Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Special Rights" for Me, But Not for Thee

You know what's funny about this?
Columnist Cal Thomas, radio host Dana Loesch, and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins took part in a CPAC panel on religious freedom Saturday, and they pronounced that times were dire for followers of Jesus Christ.

“I feel like it’s time to make Christians a protected class,” Dana Loesch said, as the discussion reached a fevered pitch of self-pity.
This is what's funny about it, from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, emphasis added:
SEC. 201. (a) All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.
In other words, Christians are already a "protected class." And as apologists for bigotry have been saying for fifty years, if your civil rights are now guaranteed by law, you have nothing to complain about anymore, so shut up shut up shut up.

Of course, there's a catch. The Act doesn't specify which religions you can't discriminate against. Christianity is just one, and the Act refers to all of them. (There are Christians who would consider this persecution in itself, since they insist that Christianity is not a religion but a 'relationship with God', something like that.  So it's a hate crime to say that discrimination against Christians is discrimination based on religion, because Christianity should be singled out by name as a protected class of its own.)  Which means that Christians can't persecute members of other religions, or that right-wing Christians can't persecute other Christians -- and that, of course, they regard as persecution, a "dictatorship of relativism" as a noted Bavarian theologian called it. (Nor are they alone in this: the ultraorthodox Jewish Israeli men who got their jollies by spitting on and vilifying as whores eight-year-old Orthodox girls complained, when they were compelled by other Israeli Jews to stop doing so, that they were being persecuted, just like in Nazi Germany. Yes, really, they did.)

So, when the clowns at CPAC claim that Christians are being persecuted, what they mean is that some Christians -- their kind -- are being persecuted, because they aren't allowed to persecute others for their beliefs. Their kind of Christian isn't exactly a marginal, fringe sect -- there are quite a lot of them -- but they aren't all Christians and they don't speak for Christianity as a whole. But then, NO CHRISTIAN DOES. That includes liberal Christians, who also would like you to believe that they are the True Christians. They aren't. There is no true pure core of Christianity, or of Judaism or of Islam or of any other religion. Which is why the current fuss over whether ISIS is 'really' Islamic annoys me. Of course Isis is Muslim; so are the Muslims who repudiate them. But that's another issue.

Of course civil rights legislation doesn't address all the kinds of discrimination that people can suffer from.  But there is a lot of confusion over what "civil rights" are and what the law covers.  As I've noted before, a lot of people seem to believe that "civil rights" means specifically, the rights of black people.  One indication of this confusion is terminology like "the gay rights movement," which encourages gays and straights alike to believe that adding "sexual orientation" to civil rights laws will protect only gays and not heterosexuals or bisexuals.  (For the same reason, I suspect that there will be some unwelcome consequences as "gender identity" and related language is added to civil rights laws to protect transpeople.  These provisions will also protect cis people.  I can't think offhand of what cis people will need protection from, but as with "sexual orientation," I suspect we'll find out soon enough.)

P.S. While I'm on the subject of unforeseen consequences of legislation, I should mention the Equal Access Act of 1984, which I've seen mentioned in a couple of different books on gay youth that I've read lately.  Christian groups lobbied for the bill to force public schools to allow student religious clubs to meet in school buildings and use school resources, and it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.  According to Melinda Miceli in Standing Out, Standing Together (Routledge, 2005) her book on gay-straight alliances,
... in the hearings leading up to the passage of the EAA, the point was raised that passing the act would also permit school clubs (such as a club for gay and lesbian students) that the religious leaders lobbying for the act did not approve of to meet on school property.  Passage of the EAA was so important to its advocates’ goal of fighting what they viewed as discrimination against religious speech in public schools that they were not dissuaded by this possibility. ... The EAA is now, perhaps, the single most important tool available to students who wish to start GSA clubs, especially after the Salt Lake City case made national headlines for over two years [39].
The EAA was probably intended to get the theocratic camel's nose into the tent, but it had consequences its advocates preferred not to consider.  No doubt they believed that, with Reagan in the White House, they could use the EAA to advance their agenda but no one else could.  But Reagan served his two terms and went back to private life, and imposing reactionary Christianity on the nation has proved more difficult than its adherents expected.  Not only GSAs but student groups espousing non-Christian religions -- or no religion at all -- have found the EAA a useful tool.  I love such little ironies.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Pride and Prejudice

Someone I know passed along this meme, and since I didn't have commenter privilege on that post I shared it, with my commentary, and then checked out the proximate source.  The comments there were a mixed bag, though it was clear that for many people who liked the meme, antigay bigotry was a significant factor in their opinion.

There are many things I could say, but I think it's best to address this idea directly.  First off, I am not surprised that many Homo-Americans have sunk to the level of our worst enemies in reacting to this meme and the whole notion of "straight pride."  (One commenter wrote: "Are you Christian? Kill yourself".  That's showing your moral superiority!)  Haven't we been saying for decades that we're just like straight people except for whom we love?  Well, unfortunately, it's true.

I considered pointing out that an analogous "white pride" meme would also go down like a Zeppelin, but then I remembered that people who say they need to celebrate straight pride are likely to be the same people who ask peevishly why there isn't a white history month, so never mind.

However.  I'm all in favor of straight pride manifestations. We've had a few "straight pride" events here at IU over the years, though not recently.  They were all organized by right-wing groups who were known to embrace antigay bigotry, but since they were not known for thoughtfulness or more than minimal intelligence, this didn't bother me; they were too dull to understand what they were proposing.  Again, not all that different from many of my fellow homosexuals, unfortunately.

I love my straight friends and relatives; I don't look down on them, because I know they can't help themselves; they deserve pity and sympathy, not censure. Love the sinner and hate the sin! So whenever I encounter someone talking about "straight pride" events, I tell them that, and I offer to help them organize the "gay allies" contingent. Just as gay pride celebrations routinely include straight allies, often with straight allies as parade marshals, a straight pride celebration should welcome the support of gay allies. I haven't received a very welcoming response when I've made this offer, for some reason.  I think it's long past time to organize the first branch of Parents and Friends of Straight People. It sounds like they really need the support!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Mote and the Beam

There's a post (via) at the "progressive Christian" blog slactivist which deals with an interesting religious-freedom case that came before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The plaintiff was an evangelical Christian who refused to submit to "biometric hand scanning for time and attendance taking" at his job with a coal and energy company, because he saw the scan as a fulfillment of Revelation 13:16-17:
16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
The complainant's employer refused to make a reasonable accommodation with his religious belief, and the EEOC ruled in his favor.  As the blogger points out, this resolution has the effect of disproving, to some extent, the complainant's belief that those who refuse to wear the mark of the Beast will be persecuted.

Fine with me.  What I want to address, however, are the following remarks by the blogger.
Religious liberty, if it is ever to mean anything at all, must include the freedom to be wrong. It cannot matter, legally, whether or not a religious belief is orthodox, or coherent, or part of a longstanding established tradition. Protecting religious liberty means protecting the right to believe in the implausible, the idiosyncratic, the offensive, the stupid, the factually insupportable, the demonstrably false. Otherwise we’d wind up putting the state in the position of adjudicating between legitimate and illegitimate religious beliefs.

And that, we should have learned by now, never ends well. That’s a recipe for inquisitions and for sectarian violence. That reduces religious liberty from an inviolable human right to a privilege contingent on the religious perspective of the current regime.
Again, fine with me.  This is the basic rationale for freedom of religion as it's conceived in the US.  But I was struck by the irony of a Christian writer mocking another Christian's beliefs as implausible, idiosyncratic, offensive, stupid, factually insupportable, and so on.  It's possible that that string of adjectives is merely rhetorical, and that the writer doesn't necessarily mean them to refer to the EEOC plaintiff's beliefs.  However, elsewhere in the piece Clark calls the man's beliefs "ludicrous," "absurd," "weird, Barnum-esque folklore," and refers to him as "a devotee of the pseudo-Christian folklore promoted by the likes of Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, and Jack Impe."  

