Sunday, July 31, 2016

As We Might Be

May Sarton isn't one of my favorite writers by any means, but I still go back to her work from time to time, and as I transition from paper to e-books, I'm including hers.  Over the past couple of years I've reread all her journals, because they deal with aging, living alone, and the writer's life.  (This time through I also picked up the names of several writers she was reading -- especially Ruth Moore and Robert Francis -- whose work I like a lot.)

But I'm also starting to reread her fiction, and will accumulate all of it as e-books too.  That's harder to explain even to myself.  Sarton's fiction writing has always been problematic for me.   (Her poetry, I confess, I've never been able to get into.)  I've thought of her style as ladylike, too ladylike, though it's difficult to explain what I mean by that.  Style may not be the problem after all, though in the book I'm reading now there are some infelicities, which may be symptomatic.

At one point, for example, the narrator, reflecting on the most important love affair of her life, reflects: "Only the goodbyes when I had to leave to go home each autumn were excruciating.  I felt each time as though I were being asked to cut off an arm or a leg -- an amputee."  "An amputee" dangles there; what she means is presumably was that she felt as though she were being asked to become or make herself an amputee.  But more important, it's redundant: it simply repeats the information we've already been given.  All I can see that it might possibly add is the suggestion of an essence and perhaps a stigma, like someone who's been having sex with a same-sex partner but doesn't want to think of herself as a homosexual; or someone's who's had a lot of birthdays but doesn't want to think of herself as old.  If so, I don't think it works, because the stigma (if there is one) of being an amputee (or old, for that matter) comes from being seen as such by other people.  The narrator's loss by contrast is invisible to others, known only to herself.  What Sarton intended here I don't know: I am only sure that "an amputee" is stylistically flawed in this case.

The novel these sentences come from is As We Are Now, which was first published in 1973.  It was inspired by Sarton's visits to a neighbor who, as his health declined, was put in a nursing home. Sarton herself was spared this fate, thanks to many friends who became caregivers in her later years, but her partner Judy Matlack was not; Sarton's regular visits to Matlack which continued after Matlack no longer recognized her due to dementia, are often mentioned in her journals.  In her journal Sarton discussed her intentions for the book at some length, which is why I decided to reread it first, rather than go through her novels in chronological order.  The narrator of As We Are Now, Caroline Spencer, is a seventy-six-year-old former high-school mathematics teacher.  After a heart attack which left her unable to manage the stairs in her home, she moved in with her older brother and his younger second wife, but it didn't work out due to faults on both sides.  The facility to which she's consigned is relatively small, run by a mother and daughter.  (The mother's name is Harriet Hatfield, which threw me off at first, because Sarton's last novel, written fifteen years after this one, is called The Education of Harriet Hatfield, but I don't think the title character is supposed to be the same person as the caretaker in As We Are Now.)  Caro, as she's called, is the only woman housed there; the rest are men, mostly very aged and decrepit.  One, a farmer dying of cancer, is I think based on Sarton's neighbor.)  The place is not well-kept, and to keep from becoming too disoriented Caro keeps a diary, which is the novel.

As We Are Now, then, is a reflection on old age and bad health.  Caro is about fifteen years older than Sarton was when she wrote it, but Sarton had a fair amount of experience with the elderly, including some distinguished friends.  Still, anyone who has read the journals will recognize Caro as Sarton herself -- it might be that Sarton grew into Caro.  The problems Sarton wanted to write about are real, and vividly described, but the chief fault in the book is formal: there's just not enough distance between author and narrator.  With this novel, like all of Sarton's novels as I recall, what you see is what you get: the story is all surface, and points to nothing beyond itself.

