Friday, October 31, 2014

On Not Getting Along

A younger contemporary from my high school days -- call him "Splendora" -- posted this meme on Facebook, which he'd found on another jerk's page.  I suspect that he posted it because some people (including but not only moi) had disagreed in comments when he complained about a report of two drag queens from RuPaul's Drag Race appearing in a commercial for Starbucks.  This was entertaining in itself, given Splendora's own fondness for drag and general bad taste.  (It was he, as much as anyone I know, who inspired my tagline "Oh Mary, it takes a fairy to make something tacky!")   Maybe I'll return to that little controversy another time; for now, I want to address this meme.

I've often seen complaints like this online, as I think I've mentioned before: when someone's posted opinions encounter disagreement or criticism, they may protest that "this isn't the right place for debate." (One obnoxious variation is the old quip "Debating on the Internet is like competing in the Special Olympics -- even if you win, your [sic -- they always seem to write it that way] still retarded!")   I've asked such people what is the right place for debate, but they never seem to have an answer for that, probably because they don't think there is a place for debate.  Usually it's they who are in a place that has been designated for debate, and are trying to stop other people from having a discussion.  They could just leave themselves, but that, of course, is unthinkable.

Facebook is a different case, I suppose.  I recently defriended an old friend of thirty years' standing when she deleted some comments of mine under a political meme she'd posted.  Facebook, she told me sternly, is not for "politics," it's "where friends and family come together."  She was, she said, already embroiled enough in debates in other online fora.  So why did she post a political meme on Facebook?  She said she had the right to post whatever she liked on her page, and to delete any comments she objected to.  True enough.  So I deleted her, as I've unfriended another nasty, illiberal liberal friend as well as obnoxious right-wingers.

I've also received angry messages from people I don't know, because some mutual Facebook friend had commented on some post of theirs, so the comments and the post showed up in my news feed, and I felt like putting in my two cents' worth.  Why are you posting on my page? they thundered.  You don't even know me.  If you don't like what I post, it's none of your business.  If it turns up on my page, it's my business.  If they don't want people to respond to what they post, they need to tweak their privacy settings so only their Facebook friends will be able to see it.  This is actually much older than Facebook, of course, the idea that what someone posts publicly isn't public, and only those responses they like should even be posted.  (In other words, If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all!  That stricture doesn't apply to them, naturally.  Usually I respond because they've posted something especially nasty and vicious.  But that's different.)

I've been seeing a lot of complaints (the one cited here, for example, but it doesn't stand alone) that social media like Facebook are an echo chamber where people only talk to people they agree with, and that liberals don't have any conservative friends and have no dealings with people of different politics.  (Conservatives like to claim that they have liberal friends, though it's hard to understand how they can do so if liberals won't be friends with conservatives.  And those liberal friends only seem to function as sources of stupid beliefs that the conservative writers demolish with contemptuous ease.  Admittedly, I use several of my liberal and conservative friends for that myself.)  This meme, of course, demands that Facebook be such an echo chamber.  (The earlier step in the transmission had the poster casting his stance as keeping toxic people out of his life; he seems pretty toxic to me.)

But then consider this article from The New Republic that another friend passed along.  The writer declares that Fox News's racism is too harmful for liberals to ignore.  He didn't, that I could see, show that any liberals had said explicitly that Fox should be ignored, not even Frank Rich, whom he quoted at some length.  The quotations supported my own distrust of Rich, who not so long ago was quite the liberal icon.  But they didn't really say much, nor did the writer of the article really say what liberals should do about Fox, except that "the ideas that Fox's [sic] peddles remain gross and dangerous, and as long as they are in circulation, they should be criticized, debunked and scorned."  "Scorned" -- that'll learn 'em!  I can't see that liberal criticism and debunking of Fox and other right-wing sources has done a lot of good, not least because liberals have their own blind spots that are harmful, gross and dangerous, and ostensibly liberal non-Fox media also mislead and misinform their audiences.

