Monday, April 30, 2012

The Facts of the Case

Today one of my liberal Facebook friends linked to a blog post about Rick Santorum's stupidity while he was still running for the Republican presidential nomination. I can't cast the first stone at another blogger for not being timely, and anyway, that's not really what I noticed in the post.

Senator Santorum, you'll recall, claimed in public that only one university in California offered courses in U.S. history. Rachel Maddow, fearless defendrix of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, exposed Santorum's ignorance for all to see. Santorum then explained that what he "should have said was that none of the UC campuses teach a survey course in Western Civilization." This also isn't true, and after enjoying a hearty laugh at Republican Stoopid, the blogger expresses his bafflement about it:
I really don't get this. If you're Rick Santorum and you're issuing an apology like this, you have to know it's going to make it to the air and be fact-checked. Don't you turn to an intern or someone and say, "Hey, before I send this out, call up the University of California and make sure they don't offer courses in Western Civilization so I don't look like an idiot again"? And there were people who wanted this man to have the job where you get to order a nuclear attack.
He has a point.

The friend who linked this post commented "Don't let those silly 'facts' get in the way", and a commenter chimed in: "in the GOP emotions trump facts." I argued that in politics emotions trump facts, and that Democrats are no more interested in facts than Republicans are. My friend chided me for saying that there's no difference between the parties, which of course was not what I said (and which tends to support my position rather than his). And one difference is that if you're a Republican and you say something that isn't true, Rachel Maddow and other Obama fans will be all over your case; if you're President Obama and you say something that isn't true, Ms. Maddow will maintain a discreet silence about it, and the President won't "look like an idiot." After all, there's an election campaign going on, loose lips sink ships, we all have to do our part in the war effort.

For example, last week the President told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that his administration had cracked down on medical-marijuana dispensaries "because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law. I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, 'Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books' . . . ". Glenn Greenwald promptly pointed out that "as Jon Walker conclusively documents, the law vests the Executive Branch with precisely the discretion he falsely claims he does not have to decide how drugs are classified." I can't find that Ms. Maddow has pounced on this absurd falsehood. Neither have the Republicans, though.

But I'll stick with education. Last week during a story on protests over student debt in the US, Democracy Now! ran a clip of a speech by Obama in which he said, "We can’t price the middle class out of a college education, not at a time when most new jobs in America will require more than a high school diploma."

This is one of the President's favorite themes, repeated over several years, but it too is false. Even on its face it's suspect: if there are all those shiny new jobs out that which require college degrees, why are there so many recent college graduates who can't find work, and certainly not the kind of work they went into debt for? Alexander Cockburn did a good piece on the subject of the "Knowledge Economy" in March, pointing out that most jobs in America, including "new" ones (of which there just aren't very many, as each month's job report reminds us), do not require even a bachelor's degree. The late Gerald Bracey criticized Obama repeatedly on this point, in February 2009 for example (emphasis mine):
Obama said, "Right now, three quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma, and yet just over half of our citizens have that level of education." Scary, huh? Not really. This statistic was a favorite of ex secretary of education of education Margaret Spellings, about whom we can all express a sigh of relief that the operative word is, "ex."
If you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics stats on job projections, it is almost true (but not really) that what Obama said is right. But there are two hugely compromising factors that make this statistic much less fearsome that it first appears:
1. The definition of "more than a high school diploma" is a weasel phrase, an incredibly slippery statistic. It does not mean a B. A., an Associates Degree, nor even a year of on-the-job training. The BLS projects that the overwhelming majority of jobs to be created between now and 2016 will require "short term on the job training." That's one week to three months.
2. The "fastest-growing occupations" account for very few jobs. For every systems engineer, we need about 15 sales people on the floor at Wal-Mart (and we have three newly minted scientists and engineers for every new job in those fields). The huge job numbers in this country are accounted for by retail sales, janitors, maids, food workers, waiters, truck drivers, home care assistants (low paid folk who come to take care those of us who are getting up in years), and similar low-trained, low-paid occupations. Note that I did not say these people are "low-skilled." As Barbara Ehrenreich showed after she spent two years working in "low-skilled" jobs, there really is no such thing (see her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America).
The sentences I put into boldface are the key: "more than a high school diploma" includes one week to three months of "short-term on-the-job training."

So, either the President is ignorant or he's lying, but what he's saying is misleading, to put it kindly. Bracey says that Obama "accepted the same garbage that the propagandists, fear mongers such as Lou Gerstner, Bill Gates, Roy Romer, Bob Wise, Craig Barrett and many others--God help us, Arne Duncan?--have been spewing for years." Whatever the reason, Obama has no reason to worry about looking like an idiot, no matter how many lies he tells. If a Republican utters a palpable untruth, Rachel Maddow will criticize it publicly; if a Democrat does it, Maddow will find something else to talk about, like Teh Ex-Gey. Even the Republicans don't seem to be interested in exposing falsehoods like this; they're more interested in Obama's birth certificate. Republican media will claim that a Democrat is lying, but of course it's hit-or-miss whether they'll be be right about it.

This goes back to Noam Chomsky's dictum, shared with Martin Luther King Jr., that it takes no courage to attack the crimes and lies of your official enemies; what is harder, and often dangerous (though much less so in the US), is attacking the crimes and lies of your own side and its friends. But as Chomsky also suggests, it is precisely the people who attack official enemies exclusively who will crow about their courage in Speaking Truth to Power, while attacking the troublemakers who criticize the home team as cowards, drug-addled nuts, and traitors.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Good News for Modern Woman

I'm gradually rereading all of Marge Piercy's work this year, and I've just begun her second novel, Dance the Eagle to Sleep, originally published in 1970.  I remembered from my previous reading, long ago, how rough the book had seemed: it's very much a product of the Sixties, full of sex and drugs and rock and roll.  I don't think it's yet a feminist novel yet (that would come in her third one, Small Changes): three of the four main characters are young males, who are a bit more willing than than the norm to recognize their common humanity with women, but they still have to be shocked into it.  For example, the science and math prodigy Billy is surprised when a young woman turns out to be a person:
Ginny hung around and finally out of embarrassment he put her to work with the crew.  It turned out she wasn't stupid.  He could not say why he had assumed she was.  She even asked good questions.  He forgot to be worried about how he should act.  He treated her like the rest of the crew and that seemed to work.
To be fair to Billy, his assumption about Ginny was based as much in class and intellectual snobbery as in sexism, and it's probably significant that he learns to see past it.

Dance the Eagle to Sleep is a science fiction novel (Piercy has published at least three of them), a precursor of her now-classic Woman on the Edge of Time.  The premise is a youth revolt in the later 20th or early 21st century, after a heavy clampdown on the social-justice movements of the 1960s.  Universal service, military or civilian, has been instituted to keep the population under control.

