Sunday, March 27, 2016

Christian Charity

I haven't heard much lately, here in the United States of Amnesia, about the Syrian refugees that so exercised good American Christians only a month or two ago.  Today, though, I was reading a novel* set partly during World War I, in a Scottish town.  The narrator, who was ten years old at the time, remembers:
It was through eavesdropping on my mother and [our neighbor] Miss Miller that I discovered that the people who had come to the Paddies were called Belgian refugees and now another of these curious incomprehensible attitudes of the adult world made itself manifest.  I had often heard my mother and Miss Miller and many other people, including my schoolteacher, talk about poor little Belgium and gallant little Belgium, and Miss Miller was the one who told most of the blood-curdling stories, which her brother had heard at first hand from soldiers, about the terrible things that the Germans did to the Belgian women and children.  But now that the Belgians had come to the Paddies, there was no more about poor little Belgium and gallant little Belgium.

'Disgraceful,' Miss Miller said, 'letting them live down in that place.  They've no business in Lochfoot at all.  They are very dirty people, the Belgians, I've always heard.  They live next door to the French and eat frogs and snails and everything.'

'They seem to be a queer vulgar lot right enough,' my mother agreed, and she told me that if I went near those dirty foreign Belgian brats, I would suffer for it.
This is a novel, of course, but the situation described is so familiar that I feel sure it's accurate.  Remember that the Belgians were not swarthy Muslims but white Christians, and that only a few Belgians, perhaps a few dozen, had come to live in Lochfoot, paying their own way.  They spoke little or no English, but even if they had, even if they were simply from another part of Britain, would it have made a difference?  Their English would have been different from the local dialect, and that would be reason enough to render them Other in the eyes of decent Christian folk.

The right-wing Christians I observe are happy to denounce the brutality of the dirty Islamic State, beheading people and burning them alive (though both of these are time-honored Christian practices), but letting foreigners escape that brutality is another, wholly unacceptable matter.  The excuses they make (security, they're Mooslims) are transparently bogus; even if the refugees were white Christians they'd never be white or Christian enough, and their whiteness and Christianity would be reflexively and dishonestly denied.

Reading this novel, with its richly observed and described depiction of children's "tribal" culture and its adult counterparts, I was reminded of Ruth Moore's Maine villagers and fishermen, and of April Sinclair's South-Side Chicago African-Americans.  Time goes on, the world turns, but little changes.

*Janet Sandison, Jean in the Morning, Pan Books, 1969, pp. 106-107.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Big-Endians and Small-Endians; or, Standing on Principle

I'm so far behind with everything -- reading, writing, thinking, you name it -- that it isn't funny.  Maybe in the course of the great cycle of life, I'll get so much farther behind that I'll catch up and it'll be funny again.  For right now, though, I'm not happy.  But I'll live.  And some things have crunched together that might be worth discussing.

First, a local acquaintance was griping on Facebook about other people's language atrocities:
As far as I'm concerned, "begrudgingly" is the new "irregardless." You don't. Need. The prefix.
I had some fun pointing out some other linguistic anomalies that are firmly enshrined in standard English, such as the double plural in words like "children" and "brethren."  (You don't. Need. The Double Plural.  But you're stuck with it.)  Then I linked to a linguistics blog post which showed that redundant double negatives like "irregardless" are deeply rooted in the history of English, and to a Language Log post about the curious phenomenon of this kind of word rage among English speakers.  Most other commenters agreed with my acquaintance, of course, though another differed, winning this rebuttal from him:
Sure, it's a word: one that, if you use it, I and many others will identify you as un- or under-educated. That it has become commonplace does not make it any less ill-used. Where's your self-respect?
The curious thing is that many people who make these errors are not in fact un- or under-educated, so if my acquaintance jumps to "identify" them as such, he's mistaken.  The post on "irregardless" I linked to earlier found the word used in official publications "such as the official text of the U.K. Contagious Disease Act (Horned Cattle) of 1880," for example.  A commenter under that post suggested "Also, the 'in/im/il/ir' prefix isn’t always negative. Sometimes it’s an intensifier or has no meaning at all, as in 'irradiate.'" That's probably what is going on with "irregardless," and something similar is probably involved with "begrudgingly." I once vented here about consistent confusion of "peak," "peek," and "pique" in a novel by an academic and published by a university press, and I and other educated writers make such errors all the time; sometimes we correct them, but we still make them.  More important, just because a word or spelling or other usage rubs you or me the wrong way doesn't mean it's wrong.  Language obsessives are often mistaken about the "errors" they fulminate about.  Here's an example I find instructive; read the comments for more. Their (our) fury has nothing to do with the errors even when they're genuine errors; I wonder where it does come from.

