Saturday, January 31, 2015

Take That, Patriarchy!

When Ted Cruz jumps to stand with you, you may be in trouble:

I saw this item Wednesday morning just before I went to work, and it intrigued me.  On the one hand, right-wing Republicans have thrown tantrums before when they imagined that the Obamas were violating royal protocol; surely they would be upset that Mrs. Obama should do it now, and to one of America's most important allies in the Middle East.  On the other hand, she was defying "sharia law," which is good, but she's a Democrat and married to a black man, which is bad. especially since her husband is widely believed by Republicans to be a Muslim bent on imposing sharia law on Christian America.  What to do?

But consider the dilemma for the Democrats.  On the one hand, Mrs. Obama defied patriarchal Muslim norms and totally destroyed the Saudi oppression of women! -- at the same time that her husband was defending US intimacy with one of the nastier dictatorships in the world, and his administration (along with the corporate media and other minor elements) was fawning on the late King Abdullah as a "man of wisdom and vision," even a "man of peace" who "nudged Saudi Arabia forward."  On the other hand, she disrespected another culture, which objectively put her on the side of the Islamophobes.  As far as I can tell, except for Cruz, most people chose to solve the problem by falling back on knee-jerk cheerleading.  Since the Right mostly did not mount an offensive, liberals didn't have to get defensive.  So when I looked around after work that day, I didn't find the slapfight I'd half-hoped to find.

What I did find was that Mrs. Obama's behavior was not unprecedented.  In fact, it was routine and bipartisan.  Neither Laura Bush nor Condoleezza Rice (who later referred to the headscarf as a "sign of oppression") wore a headscarf when they traveled to Saudi Arabia and met King Adbullah, and according to this Washington Post article, other foreign women have done likewise.  As foreigners and non-Muslims, they aren't even expected to cover their heads.  So why did Mrs. Obama's attire get all this attention (via)?  There was a fuss on Twitter by some Saudis, that's why: about 1500 tweets, some of which were critical, while others defended her.  A tempest in a teapot.

So, good for Michelle Obama, though it doesn't seem she was making a bold political statement.  Like her predecessors, she went with the flow, followed precedent, didn't make waves.

This item interested me, though, because lately I've been seeing a number of feel-good multiculti memes which declare that wearing a headscarf is a personal choice or an individual choice.

Which is, of course, nonsense.  Using a Hello Kitty lunchbox as a briefcase is a personal decision.  Dyeing your hair green is a personal decision.  Wearing a hijab, or other form of female head covering, is a custom tied to the status of women in a particular culture or religious sect (as shown by the fact that men aren't required to wear one), it's a declaration of one's religious affiliation and makes a statement about the status of women in that affiliation.  (If people were required to use a Hello Kitty lunchbox as a briefcase for religious or cultural reasons, it would cease to be a personal choice.)  It's not a universal Muslim custom, nor is the covering of women's heads as a cultural requirement limited to Islam; and outside of certain Islamist environments a woman can usually go bare-headed without being penalized for it, though even in Europe or the US she could come into conflict with her family or her mosque if she makes the personal choice not to wear the scarf.  It could be a personal decision if a non-Muslim chose to wear one in a non-Muslim society because they thought it looked cool, but how often does that happen?

This iteration of the meme is particularly dishonest, not just because it ignores the cultural context in which many women must cover themselves, but because of that bit about its being "oppressive to strip you of your freedom of choice" by calling the head covering a sign of oppression.  Discussing a cultural sign, criticizing it for what it signifies, does not strip a person of their freedom of choice.  Assaulting a woman and tearing off her headscarf would strip her of her freedom of choice -- but so would assaulting a woman who chooses not to cover her head.  So would laws or regulations forbidding (or requiring) women to wear the hijab.  By this logic, criticizing, say, antigay or antichoice Christians would strip them of their freedom of choice.  Such Christians and their apologists might very well try to claim that it does.  (As do ultraorthodox Jewish males who assault little orthodox Jewish girls for not meeting their standards of female attire.)  People of the mindset represented by this meme mostly reply that their faith is not legitimate, it's a religion of hate, and therefore their faith doesn't deserve respect.  As I've noted before, such people are highly selective in their implementation of freedom.  I suspect that they are so tolerant of the hijab because it has no hegemonic cultural significance in the US yet: it seems exotic, and they can fantasize about the inner lives of the women who wear it.  To some extent the hijab is a personal choice here, though young girls whose parents require them to wear it, or grown women pressured by their communities to wear it, could plausibly argue otherwise.