What got my attention and led me to write about the book here was this passage about the climax of a student school takeover (emphasis added):
The fourth night, the police cordon was reinforced by busloads of tactical police, and they knew the crisis had come.  "Four days and three nights to turn five hundred kids into a people," Corey said.  They lay on the roof watching the police bring up a bulldozer and get ready to smash in through the south doors.  It was eerie.  The moon was risen and bright on them.  The police did not move like men, because they were so encased in their weapons and paraphernalia.  They carried side arms, cases for handcuffs on their left hips, a club for head knocking and ball breaking, a gas mask and extra rounds of ammunition.  Some had devices on their backs for spraying gas.  Others carried spray cans or grenades.  They moved with the stiffness of men laden with gadgets and protected from any sense of what they do.  Something that looked like a tank was drawn up.
Since the Occupy movement began, many people have become aware of the increasing militarization of American police forces.  Piercy reminded me that it's not new, but she also foresaw how much it would advance.  It seems to me that most of the countercultural fiction from the 1960s and 1970s read by students today was written by men; but some important work was written by women, and Dance the Eagle to Sleep is a good example.  It even got an enthusiastic blurb from Thomas Pynchon, and it's newly back in print.  It's a reminder that the Occupy Movement is in many ways a replay of what people knew forty years ago and more -- which is depressing on one hand, but also suggests that there are lessons to be learned if the suppression of dissent isn't to be repeated now.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Would Turnabout Be Fair Play?

I know this is really terrible of me, and I feel really guilty about it, but I couldn't resist: Suppose the Chinese government surrounded the US embassy and played Beijing opera arias at top volume nonstop until the Americans surrendered Mr. Chen.  Would Americans think that was funny and cool, as they did when our forces used this tactic in a similar case?*  Or when our friends have done it?

I feel guilty for this idea because I hope Chen Guangcheng makes good his escape.  I'd feel the same way if Bradley Manning somehow managed to escape custody and seek shelter in an embassy somewhere, though I can't imagine what country would give him asylum; whistleblowers and dissidents aren't really very popular anywhere.

*Of course there's no real comparison between Manuel Noriega, who was driven from the Vatican embassy in Panama by high-volume recorded serenades of "Highway to Hell" and other American classics, and the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.  As this blogger said, Noriega was "a pimp, a human right abused [sic] and a drug dealer."  He was, however, our pimp, human rights abuser and drug dealer, like so many fine leaders and friends of democracy around the world.  "Washington also looked the other way during the 1984 elections in Panama," when Noriega's chosen presidential candidate conveniently won; as usual in US apologetics, "looked the other way" is of course inaccurate: the Reagan regime sent Secretary of State George Shultz, Noriega's longtime patron, to attend the inauguration of Noriega's proxy.  Five years later Noriega had become too full of himself, so the Bush I regime removed him, along with a rather large number of Panamanian civilians, and installed a more loyal and tractable client in his place.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Part of My Culture

A good place to begin might be with the story of eighteen-year-old Laxmi Sargara from the great state of Rajasthan in India, who was betrothed to the slightly older Rakesh when she was one year old.  She knew nothing of this agreement until very recently ("a few days ago," according to the BBC story), when her in-laws tried to claim her.  (It's reminiscent of a motif in some European fairy tales, isn't it?)  Her parents wanted her to go through with it, so she consulted an NGO and with their help, was able to annul the marriage.  Child marriages are now illegal under Indian law anyway, but they are still common in "rural and poorer [read: "traditional"] communities."  (I suspect that the parents were trying to get around the law by delaying the actual wedding [as opposed to the betrothal] until the kids were of age, but they didn't reckon with the growing disrespect and rebelliousness of Kids These Days.)

According to the BBC, this is "thought to be the first case of its kind in India."  Needless to say, I hope, I consider find it immensely cheering and I admire Laxmi Sargara for her courage and determination; I hope her parents don't feel obliged to punish her for her defiance of their wishes and their authority, to say nothing of their shame before their neighbors.

I found Sargara's story in my Tabloid Friend's news feed on Facebook, along with this comment from one of his friends: "This is sick, this is wrong. What kind of 'parents' did this poor girl get stuck with? And how many instances are there that we don't know about." I replied:
"‎Sick" and "wrong" are two different things. But arranged marriages are examples of the "traditional" marriages that so many gay people have told me they want. They're biblical, in fact. Betrothal at the age of 1 is a bit extreme, but only in kind, not in degree. At least they didn't turn the girl over to her in-laws at 8 or 10, as often happens. This was a fairly liberal arrangement, and not abnormal for good families in India -- to answer your question of "what kind of 'parents' did this poor girl get stuck with?" Normal Indian parents, that's what kind. 

Understand: I'm not saying this was a good arrangement, and I'm cheering that girl for her courage and determination. It takes physical courage to go against your culture as she did. I'm just saying is case like this are why I cringe when people assume that marriage is a beautiful thing, and talk about "marriage equality." Marriage is a lot of things, many (or even most of them) bad -- especially for women.
The earlier commenter replied that just because it's biblical doesn't make it "right or proper," and I naturally agree.  Nor does the fact that something is normal in a culture.  That's why I drew the analogy to marriage in the US today.  Almost everyone seems to pay lip service to the goodness of monogamous marriage -- it's the benchmark that same-sex marriage "equality" aspires to -- even though that institution is problematic for women in many ways.  Even someone like the anti-religious, sexually radical Homo Superior can claim that "there is no progressive case against gay marriage as an issue of social justice," and that "all social justice movements of the past have sought to change access to existing institutions".  By his logic, there's no real problem of social justice in Laxmi Sargara's case, since both children were betrothed by their parents: no inequality between the sexes was involved.  If parents betrothed two male or two female infants, you'd have arranged-marriage equality.

This is just one instance in a larger problem that I've written about before: the "respect" that supposedly is due to different cultures than our own.  It's not easy to resolve; in fact I believe it is impossible, and can only be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.  But a lot of bad arguments are deployed whenever it comes up.

I came upon the story of Laxmi Sargara soon after I started reading Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism (Minnesota, 1999) by Craig S. Womack, a Creek/Cherokee writer who's now Associate Professor of English at Emory University, specializing in Native American literature.  I'm only about 60 pages (of 300) into Red on Red, and so far I'm conflicted about the book.  Womack has plenty of sense, but he also swerves into bad sense periodically.

I'm sympathetic to the project of Native American academic separatism, as I am to separatism by other groups -- women, queers, people of color -- but I'm also aware of the contradictions it inescapably involves.  For example, American lesbian separatists of the 1970s did their best to withdraw not only from men, but from men's institutions; academic feminists of the same period were not separatists: Women's Studies (or Afro-American Studies or GLB Studies) Departments don't constitute separatism any more than Chemistry Departments or Business Schools do.  Native American Studies will have plenty of non-Indian students, just as Afro-American Studies draw whites, Women's Studies draws men, and GLB Studies draw straights, the more so since whites have been involved in Native American Studies all along.  Serious separatists know that they need to build their own institutions, not join those of the oppressor.  Which doesn't mean that it's invalid to do Native American (or other) studies within the white man's university, only that it's dubious as separatism.

I certainly don't object to Native American Studies programs being defined and directed by Indians; that's exactly what I want, as I want from everybody else: to hear from them how the world looks to them.  Separatism would demand that I not read, not listen, but as I've said before, I've never let that stop me before.

That's where the contradictions come in.  In the introduction, Womack quotes "Anna Lee Walter's cogent remarks" (9):
Scholars or authorities from academia, from outside tribal societies, do not necessarily know tribal people best.  There is an inherent right of tribal people to interpret events and time in their worlds according to their own aesthetics and values, as a component of American history, even when this interpretation is different from that of mainstream history.
"I might add," Womack adds, "especially when the interpretation is different from that of the mainstream."  To which I might add, oh, indubitably, but big whoop.  Walter's remarks can be transposed to any other other group: try substituting women, or gays, or African-Americans, or Jews, or Rajasthani parents for "tribal people."  There is indeed an inherent right of any group to interpret events and time in their worlds according to their own aesthetics and values, but that doesn't mean that academics don't have an inherent right to use their intellectual tools wherever they wish; academics are a tribal group with their own traditions and values, which often puts them at odds with the mainstream. (But what is the mainstream? -- a question to which I'll return.)  Academics just shouldn't be given power over others; I'm not sure if anybody should.

