Monday, November 30, 2015

Whose War Was It, Anyway?

Someone left a travel guide to Southeast Asia lying on a table in the public library today, and I idly paged through it.  It's in the Footprint series, produced in England and written by a couple of Brits.  I noticed that, in addition to all the predictable entries (where to eat, where to stay, what sights to see) it had a fairly extensive section on the history of the region.  I was curious to see what sort of stance these writers would take, so I started reading.

The account of Vietnam's push for independence after World War II was good, acknowledging that the French negotiated with the Viet Minh forces led by Ho Chi Minh but never really intended to give up their possession.  The writers do mention that in the wake of the Chinese Revolution and "the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) in 1948, the US began to offer support to the French in an attempt to stem the 'Red Tide' that seemed to be sweeping across Asia."  That's a bit of an understatement, since the offered aid was accepted, and by the time the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 it was considerable, underwriting most of the French war effort.

But the account becomes overtly misleading in the following paragraph:
In July 1954, in Geneva, the French and Vietnamese agreed to divide the country along the 17th parallel, so creating two states -- the Communists occupying the north and the non-Communists occupying the south [203].
This is false.  The Geneva accords established the 17th parallel as a truce line, a "provisional military demarcation line" with a demilitarized zone on either side.  The truce was to prepare the way for "general elections which will bring about the unification of Viet-Nam," under the supervision of an international commission.  These elections were to take place, according to Article 7 of the Final Declaration, by secret ballot in July 1956.  They never did, because of the refusal of the US' client Ngo Dinh Diem to permit them.  The writers do mention Diem's "two rigged elections (in October 1955, 450,000 registered voters cast 605,025 votes) that gave some legitimacy to his administration in American eyes" (204), but not the plebiscite he blocked, nor that the Eisenhower administration supported him because they recognized that unification under Ho Chi Minh would win any fair election.

Later the writers acknowledge that John F. Kennedy increased US military involvement "in flagrant violation of the Geneva Agreements", but then complain about the "bungling and incompetence of the forces of the south, the interference that US advisors and troops had to face" (205), as though the "interference" didn't come from the US advisors and troops, whose presence and activity in Vietnam violated the Geneva Accords.  This is a familiar tack, of course: naive and well-meaning Americans who were just trying to help but were constantly blocked by devious, corrupt brown people.  This isn't really revisionist history, of course, it's the standard US propaganda line, despite the occasional concession.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Results Will Count for Fifty Percent of Your Final Grade

Someone posted this on Facebook today, and I thought it mildly amusing.  It's marginally wittier than most of the political invective that floods the Internet.

But then someone posted this as a comment, remarking "what's sauce for the goose..."

A bit sloppy (there were two Clintons in White House in those days, for example), but I think it's as fair (or "fair") as the Trump meme.  Some of the replies were revealing, though, I thought.
See, the problem is that it implies that Mrs. Clinton's reason for being was to have sex with President Clinton. Now, even if you accept that's true, and I surely hope you don't, Bill Clinton had something to do with it; Mrs. Clinton did not delegate the blow jobs to Monica. And it completely negates Mrs. Clinton's actual responsibilities as first lady, and her rather significant contributions to public life since. So no, not "sauce for the goose." Logically void, misogynistic.
I don't think this works at all.  I don't think the HRC meme does imply that her "reason for being was to have sex with President Clinton."  True, as the commenter says, Mrs. Clinton did have other jobs -- she particularly infuriated Republicans for not being a mere Lady Bountiful as a First Lady should be -- but maybe the commenter meant "her reason for being in the White House" or something like that.  As for "Bill Clinton had something to do with it," that would seem to be true of Donald Trump and his immigrant wives as well.  (We needn't dally with "her rather significant contributions to public life since," which have mainly been corporate toadying and war crimes.)  "Logically void," maybe, but this is a joke, after all.  "Misogynistic"?  Also arguably true, but no more so than the Trump meme, which doesn't appear to have bothered this person.

The next comment:
Seriously, F-- T--?! Have some class. And, btw, there's a difference between a joke at one specific person's expense and a joke that's basis is misogyny.
I can't see that the Trump meme has any more "class" than this one, and again, it evidently didn't bother this commenter.  Appeals to "class," especially with respect to satire, are almost always a sign of intellectual and moral bankruptcy.  The joke in the Trump meme was not only "at one specific person's expense" but also at the expense of his immigrant wives, who seem not to have been the empty-headed trophies the meme assumes -- they got out of their marriages to him, after all. Like Mrs. Clinton, they rebelled against being relegated merely to providing service to their husband.  The Clinton meme is certainly at Bill Clinton's expense no less than Hillary's.  Neither one is sublime satire, but they seem to be about on a par with each other.

So once again, I find that Ellen Willis's law of humor applies: “Humorless is what you are if you do not find the following subjects funny: rape, big breasts, sex with little girls. It carries no imputation of humorlessness if you do not find the following subjects funny: castration, impotence, vaginas with teeth.”  Satire is funny if it's directed at someone you hate; tasteless and unfunny if it's directed at someone you like.  I personally think that if satire doesn't make you wince at the same time it makes you laugh, if it doesn't make you recognize yourself in the target, it's not very good satire.  Once again, liberals show they're not all that different from their conservative opposite numbers.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Room 101

This meme is unfortunately representative of so many more, and of a tendency in religion and spirituality that is far older than the Internet.

When this one turned up, I had just read a review in The Atlantic of Primo Levi's newly-published Complete Works, and the reviewer says that Levi rejected the idea of prayer when he was in Auschwitz:
He was not a believer, he explains, and “the rules of the game don’t change … when you’re losing.” Besides, to pray that you and not another should survive is such a prayer as the Lord should “spit … out upon the ground.”
I'm not so sure about that last part, though, because Yahweh requires prayer, and Levi's dilemma didn't originate during the Holocaust. I imagine you can see why I thought of that when I saw this. Life is good for me, but it's not good at all for many other people. Whom should I thank? Why should I thank them? For letting me off while crushing someone else? You can't give a deity (or whatever) credit for being nice to me while denying it's responsible for the bad things that happen to other people.

I commented to this effect, and the person who passed along the meme replied, first, that the meme doesn't mention God.  That doesn't work, because I was explicit that I wasn't talking only about gods.  Second, she was just thankful that she had enough good karma to receive good things.  That just dug her in deeper.  It would seem to follow that if someone is suffering, it's because they hadn't generated enough good karma; and that, not to put too fine a point on it, is vile.  That Syrian toddler who washed up on a Turkish beach: bad karma, right?  He must have done something bad in a past life for that to happen to him.  Not many people are careless enough to agree, but it follows from their understanding of karma as they express it.  They need to rethink their doctrine.

The doctrine of karma, from what I know of it (admittedly not much), doesn't mandate it, but it appears to be compatible with the understanding that those who suffer do so because they earned bad karma, and so deserve the bad things that have happened to them.  It is certainly used that way by many devotees of the idea.  Used loosely, as many people do, it's compatible with gloating over the downfall of someone they dislike.  They try to distance themselves from the imputation they are judging (which they generally pretend they don't do): it's not me, it's karma!  But like early Christians who imagined that their bliss in Heaven would be amplified by the pleasure of watching the torments of the damned in Hell, their denials are not convincing.  Thomas Aquinas proved it logically; according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus taught that the damned deserve and should receive no pity.