So why am I reading it, and why do I intend to reread all of Sarton's novels?  Because despite her limitations, Sarton wrote about serious matters in a way I find compelling enough that I want to return to it.  She's no Jane Austen, no Kate O'Brien, no Marge Piercy, not even a Doris Lessing (who in her later work became as didactic as Sarton, though heavily encrusted with cant), but she is very definitely and intensely May Sarton, so I still find it worthwhile to experience how she saw the world.  She reminds me of something I've written about artists before: it's not necessary to be the best in a field or genre or art form, only to do well and authentically what you do.  Sarton had a distinctive voice (though it sometimes gets on my nerves) and perspective.  What I get from reading May Sarton, I don't get from any other writer, so I will keep going back to her work.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Trump Delenda Est?

Remember: the Democratic Party bosses were (and are) more concerned with stopping Bernie Sanders than with stopping Donald Trump.

Kshama Sawant, the Socialist city council member from Seattle, was on Democracy Now this morning.  She made the above point in a fine debate with Rebecca Traister of New York magazine, and I think it will be a useful riposte, not only to Democratic loyalists who cling to Clinton as "all that stands between us and Il Douche," but to self-styled "pragmaticists."  I've said before that many Democrats would rather lose to a Republican than break with their corporate cronies, and if nothing else, the past year has confirmed that abundantly.

I want to give Rebecca Traister credit; though I disagree with much of what she said, she was careful to stay on the issues instead of descending into panicky hyperbole and abuse as most Democratic loyalists and Clinton supporters do when they must confront Clinton's critics.  Kshama Sawant impressed me especially because she didn't let Traister set the terms of the debate, didn't let herself be diverted from her points.  The whole segment is worth reading (or listening to, if you prefer), just as an example of responsible debate.

Here are the remarks by Kshama Sawant that I referred to above:
But here’s the question I would like to ask: If the Democratic Party establishment, the Democratic National Committee, was—had as its first priority to defeat Trump—I have no doubt that they want to defeat Trump, but if that was their topmost priority, then why did they not do everything in their power to promote the one candidate who, through many, many polls, was indicated to have been a really prominent, a very powerful voice against Trump and having the real possibility of winning against Trump?
I think this is an eminently fair question, and I intend to put it to every Clinton supporter I talk to.  Polls have their limitations, of course, but as I've also pointed out before, the Democratic bosses know what the polls show, and must be aware how unpopular most of their policies are.  Perhaps the polls were wrong, but then so were the bosses: they were taken completely by surprise when Clinton's road to the nomination turned out not to be a cakewalk as everyone had expected to be.  Bernie Sanders not only didn't fall out of the race early on, as all the Sensible People knew he would, he defeated Clinton repeatedly, often resoundingly, in numerous states.  I think it's also reasonable to believe that if not for DNC malfeasance and corporate media irresponsibility, he could have won the nomination in the primaries.

But the key point is that polls showed consistently that Sanders could have beaten Trump more certainly and securely than Clinton could.  That might not be true now, since Sanders went over to the Dark Side, and of course it's entirely possible that what the polls showed earlier this summer would not have stayed true after the convention.  As Sawant asks, if defeating Trump was the vital thing, then why did the party bosses support a candidate who very likely couldn't do it?

This counters most, maybe all of the arguments made by Clinton's supporters.  Yes, it would be nice to have a woman president; but we have to be realists, and in this campaign we have to put such considerations aside for the greater and indeed necessary good of defeating Trump.  That's the argument made against Sanders breaking with the Democrats and (say) joining Jill Stein and the Greens, isn't it?  It's a nice pipe dream, but all that matters is defeating Trump.  (My only reservation about Sawant's performance this morning is that she was a bit evasive about the consequences of supporting Jill Stein, whose positions are good but doesn't have any realistic chance of defeating Trump in a three-way race, not even if Sanders joined her.)

Which indicates that for the party bosses, defeating Trump is not all that essential.  They will suffer less than most Americans, or most people in the world, if Trump is elected -- aside from the First World Problem of having lost the election, to be sure, which is traumatic but they'll get over it.  If Clinton is defeated, the Democrats will blame everyone but themselves.  But they must be held responsible for ignoring hard political realities and pushing a candidate who's almost as unpopular as Trump himself, in order to maintain their control over the party.  If Clinton does win, it won't be because she's the best, most qualified candidate, but because the alternative was so much worse.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Hey, Kids -- Leave That Noam Alone!

