Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Quest for the Historical Francis

Richard C. Trexler's Naked Before the Father: The Renunciation of Francis of Assisi (California, 1989) would have been worth reading just so I could learn about this 1980 Marvel Comic book about St. Francis of Assisi.  Unfortunately I couldn't find online the panel Trexler reproduced, showing a hunky young Francis standing naked (but visible only from the waist up) after renouncing his inheritance, including the clothes he was wearing, in front of his father and the local bishop, but maybe I'll try to scan it myself.  (P.S. Done!)  I checked Trexler's book out of the library out of curiosity about his other writings, having found his Sex and Conquest (Polity Press, 1995) very useful.  Naked Before the Father was also very good, and I'll be checking out more of Trexler's work before long.

Trexler's subject here is one key episode in Francis' life, the renunciation of his property.  Trexler begins by summarizing the surviving documentation of Francis' family, then analyzes the earliest accounts of Francis's life and career, which began appearing just a couple of years after his death in 1226.  It turns out that there are fewer contemporary records of Francis' father than of his mother, though his father plays a much more prominent role in the hagiographies.  Trexler concludes, with proper caution, that Francis' mother's role was downplayed because men were trying to shut women out of public life in thirteenth-century Italy.  Up to that point women could own property, participate in legal action, and so on.  If Francis could have inherited an estate from his mother (who Trexler speculates may have been richer than his father), his father would have seen him as a competitor for that estate.  This was not a trivial issue, because a postulant's property would go as a dowry to the order he joined.  The cult of Francis as a saint also had economic aspects, since it drew tourists ("pilgrims") and created jobs in the region.

I'm just sketching this, partly because it's not my main point here, but also because I don't know how scholarship on Francis has developed since Trexler's book.  What I found fascinating was that so little is known about Francis' family and background, even though archives preserve written documents from the period, and the Franciscan order preserves a fairly stable and unbroken tradition dating back to his lifetime.  The surviving "notarial" documents never mention Francis' father by name, for example, and barely mention his mother by name, though not as Francis' mother.  Francis' father is named in the hagiographies, and his mother is barely present, nor is her name mentioned.  By contrast, we know, or think we know, the name of Jesus' mother from the first three New Testament gospels -- but though she's a prominent character in the fourth one, the one "according to" John, she is never named.  In Mark, the gospel that most scholars agree was probably the first to be written, Jesus' father is never named, and Jesus is referred to in his home town (Mark 6:3) as the son of Mary.

One important difference between the early hagiographies of Francis and the gospels (canonical and otherwise) is that the accounts of Francis can be dated much more closely, and the sequence in which they were written is known.  The differences between them, then, can be examined.  We also know the identities of their authors, unlike the gospels. The author of the "official" one, Bonaventure, who later became a saint himself, wrote explicitly to supersede his predecessors, and tried to have their work suppressed.  This reminded me of beliefs held by many people nowadays about the New Testament, that the Church deliberately rewrote history and revised the biblical canon to suit its agenda and consolidate its power.  These beliefs are lightly dismissed as conspiracy theories by most scholars, and I don't share them myself, but as the case of Francis shows, they are not inherently implausible.

Consider: we know almost nothing about the development of the Jesus cult in his homeland.  It's reasonable to suppose that Christianity persisted in Galilee after Jesus' death and resurrection, for example, but we have no information about it.  We have very little information about the first Christian generation in Judea, or even just in Jerusalem.  (The Book of Acts is not reliable as a historical source, as shown by its many conflicts with the letters of Paul.)  Nor do we know much about Palestinian Jewish Christianity; the New Testament writings are the product of Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles in the diaspora around the eastern Mediterranean.  To some extent this can be explained by the cataclysm of the Jewish revolt of 66-73 CE, which resulted in enormous changes in Judaism, including the establishment of a doctrinal center in Babylonia that engendered rabbinic Judaism as we know it today.  Christianity virtually disappeared among Jews and became a primarily Gentile cult by the beginning of the second century.

By contrast, the cult of Francis, though it spread widely, remained based in Assisi, with continuities that can be traced back to his lifetime and the years immediately after his death.  Though important documents were written in Latin, the language of the church, others were written in Italian.  We have authentic writings by Francis in Italian, and none by Jesus or his original followers in any language.  Most of the paintings Trexler analyzes were produced in and for churches in Italy, with a couple of later ones elsewhere in Europe.  There weren't the kind of upheavals that disrupted the history of early Christianity.  And yet there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty about Francis' life, his family, his motives for becoming a friar, and so on.  It's fascinating to see, for example, how Francis' mother advanced and receded in depictions of his renunciation, and how his father becomes increasingly angry and even violent: some later paintings show him beating Francis with a stick, although this is not mentioned in the early hagiographies.  Reading Naked Before the Father brought home to me the difficulties of writing biography and history even of figures in literate societies, for whom there's more or less contemporary documentation.  How much more difficult it is to establish the history of figures from the ancient world, be they Jesus or the Buddha or Socrates or Pythagoras.

Monday, April 25, 2016

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Harriet Tubman is going to be on the front of the US $20 bill, with the slaveowner Andrew Jackson bumped to the back, and it's been mildly entertaining to watch the hooting and fist-pumping in the Intertubes as various parties try to spin the news as a triumph for their respective teams.  I keep wanting to dismiss it as a merely symbolic gesture, but I remind myself that symbols matter.  Roy Edroso covered rightblogger reactions in his latest Village Voice column, and retweeted the above meme on Twitter.

So far I haven't seen any evidence that Tubman ever said anything about the Second Amendment, which isn't surprising since the Second Amendment wasn't a big point of contention in her day.  For a slave, however, let alone a runaway who kept returning to the South to help other slaves escape, to own a gun would have been more disputed; to this day, the right of free African-Americans to keep and bear arms is difficult for white conservatives to affirm.  Since Tubman was an outlaw, I doubt she worried too much about the Constitutional issue.

A Libertarian writer at Reason was so eager to claim Tubman for his team that he overreached a bit: "she didn't advocate violence in the mode of John Brown, whose goal of ending slavery she shared."  In fact, Tubman and Brown admired each other, and Tubman supported his plan to attack Harper's Ferry.  The evidence is messy, but it seems that Tubman was down with violence in Brown's "mode."  (Forbes knew better.)  So would this discredit her in Nick Gillespie's eyes after all?

He continues:
A year ago, when Tubman's name was first floated as a possible figure for a new $20 bill, a number of anti-capitalist commenters observed that Tubman of all people shouldn't be on money because, by their reckoning, slavery is the essence of capitalism. As Damon Root noted at the time, this is not just ahistorical in the extreme, it flies in the face of the explicit thought of leading former slaves. I haven't been able to locate specific quotes from Tubman on the question of wage labor, but there's no doubt she believed in self-ownership, which is the actual basis for capitalism. Where today's leftists want to celebrate Tubman for "subverting" capitalism by effectively stealing her own self, Root argues that's just dumb.
Talk about ahistorical!  Tubman wasn't a Lockean social-contract philosopher but a religious nut, and I put it that crassly because her charismatic religiosity made her conteporary white allies uncomfortable, and still bothers some of her modern chroniclers.  The "actual basis for capitalism" could be debated forever, and has been, but like so many others Gillespie confuses free markets with capitalism.  They're not the same thing, and are probably incompatible with one another.  At least some of the American founders were suspicious of corporations, and Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 9 end), who can hardly be dismissed as an opponent of free markets, wrote "Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people."

