Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Onward, Christian Soldiers

This image has been making the rounds lately, and I must say I agree completely.  If you're using the Bible to hurt people, you're using it wrong: you should be using a sword, or a battle axe, as the Lord intended. You can't do any serious, God-breathed damage with a floppy leather-covered book. Geez!

This is basically the "No True Scotsman" move, which isn't an argument but an attempt to distract your attention.  Since there are numerous passages in the Torah and Prophets where Yahweh commands Israel to murder all the pagans and their livestock and burn their cities to the ground, it seems that "loving thy neighbor and even thy enemy" is perfectly compatible with mass slaughter.  One Christian told me that God had to do this, because otherwise the Israelites would have enslaved the people, and that would be worse than killing them. He forgot that in other Canaanite cities, Yahweh commanded that at least some of the inhabitants (virgin females, usually) should be enslaved.

In the New Testament, love is evidently compatible with Jesus verbally attacking his fellow Jews and condemning people to eternal torture if they didn't meet his impossibly high standards of attitude and conduct. Sometimes he just insulted people at random, like the pagan Syrophoenician woman he called a dog when she begged him to heal her sick daughter. Yahweh and Jesus can hardly be dismissed as marginal figures, bad apples who make Judaism and Christianity look bad.

It's ironic to see this meme citing Paul, who wrote, or rather dictated, the letter to the Romans, because Paul is a popular whipping boy for liberal and especially for gay Christians.  Even a lot of self-identified non-Christians denounce Paul as the original betrayer, worse than Judas, who replaced Christ's simple and beautiful message of Love with a bunch of Jewish stuff.  In any case, Paul talked pretty sometimes, just as Jesus did sometimes, but he could also be harsh when his congregations got out of line or he had to contend with other Christian missionaries whose teachings conflicted with his.  Love, for Paul, must therefore be compatible with sayings like
You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
Love must also be compatible with the outpourings of rage I've seen from LGBT and allied people in response to the antigay Christians who denounced last week's Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, since their reactions generally accuse their opponents of "hate."  This implies that the pro-gay side is motivated by "love."  They could've fooled me.

Is "hate" compatible with authentic religion?  I'm an atheist; it's not for me to say, and I really don't have an opinion on the matter.  Personally I think that hate is as valid as love, and I'm not the first person who's noticed that they aren't that far apart, whether in sacred or secular domains.  It seems obvious to me that not only ordinary believers but the great exemplars of religions have spoken and behaved hatefully as often as they have spoken and believed lovingly.  If you take the Bible as an account of the wishes of Yahweh, which seems reasonable to me, there's no question that he often wanted large numbers of people to be butchered to appease his wrath; if you don't take the Bible as an account of the wishes of Yahweh, I don't know what evidence there is that he disapproves of slaughtering whole populations who worship the wrong gods, or worship the putatively right one in the wrong way.  The popular way out of this problem is to insist that when Yahweh commanded mass killing, when he erupted into paroxysms of misogynist abuse, when Jesus threatened the mass of humanity with eternal punishment, they did so in a spirit of Love that is so far above the pathetic human standard that we can only contemplate it with awe and humble self-abasement at our failure to be as holy as they.  It's impossible to prove such claims wrong, since they have nothing to do with reason; but one can still reject them.  One can still say, with Huck Finn: All right then, I'll go to Hell.

As far as I've ever seen, though, no religious teacher, ancient or contemporary, explicitly preaches Hate.  They all insist that they are preaching Love.  Even the Westboro Baptist Church, as far as I know, claims that God hates fags; if they also hate us, it's because they must stand with God, and hate what he hates. And why not?  But most believers call their teachings Love.  The liberal gay and pro-gay allies who expressed their eagerness to see a Texas preacher immolate himself in protest of same-sex marriage being legalized, don't seem to have thought they were preaching hate; they thought he was the hater, so by the simple process of elimination they must be full of Love.  It doesn't seem that he actually said he would do it -- like a true War Wimp for Jesus, he said that other people should put their lives on the line for traditional marriage -- but who cares about facts?  There's no time to be accurate, honest, or rational!  We're fighting a war against Hate here!  Ironically, the only Christian minister who's actually set himself on fire in response to this issue was a pro-gay Methodist who burned himself to death in 2014, leaving a suicide note explaining that "the self-immolation was an attempt to die a martyr for the black and LGBT communities." 

Arguing about whether hate is compatible with true religion (or true atheism, for that matter) seems to me a distraction from more important questions.  It's so much easier, though, than thinking.

But back to the meme that set me off.  I know it's no fun to have other people tell you that you're going to Hell, or that you're a bad person because of your sexual tastes and practices, and if you're unlucky enough to be isolated in a hostile community, it can be very unpleasant.  People who've been wounded emotionally by such communities can be excused if they have trouble discussing these issues rationally, but they're in no position to condemn others for irrationality -- especially if their responses consist mainly of "Oh yeah?  Well, you're going to Hell!"  Which they mostly do.  See you in Hell, folks!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Meeting Cute

Yesterday I read Joshua F. Speed's Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, and Notes of a Visit to California, originally published in Louisville in 1896 but now available as an e-book.  I'd had it in mind to try to find a copy ever since I first heard of it years ago, in Charley Shiveley's Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers (Gay Sunshine Press, 1989).  The only copy I could locate was in the Lilly Library's rare book collection, which couldn't be checked out, so I never quite got around to reading it on-site.  Over the years Speed got more attention, thanks to C. A. Tripp's book which argued that Lincoln might have been gay and then Larry Kramer's book on the same theme.  Neither of which I've gotten around to either, I confess, which I rationalized with the notion that I should read Speed's book (pamphlet, rather) first.  The Reminiscences seems never to have been reprinted until it was scanned and published as an e-book.