Think of conflicts between middle-American gays who know they were born gay and who denounce academic Queer Theorists who, they allege, think it's just a choice.  Think of conflicts between the Talented Tenth of middle-class African-Americans who made careers for themselves in historically black colleges (a prime example of separatism), and the other ninety percent of African-Americans.  Then think of white progressives who denounce hoity-toity academics of any color who make "race" an object of study, even though it's a social construct.  And then think of academics from non-Western societies who study in American universities and feel free to interpret and judge American gay communities by their (supposedly non-Western but actually Western-academic) aesthetics and values.  Think of Christians who are upset by academic Christian scholars for questioning and undermining the beloved traditional grounds of ordinary believers' faith.  And so on.

Womack declares, "I do not bother much in this book with the skepticism of postmodernism in relation to history.  It is way too premature for Native scholars to deconstruct history when we haven't yet constructed it" (3).  He then quotes "Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau":
I never even encountered the word "essentialist" before coming to grad school, and then it was thrown at me like a dirty word, mostly because I wrote something about Native writers and the land in a paper.

.... The same professor who labeled me "essentialist," said there was no truth, no history, just lots of people's viewpoints.  I argued that some things actually did happen.  That some versions of history are not just a point of view, but actual distortions and lies.

It is just now, when we are starting to tell our stories that suddenly there is no truth.  It's a big cop out as far as I'm concerned, a real political move by the mainstream to protect itself that Native people, African Americans, gay and lesbian folks ... are telling.  If everybody's story is all of a sudden equally true, then there is no guilt, no accountability, no need to change anything, no need for reparations, no arguments for sovereign nation status,  and their positions of power are maintained [3-4].
For better or worse, most people probably encounter words and ideas in graduate school that they'd never encountered before; that's not in itself an argument against those words and ideas.  In fact, it's one of the reasons one goes to graduate school.  Which doesn't mean that Savageau's professor wasn't full of shit.

But notice the irony here.  There's nothing about "postmodernism," as Womack presents it, that forestalls anybody from "get[ting] our stories told" (4); rather the opposite: that stance would discredit any attempt by Savageau's professor to privilege his stories, his labels, his viewpoint over anyone else's.  If nobody's story is more valid than anybody's else's, there's no reason not to tell all of them.  But an essentialist stance would justify the professor's dismissal of Savageau's ideas, since he was the authority and she was just a lowly graduate student, and an Injun at that.  When I read stuff like this, I wonder what would have happened to me if I'd gone to graduate school.  Since I disagreed with my professors on such issues on more than one occasion as an undergraduate, I imagine I'd have gone on doing so, and it might have made my career or it might have ended it.  I can't help wondering if part of Savageau's problem was that her tribal truth required deference to elders "and their positions of power", no matter how wrong they were.

Later, Womack quotes "Phillip Deere, a full-blood traditionalist from Nuyaka Grounds" (54):
I think a lot about these things.  Sometimes it makes me wonder how many of our people will be destroyed?  How many of them will be lost forever?  I keep looking around.  I keep a thinking and I hope that I'm not the only Indian left because of knowing this.  We may look like Indians, we have the color of an Indian, but what are we thinking?  What are we doing to our own children who are losing their language, their own ways?

I sometimes think that even within the government, there's an all-out effort to lose Mr. Indian.  Even Reagan, his new Federalism or whatever it is, it means cutting off all the funding from the Indian people ... But on the other hand, what's our people acting like?  Are they still trying to be Indians or are they just benefit Indians, a three-day Indian, a clinic Indian, or BIA-school Indian, what kind of Indian are they? [55].
I take Mr. Deere's words very seriously; he says important things.  But he also sounds exactly like a white right-wing Republican conservative elder.  Let me just rewrite the first paragraph with a few minor substitutions:
I keep a thinking and I hope that I'm not the only American left because of knowing this.  We may look like Americans, we have the color of an American, but what are we thinking?  What are we doing to our own children who are losing their own language, their own ways?
When I read Womack, I find myself remembering the struggle over American history and how it's to be taught.  "Full-blood traditionalists" don't want a bunch of postmodernist college perfessors trampling on the inherent right of American people to interpret events and time in their worlds according to their own aesthetics and values.  The David Brooks column I just linked to is full of the same complaints that Womack vents, but from the Anglo-American tribal viewpoint.

I agree that different opinions and arguments should be listened to, especially when they go against the mainstream of history and culture.  But I'd apply that to Native Americans' mainstream interpretations, no less than I do to mainstream American interpretations.  Outside of academia and other select hotbeds of dissent and "deconstruction", I might be less inclined to question mainstream views, but in the university everything is fair game.  But why limit it to the university?  If I, and other people, don't question mainstream views that are objectionable, who will?  Consider again Noam Chomsky's and Martin Luther King Jr.'s dictum that one must first criticize one's own country and culture; is that a "mainstream" view?  Certainly not; it's why people like Chomsky and King are attacked by the mainstream. (Nietzsche said something similar: "A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions: rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions.")

So, when Womack writes that "an important characteristic of the Creek nation [is] its tendency to 'swallow up” smaller groups that moved into Creek country (these groups would often become assimilated Creek, most eventually adopting the Creek language) … This 'swallowing up' effect is important because it demonstrates that Creeks were able to view nationalism as a dynamic, rather than a static, process" (30-31), I have to giggle and smirk, just as I do when a mainstream American glosses over little problems in our shared history.  Perhaps the Creek aren't as different from the Whites as Womack wants to think, I suspect. Then I want to know more, which is why I'm going to continue reading.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and the Associated Press

I've said before that the corporate media's distortions are often a matter of tone or emphasis rather than fact; but sometimes they just lie.  Today I found in my local paper a full page Associated Press story on Social Security, reporting that "the government" says that Social Security will "run dry" in 2033, three years earlier than previously predicted.  This is not only false, it's a falsehood that has been advanced and refuted many times over the past decade and more.

I had a bit of trouble finding an online link for the story: the local paper and the Christian Science Monitor ("Social Security Fund: Cash Gone by 2033"), Newsday, and other sites require registration or jumping through various hoops to read it.  But here's a link.

Yesterday PBS had a faux debate between an advocate for Social Security, Nancy Altman, and someone who wants to dance on its grave, David John of the Heritage Foundation.  Host Ray Suarez spoke of the "economic swoon of 2008-9" as a factor in the program's declining revenues.  "Swoon" seems like a tendentious understatement; something like "kneecapping" would have been a better metaphor, it seems to me.  And it's true, earlier more optimistic projections of Social Security's future were based on a higher (but still very conservative) assumption about America's economic growth.  The crash of 2008-9 put paid to such an assumption, and Republicans and Democrats have been collaborating assiduously to keep growth (though not corporate profits) hobbled; but I don't think that's intended purely to damage Social Security -- it's the general well-being of American workers (employment, wages, hours, etc.) that is the target.

