Friday, May 31, 2013

Don't Demonize Me, Bro!

One of the things that made Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) so scary was that the audience never got a really good look at the monster.  This may not always be true, but often it's the unseen, what might be lurking in the darkness, that is most frightening: turn on the lights and there's nothing there.  And what the fearful imagination conjures up may be nothing specific; even the mind's eye averts itself.

In Homosexuality in Renaissance England (Gay Men's Press, 1988), Alan Bray recounts a remarkable story.  In 1630 "a labourer, Meredith Davy of Minehead in Somerset," was brought before the court.
According to the evidence of his master's apprentice, a boy 'aged twelve years or thereabouts' called John Vicary, with whom he shared a bed, Davy had been in the habit of having sexual relations with the boy on Sunday and holiday nights after he had been drinking; eventually the boy cried out and Davy ended up before the Justices [48].
Later in the book Bray adds,
Davy was not alone with the boy when he was forcing his attentions with him: throughout the whole time this was happening there was a witness, a servant who slept in the same room with him, to whom the creaking of their bed and the groans and cries of the boy were quite audible as he later gave evidence; and this was repeated on Sunday and holiday nights for almost a month [69].
Not only that:
But what is really astounding is the reaction of the household when Bryant [the servant who shared a room with Davy and Vicary] did go to the mistress and the boy told all.  Everything this society had to say about the nature of homosexuality and its horror would naturally lead us to expect a horrified reaction; at the very least one expects that Davy would have been locked up ... Not only was he not locked up; he was not removed from the boy's bed.  This is not the behaviour of people who think that they are dealing with a monster in human form [77].
Davy himself "denieth that he ever used any unclean action with the said boy as they lay in bed together; and more he sayeth not" (69).

Bray speculated that because the sodomite was culturally imagined as a monster, people were nonplussed when confronted with reality: since he seemed to be an ordinary fellow, how could Meredith Davy be a sodomite?

Davy's denial may have been born partly of the normal human reaction to lie reflexively when in trouble.  But I remembered it while thinking about some recent discussions of race and racism in America.

More than once I've seen people say, as Jason Richwine told The Washington Examiner (via), "The idea that I am some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth extremist never even crossed my mind ... The accusation of racism is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life."  Richwine, you may recall, formerly with the right-wing Heritage Foundation, is the guy who wrote that "No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites."  I'm not going to discuss the validity of IQ tests; like many other people, I'm more interested in Richwine's assumption that "Hispanics" aren't white.  (Does that mean he wants to keep Sergio Garcia out of the US?  If so, I could be persuaded.)  But for the purposes of this post, I want to talk about Richwine's assumption that a racist is "some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth extremist," and his ill-worded claim that "the accusation of racism is one of the worst things anyone can call you in public life."  Someone called him an accusation of racism?  That's pretty weird, but there are worse things he could be called.

Racism is not necessarily some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth extremism.  Much racism is soft-spoken, polite, middle-of-the-road, almost apologetic, and wields scientific research in its defense.  The racist is just a regular guy, hearty and ready with jokes about fried chicken and collard greens.  Just as much antigay bigotry wears priestly robes and clerical collars, and humbly quotes Scripture to justify itself.  As with Meredith Davy's case, if you believe that a sodomite has horns and a tail, you won't know what to make of an ordinary laborer who's porking his twelve-year-old male bedmate -- if you're Davy himself, you won't recognize that porking your male bedmade is sodomy, because you never thought of yourself as some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth monster.  You were just fooling around, having a little friendly fun.  Calling Davy a sodomite is so harsh, because the accusation of sodomy is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life.  Richwine, according to the Atlantic Wire post I cited above, can't even tell that someone like John Derbyshire is a racist, presumably because Derbyshire doesn't foam at the mouth either.

I don't see that calling someone a racist is so bad in American public life.  Yes, Richwine was dumped by the Heritage Foundation, but he'll probably find another paying gig with another right-wing think tank.  People like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan, and so many other notorious American racists have been accused of racism, yet they soldier on, and their careers haven't ended.  That could be because racism is so popular in right-wing circles, which almost by definition are well-funded, and even the fact that Richwine doesn't seem to be very bright won't count against him.  (On the other hand, even if Richwine ends up flipping burgers or driving a cab, worse things could happen to him, and worse things have happened to better people.)

Of course I read selectively and lazily, but I haven't seen anyone call Richwine some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth extremist.  What I have seen is that his work has been picked to pieces on its substance, including his strange assumption that "Hispanics" are a discrete racial group.  Since "Hispanic" refers to language and not biology, it covers people from a rather wide range of physical and cultural groups, many or most of whom consider themselves to be white.  He told one audience in 2008, "Decades of psychometric testing has indicated that at least in America, you have Jews with the highest average IQ, usually followed by East Asians, then you have non-Jewish whites, Hispanics, and then blacks."  Aside from the fact that Jews aren't a race either (except when they are), nor are "non-Jewish whites," Richwine is evidently ignorant of the history of IQ ranking in the United States.  A century ago, Jews were ranked as feeble-minded, along with Italians and Slavs, way behind the pure Anglo-Saxon race.  Those who criticized the validity of such judgments were denounced as hostile to Science, usually because they resented that Science revealed their innate inferiority.  As the prominent American eugenicist Madison Grant said, the Jewish anthropologist Franz Boas "naturally does not take stock in any anthropology which relegates him and his race to the inferior position that they have occupied throughout recorded history."

So, people like Richwine create a spectre of The Racist, lurking in the shadows and ready to leap out and eviscerate the unwary with its teeth and claws.  That, they insist, is The Racist, and since they demonstrably are nice respectable people, they couldn't possibly be racist.  (This spectre occupies a place in the American imagination much like the one Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church does: bigots need someone demonstrably and visibly extreme, someone beyond the pale, so they can plausibly define themselves as moderate by comparison.)  That much is fairly obvious, I think, but it seems that they are also somewhat vague about what racism and racists are, perhaps so they can continue to frighten themselves with inchoate fantasies.  Richwine, with his "foaming-at-the-mouth" image, is a bit more concrete than most, but he still fits this familiar and ancient pattern.

Here's the point: Racism, like any other form of bigotry, is not necessarily monstrous, though it is often expressed in monstrous ways.  Since I'm not black and don't wish to tell black people how they should respond to racism, I'll put this in terms of antigay bigotry.  (It should be noticed, though, that Jason Richwine and people like him are at least as upset by other whites calling them racist as they are by what non-whites think.)  I don't think that someone should do hard time for calling me a faggot, nor is such a person a monster; I do think that fag-bashers like the guys who brutally murdered Matthew Shepard, should have gone to prison.  I'm not sure such people are monsters either; certainly antigay violence has often been socially acceptable in American society.  I recognize that there are degrees of bigotry.  But I'm not obligated to laugh at someone else's fag joke, nor to refrain from declaring that I don't think it funny.  I'm not obligated to respect someone who calls me a faggot, or even those who want me to be a second-class citizen legally or socially -- even if they do so out of sincere religious faith.  As an advocate of freedom of speech, I respect people's right to say bigoted things, but I'm not obligated to respect their bigotry.  This is not because they're monsters, but because they're bigots.  And my disrespect for them does not constitute throwing them under the bus, or "sending in the drones to take [them] out."  Michael Kinsley asked (via) why gays "can't laugh off nutty comments like [Benjamin] Carson"; why the hell should we?  The alternative to laughing is not "sending in the drones to take him out": it's withholding respect from him, and correctly labeling him the bigot that he is.  Even that, little as it is, upsets the likes of Richwine and Kinsley.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I Am Shocked! Shocked! To Find There's Incivility Going On Here

Oh, and before I forget, Roy Edroso has an amusing little post at alicublog today, calling out a rightblogger who laments the rudeness of liberals: "Conservatives think liberals have bad ideas and liberals think conservative are bad people ... Rush at least apologized for his nasty crack about pro-choice activist Sandra Fluke being a 'slut.'"  (See my previous posts about pro forma apologies.)

Edroso then embedded an image from another rightblogger featuring an obese public employee asleep at his desk.  Oh my goodness!  Liberals would never make fun of a right-winger's weight.  Besides, it's different when they do it; they do it out of true Christian love, not the hypocritical fake Christianity of the wingnuts.

Accusations of incivility are not very convincing from either party.  I don't think civility is the highest value in debate, especially since most people consider it uncivil merely to be disagreed with, regardless of the reasons.

Our Post-Racial Society

"One cool thing about saying something bigoted is you can always deny it was your intention, and thus preserve some amount of face—at least in your own mind," Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote today.  Seems another nominally white golfer made a racist joke about Tiger Woods.  (I say "nominally" because Sergio Garcia is a Spaniard, which is only white under certain interpretations of race.  In the 19th century, Spaniards were among the dusky Mediterranean races that white American nativists were trying to keep away from our hallowed shores.  I wonder how Garcia would react if someone were to make a joke, say, about flamenco and castanets, or that confused Spaniards with Mexicans, that sort of thing.)  And now another white golfer, one Fuzzy Zoeller (why do white parents give names like these to their kids?) has been quoted about his own racist remarks about Woods from 1997: he says he's "paid his dues," and it's all in the past.  Which, I guess, is why he's being quoted now, sixteen years later, about a similar imbroglio.  Obviously, racism is still in the present.  It's amazing how quickly a foreigner like Garcia picked up ancient American racist tropes like "We'll have him 'round every night. We will serve fried chicken."  Do they teach it in classes for incoming PGA contestants?

Reactions in the sports press have been revealing.  Some see it as just about a "feud" between Woods and Garcia that goes back to the 90s.  It's all personal, see.  This writer says that Zoeller was "thrown under the racist label", even though he "had previously made nothing but positive headlines at Augusta, especially in 1979, when he won the Masters on his very first try."  "Zoeller became a pariah. Once things died down, Zoeller was no longer sought after for comedic remarks, and had to be more careful with what he said."

Rhetoric like this seems to imply that whites, or at least white athletes, are naturally full of racist remarks that will pop out through no fault of their own if they aren't "careful."  And besides, those remarks aren't really racist, and it's so unfair to throw a promising golfer "under the racist bus" just because of a few words.  This is also the tenor of the "apologies" bigots usually make: I'm sorry if I offended anybody, but it's your own fault for being offended!  I didn't say it, I didn't mean to say it, but it wasn't racist anyway, and I'm being persecuted like the Christian martyrs and thrown to the Politically Correct Lions!   Or as RWA1 declared recently about a case of racist social science, "Nothing should be taboo."  Nothing, that is, except what he disapproves of.

As Coates says, "One reason the comment will dog Garcia is because he will never cop to what he actually did."  It doesn't have to be this way: Coates quotes the story of an athlete who made some antigay remarks a couple of years ago,
But unlike some athletes who do only what they have to in order to save what they can of their careers, his was not just the compulsory apology. He went on to work with gay-rights groups, to learn why what he said was wrong and to make a real effort to atone for it.
This is going too far in many white people's eyes, of course.  (And in the eyes of many bigots of any color.)  It's a kick in the nuts of privilege to have to hold in all those witty remarks about fried chicken or dropped soap in the showers or slanty eyes or women crying because they can't throw a ball.  What I notice most forcefully, though, about the remarks these guys get in trouble for is that they aren't even funny.  They're assertions of status, uttered for bonding purposes with like-minded bigots.  I mean, fried chicken?  Maybe it's that they're athletes, not comedians; shoemaker, stick to your last.

I'm also sure that it isn't because too little time has elapsed for these guys to have learned that racism or other forms of bigotry are wrong, or even that they're impolite.  They're just fine with bigotry, they're fiercely attached to it, and they won't let go until you pry it from their cold, dead fingers.  The injustice in their eyes is more that there are fewer venues where they can say such things without being criticized for them.  In the good old days when golf was a "gentleman's game," and men of color were caddies, not players, the days so many of my age mates recall fondly, you could say them almost anywhere, and it was objecting to them that was the breach of etiquette.  Many white sports fans clearly wish we still lived in those days; but we don't.  Not thanks to any god, but to the determined efforts of courageous people who decided things were going to change.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Demons Also Believe, and Tremble

I've gotten bogged down in a post that's turning out to be longer and more complicated than I expected, so let me interrupt myself and talk about something that I hope is simpler and more manageable.

Recently I was one of a GLB panel speaking to a university class on human sexuality, and the perennial "Do you think you were born that way?" question was asked.  The other speakers said that they aren't much concerned with why they are gay, and I've noticed that increasing numbers of our volunteers seem to be taking that position of late.  (Without pressure from me, I should mention: none of the speakers that day had spoken with me before, and we disagree on some other points.)  I spoke critically of the scientific research that has been adduced in support of the "born that way" position, and the instructor (a graduate student, and one of our volunteers) said something wryly about Simon LeVay having been "demonized" for arguing that homosexuality is innate and inborn.  I don't remember now whether he said this directly or reported LeVay's own complaint of having been demonized, but it doesn't make much difference: what matters here is the accusation that LeVay has been demonized for his work.

I disagreed, first of all because while LeVay has certainly been criticized, most gay people as far as I know, and many if not most of his scientific colleagues have lionized him.  His work is still widely cited as evidence that homosexuality is biologically determined, despite its known flaws and the fact that it hasn't been replicated.  (I mentioned this in class, and the instructor didn't disagree.)   Biological determinism is still trendy, and its adherents love to cast themselves as modern-day Galileos, persecuted for fearlessly following the truth wherever it leads -- even though none have been shown the instruments of torture that will be used on them if they don't recant, and most seem to be enjoying unimpeded scientific and academic careers.

It may be that LeVay has been demonized by antigay bigots who reject efforts to establish homosexuality as an involuntary condition like, say, spina bifida rather than a rebellion against Yahweh.  This religious writer declares what I suspect is a false equivalence, urging that "People on both sides of the debate need to make strenuous efforts to defuse their hostility and to demythologize their understanding of each other as 'hate-filled bigots.'"  ("Demythologize"?)  If so, LeVay shouldn't take it personally; I don't.  Religious reactionaries demonize everybody; it's part of their toolkit.

But I doubt that the instructor, or LeVay, had such people primarily in mind.  Standard operating procedure in the Science Wars is for biological determinists to evade scientific criticism of their work by accusing their critics of being anti-science, blank-slate, hysterical Marxists and/or feminists.  Critics of born-gay theories are accused of believing that homosexuality is a choice, which is presumably meant to smear the critics by association with religious bigots; social constructionism is also routinely assumed to declare homosexuality a choice.  Whatever the motivation, the accusation is false.  It's interesting, when you consider scientific apologists stress science's supposed sensitivity to falsification and correction, that it nevertheless continues to be used so often.  It's not a fringe tactic either, but quite mainstream.

I agree, of course, that demonizing people whose positions one disagrees with is bad form.  And while it's generally a good idea to moderate one's rhetoric as much as possible in debate, I don't agree that calling someone a bigot is necessarily demonizing them, especially when they set the tone with immoderate language themselves.  It's perfectly legitimate to call someone a bigot after you've refuted their arguments and established that whatever motivates them, it isn't reason or evidence.  But if we're going to use immoderate rhetoric, we'd better be able to take it as well as dish it out.  We expect our opponents to do the same, after all.

Understand, I'm not accusing the instructor of being mean.  Quite the contrary: he let me and the other panelists have our say, and none of us took the born-gay position.  I'm just a bit perplexed by his remark: it wasn't mean, it just seemed irrelevant.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

God Giving Us the Finger

One of my Facebook friends from high school, now the wife of a Methodist minister, complained yesterday because some newscaster on MSNBC called the Oklahoma tornado "the finger of God reaching down out of the sky."  One of her friends agreed: "What a stupid thing to say!! As if God would intentionally destroy...sheesh...."  This baffled me: which god were they talking about?  Certainly not the god of the Christian Bible (Hello! The Deluge?), who not only would but has "intentionally destroyed" on numerous occasions.  For once I restrained myself and didn't comment.

This, you see, is one of the reasons I have never felt I was missing anything by not being a religious believer.  I'm not sure it really gives much comfort in times of trouble; I haven't observed that religious people, for all they claim otherwise, really draw any kind of strength or wisdom from their beliefs.  One of my favorite examples is C. S. Lewis, who to judge from A Grief Observed, went to pieces when his wife died of cancer.  In the end he accepted a belief that he had often rejected, that God is a cosmic sadist who inflicts pain on us for our own good -- but it's up to us, not to him, to deal with it constructively.  If we fail, it's our fault; if we succeed, to him goes the glory.  This sort of thing doesn't make Christianity look like something I need.

I don't mean only Christianity, of course.  Reading up on Christopher Isherwood recently, I wondered how much Vedanta really did for him.  From the biographical and autobiographical materials I've read about him, it seems that his years of greatest involvement with the movement coincided with a lot of heavy drinking and emotional instability.  No doubt he'd have said what devotees commonly say: that he'd have been so much worse off without the spiritual shelter Vedanta gave him.  I suspect that the booze and the promiscuity may have had their benefits, and that a lot of what's touted as spiritual growth is just getting older and less inclined to indulge in drama.

Still, something else is going on with those comments on the Oklahoma tornadoes.  My friend and her friend were objecting to a central doctrine of their religion: that Yahweh is not merely the creator but the sustainer of the world.  Nothing happens without his knowing it, and since he is omnipotent as well as omniscient, nothing happens without his permission and collaboration.  This isn't a religious invention like the Immaculate Conception, it's a biblical doctrine, most poetically expressed by Jesus himself, Matthew 10:29: Not a sparrow falls without your Father in Heaven knowing it.  An omniscient, omnipotent being is responsible in a way that no mere human being can be, yet believers makes excuses for the lapses of their gods that they'd never tolerate if they were made for a human malefactor.

A common evasion for this problem is the claim that God can't intervene, because it would interfere with our free will.  I don't buy it for several reasons: first, if so, then why do Christians pray in order to ask for his intervention?  Second, why then is the Bible (and Christian lore) full of stories where God did intervene?  Third, doesn't this excuse pose insuperable difficulties for the Christian doctrine of Heaven, where no one will suffer?  Either there's no free will in heaven, or the Christian god doesn't mind interfering with it.

Though I discuss subjects like this as an atheist and therefore an outsider, the problem of suffering has been addressed by many believers.  When I see believers misrepresenting their own tradition, as my friend did, I won't be put off from criticizing them by the assumption that an outsider has no business criticizing insiders.  (Christians have never let any such consideration inhibit their criticisms of other religions!)  I know very well that other insiders would raise and have raised the same objections I do -- it's often from such insiders that I've learned these objections.  This same friend, upset by some of my criticism of Christianity, told me that if I'd just become a Christian I wouldn't be so critical.  That would be true only if I let groupthink and moral laziness accompany my conversion, which often happens but isn't inevitable.  The prospect certainly doesn't make becoming a believer any more attractive to me.

This is why I'm critical of my fellow atheists when they cast all believers as unthinking sheep.  Many are, maybe most, but not all; believing in a particular god or joining a cult is not an excuse for this kind of dishonesty.  And atheists aren't immune to it either, alas; we just tend to exercise it with different imaginary friends, called "Reason" or "Evolution" or "Science."  The only way to think critically is to do it, not to join a club.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

You Don't Have to Be a Monster to Be a Bigot

My Right Wing Acquaintance Number One linked to a bizarre column by The New Republic's Michael Kinsley, "LGBT PC: Being against marriage equality doesn't make you a monster."  RWA1 commented, "I'm for gay marriage, but Kinsley is right about PC heresy-hunting in academia and elsewhere."

Kinsley was displeased because Dr. Benjamin Carson ran into some controversy when he made some ordinarily bigoted remarks about same-sex marriage on TV.
In March, Ben Carson appeared on Fox News’ “Hannity” show to talk about gay marriage. Carson is the latest Great Black Hope for the Republican Party, which is quickly running out of African American conservatives to make famous. But Carson’s appearance was not a success. He should have left bestiality out of it. And any reference to NAMBLA—the “North American Man / Boy Love Association”—is pretty good evidence that we have left the realm of rational discussion and entered radio talk-show territory. This alleged organization exists—if indeed it exists at all—for the sole purpose of being attacked by Republicans and conservatives on talk radio and television.
Carson repeated this performance on MSNBC a few days later, more mildly but a lot more incoherently:
“If you ask me for an apple, and I give you an orange, you would say, ‘That’s not an orange.’ And then I say, ‘That’s a banana.’ And that’s not an apple, either. Or there’s a peach, that’s not an apple, either. But it doesn’t mean that I’m equating the banana and the orange and the peach.” 
Despite one of those standard insincere apologies that public figures make when they've said something notably vicious, Carson suffered.
Carson was supposed to be the graduation speaker at Johns Hopkins Medical School. There was a fuss, and Carson decided to withdraw as speaker. The obviously relieved dean nevertheless criticized Carson for being “hurtful.” His analysis of the situation was that “the fundamental principle of freedom of expression has been placed in conflict with our core values of diversity, inclusion and respect.” My analysis is that, at a crucial moment, the dean failed to defend a real core value of the university: tolerance.
Kinsley's rationale rivals Carson's diatribe for incoherence:
Carson may qualify as a homophobe by today’s standards. But then they don’t make homophobes like they used to. Carson denies hating gay people, while your classic homophobe revels in it. He has apologized publicly “if I offended anyone.” He supports civil unions that would include all or almost all of the legal rights of marriage. In other words, he has views on gay rights somewhat more progressive than those of the average Democratic senator ten years ago. But as a devout Seventh Day Adventist, he just won’t give up the word “marriage.”
I don't agree that "your classic homophobe revels in" hating gay people.  Your classic homophobe generally insists that he or she has nothing against homosexuals, indeed he or she loves us and wants to help us win the struggle against unwanted homosexual desires.  I presume Kinsley has in mind someone like the Westboro Baptist Church, but they don't hate gay people either: they just report that God hates us, so that the world can escape his judgment.  I've said before that the worst thing about the WBC is that it represents an extreme compared to which other bigots can pretend to be moderate, and Kinsley's ramblings here probably are an example of that.  I've also pointed out another strategy of today's bigots: despite their reliance on the Jewish/Christian Bible for morality and the definition of marriage, they're oddly reluctant to endorse execution of sodomites, and protest their devotion to equal rights for everybody.  They may compare homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, but they're very tolerant, and it grieves them when they're called bigots.  This is nothing new, of course: white American racists hid behind the Bible during the Civil Rights Era, and insisted that they loved the Negro, and it was because of this love that they wanted to shield him from a false equality for which he was un-equipped by his God-given nature.  Not only does sincere religious belief not justify bigotry, it has been the basis for most bigotry historically: the Catholics who burned Protestants, the Protestants who burned Catholics, all did so in humble obedience to their God.

Kinsley goes on (and on):
The university’s response was wrong for a variety of reasons. First, Carson isn’t just another gasbag. He is director of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins. Pediatric neurosurgery! He fixes children’s brains. How terrible can a person be who does that for a living? Yes, I know the flaw in this thinking: There is no necessary connection. As a character says in Mel Brooks’s movie The Producers: “der Führer vas a terrific dancer.” But Carson didn’t murder millions of people. All he did was say on television that he opposes same-sex marriage—an idea that even its biggest current supporters had never even heard of a couple of decades ago. Does that automatically make you a homophobe and cast you into the outer darkness? It shouldn’t. But in some American subcultures—Hollywood, academia, Democratic politics—it apparently does. 
"All he did was say on television that he opposes same-sex marriage" -- well, no, he said a bit more than that.  He also compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.  And maybe he said more than that; I don't suppose Kinsley has reported everything Carson said.  But that comparison has nothing much to do with the question of same-sex marriage, as Kinsley actually concedes: Carson has left rational discussion behind, and is cavorting in la-la land.  Nor does the bestiality-pedophilia comparison follow from Carson's Christian beliefs; he could argue against homosexuality on Biblical grounds.  It's strange, really: plenty of antigay bigots have made exactly the same comparison, it's almost a cliche, and they always get attacked for it.  You'd think they'd learn that people who compare homosexuality to bestiality in public will take heat for it, but they're always taken totally by surprise, and hasten to explain that they never meant to offend anybody.  Then they do it again, and again.  (What would Carson, or Kinsley for that matter, say about a white person who compared people of African descent to monkeys, or interracial marriage to bestiality?  What would they say about the white guy in this story?  Would they defend him, denying furiously that he is racist?)

Citing Carson's good works as proof that he's not a "homophobe" seems wilfully off-the-mark; perverse, even.  Just about any adult can probably think of visibly good, civic-minded, charitable individuals who have nevertheless done terrible things: Nazi concentration camp commandants who loved Brahms and Beethoven and deplored gratuitous violence; Roman Catholic priests beloved in their parishes who raped numerous children; or a white policeman with a black fiancée, an exemplar of anti-racism on the force, who nevertheless sodomized a Haitian immigrant with a broomstick.  Carson isn't remotely in the same league as people like these, as far as I know; but if he were,* there would still be well-meaning people who'd leap to his defense and insist that he wasn't a monster, and shouldn't be cast into the outer darkness over a little lapse or two or two dozen.

I can't help wondering, though: would Kinsley argue that "tolerance" requires a university, private or public, not to withdraw an invitation to someone who is a monster by Kinsley's criteria, whatever they are?  And suppose that Carson hadn't withdrawn as commencement speaker.  Would Kinsley insist on the freedom of speech of students to protest and picket his appearance?  I doubt it; I know RWA1 wouldn't.  He'd consider them a bunch of fascist PC yahoos.  I can't remember any time RWA1 has criticized right-wing students or organizations for hunting "heresy" on campus or elsewhere.  When Ward Churchill was being attacked for some distinctly un-PC remarks a decade ago, and ultimately fired from the University of Colorado at Boulder, despite tenure and numerous awards for service and scholarship, RWA1 was silent, because Churchill violated right-wing Political Correctness.  Nor have I ever observed RWA1 criticizing the numerous right-wing organizations that try to monitor classrooms for liberal and left-wing thoughtcrime.  This, unfortunately, fits the normal American pattern: free speech for me, but not for thee.
In fact, the very idea of a “test of right thinking on gay issues” or any other kind of issues, is absurd. Gays, who know a thing or two about repression, ought to be the last people to want to destroy someone’s career because they disagree. In their moment of triumph, why can’t they laugh off nutty comments like Carson’s, rather than sending in the drones to take him out?
This is absurd.  Being disinvited as speaker to the Johns Hopkins commencement isn't going to "destroy [Carson]'s career."  Nor is it comparable to "sending in the drones to take him out."  I've spoken up for the free speech rights of bigots in the past myself, but nothing in the doctrine of freedom of speech requires people to say nothing when someone says something vicious.  Freedom of speech includes my freedom to criticize, and even to attack verbally, people who say bigoted things.  I don't want to destroy Ben Carson's career, but I do want him to know that if he says things about gay people that he'd surely object to if they were said about black people (and they were, in his lifetime), he will face criticism.  Patently insincere "apologies" won't suffice.  I know that Carson has opinions on other topics that are less than fully rational and open to question; he is evidently a fine neurosurgeon, but that doesn't mean his political opinions therefore command agreement.

Another curiosity about Kinsley's column.  He makes much of the relative recentness of same-sex marriage as a hot-button political issue, suggesting that people like Ben Carson can't be blamed because they haven't had time to get used to such a radical new idea yet.
The first known mention of gay marriage is an article (“Here Comes the Groom” by Andrew Sullivan) commissioned by me and published in this magazine in 1989. And I would bet that there is no one born before 1989, gay or straight, who didn’t, when he or she first heard the idea, go, whaaa? Many on reflection got used to the idea, and a majority of Americans now support it.
I've reread these sentences several times to make sure I didn't miss some qualification that would allow them to make sense.  Same-sex marriage was mentioned long before 1989.**  Maybe it wasn't discussed in The New Republic, but radical gay activists were trying to get the issue before the public no later than the early 1970s, and it was discussed in gay and lesbian publications before that.  The heterosexual newsweekly Look magazine covered the struggle as early as 1971.  I'm sure it must have been mentioned in straight-but-hip newspapers like the Village Voice during the 70s and 80s too.  I presume Kinsley means that nobody who mattered mentioned gay marriage before 1989; but I'm not obliged to respond to such a claim by doing anything but pointing my finger and making rude derisive noises.

It's funny, because Andrew Sullivan is always claiming (falsely) that gay radicals have tried to erase the history of the gay movement before Stonewall; but here's Michael Kinsley trying to give himself and Sullivan credit for first mention of same-sex marriage in 1989.  Kinsley also seems to assume that opposition to same-sex marriage only comes from right-wing religious bigots, apparently unaware that such opposition also comes from "the left", from gay and feminist thinkers who can actually think about the issues involved.  But they, like anyone who mentioned same-sex marriage before 1989, aren't Very Serious People Who Matter, so they don't exist.  There are other ways to silence debate than overt censorship: if you have a platform like The New Republic, you can also rewrite history, and misrepresent the true range of opinions on an issue.

* The article linked here is from The Onion and therefore a parody, not to be taken at face value.  I think it's a great send-up of the kind of excuses Kinsley is making for Carson, Obama fans make for Obama, and Ted Koppel makes for Henry Kissinger.

** Kinsley's article has been revised online to curb his hubris somewhat: "One early seminal article on gay marriage (“Here Comes the Groom” by Andrew Sullivan) was commissioned by me and published in this magazine in 1989."  The original wording can be found in this blog post.  But the editors failed to notice or correct the same claim in the opening of the article: "It [i.e., gay marriage] was a genuinely new idea when it first appeared in this publication in 1989."

An Imaginary Friend Named Irony

Until a few minutes ago I had four books on the burner, so to speak, but then I finished Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong (Minnesota, 2009), a collection of essays by the Comanche museum curator and cultural critic Paul Chaat ("rhymes with hot") Smith, so it's down to three.  For now, anyway.

I really enjoyed Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong, and once I started it I didn't want to stop until I got to the end.  For one thing, Smith is not only anti-essentialist but manages to avoid essentialism most of the time.  There aren't many writers who can bring that off, so I'm glad to add him to my list of good thinker/writers (aka "public intellectuals").

He's also a lot of fun to read, often quite funny.  His essay on irony is a fine achievement, reminiscent of Max Beerbohm at his best.  But try this bit about Bob Dylan from his essay on the Canadian artist Baco Ohama, who he learned was a fellow fan.
She had enjoyed watching him on the Academy Awards a few days earlier, though she observed, with characteristic generosity and tact, that "there were some strange camera angles on him."  (Actually, he looked dreadful, not only ancient but inexplicably wearing an absurd, thin mustache.  The next day's Letterman show, not nearly as generous or tactful, listed one of the top ten things overheard at the Academy Awards as "I didn't even know Vincent Price played guitar") [115].
I'm glad I'm not the only person who finds Dylan's mustache absurd.  And I appreciate Smith's pieces on contemporary Indian artists, especially the one on James Luna, and the one about Life magazine's bizarre but inspirational 1967 special issue on "The Return of the Red Man."  This, I think, will be one of my favorite books this year.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

This Native Is Getting Restless

The Annoying Word for today is "native."  Specifically, this sentence fragment:
Ignoring the fact that there’s no such thing as a “native white American,”...
Well, there is, actually.

The word "native" isn't inherently problematic, but by the time I was in high school I'd noticed that it could be used in ways that set off alarms.  One is exemplified by "the natives are restless," which was already something of a joke in my lifetime, and I'm pleased to see still is.  At its root, though, it's a paradigm example of Othering, of dividing humanity into Us (the civilized white people) and Them (the dusky locals, the White Man's Burden).  To call someone else "natives," then, was racist.

On the other hand, I also encountered the term "nativist" in American History class, where it denoted anti-immigrant groups and sentiments -- ironically enough, these groups were usually made up of people whose recent ancestors were immigrants themselves.  So one could refer to oneself as "native" and mean it positively, but nativism was hardly an ideal I was going to aspire to.

So I've always been wary of the term "Native American" for people descended from the pre-Columbian societies of the Western Hemisphere.  I hoped vaguely that it was meant at least somewhat ironically, with some awareness that the word "native" is double-edged.  The more I've heard the term used, however, I've had to let that hope go.

"Native" comes from the Latin word meaning "to be born," and means primarily that one was born in a given locale.  The blogger I quoted above, like many who use the word nowadays, means something else: apparently, not only that you were born somewhere, but all your ancestors were too.  The idea would be that the species, or the "race," is viewed as a single entity, which originated in a specific place.  If that's the case, however, then the First Nations aren't natives of the Americas: their distant ancestors came from northeastern Asia, most likely, but they weren't native to that part of the world either.  As far as we know, the human species is ultimately "native" in this sense to Africa.

So the blogger's claim that there's no such thing as a "native white American" is not only false on its face -- I'm white, I was born in Indiana, hence I'm a native white American -- but it's racist.  When a white American asks a non-white American, "Where are you from?" and refuses to accept "I'm from here" as an answer, perhaps probing for the country her ancestors came from, most people would recognize the intent as racist: Even if you were born here, even if your parents and grandparents were born here, you don't belong here (but I do).  And it is racist.  So is the blogger's claim.

I suppose one could argue that "native" ought to refer to the origins of one's ancestors, that there is some point at which one's lineage ceases to be "immigrant" and becomes "native."  I'd like to see the argument, though, and I'd like to see the justification for drawing the line wherever such an argument chose to draw it -- how many generations, how many years?  It will, I suspect, always be arbitrary.  (I wonder if some Ojibwe culture cops objected to teaching Darwinian evolution at a tribal college, not just because "Nothing in our oral traditions says that we came down from trees" [Scott Richard Lyons, X-Marks (Minnesota, 2010), 96] but because contemporary archaeology puts human origins in Africa instead of the Americas.)

"Aboriginal," as Merriam-Webster defines it, seems to work better than "native" for this purpose: "being the first or earliest known of its kind present in a region."  It doesn't have to imply that human beings originated in a locale, only that the first human beings present in the region were of this group.  This still has problems, since the migrations from what is now Siberia probably occurred over time in successive waves, and I daresay they weren't always free of conflict.  Besides, "aboriginal" has also acquired racist connotations ("primitive"?).  I think "native" has strong associations that are inseparable from its racist overtones, because despite our tendency to move around, human beings also like to feel tied to place.  "Native" can be a neutral term, especially when it's used as an adjective rather than a noun, but one must be on guard against its racist connotations.  The trouble is that for many people who use it (including the blogger I quoted), those racist connotations are part of its appeal.  I belong here, you don't.   I hold that wherever you feel you belong, you belong; but belonging doesn't entitle you to exclude the belonging of others.

What does this imply for the ongoing struggle of First Nations to preserve their cultures and lay claim to their lands?  I don't think any term is essential to these struggles, and I increasingly believe that "Native" was adopted partly for rather than despite its racist associations.  My objection to "Native" doesn't mean that I minimize the crimes committed during the European invasion of the Americas, or want to deny the validity of the claims American Indian activists are making; none of these matters hangs on one word.  But when your chosen terminology leads you to lie, as with "there's no such thing as a 'native White American,'" it's time to reappraise your terms.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Ancient, Glittering Eye of the Beholder

Sherman Alexie, the great American Indian poet and novelist, has an entertaining meditation on gay men in athletics at The Stranger, inspired of course by Jason Collins's coming-out.  One of the many things I like about Alexie is the ongoing presence of male-to-male desire and sexual expression in his work, alongside heterosexuality.  (His venture into filmmaking, The Business of Fancydancing, features a gay American Indian poet as protagonist.)  But something is a bit off in this piece.

Alexie begins:
As a straight-boy jock, I have been showering with large groups of naked men for decades. And these showers have not taken place in bathrooms where we straight men yell at one another from modest private stalls. No, we athletes clean ourselves in large, communal Roman gladiator bathhouses. My high-school locker room's showerheads were placed so that we boys soaped up while facing one another. And we did this soaping while standing two feet apart.

In other words, I, Sherman, a heterosexual lifelong basketball player, have seen a lot more cock and man-ass than many gay men.
This may well be true, though I'm not sure it has much to do with being a jock.  Gay non-jocks have taken PE classes all along, and as a group we've probably seen as much naked male flesh in communal showers as straight men have.  That may be changing as communal showers have given way to "modest private stalls," but that will also cut down the numbers for straight men, including athletes.  Have I mentioned before the time, around 1990, I was told by some college-age youths, former high-school swimmers, that they'd never seen each other naked -- they always showered in their swimsuits?  They were shocked, shocked! to learn that I and the other gay man on the panel grew up with communal showers for Phys. Ed. and the requirement that everybody shower naked.  American males seem to have become even shyer in the decades since then.

Alexie goes on to describe his sagging charms (he's in his late forties now), comparing them to the even more decrepit charms he still sees in the locker rooms: "mountainous guts that make my chubby belly look like a foothill. I see butt cheeks that look like two Sasquatches playing tennis. I recoil from feet so gnarled, hirsute, and abused that a hobbit would suggest a pedicure."

Then he raises the perennial question:
So why do certain homely straight men worry that gay men are even remotely interested in sexually harassing their concave asses? If strange women don't amass in large numbers to jump your bones, then why would packs of gay men hunger for you?
A commenter on the article took it further, remarking "the irony of the most ass-ugly, fat-greasy, Jabba the Hut looking guys thinking that Gay men are just lining up around the block to touch their booty."  Darling, hush your mouth!  Those ass-ugly, fat-greasy, Jabba the Hut looking guys are known in the gay community as Bears.  They have their own fan club, and they oppose resolutely the idea that only models and twinks are erotically desirable.

Anyway: first, this is irrelevant to the main theme of the article, namely Jason Collins and the NBA.  "If he does play in the NBA next year," Alexie opines, "I'm sure certain teammates might feel threatened by his presence in the locker room."  But those "certain teammates" are highly unlikely to be "homely," to have "concave asses" or "butt cheeks that look like two Sasquatches playing tennis."  On this logic it would be a reasonable inference that they have reason to feel threatened by a gay man in the locker room.  I don't think they do, but Alexie seems to think otherwise.

Second, the dismissal of other people's concerns about sexual assault on the grounds that they are too ugly to have anything to worry about has been challenged by feminism.  Many female rape victims have been told by police and prosecutors that they couldn't possibly have been raped because they're too old or fat or ugly or deformed for any man to bother with -- hell, they should thank the guy or gang who took pity on them and gave them some dick.

This is not to say that being eyed in the shower is equivalent to being raped, though traditional patriarchal notions of honor hold otherwise -- hence the veil, hence the chador, hence generations of Catholic schoolgirls (and -boys) being required to wear a covering in the bath so they won't be aroused by their own flesh.  It's only to say that dismissing another person as too repulsive to be desired by anybody says more about you than it does about the other person, and it doesn't speak well for you.

It seems to me that a better answer to the fear of the Homo in the shower is to point out that you can't know which men in any given group are gay or, more to the point, bisexual.  The openly gay jock may well find your chubby butt unappealing; the closeted married guy around whom you feel safe may be contemplating it with lust, and considering how you might best be seduced.  Or not.  That's the trouble, I suspect: the invisibility of other people's thoughts and desires.  I can tell you from my own experience that just because a man doesn't have an erection at the moment, it doesn't mean he couldn't muster one in the right circumstances, or that he wouldn't like to.

The fear of the Homo in the shower is the fear of men who don't want to know, don't want to be told, and don't want to think about it.  I'm reminded of the presumably straight online movie reviewer who lamented that, because of Brokeback Mountain, he could no longer watch the friendship of two young male animals in an animated film and consider their antics "completely innocent." Homosexuality, like so many things, is invisible until you know about it -- and then it's everywhere.

Like most people, I probably overgeneralize from my own experience.  I got over feeling exposed by nakedness in the locker room almost as soon as I first had to do it, in seventh grade.  I certainly noticed that some other boys were beautiful in my eyes, but I never felt compelled to jump any of them.  Only once, in more than twenty years, did my body betray me with an unwanted erection in front of others -- but I'd also noticed that straight guys got wood in the showers too, and joked about it, so I didn't worry about it; it didn't have to mean anything.  Later, when when I was running regularly in my late twenties, and had a locker at the university gym, it occurred to me that if every male who looked at other males in the showers was gay, there were no straight men.  Comparing oneself to others is probably unavoidable, and in areas where such comparison leads to feelings of inadequacy and shame, the comparison will often be done furtively rather than frankly.

No matter what you look like, there can be no guarantee that no one will ever admire your body in the locker room.  So you have to get over it.  This doesn't mean that gay men are entitled to treat their/our objects of desire rudely, but if we are just like straight guys, then some of us probably will.  As Alexie continues, on the subject of being hit on by other men: 
My first thought is "Men are boundaryless animals." My second thought is "Women have to deal with this shit all the time." My third thought is "How flattering." My fourth thought is "I wish this dude hitting on me was cuter."
Not bad, I guess, but "boundaryless animals"?  Why shouldn't people of either sex indicate their interest in those they're attracted to?  What boundaries does Alexie think we should have?  I think our boundaries should be consideration for others and trying to leave them lots of room to say No, or to say Yes.  I know this isn't all that easy in practice, but I'm not holding my breath until sex education includes sessions on the negotiation of erotic encounters.  Something like that would surely help, but some people of all sexes and all sexual orientations do have the rapist's mentality, a refusal to take No for an answer, so there are always going to be abuses.  What we need to focus on, I believe, is to find ways to minimize the abuses and treat each other well.  I must say I'm always amazed by those people (they usually seem to be men) who think that overt hostility and denigration is the way to get into someone's pants.  Maybe it works for them?  This is what makes it hard to generalize about unwanted sexual advances: they aren't always compliments, it isn't an honor to be desired by someone who thinks of copulation as a way of abasing and degrading his partner.  (Which is, let me stress, an unfortunately ancient and respectable view of copulation in Western culture at least.  But that's another post.)  But often such advances are compliments and should be received as such; and it's always permissible to turn them down.

The fear of the Homo in the shower, then, is more complicated than Alexie and many others believe.  One of the solutions is to teach people how to treat each other better where sex is concerned, but that's not acceptable to enough people to make it feasible.  A pity.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Quite a Character

I just finished reading Isherwood on Writing, Christopher Isherwood's lectures from the 1950s and 1960s, and it was entertaining stuff.  I don't think I learned much that was new from it: Isherwood recycled most of the anecdotes in his later published writing, such as Christopher and His Kind, or in interviews.  But it's still an entertaining read, and I envy those who were in the audiences for the original performances.

Not too surprisingly, I find Isherwood weakest when he talks about religion.  I don't consider Vedanta to be much of an improvement on Western religion.  If Agehananda Bharati is correct, Vedanta was influenced by Christianity, if only to react against it.  But that wouldn't matter if Isherwood made something interesting artistically out of his Vedanta; artists can and do make beauty out of junk.  But as with (for example) Madeleine L'Engle or C. S. Lewis, Isherwood's attempts to use his religion in his fiction ended up distorting the story and the characters.  At best, in A Single Man, Vedanta provided a frame for the character's life, a metaphor for his death.

In the lectures Isherwood is a bit more successful.  His vocation as a writer predated his religious conversion (or reversion), and that fact may have kept him grounded, since his lectures are mostly about writing from his own perspective.  One lecture is devoted to "The Writer and Religion," but in "What Is the Nerve of Interest in the Novel?" he talks about the double vision a writer (and a reader) must have:
In other words, ... however apparently sordid or distressing or tragic or grim the circumstances of a novel may be, underneath all of this there is a great lift of exhilaration in reading about it.  Let us try to think why this is so.  The saints have almost all been unanimous insofar as they've expressed themselves on the subject in saying that in some way which the rest of us can't understand everything is finally all right.  It is marvelous.

In one of the Hindu scriptures is the saying "In joy the universe was created, in joy it is sustained, in joy it dissolves."  Now of course on the level of our everyday experience this is a hard saying and seems to be an unfeeling saying, a saying which expresses a kind of indifference toward human suffering.  And what I meant to point out is that this is not at all the case.  But the fact remains that some of these great men of compassion and mercy did in fact, in the midst of terrible suffering which they were working all through their lives to alleviate, nevertheless rejoice.  There is a charming anecdote in the life of Ramakrishna of one of the wandering monks tho used to visit the temple at Dakshineswar on the Ganges, where he lived.  He used to come out of his cell twice a day and sit on the edge of the Ganges as though he were a spectator in the theater, and clap his hands and say, "Bravo! Excellent!" as though the whole universe were an enormous theatrical performance [65].
I think Isherwood would have done better to say that it is not necessarily the case that the saying he quotes expresses a kind of indifference toward human suffering -- not "not at all the case."  It depends on how it's used, and by whom.  Some teachers have used this doctrine specifically to express not merely indifference but callousness to human suffering -- that of other people, at least: they take their own very seriously, and report that the Universe agrees.  (Mother Teresa apparently took a similar view, but when she got sick she utilized all the soul-sucking materialistic resources of modern Western medicine.) 

In The Karma of Brown Folk (Minnesota, 2000), Vijay Prashad told how the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi -- probably still most famous as the Beatles' onetime guru -- viewed the poor.
In 1967, during the Summer of Love, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi gave a revealing press conference in New York City.  "The hungry of India, China, anywhere," he noted, "are lazy because of their lack of self-knowledge.  We will teach them to derive from within, and then they will find food." ...Some reporters found the Maharishi's statement to be unacceptable, and one asked, "Do we have to ignore the poor to achieve inner peace?"  The Yogi answered, "Like a tree in the middle of a garden, should we be liberal and allow the water to flow to other trees, or should we drink ourselves and be green?"  "But isn't this selfish?"  "Be absolutely selfish.  That is the only way to bring peace, to be selfish, and if one does not have peace, how is one to help others attain it?" [60-1]
The Maharishi was not unrepresentative of Hindu (or other) saints, from what I can tell.  I think statements like his should be borne in mind when reading Isherwood's "terrible suffering which they were working all their lives to alleviate."  I also remember how the Reverend Jesse Jackson defended himself against allegations of indifference to AIDS by explaining "that he had spent nights in AIDS hospices in Texas and California during his 1984 presidential campaign, a move he compared in symbolic value to the way Jesus just before his crucifixion, stayed with Simon the Leper" (Cathy Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics [Chicago, 1999], 347).

From the viewpoint of someone writing narrative, however, Isherwood was pointed in the right direction.  A novelist will probably write about bad people, and about terrible things that happen to innocent people.  In order to write good fiction,
it seems to me that the novelist works simultaneously on two levels and that he must, as it were, succeed and come through to us on both of these levels if he produces work of a first magnitude.  On the level of human suffering and struggle the novelist obviously has to be involved, engaged.  He has to mind that people suffer, he has to condemn the bad and rejoice in the good ... But, surely, in a great novel, there's something else again.  While all this struggle is going on the novelist is not only down there, covered with mud and blood, fighting and suffering with his characters, but he is also up above.  He is also the eternal, who looks down upon everything, and enjoys it.  Because, of course, in the world of art if something well done it is enjoyable.  One has to face the fact that the most dreadful descriptions of agonizing death are, artistically speaking, just as enjoyable as great love scenes or charming scenes of domestic happiness with children.  It is quite, quite immaterial.  This sense of joy, contact with life, can be related to any set of circumstances or characters you choose to name [66].
Though I basically agree with this, it reminds me of something I heard years ago in a philosophy class I audited.  The professor said that someone had suggested that when we speak of the goodness of God, we're talking not about moral goodness but technical goodness, as we might say that Shakespeare was a good playwright even though he wrote about murder, treason, and other immoral things.  He gave a reference, but I wasn't able to track it down.  The obvious objection I see to this suggestion is that it's false: when people (whether laypeople, clergy, or philosophers) talk about God's goodness, they almost always mean moral goodness. (Of course "moral goodness" also means "righteousness" or "justice" much of the time, which in Christian and some other traditions primarily involves the spectacular punishment of sinners, for the edification of the good.  This ought to be mitigated somewhat by the Christian doctrine that we are all sinners, but in practice those Christians who bay for blood on the sidelines never consider that they deserve the pitchforks and burning brimstone too.)

The world is not "an enormous theatrical performance."  For that matter, the creepy monk who clapped and cheered the show at the Ganges was not a spectator but part of the "show" himself; Alan Watts, who explicated a form of this doctrine, always understood that.  Is it useful, perhaps, to think of the universe as such a performance?  I don't think so; as I've said before, drawing on Peter DeVries's fiction, I'd much prefer that there is no one watching the horrors that happen in the world -- and not only to us -- than that there is a Cosmic Spectator, applauding or weeping as the story demands, but doing nothing about it.  Many people, I recognize, take the opposite view: it comforts them to think that God sits in Heaven, wiping away tears over their suffering but doing nothing about it.  Just his sympathy is enough for them, though they also pray for his intervention, inconsistently enough.

I think Isherwood had it backwards.  Gods are characters in the stories people invent about them.  Those stories are an enormous cycle of folk art, to which all believers contribute.  (And even non-believers: The poems I wrote thirty-odd years ago on Biblical and religious subjects were my additions to the canon, since as a human being and a product of Western "civilization" they are part of my heritage.)  We tell these stories, as we tell most stories, partly to create an imaginary world where "the good end happily, and the wicked unhappily; that is what fiction means"; partly to imagine how things might be better or might be worse, to put our wishes and fears into words in order to try and master them; and much more.  These stories, like any others, can be analyzed and criticized.  Believers generally want the stories of their tradition to be exempt from criticism, though retelling with adaptations is a form of criticism.  But they feel the same way about secular stories they love: they don't want them picked apart, though they'll happily trample on stories they dislike that other people value.  Nobody's stories are or should be exempt from criticism, and I've previously discussed my own bewilderment over the kinds of stories that many other people find edifying.

The relation between art and the world, reality and fantasy, is vexed and disputed.  It's not surprising that people should believe that because we can tell stories that resemble real experiences, that stories are themselves "real."  I don't propose to try to settle that here.  It's when people try to give stories priority, to imagine that they are real and the world is their shadow, that I object.

If I remember correctly (it has been years since I read Beyond Theology), Alan Watts explained that in Hindu doctrine the universe is the stories God tells himself for his own entertainment and edification, to scare and amuse himself, and he loses himself in them the better to suspend disbelief and be carried away by his stories -- even to the point that he forgets that they're his stories, and believes that they are "real."  I learned a lot from Watts, but here I think he too had it backwards.  What he described was human beings and the stories we tell, not the gods.  I suppose that's why his metaphor (or allegory?) worked as well as it does: mythopoesis, the making of myths, is a familiar activity, and we create the gods in our own image, so of course they'd do it too.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I Have a Strong Aversion to This

I've just begun reading Isherwood on Writing (Minnesota, 2007), which publishes lectures given by Christopher Isherwood at California universities in the 1950s and 1960s.  Compulsive that I am, I waded through the introductory material, and was brought up short by this statement in "Isherwood scholar" Claude J. Summers's foreword:
Clearly, the real subject here is not conformity but the abandonment of  Freud's tolerance toward homosexuality by his disciples; while Freud was skeptical of any attempt to "cure" homosexuality, many of his followers in the early 1950s and 1960s, such as Edmund Bergler, Charles W. Socarides, and Irving Bieber, became advocates of "aversion therapy," and other psychoanalytic attempts to change homosexuals into heterosexuals [xiv].
Aversion therapy is not a psychoanalytic practice, it's a behaviorist practice.  That may be a sectarian distinction, but it's not trivial.  Psychoanalysts and behaviorists represented completely different approaches to the mind, and detested each other cordially.  As I understand it, the behaviorist patriarch B. F. Skinner rejected aversion therapy on the ground that punishment doesn't work well, and distributing rewards is more effective at changing behavior.  But it appears that Summers doesn't know the difference.  Maybe he confused "aversion therapy" with "conversion therapy" or the current buzzword, "reversion therapy": the religion-based therapies which claim to change sexual orientation use an opportunistic mix of psychoanalytic theory and behaviorist methods -- but those ministries are a much later development, not relevant to the period Summers is talking about.  And it's not exactly ancient history, but then I forget how old I am.  Scholars are supposed to inform themselves about these things, however.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Small But Significant We

Continuing my project of rereading all her works, I just finished Marge Piercy's eighth novel, Fly Away Home (Summit Books, 1984).

When I was following these books as they were published, I thought that her novels alternated between so-so and brilliant.  I'm not so sure about that now.  Perhaps because I've become better informed about class, I now appreciate novels like The High Cost of Living more than I did the first time I read them.  Like many readers, I'd lazily pigeonholed Fly Away Home in memory as basically a romance novel, even though I also remembered its background of gentrification and the politics of real estate.

Fly Away Home is the story of Daria Walker (née Porfirio) a forty-three-year-old housewife and author of cookbooks, the mother of two grown daughters, married to a successful Boston lawyer.  Though she initially embraced domesticity, she stumbled onto her second career as a writer and become quite successful at it.  As the novel opens, she feels like a success: a happy woman in love with her husband who loves her back.  Of course things immediately begin to unravel, as she encounters some angry working-class activists who blame her husband for the deterioriating conditions of the houses and apartments they rent, and for a suspicious string of fires that have killed at least one person.  They also blame her, though as far as she knows those properties have nothing to do with her.  Then she begins to suspect that her husband is having an affair with another woman. When her suspicions are confirmed and he leaves her, she falls in with the activists, learning how to research her husband's real estate dealings.  At first she does so to improve her position in the divorce settlement, because her husband does his best to keep her ignorant of his finances, which are also hers.  But when she discovers how shady his real-estate dealings really are, she gradually becomes politicized and consequently becomes romantically involved with one of the activists, a carpenter named Tom Silver who shares her working-class background and her upwardly-mobile aspirations, but also has a background of leftist politics.  In the process she finds community among the activists in a neighborhood much like the one she grew up.

So yes, there are elements of romance here.  But they're interwoven with the politics.  (I suspect that any fiction by a female writer with a love interest will tend to be read as romance, whatever else is going on in it.)  Daria's ex-husband's personal failings are likewise connected to his abandonment of his original ideals of public service, and his embrace of predatory capitalism.  At the same time she's becoming involved with Tom, she also takes in another activist, a young Puerto Rican graduate student and single mother who's been burned out of her apartment, and builds a new household with her and her daughter much more readily than she embraces her coupling with Tom.  Her career as a writer and cooking teacher was already established before these changes in her life, and gives her something to fall back on to support herself as her husband withdraws from her.

It occurred to me as I read that Fly Away Home is a mystery novel, with a political difference.  Even strongly feminist mystery writers like Sara Paretsky tend to protagonists who fit the individualist mold of the genre: lone wolves who solve cases by themselves, whose helpers and informants are part of the furniture rather than full participants in the detection.  But Daria joins a group of people who haunt the city's property records, tracing ownership of the buildings they live in to discover who is responsible for the deteriorating infrastructure, to say nothing of the murderous fires either welcomed or actively set to collect insurance money and drive out lower-income tenants.  Daria is the protagonist and viewpoint character, but she comes late to the research and is never at its center: the other activists are just as important, and teach her the detective skills she uses.

Fly Away Home is primarily a good read.  It starts off slowly to build Daria's backstory, but rapidly picks up steam.  Even though I remembered the outcome pretty well, I kept picking it back up to go on reading when I should have been doing other things, like writing this blog.  Its politics, as usual with Piercy's work, are still timely, and nonfiction books like Samuel Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) and Sarah Schulman's The Gentrification of the Mind (2012) cover some of the same territory.

Next will be Piercy's humongous historical novel of World War II, Gone to Soldiers, and its associated book of poems, Available Light.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Queen of Queens

Sometimes I think that all aspiring anthropologists should have to do an ethnography of their own communities before they're turned loose on other societies.  It has been an ongoing complaint of mine that so many writers compare non-Western homosexualities to an imaginary mental model of gay life in the West, especially the US.

This happens even when these writers' subject is a Western society like Mexico.  (Or Mississippi, for that matter.)  In Flaming Souls: Homosexuality, Homophobia, and Social Change in Barbados (University of Toronto Press, 2012), David A. Murray does it even though he acknowledges that Barbados -- an English-speaking independent Caribbean state -- is Western, or at least not non-Western.  The antigay bigotry he documents is thoroughly Western, in fact Christian.  (As Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita observed about India, the people who denounce homosexuality like to "associate homosexuality with the West. ... On the other hand, they draw on Western sources to legitimize their homophobia.")  He therefore relies on the imperial metropole/colony binary, though he cites Ann Stoler to the effect that "imperial formations are unlike empires in that they are processes of becoming; they are fixed things" (115), and he claims:
From the days of the plantation to the present there have been multiple, fluid, and shifting social, economic, and moral practices operating in Barbados, affecting hegemonic discourses of respectable citizenship, so that these discourses do not sit in as stable a position as they do in settler states like the United States, where the moral codification of white heteropatriarchy has established a stranglehold on sociopolitical and economic order [115-6].
Well, no, I don't think so.  I don't agree that hegemonic discourses of respectable citizenship are stable in the United States,  They're always prone to slippage, because whiteness for example is a highly unstable category, which is constantly being renegotiated.  So is manhood, which is always in crisis.  That the US is a settler state has nothing to do with it.  Empires are "processes of becoming," not "fixed things."  I haven't read Stoler, so I don't know if Murray is representing her views accurately.

Murray also claims that antigay bigotry in Barbados is connected to other, perhaps larger social forces.
Specifically, I argue that it is no coincidence that homosexuality was increasingly debated in public contexts at this historical juncture because Barbados faced major social and economic challenges in its marginal position relative to other international political and economic alliances ... These realignments (or potential realignments) of political and economic power were bringing about significant changes in the socio-economic fabric of life of many Bajans, resulting in what some observers claimed was a submissive, subordinated, or 'feminized' (defined through a heteropatriarchal lens) economy.  Like many other societies, Barbados was also going undergoing rapid technological changes through the increasing presence of computer, television, and mobile communication technologies, which in turn linked Barbadians to multiple, globally circulating ideas, values, and identities relating to sexuality [9].
No doubt this is true, but the same is true of an imperial settler society like the United States.  There was a sharp rise in antigay bigotry here after World War II, associated with very similar "challenges."  And as Sarah Schulman reminded us in Stagestruck (Duke, 1998, p. 124), "Historically, dominant people have always been comfortable with the idea of oppressed people as secretly powerful. The easiest example, of course, is how for almost two thousand years, dominant groups of various stripes have convinced themselves that they were ruled over by a secret cabal of Jews."  Even as the US has imposed its will on much of the world, it still has imagined itself as a pitiful helpless giant, pushed around by its critics and enemies.  Maybe Murray does well to stress these factors in Barbadian life, but since he seems to think that they aren't relevant in the US, he gives a misleading impression.  The same difficulty arises in his discussion of "rights."

These matters are more about history and cultural theory, however.  I was startled when Murray expressed his confusion at the way some of his gay Barbadian informants spoke about themselves, for example:
Throughout our conversations Darcy would interchangeably refer to himself as gay and a queen, which confused me at the time based on my understandings of these terms derived from my experiences as a white, North American, gay-identified male.  In North America gay and transgendered communities are popularly thought of as distinct groups based on their different sexual and gendered orientations ... At this time I thought Darcy's usage of these terms indicated the possibility of at least two or more queer communities existing in Barbados, transgender and gay or lesbian, and that perhaps [he] was telling me that [he] felt comfortable in both groups [65].
My understanding as a white, North American, gay-identified male is different, though it may be out of date.  In the predominantly white college-town gay community in which I made my debut in the early 1970s, "queen" was a generic term for gay men.  One sign of this was the use of "queen" qualified by various modifiers -- chicken queen, opera queen, trade queen, theater queen, danger queen, etc. -- that indicated an individual's quirks and fetishes, not all of them erotic.  Drag (female impersonation) wasn't seen as a transgender phenomenon but a part of gay life, however much it bothered many public-relations-minded homosexuals, and as far as I can tell it still is: Miss Gay IU pageants were annual events in my community until the past few years, when financial woes brought them to an end for the time being.  "Transgender" is a relatively recent category, and it has led to a lot of confusion over who qualifies and who doesn't.

In larger cities, there are enough people to generate specialized segments of the community, so that a young gay man like Murray can perhaps go for years without meeting queeny individuals, and might come to imagine that "gay" refers exclusively to gender-compliant gay males, with everyone else being "transgender" and not "gay."  But I really doubt it.  I immediately think of Seventies clones, one of whom told the gay sociologist Martin Levine, "Darling, beneath all this butch drag, we are still girls."  (Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Holleran's classic novel of the gay Manhattan disco scene of the Sixties and Seventies, depicts this world and mentality very well.)  And then I think of the high-end real estate agent Robby Browne, who celebrated his achievement as Corcoran's 2007 salesperson of the year by putting on a drag show starring himself and a dozen Broadway chorus boys.

No, someone hasn't been paying attention to the community he's been living in.  And once again I wonder how this book found its way into print without one of the many fellow-academics thanked in the Acknowledgements pointing out these misunderstandings.

P.S. Which doesn't mean Flaming Souls isn't worth reading.  Like many academics, Murray gives good research, and his account of Barbadian gay life is engaging.  I especially enjoyed his story, in chapter 6, of the "Jamaican invasion": some Barbadian queens go to Jamaica on vacation and bring some Jamaican men back with them.  (Sexual tourism also works horizontally, you see: between the colonized nations, as well as vertically.)  Hilarity ensues when the Jamaicans turns out not to be as different from their shiftless, no-account Barbadian counterparts as the queens had hoped.  Besides, unlike many academics, Murray actually understands most of the theoretical jargon he must use, and his discussion of political and economic factors is well done.  The problem, as I said, is his faulty picture of gay life in the US.