I know that trying to deal with people you disagree with isn't easy, or comfortable -- how well I know it!  But what do people think it means to live in a more or less free, diverse society?  We have to share our society, our country, our world with people we not only disagree with, but disapprove of.  And there's so much talk about "conversations" we need to have about difficult subjects, such as race (via).  But we can't have them if we insist on being comfortable, on not being challenged or criticized or disagreed with.  I understand why people shy away from these discussions, but I think we need to have them, to get used to being disagreed with, to learn how to disagree with others, if we're going to have the kind of society that most people claim they want.

P.S. I should also address the final line, the "If you don't like me, don't talk to me" bit.  Whether I like or dislike someone has little or nothing to do with whether I disagree with them.  But unhappily, it's a normal human response to personalize disagreement.  If I disagree with you, or criticize you, that means I hate you, right?  Well, no.  In many cases I've never met the people I talk to online, and that suits me, because what concerns me is the validity of what they're saying -- or the lack thereof.  I've often suspected that some people get upset in online discussion because they're used to letting their personal charm or cuteness or sex appeal or physical menace speak for them, and none of these means diddly online.  Since they've never learned to think critically and construct arguments, of course they freak out when they try to twinkle endearingly over the Intertoobz and it doesn't work.  Since they don't know how to answer an opposing argument, they throw a tantrum and fall back on personal attacks, because in their minds it's all personal.

Which is why the injunction to distinguish between "being a racist" and "saying racist things," though it's perfectly rational, won't work over the long haul.  Love me, love my racism.  But I'm not a racist, nobody's a racist, the accusation of racism is the worst thing you can call anybody!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Not All Atheists?

A couple of days after I got here, I got into a dustup with my Liberal Artist Friend on Facebook.  He posted a link to this meme, which had been posted on an atheist Facebook page.  The comments there are painful enough.  LAF remarked on his repost:
Religious friends: Why are so many of your co-religionists so stupid and hateful? And why can't they write or spell? This person thinks there are dessert islands! (Sounds great!) He thinks bombs hatch. He doesn't capitalize Jesus (!?!). And weirdly and surprisingly, he's concerned about the safety of "out women." Why, why, why???
Now, the first thing to notice about this is its self-righteous stupidity.  Does my friend really believe that if people stopped being religious, their spelling and punctuation would suddenly, magically improve?  I've known too many atheists who can't spell or punctuate (and theists who can) to take that notion seriously.  What do spelling and punctuation have to do with religion anyway?  As for "stupid and hateful", I've been pointing out the stupidity and hatefulness of many atheists, including prominent ones, for years now, and I don't see any improvement coming.

I don't know why many people have difficulty with technical skills like spelling and punctuation, but those skills are not rational (English spelling? please!), and they're not a sign of moral virtue or even intelligence.  They are class markers, of course, which I suspect is why my friend invoked them.  That speaks badly for him, and for his own ability to think critically or rationally.

The same goes for attitudes towards women.  When challenged by one of my friend's friends, I mentioned the attacks on Rebecca Watson for pointing out sexism among atheist males, most infamously by Richard Dawkins (though I hear he's retracted his earlier statement, however belatedly and gracelessly).  My challenger jeered: was that all I could point to?  Why, it was years ago!  Of course it wasn't all I could point to, and it's still a live issue among atheists, as is sexism among scientists.  Another person, a woman this time, argued that you can't expect atheists to get rid of all their sexism instantly:
Sexism is part of our culture. It began in religion but that does not mean a person can easily remove themselves from that reality just because they do not believe in a god.

And a few men do not represent all atheist men. Just as this idiot does not represent all theists.
"Sexism began in religion" is ambiguous, because you could probably say the same of everything in every culture: art, science, cooking, etc.  So where did religion come from?  This person was talking, as so many atheists do, about religion as if it were some autonomous system distinct from human beings, that imposes its will upon us, instead of something that human beings invented.  Religion is sexist, insofar as it is, because human beings were sexist and created their gods in their own image.  Religion has also been a medium through which people have challenged and tried to delegitimize oppressive structures, for the same reason: I don't like it, so obviously God must not like it either. And you know where that goes.