I have had a notably easy life, with relatively little suffering in it so far.  I don't imagine for an instant that I did something to earn it.  If there were anyone to thank for it -- as an atheist, of course, I don't believe there is -- my second impulse after doing so would be to berate him for letting other people suffer.  It's why I'm bemused when Christians deny that their god is a micromanaging god, especially when they're trying to explain away natural disasters.  If their god is responsible for the good things that happen to them, he is a micromanaging god, so he's also responsible for the bad things that happen to them, or to other people.  Since he's all-powerful and reputed to be quite touchy (R-E-S-P-E-C-T, what that word it means to Him!), it wouldn't be prudent to take him to task, but a bold person might do so anyway.  I don't know if I'd be that brave, but again, I don't think it's likely to come up.

People who grapple with the Problem of Evil, whether philosophers, theologians, or laymen, generally distinguish between what you might call natural evil (earthquakes, plagues, comets striking the earth and wiping out the dinosaurs) and what you might call moral evil (the Holocaust, Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge, Les Miz).  They generally take for granted that moral evil isn't really a problem for their god because (they claim) that he gave us free will absolves him of responsibility for it. (They don't do a very convincing job with natural evils either.)  I don't think this approach works: apologists don't even really believe it, because they routinely give their god the credit when people do good things.  If he could guide Jonas Salk to invent the polio vaccine, for example, or divert a bullet from someone's heart to a less vital part of the anatomy, he could guide a bad agent away from doing bad things.  It's no more a violation of free will to do the latter than to do the former.

Now, I'm not saying that whoever made this meme, or the person who passed it along, is a bad person.  They're just thoughtless, as most of us are much of the time.  But that's not anything to brag about.  As in George Orwell's 1984, who can blame a battered person for wishing the torture of Room 101 onto someone else, anyone else?  But the fact remains that they did it, and it's hard to live with yourself afterwards.   I know that after a course of treatment in the Ministry of Love, I would do the same.  But should I be thankful to the torturer for taking the rats away from my face?  (Remember: Orwell's target in 1984 was religious as much as it was political.)  I say no.  Many people disagree.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Luckily, We're All Enlightened Progressives Here

Someone I know "liked" this image on Facebook today, and I couldn't comment there so I'm reposting it and commenting here. It's not the first time I've seen it. It comes via a page called "The Comical Conservative," and when I've seen it before it's been shared by right-wing white racists who want to believe that they are endangered by Obama, just like the Jews under Hitler. (Never mind that if they were alive in the 30s, they'd probably have been fans of Father Coughlin and other anti-Semites, and would have objected to letting refugees from Nazism into the US.  European Jews didn't accept their fate "blindly"; the only workable option, though, was emigration, and that door was locked on both sides.) I think that's what the meme is meant to say, because the text is confused, perhaps deliberately.

Hitler didn't "get over 6 million people to follow along blindly and not fight back." By the 6 million, the meme-maker presumably means the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, and they mostly did not follow Hitler.  There were some German Jews who did support Hitler, thinking that they could prove that they were Good Germans.  But they were few.  Before Hitler came to power (if you don't vote, you can't complain!), the Nazis relied on street violence through their thugs to intimidate their opponents, not all of whom were Jews.  After he came to power Hitler passed laws depriving German Jews of their rights as German citizens; these were enforced by more violence, this time official state violence.  Many of the 6 million weren't German -- they were in countries the Germans invaded and controlled. They didn't follow Hitler either.

The racists who share this meme think that German Jews could have resisted successfully if they hadn't been disarmed. (It's a popular racist Israeli fantasy, too.) That's doubtful, since Jews were a tiny minority in Germany: even armed resistance would have been put down brutally, and would have been used to justify Nazi propaganda against Jews as a threat to civilization. By contrast, the white American racists who share this meme are among the overwhelming "racial" majority in the US. They are generally armed, and no laws have been passed that would change that.  African-Americans, who are an oppressed minority in the US, have often resisted, sometimes but not always violently, but the white racists who made this meme don't approve; instead they see their dark compatriots as a threat to them.

The message of the meme, then, is that HitlerObama is leading white Americans, whom he has disarmed, down the primrose path to their/our ultimate elimination. The person who shared the meme from The Comical Conservative remarked, "The even more scary thing is that almost all 'western' nations are on that path, threatening something much much worse than WWII. If we are truly honest, WWIII is already underway."  Evidently he didn't think about its content either.  So why did an anti-racist, politically left person approve this nonsensical piece of racist propaganda? 

From what the friend who liked the meme on Facebook told me, she assumed that "more than 6 million" could not refer to the Jews, presumably because the iconic number for Jews killed in the Holocaust is 6 million, not "more than" 6 million.  I understand this, since it gave me pause when I first saw the meme.  Probably she read it in the light of what she knew of the person who brought the meme to her attention, another progressive.  Someone else, commenting on our exchange, said that he'd seen the same meme invoked against Donald Trump and his racist followers.  I think this confirms that they're misreading it: who would expect Trump's white racist fans to "fight back" against him, any more than one would expect German anti-Semites to "fight back" against Hitler?

I'm also put off by "almost all 'western' nations are on that path."  Why "western," and why in quotes?  Non-western nations don't have a good record either.  The strange thing, for a person as misanthropic as my friend, is that she can look at human history and see Hitler and the Holocaust as aberrations in kind, rather than in degree, let alone affect to be surprised by them.  Anti-semitism was deep-rooted in Germany, as in Europe generally; the mechanization of death began not with Zyklon B but with heavy artillery (remember that the American Civil War was the bloodiest war in history in its day), if not the invention of gunpowder; Nazi race science drew heavily on American eugenics, as well as the extermination of our pre-Columbian peoples -- who were no angels themselves, but the wrongness of mass slaughter is not dependent on the moral purity of the victims.

No doubt I'm overreacting; I don't see that as necessarily invalidating my response.  It's legitimate to be appalled by the eruption of white racism in the US.  Racists have clearly been emboldened by Donald Trump's strutting about; comparisons to Hitler are not entirely out of line.  But simple Us/Them divisions aren't going to help, and we need to think about the propaganda we ourselves appropriate.

Friday, November 20, 2015

My Grandfather Didn't Flee the Potato Famine for America to See This Country Overrun by Refugees

John Scalzi's got another post up about the refugee question, this one titled "Frightened, Ignorant and Cowardly Is No Way to Go Through Life, Son."  (I don't know about that: it seems to work for a lot of people.)  One commenter especially amused me, by saying that "Refugees are less likely, statistically, to commit mass murder than white people are." I love the assumption embedded there, that refugees aren't white; it's similar to the popular assumption, now being challenged, that terrorists aren't white.  (Or that "Hispanics" or Mexicans aren't white.)  It's not even clear that Syrians aren't "white," but then such words mean what we choose them to mean.

Along the same lines, a meme I saw today features Ron Paul saying "Here is the solution to the refugee problem: stop meddling in the the affairs of other countries."  Once again Paul shows his great knowledge, wisdom, and compassion.  Leave aside that the issue right now is what to do with the refugees we and others have already created.  Refugees can be generated simply by oppressive government action within a country. An obvious example: Nazi Germany created many refugees. The US created internal refugees by its treatment of Indians and people of African descent. So yes, not interfering in other countries' affairs is a good idea, though it's not always easy to determine what is interference and what is wise interaction. But it won't solve "the refugee problem."

But back to Scalzi.  He wrote that, "as many have noted, there is irony in the freakout about Syrian refugees coming into a season which celebrates a notable middle eastern family who famously were refugees at one point in their history, according to some tales."  This trope has been popular among liberals on social media lately, but it has problems.