I'm also skeptical of Gillespie's claim about former slaves' attitudes to wage labor, which is probably oversimple.  The former slave Frederick Douglass, for example, "initially declared, 'now I am my own master', upon taking a paying job. But later in life, he concluded to the contrary, 'experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.'"  I doubt that former slaves spoke with one voice on the subject, but "wage slavery" is a nineteenth-century concept, not an ahistorical idea imposed on the past by modern radicals.

It might also be worth pointing out that Tubman spent many years trying to get a government pension, as a war widow and as a former spy for the Union, without success until 2003.  Whatever her economic views were, she was by Libertarian standards a moocher and parasite.

Roy Edroso, however, is not exactly disinterested either.   In his Voice column he writes of one rightblogger:
Also, he said one academic study had trouble pinning down details of Tubman’s life, which Some Guy took to mean that “most of [Tubman's] deeds were excessively exaggerated or completely made up.”
As it happens, it's not just "one academic study" that wrestled with establishing the facts of Tubman's life.  I suppose we could debate whether Kate Larson's biography of Tubman counts as an academic study, but let's not; Larson is a historian with a Ph.D., so she's an academic and I wouldn't be surprised if her 2003 book was the study Some Guy had in mind.  Larson had to dig through a lot of legend and folklore in her research, and she upset some of Tubman's fans by her conclusions.  Which doesn't mean she rejected Tubman's status as an American heroine, nor do I.  But Edroso is so busy mocking his right-wing sitting ducks that he can't consider the possibility that one of them might be working with a fact or two.  Larson did not conclude that "most" of Tubman's reported deeds were "completely made up," but she did find a lot of exaggeration and fabrication.  The reality of Tubman's life, as far as we can reconstruct it now, is admirable enough; there's no need to puff her up with fantasy.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Someday My Prince Will Come

Two things are starting to get to me in the flood of public mourning of Prince's death.

One is less serious, but a lot of what I see isn't really mourning, it's whining. Yes, it's sad that Prince died, and that he died relatively young. (Not compared to Mozart, Schubert or any number of other greats, of course.) But the same reaction is applied to people who die even at quite advanced ages.  It was kind of creepy during the years of Nelson Mandela's decline, when many people freaked out every time he went into the hospital. I think that if they could have, they'd have kept him on life support forever, as tired and sick as he was. There seems to be a real panic and inability to cope with the fact that people are mortal. This is especially strange given how many of these people are religious or "spiritual." One reason I don't miss having a religion is that religion doesn't really seem to help most people cope with mortality, their own or others'.

The other is more serious, though a bit less common: the people who are putting up memes and other material lamenting the fact that Kanye West, or Ted Nugent, or Justin Bieber is still alive. If you can't mourn one celebrity's loss without this kind of vicious and mean-spirited attack on anybody else, then something is wrong with you. That goes double for those of you who are ostentatiously religious or "spiritual." That's another reason I don't miss having a religion; it really doesn't seem to improve people's characters. (A more common version of this is the conservative Christians I know who alternate between posting vile racist crap on one hand, and fake-nicey-nice religious platitudes on the other. You're not fooling me, folks, and if you're not fooling me you're certainly not fooling Jesus or Buddha. I'll see you in Hell. Yet the people who are upset at the surivival of West and Nugent tend to be liberals, both in politics and religion. Remember, Jesus said that the vast majority of human beings would be damned. I'll see you in Hell, too, while Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum watch our torment from the bosom of Abraham.)

But at the same time, both of these are reasons why I think that social media like Facebook are worthwhile: it lets so many people show their asses in public, so that any illusions I might otherwise have about them are dispelled. It's not pleasant, but knowledge is better than ignorance to my mind.

And the rest of you who don't fall into either of these camps, carry on; I'm not criticizing you.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Wars of Compassion; or, Pacifists Who Kill

I've written before about Brian Daizen Victoria's work on the collaboration between Zen Buddhism and imperialist warfare.  Since then I've read his book Zen at War (Rowman, 1997; second edition 2006), followed by Christopher Ives's Imperial-Way Zen (Hawai'i, 2009), which is critical of some details of Victoria's thesis but overall agrees that the major Zen sects in Japan actively colluded with and rationalized Japanese imperial violence.  Now I've reading Victoria's Zen War Stories (Routledge, 2003), which adds more material to his argument.

The first chapter is a knockout.  Victoria recounts his 1999 visit to the Rinzai Zen Master Nakajima Genjō, a year before the latter's death at age 85.  Genjō told Victoria
that he had served in the Imperial Japanese Navy for some ten years, voluntarily enlisting at the age of twenty-one.  Significantly, the year prior to his enlistment Genjo had his initial enlightenment experience (kenshō).

... To my surprise, Genjō readily agreed to share his wartime experiences with me, but, shortly after he began to speak, tears welled up in his eyes and his voice cracked.  Overcome by emotion, he was unable to continue.  By this time his tears had triggered my own, and we both sat round the temple's open hearth crying for some time.  When at length Genjō regained his composure, he informed me that he had just completed writing his autobiography, including a description of his years in the military [3].
Genjō was the first Zen master Victoria had met in person who had served in the military, so he gratefully accepted the master's offer of a copy of his autobiography on its publication.  Victoria then provides a "somewhat abridged" translation of the portion describing Genjō's wartime experience.  He kept in touch with his own master, Yamamoto Gempō, who continued his Zen training by correspondence while encouraging him to be "the genuine article, the real thing!  Zen priests mustn't rely on the experience of others.  Do today what has to be done today.  Tomorrow is too late!" (4).

When Genjō's ship landed in Zhenjiang, China, in 1937, he visited the famous temple of Jinshani there.  He found five hundred novices engaged in meditation practice, and being "young and immature," he remonstrated with the abbot.
What do you think you're doing!  In Japan everyone is consumed by the war with China, and this is all you can do?  [The abbot replied,] And just who are you to talk?  I hear that you are a priest.  War is for soldiers.  A priest's work is to read the sūtras and meditate!

The abbot didn't say any more than this, but I felt as if I had been hit on the head with a sledgehammer.  As a result I immediately became a pacifist [7].
Pacifist or no, Genjō continued to serve in the Japanese Navy.  He dismisses reports of the infamous massacres in Nanking: "... I am firmly convinced that there was no such thing.  It was wartime, so there may have been a little trouble with the women.  In any event, after things start to settle down, it is pretty difficult to kill anyone" (ibid.).

Genjō sketches out the rest of the war from a Japanese sailor's perspective.  In 1943 his ship was torpedoed and, while drifting in the South China Sea, he had another enlightenment experience as he grappled with "life and death."
There was nothing to do but totally devote myself to Zen practice within the context of the ocean itself.  It would be a shame to die here I thought, for I wanted to return to being a Zen priest.  Therefore I single-mindedly devoted myself to making every possible effort to survive, abandoning all thought of life and death.  It was just at that moment that I freed myself from life and death.

