Monday, June 30, 2014

Allow Me to Intervene for a Moment

(As regular readers will know, the term of art "intervention" in academic Critical-Theory writing is one of my pet peeves.)

A friend the other day pointed to this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about the controversy over a sculpture currently being shown in a former Domino Sugar refining plant in Brooklyn.  "A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby" is
a 35-foot-tall, 75-foot-long sphinxlike figure with "the head of a woman who has very African, black features," as the artist told an interviewer. "She sits somewhere in between the kind of mammy figure of old and something a little bit more recognizable—recognizably human. … [She has] very full lips; high cheekbones; eyes that have no eyes, [that] seem to be either looking out or closed; and a kerchief on her head. She’s positioned with her arms flat out across the ground and large breasts that are staring at you." 
The subject of the article is the discussions, even debates, over the meaning and value of the sculpture in social media, especially Facebook, compared to "mainstream" media.  Some good points are made:
That black women differ from one another, or that they are talking about art, stereotypes, or the relationship of gender to economic exploitation, or even that art might mean different things to various viewers, is not nearly as notable as is the fact that outside of Facebook, it is increasingly difficult to hear the voices of black women participating in such robust and nuanced conversations. Indeed, I’m starting to wonder if Facebook matters most because it is one of the few places where black women can publicly speak to and for themselves and with one another ...

Women from the boomer generation are more likely to see the sugar sculpture as an unnerving but powerful intervention to stimulate dialogue about art, culture, history, and representation. However, some millennial women ask if Walker’s sphinx isn’t just a tired trope. They wonder whether we haven’t moved beyond stereotypes of black women, given television shows like Scandal, which stars Kerry Washington as an upper-middle-class professional. And, of course there is the first lady, Michelle Obama. Few spaces other than social media offer black women the opportunity for that type of engagement.
But I wonder how really diverse "mainstream" mass media can ever be.  By their nature mass media are a bottleneck, selecting a relatively small amount of information to disperse to a wide audience.  The professionalism and good intentions of the people who run such media will always be at odds with the limitations of space and time.  Combine that problem with the corporate ownership of most mass media, and the increasing concentration of ownership in the corporate media, and it seems extremely naive (to me, at any rate) to expect much range or depth from them.  It's precisely the rise of the Internet, in fact, which includes not only social media but the comments sections in many corporate media, that have made possible a much broader spectrum of debate and discussion that is accessible (in principle, at least) to larger audiences than ever before.  True, a lot of the discussion in such places is pretty poor stuff, but so is the discussion in the respectable corporate media.  The point is that a range of opinions and voices is there, if you want to look for it.

Looking for more information, I found this article at The Huffington Post.  Besides providing some useful background on the sculpture, the writer reveals some assumptions about what Art is and how it should be used.
The installation is, essentially, layer after layer of historical references, pleading visitors to peel back those layers, lest they mistake the wildly popular art attraction (the opening alone saw 4,000 people) for this season's "Rain Room." While Walker has imagined a sensually appealing construction -- it's a visual feast to say the least, and even the air tastes like sugar -- it's on the viewers' shoulders to educate themselves on what the sphinx's finger gesture means or what the basket-toting children signify. It's not enough to traipse around the ruin relic mouth agape, Walker's sculptures need you to dig deeper.
I take this sympathetically -- I cut my literary teeth, after all, on 20th-century modernists like T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, who notoriously expected readers to educate themselves in order to fully appreciate the richness they thought they'd folded into their work.  In the case of those two dead white European males, this would have meant replicating their own idiosyncratic educations, which included supposedly monumental works of scholarship on Myth that have turned out to be ephemeral, and Joyce's magpie-like collection of linguistic lore.  In both cases, such study is arguably not necessary to enjoy their work.  Some critics eventually pointed out that such ideas about art are themselves an historically specific accident, the result of schooling in classic works that needed footnotes and the filling of historical and cultural background for works that originally could be enjoyed without study aids.  The groundlings who watched the original productions of Shakespeare's plays didn't need his slang decoded, because it was their slang too.  Few of them, probably, could compare his versions of certain stories with the source material in Plutarch, Boccaccio, Greek mythology and British history, but even fewer would have cared.  Were they missing something?  Maybe, but since every experience of a work of art will be partial -- both in the sense of biased and in the sense of incomplete -- you could say the same about their more-schooled class superiors.  Only once Shakespeare's work began to be taught did schoolmasters try to fill in the gaps that time opened in the plays like a leaky roof.

I'm wary of artists who are explicitly and primarily didactic.  The qualifiers are there because a lot of art can be understood didactically, regardless of the artist's intent.  But since the artist can't (thankfully) be present every time someone encounters the work, looking over our shoulder and nagging us to see what they did there, it's futile to hope that the work's audience will see it as the artist wants them to.  "A Subtlety" is being displayed with a crew of volunteer "docents" to do just that, but sooner or later they'll go home and the sculpture will have to face its public without their help.  Wise artists know they can't control what even their contemporaries, let alone future audiences, will get from their work, partly because meaning doesn't inhere in the work, it's created by the audience as they experience it.  When I was writing poetry I showed it to different people, curious to see what they'd get from it.  I have the same attitude to my current Comrade Kim Jong Un Affirms You project; I wasn't even entirely sure what I thought my satirical memes meant, let alone how other people would take them.  Satire is especially tricky that way, but so is just about everything people say, write, or make.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Baggage

There's celebration in these parts today, thanks to the federal district judge who ruled against Indiana's ban on same-sex marriage yesterday.  (A federal appeals court overturned Utah's ban on same-sex marriage on the same day.)  Couples in several counties around the state, including here in Monroe Country, flocked to apply for marriage licenses.  A local bakery offered free rainbow donuts to newlyweds.  (Damn, this is discrimination because of marital status.  Now I have to run out and get married, right away.  Any takers?  Free donuts!)

Nicola Griffith posted the other day about overcoming her longstanding distaste for the word wife.
Twenty years ago, when I first married Kelley, in a ceremony with zero legal validity, but much emotional truth, in front of family and friends who'd flown in from all over the world, I might have hurt anyone who called me her wife or her my wife.

But when we got married last year on the 20th anniversary of that first wedding, in front of a judge, with the full legal force of the USA and UK and many other countries behind our vows, we used the word wife.

We'd talked about it over the years. We'd disliked it over the years. But when we were looking at the old, old vow "to take this woman as your legally wedded wife" with all the ancient rhythms of have and hold, richer and poorer, sickness and in health we knew it was the right word.
This, despite what she'd learned from feminism, and the etymology of the word itself (which she details).  I remarked in a comment that from this post, you'd think people only married in English.  What the female partner in a heterosexual marriage is called is less important than what she's committing herself to, or being committed to.  As Griffith points out:
When two women call each other wife, wife no longer means chattel. It can't—chattel can't own each other. It no longer means object not subject, that is, subject to another's will. How can two people with the same status subject each other to anything? These days, in the US and UK, wife means, Woman in a legal marriage. By association, woman also no longer means object not subject. It no longer carries with it the implication that someone else is in charge. A woman is no longer automatically a lesser member of a household.
I think Griffith is being overoptimistic here.  Male supremacy isn't dead yet.  Women in mixed households still work the Second Shift of housework and caregiving.  In same-sex couples the division of labor will be different, just because they are the same sex, and there's no automatic fall-guy for the scut work.

I've noticed over the years that many gay people are as resistant to a non-gendered conception of marriage-like partnership as many straight people are.  Some screwed up their faces in distaste when I said matter-of-factly that in a same-sex couple, there'd be two husbands or two wives; simple.  Like heterosexuals who couldn't understand how two men or two women could have sex without one "playing the man" and the other "playing the woman," they couldn't think of husbands and wives except as opposites -- you couldn't have two of each.  I've never understood why.  When I first read Joanna Russ's sf story "When It Changed," the following exchange made perfect sense to me.  The premise of the story is that a plague killed all the human males on the colony planet Whileaway.  The women who survived constructed an all-female society, with women pairing up together and children produced by induced parthenogenesis and, later, merging of ova.  After centuries of this successful arrangement, a spaceship crewed by men arrives.  (It's significant that there are no women in the crew.)  One of the men talks to a female couple:
“You are—?” said the man, nodding from me to her.
“Wives,” said Katy. “We’re married.”
Simple, no?  Two women married to each other are both wives.  Two men married to each other are both husbands.  But many gay people I encountered, even those who said they wanted to marry, balked at the notion, even if they indignantly rejected any notion of old-fashioned roles in their marriage.  (This reminds me of my welcoming reaction to the 1960s feminist who said simply that whatever she wore was women's clothing, because she was a woman and she was wearing it.  Most sophisticated social-constructionist gender rebels to whom I've quoted her were offended by her lack of essentialism.)  They wanted the "ancient" prestige of marriage and its vows, but not its content.  One commenter on Griffith's post wrote, "I call Ellen my spouse. All the celebration with none of the etymological baggage! :-)"  It's not the etymology that's the baggage, though.  It's the history, a not-all-that-distant history which despite significant changes is still with us.

