Monday, September 30, 2013

Power to the People -- The Right People, I Mean

Here's another useful bit from Lawrence W. Levine's The Opening of the American Mind, which I'm very glad I decided to reread:
Critics of the contemporary university have maintained that for too many professors there is no longer any "objective" truth; everything has become subjective.  "An increasingly influential view," Lynn Cheney charged in 1992, "is that there is no truth to tell.  What we think of as truth is merely a cultural construct, serving to empower some and oppress others.  Since power and politics are part of every quest for knowledge -- so it is argued -- professors are perfectly justified in using the classroom to advance political agendas" [158].
Levine has his own answer to Cheney's accusation, but I want to go off in another direction.  I thought that conservatives (which means not only people like the Cheney crime family but academics like Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) thought -- hell, insisted -- that it's not only perfectly correct but highly desirable to use the classroom to advance political agendas, as long as the agenda advanced is the celebration of American might, righteousness, and exceptionalism.  I'm almost tempted to find a copy of Cheney's screed (Telling the Truth: A Report on the State of the Humanities in Higher Education [Washington DC: National Endowment for the Humanities, September 1992) and read Cheney's complaint in context.  Surely she wouldn't want our students to be denied proper indoctrination -- oops, I mean "instruction," of course! -- in Our Country's greatness?  That is what our schools are for, isn't it?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Greeks Had a Word For It

Recently there circulated reports that some Salvation Army official had said that "Gays Need to Be Put to Death", which were duly referenced on Facebook.  Then a friend posted a link to the evaluation of the reports by, who found the claims to be "a mixture" of truth and falsehood.  It turned out that an Australian Salvation Army Media Relations Director, Major Andrew Craibe, had the following exchange with a radio interviewer.
RYAN: If I go and read that [Handbook of Doctrine], and I connect with my [homo]sexuality, then that says, according to the Salvation Army, that I deserve death.  How do you respond to that, as part of your doctrine?

CRAIBE: Well, that's a part of our belief system.

RYAN: So, we should die.

CRAIBE: Well, we have an alignment, but that's our belief.
I don't think it's just "according to" the Salvation Army that Romans 1:26-32 says that men who lust after and have sex with other men (not "gays" or "homosexuals") deserve to die: the text says so, quite explicitly, just as Leviticus 18:22 requires the death penalty for sexual relations between males.  Paul's remarks should be read in context, however, for he also says that
29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,
30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,
31 Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:
32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.
Which gives us homos plenty of company at the gallows, or on the chair, in the gas chamber, or in the burning lake of fire -- whatever.  It would include many if not most Christians.  I'll see you in Hell, bitchez!

Before anyone objects that I'm being literalistic here, I submit that a little healthy literalism is useful when dealing with the Bible, since it means paying attention to what the text actually says.  What it means is another matter, open to a great deal of dispute, and has been for thousands of years.  In this case, I don't see that Paul was even directly calling for the execution of such people, though he might well have desired it.  After all, in Paul's (and later orthodox Christian) theology, everybody is "worthy of death," because all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God, yadda yadda yadda.  So I don't feel singled out here.

On the other hand, it is open to debate whether the offenses Paul enumerates really do deserve death, even the death by "natural" (that is, God-ordained) causes that most human beings succumb to -- let alone the spiritual "death" by torment in Hellfire that Christianity fantasizes about.  And it's a legitimate question besides, whether people who identity themselves as Christians, whether they accept the authority of the Bible or not, should be challenged on why they align themselves with a tradition that has such values.  As Antony Flew (I think -- I must track down the exact reference) once remarked, if anything at all can be known to be wrong, it is to condemn anyone to eternal torture for any reason.  Since Major Craibe and the Salvation Army generally refuse to separate himself from such a tradition, they're open to criticism; they can't simply pretend that they are stuck with whatever is in the Bible, especially since they don't accept its mandate for the execution of men who have sex with each other.  What is the difference between disobeying God's command to kill sodomites, and denying that sex between males is a sin at all?  In for a penny, in for a pound.  "It's part of my belief system" isn't an excuse; it's an abdication of responsibility.

The Snopeses went on to note that "interpretations of the referenced portion of Romans vary widely, with various theologians and writers arguing that it condemns anything from homosexuality to child sexual abuse to all non-procreative sex."  This is true, but it hardly lets the Salvation Army off the hook, though it also affects any other interpreters, including pro-gay ones.  Where the treatment of other real-world people is involved, let alone one's eternal destiny, it's not enough to point out that interpretations vary.  Why should I take anyone's interpretation of this, or any other Biblical passage, seriously?  Liberal Christians think that they deserve points for sidestepping troublesome Bible teachings because their interpretation is possible.  Anything is possible, but is it likely?

The Snopeses linked to a site of interpretations of the "referenced portion of Romans", to support their relativism on this matter.  I clicked through to see what sort of stuff it included.  The site appears to include any and all interpretations, whether they're well-argued or not.  Mostly they're not, though I can't be sure whether the incoherence is due to the interpreters or to those at the site who paraphrased them.  My favorite was this one:

The passage may refer to child sexual abuse:

Some interpret the "men...with other men" clause to be a translation of the original Greek word for "pederasty" which was commonly practiced at the time by adult males with male children (often slaves). Thus Paul might have been criticizing child sexual abuse.
This is marvelous in its own small, daffy way.  The "original Greek word for 'pederasty'" is, basically, "pederasty" -- paiderastes, or 'lover of boys.'  I can't tell whether whoever wrote this reference thought that Paul's original Greek text included "the original Greek word" which was translated sloppily into English, or whether Paul wasn't writing in Greek and so had to translate "the original Greek word" into some other language (Hebrew, maybe?), or what.  If Paul had wanted to condemn pederasty, he could simply have used the word.  Unlike "homosexuality," or even "sodomy," it was one of the current words in his day.  Or he might, like some other early Christian writers, have referred to "them that corrupt [or abuse] boys" or some such.  He didn't: he wrote about males who, "leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet."  This sounds much more like the supposedly modern, "egalitarian" conception of homosexuality, where what matters is that both participants have male bodies, not the roles they play in the sexual act, than it sounds like pederasty.

(Bonus fun fact: some modern interpreters have suggested that "that recompense of their error which was meet" referred to some venereal disease.  Maybe so, maybe not, but I doubt it.  In context, Paul probably meant that they eventually died, like everybody else, which was God's punishment for Adam's sin.  But it's possible; who knows for sure?)

The interpretation right after this one is that Paul was condemning all non-procreative sex.  It has no basis in the text except for a confused and ahistorical understanding of Paul's "against nature." 

Oh! Oh!  I have to include the next one:

The passage may refer to dominant/submissive relationships

... Thus, Paul may be writing of men involved in dominant/submissive relationships and/or of heterosexuals involved in sex with male youths. Neither has any connection to modern-day, consensual, committed same-sex adult relationships.
First, modern "dominant/submissive relationships" are consensual: the partners consent to play out certain stereotyped, ritualized dramas of dominance and submission, obedience and discipline.  Whether such relations occurred in the ancient Mediterranean world, no one knows, and there's no reason to believe that Paul was sophisticated enough about human sexuality, even in his own historical/cultural terms, to understand them.  Second, Paul (like most ancients and most religious teachers down to the present) was in favor of dominant/submissive relationships.  He did not consider heterosexual marriage to be a bond between equals, but between a dominant husband and a submissive wife.  All human relationships for Paul were modeled on a dominant God/submissive believer model; as he says explicitly, a woman's head is man, a man's head is Christ, and Christ's head is God.  I know of no evidence that Jesus was any more interested in egalitarianism than Paul was.  And so on.  The Stupid -- It Burns!  In Hell.

The Very Purpose of School

Writing may be even worse than reading.  It takes very little time to notice and buy (or check out) a book that looks interesting, but it takes hours to read it.  It takes even longer to write a book or a blog post than it takes to read it.  I've got twenty-seven posts in my drafts folder now, and it would be longer if I hadn't simply deleted some of them as lost causes.  (I'm also carrying around some ideas in my head that haven't gotten as far as the drafts folder, but I still intend to write about them.)  If I finish this one today, there will be only twenty-six.   I'm making progress.

