilliance in front of Apple stores from coast to coast. His biography flew off the shelves and people bought Apple products and stock shares in his honor and in his memory. Does that strike you as the action of a populace that hates success?

No, Jamie, it is not that Americans hate successful people or the wealthy. In fact, it is just the opposite. We love the success stories in our midst and it is a distinctly American trait to believe that we can all follow in the footsteps of the elite, even though so few of us ever actually do.

So, no, we don't hate the rich. What we hate are the predators.

I have quibbles about the sanctification of Steve Jobs, who was a contemporary Scrooge (and a predator) if anybody was. But that just confirms Brown's account of Americans' attitude to the rich, doesn't it?

I've been happy to read about the Layaway Secret Santas. (I must say I'm weirded out by terminology like "layaway angels" or "holy mischief" applied to them; "Secret Santa" is bad enough. They aren't demigods or mythical elves from the North Pole, they're people with humane instincts. Why does human goodness always have to be displaced onto supernatural sources? That's the real misanthropy, I believe, the real cynicism and the real Scrooginess.) One of the saddest things I've heard has been the accounts by people who work in the big-box stores of people who've had to return things they bought on Black Friday because they needed the money to buy food or pay the utility bills; but often the returned items had been gifts for their children (which, despite the parents' good intentions, is a reminder of the harmfulness of the commercialization of Christmas, and of childhood. Still, private charity has its limits; Secret Santas are only a stopgap in a bad time. Government-run programs are better, since they are (at least in theory) less vulnerable to the vagaries of donors' generosity or even ability to give: many charities are finding that as need increases, the less wealthy can't afford to donate. What the world needs is an economy that works well enough that people can pay off their own layaway accounts without having to work eighty hours a week.

It Takes a Fairy Tale Wedding to Make Something Tacky

Somebody who styles himself "the gay and lesbian community of Minnesota" has written an open letter to a homophobe who claims that it was the spectre of gay marriage that caused her to engage in an "inappropriate relationship" with another heterosexual. Quoth the community:
We apologize that our selfish requests to marry those we love has cheapened and degraded traditional marriage so much that we caused you to stray from your own holy union for something more cheap and tawdry.
Even allowing for the writer's evident sarcasm, I don't get it. I keep seeing these GLB ripostes to bigots' rejections of same-sex marriage that play variations on the same theme, like this one:

Is "the institution" not supposed to be cheap? Everybody seems to want to blow a wad of cash on a wedding, though it's not mandatory; it just seems to be the ideal. I finally saw the Sex and the City movie, and it embodied this ambivalence: on the one hand, Carrie nearly lost True Love because she made the wedding all about her. On the other, if it weren't for the bling -- all the wedding gowns, jewelry, shoes, and so on -- who'd have gone to see the movie? (It's like war movies that simultaneously tell you that War Is Hell, but it's really great Hell, full of guts and glory.)

If marriage is a sacred institution (and many gay people agree that it is), then it can't be cheapened. And I can't help but detect a certain resentment in statements like the above -- the bitch could have had it, but she threw it away! -- for ruining the fantasy. If Kardashian's marriage hadn't gone south so scandalously, the same people who are savaging her now would still be drooling over her fairy-tale wedding, even if she and Kris Humphreys were quietly, privately miserable together.

Of course Amy Koch (the adulterous Minnesota State Senate Majority Leader) is full of shit: heterosexuals were having "inappropriate relationships" long before same-sex marriage was a live issue in the US. For that matter, when you consider what's regarded as "appropriate," a category that includes Solomon's 300 wives and 600 concubines (or vice versa -- who cares?), it becomes thinkable that marriage itself is the problem. Did Elizabeth Taylor "cheapen marriage" by going through eight husbands -- or does she get a pass for being gay-friendly? This polemicist pontificates:
The essential defining quality of marriage is commitment, not the indoor or outdoor plumbing of the committers. It's ALL about staying together, and that's the nature and purpose of the institution.
Of course, staying together is not the essence of marriage. There are couples who stay together for the rest of their lives without marrying, and I've already noted a few of the many married couples who fall apart. (Nor is love the essence of marriage, for the same reasons.) Nor are all long-term, even lifelong committed relationships marriage: some are family bonds, like siblings, or friendship -- and friendship is a bond that has often been valued more than marriage, because it's an individual choice, unlike marriage which has your family's decisions and concerns all over it. Staying together as an end in itself seems to me a hell of a way to live. If you have kids, staying together for their sake might be a reason, though it's an excuse often enough. We hear a lot about the harm done to children by divorce, but less about the harm done to them by parents who stay together "for the sake of the kids."