This article turned up on the Noam Chomsky page on Facebook today (multiple ironies there), featuring a charming episode of "Ain't It Awful."
"I get a ton of correspondence, mostly email," Chomsky said. "I’ll often get questions from high school students saying, ‘I have to write a paper Thursday on the French Revolution,’ or whatever it may be. I tell them, ‘Well here’s somebody you could look up. And the next question routinely comes back, ‘How can I find it on the internet.’ And sometimes these come from prep schools - places with good libraries, educated students[,] privileged students, I say, ‘Well walk across the street to the school library and look it up.'"
I love Chomsky, but he must surely know that this isn't a product of the Internet.   Long before the Internet, writers I know were complaining about students who wrote to them asking them to do their research for them.  Writing in about 1981, for example, the science-fiction writer and professor of English Joanna Russ recalled:
Years ago a very young (junior-high-school age) woman asked me to send her copies of all my work and the answers to three pages of questions about it for a paper her teacher had suggested; I wrote her, explaining that writers hadn't the time to fill such requests and referred her to her teacher, who ought to be teaching her how to do research.  Her older sister then wrote me, stating that she was going to expose me in Ms., that because of my bad behavior her sister, who had hoped to be a writer, had given up all such ambitions. *
So such demands have nothing to do with the Internet, computers, or social media.  And to be fair, Chomsky admits:
But, as laughable as it is, who in America hasn't felt that way before?

“I’m not offering this as a critique of the internet, but there’s a lot of factors involved," Chomsky explained.
So why bring it up in the context of a discussion of social media and the Internet?  Alternet certainly packaged Chomsky's remarks as a "critique of the Internet" -- disseminated on the Internet, no less.

I think this kind of behavior has more to do with adolescence, and probably with the very privilege Chomsky refers to.  Of course privileged kids expect someone else to do their work for them!  What else are other people for?  But it also has something to do with a capability that language and human consciousness give us: to construct fantasies about people we've never met, so that we believe we know them and they know us.  It's also a product of writing and literacy.  If your encounter with stories and ideas takes place in face-to-face interactions, it's true that you are being addressed (though not individually) by the storyteller or the preacher.  People often feel that a written text speaks to them personally and individually, and may write to the author expressing that belief.  (Or they want a celebrity in sports or show business to grant them a wish.)  That's as much an illusion as thinking that a distant professor will do your homework for you.

* In Russ, Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts (Firebrand Books, 1985), p. 53.

The Trouble with Quibbles

Daniel Larison has been relatively quiet lately, but today he posted about John Kasich's attack on Donald Trump's foreign policy.   He quoted a Foreign Policy article that quoted Kasich:
Kasich clearly blamed Trump for what he described as an increasing attitude of “let’s just take care of us, let’s just pull the shades down, let’s lock the doors and let’s not take care of the rest of the world, let’s just take care of ourselves.”
As Larison observed, this is an odd criticism.  But I want to quibble with some of Larison's discussion.  He wrote:
I assume most Republicans, like most Americans, aren’t interested in just “pulling the shades down” and ignoring the rest of the world, but many of them understandably and rightly object to policies that focus on “taking care” of other parts of the world at our expense and instead of looking after our own country.  
Trump — and his fans, from what I see — don’t really want to ignore the rest of the world. They’re just fine with killing Muslims and recovering our oil that they’ve hidden from us under their sand.   They fantasize that Obama has been a weak-kneed, lily-livered pacifist; those who are old enough to misremember, fantasize that “we” lost in Vietnam because our military’s hands were tied by the bureaucrats, and victory could have been had if Our Boys hadn’t been stabbed in the back by the hippies. They want more war, not less.