A couple of interesting articles went up at the Atlantic last week -- well, two weeks ago now -- and while I doubt the writers had consulted each other, their subject matter overlapped in a significant way.  I meant to write about this right away, and then my Right Wing Acquaintance Number One linked to one of the articles on Facebook, but then I was getting ready to go out of town for the weekend, so once again I'm behind.

The first article I read was Amanda Ripley's "The Case Against High-School Sports."  The lede reads, "The United States routinely spends more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student—unlike most countries worldwide. And we wonder why we lag in international education rankings?"  The trouble is, the US doesn't really "lag in international education rankings."  We aren't Number One, which is of course vitally important to many people, but we do quite well given our general lack of interest in matters intellectual, and the hostility to public education among our political elites.

Ripley begins by telling us about a fifteen-year-old Korean girl whose family moved to the US two years ago.  She's bemused by the prominence of sports, especially extramural sports, in her new high school.  A great deal of "education" money is spent on sports, facilities for sports, and support for teams that compete with the teams of other schools.
By contrast, in South Korea, whose 15-year-olds rank fourth in the world (behind Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong) on a test of critical thinking in math, Jenny’s classmates played pickup soccer on a dirt field at lunchtime. They brought badminton rackets from home and pretended there was a net. If they made it into the newspaper, it was usually for their academic accomplishments.

Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else. Yet this difference hardly ever comes up in domestic debates about America’s international mediocrity in education. (The U.S. ranks 31st on the same international math test.) The challenges we do talk about are real ones, from undertrained teachers to entrenched poverty. But what to make of this other glaring reality, and the signal it sends to children, parents, and teachers about the very purpose of school?
These are good questions, but the way Ripley frames the issue makes me suspicious.  She doesn't name the "test on critical thinking on math" which ranks South Korea fourth, and the US thirty-first.  But those rankings shouldn't be taken at face value.  It sounds like Ripley might have been referring to the tests the late Gerald Bracey dissected here, particularly the Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA.  (I also found this commentary, which rebuts Bracey with an anecdote and a rhetorical question.)  There's too much information in that article for me to quote it, so I'll just urge interested readers to click through and read it.  If you find it useful, try this one as well, and then this one.  But the gist is that international comparisons based on average scores on standardized tests aren't worth very much, except as grist for alarmist attacks on public education.  But that's okay, we must maintain our international competitiveness: without world-class alarmist attacks on public education, America will forfeit its right to be a world leader.

This doesn't mean, of course, that I favor the current emphasis on sports, in schools at any level or in American society generally.  This is where I agreed with RWA1, who denounced the mandatory pep sessions in his high school: I also tried to get out of attending them and when that failed, refused to participate.  I've never gone to an IU football or basketball game, not on principle but because I just don't give a damn; indeed, I would prefer that IU lose all its games, and wish there were some way that its competitors could lose all of theirs.  (Just today, I read an interesting bit in Lawrence W. Levine's The Opening of the American Mind [Beacon Press, 1996]: the literature professor Lionel Trilling "surmised that the problem of diminishing social homogeneity and unity was behind Columbia's restoration of football in 1915, in 'an effort to create the sense of collegiate solidarity among the students" [59].)   I also remember seeing a rash of student op-eds in the IU newspaper some years ago, which declared that extramural sports were important, because "students need something to cheer for," which doesn't make much sense but fits with Trilling's speculation.

Then there's this report of a California high school that "awesomely crown[ed a] trans girl Homecoming Queen."  I'm sorry, but I just cannot get very excited about this historic breakthrough: not because I don't sympathize with trans girls, but because Homecoming Queen competitions are another aspect of American school life that needs to be abolished.  Becoming the first trans Homecoming Queen, as a life goal, is like becoming the first trans Heather -- though that milestone has probably already been passed too: no achievement to be proud of.  (This article appeared on a pop-feminist site that ordinarily would be sharply critical of beauty pageants; why did they change their tune when a trans girl wins one?)  But I digress.

Ripley's article was probably written as a companion to an article in the print version of the magazine, Hilary Levey Friedman's "When Did Competitive Sport Take Over American Childhood?"  That's a good question, but Friedman doesn't really answer it.  Less obviously related, until I read it, was a post by James Fallows: "What the CEO of Facebook Has in Common with a Michigan School Administrator."  It was built around the eponymous gentlemen's agreement on the matter of immigration reform.  Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress that he came to support immigration reform not because of "the usual (and correct) tech-world argument that U.S. companies do better, and so does the U.S. as a whole, if America continues to attract and welcome an outsized share of the world's talent."  Rather, his Road-to-Damascus moment came
after he began doing volunteer-teacher work in a local public school. He found that one of his best students wasn't interested in going to college, not for any academic reasons but because of a legal barrier. The student's parents had made their way to the U.S. illegally when he was little. He grew up here and sounded and looked like other American students. But because of his undocumented/illegal status, he would not be eligible for admission to most colleges or for financial aid if he did get in. As Zuckerberg learned, this limbo affects a lot of students who are already in America, whose only legal transgression was to have been brought here when little, but whose gray-zone status keeps them from taking a major step toward future employability.
Funny thing here, though: although Zuckerberg protested, perhaps too much, that he didn't want immigration laws to be changed so as to get more international talent on his payroll, his argument seems to have circled back to just that point.  And there are problems with that.  Not because it isn't heartbreaking that young people who grew up in the US are being excluded not only from higher education but from many other important aspects of American life; of course it is. It's because it isn't just about their "employability."

After all, it's likely that as US citizens, these kids will be unattractive to many American employers anyway, because they'll cost too much.  One reason why American businessmen are calling for "immigration reform" is so that they can import highly-qualified college graduates, who were probably trained at the expense of the governments and therefore of the taxpayers in their home countries, on special visas for lower pay.  Guest workers, despite their legal immigration status, are still highly vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment by their employers.  All this reinforces my sense that competition and the "competitiveness" that our wise leaders love to stress is harmful, not only to this country but to others.  It siphons from other countries the trained people they need to make better lives for the people who remain at home, after their governments have paid for their education, either at home or in the US and Europe.

But the specter of "employability" also raises questions that have always been contentious in discussions about education.  What is the purpose of a college education?  Is it to make its graduates "employable" in giant corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, the financial sector, and so on?  It's a pious commonplace that education is not supposed to prepare students for employment, but to make them better, wiser, more rounded, citizens.  This kind of education isn't practical in the sense that would interest a captain of industry, but it's certainly practical in terms of dealing with business and with government, to ask not simply how to do things but why we do them, and then how to do something else if that seems desirable.

Just about everybody pays lip service to this ideal, but much of the discussion of higher education today focuses -- sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly -- on whether there's any point in going to college if it won't land you a better job when you graduate. And I fully agree that it's important to be able to support yourself when you reach adulthood.  But should schools and universities serve primarily as vocational schools for future employees at the public expense?  Why shouldn't big corporations train their own workers, at their own expense?

There's a lot of discussion and handwringing over skyrocketing student debt (desirable from the employers' point of view, so that employees will be afraid to lose their jobs for fear they won't be able to keep up their loan payments), and the more visible problem of unpaid internships (also desirable from the employers' viewpoint, all that yummy free labor -- contrary to the principles of free-market economics, most employers have never been able to see why workers shouldn't donate their services gratis rather than demanding to be paid for their time), and rightly so, but it misses the point.  Why should (merely potential) employees be paying to get the training that might get them a job?  If education were merely supposed to pasture and improve students' minds, they wouldn't be racking up debt in such amounts to get it; I imagine that there would be a good deal less demand for higher education in that case, but at least there'd be less confusion as to why students were seeking it.  And those who weren't interested in it should be trained in explicitly vocational programs, after they are hired.  (Some years ago a spectacularly foul person complained online that American schools are worthless, because a cashier at the drug store didn't recognize a newly-minted US coin.  But how could any school teach its students to recognize money that didn't exist yet?  The schools hadn't failed -- it was the management of the drug store.)

So I don't think I believe Mark Zuckerberg's professed reasons for his interest in immigration reform.  But just as good education doesn't mean supplying American business with job-ready workers, immigration reform isn't primarily (or at all?) about the future employability of young immigrants.  Well-educated, thoughtful graduates might be less interested in joining a corporate "family," after all.  Amanda Ripley's article is built on the same confusion about the purpose of education, expressed in confusion about the impact of school-based athletics on education.  (I think corporations -- which are often sponsors of sport at all levels -- would see sport's solidarity-building as a good thing.)  And come on, James Fallows: why should other countries care if "U.S. companies do better, and so does the U.S. as a whole, if America continues to attract and welcome an outsized share of the world's talent" -- especially at their expense?

Let me go back for a moment to the rhetorical question with which one writer rebutted (but didn't refute) Gerald Bracey's critique of international comparison testing.  After repeating an anecdote about a Chinese classroom in which a foreign visitor was dazzled by 40 students who explained "how to demonstrate two lines are parallel without using a proportional segment”, the writer asked: "Ask yourself two questions: Wouldn’t you want American kids to know geometry that well? Wouldn’t you want them disciplined and paying attention in class?"  My answer would be more questions:  Why would I want American kids to know geometry that well?  What else would they be learning in school besides geometry?  Could the author of this article explain that theorem?  Since I presume he couldn't, does he feel that he's uneducated, and can't get through life successfully as a result?  And does he think that "discipline" is the essence of education?  That article embodies a lot of what is wrong with the debate on schooling in America.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

There Are Elitists, and Then There Are Elitists

My Right Wing Acquaintance was playing the populist on Facebook again today, which was entertaining as always because he's almost as blatantly unconvincing in the part as George W. Bush: "the pathetic defense of Western 'ideals' expounded by the intellectual elite and the pitiful symbolic acts they take to assert them" and blah blah blah.  (Elsewhere he said that Greenpeace "talks out of its arse"; let him who is without a talking anus cast the first stone, RWA1.)  Remember, on alternate days this salt-of-the-earth common-clay-of-the-New-West Man of the People quotes sages who warn that "the turbulence of the mob is always close to insanity."

I had this in mind when I started rereading Lawrence W. Levine's The Opening of the American Mind (Beacon Press, 1996), something I've been meaning to do for some time now, and noticed this nugget:
After reading Plato's Symposium, a student came to Allan Bloom "with deep melancholy and said it was impossible to imagine that magic Athenian atmosphere reproduced."  Bloom assured him that such experiences "are always accessible ... right under our noses, improbable but always present."  But only for a small elite [12].
This is why cultural conservatives are so confused.  On one hand, works like the Symposium are canonical, the benchmarks of civilization (I was going to write "Western civilization," but that would be redundant to this mindset), signposts to the "community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers ... the true friends, as Plato was to Aristotle" (ibid.) in Bloom's words; but on the other hand, these materials must be used with care, lest the unsophisticated young be led astray.  Consider the Symposium from the point of view of one of today's Cultural Right: a drinking party -- indeed, an orgy -- composed of a pack of child-molesting homosexuals, trying to disguise their unnatural lusts in high-flown philosophical gasbaggery and Sophism, right down to a Queer-Theoretical myth in which heterosexuality and homosexuality are put on an equal footing.

And all this in honor of a dirty old man who eventually had to be executed by respectable citizens (after a trial by his peers) for impiety and corrupting Athenian youth!  (Bear in mind that the Symposium, like all of Plato's dialogues, was written after the execution of Socrates, and was meant to rehabilitate him and carry on his legacy.)  One of the most debased and corrupted of his minions boasted of how he had offered his body to the old lecher, only to be turned down -- so he said, but they spent the night together under the same cloak.  Even many cultural liberals prefer not to think about the circumstances of the Symposium, I think, sweeping its pederastic context under the rug.  If such a gathering were discovered today, it would surely provoke a scandal, and Socrates would have to drink the hemlock again.

P.S. Some readers might be wondering along the lines of "What about the good old days, when college students studied Greek and Latin and would have read Plato in the original?"  The short answer is that by and large they didn't.  Levine wrote:
Fortunately, we can can turn directly to the students he [James Atlas] envies who, while they did indeed read the "classics" in the original Greek and Latin, read them not as works of literature but as examples of grammar, the rules of which they studied endlessly and by rote. James Freeman Clark, who received his Harvard A.B. in 1829, complained, "No attempt was made to interest us in our studies. We were expected to wade through Homer as though the Iliad were a bug ... Nothing was said of the glory and grandeur of this immortal epic. The melody of the hexameter was never suggested to us." Henry Adams proclaimed his years at Harvard from 1854 to 1858 "wasted" and exclaimed in his autobiography: "It taught little, and that little ill ... Beyond two or three Greek plays, the student got nothing from the ancient languages" [16].
In E. M. Forster's early 20th century novel Maurice there's a scene in a Cambridge University Greek class.  (It's in the Merchant-Ivory movie adaptation too.)  The students are orally translating some ancient text into English, and the Don instructs them to "Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks."  Students with a personal interest in that "vice" worked out their understanding of such things on their own.  The educational establishment walked a narrow line between reverence for the classics and hostility to their contents.

Do We Have His Back?

You know what it means, don't you, when President Obama announces (and his fans echo him) that this time the gloves are off, he's through putting up with these Republican obstructionists, there will be no prisoners and no negotiations!!!!!!   It means that he's busy preparing to cave in and give his opponents what they want.  Not that it makes much difference, since as Whatever It Is I'm Against It put it (via) so pithily, "It's pretty much always Obama's working assumption that he will lose any fight.  And then, funnily enough, he does."

Last night I said as much, when an old friend linked to this story on Facebook and declared stoutly, "In this I am fully behind the President."  He replied that I'm "so cynical," and then expanded on that theme, in tropes taken wholesale from inspirational memes:
Cynicism is the easy way out, even lazy. True, cynicism is born out of frustration but hope can lead to greater things. Cynicism is always a dead end.
I won't bother debating whether I'm cynical; of course I am.  But I'm also being fully realistic, based on Obama's past performance; he's been depressingly consistent.  And as I asked my friend, is it "cynical" to point to the Republicans' record?  My friend, like most of the Obama apologists I know, loves liberal-site memes that compare the GOP's performance to the Democrats'; often the comparisons are even accurate.  But his own team is off-limits: you must judge them by their pretty talk and their promises, not by their deeds.  And that, I would argue, is real cynicism, given Obama's record of the past several years, including his time in the Senate.

I'd also argue that the function and the purpose of my friend's rhetoric, which he gets from the Obama organization (borrowed from time-dishonored party politics), is to prevent "greater things" from being aspired to, sought, organized for, demanded, fought for.  We are supposed to allow ourselves to want only what President Obama, Blessed Be He, is willing to give us.  If he fails to deliver even that, as has generally been the case, it's always someone else's fault: the GOP obstructionists, the Professional Left, those of his base who sat at home instead of mobilizing themselves in his support.  This line is finally wearing thin, thanks to Obama's sheer mean-spirited excess: the NSA revelations, the warmongering about Syria.

But who knows?  I might be wrong this time.  I wouldn't mind in the least if I were, though what Obama actually wants is not necessarily a good thing.  He still wants to cut Social Security benefits, for example, and in keeping with the non-existent recommendations of his Bowles-Simpson commission he wants to cut "the deficit" even more, as long as only social programs are gutted.

There They Go Again!

Speaking of the cult of personality, I've noticed that some people have been trying to give President Obama all the credit for de-escalating of superpower hostilities in Syria.  He went to Congress with the question of whether to bomb Syria!  He proved that diplomacy is better than war!

Never mind that Obama only went to Congress after a popular and Congressional uproar over his bellicosity -- and then he couldn't get the support he wanted for an attack, so he let it be known that if he wanted to, he'd kill Syrians without Congressional approval.  The national conversation on Syria erupted without his initiative and, indeed, against his wishes.  Luckily, Vladimir Putin saved him by getting Assad's regime to agree to get rid of their chemical weapons.  (Assad will still have plenty of other weapons to kill Syrians with, of course.)