Scalzi presumably was referring to Joseph and Mary, who indeed could be viewed as refugees at one point in their lives.  That would be when King Herod, alerted by the Three Wise Men that his replacement had been born in Bethlehem, ordered the killing of all male children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and its vicinity (Matthew 2:16).  An angel warned Joseph and Mary of the coming trouble, and they decamped to Egypt, where they remained until Herod died.  One might ask why Yahweh couldn't have somehow prevented the Slaughter of the Innocents altogether, perhaps by giving Herod an embolism; killing turbulent kings is certainly in his repertoire.  The answer is that the killing was Yahweh's plan and will, in order to fulfill a prophecy of Jeremiah's (Matthew 2:17-18).  Otherwise prophecy would not be fulfilled, which would undermine God's credibility.  When Herod died, an angel let Joseph know it was safe for the Holy Family to go back home.

On this analogy, we should suppose that ISIS is an instrument of the Lord, carrying out his murky and mysterious intentions.  Who knows?  If Babylon was doing his work by conquering Jerusalem, destroying Solomon's temple, and carrying the children of Israel into exile, then perhaps ISIS is doing the same.

But as the meme I posted above shows, the Flight into Egypt isn't what these folks have in mind.  When I've seen Joseph and Mary referred to as refugees (or, sometimes, "homeless"), it has always been in connection with the Nativity as told by the gospel of Luke, which depicts Mary depositing the baby Jesus in a manger, "because there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2:16).  Luke, who doesn't seem to know about the Slaughter of the Innocents or the Flight into Egypt, isn't depicting Joseph and Mary as refugees.  According to him, they were in Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus had ordered a census of the Empire, which required that "all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) ..." (2:3-4).  So he wasn't in Bethlehem to seek refuge from state violence, nor was he homeless; he had a home in Nazareth.

It seems odd that Joseph had no relatives to stay with in Bethlehem, but according to Luke he had to go there because he was remotely descended from King David.  Also, Yahweh couldn't arrange housing for his only begotten son, though he could send vast heavenly choirs to announce the blessed event and send shepherds to pay homage.  None of this makes any sense, and there is no evidence either of a Roman census at the time Jesus was probably born, nor that men had to uproot their households and travel to the hometowns of their distant ancestors to be counted.  Luke's Nativity story is almost certainly a fiction he invented, as is Matthew's.  Matthew, by the way, has the baby Jesus and his parents staying in a house in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:11).  Why they moved to Nazareth when they returned from Egypt is not explained, unless it's to fulfill a bogus prophecy that Teh Christ would be a "Nazarene."  (I say "bogus" because there's no such prophecy in the Hebrew Bible.)

Still, both Matthew and Luke probably intended to move their audiences with the pathos of the Messiah, the Son of God, passing his infancy in humble, even difficult circumstances, just as Scalzi and other people today want to move us with the plight of Syrian and other refugees.  And of course it's hypocritical of American right-wing Christians to try to gin up panic about people who are refugees as a direct result of US policy and aggression in the Middle East.  If you're going to mock their ignorance and distortion of the Bible, though, you need to be more scrupulous in your own account than they are in theirs.  After all, there are plenty of other Biblical passages that could be used, on the theme "Do not oppress or mistreat a foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:21; compare Exodus 23:9, Deuteronomy 10:19, Leviticus 19:34) This fine sentiment was honored by Israel more in the breach than in the observance, like most of the Torah's ethical teachings; especially when you consider that Israel occupied its land by massacring and enslaving its inhabitants rather than coexisting with them.  And besides, Christians are free from the restrictive Old Testament law.

It's fun to throw Christians' hypocrisy in their faces, as long as they're the right Christians.  (Liberals aren't hypocrites by definition.)  As Christmas approaches we're going to see more convenient distortions of biblical material by all and sundry; I figure it's not too early to start the corrections.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Only Nixon Could Go to China

It was really just a tactical rhetorical move, I know, but I was slightly surprised by Roy Edroso's decision yesterday to speak ill of the Only President We've Got:
I realize that, as circumscribed as he's been, Obama has accomplished some good things for the country. The trouble is, they're mostly half-measures. Take Obamacare. We only have this shaky Rube Goldberg system because the insurers and the AMA had to get paid off or national healthcare would never fly -- Senators and Congressmen have to get their contributions from somewhere, y'know! Single payer has been and remains the choice of the American people, but in the name of prudence and moderation we have instead a system nobody's entirely happy with, and because they're not happy Republicans get to exploit it while scheming to bring back their preferred Pay or Die healthcare system.
Okay, maybe not ill but less than the adulation that is mandatory for the faithful.  I mean, how can Edroso undermine POTUS like this?  If Barack is defeated by Ann Coulter in 2016, we'll know who to thank.

Edroso's mild critique followed on praise of Obama for criticizing Republicans who wanted to block Syrian refugees from our shores.
Naturally I am very pleased to see this, not only because Obama is usually much too nice to these assholes, but also and mainly because it's a refreshingly strong defense of common sense in the normally common-sense-free War on Whatever. When was the last time you heard any other top-tier elected official call bullshit like this?
Better late than never, I suppose.  As I've said before, it would have been better to anticipate the Republican hysteria before Obama was even elected, instead of whining that no one could have foreseen that the Right would be so mean.  But you'd have to be mighty gullible to think that Obama really will follow through when he talks tough.  I don't deny that he faces a vicious, obstructionist opposition -- "art of the possible and all that," as Edroso says -- but it seems to me that in such a case it's better not to make threats or promises you can't keep.  In Obama's case, I doubt he even intends to do so.  These remarks are meant to excite his fans, who will spread them all over the social media and pump their fists and hoot derisively like the Bandur-log they are.

I decided to look at the comments to see if any of his regulars would attack Edroso as a turncoat stealth Republican and Trump-lover.   So far (I'm not up to wading through all 350-plus comments), no.  What there was was funnier.  The first comment is from the blogger Susan of Texas, whose Hunting of the Snark is even more specialized than alicublog: most of her posts for the past several months have been devoted to jeering at Megan McArdle.  Here's Susan of Texas's opening volley:
When somebody starts talking about reality and common sense, run for the hills. They're about to do something stupid and they want you to tell them that they are being smart.
Okay, I agree with this too.  But Ms. Texas seems to have missed Edroso's invocation of common sense in his post.  Did she mean that he was about to do something stupid and wanted his readers to tell him that he was being smart?  Of course not: she was attacking the centrist writer Kevin Drum for expressing his commonsense concern about letting thousands of Ayrabs into our country.  Several other commenters defended Drum, and I quit scrolling through the comments when one of them accused Drum's critics of "purity of rhetoric."  It's entertaining to see conventional liberal-Democrat invective turned back on its usual deployers, though.

For what it's worth, Ms. Texas herself has been known to call on the name of Common Sense in her critiques of the Right ("Stupid people think they are following their ideology to its logical conclusion. They ignore common sense, logic, reason, and empathy because they they have an ax to grind."  So has Barack Obama.  So does just about everybody, including sophisticated moral philosophers who ought to know better.  It's almost always a sign that someone is arguing in bad faith.

And what's wrong with talking about "reality"?  That used to be popular among Democratic loyalists as it is on the Right.  Am I the only person who remembers liberals casting themselves and their positions as "reality-based"?  The very Republicans supposedly conceded that they were, by contrast, "faith-based."  But since then, Democrats gained Hope, and they're clinging to it fiercely, until you pry it from their cold, dead fingers.