While it would be obnoxious to hector women who cover their heads, or accuse them of collaboration with the patriarchy, etc., such criticism does not strip them of their freedom of choice, any more than this meme strips me of my freedom of choice by trying to tell me how to think about the hijab.  We live in a pluralistic society, however much many people find that uncomfortable, and in a pluralistic society people are free not just to behave and believe differently, they are free to talk and disagree and argue about their differences.  Unfortunately the level of debate is generally very low on all sides, but the remedy for that is to raise the level, not to throw out debate altogether.

According to the meme, "Susan wears a hijab out of choice".  This is laziness, or as Bertrand Russell said about postulating, it has all the advantages of theft over honest toil.  Susan is a fictional character, created to grind the meme-maker's axe.  Real women's reasons for wearing headscarves will likely be more complex than that.  People have often chosen to go along with systems that oppress them.  The women in the anti-choice movement, for example, are as eager to police other women's bodies as any patriarch.  Or take as simple an example of female gender-cop behavior as women calling other women sluts.  I'm reminded of Richard Trexler, who wrote in Sex and Conquest (Polity Press, 1995) of claims that children chose to become 'two-spirit': "Compare these protestations that a child exercised 'free will’ to those in any traditional Catholic society that young girls married of their own free will, when of course they did not" (225 n14).  In the American culture of therapy, moreover, choice is highly suspect: it's only okay to be gay, for example, if it was forced on you by your genes; as this meme shows, choice is okay when it's an exotic multicultural manifestation, forced on you only by your parents and your imam.

I think it's time to reread Susan Miller Okun's Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, in which she and several other writer / scholars grapple with questions like this one.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Toward a Recognition of Evidence

A slight digression here.  I just reread At Eighty-two (Norton, 1996), the final volume of May Sarton's journals, and as usual it was a fascinating view into old age and ill health.  It also pointed me to a few writers I might explore, such as the poet Deborah Pease, and reminded me of Sarton's friend, the academic and novelist Carolyn G. Heilbrun, who championed Sarton's work when few academics were willing to consider it.  The cold shoulder she got from academic critics was something that bothered Sarton a great deal, a theme she harped on throughout the journals, including this one, and I admit I was surprised to be reminded that Florence Howe didn't include Sarton in her anthology of women's poetry No More Masks, not even the expanded 1993 edition.

Anyway, now that I've finished re-reading all of Sarton's journals it might be time to return to Carolyn Heilbrun's feminist critical writings.  Her book Toward a Recognition of Androgyny, first published in 1973, is probably still her best-known work.  I've read it two or three times, most recently last year, and it's one of those frustrating books that I remember positively but can't recall any of what it says.  The only notes I took from my last reading have little to do with androgyny, but they may explain why the book hasn't stayed with me better.
In the face of the evidence of Jewish life at the time of Jesus, or, indeed, at any time, more blatantly still in the face of the evidence of the Gospels, the Church was determined to deny sexuality its place in the religious world, to idealize celibacy, which the Jews and probably Jesus considered sinful, and to enshrine virginity, which the tradition had heretofore never seen as anything but a perversion.  Not only may Jesus not have been a virgin, but there is little beyond the patristic tradition to suggest that he was not born from an ordinary sex act.  The pagan tradition in which the father is a god (one need only recall Zeus’s many sexual affairs with mortal ladies) and the Jewish tradition which saw God as, in one sense, the father of all children were no doubt distorted for the uses of a Church which feared sexuality almost as much as it feared the feminine principle, perhaps for many of the same reasons [17-18].
On the whole, the factual errors in this passage are hard to excuse, though it reflects common views of Jesus and Christianity at the time, and down to the present.  I think that historical scholarship on Judaism since the 1970s has enriched our knowledge and understanding of rabbinical attitudes toward sexuality in Jesus' day, and I don't hold Heilbrun responsible for not taking into account work that hadn't been done yet.  But most of what she gets wrong was avoidable.  It boggles my mind when she says that the Church idealized celibacy and virginity "in the face of the evidence of the Gospels" and blames the doctrine of Jesus' birth to a virgin mainly on "the patristic tradition."  In fact the virgin birth is reported in two canonical gospels, one of which (Matthew) has traditionally been touted as the most "Jewish" of the four.  Jesus' harshly repressive teachings on sex in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew again) are hardly obscure, and then there is his commendation of those who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven.  (That link will show you numerous translations of the verse, which are evidence of how uncomfortable it makes many modern Christians.)