This freedom from life and death was in reality the realization of great enlightenment (daigo)... I wanted to meet my master so badly, but there was no way to contact him [9].
Looking back, Genjō waxes indignant, even wrathful, over what he perceives as the cowardice and incompetence of the top brass.
In the Meiji era [1868-1912] military men had character and a sense of history.  Gradually, however, the military was taken over by men who did well in school and whose lives were centered on their families.  It became a collection of men lacking intestinal fortitude and vision.  Furthermore, they suffered from a lack of Japanese spirit and ultimately allowed personal ambition to take control of their lives [10].

The national polity of Japan is characterized by the fact that ours is a land of the gods.  The gods are bright and like water, both aspects immeasurable by nature ... Stupid military men, however, thought: "A country that can fight well is a land of the gods.  The gods will surely protect such a country."  I only wish that the top echelons of the military had absorbed even a little of the spirit of the real national polity [11].
In conclusion, Genjō laments:
This was a stupid war.  Engulfed in a stupid war, there was nothing I could do.  I wish to apologize, from the bottom of my heart, to those of my fellow soldiers who fell in battle.  As I look back on it now, I realize that I was in the navy for a total of ten years.  For me, those ten years felt like an eternity.  And it distresses me to think of all the comrades I lost [11].
Reading Genjō's memoir made Victoria realize that when the two of them wept over the war, Genjō was mourning only the Japanese military personnel who suffered and died in the conflict, especially those who died from disease and hunger rather than from a more fitting and glorious death in battle.  He also considers the war "stupid," not because it was a war of aggression, or even because it was a gigantic cataclysm of destructive violence, but because, "unlike in other wars, Japan had been defeated" (11) due to the leaders' incompetence in planning and strategy.  This immediately made me think of many Americans' judgment of our invasion of Vietnam, which is often touted as the first US defeat; that we killed millions of innocent people who had not attacked the US is of no interest to them at all, only that we failed to extract another victory to add to our large, glorious collection of trophies, at the cost of American lives.

Imagine someone who informs you, while tucking into a big juicy steak, that after a stunning confrontation with a religious teacher, she immediately became a vegetarian, and remains so to this day.  In what sense Genjō considers himself a pacifist, considering that he nowhere rejects war in principle, baffles me, as it baffles Victoria; Genjō's account "suggests that in practice Genjō's newly found pacifism amounted to little more than 'feel good, accomplish nothing' mental masturbation" (14).  To the credit of both men, he followed up this question.  (I say both men because it would not be surprising for a revered senior monk to slap down probing questions from an impertinent junior and a foreigner at that; but as you'll see, Genjō didn't do so.)
In fact, during a second visit to Shōinji in January 2000, I personally queried Genjō on this very point: I asked him why he hadn't attempted, in one way or another, to distance himself from Japan's war effort following his change of heart.  His reply was short and to the point: "I would have been court-martialed and shot had I done so."

No doubt, Genjō was speaking the truth, and I for one am not going to claim that I would have acted any differently (though I hope I would have).  This said, Genjō does not hesitate to present himself to his readers as the very embodiment of the Buddha's enlightenment.  The question must therefore be asked, is the killing of countless human beings in order to save one's own life an authentic expression of the Buddha Dharma, of the Buddha's enlightennment? [14]
A few things should be borne in mind here.  One is that, while Genjō's disinclination to face court-martial and execution for rejecting the Japanese war is understandable during the war -- and like Victoria, I don't condemn him for it, being even less sure than Victoria that I'd have done any differently in his place -- he continued to accept the validity of the war even sixty years later, when the political situation had changed and he would probably have faced no consequences for rejecting it.  This too is similar to many Americans' reluctance in retrospect to condemn the Vietnam War, or the 2003 Gulf War for that matter.  It's okay and quite safe to criticize the way those wars were prosecuted, but to argue that they should not have been fought at all is Going Too Far.  It's popular (both in Japan and in 'the West') to point to the conformism and groupthink of Japanese society to explain the paucity of dissent by Japanese, but Americans are not very different in that respect.

Brian Victoria has a personal history of dissenting within institutions.  As a young American Methodist in 1961 he became a conscientious objector, several years before the rise of a movement against the US invasion of Vietnam, though that invasion was already well under way.  He became a missionary to fulfill the alternative service required of COs, but when he rejected the "political indoctrination classes" he was expected to take he was turned down for service first in Hong Kong and then in Taiwan.  He was sent to Japan instead, which didn't have the same doctrinal uniformity among its Christian groups.  There he became interested in Zen and was ordained as a Soto Zen monk a few years later.  After working in the movement against the US invasion of Vietnam, which brought him into conflict with Zen superiors who didn't think priests should get involved in politics, he became aware of the previous Buddhist role in Japanese imperialism, which led him to the writing of Zen at War.

A reviewer of Zen War Stories for the Journal of Buddhist Ethics commented:
Reading Victoria’s new book in late 2003, as an American reflecting on recent and past U.S. policy in the Middle East, I cannot help wondering about the comparable role of Christianity in the West. In criticizing the nationalistic role of Zen, are we holding Japanese Buddhism to higher standards than we have upheld ourselves? To say that Buddhism was distorted by Japanese society: in the end, does that mean anything more than that Buddhism too is a religion practiced by human beings?
This seems disingenous to me.  I haven't seen anything by Victoria which indicates that he's "holding Japanese Buddhism to higher standards" than he would hold Christianity, since he has been no less critical of Christianity, and of the US (his home country).  The reviewer's complaint is typical of tactics used to discredit critics of any tradition: if you criticize US foreign policy, for example, or Israeli oppression of Palestinians, or various misconduct by Christians, you will be accused of considering America (or Israel) to be uniquely bad, perhaps claiming that it is 'the source of everything that's wrong in the world.'  Victoria's thoughtcrime lies not in considering Buddhism unique, but in rejecting the claim that it is unique, a religion like others, and in criticizing it from within.  It's perfectly acceptable, and indeed normal, to treat Buddhism, or Christianity, or America, or Science, as uniquely good; apologists only fall back to the line of "we're just human beings like everybody else" for damage control.

That "Buddhism too is a religion practiced by human beings" is precisely what Brian Victoria has been saying all along.  As the Austrian-born Hindu monk and sociologist Agehananda Bharati said, one can be a believer and a sound scholar if one "radically criticize[s] the doctrine with which one identifies, pointing out its weaknesses, its foibles, and the clay feet of its founders and sustainers, at every step."  (Which is why I myself criticize atheists along with theists, and my own country along with others.)  Victoria judges Zen and Christianity, Japan and America, by a single standard.  But that is exactly what no doctrine wants its followers to do.

It's also okay for good believers to criticize competing traditions as harshly as is expedient.  Christians and other monotheists are notorious for doing so -- see the passages Victoria quotes from Christian scholarly texts on Buddhism on page xiv, for example -- but the tendency isn't limited to them.  Buddhism has a long pacifist tradition, as does Christianity; Victoria quotes a story that the Buddha, questioned by a professional soldier, "informed him that if the latter were to die on the battlefield he could expect to be 'reborn in a hell or as an animal' for his transgressions."  This is a much harsher judgment than anything Jesus is reported to have said; he never condemned war himself, perhaps because he expected to lead the war against unbelievers in the final judgment.  (Indeed, according to the gospels, he was quite friendly and helpful to soldiers of the Roman occupation of his country.)  Victoria continues: "Inasmuch as I make no claim to omniscience for myself, I do not know in what state, or even if, the protagonists in this book will be reborn.  But, like the Buddha himself, I do not hesitate to judge them on the basis of their deeds, whether of body or speech" (xv).  Like Christianity, Buddhism has a long tradition of violence and warfare, and it didn't begin in twentieth-century Japan.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Sexcraft; or, Which Came First, the Gender or the Sex?

