Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Another Quick One

This fits nicely with last night's post, I think.

Another Facebook friend, this one a feminist, presumably lesbian, with left politics, posted this link today, with her own comment:
The Republican Party is comparing President Obama to a man accused of manslaughter.

Reince Priebus, chair of the RNC, actually went on national TV and equated President Obama to the captain of the Italian cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, who is charged with manslaughter for killing 33 people. Priebus said, "In a few months, this is all going to be ancient history and we're going to talk about our own little Capt. Schettino, which is President Obama...."

This is not only an insult to the President, but it's incredibly insensitive to the victims of the disaster and to the people who are still missing loved ones. Demand that Priebus and ALL OTHER Republicans apologize to all victims and thier families for his/their misguided and hurtful rhetoric...
I commented, "That's ridiculous! President Obama has committed murder (of hundreds of civilians, including some American citizens), not manslaughter. The Republicans are totally out of touch with reality."

I could aim for balance by pointing out that George W. Bush -- who destroyed the US economy and then bailed, leaving the women and children behind to fend for themselves, makes a better match with Captain Francesco Schettino -- but you know, I'm getting tired of doing that. I'm tired of Democrats who blithely attack the Republicans in areas where they and their God-King are every bit as culpable, with no evident awareness of the fact. Besides, as a crummy political hack once remarked, we have only one president at a time, and it's the one we have now who deserves the scrutiny.

Which is why Joan Walsh's latest post at Salon.com, "Demonizing the decent guy who is president", sticks in my craw so much. (What, no capital P? This is an insult to the office!) She wrote:
I don’t agree with every move the president has made. But I think the more Republicans try to demonize him, the more most American voters will see the difference between the GOP caricature and the man they’ve come to know. I get more pro-Obama with each vicious anti-Obama attack. I’m sure the rest of his base does, too. That’s why Axelrod’s photo tweet, in its own way, became a small version of the Romney/Seamus story. Has there ever been a more decent, upstanding, all-American president, with his dog and his family and his Apollo Theatre song solos, treated more shamefully by his opponents? I’d be more horrified by the abuse if I wasn’t sure it was backfiring.
That first sentence is understatement, even for Walsh; she's been more critical of Obama than that in the past. I can almost agree with "I get more pro-Obama with each vicious anti-Obama attack," though not really: I don't even become less anti-Obama. I hope I am as critical of false attacks on Obama as I am of false defenses of the man by his devotees. It's possible to be hostile to both parties, after all. And I suspect that Walsh is right about the attacks backfiring; we saw that before with Bill Clinton.

But it doesn't make me any more sympathetic to Obama. The heat he's taking from the Republicans is excessive, but not much more so than their abuse of Clinton, and he did after all work very hard to get into the kitchen. It's even possible that there has never "been a more decent, upstanding, all-American president, with his dog and his family and his Apollo Theatre song solos," just because the bar is so low. What about Richard Nixon, who also had his dog and his family and appeared on Laugh-in? But we're talking about a President who joked about killing people with predator drones, who despite his recent shameless lies has killed many innocent people with missiles and predator drones, who has claimed and exercised the power to kill American citizens without due process, who has complacently covered up the abuse of Bradley Manning, and is now gearing up for a war of aggression against yet another Middle Eastern country. To pass over all this with "I don't agree with every move the president has made" is to display a truly warped sense of priorities.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Quick One While I'm Awake

This image was in my Facebook Tabloid Friend's feed today. (I looked him up, and John Fugelsang is a stand-up comedian.) It's built on the familiar observation that many if not most "pro-life" individuals are not distinguished for caring about human life outside the womb -- or even inside it, if the expectant mother is poor, or brown skinned, or of the wrong religion. Nor is this constellation of attitudes limited to the US.

As I read through the list, I realized that it's not really fair to Republicans; after all, President Obama also favors the death penalty; he is pro-war in theory and in practice; he is pro-unmanned drone bombs; he is pro-nuclear weapons (and pro-nuclear power); he is pro-torture (though like Bush, he calls it something else); his stance on gun-control is fuzzy, but I'll admit that the gun lobby considers him anti-gun (though that may hold no more water than the Israel lobby's conviction that he is anti-Israel); he has refused to sign the international land mine treaty, which makes him objectively pro-land mine. (And for an added bonus, he's pro-cluster bomb.) It turns out that you can be all these things, and still call yourself a Democrat.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Conniption Accomplished

RWA1 has returned, with a link to a Washington Post column by George Will denouncing Obama's celebration of the American military in his State of the Union speech. "Americans are not bloody likely to be marching in lockstep with our aspiring Mussolini this fall. the continuum from Teddy Roosevelt to Mussolini is not as far as American 'progressives' like to think," RWA1 commented.

My jaw literally (by which I mean "figuratively," of course) dropped when I read that. I guess it has been long enough now since the shooting of Gabby Giffords that the Right can start calling their opponents fascists again. Why, it was almost exactly a year ago that RWA1 was whimpering, along with his fellow-travelers, "It is time to retire analogies to Nazis and fascists once and for all." Even then, though, it was clear that this stricture applied only to Democrats and liberals, not to the Republican fringe. And anyway, that was then, this is now.

Still, I'm amazed by the Right's attack on Obama for indulging in some very routine military-stroking. Stuff like this:
At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach.
Compared to Bush's Commander Codpiece performance on the USS Abraham Lincoln, or his chest-bumping with Air Force Academy cadets, Obama's just going through the motions. (If he hadn't praised Our Troops, the Right would have attacked him for that.) Roy Edroso did a post this weekend on the right-wing legacy blogger Jonah Goldberg's attack on Obama's remarks. I imagine that with George Will also on the case, we'll see more of it. As with Republican criticism of Obama for using a teleprompter (a Reagan standby), it makes no sense, since Republicans have never hesitated to drape themselves in the flag and hide behind our fighting men, who got hurt protecting our right to dissent, which is why we should just shut up. (Which, again, means that we should not criticize Republican presidents. Sheer banshee howling against Democratic Presidents, including those who are Republican except in name, is okay.)

Elements of the Right have been stumbling on the mandatory worship of Our Troops lately, though. It's okay to hate them openly if they're sons of Sodom, for example. As with Newt Gingrich's sex life, this is only of interest because of the hypocrisy involved. I don't really care how many wives or mistresses Gingrich has had; what I do care about is the way he expects others to overlook his tomcatting while he continues to attack other people, gay and straight, for screwing around.

As for the rest of RWA1's remarks, I'm not a fan of Teddy Roosevelt, who was a blood-and-soil racist. (For anyone else besides TR, though, RWA1 protests that they're just trying to defend their culture.) Yup, it's true that Democrats and progressives have been big boosters of American imperialism (a term you'd better not use around RWA1 and others of his ilk), as shown by Richard Seymour in The Liberal Defence of Murder (Verso, 2008); hell, Noam Chomsky has been describing and condemning for years the American progressive push to get the United States into World War I, and their pride in spearheading the propaganda campaign to bring it about. But I never heard a peep from RWA1 or most of the Right about Bush/Cheney's militarism and trampling on civil liberties at home; I guess it's only bad when Obama does it. Bush's critics were denounced by the Right as the Islamofascists' fifth column, or their "useful idiots." Now Obama's apologists attack his critics in similar terms, which is a reminder that Partei -- oops, party loyalty and leader worship are the deciding factors here.

For all of that, though, RWA1, like the Right generally, can't bring himself to criticize Obama's actual policies and practice, not surprising since they are mainly Bush's policies and practice. Such criticism -- like serious criticism of Obama's SOTU militarism -- is the province of the Left. I don't recall RWA1 posting anything about Obama's arrogation of the power to kill and detain Americans without due process; nor could he bring himself to oppose the NATO intervention in Libya. What he thinks about Iran I don't know; I suppose that like most of the American Right and "center" he toes the Bush/Obama propaganda line about Iran as nuclear threat, but that's just it. Instead of going after specific cases, which he probably approves -- or will approve, as soon as we can get a Republican president into office -- he picks on some comparatively innocuous boilerplate in a State of the Union address.