As far as I've seen, the Obama administration itself hasn't been rewriting the recent history of his policy on Syria; it's been free-lance PR people among his devotees.  (See the comments under this article, this comment for example:
Obama has very strong political skills. Diplomacy is always better means to resolve a problem than war. No shots have been fired and there is a binding resolution today by the UN security council to recover and destroy all Syrian chemical weapons...if this is not a strong political and diplomatic skill by the Obama administration, please tell me what you expect.
Maybe this person believes that Obama was playing eleven-dimensional chess again: he never really intended to bomb Syria, he just threatened to do so as a kind of civics lesson to Congress and to American citizens generally -- even to Vladimir Putin.  Congress would never have asserted its Constitutional war powers if Obama hadn't pretended to defy them!  Americans would never have questioned the use of war over diplomacy if Obama hadn't pretended to want to attack Syria!  Putin wouldn't have cooperated with Obama to get rid of Syria's chemical weapons if POTUS hadn't fooled him!  (Seriously: another commenter wrote that Obama "just snookered Vladimir Putin and Bashar al Assad to work out an agreement under the auspices of the UN to turn over their chemical weapons, without a single military dollar being spent."  [P.S.: "their chemical weapons"?])

The discipline of their memories is ... impressive.  They don't even need Obama's instructions to know when and how to magnify his name.  Now, that is faith that the Son of Man would envy.

This episode reminded me of something that happened thirty years ago, during the administration of Obama's hero Ronald Reagan.  I've quoted it before, from Mark Green and Gail MacColl's There He Goes Again: Ronald Reagan's Reign of Error (Pantheon, 1983), page 89: 
During the 1982 election campaigns, the Republican TV advertisement showed a white-haired mailman delivering July's Social Security Check, which contained an automatic cost-of-living increase in benefits.  "President Reagan kept his promise to the American people," the ad proclaimed.
In fact, Reagan opposed the increase in Congress, which passed it anyway.  Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) chairman of the House Committee on Aging, said that for Reagan to claim credit for the increase "lowers the art of deception to depths not explored since the Nixon Administration" (New York Times, 7/7/82) [p. 89].
But again, this Orwellian rewriting of history came from the Republican campaign machine.  Obama's fans outdo Reagan: they spontaneously and independently manufacture falsehoods to glorify their Leader.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Just Asking

In Thursday's post I put in this aside:
I imagine some readers will criticize me for "asking" these young women to be flaming queer militants and write Politically Correct song lyrics that will alienate most people, etc. etc.  I'm not asking them to do anything of the kind.
I wrote this partly because I've been the object of such accusations about other gay people in the past.  And the more I think about it, the more I feel sure that the interviewer brought up pronouns and universality in his talk with that young woman because he knew she's gay, and she knew he knew it, and he was congratulating her for closeting herself.  How often, after all, does a heterosexual artist get chided for not being universal enough?

But I also wrote it because I had fresh in my mind a similar accusation about another issue.  It had just emerged that a pro-gay, pro-feminist Australian priest was recently excommunicated under Francis' authority.  So when someone linked to a story about Francis denouncing "global economy for worshipping 'god of money'" and various people got all excited about it, I pointed out that his grinchy predecessors had made similar denunciations.  Someone else, whose initial reaction was "Best. Pope. Ever", countered with "Yeah, but this pope is getting the conservatives in the Vatican in a knot with his de-emphasis on gays and abortion." I answered, "'Getting the conservatives in a knot' is no achievement. If he actually de-emphasizes gays and abortion, I'll manage a wan smile. I won't actually praise him unless he changes church policy on those and other issues. Right now he's just doing PR. It's amazing how many people are falling for it." The other commenter, who as it happens isn't even Christian let alone Catholic, replied: "You're asking him to out and out change Catholic doctrine which may be more than he is capable of doing. He may be a 'representative of God on earth' but he still has to play politics with the other Catholic humanoids ... Radical sudden change isn't possible. But [the church] can be nudged."

I'm not asking Francis to do anything.  In most respects I'm not even talking about Francis, but about the people -- including active Catholics, lapsed Catholics (including one friend who's now a Unitarian quasi-neopagan), Jews, and secularists -- who are overreacting to Francis' rhetoric.  I thought I was fairly explicit about that, when I said that I'll manage a wan smile when he changes doctrine on these issues.  Until then it is just talk, and talk is cheap.  My Unitarian friend linked to the story about the excommunicated priest, but backtracked by saying that she "know[s] better than to expect sudden, dramatic change from the Vatican. I was just pleasantly surprised that he's trying to emphasize the importance of doing good over dogma to the public." Which means, as I pointed out, that she's falling for his PR strategy too.  She also forgets that American Catholics, at any rate, are less reactionary than the Vatican (including Francis himself); they don't need to be reminded of the importance of doing good over dogma -- they already know it.  (Francis isn't emphasizing "doing good over dogma" either: he says he wants them in better balance -- but "dogma" still rules.)

Later that same day, Katha Pollitt posted a new column at the Nation, expressing her own skepticism about Francis.  Yes, she acknowledged, Francis "seems a lovely man", but liberals and secularists shouldn't overreact. Liberals, she said,
have seized on the pope’s words as signaling a change in the church’s teachings, the way they did when Pope Benedict XVI seemed to say condoms were permissible to prevent AIDS. (Actually, he didn’t quite say that.) There has been no doctrinal change, nor is there likely to be one anytime soon. Rather, the pope was calling for a change of tone and emphasis: forbid with love.
Ah yes, Pope Rat on condoms -- I'd almost forgotten that.  It's another case where people, and not only Catholics, are so eager to paint a nasty bigot in positive colors that they exaggerate his words.  Francis may not be quite as bad as Benedict -- that will have to be seen -- but the secularist desire to put a human face on religious bigotry has little or nothing to do with what either man has said or done.  That's some pretty heavy denial going on there.

Pollitt also noted:
Pope Francis is continuing the investigation, begun last year by Pope Benedict, of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the progressive nuns’ organization charged with espousing “radical feminist themes” and being insufficiently zealous against abortion and gay rights. It’s hard to imagine winning many hearts and minds among American Catholic women—who use birth control and have abortions and even same-sex weddings like other American women—by putting these immensely learned, dedicated and, of course, devout women under the supervision of male authorities, as though they were children.
One of the first commenters on Pollitt's column complained, predictably enough:
This pope's actions have been far more radical and courageous than any of Katha Pollitt's nothing-is-good-enough, by the numbers feminist columns. I am grateful Pollitt's was not writing in 1963, undermining the Rev Martin Luther Kings March on Washington. Bourgeois so-called "radicals" like Katha Pollitt are too bloated w their pseudo-revolutionary narcissism to recognize truly radical steps made by individuals who are taking true risks (see:John Paul I, assassination) because they are men.
But what has Francis done? So far he has only talked. What risks has he taken, except to continue the doctrines of his predecessors?

And isn't this business reminiscent of another holy figure whose advent was greeted with similar inflation of his significance, one whose fans were ready to credit him before he even took office with achievements that he had, as it happened, not even promised, and in the event didn't deliver?  I'm referring, of course, to the Only President We've Got, whose critics were also told to wait, to give him a chance -- even as he, like Francis, was busy establishing his reactionary bona fides.  This all-too-human tendency clearly has nothing to do with the qualities and actions of the people it celebrates and defends; it expresses the wish for a Savior.  No human being is going to be that, but people will go on canonizing one New Hope after another.  Sometimes I think they prefer talk to action; at the least, they consistently confuse the one with the other.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Because You Are Lukewarm, I Will Spew You Out of My Mouth

I just got home from work, turned on the radio, and found myself in the middle of an interview with a musical duo -- two teenaged sisters, it turns out -- who'll be performing at the big international music festival this weekend.  Even after listening for ten or fifteen minutes, I haven't caught the group's name. But the interview brought up some issues that I consider important.

In the first question I heard, the interviewer, a much older male and the musical director of the station, remarked on how "universal" the group's lyrics were: they used "only pronouns," which made it possible for, like, anybody to relate to them.  (They did not, in fact, use "only pronouns" -- the song the interviewer played as a sample of their work included some verbs, adjectives, and an article or two.  But I'm being overliteral, I know.)  Because they usually sang "you", they were more universal.  The musicians agreed.  One of them said that though it wasn't intentional, she preferred it that way, because she didn't really want to put her private life out there, and besides, everyone could identify better if it was only pronouns, and she wanted everyone to be able to relate, it was more universal.  The word "universal" kept coming up, more annoying with each repetition.

This, of course, made me less able to relate to them.  In the first place, many pop songs are addressed to an unspecified "you," sometimes in interesting ways.  (Think of the "you" in "She Loves You.")  Many of the Beatles' songs, for example, many Motown hits, many standards from the Thirties and Forties.  More recently, in her early career k.d. lang relied on "you" as a closeting device.  One of her first singles was a rockabilly number about a cute girl, but after she got onto a major label such exuberance disappeared until she came out publicly.  The use of "you" may be partly motivated by economic considerations from the days when songs weren't identified with just one performer: it was simpler not to have to make any changes for male or female singers.  Another factor was to allow the listener to feel addressed personally by the singer.  In the second place, "he" and "she,", "him" and "her" are also pronouns; I suppose the interviewer and singers had in mind the second-person pronoun.  But I've seen published sheet music which included alternative pronouns and sometimes other lyrical changes for a male or female subject.  (Heterosexual supremacy, of course, fed the assumption that a male singer would obviously be singing to a woman, a female singer to a man.)  Any performer could and did change the pronouns to that end at will; I've often done it myself.  This can produce interesting effects, not always related to the performer's sexual orientation.

There's a more insidious aspect to all this talk about "universality," to my mind.  It assumes that people can only relate to the most unspecific song lyrics, and that referring to someone's sex, let alone giving them a name, impairs identification.  I don't believe this.  Take the Beatles' "Michelle," which is not only about a girl, it's addressed to a French girl.  But it was a huge hit.  I'm sure millions of young women imagined Paulie crooning those words to them, whether they were named Michelle or not.  Songs built around names are a staple of pop, sometimes as novelties but not always, as with "Michelle."  Apparently McCartney didn't base the song on a real French girl he knew, but it hardly matters: the song's popularity didn't depend on his biography.  (It doesn't hurt to remember that more songs addressed to named subjects may not refer to real people.)  Often people get intensely voyeuristic about "you" songs, such as Carly Simon's "You're So Vain."  Universality was hardly at issue there: forty years after its release, there are still people speculating about what celebrity Simon was singing to, and of course it must have been a man, right?  (A look at the lyrics indicates that the subject could just as easily have been a woman -- a womanizer like Rita Mae Brown, say.)

And it goes beyond songs.  If I take these ideas about universality seriously, how can fiction or drama be "universal"?  In a narrative it's almost necessary to be specific.  (Occasionally someone tries to get around specificities of sex in narrative fiction, but such a tour de force tends to become the subject of the work.  Not always -- Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, carefully avoided specifying the sex of the narrator's beloved for the length of a short novel, and it works pretty well; but since Winterson has always been openly lesbian, it was a safe assumption that the "you" was female.)

The main reason this whole business annoys me so much is that it accepts the premise that people can't, and don't, relate to or identify with characters in song lyrics or other works who aren't exactly like them.  This is a complicated issue, and some artists (to use the word broadly) have fed it by insisting on sameness, even at the expense of mere factual accuracy.  (I'm thinking here of the English filmmaker Andrew Haigh, who whined to Dennis Lim (via) that "A wide swath of so-called gay cinema 'never represented how I felt about being gay, ever ... I haven’t got muscles and I don’t live in West Hollywood.'"  This caricature actually refers to at best a narrow swath of gay film.)  But most people manage to identify perfectly well with songs and movies and books about people who aren't particularly like them, and I think this is something that should be encouraged.  It's a commonplace that girls don't mind reading books with boy protagonists, but boys often will refuse to read books with girl protagonists.  Like many commonplaces, this is oversimple, but to the extent it's true, it should be a spur to encourage people to enjoy art or entertainment that focuses on people unlike them. But again, they do anyway: there's a lot of idealized identification with characters and performers who are not like their fans.  How many boys have muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger?  How many young women have hot jobs in Manhattan like Carrie Bradshaw?

Besides, I want songs that are clearly gay -- that is, songs that are unambiguously, unapologetically males addressing males, or females addressing females.  There aren't enough of them, as far as I'm concerned, though there are more than most people realize.  And, paradoxically perhaps, out singers have sung "you" songs to a beloved of unspecified sex (perhaps because they knew their fans would know which was meant), and some closeted singers have sung songs that at least hinted and sometimes were explicit that a same-sex beloved was meant.  At the same time, I can and have quite happily identified with explicitly heterosexual songs and books and poems and movies.  It just seems that people mostly invoke "universality" when out gay artists start making out gay art and entertainment.

Apparently at least one of the two singers is still in high school, a junior so she said.  So I'm not judging her harshly for not wanting her songs to be taken as overt expressions of her "private life," whether she likes boys or girls.  On the other hand, a performer's reliance on "you" in song lyrics makes me start speculating about their private life.  I wouldn't have thought about any of this if the interviewer, who is old enough to know better, hadn't brought in the red herring of "universality." I imagine some readers will criticize me for "asking" these young women to be flaming queer militants and write Politically Correct song lyrics that will alienate most people, etc. etc.  I'm not asking them to do anything of the kind.  They should write the kinds of songs they wish.  I don't even object to songs addressed to an unspecific "you," for whatever reason -- as I've already pointed out, such songs are not a novelty, not anything out of the way in pop music.  I guess I am asking them not to turn this very ordinary stylistic device into some kind of high artistic virtue, though.  It isn't.  At best it's already a well-worn device in popular music; at worst, it's a closeting tool, and we don't need any more of that.

I gathered as the interview drew to an end that the name of the duo is simply the first names of the sisters.  I'm not going to give their names here, partly because I'm not so concerned with them specifically, and partly because naming them wouldn't be "universal" enough.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

You're Stupid, Therefore I'm Smart Q.E.D.

Roy Edroso decided to make fun of the right-wing legacy blogger Jonah Goldberg yesterday.  He couldn't decide whether "the key line" of the Goldberg post he was mocking was its celebration of the TV show Breaking Bad as true conservative entertainment, or "And that is why great novels are, by nature, conservative."

This, of course, set off a wave of parodies from Edroso's commenters, rewriting the opening lines of various famous works of literature.  Not all of them were novels, and I suspect that a similar blurring of form and genre by right-wing writers or commenters wouldn't get a pass from this lot.  Anyway, because Edroso's fans, like all liberals, are bold independent thinkers, they followed his lead predictably.  Most of the parodies were constructed by putting in references to Goldberg's mother (because Goldberg probably got his start in right-wing punditry thanks to his connection with her), flatulence (Edroso's standard punchline for his mockery of Goldberg), and Cheetos (another standby in Edroso's comic arsenal).  Because, as we all know, the most devastating reality-based criticism you can make of your political opponents is to call them fat.  It's the vital common ground between American liberals and conservatives.
For a long time I used to go to through a 32 oz bag of Cheetos quickly. Sometimes, when I had put my hand in the bag, its contents would vanish so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’ve eaten another goddamn bag of Cheetos!”
But none of them, not Edroso and not his commenters, thought to notice that Goldberg had an arguable point in that claim about the conservatism of novels.  Better minds than either Goldberg or Edroso have claimed as much, and it's not exactly surprising.  The literary canon is conservative in the strict sense of the word, because it's designed to expose students to the normative works of the past, and despite right-wing hysteria about liberal professors, the canon was generally chosen by political as well as artistic conservatives, and they've traditionally been taught to minimize whatever thoughtcrime they contain.  (George Orwell, for example, remained a socialist all his life, but 1984 and Animal Farm are usually taught as pro-capitalist because they're anti-Communist.  And so they are, but they are vehemently anti-capitalist too.)  There might very well be great works of literature that could be labeled liberal or even radical, but they were usually not taught to children or even college students.  Schooling was primarily intended to mold the young to obedience, not to critical thought.  Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, for another example, doesn't need to be rewritten with the Cheeto in the place of the madeleine to make it a conservative work.  Jonah Goldberg was probably just cribbing someone else's cliché, and he doesn't seem capable of developing an argument to defend his beliefs anyway, but he might not be totally wrong in that sentence.

Even if I grant Goldberg that much, though, neither he nor Edroso and his merry band notice that "conservative" in the sense I've been using it here has nothing to do with what's known as American political conservatism.  Richard Hofstadter pointed out fifty years ago that American right-wingers like William Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan who styled themselves "conservatives" were really radical reactionary statists who wanted to overturn the American system of government: real conservatism, in the sense of wanting to conserve the good things in one's society, would in the 1950s have meant New Deal "liberalism."  Older American conservatives were generally put off by the vulgarity and belligerence of the New Right, which is not really a point against the latter; it's a matter of class and style, not of content or policy.  Pointing out that today's conservatives aren't really conservatives is as much a cliché as Goldberg's truism about "great novels."  But that's why I'm mostly referring to people like Goldberg as right-wingers here, not conservatives.

As I've noticed before, Edroso's take on art is pretty "conservative" in the sense of hanging on to the New-Critical stance which denies or ignores the political content of art and entertainment in favor of close readings of the texts -- usually short forms like lyric poetry, which can be covered in a single class period or journal-length article.  (Even the New Critics, if I remember correctly, admitted that their approach didn't work well with long poems or novels, but they thought that just counted against the value of those longer works.)   He loves to mock his right-wing counterparts' obsession with finding right-wing content everywhere they possibly can, but he (and even more, his fans) clearly wants to believe that good art is liberal if it's anything.  This, you may recall, was the lot who were comfortable with claims like "Political philosophy is almost entirely a liberal project" (which is false no matter how you define "liberal" and "conservative"), and had to be reminded that "Marx, Alinsky, Debs, Chomsky, Ilich, Mills, Zinn, Sinclair, Gorz and the like" were not a liberal canon but a left-wing one.  Just as the Right wants to claim various dead heroes as real if unbaptized conservatives had they only known it, liberals love to claim those heroes for liberalism, even when they were explicitly hostile to liberalism.

One commenter today wrote:
Wait a second, isn't this the guy who just wrote a piece on how liberals try to bring politics into everything? Geez, Jonah, you couldn't have let a week lapse in between those observations?
And another lamented, "They just can't let us have anything to ourselves, can they?"  (Reminiscent of heterosexuals who see gay readings of works they like as "appropriative."  If gay men love Bette Davis, normal people can't love her.)  Resistance to "political" criticism of art or entertainment is a bipartisan bugbear, of course.  That's partly because it's not easy to do it well, partly because many people persist in understanding literary "criticism" as purely destructive rather than analytical, and partly because it often uncovers aspects of popular and beloved works that their fans don't want to think about.  Laura Miller's book on fantasy, The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown, 2008), falls into this trap, even though Miller recognizes the value of criticism generally.  Yet she also writes:
The traditional, reverential study of canonical literature that prevailed in Lewis’s day, and the revolution-mongering of the 1960s and 1970s that supplanted it, gave way to poststructuralist and postmodern theory. Books that past generations regarded as eternal monuments of genius were dragged into the courts of theory and indicted for their ideological inadequacies. Their authors’ personal lives and political beliefs served as evidence against them. Racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia lurked everywhere, often in disguises that required expert decoding. If you wanted to know why the world proved so resistant to the utopian designs of a fading radicalism – and that’s exactly what many academics, having seen such dreams die, wanted to do – you could point to the poisonous bias embodied in even the most celebrated pillars of our culture [170].
Compare this to Joan Acocella's fervid defenses (which is how she saw them) of Willa Cather against "theory" which leveled the "accusation" of lesbianism against Cather.  Both Miller and Acocella are probably liberals, but they both treat any discussion of authors' "personal lives and political beliefs" as scandal-mongering -- even though they both root around in the knickers of their chief subjects themselves, Cather in Acocella's case and C. S. Lewis's in Miller's.  I suppose there must have been writers who fit Miller's caricature of postmodernist theorists, but I can't remember ever having read any myself, and I've read a fair amount of postmodernist theory.  Probably the chief work of this kind is pre-postmodernist, a classic of feminist scholarship: Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, published in 1970.  Millett focused on three iconic male modernist writers: D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer, with an envoi on Jean Genet, but she included a historical overview that, among other things, introduced me to (and induced me to read) Charlotte Bronte's Villette.  Millett was attacked for demonizing Lawrence, Miller, and Mailer, though in my opinion her analysis was nuanced and didn't demonize the great men; I'd say she drew fire simply for criticizing them at all.  Ironically, Miller too was attacked by Lewis fans who thought she didn't cut the great man enough slack, though I think she cut him plenty, and wrote about him with affection and compassion.  To the true devotee, of course, no acknowledgment of the hero's clay feet is acceptable.

But all this pretty much misses the point of political (or "political") criticism.  In the first place, the "traditional, reverential study of canonical literature" was fully compatible with destructive criticism of non-canonical work, to justify its exclusion.  Read male critics' denigration of female writers, and you'll see what I mean; Joanna Russ collected and analyzed critical misogyny in her How to Suppress Women's Writing (Texas, 1983); and as Robert K. Martin argued in The Male Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (Texas, 1979), mainstream critics generally agreed that a great artist must be a Truly Good Person, so they had to decide whether Walt Whitman (for example) couldn't be homosexual because he was a Great Poet, or he couldn't be a great poet because he was a homosexual.  Biographical criticism of this kind is traditional; perhaps what changed in the 1970s was some critics' insistence on confronting the question, and it infuriated the traditionalists.

But biographical criticism of this kind is not really political criticism.  As Miller argued,
Of course, it’s absurd to speak of the “politics” of Narnia. These are children’s fantasies, not designed to address such adult concerns as class systems, nationalism, and economics. They take place in a dream world where talking beavers bake marmalade rolls despite having no surplus goods to trade for oranges and sugar, commodities that can only have been imported from a warmer land. Who raises and slaughters the pigs to make the bacon and sausages gobbled up at almost every Narnian meal? Who grows the wheat and grinds the flour for bread, and who imports the tea and coffee? Even Tolkien, who labored for countless hours to make Middle-earth a consistent, coherent alternative world, never made it entirely plausible economically, and he thought Narnia a disgracefully slapdash creation [158].
I disagree that it's absurd to speak of the politics of Narnia, and Miller shows right here why it isn't.  It's just not all that relevant, since as Miller goes on to say, Narnia isn't a real world but a fantasy creation where political economy isn't involved, any more than it is in a dream.  But notice that J. R. R. Tolkien, hardly a poststructuralist critic, objected to the Narnia books because they weren't realistic in this sense, the sense he tried to realize in The Lord of the Rings.  That would indicate that it's not improper to point out flaws in Tolkien's execution of his aim to make Middle-earth "a consistent, alternative world," though doing so is probably as much beside the point as it is for Narnia.

What political criticism does properly do is analyze the assumptions that underlie art and entertainment.  As Joanna Russ argued, "it seems absolutely impossible to write anything without immediately making all sorts of assumptions about what human nature is, what good and bad behavior consists of, what men ought to be, what women ought to be, which states of mind and character are valuable, which are the opposite, and so on. Once fiction gets beyond the level of minimal technical competence, a reviewer must address these judgments of value." (Quoted at greater length, with sourcing, here.) Myself, I don't really draw a distinction between art and entertainment, but I'm thinking here of people who get their pants in a bunch over academic criticism of commercial entertainment and culture.  They hardly consider Madonna or Barbie or I Love Lucy to be Great Art, so they don't see the point of analyzing it (though they don't really approve of analyzing Great Art either, as I've already mentioned).  I think that commercial entertainment is just as full of assumptions about "what human nature is", etc., as Shakespeare, and it's interesting and worthwhile to figure out what those assumptions are and to see how they work in practice. 