These countermoves were drearily familiar to me. I get them from Christians and other theists all the time.  Oh, that was a long time ago, it's not a problem anymore.  Oh, that is just a problem now because some have fallen away from true faith, it didn't used to be a problem.  You can't judge all Christians by that person, he or she is not typical at all, he or she isn't really a Christian.  Of course Christians aren't perfect, it takes God a long time to cleanse them of their errors and wash away their sins and corruption, but they're so much better than they'd be without Him.

I don't expect atheists to escape or abandon all problematic errors automatically; I certainly haven't.  That's what I've been saying for years.  In my experience and observation, though, it's mainly atheists who blame every problem on religion and talk about "enlightenment" and "waking up" as though error will simply fall away once you throw out belief in gods.  You will then be rational, free of superstition, a new creation in Not-God.  And while my friend and his friends disavowed any such notions, they still are too cavalier about the work needed to get rid of error in themselves.  That's one reason why their cheerleading for science and jeering at the religious annoys me so much: they're like fundamentalist Christians who bask in the intelligence of a few unrepresentative literati or academics like C. S. Lewis, but don't want to work at educating themselves.  I'm enlightened and rational unlike those stupid religious believers who can't spell, because I honor Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson!  But these guys are no more representative of atheists than C. S. Lewis was of fundamentalist Christians.  And you know, I'm not a fan of any of them.  For a long time, and maybe still, the most influential atheist in the US was the "prophetess" (as Mary Midgley mischievously dubbed her) Ayn Rand.

As with religion, the not-all-atheists approach backfires.  It's true that not all atheists are like Richard Dawkins or Ayn Rand or any other celebrity atheist.  But what are we like?  I'm not sure there are any universals to cling to, and even generalizations are difficult.  Even what would presumably be the core of atheism, the absence of belief in gods, doesn't look the same in all atheists.  There are what I'd call dogmatic atheists, who are certain there are no gods; and there are what the late Antony Flew dubbed Stratonician atheists, who see no reason to believe that gods exist, and who put the burden of argument on theists to come up with (1) some kind of workable definition of what they mean by "god" and (2) good reasons to believe that such entities exist.  I'm in the latter category myself, and though I have numerous disagreements with Flew, his account of atheism has influenced me more than any other.  I've also seen some atheists dismiss Stratonician atheism as not real atheism, and I suspect the dogmatic atheists are more representative of atheism than I am.  Not that I worry about that.

The point is that no matter what you say about atheists or atheism, it won't be true of all of us.  (The same is true of theists, just to hammer the point monotonously home.)  It's okay to generalize, but to do so responsibly you must have reliable information about the group you're talking about, and I'm not sure we do.  It's likely, I suspect, that the less attractive aspects will be more common and so more representative than the more attractive ones -- and who gets to decide what's attractive? -- so it's just safer to remain ignorant of what your movement is actually like.

This is probably one reason why biblical illiteracy is so common among Christians.  I recently had an exchange with someone on Facebook who assured me that hellfire and damnation, sexual repressiveness, faith-healing and exorcism, and end-times preaching were not Jesus' teaching as found in the gospels, they were added by the Church much later.  This is of course false, and revealed my opponent's ignorance of the Bible.

I was bothered, in the post on Dawkins I linked above, when the blogger wrote that Dawkins is "not a good leader for me, but even Jen McCreight, who recently called for new attitudes in atheism, says she likes Dawkins despite his flaws."  And again: "If Dawkins were to learn from criticism the way Cromwell does, then he’d be valuable as a leader.  But I’m not holding my breath for him to check his privilege, because there are much clearer thinkers to pay attention to."  I don't think atheists should have leaders, though of course many other atheists clearly want them.  (Who's more representative?)  I've learned a lot from other atheists, though also from some theists, but I don't regard any of them as a leader.  Once you have a leader, you're going to have authority and a cult of personality, and people will be expected to be loyal and obedient to the leader and to the movement.

It's ironic.  I've been attacked for arguing that it's odd for atheists to treat 'religion,' rather than human beings, as responsible for the bad things we find in religion and culture, and those other atheists accused me of setting myself up as the Authority on atheism and trying to decide what an atheist should or should think.  None of them tried to address rationally what I'd said; they simply declared me a Bad Atheist, perhaps the Bad Atheist.  (When I pointed out problems with their account of some elements of Christianity on another occasion, one of them accused me of being an antigay fundamentalist Christian.  Don't you just love rational critical thinking?) Authority plays an obvious part in most religions, though such authority is often challenged from within in various ways; but like most problematic phenomena, you don't get rid of it simply by disavowing belief in gods or faith in reason.  You don't have faith in reason: you use it, well or badly.  And many avowed rationalists use it badly.