Monday, November 16, 2015

To Lose One Stereotyping Tendency May Be Regarded As Carelessness

John Scalzi wrote a sober, sensible, responsible, "Can't-we-all-get-along?" post about the Paris attacks for his blog.  Specifically, he wrote about Americans' reactions to the Paris attacks, and argued against stereotyping all Muslims because of ISIS' crimes.  As usual, he warned at the outset that he would be monitoring the discussion in the comments; as one would expect in a hot-button topic like this one, there were numerous commenters who tried to test his resolve.

One commenter whose contribution wasn't deleted wrote under the name of Mark.  He announced that he's highly educated ("three postsecondary degrees"!), took numerous courses on Islam and the history of the middle east, and has continued to read about these matters since then.
And yet yesterday evening I found myself thinking “what the f*** is wrong with those people”, and I’d be lying if said I meant just the murdering a*******. I should know better. I DO know better. And yet… I don’t know any muslims. It’s so easy to slip into that lazy, wrongheaded thinking, even when you know better. Hence, this was thought provoking, even though it shouldn’t have been.
How odd.  I lack Mark's great educational advantages — not even one undergraduate degree to my name — but while I did think something like “what the fuck is wrong with those people” when I heard of the Paris attacks, it never occurred to me to mean “all Muslims” by “those people.” I meant the people who did this thing.  I feel the same way about US soldiers who welcomed the chance to kill Hajis in Iraq because 9/11.  Maybe it's because I do know some Muslims; I also know some US veterans of our past several wars.  (It seems strange that Mark apparently never met any while studying middle eastern history at the college level, but I don't know where he studied.)  But I don't really think that's why.  Somewhere along the line I lost that particular stereotyping tendency, I guess.

I'm not claiming any great moral superiority here, because I haven't entirely lost that stereotyping tendency, but I don’t see what is so difficult about recognizing that the misdeeds of some are not necessarily the deeds of all of a group.  Yet many (most?) people do find it, not merely difficult, but impossible to do so.  Mark must know, better than most people, something of the range of cultures and attitudes among Muslims around the world, and that the Paris killers are not representative of all of them. I think that most people are quite capable of this recognition about their own group, though that’s less a sign of rationality than a weasely defensive move, in the mode of #NotAllMen, #AllLivesMatter, and the like. I think it basically accepts the They-All-Do-It stereotype, while still trying to carve out an exception for one’s own side.

And yet I’m also wary of the reflexive NotAllMuslims move, for similar reasons. I recently read a book called Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, published by Gallup Press in 2008, using international polling data, and while I learned a lot from it, I also was not entirely reassured.  For example, Esposito and Mogahed write:
Forty-six percent of Americans say that the Bible should be “a” source, and 9% believe it should be the “only” source of legislation.

Perhaps even more surprising, 42% of Americans want religious leaders to have a direct role in writing a constitution, while 55% of want them to play no role at all.  These numbers are almost identical to those in Iran [49].
I think there's cause for concern in both cases.  Muslims are no worse as a group than Christians on many issues, but that’s not saying much.  I don’t have any numbers for atheists, but I don’t assume that we’re much better, if at all.  Of course it's unfair to speak of Muslims, or Christians, or atheists, or anyone "as a group."  I don't assume that someone like Noam Chomsky is more representative of atheists than, say, Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.  It's simple enough, I think, to address the person or persons whose words or actions concern you.

Esposito and Mogahed’s book ought to be read by everyone who generalizes ignorantly about Islam (or Christianity), whether positively or negatively.  It should be read critically, though, and there's a lot to criticize, as when they write that "The majority in the Muslim world see Islam through different eyes – as a moderate, peaceful religion that is central to their self-understanding and their success" (46), and quote "one 20-year-old female engineering student at the University of Jordan" to the effect that "There should be rules and law to respect people of other religions and not make fun of them.  We must endeavor to relay the accurate picture of Islam to the West – showing that Islam is a religion of goodness and love, and not terrorism.  The West must be willing to accept the true picture of Islam and not hold on to the negative picture that serves terrorists" (87).

Most Americans, after all, see America through different eyes: as a moderate, peaceful country whose values are central to its success; and many Americans would advocate rules and law to enforce respect for their nation and their religion.  While the young engineer should be free to advocate laws mandating respect for people of other religions, etc., she doesn't really value freedom of speech or religion.  Disrespect for and mockery of people of other religions is a core aspect of most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- but also the "pagan" religions that many moderns ignorantly believe to have been more tolerant than the Yahwist cults.  I don't believe that the young engineer really wants to "relay the accurate picture of Islam to the West"; I believe she wants a positive propaganda image to be relayed and accepted.  That's not sinister, of course; it's all too human.  Substitute "Christianity" or "America" or "Israel" or "France" for "Islam" in her words, and many would agree with her.  But, like many Christians (or patriotic Americans), I think she would be surprised to find that what she considers an accurate, true, and positive picture would still be open to skepticism and criticism.  As the political philosopher Michael Neumann wrote on this subject:
Respect is not a duty; it is not even desirable in many cases. Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush.
With that in mind, let's look at one area the Gallup pollsters explored:
A recent study shows that only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”

Contrast this with data taken the same year from some of the largest majority Muslim nations, in which 74% of respondents in Indonesia that terrorist attacks are “never justified”; in Pakistan, that figure is 86%; in Bangladesh, 81%; and in Iran, 80%.

Similarly, 6% of the American public thinks that attacks in which civilians are targets are “completely justified.”  As points of comparison, in both Lebanon and Iran, this figure is 2%, and in Saudi Arabia, it’s 4% ... [Esposito and Mogahed, 95]
I don’t consider any religion to be positive overall, so I reserve the right to criticize Islam just as I criticize Christianity, Judaism, paganism, and atheism. If I actually criticize Islam less often, it’s because I know less about it, and I prefer that my critiques be well-informed.  For well-meaning liberals to swerve to the other extreme, and eulogize Islam as a peaceful, tolerant, moderate "faith," is an overcorrection.  One should always ask: Which Islam? (Or which Christianity / Hinduism / Buddhism / Judaism / Atheism etc.?)  Which Muslims?  In which country and culture?  Are we talking about their words, deployed for public relations and self-esteem purposes, or their actions?  Only then can one begin to talk sensibly.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Forward into the Past!

I don't have anything to say yet about the terrorist attacks in Paris; I haven't seen much information, and it does't seem that there is much information yet -- just the usual speculation masquerading as news that one usually sees.  Maybe later.  Meanwhile:

I confess that although I find the 1960s movie versions unwatchable now, I feel a certain nostalgia (or is it encroaching senility?) for Ian Fleming's James Bond books, especially the final three.  It has been a long time since I read any of them, though, so when I happened on the e-book of The Man with the Golden Gun, I decided to see how it looks to me now.  So far it doesn't look very good, though I see from the Wikipedia entry that Fleming had only completed and submitted the first draft when he died suddenly, so it didn't receive the second-draft enhancement that he expected to give to it.  The Man with the Golden Gun was published posthumously in 1965.

