Thursday, August 30, 2012

Radical Enough for You?

After I wrote my post on Vito Russo, it occurred to me it would be a good idea to check exactly what he wrote about the film of My Brilliant Career.  Here it is, from the revised (1987) edition of The Celluloid Closet:
... it is historically true that celebrated figures who were lesbian or gay have invariably been either portrayed as heterosexual on the screen or neutered sufficiently to shift the focus away from the importance of their sexuality to their lives.

This hasn't changed.  Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979) is based on a novel by celebrated Australian writer Miles Franklin.  In the film, Sybylla Melvin (Judy Davis) is pictured as a strong-willed woman who refuses twice to marry a gentle, handsome man (Sam Neill) because she is committed to her work.  Most critics commented on the implausibility of her choice and the lack of sufficient motivation for it.  "Perhaps director Armstrong sees something in Sam Neill's Harry Beecham that would doom this marriage from the start," wrote critic David Chute, "but she hasn't conveyed it."

It was not "something" in Sam Neill's character but in the character of the heroine as well as from the novel on which it was based.  In an exhaustively researched piece by Michael Bronski called "The Story Behind the Movie," which appeared in Gay Community News in 1980, it is revealed that, in fact, the real Miles Franklin spent most of her life in relationships with women.  It is Franklin's own discretion that kept the truth from her adoring public during her lifetime, but it is Armstrong's disinterest in exploring the real woman that perpetuates the deception for filmgoers.  Feminism, yes.  Potential lesbianism, no [274-5].
My obvious next step was to have a look at Michael Bronski's "exhaustively researched piece."  The university library has online access to most of Gay Community News's run, and I found "The Story Behind the Movie" easily.  It doesn't say much more than Russo's summary, because it's not really exhaustively researched at all.  In March 1980, when the article appeared, My Brilliant Career was not available in the US, though St. Martin's Press issued it here later that same year.  Bronski refers to only one book on Franklin's life and work, a Twayne series volume by Marjorie Barnard published in 1967.  Since then a lot more material has appeared, including letters and papers and a huge biography by Jill Roe, Her Brilliant Career (Belknap Press, 2009) that I haven't read, and much of Franklin's other work is in print in the US.

This meant that Bronski didn't read the novel on which the film was based; he presumably relied on a summary in Barnard's book.  That's not exactly "exhaustive," but it's also not his fault.  He also admits that he's reading between the lines of Franklin's life, though she "herself was very private about" her personal affairs: but it is true that Franklin never married and had numerous important friendships with women, and that her later works, as he says (again presumably relying on Barnard), "are filled with strong friendships between women."  In Franklin's 1933 murder mystery, Bring the Monkey, when the female narrator is invited to a weekend at an English country house she brings along her female friend, "who is disguised as a maid and monkey-minder."  (For the narrator also brought along their pet monkey, at her hosts' invitation; I'm not sure what reading between the lines would suggest in this case.)

But Bronski is also mightily offended by Sybylla's refusal to marry Harry Beecham.
Sybylla's steadfast refusal to marry her suitor (whom she professes to love) is the only aspect of My Brilliant Career that challenges plausibility. One can feel the audience getting restless when she refuses him for the second time. Theoretically you can understand why, but the story does not really support the decision. We feel we aren't given all the reasons, that something is being held back. It is not so much that we want her to marry (for romantic reasons), but that there seems little reason for her not to: a comfortable middle-class existence would have enabled her to pursue her writing. Sybylla claims that she is not going to be part of anyone else's life until she has had her own. The movie ends with her back in the outback - sending her newly completed manuscript to a publisher - claiming both her independence and her art.
I don't remember Sybylla professing to love Harry.  I do remember her saying, "Oh Harry, I'm so near loving you -- but I'd destroy you, and I can't do that."  I don't see how anyone could watch My Brilliant Career and not feel the truth of Sybylla's declaration; we've already seen that she will lash out -- literally, with a riding crop -- if she begins to feel trapped, and she knows very well what a trap marriage is for women.  The only implausibility is that a teenaged girl could know herself so well, but this is a movie, after all.  She has also been insistent all along that she and Harry are "mates" -- buddies -- not dates.  Despite his disclaimer, Bronski does seem to want Sybylla to marry, and he is excessively optimistic about the possibility of a "middle-class" married woman's managing to build a career as a writer.  (The Beechams, by the way, are not middle-class: with their huge house, many servants, and land holdings, they have the same pretensions to aristocracy as Sybylla's grandmother.)

The same goes for Russo's quotation from a mainstream movie reviewer.  I'm not surprised that a straight male newspaper writer would be unable to believe that that a woman would be unwilling to marry the "gentle, handsome" Harry, but I am surprised that gay liberationist writers like Bronski and Russo objected.  Unusual in a popular novel and movie, yes, but not implausible, and I have always believed that the film carefully developed Sybylla's character to make it plausible.  The heterosexual and homophobic reviewer Stanley Kauffmann didn't object to the outcome (I believe that his review impelled me to see My Brilliant Career), nor did many others in the audience.  From the first time I saw the film, Sybylla's decision felt right to me.  How odd that two politically and sexually radical writers should be unable to free themselves from their very conventional plot expectations.

(This reminds me of Koreeda Hirokazu's 2006 samurai comedy Hana, which plays similar games with a popular boy-culture plot: The Coward of the County, who refuses to fight until, pushed and bullied beyond endurance, he carries out an exemplary bloodbath against his tormentors.  Slow-motion blood geysers!  Severed limbs!  When the protagonist of Hana is cornered, however, he runs, which outraged many reviewers of the film.  Despite this, he survives, flourishes, and gets the girl.)

Bronski acknowledges that the novel is not strictly autobiographical -- Franklin, he says, never spent an extended period at her wealthy grandmother's estate, as Sybylla does -- but he keeps falling back on the assumption that it is.  (For some reason he insists on referring to her as "Miles," though everyone else is referred to by her surname.)  True, Franklin's family and neighbors complained about what they believed to be their caricatures in the book; I'm not sure how far to believe Franklin's own defense in My Career Goes Bung that several different people saw themselves as the models for the same characters in the book, or that she deliberately set out to confound the conventions of the novel when she wrote it.

But there's another reason to doubt that the novel suppressed Franklin's "potential lesbianism": she was sixteen when she wrote My Brilliant Career.  It doesn't strain credulity that a teenager born in 1879 and raised in the Australian outback with limited access to books might not yet have figured out that she wasn't romantically interested in men.  It's remarkable enough that she had such a radical critique of marriage, which is in the book: one could say she harps on it.  When I saw the movie I wondered if that aspect had been retrojected from its modern perspective, but reading the book soon put that suspicion to rest.  Even if My Brilliant Career was Franklin's wish-fulfilment fantasy, it's notable that marrying a nice, supportive man was not on her wish list.  And the ending of the film is not in the book: Sybylla sends off her bulky manuscript by post after staying up all night to finish writing it, and a title informs us that My Brilliant Career was published in 1901.  That's something that Franklin couldn't have known when she wrote the book, and I still remember the joy I felt when I read those words for the first time.  Someone went against the grain of her family and society, and won.  And I still feel that way every time I watch it.

Not portraying Sybylla Melvin as a baby dyke, even if Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was one, doesn't seem to me a betrayal of the spirit of the novel, whatever Gillian Armstrong's reasons.  Marrying her off to Harry Beecham would have.  Franklin was a trickster, though, and she had fun with the confusion between herself and her literary stand-in: in My Career Goes Bung, Sybylla has to cope with the attentions of a fortyish, bearded, macho rancher named Henry Beauchamp, who's convinced that he is the real Harry Beecham, and must carry out Harry's thwarted destiny by marrying Sybylla and breaking her to harness.  No wonder Franklin had to light out for the territory of America; all her life she resisted being "sivilized."

(It occurred to me for the first time that the filming and release of My Brilliant Career happened to coincide with Franklin's centenary.  Was that coincidental or deliberate?  I don't know.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

It Was a Hot and Steamy Day

I was about to say that I don't feel like writing today, but that's not quite it.  I don't feel like thinking today, and writing a serious post requires thinking.

Of course I'm far from alone in this, though I may be rare in recognizing and admitting it.  A former IU student and current Facebook friend said yesterday that the US (and our allies, of course, he added) needs to occupy Pakistan to keep more trouble from erupting in that part of the world.  I replied a US invasion of Pakistan would make things worse, not better; indeed, US aggression is a major source of trouble in that part of the world.  I didn't say we should invade, he protested; I still haven't had the energy to reply that you can hardly have an occupation without an invasion first.  It's my liberal friends who keep reminding me of Molly Ivins's slap at some Texas pol, that if his IQ sank any lower we'd have to water him, and that's what makes me feel like shutting down my brain indefinitely.  I can muster more energy and enthusiasm for slapping down my right-wing friends' howlers -- one of them just reposted this cartoon this morning -- than the complacent babbling of the liberal ones.

So, having said that, let me just refer you to Ta-Nehisi Coates's fine article "Fear of a Black President," which includes these heartbreaking passages:
I asked [Shirley] Sherrod if she thought the president had a grasp of the specific history of the region and of the fights waged and the sacrifices made in order to make his political journey possible. “I don’t think he does,” Sherrod said. “When he called me [shortly after the incident], he kept saying he understood our struggle and all we’d fought for. He said, ‘Read my book and you’ll see.’ But I had read his book.”
In her new memoir, The Courage to Hope, she writes about a different kind of tears: when she discussed her firing with her family, her mother, who’d spent her life facing down racism at its most lethal, simply wept. “What will my babies say?,” Sherrod cried to her husband, referring to their four small granddaughters. “How can I explain to my children that I got fired by the first black president?”
What makes it particularly awful is that Obama fired Sherrod based on the lies of the unlamented right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart, who was already known to be fraudulent.  Sherrod was fired by the first black president for no damn reason except his political cowardice.

Meanwhile, over at The Sideshow, Avedon quotes Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report, and comments:
Dixon recommends getting out of the two-party, lesser-evil box and preparing for something new. I don't know how to do that, but I do know that blacks and whites alike are "more unemployed than we've been in seventy years, and more imprisoned than we've ever been," and I'm horrified at every "progressive" who somehow thought it was more important to defend Obama's presidency than to defend the Democratic Party and the nation against this rightward push, to the point where even primary challenges to bad Democrats were out of the question. Paul Ryan and other Republican Horrors are people who the Democratic leadership actively protected against real challenges in their districts. The only reason there are any Republicans in Congress from New York is that the Democratic leadership makes sure that happens.

Dixon is right: The Republicans are giving the Obamacrats cover to pass a right-wing agenda
The True Pure Centrist commented that the trouble is that people don't know the good things that the Democrats have done: the New Deal, the Civil Rights Bills, Medicare, and so on.  I can't speak for everyone, but I'm fully aware of all Democratic conventions.  It's actually hard to be unaware of those things, because Democratic apologists keep reminding us about them.  So I doubt the general ignorance is as widespread as TPC likes to think.  The trouble is that the great accomplishments he mentions were made a couple of generations ago (Cthulhu, I'm old), and that the last two Democratic administrations have been doing their best to to undo those achievements.

Of course, there are always haters.  This ungrateful Negro, for example, just had to carp and complain and find fault even in the Democrats' glory days:
No president has really done very much for the American Negro, though the past two presidents have received much undeserved credit for helping us. This credit has accrued to Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy only because it was during their administrations that Negroes began doing more for themselves. Kennedy didn't voluntarily submit a civil rights bill, nor did Lyndon Johnson. In fact, both told us at one time that such legislation was impossible. President Johnson did respond realistically to the signs of the times and used his skills as a legislator to get bills through Congress that other men might not have gotten through. I must point out, in all honesty, however, that President Johnson has not been nearly so diligent in implementing the bills he has helped shepherd through Congress.
Of the ten titles of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, probably only the one concerning public accomodations -- the most bitterly contested section -- has been meaningfully enforced and implemented. Most of the other sections have been deliberately ignored.
I'm sure that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day.
It isn't we professional leftists who need to be reminded of what the Democrats did in the past: it is the Democratic mainstream that needs to take stock and stop trying to dismantle everything their predecessors (however half-heartedly) achieved.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Native New Yorker

Time does fly!  I got busy with some offline things late last week, and then went out of town for the weekend.  Next thing I know it's Tuesday and I haven't written here in almost a week.

I just finished reading the first volume of Out Spoken: A Vito Russo Reader, published this year by White Crane Books.  I had no idea such a project was in the works when I found the book at one of our local independent bookstores, and I was delighted.  One of the editors, Jeffrey Schwarz, worked on the film version of The Celluloid Closet and made a new documentary about Russo, Vito.  The first volume alone is almost 300 pages of Russo's journalism on film and celebrities; I expect to buy the second volume, devoted to other areas of his activism, next week.

As I remember, I first heard of him in the 1970s, when he wrote an angry letter to the Village Voice complaining about their coverage of Pride Week; not only was it angry, it was funny, but without sacrificing its seriousness. The IU campus gay group brought him to Bloomington for a gay conference not too long afterwards, so I was able to praise that letter to him in person.  "A lot of people liked that letter," he said, bemused.  "I should write when I'm angry more often."  At that conference he gave the presentation on Hollywood and homosexuals he'd been working on for a couple of years at the time, which eventually became the book The Celluloid Closet (Harper, 1981; revised edition, 1987).  The presentation, which included slides and (I think) film clips, not only began my education about gays in film but about film itself.  The only thing I specifically remember Russo saying in the lecture was that he thought it possible that in time The Boys in the Band would be seen very differently than we saw it at the time: instead of a parade of negative stereotypes, it would be an interesting portrayal of some gay men's lives in a much harder time.  That pleased me because I'd never seen Boys as an unrelentingly negative play, even when I read it as a closeted teen. 

The Celluloid Closet is still a groundbreaking book, though it wasn't the first book to deal with its subject -- Parker Tyler's Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (Holt, 1972) appeared nine years earlier.  Russo was doing something different than Tyler, though: he aimed at a full survey of the movies' treatment of homosexuality, viewed from an avowedly gay liberationist perspective.  Even if you disagreed with his judgments, and I often did, Russo did the groundwork for later study and discussion of queer film.  It's out of print now, which is a shame.

So it's great to have this new collection of his journalism.  Russo wrote for several publications, and Out Spoken contains interviews, reviews, and opinion pieces.  Some of this material went into The Celluloid Closet, but much didn't.  I was surprised to find Lily Tomlin almost coming out in print in the 1980s: she was willing for Russo to refer to her partner, Jane Wagner, as her partner, though I don't think "partner" had yet become the standard term for same-sex couples that it is now.

As I said, I have my disagreements with Russo.  I was annoyed when he complained, in the revised edition of The Celluloid Closet, that Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career didn't deal with the lesbianism of the author.  The character Sybylla wasn't Miles Franklin, and I didn't notice any homoeroticism in the novel when I reread it a couple of years ago. I concede that's a sticky question, because adaptations can legitimately make all kinds of changes in source material.  If Armstrong had chosen to make that change, and it had worked within the film, I wouldn't have objected; but she wasn't obliged to.  (A biopic of Franklin would be a different matter.)

Some of the issues Russo grappled with are still with us, of course, like that of straight actors playing gay characters and vice versa.  In one piece Russo wrote:
When Harry Hamlin hesitated to accept the role of a gay writer in Making Love, producer Dan Melnick asked him, “If I came to you with a really great script and asked you to play Hitler, would you consider it?” Hamlin, of course, replied that he would. “So,” said Melnick, “you’re willing to play a mass murderer but not a homosexual. Think about that.” To his credit, Hamlin did think about it and eventually played the role in Making Love [235-6].
But what if the script isn't "great"?  Making Love is one of the worst Hollywood movies I've ever seen.  Maybe the original script was better.  As with the later Philadelphia, nervous Hollywood executives evidently interfered with the wishes and intentions of the gay men involved in the production, but I'm not sure they can be blamed for all the many faults of this turgid flop.  For example, the opening sequence indicates that the male leads lived together, but as I remember the main story they were basically tricks.

One thing that struck me especially odd was the juxtaposition of Russo's attack on the Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail, "a duplicitous film that spends two hours making promiscuous sex, drinking, smoking, fake values and macho sexism look attractive and then turns around in the last ten minutes to say that fidelity and loyalty are really where it’s at" (222), with a complaint that "In this new world, gay boys are designed to be cute and alluring and slightly 'toyish,' but they don’t fuck around" (229) and a eulogy for Fred "Halsted’s generation, a group of men who lived to push sex to its limit in a way that became an anachronism all too soon" (261). (Halsted was a filmmaker and prophet of leather / S&M. Substance abuse was one of the pillars of his creed.)   These pieces were written at the height of the AIDS crisis, which may have had something to do with Russo's inconsistency.  I'm not casting the first stone here, I've fallen into such contradictions myself; but they're interesting.

Overall, though, Out Spoken is a great, very readable insider's view of the gay movement from the 1970s onward, and well worth your time.  I'm looking forward to getting and reading the second volume.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Oh, How Can You Say Such Awful Things?

I'm reading Gary C. Thomas's essay "'Was George Frederic Handel Gay?': On Closet Questions and Cultural Politics" in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, & Gary C. Thomas; 2nd edition, Routledge, 2006).  Thomas does a beautiful job showing how Handel's virtue has been defended fiercely by his biographers for the past three centuries, without any evidence to support a claim of heterosexuality.  Often they have simply made stuff up: Thomas quotes a late twentieth century biographer who confidently asserts that Handel wasn't homosexual because "in an eighteenth-century context the vagabond life of musicians made marriage a distinct hindrance" (170).  You mean like Haydn?  Or Mozart?  (Even if marriage was a hindrance to musicians, it doesn't seem to have deterred them from marrying.)  Oddly, Thomas counters this claim by pointing out that "gay men from Handel's time through Stonewall (but especially in the eighteenth century) married more often than not, and for a variety of reasons"; a really determined apologist would use that as evidence that Handel wasn't gay, or he would have married.  More germane, and Thomas spends a good deal more space showing this, is that the evidence we have (including from his contemporaries) is that Handel didn't have any erotic liaisons with women at all, unlike many of his artistic bachelor contemporaries.  That's not proof that he was gay either; but it argues against any confident assertion that he was heterosexual.

But I'm digressing; what got me started on this post was Thomas's partly rhetorical question on the same page: "Why in an enlightened age wouldn't the possibility of a gay Handel be greeted if not with enthusiasm, then with a 'modicum of dispassionate objectivity'?"  It's understandable why Handel's contemporaries would have reacted with horror to the suggestion that the great man was a Sodomite; but not in our supposedly "enlightened age," when we know that earthquakes aren't caused by buggery.  One of the virtues of the first edition of Queering the Pitch (1994) was that the more intemperate reactions to it cast doubt on the widespread fantasy that the world of classical music is a tolerant, accepting, even welcoming haven for homos.  If the suggestion that Handel (or Schubert, or whoever) may have liked men is so absurd, why not simply refute it with evidence and reason?  Why do so many highly educated and worldly people react instead with illogic and fantasy?

I can now segue to the main topic of this post, namely Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for the US Senate from Missouri who uttered these now-notorious words in an interview on a St. Louis TV station:
First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy from rape) is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.
Akin's claim is ludicrous, of course, but people reacted to it almost as ludicrously.  This Kansas City Star article, for example, quotes an emergency-room doctor as saying, "To try to be able to say that anyone’s going to respond in a consistent pattern that’s going to limit their probability of becoming pregnant is ridiculous."  The doctor seems to be thinking in terms of medical procedures, like a morning-after pill or a medical abortion; what Akin evidently had in mind was an automatic physiological response of a woman's body to forced copulation.  I'm referring to the Star article because it explains where Akin probably got his belief:
But Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association — a nonprofit that describes itself as a pro-family organization — told The Star on Monday that “fair-minded people” know what Akin really meant by his statement. Wildmon speculated that Akin was differentiating between forcible rape and statutory rape, which can be consensual.

“What I read from some medical sources, when a woman is raped, her body shuts down in some respects that may prevent her from getting pregnant,” Wildmon said.

Wildmon referred to an article by physician John Willke, president of the Life Issues Institute — a nonprofit anti-abortion group — and former president of the National Right to Life Committee. In that article, titled “Rape Pregnancies are Rare” and published in April 1999, Willke wrote that one of the most important factors to consider is that a rape victim’s hormone production during such trauma may be “upset,” resulting in a possible pregnancy being compromised.

“There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape,” the article reads. “This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.”

Leading experts on reproductive health, however, dismissed this logic...

Read more here:
(Newsweek's Michele Goldberg, on Democracy Now yesterday, also cited Willke.)  This is what I'd consider the proper response to someone like Akin: Oh, really?  Which doctors?  Can you point me to a source?  What do most doctors say about this?  The struggle for women's reproductive autonomy has been going on for quite some time now, much like the struggle for racial equality or the struggle for the equality of sexual minorities.  Yet every time some bigoted fool says something absurd, the typical liberal response is to freak out (Oh, how can you say such awful things?) and vilify the person rather than his or her words, despite the liberal claim that liberals and especially liberal Democrats are sane rational people while conservative Republicans are irrational wackjobs.  Which isn't to say that Akin shouldn't be vilified, but so should many Democrats.  People who haven't learn to think or debate rationally are not people I trust with a movement for social justice.

The focus has been on Akin's fantasy about the wonderful, no doubt God-given, powers of the female body to protect itself against invasion.  (While he was at it, he should have mentioned the tiny but sharp little teeth that come out of the vagina to chomp up the membrum virile of a dirty rapist, praise Jesus!  That would be a fantasy too, but why stick with half-measures when you're talking about a serious issue?  The more serious, the more important it is to make stuff up.  It's okay, because it's in a good cause.)  I can't help wondering, though: if a woman's body blocks pregnancy after a rape, isn't that like natural abortion?  Should a woman be allowed to punish a zygote, or even a sperm cell, just because she was raped?  That is, I hope you noticed, Akin's rationale for disallowing a medical abortion in cases of rape: punish the rapist, not the "baby" -- once the sperm is in the vagina, it's a potential baby.

It isn't actually irrational to believe that women's bodies could reject unwanted sperm.  Such things happen in nature.  Among zebra finches, females do not conceive after forced copulations, and females of some other species have been observed ejecting sperm after copulation; see Marlene Zuk, Sexual Selections [California. 2002], 84-85.  Women aren't birds, unfortunately, and if Todd Akin wants to build social policy on the assumption that they are, he needs better evidence than one speculative paper by one anti-choice doctor.

Fussing about the definition of rape, as many of Akin's liberal critics have been doing, is really beside the point.  Some have looked past it, pointing out that his fantasy about women's power is an attempt to justify his denial of an exception for abortion in the case of rape, which is the current Republican Party stance on abortion.  The issue is not the definition of rape, but that women's right to make decisions about their own bodies has been whittled away that far.  Roe v. Wade asserted a woman's freedom to decide whether to have an abortion without qualification in the first trimester of pregnancy, whether she has been raped or not.  But focusing on the definition of rape allowed President Obama, for example, to pontificate:
Rape is rape. And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people and certainly doesn’t make sense to me. So, what I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making healthcare decisions on behalf of women.
Obama's own record, however, is dodgier than these tough words would suggest.  As this blogger points out, the Affordable Care Act (conforming with the Hyde Amendment) forbids the use of federal funds for abortion, "except in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the woman would be endangered," as well as other amendments which "prohibit discrimination" (!) against health care providers whose religious "conscience" forbids them to provide abortion services.  Sounds like male politicians making healthcare decisions on behalf of women to me.

It's worth looking at Akin's "apology," too.  Does he apologize for his determined, longstanding opposition to women's reproductive freedom?  Of course not:
I’ve really made a couple of serious mistakes here that were just wrong, and I need to apologize for those. First, I might say that I’ve always been committed to pro-life, and it was because I didn’t want to harm the most vulnerable. But likewise, I care deeply, you know, for the victims of people who have been raped, and they’re equally vulnerable. And a rape is equally tragic. And I made that statement in error. Let me be clear: rape is never legitimate. It’s an evil act that’s committed by violent predators. I used the wrong words in the wrong way. What I said was ill-conceived, and it was wrong. And for that, I apologize.
It's a typical politician's apology.  Which is why rape survivor and author of the Vagina Monologues Eve Ensler missed the point in her HuffPost response to Akin.  Ensler invited Akin to imagine a violent, stinking stranger breaking into his house in the night and forcing him to submit to his vile appetites -- but stranger rape, preferably by unwashed derelicts of color, is the paradigm of rape that the Religious Right accepts.  (At least in theory: in practice, the victim had better be a white blonde virgin, whose flimsy feminine garments are rent by the brute's grubby paws, and even then they'll never quite believe she didn't ask for it.)  The Republican National Committee didn't cut off their funding of Akin, nor did Romney denounce him and call for him to withdraw from the race, because they've suddenly become pro-choice.  (As usual, the Onion got it right.)

I got into a verbal tussle with the blogger Vast Left on Facebook yesterday, because he blamed Akin's view on the Bible, and invited his commenters to cite cases from the Bible where rape resulted in pregnancy.  His own example was that of Lot and his daughters.  Faithful Bible readers will recall that after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which also resulted in Lot's wife looking back and being turned into a pillar of salt, Lot's daughters got him drunk on successive nights and copulated with him in turn.  They both became pregnant as a result.  I pointed out that if anyone was raped in this story, it was Lot; Akin's fantasy wouldn't apply to him.  Vast Left didn't seem bothered by the distinction, but of course we're going after Republicans here, and Christians to boot, so all's fair.  More cases were mentioned, such as slaves being used sexually (which, as I've pointed out, doesn't seem to bother gay Christians as long as master and slave are both male), of concubinage and the like.  I pointed out that in the Hebrew Bible, brides were routinely purchased, so it would seem that all Biblical women were raped (except possibly Ruth).  The concept of "consent," so important in liberal discourse on sex, is a legal fiction: in America in the recent past, white women could not consent to copulate with non-white males, wives could not withhold consent to copulate with their husbands ("I do" amounting to consent while the marriage continued), and of course no one of either sex could consent to be penetrated anally.  Legal consent, enshrined in the cliche "consenting adults," is very different from commonsense notions of consent, which have their own problems.

Vast Left offered a nice platitude: Sexual attitudes in the past sucked, and so do some today, but consent is important.  And religion is okay as long as believers extract whatever good they can from it.  Who gets to decide that what is extracted is good? I asked.  Atheists haven't done better than theists where ethics and morality are concerned, as far as I can tell, particularly on questions of sex and gender.

Wherever Akin and Willke got their fantasy about the abortifacient powers of the womb, they didn't get it from the Bible.  Indeed, Willke is a doctor, and they were both appealing to the authority of science, not religion.  Where consent is concerned, atheists -- especially male ones -- have not distinguished themselves.  Remember the proudly atheist and pro-science philosopher Michael Ruse, who confused sex with a woman and defecating on a Persian rug: his rationalist exploration of rape delved into whether he should clear a potential copulation with another male, and the woman's opinion didn't enter into it at all.  (He did lament that human females don't go into heat, because then rape somehow wouldn't be an issue, but again, he was addressing other men's judgment of his behavior, not the woman's wishes.)  "Scientific" discussions of rape have been no better, such as Thornhill and Palmer's recommendation that teenagers be required to take classes on rape prevention before being issued a driver's license: boys would learn the evolutionary issues involved, while girls would be taught not to dress "provocatively" -- any Taliban mullah would surely agree.  Or the whole "evolutionary psychology" approach: rape is awful, terrible, horrible, and maybe someday we'll find a way to alter the genome so men won't do it, without losing their manliness.  Meanwhile, according to the evolutionary psychologists, women will just have to learn not to blame Nature if her sons are sexist; it's nobody's fault.

This is one reason I don't blame religion for bad things in human society (or give religion credit for the good things).  People use religion to ratify what they already want or believe, which is why when many people reject religion, they tend to keep the teachings they like.  Sex and gender are topics that seem especially tenacious.  But again, all this is a distraction from the crucial issue of women's right to make decisions over their own bodies.

That was all I had in mind to say, but just now another friend posted a meme on Facebook to the effect that if men could get pregnant, we wouldn't be having this conversation.  It's a familiar gag; one version went, "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."  The point is a good one, but I don't think I agree.  Patriarchy regulates men's sexual behavior pretty strictly too: consider the story of Onan (Genesis 38), struck dead by Yahweh for spilling his semen on the ground instead of siring a child on his widowed sister-in-law.  Masturbation, called onanism, was ginned up into a major source of hysteria by the medical profession, more than it ever had been by religion.  Men are supposed to respect each other's property rights over women, though of course they constantly cheat.  And male homosexuality, conflated with the regulation of styles of manhood, is a major arena of anxiety and discipline; men who fail to conform pay a heavy price.  Which brings me full circle to the question at the beginning of this post, and good night.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

An Indelicate Balance

As I close in on the end of J. Neil C. Garcia's Gay Philippine Culture (2nd edition, University of the Philippines Press, 2008), the more I'm convinced that neither 'traditional' nor 'modern/Western' understandings of same-sex eroticism work.  Garcia spends hundreds of pages flailing around, rehearsing the essentialist / constructionist debate on every other page, but neither approach makes much sense of the material -- mostly a few popular films, some fiction, and a widely performed but unpublished play -- he discusses.  He's far from alone in his confusion, of course, and it's not his fault because most discourse of human sexuality is hopelessly incoherent.

I did finally find a passage that helped me understand why this is so.
Furthermore, just because the native Tagalog and Cebuano languages do not have an indigenous term for “homosexual,” it does not mean the homosexual act does not get practiced in these cultures. Certainly, the sexual self-understanding of the people who commit it here can only be different from the sexual self-understanding of the people from other cultures where the distinction between homo- and heterosexualities holds rather firmly (as in the West). For instance, in the case of the bakla, a qualitative difference from Western homosexuality may be the rather strange preponderance of “straight-gay” relationships in the local culture, unheard of and incomprehensible to the dualistic, Western mind [250].
In fact, English does not have an indigenous term for "homosexual" either.  The word "homosexual" (rather, Homosexualität) was invented in the 1860s, welding together a Greek prefix with a Latin suffix, so it can hardly be indigenous anywhere.  Some writers claim that the "concept" of homosexuality was actually invented earlier by another person, though according to the linguistic determinism usually assumed in this kind of social-construction discourse, it's impossible to have a concept without a word, which magically and instantaneously brings the concept into being.

Maybe this is why no one seems to know what a "homosexual" is: the word and the concept are foreign coinages, at home nowhere, not even in the colonialist West.  Karl-Maria Kertbeny, who invented the word, argued that as far as the law is concerned it is irrelevant whether Homosexualität is innate or not.  He also apparently rejected his contemporary Karl Heinz Ulrichs' conception of the 'soul of a woman trapped in the body of a man,' separating homosexuality from gender.  I'm not sure about this last, because the only evidence the blogger I'm citing offers is that "Kertbeny pointedly noted that homosexual men were not necessarily effeminate, citing several heroic historical figures as examples."  In practice that information sits comfortably with belief in inversion, often seeking to show that those big butch warriors nevertheless had a little girl somewhere inside their psyches, perhaps their achievement was overcompensation for their well-hidden essential effeminacy.  The same blogger claims that Kertbeny's supposedly ungendered conception "is probably the most salient for understanding homosexualität’s triumph over urning and invert."  What actually happened, as far as I can see, is that the inversion concept assimilated the word Homosexualität: all modern "scientific" research on homosexuality today assumes the homosexual as the invert.  Foucault's canonical account defined the homosexual as "a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself."  The acceptance and the rejection of inversion as the model of homosexuality coexist incoherently in most "Western" writing on the subject; the writers and thinkers involved seem unaware of what they're doing.  In this respect, Garcia's discussion is thoroughly "Western."

Notice Garcia's conclusion that "in the case of the bakla, a qualitative difference from Western homosexuality may be the rather strange preponderance of 'straight-gay' relationships in the local culture, unheard of and incomprehensible to the dualistic, Western mind."  A perusal of craigslist personal ads for your locale will quickly show you that "'straight-gay' relationships" are not only heard of but fetishized by many American gay men.  If you want to limit the discussion to academic writing, look at Barry Reay's 2010 book on American hustlers and their clients in the first half of the twentieth century, which also conceives the homosexual as the invert, and insists that the men who rent their penises to homosexuals are not queer -- not even when they find they enjoy being "pedicated" by the queers.  After all, the inversion model traditionally assumed that the only acceptable partner for the invert would be "normal" (or "straight"), an assumption epitomized in Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, which ends with the inverted protagonist driving her lover into the arms of a normal man, to give her a chance for a normal life.

Garcia is sure that the bakla -- narrowly conceived as a flamboyantly effeminate, cross-dressing homosexual male -- is not the same as the invert, but it's not clear how: the bakla fits the bill in every particular, right down to the conviction of being cursed to a life of loneliness and paid sex in the twilight world between the sexes.  He's also sure that the bakla is indigenously and uniquely Philippine, though in explicating a Tagalog novella about teenaged hustlers he lists among their "bakla clients" a "middle-aged American" (363).  By Garcia's own criteria, an American cannot be a bakla.  But he doesn't seem able to keep a close enough eye on them to keep such anomalies from jumping the fence.

It works both ways: Garcia wants to use the word "homosexual" to refer to Filipino erotic phenomena and actors, but he never figures out how to do it without violating his own strictures.  For one example out of many I could give, he criticizes the writer Tony Perez for
working from the assumption that only the bakla in a ‘gay/straight’ relationship is homosexual. Since homosexuality does not truly have analogues in our culture -- for there are no local distinctions between the sexual orientations homo/hetero – then the more critical view would be not to dismiss the possibility that in any sexual interaction between two male individuals, both partners may actually be seeing through to its fulfillment their same-sex orientation. [Not in the Philippines! That’s a wicked Western concept, not just “orientation” but “same-sex”, which is what “homo” means.] After all, when we consider sexuality not as a question of identity but of acts, any person who engages in sex with another person of the same genital sex is possibly [!] already a homosexual. [Not in the Philippines! This is after all purely a matter of definition.] This perspective is potentially liberating, for it extends the issue of homosexuality beyond the minoritized identity of the bakla, onto the bigger social realm which will have to include even the macho men themselves [369].
(I've added some comments in square brackets [].)  If "homosexuality" refers to non-gendered relations between person of the same biological sex -- and to repeat, that is not what the word usually means even as it's used in "the West" -- then it has no real analogues anywhere.  In practice, there is a lot of non-gendered homosexuality, probably in all cultures, but it doesn't fit any local conception of sex, so it usually remains invisible and unthinkable.  (That invisibility gives some cover to the participants, of course, who therefore are usually happy to keep it so.)  It's not any conception inherent in the word "homosexuality," nor anticolonalist resistance to Western concepts, that explains the stubborn resistance to degendering it, but assumptions about sex and gender that are powerful in many if not most cultures.

Another sign of Garcia's inability to disentangle his ideas is that "when we consider sexuality not as a question of identity but of acts," the question of whether either participant in "the homosexual act" is "homosexual" doesn't come up.  In that case, neither partner is "homosexual."  At best, it's a separate question.  But Garcia doesn't seem to understand that.

One final issue is the question of "coming out."  Garcia seems unaware of the term's history in "the West," specifically America.  Before the post-Stonewall movement redefined it to mean telling straight people that one is gay, it meant making one's debut in gay society, and as a corollary, having one's first erotic experience with someone of the same sex.  This fits well with the meanings Garcia assigns to it in Philippine gay culture, if he only knew.  But he also distinguishes between "covert" and "overt" gays, especially in his discussion of Orlando Nadres' popular play Hanggang Dito na Lamang at Maraming Salamat (That's All for Now and Many Thanks).  The play is about a middle-aged pawnshop owner, Fidel, who lives a compulsively discreet life punctuated by occasional paid-for sex with younger hustlers.  Though on some level he knows he's a bakla, he believes that he can evade the stigma by acting as much as possible like a "normal" man; his main visible form of resistance is his refusal to marry a woman, a refusal made easier by the fact that his parents are no longer living.  For years he has carried a secret torch for his studly nineteen-year-old ward Efren, whose education he pays for.  Fidel's foil in the play is Julius Caesar Aquino, aka Julie: a flamboyant bakla beautician, who has apparently supplied some of Fidel's sexual partners in the past.  Only to Julie does Fidel admit his secret self, though Fidel still insists fiercely that the two are not alike, because Fidel represses his inner impulses.

So far so good, but what is Fidel repressing?  Not his sexual desires: he satisfies those with the occasional hustler.  What he keeps hidden, it seems, is his bakla nature.  Otherwise he'd be competing in gay beauty contests like Julie. To be a bakla is to scream, to wear one's hair long, to pile on the makeup, to compete in beauty contests.  This is a theme that runs through Philippine Gay Culture, as in Garcia's account of silahis:
… the silahis is a male who looks every bit like a “real man” – he may even be married and with a family – but who, in all this time, would rather swish and wear skirts and scream “like a woman.” A very good example of this conception of the silahis would be the members of the seventies’ novelty pop singing group, Charings. They look like five very “regular” men (mustachioed and all), and yet, the moment the opening strains of their one-and-only hit – the catchy disco hit, “Badaf Forever” – begin, they swish their hips and break into a faggoty song-and-dance routine [134].
"Covert" gays, then, are those men who don't scream and swish and wear skirts, but it takes all their will power to do so, because their inner bakla nature is churning away inside them.   It's hard to see how Garcia can appeal to the existence of "macho gays," because his whole intellectual framework denies the possibility of such creatures.  They may seem macho on the surface, but inside that facade is a bakla just waiting to throw off its chains and take over.

This problem is also built into the supposedly Western inversion model, by the way.  No one has ever been quite able to explain why all externally male inverts aren't letting their inner female souls out to sashay and flounce and shake that thang, or why all externally female inverts aren't lounging around in smoking jackets and wearing butch cuts.  Maybe they do so out of delicacy; maybe they're too cowardly to be themselves.  (False consciousness is such a handy way to explain other people's choices that we happen to dislike.)  There's nothing in the model that gives a reason why they shouldn't, and in gay culture the same assumption is widespread: to be a gay boy is to be a girl.  (Remember what one of the gay sociologist Martin Levine's clone informants told him: "Darling, beneath all this butch drag, we are still girls.")  Lip service is paid to the existence of the fabulous gender-compliant gay person, but most American gay people don't really seem to believe in it except for PR purposes, to assert our fundamental normality.  And who knows what RuPaulishness lurks in the hearts of the bodybuilder at the next workout station?

Myself, I have no idea whether every butch gay man has a bakla trapped inside him.  It's an assumption, based on no evidence whatsoever, perpetuated even by Western "scientific" discourse.  But then I don't believe that bakla or American drag queens really have a woman's soul trapped inside to give them fashion tips.  I don't know how you would even go about investigating, let alone proving it.  Which to my mind is a good reason to think of sexuality not as a question of identity but of acts, but that has its own problems.  We are human beings with bodies and subjective selves, so I don't see why questions of subjectivity (as opposed to chimerae like "orientation" and "identity") shouldn't be on the table.  And some humility about other people's subjectivity is in order, since we have no way of knowing what's really going on in other people's heads; our own heads are confusing enough.

What Garcia and others need to beware is the assumption that all people in a given culture interpret their experiences in the same way, by the same categories.  When he writes, "Certainly, the sexual self-understanding of the people who commit it ["the homosexual act," as if there were only one!] here can only be different from the sexual self-understanding of the people from other cultures where the distinction between homo- and heterosexualities holds rather firmly (as in the West)," he's ignoring the likelihood that that even among bakla there is not just one self-understanding of their sexual experience and of their lives.  It's certain that this is true of American gay culture, despite our own corresponding attempts to fit ourselves into one inadequate category or another.  I wish I knew how to persuade people to do otherwise: most people seem to love Procrustean beds, even for themselves.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Man Enough to Write a Book

I'm reading Stella Maria Miles Franklin's My Career Goes Bung today.  She wrote it to follow up her successful first novel My Brilliant Career (1901), which she wrote as a teenager, but for various reasons the sequel sat in a trunk and wasn't published until 1946.  Franklin left her native Australia and built her writing career in the US and Britain, only returning home many years later.  In 1979 My Brilliant Career was made into a film directed by Gillian Armstrong that won awards and launched Judy Davis's international career.  According to the director, Davis hated the character, who was her polar opposite, and didn't enjoy making the film at all.  This was ironic, because on the strength of her portrayal she was cast in headstrong, tomboyish roles for some time after.

But back to My Career Goes Bung.  It's remarkable for a book written in 1902 (and would still be remarkable a century later, I think), for its feminism and for its take on religion.
It was a relief to be indignant with God, but a trial to be able to get at Him in any way.  In my perturbation I collided with Great-aunt Jane, who said that the Lord loves those whom she chastiseth.  His way of saving the world did not appear to me as efficient for a being who was all-powerful.  He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son to save it, and allowed Him to be nailed on a cross in ghastly agony -- without saving anything considerable as far as history shows.

"Heaven knows what He would have permitted to be done to a daughter," I remarked.

Aunt Jane stood this pretty well.  "Ah," she laughed, "You'll grow to sense.  A husband and children of your own will put you in your place" [18].
(Quoted from a 1981 reprint by St. Martin's Press, under the title The End of My Career.)

The narrator gets her Pa alone to talk more theology.
"The trouble with the Church of England God," Pa continued, "is that he is made in the image of some darned old cackling prelate, so mean and cowardly that the Devil, for consistency and ability, is a gentleman beside him."  Pa had a twinkle in his eye as he added, "But you know, it isn't gentlemanly to upset people of less mental powers than yourself; besides, it is dangerous.  Think as much as you like, my girl, but let sleeping dogs lie unless you can do some good by waking them up" [19].
The title of this post comes from Sybylla's Pa's offer, "If you are man enough to write a book, I'll get you some paper."

In an introduction to the 1946 edition, Franklin wrote that she hadn't changed the manuscript for publication, choosing to "keep faith with that girl who was I."  What she wrote feels way ahead of its time in tone and even language.  (Mark Twain wrote some similarly critical stuff about Christianity in the same period, but chose to leave it for posthumous publication.)  I read My Career Goes Bung a couple of decades ago, but had forgotten how much fun it is; so I'll quit writing and go back to reading.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Take From the Rich and Give to the Rich

Can you imagine something like this happening in the United States?  The chairman of a big corporation, convicted of embezzling $264 million from his company, was sentenced to four years in prison and, also unusually, taken from court directly to prison.  According to the Hankyoreh, "Traditionally, courts have given suspended sentences in such cases, arguing that the businessmen involved deserved leniency for 'contributing to economic development.'"  It's also likely the the sentence will be suspended on appeal, as has happened in some previous cases.  But public outcry against such leniency has made some progress.

In the US, President Obama has claimed that the government couldn't prosecute the Wall Street players who brought down the US economy in 2008 because much of what they did wasn't illegal. While this is true in some cases, it's not true in all of them.  It doesn't seem likely that Chairman Kim Seung-youn was unaware that stealing money from his own company was against the law.  Like his American counterparts, he was counting on the enduring principle of civilized life that the rich and powerful have certain privileges, that the law is for the canaille, not for the better classes.  So far that principle still holds in South Korea, but it appears to be under attack in a way that we haven't seen yet in the Land of the Expensive.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Canons to the Left of Me!

How Goes the Culture War? Roy Edroso asked sarcastically today, referring to some more conservatives who are whining that their side gets no respect, and in particular:
And at Power Line, Steven Hayward asks, "WHY IS THERE NO LIBERAL AYN RAND?" He's taking off from Beverly Gage who, slightly less stupidly, asks, "American conservatives have a canon. Why don’t American liberals?" Sure we have a canon -- it's called Western literature. And it beats the snot out of the sad, long-form political pamphlets wingnuts like to name-check. You will learn more about the human condition from the works of novelists, playwrights, and poets than you ever can from a thousand power freaks' blueprints for the mass production of Procrustean beds.
I don't think this works, but then I have to remember that Edroso's mission is to make fun of the monkeyshines of the Right in a Democratic-Party-friendly fashion, not to do any serious thinking.  Once in a while he tiptoes toward the precipice of criticizing Obama, but never goes too close.  Most obviously, the canon of Western literature is also claimed by conservatives, and rightly so, since that canon is a conservative product.  (As well as something of a fantasy: the canon looks different in each European country, both in its content and in how it's read, and the content changes over time within each national tradition.)  Edroso also has this hobbyhorse about art not being political, which would seem to conflict with his implication that the canon is more liberal than conservative.  He's right to make fun of the contemporary American Right's attempts to read their views into art and pop culture, but that's because the writers he's citing are sloppy thinkers.  As Joanna Russ once wrote, "To apply rigid, stupid, narrow, political standards to fiction is bad because the standards are rigid, stupid, and narrow, not because they are political." I admit it's tempting to believe that there's a connection between sloppy thought and the Right, but I've read too many sloppy liberals and leftists to take the idea very far.

For example, in an update to the post, he approvingly quotes a commenter:
Political philosophy is almost entirely a liberal project. In some sense liberal political philosophy fuckin' created Western political culture. Human rights grew entirely out of liberal institutions consciously advancing specific liberal political conceptions...
I suppose that "almost" saves the claim from being completely false.  Political philosophy in the West begins with Plato and Aristotle, neither of whom was what you'd call a liberal, and proceeds through centuries of thinkers who drew on them.  Perhaps what the commenter meant was "modern Anglo-American political philosophy," but even there, I think it would be more accurate to say that human rights grew out of individuals struggling to get institutions to advance their political conceptions, not all of which were "liberal" in the sense that Edroso and his regulars use the word.  Parochialism isn't limited to the Right, you see.

American universities, the guardians and gatekeepers of the canon in the US, were quite conservative institutions until after World War II, when the GI Bill funded higher education for a flood of people who'd never have been allowed in before, certainly not in such numbers.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in 1962, President Carl Bridenbaugh lamented the changes he saw occurring in the academic world. Himself from Protestant Middle America, Bridenbaugh deplored “the great mutation” in Clio’s profession that was occurring as the post-World War II GI Bill ushered into the undergraduate and graduate programs people who could not have gone to college in the Depression. “Many of the young practitioners of our craft, and those who are still apprentices,” Bridenbaugh lamented, “are products of lower middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions not infrequently get in the way of historical reconstructions. They suffered from an “environmental deficiency” because they were urban-bred, rooted in the Old World traditions of their parents’ homelands, and therefore lacking in the “understanding … vouchsafed to historians who were raised in the countryside or in the small town.…They find themselves in a very real sense outsiders on our past and feel themselves shut out. This is certainly not their fault, but it is true.”

Almost everyone who heard or read Bridenbaugh’s references to urban, foreign-born outsiders, mutants tarnishing a noble profession, understood that he was talking about Jews. This was far from the last lamentation about the wholesale change in the recruitment of historians in a period of extraordinary growth in higher education. Bridenbaugh’s discomfort was shared widely because before World War II the history profession had been drawn overwhelmingly from the ranks of middle- to upper-class white Protestant men [Gary B. Nash et al, History on Trial (Knopf, 1998), p. 54].
Stuff like this is a reminder why American academia underwent such upheavals in the 1960s, and the canon was opened to such abominations as Women's Studies and African-American Studies.  (Do I need to caption "abominations" for the irony-impaired?  If so, consider it captioned.)  Edroso's a lot younger than I am, so he may not be aware of the changes that occurred.  His politics-neutral claims about art indicate that he absorbed some reactionary rhetoric along the line, though detached from its earlier context.

Another commenter not quoted by Edroso wrote:
I am sure that if one were to cite as a liberal canon the works of Marx, Alinsky, Debs, Chomsky, Ilich, Mills, Veblen, Zinn, Sinclair, Gorz, and the like, Hayward wouldn't call them a commie or anything like that.
But as another pointed out, "that's a left canon, not a liberal one; the two concepts are somewhat different."  The same is true of George Orwell, whose anti-totalitarian stance has often been confused with pro-capitalism, especially by the Right.  A good many heroes and heroines of today's liberals don't seem to have been liberals, and were often vilified by liberals in their day.  It's as dishonest to claim Martin Luther King Jr., for example, for liberalism as it is to claim him for conservatism.  But both those factions want to bask in King's prestige: the best (or at any rate safest) role model is a dead role model.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How Doth the Little Crocodile

In a blurt of US-bloc propaganda, associate editor Max Fisher posted "The Dolphins of Pyongyang" at the Atlantic's website today.  It's about a shiny new aquarium that just opened in the capital of North Korea, despite the ever-diminishing standard of living most North Koreans endure, but even more it's about how brainwashed the people of North Korea are.
As far as North Korean propaganda is concerned, their own steep economic decline and the South's amazing rise never happened. The dozens of state-produced films that attract wide audiences every year -- movie tickets are subsidized and there's little other available entertainment -- depict South Korea as a land of poverty and crime. Many North Koreans, as Barbara Demick reported in her excellent book on the country, gratefully believe that they live in relative wealth and that poor South Koreans are desperate to join them.
Wow, I thought as I read those words, that sounds familiar.  It sounds like the fantasies of many (most) Americans, epitomized by the Only President We've Got just a few days ago.  We all know that America is Number One, despite the fact that we aren't, and we know that everybody in every other country wants to move here.  And we have much less excuse than the North Koreans, who do live in a sealed-off society with state-produced media.  Even our corporate media aren't controlled by the state, and those who want other sources are free and mostly able to access them.

That's not to say that the North Korean government isn't a failure, if you count failure as the inability or refusal to provide for the basic well-being of its citizens.  But the US is, by that standard, far from a success.  Nor do I deny that the North Korean government is brutally repressive, with vast numbers of unjustly incarcerated political prisoners.  But the US is becoming more repressive by the day, and one area in which we are Number One is the number of prisoners housed by our increasingly corporate prison system.  Many of them are arguably political prisoners, victims of our regime's War on Drugs.  Many are wrongly convicted, often because of the color of their skin.  No American who isn't loudly critical of US conduct first is in a position to cast the first stone at North Korea.  But as Noam Chomsky and others have noticed, it's always safe to attack official enemies -- especially relatively powerless enemies like North Korea.  The US has happily supported brutal dictatorships, in South Korea for example from 1946 to 1987, often instigating and supporting military coups against elected governments to install them, and their leaders are seldom referred to as "dictators" in the corporate media, as Fisher calls Kim Jong Un in his piece.  Really, the US and its elites have nothing against dictators who waste money on empty public works while their people go hungry, as long as they're our dictators.

Consider too that the American economy, while in better shape than North Korea's, is in trouble, with stagnating unemployment numbers, large numbers of people who rely on public assistance and private charity to feed themselves and their children, and an infrastructure that, while not a disaster, is well on its way to one.  (There's also poverty in South Korea, more than I suspect Fisher knows or wants to know.)  But we can still spend billions on sending a machine to Mars to take some rather boring digital snapshots of its vacation, and England (our right-hand partner in the Free World) can spend billions on a glitzy Olympic extravaganza.  (It's not irrelevant that that extravaganza happened to entail a fascist lockdown on the population of London, for "security.")  Of course we're still better off than North Korea, but that's one function of such a failed state: so that our citizens can look at the plight of its people and count ourselves lucky. 

Fisher mentions a report which "notes that [North Korean] defectors increasingly say that they wanted to leave on finally learning of the south's relative wealth and their own poverty."  This is also why so many Latin Americans have defected north of the Rio Grande, but it's not considered a good excuse in their case.  Despite the economic advantages of the US, most Mexicans who come here would rather be back home.  And North Korean defectors have found that the freedom-loving South didn't greet them with open arms.

The same group that produced that report
more darkly predicts that the regime will replace the lost legitimacy by escalating its acts of random aggression, writing, "The more the North Korean economy loses its distinctiveness vis-a-vis its counterpart to the south, the more the DPRK must demonstrate its legitimacy through military means." It's almost enough to make you wish for more dolphins in Pyongyang.
First, one should remember that North and South Korea are still technically one country; that they exist in a state of armed truce, not peace; and that both sides have been guilty of "acts of random aggression" over the years, except that the South's are seldom reported here.  In addition, the US has encouraged hardliners in Seoul by displays of military might, including war games, new bases sited primarily to threaten China but with North Korea in their sights, and interfering to prevent negotiations between North and South that showed promise of lessening tensions -- to say nothing of tens of thousands of American troops forty miles from the DMZ.  (Imagine thirty thousand North Korean troops permanently stationed in Vancouver.  Of course Washington wouldn't object to that, any more than we objected to Soviet troops in Cuba fifty years ago.)

Fisher's article could be worse.  I remember well how many Americans gloated over Kim Jong-Il's death less than a year ago, hoping that the regime would come crashing down, with no evident concern about the ordinary people who'd suffer in such an event.  (By the way, though Fisher writes as though this aquarium was wholly Kim Jong Un's doing, a project of such scale must have begun while his father was still alive.  Since Jong Un's status as leader was evidently fragile for some time, I doubt he could have stopped the aquarium even if he wanted to.  American liberals are are very big on not holding new leaders responsible for situations they inherited, so it would be only fair to cut Jong Un some slack on fixing an economy as throughly broken as North Korea's.)  As I wrote at the time, I don't believe that many of the people celebrating Kim's death give a damn about the North Korean people, or about peace on the Korean peninsula, or about anything except venting the free-floating rage and hatred they don't dare express about anything that matters. The US government is no more interested in democracy in North Korea than it is in the South, which means (at best) hardly at all; and most Americans don't know enough about either Korea to have an opinion. Max Fisher may know more about Korea than most Americans -- why, he edits the Atlantic's International Channel! -- but I don't believe he really cares about North Koreans' well-being any more than he cares about most Americans' well-being.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Male Bed

For the stout-hearted, here's a rather technical article by the New Testament scholar Dale B. Martin, discussing possible meanings of the Greek words arsenokoites and malakos, which I referred to in my previous post about homosexuality and the Bible.  Martin explains why the meaning of the words is so unclear, and why they can't be translated simply as "homosexuals."  (You don't need to know Greek to be able to follow it.)  On the other hand, Martin argues that, judging by the contexts in which arsenokoites occurs outside of the New Testament,
It is certainly possible, I think probable, that arsenokoités referred to a particular role of exploiting others by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily by homosexual sex. The more important question, I think, is why some scholars are certain it refers to simple male-male sex in the face of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps ideology has been more important than philology.
 Malakos is easier at first glance: literally it means "soft."
There is no question, then, about what malakos referred to in the ancient world. In moral contexts it always referred either obviously or obliquely to the feminine. There is no historical reason to take malakos as a specific reference to the penetrated man in homosexual intercourse. It is even less defensible to narrow that reference down further to mean "male prostitute." The meaning of the word is clear, even if too broad to be taken to refer to a single act or role. malakos means "effeminate."
This reminds me of a current word in English: faggot.  Quite a few straight men have tried to claim that it doesn't refer to men who are penetrated by other men, but to men who are weak, weak-ass guys, unable to take care of themselves or their women or children, kneelers, and so on.  I suspect that a similar smearing of boundaries occurs in the case of malakos.  (Martin is aware of this.)  What matters most is not being penetrated (though that still matters, quite a lot), but being unmanned.

And that brings up an argument that gay Christians often use -- it turned up in the meme I criticized before -- that what the Bible condemns is not nice, loving same-sex relationships between normal guys, but only trashy, low-rent queers riding half-naked on the back of a float in some Gay Pride parade, looking for their next sexual conquest.  What they forget is that the Bible is not an impartial, disinterested philosophy text on sexual ethics, but a strongly partial work of propaganda.  The most likely reason the Biblical writers never mention committed loving relationships between men is that they considered them the expression of lust, not love.  There were neutral or positive terms, in Greek and Latin at least, for erotic relations between males, so the fact that only negative ones turn up in the New Testament isn't due to a lack of them; it's a sign of the writers' attitudes to sex.  It's the same reason the Bible caricatures worshipers of gods other than Yahweh as "idolaters."

Martin concludes:
My goal is not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts but to highlight the ideological contexts in which such discussions have taken place. My goal is to dispute appeals to "what the Bible says" as a foundation for Christian ethical arguments. It really is time to cut the Gordian knot of fundamentalism. And do not be fooled: any argument that tries to defend its ethical position by an appeal to "what the Bible says" without explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter is fundamentalism, whether it comes from a right-wing Southern Baptist or a moderate Presbyterian.
My only quibble with this judgment is that it applies just as much to pro-gay Christians.  They also believe that if we just understand the Bible correctly, it will not condemn homosexuality; it will even endorse our acceptance in the Church.  And that, too, is fundamentalism.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why Don't We Do It in the Road?

If only gay people would keep their sexuality to themselves, and be like heterosexuals, who keep it private. But no, we just have to do it everywhere!

(I admit that at first I thought this wedding took place during an actual game, but that would probably cost a lot more.)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Oh Myyy ...

This meme has been making the rounds on Facebook this week, and George Takei just spread it, so it's taking off.  I've composed a brief critical comment that I've been posting every time it turns up, which really ought to be enough, right?  Because we're all entitled to our opinions in a free society, right?  Haters gonna hate, but I know who I am and what I stand for, right?  But since I believe that people should be prepared to defend their stances with argument and fact, I'm going to go a step further.

Presumably by "sinful" the maker of this meme means "forbidden by the Bible," since he or she makes some claims about what the Bible says.  Some of those claims are at best shaky, and some are flat-out false.  But from the start there's a begged question: many people don't tie their opposition to same-sex marriage on the claim that "homosexuality is sinful," but because of various assumptions about the nature of marriage -- that it is a religious institution, for example, despite the necessity of civil marriage in American society.  Many gay people agree on that point, of course, and want religious ceremonies to ratify their unions.  Think of the city of San Francisco, which supplied religious officiants and dispensed blessings even to people who registered en masse for domestic partnerships.  That seems a blatant violation of separation of church and state to me, and surely not all the couples involved were religious in the first place.  But this is a time-honored violation, since clergy are brought in to bless state highway overpasses, and just about everything else.

So let's look at the content of this meme.  The first point is that "Jesus never uttered a word about same-sex relationships."  The first thing to notice is that the meme-maker is changing the subject, as will become clearer presently: the subject of the meme is "homosexuality," not "same-sex relationships."  Leaving that aside for the moment, it's trivially true that Jesus in the gospels doesn't mention men boning each other.  (Though not all gay Christians would agree about that.  Some believe that Jesus "affirmed a gay couple," referring to the centurion whose dying slave Jesus healed.  It's not certain that these men were sexually involved with each other, but it's a tribute to the high moral standards of today's Christians that they think Jesus would approve the sexual use of a slave of either sex.  Some have also argued that the Ethiopian eunuch mentioned in Acts 8 was a gay man, but that's not likely.)  This is what's known as an argument from silence, which is usually considered a no-no in scholarly circles.  That the gospels don't report him saying anything on the subject doesn't mean he never did so; and Jesus' silence about sex between males doesn't necessarily mean he approved of it.  But he never said anything about a lot of subjects, such as slavery, and the gospels do report that he took a rather dim view of sex in general.  The Jesus of the gospels is not a sexual liberal: he expected his heterosexual followers to keep their libidos on a tight leash, even refraining from lustful thoughts.  His stricture against divorce and remarriage was so extreme that his disciples concluded that it was better not to marry at all, though some of them already were; and he didn't disagree with them.  If gay Christians want to apply those principles to themselves, more power to them, but I haven't noticed that any do.  Jesus' reported silence on homosexuality, then, is not much comfort to gay Christians.

"The [Old Testament] also said it's sinful to eat shellfish, to wear clothes woven with different fabrics, and to eat pork."  Trivially true, but none of these require the execution of the offender.  This is a popular approach among gay Christian apologists, who usually overlook the small detail of the death penalty, which indicates that Yahweh considered sex between males a rather graver offense than eating pork.  Apologists also like to confuse impurity / uncleanness with "abomination," again overlooking the fact that impurity is remedied by at most some days of isolation and then a ritual washing.  (According to the Torah a woman was impure for a given period after giving birth, but no one would argue that the Bible considers childbirth sinful.  I hope.)  Sin in general can be atoned for with sacrifice, and it's noteworthy that atonement doesn't seem to be an option for men who have sex with other men.

The other trouble with this retort (it's not an argument) is that the proper response would be to observe the whole Torah, not to throw the whole thing out.  Christians, according to the Apostle Paul (not to Jesus) are free of the Torah, or most of it, or something.  Some of its standards still are binding even on Christians, including those relating to sex.   (Except for divorce, which Paul agreed was mostly unacceptable.)  After all, Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love Yahweh your god with all your heart, and how better to show your love than by obeying his every wish, instead of picking and choosing at your own selfish convenience?

"The original language of the N.T. actually refers to male prostitution, molestation, and promiscuity, not committed same-sex relationships.  Paul may have spoken against homosexuality, but he also said that women should be silent and never assume authority over a man."  (One commenter on Facebook pointed out that Paul's requirement of silence for women referred only to worship services; he was incorrect, however, that the ban on female authority was similarly limited.)  The claim that the NT "actually refers to male prostitution, molestation and promiscuity" is false.  The meme-maker probably has in mind 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 9:9-10, which consist of lists of sins that will keep one out of the kingdom of heaven.  Some of the Greek words have been translated as referring to homosexuality, but because these words are rare and there is no real context, scholars are still not sure what they mean.  To claim that they really refer to male prostitution, molestation, and promiscuity is as dishonest as to claim that they refer to "homosexuality."  (I suspect that by "molestation" the writer meant "child molestation," which is still false.)  And to repeat, the vital doctrine of Christian freedom from Torah is in Paul only: Jesus never says a word about it, so I suppose it can be tossed out and Christians will start keeping kosher.

By bringing in "committed same-sex relationships," I think the writer means to claim that the New Testament only condemned exploitative and abusive expressions of sexuality, not warm mature loving Christian couples.  There's no reason to think so, because loving relationships between males were part of the Greco-Roman landscape in Jesus and Paul's day, celebrated in poetry and drama, and the Jewish polemic against paganism condemned them along with prostitution and "promiscuity."  (See, for example, my discussion of Robin Scroggs' book on the New Testament and homosexuality, here.)

"Because God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."  "That was when the earth wasn't populated.  There are now 6.79 billion people.  Breeding clearly isn't an issue any more!"  It wasn't an issue when Yahweh forbade men to have sex with each other, either.  Or, it was at least as much an issue when Paul and Jesus encouraged their followers not to marry at all.  As far as I know, there's no evidence that homosexuality interferes with "breeding" anyhow.

"The Bible also defines marriage as one-man-many-woman, one man many wives and many concubines, a rapist and his victim, and conquering soldier & female prisoner of war."  This being so, why are gay Christians so insistent that they don't approve of polygamy?  It's a biblical value, after all, like slavery.  Yet gay Christians always agree with their antigay opponents that polygamy is as yucky as marrying your first cousin.  To sum up what I've written before, Christianity rejected polygamy mainly because of the influence of Roman culture (and also perhaps because of Christianity's general dislike of marriage at all: at most, one spouse).

Which brings me to the final riposte, against the declaration that gay sex is just plain disgusting.  "Props for being honest.  However, a whole population of people shouldn't have their families discriminated against just because you think gay sex is icky.  Grow up!"  "A whole population of people" is presumably courtesy of your Department of Redundancy Department; more seriously, it assumes that gay people are a discrete "population" separate from general humanity, which I think is debatable.  And I've noticed that many gay and pro-gay people are opposed to polygamy and to marriage between cousins, not because they have any arguments against such families but because it's obviously gross.

Behold, the meme-maker has given you two choices: one, "Have fun living your sexist, chauvinistic, xenophobic lifestyle choice.  The rest of culture will advance forward without you."  The Department of Redundancy Department is still hard at work, I see.  Two, "Congratulations on being part of civilized society!"  To paraphrase Gandhi, civilized society would be a good idea.  It would also be nice if gay Christians and their allies were any more scrupulous about fact and logic than their antigay opponents.

Hey You - Into the Meme Pool!

This is weird.  Homo Superior posted this quotation:
We must declare ourselves, become known; allow the world to discover this subterranean life of ours which connects kings and farm boys, artists and clerks. Let them see that the important thing is not the object of love, but the emotion itself. ~ Gore Vidal
That doesn't sound like the Gore Vidal I've been reading for the past forty-odd years.  He's aggressively anti-sentimental about love and dismissive of writers who write about it.  So I looked for a source.

It was widely quoted on the Internet, but it took me some time to find a link for a source: to this NPR tumblr, which in turn linked to an NPR obituary of Vidal.  But the obituary didn't contain the quotation.  Nor do any of the extant comments.  (Some have been deleted by the moderator for violating NPR's community standards.)

My guess is that the speaker is a character in Vidal's early novel The City and the Pillar, first published in 1948 and revised in 1965.  Neither version seems to be fully searchable online, though, so I can't be sure.  There are worse offenses than confusing the author with his or her characters, and this one is merely ascribing gushy sentimentality that anybody could have written to a notoriously anti-sentimental writer.  It's no worse than the meme I saw on Facebook the other day which ascribed a remark about Paris to Audrey Hepburn, though the words were not hers but the words of whoever wrote the script for Sabrina.  (Not too surprising, since so many people seem to believe that actors make up their own lines on the fly.)

But sometimes it's not so innocent.  Leo Bersani, a distinguished literary theorist and author of the well-known paper "Is the Rectum a Grave?", quoted there a passage from Tony Kushner's play Angels in America: "For Kushner, to be gay in the 1980s was to be a metaphor not only for Reagan’s America but for the entire history of America, a country in which there are 'no gods…no ghosts and spirits…no angels…no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.'"  Kushner responded that while he didn't know whether the rectum is a grave, he did know that Bersani is an asshole:
Yes, obviously, though not a stupid asshole. A college sophomore should know better than to try to build a case that being gay is, in my plays, a “metaphor” for anything, and hopefully that sophomore would be warned against the literary malpractice of quoting a character in fiction as though he reliably speaks in the author’s voice….
Both passages are conveniently quoted in this blog post, whose author complains that both Bersani and Kushner are being "dickheads" and the exchange as a "catfight."  That seems to me like the mindset which, in elementary school principals, punishes both bullies and their victims; or in ordinary American discourse, claims that there are "extremists" on both sides of an issue.  While Kushner was being snotty, he was also no more than right.  A professional academic critic should be embarrassed to be caught making such an elementary mistake.

In the case of the Vidal quotation, it's not surprising that people should want to ascribe their vacuous inspirational sayings to famous sages of the distant past.  It still surprises me that the process works so quickly with the very recently dead.  Which is relevant to Christian apologists who claim that the gospels must be reliable because people are able to preserve oral traditions reliably for generations.  Hell, people can make up these legends in a few days.