Thursday, February 28, 2013

One Ring to Rule Them All

I know Conor Friedersdorf means well; his writing positively oozes well-meaningness.  He's concerned, he says, that "the news media does a terrible job reporting on the people whose opposition to gay marriage isn't rooted in bigotry."  I wouldn't be surprised if that was true, since the corporate media generally do a terrible job of reporting on almost everything.  The piece is a marvel of liberal false-equivalence, that one wouldn't want to say that one side in a dispute is simply wrong; that wouldn't do.  The trouble is, Friedersdorf doesn't give any examples of arguments against same-sex marriage that aren't rooted in bigotry.  He does gesture toward a New York Times column by Ross Douthat, which I'll consider here as I proceed.

Friedersdorf is too young to remember the glory days of Jim Crow in the United States, which is probably why he misses the raging irony in this recollection:
How would I defend the proposition that gay rights are a civil-rights issue? As a kid at a mostly white elementary school with a few Latinos and Asians but no blacks, I was taught about MLK and Rosa Parks, who were presented as heroes on the order of George Washington. The Cosby Show shaped my notion of what black people were like. Racists were synonymous with bad people. It would've been unthinkable for one of my classmates to use the n-word.
It appears that Friedersdorf thinks "civil rights" means "black people's rights."  Well, he's far from alone in that.  But since he begins from that popular but fundamental error, it's no wonder his article makes little sense.

No doubt there were many white moderate journalists in the 1950s and 1960s who felt the same dilemma: how to cover the struggle of black people for equal treatment under the law without, at the same time, treating those who opposed that struggle as bad people?  This is especially difficult if you've defined "racist" to refer only to ugly, big-bellied Alabama cops and sneering old men with thick Southern accents who flaunt their subhumanity with pride
KLAN SPEAKER: They want to throw white children and colored children into the melting pot of integration, through out of which will come a conglomerated mulatto mongrel class of people ... Both races will be destroyed in such a movement. I, for one, under God, will die before I’ll yield one inch for that kind of a movement.
If people like that are what you mean by "racists," then you'll have no idea how to deal with nice people who want everybody to get along, who deplore those low-class rednecks, but who insist silkily that The Negro isn't ready for his rights.  Maybe he will be someday, but it would just overturn the foundations of Western civilization if we pretended he's equal when he's ... well ... not.  And we'd be doing The Negro no favor by pushing him prematurely into a forced equality he just isn't ready for.  I can't tell from his column what, specifically, Friedersdorf would consider real antigay bigotry.  I'm sure it would include the Westboro Baptist Church and similar safe targets, the kind of awful, hateful people that even bigots like Jerry Falwell and Pope Benedict could denounce.

Friedersdorf is certain that people like Douthat or Dreher are "all as horrified as anyone by bigotry, persecution, and violence directed at gays."  I'm certain of that too, but how often do they write columns in which they declare that horror assertively, instead of as a prelude to opposing any action against "bigotry, persecution, and violence directed at gays"?  I don't follow these writers, but I've often been in a position to ask self-styled non-bigots what kind of countermeasures they propose against bigotry, persecution, and violence against gays.  They never have any answers beyond some vague feel-good, airy-fairy hand-waving: Let people know that they'd better not pick on each other for any reason, or else.

When I consider what Friedersdorf considers a non-bigoted argument against same-sex marriage -- the Ross Douthat column linked above -- I find it even harder to take Friedersdorf seriously.  Douthat begins by dismissing the "commonplace arguments" about the supposedly millennia-old "definition" of marriage as one man and one woman, "These arguments have lost because they’re wrong," Douthat says. "What we think of as 'traditional marriage' is not universal. The default family arrangement in many cultures, modern as well as ancient, has been polygamy, not monogamy."  Good enough.  What does he have to offer instead of these commonplaces?
It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal. 

This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos. 

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support. 
This ideal, Douthat claims, is "a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes."  Of course, as he is careful not to acknowledge, the Jewish part of those beliefs was not monogamous, and the Christian part came from pagan Roman customs of marriage, nothing specifically Christian.  (Even more fun, "romantic love" has its roots in Greek pederasty.)  And it's "later ideas about ... the equality of the sexes" that have undermined traditional marriage, paving the way for the serial monogamy punctuated by no-fault divorce that Douthat deplores elsewhere in his column.  "Traditional" stability of monogamous heterosexual marriage depended on depriving women of other choices, and usually an explicit sexual double standard.  Once women had the freedom to get out of bad marriages, they voted with their feet in great numbers.  Which connects to something else: Douthat ignores the denigration of marriage that has characterized much of the Western Christian tradition, since the New Testament.  It hasn't been obvious that marriage was an ideal estate for human beings at all.

Something else peeks out from Douthat's argument, something that is visible in many arguments against "redefining" marriage.  Douthat especially leaves himself open to to demolition, since he disavows any claim that other kinds of relationships are valueless, or that only heterosexual couples can raise children successfully.  He gives no evidence that "the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing", probably because there isn't any.  If, as he claims, monogamous heterosexual marriage "is worthy of distinctive recognition and support," then he ought to be more vocal about the current economic conditions that make this model increasingly insupportable, though it was always at best an ideal, not a living reality for most people.

But the important thing is that legalizing civil marriage between same-sex couples does not withdraw support and recognition from mixed couples: it does not abolish heterosexual marriage.  Nor is the Washington Post carrying attacks on the legitimacy of monogamous heterosexual marriage: if it now includes announcements of the coupling of same-sex couples, it has not banished heterosexual couples' announcements of their engagements and weddings and anniversaries.  When opponents of same-sex marriage talk about it "redefining" marriage, this is what they mean as subtext: marriage will be "redefined" as homosexual marriage, and heterosexuals will be forced to gay-marry.  (A similar dog-whistle underlay opposition to "interracial" marriage, back in the day: racial equality will lead inexorably to a "conglomerated mulatto mongrel class of people"; see the Klan member quoted above.)  Same-sex marriage won't devalue monogamous heterosexual marriage; if anything, most advocates of same-sex marriage naively gloss over the pitfalls and disadvantages of heterosexual marriage.  Despite his disclaimer, Douthat can't imagine that different forms of family and marriage can coexist in one society: even to permit any alternative, in his mind, is to exalt that alternative over all the others.  That makes no sense, but it reveals his unspoken assumptions.

This is why I prefer Nancy Polikoff's argument, in Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage (Beacon, 2008), that a wide variety of family types should receive social support, not only marriage-based families.  (One of the negative aspects of the "marriage equality" movement is its disdain for people who choose, for whatever reason, not to marry.)  It's not the place of the State to give exclusive, or even preferential, support to one kind of family, especially for purely religious reasons.  But even if the State decides to exalt monogamous heterosexual marriage as the ideal relationship, that's no excuse to refuse support to other relationships.  (Denying support and recognition to children who 'chose' unmarried parents is especially inhumane.)  But that is what the "conservatives" want.  If some subgroups of citizens choose monogamous heterosexual marriage as their lifestyle, nothing will prevent them from doing so.  If it really is superior to other kinds of family, that superiority should become apparent soon enough.  But Douthat and his ilk won't settle for that: they want everyone to be forced to recognize their preferred lifestyle as the best and therefore only option.  Maybe that's not bigotry, but it'll do until real bigotry comes along.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Oh Man, I Got a Bad Feeling About This

There's nothing like waking up with a head cold to dampen one's plans for the day.  Or maybe just to give one an excuse not to do much.

I woke up at about 6 this morning with my head so clogged I couldn't sleep, so I turned on the radio to see what was happening.  The host for the early morning music mix had just taken over from the night shift, and he whimpered that he had a "bad basketball experience" last night.  Indiana lost to Michigan, you see, or to Minnesota -- something with an M.  I appreciated the way he put it, though, because it summed up the cluelessness of sports fans everywhere.  But no: "cluelessness" isn't the right word.  It sounds too innocent.

In order for you to have a good basketball experience, Mike, someone else has to have a bad basketball experience.  To cheer your team is to wish a bad experience on the fans of the other team.  And vice versa: because you had a bad basketball experience last night, Minnesota fans had a good one.  It's impossible for both sides to have a good night on the same night.  I really don't understand how anyone can expect sympathy because their team lost -- especially since IU fans have been gloating in a most unseemly manner recently because their team won a few games in a row. And why?  Because, by an accident of geography, they happen to live in or near Bloomington, or once attended the university.