Leave aside the fact that most New Testament scholars today would agree that Jesus himself taught precisely such weird, Barnum-esque folklore, and that it permeates most of the New Testament.  (Ironically, it is fundamentalist scholars who try the hardest to argue that Jesus didn't mean that the End was near, or that he would return on clouds of glory before the generation of his first followers passed away.)  There's a great deal of resistance to admitting this, and has been ever since Albert Schweitzer made the classic case for Jesus as an end-times preacher more than a century ago.  Laymen of all stripes try to evade it, first through ignorance of the scholarship, and second by displacing the embarrassing doctrine onto the book of Revelation alone.  They also try to forget that Jesus, far from being a cool, hip Enlightenment philosopher, is depicted in the gospels as a wandering faith healer, exorcist, and hellfire preacher, quite apart from his end-times teaching.

But as I say, leave that aside.  I don't know the details of this blogger's Christian beliefs, but since he is a Christian it is reasonably certain that he holds some absurd, factually insupportable, idiosyncratic, etc. beliefs himself, either in terms of what he believes about Jesus or how he evades the problematic parts of Jesus' teachings.  But he feels free to jeer at the beliefs of other Christians with different absurd beliefs.  Whatever else can be said about this, it flouts one of the few teachings of Jesus that I respect -- the one about attending to the log in your own eye before you complain about the speck in your brother's.

A few years ago a Christian minister named Barbara R. Rossing published a book called The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Westview Press, 2004).  With considerable Christian love she attacked evangelicals who believed in the Rapture.  It got a fair amount of attention and praise from people, Christian and otherwise, who didn't know much about the New Testament or Christian history, but knew what they liked.  I read it a decade ago and found Rossing's scholarship wanting, to put it politely.  That matters because Rossing is not merely a minister but professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.  Ever since then I've been meaning to reread her book and take more notes than I did the first time; maybe I'll finally get around to that this year.  But two things still stand out in memory for me.  One is Rossing's mean-spiritedness as she pointed out the speck in her brothers' and sisters' eyes.  Soon after reading The Rapture Exposed, I read a couple of other books that Rossing had cited, though she was unenthusiastic about them because their authors, though critical of their subjects, were less sure than she that Rapture-believing Christians were not really Christians: Heather Hendershot's Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (Chicago, 2004) and Amy Johnson Frykholm's Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford, 2004).  The other thing I remember is that Rossing herself declared explicitly that she believes that Christ will return, just as he promised to do in the gospels and in the book of Revelation.  Since Jesus promised to return within a generation, that belief falls under the absurd, factually insupportable, stupid, and demonstrably false headings -- but it didn't seem to bother the people who trumpeted Rossing's book, like this writer whose post appeared at the same site, Patheos, as slacktivist.  And why should it?  Many of them probably had not actually read the book, just heard that Rossing put the bad fundamentalists in their place.

Do I include myself in these strictures?  Of course I do.  As an atheist and a homosexual of my generation, I know how important the principle of freedom of belief and expression is.  The gay movement relied on it for a long time.  There was a time, not really so long ago, when the idea that homosexuality was not a criminal aberration but a valid variation of human sexual expression, was counted absurd, factually insupportable, offensive, demonstrably false.  In this sense I'm a liberal, as Paul Feyerabend described the type:
A liberal is not a mealymouthed wishy-washy nobody who understands nothing and forgives everything, he is a man or a woman with occasionally quite strong and dogmatic beliefs among them the belief that ideas must not be removed by institutional means. Thus, being a liberal, I do not have to admit that Puritans have a chance of finding truth. All I am required to do is to let them have their say and not to stop them by institutional means. But of course I may write pamphlets against them and ridicule them for their strange opinions.
I'm also used to being dismissed in slactivist's terms by liberals and conservatives alike, who don't know what's wrong with my statements but are sure they're crazy.  As long as I can rebut them, without having to worry about being penalized by the state for doing so, I'm fine.  I don't need for everyone to agree with me.  So when one Christian attacks another Christian for holding absurd beliefs, what can I do but giggle and point and make rude noises?

Jesus himself didn't claim to be reasonable; he recognized that he wasn't, and blessed those who were not scandalized by him.  Paul exulted in the offensiveness of a crucified Messiah, a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Greeks.  Whatever the slactivist blogger's personal, idiosyncratic version of Christian belief, I doubt he regards Jesus or Paul as marginal figures.  Nor do I, but luckily I'm not a Christian, so I can freely regard their teachings as absurd, factually insupportable, and so on.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Fake Barry Quotes

Well, this is ... interesting.  One of my right-wing acquaintances from high school posted it to his wall last night, and I was immediately suspicious, but I don't own a copy of The Audacity of Hope, and it wasn't available as an e-book from the library, so I just made a note to check in the morning.

I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been totally fabricated, but it wasn't, not quite.  But it's still a lie.  Here's the actual passage from The Audacity of Hope, page 261, with the key passage emboldened.
Of course, not all my conversations in immigrant communities follow this easy pattern.  In the wake of 9/11, my meetings with Arabs and Pakistani Americans, for example, have a more urgent quality, for the stories of detentions and FBI questioning and hard stares from neighbors have shaken their sense of security and belonging.  They have been reminded that the history of immigration in this country has a dark underbelly; they need specific assurances that their citizenship really means something, that America has learned the right lessons from the Japanese internments during World War II, and that I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.
That's Senator Obama, before he became President, talking about interacting with some of his constituents, Arab-Americans and Pakistani-Americans but evidently citizens, who were understandably nervous that their government might stick them in a concentration camp and confiscate their property as it did American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II; or disappear them and send them to be tortured in other countries, as it did do with some Americans during the War on Terror; or just stand by while they were lynched by their Christian fellow citizens.  Obama wanted them to know that he would stand by them if "the political winds" blew in that direction, though I don't know how much his word on that was worth.

Whoever produced this meme wanted people to believe that Obama had pledged to side with Muslims elsewhere in the world, and to think of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS as the Muslims he'd side with.  I've noticed a number of my right-wing acquaintances having ragegasms (a word I swiped from Joan Walsh, writing on another topic) over what they view as Obama's refusal to do anything about ISIS.  It takes a very well-disciplined memory to believe such a thing, given the thousands of foreign Muslims whose blood is on Obama's hands, given his characterization of ISIS as a "vicious death cult," given his bombing of the areas that ISIS now controls, and given his request for a new resolution from Congress authorizing him (and his successor, whoever it turns out to be) to wage war against certain Muslims in perpetuity.  They wouldn't be satisfied, I suppose, even if he personally disemboweled every single Muslim in the world, because really their rage has nothing to do with what he actually says or does -- it's about the Barack Hussein Obama they've invented and nurtured in their minds.  Sure, racism has a lot to do with it, and it feeds their derangement, but they'd hate him almost as much if he were white.  His real crime is being Not-a-Republican, but even there I'm baffled by the intensity of their anger.

Such people are not, I think, anywhere close to being a majority of Americans, or even of American voters.  But there are a lot of them, and it's scary being in the same country, the same world with them.  They love fantasizing about certain people being slaughtered as messily as possible -- preferably brown- or olive-skinned people, preferably non-English-speaking, preferably dressed differently than Real Americans dress, but again this is not mandatory, just more fun.  You can see them frothing at the keyboard in the comments sections of many local newspaper websites, because they think someone got away with something, and they want that person torn to shreds on live TV.  I remember a couple of years ago, for example, some kid ran out onto a professional sports field during a game; he was grabbed, restrained, removed, and probably arrested.  The newspaper site where I saw this story exploded with enraged comments from people who wanted that kid dead. Even a fairly liberal man I know personally huffed to me about the danger the kid allegedly posed to somebody by doing what he did; he didn't want the kid publicly burned alive, but he still was more upset by the event than I thought strictly reasonable.