The rationales and justifications for wars are propaganda thrown out more or less randomly to see what people will accept.  Bush's invasion of Iraq, for example, was promoted with a variety of claims, from defending the American Homeland against imminent Iraqi aggression to liberating the Iraqi people from a vicious dictator.  Refuting these claims, while a valid project, missed the point.  Bush wanted war, and that was that; so did those who supported the invasion.  Obama's military adventures have been sold with similarly mixed rationales, combining paternalism with bloodlust.  The propaganda can always be adjusted to what will sell, and pseudo-altruistic appeals sit cozily next to the most depraved jingoism.  Coherence simply isn't a criterion.

[P.S.  It happens that I'm presently reading H. Bruce Franklin's M.I.A., or, Mythmaking in Action (2nd edn., Rutgers, 1993), which mentions another way to drum up support for war when other pretexts have failed.  As domestic opposition to the US invasion of Vietnam grew in the late Sixties, the Nixon Administration turned the focus to American POWs held by the Vietnamese, and demanded that all American prisoners be released before the US would negotiate a peace.  (This was largely unprecedented in the conduct of war, and of course ignored the much larger numbers of Vietnamese POWs being held by the American client government in Saigon.)   Franklin quotes the journalist Jonathan Schell, who wrote that "Following the President's lead, people began to speak as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped four hundred Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them" (Franklin, 60).  Which was not more fanciful than the previous official US rationale for the war, but no less so either.]

My other quibble is that Trump and his fans don’t really want to look after “our own country.” They want the government to look after whites only, and not even all of them. The rich, with whom Trump fans wishfully identify (I think this is one reason why he’s popular), are a pitiful helpless minority being picked on by the blacks, the Jews, the Meskins, the gays. It’s been pointed out before that right-wing Americans would rather do without health care, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and other social programs than let any non-white (and even many poor whites) benefit from them. They not only would, they have, and have worked hard to find ways to give benefits to whites while ensuring that non-whites don't get them.

Larison concludes:
If Kasich holds Trump responsible for public disillusionment with an activist foreign policy, he’s wrong again. Trump is taking advantage of that attitude, but he is not the cause of it. It is fifteen years of desultory foreign warfare combined with domestic neglect and dysfunction that have made so many people receptive to any messenger–no matter how flawed–who even hints at not squandering American lives and wealth in unnecessary conflicts that provide the U.S. with nothing but additional headaches and costs.
I think "desultory foreign warfare" has been going on for a lot longer than fifteen years; it's been a bipartisan American enterprise for a century and more.  (What's the point of having this superb military if we can't use it?)  As for "domestic neglect and dysfunction," chipping away at programs that benefit the majority of the US population is also an ongoing bipartisan enterprise, which is sold outside of elite circles with denunciations of the undeserving moochers of all colors.  The only people who deserve government assistance are that endangered species, the rich.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"Not Part of Anyone's Power Structure"

I just finished reading The Firebrand and the First Lady, Patricia Bell-Scott's dual biography of Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt, and am even more impressed by Murray than I was yesterday.  In addition to all her achievements, I learned in the second half of the book that Murray found a partner in her later years, Irene ("Renee") Barlow.  Barlow was the office manager at Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton and Garrison, the law firm where Murray worked for a few years in the late 1950s.
The relationship proved the most satisfying of Murray's adult life, as it gave her acceptance and the embrace of family again.  Barlow's mother, Mary Jane, who took to mending Murray's "neglected clothing," relieved the void left by the loss of Aunts Pauline and Sallie.  Though Murray and Barlow never lived in the same apartment, together they opened a bank account, owned a car, vacationed, lunched with ER, and would eventually share the same burial plot [265].
They were together for seventeen years, until Barlow's death from complications of a brain tumor in 1973.  She shared Murray's family plot not just with Murray (who outlived her by more than a decade), but with her mother and Murray's Aunts Pauline and Sallie.