There's a tendency, due I think to influence from 20th-century village-atheist polemic, to talk as though the gospels were written much later than most scholars today think they were, as if they were written in the second or third centuries rather than the first.  But the same downgrading of marriage and the body is found in Paul's letters, which were certainly written before the gospels, within twenty-five years of Jesus' death, though Paul was not merely Jewish but a Pharisee.  Paul is ambiguous on the point, but it's generally accepted that he was celibate, and he argued in 1 Corinthians 7 that marriage was a second-best relation, a concession to human weakness for those unable to control their lusts and give their full devotion to the Lord.  These passages were not discovered in a clay jar after 1973; they'd been there all along, and were not obscure.

Heilbrun goes on to cite William E. Phipps's Was Jesus Married? (Harper & Row, 1970), a popular controversial book at the time she was writing Toward a Recognition of Androgyny.  I've only read Phipps's later book The Sexuality of Jesus (Harper & Row, 1973), and it has been a while, but as I recall his main argument was to point to the universality of marriage in Judaism, which is a slight oversimplification anyway. Whether Jesus himself was married, let alone a lifelong virgin, we'll never know, but it can't be settled by appeal to mainstream Judaism of his time, because Jesus was not a mainstream Jew of his time, even on the evidence of the gospels, which show him at odds and in mortal combat with the mainstream Judaism(s) of his time.  This wasn't (or wasn't solely) a fabrication in the service of patristic propaganda; the hostility between the early Jesus cult and their fellow Jews was intense, and no less so if it was over issues that seem trivial to 20th century Americans.  Again, the apostle Paul, who on his own account had been a mainstream Jew, a Pharisee no less, was also hostile to marriage and sexuality before the gospels were even written; and even though we have some of Paul's own words about himself (unlike Jesus), it's not certain whether he was or had been married himself.

I don't know of any evidence that Jesus "probably considered [celibacy] sinful," and I've just pointed to evidence to the contrary.  As for the claim that "the tradition had heretofore never seen [virginity] as ... a perversion," that's absurd: virginity was mandatory for women before marriage in Judaism, as in other traditions.  It's also absurd to claim that the idealization of celibacy and virginity denied "sexuality its place in the religious world"; marriage and sexuality always had their place in Christianity, even if it was a second-best place.  If women and men were not to remain virgin or unmarried throughout their lives, that hardly indicates a respect for their freedom or well-being.  Compulsory marriage was as much a distortion of human potential as compulsory celibacy, but then individual freedom was not a Christian, Jewish, or pagan ideal.

I wish that Heilbrun were still alive; I'd like to ask her how she could have overlooked the evidence that celibacy had a place in Christianity from its earliest days.  If she cites the gospels, I presume she'd read them at some point.  Was no one who read the book in manuscript, or helped prepare it for publication, knowledgeable enough about the Bible to notice this strange mis-characterization of New Testament teachings?  It now seems to me that much of Toward a Recognition of Androgyny involved generalizations about culture and literature that I can't accept, even if I like Heilbrun's rejection of sexual polarization.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Clash of Enlightenments

Today I'm reading Dan Hind's The Threat to Reason.  (I finished Betty Smith's 1943 autobiographical novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn yesterday.  I think I'll try to get hold of her other books, and the biography of the author that was published a few years ago.)  Hind is very good.  Here, for example:
The global justice movement has sought precisely to destroy the legitimacy of at least some of the transnational organizations.  It has done so through a distinctive combination of spectacular protest and reasoned argument.  It argues that its opponents have betrayed the principles of the Enlightenment for the sake of corporate and state power.  At the same time, the transnational institutions themselves have criticized the protestors' methods and have sought to depict them as simplistic, naive or vicious.  They have been keen to denounce the protestors as fear-filled enemies of progress and unenlightened xenophobes.  Each side claims to be presenting arguments based on fact, and both seek to persuade through appeals to universal principles of justice.  The World Bank / IMF inside the convention centres and the clowns and the anarchists outside are calling for the creation of a humane social order, for a global system that fulfils the promise of the Enlightenment.  Both sides might be wrong, but they are definitely not both right, and a revived Enlightenment must decide between them or reject them both.  A structure of Enlightenment that admits both because they both claim to be enlightened cannot be of central importance to our current politics.  Their struggle marks a, perhaps the, 'great divide' in contemporary politics.  Understood narrowly in terms of a clash between the rational and the irrational, the Enlightenment can say little about one of the most important political contests of our time.
I'll have more to say about these issues soon.  I hope.

The More It Changes the More It Stays the Same, Latest Iteration

I've had some interesting discussions with people about the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, which has now received several Oscar nominations.  One such discussion was with a straight friend who loved it because, he said, it was so refreshing to see a positive depiction of a computer nerd in a mainstream movie.  I think that's as questionable as the movie's depiction of a gay man, but I suppose he liked it for the same reason many people have liked its depiction of Turing as a socially clueless yet fearful closet case: because they agree that the only way you can win sympathy (or an Oscar) for Turing, as a queer or as a computer geek, is to make him hopelessly miserable and then put him out of his misery.

I would think it even more tragic if Turing had been shown as he apparently was: a gay mathematician who, despite his social awkwardness, could work with others, had friends, was unconflicted about his sexuality, and had a reasonably satisfying sex life -- but was brought down by the bigoted laws of his time and place. To show Turing in this way would take some imagination and creativity; treating him as The Imitation Game does takes the easiest possible way out, by falling back on every toxic stereotype about nerds and queers.

When I explained this, my friend replied that he thought the film "dealt with his sexuality reasonably well," and "didn't make a 'big deal' out of it" and "it was treated as a secondary struggle for him."  He conceded that "If one does a 'queer reading' of the film, I'm sure there are some problems," but he himself "found the character captivating and intriguing and the central tension of his character played well into the film's overall thematic purpose." I agree with that last point, since I think The Imitation Game's "overall thematic purpose" was to win sympathy for Turing by the use of homophobic stereotypes.  (This is not to say that any of the filmmakers were personally homophobic -- no doubt some of their best friends are homosexuals -- but that the way Turing was depicted used homophobic cliches that have long been part of popular culture.)

I think only a homophobic straight person could watch The Imitation Game and perceive it as not making a big deal out of Turing's homosexuality.  Indeed, it makes it into a crucial plot point, when the Soviet spy (whom the real Turing probably never met, let alone worked with closely) blackmails him into keeping silent by threatening to expose his homosexuality.  (Ironically, Turing's superiors certainly knew that he was queer, just as they knew about the presence of a Soviet spy at Bletchley and -- as someone tells the movie Turing -- chose what information he'd pass along to Stalin.  They would have investigated him quite thoroughly before admitting him to the team.)  As for "queer reading," my reading is structurally queer since I'm queer, but it doesn't use any of the concepts or tools of queer theory.  Of course it never occurred to my friend that his "straight reading" brought no agenda to his understanding of the film or of Turing as "struggling" with his homosexuality.

So I wasn't all that surprised when the authors of a new Young Adult science-fiction novel with non-heterosexual, non-white protagonists mentioned (in a "big idea" post at John Scalzi's blog) that "an agent offered to represent it on the condition that we make one of the protagonists straight or else remove his romance and all references to his sexual orientation."  They refused, and eventually found a home for the book at Viking Penguin.  I'm still a bit annoyed by the authors' repeated insistence that writing a story with such characters is "risky" -- there's not enough fiction out there with non-heterosexual characters of color, but there's still quite a lot of it, and "risky" has all kinds of connotations that I think go beyond the chance that an agent won't represent your work because of its content.

The writers also wrote a piece about their experience that was posted on a Publishers Weekly blog, inviting comments from writers with similar experiences, and got a lot of traffic.  (Though the writers didn't name the agency involved, it identified itself and responded, denying the writer's accusation.)  One author wrote that per "editor went through and deleted all gay references between my copyedits and the first pass pages without bothering to tell me.  I pitched a fit and my agent backed me up. The gay character stayed in the novel, as written."  Another commenter declared the need for fiction about Christian gay characters who struggle with their sexuality and ultimately "leave the lifestyle/choose to go on with their lives from a Christian standpoint."  Personally I think it would be interesting to read such a story -- it would be fantasy, of course, but we're talking about fantasy here -- and I wonder why Christian publishers haven't given us some examples already.  I'd even recommend the acquisition of such a book to my public library, and would welcome the change to discuss it here.