Joshua Speed (1814-1882) was born and raised in Kentucky, but spent seven years in Springfield, Illinois running "a large country store, embracing dry goods, groceries, hardware, books, medicines, bed-clothes, mattresses, in fact everything that the country needed" (page 13 of the e-book) before he returned to Kentucky, where he spent most of the rest of his life.  He married, and farmed with his wife and slaves near Louisville for about nine years; served one term in the state legislature; and finally moved into Louisville, where he went into the real-estate business very successfully with his brother-in-law.  Though he was a slaveowner, he worked to keep Kentucky in the Union, and his efforts to that end renewed his friendship with Lincoln, which had largely lapsed when he left Illinois.  According to the sketch of his life that introduces the Reminiscences, Speed "made many trips to Washington" (4) and worked with Lincoln, his Cabinet, and the army there.  After the war he moved back to the countryside with his wife; they had no children.

Speed first noticed Lincoln, he says, in the spring of 1836, when he was deeply impressed by a speech Lincoln gave while running for re-election to the Illinois legislature.  But they didn't get to know each other until a year later.
It was in the spring of 1837, and on the very day that he obtained his [law] license, that our intimate acquaintance began. He had ridden into town on a borrowed horse, with no earthly property save a pair of saddle-bags containing a few clothes. I was a merchant at Springfield, and kept a large country store, embracing dry goods, groceries, hardware, books, medicines, bed-clothes, mattresses, in fact every thing that the country needed.  Lincoln came into the store with his saddle-bags on his arm. He said he wanted to buy the furniture for a single bed.  The mattress, blankets, sheets, coverlid, and pillow, according to the figures made by me, would cost seventeen dollars.  He said that was perhaps cheap enough; but, small, as the sum was, he was unable to pay it. But if I would credit him till Christmas, and his experiment as a lawyer was a success, he would pay then, saying, in the saddest tone, "If I fail in this, I do not know that I can ever pay you."  As I looked up at him I thought then, and think now, that I never saw a sadder face.

I said to him, "You seem so much pained at contracting so small a debt, I think I can suggest a plan by which you can avoid the debt and at the same time attain your end.  I have a large room with a double bed up-stairs, which you are very welcome to share with me."

"Where is your room?"  said he.

"Up-stairs," said I, pointing to a pair of winding stairs which led from the store to my room.

He took his saddle-bags on his arm, went up stairs, set them down on the floor, and came down with the most changed countenance.  Beaming with pleasure he exclaimed, "Well, Speed, I am moved!" [13]
It's a sweet story, isn't it?  It's easy to see why Shively singled it out.  Its import, however, isn't all that clear.  Speed doesn't say anything more about their friendship in Springfield.  They shared that double bed for four years, which can hardly be explained away as a convenience dictated by Lincoln's poverty.  That Lincoln continued sleeping with Speed for several years after he could have afforded a bed (and probably a room) of his own indicates that the arrangement was comfortable and probably pleasant for him. It doesn't necessarily mean they were copulating, but it can't be assumed that they weren't, at least at times. That upstairs room was also inhabited by Speed's clerk (and later Lincoln's law partner) William Herndon and Mr. Beverly Powell, which would have put a damper on the hot man-to-man sex sessions Shively (and Tripp and Kramer, and to be fair, I) fantasized.  According to Herndon, Speed told him Lincoln had patronized female prostitutes in that period, though the accuracy of that report is disputed, perhaps correctly; but if true, it also wouldn't rule out congress with males.

Shively also cited a report that as President, Lincoln sometimes shared a bed with his male bodyguard, who sometimes wore the great man's nightshirt.  The truth of this story is also disputed, and we probably will never know for certain.  Wishful thinking plays a major role on both sides of the disagreements.  This writer, for example, argues that "if Lincoln and Derickson did sleep together, it may have been a singular or uncommon occurrence dictated by some unusual circumstance rather than a regular part of Lincoln's routine during the month or more that Mary was away".  True, it "may be" -- but it's one thing to have to share a bed when you're young and broke, and another when you're the President of the United States.  It's hard for me to imagine the circumstances that would have forced the latter situation, but who knows?  Maybe Lincoln liked friendly company in his bed since the days he shared one with Speed, and (perhaps paradoxically, from today's point of view) a male bedfellow would be less scandalous than a female one.

To my mind, though, there's a good reason not to read Joshua Speed's account of sharing a bed with Lincoln as a reference to an erotic relationship.  He didn't write it in a diary, or in a private memoir not intended for publication: he wrote it as a lecture for public delivery.  I don't find it plausible that Speed meant his story to be understood by his audiences as a declaration that he and the martyred President were Sodomites, which is how two males' loving erotic relationship would officially have been regarded in the nineteenth century.  I'd like to think that the two young men had sex, if only because I've had a schoolboy crush on Lincoln since I was in first grade, but I also wonder if Speed would have told that story in public if he knew that the relationship had been sexual.  He would have known that his audiences wouldn't take for granted two young males who shared a bed would be having it off together, but I doubt he'd have cared to risk the "misinterpretation" or "misunderstanding," as such correct surmises are often called.  I'm not going to say definitely that neither Speed nor Lincoln was homosexual or bisexual, only that I don't think Speed's account of the beginning of their "intimate acquaintance" is evidence one way or the other.

One more thing about Joshua Speed: the second lecture bound with the Reminiscences is an account of Speed's visit to California with his wife in 1874.  It's interesting in its own right to read about cross-country travel in those days, and Speed's descriptions of the scenery are vivid.  He apparently loved flowers -- his country houses had notable decorative gardens -- and was attentive to details of the landscape.  It's also more entertaining than his eulogy for Lincoln, with a sense of humor that was surely influenced by Mark Twain.  I was especially impressed by what he had to say about the Chinese, of whom there were about 100,000 in the US in those days:
[The bigotry toward the Chinese in California] reminded me of the story of our Puritan forefathers.  When they met in council they had some religious misgivings about their cruel treatment to the Indians.  The council passed two resolutions:

"I. Resolved, That the earth and the fullness thereof belongs to the saints.

"2. Resolved, That we are the saints."

These were compromise resolutions, and passed unanimously.  If there be any saints in California, however, we did not see them...

Insignificant as is this number, our two great political parties, jealous of their rights – shame, shame on them! – at their last national conventions both passed resolutions indicative of their fears lest this handful of people would overrun our country, undermine our institutions, and endanger the liberties of forty millions of free white men and women.  Ours is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and every man and boy in California is ready to show his bravery by stoning a Chinaman [39]
As I mentioned, Speed owned slaves before the Civil War, but he expresses no nostalgia for those days in his reminiscences of Lincoln, and explicitly justifies the actions Lincoln took against slavery.  I think it says something good about Speed that he was so contemptuous of anti-Chinese racism as well, at a time when inciting panic against the Chinese was a safe and popular political position among American whites. There's a tendency to 'defend' bigots and racists of the past by saying that they were people of their time, and couldn't have known any better.  Speed seems to have been better than his time in numerous respects; there aren't many people of his time whose writing makes me wish I could have known them, but he's one.

Monday, June 22, 2015

An Area Which We Call The Comfort Zone

In one of his early books on children and learning, John Holt told of watching a toddler playing at the beach while his mother sunbathed.  The child would wander off a little way, then hurry back to his mother, where he felt safe, then wander off again, a little farther this time.  This, Holt declared, was how learning works: we push against our limits a little, but we need to be able to go back to safety until we're ready to venture out again.  As we get older we can push harder, go further, and stay longer, but we still need to be able to retreat to home base to rest and recover.

I imagine the person who uttered the slogan in the above meme would agree with me, though I could be wrong.  One thing that impelled me to save the image and start writing this post was that I'd increasingly noticed memes that cast the Comfort Zone as a bad thing without qualification.  Maybe all of them took their texts out of context; I don't know.  And maybe it's just me, but I thought they took a punitive, even ascetic stance toward Brother Ass (as Saint Francis called his body when it broke down under his abusive treatment).  Most disturbing to me is that these memes are posted by people I know who are struggling with personal problems great and small, and who are therefore taking an un-loving, un-compassionate stance toward themselves.  They would never, I think, talk to their kids that way, because they know it's counterproductive.  I think it's counterproductive to treat oneself this way too.  And I really don't think, from what I know of them, that they're spending too much time in their comfort zones.

Another meme, posted by the same person who posted the one above, read "No matter how much you move, if you don't leave your comfort zone ... you will be walking in circles."  If you never return to your comfort zone, you'll be in a constant state of anxiety and pain.  One of the purposes and results of learning, after all, is to expand one's comfort zone.  At the literal level, the toddler at the beach wants and needs to be able to be comfortable progressively farther from his mother.  I can take chances because I know there's a safe place I can return to, to rest and prepare for the next expedition.  Far from being "the great enemy of courage and confidence," the comfort zone is not the enemy but the necessary precondition for courage and confidence, exploration and growth.

There was a controversy some months ago, when the writer K. T. Bradford issued a challenge to stop reading work by white male cis authors for a year.  Notice the "for a year" part -- that often got left out of the responses, even positive ones like Heina Dadabhoy's "Is it time to stop reading books by white men?"  (The time span was mentioned in the body of that post, but people often stop reading at the title or the lede, and even when they don't, they tend to forget the complexities.)   But there was something else that positive responders missed, epitomized by Dadabhoy's claim that Bradford intended her challenge "to focus on marginalized authors to support them and broaden readers’ horizons."  This is not what motivated Bradford.  As she put it,
Because every time I tried to get through a magazine, I would come across stories that I didn't enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.

Then I thought: What if I only read stories by a certain type of author? Instead of reading everything, I would only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers. Essentially: no straight, cis, white males.

Cutting that one demographic out of my reading list greatly improved my enjoyment of reading short stories. That's not to say I didn't come across bad stories or offensive stuff in stories or other things that turned me off. I did. But I came across this stuff far less than I did previously.
To put it bluntly, Bradford began seeking out work by non-straight, non-white, non-cis, non-males in order to retreat to her own comfort zone.  I don't think that's bad at all; it is one of the reasons why I sought out work by queer writers when I came out.  By the time I was twenty, most of the books I'd read (and I'd read a great many) were by or about heterosexuals; even if I'd stopped reading such work altogether, it would have been decades before gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers had balanced the straight ones.  And I remember how delighted and yet conflicted I was when I first read Marge Piercy's great Woman on the Edge of Time, because I had never before read a novel that effectively pandered to my prejudices about sex, gender, race, and politics.

Bradford concludes by asking the reader, "Are you up to this challenge?"  I wonder who she imagines her reader to be.  A straight white cis male could reasonably respond that he reads primarily work by straight white cis males in order to avoid writing that he actively hates, or that offends him so much that he rage-quits reading it.  (Something like this is the expressed motive of the Sad Puppies / Rabid Puppies who enraged a lot of science-fiction fandom by stacking the Hugo Awards ballots with work that didn't offend their sensibilities or politics.)  The challenge she offers her readers is not the challenge -- which is not the right word -- she offered herself, and I'm not sure she realizes that.  My problem with Bradford's piece is not that she focuses on race, gender, and sexuality illegitimately, as some of her white male critics accused her of doing, but that she's not clear in her own mind about what she's doing, or what it means.  To non-straight-cis-white-male readers, increasing the number of non-straight-cis-white-male writers they read means something quite different than the same program will mean to straight white cis male readers.  I must say, I was taken aback by her claim that she began reading only "stories by a certain type of author."  It seems to me that she chose to read stories by several different types of authors, unless she read only stories by queer transgender women of color, and it doesn't appear that she did.