I don't know if Murray thought of herself as a lesbian; I don't think Bell-Scott ever says.  I suppose it's most likely she used "homosexual," which was the most neutral term available to her generation, especially for public discussion.  It's the word Bell-Scott uses throughout the book, though it feels a lot less neutral nowadays than it did fifty years ago.  (She does use "lesbian" for Roosevelt's friend Lorena Hickok, however; page 284; which makes it odder, to my mind, that she never applies it to Murray.

Murray still apparently viewed homosexuality as a medical condition in her later years, though she also "increasingly mentioned homosexual rights in her sermons, speeches, and other writings" (346).  I very much liked her retort to a male classmate at the General Theological Seminary in the early 1970s, who
complained that all the talk about discrimination dominated too much class time, ... "If you have to live with anger, I have to live with pain.  I'll trade you both my pain, my sex, my race and my age -- and see how you deport yourself i such circumstances.  Barring that, try to imagine for 24 hours what it must be like to be a Negro in a predominantly white seminary, a woman in an institution dominated by men and for the convenience of men, some of whom radiate hostility even though they do not say a word, who are patronizing and kindly as long as I do not get out of my place, but who feel threatened by my intellect, my achievements, and my refusal to be suppressed. ... If I can't take your judgmental statements and your anger, I am in the wrong place.  If you cannot take my methods of fighting for survival, then you have chosen the wrong vocation" [344].
It might be easy to see Murray's outspokenness as her due, given her age, her achievements, and her intellect; but as you'll see if you read her earlier writings, such as her letters to the Roosevelts criticizing their foot-dragging on racial discrimination and violence, you'll see she was always this bold.  Getting to see that is a large part of what makes The Firebrand and the First Lady such a pleasure to read. 

One of Bell-Scott's historical generalizations struck me as notably off the mark, though:
Adding to [Murray's] worries about racial violence was the escalating hostility toward homosexuals that would lead to police confrontations, such as the 1969 Stonewall riots [336].
This turns the actual situation on its head.  "Hostility toward homosexuals" had been an enduring feature of the American scene all through the twentieth century, and the police had raided "homosexual" events and establishments freely throughout that period.  What had escalated after World War II, and especially in the 1960s, was gay people's unwillingness to accept that we had to accept such mistreatment, culminating in the Stonewall riots, when patrons of a raided Greenwich Village bar turned around and fought back.  Substitute "African Americans" for "homosexuals" in Bell-Scott's sentence and see how it sounds; it's a simplistic and wrong-headed summation of a complex development.

For that matter, Murray's relative openness about her lesbianism made problems for her throughout her career.  In 1966, for example, she was considered to fill a vacancy on the newly-established Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the Johnson administration "backed away" (333) because her FBI file documented her left-wing past and her declaration to hospital staff that "she was a homosexual" when she was admitted after her breakdown in the 1930s.  When she was ordained by the Episcopal Church in 1977, she "learned that John Thomas Walker, designated ... as the first African American bishop of the Diocese of Washington, was making insidious remarks about her sexuality behind her back" (346).  But she was ordained, and since she was one of the first women to become an Episcopal priest, she must have been the first lesbian Episcopal priest as well.

I love her, not least because she confounded the cliche that people become more conservative with age by becoming more radical she got older.  Murray deserves to be better known, and I hope this book will bring her more attention.

Monday, July 18, 2016

"It Is Curious How Thoughtlessly We Use Words"

While I was in Boston recently, someone recommended Patricia Bell-Scott's book The Firebrand and the First Lady,* about the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray (1910-1985).  Roosevelt, I hope, needs no introduction; Murray was an important activist and writer about African-American civil rights -- and, my informant added, a lesbian.  I'd never heard of her, but my interest was piqued.  The ebook was too expensive for me, but the physical book was on the shelves at the public library when I got back to Bloomington, so I checked it out immediately and am now about 180 pages (out of 360) into it.