Despite the apparent decline in the US and Europe of homophobia and antigay bigotry, to say nothing of structural/systemic heterosexual supremacy, they're still with us.  It's good to be reminded, even if it's frustrating.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A State of One's Own

The question arose on Facebook last night whether there's a relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.  I wasn't able to comment on it myself, which was just as well, but this remark fascinated me:
Being anti Zionist is being against Jews having a state in their historic home. Seeing as every other religious group have states in their historic homes, I'd call that anti Semitic[.]
Sometimes the claim is less specific, declaring that Jews have a right to a state of their own (as "every other religious group" allegedly has), without necessarily laying claim to a specific stretch of territory in the Middle East.  But in whatever form, it makes no sense to me.

What, for example, would be "the historic home" of Christianity?  The Jesus cult originated in Judea and Galilee; wouldn't this mean that Christians have a right to a state in their historic home?  Buddhism originated in northern India but, like Christianity, spread around the world.  For that matter, Judaism also spread around the world, though in much smaller numbers because Judaism is not a missionary religion.  Europe is the historic home of a variety of non-Yahwist religions.  So are the Americas.  Which of those religions can and does have a state in some piece of turf?

For that matter, what is the historic home of, say, Methodism?  It originated in England, yet Methodists don't have a state of their own.  Except for Catholics, who have Vatican City, no Christian sect does.  Some countries have official state religions, but I hope no one would claim that Germany, for example, as the historic home of Lutheranism, is entitled to treat all non-Lutherans as second-class citizens.  When racists try to block immigration, they are usually at least as concerned about language and "culture" as they are about religion.  And despite those who want the USA to be a Christian nation, this country has no official religion, but does have an official policy of religious toleration and pluralism.

The argument that Jews have a right to their own state, wherever it's located, seems to agree that a state properly will consist of one "race," one "people," one language, one religion.  It would then follow that discrimination against minority races, peoples, languages, religions is legitimate, and Zionists simply want a state where they can push others around.  Perhaps they are entitled to such a state, but it would also follow that complaints about discrimination, marginalization, even persecution of minorities are invalid.  Anti-semitism in Europe, the Middle East outside of Israel, or anywhere else, is on this Zionist argument perfectly legitimate, as is racism generally: it's merely the natural outcome of a state defined as a "homeland" for religion and ethnicity, and if you're not comfortable where you are, you should go back where you came from, or where your distant ancestors came from.  If there other people living there, you can just kick them out and take back your historic home.

It's true that Judaism is a bit of a holdover from the days when religion was usually associated with place and culture. The Greeks had their gods, the Romans had theirs, the Babylonians and Assyrians and Egyptians had theirs, and Israel had its gods. (It took a long time for Israel to purge all of Yahweh's competitors.)  All of these states had permeable boundaries, however: some of their natives traveled for trade or whatever reason, taking their gods with them, and natives of other nations brought their gods with them when they came to trade.  This was true of Israelite religion too: there was a diaspora even before it was accelerated by various national disasters: the conquest by Babylon, the conquest by Rome. Buddhism, and later Christianity and Islam broke with this model, detaching religion from native land -- and also to a great extent from family.

So India is the "historic home" of Buddhism as well as Hinduism and Jainism; but India also has a large Muslim population.  China is the "historic home" of Confucianism and Taoism, but it also provided fertile soil for Buddhism.  Should these interlopers (and sometimes invaders) be kicked out so that India and China can be the states of their respective religions?  This would mean that all Buddhists in East Asia would either have to relocate to India, abandon their religion for the supposedly native religion where they live, or accept a status of religious aliens there?  This would solve the problem of Tibetan Buddhism, which would simply have to give up any claims to that country.  I don't think many people anywhere would want to follow this logic to its conclusion.  Linking religion to place and ethnicity is one of the defining symptoms of racism, nativism, and religious bigotry.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

You Are Not to Be Like the Hypocrites

One of my Facebook friends, a lovely person but very much into the Culture of Therapy in its Christian forms, shared this meme the other day.  It annoyed me because it went beyond the Culture of Therapy into the paranoid delight in persecution that characterizes historical Christianity, so I wrote a comment on it:
No one should be "afraid" to pray anywhere. Rational people should not be afraid to doubt the prayers' good sense or basic humanity, of course.