As I say, being non-white isn't required to be a the target of this free-floating frenzy of hatred.  Nor is this phenomenon restricted to elderly Republicans.  All you have to do is "misuse" the word "hopefully," or misspell a word, or say "nukular" instead of "nuclear," or commit any number of other linguistic crimes against humanity, and liberal / progressive / left people will go completely bonkers.  The flip side of the GOP ragegasms is the ragegasms of liberals, who are flooding Facebook with memes and articles about the stupidity and subhumanity of people who watch Fox News, or commit other atrocities, like having "too many" children.  Or showing insufficient adoration of POTUS, Blessed Be He.  Jeb Bush made a poor showing in his recent national security speech, stumbling on pronunciation and getting facts wrong.  To those on the same team, this shows what an unaffected, regular guy he is -- as when Obama starts dropping g's and pronouncing oil as ole; to those on the other team, it shows he's an idiot.  Daily Kos sends out daily e-mails of their own "recommended" stories that I rarely click through, especially as they consist mostly of clickbait that fits the pattern I'm describing: titles like "Hilarious full page ad in NYT skewers Boehner" and "Hilariously stupid Fox response to Bill Reilly's lies."  As I've said before, just because Republicans are stupid doesn't mean Democrats are therefore smart.  If anything, it looks to me like Democrats are getting dumber as they obsess over the dumbness of the Rethuglicans.  And not only does this not make Republicans (or Democrats) any smarter, it seems to make things worse as more and more political "discourse" is adapted to this mode.

(One milder version of the syndrome, but I think it's part of it nonetheless, are the people who comment simply "ugh" or "Disgusting" on what they disapprove.  They're just getting warmed up.)  I remember well from the 1960s the fury inspired in many Americans by the hippies, which I think was plausibly explained as their resentment that other people were getting away with refusing to join the rat race as they had done, to live an unhappily constrained, boring, frustrating life as they'd consented to do; of course they wanted to see the slackers and rebels punished.  Why this carries over to Obama, as it carried over to Bill Clinton, I don't know, but it seems to be the same pattern: the Two Minutes' Hate.  The important thing is that the target is on the Other Team, and so those on Our Team are free to do and say whatever they like.  Especially if you know in advance they won't (or can't) fight back.

In the greater scheme of things, though, hate and love, extremism and moderation are beside the point. The satirist Andy Borowitz wrote ironically today:
Critics Rip Obama's Refusal to Fight Hate with Hate
WASHINGTON - A rising chorus of Congressional critics are blasting President Obama for what one of them called "his stubborn refusal to fight a war on hatred by using additional hatred." According to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), "Islamic terrorists are fueled by hatred, and the only way to end that cycle of hatred is by adding more hatred." Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) agreed with Cruz, adding, "The United States of America is blessed with enormous reserves of hate, and President Obama is willfully refusing to tap them." Graham also ripped Obama for "pointlessly seeking the root causes of hate," adding, "No problem was ever solved by finding out what was causing it."
I think Borowitz missed the deeper irony here; like his right-wing opposite numbers, he thinks Obama is, if not a pacifist, then at least really nice.  In the real world, Obama intends to fight hate with Christian love, as the Bushes, Clinton, and Reagan did: he will bomb you, incinerate you, kill and torture you and your children, starve you, drive you into exile -- all in a spirit of Christian love! Praise Jesus!  Christianity is a religion of peace!  I'm sure the dead, charred, maimed, orphaned and widowed will feel so much better to know that they were done in, not by a hateful Republican Bible-thumper, but by a loving Democratic Bible-thumper.  Love makes all the difference.

There are those who, like Obama, want to distinguish between some supposedly pure, pristine ur-Christianity or Islam and the bad impure "extremists" who are trying to steal these religions from their true, moderate owners.  Even if you set aside Jesus' parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which Lazarus watches the torment of the damned in Hades from Abraham's, um, side, the teachings of Jesus are full of what should by now be a very familiar wish to see certain people get what's coming to them, namely the worm that is not sated and the fire that is not quenched.  For all the talk of love in the gospels, it's exactly balanced by the fantasies about punishment, punishment without limit, punishment that makes eye-for-an-eye look absurdly benign by comparison.

I'm sure I needn't point out that this is neither new or an American (or for that matter Christian) invention.  Think of Christians killed in the Roman arenas.  Think of the American Indian torture of captives for "spiritual" reasons, in public, for the edification of the audience.  Not everyone went to public torture or executions, but many did, and they were the spiritual ancestors of those who publicly call for the blood of those they consider it safe to hate.  And you don't really need to go see the actual executions: you can sit at home, yelling at the TV, posting vindictive garbage on your Facebook account. To quote again Walter Kaufmann's paraphrase of Freud, "Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal."  I'm not excluding myself here.  I suppose one reason I'm so disturbed by the murderous fury of these people is that I recognize myself in it too.  But it can be, must be, resisted.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

It Gets Worse

I've complained before about the disappearing of history, including GLBT history, by people who lived through the period in question and should know better.  I've also complained that the people who appoint themselves our leaders and defenders against bigotry are too often ignorant about our lives and our history, but imagine that their professional credentials somehow qualify them anyway.  Ignorance isn't a bad thing, but pretending to know more than you know is.

So I'm slogging through Standing Out, Standing Together: The Social and Political Impact of Gay-Straight Alliances (Routledge, 2005) by the sociologist Melinda Miceli. The book has some value as an account of American gay youth's struggles since (roughly) Stonewall, but it exhibits the same willed amnesia that I mentioned before.  I hope to address that problem in another post, but for now I want to point to an example of the second problem, of ignorant professionals.

One of the earliest official initiatives to help gay youth within a US school system was Project 10 in Los Angeles, founded in 1984 by Virginia Uribe, a lesbian teacher who'd been approached by some gay and lesbian students with their experiences of harassment in school.  Project 10 was approved by her principal and proceeded successfully for two or three years, working throughout the Los Angeles school system, before the Christian right learned about it and tried unsuccessfully to abolish it.  Uribe told Miceli in an interview:
I didn't realize the power of the right wing at that time.  This was twenty years ago and I was basically naïve about the political implications of all this at that time [97].
I realize that a teacher doesn't have as much free time as I did at that time to follow gay politics and controversies.  But -- really?  In 1984 Uribe had never heard of Proposition 6, known as the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 ballot initiative which "would have banned gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California's public schools"?  Perhaps Uribe could have missed the repeal of a gay-rights ordinance in Dade County Florida, thanks to a campaign led by the Christian-right singer Anita Bryant in 1977; it was at the other end of the country, after all, though Bryant's crusade got national news coverage.  But the Briggs Initiative was in California, and would have affected Uribe personally if it had passed.  It nearly passed, but thanks to a statewide grass-roots and the (very surprising) condemnation of the proposition by former California Governor Ronald Reagan, it was defeated.  (It's another sign of how much the Right has caved in to the Politically Correct Gay Agenda that this 2009 article from the far-right American Spectator tries to give Reagan most of the credit for the defeat of Proposition 6.)

And, of course, there was also the assassination in San Francisco of gay city supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone in the fall of 1978 by a disgruntled Roman Catholic, Dan White.  White was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, and was paroled after a few years in prison.  (He committed suicide in 1985.)  The Christian Right played a major role in the election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency in 1981, and groups like the Moral Majority gained national attention, taken seriously by the mainstream media.  Even here in the backwoods of southern Indiana, Anita Bryant and the Christian Right were well known among gay people.   By 1987, the Christian Right was also vocal and effective in blocking sensible responses to the AIDS epidemic, then in its seventh year by the usual chronology.