Yesterday I spoke on a GLB panel to a class in the School of Education, and one of the other speakers mentioned that he belongs to a group, founded he said by a couple of English comedians (is one of them Ricky Gervais, maybe? I must ask him) that aims to give atheists and secularists the kind of "community" that religion normally provides to believers.  He mentioned that the meetings he attends don't have the religious foolishness (not his word; I'm paraphrasing because I don't remember his exact term) that religious services have; you just get the community.  I'm ambivalent about "community," but this could be an interesting movement to investigate, a subject for further research.  But I wondered again where all those silly bits in religion supposedly come from.  This speaker was a student in the sciences, and I believe he thought, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, that scientifically oriented and trained people won't have irrational values, because those come from religion, so if you're a scientist you are by definition rational.  Not so, alas.

I considered mentioning the proverbial resistance to new theories, even or especially in the "hard" sciences, that has nothing much to do with rationality.  New grand theories become established, not by persuading the old guard, but by being taken up by the new guard, who must wait for the former to die off.  The advent of Relativity Theory is a famous example of this.  I decided it wasn't the time or place to mention this, or to point out that sexism, homophobia, and racism are deeply entrenched in the sciences, both as content and as personnel policy.  Maybe I was wrong about that, since the other speaker, a young woman studying a physical science, was complaining about the homophobia among older male scientists in her department, which kept her closeted there.  Gay issues are irrelevant to her field, which deals solely with inanimate materials, but that's all the more reason why bigotry can't be defended as somehow rational there.  Highly educated and even non-religious people harbor a lot of bigotry, which they rationalize and express in moderate terms; education itself doesn't have much of an effect on such attitudes.  It may even exacerbate them.

So: I'm currently rereading Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia, by Emily Toth, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2008.  As the title indicates, Ms. Mentor writes an advice column for aspiring and confirmed academics; it's highly engaging and entertaining, but more important, she looks at angles in conflicts in a hothouse environment like academia that would not have occurred to me. She reminds her readers from time to time that professors are apt to have been the Good Students, the rule-followers both in certain kinds of decorum and in the use of language, and one of the letters she answers involves a university Dean who pronounces the word "collegial" with a hard G.  This habit divides the faculty, reports the questioner, "with the more sycophantic members following his pronunciation while the rest of us bravely resist.  Who is right, and do you have any suggestions?"

Ms. Mentor notes that a soft G in "collegial" is preferred in American English, "but it is linked both to soft-G 'college' and to hard-G 'colleague.' ... There are also British speakers who prefer "collegial" with a hard G as an assertion of imperial privilege and differentiation from rude colonial Americans."
In short, Dean Titan may merely be a harmless Anglophile.  But that would be far too dull an explanation for Professor Stickler [her pseudonym for the questioner] and his ilk.  There must be a better reason!  There must be Meaning! There must be a reason to take up sides!

After all, taking sides puts everyone in a category, and academics love to categorize.  Whole subject areas are built on classifying, polarizing, separating, labeling, and dating.  Subtle and unsubtle distinctions are the bread of life.  If you are not a Platonist, perhaps you're a Freudian, a Marxist, a Whig, or a dendrophile.

But Professor Stickler's cohorts seem to have reduced it all to one question.  Are you Dean Titan's toady?...

Ms. Mentor confesses that she cannot get excited about their feud. She is far more engaged by the feud that took place between the Big-Endians and the Small-Endians in Gulliver's Travels: some 11,000 people suffered death rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end."

One would think (if one didn't know better) that academics would be more likely than the canaille to be aware of regional differences in pronunciation.  But it's often academics, no less than journalists, who are infuriated by such differences, and denounce Americanisms, for example, as signs of the Linguistic Apocalypse.  The case of the fictional Small-Endians reminds me that it's not enough to stick by your principles -- you must also have good ones.

These anecdotes point to why I don't believe that getting rid of religion will eliminate irrationality and bloody conflict over "imaginary" practices and beliefs.  A similar fantasy is that if everybody just mixed "racially" so that we were all the same color, we'd all get along.  Of course not: we'd just find other differences to fight about, and language is already popular as a club with which to beat other people over the head.  The difference between the educated and the un-educated is not that either group is more rational or more prone to irrationality.  The educated simply have other -- not better, not even more sophisticated -- rationales for their irrationality.  The highly-educated (in their way) Ultra-Orthodox Jewish males who spat on little Orthodox girls for dressing "like whores," and who rioted when they got in trouble for it, comparing their Jewish critics to Nazis, have their counterparts in the early-modern scientists who refused to accept female students or lab-workers because the girl cooties would throw off the results of their experiments, and in twentieth-century Nobel Prize winners who don't want women in their labs because you fall in love with them and they cry when they're criticized.  They can also appeal to science which 'proves' that women have female brains that aren't suited to scientific work.