Some years ago, IU students rioted because the team had made it to the NCAA semifinals or something.  You have to start them early in case your team gets eliminated later on, as happened in this case; you wouldn't want to miss the excitement of Hoosier Hysteria. As is usual, the fans converged on Showalter Fountain, which was empty, and decided to see how many of them could cram into that space.  One of the celebrants was a young woman who lived in the dorm where I worked.  In the crush she fell down and was trampled, and her leg was broken.  Luckily, a young man whom the student newspaper called a "Sir Galahad" or a "Prince Charming" noticed she was in trouble, helped get her out of the fountain, and waited with her until the ambulance arrived.  In the hospital, she told a reporter that she'd been thinking of transferring to another school the following year, but her experience had changed her mind: "They've really got spirit here!"

Now, that was a good basketball experience.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The International Doublethink Olympics

Just a quickie for now.  I played around with the image a little to make it less unsafe for work.

One of my right-wing-loon acquaintances posted this to Facebook tonight.  This seemed out of touch with reality even for him.  His page or profile or timeline on Facebook is, of course, Facebook's.  (Just as this blog is not mine, but Blogger's.)  I've noticed that it seems to be the right-wingers who are most likely to pass around rumors that Facebook is going to start charging for access, and who demand that it be free.  It's not only crazy leftists who think that Information Wants To Be Free, who think that the world owes them a living (many of my right-wing acquaintances are on Social Security and Medicare, fittingly enough, and are among the 47% who don't pay Federal income taxes), or maybe they're just like two-year-olds, screaming "NO!" reflexively whenever they don't get their way.  They are outstandingly good at Doublethink, holding two (or more) contradictory beliefs in their minds at once.  Which may be why their activity on Facebook mostly consists of passing along memes like the one above: maybe they can't compose a sentence of their own while they're juggling Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare, You Kenyan Socialist! in their heads.

On the third hand, there's this post from Blogarach, who barely beat me to the idea (I'd been reading the same Glenn Greenwald piece he takes off from) and did better with it than I probably would have.  While it's legitimate to be concerned about government infringements of our civil liberties, few pay enough attention to the fact that more and more of our lives are controlled by corporations, which are not obliged to respect our privacy or our freedoms, and have no accountability.  This issue got some notice at the beginning of the Occupy movement, when people began to realize that there were fewer and fewer public spaces in New York City anymore: the parks have been largely taken over by corporations, who can be nice and let you share them if you're good, but are not really obligated to do it.  And if they don't like your looks or your behavior, they can chop off your head.

But who knows?  Maybe my loony friends are right to demand that big corporations give them everything for free.  But as the Teabaggers found out when they began sounding too populist and criticizing big business and finance, the corporate money that supported them tended to dry up.

Monday, February 25, 2013

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

A couple of days ago I got into it with my liberal law-professor friend, who'd shared a meme on Facebook purporting to be a quotation from Benjamin Franklin: "We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid."  Now, I agree with the sentiment -- it reminds me of a line from one of Robert Heinlein's sf novels, where one character asks another, "Were you born stupid, or did you have to study?"  But the version attributed to Franklin doesn't sound like eighteenth-century English, and I couldn't find an actual source on the web, so I feel confident in regarding it as bogus.  (The conclusion, "to remain stupid," is also problematic, because it implies that we are also born stupid -- maybe that being stupid and being ignorant are the same thing.  So it's not a particularly felicitous way of stating what someone wanted to say.)

I commented along these lines, and my friend complained.  So what? she said, I like the sentiment, and it sounds right.  (It doesn't sound right, though, as I said.)  It could have been Franklin.  Besides, I like it, and I don't have time to check every little quotation, and I wasn't talking about you anyway.  What, I asked her, does it matter whether you were talking about me?

That was the end of that exchange, but a day or so later, she posted a quotation about the US Congress, attributed to Mark Twain, that was more or less authentic, and taunted me about it.  I didn't really get the point of the joke, and said so.  I couldn't decide whether to add that I'm at about the limits of my patience with people who don't care whether they're telling the truth or not -- especially when they're clearly proud of not caring.

As my friend has by now made abundantly clear, she's such a person.  The first time we really clashed, last summer, she informed me that Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science and author of the influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, had no scientific training, and so could be disregarded.  In fact, as I told her, Kuhn had a doctorate in physics from Harvard.  Sure, anyone can be ignorant of such things, though I'd like to know where she got that misinformation; I've run into it before, so it must be circulating in science-cultist circles.  But her reaction was revealing.  Instead of admitting that she was mistaken, or challenging my information, she simply tossed out an irrelevancy: that Kuhn hadn't become famous for work in that field.  I began to recognize the pattern of argument she was using.  I'd encountered it in the past when debating Creationists and Christian apologists: you never admit that you were mistaken about a fact, nor do you try to defend a fact that your opponent has challenged. Instead you reach into your store of file cards and pull out another one, repeating this process until the time is up.  You save the cards for the next match, hoping that your future opponents won't be as well-informed.

This is why real critical thinking is so threatening to authoritarians in whatever field.  They want students to learn by rote, not questioning anything the teacher says, not learning how facts are put together to make knowledge.  That's harder to learn, of course, but until you can do it you don't really understand anything about the subject you're learning.

Today I received email from one of my readers, with a link to an article at Mother Jones.  The article, by Dana Liebelson, is about a bill that just passed through the Oklahoma Common Education committee, which "would forbid teachers from penalizing students who turn in papers attempting to debunk almost universally accepted scientific theories such as biological evolution and anthropogenic (human-driven) climate change."  The article is titled "Insist That People Co-Existed With Dinosaurs ... and Get an A in Science Class!"  My corresponded turned it into a rhetorical question in his email message.
Gus Blackwell, the Republican state representative who introduced the bill, insists that his legislation has nothing to do with religion; it simply encourages scientific exploration. "I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks," says Blackwell, who previously spent 20 years working for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. "A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations."

Stated another way, students could make untestable, faith-based claims in science classes without fear of receiving a poor mark.
Color me baffled.  Look: I can see that Blackwell doesn't understand Darwinian evolution; and his bill probably is intended to function as moments of silence do vis-a-vis school prayer -- to get around inconvenient Constitutional principles against an establishment of religion by opening a blank space in the classroom.  Given the widespread belief in Creationism in this country, teachers are probably more likely to use this bill -- assuming it passes into law -- to enforce religious orthodoxy, penalizing students who insist that "Darwin (or Dawkins) said it, I believe it, that settles it!" while giving a pass to those who advocate Creationism.

Evidently Liebelson feels no need to to describe the contents of the bill, since it's self-evidently thoughtcrime in the uttermost degree, but from what is in the article, HB1674 doesn't really say very much, and it wouldn't mandate an A for a student who insisted that dinosaurs and people co-existed.  I realize that standards for high-school papers are probably not very high, but a mere insistence on anything shouldn't get you an A in any subject.  (Should it?  I've been out of school too long.)  Liebelson quotes Eric Meikle of the National Center for Science Education, who "says Oklahoma has proposed more anti-evolution legislation than any other state, introducing eight bills with academic freedom language since 2004. (None has passed.) 'The problem with these bills is that they're so open-ended; it's a kind of code for people who are opposed to teaching climate change and evolution,' Meikle says."  If these bills are so open-ended, they should also provide cover for students who defend Natural Selection against Creationism.  In practice they probably won't, but such students would have no protection against authoritarian teachers anyway.  (I noticed this about right-wing honcho David Horowitz' Academic Bill of Rights from a few years back: on the surface it was unexceptionable.  Its eight principles should mainly offend rightwingers like Horowitz himself.)

A teacher would still be duty-bound to downgrade a science-class paper which cited the Bible as authority for the origin of species, and it may well be that parents would protest, citing HB1674 (assuming it passes) that students should 'not be penalized' for advocating Creationism.  Again, this will be a problem in many communities whether the law passes or not.  But a student who wants to advocate Creationism in a science paper would need at least to use Creation-Science or Intelligent Design material, not the Bible, as sources; nor is the teacher bound to be uncritical of how that material is used.  Very much the opposite.