I think that if we have to have marriage, straight or gay, it should not be sacred. It's often been noticed that American evangelicals have a higher divorce rate than just about everybody else, including atheists, and the usual explanation is that their expectations of marriage are too high, so they fall apart when everything isn't perfect. I'm not sure I believe it, though, because it looks to me as though expecting too much of marriage is a cultural norm. I remember that the American divorce rate shot up as soon as divorce became easier to get, which means that before that time a lot of people stayed together because they were just plain trapped, not because of their superior moral values. (Though we tend to forget that many people who couldn't get a divorce simply separated, and in the good old days husbands might just abandon their families. According to family lore, both my grandfathers did.)

Maybe they made the best of things, but often they took it out on the children. Except for unmarried men, wives were the unhappiest, and except for unmarried women, husbands were the happiest. Despite the propaganda about lonely, unfulfilled spinsters, spinsters were the happiest subset of the population. That's what makes me most skeptical about the whole cultural obsession with marriage. Young women should be warned that they'll basically be expected to sacrifice their happiness to their husband's (yes, even in our supposedly more enlightened time); that pregnancy puts them at increased risk of assault or murder from their husbands; and so on. They probably won't listen. As Joanna Russ wrote thirty years ago (I quoted her before here):
Every women’s studies teacher, for example, knows the female student who comes into her office and announces defiantly that she’s going to get married – the world is still full of girls who think that heterosexual alliances with men represent a form of rebellion against sexless Mommy. How do these young women imagine their mothers ended up where they were? Yet the hope persists that heterosexual activity (a little wilder than stuffy Mom’s) will provide access to the men’s freer, wider world. Mother’s function as the forewoman who polices Daughter’s sexuality, in many American families, gives some color to this notion – that an alliance with men is an alliance against Mother – and yet these girls must have at least the suspicion that Mom made the same bargain. And surely they know that heterosexual alliance can’t confer membership in the men’s world but only a place (Mother’s place, in fact) on the sidelines. But they don’t. And so they end up married, leading the same life as Mother, or – if unlucky – a worse one with less bargaining power. And their daughters repeat the process.
But they should at least be told.

A straight friend of mine keeps nagging me to find a boyfriend. He told me the other day I need someone to be faithful to. "Faithful?" I said. "Like you are to your girlfriends?" That made him giggle and shut up. He'd tried to introduce me to some guy who'd just broken up with his boyfriend because one of them was cheating. How could I resist someone like that? But I did. I admit, I was well into middle age before I stopped thinking in my gut that I needed to be in a couple. Even if I found someone I liked well enough to commit to, I doubt I'd live with him. But that's another myth that needs to be discredited: being skeptical of marriage doesn't mean being opposed to forming couples. Marriage is just one way of managing couplehood, and I'm not convinced it's the best one. I'm certain it's not the best way for everybody.

I still wonder how same-sex marriage is going to fit into this picture. We won't know until enough time has passed for long-term research to produce results. True, sometimes marriage works out well; and sometimes somebody strikes it rich in the lottery. For now, marriage isn't sacred. It's something people do. It could probably be better if we paid attention to what it means, and try find better ways to do it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Duncan's Latest Mixpost

There was a substitute DJ on last night's Latin-music program on our community radio station, and his music choices varied from the normal fare. While I like the dance music and ballads that the others usually play, much of what I heard last night shook me out of mere hearing mode into listening, and online searching for more information. Even without listening closely I could tell that a lot of the lyrical content was political; not surprising because, as I found, the singers had political backgrounds.

I discovered that Sylvio Rodriguez, for example, is Cuban, a supporter of Castro's revolution, and has been very influential on people and musicians with left politics around the world. As he deserves to be, given what I heard last night. "Playa Giron," for example ("The Bay of Pigs," as we gabachos know it):

What caught my attention was the music rather than the lyrics, which I still haven't deciphered completely. The music reminded me of other Latin American guys with a guitar I've heard over the years. (Chicago's WFMT had a program called "The Midnight Special" that I used to listen when I was in high school. It's still on, apparently, but I haven't been able to access it for a long time. It introduced me to a lot of folkies and musical eccentrics, some of whom still matter to me, like Tom Lehrer. I don't know if I ever heard Sylvio Rodigruez on "The Midnight Special," but I'm sure I heard people who sounded like him and probably learned from him.) But it wasn't until I sat down to do this post and listened again that I realized that the late Korean singer Kim Gwang Seok also sounded like him.

This song, whose title means roughly "Too Sorrowful Love Isn't Love", imprinted itself permanently on my memory the first time I heard it. (Kim wasn't nearly as good a guitarist as Rodriguez, though.) Some of the lyrics are translated in the comments to the video clip I've embedded here, but I think it communicates its meaning if you don't understand the words. (In one version of this song I have on DVD, a TV performance, the tempo is faster and Kim beams like any other show-biz singer as he sings it; a jarring incongruity. A Korean friend told me that Kim played in the US at least once, at a university in St. Louis; the concert was supposed to be released on CD a couple of years ago, but I haven't been able to find it.) I'm going to do a post on Kim later on, because I feel sure I remember a song of his that sounded like "Playa Giron"; I also want to try to find a clip of the song he did that sounds exactly like Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice." If I find them, I'll put them up here; I should have written about this guy before.

But I digress; back to the music I heard last night. First, another song by Silvio Rodriguez, "Ojala" ("If Only"):

I'm going to try to learn some of Rodriguez' songs.

Another singer whose music was played last night was Pablo Milanes. Hm, another Cuban, though according to Wikipedia he used to be "aligned with the government, Milanés has since distanced himself from the official line, to the point of, during the seventies, being sent to a reeducation prison; he has since taken a more discreet line, even occupying political posts in times of greater political freedoms." Sylvio Rodriguez, among others, has performed with him. This was the first song I heard last night that made me pay attention, "Nelson Mandela y Sus Dos Amores". (Yes, that's "Nelson Mandela and His Two Loves.")

Later the DJ played "Felicidad" ("Happiness"):

Sheer gorgeousness. These seem to be more keyboard- than guitar-oriented, but I'll see if I can make some of Milanes' music work on guitar too. It's not all that often that I still discover music that on first hearing makes me ask, "Who is that?" and makes me want to hear more. Thanks to Brother William at WFHB for bringing these great singers into my world.

P Is for Patriarchy (and for Public Relations)

Katha Pollitt had a good column on the Penn State scandal a couple of weeks ago, and The Nation printed three letters about it this week. Unfortunately they're not available online, so you either must be a subscriber or read a print copy. One of them deserves some attention, I think, so I'll just type up the relevant portion here.
In the once-upon-a-time days of shared faculty administration/faculty governance, the moral climate was wider and more likely to encourage and protect those who spoke out. The decline of faculty authority has adversely affected the academy. ... [R]estoration will take a more persistent commitment to inquiry, analysis and eventually, discovery -- a process that, fortunately, defines scholarship.
I agree that the increasing influence of corporations on universities has not been a good thing, but other than that, well, no. "Once-upon-a-time," with its fairy-tale associations, is a good way for the writer to label the bygone days when scholars were scholars and whistleblowers were encouraged and protected. If we didn't hear as much about sexual misconduct by coaches and players in the past, it was because it simply didn't count. Football players who raped "co-eds" (now, there's a once-upon-a-time word!) or town girls were the ones who were protected and encouraged, not their victims. Not only athletes but well-to-do students whose families regarded college as finishing school got away with a lot. This diversionary complaint reminds me of what we've been hearing from the Roman Catholic hierarchy when they've been caught with their robes up: it wasn't Our fault that children were being preyed on by clergy -- it was Teh Gey, with their shameless Pride Parades! They weakened Our moral fiber!

For that matter, increased coeducation and greater numbers of younger female faculty meant more sexual harassment by male faculty, and again, those who "spoke out" could count on neither encouragement nor protection; for that matter, female students were often discouraged and belittled by male instructors simply for academic ambition. (Speaking out about sexual harassment is still perilous for female graduate students and junior faculty, according to Ms Mentor, and see what she says in this interview about reader reaction to her advice on a husband who hated living in the rural Midwest.) Things have improved since the sixties, but not because of "scholarship" -- political pressure did.

Another letter on the same page deserves mention, just as an omen of what we'll be seeing often in the coming year. "As a young country, we're still in the adolescent phase, thus our impatience with solutions that take time; refusal to support leaders who don't immediately fulfill our desires; and thinking that not voting is a smart move. Fellow Americans, it's time to grow up!" What is more adolescent than telling other people to grow up? But this has already shown itself to be the core of Obama's defense for 2012, though admittedly he and his sycophants have been using it since he took office. Probably his PR people came up with it. I think it says something that Obama has evidently been ready for criticism from the left all along, while he still flops around helplessly when attacked from the right.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Impossible Takes Longer

Once again RWA1 has come through for me (unintentionally, of course), this time with a link to a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the "GOP's Payroll Tax Fiasco: How did the Republicans manage to lose the tax issue to Obama?"
The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play.

Republicans have also achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter, although he's spent most of his Presidency promoting tax increases and he would hit the economy with one of the largest tax increases ever in 2013. This should be impossible.
The writer labels Obama's payroll tax cut as a "tax holiday," which is fair enough. He could have done the same of Bush's tax holiday for the rich, which the Republicans have been so insistent on prolonging, but the writer chooses instead to see the expiration of the tax holiday as a tax increase. Such deliberate obfuscation doesn't help solve our problems, but it may help explain why the Republicans are in such trouble politically right now.

Most Americans favor higher taxes for the wealthy, and the Republicans have been vocal and self-righteous about opposing them. Obama has not been particularly clever in exploiting this, but he didn't need to. Most of us, regardless of our party, have seen the same people who nearly destroyed the world economy carry on almost untouched by the depression. While unemployment rose and people lost their homes by often dubious foreclosures, CEOs and other executives were given extravagant bonuses, even when their companies lost money or collapsed altogether. The Republicans called for more austerity, resisted extensions of unemployment benefits, blocked even Obama's tepid stimulus measures, and fussed over the deficit while many people lost hope for their future. Democratic operatives have been working themselves into a vindictive frenzy because Obama has been criticized from the left, but not to worry: the Republicans have worked hard to make themselves less popular than Obama.

Apart from the propaganda in pro-Obama media, I've been getting e-mail from the source, denouncing the Republicans for wanting to raise "a typical family's taxes by more than $1,000 next year" by letting the payroll tax holiday expire. Obama, by contrast, wants to "[e]xtend and expand the tax cut, helping 160 million people and letting that same family keep $1,500." That's all very nice, and I like extra money as much as anyone else, but even $1,500 is not that much money. It's just over $100 a month, which is not going to help a family with children very much. Of course Obama's playing politics with his tax holiday, but so did the Bush administration, which tried to distract attention from its service to the top 1% with a couple of "tax rebates" -- remember those? -- in 2001 and 2008, which gave the typical family a one-time payment of a few hundred dollars. (Three hundred in 2001, three hundred to 1200 in 2008.) Besides, lowering the payroll tax means lowering the amount of money that goes into the Social Security fund, which is not a good idea to put it gently. (According to Josh Bivens, though, "the legislation that cut the payroll tax also instructed Treasury to credit the Trust Fund for the lost revenue – but since when has being factually wrong defanged a political argument? And who’s to say that the next year of payroll tax cuts will maintain this commitment to hold the Trust Fund whole?")

The op-ed writer also talks about the huge tax increases that will happen in 2013 if the Republicans can't find a way to win the public's confidence. Nothing he mentions suggests that the top brackets are going to pay a lot more if their tax holiday expires, and with good reason: their top marginal rates weren't that high before the holiday, certainly compared to what they were in the 1960s. I'm also skeptical about the writer's claim that Obama has "spent most of his Presidency promoting tax increases," which is familiar right-wing boilerplate. They were saying it in 2009, and it was false then. The WSJ editorial page has never been known for factual accuracy either -- rather the opposite.

The writer had some recommendations for the Republicans, which RWA1 endorsed. Here they are:
At this stage, Republicans would do best to cut their losses and find a way to extend the payroll holiday quickly. Then go home and return in January with a united House-Senate strategy that forces Democrats to make specific policy choices that highlight the differences between the parties on spending, taxes and regulation. Wisconsin freshman Senator Ron Johnson has been floating a useful agenda for such a strategy. The alternative is more chaotic retreat and the return of all-Democratic rule.
All-Democratic rule!? Oh, noes! While I was writing this post the news went out that the Republicans did cut their losses and extended the payroll tax holiday. ABC News reported that
A muted House Speaker John Boehner announced today that Republicans have decided to accept a short-term extension of the payroll tax cut, preventing a hike in taxes just nine days before the tax break expires for 160 million Americans.
Boehner has a mute button? Why weren't we told this before? But I don't think the Republicans are going to have much success highlighting "the differences between the parties on spending, taxes and regulation," because the Republican "differences" are political concrete overshoes. Not that I'm concern trolling here, mind you. I'm perfectly happy to see the Republicans suffer a humiliating defeat on everything, so I can concentrate more on criticizing the Democrats.

By the way, the WSJ also features something I can't resist passing along: "How to Sneak in Sports on Christmas", by one Jason Gay (which must be a pseudonym). It's sort of like the op-ed piece: how to do what you want to do, no matter what anyone else thinks, while still feeling totally justified and put-upon.
There are 13 NFL games on Christmas Eve, and five juicy season-opening NBA contests on Christmas Day, and at some point, you're going to be following a game on your TV, or your phone, or your high-tech germ tablet, and a disapproving person is going to scold you and tell you to shut that thing off and show some respect. And you will feel ashamed, and promise to pay close attention for the rest of church, or your child's first Christmas.
"In church"? Jason Gay is visualizing some guy in the pews with an iPod plugged into his ear, hunched over the tiny screen as he pretends to be kneeling in prayer. Will Tim Tebow be playing on Christmas Day? Where are the War on Christmas partisans? Somebody call the American Family Association! It's hard to believe that Jason Gay isn't writing satire, but he seems to be entirely serious.

I count myself lucky, though. If I were attending a normal American family Christmas, I'd probably be stuck among people who made those games a family activity, and I'd be trying to sneak in some reading against their attempts to shame me for not caring about the "important games."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reagan: The Other Third Rail

Thanks to my Tabloid Friend on Facebook, I know that Ron Paul was foolish enough to criticize Ronald Reagan some years ago. First below is the 1987 quotation from Paul, then Politico writer Ginger Gibson's commentary.
“I think we can further thank Ronald Reagan for doing a good job [on furthering the Libertarian Party]. He certainly did a good job in 1980 pointing out the fallacies of the Democratic liberal agenda and he certainly did a good job on following up to show the disaster of the conservative agenda as well.”

The first rule in modern GOP politics is that you do not diss Ronald Reagan. The Reagan embrace may not be as tight as it was, say, a decade ago, but he is still a revered figure in the party. Thus, the above line from Paul’s nomination speech at the 1987 Libertarian Party convention in Seattle may not go over well with GOP regulars.

Fortunately, some American presidential candidates are cannier and more cautious than Ron Paul where Reagan is concerned. Here's how you do it, Ron:
“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path, because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people—he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."
Yep, that was Barack Obama (via), during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Or was he aiming for the Republicans?

Grace in Division

I'm not really a good judge of these matters, but I think the South Korean government handled the question of condolences for the death of Kim Jong-Il rather well, as the Hankyoreh reports it:

Regarding the death of North Korean National Defence Committee Chairman Kim Jong-il, the South Korean government stated on Monday, “We offer our consolation to the citizens of North Korea. We hope that North Korea will swiftly regain stability and become able to cooperate in order to achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.”

The government also stated, “We have decided not to send a governmental delegation to North Korea. However, we will permit relatives of late former president Kim Dae-jung and late Hyundai chairman Chung Mong-hun to visit North Korea to offer condolences, in return for visits made by the North [when the two men died].” In other words, Kim Dae-jung’s widow, Lee Hee-ho, and Chung’s widow, Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun, will be allowed to make visits to the North to express their condolences.

Given the churlishness of official American reaction, this was downright graceful. To say nothing of unofficial American reaction, which has been downright shameful. I hadn't intended to post a copy of the screengrab of Kim Jong-Un holding back tears as his father's body lies in state, but it might be a good counterexample to the video clips of wailing North Koreans that have gone viral in the US. Yes, Kim Jong-Il was a bad man, with a lot of blood on his hands, but so was Ronald Reagan, and any criticism of the circus that passed for his funeral was unwelcome in the US. So is Barack Obama, but his daughters will probably weep at his funeral. Yes, some of the public grief over Kim in North is staged (professional mourning is not unheard of, especially outside the West), and some of it is probably coerced, but a lot of it is probably sincere. A lot of the reactions I've been seeing seem to come from American discomfort with public displays of emotion not related to professional sports, plus the connected joy at being able to make fun of official enemies they know nothing about.

I still wonder, when I read mainstream commentary on North Korea and on Kim Jong-Il in particular, how many Americans have forgotten (or never knew) that South Korea and North Korea were one country until the US divided them, admittedly with the connivance of the Soviet Union. There are still families on both sides of the DMZ who were separated by the war and the endless state of truce, though more and more are dying off. It's been over sixty years, after all. I sympathize with my countrypeople's ignorance, since I knew very little more about Korea until the mid-1990s myself. All I knew until I met some Korean students and began to inform myself was what most Americans of my generation knew: that it was a country where college students seemed to be endlessly fighting the police in the streets. These clashes were shown every so often on TV news programs, though it was never explained what they were about. Oh, and there was a war there, named after the country, wasn't there?

It's because of that war, in which over 30,000 Americans and at least a million Koreans died (in much less time than comparable numbers died in Vietnam); because that war was deliberately forgotten in the US (we didn't "win" it, you see, and that's intolerably traumatic for us) though not in Korea; because of the continued presence of tens of thousands of American troops in South Korea; because of longstanding economic and political ties between South Korea and the US; and because the US continues to interfere in Korean affairs, often blocking rapprochement that might lessen tensions or even bring about reunification, that Americans should know more about Korea than we do. But hell, we hardly know anything about our own country, as American Korean War veterans could tell you.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, Americans are in no position to condemn other countries until they have condemned the crimes of their own government, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" as he called it in 1967. Imprisonment of vast numbers of its population? Torture? Militarization? Close surveillance of the population for traces of dissent or disloyalty? Let Americans take the log from their own eye first. That's about the only teaching of Jesus that has any real power to it as far as I'm concerned, and of course most Christians ignore it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wake Me When It's Over

After a bit of a lull, RWA1 has been linking again. Much of it of course was about the deaths of Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel (nothing about the death of Kim Jong-Il, though -- yet), but the fun part was this article at The New Republic, "Why Obama's New Populism May Sink His Campaign," by William Galston, a hack from the Brookings Institution. "Vain hope that this will be heeded," wrote RWA1, a single tear poignantly staining his cheek. (It did occur to me that the "vain hope" referred to was Galston's, but that's not RWA1's style.)

This, class, is a paradigm example of the phenomenon known as concern trolling, where a partisan pretends to be concerned that his or her opponent may be shooting himself in the foot. Oh noes! cries the loyal Republican: Obama might lose in 2012 if he pursues this self-defeating strategy! Usually I associate this tactic with the Right -- homophobes lecturing us that flamboyant Pride Parades will hurt our cause, for example -- but lately I've been seeing it on the Near Right, with many Democrats sincerely concerned that none of the current crop of Republican Presidential aspirants has a chance against the God-King, shouldn't they find someone electable?

Galston's argument is built on some recent Gallup polls which allegedly show, first, "that the number of Americans who see American society as divided into haves and have-nots has decreased significantly since the 2008 election"; second, "substantial majorities of Americans saw expanding the economy and increasing equality of opportunity as extremely or very important. Not so for reducing income and wealth gaps"; third, as "Obama nears the end of his third year in office, the people are more likely to fear government, and less likely to fear business, than they were at the beginning of his administration." The poll question was presumably put in terms of "big government," not just "government," but hey, what's the difference?

Since this was a magazine piece posted to the web, rather than a blog post, it contains no links to those polls, and it took me a while to find them for this post. And I noticed something interesting, which is why it's always a good idea to check claims at the source: Galston paraphrased the second question as "Respondents were asked to categorize three economic objectives as extremely important, very important, somewhat important, or not important." But the actual question was "how important is it that the federal government in Washington enacts policies that attempt to do each of the following" (italics added) -- that is, the respondents want the big government, which most Americans consider a greater threat than big labor or big business, to enact those policies.

That's a common problem with polling, of course: how the question is put will affect, and may even determine, the answers received. I'm not at all surprised that a majority of Americans would say they fear big government, and charitably understood it's not an unreasonable fear. Put in those terms, I and many another leftist would share that fear: of indefinite detention, surveillance of personal communication, and vast military spending in the service of empire. But most Americans also want big government and the services it provides: the social programs, like Social Security and Medicare and disaster relief, that the Right (including both my Right-Wing Acquaintances) hates and want to eliminate for the good of the American people, are very popular. That's why the same politicians who denounce the Nanny State are first in line to demand big government aid when disaster strikes their states. That's why you hear laments from both sides of the Congressional aisle about Social Security being a political "third rail" -- because politicians who touch it with hostile intent will get badly burned, not by lobbyists or special-interest groups, but by the public.

That's why, when polls ask more specific and concrete questions, they get results that appear to be at odds with Gallup's. A recent Pew poll, released at the same time, found (via):
Roughly three-quarters of the public (77%) say that they think there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations in the United States. In a 1941 Gallup poll, six-in-ten (60%) Americans expressed this view. About nine-in-ten (91%) Democrats and eight-in-ten (80%) of independents assert that power is too concentrated among the rich and large corporations, but this view is shared by a much narrower majority (53%) of Republicans.
Reflecting a parallel sentiment, 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy and just 36% say the system is generally fair to most Americans. About three-quarters (76%) of Democrats and 61% of independents say the economic system is tilted in favor of the wealthy; a majority (58%) of Republicans say that the system is generally fair to most Americans.
The public also views Wall Street negatively, little changed from opinions in March. Currently, just 36% say Wall Street helps the American economy more than it hurts — 51% say it hurts more than helps. Majorities of both Democrats (60%) and independents (54%) say Wall Street hurts more than helps, while nearly half of Republicans say Wall Street helps the economy (49%)...
While there may be some cognitive dissonance here, I don't think it's serious. Most Americans, according to Gallup, want big government to enact policies to expand the economy and increase equality of opportunity. I admit I don't see how people can simultaneously reject the idea that America is divided into haves and have-nots and believe that there's too much power in the hands of a few rich people, but I also have to admit they are two different questions, and I think Pew's version is less abstract. I'm wary of big government, because I know how easily it can get out of the control of the people it was supposedly founded to serve. (And did you notice? There's not a word here about reducing the deficit, which obsesses the government and media elites, but doesn't concern most citizens that much.)

Anyway, these polls indicate that Obama won't be hurting his chances of re-election by talking a "populist" game; that's why he's doing it, after all. (Whether he'll do more than talk is another question.) Especially since it's well-known by now that Democratic politicians, including Obama, do best with their base when they sound "populist"; they only get into trouble when they demonstrate that it was just talk. So do Republicans, for that matter, who also pretend to be populists, but in terms that appeal to a different base. Don't all the Republican candidates claim that they are the ones who really care about the good of the people? The original Tea Party movement talked populism too, speaking for a Republican minority that hadn't voted for the Kenyan Usurper and never would, but still thought he should do what they wanted. But it's a safe bet that Obama is making sure that his real base, the corporate donors, know that the speechmaking is for the proles, and isn't meant to be taken seriously.

What surprises me, or would surprise me if I weren't used to it by now, is that RWA1 misses all this. Why doesn't he make fun of Obama for pretending to care about ordinary people, or if he must pretend that Obama isn't pretending, shouldn't he hope piously that Obama will be defeated next year so that he can't carry out his socialist, anti-business, anti-America agenda? It could be partly because of RWA1's elitism; he considers most of his fellow citizens to be rabble, yahoos who are flushing a great culture down the toilet, putting his NPR opera programs at risk. But if this country is in trouble -- and I certainly agree that it is, but in different ways and for different reasons -- isn't it important to understand what is going on? Especially if you consider yourself to be intellectually superior to the dirty canaille? The TNR writer Galston, by the way, doesn't seem to be concern trolling: he seems to want Obama's re-election. RWA1, like so much of the educated (or least schooled) Right, doesn't seem to know what he wants.