It may be that in retrospect, twenty years after she started Project 10, Uribe had forgotten the national atmosphere of those days.  But I still find it hard to believe.  The events I just mentioned were just some of the most visible evidence of the "power of the right wing" in the early 1980s.  I don't say this to deny Uribe's achievement and contribution in organizing and maintaining Project 10, only to express again my amazement at the ignorance educated, presumably sentient adults can entertain about the society they live in.  I imagine that in twenty years, there'll be middle-aged GLBT people saying that they didn't know about the power of the Christian right in the mid 2010s.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The First Wave

From Louisa M. Alcott's novel Work: A Story of Experience (originally published in 1901; cited from Project Gutenberg electronic text). Some of the divisions within the women's movement clearly go back that far, and I was fascinated to see how Alcott depicted the conflict.
The ladies did their part with kindliness, patience, and often unconscious condescension, showing in their turn how little they knew of the real trials of the women whom they longed to serve, how very narrow a sphere of usefulness they were fitted for in spite of culture and intelligence, and how rich they were in generous theories, how poor in practical methods of relief.

One accomplished creature with learning radiating from every pore, delivered a charming little essay on the strong-minded women of antiquity; then, taking labor into the region of art, painted delightful pictures of the time when all would work harmoniously together in an Ideal Republic, where each did the task she liked, and was paid for it in liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Unfortunately she talked over the heads of her audience, and it was like telling fairy tales to hungry children to describe Aspasia discussing Greek politics with Pericles and Plato reposing upon ivory couches, or Hypatia modestly delivering philosophical lectures to young men behind a Tyrian purple curtain; and the Ideal Republic met with little favor from anxious seamstresses, type-setters, and shop-girls, who said ungratefully among themselves, "That's all very pretty, but I don't see how it's going to better wages among us now."

Another eloquent sister gave them a political oration which fired the revolutionary blood in their veins, and made them eager to rush to the State-house en masse, and demand the ballot before one-half of them were quite clear what it meant, and the other half were as unfit for it as any ignorant Patrick bribed with a dollar and a sup of whiskey.

A third well-wisher quenched their ardor like a wet blanket, by reading reports of sundry labor reforms in foreign parts; most interesting, but made entirely futile by differences of climate, needs, and customs. She closed with a cheerful budget of statistics, giving the exact number of needle-women who had starved, gone mad, or committed suicide during the past year; the enormous profits wrung by capitalists from the blood and muscles of their employes; and the alarming increase in the cost of living, which was about to plunge the nation into debt and famine, if not destruction generally.

When she sat down despair was visible on many countenances, and immediate starvation seemed to be waiting at the door to clutch them as they went out; for the impressible creatures believed every word and saw no salvation anywhere.

Christie had listened intently to all this; had admired, regretted, or condemned as each spoke; and felt a steadily increasing sympathy for all, and a strong desire to bring the helpers and the helped into truer relations with each other.

The dear ladies were so earnest, so hopeful, and so unpractically benevolent, that it grieved her to see so much breath wasted, so much good-will astray; while the expectant, despondent, or excited faces of the work-women touched her heart; for well she knew how much they needed help, how eager they were for light, how ready to be led if some one would only show a possible way.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Constitutionally Incapable

A liberal Facebook friend posted the link to this Daily Kos story about Bobby Jindal, the cute-but-dumb Republican governor of Louisiana, who recently demonstrated his ignorance of our Constitutional system of government:
“We’re a nation of laws, that’s why I said I want the Supreme Court not to overturn our laws,” he said on CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday.

“If the Supreme Court were to do this, I think the remedy would be a constitutional amendment in the Congress to tell the courts you can't overturn what the states have decided.”
The friend who posted the link commented upon it thusly: "He's been drinkin' too much derp-entine. /
derp derp derp derp".  You see why I love liberals: they focus not on personalities but on issues, logic. and evidence.  And how do I know that?  Because they say so, and they wouldn't say it if it weren't true.

I made a snotty comment on my friend's post: "But then who does read the Constitution? It's old and irrelevant, just for rich white men."  My friend and I went back and forth a few times as he half-defended ("I think an argument could be made that the founders were people of means and the entire system was created to protect those same people")  the dumb slogan I'd sarcastically invoked, until I commented at greater length.

Yes, an argument could be made to that effect. In fact, it has been, quite a few times; I think I first encountered it in Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. The people I was thinking of were college undergraduates who were furious when the blog of a bigoted university professor wasn't shut down by the university because of the First Amendment. Their stupidity was perhaps understandable -- they were too young to remember how the First Amendment had been used to protect the freedom of speech of people like them, and where would they have learned the history? I suspect they'd picked up their position from some graduate TAs who should have known better, but I don't know for sure. And entertainingly, the same people wailed that a projected anti-gay-marriage amendment to the US Constitution would be totally unconstitutional. 1) When did they suddenly care about the Constitution, which was for old rich white men? 2) A Constitutional amendment, by definition, cannot be unconstitutional; it changes what is constitutional and what isn't.

I'm not a Constitutional historian, let alone a scholar of its interpretation, but I have read the damn thing, and I know a little of the history. I agree that it was intended to protect the affluent white men who wrote it, though they didn't "create the system", they inherited it, and one thing that strikes me when I read it is how jumbled and messy it is. After all, it was written by committee, and it's marked by numerous compromises. It also is incomplete. It says nothing about banking, for example, although the framers were very interested in that subject. Roger D. Hodge wrote in The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism (Harper Collins, 2010), quite a good book by the way, that "banks were popular inside the [constitutional] convention but extremely unpopular outside it; leaving banks out of the document can be seen as a tactical maneuver, to eliminate a potential obstacle to ratification" (106).

It's true that the Bill of Rights is often ineffective in protecting the rights of the less well-off, though I think things improved in the second half of the twentieth century. (I wonder how one would construct, enforce, and sustain a system which really would protect the rights of those who aren't well-off.) Whatever the framers intended, and I don't think they were all of one mind, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been modified, extended, and used in ways they didn't foresee and probably wouldn't have liked. Ironically, the "oh, it's just for old rich white men" line is a kind of constitutional fundamentalism, not different in principle from the fundamentalism of 'original intent' jurists: the Constitution has an unchanging essence, which can be known, and which binds America forever. And while I do think it would be good if more people read the Constitution, that wouldn't eliminate our problems, just because it has no essence, and different readers will read it differently. (Even highly trained specialists come up with diametrically opposed interpretations, and the much-touted Constitutional scholar Barack Obama has uttered some idiotic howlers about it. So has Antonin Scalia, who like Obama is a product of Harvard Law School, but it's important to remember that they are both idiots, which is why we're doomed.) The Constitution is not only the primal text and its amendments, it is the corpus of laws and judicial decisions built around it over the past two centuries.

The ironies and the humor multiplied when I decided to read the entire Daily Kos article.  The author, one Laura Clawson, commented thusly on Jindal's remarks: "Hoo boy. First, Bobby, the Supreme Court gets to decide if a law is constitutional. That's its job. We're a nation of laws, and the Supreme Court has a role in determining those laws, which is something you might want to look into before spouting off."

I wondered about that, so I did the unthinkable: I read the relevant part of the Constitution, Article III, which sets out the duties and powers of the Supreme Court.
Section. 1.
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
Section. 2.
The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;—to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States;— between a State and Citizens of another State,—between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.
In Ms. Clawson's words, "Hoo-boy."  I don't see anything there about deciding the constitutionality of laws, do you?  As I remember from my high school Civics class, that power, known as judicial review, was asserted by the Supreme Court in 1803 in the case Marbury v. Madison.  Judicial review has been part of the Court's "job" ever since, but it's not in the Constitution itself.  So, Laura Clawson is either lying or has not read the Constitution.

This is not a defense of Jindal, who is just another ambitious Republican clown.  As a writer praised by my Right-Wing Acquaintance RWA1 might point out besides, Jindal is not an Anglo-Saxon and therefore can't be expected to know "the Magna Carta and the freedoms passed down by their ancestors."  But let's not forget something the great Constitutional scholar Barack Obama said during a press conference in 2012: "Ultimately, I am confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress."  Not all that far from Jindal, and equally false; then-Attorney-General Eric Holder was given the unenviable task of backtracking from the claim, and the White House spun the usual web of obfuscation around itself.

Some time ago a right-wing Facebook friend posted a meme which declared that kids should start reading the Constitution in elementary school, and I agree.  Beginning in elementary school and continuing until graduation from high school would give time and opportunity not just to read the basic text but to learn something about how the courts work, how judicial interpretation builds on the Constitution, legislation, and case law, and so on.  Maybe such an ongoing program would make an impression on the students' minds, and they'd be ready to return to the sources when anyone makes a claim about the Constitution and what it says.  But I doubt it.  After all, my right-wing friend and probably my liberal friend had Civics class just as I did; and President Obama studied the Constitution at Harvard (as did Scalia, among others), and they still make absurd, unfounded statements about the Constitution and what it says.  I don't know if there's a remedy, but the problem is clearly not limited to one part or another of the political spectrum.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Who Are We, Really?

"I Just Bought Guilt & Paid Less Than You Are Going To"

 Robo-ad at

Time flies, doesn't it?  The release of part of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture in December set off a wave of right-wing tantrums not unlike what we just saw in response to President Obama's sermon at the National Prayer Breakfast.  (We never did anything like that, but we had no choice, and we enjoyed it, so there!)  I started writing a post in December inspired by an interesting article at Salon about the history of torture in the US, by one Charles Davis, which made some good points and still worth reading two whole months later.
In a nation-state founded by settler-colonial Protestants, the argument is familiar – it’s what’s deep down inside that gets one up into heaven, not the good or genocidal nature of what one does down here on Earth – and as with any half-decent lie, it’s relatable: as fallible human beings, we’d all rather like to believe that we’re not as bad as we are but as good as we say we would like to be.

As a rhetorical ploy, it’s understandable: Saying the United States has always been garbage is not going to be terribly popular in a nation that still fondly refers to a group of sadistic slave-owners as its “founding fathers” — so politicians savvy enough to know that openly embracing torture is not a good look for the world’s leading state-sponsor of holier-than-thou rhetoric, appeal to a history and set of values that never was and never were in practice, as a way to give political cover to their middling, public relations-minded critiques of the national-security state’s least defensible excesses. It’s entirely false, this narrative of extreme goodness marked by occasional self-correcting imperfection, but it satisfies our national ego to think the American phoenix rises from a store of ethically traded gold, not a pile of rotting trash.
Good stuff, but something bothered me about it.  I soon realized that Davis was engaged in what I might call inverted American exceptionalism.  That's not to deny the facts Davis marshals in his indictment, only to say that I had the feeling he was wallowing in them like a Puritan preacher detailing the rot in his congregation's souls and the eternal punishment that awaits them.  Since most Americans prefer to ignore the horrific aspects of our history, they do need to be pointed out, dwelt on, often.  But I kept remembering something I read in a history of the American Indians, a simple statement I haven't been able to find again.  It went something like this: The Indians were not less civilized than the European invaders -- but that's not saying much.

I also thought of this, from Walter Kaufmann's Without Guilt and Justice (Wyden, 1973, p. 49):
In Paul W. Tappan's massive standard text on Crime, Justice and Correction, for example, all ten references to Freud (in seven hundred fifty pages) concern the light he shed on criminals. But Freud ... also turned a searchlight on respectable society, illuminating the unedifying motives that come to the fore in punishment. Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal.
Now, let me repeat: none of this excuses the crimes and atrocities committed by the European invaders of the Americas and their heirs.  Davis is quite correct to rub his readers' noses in the history, to show the yawning gap between the pretensions of Christian civilization and its grubby, shameful reality.  It's not at all unfair to say, as Davis does, that "the United States has always been garbage."  I just want to say, and stress no less firmly, that by Davis's standards so was every non-Christian civilization.  Invasion, massacre, torture, slavery have been business as usual through most of human history, and we must never forget it.

After pondering Davis's article I found my copy of Will Roscoe's The Zuni Man-Woman (New Mexico, 1991), which includes a sobering account of Zuni society at the end of the 19th century.  Roscoe worked closely with Zuni elders and other influential people in his research, and his work is not anti-Indian; indeed, he engages in some of the same sort of apologetics used by champions of white Christian culture.
In 1882, the Zuni delegation touring the East with Cushing made a side trip to Salem, Massachusetts.  Told about the seventeenth-century persecution of witches at Salem, the Zunis became excited.  At a public reception, the bow priest Kiasi “thanked the good people of Salem for the service they had done the world,” and he gave them some advice should witchcraft trouble them again.  “’Be the witches or wizards your dearest relations or friends, consider not your own hearts,’ said he, ‘but remember your duty and spare them not, put them to death!’”  Because the Americans had rid themselves of witches, the Zunis decided, they had become prosperous and strong.  Belief in witchcraft represents a darker side of Zuni life, one that contradicts the stereotype of Pueblo Indians as uniformly even tempered.  While the Zunis had solved various social problems creatively and humanely, theirs was not a perfect society.  Some Zunis, like Nick Dumaka, grew up at odds with themselves, their families, and the community, unable to conform to Zuni ideals and social rules.  As [Ruth] Benedict noted, “Zuñi’s only reaction to such personalities is to brand them as witches.”

Because the Zunis did not make the distinction, typical of European law, between behavior and intent, the wish to do harm was as bad as doing harm, psychic violence the same as physical violence.  [Well, we’re catching up with them these days; also with Jesus]  Murder, assault, theft, arson, and other crimes were all tried as forms of witchcraft.  However, because the Zunis considered anger, resentment, bitterness, and envy as precursors of witchcraft, sanctions were often applied before overt acts of aggression occurred.  Suspected witches were subject to avoidance and criticism [isn’t that also a sign of anger, resentment, bitterness and envy in the accusers?], and their actions were closely watched.  This is why Zuni appears to have had so little crime.  [Because criminal impulses could be acted out by accusing others of witchcraft!] ...
Prosecution of witches was the responsibility of the bow priests. who tried “to bring them to wisdom.” They seized the suspect at night and took him or her to their chambers.  Witnesses both for and against the suspect, and the suspect himself, could speak.  If the suspect did not confess, however, he was painfully suspended by his thumbs or with his arms tied behind his back.  Hanging, with occasional respite, continued for a day.  Suspects might also be hung in the large plaza, from a beam protruding from the old mission.  If the suspect still remained silent after this, he was taken to the bow priests’ chamber once again, “whence he never comes forth alive.” Witches were not always executed, however.  If the witch confessed, especially with an elaborate story of occult powers, he or she might be released, usually to live in exile [101-103].
Because we have very little reliable information about pre-contact American Indian culture, we can't say whether Zunis dealt with witchcraft in this way before the White Man came.  The method of torture used, for example, is familiar from European practice, and indeed was used to interrogate suspected witches in Salem, Massachusetts.  It's not rocket science, though, and was probably reinvented by various cultures bent on inflicting pain for its own sake.

Torture was used by other Indian societies, and it won't do to engage in apologetics like "The Christians in Europe tortured to belittle and to demean and to punish. The Huron and the Iroquois tortured each other to honour and possess the power of the enemy."  Let me reiterate that I don't bring this up to justify the European invasion of this hemisphere and its dispossession and slaughter of the Americas' original inhabitants.  If the Islamic State is a "death cult," as President Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast, so is the United State of America.  But to return to Charles Davis, if the US is a "nation of torturers," so were the nations it replaced.  If the US has always been garbage, so were the First Nations.

