Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Bisexual Zone

I'm slowly reading J. Neil C. Garcia's Philippine Gay Culture (2nd edition, University of the Philippines Press, 2008) -- slowly, because it's long and dense, but also because Garcia grapples seriously with questions of local institutions and expressions of same-sex eroticism without making the mistakes many post-colonial scholars do.  He has some good ideas, but he doesn't always go deeply enough; the benefit I'm getting is a better understanding of the assumptions that lie underneath a lot of discourse about sexuality.  I keep stopping to think over what he says, so it's going to take me a while to read all 500 pages.

For example, on page 44 he summarizes Alfred Kinsey's numbers on homosexual behavior among (American) males: 37 percent had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm with another male between the ages of 16 and 55; 25 percent had "more than incidental" homosexual experience for at least three years between 16 and 55; and 4 percent had exclusively homosexual experience throughout their adult lives.  He then draws on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's schema of "minoritizing" versus "universalizing" perspectives on sexual orientation, trying to apply it to Kinsey's work:
And so, Kinsey universalizes the question of homosexuality to include even the mainstream, so-called homosexual majority.  It is acts, not people, that may accurately be called homo- or heterosexual.  And with sexuality as simply a "discourse of acts," it becomes somewhat possible to transhistoricize "homosexuality," even if only as a matter of behavior.  Apparently, Kinsey's model presupposes either that all human beings are potentially bisexual, or that some forms of bonding among individuals of the same sex -- called "homosociality" in more recent scholarly literatures -- just happen to turn genital now and then [44-5].
There are several useful problems here.  Garcia is right, to a point, that Kinsey's approach includes "even the mainstream, so-called heterosexual majority" in the category of homosexual behavior; that was one reason Kinsey's work shocked mainstream America so much.  But the usual public reaction was to suppose that any man who had an orgasm with another man even once must be a homosexual.  (That fabulous creature whose definition no one can agree on.)  On reflection they might concede that one time might be an experiment; compare Voltaire's famous rejoinder "Once, a philosopher; twice, a Sodomite!"  Or a man might be in prison, with no other option than other males for the duration.  But the fact that many people have and enjoy sex with others of their own sex without thinking of themselves as homosexuals is still extremely difficult for most people to parse.

Remember the trade/queer model that was so common in the US at the time Kinsey and his associates were gathering their data: A man who provided his erection to another man without reciprocation was still a Man, no matter how many times he did so.  A Queer was one who put another man's erection to use.  Superficially, this model was same-gender: Queers were generally contemptuous of "pansies, fags, and swish." They were also as insistent as Trade that Trade are not homosexual.  In Barry Reay's book on the subject, he quotes Thomas Painter, one of Kinsey's informants, who wrote:
Painter, who appeared in Henry’s book along with his hustler associates, later questioned the sexologist’s categorizations. ‘Dr. [George W.] Henry obviously believes that participation in a homosexual act makes one a homosexual, and we do not believe any such thing.’ He was especially critical of the doctor’s characterization of the hustler Leonard R. as a homosexual when he was not homosexual: ‘most male prostitutes to homosexuals are themselves heterosexual [New York Hustlers, Manchester UP, 2010, 63].
This model can be valid as long as it's understood that that it treats homosexuality as a matter of role in sexual acts, not of sexual arousal or desire.  It had to accommodate numerous ad hoc exceptions, however, like "Eddie, who was being pedicated by both Painter and Melcarth and had begun to worry about enjoying it – ‘Eddie … fucks girls avidly’ – was easily convinced that it merely enlarged his sphere of enjoyment and did not make him ‘queer’" [Reay, 124].  Since Eddie would have to be queer according to the Trade/Queer model, something else than accurate classification is going on here.  I'm willing to accept almost any definition of "homosexuality" for purposes of discussion; what I find interesting is that even a given definition's advocates can't stick to it.  And as I've suggested before, the fact that advocates of the Trade/Queer model have to keep insisting that Trade aren't "homosexual" indicates that there's a strong cultural tendency to believe that they are.  That doesn't mean that either side is right -- that remains to be settled -- only that the Trade/Queer distinction isn't as obvious as its proponents want to believe.

Returning to Garcia's "Apparently, Kinsey's model presupposes either that all human beings are potentially bisexual, or that some forms of bonding among individuals of the same sex -- called 'homosociality' in more recent scholarly literatures -- just happen to turn genital now and then." It has been a while; I should reread Kinsey's chapters on homosexuality, but as I remember Kinsey didn't presuppose anything there about why human beings have sexual contact with persons of their own sex.  I do know that he rejected biological and psychoanalytic theories.  His aim was to find out what people did, and with whom, not to classify them as kinds of people -- homosexuals, fornicators, adulterers, masturbators, etc. -- as previous medical sexologists did.  I find it intriguing that so many people are evidently unable to distinguish between acts and actors, even as a thought experiment.

I get the impression from writers about Kinsey that he may personally have believed that "all human beings are potentially bisexual," but it's not even clear what that means.  Many people use the slogan to mean that we are born erotic blank slates, capable of any sexual desire or behavior, until Society forces us into certain categories.  This doesn't work very well, because clearly people don't conform to Society's dictates, even apart from sexual orientation. Masturbation, for example, was regarded with almost universal horror in mid-20th century America, yet it was almost universally practiced.  Besides, Society sends mixed messages on sexuality: fornication is forbidden, but boys also learn that it's fun and a proof of manhood besides, and Boys Will Be Boys; women are to be respected, but there are many women who are not respectable and therefore are fair game for male pursuit.  And so on.

Whether all human beings are bisexual in practice, regardless of Society's categories, is another question.  Whatever Kinsey himself believed, his data didn't show any such thing.  A majority of his male sample were monosexual: 50 percent had exclusively heterosexual experience throughout their lives, and 4 percent had exclusively homosexual experience throughout their adult lives, and most of the rest skewed toward one pole or the other.  I've had some entertaining disputes with people who wanted to define "bisexuality" to mean equal attraction to, or activity, with both sexes, which would exclude most practicing bisexuals from the category; but they refused to say where along the continuum the line real bisexuals and mock bisexuals should be drawn.  It's also possible, of course, to declare Kinsey's data invalid, but I'm not aware of any other evidence that most human beings are bisexual: the claim is an act of faith.

"Potential" is another tricky word.  At birth every human being can potentially learn any language on earth, but no human being can learn every language.  (This is another logical distinction that appears very difficult for many people to grasp.)  A few individuals are able to master many languages, and many people can get along in several; but in real life the potential always narrows down to some degree.   Andrew Holleran once wrote that nobody will have sex with just anybody, but most people will have sex with almost anybody.  It should also be pointed out that the number of people I have sex with is limited not only by my willingness, but by their willingness to have sex with me; this is a hard fact that seems to be left out of the discourse most of the time, as is the difference between my ideal or "perfect" partner and those I actually am attracted to, the ones I'll happily accept if they offer.  As I've also pointed out before, "sexual orientation" is a blunt instrument for describing people's erotic attractions: all my sexual partners are male, but I'm not attracted to all, or even most males, and this seems to be true for most people.

I don't know whether Kinsey would have agreed with me, but it seems unlikely to me that there is only one explanation for the range of behavior he discovered.   Those percentages aren't broken down, for example, according to the role the men involved played in the acts they enjoyed.  (Since the criterion was having an orgasm, I think it's safe to say that at least some enjoyment was involved, a point to which I'll return.  Though this raises the question of whether the orgasms involved were both partners' or just one's.)

The time parameter Kinsey used ("for at least three years of their lives") also may reflect opportunity.  For example, a man might go cruising for easily accessible orgasms from other men while he was single and lived in a city, but then he married and could get regular sex at home -- but he might still go cruising now and then if he traveled on business away from his family.  Depending on his personal inhibitions, he might or might not give his male partners orgasms as well.  (As the example of Painter's Eddie shows, some men are more accommodating than others.)   During World War II, a good many military personnel of both sexes took advantage of same-sex erotic opportunities "for at least three years of their lives" while they were far away from home in cities with lots of gay bars, but found heterosexual opportunities easier and safer when they went home to their farms or small towns.