When I thought about writing this post I considered going over the books I'd read in the past year and tallying up the different categories into which their authors fell.  That project quickly became too complicated, though I might return to it some other time.  For now, though, here's a month's worth of my reading log from earlier this year, with what I know about the authors in square brackets.  (I began keeping it in May 1977.)
7273.  The long tomorrow, Leigh Brackett, 4/09/2015 [white female]
7274.  The private life of Sherlock Holmes, Vincent Starrett, 4/10/2015 [white male]
7275.  Journeys and arrivals: being gay and Jewish, Lev Raphael, 4/11/2015 [gay white Jewish male]
7276.  The conjure-man dies, Rudolph Fisher, 4/14/2015 [African-American male]
7277.  Some love, some pain, sometime: stories, J. California Cooper, 4/15/2015 [African-American female]
7278.  Commodities and capabilities, Amartya Sen, 4/16/2015 [South Asian male]
7279.  Beast or angel?: choices that make us human, RenĂ© Dubos, 4/18/2015 [straight white male]
7280.  A school for lovers, Jill Paton Walsh, 4/19/2015 [white female]
7281.  Improving Nature?, Michael J. Reiss and Roger Straughan, 4/21/2015 [white males]
7282. The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood, 4/22/2015 [white female]
7283. The longings of women, Marge Piercy, 4/25/2015 [white Jewish female]
7284. The forgotten beasts of Eld, Patricia McKillip, 4/26/2015 [white female]
7285.  The dark glasses, Francis King, 4/29/2015 [white gay male]
7286.  The Long War, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, 5/01/2015 [white males]
7287.  What are big girls made of?: poems, Marge Piercy, 5/02/2015 [white Jewish female]
7288.  A stranger’s mirror: new and selected poems 1994-2014, Marilyn Hacker, 5/03/2015 [white lesbian Jewish female]
7289.  Black thunder, Arna Bontemps, 5/05/2015 [African-American male]
7290. Alan Turing: The Enigma, Andrew Hodges, 5/06/2015 [gay white male]
7291. The paying guests, Sarah Waters, 5/08/2015 [white lesbian female]
7292.  Silencing the past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 5/09/2015 [African-Haitian male]
Four of these twenty books were written by straight cis white males.  I've made a conscious effort in the past two years to read as many books by female as by male writers, though I've made no conscious decision about writers of color, non-heterosexual or non-cisgendered writers.  Classifying writers for this project is complicated, and I may say more about that some other time.  (Do Jews count as white?  Who is white?) What concerns me now is another question:

Why do people read?

People read for a variety of reasons; the same person may read different things for different reasons.  There's my longtime coworker, who probably reads a hundred or so books a year -- but they're all best-selling mysteries and romances.  I've never seen her read anything else, except when she had to read material on cooking and sanitation for training at work.  There was a guy who explained that the reason he was able to reread so many books was that he read nothing but military science fiction.  There are people who read a great deal of nonfiction in a very narrow ambit: Civil War or other military history, inspirational religious books, self-help books, and so on.  People like these, who may read quite a lot, and get pleasure from their reading, are probably much more common than someone like me.

I read a wide range of material, mostly but not only for pleasure.  I've explored genres like women's Christian fiction and subject like sports that interest me personally very little but still give me insight into people whose lives are very different from mine.  I read for information in a wide range of nonfiction, though fiction about people from different cultures and subcultures also informs me.  Not infrequently I read books that I know will infuriate me, because I want to know what they say; I usually take a lot of notes and may eventually write about them here.  Especially in the past decade or so, I've been reading "classics," to give myself the background that I, as a former English major, felt I should have.  But often I read, or reread, books that have given me pleasure before by writers who have given me pleasure before.  These may be fiction or nonfiction.  I think it's not surprising that my reading log includes a goodly number of books by writers who aren't like me in the ways that K. T. Bradford considers significant.  That's because I see our common humanity as more important than the differences, even when the differences make me angry.  All this is, I think, largely because I read easily and quickly.  Someone who takes a week or month to finish a book she enjoys might well not care to range as far afield.

K. T. Bradford's reading of magazine stories was work-related, by the way, though self-assigned.  "I write short fiction, and I wanted to get better at writing it. To do that I had to write, write, and write some more. But just as important was reading, reading, and reading a lot more."  She began limiting the range of her reading when it began to make her uncomfortable, which brings me back to my point: her "challenge" represents a retreat to her comfort zone, not an attempt to move beyond it.  And that's not a bad thing -- it's just not what her supporters and she herself have tried to make it seem.

Paradoxically, narrowing her focus in one respect broadened it another: deciding to read more work by women, by people of color, by non-heterosexuals, and so on allowed Bradford to encounter writing and perspectives she might otherwise have missed.  There is too much to read out there, and no matter what we choose to read, there is vastly more that we can't.  But even straight white cisgendered men aren't all alike, and there's as much range among their work, as much to learn and discover in it, as there is among queer trans women of color.  And if Bradford hasn't discovered plenty of offensive, infuriating content in the work of non-white etc. writers, maybe she hasn't been paying enough attention.  (Notice, however, that she admitted that she did find such content in the narrow range of writers she set for herself.)

We need our comfort zones, and there are areas of life where we might as well leave them as they are.  I've written before about people who advocate broadening one's horizons through interracial dating.  Within limits this isn't a bad idea, but at best it means using other people to prove oneself a tolerant and unprejudiced person, which might end up raising hopes one can't fulfill.  "Might," hell -- it's likely to do that.  From one perspective, every relationship we begin is an experiment, with a significant risk of hurting another person or being hurt oneself.  Which is another thing that bothers me about the vilification of comfort zones by self-help gurus: it looks to me as if most people, and especially women, endure a great deal of discomfort in relationships because it's expected of them, and you have to remember that relationships take work, and so on.  People too often stay in bad relationships (or jobs, or other situations) not because they're too comfortable, but because they're afraid that getting out will show them to be immature, neurotic, selfish, demanding.  At least a book doesn't care if you decide not to finish reading it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Oooh, Burn! Slam! Shred! Eviscerate!

My friend A shared this image, which she got from something called "Solidarity: A Socialist, Feminist, Anti-Racist Organization."  I commented, "I love poppet magic.  It's so rational."

Someone else didn't know what poppet magic is, so I explained.

Poppet magic is when you make an image of who or what you hate (or take an image that already exists, as here), and damage it -- stick pins in it, burn it, whatever -- in the belief that the damage you do to the poppet will be done to the person. It's ancient and found in many cultures.

So: if I burn a flag, I burn the country it represents. If I tear up a photograph of a person I hate, I do him/her damage. Now, I can imagine good reasons to burn a Confederate flag or any other, but I think that what's going on in this picture and this meme is poppet magic. It's anything but rational.  I demand better from people and a movement who are really interested in working for justice and a better world. I demand it, but I don't get it. What I get is the mirror image of the other side. And that's not going to work. It's certainly not going to get my allegiance, or my support. Just my scorn.

Of course, my scorn and a dollar will get me on the bus. But if this is the best that the people who are nominally on my side can come up with, we're doomed. It's masturbation, which is an honorable practice, but doesn't reproduce justice.

Maybe I'm not being entirely fair.  Burning the rebel battle rag isn't the best that people who are nominally on my side can come up with.  There are people -- like Ta-Nehisi Coates -- who have something intelligent to say.  But A doesn't post Coates; she posts the image above.  And too much of what I'm seeing online on liberals about the Charleston murders is not up to Coates's standard.  It's the usual Us. v. Them / Stoopid Conservatives politics-as-spectator-sport crap that doesn't do anything but let liberal white people feel superior to the Reichtards on the other team.  (It looks like the flag in the photo is being burned by young black men -- but the audience that's visible appears to be mostly white.)  And memes are easy, much easier than thinking.  As A. E. Housman said in his classical-scholar mode, "Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time."  If you try thinking about a meme, you'll encounter resistance from others.

Now, of course, the Charleston killings are upsetting.  For most Americans, especially white Americans, they do not touch us personally.  I would never tell the friends and families of the people murdered by Dylann Roof how they should react.  But I feel free to be more critical of the way the rest of us react.  It often seems (I think Walter Kaufmann noticed this) that people reserve rationality for trivial matters, but throw it out the window when things get hairy.  (There's no time to be rational now -- we have to throw a hissyfit!)  F. G. Bailey's concept of the moral mind might be relevant too: it means getting up and declaring one's principles in order to establish oneself as a Truly Good Person and Citizen, a performance that has its social uses but will only take you so far.  At some point one must set one's moral mind aside and apply one's rational civic mind to the problems that face us.  I'm still waiting for my fellow white Americans to do that in significant numbers.

Friday, June 12, 2015


Samuel Delany linked the other day* to a tumblr called Shit Rich College Kids Say.  He remarked:
This one requires a little thought, but work your way through it ... And by the way, it's not all rich college kids. But it's enough of them to be noticeable. And it's also noticeable that over the last decade a lot of not so rich kids have been saying it too, not to mention faculty. Things will be better if you understand what's at stake here, and life will make a little more sense.
Delany's a college professor, so he has more direct interaction with students than I do these days.  When I looked at the tumblr, the first, most current entries were these:
Having a good sense of humor is so much more progressive than taking offense to everything. If you go looking to take offense to things, you’re going to be offended
I don’t know why you got so offended by that joke [targeting lesbians]. I mean I don’t think it’s offensive and I could probably even be considered a little bit bisexual at times.
The Stupid is certainly strong in these, but that's nothing new, either on college campuses or in society at large.  As I read more of the entries, though, the more baffled I got.  What, aside from playing "Ain't It Awful?", is the point?  I wrote a comment asking "Are we talking about the entries about being offended? I'm working class, and I think we need to rethink our approach to that issue." Delany replied:
Ultimately, I don't think this is about being offended and not being offended. It's understanding where people are coming from and not understanding where they are coming from--and why or why not certain arguments do or don't make sense--at least as I read it. But Duncan, I'll certainly look again. If you could point out some of the ones you find problematic, that might be a good place to start.
I realized that when Delany looked at the tumblr, the entries I quoted above might not have been posted yet, so I found the links and replied to him.  Another person, who'd directed Delany to the tumblr originally, paraphrased its mission statement: "omg These Assholes Are Our Nation's Future".  This seemed even stranger to me.  As Delany, at least, must know, these assholes are also our nation's present and past.  In the past, college education was more or less limited to rich kids (with a scattering of poor scholarship kids), and we may be moving in that direction again.  But like all schooling, college was, and is, a process of socialization.  It doesn't just teach students facts or skills, it teaches them courses (discourses, to be more exact) and limits of thought and conduct -- though it can also teach them to transgress those limits.  As Tom Lehrer might have said (but didn't), education is like a sewer -- what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.

Another one: "Wait, isn’t transgender when they have boy parts AND girl parts?"  This will be risible ignorance to those who are more informed than the average person is about sex and gender, but even they/we should be careful.  I can't think of many areas beside gender where the level of even informed discourse is so low.

Now, this one is especially weird, I thought: "I’m a trisexual - I fuck girls, guys and tr***ies."  The idea that relating erotically to trans people as well as cis people puts one in a separate category is not unheard of, though among our Speakers Bureau volunteers the preferred label is "pansexual."  I get that the person quoted thinks he's being funny, and I get that he's using blunt, crude language, but there's the weird part: someone thought that "fuck" is inoffensive, but "trannies" was so beyond the pale that it had to be censored with asterisks.  Except for "trannies," though, I see this kind of crudeness all the time among hip, class-conscious queer academics I know on Facebook who have a very sensitive nose for privilege in others, though less so among themselves.

I'm not sure that Delany and I are "reading" SRCKS the same way.  The mission statement claims that it's not intended to demonize other people. "Most of the original content is said by our [the moderators’] friends–who we are friends with ... Lots of my friends when they start learning new shit tell me to put up their old quotes so they can remind themselves never to be that way again," according to some of the FAQ responses.  But the entire lack of context in or for the posts makes it difficult to know what the mods' intentions are.  The title of the tumblr itself doesn't help -- are the rich college kids talking shit supposed to be the mods and their friends, or someone else?  A "we" or something to that effect would help a great deal.  And wouldn't it make more sense to provide some sense of how those people who were "that way" before came to be the way they are now, whatever it is?  As it's set up, the easiest and most natural way to read SRCKS is a finger-pointing exercise at a more or less depersonalized if not demonized Other.  The Microaggressions tumblr I've mentioned before makes similar disclaimers about its intent, no more persuasively.

A strange one here: "[R]ich college kids do not have as many excuses to be so ignorant. They just lack incentive to learn that their bullshit opinions are bullshit."  Oh, you think so?  Privilege is a shield as well as an enabler, and growing up in comfort and safety produces and encourages ignorance of what lies outside that shelter.  You'd think from this that "their bullshit opinions" were the rich kids' own, rather than something they'd learned from their parents and their class.  (The origin myth of the Buddha literalizes this: Prince Gautama's parents deliberately kept him isolated from awareness of human suffering until he was almost thirty.  Not until he glimpsed debilitating age, illness and death outside the family palace did he realize that not everyone had it as good as he.  Many parents have more foresight than Gautama's: instead of trying only to isolate them, they inculcate their children with rationales for their privilege and the disadvantages of others -- the Others are inferior, lazy, etc.  This allows people to believe that they deserve their good fortune even when confronted directly with the misery of others.  It doesn't always work, but often enough.  Non-rich kids have more reason to try to understand why the world works as it does, but there's no guarantee that they'll find better answers.  And the University historically is just as likely to be a repository of those justifications for privilege as to undermine them.

Some online conversations I've had on these matters don't make me more optimistic.  Even graduate students and post-docs in edgy specialties like Queer Theory or Post-Colonial Studies don't exhibit a firm grasp of the concepts they're working with.  Instead of learning from Foucault, for instance, American academics have turned his work into Scripture to mine for proof texts.  Critical thinking is seldom in evidence, and jargon (which is valid in itself) is used as a substitute for thought.  Learning to shoehorn one's thinking into the Procrustean bed of the academic paper too often produces distortion rather than clarification.  (Recently I listened to a grad student reading per paper on Queer Theory and Popular Culture, and I was struck by the way its rhetorical strategies steered away from substantive discussion.  The result was a kind of abstract poetry, where the language had its own logic and requirements that took it away from lived experience.)

I just looked again at Shit Rich College Kids Say, and I'm even less clear on what its mission is.  As I write this, the newest post is an appeal for help for a "homeless trans girl" and her mother.  There's another similar appeal posted on the landing page.  Is this what rich college kids say?  And it's no dismissal of the plight of many trans people to say that I don't trust appeals like these when they turn up on Facebook (because they're usually out of date at best, bogus at worst), so why would I trust a reposted item on this tumblr?  Do the moderators vouch for their validity?  These were followed by a call for submissions to a projected (online?) anthology on the ostensible theme of Road Trips from Hell, though it was hard to make that title fit up with the description.  And then, finally, another Ain't It Awful post about a "psychology professor" who said something dumb about Caitlyn Jenner and trans people in general.  Followed by a weird and not terribly coherent post by a moderator who said that person was upset by intra-community complaints being posted to SRCKS, when it 's supposed to be for inter-community complaints.
discussions about intra-community issues belong intra-community. not here where 41,000 other people can indiscriminately invade the conversations, manipulate the arguments, and deny the humanity of the subjects in question.
Talk about meta!  The post is in its way an example of what the writer is complaining about.  But as far as I can tell, manipulating the arguments and denying the humanity of the subjects in question is the purpose of this tumblr.  This writer just wants to be sure that the right people are having their humanity denied.  It would be reasonable simply to say something like: "The topic of this tumblr is inter-community conflicts, in order to enable certain minorities to play Ain't It Awful about certain majorities and run around crying Someone was offensive on the Internet!  We're not playing Ain't It Awful about conflicts within those minority communities, though they certainly happen and are cause for concern."  The writer puts per concern in terms of not airing our dirty laundry where those mean ol' Outsiders can see and exploit it, which is an old controversy in numerous communities including LGBTQ ones.  I don't object to defining and limiting the content of a publication, nor do I object to people having a place to vent their complaints and enjoy their ragegasms.  (As a blogger, I could hardly cast the first stone.)  But it seems to me that SRCKS is part of the problem.  The posts don't have any context, they don't lead to any kind of thoughtful discussion and aren't really meant to.  I look at sites like it and think "omg, these whining, unreflective babies are the LGBTQ community's future!"

*Actually, several months ago.  I'm plundering the drafts folder again, though much of this post was written today.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Some of My Best Friends Are Putzes

Dr. Ruth Westheimer got some attention a few days ago by saying some stupid things about rape and consent in a TV interview.  Amanda Marcotte was one of many online pundits who gave her a good dressing-down.

Here's a partial transcription of Westheimer's remarks:
I am very worried about college campuses saying that a woman and a man—or two men or two women, but I talk right now about women and men—can be in bed together, Diane, and at one time, naked, and at one time he or she, most of the time they think she, can say “I changed my mind.”

No such thing is possible. In the Talmud, in the Jewish tradition, it says when that part of the male anatomy is aroused and there’s an erection, the brain flies out of that and we have to take that very seriously, so I don’t agree with that.
It sounds like Westheimer's trying to be a kosher Camille Paglia.  I'm not going to address her remarks about consent, because Marcotte and others have done that more or less ably, including some of Marcotte's commenters, who referred to their own experience for counterexamples.  But I noticed an annoying tendency among the commenters to dismiss the Talmud, though they clearly had no idea what it is.  Well, I mean, like, who cares what a bunch of dead white men said like millions of years ago?  We're modern enlightened people and we have science, which totally proves that you can get naked with someone and they can't rape you, so there!  We don't need your Stone Age Talmud!

I'm not a Talmudist, not even Jewish.  I'm a goyisher atheist, but I have picked up some shiny bits of information in my reading about the human heritage.  The Talmud is not the Jewish Bible -- that would be what Christians call the Old Testament.  The Talmud is a huge, complex text made up of Mishnah and Gemara.  The Mishnah was compiled around 200 CE; according to tradition it preserves in writing the Oral Torah, the discussions of Jewish scholars and authorities from the time of Moses down to, roughly, the destruction of the Second Temple around 70 CE.  This is probably not true, any more than the written Torah was written by Moses, or the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by seventy scholars in seventy days, or the New Testament gospels were written by some of Jesus' original followers.  The Gemara is commentary on the Mishnah, which accumulated over three or four centuries.  To add to the complexity, there are two Talmuds, the Jerusalem and the Babylonian, but the Babylonian one has priority for most use by rabbis and scholars.

Overall, the Talmud is an archive of "legal" debate among scholars.  I put "legal" in quotes because there's a tradition among Christian apologists to see rabbinic Judaism as a system of cold, soulless legalism, abetted by the fact that the Torah (which means "instruction," somewhat euphemistically) is referred to as nomos, or "Law," in the Greek of the New Testament.  To oversimplify so we can move along here, rabbinic Judaism is a system of warm, soulful legalism.  It is, like any legal or religious system, thoroughly human in its origins, implementation, and function.  As you might guess, then, it's usually inaccurate to treat the Talmud as a monolithic authority, as Westheimer did.  There's an old joking proverb: Two Jews, three opinions.  The Talmud is, like law or philosophy or theology or literary criticism, or science for that matter, a record of dissent and debate.  My first suspicion when I read Westheimer's claim was that if I looked at the text in its context, it would be a lot less direct and clear than she wanted people to believe.

One of Marcotte's commenters referred to the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism as "primitive."  No, it's not.  In a previous post I quoted a technical definition of "primitive" from the sociologist and Hindu monk Agehananda Bharati's book, The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism (Ross-Erikson, 1976).
"A primitive society, by anthropological criteria, is a small, band-like society structured entirely on kinship lines, which does not deploy fulltime specialists for anything" (142).  Two things about this: 1) it's not derogatory or racist to use the word "primitive" in this way, just as there is probably a definition of "tribal" that isn't derogatory or racist, but either word can be used to put down what one doesn't like in one's own allegedly "advanced" culture, just as "childish" can be; 2) by Bharati's definition there are still "primitive" aspects of modern Western society, but these are not necessarily bad: friendship, kinship, taking care of others as amateurs rather than as specialists, without expecting cash payment for doing so.
I remarked to the commenter that he might as well have referred to the Talmud as fat or gay as call it "primitive."  He countered that the Talmud isn't fat or gay, but it is primitive, so there.  If you use "primitive" to mean "something I don't like," then yes, the Talmud is primitive.  If you're using the word in anything like the anthropological sense, however, it's not.  (There are other valid uses of "primitive," as in the arts, but he didn't mean those either.)  Ancient Judaism -- the much older Hebrew Bible, I mean, as well as the Talmud -- was the product of a literate society with fulltime specialists such as priests, scribes, and teachers.  You could call it "primitive" to mean that it was a long time ago and didn't have printing or telescopes or cell phones, but then the Greece of Plato and Aristotle, or the Roman Empire, or the sages of Vedic Hinduism, or the Buddha would be primitive too, and I doubt the commenter had them in mind.

On attitudes to women and sex, and rape in particular, the modern, enlightened West would also have to be referred to as "primitive."  Modern Western science has been -- well, I'll be nice and just call it "terrible" on these matters.  Think of the brilliant scientists (both male, of course, but aided and abetted by female colleagues) who, based on their evidence-based research, recommended that young men be required to take rape-prevention classes before they were issued driver's licenses and young women be advised not to wear tight sweaters.  Steven Pinker was embarrassed by the stupidity of the recommendation but still defended Thornhill and Palmer in The Blank Slate (page 371) -- they were so not justifying rape! -- by adducing the authority of Camille Paglia.  Then remember Michael Ruse -- philosopher of science, champion of Darwin against the Bible-thumpers -- showing his complete inability to grasp the difference between rape and consensual sex, or between rape and crapping on your boss's Persian rug.  There must be male scientists who are better than this, but I don't know of any.  Advances in thinking about rape came from man-hating, hairy-legged feminists, not from Science.

Some of the commenters pointed out that women were forbidden to study Talmud until recently.  The determined resistance by male scientists to letting women work in the sciences must not be forgotten either.  (Especially since there is still a drive to erase the achievements of women scientists from the history, sometimes by tokenizing them.)  It's not really that hard to remember, since it is still with us, if slightly less virulent.  Yes, even now in the primitive times of the twenty-first century, male scientists are trying to explain away the lesser numbers of women in the sciences by blaming it on women's supposed innate lack of interest in science, or their supposed lack of compulsive competitiveness, or even because their brains aren't organized to do science like men's are.  You can condemn religious traditions for male chauvinism and misogyny, and you should; but you must also be aware of the same tendencies in Science.

Also relevant here is current scientific thought on homosexuality, which incorporates conceptions of gender and sexuality that could perhaps be called "primitive"; certainly they are descended from concepts that are ancient. As I've said before, where but on sex/gender do the primitive myths and misconceptions of the masses get respect from enlightened scientists, who seem to be under the impression that they invented them themselves?

But I digress.  When I read about Westheimer's statements I began wondering almost immediately: Did the Talmud say what she said it says, that "when that part of the male anatomy is aroused and there’s an erection, the brain flies out of that and we have to take that very seriously"?  I thought I recognized a Yiddish proverb invoked by Philip Roth in Portnoy's ComplaintVen der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd -- When the prick stands up, the sense (or judgment) lies down in the ground.  This is of course an alibi made by men themselves, and has no scientific standing.  For one thing, the putz doesn't have a brain, as Westheimer implies: sexual desire is mostly in the brain a couple of feet above the gonads.  For another, sexual desire can impair judgment, but it doesn't destroy it altogether; an aroused person can still hear the words "No" and "Stop."  If a person is taught that he (or she) is not responsible for what he does when aroused, he will not even try to behave responsibly.  As Marcotte pointed out after Westheimer protested that she wasn't defending rape, "no rape apologist in the history of rape apologies has ever admitted to rape apologizing."

But did Ashkenazi folklore take this proverb from the Talmud?  I realized I'd better try to find out, and it turned out to be easier than I expected.  The writer of this helpful article tried to ask Westheimer for a reference for her Talmudic wisdom, but the Doctor was out.  The writer then talked to some rabbis, who recognized the proverb but didn't think it came from the Talmud.  Indeed, they said, that the Talmud is extremely anti-rape and pro-consent.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whose books about sex and Judaism include “Kosher Sex,” “Kosher Adultery” and “Kosher Lust,” said, “I know Dr. Ruth and very much like her, but anyone in the Jewish community should strongly object to what she said. Consent is offered by a woman, and it can be withdrawn at any moment."