Identity is not an essentialist nugget at the center of things.  It’s a category to put things in. You can’t think without categories; but you want categories that are complex enough that whatever is inside them is always questioning its own boundaries.
Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields wrote in their brilliant book Racecraft that even many anti-racist people accept "the objective reality of race":
Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence.  If it were that, it would easily be overwhelmed; most people mean well, most of the time, and in any case are usually busy pursuing other purposes.  Racism is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for actions, or both at once.  Racism always takes for granted the objectivity of race, as just defined, so it is important to register their distinctness.  The shorthand transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss.  Consider the statement "black Southerners were segregated because of their skin color" -- a perfectly natural sentence to the ears of most Americans, who tend to overlook its weird causality.  But in that sentence, segregation disappears as the doing of segregationists, and then, in a puff of smoke -- paff -- reappears as a trait of only one part of the segregated whole.  In similar fashion, enslavers disappear only to reappear, disguised, in stories that append physical traits defined as slave-like to those enslaved [17-18].
I began reading a book I'd checked out from the library, Gender Nonconformity, Race, and Sexuality: Charting the Connections, edited by Toni Lester, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2002.  In the introduction Lester begins by explaining that she asks her lecture audiences to name "traits that they think are innately female or male", which of course elicits the usual stereotypes.  She continues:
Some people believe that the masculine traits attributed to men and the feminine traits attributed to women listed above are biologically determined.  Others, including myself, believe that while biology may play a part in male and female behavior, society plays an equal or even stronger role in influencing the extent to which men and women adopt masculine or feminine characteristics.  Indeed, certain sites of social power, like the sciences, our legal system, the political sphere, and cultural institutions operate to create and enforce these sex-based norms.  Thus, contrary to what biological determinists think, gender roles are not so fixed.  Men do not own masculinity any more than women own femininity [3-4].
I stopped reading at this point -- not because I intended to stop altogether, but because I wanted to think some more about this passage.  First, though, I glanced at Peter Hegarty's contribution later in the book, "More Feminine than 999 Men out of 1,000': Measuring Sex Roles and Gender Nonconformity in Psychology."  Hegarty later wrote an excellent book, Gentlemen's Disagreement: Alfred Kinsey, Lewis Terman, and the Sexual Politics of Smart Men (Chicago, 2013), so I hoped his article would have the same intelligent take on gender.  A look at the opening paragraphs left me unsure, so I put it off till later.  For now I want to concentrate on Lester's remarks.

At the most obvious level, men do "own masculinity" and women "own femininity," depending of course on how one defines the various terms involved.  If you think of "masculinity" as some pre-existent Platonic idea that is totally independent of bodies, perhaps an autonomous spirit that possesses individuals and makes them hunt, weave, cook, fight, or rape (and many people evidently do), then it makes sense to say that men don't "own masculinity"; it's its own person, after all, you don't want to tie it down.

I go with the "woman-identified woman" I've quoted numerous times before, who declared that "whatever women wear is women's wear."*  This is an upsetting idea for many people who believe, on the contrary, that women do not "own femininity" or men, masculinity; it's actually the other way around. The individual must conform to the norms; if anything, masculinity and femininity own us.  Of course that begs the question of what a woman is.  For many, perhaps most people, a woman is a person who looks, dresses, and behaves as a woman is supposed to -- and anyone who looks, dresses, and behaves as a woman is supposed to is a woman.  Another curious point is that these traits, behaviors, etc. are stereotypes; yet people who claim to reject stereotypes will appeal to them in classifying people according to sex/gender, race, and class.  Which brings me back to the starting point -- except that there is no starting point. Which came first, the sex or the gender?

I think that in "the masculine traits attributed to men and the feminine traits attributed to women" Lester was just being sloppy, but that's an awful lot of sloppy for the first page of your book.  Those traits are "masculine" and "feminine" because of the sex they're attributed to.  Why are "aggressive, decisive, rational, domineering, ... strong" associated with males?  Why weren't some other, different traits associated with maleness, though they might be just as plausible?  "Lethargic couch potatoes who watch other males playing contact sports on television," say, instead of "aggressive"?  Of course there's often a gulf between the way people are supposed to act, on whatever assumptions, and the way they actually do act; and both folk and academic psychology stumble when they must try to account for that gulf.  Myself, I'm a lot more interested in that gulf than in collecting and fussing over the stereotypes.

Another very important thing to remember is that the same traits, the same behavior, will be named differently according to the sex/gender of the actor.  "Aggression" will be recognized as such in males, but called something else -- "bitchiness" or "bossiness", say -- in females.  This is actually recognized in some gender folklore: I grew up hearing jokes about how women "gossip," while men "discuss."  Humor is a way of defusing, warding off the recognition that men and women are not as different as they're supposed to be.

Then consider Lester's belief that "society plays an equal or even stronger role in influencing the extent to which men and women adopt masculine or feminine characteristics."  What is "society"?  It's made up of men and women, of course.  I'm certainly open to the possibility that groups of people might exhibit attitudes (would "emergent" be the right word?) that individual people don't hold and would disagree with.  But where do those attitudes and beliefs come from?  How does "society" decide which norms to "create and enforce"?  People often talk as though "society" were another independent autonomous force or spirit, the Great Other, separable and separate from themselves.  They seem to think of "society" as an Evil Villain, twirling its mustache and cackling gleefully as it watches us suffer at its hands. It might be that Lester will answer these questions later in the Introduction, but I doubt it, since she is setting forth her conclusions here, and it seems to me that she's every bit as much in thrall to stereotypical sex/gender norms as the people in her audiences.

As is often the case in social construction discourse, Lester confuses the classification of traits with the cause of traits.  In the case of "race," for example, skin color is a physical trait probably determined by genetic endowment, but "race" doesn't equal skin color.  (In many cultures darker skin is seen as low-class, undesirable.  "You can be dark and rich or you can be fair and poor, but you can't be dark and poor!" exclaims a Hindu woman discussing a girl's marriage chances in Mira Nair's 1991 film Mississippi Masala.)   So, for example, men are on average taller than women, and height is a physical trait determined partly by genetic endowment and partly by diet and other experiences.  Some of women's lesser average height may in part be due to deprivation, where boy children are fed more than girl children; but when a woman turns out to be tall anyway (and what counts as tall depends on how tall most people are in a given society), she'll have problems.  Heterosexual men are socially expected to be taller than their female mates, though not all of them worry about it.  So it doesn't matter what causes a trait, whether it is biologically acquired or learned; what matters is how it is evaluated and classified.

The trouble as I see it is that many people are determined to gender everything as much as they can; from my point of view, most traits and behaviors are not either male or female, masculine or feminine.  This post has been languishing in my Drafts folder long enough; I'll return to these issues soon.