What does "afraid" mean here? Can't you bring yourself to pray unless EVERYBODY is standing there and cheering for you? Do you have to be a majority? I'm an atheist, of course, but I know a lot about Christianity, and one thing Jesus never taught was that his followers should be comfortable. As an atheist, I feel the same way. I don't have to be in a majority. I don't have to be comfortable. All I have to do is try to figure out the truth, and go by it.
This is a sore spot with me in general.  I was also annoyed when a student's attempt to block official prayer at his commencement was defended, not on First Amendment grounds, but because "They just wanted to be able to attend their commencement without feeling like an outcast."  Being in a minority doesn't by itself make you an outcast.

Today I took another look at the meme, and remembered a teaching of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew (6:5-6, NASB), that most Christians seem to prefer to forget:
"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

"But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."
Maybe people should be afraid to pray "anywhere," since Jesus implies here that they won't get their reward, or pay, from their heavenly Father if they flaunt their piety in public -- and the reward is eternal life, the Kingdom of Heaven.  But of course it's a mistake to take Jesus' teachings literally, so no doubt when he said not to pray in public he meant the exact opposite; that's Christianity.

But don't forget that Jesus and his disciples went around behaving provocatively in public, which led to public controversies with their fellow Jews.  As Graham Shaw wrote in The Cost of Authority (Fortress Press, 1982, p. 246):
But the stories [of the disciples’ violation of Torah] also portray a fundamental contradiction in the religious viewpoint they convey.  For paradoxically the refusal to conform to demands for public religious observance is itself intensely visible; so that the criticism of religious visibility acquires many of the characteristics of exhibitionism.  Repeatedly they attract hostile attention to themselves and their master.  Invisible spiritual religion thus proves to have a highly public face.
I noticed some other intriguing stories about public religion this weekend.  A Missouri middle-schooler claimed that his teacher forbade him to read the Bible, "his favorite book," because "'he don’t believe it, because he feels like he’s shut down,' the boy said."  Well, who knows?  A lot of unbelievers seem to feel they're "shut down" by other people's religious practice (like the student I mentioned above), but when the boy's parents complained, the story "went viral," and the principal investigated, it appeared that the complaint was unfounded.  I'd like to hear more details about what actually happened, but things seems to have settled down and that's probably for the good.

Then I saw an article -- can't find it now -- by Frank Schaeffer, who's evidently an atheist this week, though he still prays.  Maybe he'll eventually cycle back to the evangelical Protestantism of his youth; that would be the logical next step.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Imitation of (Gay) Life

Today I saw The Imitation Game, the new biopic of the British mathematician Alan Turing.  It has been decades since I read Andrew Hodges's 1983 biography of Turing, which the film is loosely based upon, but on reading some of the online discussion of the movie I found that some things that bothered me about its depiction of its protagonist were well-remembered after all.  I notice that Hodges is doing a book tour for a reprint of the biography, and is being cannily reserved about the movie's accuracy: he's "in Princeton to talk about Alan Turing rather than Benedict Cumberbatch."  As usual, many criticisms of The Imitation Game's departures from fact were rebuffed with protests that the film will send viewers to Hodges' biography.  I hope so, but I doubt it: it's a long, dense book.  For many people Benedict Cumberbatch will be Alan Turing.

One commenter on the IMDB message boards actually appealed to I'm Not There, Todd Haynes's biofantasia about Bob Dylan, as evidence that movies about a real person needn't be factually accurate.  Since Dylan is played in that movie by several different actors, including the female Cate Blanchett and a young African-American boy, I doubt that many viewers are going to confuse them with the real person.  I know better than to expect perfect accuracy from a biopic, but I also know better than to expect most movie viewers to distinguish between actors and the fictional characters they play; add another layer of impersonation and it's hopeless.  I noticed that some people defended Cumberbatch's performance as an accurate portrayal of Asperger syndrome, which they assumed the real Turing had.  If he did, no one knows for sure.  It's debatable.  The diagnosis didn't exist in Turing's lifetime.  But Cumberbatch gave such a convincing portrayal of a Turing with Asperger, who could doubt it?

Numerous people compared biopics to historical fiction, and there's something to that, but in the historical fiction I read, authors often include notes acknowledging, listing, and defending their departures from history.  The makers of The Imitation Game couldn't even get right the date of Turing's 1952 arrest for "gross indecency" with another male; they put it in 1951, and it would be interesting to know why.