So, for those atheists who want to disavow or excommunicate Dawkins, Harris, or any other celebrity atheist, I must ask the same question I've asked Christians about Christianity: which atheists are representative of the "movement"?  I spent some years listening to Christians' answers and following up on them, always finding their Christian exemplars wanting and being referred to new ones.  I've probably read more on atheism (and on religion for that matter) than most of my fellow atheists have, so I may have an easier time in this area.  I'm not asking for atheists who'd qualify as leaders, as I indicated before; I'm asking who is knowledgeable about the historical and philosophical issues, responsible, and usually rational?  Probably there are no such people, which doesn't discredit atheism; it should be a reminder of our human finiteness, our lack of omniscience, and of how much we have to learn.  That shouldn't really be a stumbling-block for atheists.  Should it?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

They Don't Make Renaissances Like They Used To

This is the sort of thing I love, and I'm surprised I haven't quoted it here before.  In Robert Darnton's The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future (Public Affairs Books, 2009), he tells of "Niccolo Perotti, a learned Italian classicist," who in 1471 confided to a friend his concerns about the new language-production technology of printing [xiv-xv]:
My dear Francesco, I have lately kept praising the age in which we live, because of the great, indeed divine gift of the new kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany.  In fact, I saw a single man printing in a single month as much as could be written by hand by several persons in a year ... It was for this reason that I was led to hope that within a short time we should have such a large quantity of books that there wouldn't be a single work which could not be printed because of lack of means or scarcity ... Yet -- oh false and all too human thoughts -- I see that things turned out quite differently from what I had hoped.  Because now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or better still be erased from all books.  And even when they write something worthwhile they twist it and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books, rather than having a thousand copies spreading falsehoods over the whole world.
Ah, the good old days!  Of course Perotte was right: any new technology that makes it easier to copy and disseminate information will increase the absolute numbers (though not, I think, the proportion) of junk that is published.  The difficulty, though, is deciding what is junk and what is treasure.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Service Advisory

I'm back in Korea after a four-year absence, and I spent the first week just running around, readusting, getting settled in.  (I'll be here till mid-November.)  I'm still trying to find out how to score free wifi, which is supposed to be available all over Seoul, but is hard to combine with a place that has an outlet for my laptop.  Even if I had a smartphone, which is probably what most Seoulites do with wireless, I wouldn't want to try to write a blog post on it.  So I'm back in the Internet cafes, the PC rooms.

I have a bunch of ideas, but for right now I'm just checking in.  I'll try to do some writing later today.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Nearer My Obama to Thee

Sitting in the airport, waiting for my flight, I have nothing better to do than nitpick a reality-based Obama loyalist like Roy Edroso, who writes today:
Not mentioned: The $3 trillion Iraq war which, if Republicans get their way, will soon be going for 4.
You'd think that Obama, the reluctant warrior, had nothing to do with the resumption of that war.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Autumn of My Discontent

The image above comes from a famous, not to say notorious, company that sells an odd variety of products and sponsors sweepstakes with large prizes.  I'm sure you can guess who I'm talking about.  My impression is that their target market is mostly older people, often religiously devout and jingoistic.  So I was baffled by this offering: an American flag doormat.  "Show Your Patriotism All Year Round!" was the tagline.  By making / letting people wipe their feet on Old Glory?  I wonder how this one is selling ...

I apologize for my inactivity; I just haven't felt like writing lately.  The closest I can come to a reason for that is we're in election season.  I have seen less than usual Democratic fussing over the upcoming election, and I wonder why.  Could it be that even Obamabots can't work up much enthusiasm for the Democrats, partly because numerous Democratic candidates are evidently distancing themselves from their President?  Elizabeth Warren actually accused Obama of protecting Wall Street, and that's a remarkable move within the party at a time like this.

I've had some nasty exchanges in comments on various Democratic pages, only a few of them with people I actually know, but that's normal.  I'm past being surprised when party people, as Nietzsche said, necessarily become liars.  A writer I'm Facebook-friends with complained that she'd been dunned with e-mails from Democrats begging for campaign donations; I realized that I haven't been getting them this time around.  So I'm not sure what's up.  I'm not happy with the prospect of the Republicans taking the Senate, but then I'm not happy with the prospect of the Democrats keeping the Senate either.

I've been preparing for a one-month trip overseas -- leaving tomorrow, in fact -- and I realized that I wouldn't be in the US on Election Day, for the first time in my life.  Because of the novelty of the situation it took me a while to decide what to do.  Luckily, there was early voting in my city, so I was able to vote yesterday.  I'll be giving a hard time to any Democrat who accuses me of not voting, not wanting to vote, or of trying to discourage other people from voting; I'm just out of patience with that kind of crap.  I'll have internet access while I'm abroad, and who knows?  Maybe a change of scene will get me writing more again.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

They Don't Make Cultural Appropriation Like They Used To

A musician friend in his mid-30s linked to this clip on Facebook today, and remarked:
Musicians: Just a reminder. Bob Dylan wrote this when he was TWENTY TWO years old. He didn't have auto-tune, there were no electric tuners, or soundcloud demos to listen to, or web forums to get feedback from about his craft. Not saying those things are bad. But the reason this is one of the greatest tunes ever written is simple: he had something to say.

More and more that seems to be the thing I don't find much of anymore.

If you have something to say, the rest is easy.
I'd have thought that one's thirties would be a bit young to be a clueless curmudgeon, but I guess my friend is just precocious.  Or maybe such people are clueless from birth, and are simply recognized as malignant old farts when they actually become old.  But everything my friend said here is wrong.

Start with "the tune."  It's long been known that Dylan stole the tune of "Blowing in the Wind" from the African-American spiritual "No More Auction Block."  I suppose my friend used "the tune" metonymically to mean "the song," but given the tune's source (which he confirmed he knew), it's an unfortunate choice of words.  If it's "one of the greatest tunes ever written," Dylan can't really take credit for it.

What about the lyrics?  My opinion is that they don't say much.  They are, as one writer put it, "impenetrably ambiguous: either the answer is so obvious it is right in your face, or the answer is as intangible as the wind".  I suppose that's one reason why the song has been so popular: it can mean almost anything to almost anybody.  If it were more specific, it would offend someone.  At that, the Chad Mitchell Trio was the first group to record the song, but "their record company delayed release of the album containing it because the song included the word 'death.'"  But bear in mind, Peter Paul and Mary's version spent "five weeks atop the easy listening chart."

Did Dylan really "have something to say" in "Blowing in the Wind"?  I don't believe so, but if he did, it wasn't the kind of message that can be paraphrased in brief.  Maybe what he wanted to express was a feeling, and surely that is what most people who adopted the song got from it, as witness its frequent use in religious services.  I'm not criticizing, mind you: it's very hard to put an explicit message into a song.  Dylan did it as well as anyone and better than most, but it's notable that his most popular song wasn't one of what he later called his "finger-pointing" songs.

I was annoyed by my friend's diatribe for more general reasons, though.  "If you have something to say, the rest is easy."  As a writer myself (including poems and some songs), my experience is that when I have something to say, the rest isn't easy.  Getting from what I want to say, or what I feel, to singable lyrics that work and a melody that will carry those lyrics, is quite difficult.  It's impossible, more often than not.  And I've read lots of poetry and prose, and heard many songs, where the composer obviously had something to say, something he or she thought important, but couldn't produce an interesting song or poem or story or novel out of it.  If I'm charitable, I can recognize that my friend probably didn't mean something like an explicit message when he mentioned having something to say, but like "the tune," it's why his remarks don't work, and fall into the clueless-curmudgeon category.