*Quoted by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in Lesbian/Woman (Bantam, 1972), page 81.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

You've Been Telling Me You're a Genius Since You Were Seventeen

Reading Curtis White's The Science Delusion (Melville House, 2013) renewed my respect for Mary Midgley.  I happened on White's book in the library just after I'd reread Midgley's Science and Salvation (Routledge, 1992) and was mulling over the (very critical) blog post I wanted to write about it.  Since White, a novelist and academic social critic, was going over much the same ground, and I enjoyed his title's dig at Richard Dawkins, I decided to give it a try.

I can sum up part of my reaction by quoting this writer at BoingBoing, who says that most reviews of The Science Delusion have missed White's point:
All the invective? White thought he was just being funny and satirical, like Jonathan Swift. The over-generalizing about what all scientists believe and what the culture of science is like? He thought it was clear that he just meant the subset of scientists who don't think there's any value other than entertainment in art, that philosophy is dead, and that culture has no affect on how we interpret science or what we do with it. The weird, pseudo-Deism? He thought he was explaining that science is part of culture, that the questions being asked and the way answers are interpreted are culturally bound and and we have to take that into account. The humanities triumphalism and points where he totally dismisses science and acts like he doesn't understand why somebody would find meaning in being curious about how the mind works? Not what he meant at all, apparently. He just wants to make the case for us needing both science and the humanities to properly understand the world. And White is deeply confused about why reviews of his book keep getting all of this wrong. 
Of course, many writers have had the experience of discovering that the book their readers and critics read was not the book they thought they wrote.  And I must say that I nowhere got the impression that White "totally dismisses" science; only a sloppy and probably biased reader, one with a science-cultist agenda, should have taken that from the book, in much the same way that Obama cultists jump to the conclusion that anyone who criticizes Obama is totally a Republican who hates him and doesn't like or respect or admire anybody. (Or American exceptionalists accuse anyone who argues that the US shouldn't bomb the shit out of countries that haven't attacked us of wanting to see America conquered and destroyed by Al-Qaeda.)

The BoingBoing writer, Maggie Koerth-Baker, complains that The Science Delusion "is written in such a way as to nearly ensure that it will quickly alienate anybody who identifies with science as their community, their career, or their passion."  As I've argued before (and Koerth-Baker herself notices), writers like Dawkins and Hitchens can dish it out but not take it -- Dawkins especially has very tender sensibilities when someone turns his rhetorical style back on him -- so it's highly unlikely that anyone could write a book critical of any aspect of science that wouldn't alienate anybody who "identifies with science."

Still, a humanities-oriented writer, especially one who's been around the block a few dozen times (White is 65, almost exactly my age) should have, you know, thought about the way his or her writing was coming across.  This is why writers show their work to readers they trust before publication: not just to check for factual or typographical errors, but to get their reactions to the content as a whole.  I've mentioned before how surprised I was when I wrote a satirical piece mocking college fraternities with Christian-right rhetoric, and friends (including graduate students in the humanities, from whom I'd have expected better; hadn't they even heard of Swift's "Modest Proposal"? evidently not) took it literally, exultant that I'd given those Greek-system snots what for.  Satire is always tricky that way.  I often showed my poems to people who weren't academics to get their reactions, as I did with my big anti-Christian project (still unpublished) of the 1980s: to see what non-professionals took away from it.  I had better luck with the anti-Christian book; people seemed to get what I intended.

It's to be expected that scientists might have trouble with tone and balance in what they write for a general audience: that kind of subtlety isn't in their job description.  But if White wanted to show the value of the humanities as well as the sciences for understanding the world, he did a poor job of it.  Since I am also humanities-oriented, critical of science triumphalism, and am predisposed to agree with the point he was trying to make, I'm just the audience he was aiming for, and he still left me dissatisfied.

Interestingly, White told Koerth-Baker in e-mail:
I hope you won’t be entirely surprised if I say that I don’t think anything went wrong. The Science Delusion is much like my earlier work, especially The Middle Mind. One person’s “angry screed” is another person’s “passionate defense.” My native audience tends to be among artists, lefty intellectuals, humanists, and other species of the socially dispossessed. This particular book has generated a broader audience, much of which is sensitive to criticism of the sciences. I just received a review by Mark Kingwell, a Canadian philosopher, for the Globe and Mail. It’s a sympathetic review although he complains of the “bad jokes.” (At least he noticed there were jokes!) But the on-line comments about his review hacked him to pieces in the name of the superiority of the scientific worldview. Utter disdain. Baseless contempt. I have to say, the comments made me feel a little better about some of the treatment I’ve received. 
(Wait -- "artists, lefty intellectuals, humanists" are "socially dispossessed"?  Bitch, please.  [P.S., 2017: it just occurred to me that White was perhaps being sarcastic there.])

So it appears that it's Koerth-Baker who misunderstood White's intention.  The part about the attacks on Kingwell's review also fits a pattern I've noticed before: those who try to position themselves as moderates, whether philosophically or politically, tend to find themselves vilified for allegedly taking the very positions they were trying to repudiate.  So, when the journalist Richard Goldstein tried to distance himself from Noam Chomsky's supposed anti-Americanism a decade ago, readers attacked him as anti-American.

Similarly, Koerth-Baker wants to take a middle stance on scientism, by mildly criticizing the tone of writers like Dawkins, and rejecting what she calls "pop-culture, self-help neuroscience."  But "pop culture" isn't really the problem, it's actual working scientists who genuinely believe they know more and can explain more than they can.  So she wrote that "much of White's argument against this hinges on framing pop-neurobollocks as a problem created by and supported by scientists, and a problem that very few people have spoken out about. Neither of which is true."  What she calls "pop-neurobollocks" is in fact created by and supported by scientists.  It's true that other scientists have criticized their colleagues -- see Robert A. Burton's A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind, which I discussed here -- and they locate the problem not in pop culture but in the field itself.  And the criticisms are commonly dismissed by their colleagues as coming from (you guessed it) the humanities, from feminists and leftists who hate science and want to see it destroyed.  Another, superficially milder stratagem is to accuse critics of scientific racism of favoring a "blank slate" view of human nature.

Koerth-Baker also claims that
anthropology was once a field pretty much dedicated to proving the superiority of white, Western colonial powers over their brown subjects. The societal context shaped the questions those early anthropologists were asking, it shaped how they chose to study the world, and it shaped how they chose to interpret the data they came back with. The fact that, by the time I got to anthropology school in 1999, the field had been drastically realigned as a challenge to its former self also says something about the influence of culture and the importance of questioning ourselves and our values in ways that are not purely scientific.
This is mistaken.  First, anthropologists were always divided among themselves.  Many were dedicated to justifying Western imperialism, but others weren't.  Franz Boas is probably the most famous example of an early 20th century anthropologist who opposed and criticized racist anthropology in the service of European colonialism. As an effective critic of scientific racism, he was predictably vilified by his colleages, often on racist grounds.  The eugenicist Madison Grant, for example, jeered that Boas "naturally does not take stock in any anthropology which relegates him and his race to the inferior position that they have occupied throughout recorded history."  (Boas was Jewish, which Grant thought was a "race.")  Second, some anthropologists are still serving Western imperialism.  I'd add that scientific racism based in biology is still very much with us.

But her error is instructive, as an example of the common tendency to speak of "science," "religion," "art," and other fields as if they spoke with one voice and were mutually exclusive.