And so on.  Mistaking custom for nature is so deeply rooted in human nature that we will probably never get rid of it as long as we're human.  But we can resist the mistake, and try to avoid mistaking it for truth.  There are no shortcuts, however, and those who think that irrationality can be escaped or outgrown by getting rid of religion are dangerously wrong.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Come Over to the Stupid Side

So someone linked to this piece from the Washington Post this morning, a citizen Op-ed by a woman who got up and yelled "Black lives matter!" at a Donald Trump rally.  It was the same rally where another black woman was sucker-punched by a white supremacist, but the writer of this piece wasn't punched or hit or even arrested, just escorted out "to meet the rest of the protesters and keep demonstrating outside the rally."

"This is what happened next," the headline reads.  Actually, nothing happened next.  She stood up in a crowd, yelled "Black lives matter!", was removed to the parking lot, and wrote this piece.  What did she think she was doing?  "I couldn’t just sit and watch someone who is trying to be our president incite violence." How is yelling something at a Trump rally going to stop Trump from doing anything? As protests go, it seems especially pointless to me. For that matter, every president incites violence. Has she ever protested against Obama's gleeful use of violence, against his cooperation with the Prison-Industrial Complex, against his contempt for ordinary black people? How about Hillary Clinton's "We came, we saw, he died," and her fondness for the idea that someone might kill Ralph Nader? Will she protest against the wars that will be started by Obama's successor whoever that turns out to be, or do only Americans' lives matter?

"What kinds of lessons would children learn from a president who says it’s okay to kill the families of alleged terrorists and to ban people from the country because of their religion?" Like I said -- she has no idea, or prefers not to know, what the president we already have is doing. Did Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki's life matter? What kinds of lessons have children learned from a president who jokes about killing some male pop singers with predator drones if they come sniffing around his daughters? What kinds of lessons do children learn from the Bush-Obama endless War on terrror? 

"But I had to do something" is the rallying cry of every misconceived, destructive action I've heard of in the past 20 years and more. Bill Clinton killed thousands of people in Kosovo, more than the bad guys there killed, with no good result. "But we had to do something!" was used to justify Bush's invasion of Iraq against effective criticism, and many liberals and progressives fell into line. "We've got to do something!" The 2008 bailout. "We've got to do something!" Whenever someone utters those magic words, I know they've abandoned all good sense and gone over to the Stupid side.

Think of all the links on Facebook to liberal online media where this or that celebrity liberal "shut down" Trump or "destroyed" him, or "shut him up." All those claims are lies: Trump is still at large, winning primary after primary. Liberals and leftists are at one with the Republican establishment right now: they don't care about anything but Stopping Trump, but they don't know how and they really have nothing positive to offer in his place. I'm really starting to worry that he'll win the Presidency this fall. Not because Sanders fans stay home rather than vote for Clinton, either, but because people thought that feel-good symbolic gestures were activism.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

You Special Snowflake, You!

Seriously: you don't have to be "amazing." You don't have to be "insanely cool", or insanely anything, and I'd rather not be. And so on. I don't get the appeal of memes like this.

More than that, I think sentiments like this are destructive.  They feed the notion that you have to be "good enough" to deserve to live, and of course what is good enough is impossible to define.  Since they are aimed at people who don't feel they're good enough, that they don't deserve to exist, I can't believe they work very well or for long.  Supposedly repeating affirmations is supposed to prop up damaged self-esteem and convince yourself that you're good enough after all; but you have to keep repeating them, and finding new ones, probably because whatever effect they produce wears off.  For people with addictive personalities, I think they just become an addiction in themselves, like therapy.  As you develop tolerance to your affirmations, you need progressively stronger and stronger ones, more exalting and delusional.

I'm also reminded of Amanda Marcotte's remarks (via) about the widespread desire to be a special snowflake.  Lately Marcotte has descended depressingly into Hillarybot-ism, but she was still right that time.  In this case, do you have to be "amazing," a special snowflake, to feel good about yourself -- at least good enough to get up in the morning and live your life, to believe that people who approve of you aren't deceived or trying to deceive you, and to approve of others?  I wonder if this kind of mindset is also a product of the rampant competitiveness in American society, especially in the culture of therapy, and its obsession with being a "winner."  And if you spend a lot of time berating and punishing yourself for spending too much time in your comfort zone, I doubt this affirmation will help at all.

It seems irrelevant to me, mainly I think because I was so affected and influenced by Walter Kaufmann's case against the concept of desert in Without Guilt and Justice, seconded by Ursula Le Guin's philosopher Odo in The Dispossessed:
For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger.  Have we not eaten while another starved?  Will you punish us for that?  Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate?  No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.
Maybe the reason that this insight doesn't work for people who like affirmational memes is that, like the people who (coincidentally) believe they were royalty or high priests/priestesses in past lives, they agree that if you aren't superior to everyone else, you don't deserve to live.  So they repeat the affirmation like a mantra, in hopes that it will silence the lurking interior terror that they aren't really very special at all.  But maybe I'm giving them more credit for articulate thought than they deserve.  If they just have that fear that they aren't special, maybe they're using the wrong affirmation.  Try Odo instead; she works for me.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Is-ness of "Is"

The other day I was on a GLB panel addressing an education class, and the perennial question came up: What should you do when a student says That's so gay?

Aside from the usual expressions of deep concern, which I've written about before, one of the other speakers said that it's important to tell kids the "real meaning of 'gay.'"  I didn't know whether to address that, but I wish now that I had.

There is no "real meaning of 'gay.'"  Words don't have "real" meanings.  His remark was especially funny given the fraught recent history of the word.  It may be that this guy, who's in his late 40s I think, is a bit too young to remember the fuss that swept America after 1970 over homosexuals' brutal appropriation of "gay," a nice innocent little word that you can't use in front of children anymore because of Teh Political Correctness.  If "gay" had a real meaning, it wouldn't be "homosexual," it would be one of the older ones, like "happily excited" or "keenly alive and exuberant."  Like it or not, using "gay" to mean stupid, uncool, weird, is as "real" as any other meaning.  It appears that Merriam-Webster hasn't caught up with the newer meaning yet, though it has already been with us for about thirty years.

It happened that this week I finally began reading Gender Trouble, Judith Butler's classic of queer and gender theory, originally published by Routledge in 1990.  The copy I'm reading was printed in 1999, and includes a ten-years-after preface by Butler.  So far -- I'm going slowly, because I have so much else I need to read and this isn't the kind of book one dashes through in any case -- the preface is interesting, and I'll probably be writing more about the book as I proceed.

Butler wrote a few things that I liked quite a lot.  But then I came to this:
Much of my work in recent years has been devoted to clarifying and revising the theory of performativity that is outlined in Gender Trouble.  It is difficult to say precisely what performativity is not only because my own views on what “performativity” might mean have changed over time, most often in response to excellent criticisms, but because so many others have taken it up and given it their own forms [xiv].
Performativity, like any other complex abstraction, "is" not anything.  From what I've read elsewhere over the years, it seems that Butler had not really thought through what she meant by "performativity" when she wrote the book; and as she says here, her views on the subject have changed over time.  She goes on to say that her usage was influenced by Jacques Derrida, which surprised me a little because I thought that the word was popularized by the philosopher John L. Austin and his followers.  It seemed to me that (as is commonly the case in and out of academia) many of the people who appropriated the term from Gender Trouble didn't bother to understand what Butler meant, or thought she might mean, by it.

So I'm not saying that Butler, or other writers, don't know "the real meaning" of "performativity."  To some extent you can, for analytic purposes, define a term to mean anything you like, though it takes great care and effort to leave out the historical baggage that the term carries with it.  This happened to Richard Dawkins, for example, in The Selfish Gene: though he insisted that he wasn't using "selfish" to mean what it does in everyday discourse, in practice the everyday associations kept sneaking back in.  "Homosexual" ("as we think of it today") is another case.  And as I've complained before, many academics seem to believe that meanings inhere in words, and need only to be excavated to find what is already, mystically there.  It appears to me that Butler in that passage was making the same error.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Wait, What?

I was led to this article on "secret" Donald Trump supporters at the Guardian just now.  Weird stuff.  Like the 29-year-old Latina whose testimonial kicks the whole thing off:
I’m a millennial woman, my parents immigrated from Castro’s Cuba, I work as a trial attorney in Miami and I’m a born-again Christian. But I’m voting for Donald Trump, and I’ve convinced all my friends and family to do so as well.
If she's stumping for Trump with "all" her friends and family, her support is not what I'd call a secret.  And I don't see the supposed dissonance between being a Trump supporter and the child of Cuban emigres in Miami; that's generally, or stereotypically, a right-wing -- even fascist -- demographic.  And she's weirdly out of touch in some of her talking points, as in "It was the year of Caitlyn Jenner" as part of her evidence about "the left's stranglehold on the national conversation of what is or isn't tolerable."  But Jenner is a far right-wing wacko Republican who supports Ted Cruz.  So, no real surprise here.