Some of it must be party loyalty. The rational thing for the Republican party to do would be to embrace Obama, nominate him their 2012 candidate, and end the game of pretending that there is a wide gulf between the parties; but more important than rationality is the brand name, which as with other commercial brands, necessitates inventing nonexistent differences. (The GOP! Gets your whites whiter! Produces a longer lasting shine without yellowing! Gives you fast fast fast relief from tension headaches!) Of course the Democrats wouldn't accept that either: they've spent the past three years cheering Obama as he embraced and extended the worst Bush-Cheney policies. Everything they attacked Bush for doing is now the proof of Obama's greatness. Now they've got their own websites defending him against his critics -- of the left; we may be crazy and numerically insignificant but we are still a threat -- in terms borrowed directly from the hydrophobic Republican fringe.

One Gallup poll result I can go with, though: 70 percent of Americans can't wait for the coming elections to be over.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Boy Culture in the Nineteenth and a Half Century!

I've been reading H. Bruce Franklin's Future Perfect: American Science Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (revised edition, Oxford University Press, 1978), which turns out to be more of an anthology than a critical study. It's worth reading because of the commentary he supplies; he's written a good many books on various subjects, including Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction (Oxford, 1980), which is out of print but worth tracking down.

Franklin begins by suggesting what I agree is a "good working definition of science fiction": "the literature which, growing with science and technology, evaluates it and relates it meaningfully to the rest of human existence." He returns to that definition in the book's second section, on Poe, who has often been called the father of SF. Franklin treats him respectfully with appropriate skepticism, especially his program (in a "famous passage from his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales" [ 96]) for the writing of short stories:
The key word in Poe's argument, as his italics indicate, is "effect." The argument that fiction should be evaluated for its effectiveness, its success in achieving the objective correlative which the author desires, slides around the question of what it should effect. To say that the tale of terror is "effective" may not necessarily, in the long run, to praise it [97].
Franklin distinguishes two categories of science fiction in Poe's work,
the tale contrived like an electric coil to induce particular emotions in the reader and the tale contrived as a wheelbarrow to bring to the reader some scientific notion or knickknack. In the first, the science is merely a device; in the other, the fiction is merely a device [97].
Good enough, but Franklin goes still further:
Poe, then, may be the father not of science fiction but rather of what is so often associated with the term science fiction -- fiction which popularizes science for boys and girls of all ages while giving them the creeps [98].
He grants Poe more virtue than that, though, suggesting that Poe is better than his theory. I'm not so sure; I've never liked Poe myself, either as poet or storyteller. But Franklin makes a good point which connects to my own wariness of "extreme" horror movies in our day.
Yet surely those who find "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" of enduring value do not do so merely because they admire Poe for making a story which can horrify them. Would anyone who wants to be as horrified as possible turn to fiction? Or are horror stories merely safe escapes or releases from the terrors of the actual world? In 1854, the same year in which "The Facts in the Case of M. Waldemar" was published, appeared Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Douglass, who had been a slave boy in Poe's Baltimore, describes the incident which awakened him into consciousness of Maryland social reality, the whipping of his aunt, stripped naked to the waist and hanging from a hook, by his master, who keeps snarling "'you d____d b___h'" as he tortured her until she was "literally covered with blood":
The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.
The man who invented the horrors of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" preferred not to look at these other horrors. In fact he supported the slave system which produced them, as well as his own material comforts [98-9].
I'm not as sure as Franklin that Poe's fans don't necessarily admire him primarily for making a tale which can horrify them, though I would expect that his admirers value his tales for more than one reason. The fans of ultraviolent cinema seem to think that "effects" are all that matter, though. The late Thomas M. Disch, a poet, writer of sf and horror fiction, and swaggering leather boy, wrote a history of science fiction in which he attacked writers like Ursula Le Guin whose gore-and-creepy quotient didn't come up to his high standards. (Her feminism, he thundered, "is less overtly phobic of the male sex than that of Andrea Dworkin, but it is no less absolute. ... Ideology breeds nonsense and ... Le Guin's work has undergone a gradual PC ossification" [via]. Girl cooties, yuck!)

But I very much appreciate the questions Franklin raised here. He made me think again of the idea that Lawrence Block put into the mind of one of his characters, that the tears you shed while watching a movie aren't real tears, any more than the fear you feel while watching a horror movie is real fear. I have the same reservation about the genre that Franklin expressed: if you want to be horrified, why look to fiction? Something else is going on, but what? I'm certainly open to the idea that horror stories in any medium can point to some deeper (or at least other) meanings; I just don't know what they might be, because I haven't found any that work for me that way.