Whether their "orientations" changed is another question, but we have no way to measure "sexual orientation."  Kinsey counted experiences, not orientations, despite the use of his homosexual-heterosexual continuum and even his interviewing format by more recent researchers, who either assume that experience equals orientation or hope that no one will notice that the two are not the same thing.  Many of Kinsey's critics accused him of ignoring the emotional aspects of sex, but it's arguable that he did so out for convenience's sake, since acts are relatively easy to count and emotions aren't.

Garcia's other alternative, that "some forms of bonding among individuals of the same sex ... just happen to turn genital now and then," might apply to some of the people in what might be called Kinsey's bisexual zone, but it begs the question of why they "just happen to turn genital."  That's Garcia begging the question, by the way, since as far as I know Kinsey didn't suggest this possibility.  I've often talked to people who spoke of sex as something that just happens when "love" reaches a certain level of intensity, but this is certainly not true for everyone.  And it's a reminder that many attempts to explain sexual behavior among human beings ignore the fact of human consciousness.  We may try out things because we hear about them, or learn about them in other ways.  (Rural kids seeing farm animals copulating, for example.)  If they feel good and we can get away with it, we'll probably do them again if we get a chance.  And of course, heterosexuality is compulsory among human beings as it isn't for other animals, but it's forbidden when it's not compulsory, so kids often go to a lot of trouble to get sexual experience -- not just from "instinct" but to be able to feel like adults.

The flaw in essentialist accounts of sexual orientation, whether they're gendered or not, is that they assume that sexuality is driven by mysterious essences in a person.  They tend to ignore the world and people outside the person.  In gendered accounts, we have (say) the "woman's soul trapped in the body of a man," seeking the man's soul in the body of a man. Why it wouldn't be as responsive to a man's soul in a woman's body isn't clear.  This model also founders on why a man would be interested in having sex with an invert: maybe his man's soul is drawn to the woman's soul in the invert's body?  In the nineteenth century the model fostered a narrative of doomed love, the invert vainly seeking "normal" partners.  The underlying assumption is that male and female are opposites, mutually attracted like magnetic poles, but this is an assumption, belied by the fact that all heterosexual males aren't attracted to all heterosexual females, and that some heterosexuals are attracted to some individuals of their own sex.  The latter case is seen as an anomaly, but maybe it's just a sign that the "opposites attract" model of sex is incorrect; Emma Donoghue showed in her book Inseparable that it hasn't always been the only model of love in Western Culture.

Another reason to doubt the gendered model is that people work so hard to find differences at all costs, especially where gender is concerned.  If a lesbian couple both cut their hair the same length, then the blonde must be the femme and the brunette must be the butch.  If both are blonde, then some other difference must be the opposite that constitutes their bond: one is taller, or heavier, or whatever.  Class can also be gendered, with the lower-class partner ascribed butch.

It's interesting to me that even in the Philippines, where a gendered model of same-sex eroticism rules the roost according to Garcia, other models coexist, and not only the supposedly Western "gay" one.  Judging from the popular genre of "macho dancer" movies, which are now a niche market in the West but didn't originate as export products, many of the clients of male sex workers in the boy bars aren't obviously flaming queens.  Bakla -- the noisily effeminate transgender men -- also work in the bars and service male clients who want that type.  In Midnight Dancer, the breakthrough film in the genre, one of the macho dancers has a friendly affair with a bakla coworker, but the emotional focus of the story is his relationship with a masculine client of higher socioeconomic status; again, I suppose the upper-class guy can be read as the Queer to the dancer's Trade, but the dancer is too emotionally and sexually responsive to fit that reductive model very well.

The same consideration applies to Latin America, where the paradigm is often vestida (cross-dressed penetrated feminine male) and mayate (impenetrable macho male), activo and pasivo, but there's still plenty of homogender same-sex activity going on under the activo / pasivo cover.  The dichotomy doesn't hold up under even cursory inspection.  This reminds me of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu discovered in his early fieldwork on North African Muslim societies:
... I was stupefied to discover, by the use of statistics -- something that was very rarely done in ethnology -- that the type of marriage considered to be typical in Arabo-Berber societies, namely marriage with the parallel girl cousin, accounted for about 3 to 4 per cent of cases, and 5 to 6 per cent in Marabout families, that are stricter and more orthodox [In Other Words (Polity Press, 1990), 4].
Similarly, the dominant model of sexuality in a society might not be the most common; it might even be a minority.  But if everyone pays lip service to it as the way things are, they'll try to make everyone fit it anyway.  In the US, this process reverses the Philippine model: "gay" means two gender-compliant ("straight-acting" is the code) men together, even though many gay men are anything but masculine; gay men obsess over straight men, tops and bottoms; and gender play such as drag is still very popular not only as entertainment but as the guilty, half-denied other side of respectable Homo-American culture.  It's there, but it doesn't count.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Perhaps Such Things Pass for Virtue Among the Gods

I just finished reading Madeline Miller's novel The Song of Achilles (Ecco / Harper, 2012), which I'd picked up after Band of Thebes mentioned it.  I had second thoughts after BoT followed up by dissing the book severely, but by the time my library hold came through I'd decided to give the book a chance.  It turned out to be worth it -- not a great novel, but a good one.  Unlike BoT I had no complaints about the book's style, and unlike Daniel Mendelsohn I thought its "tone" was fine.

The Song of Achilles is narrated by Patroclus, the beloved friend of the Homeric hero Achilles.  The Iliad is not explicit that the two were boyfriends, but later generations of Greeks assumed they were, though they apparently spent a lot of time trying to figure out who was the top and who was the bottom.  Patroclus was the older of the two, so by later custom he should have been the erastes, but he wasn't a warrior, and "perform[ed] duties such as cooking, feeding and grooming the horses, and nursing."  Miller doesn't take a position on this vital issue, which might be why gay men like BoT and Mendelsohn found her version wanting.

Style, especially for dialogue, in historical fiction is always a difficulty.  Miller goes with the rather stilted and formal diction common to the genre, but she seems comfortable with it and makes it work.  I liked her characterization of the two boys.  Patroclus is not macho, not a warrior, which is apparently not at odds with his depiction in the Iliad.  (I've read the Odyssey, but not the Iliad.  Gotta fix that soon.)  We see Achilles entirely through Patroclus' eyes, which are loving but not uncritical.  The Song of Achilles isn't a naturalistic story: the gods, particularly Achilles mother Thetis, are real and present, so Achilles is more than a man: the best of the Greeks, charismatic, a natural warrior.  But he's also proud and ruthless.

Numerous male readers have complained that Miller, being a girl, doesn't and maybe can't understand the warrior mind, and they claim that she has written a dopey romance.  I'd put this down to mere homophobia, and in many cases it surely is, but Band of Thebes and Daniel Mendelsohn are gay men, so there must be a different explanation in their case.  I think a certain misogyny is at work here; I also suspect that the book's jaundiced view of war may be a factor.  I didn't think Miller overdid the emotion (the boys' relationship "begins with an embarrassing breathlessness and climaxes — sorry! — in the long-awaited and, it must be said, cringe-inducing consummation," says Mendelsohn), nor do I agree with him that she writes "swoony soft-porn prose."  But this is a matter of taste, I guess.  I liked Miller's writing, I found the book an engrossing read.  The Song of Achilles isn't a great book, but it's a good one.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cut Along the Bias

The latest issue of the Gay and Lesbian Review has a brief article by Vernon Rosario about the question of bias in research into the cause of difference in sexual orientation.  Unfortunately it's available online only to subscribers.  It's also unfortunately titled -- "Is Sexual Orientation Research Biased?" -- which I blame on the editor, not the author.  The article itself seems incomplete, never really making its point.

Rosario begins by commenting on a recent book on the subject, Backdrop: The Politics and Personalities Behind Sexual Orientation Research by Gayle Pitman, a Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at Sacramento City College.  Pitman's book isn't in the library, so I have to rely on Rosario and the description and user reviews at Amazon.  According to Rosario, Pitman explores how the work of researchers on sexual orientation has been influenced by their personal backgrounds; she interweaves this with a survey of the research.
[Pitman] definitely does not want to discredit these scientists as unobjective because of their own sexual orientation.  Yet she argues that all research exploits "the illusion of pure scientific objectivity."  Her conclusion veers off into a rumination on the role of fear in shaping this topic -- fear of homophobic religious groups and policy makers, fear of researchers who avoid sexual fluidity or non-biological paradigms so as not to undermine various GLBT political gains.  But she's really criticizing the fear of the GLBT community (without being specific) for condemning the research since, she finally concludes, gay scientists are really motivated by altruism and social justice, which are a legitimate subjectivity in science unlike the fear-based animus of the haters [24].
Again, without having read Pitman's book I can't accurately evaluate the notion of "the fear of the GLBT community."  Maybe she has some evidence to support that characterization, but from what I see most gay men and a good many lesbians don't "fear" scientific research into the causes of homosexuality.  I see almost no objections to that research, and virtually every gay person who mentions it does so positively, as proof that we can't help ourselves and we're entitled to our rights.  I suspect that she's attacking a straw man, partly because scientific apologists usually do.