This problem turns up in many other contexts, you know.  I've often run into racists and other bigots who protest that they're just being vilified because they don't go along with the Politically-Correct Feminazi Homosexual Agenda, not because of anything they've said.  They may well be incapable of understanding the difference, but that incapacity isn't limited to the Far Right.  This is one reason why I feel it necessary to demolish the bad arguments and misinformation of people who are (nominally at least) on my own side: a bad argument is a bad argument, and misinformation is misinformation, regardless of the position it's being used to advance.  And my alleged allies don't take correction any more kindly than their right-wing counterparts, on the whole.  Some friends, trying to be conciliatory, have stressed this to me: you can't be surprised, they tell me, that those people get mad at you for telling them they're wrong.  I'm not surprised, I reply: but throwing tantrums doesn't prove that they're right.  They need to give me some reason to believe I'm wrong.  Evidently they don't know how to do that, and that's evidence of something gone wrong in their education, not just their temperaments.

One reason I don't think the bill is likely to pass is that it amounts to the legislature telling teachers what to teach and how to evaluate their students.  That should arouse opposition even from teachers who favor Creationism, but don't want students or parents threatening them with legal action over the grading of a paper.  Teachers get quite enough of that sort of thing already.

This is interesting, though:
"Students can't say because I don't believe in this, I don't want to learn it," Blackwell says. "They have to learn it in order to look at the weaknesses."
I don't believe Blackwell is being entirely candid there; he's probably just trying to look reasonable.  But I think he should be held to what he's said.  Maybe he doesn't realize it would backfire on him and his supporters.  The idea that one shouldn't have to study what one doesn't believe in is widespread in the US, all over the political spectrum, and I consider it anti-intellectual in the extreme.  At face value, what he's saying is what I just said: a teacher is not obligated to give a student a high grade simply because he or she "insists" that something is the case.  By contrast, the Darwinians in this tale come across as unselfconsicously authoritarian.
"An extremely high percentage of scientists will tell you that evolution doesn't have scientific weaknesses," says the NCSE's Meikle. "If every teacher, parent, and school board can decide what to teach on their own, you're going to have chaos. You can't deluge kids with every theory that's ever been considered since the beginning of time."
Meikle's first statement is false: any complex scientific theory has "scientific weaknesses," and Natural Selection is no exception.  The rest is a distraction and a straw man: no one seems to advocate "delug[ing] kids with every theory that's ever been considered since the beginning of time."   More realistically, much of science education below college level is science history, which is essentially a litany of failed theories -- Ptolemaic astronomy, Aristotelean physics and mechanics, Galen's medicine, the theory of humours, phlogistion chemistry -- with a linear narrative of inevitable Progress misleadingly imposed on it.

But just to keep things on a practical level: almost half of Americans, including those with college degrees, say they believe in some version of Creationism.  Even though I reject it myself, I don't think Creationism can be dismissed as a fringe, crackpot belief on the order of Flat-Earthism or geocentric astronomy -- not in this country, not in the real world.  You aren't going to be able to teach science in the United States without dealing with people who believe in Creationism.  Therefore, the burden of argument lies on the science teacher.  (Bear in mind, I feel the same way about gay issues, which are quite personal for me.  I see a lot gay people who, when confronted with bigotry, also want to scream "The Devil told you that!" until their faces turn blue.)  The question then becomes clear: What is the best way to persuade them of the truth of Evolution?  It seems obvious to me that calling people names -- stupid, superstitious, fundamentalist, Bible-banging, irrational, anti-science, etc. -- has not been effective.  Like it or not, authoritarianism can only be used by people who have overwhelming social consensus to back them up.  When you don't, you have to use reason and argument.  It's revealing, and scary in my opinion, that so many science advocates don't want to use reason and argument, and worse, they react to opposition with extreme, panicky irrationality.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

An Antidote for Literalism

... and maybe liberalism too.  Just a brief word of warning: I was going through the folder of unfinished posts and I noticed that this one was mostly done.  I indulge in slightly more than my usual snark about Christianity here, though, so if you get tired of my gratuitous snipes at Jesus (as opposed to bad so-called Christians who twist his teachings), you might prefer to pass on this one.  If you enjoy gratuitous snipes at Jesus, however, sit ye down and listen.

Roy Edroso has a good smackdown of Rod Dreher over at alicublog, Dreher being another of those neo-paleoconservatives who mysteriously gets access not merely to the usual suspects but "mainstream" corporate media. Wikipedia locates him variously "in National Review and National Review Online, The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, Touchstone, Men’s Health, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications." Dreher had a crisis of faith while covering the priestly abuse scandal, and left the Roman Catholic Church for Orthodoxy, which seems to have become a haven for numerous persons who consider John Paul II and Benedict XVI too damn liberal. Try to imagine a comparably left-wing Christian publishing in any of those places, except maybe the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.

In comments, Edroso's regulars referred to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). You all know it, don't you?
25 And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27 And he answered, “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; DO THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE.” 29 But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. 31 And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, 34 and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ 36 Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” 37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”
Edroso labeled Dreher a "garden-variety Jesus freak with a mean streak." One commenter queried whether that wasn't a bit "redundant." It probably is, but what else can you do if you seek to follow in the Master's steps?

The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the better parts of the gospels, I agree.  If you want to read it in historical context, though, it will help to translate some of the sectarian categories into terms that are meaningful today.  "Good Samaritan" has become almost a term of art, referring to a good person who helps strangers in need.  But for Jews in Jesus' day it was almost a contradiction in terms.  Judeans and Samaritans had a history of conflict that had often led to bloodshed.  To cast a Samaritan as the good guy in his parable, while good, respectable religious figures -- a priest and a Levite -- appeared as bad guys was deliberately provocative.   So replace the priest and the Levite with whomever you think of as good believers, a Unitarian Universalist minister and a liberal Episcopal archbishop, say, and the Samaritan with somebody bad: Fred Phelps, for example, or Maggie Gallagher, or Sarah Palin -- whomever you find it easy to despise.

One gospel story that liberal Christians don't dwell on so much is the one about the Syrophoenician woman, which I'll share with you here, supplying an interlinear translation into plain English.
But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And He was saying to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Unfortunately in English we don't have a feminine equivalent for "son of a bitch." That's what Jesus was calling this shiksa, or her daughter. "The children" are the children of Israel (Matthew makes it explicit in his version of the story); "the dogs" are the nations. Apologists have tried in many ways to get around Jesus' racist refusal to heal the woman's daughter. One popular approach has been to see it as an "acted parable", in which Jesus only pretended to be a dick as a lesson to his disciples, perhaps letting the woman know by the merry twinkle in his eye that he didn't really mean it. That works better with Matthew's version; here in Mark it's better to take it as face value.
But she answered and said to Him, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” And He said to her, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.”
And he said to her, "Haw haw haw! I was jus' funnin' with you, little lady! Now go on home."
And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.
C'mon, whatchoo complainin' about, the lady got her wish, didn't she? If this story stood alone in the gospels, my cynical reading might be off the mark. But Jesus frequently has these little moments of spite, irritability, and hatefulness. One of the better known is the blasting of the fig tree, in which Jesus sees a fig tree by the road, and, being hungry, he decides to pick him some fruit. But he finds the tree bare, because it isn't the season for figs. So, he curses it: "Let nobody eat from you forever!" And when the disciples see the tree later on, it's all withered and shit, which will teach fig trees not to fuck with the Prince of Peace. This story has often been interpreted as another acted parable, with the tree symbolizing Israel, which refused to recognize its Messiah, and so deserved to be cursed. But did it? (According to Christian mythology, it had been Yahweh's plan since before creation, foretold in the prophets, that Jesus would be "rejected" and crucified. If all Israel had rejoiced and welcomed Jesus as the Messiah, Yahweh's plan for all mankind would have been frustrated, and he'd have to send us all to Hell because Jesus hadn't died for our sins.)

Aside from this exemplary tale, the gospels often show Jesus chewing out his disciples as well as anyone else who doesn't give him exactly the answers he wants to hear, when he wants to hear them. "Get behind me, Satan! You think as men think, not as God thinks!" Well, why shouldn't they? Thinking as God thinks would be usurping God's place.

These stories show why simply complaining about "literalism" won't get you very far, and why rejecting inerrancy is more important -- as well as more difficult for most people.  You can't really interpret a parable literally anyhow: it's not meant to be taken at face value.  The story of the Syrophoenician woman also can hardly be taken literally, but most interpreters work hard to make sure Jesus comes out of it looking good.  You can tell that it isn't always easy for them, because he behaves quite badly here, as he often does in the Bible.  But at the same time, stories like these can be useful for atheists.  The parable of the Good Samaritan, especially, doesn't rely on the "supernatural" or on belief in gods to make its point, and can give almost anyone something to think about.  The same is true, really, of the second story, despite its miraculous frame: can't atheists read Homer, or the Greek tragedies, or even Plato's dialogues with pleasure and benefit despite their theistic underpinnings?  This is why I get cranky when someone dismisses the Bible as "fables told by Bronze Age goatherds" and the like -- aside from the minor fact that the Bible is not Bronze Age but Iron Age and later.  Even in the Bronze Age, people were not essentially different from us today, and modern secularists have their own myths and fables that need skeptical attention.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

But the Days Grow Short When You Reach Sequester

Remember Molly Ivin's quip about some Texas pol or other that if his IQ drops any lower, we'll have to water him?  His condition has spread to most of the country, sparing neither age, sex, nor party.

There's been a lot of Chicken Little talk about the Sequester recently.   President Obama warned the nation in his weekly message that "a series of arbitrary, automatic budget cuts that will ... slow our economy, they'll eliminate good jobs."  Oh noes!  And our defense budget will be slashed!  We'll be defenseless!  Canada will be able to pour over the border and take us without firing a shot!  Then they'll force their socialist healthcare system on our helpless citizens!

Numerous writers have pointed out that the fuss is overblown, another manufactured crisis allowing Obama and the Congressional Republicans to strut and orate and blame each other.  Even if the cuts are implemented, military spending will merely drop to 2006 levels -- you know, when Bush was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- from $600 billion to $550 billion.  You can still buy an awful lot of drones and cluster bombs with that.  The civilian spending cuts will be more serious, but they're what Obama and his allies in Congress want anyway, and it is the military spending cuts that have our elites and pundits' pants in a bunch.

But one other thought was nagging me from the back of my mind.  Weren't these budget cuts part of the deal Obama made with the GOP in 2011 to resolve (or "resolve") the debt-ceiling "crisis"?  And weren't they then hailed by Obama's adulators as proof of his tactical brilliance -- a rope-a-dope that would let the Republicans think they'd won, but then POW! they'd be flat on the canvas with stars and little tweety birds circling over their heads?  Yes, they were.  Not all of them: even Gene Lyons, usually one of the God-Man's more reliable apologists, turned up his nose at that rhetoric. This guy was only concerned that "There are at least four dopes punching him [while] Muhammad Ali only had one."
So what does this leave our media-besieged President? The powerful bully pulpit, one he's hardly used so far, unlike FDR Pres. Obama badly needs to start using his considerable media and oratorical skills to cut through the right-wing noise and nuttiness. This week would be a good time to start. To go on the attack against the extremists who clearly dominate so much of the media debate.
Remember, a well-controlled memory is a necessity in an Inner Party Member.  I see many well-controlled memories around today.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

¿Por Qué?

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook yesterday, and I thought it let some interesting cats out of the bag, so to speak.

For pinche gabachos que no saben español, here's a rough translation:
The Girl: "Don't talk to him, baby, he's a NERD"
The Nerd: "Why do they prefer the dogs?" 

The Girl: "Hey, handsome, remember me?"
The Nerd: "THE NERD doesn't remember anybody, you."
The Girl: "Why can't I get a good man?"
The friend who shared this picture seemed to identify with the Nerd, which is funny because (with all due respect and lust) he's much more like the tattooed chulo.  He certainly can't complain that girls aren't interested in him.  But what I wondered as I looked at it was why the Nerd wants the bimbo. 

I put it too bluntlyI don't really mean to put the girl down, she's a human being too.  But if we're going to call Papi Chulo canalla (which must be related to canaille, defined by Webster as "riffraff, rabble, proletarian," then it's reasonable to ask why the Nerd is so interested in a girl of the same class.  Does he have fantasies of rescuing her, educating her, or has he thought that far ahead?  What does he imagine they'll talk about?  What kind of relationship will they have other than Owner and Trophy, and how proud he'll be to walk down the halls with her on his arm?  Lately I've read that Marilyn Monroe was personally much smarter than her screen persona, and while that's probably true (how could she not be?), I also wonder if it's more puffery of the kind that sought to tell me that Dan Quayle and George Bush were really closet intellectuals.  In any case, I doubt very much that Arthur Miller was interested in Monroe's mind: he wanted his own personal Sex Goddess, which is probably one reason why the marriage didn't last.  A sex goddess in the end is just another person.

Or a sex god: If the Nerd were gay, chances are he'd be pursuing the Chulo himself, and then wondering why he couldn't find a nice guy.  In the real world the Chulo and the Nerd might be having it off in the back of a car somewhere, in return for the Nerd doing the Chulo's term papers.  That's actually a more realistic basis for a relationship, to my mind: it has room for mutual respect and even affection.  But the Nerd isn't really interested in the Girl as a person: he wants her on his arm, to impress the other guys with his manhood.  This is the paradigmatic high school pattern anyway: a few golden kids rule the school as chief players in the fantasies of some of the other kids, and even more of the teachers and administration, until they flame out at graduation or soon after.  

As Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) put it, in each school there will be a few lucky children with this charisma.
All the girls promptly fall in love with the boy who has this air, and all of the boys fall in love with the girl who does.  Just as automatically, they all decide that they despise all the other members of the loved one's sex, most especially those with the bad taste to admire their unworthy selves.  (...There is no such thing as a thirteen-year-old whose affections have been aroused by the charm of vulnerability.)
As I've pointed out before, I was a thirteen-year-old whose affections could be aroused by the charm of vulnerability; I don't believe I'm unique.  Other kids in my school were dating and even finding their eventual spouses without being Alphas.  When I look back at the boys I was attracted to in those days, I don't recognize any of them as the kind of boys I should, according to Martin, have wanted.  They were a motley bunch, blue-collar to working-class, a variety of looks and builds.  None were star athletes: the one closest to that type was kind of sexy (as far as a fifteen-year-old virgin could tell), but such an asshole that I never had much interest in him.  And I never got to do anything about my attractions until I was three years out of high school, at college; I've never actually laid hands on anyone I went to high school with.
... If you indulge in your inclination to insult those who look soulfully up to you, it will come back to haunt you.  The reason is that while it is extremely common for the desirability of a person to change radically after his early adolescence -- sometimes during it, from one year to the next -- everyone goes through life with a vivid memory of insults and kindnesses (if any) experienced when very young.  The popular boy or girl for whom you lusted from afar may live to bore you silly, which is an excellent reason against early marriage, but the beautiful creature you slighted when she had pimples or he stuttered will be only to pleased to break your heart for you when it gets big.  And that, dear children, is why we must learn to be polite to others.*
A timeless morality that, and something like it underlies the cartoon above.  But it's not quite the whole story.  Martin is perpetuating a myth that has been accepted even by academic students of human behavior: that a hierarchy of Cool organizes all adolescents.  But as Barrie Thorne showed in her Gender Play (Rutgers, 1993), this "Big Man Bias" in research on boys covers only part of any given cohort (97ff). Male researchers, especially, tend to gravitate to the Alphas in a school: "I was there to do a study not to be a friend to those who had no friends" sniffed one (quoted in Thorne, 99).  Martin also assumes that this jostling for status drives everyone in a community, an assumption belied by her acknowledgment that there are kids "with the bad taste to admire their [i.e., the Alpha wannabes'] unworthy selves."  On her assumptions, that shouldn't be happening: all eyes should be fixed on the Heathers at this stage of life.  Obviously, not all are.  Some of them are already too busy growing up to be much concerned with the budding power brokers among their peers.

This, I suspect, is a matter of temperament, not of intelligence. To (I admit) overinterpret the second panel wildly, not only does the Nerd still cling to seething resentment because a high school girl snubbed him years ago, he's sold himself out to the pursuit of money.  What kind of women does he pursue now?  Probably what Cynthia Heimel once called "Professional Girls," the high-maintenance women that rich and powerful men compete for and pass around.  (Oh, not only rich and powerful men: I used to clash online with a right-wing militarist whose chief boast in life was that he'd been married to a "former Beauty Queen."  Of course he was bitter that she'd exacted maintenance in the divorce, but he still waved around his achievement at every opportunity: Hey, everybody!  I used to be married to a Beauty Queen!)  He lets other men, rather than his own desires and interests, set his standards -- though maybe being envied by other men is more important to him than interacting with women as people.  And he's probably still complaining indignantly that women don't appreciate him for who he really is, just for his money and status.  (If he's into men, their male equivalents will dominate his love life.  I gather that such a milieu gave us Ira Sachs's recent film Leave the Lights On, and Jonathan Galassi's book of poems Left-Handed.)

This post was actually headed in another specific direction; I'll pick up the thread in another post.

* Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated (Norton, 2005), 329.

Did She or Didn't She?

I thought we were over this kind of crap, but evidently not.

There's a review in the latest Nation of a biography of the nature and ecology writer Rachel Carson.  I just looked again and the author is Vivian Gornick, whom I thought better of: she's a longtime feminist activist, scholar, and writer.  But see for yourself.  Carson bought some land on Southport Island, Maine, where her nearest neighbors were a married couple, Dorothy and Stanley Freeman.  They became friends, and eventually Carson and Dorothy fell in love.  The Freemans remained married -- "neither [Dorothy] nor Rachel wanted it any other way," Gornick says omnisciently -- but they still got together "secretly throughout the year ... to cuddle and commune, I think (though who can ever know?), not actually make love."  She was right the first time: who can ever know?
Upon the publication in 1995 of a volume of the many letters Carson and Freeman wrote to each other, the case for Carson as a gay woman began to be made. I, however, cannot imagine the virginal Carson as an active lesbian; in fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine her in a state of carnal desire at all. I would say rather that once in her life she fell in love with a person, and when she did the object of her love happened to be a woman. Carson was one of those people, oddly made, whose sublimation of the normal passions—in her case, through nature—was absolute. The letters she wrote to Freeman are intensely romantic, but they are not at all sexual.
Gornick's condescending tone here is infuriating.  I had to look again at the date of the review to make sure it wasn't written in the 1970s or 1980s, when this kind of soft homophobia was common in biographies and the reviews thereof.  It doesn't seem to occur to Gornick, when she writes that she "cannot imagine the virginal Carson as an active lesbian" (as opposed to a passive one, I suppose), and about what she finds "impossible to imagine," that the lack might lie in her own imagination, not in Carson's love life.  Does anyone ever write such nonsense about heterosexuals?

It's true that it's usually impossible to be certain whether any two historical persons had sex with each other, except on the rare occasions where they were caught in flagrante.  But this truth has often been used to deny the existence of same-sex desires and relations, on the assumption that to assert such things is a scurrilous accusation and that the denier is chief counsel for the defense.  Terry Castle wrote of Sylvia Townsend Warner's novel Summer Will Show (1936) that critics were apt to insist that the two female leads weren't lesbians because the novel nowhere described their sexual activity -- highly unlikely in an English novel published soon after The Well of Loneliness (1928) was banned simply for referring to Sapphism -- but everyone assumed that the woman who'd been heterosexually married was sexually active with her husband, even though their sexual activity was never described either.  If she'd run off and moved in with a man instead of a woman, there would have been no doubt they were lovers.

Whatever "lovers" means.  There's also the little matter that the definition of "sex" is hard to pin down, perhaps especially between women.  The standard, and indeed legal, definition requires penetration of a vagina by a penis.  If someone had asked her, Carson might have truthfully answered, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," even if she had regular multiple orgasms with her.  (I'm also reminded of the carnally rather unimaginative Gore Vidal's certainty that Eleanor Roosevelt wasn't a lesbian, because she'd made it clear to him that she didn't enjoy "sex.")  Maybe Dorothy Freeman was a stone untouchable butch with female partners, and Carson was a complaisant femme who was the beneficiary of her talents.  Who knows?  We'll never know.

Just as annoying, to my mind, is that bit about the one time in her life Carson fell in love, it just happened to be a woman.  You know -- one morning she flipped a coin: heads a boy, tails a girl.  But I kind of know what Gornick means: the hundred or so times in my life I've fallen in love with a person, it just happened to be men.  Every time.  Just lucky, I guess.  Since on Gornick's assumption Carson only fell in love once in her life, we can't say whether the sex of her love was happenstance or the single overt expression she ever managed of an inner pattern that might, with different luck, have manifested itself more than once.  Without a larger sample, we simply can't say, and Gornick ought to recognize and respect that.

I think we need to give more respect to "love": not just penetration, which is fine, not just to nonpenetrative methods of generating orgasms, but to cuddling, caressing, and kissing.  The reasons why people do or do not copulate with each other are many and complex, and sex doesn't begin or end with penetration.  Unless you want to define it that way, which has all the advantages of theft over honest toil.  The question then becomes who gets to make the definitions.  Heterosexuals no longer have the monopoly on that; Gornick's review shows once again why they can't be trusted to keep it to themselves.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Rather an Attack on One's Convictions

I just finished reading Dangerous Convictions: What's Really Wrong with the U.S. Congress (Oxford, 2013) by Tom Allen, former Democratic Representative from Maine from 1997 to 2009.  I found it at the library, it looked like I could learn something from it, so I checked it out.

Having read the book, I'm of at least two minds about it.  It's a reasonably interesting book about Allen's experiences in the House, though I could probably have learned as much or more about the workings of Congress from any number of other books.  But Allen's main reason for writing the book is to bemoan the great partisan divide in our nation's politics, which he sees as a clash of ideological convictions. He puts most of the blame on the Republicans, of course, and with good reason.  He often mentions the question that passed through his mind and those of his Democratic colleagues when listening to their Republican colleagues speak on the floor: "Do these guys believe what they say?"

Many other people have asked that question.  Allen never quite answers it.  I'm not sure it matters all that much.  Allen raises good points about the Republicans' lack of interest in evidence (scientific or economic), their greater focus on individualism than on community, their denial of climate change, and so on.  He cites the usual savants -- Robert Bellah, George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt. (I've been stumbling over Haidt's name a lot lately.  I really would rather not read The Righteous Mind.)  Again, none of this is news to anyone who's been watching the Congressional follies of the past couple of decades, and I don't think Allen has anything new to say about it.  The best point he makes is that the Republicans have no serious and specific alternatives to the Democratic programs they reject and block; when they do get specific, as with Paul Ryan's voucher plan to replace Medicare, it turns out to be an embarrassment that costs them elections.  It's good to be reminded of that.

Allen has no serious or specific suggestions to resolve the political divide he's writing about, either, but that's okay because there's no way you can make someone listen to evidence if they absolutely refuse to.  Dangerous Convictions turned out to be a perfectly reasonable centrist Democratic book, about as intelligent as a partisan can get, and a useful overview of some major issues in American politics since the late 1990s.  Which means that Allen makes some revealing slips along the way.

For example, in recounting 9/11 and its aftermath, Allen says that "After al-Qaeda, the terrorist network in Afghanistan, was identified as the culprit, support for retaliatory action by our government was widespread" (69) and "Tony Blair and George Bush understood that al Qaeda could not have free rein in Afghanistan" (72).  This is not quite false, but when I take into account the fact that Allen never mentions the Taliban, who actually were running Afghanistan at the time, and whom we actually fought with our terrorist allies the Islamist Northern Alliance, something seems off here.  (Recently I saw a commenter at another site say that al-Qaeda blew up the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001 as an example of their "terrorism."  It was the Taliban who did that, of course, and it was an act of religious vandalism, not terrorism.)

When he gets to Bush's invasion of Iraq, Allen says:
Like most members of Congress, I had no reason at that time to question the possibility that Saddam possessed chemical and biological weapons.  He had never denied that he did [!], and he had used them in the past [with full US support].  But I did not think that justified an invasion, since that would put U.S. soldiers within range of such weapons. That turned out to be the CIA's position at well.  The administration's terror-inducing speculation about a "mushroom-shaped cloud" appeared to be a fear tactic designed to cut off further discussion.  I had heard no evidence to support the claim that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons.  Moreover, I believed that the administration would have given any hard information about an Iraqi nuclear program to the UN inspection team led by Mohammed el Baradei, and he had indeed reported that there was no evidence of such a program [78].
That Bush (who, Allen laments, "heeded the neocons" on Iraq [82]) was contemplating a war of aggression, doesn't seem to impinge on Allen's thoughts.  That Allen "had no reason at that time to question the possibility that Saddam possessed chemical and biological weapons," we've heard before.  (Of course there was a possibility that Saddam possessed such weapons; almost anything is possible.  But there was no real probability that he did.)  I wouldn't have thought Allen would be so willing to tell the public how easily members of Congress can be led astray.
For those of us opposed to the policy, there was a craziness to the administration's arguments and actions.  What they were doing was outside the bounds of our political experience.  They were stirring arguments they knew to be false, politicizing matters of war and peace, and above all, paying little attention to what would happen after Saddam's removal [85].
Really?  Lying, politicizing war and peace, and ignoring consequences were outside the bounds of the Democrats' political experience?  Don't you believe it.  Those are typical behavior among politicians of either party who want a war.  Look at the way the Obama administration has been lying about Iran's "nuclear program" all along; look at the way the assault on Libya was handled.  Then, if you need more evidence, look at the Democratic escalation of the US invasion of Vietnam, or Bill Clinton's intervention in Kosovo.  But as I say, this is normal and only to be expected from an intelligent Democratic partisan.

But the flaws in Allen's argument go deeper than these details.  When he discusses the "authoritarianism" he sees as the core of today's Republican mindset, he mentions a 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polzarization in American Politics by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, which 
sheds new light on political view that are heavily influenced by whether people are more or less authoritarian.  Those testing high in authoritarianism have a greater need for order and less tolerance for ambiguity than those scoring low on that scale...
On issues that are "structured by" authoritarianism, people's opinions are correlated significantly with how they score on a scale of more or less authoritarian.  Examples of such issues include (1) racial and ethnic differences; (2) crime, law and order, and civil liberties; (3) ERA/feminism/family structure; and 4) militarism vs. diplomacy.  On these issues authoritarians and their opposites tend to have markedly different views.  On others, like economic, health care, and environmental issues, the differences are not as wide and therefore not "structured by" authoritarianism ...

Hetherington and Weiler make a convincing case that the American electorate has recently "sorted" itself into the two major parties based on cognitive styles reflecting greater or lesser authoritarian tendencies [166-7].
There may be something to this; I haven't read Hetherington and Weiler.  It reminds me of another big study from more than half a century ago, The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor Adorno et al., full of tables and statistics and shit, which was widely criticized and I thought didn't have much currency anymore.  But I'm wary of Allen's use of the concept.  Maybe Hetherington and Weiler dealt with this, but it looks to me as though the same person can move around on the authoritarianism scale depending on the issue and whether he or she happens to wield political power at the moment.  Bill Clinton, for example, that big old softy, could sound like Dick Cheney or Dick Nixon when he was crossed:
"We're not inflicting pain on these fuckers," Clinton said, softly at first. "When people kill us, they should be killed in greater numbers." Then, with his face reddening, his voice rising, and his fist pounding his thigh, he leaned into Tony, as if it was his fault. "I believe in killing people who try to hurt you. And I can't believe we’re being pushed around by these two-bit pricks."
Remember Hillary Rodham Clinton's cheerful "We came, we saw, he died," about Qaddafy -- but hundreds, even thousands, of other Libyans also died in that little adventure.  And I'm sure I don't need to detail Barack Obama's willingness to kill troublesome foreigners, silence turbulent whistleblowers, and toss impertinent journalists into cages.  I'll agree that American politics is polarized, and that authoritarianism is a scourge, but remember that the reaction of some elite Democrats as the Republican Party swung right in Reagan's wake was to imitate them.  Gotta win those authoritarian votes!

Or take health care and other social programs.  Allen quotes an exchange that took place on national TV after the Supreme Court declared the Affordable Care Act constitutional:
After the Court upheld the law, Sen. Mitch McConnell was pressed three times by Chris Wallace on Fox News to explain how Republicans proposed to cover the thirty million Americans who would be covered under the ACA. McConnell’s response was, “That’s not the issue.”

WALLACE: You don’t think the thirty million people who are uninsured is an issue?

MCCONNELL: Let me tell you what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to turn the American health-care system into a western European system.
Isn't that interesting?  That was what the Obama administration said about its left critics: that we were mad because Obama wasn’t ready to turn American into the People's Republic of Canuckistan.  Glenn Greenwald has been showing since at least 2008 how Democratic loyalists began attacking dissenters who criticized Obama's policies, especially those Obama carried on from Bush. There's more common ground between the parties, when it comes to kicking the proles into line, than Tom Allen wants to believe.  Not that I blame him.

The same goes for the individualist/communitarian divide, which Allen also discusses at length: the Right is individualist in some areas, mostly economic (which Allen calls "libertarian" with a small l), and communitarian in ways related to their authoritarianism: religion, the military, jingoism.  Liberals and the left are communitarian in some ways, partly on economics and social programs, and strongly individualist on many social issues, like a woman's right to choose.  But it's often a toss-up and a matter of how you choose to look at an issue whether it's individualist or communitarian.  When a young gay kid comes out against the wishes of her family, is that individualist or seeking community?  Are "identity politics" individualist or communitarian?  Civil rights can be framed as individualist, or not.  I'm not sure this is a really productive way of looking at political controversy.  It's sort of like the born gay / lifestyle choice divide: I don't think it has much to do with people's views on whether it's okay to be gay.  Resolving it, or the individual/community binary, would probably just rearrange the furniture a bit, so to speak, without eliminating the political division.

Allen, of course, remains reasonable, conceding the faults of his own side: "We too can be wary of needed financial reforms of key government insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security" (174-5).  How narrow of them!  "Reforms" is the tricky word there.  Democrats have been trying to undermine Social Security at least since Bill Clinton wanted to privatize it but was foiled by the Republican attempt to impeach him.  Barack Obama prefers the death of a thousand tiny cuts, which he also pretends are "reforms," courtesy of his bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.  Reforms are one things, but first I need to know what Tom Allen considers "reforms."

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Another short one.  This morning Jim Hightower did a commentary on President Obama's proposal to increase the minimum wage.
But then came the number: $9 an hour. Excuse me, Mr. President, but that means a person who "works full-time" would nonetheless "have to live in poverty." Yes, nine bucks is a buck-seventy-five better than the current pay, but it's still a poverty wage, and it doesn't even elevate the buying power of our wage floor back to where it was in 1968.
Of course I'd already heard this, and probably you have too.  What occurred to me was that Obama is up to his old tricks again.  You may remember that when he was putting together his first stimulus bill in 2009, he included substantial (and probably excessive) tax cuts, before the Republicans had even demanded any.  Later Obama conceded this wasn't the best idea:
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.
Has he learned anything since then?  Apparently not.  If you want to raise the minimum wage to an obviously inadequate, poverty-level $9 an hour, do you begin by declaring $9 as your goal, or do you start out higher?  Given the recent precedent of Obama's concessions on raising upper-crust tax rates, I think it's a good bet that he'll eke out some increase in the minimum wage -- maybe to $8.25 or even $8.50 -- blame the Republicans for their opposition, and then he and his devotees will tout whatever paltry increase is won as proof of Obama's great concern and care for the Middle Class.

Monday, February 18, 2013

I Was Lost, But Now I'm Found

I've been a bit under the weather recently, which is why posting has been slack of late.  It's frustrating, because I have a number of big subjects I want to take on.  But for now, something relatively brief.

Derek Thompson has a good piece at the Atlantic today about a debate (if that's the word) between Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough on The Deficit.  It's worth reading, but this line jumped out at me:
We know that government spending cuts in the last few years have coincided with hundreds of thousands of lost government jobs, which has kept our unemployment rate from falling further.
To lose one government job, Mr. Thompson, might be considered a misfortune; to lose hundreds of thousands seems like carelessness.

Lady Bracknell's line about "lost" parents from The Importance of Being Earnest adapted perfectly here.  Those jobs weren't lost, they were disposed of deliberately, by human decisions.  Most of them aren't even federal jobs, but state, county, and local jobsMany on the right are surprised to learn this. They're sure the Kenyan Usurper increased government employment to further his socialist agenda, but sorry, that was the Socialist Bush II, under whose regime public-sector jobs increased steadily from 2001 to 2009.

Maybe Thompson meant "lost" to have a pathetic spin: poor little government jobs, cast out into the cold to sell matches and freeze to death in an alleyway!  Or to suggest that an opportunity was lost, alas and alack.  But those jobs could easily be found again, if the need for them was recognized, and the will to meet that need was mustered.  Not that I'm going to hold my breath.

Another, possibly related, good piece went up on the Atlantic today, by James Fallows.  Titled "The Nightmare of Sequestration Hits Home," it begins by noticing that "the always-popular Air Power Over Hampton Roads air show, featuring the USAF Thunderbirds, has just been called off, as the Pentagon hunkers down in preparation for 'the sequester.'"

Fallows admits he's being "flip," even though he himself is a big fan of air shows.  He stresses the serious point, which
is that is what it is like for a country to budget and govern from "one manufactured crisis to the next," as we heard about a few days ago. In the weeks to come we are sure to see a combination of "fireman-first"-type cuts -- lower staffing and much longer lines for the TSA, closing of popular parks or sites -- and real, not-just-for-show reminders to the public of the consequences of the role of public services and institutions in daily life. 
Later he quotes e-mail from a reader whose husband is a civilian employee at Fort Bragg, who complains:
There is no doubt that defense cuts need to be made, but one place to start is the waste and abuse that goes on in the defense contracting racket.
She has a point -- there's a lot of corruption in defense contracting, always has been, and it needs to be dealt with -- but she also (all unawares) shows why budget cuts are so difficult to make: everyone wants someone else, someone not sincere and honest like the complainer, to feel the pain.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Quantum Genetics and Transcendence

There was something else in Scott Richard Lyons's excellent book X-Marks that I wanted to bring up here.  In a discussion of Indian nationalism and the different ways Native writers have tried to define what it means for them, Lyons returns to the Canadian First Nations writer Taiaiake Alfred and to Alfred's recommendations that I quoted before:
It is a reasonable question to ask if Alfred would value or even recognize “one-to-one mentoring, face-to-face interaction, and small-group dialogue to effect the regeneration of our minds, bodies, and spirits” if it were conducted in the context of an Indian church or a Boys and Girls Club and not in a “warrior” sort of way. If Alfred’s answer is no, then we are once again in the realm of cultural resistance, not nationalism, and probably in the presence of a culture cop. Another way that Alfred defines people by “what they are” rather than by “what they do” is evident in his curious defense of Kahnawake’s stringent requirements for citizenship. In his first book, Alfred defended his nation’s 50 percent blood quantum and its moratorium on marriages to non-Natives – that is, if you married a non-Indian, you would be stripped of citizenship – while admitting that Kahnawake’s desired goal was apparently no more than phenotype: “physical characteristics were ideal because they helped an individual identify himself as Indian, and represented the difference between Indians and non-Indians.” By that logic the comedian George Lopez could become a stellar Mohawk. Alfred’s second book was somewhat critical of blood quantum but still ultimately justified it, and Alfred even invented a convenient historical narrative for it: “membership was determined by beliefs and behavior, together with blood relationship to the group. Both blood relations and cultural integration were and are essential to being Indian.” That claim is historically false and biologically unwise, as mandated “blood relations” would soon enough produce unsightly genetic issues in any small group of people … [142-3]
I'd go farther than Lyons and declare that the combination of culture and "blood" equals racism.  Not many people who've gone through a Western-style education would try to root culture in biology anymore.  Western-educated people mostly know that there is no link between culture (language, customs) and biology (physical traits like skin color).  As Noam Chomsky says, "Take a child from a Stone Age culture and raise him in New York: he will become a New Yorker. Raise an American baby in New Guinea, and he will become a Papuan 'native.' The genetic differences one finds are superficial and trivial, but human beings have the extraordinary characteristic of being able to live in very different ways."  But there's still a counter-narrative based in Kumbaya liberalism that we, and especially non-whites, need to be in touch with our "roots," a metaphor that really doesn't work.  (A plant's roots are wherever it was planted, not in whatever distant place the seed came from.  Seeds are supposed to travel.)

But the main reason I wanted to quote this passage was Lyons's reference to mentoring, face-to-face interaction and small-group dialogue "in the context of an Indian church or a Boys and Girls Club and not in a 'warrior' sort of way."  Or, he could have added, "in a university classroom."  Back in the late Nineties, when the mythopoetic men's movement was at its peak, I had some vehement online debates with some of its adherents.  One of them argued you don't need to actually wield weapons or shed blood to be a "warrior."  I asked him if he could recognize as a "warrior" a gay man who fought with words and ideas against other men's abuse of women and other men?  He didn't answer that, even though it followed from his declared position.  I didn't really want to claim "warrior" status anyway, even such a watered-down version: I was countering his complaints that he, a would-be Jungian "warrior," was being picked on by what he called juiceless capons and soft men, among many other revealing epithets.  The mythopoetics were never really comfortable with the movement's faggots, despite their important but not prominent (for PR and merely homophobic reasons) role in the movement from its inception.  When someone starts babbling about "warriors," the first thing I want to know is what role they envision for non-warriors.

These thoughts sent me back to Richard Seymour's critique of Christopher Hitchens on religion.  First Seymour quoted Hitchens on religion as the opium of the people:
What is being argued in this passage is not that religious enthusiasts and prophets are dope peddlers.  That is the universal vulgarization of Marx's opinion.  What Marx meant is that there is a chord of credulity waiting to be struck in all of us.  It is most likely to be struck successfully if the stroke comes concealed as an argument for moral and human behavior.
Seymour comments:
This, bewilderingly, rebuts one vulgarisation with another.  It is a misreading bordering on travesty to say that Marx's passage here adverted to a 'chord of credulity' (meaning, I suppose, an innate need for some transcendental experience, which religion purports to supply).  It is quite correct that Marx was not dismissing religion in this passage but rather ascribing its power to earthly sources, or what Marxists describe as the 'material conditions' of exploitation and oppression.  
This is a disingenuous reading of Hitchens.  I don't think Marx meant a "chord of credulity," but I don't think Hitchens meant "an innate need for some transcendental experience" either.  What he meant, presumably, was a widespread human willingness to believe what one wants to believe, what brings one comfort, whether it's "transcendent" or not.  It's hard for me to believe that Seymour would deny that human gullibility is a real phenomenon, and a frustrating problem, both in others and in oneself.

As for Seymour's "innate need for some transcendental experience," it sounds to me as if he thinks there is such a thing.  But "transcendent" isn't the clearest word in the language; it has numerous meanings just within the philosophy of religion, and I'm not sure which one Seymour had in mind.  Leaving that aside, Seymour begs two questions: whether there is a "need" for such experience and whether it's "innate."  Just because you think you need something doesn't mean you do need it, let alone that you can get it.  One of the religious meanings listed by Wikipedia is "Salvation, the human transcendence of death."  There are many ways to "transcend death," and not all involve belief in an afterlife.  (I stand with Wittgenstein, who wrote that even if there is an afterlife, it's as much a riddle as this one, and so isn't any help.)  But even if Seymour's right, even if I grant that human beings innately need transcendent experience, it doesn't follow that they will get it, or that religion is the only way to get it.  That, I submit, is like claiming that religion is the only way to have morality, or beauty, or wisdom.  Some people have insisted that transcendence is best found outside of organized religion, for example, in solitary contemplation without sectarian membership; who is he to say they're wrong?