This bit tickled my funny bone, though.  In the book, James Bond has been sent to the Caribbean to take out a bad man, a very bad man.  In the Kingston, Jamaica spy office he encounters Mary Goodnight, who had previously been his secretary in London.  She helps get his mission in gear, and when they have dinner she fills him in on the local situation, which she claims to have learned from the Kingston newspaper, The Gleaner.  The bad guy is in cahoots with Castro, who'd only been in power in Cuba for a few years at that time.  Goodnight says that Castro is trying to sabotage his neighbor countries' sugar crops to raise prices, because of that year's poor harvest, caused by Hurricane Flora.
" ... So it's worth Castro's trouble to try and keep the world price up by doing as much damage as he can to rival crops so that he's in a better position to bargain with Russia.  He's only got his sugar to sell and he wants food badly.  This wheat the Americans are selling to Russia.  A lot of that will find its way back to Cuba, in exchange for sugar, to feed the Cuban sugar croppers." She smiled again. "Pretty daft business, isn't it?  I don't think Castro can hang on much longer.  The missile business in Cuba must have cost Russia about a billion pounds.  And now they're having to pour money into Cuba, money and goods, to keep the place on its feet.  I can't help thinking they'll pull out soon and leave Castro to go the way Batista went... "
In the next paragraph Goodnight continues:
"Washington's trying to keep the price down, to upset Cuba's economy, but there's increased world consumption and a shortage largely due to Flora and the tremendous rains we've been having here after Flora which have delayed the Jamaican crop.  I don't understand it all, but it's in Cuba's interest to do as much damage as possible to the Jamaican crop ..."
I don't know how much of this has any basis in fact, and I'm not sure it's worthwhile to look it up.  But the prediction of Castro's imminent downfall is probably indicative.  I also like the casual remark that the US was trying to keep the price down, to upset Cuba's economy.  At this time the US was engaged in a protracted campaign against Cuba, to sabotage its food supply, and a typical propaganda move in those Cold War days was to accuse Communist countries of doing what the US was doing.  One example was the "Manchurian Candidate" fantasy that the ChiComs were brainwashing US prisoners of war into robotic assassins, which actually was a US project of the period.  Another was the accusation that the Communists were engaged in the drug trade to destroy the moral fiber of America's youth, when in fact the US and its allies were more likely to be doing so.  I don't know how much Fleming knew, but it's interesting that he should admit, however faintly, that the US was trying to sabotage the Cuban economy to punish Cubans for getting rid of Batista: it was in the US interest to do as much damage as possible to the Jamaican crop.  If for no other reason, I'm going to reread the late Bond books for such glimpses into the Cold War paranoia and mainstream conspiracy theories of the period.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

U-G-L-Y, You Ain't Got No Alibi!

Avedon links to a lot of good material in her latest post at the Sideshow, so go and check it out.  (Including the above image.)

Something occurred to me when I read Avedon's remarks about Hillary Rodham Clinton's call to increase the minimum wage to $12.  (Which is better than Obama's target for it; I suspect both of them are trying to position themselves as moderates, between the extremists who want to raise it to $15 and those who want to abolish it.)  I'd been thinking inchoately about this for some time, at least since I wrote this post right after Obama's election in 2008, but it finally worked its way up to consciousness.

I notice that a lot of Clinton's boosters are stressing not how good her positions are -- perhaps because they know full well her postions aren't good -- but how important it supposedly is that we have a woman president. Here's the thing: it isn't important, it isn't important at all that we have a woman president, just that it was not important at all that we have a black president. It's a nice detail, but if you really oppose racism and sexism, the plumbing or pigmentation of the President is not important. What we need is not a woman president or a black president, but a good one. (Obama has been mediocre at best, and often quite bad.) Sex and skin color are not qualifications. I'm not sure that even Bernie Sanders will be a good president -- but hey, isn't it important that America have its first Jewish president? He might be better than the rest of the field, and I'm willing to vote for him, but I am not a cheerleader for anybody, and I do not trust cheerleaders.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Christmas, Whose Christmas?

So my news feed the past few days has been full of people who are throwing tantrums over the tantrums thrown by a few fundamentalist Christians over Starbuck's seasonal cups, and someone is like "Have people lost it all completely?" Talking about the fundamentalists, mind you, not the people who are upset about them.  What I don't get is the notion that religion is supposed to be all peace 'n' love 'n' shit. A look at religious history indicates otherwise.

It also looks like all the liberals I know have become really obsessed with this nonsense, posting every silly thing they can find about Starbucks and the reaction to their cups. It's not just a few fundamentalists who are getting overwrought. I'm no fan of Jesus -- I don't like hellfire-and-brimstone preachers and other religious nuts -- but he did say something about plucking the log out of your own eye before you fuss about the speck in your brother's eye. And I see many faux-Buddha quotations, often from the same people, about how you have to find your own peace within yourself rather than getting it from other people; yet they're having hissyfits about the War on Christmas team's hissyfits over Starbucks cups. Um, practice what you preach?

The person whose post inspired these notes answered that it was time to fight absurdity with absurdity.  I don't see any absurdity in his high dudgeon, but it's his mind.  He's one of the self-styled Buddhists I referred to, by the way, but fighting absurdity with absurdity isn't a teaching of the Buddha (or of Jesus) as far as I know.  This is, however:
"He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me" — for those who brood on this, hostility isn't stilled. "He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me" — for those who don't brood on this, hostility is stilled. 
The Dhammapada, verses 3-5.  And you know, the Christians who were pissed off by Starbucks' Christmas cups didn't actually insult, or hit, or beat, or rob my Buddhist friend, or any of the other liberals.  Nor have they hurt Starbucks.  Whatever my liberal friends are fuming about, it's not because they or anyone else has been hurt.  They're just outraged that someone somewhere is expressing beliefs and attitudes they find unacceptable -- just like the War on Christmas crowd.  They can't stop brooding on it, so their hostility isn't stilled.  Is this true spirituality?  Are these hissyfits what I'm missing by being an atheist?  (Though of course, some atheists are also doubtless having hissyfits over the disrespecting of Starbucks.)  I don't see that I'm missing anything.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

No True Progressive

I received a mass e-mailing this weekend, alerting me that the Center for American Progress has invited Benjamin Netanyahu to speak there, "following heavy pressure from the Israeli Embassy and AIPAC."
Click here to sign our petition to CAP's president telling her that Netanyahu is #NotProgressive and has no business speaking at a self-defined progressive policy institute.
Emails just leaked provide documentation that CAP has been censoring its own staff to prevent criticism of Israel.

Netanyahu and Israel's apartheid rule over Palestinians are anything but progressive. 
I don't know -- what is progressive, anyway?  Bernie Sanders is surely a progressive, but he supports Israel in a mainstream way, which means supporting Netanyahu; Sanders joined the unanimous Senate consent supporting the 2014 Israeli blitzkrieg against Gaza.  So do many of the Americans who label themselves progressives.  Barack Obama in the White House, wrote the progressive feminist Katha Pollitt in 2008, "could have big positive repercussions for progressive politics." Obama has continued US support for Israeli atrocities, though he balances out by supporting Saudi atrocities in Yemen and the latest Egyptian dictator.

I see two basic ways of settling the question.  One is that if a self-styled progressive organization supports Israel according to the Israeli line, and this position is common among those labeled progressives in the US, then supporting Israel is a progressive position, and progressives lose their claim to the moral high ground.  The other that if a self-styled progressive organization supports Israel according to the Israeli line, it forfeits its claim to style itself "progressive," no matter how many progressives take the same stance.  But who gets to decide what is a progressive position?  There's the rub.

The e-mail message claimed, you'll notice, that CAP "has been censoring its own staff to prevent criticism of Israel."  Intriguingly, it has recently been revealed that Bernie Sanders has been censoring his own staff, firing a staffer who ejected members of a pro-Palestinian group from a Sanders rally.  It appears, then, that Sanders may be moving away from the mainstream on Israel-Palestine; if so, good for him.

What intrigues me, however, is this whole matter of selecting speakers for organizations like CAP, or at universities and other institutions.  Progressives are more likely, it seems to me, to stress the importance of More Speech, and to fret that opposition to the choice of a speaker constitutes some kind of threat to free speech.  I'm not sure what free speech has to do with it.  There's a longstanding tradition of public figures who retire from public life going on the lecture circuit, for which they are paid quite lucratively.  Colin Powell springs to mind: as far back as 1999, Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt wrote in Academic Keywords (Routledge) that when he
spoke at the University of Cincinnati in 1998 he insisted on traveling by private chartered jet, on limousine transportation on the ground, and had it written into his contract that he would neither answer questions nor sign books.  It was basically the equivalent of a videotape performance with an added photo op.
If a celebrity speaker comes to campus, talks to students, perhaps visits a class or two, it might be defensible to hire such a person; but someone who essentially parachutes in and refuses to interact with his audience isn't giving much to the pursuit of knowledge.  Who makes the decision to bring in someone like Powell?  What do they think is gained by doing so?

Even at $150,000 per appearance Powell is small potatoes compared to ex-Presidents like Ronald Reagan, who was paid $2 million for a speaking tour in Japan, or Bill Clinton, who "recently got paid $500,000 in advance for a 45-minute speaking gig at the 90th birthday soiree for Israeli President Shimon Peres"; or former Senators like Hillary Rodham Clinton:
As Amy Chozik of the Times reports, “For about $200,000, Mrs. Clinton will offer pithy reflections and Mitch Albom-style lessons from her time as the nation’s top diplomat. (‘Leadership is a team sport.’ ‘You can’t win if you don’t show up.’ ‘A whisper can be louder than a shout.’)”
Whatever else you can say about them, while such platitudes are protected by the First Amendment, they're awfully expensive free speech.  I wonder how much of an honorarium Netanyahu is going to receive, and what delicately vital insights he will deliver to the Center for American Progress in return.

More important, who makes these decisions?  As the Salon article I just linked shows, often it's the captains of industry and finance.  If they want to redistribute the wealth from the rich to the rich, no one is going to accuse them of Marxism for doing so, and it's their money (subsidized by the taxpayers, of course).  But when it's a university or a supposedly principled political organization like CAP, I can't help but wonder what is going on.  Cui bono? -- apart from the speakers, that is.  It seems reasonably obvious to me that these people are scratching each other's back, with the expectation that the scratching will be reciprocated, as it always has been.

I can't work up much indignation about CAP's invitation to Netanyahu, therefore.  Rather than try to fight it with a petition, I think it would be better to publicize the episode as evidence of the group's moral bankruptcy, without worrying whether they're really progressive or not.  One can waste immense amounts of time quibbling over definitions, and I'm not sure people who are concerned about the state of the world have that kind of time to waste.

According to Wikipedia,
The president and chief executive officer of CAP is Neera Tanden, who worked for the Obama and Clinton administrations and for Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. The first president and CEO was John Podesta, who served as chief of staff to then U.S. President Bill Clinton. Podesta remained with the organization as chairman of the board until he joined the Obama White House staff in December 2013. Tom Daschle is the current chairman.
I don't see any progressives there, do you?  Only "centrists," which is to say, right-wing Democrats.  Neera Tanden, the current CEO, is "a stalwart Clinton loyalist as well as a former Obama White House official." Of course such a group would invite someone like Netanyahu to speak to them.  I'm not sure I believe that any pressure from AIPAC was needed.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Only I Get to Decide Which Criticisms of Me Are Valid

To a great extent I agree with this meme; it makes an important point.  But even as I clicked "Like," I heard once again that snarky voice in the back of my mind saying, "Oh, yeah?"

Rather than try to tell other minorities what they should do, I'll start with the one of which I'm a member.  I don't trust gay people to decide what is homophobic, or what is antigay bigotry.  Many gay people are themselves homophobic; if they can't spot it in themselves, they probably won't be able to spot it reliably in heterosexuals.  And they don't.

There are two phases to the question, it seems to me.  First we need to know what we're talking about when we talk about homophobia.  Merriam Webster's definition is revealing:
irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals
I've already discussed the odd conflation of "aversion" and "discrimination."

But I once had a revealing exchange about all this online.  I wrote that if you are uncomfortable seeing two men kissing, but not a man and a woman kissing, that is homophobia.  It didn't seem like a particularly controversial statement to me -- that discomfort is an irrational aversion, no? -- but other gay people disagreed with me vehemently.  Their argument was that if you aren't throwing rocks at a gay person, you aren't homophobic.  It also seemed that they were hesitant to label someone a homophobe merely for wanting to vomit at the sight of two boys kissing, because homophobes are, like, monsters -- demons, even.  That's odd when you consider how much fuss there has been among my people over language like "That's so gay," which doesn't constitute overt violence either.  But then, many gay people have at least claimed to be disgusted by public displays of affection between people of the same sex.  They would commonly try to mask their own homophobia by claiming to be just as disgusted by heterosexual PDAs.  The only disgust at PDAs I've ever observed among my fellow Homo-Americans, however, is disgust in gay men at lesbian PDAs.

I've known a fair number of people who were initially shocked (irrational aversion) or repulsed (ditto) by the idea of homosexuality, or the sight of same-sex couples kissing (or even holding hands), but who got over it -- without therapy.  Their original reactions were born of ignorance and socialization, and these faded away when they got to know gay people, and their repugnance faded.  Even if one wanted to call this homophobia an illness, like most illnesses it can pass without treatment.  Some people, true, cling to their revulsion; that's a lifestyle choice.  It can be judged morally, though a sensible person will also recognize that clinging can become a reflex that isn't turned off easily.

Many, perhaps most gay people regard as homophobic any criticism of born-gay theories of sexual orientation.  Anyone who doubts that homosexuality is innate will be accused of believing that being gay is a "choice" and of siding with the bigots.  This is problematic given the absence of sound scientific evidence for, or a coherent concept underlying for those theories; but as with the medical model in general, the conclusion comes first and the evidence later, if ever.  And the born-gay faith is compatible with considerable internalized homophobia.  (Would anyone choose a lifestyle that caused them to be hated, despised, persecuted ...?)

Having said that, I notice that "Gentiles don't get to decide what is anti-Semitic" is conspicuously absent from the meme.  I suspect that many if not most American Jews would agree that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, unless the critic is a Jew, in which case he or she is a self-hating Jew. Should this be allowed to stand?  I know that the acquaintance who posted the meme on Facebook is critical of Israel, as am I, and would dismiss the contention and the accusation.  But this can't stand, on the meme's simplistic terms. 

"Non-patriots don't get to decide what is anti-American" is also absent from the list.  So is "Non-Christians don't get to decide what is anti-Christian," along with "Non-Catholics don't get to decide what is anti-Catholic," and even "Non-fundamentalists don't get to decide what violates religious freedom."  What complicates the problem -- and also indicates the way out of it -- is that not all members of any of these groups agree, about much of anything.  There is a wide range of attitudes to homosexuality and antigay bigotry among gay people, for example; many critics of Israel are Jewish; many critics of the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy are Catholic; feminists take a wide range of stances; and so on.  It's easy, and all too common, to dismiss the dissenters as willing victims of false consciousness, but that won't work: who gets to decide who has authentic consciousness?