According to Rosario, Pitman relied on secondary sources rather than actually talking to the researchers, although "all of the researchers Pitman discusses are alive and not reclusive."  As a corrective he reports a conversation with Francisco Sanchez, a gay Latino researcher at UCLA. Sanchez "believes that there's an 'interaction between our biological predisposition and the environment.  When we are born we are given whatever blueprint that predisposes us to certain interests, or personality, or complex behavior traits.  The environment interacts with the biology and genetics.'  But by environment he means primarily prenatal biological factors like gene interaction and hormonal effects.  Parenting and role models can influence behavior by suppressing or inhibiting sexual attraction, but innate feelings of attraction to males or females are fixed."  That's basically handwaving, but I guess it's useful as an account of the state of the research.
I continue to object that culture must have a larger role in sexuality.  He is willing to acknowledge that culture definitely complicates sexual self-identity because of sub-cultural stereotypes.  For example, a Latino man may not self-identify as gay because he doesn't relate to the Latino stereotypes of a gay man (the effeminate hairdresser), or he might experience conflict between identifying with the gay community versus the Latino community [25].
The "Latino man" here is evidently Sanchez himself, who grew up in Laredo, Texas, in "a traditional Mexican-American family" and he resisted coming out until he went to went to graduate school in Iowa because he "lacked gay role models" except for hairdressers.  I've come across this kind of story before, and it just makes me more curious.  Does it mean that inside Sanchez there's an effeminate hairdresser trapped in the body of a "muscular guy with an impish smile"?   (As a 70s clone told the sociologist Martin Levine, "Darling, beneath all this butch drag, we are still girls.")  That would fit the "science," at least.  As I've argued before, there's a great deal of confusion in sexual orientation research as to what it means to be gay, and the variety of experiences among people who are drawn erotically to their own sex is usually simply ignored.
Cisco has to admit that the convenience samples of most study groups tend to be skewed toward out, white, middle-class subjects -- the kind of people you could recruit at a gay pride festival or a university campus.  Someone on the "down low" is probably not going to consent to a study on the origins of homosexuality.  Ethnic minorities tend to be minimally represented.  Cisco allows that "it's a very complex picture and we can explain only a certain proportion of the variance we are seeing in our samples" [25].
More hand-waving.  But in fairness to Sanchez, I would insist that even among the "kind of people you could recruit at a gay pride festival or a university campus" there will be a lot more variation than his model can handle.  The same will be true among ethnic minorities.  One of the most noticeable flaws in the reasoning of biological determinists generally is their assumption that there is no variation in the populations they study -- even though such variation is one of the pillars of Darwinism.

Rosario concludes:
I have to agree with Pitman's conclusion that scientific research in general is not "objective," if only in the sense that it's not conducted by mindless robots that lack emotions and personal histories.  In human sexuality, research scientists like Cisco bring their subjectivity into the lab and have to acknowledge that the politics of their work is every bit as complex as the sexuality they study [26].
This is good as far as it goes, which isn't very.  If there were robots capable of designing and carrying out research at such a level, they would have robot subjectivities, which would be interesting but not objective.  The failings of sexual orientation research aren't just "politics" -- they come from researchers' ignorance of complexities that belong to the science itself.

I think (it was a long time ago) it was Walter Kaufmann who said that everybody is biased, but the time to inquire about a given person's bias is after they have offered an invalid argument, especially when they still insist on its validity.  Then it's proper to speculate that they went wrong because of bias.  I think this is pertinent in sexual orientation research.  The question isn't whether a researcher is gay or straight, or even antigay or progay, though for a long time it was a dogma in the study of sexuality that gay people couldn't be "objective" about homosexuality, but heterosexuals could.  But the relevant bias here isn't the sexual orientation of the researchers, it's their determined adherence to a biological determinism that has been discredited many times, yet never seems to lack advocates.  It's not "fear" that motivates my criticism of sexual orientation research as we know it today, but disdain for its inadequacies as science.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Some Choices Are More Equal Than Others

While I was looking for some discourse about black women's hair the other day, I found this item at Angry Black Woman.  And this comment:
I don’t think that removing the hijab so that people won’t harass you makes you ‘free’. This documentary seems a bit misguided or problematic. Muslim women should be able to wear what they want, hijab or no hijab, but the hijab is not a sign of oppression, PEOPLE are the oppressors. Instead of fixing racism (which it won’t) by removing your Muslim head cover, maybe we should fight a xenophobic nation.
This set my brain to teeming.  I agree that "removing the hijab so that people wont harass you" doesn't equal freedom, and I don't believe that women who wear the hijab should be harassed in countries where Islam isn't the dominant religion.  But the commenter gets sloppy in her third sentence: "The hijab is not a sign of oppression, PEOPLE are the oppressors."  There's a crucial difference between "a sign of oppression" and the identity of the oppressors.  To give an extreme example, there's no contradiction in saying that the pink triangle is a sign of oppression, and that it was imposed by Nazi oppressors.  Of course, now the pink triangle is too often a fashion statement, and the hijab is an ambiguous sign.

But then, women who don't wear the hijab shouldn't be harassed either, whether they're living in a non-Muslim country or a predominantly Muslim one.  And there's the rub, because they too often are.  (There are also "signs of oppression" for men in some Muslim countries: under the Taliban men in Afghanistan were "harassed" for not wearing a beard, for example.  In the sixties, American men who wore their hair too long were subject to attack and forcible haircuts by police in many areas.  Similar abuse occurred in other parts of the Free World.)  Does wearing a headscarf so that people won't harass  you make you 'free'?  Apologists for Islamism have said so.

A couple of days after I saw the comment I quoted, I read about American women travelling to Muslim countries being advised to be more "modest" in dress and demeanor, both as a good-will gesture and to avoid harassment.  (It was probably in Gay Travels in the Muslim World, come to think of it, referring to female Peace Corps volunteers.)  That's fair enough, I suppose, but shouldn't it work both ways?  Shouldn't Muslim women who live in America modify their dress and demeanor to be less "modest," so as not to give offense?  True, the US is supposed to be a pluralist society, but we do have our own quaint customs and gender expectations.  Why shouldn't visitors or immigrants (or American converts to Islam) show courtesy to us and our folkways?  This seems to me very similar to what some Americans have said in my presence (and many more seem to assume): that foreigners coming to America should learn English, because we speak English here; but foreigners in their own countries should learn English to talk to us when we travel there, because English is the dominant world language, especially for business.  The double bind is the same.

Thinking about this sent me back to a review, by the American feminist Christine Stansell, of a book about the resurgence of the veil among Muslim women.  She wrote:
Around the world past and present, women cover their heads before God and man. That is, they veil. A dispassionate list of veils would include nuns' cowls, saris, lace mantillas for Mass, peasant babushkas, brides' veils, church ladies' Sunday hats, the wigs and headscarves of Orthodox Jews, and the headscarf my mother (middle class, Midwestern, Protestant) threw on in the 1950s when she ran across the street to the corner store. All these forms of veiling refer, religiously or secularly, to the old idea that women have something that should be hidden. Call it modesty, or propriety; but at heart it is about the sexual shame that women incur if they reveal themselves in public. In this regard, culture and tradition may be more decisive than religious belief: my mother wore a scarf because "ladies" didn't go bareheaded in public, not because the Apostle Paul told women in the early Church to cover.

But despite all that these many veils share, there is only one kind of veil that is widely seen as a barbaric imposition, and that is the Muslim veil.
Fair enough -- to the point where Stansell deploys the blind passive, "is widely seen as a barbaric imposition."  Widely seen by whom?  A good many feminist writers have mocked the hypocrisy of European and American imperialists who saw "barbarism" only in the way brown-skinned women were treated by their men.  "Western" feminists generally criticized the sexism of their own society first.  They've been attacked by conservatives, as expedient, for either ignoring the oppression of women in other countries, or for trying to make those women over in their own lesbian, baby-killing, sluttish image.  Similarly, "Third World" feminists have routinely been attacked by their countrymen for supposedly borrowing the values of the decadent, man-hating, immodest harridans of the West.  And then there have been incidents like this, in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox men attacked and harassed women who didn't fit their standards of modesty.  (And then, when they drew criticism, whined that their [Jewish] critics were Nazi oppressors.)  If it will make Stansell feel any better, I'll be happy to say that spitting on an eight-year-old girl and calling her a whore, no matter how she's dressed, is barbaric.  So is the misogyny of American men.  (The question I raised about Muslim women also applies to the ultra-Orthodox: If majority values rule, shouldn't ultra-Orthodox women be required to "dress like prostitutes"?)

On the other hand, "barbaric" is a red herring.  Originally it simply meant "foreign," with the added assumption that foreigners are less civilized than one's own country.  I just did a quick search of this blog, and it doesn't appear I've ever used "barbaric" as an epithet; it turns up only where I'm quoting someone else or referring to ethnocentric attitudes about foreigners.  I don't need that word or that concept to oppose unjust social structures and practices.

Stansell also wrote in that review that "American feminists have no problem seeing fundamentalist Christianity as a broad-based movement that harbors lethal views at the edges, but they will bend over backwards to avoid criticisms of radical Islam, even at its most hateful and murderous."  I think this is, at best, an oversimplification of American feminists' views of fundamentalist Christianity, and of their views of fundamentalist Islam.  As I indicated before, American feminists were working with their counterparts in Islamic countries before the September 11 attacks, but they were widely accused of ethnocentrism by conservative men until George W. Bush declared a fatwa against the Taliban, and poor oppressed Muslim women became worthy victims again.  This standard is still being waved under the Obama regime, defending our ongoing war in Afghanistan as a defense of women against the brutal Taliban; that our allies the Northern Alliance are also radical Islamists who commit violence against women is less likely to be admitted.

In 2009, Katha Pollitt wrote of President Obama's speech in Cairo:
You would think the biggest issue for Muslim women is that someone is preventing them from wearing a headscarf: "The US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it," he said. "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal." Fair enough, but that woman is choosing. What about Saudi or Iranian women, who are forced by law to cover? Obama noted that countries where women are well educated tend to be more prosperous and promised American aid for women's literacy and microloans. These are both good things, especially in desperately poor and underdeveloped countries like Afghanistan; but face it, to become full participants in modern societies women need more than a grade school education and a sewing machine. They need their rights.
What I'm trying to do here is not to declare one side or another the bad guys, but to stress the complications and contradictions of these issues.  Following Noam Chomsky and Martin Luther King Jr., I hold that the faults and crimes of my own country should get my first attention; but that doesn't mean I shouldn't also notice the faults and crimes of other countries too.  And what if the crimes of other cultures come here?  When the Tonton Macoute visited American shores and assaulted Haitian refugees, should I have withheld judgment on the ground that it's their culture and I can't judge because American crimes are as bad or worse?  I don't equate the hijab with death squads, but I don't think I'm obliged to respect Islam any more than I respect Christianity or Judaism.

As for moves to ban the headscarf in various places, I have mixed feelings about them.  On the one hand, they are a restriction on religious freedom, and I object to that on principle.  But then I read about a television debate where a French Muslim teenager said she supported the headscarf ban, because without it her family would force her to wear one. Of course apologists for the headscarf might argue that she doesn't want to wear it because she's been influenced by her peers, and that might be true, but it's irrelevant. (Such an apologist should tread carefully though, because the usual next step is to vilify the peers and the host culture for immodest and decadent values.) When she grows up, she might decide she likes her parents' values after all and put on a scarf. Till then, however, it should be her choice.

Which is why it's a mistake to invoke individual choice in controversies like these.  It isn't always the women themselves who want to wear a scarf, but their families and their communities who want to make them do it. This is ironic for families that have come to the West to escape certain values in their home countries that they consider oppressive, but more important is that individual choice isn't really the issue: it's the right of certain members of a group -- usually but not always older males -- to make choices for the others.  The recent ruckus over a Federal requirement that employers include contraception in their health care coverage is an example of this: the objections overwhelmingly came not from lay Christians but from senior clergy, who demanded the authority to deny access to contraception to Catholic and non-Catholic employees alike.  Another example would be the exemptions from educational requirements that Amish communities in the US enjoy: it's not a protection of the rights of the kids, but of their parents and their religious superiors.  Such community leaders may pay lip service to the American value of individual choice, but they're really hiding behind it.  Individual choice, for women or men, is the last thing they want.

There is no need for a pluralistic society to respect the wish of religious or ethnic leaders to impose their will on those they want to control,  no contradiction of the general commitment to diversity.  The limits on parental rights are controversial, but they aren't written in stone either.  Parents don't have unlimited power over their children, nor should they.  And it's disingenuous to present the controversy over the hijab as a dispute over individual rights and choices, either in the West or in Muslim societies.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Children of Paradise

I've begun reading Joan Hawkins's Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde (Minnesota, 2000), on the recommendation of a student I used to work with.  Hawkins teaches at IU, which is no doubt how my friend knows her.  The book even includes a photo of our independent cult-cinema video store, Plan Nine Video, in its original basement location.  Cutting Edge is pretty good as academic criticism goes, with some good insights, like her takedown of Susan Sontag's weird complaint about watching movies on video at home.  In "Decay of the Cinema," Sontag wrote:
To see a great film only on television isn't to have really seen that film.  It's not only a question of the dimensions of the image: the disparity  between a larger-than-you image in the theater and the little image on the box at home.  The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film.  Now that a film no longer has a standard size, home screens can be as big as living room or bedroom walls.  But you are still in a living room or a bedroom.  To be kidnapped [by the images] you have to be in a movie theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.
I find this amazing, especially since the movies are only a little over a century old, and so many things about them and the experiences involved in viewing them have changed in that time.  Not everyone in the world, or even in the US, has always had access to movie theaters.  (Especially in the US there was for a long time this institution called "the drive-in.")  Movies often were shown on sheets hung outdoors, in crummy 16 millimeter prints projected by a generator-powered projector set up on the bed of a truck.  And even in a theater, you weren't necessarily among anonymous strangers.  (Though they could be a bonus.) You might be with your family, or with a gang of friends, and in a small town theater you might know everybody else at the show.  There might not even be seats on the main level, as in the Indian theaters Steve Derne wrote about in Movies, Masculinity, and Modernity (Greenword Press, 2000); moviegoers mill around, paying attention to the film intermittently, but they're there as much to socialize as to see the movie, which they've seen many times and know by heart anyway.  Hawkins writes about the emergence of high culture as Lawrence W. Levine traced it in Highbrow / Lowbrow (Harvard, 1990), and especially the notion that art or entertainment is supposed to be experienced silently, with hushed reverence, as if you were in church.  That's never been the majority experience.  It may describe Sontag's own experience as a teenaged devotee of high culture, at a time when movies weren't even regarded as high culture.  It's definitely a "You kids get off my lawn!" performance.

But the main thing is that I don't believe you have to be sitting in a darkened movie theater to be "kidnapped" by a movie, any more than you have to read in a special holy reading room to be carried away by a book.  (Or, come to think of it, that sex can only be rapturous in a bedroom with one's lawful partner in missionary position.)   I admit that I often get extra pleasure watching films on the big screen, as I wrote after seeing the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still at the IU Cinema.  (I think that Hawkins may have been the professor who introduced that showing.)  But I've been swept away by movies I've watched on TV, even the small (15 inch?) one I got in the mid-80s and used for several years.  It's a matter of concentration and attention, not the size of the screen or where it's located.  When I was in Korea during World Cup in 2010, I saw a crowd of people looking over one man's shoulder on the subway as he watched the game on the 2 or 3-inch screen of his digital player: they all jumped and cheered with him when the Korean team scored a goal.  Were they "kidnapped" by the game?  I think so.

Hawkins does a very good job in Cutting Edge of demolishing easy binaries: a lot of the book is devoted to the connection between avant-garde and art cinema on one hand, and horror movies on the other.  This shows up in widespread uncertainty about classifying certain films, such as Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face or Tod Browning's Freaks, both of which have been pigeonholed in either genre in different places and times.  She also shows how much confusion there is about the role of movies as art or entertainment, or both, or neither; but then, it's not really clear what Art is, or what distinguishes it from non-Art.  What gets taken seriously changes over time, and movies aren't the only insecure upstart: remember that the European novel was widely devalued for its first century, and that Shakespeare's plays weren't written with publication in mind, let alone canonization.  Early Greek tragedy began as a religious rite connected to Dionysos, but it was a fairly raucous rite at first, only settling down and taking itself (too?) seriously later on.  It's not certain how representative the surviving tragedies are, and the theater has always been suspect, especially since the rise of Christianity, as fostering "immorality."

So I was pleasantly surprised by Cutting Edge.  I went to it with the expectation of getting some more insight into horror movies, as I had with Carol Clover's Men, Women and Chainsaws (Princeton, 1993), and I got that, but I also got some useful ideas about movies and art in general.  I doubt I'll ever be much interested in horror or ultraviolent films, but I got a lot of perspective from Hawkins's discussion.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pray for Us, St. Foucault

I've begun reading a book called Gay Travels in the Muslim World, edited by Michael T. Luongo and published by Harrington Park Press in 2007.  Band of Thebes mentioned it when commemorating Luongo's birthday, and my curiosity was piqued.  Right now I'm in the first selection, "It All Began with Mamadou," by Jay Davidson, based on his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania in 2002 and 2003.  Davidson must be my age or a little older, since he was in his early fifties when he joined.  He apparently spent most of his adult life in San Francisco, which may explain why he has so little understanding of the complexity of eroticism between males.  For example:
I have heard people say, "We don't have homosexuals in Mauritania."  Most Americans laugh at what they perceive to be such a naive and absurd statement.  After all, we know about the distribution of gay people in our own culture, and we conclude that there is a worldwide population of a given percentage of "homosexuals" in every society.  But I have come to understand that the statement "We don't have homosexuals in Mauritania" means something else altogether to the people who say it.  Western television and movies are widely available in and watched here.  Via these media, Mauritanians see American and European gay people demonstrating in the streets for their equality, petitioning their government for the right to marry, leaving their extended families, and setting up house together so they can live independently as a couple.  That is what "being gay" looks like to people there.  When homosexuality is portrayed in those terms, the Mauritanians are right -- they don't have (those kind of) gay people here!  By contrast, men having sex with men -- a critical part of the Western definition of being gay -- well, that is something totally different! ...

It is instructive to understand the translation from the Arabic of the first question people ask when they meet: "Who are you from?"  Note that they are not asking where, which would be just the name of a village or town, but who.  People's identity and sense of solidarity stems from the tribe, the family, the home.  They take great pride in these connections.  It would be antithetical to demonstrate in the streets in order to shine a light on the fact that they belong to a different class of people.  Doing so would alienate them from the people on whom they are most dependent [8].
Le sigh.  Where to begin?  Well, first, the claim that "We don't have homosexuals in X" long predates a gay movement that turned up in media for export: Samuel R. Delany wrote, I think in his autobiography, about a sexual affair he had in the mid-1960s with an African man who assured him that there were no homosexuals in his country, though he also claimed to have had sex with many men there.  Whatever this man meant, he didn't mean "We don't have gay pride parades and gay rights demonstrations back home," because we didn't have them in the US either in those days.  Similar declarations were made about the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, as I recall.

Davidson's remarks imply a sophisticated and very American social constructionist consciousness about sexuality among his Mauritanian acquaintances, which isn't evident from his report in any other area.  (Not that Davidson has a very sophisticated understanding of social construction either.  Like so many Westerners, he's probably just projecting.)  I imagine that there are local terms for men who copulate with other men, but Davidson doesn't seem to have spent enough time in Mauritania to pick them up.  His linguistic competence was in French, not Arabic or indigenous languages. Compare this passage from gay anthropologist Rudolf Pell Gaudio's account of gayish life in Nigeria:
Though it has become commonplace among anthropologists of sexuality to refrain from using terms from a colonial language (English, French, Dutch, etc.) to describe the identities and practices of people who speak other (usually non-European) languages, scholars have paid little attention to translation that operates in the other direction. The Hausa-language newspaper Kakaki, for example, had no trouble reporting on President Clinton’s ill-fated proposal in 1993 to permit gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the US armed forces, though the term the newspaper used for “gay men,” `yan ludu [literally, “sons of Lot”] conveys a negative moral judgment akin to English “sodomites.” `Yan madigo, the term used for “lesbians,” has more neutral connotations. Such translations occur in day-to-day conversations as well. In talking with Hausa friends I frequently found myself using terms like harka and dan daudu to describe gay life in the USA. I also heard such terms applied to me.
For that matter, it's a serious mistake to suppose that most American gay people protest or demonstrate for their rights.  It wouldn't be surprising if foreigners watching American TV got a skewed picture of American gay life, but Davidson should know better.

As for family, that too is a distortion.  Americans may not ask "Who are you from?" but we're just as interested in people's families, though this has faded somewhat as we became more urbanized and mobile.  I expect it will fade elsewhere in the world as urbanization takes over other countries.  But when new workers from the area immediately around Bloomington came to work as Indiana University staff during my years there, they'd be asked who their relations were, and the questioning was persistent and detailed.

American gay people formed ghetto communities because our families rejected us, not because we rejected them.  But the attempt to rebuild the burned bridges between ourselves and our families began right after Stonewall.  Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays began when Jeanne Manford, the mother of gay militant Morty Manford, marched with her son in the third New York Pride March in 1972; the first meetings of the new organization were held the following year.  Nowadays it's up to the parents of LGBT people whether they want to be part of their children's lives or not, and many do.  Marriage and setting up a household don't necessarily entail separating from one's family, either.  Usually it's only one spouse who leaves their family to live with the family of the other spouse, a separation that can be quite painful.  But even in the US it's common for married children to live near their parents, despite our tradition of mobility; I see no reason to suppose that gay couples intend to be any different if they can manage it.  Again, it's likely that through exported media presentations and antigay propaganda from within other countries, many foreigners will form an inaccurate picture of this aspect of American gay life, but Davidson should know better.

He also talks about what he sees as the greater "fluidity" of gay life in Mauritania, because he found that so many of the men he met still expected to marry and sire children.  I suppose that's "fluidity" of a sort, but it doesn't seem so different from the US.  It occurs in a social context where, as Davidson says, everyone is expected to marry and reproduce, and a gay man of Davidson's age should be able to remember when conditions were very similar in the US.  It may be that the size of this country and our traditions of mobility and land theft gave people more leeway to resist family pressure to marry -- you could always light out for the territory -- but even now, when people (especially straight women) around the world are voting with their feet against marriage, its romance and prestige are still very powerful.

The number of people who were exclusively homosexual was a small minority when Kinsey did his research in the 1930s and 1940s, while a far greater number had varying degrees of homosexual and heterosexual experience.  It may be that the development of gay communities and reification of gay identity since then has increased the proportion of gay people with no heterosexual experience or aspirations, but there still seem to be plenty of people who copulate with their own sex without thinking of themselves as homosexual.  Davidson mentions one Mauritanian who introduced himself in French as bisexuel, which reminds me that despite all the lip service to Kinsey, many gay people quite fiercely resist admitting the possibility of bisexuality: if a man has sex with another man and enjoys it, that means he's gay, and if he persists in enjoying sex with women also, he's a self-deceiving closet case.  (This is suspiciously close to the antigay concept of homosexuality-as-contagion: taste of the forbidden fruit only once, and you'll be enslaved to it for life, unless Jesus intervenes.  Which he never does.)

Davidson tells how, after watching a European gay-marriage demonstration on television, one of his students said, "If I had a gay brother, I would have to accept him.  He is my family.  And I could not let anyone say anything against him because he is my brother and I would have to protect him" (10).  That's good to hear, and it might be true as well as sincere, but would he accept a gay brother's partner as part of the family?