More recently so many same-sex couples have adopted the standard terms that I think this battle too has been largely won.  If you want to call it "marriage," I think you should have to use "husband" and "wife" too.  "Spouse" sounds like a copout to me, a disingenuous evasion of the baggage you've just bought yourselves.  And it doesn't stop being baggage just because you call it something else.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Act Your Age, Not Your Shoe Size

A friend passed along this meme yesterday.  At first glance I liked it, but then another part of me reared up and said No.

Right off the bat: In the words of the American humorist Josh Billings, "It ain't ignorance causes so much trouble; it's folks knowing so much that ain't so."  In my words, everyone is born naked, incontinent, and ignorant, but these conditions can be changed.  Ignorance may be the least changeable, however, because no matter how much we learn, there will be more we still don't know.

Further, ignorance is meaningless except in relation to some piece of knowledge: No one is globally ignorant, just as everybody is ignorant about a great deal.  I am ignorant, for example, of the number of hairs on my head, ignorant of ancient Akkadian, ignorant of your birthday.  One commenter on the post declared that "ignorant" means "ignoring information" not "just not knowing"; another correctly explained that that is not what what the word means, so the first commenter was showing his own ignorance.)  It's similar in this respect to "agnostic": no one is or should be agnostic (not-knowing) about everything, but we should be agnostic about what we don't know.

I'm aware that many people use the word "ignorant" to mean other things, as I believe Angelou was doing in this quotation.  One of Merriam-Webster's examples of usage is "He is an ignorant old racist," which I think reflects the other connotations of the word, which carry a strong sense of moral disapproval.  (Chances are that old racist knows a lot that ain't so.)  Among Webster's related words are lowbrow, philistine, uncultivated; but these all refer to someone who is not a blank slate but socialized along the (supposedly) wrong lines.  A bumpkin is not necessarily uncultivated, but is well socialized in (supposedly) less sophisticated folkways than he or she ought.  Other related words include idiotic, imbecile, moronic, stupid, and witless, which fit with the confused attitudes many (most?) people have toward the mentally deficient: they are not just incapable of learning, they perversely refuse to learn, just to drive me crazy.  This shows up in the popular use of the word retarded, which is used as a moral accusation, although the truly mentally retarded are usually congenitally incapable of further growth.  Don't forget that the other words in that list -- idiot, imbecile, moron -- entered English as clinical, hopefully neutral words for mental incapacity, but quickly became insults.  Ignorant has the same trajectory: its strict denotation is morally neutral, but it rarely is used strictly.

Numerous commenters on the original Facebook post fell back on another trope, that of the eddicated pointy-head who has a lot of book-learning but no common sense.  Angelou clearly had this idea in mind herself.  Aside from the obvious limitations of relying on common sense, let me unpack her second sentence for a while.  "Educated" is a troublesome word there.  Yes, many highly intelligent people lacked or were denied access to schooling, and many educated themselves.  I wonder if Angelou was thinking of such self-taught people, or if she meant that they had wisdom based on experience, etc.  I don't mean to downgrade the wisdom an unschooled and/or illiterate person can accumulate, which can be considerable and deserves respect, but since most people conflate education with formal schooling, it's hard to sort the different possibilities here.  I think everyone should be treated with consideration and a degree of respect, though past a certain point respect for one's opinions and beliefs must be earned -- not by acquiring or developing them in school, but by giving reasons why they are valid.

Angelou's remarks are interesting because of her reported insistence on being called "Doctor," based on the honorary degrees she had received.  There's a bit of a contradiction going on there, I think.  I don't doubt Angelou's dedicated hard work at writing and speaking -- mastering the English language, in brief -- and thinking, and I respect her writings without regard to her lack of advanced formal schooling.  (I could point out that numerous distinguished white male writers have not attended college either, and chose to educate themselves.)   But since I wouldn't give unquestioning assent to the pronouncements of someone with an earned doctorate -- Henry Kissinger, to name an easy example -- I wouldn't give unquestioning assent to the pronouncements of someone with an honorary doctorate.

Granted, as some of her defenders pointed out, she demanded respect for her achievements in the face of widespread disrespect for the work of women and especially women of color.  But it's all the more meaningful to call for respect of people without degrees on their own merit, rather than appealing to honorary degrees or titles.  I certainly wouldn't fail to call a black female M.D. "Doctor" or a black female Ph.D. "Professor" if that was her title in a university.  But I wouldn't call a white male computer programmer "Doctor" based on a doctorate in computer science, let alone an honorary degree in something else.

It's perhaps easy for me to say this, given that I am not a black woman who grew up in Jim Crow America, and haven't faced the normative disrespect someone like Angelou fought against.  But if I take the quotation above seriously, she doesn't need to have a doctorate for me to respect her.  Insisting on being called "Doctor" undercuts her own declaration that people without degrees or titles also deserve respect and consideration.  (Indeed, the very title "Doctor" gets its prestige by virtue of its academic associations.)  And throwing around the word "ignorance" in this way earns the thrower a certain judicious disrespect.

It was probably easy too for the dead white male Isaac Newton to say, as he's reported to have said:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
In my experience, smart people are acutely aware of the limits of their knowledge and the corresponding extent of their ignorance.  It appears to me that it's others, those who want to put them on a pedestal, who are uncomfortable about the idea that even the smartest, wisest people are ignorant and know it.  (That's apart from the tactical anti-intellectualism associated with some forms of religion, which mocks worldly knowledge in favor of submission to authority.)  Maybe this has something to do with the painful discovery most of us make, that our parents don't know everything and aren't infallible, which may lead to a search for someone who does know everything and is infallible.  Either someone knows everything and is perfect, or knows nothing and is a loser.  I take, not a middle path but a third one: we have some knowledge, but it's always incomplete, imperfect, and subject to correction.  The illiterate are not necessarily stupid; the literate are not necessarily smart.  But the illiterate are ignorant (of reading and writing).  Using ignorant as an insult does the ignorant no good, and doesn't indicate a lot of wisdom in the person who does the insulting.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Problem of Pain

The great singer Merry Clayton was seriously hurt in a car accident a week ago, and her friend and fellow-singer Darlene Love wrote this on her Facebook page:
I'm just hearing about this now and in tears. We all need to pray for Merry. Dear Lord, please place your hands upon Merry and heal her body and soul. Please bring her to a full recovery - AMEN! Love you! xoxoxo
I also hope Clayton recovers, of course, but this is the sort of thing that turns me off to popular religion.  I say "popular" and not "mainstream" or "institutional" religion, because the respectable leaders of respectable religion tend to be careful to caution the laity not to expect any real results from prayer, even as they encourage them to pray.  We shouldn't try to pressure God, to make him do what we want, all that matters is what He wants.  The lively, vivid faith of the Common People tends to be a lot less cautious, though no less wrong for that.

Very seriously: the accident must, according to orthodox Christian theology both popular and respectable, have been the result of the Dear Lord placing his hands upon Merry and bringing someone else's car together with hers, in order to humble her and teach her Who is in charge around here.  That's a harsh way of putting it, but it's essentially what the popular Christian writer C. S. Lewis said about "the problem of pain" seventy years ago.
We are perplexed to see misfortune falling on decent, inoffensive, worthy people -- on capable, hard-working mothers of families or diligent, thrifty little trades-people, on those who have worked so hard, and so honestly, for their modest stock of happiness and now seem to be entering on the enjoyment of it with the fullest right. How can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said? ... Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for a moment, that God who made these deserving people, may really be right when He says that their modest prosperity has not made them blessed; that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands before them and recognition of this need; He makes that life less sweet to them. ... The creature's illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature's sake, be shattered. ... And this illusion ... may be at its strongest in some very honest, kindly, and temperate people, on on such people, therefore, misfortune must fall [The Problem of Pain, Macmillan, 1940, 96-98].
On second thought, I'm not sure I was being harsher than Lewis.  I hope I'm less smug and complacent -- as he admitted he'd been, after his wife died of cancer twenty years later; but in the end he retreated to an exhausted and weary submission to his lord's will.

And then a little while ago, just after the Mexican soccer team beat the Croatian team 3-1, a Mexican acquaintance posted to Facebook:
Gracias Diosss pude ver los 3 golazos aunque aki mi raza no me crelleron soy vidente
Roughly: Thank you Goddd that I could see the 3 goals although my people didn't believe me I'm a prophet

So it's presumptuous to expect Yahweh to place his hands on Merry Clayton when he had more important matters like the World Cup to handle.  (As I've pointed out many times, this attitude is widespread among sports fans and athletes alike: His eye is on my team, or on Me Me Me.)

The victim-Christianist writer Rod Dreher kvelled yesterday about a "miracle in Philadelphia" (yes, I know, he's alluding to another "miracle") in which a Ukrainian Orthodox church in the City of Brotherly Love "burned to the ground -- but its icons were unharmed."  Well, "a few of the icons," anyway; or maybe "a lot of" them, or maybe "Not one of those pictures caught on fire" -- the firefighter quoted isn't very consistent.  It would be a nice coincidence if none of the icons was damaged, but I'm not sure what it would prove, since of course Yahweh could just as easily have spared the church altogether.  Maybe it's like the man who was blind from birth in the gospel of John: Jesus explained to his disciples that the blindness wasn't due to any sin by the man or by his parents, but "so that the works of God might be displayed in him" (9:3).  So Yahweh set the church afire, but spared the icons to show his power and glorify himself.  Just the kind of god people like, apparently -- at any rate, very few Christians seem to stumble over a doctrine like this.

Last week another writer at The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs, asked, "What Does Atheism Do for Atheists?" in reply to an article by Susan Jacoby on the blessings of atheism.  I haven't read Jacoby's article yet, though I know I should; she's not the sharpest pencil in the box.  But I do want to try to answer Jacobs's question sometime.  My first thought, though, is to counter: What does religion do for the religious?  It seems to me, from what I've observed, that its comforts are not very reliable, and require the cultivation of doublethink to work at all: to remember Yahweh's omnipotence selectively, so that you beg him to repair an injury while forgetting that, according to your own doctrines, he himself inflicted it.  I can't believe that the strain of leaving that contradiction unresolved doesn't take a toll of some kind.

Atheists in general don't do any better with such questions.  That whatever answers we come up with are not satisfactory doesn't mean that theists' answers are correct, of course.  More soon, I hope.

Monday, June 23, 2014


Someone with less than perspicacious timing posted this meme today.  I commented: "By contrast, the rest of the world is excited about ... soccer."  (At first glance, in fact, I thought that the topmost image in the meme was of soccer fans celebrating their team's victory against another team.  The flag-waving is something you often see in the stands at sports events.)

Most other commenters objected indignantly that they were Americans but they weren't asleep, they "can't stand Kim Kardashian and her big rump," and:
Can you blame us, we are so indoctrinated, fed so much bullshit, and removed from the truth in our mainstream media that it's hard to wake up unless you were born naturally more questioning, or have good friends that steer you where you need to go to think for yourself.
Ooh yes, without my friends to "steer" me I wouldn't be able to think for myself either!  A Latin American commenter replied that people are also indoctrinated there.  I'd add that people around the world are also obsessed with video games, cell phones, cars, TV shows and celebrities, sex scandals, etc.  The popular assumption that Americans are worse in this regard -- which, if it's true at all, is a matter of degree, not of kind -- is to my mind just the obverse of American exceptionalism: We're not the best, we're the worst!  Which is an equally pernicious form of indoctrination.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

In Perfect Obedience Lies Freedom

Oh, damn, I really don't feel like writing much today.  But here's something: a blog post exhorting us not to be sex-positive jerks.  The writer seeks to critique a
very specific brand of sex-positivity I loathe, in which people seem bound and determined to press their sexuality on other people, insisting that sex is fantastic for everyone and everyone enjoys sex, creating a hypersexual, charged environment that refuses to acknowledge the complexities of human sexuality. Sex is awesome, under this framework, so everyone’s into it, and a ‘sex positive’ environment is not simply a place in which people can talk about sexuality without shame or judgement, but an environment in which sexuality is actively pushed on people. It’s all sexy, all the time.
I agree with that, as I do with the writer's argument that sexual freedom and sex-positivity include the freedom to say "no" to sex, whether at any given moment or throughout one's life, for one's own reasons and on one's own terms. But I want to point out that pressuring and compelling people to have sex (or not to) is completely compatible with a sex-negative position, indeed it's a traditional value.  That's why it proved so difficult to prohibit rape within marriage, for example, even in the supposedly liberal United States: because one of marriage's historic functions is to manage, restrict, and control erotic expression.  The traditional inability to distinguish between consensual and forced copulation is another facet of this attitude: copulation is either forbidden or mandatory, and freedom means freedom to conform and obey.  The idea that people might make their own choices (erotic or other) is still disturbing to many, as shown by the widespread idea that it can only be okay to be gay if we are forced by our genes to be that way.

People who try to impose a single pattern of sexual expression on others shouldn't be permitted to claim the mantle of sex-positivity.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Privacy for Me But Not for Thee

I'm almost done reading Glenn Greenwald's new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (Metropolitan Books, 2014), and it's well worth my time.  It doesn't tell me much that I didn't already know, but it's a good roundup of what has been learned and what it means.

In particular, Chapter 4, "The Harm of Surveillance," is an excellent discussion of the meaning of privacy and its violation by the State, along with a history of illegal spying on citizens by the American government and its agencies.  If you don't feel like reading the entire book (though it's not very long, and quite readable), read this chapter.

And guess what?  I finally found the video clip I've been trying to find for a couple of years now, in which President Obama not only declared, improperly, that Private Manning "broke the law," thereby prejudicing Manning's chances of a fair trial, but that "people can have philosophical views [about Bradley Manning] but I can’t conduct diplomacy on an open source [basis]… That’s not how the world works."  As another writer argued, "Nobody thus far has suggested that all diplomacy be conducted out in the open," but the key point about Obama's remark is that NSA spying has extended to the governments of friendly countries.
In 2009, for example, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon wrote a letter to [then-Director of the NSA] Keith Alexander, offering his "gratitude and congratulations for the outstanding signals intelligence support" that the State Department received regarding the Fifth Summit of the Americas, a conference devoted to negotiating economic accords.  In the letter, Shannon specifically noted that the NSA's surveillance provided the United States with negotiating advantages over the other parties ...

The NSA is equally devoted to diplomatic espionage, as the documents referring to "political affairs" demonstrate.  One particularly egregious example, from 2011 [that is, around the time Obama was protesting that he couldn't do open-source diplomacy], shows the agency targeted two Latin American leaders -- Dilma Roussef, the president of Brazil, along with "her key advisers"; and Enrique Peña Nieto, then Mexico's leading presidential candidate (and now its president), along with "nine of his close associates" -- for a "surge" of especially invasive surveillance [138-9].
In other words, the Obama regime expects other countries to do open-source diplomacy, but doesn't want to be held to the same requirement.  This sort of double standard is virtually universal among governments, of course -- it's justifiable for us to spy on you, but your spying on us is criminal! (My skepticism about this attitude makes it difficult for me to read most spy fiction.)  And closer to home, our government expects its citizens to live open-source lives while increasing its own secrecy exponentially.

I'm going to quote myself from an older post: Was the information Snowden released "private" in the first place? No, except in the narrow and circular sense of "secret." It was public in the truest sense of the word: it concerned events that were paid for by the public dime, and then concealed from the public by public agencies. Governments do not have a right to privacy, especially when they are engaged in criminal enterprises; nor do government officials in their role as government officials. Whether Barack Obama wears boxers or briefs, for example, is a matter I'm happy to leave private, though it's just the kind of fact that many Americans, and the corporate media, would claim that the public has a right to know. (I suspect that Obama would address the boxers vs. briefs question more readily than questions about dead Afghan or Pakistani children, however.) But what our government is doing with its weapons and its troops and its vast amounts of money is what the public has not only a right but an obligation to know. I would include the world, not just Americans, since so much of our crimes are committed on foreign soil, but also because our government is spying on the entire world now.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Taking Offense

Avedon linked to this post at Digby's blog, responding to a dissent by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia about establishments of religion.  (Justice Clarence Thomas joined the dissent.)  The quotation from Scalia reads:
Some there are—many, perhaps—who are offended by public displays of religion. Religion, they believe, is a personal matter; if it must be given external manifestation, that should not occur in public places where others may be offended. I can understand that attitude: It parallels my own toward the playing in public of rock music or Stravinsky. And I too am especially annoyed when the intrusion upon my inner peace occurs while I am part of a captive audience, as on a municipal bus or in the waiting room of a public agency.
"tristero," the blogger, properly points out that offense is not the issue.
Obviously, the issue is not that the display of religion is offensive but that the establishment of any religion by a government is extremely dangerous (see the Middle East) and that the government sanctioned display of a specific religion strongly implies establishment.
Unfortunately tristero continues with some childish personal slams against Scalia, which may well be justified but are beside the point.  Does he, or anyone, seriously want to claim that taste in music is relevant to a judge's competence as a judge?  After all, Scalia has a law degree from Harvard Law School and was an editor of the school review, just like another great Constitutional scholar we all know, so how can anyone doubt his qualifications or his authority?

Aside from Scalia's actual arguments, that is.  As tristero says, the issue is not one of personal offense or taste but the First Amendment, which forbids the government to establish any religion.  The Establishment Clause is not easy to interpret, like so much of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, so it's legitimate to debate whether a given practice constitutes an establishment of religion.  In the case of prayers and invocations before government functions, I think it's obvious that they violate the Establishment Clause, as did James Madison, but they've been doing so ever since the first US Congress commenced, and that camel long ago made itself at home in the tent.  I'm all in favor of kicking it out, but I know it won't be easy.

What concerns me is that Scalia isn't the only one who makes this mistake.  (I'll try to write more about this later; the rest of his dissent seems to be similarly wrongheaded.)  I recall a suit, in the 1990s I think, by a group of people to prevent an official prayer at Indiana University commencements.  The petitioners claimed that the prayer was offensive and therefore shouldn't be part of the ceremony.  But offense is not a legal reason not to include the prayer.  (I wonder how much of a role offense played in Elmbrook School District v. John Doe, the case Scalia was writing about.  Topic for further research, and soon.)  It may well be an ethical reason, or one of courtesy, but as a legal reason, not at all.  It's alarming that liberals are as confused about the First Amendment as conservatives are.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Born to Be Picked On?

Yesterday I read Different Daughters: A Book by Mothers of Lesbians, edited by Louise Rafkin, originally published by Seal Press in 1987 and then in updated editions in 1996 and 2001.  I read the second edition, which I found at a library book sale.  It consists of short essays by about thirty women, mostly of my parents' generation, telling how they came to terms with the discovery that their daughters were lesbian or bisexual.  It's familiar territory to me, since numerous books of this kind have been published, but it was good to brush up, and to be reminded of the attitudes lesbians faced in the first decade or so after Stonewall.

The book also nudged me toward thought on some secondary issues.  Many of the contributors told of agonizing over what they might have done to make their daughters turn away from men, and this passage stood out for me:
I remembered with guilt a debate I had many years before with [my ex-husband's] therapist, a woman, about the children's independence and their learning to do things like change their own bicycle tires.  She said I was going to raise daughters that no man would want to live with [66].
This would have been sometime in the 1960s, I believe.  Similar ridiculous ideas were expressed by other psychiatrists, according to these mothers, which is a reminder that psychiatry and therapy generally have often been hotbeds of reaction.  Seriously: changing her own bicycle tire would render a woman intolerable to men?  But yes, traces of this attitude persist to this day, and though it was never true that all men required incompetence and dependence from their wives, enough men are threatened by competence and the independence it may signal to be a problem -- especially when the official culture endorses their attitude.

But also:
One day at a beach someone threw a bottle at one of my daughters and yelled "dyke" [61].
This set me thinking.  A young woman might be assaulted by a random bigot on the beach or anywhere else whether she is lesbian or not, simply because she's a woman.  She was born that way, of course. The same would be true of people of color who are subject to harassment by white supremacists simply because of the inborn color of their skin.  Why, I wonder, do so many gay people believe that if we could just prove that we're Born This Way, bigotry would simply evaporate, when everybody knows that inborn conditions are the basis of discrimination, hostility, and violence?

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Old Book Peddler, Doing Well by Doing Good

It's like losing your virginity: you always remember the first time.

I grew up in small towns and rural areas, and the nearest dedicated bookstore was about twenty-five miles away in South Bend, Indiana.   ("Dedicated," that is, as opposed to racks of paperbacks in the drugstore or supermarket, or the newsstand in one town [where, as a teenager, I saw but didn't buy a copy of Richard Amory's Song of the Loon] or an office supply store in the same town that had some Modern Library hardcovers.)  I have a murky memory, from the age of perhaps eight or nine, of my mother taking me downstairs into a basement full of metal bookshelves and letting me pick out two books.  I think it was a bookstore in South Bend, but I have no idea which one it was.  I chose a Berlitz children's book teaching Spanish through a bilingual telling of Little Red Riding Hood and a Tom Swift book, one of the later series by "Victor Appleton II."  I think it was Tom Swift and His Jetmarine, but after more than fifty years, that detail is gone; if I recognize it, it's by the cover art.

When my family traveled, which we didn't do all that often, we went to Chicago and saw the museums. When we shopped in South Bend, it was mainly at Sears, and children weren't allowed to wander off by themselves to look for more interesting stores.  The first South Bend bookstore I found, when I got a job nearby in 1969 at the age of 18, was only a couple of blocks from Sears, but it might as well have been in Europe.  It was small, on a corner across the Post Office, and it had bohemian pretensions.  There I first saw books by Ginsberg, Genet, Purdy, Henry Miller, and many others.  But then I must have found this place before I was eighteen, because I began reading Miller during my junior year of high school.  Oh well, the chronology isn't all that important.

More important to me when I was growing up were libraries, both public libraries and school libraries, which I used as much as I could.  It wasn't until I started earning my own money that I could start to accumulate a personal library.  Since then, bookstores have joined libraries as vital resources in my life.  I immediately recognized them as places in which I felt at home.  For several years I lived above an independent bookstore in downtown Bloomington, and so it became routine for me to stop in daily as I came home from work to see what was new and chat with the owners.

With that as prelude, consider an article from Esquire magazine's website, "How to Quit Amazon and Shop in an Actual Bookstore" (subtitle: "And why you damn well should") by one Stephen Marche.  Marche begins by summarizing the current conflict between and Hachette Publishing:
Amazon has managed to offend the actual writers whose books Hachette publishes, including Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson, and JK Rowling. That wouldn't matter so much if one of them wasn't Stephen Colbert. He has promoted stickers that viewers can download from his website, which read, I DIDN'T BUY IT ON AMAZON. Amazon has responded by telling customers that anybody inconvenienced by the battle with Hachette should buy books elsewhere. 
Well, that's fair enough, isn't it?  It's the free-enterprise system that supposedly made America great.  And despite the staggering hegemony of online purchasing, there do remain "elsewheres" from which one can buy books.  If a brick-and-mortar bookstore isn't close at hand, there are even online alternatives like Barnes and Noble or Powell's.  Even with the high price of gasoline these days, people are still shopping at malls, many of which have some kind of bookstore within their boundaries.  The tricky part is getting people to patronize them, and that seems to be pretty tricky.

Marche continues:
Unfortunately, by now, purchasing print books in a brick-and-mortar building is something of a lost art, like taking snuff or drinking brandy after dinner.
Indeed?  I've become intensely skeptical whenever anyone talks about lost arts, or for that matter compares the present invidiously to a better past.  I want to see evidence that things used to be better.  So, in this case, when was buying books a commonly practiced art?  (The other examples Marche gives, which I suspect are half-facetious, are hardly a loss and probably were never that widespread in the population to start with: in context they signify an anxious craving for class status that we're better off without.)

My bet is: Never.  Americans are probably more literate, even if only minimally, than we ever were before in our history.  Granted, with the continuing assault on public education, that's an achievement which may be in danger, and it may well be that, as in so many other areas, the US is behind other developed nations.  But before, say, World War II, most Americans didn't finish high school, and despite popular fantasies that every child finished third grade able to read highly advanced text, there were many who didn't finish third grade.  Nor were they readers.  It's proverbial that most American households had a Bible (often an expurgated "family" Bible) and perhaps a complete Shakespeare (also often bowdlerized); it's also proverbial that a country boy like Abraham Lincoln had to work hard to find more reading matter.  Sure, cities had bookstores, but in the days when the vast majority of the population lived outside the cities, I can't imagine that skilled bookstore browsers were more numerous than they are now.

There's also a tradition of working-class self-teaching, including lectors who were paid to read to their coworkers on the shift, sometimes fairly ambitious and challenging material.
La lectura (the reading) provided an education for the workers, but it also caused friction between the workers and the factory owners. Beginning with the first time a lector took his seat in an Ybor City factory in 1886, owners saw them as a negative influence on their workers. Lectors were blamed for the workers' growing socialist views, slowdowns and strikes. Yet the workers revered the lector.
How this all balanced out I don't know.  For now I'll just stress that the small towns I knew in the 1950s and early 1960s had no bookstores of their own.  One town had a very good public library, but we didn't live there after I was 8 so I mostly couldn't use it except to read on the premises; the other, smaller one, was adequate to keep me busy for years, as were the various school libraries.  In school I was one of the best readers, and diagnostic tests showed by the eighth grade I was reading at a twelfth-grade or college level -- but I was unusual.  Most of my fellow students hardly read at all as far as I could tell, though I did manage to incite one friend to read The Catcher in the Rye.  How many of them read books now?  From what I can tell, hardly any -- but neither did their parents.

Before we moved out of town, my mother belonged for a while to the Doubleday Bargain Book Club, but not past the trial period.  We had the books she got then, which included a three-volume collection of children's literature that I eventually read all the way through.  (One day in kindergarten I began giggling during nap time; I explained to the teacher when she scolded me that I was thinking of the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff from that collection.  I had to bring the book to school with me the next day and read to her from it to prove my claim.)  Once at around this time my father brought home a box of books, most of them book-club editions, that I suppose he'd been given by a co-worker.  Since they were grown-ups' books, I didn't find them interesting at the time, but later I read several of them.  Those were pretty much all the books we had at home.  But while we lived in that town, I had the library.

Speaking of book clubs, Marche complains:
The real problem with Amazon isn't that it's strong-arming Hachette; it's that it leads readers to buy books that they've already heard about. When you pick out a summer novel for yourself online, you're going to pick the book that everybody else is reading, almost automatically. But the book that you want probably isn't Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It probably isn't another James Patterson. A good seller in a bookstore is infinitely superior in every way to a personalization algorithm.
Ah, the algorithms.  Amazon's "recommendations" have led to me to quite a lot of interesting material, but that's because, as Marche says, they work from the kind of books I already have in my Wish List.  But it is not true, in my case and I imagine in others', that Amazon's algorithmic recommendations only point me to books I already know about.  Very much the opposite.

Mostly I do not buy books from Amazon, but from third-party dealers on the site.  But those listings and purchases are evidently grist for the algorithms.  Since I already have a long history of reading widely, the algorithms have a broader base of data to work with than they would for someone like my coworker who reads almost nothing but mysteries and romances.  Would she follow up on a good bookseller's recommendation to try something out of her usual territory?  No, she would not.  She reads for pleasure, as I do; but not, as I also do, to stretch my mind and learn. (Which, for me, is pleasure.) She reads hardly any nonfiction, and the fiction she reads is quite circumscribed.  Would she have read more nonfiction before Amazon existed?  I doubt it.  A recommendation can only work for you if you're interested in following it up.  A good bookseller, knowing my coworker as a customer, would not recommend to her Eric Foner's Reconstruction, Michael Gaddis's There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ, or Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality.  Such a bookseller would point her to more books in the vein she's already working.  The proverbial bookseller or librarian who points a child to a book that opens up new horizons exists, but he or she learns to spot the rare reader who might be receptive to the suggestion.  (And even then, I bet that most kids who receive the recommendations don't follow up on them -- we hear from the few who did.)

Before Amazon, there were book clubs.  The Book of the Month Club offered one middle-brow selection per month, selected by a board of advisors, plus a small back catalog of other works.  (Those of a certain age will recall the introductory offers, like the Durants' multivolume The Story of Civilization.)  The monthly selection would arrive in the mail unless you opted out.  No doubt BOMC broadened the reading habits of many people, but how much?  Was it any better, despite the guiding hands of Clifton Fadiman et al., than Amazon's algorithmic recommendations?

Marche's suggestions for browsing and buying physical books are largely good.  It's the context in which he puts them that isn't so good.  I'm worried myself about the loss that may follow from the digitization of reading, but I'm skeptical of my worries.  As Samuel Delany remarked some years ago:
It's the same thing with the physical books on the shelves. Anybody who does actual research in a library knows that you look on this shelf and then you turn around and you look on this thing, it's not related alphabetically; it's not related subject-wise; it just happens to be the book you need. And if you don't have the physical propinquity of the way the books are arranged, you're going to miss out on this opportunity, and this limits the kinds of research gems that can come up.
As books from the stacks in the university library I use are moved to the auxiliary facility to make shelf space for more acquisitions, I worry about the loss of this kind of serendipity.  But then I remember that in traditional research libraries, the stacks were closed.  You filled out a form for the material you wanted, and the librarian brought it to you -- just like the "new" model.  Open stacks are evidently an atypical situation (and one for which I'm very grateful myself).

I also suspect that new forms and methods of browsing, and of serendipity, will arise as more and more material is disseminated to the Web.  Those who are interested are also inventive; but they're also a minority, and probably always have been.  A more fruitful challenge might be thinking of ways to get more and more people, especially young ones (get 'em young!), comfortable in libraries and information exchanges in the first place.  That will become more important as the war against public education and public resources generally advances in the years to come.  Whining about an imaginary past of brandy snifters and bookstores won't do any good about the real barriers to general literacy that will be erected and must be torn back down.

Friday, June 13, 2014

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

It's almost funny, in a horrible way.  Of course you all know that there's trouble in Iraq.  Last night my Right-Wing Acquaintance Number One was fretting over it, linking to an article from the Christian Science Monitor, which is a better source than NRO or The Daily Caller.  The "original invasion," RWA1 conceded, "was very badly handled," rather like an Obama cultist admitting that the President has in some ways been a "disappointment."  One of RWA1's friends advocated another US invasion of Iraq and of Iran and Turkey, to divide them by ethnicity and bring peace to the region; this, he said, would be "the best way we could help."  What could possibly go wrong?  It's good to be reminded that there are people even farther out of touch with reality than RWA1.

This morning I saw that liblogger Roy Edroso was having another hearty laugh at the Right's expense on this issue.  And true, there's plenty to laugh at.  Edroso quoted Slate columnist Reihan Salam, who wrote:
So why did the U.S. leave Iraq at the end of 2011? Part of it is that many within the Obama administration simply didn’t believe that U.S. forces would make much of a difference to Iraq’s political future.
Edroso invoked the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush/Cheney junta in 2008, which was the main reason the US left Iraq at the end of 2011, more or less, if you overlook the remaining American troops and mercenaries.  In other words, it was the Bush administration, if it was anyone, who "didn't believe that U.S. forces" blah blah blah.  But Edroso neglected to mention that Obama tried to modify the SOFA to allow US forces to remain in Iraq past the negotiated date.  (I looked over the first 70 comments on Edroso's posts, and none of his readers mentioned the facts either.)  The Iraqi government refused to grant "legal protection" to US troops who committed atrocities and other crimes, so Obama had to keep his campaign promise to end the war, which must have been painful for him.

The facts are unpalatable to either party.  Obama fans have made much of his supposedly ending the war, trying hard to forget that the end was negotiated by the Bush administration.  Republican Obama opponents have tried to forget that the end of the war was Bush's doing, not Obama's.  As in so many other areas, the parties have constructed a fantasy version of recent US history.  We live in the United States of Amnesia, darlings.

Richard Seymour posted his take on the matter:
I see it's time to get back into Iraq. It's been a while and, let's be honest, we've all felt the absence of imperial omnipotence registered in daily beheadings deeply. Last time, the US promoted some Iranian clients, installed them into a new patrimonial state, trained up their death squads - and then complained like fuck when Iran seemed to make some strategic gains in the situation.
True.  I guess things have been too quiet lately, or something.

At The American Conservative, Daniel Larison did a neat dissection of one writer who called for immediate US intervention in Iraq:
Jeffrey leans very heavily on creating the impression of impending catastrophe, but that appears to be alarmist exaggeration aimed at scaring people into endorsing the very dubious idea of sustained military action in Iraq for months and perhaps years to come. Once we think through what Jeffrey is proposing, we should all be able to see that an air campaign would be just the sort of stupid, knee-jerk reaction to a crisis that the U.S. should strive to avoid.
Of course we should, but will we?  Our rulers are looking desperately for another chance to use our superb military, which requires ginning up popular alarm.  It's a harder sell than it used to be, but sooner or later they'll find a workable pretext.  ISIS is an imminent threat to America!  If we don't act now, these scary Islamic terrorists will pour across the undefended US/Iraq border and conquer us, raping our cattle and stealing our women! These dirty pacifists don't care how many innocent people are massacred by the bad guys (as opposed to the good guys, namely us). We've got to do something! 

I'll be back home in the morning, after an overnight flight from San Francisco.  I don't know how long it will take me to get back in the groove, but I'll do my best.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

All Over the Place

Dagnab it, I'm not supposed to be this busy and distracted when I'm traveling!  I guess I'm not complaining.  But I am behind.

On my flight to San Francisco I read Afrekete, edited by Catherine E. McKinley and L. Joyce DeLaney, published by Anchor Books in 1995.  It's an anthology of Black Lesbian writing, and as usual with anthologies, it's a mixed bag, very uneven.  One of the more interesting pieces is "Revelations" by Linda Villarosa, about the former Essence editor's experience coming out as lesbian and encountering conservative Christian objections to homosexuality.

Like so many gay people who've grown up in what might be called soft-shell churches, it had never occurred to Villarosa that there might be any conflict between her Christianity and her lesbianism.  When she discovered that many people thought there was, she did a little research.  Not too much -- just enough so she could say she'd been there and done that.  And right off, she came up with one of those delicious tidbits of ignorance, like the Saint James Bible, that make gay Christians so entertaining:
The New Testament had been written in Greek and then translated into Hebrew [221].
I've never seen this one before.  As a collector of gay Christian misinformation, I'm always delighted to encounter a new specimen.  Yes, there have been translations of the New Testament into Hebrew, but they were made centuries after the originals were written, and they have nothing to do with the main tradition of the Biblical text: no English translation would use them as source material.  Villarosa seems to believe that an official Hebrew version was prepared early on for use by the church, which of course isn't true.  It's a minor error, but still revealing of the biblical illiteracy of so many American Christians.

Today there's a fuss about some remarks made about homosexuality by Texas governor Rick Perry while he was on a goodwill mission to the heathen state of California.  In the very heart of Sodom, San Francisco itself, Perry told an audience last night:
"Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that," Perry said. "I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way." 
This inspired the predictable liberal responses: Ohhowcouldhesaysuchanawfulthing!  Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco, demanded on Twitter that Perry "'must apologize for (his) ignorant and hateful remarks,' noting also that it is Gay Pride month."

The trouble is that, first, there's no real yardstick for deciding whether a condition is a "destructive addiction" or "an aspect of human diversity"; and second, gay people and our allies have relied on the same highly dubious kind of science which claims alcoholism to be a genetic condition to claim that homosexuality is a genetic condition.  Much of mainstream gay apologetics holds that we shouldn't be discriminated against because we were born this way and it's in our genes, we can't help ourselves.  This, as I've argued before, does not construct a terribly positive conception of homosexuality.  It makes the bogus claim that inborn conditions are necessarily good, which is belied by the reaction when someone compares homosexuality to other supposedly inborn conditions that clearly aren't good.  It also assumes that only inborn and immutable conditions are worthy of legal protection against discrimination, which is false.  (Civil rights laws cover not only inborn conditions like race and sex, but learned and mutable conditions such as religion.)

It pains me to say it, but Governor Perry made a defensible point; it's just irrelevant to a serious discussion of the issue.  We do expect people not to give in to every natural, inborn desire they have -- to commit adultery, for example, which the advocates of same-sex marriage must surely concede.  Perry was wrong about the moral status of homosexuality, though that is not graven in stone either: it's a judgment.  Gay people who jump from the (false) belief that homosexuality is inborn to the (false) believe that it therefore is morally good or at least neutral are playing with the same set of assumptions as Perry.  Much that is "natural" is bad; much that is human choice is good.

I'm leaving aside here the question whether homosexuality is chosen, which I don't believe it is; but "born this way" and "choice" are not opposites, nor do they exhaust the possibilities.  Nor is it clear how "choice" can be assigned to sexual orientation, or to many significant aspects of the human condition.  The twentieth-century psychiatric diagnosis of homosexuality as a disease assumed that it was not a choice, but resulted from disturbed family dynamics beyond the control of the victim.  Like the nineteenth-century diagnosis of drapetomania, I'm not sure the close-binding-mother / absent-father theory was ever definitely disproved, as much as it was abandoned for other reasons.  (It made a slight comeback among the ex-gay reparative therapy movement associated mostly with reactionary Christianity -- which is ironic, because if homosexuality is a disease it can't be a sin.)  There was also, for the change therapists, the inconvenient fact their treatments didn't work.  This doesn't prove that homosexuality is inborn, though, because psychiatric treatment doesn't work in general.

In good American politician's fashion, Perry is now trying to avoid clarifying, discussing, or defending his remarks.  (See the video clip embedded above.)  So it goes.  While I was working on this post, sitting near the TV in my hotel room, I heard a soccer fan, excited about the beginning of the World Cup, say "This game, when you're born into it, it's in your genetics."  It's a reminder just how confused most people are about what it means to be "born into" anything, or what "genetics" involve.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Somebody Up There

I'm pretty sure I was no more than seven years old when, after having wakened from a nightmare and gone to my mother for comfort and reassurance, I began to wonder who she went to when she had a bad dream, when she was afraid.  I had just come to realize that my mother was also a daughter, that one of my grandmas was her mother.  But she didn't live with her.  If she had a bad dream, she couldn't get up and run to her mother.  So what did she do?  What did all grownups do?

Democracy Now! broadcast excerpts today from a memorial to the late Maya Angelou, and what they chose to share was mostly gag-making.  First the war criminal and general congenital cheap pig Bill Clinton:
Here is why I think she died when she did. It was her voice. She was without a voice for five years, and then she developed the greatest voice on the planet. God loaned her his voice. She had the voice of God. And he decided he wanted it back for a while.
That got him an ovation.  Of course she really died because God needed another angel.  And this sort of thing, with its amoral sentimentality, is probably inescapable when someone dies, but coming from someone like Bill Clinton it's especially repulsive.

Next up was Michelle Obama, who claimed that "the power of Maya Angelou’s words ... carried a little black girl from the south side of Chicago all the way to the White House."  Well, no, I don't think Angelou should get the credit (or the blame) for Mrs. Obama's ending up married to a President of the United States.  Not even when I consider that Angelou also inspired "a young white woman from Kansas who named her daughter after Maya and raised her son to be the first black president of the United States."  (I'm sure I'm not the only person who reflects from time to time on what difference it would make to the discourse about President Obama if his mother were still alive.  Did she really "raise her son to be the first black president of the United States," or were her standards higher than that?)

Finally Oprah Winfrey took her turn, and she was in many ways the most appalling.
I was in utter despair and distraught and had called Maya. I remember being locked in the bathroom with the door closed, sitting on the toilet seat. I was crying so hard she could barely understand what I was saying. And I had — I was upset about something that I can’t even remember now what it was. Isn’t that how life works? And I called for long-distance cry on her shoulder, but she wasn’t having it. She said, as you all know she could, stop it! Stop it now. And I’d say, what? What? What did you say? And she said, stop your crying now. And I continued to sniffle and she said, did you hear me? And I said, yes, ma’am. Only she could level me to my seven year old self in an instant.
And so on, and on.  Winfrey's remarks sent me to the pages of Marge Piercy's 1973 novel Small ChangesPiercy had a fair amount to say about the Strong Woman and the women who depend on her.  In Small Changes there's a Socratic dialogue on the subject.
“Don’t try to make me somebody up there,” Wanda said with quiet anger.  “On some higher level.  I’m older than you, yes.  I have a few things to teach you that you want to learn, though most of it is in you already.  But I’m not existing on some easier, calmer level.  If I’m older, I’m also more spent.  I have less reserves, less to spare.  I’m a woman the same as you, and it isn’t easier for me to fight and to survive and to get things done than it is for you!  It makes me angry when you pretend it’s different for me.”

“But you know so much more.  You never wonder who you are, I know you don’t!”

“Beth, it’s recently I stopped being only Joe’s woman and mother of my kids.  That’s all I was for years, and don’t forget it.  Joe, my kids, and radical politics were my life, in that order.  I wasn’t on my own list of priorities.”

“But now you do know!  You do!  I feel you’re pretending.  Because I know you’re stronger than me.”

“You mean I’m louder.  How do you know I’m stronger, Beth?  Because you haven’t seen me break yet?” [454]
She wanted to love, yes, but safely, without demands, from a distance.  She wanted Wanda for her own loud, strong, vigorous dark Madonna.  Part of her froze and tucked in when Wanda wanted to make demands back, when Wanda wanted to talk about her aching legs or to worry about her sons or to be sullenly angry and defeated: when Wanda asked her to be her friend [456-7].
I haven't read that much of Angelou's work, but from what I have read I get the impression that she made her own weaknesses and fears clear enough.  She must have gotten so tired of people attaching themselves to her, demanding to be mothered and inspired.  It's no tribute to her to turn her into a wise, powerful oracle who was always on top of things, a "loud, strong, vigorous dark Madonna" who'd make you whole if you but touched the hem of her garment.  Michelle Obama did better than Winfrey in this regard, recognizing that Angelou was honored better by learning from her weaknesses as well as her strengths.  I wonder who was there for the adult Maya Angelou when she had bad dreams.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Permanent Wave of the Future

Two other recent reads:

Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel, Raising Steam, just appeared, and I read it on the bus en route to Chicago last month.  One of Pratchett's standard devices is to imagine Sphereworld (if I can call it that) technology translated to a vaguely late-Medieval / early-Renaissance environment with real magic and a variety of sentient species in addition to human beings.  It used to mean primarily magical means to parallel mechanical ones, so that Discworld cameras house tiny demons that draw pictures.  This always makes me remember the Flintstones, which used dinosaurs and stone tools for the same kind of satirical effect.  More recently Pratchett has been relying more on technology and cultural changes, as with the "clacks," a steampunk version of the telegraph crossed with semaphore.  In Raising Steam he has a young inventor develop the steam engine and the locomotive, which he parlays (with the help of a tycoon in the city of Ankh-Morpork) into railways.  This goes along with Pratchett's long-running plotline of the emancipation and integration of various non-human people: trolls, goblins, vampires, dwarfs, golems, and others.
In short, the citizens of Ankh-Morpork who might be expected to fill the heavy-lifting trades, such as the golems and the trolls, were increasingly realizing that just because they were big and tough did not mean they had to do a big tough job if they didn’t want to.  This was, after all, Ankh-Morpork, where a man walked free even if he was not, strictly speaking, a man.

The problem, if you could call it that, had been building up for some time.  Moist had first noticed what was happening when Adora Belle said that her new hairdresser was a troll, Mr. Teasy-Weasy Fornacite, and as it turned out, a pretty good hairdresser, according to Adora Belle and her friends.  And there it was: the new reality.  If all sapient species were equal, that’s what you got: golem housekeepers and goblin maids and, he thought, troll lawyers [92-3].
Don't get any funny ideas about Mr. Teasy-Weasy Fornacite, though.  Pratchett may be able to imagine the full citizenship of dwarves, trolls, goblins, et al., but his imagination still balks at queers.  That's not to say that he's homophobic -- I don't get that impression, and he has tried bravely to inject some same-sex loving and gender-variant characters into his world, but they haven't taken.  Everybody has their blind spots, and this is apparently one of Pratchett's.  I only began to notice it as the Discworld series extended to two and then three dozen books, and the paucity of non-heterosexual characters became more noticeable to me.

Tied to this is Pratchett's insistence that the locomotive is somehow female.  I guess that is okay in a magical world, but it doesn't make much sense.  Pratchett's gender mysticism in the novel sits oddly with his personal atheism and science-cultism, but maybe it makes for better fantasy fiction if he doesn't resolve it.

Mostly I don't mind this, because Pratchett is such a good storyteller, his imagined world so involving.  It's his broader politics that bother me more, particularly a persistent theme in Raising Steam: the inevitability of The Future.  For example:
It was as if there had been a space waiting to be filled.  It was steam-engine time, and the steam engine had arrived, like a raindrop, dripping precisely into its puddle, and Moist and Dick and Harry and Vetinari and the rest of them were simply splashes in the storm [212].

“Even the goblins know that you were one of the first who signed up for goblin emancipation.  They, whether we like it or not, are becoming the future, Rhys” [222].
These are from later in the book because I didn't start taking notes till then, but the theme runs throughout.

Against this triumphalism are the villains in the book, the terrorist Grags, reactionary dwarves who want to return a purer, more truly dwarfish past.  "The watchwords were 'restoring order and 'going back to the basics of true dwarfishness'" [235].  Obvious counterparts of Islamism and Christian fundamentalism, they're easy cardboard meanies.  But Pratchett stumbles a bit in sketching them out:
“Nobody has to be hurt,” they said, and it may have been too that people would murmur, “After all, it’s in his best interests,” and there were other little giveaways such as “It’s time for fresh blood,” and such things as “We must preserve our most hallowed ordinances,” and if you were susceptible to atmospheres, you could see that dwarfs, perfectly sensible dwarfs, dwarfs who would consider themselves dwarfs of repute and fair dealing, were nevertheless slowly betraying allegiances they had formerly undertaken with great solemnity, because the hive was buzzing and they didn’t want to be the ones that got stung [235-6].
After all, the railway and the progress it represents are in Discworld's best interests, and it's time for the fresh blood represented by the locomotive's technogeek inventor (let alone Moist von Lipwig, a recent arrival in Ankh-Morpork whose antics have driven several recent installments) to infuse the atmosphere.  If you're susceptible to atmospheres.

These two threads crash into each other like stray locomotives in this speech by Commander of the Watch Vimes, who has become Pratchett's equivalent to Robert A. Heinlein's Heinlein Individual: brilliant, tough, omnicompetent, and always right.
Vimes said to Moist [after interrogating some prisoners], “ … You know, I almost feel sorry for them.  Grags, delvers, whatever they call themselves, the modus operandi is to find some innocent dwarf with the right connections and let it be known to him or her that if they do not toe the line and do what they are told, then perhaps all of their family will simply disappear into the Gap.”
He smiled and said, “Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I do, but I’m a teddy bear by comparison and on the right side.” 
I'm not sure Pratchett realizes what a hole he's dug himself into here.  But hey, you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, and the future takes no prisoners.  Those who resist will find themselves in the dustbin of history!  (Ironically, Pratchett addressed the pitfalls of being "on the right side" better in Witches Abroad, where two characters fight over which is "the good one."  That was the twelfth Discworld novel, two decades ago; Raising Steam is the fortieth.)

As I read Raising Steam I kept thinking that Pratchett has become as preachy as Heinlein was, though in a less interesting way.  Heinlein delivered lectures in his fiction from the start of his career, and become more expansive as he went along.  This could be and often was annoying, even infuriating, but I learned a lot from them, especially when I learned how to argue with them.  Pratchett keeps his preaching impulses under better control, and in a way that's part of the problem: all those references to "the future" fly by just quickly enough to annoy me, without giving me a foothold for disagreement.  Eventually they piled up to the point where I reacted, but a good old-fashioned Shavian disquisition would have been better: here's why you'd better get with the Future's program, for your own good and the good of the Life Force!

The other recent read I want to mention here also deals with time: The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, originally published by Ballantine Books in 1992.  It's an alternate-history story in which the Confederate General Robert E. Lee is visited by mysterious men who offer him new weapons to use against the Union.  They identify themselves as part of an organization called "America Will Break," and the weapons are AK-47s.  They offer not only the guns but an ample supply of ammunition for them, and also advise Lee on Union troop movements.  With this aid, the tide of the war is turned, Lee captures Washington, and the Confederate States of America proceeds along its own path.  But the men from America Will Break, who turn out to be Afrikaaner nationalists who have traveled in time from the year 2014 using a stolen time machine, are displeased by some new Confederate policies which they consider too soft on blacks, and try to overthrow the Confederacy.

I enjoyed The Guns of the South, though I don't consider it a great book by any means.  Turtledove writes vividly about life and war in the 1860s.  It was instructive to look at customer reviews on Amazon, which offered a range of views.  Some argued, probably fairly, that even thousands of AK47s would not have been enough to change the course of the war; I can't evaluate that argument.  Others complained that Turtledove agreed with the Confederate claim that the CSA seceded purely on principle, for states' rights, and not simply to preserve slavery or white supremacy.  This seemed a misconceived criticism to me.  First, Turtledove after all was writing mostly from the Confederates' perspective, so of course his characters shared its apologetics; second, the characters themselves question the official line -- I believe Lee himself points out that as soon as the Confederacy constituted itself, it found it necessary to overrule states' rights.  Only a careless reading could ignore the debate on such issues that runs throughout the book, but a careless reading is what just what many commenters seem to have done.  Some praised the vividness of the battle scenes, but objected when the war ended and Lee and other characters had to deal with politics, the running of a state as opposed to the conduct of a war.  I think Turtledove did as good a job on the politics as he did on the battles. Some of these reviewers were happy once the men from America Will Break tried to dictate policy to the CSA, and the ultraviolence ramped up once more.  I was reminded of fans who loved Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game but hated the sequels because they weren't about interstellar war conceived as a vast videogame.  To each his or her own.

Some claimed that Turtledove did a better job with the same premise -- the CSA winning independence -- without the time-travel device, in some later novels.  Might be.  Turtledove himself wrote in an afterword that The Guns of the South originated in a very unserious way, when another sf writer complained that the cover art for one of her books was as anachronistic as Robert E. Lee holding an Uzi.  Turtledove began musing on how Lee might get access to such weapons, and went from there.  The book might be best approached as a tour de force, but then the same is true of most alternate-history fiction, or of science fiction in general.

The comparison to Raising Steam, for me, lies in the argument offered by some characters in The Guns of the South that the time for slavery had passed.  I'm not sure there was ever a time when slavery was an acceptable institution, but at least some reasons are given why slavery could no longer be sustained -- these are practical and prudential reasons, not moral ones.  At the same time, Turtledove gives his characters experiences which lead them to question the incapacity and inferiority of black Africans compared to European whites, offering a moral argument as well.  It's not great philosophy, but of course many white Americans still haven't caught up with these radical ideas.  In any case, the very notion of alternate history undermines claims for the inevitability of the future.  What if this had happened, instead of that?

I enjoyed The Guns of the South a lot more than I enjoyed Raising Steam, though like Heinlein, Pratchett is a smooth, professional storyteller who rarely bores the reader -- this reader, anyway.  But I'm less likely actually to buy Pratchett's work than I used to be.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Against Nature

A reader wrote in to correct something I wrote in this post, that "this cultivated nostalgia for a carefully modified-and-tamed-by-humans Nature is an artifact of modernity.  It's a luxury we moderns can indulge because we can keep Nature at bay.  (Most of the time, anyway.)"  My reader pointed out "the Roman poets and their longing for simple country life," and I sit corrected.

I should also have remembered Socrates, who according to Plato, reacted against a similar romanticizing of nature even before the Romans.  In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that "the country places and the trees won't teach me anything, but the people in the city do."  The trick to getting him out of the city, he continues, is to dangle a book in front of him, as people dangle carrots in front of hungry draft animals to get them moving.

I noticed this too when I read The Tale of Genji about a decade ago.  It's a vast novel a thousand years old about Japanese court life.  The title character likes to send flowers on branches, wrapped in poems of his own composition, to the ladies he pursues.  (And rapes, as often as not.)  But when Genji goes out in the rain or snow to collect these romantic gifts, he is wrapped in oilcloth against the elements.  It's his servant, less well covered, who does the work of breaking the branches off their trees.  Japanese culture is famous for its aestheticization of nature, but I noticed that "nature" in Genji's day was something to be cut up and gift-wrapped.  Just like my co-worker, taking her backlit e-reader with her when she goes camping to commune with nature.  So I admit, this fetish isn't a product of modernity.

This might also be the place to mention a couple of related things I've read lately.  Today I noticed a collection of C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry sword-and-sorcery stories.  The stories themselves date back to the 1930s, but the collection was published in 2007, with an introduction by the science-fiction writer Suzy McKee Charnas.  I liked some of what Charnas had to say, but much of it baffles me.

For example, she discusses the popularity of "two-fisted action" in pulp writing of the early twentieth century, and contrasts it with literary fiction of the period:
Meanwhile back at the library, the stuff called “literature” in the United States was dominated by people like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, stylists of a terse, “masculine” mode touted as the truest voice of serious American writing.  This hard, stripped-down style was clearly intended to challenge the more ornate, emotional, and melodramatic style of novel that had been popular (especially with middle-class women) for generations – think Dickens, and you’re definitely in the ballpark.  World War One had a powerful effect in concentrating the cultural mind on consensual reality.  After all that killing and dying in reality, mere “fancy” had come to be considered childish and insignificant in literary quarters.  Or, worse, decadent (code for – gasp! – homosexual) [12].
First, Hemingway I can see (though he learned his "terse, 'masculine' node" from the much butcher Gertrude Stein), but Fitzgerald?  His writing is only "terse" compared to, say, Dickens.  I just took another look at the opening pages of This Side of Paradise, thanks to Project Gutenberg:
When Amory was five he was already a delightful companion for her. He was an auburn-haired boy, with great, handsome eyes which he would grow up to in time, a facile imaginative mind and a taste for fancy dress. From his fourth to his tenth year he did the country with his mother in her father's private car, from Coronado, where his mother became so bored that she had a nervous breakdown in a fashionable hotel, down to Mexico City, where she took a mild, almost epidemic consumption. This trouble pleased her, and later she made use of it as an intrinsic part of her atmosphere—especially after several astounding bracers.
Young Amory sounds more like Truman Capote than Conan the Barbarian.  I also know from reading Ann Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture (Knopf, 1977) that nineteenth-century American male writers were obsessed with writing what Julian Hawthorne called "Man-books."  Herman Melville, says Douglas, "regarded the reception of his books as a test which would ascertain what genuine masculinity, or, as he tacitly defined it, what health and independence of mind, remained in American culture" (296).  "Over and over, Melville assures us that he will "set forth things as they actually exist"; he writes to correct 'high-raised romantic notions' about life at sea; no 'sentimental' illusions motivate him; he will give us 'facts'" (301).  Self-conscious striving after "literature" by American males seems to go along quite often with masculine anxiety and homosexual panic; it's not specific to any particular period.

About Jirel of Joiry, whose adventures take place in a version of medieval Europe, Charnas goes on to say that of course both her parents are dead by the time she's an adult, because "In such a violent age if you reached maturity your parents were likely dead, leaving you to replace them as you were meant to" (17).  True, the feudal period was violent, but violence wasn't the only thing that killed people then.  Plague swept through Europe periodically, decimating the population, and women often died in childbirth.  Also, says Charnas, "The feudal, rural France of 'Joiry' is nothing like the Renaissance world of reason, light, and beauty we’re familiar with from history" (15).  Renaissance Europe was still a violent, dirty, stinking, plague-ridden place, with "reason, light, and beauty" kept within strict limits.  Charnas seems to be relying on some outdated histories here, which depicted the medieval period as much 'darker' than it was, and the Renaissance as much 'lighter' and more rational.

I've just begun reading George Sturt's The Wheelwright's Shop (Cambridge UP, 1923), several months after I learned about it from David Ellis's Memoirs of a Leavisite.  Ellis accuses Sturt of romanticizing the old ways of working and living, but this seems at odds with this lovely passage:
The shop was still but half opened when the two front doors had been unfastened.  On either hand was a window, shuttered at night with two shutters put up from within and then fixed with a wooden bar.  When the shutters had been taken down from the windows there was nothing to take their place.  Snow, freezing wind, had a clear run.  With so much chopping to do one could keep fairly warm; but I have stood all aglow from yet resenting the open windows, feeling my feet cold as ice though covered with chips.  To supply some glass shutters for day-time was one of the first changes I made in the shop.  Nowadays, when all the heavy work is done by machinery, men would not and probably could not work at all in such a place; yet it must have sufficed for several generations.  My grandfather and my father had put up with it, and so did I until the winter came round again and the men began to ask me for sundry small indulgences, of which this was one.

Six o’clock in the morning was well enough in the summer; none the less I liked the dark winter mornings better.  Truly they were dark!  At that time the Farnham Local Board, caring nothing for working-class convenience and caring much to save money, had all the street lamps in the town put out at midnight.  The result was that, in the depth of winter, every man who went to work at six in the morning, and most artisans did, had to find his way without any light.  To be sure, there were moonlight mornings.  Sometimes, too, snowy roofs showed clear enough under glittering starlight.  But, on the other hand, there was freezing fog, there was the blackness of dense rain.  One foggy morning I lost my whereabouts in the familiar street; no building could be seen nor any sky distinguished; nothing but a slight difference in the feel of the pavement under my feet told me that I was passing So and So’s shop.  Another time a little glimmering light that met and passed me proved to be a lighted candle-end between the fingers of a chimney sweep, against whom one might otherwise have uncomfortably blundered.  And one black morning I walked through and was conscious of what I took to be the aura of a man on the pavement whom I never saw – probably a motionless policeman [13-14].
Lately I've been thinking often about what life was like in the days before electric light, about town streets -- let alone country roads and paths -- at night; or what it would be like to work in a place like the shop Sturt describes.  Sturt gives a striking picture of that time, and he doesn't seem unduly nostalgic about it.  Well, I've only read the first chapter or so, but I suspect I'll find more nuance here than Ellis allowed.