As for "Americans are not bloody likely to be marching in lockstep with our aspiring Mussolini this fall," that has to be whistling in the dark. I suspect that for most Americans, the sentiment is bloody likely to echo our attitude during the Clinton sex scandal and impeachment: we know that the Republican candidates -- our aspiring Hitlers, I'll call them just this once, since RWA1 has brought the analogy out of retirement -- aren't attacking Obama because they care about ordinary citizens or the nation. It's primarily because he's a Democrat, second because he's black, third because he remains popular despite (or because) of the vitriol the Right throws at him. (I mean, look at me: I'm defending Obama against Republican attacks, and not because I support Obama but because the Republicans are so blatantly dishonest.) The sheer derangement of their accusations is a signal that not only that the Republicans should not be trusted with political office, it's a wonder they can find their way out the door each day. The scary part is that Obama's Democratic defenders, instead of responding sensibly, generally prefer to echo the Republican dementia.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Becoming Real Boys (and Girls)

A P.S. to the previous post, because it was already long enough. In Andrew O'Hehir's review of Weekend he wrote:
I’ve long maintained that gay-straight cinematic equality will finally arrive when a character’s sexuality, however interesting or titillating it may be, is not seen as delivering an important message about tolerance or self-empowerment or some other boring abstraction. I liked both “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Kids Are All Right” a lot, but there’s no doubt they’re both finely crafted teachable moments. The examples I relish are few and far between: Kristin Scott Thomas as the protagonist’s lesbian best friend in “Tell No One,” Kieran Culkin as the title character’s gay roommate in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” Demetri Martin as the gay hero of “Taking Woodstock” (although his character’s sexuality is, if anything, too irrelevant).
This is a textbook case of the liberalism that Martha Shelley addressed in "Gay Is Good", quoted at the end of the previous post: it's okay to be different as long as you aren't different! In fact, let's not even mention your difference, but I'll talk endlessly about my normality, which isn't a difference at all!

It's also where the paradox I mentioned before comes in, the binary of universality/particularity. If I understand the concept, universality and particularity deconstruct each other: a particular person is still a person, a member of the category or species. You can't have an individual if there isn't a group that he or she belongs to, which connects to what I've written before about individualism and group identity. Critics of "the Western concept of gay identity," for example, claim that it encourages individualism, but gay identity entails my recognizing that I am not a freakish singular aberration but a member of a class of people. This is true of any identity. Even if I give you what might be called my individual identity, embodied on my passport, it represents a constellation of identities: my family, nuclear and extended; the community, along with the state, nation, and planet where I live; the species I belong to; my sex; my age; my height and weight, and so on. By pointing to any of these, I am declaring my membership in various groups, not my uniqueness, and my uniqueness is inseparable from, and perfectly compatible with, my being one among six (or is it seven now?) billions.

So, back to O'Hehir's recommendation for equality in films. Yes, we need films with gay characters who are unmarked in the same way that straight characters are unmarked. Audiences, especially straight audiences, will still try to mark them though: Vito Russo reported that, after seeing My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) that another audience member complained, "I don't get it; why were they gay?" Until human beings arrive at some kind of utopia, differences among people will still matter, socially and therefore artistically. One approach has been genre fiction, which enables writers to give gay characters something to do besides "be gay": to solve murders, say, or to fly to distant galaxies. Mysteries are a better case to examine here, because they generally take place now, in the society we know. It's not necessary to pretend that we live in a society where being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered is no big deal: in genre fiction the problems we have to grapple with are not absent or ignored, they're just dislodged from the center of the story by the genre requirement that the story be about something else, like solving a crime. They are still among the complications that the protagonist has to deal with.

I disagree very strongly with O'Hehir's dismissal of social issues as a "boring abstraction": I think that only a straight white male could make that error. (P.S. Well, not quite: any member of a privileged group -- say, a white female, a black heterosexual, a gay white male -- could make it too.) On the contrary, far from being abstract they are stubbornly concrete. There are other ways to handle them in art than treating them as merely "teachable moments." But to pretend that they don't have to be handled is to leave reality altogether. A gay character who never has to confront homophobia, an African-American character who never has to confront racism, a woman who never has to confront sexism would have to live in another society altogether, if not another planet; hence the usefulness of science fiction and fantasy, which can postulate such a society and explore its ramifications. (Despite the series' severe limitations, the "teachable moments" aspect of Star Trek ended after the first few programs of the first season, since part of its point was that it depicted a future where an black woman and an Asian man could serve on a starship without their "race" being an issue the program had to address. Spock's half-breed alienness was something else again, since it was often mentioned and joked about, but it may have served partly as a distraction, a safety valve for the other differences that weren't on the table.)

One of the strangest exchanges I ever had online happened when I advocated specifically gay pop music. It was in a queer online forum, so I was amazed when other gay people jumped all over the proposal, on the grounds that it wasn't universal. How universal do you want to be? I asked: a song will still be sung by a male or female singer. Even that is bad, someone answered: Madonna wishes she didn't have to occupy a female position in her songs... The solution, I suppose, would be the vocoder, an artificial voice. But I'm still struck by the hatred, or at least revulsion, for human bodies and their differences expressed by the people I was debating. They really seemed to want to get rid of human beings and replace us by mass-produced robots that would be perfectly identical to each other. Or maybe (it seemed likely for some of these people) their own internalized homophobia was so intense that they couldn't bear to hear a man singing a love song to another man, a woman to another woman -- or even a man singing to a woman or vice versa. A machine singing to another machine was okay, though. In which case, why bother? How could these people even bear to touch another human body, let alone have sex with one, with its repulsive lack of universality?

The question comes down to how you read a story (be it on film, in print, or some other medium). It's summed up very well in the story Nicola Griffith tells -- I quoted it here -- about the agent who couldn't understand why Griffith's second novel was about lesbians too.
"Well," she said, "in Ammonite Marghe had a girlfriend because she had no choice, poor thing. But why does Lore like girls?"

"Because she's a dyke, Fran," I said, and I fired her.
The SF grandmaster Poul Anderson once asked, derisively but in all seriousness, why you'd want to put a woman character into a story except as a love interest. Stories are about men: women are merely accessories. Marge Piercy satirized the idea in a way that comes uncomfortably close to reality (as satire should) in a fictional review by a male reviewer of a book of feminist poetry (from her novel Braided Lives [Summit Books, 1982], 400):
Miss Stuart's seventh volume of poetry is crammed with reductionist simplistic snippets of women's lib cant. In describing a series of male/female encounters in which women are injured, raped, maimed, Stuart is unsympathetic to male needs. Individual poems stress only the woman's role and anguish, instead of taking a balanced view. Only the poems about good sex transcend this morbid polemical bias. When we men denigrate women, compare them to mud, death, meat, sows, sloughs, sewers, traps, toilets, when we equate them with mortality, contingency, nature, when we put down women who put out and women who don't, we are merely being universal. Miss Stuart is guilty of special pleading. In art there can be no special pleading for women. Her poetry is uterine and devoid of thrust. Her volume is wet, menstruates, and carries a purse in which it can't find anything. -- Sydney Craw
(Which reminds me: it's about time I reread all of Piercy's work.)

The theme also turns up in the stories African-American pioneers in science fiction like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany have to tell about white editors who couldn't accept black characters in stories unless the stories were about race, which could only (and conveniently) be a very small subarea of the genre. The iconoclastic white editor of Analog sf magazine, John W. Campbell, rejected Delany’s 1968 novel Nova for serialization, “explaining that while he pretty much liked everything else about it, he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.” Campbell was famous for his rationalism, and for publishing stories critical of religion; but his daring went only so far. A few years later, another white sf editor told Octavia Butler that “he didn’t think that blacks should be included in science fiction stories because they changed the character of the stories; that if you put in a black, all of a sudden the focus is on this person. He stated that if you were going to write about some kind of racial problem, that would be absolutely the only reason he could see for including a black.” A black character couldn’t be Everyman, let alone Everywoman, but a white character, no matter how atypical, could. It was okay to allegorize race by using robots, extraterrestrials, or genetically-modified chimpanzees to represent The Negro Problem, but an actual, concrete person of color as communications officer -- or, The Force forbid -- captain of a starship? What would be the point of such extremism?