It has turned out to be a fascinating read.  I'm surprised that I hadn't heard of Murray before.  Her achievements are too numerous to go into here, and her struggle against poverty and ill health (leaving aside racism and sexism) makes them all the more remarkable.  But here's a taste:
In the fall of 1945, Pauli Murray finished requirements for the master of laws and passed the California bar exam.  The publication of her thesis, "The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment," in the California Law Review marked several milestones.  It was her first publication in a law review journal; it was the first essays ever published in a law review by an African American woman; and it was the first law review essay on the subject of sex discrimination and employment [177].
Unable to enroll at Harvard (her first choice) to get a doctorate in law, because the Law School refused to accept women of any color, or to find suitable employment despite her many connections, Murray felt obliged to move back east to care for her elderly aunt.
Her belongings were packed and her train ticket booked when she met Robert W. Kenny at her swearing-in ceremony to the California bar, on December 8, 1945.  Kenny was a liberal Democrat, an advocate for fair employment legislation, and California state attorney general.  Having just read Murray's groundbreaking law review article, he offered her a temporary post as deputy attorney general on the spot.  Until she passed the civil service examination, her appointment would be subject to the return of employees on military service leave.  Murray accepted Kenny's offer in spite of the shaky terms.  In doing so, she became the first black deputy attorney general for the state of California [178].
There were many such firsts in Murray's life; eventually, for another example, in 1977 she became the first African American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest.  She seems to have lived more in one lifetime than most people could live in several.  I look forward to reading the rest of her story.

Right now, though, I'm chafing a bit at the book's scanting of Murray's lesbianism.  I don't assume that this is necessarily due to authorial homophobia; Bell-Scott is more concerned with Murray's public career, which was eventful enough. (Also with Roosevelt's: The Firebrand the First Lady is really a dual biography, following both women's lives even when they weren't interacting with each other.  And Bell-Scott buries Roosevelt's lesbian connections: ER's beloved friend, the journalist Lorena Hickok, has been mentioned in passing but her lesbianism has not, nor her relationship with Roosevelt.  A look at the index shows that Hickok's "intimate friendship" with ER is referred to briefly once, and her lesbianism acknowledged, once, a hundred pages later.

In Murray's case, she evidently grappled with her love of women from her teen years onward, and it's not always clear which of her women friends were actually girlfriends.  That may be because Bell-Scott doesn't know, but Murray was a compulsive writer and documented her anxieties and conflicts pretty fully.  Maybe more information has been published elsewhere, and more may come later in this book.  But I found this passage, about her state of mind in her late twenties, very interesting.
Since Murray's hospitalization [for an apparent mental breakdown] at the Long Island Home three years earlier, she had been consulting with doctors and scouring the scientific literature in search of an "answer to true homosexuality."  That Murray asked one psychiatrist if she had "a mother fixation" demonstrated her familiarity with psychoanalysis.  Having rebuffed psychiatric treatment and the theory that her attraction to women was a manifestation of homosexuality, Murray constructed an alternative explanation.  She convinced herself that she was a pseudohermpaphrodite with secreted testes (and she would hold this belief until X-rays of her uterus, fallopian tubes, and the surrounding area proved her wrong).  Such a condition pointed to biology -- specifically, the presence of male gonads and hormones -- rather than mental illness as the source of her attraction to women, her tomboyishness and her lack of interest in feminine pursuits, such as housekeeping [57].
I'm fascinated by this glimpse into conceptions of sex, gender, and sexual orientation in the 1930s.  How odd that, though she rejected a medical diagnosis of "homosexuality," Murray invented and embraced a no less medicalized theory of herself as a "pseudohermaphrodite."  And, of course, "biology" and "mental illness" have always been intertwined, whether for sex or for other conditions.  Professionals never quite made up their minds, in this period or later, whether homosexuality was purely mental or the expression of a physical abnormality.  ("Homosexuality" was originally conceived of as a social and quasi-legal concept when Karl-Maria Kertbeny invented it in 1868; it was only appropriated by the medical profession later on.)