As I write this I'm slightly past the halfway point of Gay Travels in the Muslim World, and I've noticed that most of the Euro-American writers get all worked up and giggly over the fact that men in many countries can be very physically affectionate. Seeing two men holding hands especially excites them.  Davidson sets the tone: "We learned that this, of course, does not necessarily signal their sexuality.  One of my favorite sights remains that of two soldiers, uniformed, walking down the street holding hands.  An army of lovers cannot fail!" (3).  But they aren't lovers, that's just it.  Despite these (and other) writers' lip service to the idea that two men holding hands aren't necessarily gay, they don't seem to believe it.  I also enjoy seeing men holding hands with each other, and I like interacting with men from cultures where such touching is acceptable, because I don't see all affection as erotic.  Holding hands or cuddling with another man can be an end in itself, not just foreplay.

I get the impression that many Americans like to believe that people from other cultures are radically different from us.  It distances and exoticizes them; it's the flip side of believing that everybody is essentially the same, deep down.  But the differences that Davidson considers so radically extensive don't seem to be, since many of them constituted American culture until fairly recently.  And what annoys me most is that this exoticizing of Muslim cultures gets in the way of telling the stories these writers ostensibly set out to write.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

[Updated below]

The left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn died last night after a long battle with cancer, reports his colleague and friend Jeffrey St. Clair.  Cockburn was a contentious and sometimes obnoxious writer, and I think the label "contrarian" fits him better than it fit Christopher Hitchens, with whom he had a famously antagonistic relationship.  Rather than simply say "No!" like a two-year-old when everyone else said "Yes!", I had the impression that he would ask himself "Why not this instead of that?" and follow the implications of the position or argument to its conclusion.  Granted, this often led him out on limbs that wouldn't support him, but it was often interesting to see how far he'd go.  (If I'm right about this, he influenced me more than I'd realized till now.)  He was sexist and homophobic, and he enraged many of his fellow-leftists by flirting with Far Right positions. (Not all that surprising, really: political positions don't lie on a spectral continuum.)  I never met him, and if I'd ever talked to him I'd probably have gotten into an argument with him in no time.

Even though he made even me wince at times, I always read what he had to say.  I first encountered his writing in the Press Clips column at the Village Voice in the late 70s, which was also the first news-media criticism I read.  When he was fired from the Voice for alleged financial impropriety (taking a fee for giving a speech, as I recall)* and moved to The Nation, I followed his work there, and later at Z, and when his newsletter Counterpunch went online, I began reading it too.  I learned a lot from him, and I'm going to miss his work.

* I relied on memory for the reason Cockburn left the Voice, though I should have looked it up.  It seemed dodgy at the time, as I remembered, and so it turns out to have been.  The Boston Phoenix published an article revealing that Cockburn had accepted "a $10,000 research grant from the Massachusetts-based Institute for Arab Studies to investigate Israel’s invasion of Lebanon."  The Phoenix reporter called Cockburn's editor at the Voice, "who eventually suspended Cockburn because of an alleged 'conflict of interest.'"
The validity of this charge, however, is significantly diminished by the fact that receiving a grant from an American foundation is normal, acceptable, and standard practice, as evidenced by the multitude of books in which author acknowledgements thank the various foundations that have funded their research.

As James Wolcott recently pointed out in his Vanity Fair blog: “Much handwringing to-do was made at the time of the incident about the need for journalistic transparency and accountability and such but let’s be honest — if it had been a Jewish-American organization or Israel front forking off the relative piddling sum of $10 thou, there hardly would have been this gummy uproar.”
Not only that, but "according to prominent pro-Israel journalist Michael Kinsley, numerous journalists have gone to Israel on trips financed by the Israeli government – a far sketchier proposition."
A vigilant reader wrote in to chide me for not checking my facts.  While I don't think it was all that important to get the details in this case -- Cockburn committed no impropriety, at least by the standards of American journalism -- I thank her for motivating me to do the work.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Curiouser and Curiouser

At Yo, Is This Racist?, Andrew Ti botched another one.

Black women are quite right to complain when white women think they're entitled to touch black women's hair, generally without even asking permission first, just grabbing.  I find that incredibly weird myself, being very inhibited about touching people, especially strangers.  And whites' refusal to consider that they should respect black people's boundaries is racist: it bespeaks a sense of entitlement, that They exist solely for Our entertainment and benefit.  I'd have thought that white women, who are expected to serve men in the same way, wouldn't have so much trouble grasping this, but evidently not.  Black women (or anyone else) don't even need to give a reason for not wanting to be handled.  Those who doubt this should try reading the ultra-white Miss Manners; I don't know if she's ever weighed in on this particular infraction, but as a general principle people have a right to their boundaries and to refuse, politely, to answer questions about them.  (I do remember a Hindu woman who asked MM what to say to people who grilled her about her style of dress.  The proposed answer was along the lines of "It is not my custom to discuss my appearance."  "It is not my custom to explain why you should keep your damn hands to yourself" would be a close analogue, I believe.)  Or as this blogger wrote,
I realized that, much like explaining how things work to a man who has just asked a woman if he can touch her breast and then balking when she says no, I could not be bothered to explain to another adult why my body belongs to me. When it comes to my hair, or any part of my body, if the answer is “no” that is something that you need to accept. Period. And I am not here to explain those basic facts of life to you.
Still, it is worth pointing out that this stand, which seems so commonsensical to me, seems to be a modern, Western, even specifically American one.  Just for comparison, try this passage from Before the Closet: Same-sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America (Chicago, 1998) by Allen J. Frantzen.  As a young and closeted GI stationed in South Korea from 1971 to 1972, Frantzen
frequently spent time with Korean military and police personnel, easier for me than for many GIs because I spoke some Korean.  I used to find the demonstrative curiosity and affection of these men exciting.  In summer, sitting in a tearoom or riding on a ferry between Kanghwa and the small islands to the west, I would talk to the police or marines who regularly patrolled streets and the coastline.  Most Korean men have little body hair.  Some of the men I knew were fascinated by the hair on my arms and legs and, without asking, used to touch me.  Nobody -- least of all good-looking men in uniform -- had ever stroked my arms or legs.  They expressed delight and surprise while, in some embarrassment, I tried to explain that many Westerners were the same as me, even as I derived pleasure from this contact that differentiated me from most men, Western or Eastern [303].
One article discussing the issue reported that
White respondents online have commented that black women who have this type of reaction are being too sensitive. They counter that when they travel and are in the minority as whites, their hair draws similar curiosity. It is not meant as disrespectful.
Language like "too sensitive" is always a giveaway of offended and rebuffed privilege.  Yet it seems clear that it isn't only white people who feel entitled to touch people who look different.  I'd have to know more about the specific cultures being referred to before I could say whether such touching is "not meant as disrespectful."  Is it okay to touch other locals out of curiosity, or are only funny-looking foreigners fair game?  (This matter relates to this one, which I'm linking to partly so I'll remember to write about it later.)

But that doesn't change the fact that the black women who are complaining about white women trying to grab them aren't foreigners.  It's certainly courteous for a tourist to allow him or herself to be inspected and fondled, but it's quite another thing to be assaulted by a fellow-citizen while waiting for your double latte at Starbucks.  I'd like to ask if they touch the hair of other white women they don't know.

On the other hand, this is racist:
Hair does not mean the same thing to white women as it does to black women. Hair for us is a physical indicator of the ways in which we are different. It is no accident that the first black millionaire, Madame CJ Walker sold hair care products. Part of female beauty has always included long flowing locks, and for black women who have  gravity defying hair, that refuses to be tamed, this can be extremely problematic. To mess with our hair, is to mess with your safety; much of who we are is invested in our beautiful audacious locks. 
It's racist because it assumes that white women's hair has no significance for them.  Two prominent early warning signals of racism are 1) positing an absolute divide between one group and another; and 2) ignoring the differences within each group, which usually are greater than the differences between them.  Not all white women assign equal power to their hair (neither do all black women), but haircare products for white women are a major part of commercial advertising.  (Does she or doesn't she?  Beautiful hair Breck.  And so on.)  The symbolism of women's hair is all over white folklore too.  If "Hair for [black women] is a physical indicator of the ways in which we are different," though, white women's fascination with black women's hair isn't at all inappropriate, rather it's a recognition of the audacity of black women and their hair.

Still, contrary to Andrew Ti, curiosity itself isn't racist.  It's another one of those human universals.  There are big differences, cultural and individual, in the ways people express their curiosity, and children are trained from an early age about what is okay and what isn't.  (Don't stare.  Don't point.  Don't ask rude questions.)  It follows from this that white women's frequent obnoxiousness about black women's hair is itself a cultural value, an expression of white privilege: they've absorbed the message that it's okay to treat black women as if they were critters in a petting zoo.  In this country, with its tradition of white racism, that can't be excused as simple curiosity, and black women's reluctance to be petted by white strangers shouldn't be reduced either to over-sensitivity or to mystical audacious power.

Ti overlooked a couple of things, though.  One is that, as far as I can tell from the question, this young woman hasn't yet touched her therapist's hair; her manners aren't that far gone, and to this point she's only guilty of curiosity, not racism.  And curiosity isn't wrong.  Another is that the woman whose hair she wants to touch is her therapist, who's being paid to deal with people's often inappropriate feelings and impulses.  I'd advise her to tell her therapist, and let her therapist explain to her why she won't let her do it.  If she can't do that, she really shouldn't be a therapist.  Strangers aren't obligated to educate me; therapists are.

This item bugged me especially because it reminded me of Ti's earlier outburst against a presumed white person asking about the propriety of using his scanty store of Chinese words in a Chinese restaurant.  Part of the trouble is the limitations of Ti's format, where hiphop slang and one-liners substitute for discussion.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and it seems that more often lately it doesn't.  It's noteworthy that it's Ti who evidently thinks that being different equals not being "normal," and that that's a bad thing.  (The black women writers I've quoted above would disagree: they see their difference as superiority.)  What are those of us who aren't normal supposed to do, then?

Soul Companion

Mary Chapin Carpenter is a fine singer and songwriter, and she had a lovely idea for her next music video, for her song "Soul Companion": she wants to include photographs sent to her by people depicting themselves with anyone (or anything) they consider such a companion.  She's posted a lot of them to an album on Facebook, which gives a nice preview.  Some of the pairs are clearly sexual partners -- other-sex and same-sex, which speaks well for Carpenter's values as a GLBT ally -- but at least as many are friends, siblings, people and their pets, parents or grandparents with children, and other combinations.  That really made me happy, because it's another reminder that sex, as wonderful as it is, isn't the only binder between people, and maybe not the most important one.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sock It to Me?

Funny thing: I don't remember Democrats showing George W. Bush some f*cking respect when he was President, and yet he was their President too.  There was the Chimp meme; there was the fake Nostradamus verse about the village idiot ascending to the seat of power; there was the fussing over his inability to say "nuclear"; and so much more. 

This isn't to deny that the output of the Republican hate machine exceeds the output of the Democratic hate machine in virulence, or that the Republican vitriol doesn't get an extra punch from racism.  It's just to say that if the President should be treated with respect (not to say reverence) simply because he's the President, then Obama fans are in no position to cast the first stone.

I don't think the Office of the Presidency should be reverenced, however, as I've said before.  The President isn't King -- though many Americans clearly miss having royalty -- and disrespect for the office isn't lèse majesté.

This bit from the Canadian political philosopher Michael Neumann is more relevant:
Respect is not a duty; it is not even desirable in many cases. Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush.
So you could argue that the kind of abuse that Americans level at their presidents shouldn't be directed at anybody, but that goes against every tradition of political discourse and human interaction.  And few people really care about it except when a president they like is on the receiving end.  The attitude expressed in the image above would be more impressive if it came from a Republican, or if a Democrat spoke up during a Republican administration.

Monday, July 16, 2012

I Come and Stand at Every Door

This song has haunted me ever since I first heard it on 5D in 1966.  Lately I've been listening to the album on CD, and I decided to link to the video on Youtube.  It needs no more reason to post it, so just click on through and be moved.

I probably wouldn't have written it here (though I discussed it briefly in this post) but an old friend from high school, an artist and in those days a garage band musician, commented on the link that it took him back to when he and his wife lost their son, back in the Nineties.  And that reminded me of this post, in which I chided a friend who's a trained musician and composer for fuming about "how non-musicians hear music" and the associations they develop for certain songs.  Me, I'm just interested in those associations.

What my friend evidently took from the song was the image of the wandering ghost of a dead child, though at seven the narrator is much older than my friend's infant son, who died of natural causes rather than in an atomic bomb blast.  But that's how associations work.  I like to think that I relate to songs because of the lyrics as a whole -- I'm an English major, after all -- but not everyone does.

The Book of Alexander the Great

I read an odd book this weekend: The Book of Alexander the Great (I. B. Tauris, 2012).  It's a translation, by Richard Stoneman of a Greek book first published in Venice in 1670, but incorporating material from older romances about Alexander.  The translator writes that it's "just one of many visions of Alexander to emerge from the Byzantine preoccupation with the classical past, but it is the one with the highest aspirations to literary quality" (ix).

In many ways the book is fun.  The author is largely ignorant of history and chronology.  He makes Alexander a proto-Christian, gives him telepathic visions of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, whom he presents as Alexander's contemporary though Jeremiah lived a couple of centuries earlier, puts "on his head the crown of Cleopatra the queen of Egypt" (41) although Cleopatra lived three centuries later, confuses Alexander's Persian wife with Roxane, the Sodgian princess he married, and flings around numbers with abandon.  When Porus the King of India prepared to confront Alexander, he "counted his whole army and found that it numbered 50 million" (109); Alexander could muster only 6 million (110).  In their first battle "200,000 of Porus' troops were slain, and 6,500 of Alexander's." Two hundred thousand killed is a lot, but not disabling to an army of fifty million.  Or so I thought, but Poros told his assembled kings, "A vast number of our men were killed today while we were fighting the Macedonians; what are we to do?" (111).  All the numbers are fanciful, of course, as is the ability of Alexander and his adversaries to move hundreds of thousands of men over hundreds of miles in a few days, on foot or horseback.  Alexander finally defeats Porus in a one-on-one joust (117), a ritual combat from the Middle Ages.

The writing itself is thin, with details piled on randomly:
No other soldier would dare to face the Macedonians.  [Alexander] selected 2,000 beautiful women to travel with the army, all in a body, and he placed a Commander of the Companions in charge of the women.  When one of the soldiers was in need of a woman he would go to the commander, give him a golden florin and take one of the women.  The Commander took one florin for every night he spent with her.  All the troops were kept in strict order.  The 100,000 Macedonians were always beside him, and received many favours from Alexander.  He spoke with them every day; he was smaller than any of them.  They operated as one man when they were instructed [50-51].
And there is no mention at all of Alexander's great love Hephaestion.  There has been a lot of controversy over whether the two were lovers or BFFs, but one clue is that they compared themselves to Achilles and Patroclus, who were widely believed to have been lovers in Alexander's day.  (In that period the only controversy seems to have been which was the top and which the bottom.)  I'd wondered how a seventeenth-century Orthodox Christian writer would handle this major part of Alexander's life; I wouldn't have been surprised to find that the Book of Alexander the Great de-eroticized their relationship, but Hephaestion has simply been disappeared.  That's cutting the Gordian knot, I guess.

I don't regret having read it, though.  It's fascinating to get a glimpse of popular literature from any period, and to see another of the ways Alexander was has been depicted.  Like Jesus, every era constructs its own Alexander the Great.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Deafening Response

I wanted to stop writing about Campaign Hell 2012, but then there was this.
If they want to be about fear we must be about hope.

If they want to live a life of paranoia we must not be fearful of embracing that which we might be afraid.

If they want to be about hate then we must stand up for compassion.

If they want to take us backwards we must push forward.

If they want to shout their ignorance towards us we must ensure our response is deafening.

If they want to destroy this country we must make damn sure we stop them.

November 6, 2012... Vote.
One of the comments deserves mention too:
I may not agree with Obama on everything he says or does, but I love his sense of fun and humor!!
Yes, he's a laugh riot:
Jonas brothers are here, they're out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I'm joking?
I know, that was two years ago, and we must look to the future, not the past.  But nothing I've heard since then gives me reason to think Obama has a sense of humor.  Which I'm not sure is a necessary qualification for the presidency, but I digress.