As for sexism and racism and other bigotry in canonical art, I've argued before that conservative critics don't want to confront them because they consider bigotry acceptable, a cultural norm.  "Liberals" tend to defend their favored works and and artists by declaring that in the old days it hadn't yet been discovered that people of color, or homosexuals, or women, were people, though they're unclear as to when this great discovery was made.  (Notice that Orson Scott Card has tried to use this argument to oppose a boycott of the upcoming movie of Ender's Game: "Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984."  Gay issues hadn't been discovered yet in 1984, and won't exist in the future!) Of course, it's not easy to evaluate the significance of bigotry in works from the past, which is why academics are still hotly debating whether The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic, for example.  But I don't see why it's unfair to raise the question.

I realize that going off in this direction takes Jonah Goldberg more seriously than he deserves; and probably Roy Edroso, too.  But I think that both of these boys are playing with serious (if not necessarily important) matters that deserve better, more thoughtful treatment than either can give to them, or cares to.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Come, Let Us Reason Together

I'm starting to notice a certain pattern in Conor Friedersdorf's writings on gay issues.  To his credit, he does broaden somewhat the "national conversation" on "gay rights" (two phrases that set my teeth on edge), by giving a forum to people with opinions that ordinarily might not be published by the Atlantic, like that closeted young gay Christian who opposed same-sex marriage.  Friedersdorf does this in the name of reminding his readers that there are arguments against same-sex marriage that aren't rooted in bigotry, but so far he hasn't succeeded in finding any.  So the pattern I'm noticing is a reluctance to call bigotry by its name unless it's really virulent and overtly expressed.

Last Friday Friedersdorf wrote about an antigay "college football analyst" from whom "Fox Sports Southwest has withdrawn a job offer" because of his expressed opinions:
The arguments against gay marriage have never persuaded me. Christianity's insistence on treating homosexuality as a sin strikes me as a tragic, historic mistake. When I read that college-football analyst Craig James, formerly an SMU player, believes homosexuality is "a choice," that homosexuals will "have to answer to the Lord for their actions," and that even civil unions ought to be opposed, all positions he took during a 2012 U.S. Senate run, I couldn't disagree more. My belief is that homosexuality is both natural and inborn; that God, in whom I believe, looks upon gays and lesbians no more or less favorably than heterosexuals; and that opposing even civil unions is a morally objectionable position.
Just for context, Friedersdorf also thinks that Andrew Sullivan is "eloquent."  Well, we'll have to agree to disagree on that, though I hope it's not an article of Friedersdorf's faith.

I'm inclined to agree with Friedersdorf that James's antigay opinions needn't be relevant to a job as a sportscaster.  But I stress needn't, because as more GLBT athletes come out, it's going to be hard for a sports analyst to avoid weighing in on the subject.  (One commenter on Friedersdorf's article asked: "Would you, or anyone be comfortable with Fox Sports hiring an outspoken virulent racist as a broadcaster, even said broadcaster had never said anything racist during a broadcast? I don't see how this is different."  Maybe it's not, but sports broadcasting is full of racist commentators, as the Jeremy Lin brouhaha reminded us.)

But I have some quibbles with the rest of what Friedersdorf said in that paragraph.  He is free to believe that homosexuality is inborn, just as he's free to believe that Yahweh created the world in six days if he wants.  (Disclaimer: I have no reason to think he does believe the latter.)  But both beliefs are highly dubious.  Whether homosexuality is inborn is also irrelevant to the moral status of homosexuality -- and also, as I've argued before, to its legal status: choices are not trivial, and many important ones, like religious affiliation, are protected by civil rights laws.  Suppose scientists definitively proved that homosexuality was a "choice" (whatever that means): would Friedersdorf withdraw his opinion that it is "natural" and looked on indulgently by his god?  And how does he know that his god "looks on gays and lesbians no more or less favorably than heterosexuals?  Wait, let me amend that, since many pro-gay Christians I've challenged on this pretend that they don't claim to know what their god thinks; so let me ask, what makes him believe that his god looks on gays and lesbians no more or less favorably than heterosexuals?  Given the Christian god's dim view of any sexuality, according to the New Testament, maybe Friedersdorf isn't making such a grand claim.  Maybe he, like Jesus, thinks that gay people no less than straight people should become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven; or, like Paul, that the married man -- straight or gay -- cares for what will please his wife, while the single man cares for what will please the Lord.  In any case, Friedersdorf chose to marry, not to burn.

Friedersdorf is critical of Christians who are "willing to dismiss large parts of the Old Testament, but not the parts about homosexuality. They treat boycotting a gay wedding as if their faith compels it, but don't think twice about attending the nuptials of serial divorcees."  I first misread this as an assertion that the Old Testament forbids divorce, but while it's ambiguous I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on that point.  (The Hebrew Bible, aka the Old Testament, permits and regulates heterosexual divorce; in the gospels, Jesus explicitly rejects that teaching.)  But he also seems to imply that only the "Old Testament" deals with homosexuality; the New Testament also does, and though Jesus never explicitly mentions eroticism between persons of the same sex, he is not a sexual liberal according to the gospels.

Friedersdorf goes on:
Twenty years ago, when gay equality was an outlying position and prejudice against gays was the norm, I would've regarded it as imprudent and unjust to fire a college football analyst because he favored gay marriage or declared homosexuality not sinful. Today, I am every bit as convinced that it's imprudent and unjust to fire someone for calling gay marriage unwise and homosexuality sinful. These aren't remarks that he made on air, while doing his job.
 And concludes:
As much as I disagree with James' particular thoughts, I prefer to live in a country where the consequences of expressing them is a persuasive rebuttal, not an effort to stigmatize and coerce. For those saying that Fox Sports should have known about these statements before hiring him, do we really want a country where employment is predicated on an investigation of one's political and religious beliefs to make sure that, on matters totally unrelated to the job, you've never said anything deemed unacceptable? In that sort of society, the weak and marginalized, whose views are generally least protected, would be hardest hit, and we would all be hurt.
I want to agree with this, and I have uttered similar thoughts myself in the past.  But statements made during a campaign for national political office, just a year ago, are hardly obscure or trivial.  It's not as if private remarks James made decades ago at a college fraternity party were being dredged up.  Of course, it's possible that James was merely pandering to his prospective constituents, as some notable white Southern politicians did on racial issues back in the day.  But that doesn't mean he shouldn't be held responsible for his pandering.  And "the weak and marginalized" are already vulnerable in their lives and have trouble finding corporate-media venues to express their opinions and plead their case.  If only as a devil's advocate, I can see a point to letting the Right feel some of that pain.

I also wonder what difference it makes to Friedersdorf, if we're going to talk about what's just and prudent, if a sportscaster or other commentator makes bigoted remarks on the job.  Does he believe that such people check their freedom of speech at the studio door?  Evidently he doesn't:
A network would be justified in firing a sports broadcaster for expressing controversial moral or political views during an entertainment telecast that had nothing to do with the subject. But to not hire someone for prior remarks made amid civic debate, and that are indistinguishable from the position taken by almost half of all Americans at the time?
Why does Friedersdorf think this?  As I've already noted, gay issues do not have "nothing to do with the subject" of sports, especially with more and more athletes coming out, and the controversy over the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia.  His willingness to dispose of sportscasters for expressing "controversial moral or political views" seems to me to be at odds with his argument that "the consequences of expressing them" should be "a persuasive rebuttal," not termination.  So, which is it?  After all, quite a few Americans (and even more people elsewhere in the world) disapprove of homosexuality; the issues Friedersdorf sees as settled are not settled.  He also seems to think that Craig James is entitled to a job offer, to a job he doesn't yet in fact have.  No one,  however qualified, is entitled by right to that. 

I too would like to see more "persuasive rebuttal."  But I'm not sure I believe that Friedersdorf really is committed to that, since he's willing to toss out commentators who express views he considers too controversial, in what he considers the wrong context ("during an entertainment telecast that had nothing to do with the subject").  Why not have someone rebut them?  Because the corporate media aren't interested in that kind of debate, of course.  Nor are most Americans, I believe, including those who call for national conversations and more use of critical-thinking skills.

I'll go halfway with Friedersdorf in disavowing an "effort to stigmatize and coerce."  I'm against coercion in matters of controversy; I'm not against stigmatizing.  I feel the same way about people with views I more-or-less share -- atheists, gay people, and the like -- but also with views I don't -- people who don't want to be called feminists or liberals or Muslims, for example.  People have the right to be bigots and to express bigoted views, but they don't have the right to demand that they not be called bigots.  They can avoid the stigma by changing their bigoted views.  They're also welcome to try to engage in some persuasive rebuttal, but their record in that area isn't encouraging.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Trouble with Normal: A National Conversation on Names

A friend of mine linked to this article at the Daily Beast on the divisive issue of "black" names.  It's a good article, and the author, Jamelle Bouie, makes some very good points.  But my friend -- whom I respect a great deal -- and some of her friends who commented made some strange remarks about it.  My friend, for example, kicked things off by writing "This shit is depressing. Particularly Malcolm X's observation" (the observation, which Bouie called a "joke," being "You know what they call a black person who earns a Ph.D.? A nigger").  Before Malcolm X said that, someone (I can't recall who it was at the moment) said "A kike is a Jewish gentleman who has just left the room."  In his 1971 essay "On Being Different", the novelist Merle Miller quoted that and asked rhetorically, "Is a fag a homosexual gentleman who has just left the room?"

I'm not sure what, exactly, my friend was saying about Malcolm's joke.  I take it to mean that no matter how hard one tries to assimilate, to be what the dominant sectors of society say you should be, Lucy will always pull away the football at the last minute.  It means that much of the concern-trolling advice minorities are given, whether by our avowed enemies or our well-meaning liberal friends, is at best beside the point.  We can wear ourselves out trying to dress for success, but what excludes us from polite society in the last analysis is always our sexual orientation, our sex, our religion, our skin color.  Which doesn't mean we shouldn't try for success on our own terms, in areas that matter to us; it just means we shouldn't be surprised that some people will never be satisfied.  Instead of trying harder to please them anyway, we should recognize that they don't deserve our respect, that we don't need their approval.

One of my friend's friends chimed in with:
Arrrggghhggpphhh. They are NAMES. Some names are familiar to middle class white Americans and some are not. People (usually) acquire them at birth. It's just as dumb to judge someone by their name as it is to judge them for having freckles or red hair or 6 fingers on their right hand. It hurts my head that we need to have this conversation.
I'm not so sure, for what it's worth, that it's necessarily wrong to judge someone by their name: names are chosen (normally by others), not innate, and people can and do change their names all the time.  Since they are chosen, they are also significant.  I don't get what is meant by "They are NAMES."  Names are words, with meanings, chosen for their meanings.  Jamelle Bouie is explicit about that, in fact:
In the 1960s, Anglo-American names were common among African American children. It wasn’t until the 1970s and the rise of the Black Power movement that this shifted in the other direction. ”The underlying philosophy of the Black Power movement,“ writes Fryer, ”was to encourage Blacks to accentuate and affirm black culture and fight the claims of black inferiority.” The adoption of “black” names is consistent with other cultural changes—like “natural hair"—prompted by the movement. African Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from whites, and naming was an easy means to the end.
This doesn't justify white racism about "black" names, but let's not pretend that names are just meaningless trivia. The question is what, if anything, they do signify.  This ties into an equally depressing debate about gay people, about whether it's a Choice or we're Born That Way.  And who knows?  Maybe Condoleezza Rice became a war criminal because of the name her parents saddled her with.  It didn't, at any rate, keep her from becoming successful in mainstream American terms.  (Full professor at Stanford, Dubya's Secretary of State.)  Bill Cosby ranted about this "issue" during his last burst of public self-hatred a few years back; he didn't mention the odd names he gave his own children, some of whom turned out badly.  (For more details, see Michael Eric Dyson's excellent and compassionate book Is Bill Cosby Right?)

The DB writer has a better point about the weird names many white people have, which no one sees as evidence of a debased culture, though maybe they should.
On Twitter, riffing off of the Reddit thread, I mused on this double standard with a comment and a joke. “Seriously, I will take your ‘questions’ about ‘weird’ black names seriously when you make fun of Reince Priebus and Rand Paul,” followed by “White people giving their kids names like Saxby Chambliss and Tagg Romney is a clear sign of cultural pathology.” If names like “DeShawn” and “Shanice” are fair targets for ridicule, then the same should be true for “Saxby” and “Tagg.”
Saxby Chambliss, Reince Priebus, Rand Paul, Tagg Romney, etc -- can you trust a culture that gives its children names like that?  (Or "Madonna" or "Miley.")  Or as Armistead Maupin once asked in a slightly different context, why should we Homo-Americans trust a culture in which all objects of desire are named "Cheryl"?

Bouie's tweet drew fire from white, erm, "conservatives."  You know -- white racists.
“So, names like Jamelle, Mo’nique, [and] Trayvon are normal?” asked one self-proclaimed conservative. Likewise, another asked if “Jamelle, LaShonda, Trayvon, etc. are signs of advanced, successful, economically stable and crime free culture?”, which was followed by someone wondering if “names like LaShaniqua, Jamal, Porsche, Mercedes” would be our “future leaders.” Each illustrating my point that unusual black names are treated as evidence of cultural inferiority in a way that isn’t true of unusual white names.
Bouie might have noticed that many "normal" white American names are not "Anglo-American" but Biblical, meaning Hebrew or Greek-derived.  My own weird name, Duncan, is Scots and means "brown warrior."  (Ironic, since I'm pale even for a Person of Pallor.)  And weird it is, or was: I didn't meet another person with the same given name until I was twenty-three.  (A few years later, of course, a popular movie character was named Duncan, and the name caught on somewhat.)  It also occurs to me that chosen, descriptive names are common in numerous other cultures, notably American Indian.  I suspect that for that white conservatives to denounce names like Crazy Horse as incompatible with an "advanced, successful, economically stable and crime free culture" would have been taking Political Incorrectness a bit too far.  But how about those Biblical names?  Their weirdness has been lost through familiarity, plus the fact that we know them in romanized Hebrew -- that is, untranslated -- forms.  But how about this line from a famous part of the Hebrew Bible:
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field [Isaiah 7:3].
How'd you like to be saddled with a name like "Shear-Jashub"?  Even worse, how'd you like to live in a culture where everybody knew what it meant?  ("Hey, can A Remnant Will Return come out and play?")  In the next chapter, Yahweh commands Isaiah thusly:
The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”
Hey, Quick to the Plunder, Swift to the Spoil, I think I hear your mama calling you!  Why would a so-called "God of Love" give a name like that to an innocent child?  (Well, after all, someone named him Yahweh Sabaoth.  Maybe he wanted to spread around the misery.)  And how did poor little Quick to the Plunder, Swift to the Spoil turn out, I wonder?  Was he ever able to get a decent job?  Or did he become an ancient Israelite juvenile delinquent?  Scripture doesn't tell us, as far as I know.

[P.S. A friend sent me a link to this sampling of names from an 1888 book on Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature.  H. Allen Smith once wrote a comic piece on this theme, with characters like Drink-A-Little-Wine-For-Thy-Stomach's-Sake Jones.  I thought it was an exaggeration, but there evidently were Americans with names like Jesus-came-into-the-world-to-save and Job-raked-out-of-the-ashes.  More evidence that white Christians are not an advanced, successful, economically stable and crime free culture.  The comments are fun, too.  My Puritan name will be Smite-the-Believer-with-Cunning Arguments Mitchel.]

Yeah, it's depressing that we have to have this conversation, and others like it.  But it seems we do have to have them.  Names should be judged; but we need to learn to be better judges.  So roll up your sleeves and gird your loins, people, there's a lot of work to do.