Many of the inaccuracies in the film are arguably defensible as compression or rearrangement for dramatic reasons.  I'm not going to complain much about them here; others have done a good job of discussing them, though a writer in the Guardian got one thing seriously wrong.  He says that the film shows Turing intimidated into concealing the identity of a Soviet spy on the code-breaking team, because the spy (whom in reality Turing probably never met) threatened to expose his homosexuality.  "Were the makers of The Imitation Game intending to accuse Alan Turing, one of Britain’s greatest war heroes, of cowardice and treason?" the writer thunders.  Well, no, though I suppose some viewers might see it that way.  I thought the scene was meant to churn up sympathy for Turing: He couldn't turn in the traitor, or he'd be persecuted for his homosexuality!  And for what it's worth, Turing-in-the-film does later report the spy to a superior.

What did bother me was the way the film uses the hoary cliche of the lonely, tormented homosexual in its depiction of Turing. Yes, he was devastated by the early death of his first (but unrequited) boarding-school love. But he seems to have had a circle of good friends as an adult, and he apparently was pretty unconflicted about his homosexuality -- much like many other gay and lesbian Brits of his generation. He was even rather naive about it. One thing that annoyed me from the beginning of the film was that it implies that Turing didn't report the burglary of his flat -- the police refer to a neighbor's complaint -- and that his sexual relationship with the burglar was discovered independently by the police. In fact Turing reported the burglary himself and gave a detailed statement in which he casually referred to his relationship with the young man. That statement was used as evidence against him at his trial for "gross indecency." He wasn't "closeted," as many people referring to this film have called him. By portraying him as lonely and tormented, the film tries to win extra sympathy for him -- as though being arrested, convicted, and forced to choose between "chemical castration" and prison weren't bad enough. But it also plays into a Hollywood stereotype, that of the isolated, miserable, sexless homosexual, that for some reason is still with us. It's especially odd in a film from England, which has given us so many films featuring gregarious, happy, sexually active gay men.  And given the power of moving images to impress themselves on the mind, I expect that even those people who read print biographies of Alan Turing will find it difficult to replace Cumberbatch's quivering, fearful isolate in their minds with the more confident, unconflicted reality.

Friday, January 2, 2015

An Inordinate Fondness for Flesh-Eating Bacteria

A friend of mine posted these remarks --
Several people I know have had to say goodbye to their pets recently or having to face the prospect of doing so. I'm not a believer, but it seems to me that if God does exist, S/He wouldn't be so petty as to deny happiness to all of creation. So good on Pope Francis.
-- with a link to this article about everybody's favorite Bishop of Rome.  Since President Obama has proven to be a disappointment, many liberals and progressives are evidently looking for a New Hope, and they've found one in Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  They never seem to see the irony in this.  They're quite ready to dismiss with scorn those Christians and Christian leaders who appeal to imaginary beings to say things they dislike, but they seem sure that Pope Francis is a true Christian who's getting the Church back to the real, original teachings of Christ, risking his life to speak truth to power and preach the real will of God.  This is true even for some who present themselves as atheists; I must say I doubt that someone who appeals to the real will of God is really an atheist.  But leaving that aside, how do they know what God really wants?  How does Francis know what God really wants, or will do?

My friend's comment on the meme is a case in point.  Why does he take for granted that the creator of supernovae, mass extinctions, plagues, cancer, flesh-eating bacteria, birth defects lethal and merely disabling, predators, and human beings -- with all our unlovely traits and practices -- gives a rat's ass about "the happiness of all creation"?  Why would he suppose that such a being cares whether human beings see their pets in the afterlife?  (Except for cats, of course. That's why I'm a cat person, so I'll have a companion animal in Hell.)  The prevalence of suffering in the world is, at the very least, evidence against any claim that its creator is concerned with "the happiness of all creation."

I'd also say it's going too far to take for granted that these humans will go to Heaven.  Will Fido look down on his Mommy's torment in Hell, as Lazarus did on Dives from the bosom of Abraham?  And that's assuming that there is an afterlife, which is a big assumption.

The linked article, from the New York Times, is thoroughly fatuous and sloppy.  As so often has happened, it involves a wild explication of a stray remark by the Pontiff.  The writer begins by declaring that Francis "has given hope to gays, unmarried couples and advocates of the Big Bang Theory."  I'm certainly gratified to know that I can hope to be reunited with the Big Bang Theory in Heaven; surely the creator of the universe wouldn't be so petty as to deny me that.