But too much good work on women's issues has been done by men, good work on gay issues has been done by heterosexuals, good work on race has been done by white people, and so on, to limit discussion to the simplistic level of this meme.   Beyond that level, what matters is the quality of the arguments a person makes.  By that standard, much of the discourse of oppression by the oppressed groups doesn't measure up, and it's not news that majorities in such groups are often hostile to the arguments made by the more thoughtful among them/us.  Which doesn't mean that academics and other intellectuals should automatically have the last word either; nor can an outsider dismiss the complaints of the oppressed by pointing to one or two among them who support the oppressor.  You have to acquaint yourself with the range of opinions in any group, and then think about them.  That's a lot harder, but it's what has to be done if anyone's going to learn anything.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Medicalization of Bigotry

While writing another post I went into a digression that seems worth pursuing, so I decided to give it a post of its own.

I was writing about various kinds of discrimination, and not for the first time it occurred to me that there's a problem with the word "homophobia."  Merriam Webster's definition is revealing:
irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals
"Irrational fear" and "discrimination" are two different concepts, though they often overlap in practice: a person might discriminate because of an irrational fear of those she discriminates against, but there are other reasons too.  Irrational fear and aversion might, it seems to me, arise when a society maintains certain social divisions, and the aversion might be more of a reaction to the breaching of those divisions than to the specific instance.  So, for example, there is no innate revulsion against eating pork, but if you've grown up in a society where pork is forbidden, you might very well be disgusted by the thought of eating it, or by people who eat it.  There's no innate revulsion against political parties, or against athletic teams, but people learn to invest intense emotion in these rivalries, and to despise their opponents.  As with other forms, it doesn't really make sense to call an attitude a disease when it's a sanctioned majority position in a society.  It's a sign of how people have confused the two that Webster found it desirable to conflate them in a single definition.

"Homophobia" was invented out of whole cloth in the 1960s by a psychologist named George Weinberg.  I see from this 2012 article that he wants it to be put in "the index of mental disorders," though he still evidently has no evidence that it is one.  Anecdotes about abusive attitudes and behavior do not constitute such evidence.  Indeed, what constitutes a mental disorder has never been settled among mental health professionals.  Why would Weinberg want to confuse bigotry, which merits moral condemnation, with a mental disorder, which ought to be regarded with compassion and given treatment to cure it?  I think he wants to have the best -- or perhaps the worst -- of both worlds, treating illness as a moral failing which can respectably be regarded with repugnance.  That's a familiar pattern in itself: it used to be the normal (though not universal) attitude among mental health professionals toward homosexuals: revulsion and fake compassion.  We need to get rid of that pattern, not switch targets.

Weinberg presumably also wants his profession to have authority to deal with social problems, as opposed to the law or the Church -- again, the same pattern Foucault identified in the medical profession as it dealt with sexuality and other matters in the nineteenth century.  Without any evidence at all save the kind of lurid case histories Weinberg offered at HuffPost, doctors claimed that they understood the true nature of (for example) homosexuality, and should be authorized to determine its treatment, though they had none to offer.

What Stuart A. Kirk, Tomi Gomory and David Cohen wrote in Mad Science (Transaction, 2013) about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders fits Weinberg's methods as well.
DSM offers behavioral diagnostic criteria as if they confirm the existence of a valid disorder, when the criteria merely describe what is claimed a priori to be an illness. Descriptive diagnosis is a tautology that distracts observers from recognizing that DSM offers no indicators that establish the validity of any psychiatric illness, although they may typically point to distresses, worries, or misbehaviors [166].
Weinberg doesn't even mention treatment of homophobes in his 2012 screed; it doesn't seem to be a concern of his.  I expect he knows that homophobia can no more be "treated" than homosexuality can; maybe it's inborn?  If not, where did it come from?  But the important thing is that in inventing "homophobia," Weinberg is working on the same principles that had made "homosexuality" a mental illness too.

This is is why, though I'll use "homophobia" loosely to refer to a gut-level emotional reaction to gay people or homosexuality, I prefer to call it antigay bigotry.  I think it's better to make forthright moral judgments, when that is what one wants to do, than to hide behind pseudo-scientific terminology in hopes of seeming more objective, or unbiased.  Curiously, though, it seems that many people who are quite comfortable judging others for "homophobia" are uneasy about calling a bigot a bigot.  I think such discomfort is most likely to arise when someone generally considered liberal reveals him or herself to be a bigot, as opposed to ignorant dirty Bible thumpers.  (Not always, of course.)

This, I think, is what the philosopher Walter Kaufmann called "decidophobia" in Without Guilt and Justice (Wyden, 1973).  He wasn't pretending to diagnose an illness; like me, he used "phobia" loosely to refer to a pattern of feeling, a nervousness about making fateful decisions and judgments and taking responsibility for them.  Among the patterns he identified was "moral rationalism," the belief that morality can be decided by reason, mechanically, rather than by human reflection and judgment.  "Homophobia" as a pseudo-medical term is a prime example of moral rationalism, especially when people use it as an epithet, judging while pretending not to.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Which of These Things Is Not Like the Others?

Voters in Houston have overwhelmingly rejected a city law that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity -- along with race, sex, color, religion, and other characteristics already protected by federal civil rights law but not by local ordinance. The law had been passed by the Houston City Council in 2014.  Today in the e-mail I got a press release from the National LBGTQ Task Force Action Fund, which referred to
the city’s ordinance that extends non-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people--among 13 other protected classes including race, religion, sex, color, age, ethnicity, disability, national origin, marital status, military status, genetic information, pregnancy, and family status.
There's something off here.  I looked it up, and found that, sure enough, the ordinance prohibits discrimination based on "sexual orientation" and "gender identity," along with 13 other traits.  It doesn't specify lesbians, gay men, or the rest, which would have laid the law open to legal challenge.

I confess that some of the confusion was in my own mind.  I gather that "protected class" does not refer to a group of individuals -- it's legalese for the protected characteristic, but in neutral terms: "race," not "African-Americans"; "sex", not "women."  But the related "protected group" is confusing too.  Wikipedia, in a very brief article, says it "is a group of people qualified for special protection by a law, policy, or similar authority... U.S. federal law protects employees from discrimination or harassment based on sex, race, age, disability, color, creed, national origin or religion."  My point is that "sex, race, age, etc." don't refer to groups, but to all individuals.  A law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation protects heterosexuals as well as homosexuals and bisexuals; a law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity will protect cisgender as well as transgender individuals; and so on.  I've said before that I don't know what sort of discrimination cisgender individuals might face, but someone's bound to figure out a way to do it before long.  That's one of the generally-ignored pitfalls (or is it a pitfall?) of civil rights antidiscrimination law: it protects majorities as well as well as minorities.  White men have sought and found relief under existing civil rights legislation, as have heterosexuals and bisexuals who were discriminated against by gay men.  And Christians, despite the whining of some of them, are already (in) a protected class. 

In this respect civil rights law is at odds with the dominant multiculti discourse on (for example) racism, which defines racism solely as structural racism and declares dogmatically that white people cannot suffer from racism.  Perhaps not -- it's evidently a matter of definition -- but they (we) can certainly experience discrimination based on our race.  It's written into the law, though as with many laws the consequences may not have been foreseen.  (Remember the article I discussed a couple of months ago, which treated racism as a consequence of innate human tendencies to stereotype people by their appearance, and declared that all white people are racist.  It also conflicted with the dominant multicultural model in treating racism as a matter of individual prejudice rather than structural factors, but neglected to notice that it also proved that all people of color are racist, since they have the same innate stereotyping tendencies.  When I pointed this out to the diversity manager who'd posted the article on Facebook, he floundered: he hadn't noticed the problem, and still didn't get it, caught as he is in the toils of diversity-management / culture of therapy discourse.  That couldn't be what the article meant, because it couldn't be.  That's the big trouble with diversity management in institutions, whether schools or corporations: people are given authority over others even though they don't really know what they're talking about.  But not to worry, they're just following the orders of their DNA.)