Back to the first text I quoted, though.  If not for the friend who linked to it, and the comments, I wouldn't be sure it was a Democratic product; it could just as easily be a Tea Party meme.  But the most notable thing about it is that, no matter which party emitted it, it applies equally well to both.  The Obama campaign is certainly appealing to fear and even paranoia: OMG, Romney will destroy the country, we have to stop him at any cost!  OMG, the Romney campaign has raised more money than the President has!  If Romney is elected all our rights will be taken away!  Millions will die immediately when Romney abolishes Health Care!  (Has anyone else noticed how ready Democrats are to believe Romney's campaign promises?)  The Dems have also shown themselves willing to meet "their ignorance" with a deafening response of their own ignorance.

I must say, though, that I don't think "we must not be fearful of embracing that which we might be afraid" makes much sense.  On its face it seems to mean that Democrats should not be fearful of embracing the Republicans, and I doubt that was intended.  But this text is a good example of what happens when people get caught up in the excitement of a campaign and lose what rationality they had to begin with, which in most cases was not much.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Writer, Not the Words

An addendum to yesterday's post: In listing the ways in which he is fit to eat with the hogs, I might also have mentioned the Obama White House's evident -- or at any rate, asserted -- lack of preparation for Republican hostility.  As his cute but dumb advisor Van Jones complained, "you had provocateurs like Glenn Beck, Breitbart, Andrew Breitbart, now the late, stepping forward and basically taking a relatively advanced information system and firing into it lies, smears, viruses, for which we had no antibodies ... And for several months, the body politic does not know how to react to this virus."  (Notice too how the Obama Bunker becomes "the body politic" as a whole, which reminds me of Elizabeth Birch, the self-styled capitalist tool who thought that the whole gay movement had been put into her hands when she became president of one lousy PAC, the Human Rights Campaign -- which she then tried to drive into the ground.  But I digress.)  These guys not only can't play two-dimensional chess, they shouldn't be trusted to cross the street by themselves.  Luckily, or maybe not, while they're in office they don't have to: they have drivers.

My old and dear friend the Ambivalent Obama supporter linked to yesterday's post on Facebook, for which I thank him.  But he introduced it thusly: "What some on the far-left REALLY think of Pres. Obama..."

Whooooooa Nelly!  I won't quibble over whether my politics are far left.  I've been told numerous times by people who are sure that they are leftists that I am a centrist, an Obama fan who wants more and better Democrats.  There are others who think that the New York Times is a radical far-left rag.  I'm not concerned with labeling my own politics but with specific issues, and that post really only spoke for me, not "some" of any persuasion anyway.

But as I pointed out to my friend, where were the far-left politics in that post?  That the government should correct for downswings in the economy by increasing spending is ordinary Keynesianism, which only looks "far left" from the viewpoint of the far right, such as wacko Republicans and Ron Paul. That bargaining begins with asking for more than you want, and letting your demands be whittled down as your counterpart makes compromises of his or her own, has nothing to do with either left or right.

And it wasn't a far leftist who pointed out that President Obama had failed at the most basic level of negotiation, it was the President himself. I guess Barack Obama is just too "far left" for the Democratic Party as we know it today!  It's ironic, at a time when Obama and his minions are claiming that Ronald Reagan was too liberal or too far left for today's Republican Party, that the New Deal form of Keynesianism should be labeled far left. Franklin Roosevelt couldn't win nomination as President from the Democrats today, he'd be too far left!

My friend explained that he was referring to the writer and not the writing, but that only confirmed my argument: even granting that I'm a man of the left, which I don't deny, there are many positions to the left of me.  That most American media consumers have no idea what they are, or that they exist, is part of the same poverty of political discourse that I was talking about.  The far right, by contrast, gets a lot of exposure even in the corporate media.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hey, Big Spender: Still Fit to Eat With the Hogs

Here's a good example of the inadequacy of our political discourse.  The image above turned up on Facebook, though the Talking Points Memo article it references was published in May; I think it was spread around at the time.  A couple of people I know linked to it on Facebook today.  I was going to write a post about calls I've been seeing lately for more critical thinking, and I may finish it after I post this, but let this one serve as an overture to the bigger question.

It's good to refute Obama's Republican critics when they accuse Obama of being a big spender, but it's not enough.  In an alternate universe, say the Bizarro World, where facts would matter in election campaigns and political discussion, Obama's relative thrift would be embarrassing to the Democrats, as it should be.  After a catastrophe like the 2008 crash, the government needs to pump lots of money into the economy to increase demand.  Far from cutting government jobs as Obama has, the administration should add more.  Obama's stimulus bill was the right idea, but inadequate thanks in part to Obama's pre-emptive surrender to the Republicans on the Bush-era tax holiday for the rich.

Which gives me the chance I've been looking for to provide a source and a link to something I've mentioned before: Obama's admission that he had failed as a negotiator by offering the tax cuts himself, instead of making the Republicans demand them.
Now in retrospect, I could have told Barack Obama in December of 2009 that if you already have a third of the package as tax cuts, then the Republicans, who traditionally are more comfortable with tax cuts, may just pocket that and attack the other components of the program. And it might have been better for us not to include tax cuts in the original package, let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts, and then say, O.K., you know, we’ll compromise and give you your tax cuts, even though we had already proposed them. 

And if you recall, when we initially unveiled what the Recovery Act would look like — in fact, that a third of it was tax cuts — Mitch McConnell actually was, as he phrased it, pleasantly surprised that sort of traditional Republican idea had been included. But very quickly that pleasant surprise turned into attacks on the infrastructure or the aid to the states or what have you.
As Avedon Carol pointed out, one of the fundamental principles of bargaining is that you ask for more than you want, so the other party will have to make concessions to get you to lower your demand.  As I've pointed out before, even if Obama (an alumnus of the supposedly tough Chicago political scene as well as a couple of years in the Senate) had never learned this, he had plenty of advisors with more experience who could have pointed it out at the time.  There was no need for the far-future Obama of 2010 to invent a time machine so he could advise his much-younger 2009 self in the basics of political rough-and-tumble.  This same pattern has been played out repeatedly in Obama's term, as when he tried to show his reasonableness by appointing two fanatical deficit hawks to run his deficit-reduction commission, and when he put cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits on the table during the absurdly mismanaged debt-ceiling debacle.  To say nothing of putting off that fight until the Democrats no longer controlled the House of Representatives -- was that "I can beat them mugs with one hand tied behind my back" bravado?  I wouldn't be surprised.

And you know, this isn't a "Gotcha!" kind of criticism: the US economy is still stagnant except for the rich (including President Obama, who will never have to stand in an unemployment line nor will his family ever miss a meal).  Real people are suffering because of the incompetence of the Obama administration, and his smug dismissals of his "professional left" critics are the more despicable because of that.  This should be remembered when Democratic loyalists talk about the stupidity of the voters, who don't understand how politics works and should just sit back and let the experts drive.  Far from playing a genius-level game of eleven-dimensional chess with his opponents, Obama can't even play normal two-dimensional chess.

Obama's supporters are worthy of their President.  Does Dinesh D'Souza accuse him of being a Kenyan anti-colonialist?  They retort that the President is following boldly in the steps of the "original anticolonialists," the Founding Fathers -- who in reality were exemplary colonialists.  D'Souza accuses Obama of rejecting American exceptionalism?  His defenders reply that he accepts it, with all the aggression and bloodshed that entails.  Do the Republicans claim that Obama is weak on foreign policy and defense?  His defenders brandish Bin Laden's head on a pike, and the corpses of dead "militants."  Do the Republicans accuse him of reckless spending?  Au contraire, the President is a miser, the biggest cheapskate to occupy the White House since Jimmy Carter turned down the air conditioning and ordered lights to be turned off.  Not that I blame them: there but for the lack of Barack's grace go I.

Ironically, the logical conclusion to draw from the graph above is that we need to elect a big-spending Republican president in Obama's place.  That's not a good idea either, since Republican spending is aimed at the neediest of the top 1% of the wealthy, which doesn't increase demand; the Bush years aren't far enough behind us that any adult should have forgotten that.  It wasn't out-of-control spending or soaring deficits that brought on the crash of 2008, it was unregulated financial speculation, which continues to the present.  Why should the wealthy worry?  If they get into trouble, the government will bail them out.  But the really rich aren't hurt by depressions, and despite their constant poor-mouthing, the rich are doing quite well under Obama.  Profits are up.  It's the rest of us who aren't fit to eat with the hogs at the corporate trough.