If Curtis White wants to preach to the choir, that's his lookout.  It's perfectly legitimate to take a side and write for its adherents, to keep up their morale and, if possible, given them good reasons for continuing to believe what they want to.  My complaint about The Science Delusion is not that White picked on science, but that he made such a shitty case for the humanities.  I think that's largely because he too thinks, or writes as if he thinks, that "science" and "the humanities," etc., speak with one voice and are mutually exclusive.

White writes, for example:
What scientists / polemicists like [Lawrence] Krauss refuse to admit, perhaps because they think that it creates an opening for their enemies, is that there is any limit on what they can claim to know.  Nevertheless, it is true even for science that there are unknowable things -- unknowable because not accessible to observation or experiment -- chief among which is the question of being's ultimate origin.  That is not an invitation for the God-mongers to set up camp where science cannot go (creating a "God of the gaps").  Rather, it is simply one of those matters about which science ought to open itself to other forms of thinking, if not knowing, and it might if it felt a little less besieged [53].
What are those "other forms of thinking, if not knowing"?  White isn't willing to concede too much to religion.  He dismisses the "God-mongers" as lightly as the scientists and New Atheists do, and though he stresses that "There are still many and large congregations of liberal Christians, even liberal evangelicals, starting with Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter. And the liberal, even radical, Jewish community is famously large" (34), he doesn't spend much time on liberal or radical religious forms of knowing.
Not for Hitchens that rich cross-cultural fertilization of the Levant by Helenistic [sic!], Jewish, and Manichaean thought.  Not for Hitchens the transformation of a Jewish heretic into a religion that Nietzsche called "Platonism for the masses" [29].
What an anachronistic mess!  Didn't Nietzsche also call Christianity a slave morality?  I doubt that he meant "Platonism for the masses" as a compliment, either.  Did Christianity have answers that science knows not of?  Not that I can see, and White doesn't mention any.

White spends some time on various New Atheists' dismissal of philosophy.  He quotes, for example, the same Lawrence Krauss from a 2012 interview in The Atlantic:
Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym.”  And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. [Well, scientists kind of read it sometimes to give themselves conniptions. - D.M.] … And so it's really hard to understand what justifies it.  And so I'd say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't [24].
White waxes indignant about these philistines: "What do any of these science writers know about the history of philosophy before Bertrand Russell?  Their comments are merely expressions of an anti-intellectual prejudice.  I would go so far as to say that they are a kind of bigotry" (25).  It might be more to the point to point out that these science writers are still doing philosophy; they're just doing it ignorantly and badly, like the plain-speaking businessman who claims that common sense is good enough for him.  When such scientists try to rebut philosophers and historians of science, they generally get everything wrong.  Philosophers keep worrying away at questions that scientists (and remember, science used to be called "natural philosophy") don't even try to answer, perhaps because they're unanswerable.  To my mind, the benefit of doing philosophy is that it brings home so forcefully how much we don't know.

For Curtis White, the best alternative source of knowledge lies in the arts, specifically in the Romantic movement.
At its inception, Romanticism was about the discovery of a social attitude almost entirely new in the history of Western civilization.  Up through the late 18th century, individuals found themselves only in a group identification with tribe, kingdom, church, nation, and, brutally, social caste.  Romanticism offered a revolutionary and enduring alternative to being absorbed by the culture into which you happened to be born: alienation.  Alienation is the feeling that, as Lord Byron's Childe Harold expressed it, "I stood amongst them but not of them." ... I don't belong anywhere in my own world.  In fact, I see this world for what it is, and it is shameful.  In place of this world I feel something nobler within me that poets and philosophers, not soldiers, must make real...

And yet this sense of being homeless was for the Romantics [like the early Christians] a source not only of pain but of strength and potential joy as well. ... They would be heroes.  They would be free.  They would create themselves [59-60].  
A vain fantasy, and not far from the Promethean fantasies that drive a lot of scientists.  (White overlooks the notorious alienation experienced by many scientists.)  I don't believe White is correct about alienation being wholly new when the Romantics took it up.  Alienation is all over the New Testament, especially but not only in Paul's letters, and it's arguable that a feeling of not being at home in the world accounts for the popularity of mystery religions and other initiations around the Mediterranean in Jesus' time.  Alienation is a basic feature of Gnosticism too.  It seems to me that it's also part of Buddhism, certainly in the Buddha's origin myth (a pampered, sheltered prince, confronted with the reality of human suffering, leaves it all to seek Truth), which reminds me that White thinks almost exclusively in terms of "Western" art, culture and religion; odd that, in one who avows the influence of 1960s California counterculture in his life.

But again, what answers does Romanticism offer?  None that White mentions.  He makes much of its supposed egalitarianism, and throws the word "freedom" around a lot, especially "Schiller's mantra," "Art models freedom" (69).  Freedom is good, who could object to that?  But if Schiller was right, art models freedom through constraint, whether by using established forms or by creating new ones.  Freedom is never absolute. When he tries to get positive about art, White falls as flat as any scientist does.
The more agonistic way would be to say that for the past two centuries artists have hated mop inventors. Beethoven … seemed to hate just about everyone, and wrote his music against them, against his father, against Haydn, against “inkeepers, cobblers, and tailors,” and against the philistine nobility that paid his wages.  In short, [Jonah] Lehrer either has never heard of or simply dismisses the role of social alienation as a driving force for what he blandly calls creativity [117-8].  
What galloping horseshit.  Let's note again the social alienation found in many scientists.  Second, let's note that these alienated kids always expect to be taken care of, usually by women.  White hasn't noticed what a boys' club the arts have always been, no less than the sciences or religion.  Beethoven's hatred of merchants and servants for failing to serve him gratis wasn't "egalitarian" but aristocratic.  Feminism is another alternate way of knowing that doesn't seem to be on his radar.
Lehrer writes, “The story of 'Like a Rolling Stone' is a story of creative insight.  The song was invented in the moment, then hurled into the world” [121]. 
Bullshit, and White recognizes this, but for the wrong reasons. "Like a Rolling Stone" did not spring fully grown from Bob Dylan's head.  Think of the actual process of writing, which was not a moment but went on for some time, producing ten pages of a rant that Dylan whittled down to four long verses.  Then think of the process of arranging and recording, which was protracted and painful.  Some of the versions, including a waltz, have since been released on CD.  The release version emerged in collaboration with other musicians, and Dylan's producer.  Then think of the hostility in the folk community to Dylan's artistic changes.  He was accused of commercialism, though his record label understandably didn't see a six-minute opus as obvious fodder for the charts; but also remember Mim Udovich's rejoinder (from the Village Voice, 29 September 1992, 94-97) to Camille Paglia's lament about commercialism in pop music:
Outrage about the artistic limitations placed on musicians by the marketplace is equally unfounded.  And just to stick on Paglia's elementary level, if Leonard Chess had not told Chuck Berry to ditch the blues for something that would sell, it is arguable that Keith Richards would not be the coolest person living today.  And lastly, if you're going to make this argument at all, you should mention Colonel Tom Parker.
The case of rock'n'roll also brings in the relationship of art and technology -- that is, science.  Dylan could not have made "Like a Rolling Stone" without changes (advances, if you like) in the technology of musical instruments and of recording. The effect of recording on music has not been purely technical -- or rather, technical changes have wrought cultural changes.  A generation, the generation White and I share, learned to think of music as existing in sequence on two sides of a long-playing vinyl record. The advent of CDs changed that, and then music on the Internet, and Youtube, changed it again.  Musical performances used to be ephemeral -- we have no idea what Jenny Lind sounded like, for example -- but we can now listen to the music of long-dead musicians, frozen on lacquer, vinyl, compact discs and now as virtual computer files.
For the scientist, blue is a particular wavelength in the light spectrum that is visible to humans. For the linguist, blue is a sign or symbol carrying meaning (heaven, salvation, Caribbean vacation, etc.).  But for an artist like Messaien, blue is a presence -- both a thing and the experience of the thing -- and only when we are attentive and responsive to this presence can we be said to understand it.  As Messaien shows [except that he didn't, but never mind for now], attention requires a certain non-evaluative openness to the thing [which thing?]; to respond to what the openness offers is the act of music-making itself [162].  
It occurs to me that White always thinks of art from the standpoint of the artist, the Promethean genius who creates, models freedom, and demands our "non-evaluative openness to the thing."  Anytime someone demands "non-evaluative openness" (also known as "faith"), I reach for my critical thinking.  It seems that for White, it's the artist who matters, and the audience exists as a receptacle for "the act of music-making," or poem-making, or painting-making, or philosophy-making.  That's not an "egalitarian" model of the arts, or of life, and it sits oddly with White's insistence, quoting Schlegal, that "To have genius is the natural state of humanity."  Personally, my idea of Hell is a roomful of geniuses, demanding non-evaluative openness to their own products but never paying attention to the products of all the others, who may claim to be geniuses but are just a bunch of posers, man, to say nothing of the stupid sheeple who don't realize the pain of being a supergenius in an uncaring, un-understanding world full of idiots.