What got my attention, though, was the "casino supervisor" from Oklahoma:
I am a Democrat but will vote for Trump, because he is not bought and paid for by anyone. We the American people are tired of politicians owing favors to rich businessmen, bankers, oil companies and stock markets. It should be against the law to have lobbyists involved with government. 
I've seen variations on this theme from many Trump fans.  The thing is, Donald Trump is one of the buyers and payers-for; he's one of the rich businessmen to whom politicians owe favors.  Having him in the White House would simply eliminate the middle-man, as it were, by putting Big Money more directly into power than it has been before.  That seems to go right past the people who fantasize, as this guy does, that Trump is on the side of "the middle class and lower class," and would run the government "like a business," Cthulhu help us.  No, I really don't think you want the government to be run like a business, especially by a businessman like Donald Trump.

I haven't read all the rest of the article, but from what I have read (see the gay American Muslim, for one, who thinks it's good to keep Muslims from the entering the US for a while), it seems to me that Donald Trump is this year's Barack Obama: the fans of both projected their hopes, fears, and especially fantasies on the charismatic leader who they believed would give them everything they wanted.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Care and Feeding of Propaganda

A site called HowStuffWorks posted a "quiz" about the history of the Vietnam War, which I saw on Facebook this morning.  Usually I ignore these things, but I was curious to see what kind of history they were peddling, so I clicked through and answered the first question.

At first I was pleased to see that HSW knew that the war began before the Kennedy Administration, but everything else here is wrong.  Spectacularly wrong, in fact.

Exactly when "the Vietnam War" began depends partly on how you define the war.  Americans tend to think of it in terms of US troops on the ground, but it makes a lot more sense to go back to 1945, when the Vietnamese declared their independence from Japanese occupation and French colonialism.  You could probably trace it back at least to the 1800s, when French seized control of "Indochina," a blanket term for Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and probably even farther back than that.  Beginnings in history are generally hard to pin down.  But as far as US involvement goes, 1945 is a convenient and not inaccurate starting point.

The French wanted to keep its possessions, and the US, not without some controversy, decided to back imperialism over self-determination.  Anti-communism was a handy excuse, since the Viet Minh, the most significant resistance force, was led by Communists.  The Vietnamese, who had fought with the Allies against the Japanese, resisted.  The fighting escalated, and by 1954 the US was giving France a billion dollars a year in military aid.

I can't really make sense of HowStuffWorks's official answer.  It seems to assume that Vietnam was already divided into North and South before 1954, which isn't so.  That division was a consequence of the truce line drawn in at the Geneva Conference later that year, and the truce line became a border when the US client dictator in the South, Ngo Dinh Diem, officially refused to hold the referendum required by the truce settlement, and South Vietnam became a separate state.

The North did not attack the South, however, until 1960, when Hanoi finally admitted that the Geneva agreements were a dead letter.  Before 1960 the fighting in the South involved Southerners, not all of them Communists, resisting the Diem dictatorship without the support of the North.  US aid to Diem's regime increased incrementally throughout that period, including weaponry and US military "advisers," officially just guys from the US government and there to help but in reality getting more and more involved in the fighting.  (This was typical of Eisenhower's foreign policy in Southeast Asia; see also the use of American forces in Indonesia, for example.)  In 1963 Diem began to lose his will to fight, so the US had him removed and largely took over that side of the fighting, thus commencing "the War in Vietnam" as most Americans think of it today.

So, as I say, HowStuffWorks got the history spectacularly wrong with the first question in its quiz.  I don't feel like continuing, or checking out their quiz about the Korean War.  But this is a reminder not to be too dismissive of most people's ignorance of history; it takes some work to find accurate accounts, and most people would have no idea how to begin looking for them.  Even events in people's own lifetimes are confusing, especially if they happened when one was young.  (Last week a student op-ed piece appeared the university newspaper, which exhibited utter confusion over the Birther controversy.  My scorn was tempered slightly when I remembered that the writer was still in grade school when Obama was first elected President.  It's not an excuse, but it's a partial explanation.  I might write more about that piece.)  The overall history of US involvement in Vietnam isn't all that murky, but it still involves battered US pride, so it will continue to be distorted.  We can expect the same about the War in Terror, but then you knew that, didn't you?