“The idea that men are ravaging beasts who are controlled by their hormones and can’t stop themselves is a Neanderthal view that Judaism would never embrace. It’s a shockingly frightening excuse for rape.”

Rabbi Dov Linzer, head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school, and co-host of “The Joy of Text” monthly podcast on Judaism and sexuality, agreed with Ruttenberg and Boteach. Linzer pointed to the passages they cited and also noted a passage in Berachot 62A saying that even when a man and his wife are naked together in bed, it is incumbent upon him to make sure she desires to have sex before beginning the act.
Although known for its conflicting opinions and arguments, the Talmud is notably consistent about sexual consent, Linzer said, adding that he could not think of any passage that forgives or condones sex without full consent and that “the whole issue of responsibility and culpability is a major theme in the Talmud.
This sounded very impressive. Why, the Talmud is completely in accord with modern feminism!    (Notice, however, Boteach's reference to "Neanderthal" brutishness.  We don't in fact know anything about the sexual behavior or manners of the Neanderthals.  The word has the same function here that "primitive" did for the commenter I mentioned earlier.  If the Neanderthals were contemptuous of consent, though, that would mean they weren't primitive but as modern as Dr. Ruth or Michael Ruse.)  English translations of the Talmud are available online, so I decided to find these passages if I could, and see how the rabbis expressed these modern ideas so many centuries ago.  I began with Berachot 62A online, and I cannot find anything about the necessity of a husband's ascertaining his wife's willingness to copulate there, in or out of bed.  The section is mostly a discussion of outhouse etiquette between men, mainly rabbis.  For example:
Our Rabbis taught: Who is a modest man? One who eases himself by night in the place where he eased himself by day.  Is that so? Has not Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: A man should always accustom himself [to consult nature] in the early morning and in the evening so that he may have no need to go a long distance? And again, in the day-time Raba used to go as far as a mile, but at night he said to his attendant, Clear me a spot in the street of the town, and so too R. Zera said to his attendant, See if there is anyone behind the Seminary as I wish to ease myself? — Do not read 'in the place', but read, 'in the same way as he eases himself by day'  R. Ashi said, You may even retain the reading 'place', the reference being to a private corner.
Kinky, but not relevant to rape or consent in the marital bed.  I checked other passages cited in the article.   Nedarim 20A says nothing I could find about connubial drunkenness ruling out consent, though it does contain some familiar folklore about children being marked by their parents' behavior during and after conception:
R. Johanan b. Dahabai said: The Ministering Angels told me four things: People are born lame because they [sc. their parents] overturned their table [i.e., practised unnatural cohabitation]; dumb, because they kiss 'that place'; deaf, because they converse during cohabitation; blind, because they look at 'that place'. But this contradicts the following: Imma Shalom was asked: Why are thy children so exceedingly beautiful? She replied: [Because] he [my husband] 'converses' with me neither at the beginning nor at the end of the night, but [only] at midnight; and when he 'converses', he uncovers a handbreadth and covers a hand breadth, and is as though he were compelled by a demon. And when I asked him, What is the reason for this [for choosing midnight], he replied, So that I may not think of another woman, lest my children be as bastards. — There is no difficulty: this refers to conjugal matters;  the other refers to other matters. 
There follows some discussion of anal penetration of the wife, which the rabbis generally accept because
R. Johanan said: The above is the view of R. Johanan b. Dahabai; but our Sages said: The halachah is not as R. Johanan b. Dahabai, but a man may do whatever he pleases with his wife [at intercourse]: A parable; Meat which comes from the abattoir, may be eaten salted, roasted, cooked or seethed; so with fish from the fishmonger.
Only 37A came within a country mile of R. Boteach's account: "Ye maintain that a menstruant woman is permitted yihud [privacy] with her husband: can fire be near tow without singeing it?"  This seems to me far from "the man has to prop himself up on his elbows and subside," however, and it seems to imply that the proximity even of a menstruating wife will "singe" her husband with desire.  Or maybe not.  But on the basis of these scholars' references, I can't see that the Talmud is particularly humane or enlightened about women, copulation, consent, or reproduction.  That, however, is more because it's the work of male scholars, than because it's religious or "primitive."

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Hi! I'm From the Reagan Administration, and I'm Here to Help

Oy, what a week!  Just a quickie for right now: Daniel Larison wrote another good column the other day on the perils of Reaganolatry.
The trouble for the GOP isn’t just that younger voters don’t remember Reagan, but that most of them have fairly clear memories of the last administration and/or the current Republican leadership. Presidential candidates can talk about Reagan all they like, but it won’t change the fact that for most people that became politically engaged over the last fifteen years Republican governance has a horrible reputation of incompetence and recklessness. Republican candidates almost have to fall back on praising someone who hasn’t been in office in a quarter century, since for most of the time since then their party has become synonymous with failed and disastrous policies.
I do disagree somewhat, since "incompetence and recklessness" were practically Reagan's middle names, and his corrupt regime contributed a lot to our present problems.  Which is, no doubt, why Barack Obama admires him so much.

The comments under the post are a mixed bag, but I especially liked this fine example of Reaganolatry by a self-identified Reagan supporter:
That’s why Reagan, were he here and in sound mind, would regard Snowden as a patriot, just as Democrat Wyden and Republican Rand do.
I didn't believe that for a second, so I looked around to see if I could find what Reagan had said about Daniel Ellsberg, and I didn't have much luck for a while.  But I was sure that he must have said something, since Reagan was a constant and vocal presence on the American political scene during that period. Knowing his reactionary politics, I did not believe that Reagan approved of whistleblowers exposing American's delicate privacies to the harsh light of day.  I finally found this, from a June 28, 1983 press conference during which President Reagan was asked about reports that his 1980 presidential campaign had used briefing books stolen from the Jimmy Carter campaign.  He replied:
Well, my answer is that it probably wasn't too much different from the press rushing into print with the Pentagon Papers, which were stolen. And they were classified. And it was against the law. Now, I want the Justice Department to find out if anybody did anything that broke the law.
Which is roughly what was said about Bradley / Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden thirty years later.  So no, I doubt very much that Reagan would have thought either of them to be patriots.