As for the stuff about the technology that didn't exist when Dylan wrote "Blowing in the Wind," leave aside the fact that recordings and broadcasts are technology that have had a big effect on the way music is produced and performed and transmitted; leave aside the fact that there were various ways of altering voices and sound in recordings in 1962, such as echo chambers, double-tracking, and tape editing.  In his early career Dylan found his way into a trend that rejected the slick inauthenticity of corporate pop music, one that valued unpolished "reality," though of course he signed with a major label and a few years later enraged some of his erstwhile cohorts by going electric and making rock'n'roll.  But the authenticity valued by the folk movement was dubious.  Authentic black bluesmen like Leadbelly wore suits and ties when they performed for black audiences; for "progressive" white audiences they had to wear bib overalls and work shirts.  (So says the blues musician and writer Elijah Wald in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.)  Which was more authentic?

Wanting to say something meaningful isn't "having something to say." You don't "have something to say" until you've said it.  That's a core paradox of art-making: you can hone your craft for decades, yet you won't know whether the piece you're working on is good until you've finished it, and maybe not even then.  But contrariwise, there are many people of all ages who sincerely want to give something to the world, yet what they produce is dreadful, forgettable.  Another core paradox of art-making is that one works very hard to produce something that seems spontaneous and effortless, "artless" as it's often called.  What seems natural and authentic is generally the product of dedicated, often exhausting work.  As a musician himself, my friend should know this.

Finally, "More and more that seems to be the thing I don't find much of anymore."  At the most literal level, he wouldn't have found much of it in 1962 either.   Dylan attracted attention because of his presence and air of authority -- even "authenticity," though he was a middle-class Jewish kid from northern Minnesota pretending to be a goyish Okie of the Depression era.  Most of the songs of his contemporaries are forgotten, and deservedly so, not because their writers had nothing to say but because they didn't say it in an interesting or memorable way. "Blowing in the Wind" itself stands alone in his catalog for its popularity.  Against this, I still find plenty of contemporary songs and music that are memorable, and say something to me.  They are probably a minority of the vast flood of material that's released, but that was always true.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On "Confrontation"

I just read Noam Chomsky's latest book, Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013 (Haymarket Books, 2014), a bemusingly short collection of pieces that span over forty years.  It might be a good introduction to his political writings for someone who's new to them, and of course there are always plenty of such people.  It's also a reminder of how little has changed in US politics these past several decades.

For example, I very much liked what Chomsky had to say about "confrontation" in the 1969 essay, "Knowledge and Power: Intellectuals and the Welfare-Warfare State."  (Once again I'm quoting from an e-book with no page numbers, so I can't cite this passage any more closely than that.)
It has always been taken for granted by radical thinkers, and quite rightly so, that effective political action that threatens entrenched social interests will lead to "confrontation" and repression.  It is, correspondingly, a sign of intellectual bankruptcy for the left to seek to construct "confrontations"; it is a clear indication that the efforts to organize significant social action have failed.  Impatience, horror at evident atrocities, may impel one to seek an immediate confrontation with authority.  This can be extremely valuable in one of two ways: by posing a threat to the interests of those who are implementing specific policies; or by bringing to the consciousness of others a reality that is much too easy to forget.  But the search for confrontations can also be a kind of self-indulgence that may abort a movement for social change and condemn it to irrelevance and disaster.  A confrontation that grows out of effective policies may be unavoidable, but one who takes his own rhetoric seriously will seek to delay a confrontation until he can hope to emerge successful, either in the the narrower senses noted above or to the far more important sense of bringing about, through this success, some substantive change in institutions.  Particularly objectionable is the idea of designing confrontations so as to manipulate the unwitting participants into accepting a point of view that does not grow out of meaningful experience, out of real understanding.  This is not only a testimony to political irrelevance, but also, precisely because it is manipulative and coercive, a proper tactic only for a movement that aims to maintain an elitist and authoritarian organization.
This remains a relevant point, I think, as shown by certain self-styled anarchists who tried to divert actions of the Occupy Movement into vandalism that would provoke police violence -- even more police violence than there already was.  I'm not opposed in principle to the use of violence in demonstrations, but I do think that Chomsky's remarks on confrontation are just as relevant to violent action.  The US left traditionally has been and still is male-dominated and often macho, which probably has something to do with its past and present failures.