One should, of course, take artists' philosophizing about their practice as skeptically as one takes scientists' philosophizing about theirs.  But what is blue to the painter?  A technical problem.  The technology of paint is ancient.  You can't draw a neat line between art and science.  Each practitioner, obsessed with his or her own problems, sees himself or herself as the center of the universe; one role of the philosopher is to decenter them.
The important thing to remember, those few of us who do [really? who is "us" here?], is that there are other metaphors than those offered to us by science, and other ways of thinking about what it's like to be a [sic] human.  There is a long, now dishonored tradition in philosophy and the arts that seeks to account for the "interior distance," our personal and species internal landscape.  The crucial thing to say is that this tradition is under no illusions that it is providing the Truth, the human-in-itself. ... What's more, these metaphors will also provide insight into something science is mostly clueless about: how we ought to live [167].
I disagree that "this tradition is under no illusions that it is providing the Truth"; it seems to me that all these traditions have such illusions, and their "insights" about "how we ought to live" are clueless when they try to prescribe and legislate for everyone.  The religious and philosophical traditions I've gotten the most from acknowledge that "our personal and species internal landscape" can not be accounted for.  People constantly mistake metaphors for reality.  Religious people are especially prone to doing so, with scientists close on their heels. 

White notes that the culture of science "is notoriously thin-skinned and combative" (96), then quotes at length a scientist on the cutthroat competition of science conferences and the scientific professional generally.  I suppose he takes for granted that his readers are aware that this also describes the humanities and the arts, but he doesn't make the point, so let me do it: the culture of the arts is notoriously thin-skinned and combative.  He also told Koerth-Baker that he liked a lot of science writing, such as John McPhee's Annals of the Former World, but he didn't discuss it in The Science Delusion because "McPhee is not in the business of using science to produce pernicious ideology."  Of course, the humanities and the arts have often produced pernicious ideology.  (The Romantics' adulation for, and then disillusionment with, Napoleon Bonaparte is not really addressed by White.) The only way to avoid doing so lies not in a given field or a particular movement in a field, but in not producing pernicious ideology in the first place.  How to avoid that?  There's the rub.  In The Science Delusion Curtis White offered an entertaining though scattershot sendup of the pretensions of scientists, but he merely showcased the pretentions of artists and the humanities.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Depart from Me, Ye Cursed, into Everlasting Boredom

I picked up Backcast by Ann McMan (Bywater Books, 2015) at the public library because it had an enthusiastic blurb from Dorothy Allison.  It was worth my time, though I doubt I'll ever reread it.

The book is mainly set in Vermont around Lake Champlain.  A sculptor has won an NEA grant for a project in which thirten writers will contribute autobiographical essays and the sculptor will make metalwork art inspired by them.  She rounds up a bunch of writers she knows for two weeks at a lake resort; melodrama and comedy ensue.  The essays appear between the narrative chapters, unattributed, which makes it interesting to try to figure out which of the characters wrote each one.  (The answers can be found at the end of the book.)  It's all handled well enough, though a tad too familiar: the characters have predictable backgrounds and problems, and McMan has nothing new to say about them.  The one surprise is not enough to balance the banality.

What isn't surprising is the character who grew up in a viciously fundamentalist Christian family; even the terrible things that happen to her -- discovered in flagrante with her first love, turned over by her family to a rapist minister who promised to fix her -- are cliches by now, an easy way to win sympathy for a character without doing the hard work good fiction requires.  So I was particularly annoyed by this passage on page 242.
It isn't that I was opposed to traveling any road that led to a righteous life.  I simply didn't think I should be expected to deny who I was to do it.  That part didn't feel Christian to me.  All the stories I grew up hearing about Jesus talked about his love and forgiveness, not his judgment and wrath.  The way I saw it, God made me the way I was for a reason.  I never really chose to like other girls -- I just did.  And I especially liked Charlene.
It's also a cliche for people to say that they only remember stories about Jesus' love and forgiveness.  (What's to forgive, anyway?  Wouldn't forgiveness require that she give up the behavior she's being forgiven for?  And it should go without saying that there's no forgiveness in Backcast for the rapist minister; I'm not saying there must be, but then I'm not a Christian.)  I suppose it's plausible that even a Pentecostal Sunday school would stress kid-friendly stories of Jesus loving the little children of the world and play down the hellfire and damnation he preaches constantly in the gospels.  But the narrator here was in her mid to late teens when she met Charlene.  Did she never read the New Testament?  (She knows it well enough to quote the relatively obscure passage where Jesus promises that believers will be able to handle snakes without danger.)  Did she never hear a fire and brimstone sermon in regular worship services, or at the revivals her family attended?  I can't believe it; it seems to me that there's some bad faith going on here

I suspect that when people claim not to have heard that Jesus was a hellfire preacher, they're exhibiting a highly selective memory for what they don't want to remember.  Or maybe they just thought that Hell was for other people, bad people, not good people like them.  It's not for me to decide what is (or "feels") Christian; but I feel no obligation to respect the self-serving selective constructions of Jesus that Christians create to make themselves feel superior to others.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Here's a quick question.  There's a guy -- college-aged, hefty build -- sitting at a table nearby in the food court, wearing a t-shirt on whose back is printed "Be ... brilliant / yourself /swift / ... joyous / kind / amazing / A Job's Daughter."  Job's Daughters International is, according to Wikipedia, "a Masonic-sponsored youth organization for girls and young women aged 10 to 20."

So, is he cross-dressing?

Friday, April 1, 2016

An American Obsession

An old friend of mine posted:
If the people who swore, twice, that they'd leave the country if Obama won, had actually gone, we wouldn't be dealing with the Donald today.
I replied:
And if the people who swore, twice, that they'd leave the country if Bush the Lesser won, had actually gone, we wouldn't have had eight years of Obama.
I added a wink emoticon, since I thought she was at least partly in her standup-comedy mode when she wrote the original post.  I guess I was wrong, because she riposted:

That doesn't sound like a good thing to me. Personally, I think Obama is one of the best presidents we've had in my lifetime. You are entitled to think differently, but just so you know.
To which I replied:

Oh, I know. "We wouldn't have eight years of Obama" can be either be good or bad, you know. I'm not really sure what it would mean that Obama was one of the best Presidents we've had in my lifetime, though. The competition isn't impressive.
It went downhill from there, and I'm thinking over how to answer her latest response.  What I want to say here is that I don't think it's an effective move for my friend to say that she considers Obama the best president we've had in her lifetime.  (She's a decade or so younger than I am.)   I think it's willfully irrelevant, a distraction or an attempt at distraction, the kind of move that people often resort to when they have no pertinent rational response to make.

First, as I said, the competition for the best president in my lifetime (since 1951, that is) isn't all that impressive.  I'll freely agree that Barack Obama is the best president we've had in this century.  But second and more important, I don't believe it's possible to rate presidents, or anyone else doing complex work.  The more I look at the detailed records of highly placed political figures, the more I conclude that it's impossible to rank them on a single (best-worst, for example) linear scale.  It's sometimes possible to do so on specific tasks and issues, but what if someone who's good in some areas is terrible in others?  (And how do you evaluate a politician who deliberately triangulates: does or says something that will please his base after doing something that angers them?)

A notorious example is Lyndon Johnson, of whom it's often said that he was a great president in domestic issues and disastrous in foreign policy.  Yet his foreign policy, like any president's, had domestic effects.  The Vietnam War took a great toll on the lives of the soldiers he sent to fight in it; resistance to the war fostered division among Americans; and the immense cost of the war did harm to the US economy and the quality of life here, diverting money that should have been spent on the War on Poverty or the enforcement of Civil Rights laws to military use and abuse.  That's not to minimize the terrible cost to the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, only to point out that foreign and domestic policy can't be neatly separated.

Finally, I think that ranking presidents as my friend wants to do may be a peculiarly American fetish, akin to ranking sports teams, universities (whether as academic institutions or as "party" settings), locales ("the best cities to live in America"), and so on.  It probably connects to the faux-meritocratic fantasy that everybody can and should be ranked by merit, and the American religion of competition, where everything is put in terms, as Alfie Kohn put it, of who's beating whom.  I think that many Americans think about their politicians and other leaders almost exclusively as fodder for such rankings.  It's an easy diversionary tactic when specific criticisms are made, no matter where they come from.

My friend replied:

I don't think your comment was neutral since you made an analogy between Obama and Donald Trump by rephrasing my statement. I notice you never miss an opportunity to disparage Obama. I don't think it's accidental. Is there anyone you admire? Does anyone do a good job or try to in your opinion? If so, it would be nice to hear, for a change. Also, I don't recall people threatening to "leave the country" if any candidate, including W, was elected to the extent that they did regarding Obama, which I see as blatant racism.
I decided to wait before saying any more, to avoid escalating the exchange, and I procrastinated not only in replying to her but in finishing this post.  For now I think I'll give her the last word on Facebook, partly because I'm sure we're going to cross swords over Obama and the Democrats again during the long election season ahead.

So: I rephrased my friend's joke (and I do think she was in standup mode, but she got serious when I replied), not to compare Obama and Trump or even Obama and Bush, but because I routinely plug different variables into such remarks.  I find it a useful way of testing whether a statement is a matter of principle (in which case it should be true for all sides), or just a partisan declaration of faith (where what's good for me is definitely not good for thee).  But I was less interested in Trump and Obama than in the foolish things people say in the heat of an election season, and I have made fun of Democrats who said they'd move to Canada if Bush was elected no less than of Republicans who said they'd move to Canada if Obama were elected.  I have no figures for the relative numbers of either group, but I doubt my friend does either; if she noticed fewer Democrats doing this, it was probably because we tend not to notice the foolish things said and done by people on our side.  The conscientious person will make a special effort to notice them.

It is not true that I never miss a chance to disparage Obama; I pass up many chances.  But disparaging a Dear Leader at all is intolerable to the true believer.  I disparaged Bush when he was President at least as much.  It wasn't "accidental" either.  (When he first took office, I remarked online that I pledged to treat him with as much respect as Republicans treated Bill Clinton.  And I kept that pledge.)  My Republican and generally right-wing friends also complain that I pick on their side all the time, never noticing that I criticize leaders and spokespeople and proponents of all persuasions when they say things that are false or wrong.  I pick on leftists, on liberals, on gay people, on atheists.  And it doesn't matter which group -- none is interested in addressing criticism seriously, so they all accuse me of singling them out for meanness and snark.  It's so much easier than responding responsibly.

Not only that: I've often defended Obama (as I previously defended Clinton) against the dishonest attacks made on him by right-wingers.  I largely gave up on that after he was revealed to be lying about the Affordable Care Act, thereby undercutting and insulting all of those who'd defended the bill, but I still feel the reflex and give into it when appropriate.  I do also miss some opportunities to disparage right-wing Christian racists, because otherwise I'd have no time to do anything else, but that's just as true of disparaging Obama and the Democrats.

I also disagree publicly with people I regard with the highest respect, people I've learned from the most: Robert Heinlein, Noam Chomsky, and Walter Kaufmann, to name three obvious examples.  This is not because of murky Oedipal desires to Kill the Father (another popular diversionary claim), but because I learned from them to be skeptical and critical, and not to turn off my intellectual faculties when examining the ideas of anyone, them included.  I have a responsibility to disagree and criticize accurately, of course, but that's not acceptable among the faithful.

Is there anyone I admire?  Does anyone do a good job or try to in my opinion?  These are also diversionary questions that I and others have been asked before.  Of course there are people I admire.  Chelsea Manning, Rosa Parks, and Bree Newsome come to mind, and I could lengthen the list easily.  But in no case does my admiration exempt them from criticism.  If Rosa Parks joked about killing children with predator drones, if Chelsea Manning supported horrific dictatorships with money and weapons, if Bree Newsome put the New Deal on the auction block to try to appease Republican opponents, I'd criticize them as harshly as I do Obama.  "Or try to" is notably dishonest here: I suppose Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush "tried to" do a good job, by their lights, but I doubt my friend would cut them any slack for it.  Nor are these questions ever deployed when official enemies are being vilified: there's no need to look for good things done by Hitler, Pol Pot, or Saddam Hussein.  Or even by Donald Trump.

Those who've followed this blog long enough may recall that I made a point of looking for and mentioning things I thought Obama was doing right from the beginning of his administration.  That was of as little interest to his cultists as the fact that I'd voted for him, twice.  Such people aren't interested in facts, or logic; they want total, uncritical devotion for their chosen one.  But they aren't going to get it from me.  It's going to be a long election campaign.