Before Columbus, there was horrific violence in countries all over the world, too much to list here; I'd like to think that most of us have heard of it, even if we don't think of it much and tend to forget it when possible.  Off the top of my head, I think of the Roman practice of crucifixion, which they picked up from other sources.  Think of roads lined with crosses by the hundreds or thousands, each one with a human body on it, with carrion birds pecking at its tenant's eyes.  It's perfectly correct to denounce Christian violence against "pagans," but not if we forget the violence that "pagans" perpetrated against each other.  Much of human history is written in human blood, human cries of agony, in human bodies stretched out in torment. 

It's difficult to find a balance for denunciation of such horrors.  I follow Martin Luther King Jr. and Noam Chomsky, among others, in believing that people should first condemn the crimes of their own country before engaging in facile condemnation of the crimes of others.  I know I'm not alone in saying that I don't want to see America conquered:
-- not that America is in any danger of being conquered: the US has not fought a war of self-defense in my lifetime. But I don’t want to see any country conquered. People like [Joanne] Barkan get so furious at any mention of American malfeasance because they’ll gladly sic the dogs of war on any other country that behaved as the US has behaved, that killed a tenth as many people as the US has killed, that supported a tenth as many dictators as the US has supported, that harbors the kinds of terrorists the US harbors – so it is they who want to see the US attacked and humbled, if they had any consistency of principle. Those of us who can recognize the faults of our country, by contrast, simply want it to stop hurting people so wantonly.
But where do we go from that point?  What does Davis think is the proper way to deal with human "garbage"?  He concludes:
Torture and total war are not the work of a few bad people, but the product of a system that from its inception treated human beings as property and the right to property as more important than the rights of women and men – it’s who we are, and if we want the violence wrought by our system to end, we must honestly address the systemic cause. 
It is "who we are," but it's also who "they" are.  Davis's use of the singular ("a system") is misleading: there are multiple systems that have perpetrated violence and oppression, and the US is only one of those systems' heirs.  If we're all "garbage," as Davis's logic would require us to conclude, then what?  I think that recognition is a good starting point.  American exceptionalism, whether as the shining city on a hill or as an enormous, stinking mountain of garbage, is not going to get us anywhere.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Struggling with Heterosexuality

I'm now reading my third Walker Percy novel, Love in the Ruins.  I've been meaning to take a look at his work for a long time, since so many people whose opinions I respect have spoken highly of him.  (So do some whose opinions I don't respect, like Rod Dreher.)  Percy was a Roman Catholic convert, and I was curious to see how his religion would inform his fiction.  He also wrote essays on deep questions, which I'll get to in due time as I work chronologically through his books.

Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, originally published in 1971, turns out to be a satirical, apocalyptic science fiction novel, set in 1983 in a rapidly deteriorating America.  Percy's narrator, Dr. Tom More, has invented a device he calls the "lapsometer," which he believes to be a scientific breakthrough that will put him in the pantheon with Isaac Newton.  The lapsometer reads the brain's internal states (what More, a bit prematurely I feel bound to say, equates with "the soul") and can also change them.  Its scientific basis is at best neo-phrenology, though maybe it seemed more plausible in 1971 than it does now; and anyway, this is a satire, so factual accuracy matters less than what the technology does in the story.  I haven't got far enough to say much about that.

The narrative can be dated fairly closely because it refers at one point to the entertainer Perry Como (born 1912) as seventy years old.  I'd have guessed it was later by a decade or more, because Percy didn't seem to leave enough time from the time of writing for the changes he describes to work out.  For example:
The war in Ecuador has been going on for fifteen years and has divided the country further.  Not exactly our best war.  The U.S.A. sided with South Ecuador, which is largely Christian, believing in God and the sacredness of the individual, etcetera etcetera.  The only trouble is that South Ecuador is owned by ninety-eight Catholic families with Swiss bank accounts, is governed by a general, and so is not what you would call an ideal democracy.  North Ecuador, on the other hand, is Maoist-Communist and has so far murdered two hundred thousand civilians, including liberals, who did not welcome Communism with open arms.  Not exactly our best war, and now in its sixteenth year [page 17 of the 1989 Ballantine paperback].
This war would have to have begun in the late 1960s for Percy's chronology to work.  But I won't be picky.  Maybe it's supposed to take place in an alternate / parallel universe? Try another example:
American literature is not having its finest hour.  The Southern gothic novel yielded to the Jewish masturbatory novel, which in turn gave way to the WASP homosexual novel, which has nearly run its course.  The Catholic homosexual romance, long awaited, failed to materialize.  But old favorites endure, like venerable Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, who continue to write the dirty clean books so beloved by the American housewife.  Gore Vidal is the grand old man of American letters [16].
That final non sequitur turned out to be a fairly good prediction.  By "the Jewish masturbatory novel" I presume Percy's narrator means Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, which didn't spawn a "course" that I'm aware of, though it's typical for would-be curmudgeons to claim that a single case constitutes a runaway trend.

So far I'm a bit mystified by Percy's high reputation.  He was a good solid craftsman, but from what I've read of his fiction so far he seems to be a fairly ordinary chronicler of middle-aged heterosexual male malaise, given hopeful gravitas by the trendy "existentialism" that had largely run its course by the time this novel was written.  Love in the Ruins has flashes of wit, but it reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut, or Joseph Heller, and of neither of them at their best.  Like theirs, Percy's female characters are standard sexist cartoons, either hot young college-aged women who are inexplicably fascinated by his gloomy, middle-aged protagonists, or The Bitch-Goddess Wife.  In Love in the Ruins Tom More's wife Doris has run off with a "heathen Englishman," more fully described later as "a fake Hindoo English fag son of a bitch" (60).  I'm not particularly bothered by the narrator's homophobia; it's of a piece with his disillusionment with heterosexuality, and who knows what wide-stance desires lurk in the hearts of men?
Those were the days of short skirts, and [Doris] looked like long-thighed Mercury, god of morning.  Her legs were long and deep-fleshed, bound laterally in the thigh by a strip of fascia that flattened the triceps.  Was it her slight maleness, long-leggedness -- perhaps 10 percent tunic-clad Mercury was she -- that set my heart pounding over breakfast? [56].
For a Catholic writer, Percy seems not to have figured out that fornication is also a sin, let alone adultery -- Doris left Tom, but so far there's no mention of a divorce.*  This doesn't keep him from maintaining a harem of three hippie chicks and pursuing a colleague's twenty-six-year-old daughter.  But hell, Percy's protagonists so far have been, like Tom More, "bad" Catholics so maybe it doesn't count any more than the boozing does.  Maybe his essays will go deeper; his fiction so far seems to me quite standard for its time and milieu.

*P.S. It turns out that Doris died after she left Tom; that'll teach her.  But he's still a fornicator.

It also turned out that Tom was suffering from some kind of mental illness, for which he had been institutionalized as a sort of patient-practitioner.  I began to wonder how much of his descriptions of crumbling American society were hallucinations, and I'm still not sure about that.  As I finished Love in the Ruins, I was still mystified by the acclaim Percy has received, and I remain mystified.  He seems to be mainly a competent practitioner of the Male Pan-Life Crisis genre, which of course is so much more universal than the "Jewish masturbatory novel." 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Me and Christopher Against the World

I've begun rereading Andrew Hodges's 1983 biography of Alan Turing, Alan Turing: The Enigma, to see how Turing's life compares to the movie version, The Imitation Game.  It seems fair to do so, since the 2014 re-issues tie the book to the film.

I particularly noticed Hodges's account of Turing's relationship with his classmate and first love, Christopher Morcom, who died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 while still in his teens.  The movie and the book agree that Turing's feelings for Morcom were unrequited, but the movie gives the impression (to me at any rate) that Morcom initiated the friendship as Turing's protector when the latter was being bullied at school.  According to Hodges, Turing initiated the friendship, which took some time to develop.  Eventually Morcom invited Turing to visit his home and meet his family, and their respective parents also developed an acquaintance.  After Morcom's death, Turing sustained a relationship with Morcom's family, visiting them and even traveling with them.  All this is missing from the film, which is understandable to some extent, but the fact that Turing successfully pursued, developed, and sustained a friendship with Morcom is at odds (again, to me at least) with The Imitation Game's portrait of Turing as a socially inept isolate.  Turing clearly was socially awkward, but he learned to overcome it and make connections with other people.

The film continues its depiction of Turing into his codebreaking years at Bletchley, where he is still an isolate, working on his own program, at odds with the other in his unit.  He takes over control of his team by going over his superior's head with a letter to Winston Churchill, who puts him in charge.  He builds his computer almost alone, from nothing, naming it after Morcom, and in a Hollywood-style climax proves his machine's worth against a deadline that would mean pulling the plug on poor "Christopher," symbolically killing Turing's love once again.  But the letter to Churchill was signed not only by Turing but by three others on the team, and the computer (called the Bombe because of the ticking noise it made) built at Bletchley was a development of earlier machines invented by others. Turing worked with another mathematician, Gordon Welchman, who helped make the advances in its design and construction.  And so on.  It's not unreasonable, for purposes of dramatic compression, for The Imitation Game, to focus on just one of the groups that worked on breaking German codes, even to give the impression that only that group achieved anything -- but it is seriously misleading to turn Alan Turing into the One Man who walked into town and beat the bad guys all by his lonesome, fighting against the misunderstanding of the ignorant mob.  Turing may not have been completely comfortable working as part of a team, but he seems to have adjusted to it pretty well, much better than the movie shows.  As L.V. Anderson wrote in a good piece at Slate, "One of Turing’s colleagues at Bletchley Park later recalled him as 'a very easily approachable man' and said 'we were very very fond of him'; none of this is reflected in the film."  Anderson's article goes into detail on the differences between The Imitation Game and history, and is worth a read if you're interested.

There's a common tendency in apologetics for this kind of movie to claim that there's no other way to tell the story, no other narrative, so what else could they do?  As I wrote before, The Imitation Game's portrayal of Turing's homosexuality may not have been motivated by personal homophobia, just creative laziness.  The same goes for its depiction of Bletchley Park, which forces the history into a very familiar narrative straitjacket.  That straitjacket, because of its familiarity, is comfortable for many people, and perhaps The Imitation Game wouldn't have sold as many tickets or garnered as many Oscar nominations if it had gone in a different direction.  Or maybe it would have: Benedict Cumberbatch is a hot property, and would have drawn in audiences regardless.  My point here is that I don't like it, and don't intend to watch it again.  I'm trying to explain here why.

Compare one of my favorite films, My Brilliant CareerIt flouts numerous narrative conventions: the conventionally plain heroine rejects the rich, handsome fellow who loves her and begs her to marry him, and goes on to write and publish her first novel.  To my surprise, some radical gay male critics were annoyed by this.  Yet the movie was a crowd-pleaser, won some awards, and made Judy Davis, who played the protagonist, an international star.  (It did no harm either to Sam Neill, who played her suitor.)  It can be done.  Moviemakers aren't obliged to go against the current and make movies that will please me, but I'm not obliged to like their productions either.  We're in better shape for gay protagonists than we were a few decades ago, but I still see The Imitation Game as a mess of bad creative choices.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

We Can Kill Them for You Wholesale

And so I want to thank [NASCAR Hall of Famer] Darrell [Waltrip] for that wonderful presentation.  Darrell knows that when you’re going 200 miles an hour, a little prayer cannot hurt.  (Laughter.)  I suspect that more than once, Darrell has had the same thought as many of us have in our own lives -- Jesus, take the wheel.  (Laughter.) Although I hope that you kept your hands on the wheel when you were thinking that.  (Laughter.)
From yesterday's post the obvious next step is President Obama's sermon at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast.  Predictably, liberals have been enjoying the predictable right-wing response of fury that Obama would point to the less-savory aspects of Christian history; conservatives have celebrated Darrell Waltrip's remark at the same venue, "If you don't know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior ... you are going to Hell ... I thought I was a good guy, but folks, let me tell you something: good guys go to Hell."  This is the sort of thing that sends liberals and secularists into how-can-you-say-such-awful-things conniptions, but Obama said it was "wonderful", and you can not go against the word of POTUS.  From what I know of Obama's religious beliefs, he probably agrees completely with Waltrip's theology, which is ordinary mainstream Christianity, nothing to get excited about and certainly not in the context of a prayer breakfast.

What Obama said about Christian history was nothing out of the way either, though most American Christians, conservative and liberal alike, would like to forget the historical connection between slavery and racial segregation and Christianity.  The chief reason the right would object is because Obama said these things, just as the chief reason Obama's fans can ignore his reactionary theology is because it's his.

Obama's remarks were what Roy Edroso called "ordinary, meretricious bullshit," though of course Edroso was talking about the bleats of Obama's critics, not about Obama's preaching.  Take for example: "In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."  Obama is quite sure, it appears, that slavery and Jim Crow are incompatible with true Christianity, though mainstream Christians for over 1500 years would have disagreed with him.  Christ himself healed a dying slave and returned him to his bondage, while the apostle Paul converted a runaway and returned him to his Christian master.  In the New Testament, slavery is the model for the relationship between the believer and Christ.  If either of them ever uttered a word against slavery, it hasn't been recorded.  You can claim that despite all biblical and historical precedent, slavery wasn't what Yahweh meant at all, but that's just because believers can invent just about any position they like and ascribe it to their god, as Be Scofield wrote in the post I quoted yesterday, and as Obama said elsewhere in his sermon, cautioning his congregation against "being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others."  But this backfires on Obama, who is sure that God doesn't speak to the religious apologist for slavery, Jim Crow, or "unspeakable acts of barbarism  -- terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions."  Really?  On more than one occasion, Obama's god commanded the children of Israel to invade Canaan and burn its cities to the ground, massacring all the inhabitants and their livestock in some cases, or to leave virgin girls alive in others so that they could be raped by the invaders.  This was justified, in Scripture and by later apologists who claimed the mantle of religious authority for such actions, because the Canaanites were worshiping the wrong gods.  The New Atheists who support the new American-British Crusade against Islam basically agree: they worship the wrong god, they belong to a "death cult" (in Obama's words), so kill them all and let no-God sort them out.

Here's a good example of someone using Christianity to justify war:
The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
That was Abraham Lincoln, draping himself in the mantle of religious authority to justify the American Civil War, the most horrific war in human history up to that point.  (Christian Europe outdid Lincoln fifty years later, also appealing to religion.) "Lincoln wasn't a churchgoer," the commenter who posted the Lincoln quotation concluded, "but I like his God better."  Lincoln's god was Yahweh Sabaoth, the god of battles and carnage, the god of Isaiah and Jeremiah and the Revelation and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," who tramples out the vintage of human blood from human bodies -- the same god as the god of ISIS, in fact.  The commenter likes that god better than the pro-slavery god of Alexander Stephens, who'd been quoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his post on Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast.  But they're the same god; the god of the Bible has no objection to slavery, or to war, or to atrocities against civilians.

The real problem is not extremism.  As horrific as the atrocities of Muslim "extremists" are, they are dwarfed by the atrocities of moderate, middle-of-the-road Western, mostly Christian but Jewish as well, governments.  That one Jordanian pilot was burned alive by ISIS is horrible, but in all-too-recent history the US has burned thousands of people alive, with incendiary bombs, napalm, and white phosphorus.  Isn't that thousands of times as horrible?  Some of these victims were military, to be sure, but then so was the Jordanian pilot.  Many more were civilians.  Retail violence, the terrorism of small usually non-government groups, is easy to focus on, especially for propaganda purposes, but the wholesale violence of states is harder to see for some reason.  Partly that's deliberate, as when Western media refuse to publish or acknowledge Western state atrocities.  Aside from that there's a will not to know, the discipline of memory through doublethink which ignores that it ignores what we do, and uses the cognitive dissonance to obsess over the crimes of official enemies.

Obama himself is responsible for many atrocities, and has justified others.  When he gave his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, for example, he said:
As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their [King and Gandhi’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.
Obama has also joked about using predator drones to kill innocent people.  I don't wish to single him out, of course.  As Noam Chomsky says, if the Nuremberg principles were enforced, every US president since World War II would have to be hanged.  That's the point: killing civilians in vast numbers, burning people to death, is as American as cherry pie, and as Christian as communion wafers.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Be Here Now, Then Be Somewhere Else Later

A friend posted this meme on Facebook, noting his own reservations about it as a meditation practitioner.  (We both agreed that we hadn't bothered to check its authenticity, being more concerned with the idea it expresses, a variation of which I've addressed before.) He wrote that he couldn't "say with that confidence that we can 'eliminate' violence. I'm positive though that it will have a huge positive impact on the world, including the minimization of violence."

I commented that though I agreed somewhat,
This meme reminds me of the Christian friend I have who posted a meme to the effect that the world would be better off if everyone spent more time on their knees. In a narrow sense, that's true: if someone's on their knees praying, they're not out on the streets making trouble. Same goes for meditation. But to eliminate violence -- or to lessen and minimize it, since I agree with you that we probably can't eliminate it altogether -- we need to address it directly, finding ways to get people to resolve conflicts without violence. So from that point of view, this meme is completely off the mark, recommending a simplistic and false remedy to a complex problem that can't be resolved simply.
By direct means of addressing violence, I had in mind various conflict-resolution procedures and strategies that have been developed by counselors and others, and in some form or other they are probably very old.  But also I thought of Miss Manners, who for all the disagreements I have with her is very good at devising responses that deflect aggression and micro-aggression from others.

I think we have to go even further, though, because conflict resolution tends to assume that the opponents are willing to forgo violence as a way of dealing with their conflict, and many opponents are not.  This is not because of a lack of mindfulness, but because human beings have long traditions of violence, which are probably rooted in our primate heritage but have been augmented with all the cultural baggage enhancements we could invent: pride, honor, vengeance, and so on.  If someone's culture demands that he (and it's usually a he) respond to a provocation with violence, then meditation is not likely to inhibit him much.

While trying (without success) to track down a reference to tie the quotation to the Dalai Lama, I found this blog post by an American Buddhist writer, Be Scofield, who went even further than I had.  She also points to what look like useful books related to the problem.
Author and Zen priest Brian Victoria has written extensively on the role that Buddhism played in supporting the Japanese Imperial Empire before and during World War II. In Zen at War and Zen War Stories, he chronicles the little known and disturbing history of renowned university professors, Zen masters, and lay monks of many different sects who gladly assisted their nation in waging multiple “wars of compassion.” The Japanese Emperor was compared to the Buddha, and Buddhist teachings became an excellent tool to eradicate individualism and dissolve the “small-self” into the larger nation-state. Hitler was jealous: “Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good?” ...

Although Yasutani’s influence on American Buddhism is widely revered, Victoria refers to him as a “militarist, not to mention ethnic chauvinist, sexist, and anti-Semite.” On the question of Buddhism and killing, Yasutani was unequivocal:
Those who understand the spirit of the Mahayana precepts should be able to answer this question immediately. That is to say, of course one should kill, killing as many as possible. One should, fighting hard, kill everyone in the enemy army. The reason for this is that in order to carry [Buddhist] compassion and filial obedience through to perfection it is necessary to assist good and punish evil . . . This is the special characteristic of the Mahayana precepts.
At the time, Japan was engaged in a cruel war of imperial expansion. This received full support from Yasutani, who stated: “In making China cede the island of Taiwan, and, further, in annexing the Korean peninsula, our Great Japanese Imperial Empire engaged in the practice of a great bodhisattva, a practice that reveals itself through compassion and filial obedience.” Yasutani also warned of the demonic ways of the Jews, dismantled liberal reforms, and reiterated sexist statements. He insisted that “the universities we presently have must be smashed one and all,” and referred to trades unions and alternative political parties as “traitors to the nation.”

Sadly, Yasutani was not a marginal voice. Rather, he was emblematic of how institutional Buddhism wholeheartedly embraced the worst aspects of Japanese imperialism.
This wasn't limited to Japan or to the twentieth century:
While these examples are disturbing in their own right, this pairing of Buddhism and war isn’t confined to the Japanese Empire. The edited volume Buddhist Warfare (2010), clearly illustrates how Buddhism has been used to justify violence throughout its history. In a review of the book, Vladimir Tikhonov notes that: “From its inception, Buddhism was integrated into a complicated web of power relations; it always attempted to accommodate itself with the pre-existent power hierarchies while preserving a degree of internal autonomy; and it inevitably came to acknowledge, willingly or otherwise, that the powers-that-be use violence to achieve their objectives, which often overlap with those of the Buddhist monastic community.”
And, of course, Yasutani's teaching on the virtues of killing in war echo the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, in which the god Krishna instructs the reluctant warrior Arjuna to kill his opponents not for gain or from anger, but without attachment, simply because it is his duty.  Many apologists have tried to interpret this as a metaphorical teaching against war, but the history of India would indicate that actual Hindus did not take it that way.

And then there's this photo, which is worth a thousand words in itself.

Scofield comments:
The appropriation of yoga by the American military similarly challenges notions that internal spiritual practices will inspire practitioners to challenge the status quo. In 2006, Fit Yoga Magazine’s front cover featured a picture of two naval aviators practicing yoga – specifically, Virabadrasana II, or “Warrior” pose – on a battleship. At the time, even the editor of the magazine admitted that she found this juxtaposition of yoga and militarism a “little shocking.” On second glance, however, she realized that “on their faces, their serene smiles relayed a sense of inner calm.”
Like a Jedi knight, the adept will kill while smiling serenely.  This is no doubt why the New Atheist Sam Harris can embrace meditation as he cheers on the slaughter of children.  He's a scientist too -- no religion here!  Mindfulness will help us control that pesky empathy.

(I admit I'm not being entirely fair to Harris; I agree with him that "empathy is not an argument," but moral discourse cannot exclude empathy and other such factors altogether.  Besides, Harris begins by channeling the most depraved Israeli propaganda: "the government in Gaza is run by Hamas, an avowedly genocidal organization that uses its own civilians as human shields."  If he really wants to establish his impartial rationality, he should apply it to Israel, or to, say, the 9/11 attacks or the recent atrocities by ISIS that have outraged so many.  But Harris is an atheist jihadist, willing to put aside his disagreements with even right-wing Christians until Islam has been defeated once and for all.)

Some will claim that this is a misuse of yoga and meditation; Scofield replies:
Many believe that God, the supreme consciousness, or emptiness is supportive, benevolent, or on the side of justice. Of course, it’s understandable for someone to think that the universe supports his or her particular beliefs and values. The problem, however, is that many with quite different beliefs and values think exactly the same thing. As we’ve seen, countless people have been deeply entrenched in larger systems of violence and domination despite believing they were experiencing connection with the divine through meditation, yoga, or some other spiritual practice. Of course, others have used their spiritual practices and beliefs to resist these same power structures. Therefore, if we assume that there is in fact a divine foundation of reality, it’s extremely difficult to see how it wouldn’t be morally and politically neutral. If there were a distinct political or moral direction to the divine, and practices such as yoga or meditation were means of tapping into it, then all practitioners would eventually share the same political ideology. This, however, is obviously not the case.
Scofield criticizes Thich Nhat Hanh here in similar terms.  Her criticisms don't settle this question, of course, but they certainly should be taken into account to avoid an apologetic No True Scotsman approach.  And they apply no less to atheism, which like religion has no inherent moral content.