What will happen in 2033, as even the AP story admits, is not that the trust fund will run dry, run out of cash, be insolvent, etc.  What will happen is that Social Security will still be taking in payroll taxes, which will enable payment of about 75% of benefits.  (The story further confuses things by combining Social Security and Medicare, two different programs with different problems.)  And as FAIR pointed out of another recent attack on Social Security, this isn't a problem "unless you believe the money in the trust fund won't be paid back to taxpayers."  Dean [Baker] wrote, "This is the same situation the government faces when Wall Street investment banker Peter Peterson or any other holder of government bonds decides to cash in their bonds when they become due. In such cases it 'must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors.'" Our corporate media pundits have no objection to Pete Peterson or other wealthy people's cashing in their government bonds to get the money that is owed them -- only ordinary citizens like you and me.  And as the the pundit Baker was criticizing tacitly conceded, the trust fund could be built up by various means if the People Who Matter wanted to; the trouble is that they don't.  Social Security is a thorn in their sides -- not because it costs them anything (it's self-financing), but because it apparently drives them crazy to see the hoi polloi deriving benefits from their government, as if they were real people.

As I indicated before, the AP story isn't anything new; it's just the latest installment in the long propaganda war against Social Security and other government programs which protect the interests of the vast majority of American citizens, as opposed to those which support the tiny majority of the most well-off.  But it's propaganda that many of us believe, so it needs to be answered every time.

The More It Changes, The More It Is the Same

Then ...
... and now:

Then ...
... and now (actually 2009):
I don't mean to make a big deal out of this. (Unlike this blogger, who harumphed that it wasn't "appropriate," and that there "ought to be a bit more gravitas when you meet the president, I think. Maybe I'm too stuffy.") Still, the continuity ought to be noticed.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Fools Think About the Clever People, Of Course

My Tabloid Friend on Facebook posted this image to his news feed last night.  Of course, it never entered his mind, or the minds of his commenters who liked it, that Bernstein could have been talking about them.  No, it must be about the Reichtards, the wingnuts, the religious wackos.  Democrats, and especially pro-Obama Democrats, are smart.

I'm listening to a speech by Thomas Frank on Alternative Radio, on "Ideology Over Reality."  He's having fun telling how people like Eric Cantor, confronted with the information that Ronald Reagan raised taxes, simply refuse to believe it.  "Ideology," Frank calls that, but I think he's wrong there.  It's the cult of personality, which trumps both ideology and reality, and Tabloid Friend's posts bear witness to it.  (What does the President know?  Who cares?  He'll burp us.  He'll cover us with his feathers, and give us shelter under his wings.)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Thirty-Two Flavors, All of Them Vanilla

One of Glenn Greenwald's commenters linked to this 2008 article from The American Scholar, which is worth reading all the way through.  It's a very good account of the limitations, and as the writer calls them, disadvantages of an elite education.  I agree with most of what he says, but he stumbles usefully at a couple of points.  First:
I have a friend who went to an Ivy League college after graduating from a typically mediocre public high school. One of the values of going to such a school, she once said, is that it teaches you to relate to stupid people. Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them. 
 It took me a moment to disentangle what Deresiewicz was saying here.  At first he thought that going to an Ivy League college "teaches you to relate to stupid people", but of course he meant that going to "a typically mediocre public high school" teaches you that.  (Mediocrity would be typical, just by definition.)  But I must differ with him.  Of course there are stupid people outside the Ivy League, but there are plenty of them inside it too.  I'm not just talking about people like George W. Bush, who is lazy and ignorant but not stupid.  I'm talking about the elites who surrounded and enabled him, the neocons and technocrats, who with competence and even brilliance nearly destroyed the world economy and guided the US and its cronies into some horribly destructive wars -- just as their predecessors a half-century ago conducted the Cold War and numerous wars, small and large, that did no good at all to anyone except to ruling elites.

Deresiewicz is aware of this, to some extent.
For the elite, there’s always another extension—a bailout, a pardon, a stint in rehab—always plenty of contacts and special stipends—the country club, the conference, the year-end bonus, the dividend ... The fat salaries paid to underperforming CEOs are an adult version of the A-. Anyone who remembers the injured sanctimony with which Kenneth Lay greeted the notion that he should be held accountable for his actions will understand the mentality in question—the belief that once you’re in the club, you’ve got a God-given right to stay in the club. But you don’t need to remember Ken Lay, because the whole dynamic played out again last year in the case of Scooter Libby, another Yale man.
 It's worth recalling here the experience of a working-class boy who attended another elite school: Raymond Williams, the son of a Welsh railroad worker, earned a scholarship to Cambridge University in 1939.  Later in life he wrote about what he saw there.
The class which has dominated Cambridge is given to describing itself as well-mannered, polite, sensitive. It continually contrasts itself favourably with the rougher and coarser others. When it turns to the arts, it congratulates itself, overtly, on its taste and its sensibility; speaks of its poise and tone. If I then say that what I found was an extraordinarily coarse, pushing, name-ridden group, I shall be told that I am showing class-feeling, class-envy, class-resentment. That I showed class-feeling is not in any doubt. All I would insist on is that nobody fortunate enough to grow up in a good home, in a genuinely well-mannered and sensitive community, could for a moment envy these loud, competitive and deprived people. All I did not know then was how cold that class is. That comes with experience [What I Came to Say (Hutchinson Radius, 1989), p. 6].
Another lesson to be learned from Williams's experience is that this isn't new.  Again, Deresiewicz admits as much.
I taught a class several years ago on the literature of friendship. One day we were discussing Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, which follows a group of friends from childhood to middle age. In high school, one of them falls in love with another boy. He thinks, “To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?…There is nobody—here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful games and tradition and emulation, all so skilfully organised to prevent feeling alone.” A pretty good description of an elite college campus, including the part about never being allowed to feel alone.
The Waves was published in 1931, and is based partly on Woolf's (male) contemporaries, who attended elite British schools a century ago.  Things may be worse now, though I think that's debatable, but they haven't changed fundamentally.

These quibbles (and I should also notice that Deresiewicz buys into the myth of grade inflation) don't detract from the overall worth of Deresiewicz' essay.  It's best if you balance it against the perspective of people like Raymond Williams or Noam Chomsky, who view elite institutions with a much more jaundiced eye.  Deresiewicz is criticizing them from a humanities point of view: hey, management and leadership aren't the only important things -- what about introspection and the life of the mind?  Which is perfectly valid, but I don't think it goes quite deep enough; but I'm impressed that he went as deeply as he did.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

I'll Show You the Life of the Mind

Today I picked up a copy of A. E. Housman's 1911 inaugural lecture as Kennedy Professor of Latin at the University of Cambridge.  Housman is probably best known to most people now for his verse, especially A Shropshire Lad (1896), which is a classic of love poetry between men.  But he was also a distinguished scholar of Latin and Greek literature, famous both for the quality of his work on the ancient texts and for his scathing reviews of other men's work that didn't come up his standards.  I first got interested in that aspect of Housman when I encountered his line "Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time."  Some years ago I found a selection of his prose writings, and enjoyed them a great deal even though I'm not a classicist and know no Latin or Greek at all.  What made the articles interesting was Housman's prose style, but even more, his vast learning, his clear reasoning, and his humor.  When I found the copy of the inaugural lecture and saw that it had never been completely published before, I snapped it up.

The reason the lecture had not been published during Housman's lifetime, and not in its entirety until 1969, was that he had made some statements about a poem of Percy Bysshe Shelley's that he couldn't back up: he'd criticized Algernon Swinburne for gushing over the beauty of a line that, Housman said, was "the verse, not of Shelley, but of a compositor" (33).  The poem, titled "A Lament" by Shelley's widow for posthumous publication, seems not to have been completed.  Because he couldn't prove his claim, Housman wouldn't allow the lecture to be published, and it would have been lost if his brother Laurence hadn't saved a copy.  When it was first published, the section on Shelley's poem was omitted, but eventually the editor John Carter was able to verify from manuscripts that Housman was correct, and the lecture was published unexpurgated (The Confines of Criticism: The Cambridge Inaugural 1911 [Cambridge University Press, 1969]).

It would have stood up well without the discussion of Shelley's poem.  I noticed that Housman's epigram about three minutes' thought appears to be a sharpened paraphrase of a saying of Goethe's, which he quotes: "Thinking is hard, and acting according to thought is irksome."  (Denken ist schwer, nach dem Gedanken handeln unbequem [37].)  A bit later he talks about the way people think:
Men hate to feel insecure; and a sense of security depends much less on the correctness of our opinions than on the firmness with which we hold them; so that by excluding intelligence we can often exclude discomfort.  The first thing wanted is a canon of orthodoxy, and the next thing is a pope.  The disciple resorts to the teacher, and the request he makes of him is not tell me how to get rid of error but tell me how to get rid of doubt.  In this there is nothing new: 'as knowledges are now delivered', said Bacon 300 years ago, 'there is a kind of contract of error between the deliverer and the receiver.  For he that delivereth knowledge desireth to deliver it in such form as may be best believed, and not as may be best examined; and he that receiveth knowledge desireth rather present satisfaction than expectant enquiry.'  Blind followers of rules will be blind followers of masters: a pupil who has got out of the habit of thinking will take his teacher's word for gospel, and will be delighted with a state of things in which intellectual scrutiny not only ceases to be a duty but becomes an act of insubordination [40-41].
Not much has changed in the past hundred years -- or in the three centuries before that, as Housman says.  The lecture as a whole is a splendid argument for intellectual autonomy, its necessity and its rarity.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

O Ye of Too Much Faith

I'm disliking Rachel Maddow more and more. I've had doubts about her for a long time, because of her willful ignorance about the breadth of the political spectrum -- she obviously got off more on having Martha Stewart as a guest than Naomi Klein -- and I pretty much wrote her off when she shilled for President Obama at Netroots Nation in 2010. You can't be a bold independent journalist and an overt partisan for one party and one President.

More recently she published a book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, in which she "traces how U.S. national intelligence agencies have taken over duties that were once assigned to the military, and how this shift has increased the public disconnect from the consequences of war." Band of Thebes kvelled over the book, mentioning Maddow's own close ties to the military -- her father was a Vietnam vet, "and she might have joined up herself, were it not for that LGBT ban." Glenn Greenwald praised it, and David Swanson did a good takedown of it, pointing out among other things that "Missing is the fact that U.S. wars kill people other than U.S. troops." (Glenn Greenwald's interview with Maddow confirms this: she just doesn't want to think about the effects of our invasions on our victims, she refuses to imagine how anyone could want to hurt America.)

Now she's done a story on what she calls "Praying the Gay Away," which is full of factual errors and illogic. Factual errors include her deliberate confusion of religious bigotry and scientific bigotry: you can see her stumble over a transition from praying to therapy, trying to make them equivalent by sheer dogged insistence. She ties what she sees as a "mainstreaming" of ex-gay pseudotherapy to the 2001 publication of Robert L. Spitzer's study purporting to show that some gays can change their sexual orientation through therapy -- a study which Spitzer recently repudiated. This ignores just how mainstream antigay bigotry is, long before Spitzer's study was published. Newsweek did a cover story on the ex-gay movement in 1998, featuring John Paulk, who was caught in a Washington D.C. gay bar two years later. The sex researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson claimed in a 1979 book that they had changed some people's sexual orientation; Time took them seriously; it now appears that these claims were false, even fabricated. (It's worth noticing that Masters wrote repeatedly of heterosexuals being "recruited" to homosexuality.)

Sure, decades worth of history don't fit easily into a nine-minute segment, but you can often tell whether a commentator actually knows the whole story; listening to Maddow, I don't think she does. But when you know you have the truth, and that you're superior to all those wingnuts, who needs factual accuracy?

(Compare Maddow's tone in the video clip to her characterization of antiwar activists in Drift, quoted by Swanson: "advocates of ending war show up in a brief reference to 'student activists and peaceniks,' and a characterization of publications favoring peace as those advertising 'Oriental herbs, futons, prefab geodesic homes, all-cotton drawstring pants, send-a-crystal-to-a-friend, and the magic of Feldenkrais’s Awareness Through Movement seminars.'" Ironically, Maddow's caricature of opponents of war sounds a lot like certain caricatures of lesbians.)

If there has been a change in "ex-gay" hucksterism over the past few decades, it's that the movement has increasingly stressed therapy over prayer, dusting off discredited psychiatric theories from the 1940s and 1950s such as Close-Binding and Intimate Mother / Distant or Absent Father, and/or Confused Gender Identity. Evidently they don't expect to convince anyone anymore that homosexuality is a sin; they now present it as a sickness.

This leads to certain difficulties, some of which could be exploited by their critics: the mental-illness model is, or at least used to be, denounced by conservative Christians as a denial of human sinfulness, since it rejects judgment of the mentally ill in favor of compassionate medical care. If I'm gay because my mother held me too close, then it's not my fault. In the medical model, homosexuality isn't a "lifestyle choice," or a choice of any kind; it's beyond our control. This suggests to me that many antigay Christians aren't all that comfortable with fulminations against Sodomites, and want to take a different, less hostile tack, if only to make themselves feel better. (On the other hand, doublethink is a treasured Christian tradition, so it's entirely practicable to froth about the sin of Sodom and weep salt tears of compassion for our blighted lives, just as gay people have turned the mental-illness concept of "homophobia" into a moral judgment of tremendous harshness.) People who want to attack the ex-gay movement should try pointing out its abandonment of religion for secular medicine.

On the other hand, the idea that gay people suffer from gender identity confusion is compatible with current allegedly pro-gay theories which hold that we are biologically feminized males and masculinized women. Except that when we say it, it's a good thing -- or rather, it's supposed to be, but many gay people still adopt the tactic of wailing that no one would choose a lifestyle that causes us to be hated, discriminated against, etc., which sounds like it's not such a good thing after all. This, I've argued before, is why so many gay people become infuriated at the claim that homosexuality is a Choice: they hate being gay, they hate being different, and can only come to an uneasy accommodation with their condition by blaming it on their genes. They really agree with the bigots: If we weren't born gay, we can change, and if we can change, we must change.

Maddow argues that Spitzer's 2001 study gave the ex-gay movement support for their agenda. This only makes sense if you're unaware, as she evidently is, that the ex-gay movement is decades older than that, dating back to the 70s at least. She knows that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used to list homosexuality as a disorder, but she blames that on religion, without any evidence. But antigay Christians didn't need Spitzer, or Masters and Johnson, or Freud for that matter: they just latched onto anything that might make their case look respectable, just as many gay people seize on scientifically invalid research that can be used to support the claim that we are born this way. What matters is the conclusion, not the evidence.

It never seems to occur to people like Maddow to question whether the status of gay people should be decided by psychiatrists or other mental health professionals. After all, the DSM is subject to regular review and change. How did homosexuality change overnight from a dread illness to a neutral condition? Even though the American Psychiatric Association no longer considered homosexuality to be a disease, it still considered it valid for therapists to treat us and even try to change us, until the past few years. Why should gay people -- or anyone -- trust the APA at all? The Gay Liberation movement rejected any claims to authority over us by professionals, and I still think that was the right attitude.

Even if sexual orientation could be changed, no one would be obligated to do so. One's religious affiliation can be changed, after all, yet people are allowed to remain in the sect they choose, or to change to another one if they wish. Whenever I hear the rhetoric of people "struggling with same-sex attractions," I always want to ask, "What if I'm not struggling with those attractions? What if I embrace them?"

Maddow's performance in the video clip is more of a rant than a reasoned exposition; as she says at the beginning, "I've been looking forward to doing this story for a long time." If that were so, she should have prepared better. But lack of preparation combined with pomposity and truculence seems to be her style, rather like the unlamented Keith Olbermann. In the end she interviews Gabriel Arana, an ex-ex-gay who reported Robert Spitzer's retraction of his study. In an article at The American Prospect, Arana writes that when Spitzer's study was published,
With few voices to challenge the testimonials, reporters transmitted them as revelation. Newsweek ran a sympathetic cover story on change therapy, and national and regional papers published ex-gays’ accounts. My mother might not have so easily found information about ex-gay therapy had the Christian right not planted this stake in the culture war.
This is highly misleading, and a typical distortion of our history. In 2001 there were many voices that could have "challenged the testimonials." The straight media simply weren't interested in listening to them, let alone reporting them.  That's not surprising; what is surprising is that most gay people weren't interested in listening to them. The ineffectiveness of change therapy had been known for decades at that time, and the sex scandals that plagued the ex-gay ministries had been reported all along, mainly in the gay press because the straight media weren't interested. Arana's whole article is equally disingenuous, and while I sympathize with his struggle and suffering, he really needs to inform himself -- and his readers -- better. When he was in "therapy" with a change therapist, from 1998, he blamed his parents for his homosexuality; now he blames his therapist. When do we start taking responsibility for our own lives?

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Sound of Silence

I was traveling for a few days, and though I got home yesterday I haven't been able to think of anything to write about. I imagine that will change soon, but I'm trying to go through the mood and see where it leads me.

For now, someone posted this graphic on Facebook, and while I don't know if Steve Buscemi actually said this, it sums up my own attitude very well.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Another D---n Fat, Square Book, Eh?

In some areas, I'm as ready as the next person to say that American society is going downhill: economically, we're in pretty bad shape now, and I'm glad that I'm not a young person fresh out of school, looking for work and trying to build an adult life. I don't believe that we're doomed, by any means, but I don't think it's going to be easy to make things better.

But in other areas I think we're better off than fifty years ago. Where I live, for example, it seems to me that people are friendlier than they were when I was growing up. Strangers smile and nod to each other as they pass on the street. It might just be that I'm more open to noticing it myself, but I don't think so. When people talk about this friendliness as a feature of the past, they are usually talking about idealized small-town life, where everybody knew each other; but I'm talking about a mid-sized city, and people who aren't already acquainted.

Even I was surprised, though, when I read this post by Alexis Madrigal, at the Atlantic online, which included this chart:

According to Gallup polls of the last sixty years, more Americans are reading nowadays. Quite a lot more of us are reading books now, in fact. Which everybody knows isn't true, they're all watching porn on the Internet! Tweeting on Facebook! Playing video games! If they're reading at all, they're Chick Lit about Sparkly Vampires! And real vampires don't sparkle!

But maybe not. I concede readily the limits of polls. Mr. Madrigal admitted, too, that one can quibble about these numbers. But no one seems to have any actual evidence that Americans aren't reading more; they're just sure that these numbers couldn't be right. Take this person, who tweeted (!) that "A lot of that so-called literature is trash, though it may be true that ppl are reading more." On Twitter, mind you, using textspeak! And that's the beauty of Twitter: the 140-character limit frees you from the need to provide evidence or make an argument, though it is still possible to link to evidence if you have it. And I don't doubt that a lot of what people are reading is "trash", but I do doubt that it was any less true in 1952. Or in the nineteenth century. Nor is there any way to know that today's trash won't be tomorrow's "so-called literature." Or vice versa: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for example, had much more cachet 150 years ago than he does now.

Mr. Madrigal has a good suggestion -- that's all it is, just a suggestion, but it makes sense to me:
So, then why is there this widespread perception that we are a fallen literary people? I think, as Marshall Kirkpatrick says, that social media acts as a kind of truth serum. Before, only the literary people had platforms. Now, all the people have platforms. And so we see that not everyone shares our love for Dos Passos. Or any books at all. Or reading in general.
This may not be the whole story, but I bet it's part of it. Though another part of it is the Chick Lit thing: in nineteenth-century America and England, male writers were sure that our nation's precious bodily fluids were being sapped by "a d----d mob of scribbling women." People were reading then, because there was no TV, but they were reading the wrong things; America needed "Man-Books." That, too, is not the whole story, but it's certainly part of the question of what is trash and what is literature.

But I digress. I'm cheered by the information that more people are reading books these days. I don't suppose that they're reading much heavy-duty stuff, but that's not really important. I think it's amazing that so many people are reading books at all, since our educational system is largely set up to make reading unpleasant, to turn people off to reading. It's a relief to know that people become readers anyhow.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Enemy of My Enemy

Glenn Greenwald has retweeted some attacks on the TV news host Chris Hayes for daring to question the motives of the Obama White House. My favorite so far is this one:

The teedster has received some criticism, but the thing that struck me was that skepticism, let alone criticism, of Obama has never been acceptable to his devotees. As soon as he was elected, as soon as he took office, critics were told that it was too soon to criticize or complain, we should just wait and see what he does. Never mind that he was doing things already: selecting a cabinet full of party hacks and Blue Dogs, including people who were responsible for the economic crisis. As I wrote at the time, Obama's corporate supporters weren't sitting back and waiting, they were making sure that his conduct was acceptable to them and their interests.

The Republicans didn't do well in the off-year elections of 2010 because of Democratic traitors, they did well because the economy was still in bad shape, and because Obama couldn't or wouldn't respond to Republican attacks effectively. He preferred a "bipartisan" stance, ostensibly intended to conciliate his enemies in Congress and elsewhere, which led to his conceding far too much to them. The more he talked and acted like a Republican, the less good he looked to the public. On top of that, he chose to attack left and liberal critics, and to make half-assed excuses even to ardent supporters, even during the 2010 campaign; when they needed inspiration, he withheld it. And now his fans are busy flooding the Internet with cute pictures of the Obama family -- aren't they cute? -- which is all they have to fall back on, it seems. When my Tabloid Friend on Facebook posted two of these in quick succession yesterday morning, I asked whether I shouldn't just vote for a kitty cat, if cuteness was the criterion for an American President. Write in LOLcats in 2012!

Assuming that Obama is re-elected this fall, we can expect more of the same, even though he'll be a lame duck. After all, there will still be the 2014 elections to come, and "loyalty" doesn't stop being an issue even when there are no elections to come. (Just as patriotism means loyalty to the United States no matter what country you happen to be a citizen of, loyalty means loyalty to President Obama even if you're not a Democrat, as I am not.) We'll have to keep the Democratic brand strong for 2016! We're in an endless election cycle, and dissent is never tolerated by true believers.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Decline of the West

I was wondering if my Right Wing Acquaintance Number 1 would have anything to say about the firing of John Derbyshire from National Review Online for writing a toxic racist article for another web magazine. He didn't disappoint: this morning on Facebook, RWA1 linked to NRO Editor Rich Lowry's post announcing Derbyshire's dismissal. But he also made no comment on it. "Just the antidote to euphoria"? "Good riddance to bad rubbish"? "The most brutal enforcement of liberal orthodoxy I have seen in fifty years"? I can only speculate.

If you have managed to remain ignorant of this matter, John Derbyshire is a self-described racist and homophobe, though he claims to be a "mild and tolerant one" (what a relief!), who's been on the NRO masthead for several years now. Last week, at a site called Taki's Magazine, Derbyshire emitted an article entitled "The Talk: Non-Black Version," responding to numerous black writers who'd been writing, in the wake of Trayvon Martin's murder, about the talk black parents give their children on how to survive in a racist, white-dominated society. In order to establish the balance that is so vital in serious discourse today, Derbyshire sought to provide other "nonblack" parents with a survival guide for their children, in a world that is increasingly menaced by what Roy Edroso mockingly calls Ooga-Booga, the engulfing African hordes with their hiphop, hoodies and low-riding pants.

I can't tell you too much about Derbyshire, but guys like him are Edroso's beat, and he helpfully provides a rough guide to his coverage. During the past few days I've learned a bit about him, though, such as that he's an immigrant from England, married to a Chinese woman, and has two children. In his talk he imagines telling them, "Your own ancestry is mixed north-European and northeast-Asian, but blacks will take you to be white." I'm not so sure of that -- it'll depend on how they look -- and certainly other white racists won't take them to be white, a point Derbyshire passes over in discreet silence. (Remember that Asian American kids are currently the most-bullied ethnicity in American schools.)

Derbyshire is also one of those stereotype-breaking rightwingers, the kind sometimes called "maverick": he has a science and math background, and has written some books on mathematical topics for a general audience; he's hostile to Creationism and Intelligent Design, and so on. On race he affects a standard scientific-racist stance, very much like Andrew Sullivan's. I wouldn't have guessed his mathematical knowledge from "The Talk," though. His remarks on IQ are questionable, of course, and it's worth following the links he puts in to indicate that he has evidence to back up his generalizations. For instance, a reference to "the hostility many blacks feel toward whites" is linked to a single page of hostile remarks by mostly older black people who came of age during the Jim Crow era, which would tend to skew their view of the white majority. In his point (9),
A small cohort of blacks—in my experience, around five percent—is ferociously hostile to whites and will go to great lengths to inconvenience or harm us. A much larger cohort of blacks—around half—will go along passively if the five percent take leadership in some event. They will do this out of racial solidarity, the natural willingness of most human beings to be led, and a vague feeling that whites have it coming.
the link is to a single Youtube video, which is repellent to be sure but doesn't add up to five percent. Numerous people reacted to that paragraph just as I did, by noticing that it was just as true if you reversed the racial categories: A small cohort of whites is ferociously hostile to blacks and will go to great lengths to inconvenience or harm them.

But that applies to about all of Derbyshire's "statistical common sense" generalizations. Given the pervasiveness of white racism in the United States, it is perfectly reasonable for black people to be wary of white people. Let me reverse some more of Derbyshire's dicta, then: Do not act the Good Samaritan to whites in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway. If accosted by a strange white on the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving. If you are at some public event at which the number of whites suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible. Unfortunately such good advice is difficult to carry out in practice, because white people are everywhere.

It took almost no time for Derbyshire's cohorts at NRO to express their shock and dismay at his piece. I still don't quite see why. It was in the tradition of its late founder, William F. Buckley Jr., who defended Jim Crow for years in the magazine's pages, in essentially the same terms: blacks were essentially savages, intellectually and culturally inferior, and the white race was entitled to defend their culture, "because, for the time being, it is the advanced race." But Buckley also cut loose other right-wing racists, like Pat Buchanan and Joseph Sobran, who became embarrassments to him. Derbyshire had expressed his racism just as blatantly at NRO before, and emerged unscathed. So what's the complaint?

The Gawker called Derbyshire's article "the most racist article possible"; someone's led a sheltered life. (This is a better piece from the Gawker, which includes an exchange with the editor of Taki's that danced around the question of why they chose to publish racists like Derbyshire, Patrick Buchanan, and Steve Sailer. This piece by the same editor may be an explanation by itself, starting with "prancing queens and other such clown minorities trying to steal a bigger slice of the freebie pie" and going on from there. Derbyshire's clearly their cup of tea.)

The Right is evidently divided over Derbyshire's firing, which is why I'm curious to know what RWA1 thinks about it. Many agree with Lowry on the importance of maintaining NR's high intellectual and moral standards:
We never would have published it, but the main reason that people noticed it is that it is by a National Review writer. Derb is effectively using our name to get more oxygen for views with which we’d never associate ourselves otherwise. So there has to be a parting of the ways. Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but this column is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation. It’s a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone associated with NR any longer.
Others (via) have attacked Lowry for caving in to the harpies of the PC left. And Lowry's rationale is equivalent to NPR's for firing Juan Williams when he made similar remarks about Muslims on Fox News: It's a free country, and Williams could say whatever he wanted, just not on NPR. RWA1 was furious over the firing of Williams, which merely freed him to accept a lucrative contract at Fox. I also opposed Williams's firing, as did Glenn Greenwald and probably other dirty Reds, and I don't think Lowry should have fired Derbyshire either; but then it's not my magazine. I asked RWA1 about this in comments on his link, but he hasn't replied, which is his right. I suspect he's torn. But I'm still curious.

Baby, It's Marginalized Outside

I'm working my way through a new book, SAFE SPACES: Making Schools and Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth, by Annemarrie Vaccaro, Gerri August, and Megan S. Kennedy (Praeger, 2012). It will no doubt be useful to many people, but there's something about the book that bothers me.

In the introduction, the authors declare:
Safe Spaces is not merely a book about facts, figures, and statistics. It was born out of the real-life experiences of LGBT youth. In fact, Safe Spaces gives voice to a population that historically been marginalized. ... Safe Spaces is a cultural critique of sorts, one that exposes deeply entrenched marginalization of LGBT youth in America [6, 7].
I don't deny that this is a worthwhile project. What bothers me is that the authors seem to want to give the impression that they're doing something new. Just on my own bookshelves I have several books about LGBT youth, dating back to at least the late 1980s. Most are based on interviews, so as to 'give voice' to their subjects. There are many more than the ones I own, and that's not counting increasing numbers of works of fiction about the lives of LGBT youth; there's also plenty of material online written by young people, instead of being mediated through well-meaning adults.

In this light, it's hard for me to see how Safe Spaces could possibly expose "entrenched marginalization of LGBT youth". Such exposure and giving voice to youth began a couple of decades ago, so the real question for the authors to answer is what they have to add to the conversation. So far -- but I'm admittedly only about 25 pages in -- the answer appears to be "Nothing much." That's not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe books and articles on a certain subject have to reach a critical mass before they can have much social or institutional effect. What worries me is that the authors themselves seem to think they're breaking ground, coming to the rescue of kids who'd long been marginalized until SuperTeachers flew in. That belief gives the book a self-congratulatory tone, making it subtly more about the authors than about the kids, and it's that tone that I think makes it hard for me to read.

The reason I find this annoying is that it doesn't stand alone. Aside from gay youth, another issue that gets rediscovered regularly is People Who Have Sex with People of Their Own Gender Without Being Gay. (Yet another is Gay Men and Straight Women: Best Friends -- Or Are They?) This phenomenon was not unknown even before 1948, when the first Kinsey volume was published, and the AIDS epidemic brought it into new relief, giving us the construct of Men Who Have Sex With Men. It's not surprising that popular media, which are built on identifying or inventing new trends, should be ignorant of that history. But back in the early 90s a colleague handed me a copy of a professional journal article, I think aimed at college counselors, built on interviews with a half-dozen college students who reported homosexual contact ranging from pickups to affairs while refusing to think of themselves as anything but straight. Nowhere in the article was it mentioned that this was old news. Maybe the author felt it necessary to treat it as a revelation so that the article could pass as a contribution to the field -- but why didn't the editors of the journal recognize that it wasn't?

Similarly, perhaps Vaccaro, August, and Kennedy believed they needed to present their book as something new in order to get it published and make it look impressive on their c.v.'s -- they're all academics, and I know life is hard in the Ivory Tower. But if you distort history, you're not doing any favors to your students and their students after them. I've complained before about books written by respectable academics and published by mainstream houses which contain serious errors of fact, but then I've also argued that readers need to read everything critically, whether it's in print or on the Internet.

I also have strong reservations about the whole concept of safe space, which I've written about here before at length. If I go by the index, the authors of Safe Space don't bother to define their central term; that's not a trivial omission, since even professionals don't agree on its meaning or parameters. It looks like Safe Spaces is going to be a long hard slog, so I'd better get back to work on it. There'll be more to be said on this subject, unless I manage to procrastinate more effectively.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Briefer Briefs

James Wolcott linked recently to this op-ed for the Wall Street Journal by Ann Patchett. I've only read one of her novels and have felt no need to read more, but I liked the piece. A sample:
The sexual revolution, which rode into town on the backs of those pink plastic cases of birth-control pills, was, after all, not so much a matter of sleeping around as it was of having the ability to decide when you were going to have a child, and then deciding how many children you wanted to have. For me, it meant the freedom to choose not having children at all. It was a quiet use of a revolution, but a completely appropriate one. I never wanted children and therefore doubted I would be a great parent. Perhaps a few more people who don't want children and feel that they wouldn't be great parents could consider following my lead. You can have my birth-control pills when you pry them out of my cold, dead hands.
Patchett (who's Catholic, by the way) argues:
Let us so empower the young women in our communities with the excellent education that is available to them, the love and support of their families, and the abundance of positive role models, that they are strong enough within themselves to wait until they feel fully ready to have sex with a person they trust, a person who values them. And let the young men of our communities benefit from that same education, that same love. To make things easier, let's remove several million degrading images of women that can give a boy the wrong ideas about the value of other people.
I agree, but I wonder if she realizes that removing those "several million degrading images of women" would have to begin with the Christian Bible and a good deal of the early Fathers, along with much of the Western cultural tradition. I limit it to the Western tradition because that's where Patchett and I both live; but it should go without saying that the same applies to non-Western traditions as well.

Comments on the article are predictable. The first I saw was typical: "This article is politically-correct leftist sensibilty at its best. In other words, pitiful drivel." Even better was one which argued that women can't just opt out of the sexual revolution: "Many women find that they can't compete for high-status men unless they make themselves sexually available to them. In this regard, they face enormous pressure to participate in the sexual revolution and to use birth control." That, with its revealing embedded assumptions, got three recommendations and started some debate.

From Wolcott's blog I noticed a sidebar link to an interview with Ricky Martín about coming out, about his sons (who, contrary to the article's header, were born before Martín came out), and about becoming a Spanish citizen. I have never been a fan of his music and am not likely to change my mind about it, but what he has said since his coming-out has given me great respect for him. Unlike most American celebrities who came out after they were famous (to say nothing of certain queer Latino academics with issues), Martín has never felt the need to blame his time on the closet on the gay movement or on the tackiness of other gay people. It's too bad he's so unusual, but I'm glad he exists and has spoken out.

Finally, at a blog from IOZ' blogroll called I Blame the Patriarchy, the blogger reproduces a note she found on her windshield, signed "Holly," complaining about the blogger's parking technique. "I was unable to get in my car from the driver's side," the note reads. "Had to crawl in from the passenger's side." IBTP jeers, "I wonder how she feels about unobstructed access to birth control." Since she doesn't know Holly's politics, this seems a bit desperate; maybe Holly was on her way to a rally in favor of unobstructed access to birth control when she had to crawl into her car from the passenger side. It's nice, though, to be reminded that one can be anti-patriarchal and an asshole.

Our Fore-Uncles and Aunts

Harry Hay, one of the co-founders of the Mattachine Society, would have been one hundred years old on April 7. Band of Thebes linked to this 1983 clip of Vito Russo interviewing Hay and Barbara Gittings.

There's another five minutes of the same interview here, with an extra segment of people-on-the-street answering the question "Is there a gay community?" Often hilariously.

He Is Risen

Tonight I watched The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg's performance-capture animation of Herge's comic books. I hadn't seen a Spielberg movie since Jurassic Park 3, and all the rave reviews his serious, grownup work has received since then had made me begin to doubt that Spielberg is the embodiment of Evil, the Antichrist, after all. The only good thing about Tintin is that it dispelled all my doubts.

I've never read any of the original comic books, so I don't object to the movie on purist grounds; I have no stake in the original, and I hear that the movie did very well in Europe, where Tintin is as ubiquitous and beloved as Superman or Charlie Brown. (Also, Alison Bechdel, whose opinions I respect, is a big Tintin fan, so I thought the movie might get me interested enough to start reading the comics.) I gather from the reviews I've looked at that Spielberg treated the material with respect and affection, and that it's a reasonably faithful adaptation. One commenter at IMDB, though, may have put a finger on the problem: he said that in the comics, there are often long stretches where the characters just hang out and nothing much happens, whereas Spielberg's Tintin is one of his usual pell-mell nonstop roller-coaster rides, like the Indiana Jones films. (I forgot, no doubt because I'd repressed the memory, that a friend dragged me to see Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, which is a prime example of what I'm talking about.) I'd half-blanked out the fact that Spielberg directed this movie as I began to watch it, but by the middle I was telling myself that this was like a Spielberg movie -- oh, wait, it was a Spielberg movie! With music by the little Satan, John Williams! No wonder it was like 100 minutes of nails dragged across a blackboard.

So, in tune with the season, I also began to wonder if Spielberg is the Antichrist after all. Maybe he's the Second Coming instead, the real deal. It could be. The return of Jesus on clouds of glory, sitting at the right hand of Power, isn't supposed to be a good thing for those of us who have not faith; it's supposed to be bad news for us. Maybe for his next prestige project, Spielberg could direct a performance-capture version of the biblical Apocalypse of St. John.

P.S. For real tastelessness, go to Christians:

Oh, Mary, it takes a Christian to make something tacky.