I doubt Seymour would want to go that far, though, for he continues:
Hitchens, as he made clear during the Rushdie affair, did not agree with this approach.  Religion had 'a life of its own,' and by the time of the war on terror had assumed such gigantic proportions in Hitchens's mind that it explained almost everything.  God is not great?  Hard to believe after such a lengthy tribute to his puissance [68].
I'd like to think that Seymour basically agrees with me that religion does not have a life of its own, and doesn't explain much of anything: it was invented and is constantly being reinvented by human beings, and it has no essence.  I'm not sure I agree with Marx's explanation of what religion is or where it comes from, but that can be discussed.  If people want "transcendent experience," they're welcome to pursue it, though they can still be questioned and criticized about what they're looking for and what it means.  What I want to argue here is that whatever good things religion "purports" to offer can be found anywhere and everywhere, and the best way to resist the culture cops is to remember that.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Freedom of Speech

Something I meant to put into yesterday's post but didn't get around to: I believe that in principle, any issue at all can and should be debated.  Even crank theories, conspiracy theories, hateful bigoted positions on any issue.  I don't make an exception for issues that affect me directly and personally, like homosexuality.  I've spent decades debating them with people.  Which is why I was PO'd when I read that a student staffing a table on affirmative action, confronted by some opponents of the policy, asked angrily, "How long do I have to go on debating this?"  As long as it takes, obviously.  Sure, one gets tired, so others need to step up and take over the work for a while.  But I've been confronting racists, antigay bigots, religious nuts, war lovers, right-wing loons and liberal apologists for all the above, for longer than that kid has been alive.  And that reminds me of the Kliban cartoon in which a Zen master tells his assembled students, "The road to Enlightenment is long and difficult, which is why I asked you to bring sandwiches and a change of clothing."

Remember, I said in principle.  In practice, as I wrote yesterday, I know and accept that there isn't time for full-on debate of every disagreement every time it arises.  Schools can't cover every subject partisans want them to teach, and choices have to be made.  I just started reading former Representative Tom Allen's new book Dangerous Convictions: What's Really Wrong with the U.S. Congress (Oxford, 2013), which looks like it will give me some insight into how Congress handles the vast amount of information it processes to make legislation.  Choices must be made there too, even if the choices made aren't good ones often enough.  Sure, I'm critical of our political system and its players, but I have the impression that many critics of Congress are like the people who think members of Congress and the President are wildly overpaid.  Not compared to our captains of industry, they're not.

But there are other considerations.  There's a controversy raging at the New York City LGBT Center now because the Center refused to permit Sarah Schulman to do a presentation on her new book Israel/Palestine and the Queer International there.  The Center has apparently been evasive as to why, referring to their published room rental policy.  After a similar 2010 controversy, the Center "announced an 'indefinite moratorium' on renting to groups that 'organize around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict' ... because it was 'forced to divert significant resources from its primary purpose of providing programming and services to instead navigating between opposing positions involving the Middle East conflict.'"  The article compares this controversy to the similar one at Brooklyn College, where the college stood up to complaints and pressure, and allowed an event on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement involving Israel/Palestine.

The article doesn't say anything about the LBGT Center's status.  Unlike Brooklyn College, which has policies of academic freedom, it may not have a mission statement privileging free speech and intellectual freedom.  Some of those who advocated preventing the BDS event argued that no institution is required to give a platform to any old person who wants one.  That's true, but it's not what the Brooklyn College flap involved.  It wasn't as if Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti asked to speak there and were turned down; rather, students in the Political Science Department organized the event with the permission (not endorsement) of the department chairman.  Only after the event was scheduled was there pressure to block it, mostly by outsiders.  It's also outsiders who pressured the LGBT Center not to permit events related to Israel/Palestine, notably gay porn mogul Michael Lucas, who not so long ago was whining that he was being persecuted by "supergays" and "superlesbians" because some pictures of him were removed from a news site.  Thanks to his own "supergay" allies, Lucas's pictures were restored.

Glenn Greenwald had some fun pointing out the inconsistencies (not to mention lies) in Alan Dershowitz' complaints about the event.  It wasn't fair, Dershowitz said, to have an event like this without both sides being allowed to make their case.
Despite how controversial he is, Dershowitz routinely appears on college campuses to speak without opposition. Indeed, as the Gawker writer who writes under the pen name Mobutu Sese Seko first documented, Dershowitz himself has spoken at Brooklyn College on several occasions without opposition. That includes - as the college's Political Science Professor Corey Robin noted - when he was chosen by the school's Political Science department to deliver the Konefsky lecture in which he spoke at length - and without opposition. He also delivered a 2008 speech at Brooklyn College, alone, in which he discussed a wide variety of controversial views, including torture. As Professor Robin noted, when Dershowitz agreed to speak at the school, "he didn't insist that we invite someone to rebut him or to represent the opposing view."

Nor did any of the New York City politicians objecting to this BDS event as "one-sided" object to Dershowitz's speech given without opposition. Why is that?
Dershowitz claimed that Brooklyn College had refused to sponsor or "endorse anti-BDS events or even pro-Israel speakers who advocate the two state solution and an end to the settlements." Greenwald quoted a Brooklyn College prof who declared that "the chair went through all of his emails today and has not found a single request from a student or student group for us to host an anti-BDS event."  Numerous commenters on this post repeated or reinvented these bogus arguments, either unaware or not caring that they'd already been answered.

Also today this message was posted on a Facebook page in support of the Sullivan (Indiana) High School Prom, which will admit GLBT as well as non-gay students.  This event drew wide attention because some students and a teacher have protested this inclusiveness, and want to organize an "alternative," heterosexual-only prom.  Fine with me: let the bigots identify themselves publicly.  As long as they pay for it themselves -- it shouldn't get any school support.

The organizer of the support page announced today that no further debate of the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality would be allowed there.  That seems fair to me, and I'd support the organizer of a pro-Catholic page who refused to permit debate, let alone trolling or abuse there.  After all, whether on Facebook or elsewhere on the Internet, it's easy to make your own page supporting or rejecting any position.  And indeed, the antigay bigots of Sullivan, Indiana have at least one Facebook page touting their prom.  They proudly declare:
Yes, there is going to be a prom for the straight. Yes we shall have it cuz we can. We shall have it cuz we dont want homosexuals in our midst. We have the right to hold a straight prom just as they claim they can be homosexuals
The page has already drawn some pro-gay trolls, showing their greater intelligence and compassion.  I'm being sarcastic there, of course.  Yet it shouldn't take much intelligence to answer that little manifesto: The official Sullivan High prom isn't a prom for homosexuals, it's for "the straight" along with gay, lesbians, and bisexuals.  Only the "alternative" prom is for one group alone, namely bigots.  And of course, the bigots will still have "homosexuals in their midst" when they go to school, when they're at the mall -- even when they go to church.  And can there really be that many out gay, lesbian, or bisexual students in Sullivan High?

So: every controversy doesn't need to be debated all the time.  But to repeat, in principle every controversy is debatable.  And one thing that becomes obvious when watching the liberal side in online debates is that on the whole they're no better informed, no more rational, than their opposite numbers.  They too are just repeating what they've heard someone else say, maybe in a recent episode of Glee, and they're lucky that they're unlikely to run into an opponent who knows more than they do.  Actual debate might even help them: chastened by an effective rebuttal, they might do their homework and inform themselves.

A school, while it can't explore every controversy, does have the obligation to produce informed and rational students, particularly where live issues are involved.  And whether I like it or not, Creationism vs. Evolution, homosexuality, feminism, racism, religion, and many other issues are alive in our society.  I should think anyone can see that simply calling Creationists ignorant morons hasn't worked very well.  Forty-six percent of Americans with college degrees believe that human beings were created, not evolved -- the same proportion, Katha Pollitt wailed, as the general population.  How's that smug denunciation of Bible-thumpers working for you, Katha?  Maybe it would be worthwhile to try critical thinking and teaching the conflicts instead.

On the other hand, nobody can see evolution taking place, but people can get to know gay people.  No one knows for sure, but it's a reasonable guess that the status of gay people in America has improved over the past few decades because we made ourselves visible, especially to people we knew: our families, our friends, our co-workers.  But there have also been debates about us, even if they haven't always been of the highest standard.  I've learned a lot from them.  Others have too, and more should.  But I admit, it's largely an article of faith for me that more information is better information, and rationality (despite its limits) is better than irrationality.  Hurling insults at the Rethuglitards, while soul-satisfying, is not rationality in action.  Maybe we don't need debate, but those who claim they favor critical thinking need to do more of it themselves.

It's like what I say when someone accuses me of being prejudiced against prejudice: Okay, make an argument for prejudice.  I'm not sure anyone has ever tried to do so when challenged.  Maybe the self-styled advocates of critical thinking should drop the pretense and make their argument for irrationality and authoritarianism.  I'd be fascinated to hear it.