By now there have been a good many movies in which a character's sexuality is not seen solely "as delivering an important message about tolerance or self-empowerment or some other boring abstraction," though it may deliver such messages as well. I think O'Hehir's examples are carefully chosen to be marginal, and they reflect the way he sees gay characters, not the ways they can be seen. Yes, I have seen glbt movies which I thought were excessively preachy, though that could easily be due to my inability to read them differently; or it could be Sturgeon's Law. But if you decide at the outset to view a film that way, you may miss what else is going on in it. A favorite example of mine is Torch Song Trilogy, which probably owed some of its popularity as a Broadway play and as a film to its preachiness, but Arnold, the central character, is first of all a character, a person with a story to tell, a person worth knowing, not despite but including all his differences. Or consider the pre-New Queer Cinema independent film Parting Glances, with a gay male couple at the center, and a Person With AIDS nearby, surrounded by their straight friends and co-workers -- just like Keep the Lights On as Andrew O'Hehir describes it!

Are these characters (and many others) universal? Only if they succeed in being particular first.

As Martha Shelley pointed out in "Gay Is Good," heterosexuals are our litmus test. We're human beings among ourselves until they turn their liberal gaze on us, trying to decide whether to let us in to Universality. But it's not their decision to make.

How Are the Doughy Fallen

So President Obama was delivered of a State of the Union address this week, ably dissected as usual by Whatever It Is I'm Against It. (Can you believe it? When George W. Bush shambled off into history and Obama replaced him in the Oval Office, WIIIAI worried that he would have trouble finding good satirical material in the new President's speeches and behavior. That didn't last long, and besides, we'll always have the Republican debates.)

Roy Edroso's mission is to find funny and stupid material in the writings of right-wing Republican politicians, pundits, and bloggers -- shooting fish in a barrel, in effect. Occasionally he strays, as when he calls the 2012 SOTU "snoozy." But that's only on the way to making fun of National Review's legacy blogger Jonah Goldberg, known to the wits at alicublog as Doughy Pantload, for attacking Obama's celebration of the American military as an encroachment of Liberal Fascist Collectivism, blah blah blah.

It seems, though, that even liberal Democrats are losing enthusiasm for the increasingly unrewarding task of exalting Obama. One commenter began his attack on Goldberg by describing Obama's militarism as "a simple--and bullshit--rhetorical point in a staged Speech Event." Partly that's just rhetoric itself, of course: you pretend that what your guy said was no big deal compared to your opponent's crazy ranting: "... part of a secret plan by a Kenyan anti-colonialist to militarize America, because liberals." But still. After years of Obama's devotees telling us what a great orator he is, "a simple--and bullshit--rhetorical point in a staged Speech Event" strikes a note of exhaustion. Okay, yeah, he's a pompous blowhard. You wanna make something of it? But there's nothing we can do, because Republicans. Take up your pom-poms, girls -- it's going to be a long nine months.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Is the Gaze Gay?

I won't hold Andrew O'Hehir responsible for the title of today's review of Ira Sach's new film, Keep the Lights On, which premiered at Sundance. The title Salon's editors chose was "A great gay film, or just a great film?" There's no need to, since the openly heterosexual critic makes enough such blunders in the body of the review itself. At the end of the first paragraph, for example, he reports that the film has "plenty of explicit gay sex, but no NC-17 material," by which he presumably means no visible erections or penetration, though the word "explicit" is rapidly losing all meaning anyway except as a dog whistle to censorious fundamentalists and horny teenage boys.

Soon after, O'Hehir writes that Keep the Lights On is
a loving but entirely fearless portrait of gay urban life at the turn of the millennium, seen through the prism of one dysfunctional love affair. In fact, this movie may test how far the gay community has come on issues of self-representation. While it seems unlikely that bigots and homophobes would actively seek this film out (except, you know, on the sly and stuff), any who do see it could certainly cherry-pick details to support the thesis that Erik’s entire cadre of humanity are degenerates.
It's also "absolutely not a freak show", and
Like Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” another recent film that feels like a step forward or a step away from the “queer cinema” of the ’90s, this isn’t a movie about identity or coming out or facing oppression. It’s an unstinting relationship drama — perhaps consciously modeled on Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage” — about two guys who fall in love in the most tolerant and diverse metropolis in America, surrounded by supportive gay and straight friends, and manage to screw it all up with drugs and craziness and horndoggery. You could choose to interpret the movie as being about how people like Paul and Erik are ghettoized by an uncaring, heterocentric society or whatever, but frankly there’s nothing like that in the film.
Ah yes, Weekend. I still haven't had a chance to see it, and it doesn't seem to have a US DVD release scheduled yet. That was the one that apparently I'm not supposed to see, by the filmmaker's express criterion that no one should be interested in films that don't mirror their life circumstances in every particular, but I still intend to see it. Eventually.

What really gets to me me in those remarks is that the claims O'Hehir makes for Keep the Lights On are exactly what "the 'queer cinema' of the '90s" supposedly did: the films that drew critical and audience attention in that period tossed out concerns about "self-representation" and attempted to move beyond "identity or coming out or facing oppression." I take it that O'Hehir has never seen The Living End, Totally F***ed Up,The Doom Generation, Nowhere, Swoon, My Father Is Coming, Female Misbehavior, High Art, My Own Private Idaho, The Watermelon Woman, Go Fish, Poison, Zero Patience, Lilies, No Skin Off My Ass, Better Than Chocolate -- to name only some English-language, US or Canadian-made contributions to the Queer Cinema of the 90s. It seems that O'Hehir doesn't know what he's talking about.

O'Hehir said a lot of the same things when he reviewed Weekend last year, though then he merely dismissed the queer cinema of the 90s:
As in so many other areas of culture, the 1980s were way ahead of the present: Pedro Almodóvar’s “Law of Desire” and Stephen Frears’ “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid,” for instance, anticipated this trend by 20 years or more. But if those movies helped spawn the self-involved, studiously transgressive art-house ghetto called “queer cinema” (which never reached beyond a tiny minority of the LGBT public), they had startlingly little effect on the world of mainstream cinema, which remains committed to tried and true models, even in the age of gay marriage and openly gay military personnel. Gays in the movies can be suffering heroes, objects of pity, opportunities for the audience to demonstrate its superior compassion and/or dishy best pals. They are hardly ever just people.
This was at least marginally better informed, though it underplays the vehemence of Hollywood homophobia, what he calls "the world of mainstream cinema." (I think he's confused about Stephen Frears's oeuvre: the primarily heterosexual Sammy and Rosie Get Laid had minor lesbian characters, but it was the earlier My Beautiful Laundrette that broke new ground in its handling of its central male couple.) Cable TV, from Tales of the City to The Wire, has done much better with GLBT material than Hollywood.

But the earlier piece also tells a very different story about queer cinema than O'Hehir told today. He may have been right about the much smaller audience that those films reached -- it would have been even smaller without the advent of home video, and it still says as much about what Hollywood refused and still refuses to do as about the limitations of Queer Cinema -- but that doesn't explain or excuse his misrepresentation of what they were trying to do. It would help to remember that presenting queers as "just people" is still, twenty years later, an avant-garde and arthouse stance as far as "mainstream Hollywood" is concerned, which determines not just production but distribution.

That Keep the Lights On made its debut -- "came out," as we homosexuals might say -- at Sundance is a help for distribution, but it's worth remembering that several of those dwellers in "the self-involved, studiously transgressive art-house ghetto called 'queer cinema'" also broke out as Sundance: Poison in 1991, followed the next year by Swoon, The Living End, The Hours and Times, and later by Go Fish. Other notable independent gay films, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, were developed there. The Sundance imprimatur won them attention outside the gay press. So it turns out that Keep the Lights On is not a breakthrough, but merely the latest in an honorable and well-established tradition.

Now let me go back to the article's title, which may not have been O'Hehir's choice but still expresses his assumptions. Imagine substituting "black" or "Jewish" or "women's" for "gay" in that rhetorical question; better yet, substitute "men's" or "American." So much depends on whom you think you're asking. "A great American film, or just a great film?" "A great men's film, or just a great film?" To some extent, just asking the question discredits the asker. The answer will depend not on the film but on the viewer's willingness to identify with characters different than him or herself, a capacity that seems more limited among heterosexual American males, especially white ones. There are of course many exceptions, but as a general rule that's the group that covers its ears, clamps its eyes shut, and hisses "No!" when offered stories about the Other. (If Andrew Haigh, the man behind Weekend, were straight, he'd fit right in with that mindset.) There's nothing wrong with wanting also to have stories about people like yourself, it's the impulse behind "minority" art, but when you can't or won't enter into different worlds, something is wrong with you. It could be racism, it could be sexism, or homophobia, or xenophobia; it could be a hidebound inability or refusal to experience different film or storytelling modes.

I admit there's a paradox, though. The other side is that we need to recognize the particularity of all art, and indeed of all human experience. Just sticking with cinema: Every film will be a men's film, an American film, a white film, a black film, a Chinese film, a women's film, a gay film, a lesbian film, a heterosexual film, and so on and on, at the same time that it's also just a film. Everyone has blind spots, so no one will be able to appreciate everything, even the good films. (On the other hand, it should be obvious that badness doesn't necessarily interfere with people's appreciation of many films -- not just as a Good Bad Movie, but as their favorite movie of all time.) No film is truly "universal" in its subject matter; every particularity is also human. And every film has politics -- makes assumptions about power and its lack, about money and its lack, about the structures that limit and enable human life; but that's another post.

The best formulation of this paradox, or at any rate the first I encountered, was in "Gay Is Good," a Gay Liberation broadside by Martha Shelley, probably from 1970 or 1971:
And I am personally sick of liberals who say they don't care who sleeps with whom, it what's you do outside of bed that counts. This is what homosexuals have been trying to get straights to understand for years. Well, it's too late for liberalism. Because what I do outside of bed may have nothing to do with what I do outside -- but my consciousness is branded, is permeated with homosexuality. For years I have been branded with your label for me. The result is that when I am among gays or in bed with another woman, I am a person, not a lesbian. When I am observable to the straight world, I become gay. You are my litmus paper.
Sigh. Written over forty years ago. Still relevant.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Just You Wait, 'Enry 'Itchings, Just You Wait!

Okay, I'm back! I lucked out: the shop fixed my laptop in two days. (I tripped on the power cord the other night, and the computer slipped off the table -- a low table -- onto the floor. It didn't seem to be hurt: it wasn't until the next morning that I discovered that it had landed on the jack where the power plug enters, knocking something loose inside. I gather this is a not infrequent problem with newer Toshiba laptops. Luckily, it's easy to fix, though the labor was ninety percent of the cost. Of course.)

Anyway, I hardly know where to begin, so I'll start with today and work backwards. I'm eighty-five pages into The Language Wars: A History of Proper English (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011) by Henry Hitchings. Hitchings isn't an academic linguist, but he's done his research, and I'm enjoying his book. I've learned, for example, that two seventeenth-century French writers, "Joachim du Bellay and Antoine de Rivarol, believed that French was the closest language to the single tongue that was supposed to have existed before Babel" (18). This is something to add to my collection, like the seventeenth-century Jesuit who proved that Jesus and his disciples spoke Latin, the language of the saints and angels in Heaven; or the contemporary Turkish scholar, known to an acquaintance of mine, who believes that Turkish was the original human language. A high school teacher of mine told us about the European king who had a number of infants raised without their nurses talking to them to see what language they naturally would speak if no one taught them one; he believed it would be Hebrew. The babies all died, my teacher told us, without learning to speak, because human beings need that human interaction. And so on. Of course we all know that the original language was English, like in the King James Version of the Bible. If it was good enough for Adam and Eve, it's good enough for me!

Hitchings navigates cautiously between the Scylla of linguistic prescriptivism (which as he says should really be called proscriptivism, because it's more concerned with telling people what not to do than with teaching them what's correct) and the Charybdis of descriptivism (which purports simply to describe how people actually speak and write their language). He recognizes that neither position can really stand by itself, though I think I'm going to have a bone or two to pick with his notion, enshrined in the book's subtitle, of "proper" English and the importance of propriety.

I'm probably more sympathetic to propriety as Hitchings sees it than I would have been when I was younger. Language -- which is much more than mere communication -- is a form of interaction with other people, and that requires all parties involved to be considerate of each other. I try to be aware of the person I'm talking to, which doesn't mean talking down to them; it means attending to what they say and how they react to what I say. (In my experience, it's usually more educated, petit bourgeois types who perceive me as talking down to them, and they may be right. Blue-collar people usually don't. That's partly because of my own lower-class background, I suppose, and partly because I don't have much respect for people whose own self-respect depends so much on looking down on others. I'll return to this in a moment.) On the other hand, I'm well-indoctrinated with standard, "proper" English, mainly through my own voracious consumption of my language in its printed form. It's my default setting, so (like Henry Hitchings) I speak and write in that mode, even though I recognize that it's conventional, not "natural." I do the same in Spanish, by the way, and I'm glad I learned Spanish formally in the classroom; I added informal and "vulgar" Spanish much later, when I learned it from native speakers, but if I meet people with whom formal speech is appropriate I won't embarrass myself. Too much.

That's an important to point to stress, I think, because numerous reviewers I've read online dwell on Hitchings's fine prose style. There's nothing inconsistent about writing standard English while recognizing that the standard is a convention, more or less arbitrary and certainly not logical, than there is in playing chess by the rules while recognizing that the rules are conventions, more or less arbitrary and certainly not logical.

I'll watch more closely as I proceed through the book, but I think that Hitchings himself believes, or writes as though he believes, that descriptivism means "anything goes." It doesn't. Describing a language necessarily includes describing how words are used, and with whom. That seems to be true of the notoriously descriptivist dictionaries, like Webster's Third New International, that excited so much proscriptivist fury in the 1960s: they specified appropriate usage, but with different terminology than people were used to. For that matter, I have the impression that, while speakers of non-standard English dialects may see themselves as not speaking proper or "good" English, they are not descriptivists themselves. (Just as people who essentialize their sexual practices with different categories than we use in the West are not social constructionists.) They have their own ideas of proper grammar and pronunciation, and if they have to deal with someone who varies too much from those -- say, a non-native speaker -- they will insist that they aren't speaking English at all.

So, for example, one Barton Swaim, reviewing The Language Wars for the Wall Street Journal, writes:
The trouble with descriptivism—the idea that the grammarian's job is to describe the language, not to issue judgments about propriety—isn't that it's theoretically unsound. Rules really are just conventions. The trouble with descriptivism is that it's inhuman. People will always want to know the right way to say a thing. The secretary writing a letter or the corporate communications drone writing a press release doesn't care whether "impact" as a verb is "generally accepted," as modern usage manuals put it; he wants to know if using "impact" as a verb will make him sound stupid.

Henry Hitchings, in "The Language Wars," seems to appreciate the fact that propriety is part of human life, even if it's given no room in the lifeless principles of linguistics. He has plenty of criticisms for those "inveterate fusspots" who understand just enough English grammar to lord it over their supposed inferiors, but he isn't so naïve as to think we can be rid of "rules" in the old-fashioned sense of the word.
Did Swaim realize that this "make[s] him sound stupid"? First, he confuses grammarians with linguists, though that's relatively trivial. Second, it's precisely those "corporate communications drones" who use "impact" as a verb (though it's completely proper to do so) without concern for the language they are supposedly desecrating. Third, why does Swaim think that grammarians are qualified to "issue judgments about propriety"? That's really for people -- those of us who use our language every day -- to decide, but if someone's not up to it, why not just ask Miss Manners? Finally, how do grammarians know "the right way to say a thing"?

As I said, descriptivists are certainly going to take note of what is considered "the right way to say a thing," because that is part of the description of a language. I don't see anything "inhuman" or "lifeless" about that. Take a language like Korean, which is full of proprieties: you speak very differently depending on whether you're addressing someone older or younger than you, or of higher or lower status. These are proprieties; these are conventions; you can call them "rules" if you like. Of course you can't get rid of them, any more than you can get rid of the rules of chess. But it seems to me that any descriptivist worth her salt would know that. Swaim is attacking a straw man; descriptivism is something else.

(Another reason why "rule" is an incorrect -- indeed, improper -- word to use for grammar conventions: language learners tend to make mistakes by following rules, such as the toddler who says "I breaked the window" because adding -ed is the rule for putting a verb in the past tense. Broke, the correct form, doesn't follow the rule; it's a convention.)

If anything is inhuman, though, it's the prescriptivist stance. Swaim brushes aside "those 'inveterate fusspots' who understand just enough English grammar to lord it over their supposed inferiors," but that's just what prescriptivism consists of: throwing tantrums over other people's supposed mistakes, based usually on the tantrum-thrower's personal pet obsessions and peeves, almost always misinformed. And if it isn't the entire point of prescriptivism, it's an invariable fringe benefit to be able to sneer at people who don't meet one's imaginary standards. I wrote not long ago about the exuberant contempt exhibited by prescriptivists for "dolts" who can't spell or punctuate "properly." I've also noticed the frenzied vituperation with which American liberals reacted to George W. Bush's pronunciation of "nuclear" as "nukular." Which reminds me that "propriety" has also been used to justify throwing children, spouses, or employees out on the street for supposed misconduct. You can see this in any nineteenth-century English novel: the idea that while one must show Christian charity to the fallen woman, one must on no account receive her in decent society. (Bertrand Russell once wrote a fine essay on the indecency of "decent" people.) That's why I'm so hard on the prescriptivist swine who spew vitriol against their fellow human beings who follow different language conventions than they do: they and not their targets are behaving inhumanely and immorally.

There's another side to this matter of propriety. Molly Ivins wrote an article, "The Legislative Mangle" (reprinted in her first book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? [Random House, 1991] but available online) about the conventions of grammar and pronunciation among career politicians, especially legislators, which strike proscriptivists as subliterate.
In most legislatures, punctilious attention to correct usage is considered elitist. The word government, for example, is normally pronounced ''gummint''; bureaucracy is ''bureaucacy''; fiscal comes out ''physical,'' and one moves not to suspend the rules, but to ''suppend.''
These are not malapropisms or mispronunciations - which is ''mispronounceciations'' in legislative circles. Nor are they the result of ignorance, bad diction, poor enunciation or the regional speech deformity called a Texas accent, or a Maine accent, or a New York accent. Graduates of Harvard do the same things to these words that lawmakers who flunked out of Texas A & I do, no matter where they serve.
Molly Ivins was almost as mean as I am; if I'm meaner, it's because I stand on the shoulders of a giant. For example, she once wrote of a Texas pol, "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day"; of another, that he was "smarter than a box of rocks." The thing is, she knew the difference between a glorious malapropism like "This problem is a two-headed sword: it could grow up like a mushing room" and actual evil, like killing people. This is what prescriptivists generally have trouble with. Liberal prescriptivists were much more upset about Dubya's offenses against language conventions than they were about his actual crimes, as shown by their willingness to embrace those crimes when they were committed by a Democratic President. Since he was of their faction, conservative prescriptivists mostly looked the other way with Bush's grammatical and syntactic blunders, trying to argue when cornered that only liberal elitists would notice them in the first place; and they were just fine with his actual crimes.

At the same time, I understand and sympathize with the prescriptivists' visceral reaction to violations of grammatical convention, since I generally share it -- I'm a recovering grammar neurotic myself. I just don't regard it as an excuse for their inhumane stances -- dismissing people who haven't done any real harm to anyone as "dolts", for instance.

More on Hitchings and The Language Wars to come, I expect.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The North-South Position

Okay, let me see if I can squeeze this one in. (My computer is not yet out of the shop.)

The Onion A.V. Club kindly shared this brief video clip, which may or may not be NSFW:

Perfume Genius ad from nils bernstein on Vimeo.
The clip features Perfume Genius' singer Mike Hadreas and gay porn actor Arpad Mikos. Neither man is nude below the waist; both are shirtless. It seems that both Google and Youtube refused to allow the ad to be posted, because it violated their Adult Image / Video content policy,
which excludes "any ads that contain non-family safe material," adding that "the overall feeling of the video is one of a more adult nature, including promoting mature sexual themes and what appears to be nude content. As such, the video is non-family safe."
More information is available at the AV Club's source, this article at Pitchfork, including a link to the music video from which the images in the ad are drawn, which is on Youtube. The odd thing (coming from me) is that I'm inclined to agree that the clip is of a "more adult nature," including "mature sexual themes," even though in the very brief ad the two men do nothing more (or less) erotic than embrace while gazing intently into each other's eyes. That doesn't seem to me reason for Youtube to reject the ad, especially when the same material is available in the video for "Hood," because "mature sexual themes" are present in most popular entertainment, including the classic Code-era Hollywood films, and because children aren't harmed by them. You know the famous scene in From Here to Eternity, where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kiss in the sand as the surf flows over them? That shows as much skin as Hadreas and Miklos do, and more passion. It was controversial in its day (1953), but nowadays it's fodder for nostalgia.

Of course, it's different, because Lancaster and Kerr were playing heterosexuals. That is probably the reason Youtube and Google rejected the ad. As some commenters at the AV Club pointed out, if the two men were punching each other (or even simulating more extreme violence) there'd have been no problem. The subject of Ultimate Fighting Championship came up too: "It's hard to tell sometimes. The first time I ever saw UFC on TV, it was two guys that looked like they were 69ing each other, except they had pants on. The announcer said it was the 'North-South' position. Give me a fucking break. We all know what that is . . ."

It all reminds me of Michel Foucault's remark that bigots are less bothered by sodomy (though of course they are bothered by it) than by love and romance between men. I don't mean to overgeneralize, but there's something to what he said, and Youtube's reaction to the Perfume Genius ad supports it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Blogging Advisory

I'm having some computer problems, so posting may be light for the next couple of days while I get them fixed. It's frustrating, because I've got plenty to be garrulous about.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Thunder on the Left

Obama's sycophants continue to depress me. On Friday on Facebook Pearl Cleage linked to a video clip of the President singing a line from Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" at the Apollo:
tell me this isn't the coolest thing you've seen in ages!! i love having a president who wants to end wars and guarantee health care who can also sing a little al green when the moment arises. that's what being on the stage at the apollo will make you do! support the president! register! donate to his campaign! play your al green records and DANCE!
"A president who wants to end wars"? No, a president who wants to extend them, and keeps coming up with more of them. Those are the words of someone for whom partisanship has almost completely wiped out trivial concerns like honesty and ordinary humanity. To show that it was no fluke, Cleage linked on Sunday to a video clip of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy", adding:
remember when you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing this song? i'm thinking of making it my unofficial anthem for the rest of the republican primaries. newt for president?? REALLY? but.. "don't worry/be happy!" while you make sure everybody in your family of voting age is registered and has a ride to the polls in november!!
The song is repellent anyway, a fitting capstone to the Reagan era from which it came. Even if you "have some trouble," if unemployment remains at 8.5 percent and you just lost your temporary Christmas-season job, if you "have "no place to lay your head," if your landlord threatens to evict you, if you "ain't got no cash," don't frown because your face will freeze like that, and it will "bring everybody down." Besides, "It will soon pass, whatever it is." If you're out of bread, eat cake! No wonder an Obamabot (who is not herself living on the street) appreciates it.

And of course Cleage wasn't the only one who reacted to Obama's performance this way; well, what else have they got to offer? Only that Obama isn't Bush, and surely, comrades, you do not want Bush back?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Alien vs. Predator?

The image above has begun making the rounds on Facebook, and while I appreciate the point, it's mistaken in some important ways.

Most important, I think, is that Wikileaks has primarily published information on governments, not corporations. Oh, there was a flurry of corporate panic at the end of 2010 when Assange announced that Wikileaks would release a trove of documents on corporate malfeasance, but nothing seems to have come of it. The big story about Wikileaks is and has always been the government secrets -- military, diplomatic -- that it has put on the table. The fact that the person who constructed this image got things so far wrong indicates that he or she doesn't really understand what Wikileaks has done; the intent seems more to bash Facebook and Zuckerberg rather than to praise Assange.

Was the information Wikileaks released "private" in the first place? No, except in the narrow and circular sense of "secret." It was public in the truest sense of the word: it concerned events that were paid for by the public dime, and then concealed from the public by public agencies. Governments do not have a right to privacy, especially when they are engaged in criminal enterprises; nor do government officials in their role as government officials. Whether Barack Obama wears boxers or briefs, for example, is a matter I'm happy to leave private, though it's just the kind of fact that many Americans, and the corporate media, would claim that the public has a right to know. (I suspect that Obama would address the boxers vs. briefs question more readily than questions about dead Afghan or Pakistani children, however.) But what our government is doing with its weapons and its troops and its vast amounts of money is what the public has not only a right but an obligation to know. I would include the world, not just Americans, since so much of our crimes are committed on foreign soil.

The original meaning of the word "private" is "secret," and it still often has secrecy as a connotation. Much of what is considered private nowadays is not secret: one's marital status (registered at the courthouse), one's birth date (ditto), the number and names of one's children, and so on. Most people, I think, never consider what they're agreeing to when they join a social network like Facebook, nor despite all the ballyhooed tech-savvy of today's teens do they have any idea how such a system works, or what "privacy" means as a technical term on the Web. But then, neither do most Americans. Even most tech geeks in the 1980s, when I first got online, knew how data packets worked on networks but had little idea what privacy meant on the Net. I shocked the (gay, heterosexually married, closeted) SysOp of a bulletin board system in those days by registering under my own name and posting as an openly gay man; but I knew what I was doing. Other people I knew were outraged to discover that their e-mail wasn't protected by Federal law as their Postal mail was, and that the administrator of a system could read any "private" messages he or she chose to; whatever protection existed was internal to the system.

In the good old days, not so very long ago, anyone could walk into a public library and look through a published street directory, which contained such information as who lived at each address, including children. These directories had many uses, but prominent among them was marketing. A marketer or salesman could check out a neighborhood prior to trying to sell things there. It looks to me as though Facebook and other Internet businesses are just vastly bigger versions of those directories, with all the information organized and searchable by computers. That's just one of the wonders of our Electronic Age, and much of the "privacy" people seem to think they've lost to Facebook's commercial interests was lost long ago; never mind that they themselves freely gave the information to Facebook when they signed up and filled out their profile. Or when they clicked "Like" on this or that corporate product.

Apparently they believe their personal likes and dislikes are "private", hidden in the dark depths of the Intertoobz. But why do they think that all those corporate products are there to be "liked" on Facebook? Nothing is free, and certainly not a vast technological network with hundreds of millions of members. You can't have it both ways, though I suppose in our world you can't even choose the other way. If you want your online "privacy," then you'll need to find another way to pay for the servers and the storage and the programmers; they don't come cheap, especially not on the scale of Facebook. If you want Facebook to be free of charge, then how do you propose to meet its costs? If you want your privacy, then what kind of fool does it take to believe that you can post pictures of you passed out drunk on a global information network and still have any privacy at all?

In another sense of the word, of course, Facebook is private: it's privately owned by Mark Zuckerberg and other shareholders, including its employees. You didn't think it was "public," did you? Like Zuccotti Park? You didn't think it just grew into existence all by itself, like the flowers in the park, available to be picked and/or peed on by anyone who comes along? Truly, the thoughtlessness of many people about the public and the private boggles my mind. But then, it's probably no coincidence that my Facebook friends from Teabag Nation are the ones who always fall for, and pass along, the urban legends about Facebook starting to charge for its services.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Mad Tebow Party

I've only made one glancing comment about Tim Tebow on this blog so far, but he apparently continues to fascinate many. One of the main reasons I've paid him so little attention is that, as my readers know, I don't care about sports at all. If the media, including the liberal and left blogosphere, weren't so obsessed with his tendency to drop on one knee and thank Jesus whenever a play goes well, I wouldn't even know who Tebow is. I do care about religion, since it is more likely to impinge on my life, but one point on which I agree with my mother is that People Like That Just Want Attention, and (unlike her) that you shouldn't give it to them. I see two possibilities with Tebow: either he's just doing it to get attention, in which case he shouldn't get it; or he's perfectly sincere and unselfconscious (which is probably giving him too much credit), in which case his personal religious observance is no one else's business and they should stop rubbernecking. 

Of course, pro football, like so much that concerns ordinary Americans, is a hotbed of religious nuttery, and specifically Christian religious nuttery. A blogger at the Washington Post wrote that "some of us are still uncomfortable with the QB's constant flaunting of his Christian faith, beginning virtually every interview thanking Jesus and ending with 'God bless.'" Hell, couldn't that describe most R&B and hiphop albums too? No matter how grossly misogynist the content, the CD acknowledgments always put thanks to God and the rapper's mother at the top of the list. In a different realm, a memory of Red Skelton's ending every TV show with "Thanks, and may God bless" just surfaced in my old brain. That doesn't bother me any more than "Merry Christmas" does. 

As numerous writers have pointed out, Tebow wouldn't get all that love from the fans if he were, say, a Muslim. The right-wing writers have a point when they complain that liberals and leftists would be much less likely to jeer at an equally pious Muslim athlete -- but then, those same right-wing writers would not be defending a pious Muslim athlete; they'd be attacking him. So we're stuck with another partisan divide, as when the Right attacks Obama for doing what they loved when Bush did it, and Liberals love Obama for doing what they hated when Bush did it. 

So I'm in a bind myself, for the same reason. I don't approve of liberals attacking or mocking Tebow, because it gives him undeserved attention and allows conservative Christians to play the martyr by playing into the paranoid delight in persecution so many of them indulge. (Especially when the "persecution" consists of nothing more than verbal disagreement or mockery.) Besides, I believe that much of the liberal mockery comes from the same source that leads college students to freak out about open-air evangelists on campus: being still flush with the high-school herd mentality, they can't imagine that anyone would do something that would cause them to stand out and be laughed at -- let alone persist in the face of such laughter. (Many liberal attacks on Ron Paul seem to have the same motivation: just making fun of him should send him scurrying to the shadows, but it doesn't work! What's wrong with the guy? By the way, I had a strong sense when I watched the video clip of Alabama fans molesting a passed-out Louisiana fan that the same mindset was at work there: Hey, he's all alone! He's acting weird! There are a lot of us! We can do anything we want to him!

On the other hand, as I've often noticed before, while it's okay in the liberal mind to make fun of bible-thumping Christians, it's not okay to make fun of Christianity, let alone Jesus. "Real" Christianity as it exists in liberal fantasy is self-evidently a good thing, and Jesus himself was way cool, right? Then a day or so ago the writer Robert Wright explained "Why Liberals Shouldn't Dis Tim Tebow (or Jesus)", closing with the following paragraph:

I should admit to a factor in my thinking that won't carry weight with other people: My parents, who brought me up southern Baptist, also brought me up to respect other people's religious beliefs. The southern Baptist part didn't stick, but the other part continues to make sense to me independent of the tactical considerations above. Explaining why would call for a whole 'nother post.

Wright's parents weren't very good Southern Baptists, then, though I suppose it depends what you mean by "respect[ing] other people's religious beliefs." Maybe he means that publicly attacking other people's beliefs is tacky. Just sticking with Christianity, exhibiting and demonstrating disrespect for other people's religious beliefs is built into the faith, with Jesus' own (public, according to the gospels) attacks on his fellow Jews as the model. Other New Testament writers followed his example, especially with rival Christian teachers. When I point this out, Christians generally argue that it was different because Jesus' targets deserved it: they were hypocrites and legalists and whatnot. But most Christians who attack other Christians justify themselves on the same grounds. 

I suspect that Wright is confusing respect with someone's right to hold or express religious beliefs with respect for the beliefs themselves. The former is good manners, and more or less an obligation in a pluralist society that protects religious freedom; the latter is not an obligation, though good manners should discourage us from mocking others' beliefs gratuitously, lest they attack ours. Conservative Christians might bear that in mind themselves, but much of their culture consists of denunciations of other Christians' beliefs. (I read a fair amount of fundamentalist polemics against liberal Christians -- or "apostate" Christians, as they often called them -- in the 1980s and 90s, so I know whereof I speak.) They aren't really interested in getting along with others; triumphalism is more their style: a total victory over the ungodly, that is, just about everybody but them. But the rest of us shouldn't sink to their level, if only because pluralists should be concerned in how to get along with others, and should know that there's no such thing as total victory over your opponents in the real world. In so far as liberals are indulging in triumphalist fantasies themselves, they're not as different from fundamentalists as they like to believe.

Evolution Helps Those Who Help Themselves

One of my obnoxious friends on Facebook passed along the above motto today. My comment: "That's exactly what I'm worried about." That is, I'm worried that there's Someone up there stirring up the earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions; inventing new and more lethal plagues; and guiding the predator drones to their young targets, and that's "how it's meant to be."

This is, as I've said before, a matter of temperament. I would prefer that no one and nothing is in charge of the universe, rather than that Someone is in charge, doing all these things. The more optimistic possibility is that They are sitting up there, watching everything that happens, and doing nothing; the more pessimistic option is that They are actively involved. But either way, as Terry Pratchett put it while in his cups, we are in the hands of a madman, and being an atheist is no help at all. If a fly could say "I don't believe in you!" to the kid pulling its wings off, what difference would it make?

But then, neither is being a religious believer, whether a fundamentalist Christian, a Wiccan, a Roman Catholic, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, or a processor of New Age / therapeutic sludge. It may well be that the Supreme Being, whatever it is, has a reason for letting you die slowly and in agony of cancer, diabetes, or emphysema, that your helpless writhing is "how it's meant to be." So was the Final Solution. As a human being and a moral agent, however, I don't see any reason why I'm bound to assent to it, or why I should trust people who do.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Stating the Obvious

A midnight quickie for you.

I don't remember where this online exchange took place, but it seems worth mentioning here. I was surfing the Web earlier today, and in comments somewhere I noticed that someone had written that opinions are like assholes -- everyone has one, and they all stink.

"Well," I replied, "that's your opinion."

Point Counterpoint

In an earlier post I linked to this article on Dan Savage's ongoing campaign against Rick Santorum, a worthy target if ever there was one. In case you didn't click through, here's the relevant passage, asterisks and all:
Savage and Santorum's spat originates in 2003. Santorum had compared gay sex to bestiality and incest and in response, Savage set out to Google-bomb and create a new meaning for "Santorum" (just try it to see results). But on the heels of Santorum signing the "Marriage Pledge," Savage appeared (NSFW-unless you have earphones and can watch YouTube at work) on Bill Maher's Real Time on July 15. Savage, along with the panel, discussed the stable of potential Republican nominees. "I sometimes think about f****** the s*** out of Rick Santorum," he said. "He needs it...Let's bone that Santorum good. I'd be up for whipping up Santorum in that Santorum." That night he issued an apology, but it was for a comment he made under his breath, not an apology to Santorum.
Savage's remarks didn't offend me ("Oh, Dan, how can you say such awful things?"): they pissed me off. I can sympathize with him, of course: bigotry of any kind infuriates me too. But I'm not venting on national television. Further, Savage these days is letting his rage render him totally irrational, as I've pointed out before. I'm not pissed off because Savage is "hurting the cause", as some might argue. I'm pissed off because he's indulging in homophobic abuse that no one should be allowed to get away with, using sex as a metaphor for debasement and humiliation. He's tapping into the same reservoir of male violence that drives queerbashers and rapists. Me, I don't think that Rick Santorum "needs" to be fucked, brutally or tenderly. I wouldn't touch him -- or Dan Savage, for that matter -- with a ten-foot pole.

On the other hand, I think that Google-bombing Santorum was a brilliant, effective, and entirely justified move. Santorum thinks it's okay to compare homosexuality to pedophilia (risky territory for a Roman Catholic these days) or bestiality, which isn't moral argument but simply a cheap smear. If you need evidence that he's stupid as well as evil, he continues to use the same vacuous and dishonest comparisons, even though they aren't necessary to an anti-gay campaign. Maybe he feels that, after having been compared to the frothy mix of semen and fecal matter that sometimes accompanies anal sex, he has nothing to lose. Except the race for the 2012 Republican presidential campaign, I guess. And on the third hand, Savage should realize by now that humiliation isn't the most effective way to stop an opponent; after all, Frothy still did a lot better this time around, even if he finally was defeated by equally bigoted opponents. That indicates that the Google-bomb didn't hurt Santorum where it mattered, among his reactionary Christian-homophobe constituency. I doubt we've seen the last of him. ("No," to quote Firesign Theater, "but the first of you turns my stomach!")

There are more than two sides here, though AtlanticWire blogger Alexander Abad-Santos doesn't stand above the fray as he evidently believes he does, in that lofty, Olympian corporate-media journalistic way. Did you notice the word "spat" in the paragraph I quoted earlier? Well, he goes on to make sure you know he meant it.
What They Say They're Fighting About: Gay rights. This is how Savage and Santorum got into this spat in the first place. Santorum's stated that his ideal view of America doesn't include gay rights like marriage equality and has, in the past, equated gay sex with bestiality and incest. Conversely, Savage, who is openly gay, is an advocate for gay rights and created the "It Gets Better" campaign--a project that aims to combat the effects of bullying on gay teens.

What They're Really Fighting About: They're fighting about fighting at this point. It's worth pointing out, too, that Savage benefits from his stance and criticisms of Santorum, hence his recent appearances on Maher and FOD. Santorum, having only raised $582,348 in second-quarter reports is trying to monetize Savage's attacks.

"What They Say They're Fighting About" -- Ooooh, snap! It's not as if the status and condition of non-heterosexuals in American society isn't still a contested issue, with a considerable body count, pretty much all of it on one side. It's not as if sex between men or sex between women hadn't been a felony in many American states until 2003 -- and despite having been overturned by the United States Supreme Court, many of those laws are still on the books, and being used to harass queers. Meanwhile, as far as I know, no antigay bigot has done jail time simply for expressing bigoted views (as opposed to beating up or killing somebody). "Gay rights" is really the least of it. It's about deeply rooted cultural attitudes, much like racism and sexism. To skate over that hard reality with the airy word "spat" is despicable.

It might not be entirely inaccurate to say that Savage and Santorum are now merely "fighting about fighting," because there is a tendency for people locked in conflict to forget what divides them as they focus on tactics and vengeance. But given what gay people, and especially gay youth, are facing now -- given lethal antigay violence, given the bullying of gay kids that inspired Savage's "It Gets Better" in the first place, given the neglect with which nominally responsible adults have responded to this violence -- there's a distinct flavor of "Let Them Eat Cake" in Abad-Santos' dismissal of the Savage-Santorum "spat" as a merely personal quarrel. (And by "Them" I mean gay people.) I don't doubt that Santorum sincerely believes in the bigoted swill he spews at, apparently, every opportunity. That just shows how little sincerity is worth. Nor do I doubt that Savage's excesses spring from the helpless fury he feels every time the suicide of another young queer is reported in the news. Or when bigoted schoolmates celebrate such suicides. Rage is a perfectly appropriate reaction to these stories. Dismissing them, as Abad-Santos does, is not.

What is going on between Savage and Santorum can't be reduced to pettiness or spite. If they both disappeared tomorrow -- whether they were carried up to Heaven by angels, or cast into Hell to be entertained by demons -- the real issue would still remain, and even if Abad-Santos were right (though I don't think he is) about what is driving Santorum and Savage now, he'd be every bit as guilty as they are for reducing the conflict to personalities.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

He That Is Married Cares for the Things of the World

I guess we all need demonic Others to give us an excuse to run around screaming and waving our hands limply at the wrists. Rick Santorum has Homosexuals. We Homosexuals have Rick Santorum. I clicked through from a post describing to a confrontation between a transgender activist and Santorum in South Carolina:

Kneena Raheja, 20, yelled, "Mr. Santorum, you have spilled queer blood!" as the GOP presidential hopeful finished speaking, according to BuzzFeed. It was a tough crowd; just one man reportedly snickered.

Raheja, who was born a boy, later told Buzzfeed that she thinks "people like Rick Santorum are actively violent towards the queer population."

You know, I really hate it when my people (and they are my people, drunk or sober) trivialize our very real problems with overwrought, inflationary rhetoric. "Spilled queer blood" is, I guess, normal if not acceptable hyperbole: the phrase "blood on his hands" is a common metaphor, as is "bloodbath," and hardly anybody takes it literally. But "actively violent" is not, except in the La-la Land where "violence" covers everything from turning down the corners of your mouth in distaste to spraying a crowd with automatic weapons fire. (Cf. "rape," which "continues to evolve from a word meaning 'violent, forced sexual intercourse' to its more modern definition as 'something kind of upsetting that happens to famous people.'") Santorum may be inciting other bigots to violence, though like any person in his position he'd surely disavow any such intention and condemn anyone who physically attacks homosexuals in his name. But "actively violent" can't, as far as I can tell, mean anything but that Santorum picks up the baseball bat himself; and if Raheja has evidence of that, the police need to have it and charges need to be filed.

Anyway, the article alluded to Santorum comparing gay marriage to polygamy in New Hampshire, so I clicked through to that story:
When his answers failed to persuade the crowd, he was forced to resort to Socratic method -- a tactic that frustrated some in the audience and led to shouts that he was avoiding the questions.

"If it makes three people happy to get married, based on what you just said, what makes that wrong and what you said right?" Santorum asked a young woman grilling him on marriage equality, comparing same-sex marriage to polygamy.

When she responded that his question was "irrelevant," Santorum replied, "You know, it's important, if we're going to have a discussion based on rational, reasoned thought, that we employ reason." There were audible groans from the audience.

I'm not sure that that was really "Socratic method," but two things should be noticed about this exchange. One is that Santorum's basic analogy is sound: if same-sex marriage should be allowed because it will make the partners happy, then it's legitimate to apply the same standard to other models. The "young woman grilling him on marriage equality" was wrong when she claimed that the question was irrelevant; if anyone was dodging the issue, it was she. And isn't it inspiring that the audience groaned when Santorum invoked reason?

The other is that they were both wrong, because polygamy is a traditional, biblical value. Instead of whining that he was changing the subject, his interlocutor should have asked him why he opposes polygamy -- if it was good enough for Moses and Solomon, why isn't it good enough for us today? (Jesus and Paul, on the other hand, are models for total sexual abstinence if not for becoming a eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven. Santorum, with his seven children, is no follower of theirs.) Putting same-sex marriage on the same level with plural marriage should have backfired: was he saying that, like polygamy, same-sex marriage was acceptable under the Old Covenant even if it isn't today? Wasn't he equating Adam and Steve with the patriarchs and their numerous wives and concubines? (If he brings up incest, remind him of Abraham and Sarah.) Is he aware that Augustine wrote that Christians didn't practice polygamy merely to conform with Roman law and custom? If so, he's a radical moral relativist. If not, he's ignorant. Either way, he painted himself into a corner.

Instead, the advocate for marriage equality revealed that she's just as narrow as Santorum. Like him, she hasn't thought much about the meaning or history of marriage and is just parroting slogans. It isn't like I needed to be reminded how little there is to choose between Santorum and his cultured despisers.

Penetrating Rhetoric

Some readers may think I harp too much on this, but I don't think so. I think it's important to point out how often it turns up in casual everyday use, as a substitute for thought where thought is what's called for.

Glenn Greenwald has a good post today on a smear campaign being waged by some adherents of the Israel lobby against some critics of Israel, labeling them anti-Semitic. He provides some damning quotations, which shows these petty journalistic thugs declaring that it's anti-Semitic to express any doubts about the reality of Iran's (non-existent) nuclear program. Since the campaign's targets are some commentators at two organizations with strong links to the Democratic Party, it's a safe bet that the intent is to put more pressure on the Obama administration to lie about Iran and support Israeli terrorism against Iran, if not upgrade US terrorism. And that's ironic when you consider Obama's longstanding and uncritical support for Israel, and his equally longstanding campaign against Iran.

But what I'm writing about now is the very first comment on Greenwald's article, by someone with the screenname "charleythecat." Here's the comment in its entirety:
Bottom line: Anyone who does not (rhetorically) bend-over and take it up the ass for Israeli interests is an anti-Semite.
I might not have bothered to point it out if this line had occurred in the context of an extended, reasoned discussion; but as I said, that is all that charleythecat had to say on the subject. He evidently thought he could forestall criticism with "rhetorically," but since so many people use "literally" to mean "figuratively," it's not the most effective defense. The "rhetorical" figure itself comes from homophobic and misogynist discourse anyway, which sees literal (by which I mean literal, not figurative) penetration as debasing, humiliating, and polluting, so the rhetorical use depends on the literal one.

(As I've noticed before, butts and buttsex play a very large role in boy culture and its games of one-upmanship. Even I couldn't resist asking charleythecat if "Bottom line" was meant to be part of the joke. Many words and idioms in English, to say nothing of other languages, can be used to allude to, imply, and joke about buttsex.)

Notice too that while charleythecat suggests coercion, it's not very strong coercion: take it up the ass, or you'll be called an anti-Semite! Your money, or be called an anti-Semite! Give me liberty, or give me your ass! Anyone who can't stand up to name-calling probably deserves to be debased. Of course, what is at stake in the smear campaign Greenwald wrote about is more important than mere verbal debasement: one target writer has already left the Center for American Progress (CAP) for another job, and destroying the target organizations by cutting off their funding and access would no doubt please the perpetrators, if it made criticism of Israel even more difficult to publish than it already is.

The last time I wrote about this subject, you may recall, it involved a commenter at alicublog who rewrote the gospel parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus to put the poor suffering Lazarus in hell, where he was "fucked by demons in every orifice." The commenter tried to defend himself by insisting that he was writing about "demon-nostril-rape", not anal sex, a half-hearted defense belied by the fact that he hadn't used the word "rape" and had written of "every orifice," not just the nostrils. (He may also have responded derisively as an assertion of straight-male privilege.) His defense inadvertently showed that for him, "fuck" means "rape," underscoring the way so many straight men have trouble distinguishing between the two.

The distinction doesn't really matter, though, because the power and meaning of rape is that it humiliates, debases and pollutes the victim by virtue of penetrating him or her; consent is irrelevant, though forcing the pollution on another elevates the rapist even higher in his own mind. Consent is also irrelevant because a woman who consents to be penetrated outside of marriage (that is, by anyone but the male who owns her), is still polluted, a whore and a slut. See again the passages, in the biblical book of Ezekiel, in which Yahweh denounces Jerusalem as a "harlot," a loose woman who welcomes and enjoys the embrace of other gods / nations -- "whore" in the biblical context is also "rhetorical," meaning any polluted woman, not just a woman who sells sexual service. As punishment, Yahweh (who's insecure about his, um, manhood) threatens to uncover Jerusalem's nakedness in front of all her lovers, another scenario of sexual debasement and humiliation. The entire chapter of Ezekiel 23 is pornographic, in the strict etymological sense.

And, of course, a man who freely and willingly consents to be penetrated is a faggot. Reversed, calling a man a faggot regardless of his sexual practices is meant to debase him by implying that he's so low, such a "fucking weak ass ... loos[er]", that he's no different from men who are literally penetrated and therefore polluted.

It's true, though unimportant, that women and gay men also speak of penetration as degrading. I presume that the women who do so enjoy imagining themselves as participating in masculine power and authority. Some gay men do so because they personally enjoy being degraded, or enjoy consensual sexual scenarios involving degradation. Or nonconsensual ones. (Which doesn't mean that the false equivalence the writer of that article posits between Savage and Santorum isn't repulsively dishonest.) Others, because they want to identify with homophobic straight men. That's not, presumably, what charleythecat had in mind (though who knows?). I've also suggested before that many gay men fall back on the claim that they were born gay because they feel bad about being gay, about being penetrated, and want to exculpate themselves by blaming it on their genes. That's what's known as internalized homophobia, and it's sad, but it won't be healed by perpetuating the belief that sex inherently involves the humiliation of one partner by the other, and using that belief to power rhetoric perpetuates it.

I might not digress too far if I mention Gandhi's 1929 letter to W. E. B. DuBois, in which he wrote: "Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact that they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is no dishonour in being slaves. There is dishonour in being slave-owners." (The letter is available online, but I first read the quotation in Vijay Prahad's The Karma of Brown Folk [Minnesota, 2000], page 176.) Analogously, there's no dishonor in being penetrated, whether willingly or unwillingly. (It's one of the core indictments of patriarchy that it casts the victim of rape -- female or male -- as polluted, and better off dead.) The dishonor lies in using sex, whether literal or rhetorical, to humiliate others.

Still, that's the key: the first thing that popped into charleythecat's head when he considered a smear campaign against critics of Israel was a fag joke. And he boiled down Greenwald's complex argument to nothing more than a claim that Israel is trying to make America its bitch. While I don't doubt that boy-dominance games get played in the mostly-male corridors of power, there really is more involved than that.