The reference to Murray's "tomboyishness" understates the case too.  "Just a few years earlier, Murray had proudly asked Nancy Cunard to publish a photograph of Pete, her 'boy-self.'"  I wonder if Murray ever read Radclyffe Hall?  Murray also liked to wear "men's" clothing, and it wouldn't be off the mark to think of her as a "passing woman."  Bell-Scott also recounts a trip to North Carolina that Murray made in 1940 with her friend (nudge, nudge?) and roommate (wink, wink?) Adelene McBean (aka "Mac").  They were arrested in Virginia for refusing to stay in the back of the bus they were riding.  Only a couple of pages into the story, with the two women in custody, does Bell-Scott mention that Murray "was apparently dressed in male clothing and had told officers, according to one passenger, that her name was Oliver Fleming" (63).  Murray "gave her name and clarified her sex status as they were booked" (64).  There's no indication that Murray's cross-dressing or her adoption of a male persona added to their legal problems, though I'd have expected it to.  As I read all this, I began wondering just what Murray's "boy-self" meant to her.  Bell-Scott doesn't say, but it appears that Murray's life is very well-documented, as indicated by the detailed witness accounts of her and Mac's arrest and her custom of thinking through personal issues at the typewriter.

I'm not interested in deciding what Pauli Murray "really was."  Invert, homosexual, Urning, gay, lesbian, transman, bulldagger -- such terms, as I've written before, are "the fossils of ideologies of what men and women and sex are."  Many people nowadays would jump to identify her as transgender, for example, but I don't think our categories today are any more correct than those of a century agoI just want to know more about how Murray saw herself, especially since she clearly thought and wrote about these questions, and left a large archive behind her.  Since she lived into the 80s, she must have come into contact with later constructions of sex and gender, and thought about them.  Well, maybe another book by someone else will address these questions.  Right now, at this stage in Bell-Scott's book, I am dazzled by Murray's gutsiness, energy, doggedness, and intelligence -- brilliance, really.

* Patricia Bell-Scott, The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship -- Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice (Knopf, 2016).

Sunday, July 17, 2016

And That Soldier Was -- Albert Einstein!

Today I attended services at a local Korean Baptist church, invited by a friend.  It was a worthwhile experience, though not in the way it was intended to be, and I don't expect to go back.  The people were friendly and welcoming, but while it would be a way to find a commuity of Korean friends -- the reason my friend invited me along -- as an atheist I have no real place there.

The service was more accessible than I expected.  It was, of course, conducted in Korean, which I understand very little, but much of the material was projected on the wall in English; scripture passages and hymns likewise, but in Korean and English.  Again, this would be a great way for me to improve my Korean, if I were a Christian.  But the point is that I was able to understand what was going on much more than I'd expected, without my friend having to interpret for me, and I was intrigued by the glimpse I got into vernacular Protestantism.

Recently I read Georges Bernanos' novel The Diary of a Country Priest (1936, English translation 1937), a classic of pre-Vatican-II piety.  I'm not sure why I chose to read it just now; it has been recommended often, and I don't recall which one moved me to check it out of the library last month. If I didn't know better from the author's own declarations, I'd have suspected it was meant as satire: the title character is a drama queen, full of anxiety and sentimentality.  As one Catholic blogger wrote, the book "might seem at first to be a devil’s parody of a nice Catholic novel. The children are afflicted with lust. The peasants are envious and worldly. The servant is prideful. A noblewoman who is outwardly pious secretly plots her revenge against God. The Catholic Church in France of this time (the 1930s) is riddled with careerism, worldliness, and complacency. Yet under all the seeming appearances the work of God finds a way to fulfillment through the weak vessel of a country priest."

I could not see any "fulfillment" in the book.  Regardless of Bernanos' intentions, I think the Diary can be read as a satire of religious pretension, and the diarist as an unreliable narrator; it was that suspicion that kept me reading to the end, to see how it all came together, or not.  I concluded that an against-the-grain reading doesn't really work, however; