Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Tribalism of Elite Democrats

[I apologize for posting this so late, but the issues I tried to address in it are still depressingly timely.  I considered simply ditching it, but then I realized that some posts I wanted to write assumed and referred to things I'd written here, so I'm just posting it even though I'm far from satisfied with it.  Today's unexpected -- by just about everybody, I think -- Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, for example, has spawned a deluge of Obamabot self-congratulation that adds weight to this post, as messed-up as it is.]

Speaking of practicality, there was a dust-up in the comments under a post at alicublog the other day.  (There are no permalinks to the more than 150 comments, so I'll just quote extensively.)

Roy Edroso gracelessly conceded defeat in the Walker recall, buying the corporate media's take on the whole affair.  Didn't even mention that the Wisconsin Senate is probably going to flip to Democratic control, preferring to go by the ancient liberal adage, "If life gives you lemons, flop down squalling because it's not candy."  (This also takes the form, "If President Obama doesn't give you the pony he promised you, blame the stupid voters.")

After awhile the alicublog regular aimai changed the subject (on page 5 of the comments):
I just had that morning meeting with Elizabeth Warren I mentioned a couple of posts ago. She is wonderful. You couldn't ask for someone who has a better grasp of the entire range of historical and economic factors that undirgirded American Success in the past (while acknowleding that many communities were left out of the American Dream) and also a better grasp of what she would do once in the Senate to fight for better policies.  
However, she radically underestimates how stupid the voting public is. One of the people in the room asked her how to talk to [the idiots] who think that we can't handle any social spending until we've cut the deficit? This is clearly an issue of persuasion and narrative about which she's spent a lot of time thinking. She launched into a, sadly, incomprehensible parable/discussion about three buckets of spending. We all got lost midway through. I'd been biting my tongue all the way along because who am I to interrupt a candidate during a stump speech to a group of moneyed supporters? But I basically interrupted and said "  You say "When your family is in financial difficulty you invest in the future. You pay on your mortgage. You pay on your kid's education.  You never take a look at your family's situation and say 'I know, lets starve the baby to death and cut grandma's meds" in order to pay the note on the car.'"  At the end of the meeting she actually thanked me and said "I'm going to use your line: would you rather feed your baby, or the banks?"
Had a long talk with some of the populi at the vid store afterwards. Guy said to me that he and his wife were definitely going to vote for Warren, because they are dems, but they don't like her personally because she comes across as such a "schoolteacher." After kicking the idea around a bit we came up with the following slogan for her "Send the Scary Teacher to Washington" and "Warren! Washington's Afraid of Her."  My point here, and I do have one, is that we are always talking policy but the voters are always choosing on personality.  
That closing sentence is remarkable, coming from someone who has repeatedly brushed aside policy in favor of personality where Obama is concerned.  Last year, for example, she wrote (via):
Whatever my feelings about Obama's centrism I've got to say that he and Michelle really adorn the White House. As a couple they are just...well...magnificent and the children are fucking adorable (same age as my two so I really feel for them). The huffpo lineup of former first ladies and their dresses at these state dinners was like the evolution of humanity from grotesquely old and billowy faux victoriana to blooming, statuesque, youth.
Perhaps "we" talk about policy, but "our" hearts (or other parts, lower down) still overrule mere principles in the end.  Ironically, though, aimai's advice to Warren struck me as sound enough.  Her story makes me suspect that Obama has a lot to answer for in not appointing Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Warren appears to be the kind of technocrat who can work very effectively as an appointee (which is probably why Obama didn't appoint her: effectiveness was what her opponents feared in her), but isn't really suited to pressing flesh and communicating with the public.

The policy / personality dichotomy is bogus, though, like so many dichotmies.  The lies that the Republicans and the Democrats grind out are usually a mixture of the two: Mitt Romney flipflops on every issue.  President Obama is destroying the economy.  Obama's 2008 victory was due mainly to personality and marketing, plus revulsion at the malfeasance of Bush-Cheney.  The voting public isn't stupid so much as ignorant, and as Josh Billings said, the trouble isn't that people are ignorant but that they know so much that isn't so -- and that's as true of elite Democrats as it is of lumpen Republicans.  It's part of the job of a professional to explain what he or she is doing in terms the client can understand.  (As Daniel Ellsberg once said, though, politicians are professional liars.  That has to be at least part of the problem.)   To jeer at the clients/voters because they don't understand when you speak to them in plain jargon is like the stereotypical American tourist, convinced that if she only speaks loudly and clearly enough, these dumb foreigners will admit they understand plain English after all.

It says something, I think, that so many smart Democrats threw tantrums over Scott Walker's victory in Wisconsin.  Yes, it gave the Republicans some propaganda, but that doesn't mean the Democrats have to fall for it.  Exit polls in Wisconsin show that voters weren't gulled by Walker's big spending: they were uncomfortable with the idea of the recall itself.  That's not stupid or ignorant, because if it had worked, Republicans would have adopted recalls as their newest political toy, and every Democratic politician who looked at all vulnerable would have had to fight off recalls funded by the Koch Brothers.  I think it's also significant that the yammerers ignored the likelihood that the Wisconsin State Senate is going to flip Democratic, which should have been good news for them. (The recount is in progress as I finally post this.)

Another lefty troublemaker in the thread remarked that calling the voters stupid is, if nothing else, bad strategy, which produced a shitstorm of abusive ad hominems and distortions from the party loyalists, including aimai.  That's only to be expected, and it's not my subject here.  On page 7 of the comments, aimai summed up:
I think the only thing remaining to be said is that idiots need good representation too. Voters have one thing to trade, in this democracy, for good government: their votes. But the vast majority of citizens don't vote, and the vast majority of voters don't vote on policy or logic or history but rather on tribal loyalties and misunderstood rumors.  It isn't their fault that both parties benefit from depressed turnout and low voter control over government positions. It isn't their fault that a corporate owned media controls information in such a way that it is nearly impossible to figure out who is doing what to whom in congress. My point to Warren is really to point out that the ins and outs of policy issues--who voted for what amendment--is not relevant to most voters. They can't figure it out. They don't know for sure what a Senator does or how Congress works.  And many of them, lets be honest, don't see why they should bother to find out.  She is pitching her argument towards people who know a lot but that is not the majority of voters. She is pitching her argument to the sensible "middle" who remember a better America and believe in a better America for all. But that is not the swing voter in MA. The swing voter is a resentful ex Republican who wants to spite everyone for the fact that the state is run just fine by Democrats and there is a black man in the white house.
"... the vast majority of voters don't vote on policy or logic or history but rather on tribal loyalties and misunderstood rumors."  Reading this, I find myself wondering briefly if perhaps aimai meant to include herself in that vast majority of tribal voters; but of course she doesn't, she's one of the wise few.  (She denies that she's an elitist, but it's hard to see what else she could be if she sees herself as one of a tiny minority of voters who find "the ins and outs of policy issues" relevant and have the smarts to "figure out who is doing what to whom in congress."  That's okay, I don't necessarily object to elitism; it's just that self-styled elites always seem to be inferior.)

"Voters have one thing to trade, in this democracy, for good government: their votes." That's the trouble, isn't it? A vote and a token will get you on the subway.  $250,000 and a vote, on the other hand, will get you regular golf dates with the President.  Of course citizens have more than their votes, even before they vote.  They can work for candidates they support; they can run for office themselves.  After the election, they can write to their government, they can call, they can organize protests.  That last, of course, doesn't go over well with governments, because it may bring actual pressure to bear on them.

aimai remarks on the deplorably low turnout of voters at election time.  She also knows that both parties like it that way, and probably knows (but doesn't say) that the last thing either party wants is a large infusion of new, previously unregistered and inactive voters into the pool, and both parties have worked actively to prevent this.  In light of this, it's really disingenuous to blame the voters, call them idiots, etc.  Even a 75 percent turnout of eligible voters for a national election would cause panic among our national elites.

Since I began working on this post, another thought has been nagging its way from the back of my mind.  Both parties are comfortably beholden to big corporate and financial money, and the (extreme) minority interests that money represents.  They have only the barest interest in the concerns or interests of the majority of Americans, except to get the legitimacy that comes from their votes, and increasing proportions of the public recognize this.  The legitimacy of any government (and I'm not talking here about a particular administration but about the institution itself) depends on its ability to persuade the public that it serves their interests.  I think the American government is losing its legitimacy rapidly.  One of the worst things about Obama is that he got a lot of people's hopes up, deliberately, and then crushed them.  Personality cults have always been part of American politics, but now they are all that national elections are about.  The best we can hope for is the emergence of a new third party that would really try to represent the interests of the mass of voters; the worst could be much worse.  But for the foreseeable future, it looks like we're in for more empty, incredibly expensive spectacles, like the one that is still four long months from its climax now.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Limits of Language: Andrew Hodges's "Towards 1984"

I missed Alan Turing's centenary, though I didn't have much to say about it anyway.  Turing was a brilliant man, brutally mistreated by his government for his queerness, and he deserves to be remembered for a number of accomplishments.  One of the most impressive things I've learned about him as a person was that he doesn't seem to have felt any guilt about being queer, which was unusual though not unique among British buggers of his generation.  (The circle of friends that included W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, for example, seems to have been just as comfortable with their sexuality as Turing.)

But the mentions of Turing that I encountered online often mentioned Andrew Hodges's 1983 biography of Turing, Alan Turing: The Enigma (Simon and Schuster).  When I read in the gay press that Hodges was working on the biography, I began looking forward to it.  Hodges was well-qualified to write it, for he not only had the mathematics and technical background to understand Turing's professional work, he was a gay activist and writer, co-author with David Hutter of an important Gay Liberation pamphlet called With Downcast Gays, published in 1974 but available online.  This was important because even in the 1980s, most biographies of important gay or lesbian figures were marred by homophobic armchair psychoanalysis purporting to show why the Subject had turned out That Way.  Hodges was having none of that, and his groundbreaking biography not only did justice to Turing but helped set the tone for future biographies.

Aside from With Downcast Gays, I'd also read an article by Hodges published in the Canadian radical gay magazine The Body Politic at the end of 1979.  Its discussion of the way language affects our ability to think about homosexuality made a big impression on me -- it was the first critique of Orwell's dicta about language I'd read till then -- but it was never reprinted anywhere and wasn't available online as far as I could discover.  The flurry of attention to Turing's centenary and to the biography reminded me that I'd been meaning to write to Hodges and ask him about it.  I knew he had a website with some of his writings on it, but "Towards 1984" wasn't there, so I hoped to persuade him to add it; I could even send him the text if he didn't have it.  So I wrote to him, and he kindly gave me permission to post it here.

As its title implies, "Towards 1984" is dated now, but as Hodges wrote, the issues it (and Orwell's novel) deals with are still current.

by Andrew Hodges
(This article first appeared in Body Politic #59, December 1979 / January 1980.)

As the real 1984 approaches and becomes just another calendar year, one thing is certain: there will be no lack of voices claiming to draw political lessons from George Orwell's book. Indeed, the election posters for Mrs Thatcher's Conservative Party have already suggested that we should believe Labour policy to be leading Britain into an Orwellian nightmare. 1984 has sold millions of copies; it is a standard text for school examinations. But what does it hold for us?

A number of Orwell's suggestions have become reality; a number have not. That is not the point. The real value of the work is as a modern Gulliver's Travels, as serious political satire, and in particular as a thesis on the politics of language. It was Orwell's idea that language was not simply a means of communicating thought, in the way that an open road affords space for every kind of traffic. Rather, language could be more like a railway system, with a laid-down schedule which could convey only ideas of a defined shape and size, fitted into the compartments which the managers provided. Only these right ideas could ever be used.

But Orwell's target was narrow and distinct: not the language of everyday conversation, but the official languages of his own class and time, the British educated middle class of the 1930s and 1940s. Wartime censorship, Communist Party theory, military euphemism, Times leaders and newsreel journalism -- every case involved its own trahison des clercs in which state violence of revolting enormity could be justified or concealed by the manipulation of language. It was his thesis that language was not merely symptomatic of engineered thought; rather, that language determined what thoughts it was possible to have. "How could they believe it?", "How could they accept it?", Orwell asked of his contemporaries, and his answer was that once they had accepted a political language, then their thoughts could not be other than would fit inside its concepts.

It was a small step for him to suggest in 1984 that the State might consciously impose its official language upon its servants with that very objective in mind. This was a major theme of the book, summed up in its definition of "Newspeak", the officialese of the Anglo-American superstate. It was its purpose that:
...the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible. It was of course possible to utter heresies of a very crude kind, a species of blasphemy. It would have been possible, for example, to say "Big Brother is ungood." But this statement, which to an orthodox ear merely conveyed a self-evident absurdity, could not have been sustained by reasoned argument, because the necessary words were not available....
The modern Newspeak of "extremist", "moderate", "security", has continued to keep Orwell's critique as alive as ever. But our reaction to Orwell's ideas must necessarily be more critical. In 1984, it was possible to escape from the official thought by means of ordinary language, the old English language, associated with good old ordinary decent things and feelings. Orwell seems to have thought the common language of his day to be a perfectly adequate vehicle for thought. But was it? Was it only the official, or state-imposed language that constrained what it was possible to think? Clearly we can see that it was not: in Orwell's own description of Newspeak, he wrote:
In somewhat the same way, the Party member knew what constituted right conduct, and in exceedingly vague, generalised terms he knew what kinds of departure from it were possible. His sexual life, for example, was entirely regulated by the two Newspeak words "sexcrime" (sexual immorality) and "goodsex" (chastity). Sexcrime covered all sexual misdeeds whatever. It covered fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and other perversions, and, in addition, normal intercourse practised for its own sake....
Millions of readers must have swallowed unquestioningly Orwell's definition of homosexuality as a "perversion", together with the connotations of "immorality" and "normal" -- just as they would have gone along with the use of "he" in that paragraph to imply (as a "rule of grammar") a person of either sex. Why not? These were the available concepts, the "proper words" that English had to offer. Whether Orwell intended this classification consciously or not is beside the point; in either case this was simply the ordinary written English of 1949, in which sexual expression had to be packaged and valued by a tiny range of nasty words.

To be more precise, a writer who was sufficiently sensitive to value-judgment might, by a sufficiently laborious discussion, avoid the unconscious communication of received ideas. Thus in 1948, the authors of Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male had been able to use the word "homosexual" in a very precise sense, carefully detached from the connotations of "abnormal." It was no easy task, as they themselves explained, and one which met with profound resistance from the "scientific" world as well as from popular opinion. But for those without access to the language of academic authority, words imposed the bounds of possible thought, in which "queer is good" was almost as self-evident an absurdity as "Big Brother is ungood."

Another observation to be made on reading 1984 is that all those features of the State which Orwell presented in imagination as the most deeply appalling were none other than those which in 1949, were being experienced in reality by homosexual people in Anglo-America. Not only the commonplaces of censorship, blacklisting, guilt by association; not only imprisonment on police say-so; but compulsory drug treatments, castrations, electric shocks, even brain surgery; the implication and betrayal of friends or lovers; the required confessions of thoughtcrime in the dock. Worst of all, according to Orwell's book, defiance was robbed of all meaning when history would never know or care, when the past would not even be known to exist.

But Orwell would never have perceived the connection. And we too are so well trained to think of homosexual oppression as not counting, not mattering, not being "real" politics or history, that it seems fanciful to make the comparison, a slur on "real" political martyrs. But this training is itself performed by the available language, which has defined homosexual oppression as a "non-political" form of dissidence, as a "social" or "psychological" or "medical" problem. Perhaps most poignant of all is the fact that Orwell chose as a symbol of escape from the official system the drama of a spontaneous heterosexual affair. For the millions of readers, the ultimate dreadfulness of 1984 has been brought home as the system where love to be a crime, where lovers could not even be seen to touch, even to know each other for fear of the State; where the smallest sign of affection was a political gesture. And how many of them have considered that all of this was so for homosexual lovers in the real world of 1949, of 1959, of 1969, of 1979? Indeed, our position is in a sense worse than that of Orwell's rebels, who at least had the cultural resources of "ordinary language" in which to express their spontaneity. But for us, the ordinary language of sexuality is something that must be fought for: childhood training and cultural values discarded and a second language learned in order that spontaneous feeling can be realized.

And yet, for that reason, one cannot but be cheered by reading 1984. The figure of Winston Smith was brought to say and believe that "Big Brother is good," just as so many of us have succumbed to "Queer is bad," yet so many of us have not given in. Not only have we continued to utter the "crude heresies" that the old available words allowed, but we have, since 1949, since 1969, found new words, new images, new language to express ourselves. So often we are immersed in conflicts over what seem mere words: our words (the straightforward use of "gay") are hated; the available "ordinary" words ("promiscuous", for example) constrict a million different experiences into one foolish epithet; the official words of psychology and of law degrade and imprison thought as well as people.

Yet we are gaining: with an ever-expanding vocabulary of word and picture, poetry and history, music, film and art. Orwell, against his own will, reminds us that the expansion of language is no ignoble cause, nor some unreal shadow of "real" politics, nor our own strange peripheral problem. 1984 has touched so many people because it touches the heart of things that matter. That is its lasting integrity and heroism -- and that is ours, too.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Wages of Sin Is $12 Million Plus Stock Options

I saw this item on Facebook a few weeks ago, and my first response was to correct the numbers.  But just the other day someone quoted Mitt Romney's homespun wisdom that the government should be run like a business, and the image above popped into my mind.  I started looking through my right-wing acquaintances' postings but couldn't locate it until a liberal friend tracked it down (tip o' the mouse to Leslie).  Another old friend found another version (tip o' the mouse to Grant), with more accurate figures:

It doesn't look as though anybody who knows anything about how government works thinks that running it like a business is a good idea.  When even Forbes laughs the idea to scorn, you know it doesn't bear scrutiny.  But it's one of those memes that has a strong intuitive appeal to many people.

If those who posted that meme believe that a Republican president would change this state of affairs, I'd like them to think about what it would mean in practice. First, it would mean that the President and US Senators are grossly underpaid: as CEO and upper management of Brand America, they should be paid at least ten times as much as they are now, with stock options and bonuses. Look up someone like Jamie Dimon; that's what our President should be like in terms of compensation.

Second, it would mean that our people in uniform are grossly overpaid, by American business standards. A business would pay them minimum wage and no benefits, as businesses prefer to pay employees who do the dirtiest, most dangerous work. The same friend who found the meme questioned me on that claim, but if you look at labor history, especially the history of job safety, you'll find it's true.  Miners, factory workers, and other people who do dangerous work were generally underpaid until they organized and forced change.  (Can you imagine the International Brotherhood of Armed Forces Personnel?  Can you imagine them going on strike?  Even better, an international union would want to build bridges between exploited workers in all countries.  It could conceivably do more to bring about peace than any corporate/government initiative; maybe it's a good idea after all.)

Still using the Business model, the military should be outsourced where possible to cheaper, more business-friendly countries -- but we've already been doing that for decades. We mostly control our empire with local police and military, trained in torture and mass murder by officers taught in such places as the School for the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.  Much of the American military has already been privatized, and private "contractors" like Xe (formerly known as Blackwater) are being used to obscure US involvement at home and abroad.

Just to try to be clear: I don't think the President and Senators are overpaid, especially when you compare them to other upper management in companies that want to be competitive on a global scale.  (As one blogger mischievously wrote, "I wonder if Obama is such a mediocre president because there's no incentive scheme?") What they're paid now, including benefits, seems about right to me, though considering that they are usually rich before they take office and are guaranteed a comfortable living by working in or with the private sector after they leave office, maybe they shouldn't be paid anything at all.  But the gap between upper management in government and ordinary workers, including the military, is much less than the gap between the highest and lowest paid employees in corporate America.

I do think that our military needs better pay and benefits -- as well as fewer wars to fight in the first place -- but then I think the same about most Americans. Health care and a living wage for all! Anyone who wants the US government to be run like a business should not be allowed to forget what that would mean. Remember the Republicans' claim that Obama isn't friendly enough to business, look at how well he has served business interests in reality, and imagine what it would do this country to go even farther down that path than we have already.

Besides, if our government is run like a business, who will bail it out when it crashes and burns?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Let the Sunshine In

Just when I start to think that I may after all be a bitter, carping, negative old queen who doesn't like anything (yeah, like that's a bad thing!), something comes along to restore my faith in humanity.  This weekend it's My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History (North Carolina, 2011), by the late Allan Bérubé.  He's best known for Coming Out Under Fire, a history of gay men and lesbians who served in the US military during World War II, his first and (until now) only book.  (It was later made into a documentary that won numerous awards.)  Bérubé's friends and colleagues John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman contributed a biographical essay as introduction, which also sketches the history of GLBT American history.  The essays they chose include Bérubé's early work on passing women, preliminary reports on the research that became Coming Out Under Fire, and his accounts of the history of gay men's bathhouses, and conclude with selections with the project he was working on when he died (of complications from stomach ulcers), on the gay-friendly, antiracist Marine Cooks and Stewards Union.

So, why does this book make me feel good, despite its often downbeat content?  One factor is Bérubé's constant focus on resistance, ordinary people's dogged insistence on living their lives and seeking happiness even under persecution -- even fighting back, as he shows many times.  I still must remind myself sometimes that life before Stonewall wasn't always the depressing twilight world between the sexes of smoky, crummy bars, guilt, and shame that straight society wanted us to believe it was, and some gay people choose to believe.  (This notion survives as the plaintive cry, "Why would someone choose a 'lifestyle' that causes them to be hated and persecuted?" used by many of us and our allies in defensive mode.)  A lot of our forefathers and foremothers apparently lived reasonably happy and fulfilled lives -- at least as fulfilled as many heterosexuals do.

Another factor is his emphasis on class, and particularly on what it means to be a working-class intellectual.  Many people, whether middle-class or working-class, take for granted that if you are interested in books and ideas, you must be interested in upwards mobility, in leaving the trailer park for Manhattan or at least the Ivory Tower.  Bérubé himself was working-class, the first in his family to go to college, though he didn't finish his degree.  (We have a number of other traits in common, from Catholic families to having been conscientious objectors during the Vietnam era.  This makes the differences between us very instructive to me.)  In his historical work he paid most attention to people who weren't rich, famous, or white.  This was more radical when he started his historical work than it is now, but even now his manner, the way he treats his subjects, feels unusual to me.  I haven't yet read the essays in My Desire for History where he deals directly with class, but it's everywhere in his work.

I also appreciate his approach to spirituality, notably in "AIDS and the Meaning of Natural Disasters," a 1988 essay that deserves more attention.  It emerged from his own struggle to come to terms with the death of his partner Brian Keith, and addresses some trends in gay spirituality that have bothered me too.
There are two different ways to respond to the "why" questions we ask about AIDS.  Their differences are not between religious and secular, the political right and left, antigay and gay, but in the ways each assigns meaning to misfortune.  One response offers questions: the other accepts uncertainties and dwells between the questions and the answers.  When people respond with answers, they are likely to explain why AIDS at particular times to particular people and what AIDS teaches us.  They can cause harm when their definitive answers keep people from finding their own meanings, blame people for their illness, or fill the silences in which people can face their fears and grieve.  When people respond to the tragedy of AIDS without answers, they are likely to challenge moral explanations and open up the possibility of wondering, listening, and being silent together. But without answers, people can feel isolated, helpless, and without direction.

Each of these kinds of responses has ethical implications.  The stories we tell  each other about why particular people do or do not get AIDS have tremendous power.  They touch real lives with real consequences and have the potential for framing some of the most profound experiences in a person's life.  Even our most casual comments or reassurances -- "You should have loved yourself better" or "There must be a reason why your son is suffering" -- can be fragments of a moral framework which, if we could see it whole, we might not condone.  It is important for us, as individuals and as communities, to examine our assumptions and begin openly discussing with each other the ethics of how we ask and answer questions that assign meaning to other people's misfortunes  [151-2].
If I had seen this essay while Bérubé was still alive, I'd have sent him a copy of my more polemical review of gay New Age spirituality, which also criticized the destructive certainty of many spiritual teachers.

As I read the biographical introduction, I began wondering if I should have moved to a city like San Francisco or New York, as Bérubé did.  But I realized quickly that the difference was that he worked much harder than I ever have at building his own community of like-minded thinkers and scholars.  I've had some such community here in Bloomington, but not to the same extent: not because it couldn't have been available here, but because you have to make it yourself.  It's not something that already exists anywhere.  And I'm not saying this to complain, only as another example of the kind of things I'm learning from this book.

Another theme is one I want to tie to other things I've written, namely my criticism of post-colonial and other scholars who see the American construction of gay community as whimsically hostile to family.  Bérubé showed that urban lesbian and gay communities grew after World War II because of veterans who'd been expelled from the military for homosexuality.  They couldn't go back to their smaller communities and families because of the stigma -- jobs were hard enough to find in the postwar readjustment even for the honorably-discharged -- and often enough their families rejected them too.  So they stayed in the cities where they'd first found community, and often their first chance to explore life outside of the limits of heterosexuality.  Some of them were involved in the first gay-rights organizations (with staying power, anyway), which emerged in those cities.

My Desire for History is a good introduction to GLBT American history; it would work well as a basic text in a class on the subject.  But it's also a fascinating read for anyone with any interest in knowing where gay community in America came from.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Price Is Right

I finished reading Reynolds Price's memoir Midstream, and there's one other thing I want to vent about.  He argues that human beings need to tell and hear stories, that his own writing "constitute[d] an irresistible expression of an entire family's need and delight", then concedes a "minor third question":
... if the complexity of your experience had left you with an overpowering need to deliver yourself of your written stories, then why did you -- a queer man -- produce stories, long and short, about more conventional men and women -- the kind who married and produced both you and your brother as their immediate offspring?

Since I've spent the remainder of my writing life in deep narrative concern with just such people -- though there are at least queers-in-the-making in my stories from as early as "Troubled Sleep" which I wrote in '58 -- I can affirm that it's been my general desire to write about the kinds of people who comprise the huge majority of the human race, the kinds of people who've likewise been the majority of my kin, friends, and loved ones.  And does it need saying that the greatest homosexual writers have done the same -- the poems of Michelangelo and Auden; the novels of Melville and Proust, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, not to mention the plays of Tennessee Williams among a good many others? [59-60]
I believe that writers don't usually choose their subject matter, it chooses them, so I don't think they have to justify why they write one story rather than another, or about some people rather than others.  In the end what matters is the story.  But when a writer justifies himself in such bad faith as Price exhibits here, I feel an overpowering need to point it out.

First, his exemplars are badly chosen.  Michelangelo wrote many poems about his love for Tommaso Cavalieri.  I don't know how many poems Auden wrote to males, because he generally hid behind the ungendered "you", as in his "Lullaby."  Melville put erotically-charged relations between males into several of his novels, including the explicitly marriage-like bond between Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick.  As for Proust, it's absurd of Price to cite him, given the prominence of homosexuality as a subject in the Recherche, including one whole volume, Sodome et Gomorrhe.  Virginia Woolf wrote about heterosexuality and families ambivalently, but she also wrote a novel-as-love-letter to Vita Sackville-West, Orlando.  Forster put queerness into most of his fiction from the start of his career, and it's widely held that the inhibition he felt about making it the central theme led to the writing block of the latter part of his life.  Williams also put queer characters and themes into his plays, and even more in his stories.

Second, one could say of most of these writers that they felt a great need to write about queer characters as well as heterosexuals, a need that led them to strain against the limits that respectability, publishers' hangups, and legal censorship imposed in their day.  Despite his mostly heterosexual subject matter, Williams for example was constantly pilloried by homophobic critics who accused him of putting secret backwards homo messages into his work, as they did with Edward Albee.  Plays with unmistakably gay content had been shut down by the New York police, and queer fiction and poetry had often been banned.  It doesn't make a lot of sense to represent queer writers' focus on heterosexuals as unconstrained choice, especially in the first half of the twentieth century.  Is it coincidence that The Source of Light, the first of Price's novels to feature a gay male interlude, was published only after his mother was dead and he'd gained tenure at Duke?  Maybe so.  But I'm not convinced.

Third, there's a larger artistic issue here.  There's nothing wrong with writing about characters who are like "the huge majority of the human race," though that disingenuous phrase hardly describes white middle-class Southerners.  If that's the kind of people Price felt compelled to tell stories about, then that's the kind of people he should have told stories about.  (I think he equivocates: he started to say in that passage that he felt the need to tell stories about the people he knew, but he decided he had to validate them by claiming them as the majority, which they aren't.  But they don't need to be.  If he admitted that, though, he'd have had to admit the validity of telling stories about queers.)  What constitutes a kind of people depends on where you slice it: heterosexuals probably are a huge majority of humanity; white Americans, not so much.  Price brags about his female characters, especially Rosacoke Mustian, though I was never impressed by them; which reminds me that white heterosexual American males aren't a huge majority of humanity either.  It also seems to me that his gay characters, especially in The Promise of Rest, are carefully held at arm's length, as though the author wants the reader to know that he's not that kind of gay.

Many writers, though, feel an equally compelling need to write about people who aren't the majority, and that's no less valid.  For one thing, as I've often insisted, we are all human, and it's a salutary lesson for many readers to discover the humanity they have in common with people they thought were Other in some way.  Being the weirdo that I am, if I'd refused to read anything but fiction about people like me, I'd be lucky to have read a dozen books in my lifetime.  A lot of likeness is in the eye of the reader anyway: Walt Whitman wrote a good many queer poems, which not a few straight males read and treasured without thinking of them as queer.  Telling stories about your own particularness can be a gift of your humanity to the reader.  Some readers take stories about people unlike them as a door slammed in their faces, but I think they're projecting.  I, and many other readers, take stories by and about people unlike me as an opened door, an opportunity to find out about a larger world than I've known so far, to hear other people's stories.  I don't think Price's fiction is as universal as he evidently wanted to believe; I enjoy his memoirs a bit more, because they have no such pretensions.

Control Freaks

Making Contact's latest program is about possible measures for dealing with population growth, and it disturbed me.  It did a fair job of describing the "dark history of the population debate," including the forced sterilization programs that targeted (mostly poor) women of color in the US and elsewhere.  What bothered me was that although due lip service was paid to economic concerns and the empowerment of women, the discussion focused on replacing stress on "population control" with "reproductive justice."  "Justice," in this context, is merely a buzzword, as shown by the definition delivered by Loyola Marymount University women's studies professor Jade Sasser: "basically three things: 1) the right to have children that you want to have, 2) the right to not have the children you don’t want to have, and 3) the right to parent the children that you do have."  Those are all important ideas, but they avoid the real problems.

Far too much airtime was given to Ben Zuckerman, a "former Sierra Club board member."  He said things like this:
Ben Zuckerman: The low status of women in various countries around the world is the single most important contributor to basically out of control population growth. That is there’s no real sign of world population growth declining in a noticeable rate, according to UN projections. Not for many decades into the future. The most important way to turn things around is to raise the status of women, economically, politically, educationally. Because once women are able to control their own lives, then everybody know all around the world, their fertility goes way down because they realize they have more interesting things to do than be baby machines basically from the time they’re 15 or 20 years old till they’re in middle age.

Kyung Jin Lee: Zuckerman says rich countries can help by providing resources for family planning, contraception and education. He also supports governments providing certain types of incentives or disincentives for women to have fewer children.
Zuckerman puts the cart before the horse.  In poorer countries, children are needed and expected to ensure support and security for their parents in old age.  Women don't have children because they've been brainwashed into being "baby machines": they do it for their own future.  Whether consciously or not, they have enough children to have a reasonable chance that one will survive to care for them by the time they're 60.  True, in such societies, women who bear lots of healthy children will be lionized, since people who do the hard work a society needs will be praised.  Contrary to fantasy, pregnancy, childbirth and childcare aren't poor women's idea of recreation, their substitute for reading Fifty Shades of Grey on their Kindles.   What poor women need first isn't "resources for family planning, contraception and education" -- they need to have more economic security, including food and other health resources to lower the child-mortality rate.  When they have that, they'll be very interested in having fewer children.

Zuckerman's recommendations show a very white middle-class First World bias.  (Don't they have trust funds?  Why don't they start 401k accounts for their old age, instead of grinding out the babies?)  In general his remarks show the old eugenicist population-control paradigm lurking beneath the pious concern for poor women's agency.

The word "poverty" is used only once in this half-hour broadcast, and the concept of poverty is barely mentioned.  Even Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health policy and the commentator who's offered as a counter to Zuckerman, is quoted as saying: 
If the concern is about the environment, I would think that the focus should be on the kind of high impact solutions. You know, the multinational corporations, the military, and their use of natural resources, both in these countries and in the US military, which are huge actors on environmental degradation. It would make more sense to focus on the actors that have the biggest impact.
This is true enough.  But what about the poor people?  Handing out free birth control pills and vasectomies, even with monetary incentives, won't "empower" them.  From what we know, the best way -- the only way, really -- to lower birth rates is to make sure that everybody has adequate food and medical care; then people will have fewer children voluntarily, and women will fight for the right and the means to determine when they'll bear children.  But this solution won't play where it matters: in the board rooms of capital, the halls of government, and the cubicles of the think tanks.  "Austerity" is today's buzzword among the elites: the starvation will continue until morale and attitudes improve.

Even the way the program handles its history is flawed.  Malthus is mentioned in passing, though not that his predictions of imminent doom were wrong.  (Like Darwin, by the way, Malthus opposed birth control.)  "But since industrialization, the advent of vaccines and antibiotics, and increased sanitation practices starting in the late 18th century, the world’s population has ballooned, and is now at more than 7 billion."  There were famines and epidemics long before the world population ballooned (read the story of Joseph in Genesis for an easy example); even today, hunger is as much the result of maldistribution of resources as of their shortage, as Amartya Sen showed in Poverty and Famine (Clarendon Press, 1981). When the Western powers moved in on Asia, they dismantled the local rulers' institutions for preventing famine on the grounds that they flouted free market principles.  As a result, tens of millions of people died of hunger and disease over a few decades, while British and American officials sniffed that they were just too lazy to work.  (See Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts [Verso, 2001] for the details.)

There surely are limits to how many people the Earth can sustain, and we may have passed those limits already.  But it's just as sure that family planning must be the result of a higher standard of living, not its cause.  Very oddly for a left-progressive program, Making Contact's "Population Control or Population Justice?" evades the economic issues and focuses its baleful scrutiny on the victims.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mid, I Say Midstream

Pardon me for speaking ill of the dead, but I really need to vent.  I've started reading the late Reynolds Price's unfinished memoir Midstream (Scribner, 2012), and I keep stubbing my mental toes on his prose.  I'm going to finish it anyway, for its bits of queer gossip, but I feel the need to explain why his writing annoys me so.

I have read over a dozen of Price's thirty-nine books, his earlier fiction mostly.  I even met him once when he visited IU and gave a reading from his latest novel, The Source of Light.  (I have an autographed copy to prove it.)   He was a really sweet man, and I liked him; I'd picked up The Source of Light after reading reviews that mentioned its gay content.  It disappointed me somewhat, but still gave me a sense of some gay men's lives outside of gay society in the Fifties.  Later he wrote an AIDS novel, The Promise of Rest, that didn't work for me at all.

(An aside: the New York Times reviewer of Price's previous memoir, Ardent Spirits, wrote that
Mr. Price hasn’t exactly hidden the fact that he is gay; he is simply a private person who hasn’t tattooed this information, in curly script, on one of his biceps.
Girl, please.  The rest of the review is just as offensive.)

That reading must have been in 1982 or 1983, just before he was flattened by a spinal tumor that eventually consigned him to a wheelchair.  Afterwards he became quite prolific, and I admire the determination that kept him writing and teaching despite the chronic, often severe pain that he suffered.  But I felt when I sampled his books in those years that his style became an imitation if not a parody of itself, a cross between Scarlett O'Hara and Foghorn Leghorn.  In Midstream the offenses are milder, but they still grate on my inner ear.  For example:
Further schnapps were provided gratis by amused other diners ... [14]
I didn't notice this until I copied it here, but I'm not sure about the plural of "schnapps."  I think I'd have used "was" instead of "were," just as I'd do with "further wine"; or I'd have written "Further glasses of schnapps." What initially bothered me was "amused other diners," which seems wrong syntactically: "other" should have gone before "amused," shouldn't it?

Another example, from his account of dinner with a former boyfriend at Oxford:
Not even the most ardently dedicated Gatekeeper of Western Morals could have sat and silently watched us for that first half hour and left with any suspicion that, three years ago, we'd been fervent lovers through a spring and early summer -- unreserved possessors of one another's bodies -- and that I, at least, had sensed something durable under way in the interim [8].
"Silently" feels redundant.  Maybe the implication is that the Gatekeeper could have spotted their connection only by interrogating them verbally.  But that, I should think, goes without saying.  Price is saying here that nothing in their conversation or actions would have betrayed their intimate history to an observer.  And he's still laying on the adjectives with a trowel.  (I also recognize that I'm picking up his stylistic tics as I write about him.)

I'm not saying this is necessarily bad writing, though it's what I judge it to be.  It obviously doesn't bother any number of other people who enjoy Price's work, people whose taste I can't dismiss, but it's like nails on a blackboard to me.  I speculate that his is a Southern voice, since I'm allergic to similar tendencies in such writers as Rita Mae Brown and Tennessee Williams, especially in the latter's own memoirs.  I also wouldn't say that there's no such thing as bad (or good) writing, though I think it's easier to agree that a given sample of prose is bad than that it's good, and why.  It occurs to me that one word for Price's style is "mannered," yet I can think of other writers whose writing I enjoy, though it's just as mannered, but in different ways.

But let me end on a positive note.  I respect Price immensely for continuing to write after his paralysis even while he suffered, as he often did, from terrible pain.  (To say nothing of the depression that came from losing mobility.)  I'm not sure I could do it, and I hope I never have to.  I honor his courage and dedication, and I'm grateful to have his account of a different time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

More and Better Scientists

The Gallup organization reported earlier this month that 46% of Americans "hold [a] creationist view of human origins," and a number of pundits have reacted predictably enough.  Katha Pollitt was representative, though an Alternet post by Amanda Marcotte covering the same issue was republished at Salon today.  (It's not just an issue in the US: the Hankyoreh ran a story about science textbook controversies in South Korea the same day Pollitt's column appeared.)

Pollitt wrote that the "worst thing" about the poll results was "that the proportion of college graduates who are creationists is exactly the same as for the general public. That’s right: 46 percent of Americans with sixteen long years of education under their belt believe the story of Adam and Eve is literally true. Even 25 percent of Americans with graduate degrees believe dinosaurs and humans romped together before Noah’s flood. Needless to say, this remarkable demonstration of educational failure attracts little attention from those who call for improving our schools."  She might also have mentioned that 41 percent of Democrats believe in creationism, which is less than the 58 percent of Republicans who do, but still.  Only nineteen percent of Democrats are strict evolutionists, compared to five percent of Republicans.  That's a significant difference, but it shoots down any pretense by Democrats to be the party of rationality.

One thing that occurs to me about this is that Gallup reduced the creation/evolution debate to human origins.  Which is kind of like asking whether you believe that the earth is the center of the universe, while letting the rest of the planets orbit the sun.  Darwin's theory isn't just about human origins, it's about the origin of all species -- microbes, plants, animals.  It's the question of where people came from that seems to worry people more.  As Richard Lewontin pointed out years ago, there doesn't seem to be a corresponding drive to revise physics texts on the age of the universe -- which contrary to what Pollitt says, is not really a part of Darwin's theory.  The focus is on biology textbooks.  I'd say the same about the neo-Copernican synthesis: the Bible is pretty clear that the sun moves around the earth, but there's no religious drive in the US to give equal time to Biblical astronomy, or even Ptolemy's.

Marcotte inadvertently got closer to the nub of the matter, I think.  Her thesis is that we're seeing polarization in the politics of American science education, just as we are in other areas, though I'm not sure that follows from the Gallup data.  What's the middle ground here?  The number of people who believe in "theistic" evolution is higher -- twice as high, on the whole -- than the number of strict Darwinists; why aren't they the Truth That Lies Somewhere in Between the Two Extremes?  I'm sure that's how they largely see themselves, as reasonable moderates.

Anyway, Marcotte notes that at the same time as the number of Creationists has risen slightly,
there’s been a steady rise in people who believe that humanity evolved without any supernatural guidance, and now stands at 15 percent. What this seeming conflict suggests is that the issue is getting more polarized, as people feel they either have to pick Team Evolution or Team Creationism.
But she only really develops that insight where "Team Creationism" is concerned.  Team Evolution, she implies, judges the issue rationally, based on the evidence.
The theory of evolution isn’t being rejected on its merits by the people who don’t buy it. It really can’t be by someone who is honestly assessing the evidence.
We don't seem to have any evidence on why people accept the theory of evolution.  I'm certain that their reasons aren't as simple as an honest assessment of the evidence.  After all, one of the big issues at stake is what will be taught in the classroom.  When I took high school biology as a freshman in the mid-1960s, the class consisted of primarily memorization of classifications, and the dissection of a crayfish, then of a frog.  I don't remember covering Darwin and I doubt we did, since the teacher was a right-wing ideologue who wasted a lot of class time talking about the Communist threat, exemplified by Martin Luther King.  I never took any college science courses, but from the people I talked to who did, as well as what I've read about science education, the evidence for the theories underlying Chem Lab was not on the syllabus.  You learn science by doing science, not by studying its history.  Which is fine, but it means that the picture of people accepting evolution because they honestly assessed the evidence is not quite accurate.

That's what most advocates of teaching Darwinism have in mind, from what I've seen: they want students to be indoctrinated with the right theory.  Whenever I get the chance, I advocate the approach of teaching the conflicts, which is what is actually meant by assessing the evidence.  This generally infuriates the Darwinists I talk to.  Sometimes they point out that creationists have advocated the same thing, as though that mattered: that the Ku Klux Klan appeals to freedom of speech doesn't invalidate the First Amendment.  A more valid objection, to my mind, is that most high-school and probably college-level -- science teachers aren't competent to cover the evidence even for evolution, let alone the opposition.  That's not an indictment of science teachers, just a reminder that a sober assessment of evidence isn't involved in this controversy.

(Look at the comments under Marcotte's article at Salon.  There's a lot of endorsement of critical thinking, but precious little on display.  The same is true of religion vs. atheism, as I've said before: atheists are generally very misinformed about religion, but since they have the Truth they don't need no stinkin' information.  Attacking straw men is extremely common in scientific controversies, as in Steven Pinker's attempt to reduce the debate over the biology of behavior to a conflict between reasonable scientific evolutionary psychology on one side, and crazy "blank slate" dogma on the other; or Aaron Gillette's schema of evolutionary psychology vs. "behaviorism.")

I'd also like to know how many adherents of Darwin against creationism are actually Spencerians, who out of ignorance reject Darwin's actual theory of Descent with Modification by Natural Selection in favor of the inevitable progressive movement of the Life Force up the Great Chain of Being, from microbes to Man.  I'm sure it's a lot of them, maybe even most: Spencer's theory was especially popular in the US at the end of the 19th century, and his influence is still very much with us.  The trope of the "next step in evolution" turns up a lot in liberal discourse, along with the notion of evolution as forward progress, as with President Obama's "evolution" on same-sex marriage.  (The "next step" in evolution is often extinction, but few people like to dwell on that.)  To say nothing of the anthropomorphizing of Nature, or of the Earth.

Pollitt also flounders when she tries to explain why this bothers her so much.
One reason is that rejecting evolution expresses more than an inability to think critically; it relies on a fundamentally paranoid worldview. Think what the world would have to be like for evolution to be false. Almost every scientist on earth would have to be engaged in a fraud so complex and extensive it involved every field from archaeology, paleontology, geology and genetics to biology, chemistry and physics. And yet this massive concatenation of lies and delusion is so full of obvious holes that a pastor with a Bible-college degree or a homeschooling parent with no degree at all can see right through it.
For evolution to be false wouldn't logically entail that scientists who accept it are "engaged in a fraud"; they might just be drastically mistaken about it (because of their secular bias, creationists claim).  It wouldn't be the first time that the scientific consensus on a subject has been disastrously wrong.  Since fraud doesn't follow, I think Pollitt here lets slip that she believes Creationists are self-aware frauds, which I don't believe they are either.  A fundamentally paranoid worldview underlies a lot of anti-creationist rhetoric. "An inability to think critically" isn't involved either; everybody's critical thinking is partial at best, as Pollitt showed by her embrace of Obama in 2008.  And does Pollitt realize that what she wrote there echoes a common talking point of Christian apologetics?  Think of all the wise men over thousands of years who found Christianity to be reasonable and true; yet she thinks that a few malcontents can see right through it, and call gazillions of sincere Christians liars or fools.

Pollitt's fallen into the comfortable fallacy of the false antithesis, as she has before where science is concerned: if someone is critical of some aspect of contemporary science (except for anti-feminist biological determinism, of course), that means that they are anti-Science and don't believe that human beings are clever enough to learn anything about the world.  She knows better, but she shares the scientific triumphalism over primitive superstition that many atheists, especially of our generation, learned to take for granted as the inevitable next step in human progress.  Scientists have contributed a lot to human culture, but science still must be regarded critically, especially when it tries to claim authority outside its very limited realm.

It would be so much simpler if religious belief rendered a person totally incapable of functioning in the modern world, or in the sciences.  Yet fundamentalist Christians have had a powerful presence in the US space program since at least the 1950s, which didn't keep the US from beating the atheist Russians to the moon, and as the Gallup poll shows, many people simply blend theism and Darwinism together.  I reread the philosopher Mary Midgley's Evolution as a Religion (Methuen, 1985) this weekend, and she points out:
The effect [of academic specialization] is to leave many of today’s physical scientists rather unpracticed in general thinking, and therefore somewhat naïve and undefended against superstitions which dress themselves up as science. Creationism, for instance, cuts no ice at all with humanists and social scientists. Nobody trained to think historically is in any danger of taking it seriously, least of all theologians. It makes its academic converts among chemists and physicists – sometimes, alarmingly enough, even among biologists. Equally, the attitudes which will most concern us in this book – faith in future superman-building, faith in the mysterious force of bloody-minded egoism, fatalistic faith in chance, and various sub-faiths accompanying these – owe their success to the making of scientific-sounding noises without serious substance. This is a different group from that of scientists, but unfortunately it overlaps with it quite widely [24].
It's also a mistake to suppose that evolution has to be true, because of all the evidence around it.  Nineteenth-century physics was also a great achievement of human rationality, and its practitioners were sure of its truth.  It all came tumbling down when Einstein's theory of relativity superseded it, but that didn't mean nineteenth-century physicists were frauds or fools.  The mass of scientific knowledge was simply reorganized, under new management as it were.  The overturning of classical physics didn't mean a return to a geocentric Aristotelean cosmology, and when Darwinian theory is radically revised again (as it was in the 1930s), it won't prove that the Creationists were right all along either.

None of this means that I think Creationism is true, or that Darwinism shouldn't be taught in schools, or even that I'm not at all bothered by my fellow Americans' stubborn ignorance about science.  But they're ignorant about a good many things, including the religions they claim to love so much.  Pollitt brushes these considerations aside, but I don't see why.  The US still produces more scientists than it needs; if American corporations are hiring a lot of Asian scientists and engineers (whether trained here or in their home countries), it's because they're cheaper, not because of any shortfall in domestic production.  Pollitt and Marcotte both change the subject to climate change and global warming and OMFG the Republicans are anti-science!

Two things need to be borne in mind here: first, Democratic politicians have done no better than Republicans on environmental issues, undercutting world efforts to lower carbon emissions and the like; second, a lot of secular adherents of science agree that climate change is a problem, but they share Pollitt's confidence in Science's unlimited ability to fix our problems.  We don't need to scale back our energy consumption, they say, because soon we'll master cold fusion or some other technology, get rid of fossil fuels, and Presto! no global warming.  Anyone who lacks faith in this outcome is like people who laughed at Columbus or the Wright Brothers.

There's so much irrationality among the people who are nominally on my side that I can't get as excited as they want about the irrationality of the religious nuts.  A lot of their concern strikes me as a distraction.  We secularist self-styled rationalists need to work harder at putting our own house in order.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Little-Known Fun Facts

Here's a handy bit of information (via) to try out on your Republican acquaintances (coworkers, family members, friends).
POLL: Nevada Republicans Favor Brothels Over Marriage Equality 3-1 | A new Public Policy Polling poll finds that brothels enjoy popular support across all political parties in Nevada, including 66 percent of both Democrats and Republicans. A March poll found that only 20 percent of Nevada Republicans support same-sex marriage, a juxtaposition that PPP described as “an interesting take on family values.” Nevada’s brothels have no legal restrictions on sexual orientation, so according to the state’s Republicans, it’s okay if gays and lesbians pay for sex, just so long as they don’t settle down and start families.
One quibble, of course: you don't have to get married to settle down and start a family.  Not even heterosexuals do.  Often starting a family comes before marriage, even nowadays.  But still, an entertaining tidbit.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Words for What We Feel

Here's an example that shows why I keep up with Ruth Vanita's writing.  From the first page of her introduction to Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Desire in Indian Culture and Society (Routledge, 2002):
At a critical moment in Deepa Mehta's film Fire, Sita remarks to her lover Radha, "There is no word in our language to describe what we are or how we feel for each other."  To which language does she refer -- Punjabi, some variant of Hindi, Urdu, or, more likely, some combination of all three?  We do not know because on screen the characters speak English.  In this metonymic moment, two things happen: English is disowned as "our language" (even though Indians have been speaking English for two hundred years) and "our language" is framed as a catch-all unnamed Indian language that lacks any word for same-sex identities or relationships.

Sita's (Mehta's) comment reflects an idea dominant in academia today -- that prior to late-nineteenth-century European sexologists' and psychologists' inventions of labeled identity categories such as invert, homosexual, lesbian, and heterosexual, inchoate sexualities and sexual behaviors existed but were not perceived or named as defining individuals, groups, or relationships.  For those who accept this formula, it follows that in parts of the world where these categories are not yet widely known, people do not perceive even long-term sexual relations as significant markers of identity or personality.  Hence the tendency of queer theorists to avoid using words like homosexual to refer to persons or relationships in earlier periods of Euro-American history or in places other than the first world today.
... Except, that is, when they don't: I've shown before how people who accept this formula seem unable to use it consistently, talking about, for example, "homosexual subcultures" in times and places where by their own criteria, homosexual subcultures could not have existed.  Besides, as Vanita continues:
This formula has been challenged by several historians of Europe who have pointed to the use of terms like Ganymede, tribade, Sapphist, and even lesbian as early as (in one case) the tenth century, and certainly from the Renaissance onward, to mark individuals habitually given to same-sex sexual relations.  In the context of South Asia, Michael Sweet and Leonard Zwilling have demonstrated the formulation of sexual categories in Hindu and Jain texts as early as the sixth century B.C.E, it is evident that the Kama Sutra (fourth century C.E.), while mentioning casual sexual relations between "men," also classifieds men who prefer men as "the third nature"; and scholars of the medieval Islamicate have written both on male-male love and on the representation of female-female love by male writers.
The usual response to such pre-modern terms is that they don't correspond to homosexuality or gayness or  lesbian "as we think of it today."  This move fails because there is no single way of thinking about homosexuality today, even if the thinking is limited to the United States, and some current ways correspond reasonably well to pre-modern or non-Western conceptions.  Since the people who accept this formula never clarify what they mean by "homosexuality as we think of it today," and tend to assume that there is only one "modern," "Western," way of thinking about homosexuality, they end up confusing themselves and their readers.

On the following pages Vanita gives numerous examples of "words for what we feel for each other" in classical Indian literature, and remarks that she's convinced "that these and other such terms found by scholars represent the tip of the iceberg, and that further research in these and other languages will uncover many more such terms" (3).  She also points out that, contrary to faux traditionalists who try to represent homosexuality as a Western importation,
The rhetoric of modern Indian homophobia (with concepts and terms like unnatural and sinful) draws directly on a Victorian version of Judeo-Christian discourse; this borrowing is indicated in Fire when Radha's husband Ashok, having seen his wife and Sita in bed together, says, "What I saw is a sin in the eyes of God and man."  This is a direct quote from the Bible (the words of the prodigal son to this father, in Christ's parable of sin and repentance, in the Book of Luke).  This instance begins to explain why Mehta found it so hard to translate such phrases into Hindi, and decided to make the film in English; it would be almost impossible to literally translate Ashok's sentence into Hindi and have it sound convincing [3].
This indicates that the words Mehta wrote for Sita reflect her own ignorance, not the reality of Indian languages or cultures.  It's a common apologetic claim in gay/lesbian fiction in English, and I suppose its function is to deny that the speaker was influenced by other perverts (who presumably would have taught terms as well as practices), and to claim that his or her desires and practices sprang automatically from his or her inner nature.  Generally, the people I've encountered who say this are quite aware of the "words for what we feel for each other," but (understandably) recoil from them.

Anyway, that's why I like Ruth Vanita's work.  She's aware of the complexities of human sexuality, and she doesn't fall into the oversimplifications (or obfuscations) that dominate the field these days without falling into an equally oversimple essentialism or anti-anti-essentialism.  It was a great relief to me, when I first read her and Saleem Kidwai's Same-Sex Love in India (St. Martin's, 2000) to find that I wasn't the only person who had noticed these problems in the prevailing approach to queer theory.  Vanita's Love's Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (Penguin, 2005), is also worth the attention of anyone interested in this subject.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

My Fellow Humans

I love Andrew Ti (including, but not limited to, that way).  His tumblr Yo, Is This Racist? is smart, funny, and mean.  I've been surprised and delighted by the off-the-wall but still on-target answers he gives to tricky questions.  But today he pissed me off with this one.
There could be several reasons why someone would do shit like that, but I can't think of any bad ones at the moment.  Maybe someone might believe that the waiter will be all THANK YOU FOR BEING ONE OF US.  But that seems to me a relatively benign reason, if naive.  I can't see what is ever bad about trying to use any words one knows in a foreign language, and trying to discourage it is a bad thing to do.  Maybe even racist.

I speak decent though not fluent Spanish, much weaker French (both from high school, but I've used Spanish much more since then), a little bit of Russian (I took three semesters at IU during the 80s, but have hardly used it since then), a tiny bit of Korean (only one semester), and stray words and phrases in Japanese, German, and even Cantonese and Mandarin.  One of the things that drove me crazy about my fellow students in Russian was their reluctance, even refusal, to say a word in Russian when I encountered them outside of class.  If I greeted them in Russian, most of them would grimace and say "Hi."  This was less of a problem when I was studying Korean, since most of the other students in my section were Korean-American kids who were taking the course for their foreign-language requirement, expecting it to be an easy A.  It wasn't always, because they'd usually stopped speaking it when they entered school, and though they understood it when it was spoken (since their parents still spoke it at home), they'd gotten out of practice speaking it.  My Korean friends, by contrast, encouraged and helped me to speak and write, and I was more motivated than most of my classmates because I wasn't taking the class for a requirement, I wanted to learn Korean.

It is intimidating, though, the first time you try speaking a school-taught language to a native speaker.  John Holt wrote about that somewhere: you don't really believe in your gut that this is real until you say something to someone and find that it works: they understand, and you even understand them.  My first-year high school French class used a dialogue-based approach with recordings, and Madame Cohn told us the joke about the student who visited France after their first year.  "How did it go?" the teacher asked when the student returned.  "Not too well," came the reply, "I couldn't find anyone who knew the dialogues."

There was a Cuban kid in my second-year Spanish class, so I was able to talk to him sometimes for practice.  He told the teacher I did pretty well, which was reassuring.  (He grew up to be a stereotypical fascist Cuban exile, alas.)  But when I encountered some Mexican kids, migrant farm workers, near Plymouth the following summer, they said they couldn't understand me.  I don't think I believe them, my Spanish was better than average for a high-school gabacho.  Maybe they just didn't want to be bothered, which is their right.  But I was also right to try to talk to them.

When I'm in South Korea, I use the little Korean I have, and it improves as much as one could expect over the course of the four weeks I usually spend there.  No one says "Thank you for being one of us," of course.  What they say is "Oh, you speak Korean?  You have a good accent."  Which isn't just being nice, I know I have a good ear and good pronunciation.  The only problem is that people believe at first that I can speak more than I actually can, because I can get out basic phrases accurately.  But no one has ever said Who do you think you are, trying to pretend you're Korean?

As for English in Korea, though, like any visible foreigner I attract people who want to try their English on me.  Some are old people who worked for the US military when they were young.  Some are like the college student who politely asked me on the subway if I minded talking to him for a few minutes so he could practice.  Others are like the middle-school girls who say "Hi!" and then dissolve in giggles.  Are they racist?  Possibly; many Koreans are racist, in Korean terms, but if so it doesn't hurt me.  Do they hope I'll say "Thank you for being one of us?"  I doubt it.  The kids are like kids anywhere: poke the strange thing and see what it does.  The adults have more complex motives, some of which is probably just the satisfaction of having an opportunity to use their English.  (That's one reason I enjoy speaking Spanish: now that I can think in Spanish instead of having to translate laboriously in my head before speaking, it feels good to be able to do it.)

Why do I want to learn Korean, or any other language?  I don't remember why I got interested in Spanish, but it goes back way before high school.  My mother had studied Spanish in school and remembered quite a bit of it, so I practiced with her at home sometimes; I know she encouraged it.  I took French because our school was abandoning Spanish and Latin, and I thought Why not?  I took second-year Spanish and first-year French at the same time, which I wouldn't do today, but it worked fine for me then.  I picked up Japanese phrases from a non-Japanese boyfriend who was a Japanese major.  I took Russian because I'd become friends with, and developed a mild but not debilitating crush on, an American student who was majoring in Russian history.  It wasn't that I hoped that learning Russian would get me into his pants (and it didn't), but listening to him talk about Russian got me interested in Russian.  (I get interested in things easily.)  I took a summer class in German because my Significant Other at the time needed it for his language requirement, and he had a weird block against learning foreign languages that left him in tears when he tried, so I took the class with him to help him learn.  Besides, I'd wanted to study German for a long time.  I took up Korean because I'd become friends with some Korean students at IU, started learning about Korean culture, and got interested in it.  (See above.)

Why would someone want to use the only Chinese phrases they knew in a Chinese restaurant?  There are probably numerous reasons, as I said before, but I'd do it because I know that so many Americans think it's a friendly gesture to pull up the ends of their eyes and chant Ching Chong Ching Chong! when they meet an Asian, or that it's Communist (or Politically Correct) for an American to speak any language but American.  Actually learning and using even a few phrases of another person's language is a gesture of good will at the very least.  It's a kind of contact, as Samuel R. Delany developed the concept in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue a decade ago: "contact" means interaction between strangers, usually in an urban context, that has no aim except the pleasure of recognizing and enjoying common humanity.  (As opposed to networking, which has the aim of doing business, building a career, and so on.  But remember the risk of the false dichotomy: the two can and do overlap.  Networking is probably more pleasurable for everyone involved if a bit of contact is exchanged.)  I wouldn't say Xixi to a waiter in a Chinese restaurant with any goal in mind except a moment of contact in Delany's sense.  I try out my Korean in a Korean restaurant because I'm interested in other people and that's one way of showing it.  (In Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, one character asks another: “Do you think love is the greatest emotion?” “Why, do you know a greater one?” asks the second. “Yes,” answers the first, “interest.”)  It would be better to learn more than just a couple of words, but a couple is better than none.

A couple of weeks ago, someone wrote to Yo, Is This Racist?, asking if her dad was racist for telling her she couldn't dress up as Mulan as a kid, because she was white.  Ti dodged the issue with "Honestly, it would be problematic for someone of any race to dress up as any character from that racist-ass movie." 

This connects to issues of cultural appropriation that I won't go into today, and I guess I can't blame Ti for not wanting to open that can of worms either.  Is it racist if little white kids want to be rappers?  What about little Asian kids?  Ti does, I believe, and I've got the CDs to show the popularity of rap in South Korea. There isn't a clear dividing line between "race" and "culture," but I'm really suspicious when anybody tries to raise and reinforce barriers between cultures and between people, and on the most charitable reading I can't see Ti doing anything else in those posts.  We need to encourage white Americans to learn and use other languages, dammit, not discourage them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

This Too Shall Pass

I just looked at the archive for June of last year, and it made me feel a little better.  I thought I remembered hitting the wall at around the same time last year, and I was right: In May 2011 I did 30 posts; in July 2011 I did 27; in June 2011 I did 12.  I can remember feeling like the same frustration I'm feeling now.  This time around I'm bogged down in a long post that I've been working on for several days that I can't make work.  Yet it seems too important to abandon.  Nor am I being distracted by other topics, as I usually would be.

One of the good things about getting old is that stuff like this doesn't scare me.  I'm not afraid this slump will last forever.  I'll keep beating my head against the post I'm stuck in, or I'll think of something else to write about, or something, but it will pass.  I've probably been wasting energy writing comments elsewhere, but that's okay too.  Sometimes a comment turns into a blog post.

I'm still here, in other words, just ruminating.  Things will pick up when it's time.  Hell, I'm retired, I don't have to work!  Have a good week, everybody.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

On Stereotyping

(Something I didn't notice right away: it says "Can't Eat Pork," but "He Doesn't Eat Pork" or "He Won't Eat Pork" would be closer to the truth.  Keeping kashrut is a lifestyle choice.)

The image above has been making the rounds on Facebook, and I've been raising questions about it.

My first reaction was that Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews are too few in the US to have much political clout, but in Israel, where they are a significant political force, they do try to impose their beliefs and practices on others.  I've mentioned before riots by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Israel to try to get municipal parking lots to close on the Sabbath, and harassment and physical abuse of young women who don't dress modestly enough to suit them.  Ultra-Orthodox men have also harassed women for refusing to sit at the back of buses, which led some rich ultra-Orthodox men to propose a segregated bus line where they wouldn't run afoul of political correctness.  And don't forget Golda Meir's story of an Israel Cabinet minister, "a member of an extreme religious party," who in the 1950s proposed a curfew for women to "protect them" against rape.  More pervasively,
As a Jew, and a rabbi, and having lived in Israel for several years, I would have to disagree with the message in the poster. Perhaps in the diaspora Orthodox Jews do not/cannot impose their standard of kashrut upon the non-Jewish (or for that matter, non-Orthodox) community, yet, in Israel the lack of separation between religion and state allows for a certain amount of coercion and distasteful behavior from the government. For instance, the ministries that control weddings qualify only orthodox rabbis to perform those ceremonies. Burials are controlled by the government (under orthodox auspices). And a establishment cannot receive a cheksher of kashrut if they do not follow the "rules" that they set out. Just a few examples of how the fundamentalist orthodox Jews have managed to hijack the Torah and its commandments. :(
During the 1980s, some Holocaust Museums in the US were wracked by internal controversy over how, or whether, to handle the homosexual victims of Hitler's regime; in some cases, reactionary Jews were able to exclude such treatment altogether, arguing that sick, sinful homosexuals were trying to piggyback on the suffering of Hitler's real victims.  I gather this has changed, though I don't have any details; the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., does cover the issue.  I seem to remember hearing about Conservative and Orthodox rabbis in the US joining hands with reactionary Christians against liberalization of laws against homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. I don't have any sources on that, but what I have here should be enough to show that ultra-Orthodox Jews aren't poster children for living and let live.

On the other hand, it's possible that the man in the captioned photo is personally supportive of others' religious freedom.  Jesse Green wrote in his lovely book on gay fatherhood, The Velveteen Father (1999), that he and his partner put their adopted son into a "Modern Orthodox" preschool in New York without problems.  The teacher told Green and his partner,
"After you called," she said calmly, "I did some research.  I talked to some rabbis.  It's true that what you ... do ... is against our beliefs.  But many of the parents of the kids in our school also do things that are against our beliefs.  Some are unobservant.  They don't keep Sabbath, they don't keep kosher.  Some of the parents aren't even Jewish.  It's not our job to judge people or to change them.  Our job is to teach.  So yes, I think we could make Erez comfortable" (227).
Green didn't romanticize the Orthodox, being aware of their malign influence in Israel, but this preschool evidently had adjusted to being in an officially pluralistic society.  Not too adjusted -- Green notes with bemusement that the female teachers "were loath to shake our hands.  Not because we were gay; just because we were men" (ibid.).

But it's also easy enough to find ultra-conservative Christians with a relatively tolerant and open-minded engagement with the world.  I don't think that was the point of the graphic above.  I think it was generalizing about Orthodox Jews, even though it's unlikely that whoever added the caption knew anything about the beliefs or practices of the man in the photograph: rather, they took a stock photo and added their message to  it.  And I found that when I pointed out some of the other side of the story, my mostly Christian friends made it clear that they assumed that the graphic did express the man's views.  (So did many commenters on other postings of the same graphic.)  One, for example, wrote "It seems that the ultra-orthodox Jews of Israel could learn something from our friend up there who is refraining from leading a war on the eating of pork and other non-Jewish folkways. :P"  A Jewish friend replied, "I do agree that the Orthodox have a lot of issues... and I mean Orthodox (read fundamentalists) of ANY religion."  (Fundamentalism doesn't equal orthodoxy, by the way, but that's another subject.)  Either she'd missed the point, or was trying to dodge it.  Another person accused me trying to tar all Orthodox Jews with one brush; I think this meme was trying to whitewash them.

The guy in the photo is just a stereotype: that's his function. I know that not all UltraOrthodox males are antigay, nor do all of them spit on eight year old Orthodox girls who aren't dressed modestly enough to suit them, nor do all them riot to try to shut down parking garages that are open on the Sabbath. (I guess rioting isn't a violation of the Sabbath? Sounds like work to me.) I wouldn't assume too much about the beliefs of any person based on their religious affiliation, but that image is doing exactly that, probably based on ignorance and even misinformation, and it does so in order to stereotype conservative Evangelicals, who "have a lot of issues" but aren't all antigay bigots either.

One person who'd posted the graphic and got some critical comments (including the one I quoted above) complained petulantly:
OK, should I just not post memes anymore? Do you all not like using memes to make points or is it necessary to accompany each image with several hundred pages of disclaimers?
Oh, I know, don't you just hate the way life is so messy and complicated?  Why can't we just stick to black and white, without any ambiguous shades of gray?  Memes can be entertaining, and they can be used to make good points.  I just think that this one is making a bad one, by romanticizing and exoticizing Orthodox Judaism, much as some people romanticize and idealize the Amish, or the Mormons.  The point of the caption is, of course, a good one, but it's confused by using a photo of a member of a sect that is not particularly tolerant.  And I think it's significant that so many people thought the picture spoke for its subject, about whose views we don't really know anything.  It isn't inevitable that devoutly and conservatively religious people (even some atheists, to my sorrow) will try to impose their views on others, but many do.

But maybe I'm missing the point.  Is the man in the photo supposed to be an individual, or does he represent all Orthodox Jews?