Anyway, here's what happened:
During a weekly general audience at the Vatican last month, the pope, speaking of the afterlife, appeared to suggest that animals could go to heaven, asserting, “Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.”

Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, analyzing the pope’s remarks, concluded he believed animals have a place in the afterlife. It drew an analogy to comforting words that Pope Paul VI was said to have once told a distraught boy whose dog had died: “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”

The news accounts of Francis’ remarks were welcomed by groups like the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who saw them as a repudiation of conservative Roman Catholic theology that says animals cannot go to heaven because they have no souls.
"Appeared to suggest"!  "Was said to have once told"!  With support like that, who needs an actual declaration from the papal throne?  You can hope for anything you like, regardless of what the Vatican says, and you can make up whatever fanciful tales you like about what the pope says or believes, but that doesn't guarantee you'll get what you want.

For what little it's worth, the Christian Bible doesn't have any clear account of the afterlife or of the "soul."  (I'm frequently surprised by people who talk confidently about souls, though they have no idea what a soul is, even if it exists; no one does.  I don't see how you can have a "new debate" on whether animals have souls when you don't know whether human beings have them.)  It doesn't, as far as I know, say anything about the status of non-human animals in the heavens or after death.  The "conservative Roman Catholic theology" is constructed of later extrapolations from the Bible, Aristotelian and Platonist philosophy, and theologians' prejudices and fantasies.  I don't see why the Humane Society or PETA, unless they are affiliated with and subordinate to the Roman Catholic Church, should care much what the pope has to say on this or any subject.  From the Times article I conclude that their spokespeople simply took the opportunity to expound their favorite talking points.

Maybe Francis does believe that animals will go to heaven; that's more than can be said for most human beings, since Jesus said explicitly that only a few would find eternal life salvation compared to the many would be lost.  But unless you're a conservative Catholic who believes that the pope has the keys to the gates of heaven, transmitted by apostolic succession from Simon Peter -- unless, that is, you accept Catholic mythology -- I see no reason to believe that Francis knows any more about this than anyone else does.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Another Year Older: My Top Ten Posts of 2014

Well, well, well: it's 2015 already.  Where did the last few weeks go?

Batocchio has posted his annual Jon Swift Memorial Roundup at Vagabond Scholar, in which he allows bloggers to select what we consider our best posts of the year.  Mine's in there somewhere.

Following my own habit, I'm posting here my top ten posts of the past year, rated in terms of page views.  By a nice coincidence, they're also the posts that garnered more than 200 page views apiece.  While I posted a lot less last year, and no post was viewed more than 300 times, it also looks as though I had more 100-plus posts than usual.  (Almost half of all posts.)  Anyway, let the countdown begin.

10. On "Confrontation".  A brief look at a new collection of articles by Noam Chomsky.

9. "Why Hell?": The Collected Wisdom of Jean-Luc Picard.  Another discussion of scientific authority, in the wake of the successful landing of a space probe on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November.

8. Therefore Do the Virgins Love Thee.  Reflections on Paul Collins' Sixpence House: Life in a Town of Books.

7. Sermon Style.  On writers and empathy, based on an entry in May Sarton's journal Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year.

6. Pay No Attention to the Racist Under the Bedsheet.  In which I wonder why so many people want to be racist, but don't want to be labeled racist.

5. What Illegal Looks Like.  Written to explain why I wear a "I Just Look Illegal" t-shirt.

4. Reach Out and Inappropriately Touch Someone.  How Democrats react to criticism of their party is very similar to the way Republicans react to criticism of theirs: with ad hominems rather than logic or evidence.

3. Off the Old Bat.  Is marriage "conservative," "liberal," or "radical"?

2. Girls Will Be Boys and Boys Will Be Girls.  I wrote several posts on gender, sex, and sexuality near the end of 2013 and early in 2014; this one got the most attention.  But I want to point also to this one, this one, this one, this one, and (especially) this one.

1. Our Childlike, Emotional Leaders.  I've often written about elitism (and its pseudo-scientific sibling "meritocracy") and why it doesn't work.  David F. Schmitz's Thank God They're On Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships gave me more ammunition.  Schmitz showed that the business and political elites who run America and our possessions, claiming that the masses are too emotional and childlike for self-government, are themselves easily gulled by strongmen (or women, exemplified by right-wingers' adulation of Margaret Thatcher) in uniform.

Thank Cthulhu, 2014 is over.  We'll see how 2015 proceeds.