I understand why the Task Force phrased their press release as they did; it's a long-established convention to refer to civil rights laws in terms of the minorities they were enacted to protect, so that many people have come to believe that "Civil Rights" means specifically the rights of black people.  "Gay rights" is shorthand for prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, but many people, gay and straight, take it literally; and so on.  Since most people evidently have forgotten, if they ever knew, what the shorthand is short for, I think it's necessary to abandon the shorthand and spell out the actual meaning for a while.  Maybe it won't do much good.  Opposition to civil rights laws doesn't come from a misunderstanding of what the laws are supposed to do; bigots deliberately misunderstand the laws for their own reasons.  But it can't help that supporters of civil rights law don't undertand the laws either.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Where Are the Hui-Jae's of Yesteryear?

I just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, the third novel by the Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin to be translated into English.  It doesn't seem to me as solid a work as Please Look After Mom and I'll Be Right There, but then it was originally published in 1995, before either of them.  But I'm not sure that's quite fair, because it doesn't feel like a beginner's work either: in particular, Shin uses time very skillfully -- she clearly put a lot of thought into the novel's structure.

So why doesn't The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness work as well for me as its sister novels?  I may have to reread it to answer that question, but one thing that occurs to me is its use of the death of one of the narrator's friends, which Shin circles around very much as Joseph Heller did with Snowden's death in Catch-22.  The character and her situation feel real enough, but I had the feeling that I've seen this done too often before, though offhand I can't name many examples.  It's a horror-story convention, I think, where something too awful to think about haunts the protagonist, and is only faced near the end, as the climax.  Yet what happens to that character, while I can understand why it haunts the narrator, is not, unfortunately, that out-of-the-way.  It reminds me of a similar revelation scene in Marge Piercy's novel Braided Lives, which like The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness is also semi-autobiographical, the story of a poor working-class girl who achieved her ambition of becoming a writer.  Given the far greater horrors of the period Shin is writing about, namely the late 1970s and early 1980s, the climax feels anti-climactic to me, and its political dimensions are not developed. It's probably unfair to judge Shin by the standards of US second-wave feminism, but I guess that's what I'm doing.  Since Shin is sensitive to politics in general, and she's certainly concerned about the vulnerability to abuse of her young factory girls, I don't think it's really that unfair to ask for more thought in this case.

Which doesn't mean I think Girl is a bad book.  Like Shin's other novels I've read, it's packed with period detail, the feel and sounds and smells of moving from the South Korean countryside to an electronics factory in South Korea under the Park Chung-hee dictatorship.  The characters are fascinating and credible. The workers' attempts to unionize, though legal under the Republic's constitution, are fought tooth and nail by the company, with government backing of course.  The narrator is also stunned by national events: the assassination of President Park by one of his men in 1979, just a few years after his wife was assassinated, the Gwangju uprising and the heightened repression of the 1980s.  When the narrator describes watching Park's funeral on TV and reacts to the sight of his young daughter Geun-hye, now orphaned by violence, I was stunned, because I remembered that Shin was talking about Park Geun-hye, who is now, since 2013 the President of South Korea.  (First woman president there, too.) The novel was written in 1995, so the ramifications of that fact weren't and couldn't have been intended at the time.  It's like a surreal coincidence, too outrageous to be invented for fiction -- it can only be mentioned because it's true.

Shin's narrator jumps around in time from her youth in the 70s and early 80s to her present, as a succesful and respected novelist in the 1990s.  She reflects a great deal on her writing, and on Writing; these reflections are for me the weak parts of the book.  She struggles with the book she's writing, which is the book we're reading; she struggles with her past and the nation's past; she struggles with her craft; she's ambivalent about her public.  And the climactic revelation, which is meant to "explain" the writer's block she contends with, seems anti-climactic, even or especially if it's true.

One aspect of the book that pleased and moved me was the narrator's relationships with other women, mostly her co-workers but also her cousin, who lives in a single rented room in Seoul with the narrator and two of the latter's brothers.  (Since I know that part of Seoul somewhat, I enjoyed trying to visualize it thirty-five years ago, as Shin evoked and described it.)  Though the narrator has a forbidden romance going with Chang, a young fellow from her village, it doesn't really seem to engage her that much, nor do other entanglements with men that she alludes to now and then during the novel.  Women alone stir her imagination, and she writes with remarkable intensity about her feelings for them, about their bodies: how they look, how they move, what they do.  It's what I think Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick meant by homosocial desire: a desire that isn't erotic/genital but is no less compelling and even consuming for that.

And yet there's a striking scene near the story's end, when the narrator (I'm not sure we ever learn her name, and I hesitate to identify her with Shin), riding the train from her village to Seoul, encounters a young man both sensuously concrete and as resonantly symbolic as a visitation from Hermes:
In the seat next to mine, a boy sat sound sleep.  His hands grasped the armrest to keep from rocking.  He had dirty fingernails.  They looked like they were stained with oil, or were unwashed, filled with scum.  His profile gave off a cold impression, his forehead covered by his locks.  The boy slept and slept until the train pulled into Suwon.  When they announced that next stop was Yeongdeungpo Station, I stirred him awake.

"Have we passed Yeongdeungpo?"  Only then the boy opened his eyes, startled.  His body was frail but his eyes were big and bright.  I told the flustered boy that we'd made a step at Suwon Station a while back and would be arriving soon at Yeongdeungpo, and the boy folded himself into his seat again, saying "Oh," sounding relieved.  "If I get off at Yeongdeungpo Station, I can go there by subway."
The boy offers to help her take down her heavy bag, full of food packed by her mother.
He effortlessly fetched the bag and placed it on the floor. His body giving off the scent of a skilled steel worker.


The boy smiled shyly.  Revealing a row of teeth, white like pomegranate seeds.  He didn't sit back down but headed straight to the door.  He carried nothing, not a single bag, and I noticed from behind that he had a sturdy build.  While I oscillated between hesitation, anticipation, and resignation, the train arrived at Yeongdeungpo Station.  I shifted seats to where the boy had been sitting.  How nimble.  He had already made it to the far end of the platform.  When he was asleep, crumpled up in his seat, he had seemed pitiful, but now, striding down the platform, he was full of vigor.  It occurred to me that perhaps he was no longer a boy.  With his mop of hair lifted off his forehead, his long profile, which had seemed cold somehow, reminded me of a giraffe.  The train started and he began to run, as if he were racing the train.

Ah! My eyes opened wide.  Was this a mirage?  They were a beautiful pair of legs.  Faster than the steel wheels on the train.  They were perfectly toned and tempered, ready to run at the speed of seventy miles an hour.  The boy's beautiful legs left the platform before the train got out of Yeongdeungpo Station. A sigh of relief escaped from my mouth.
I'm not sure what to make of the clumsiness of the writing here, whether to blame Shin or the translator for it. (A giraffe?)  But the scene is powerfully vivid despite the writing, and I have no idea what it means or how it fits into the book as a whole.  It seems to connect to nothing else, in this novel or in the other books of Shin's I've read.  It may be one of those visionary outbursts that lift a story into the stratosphere for no reason but the sheer rush of it.  It works, even if it makes no sense.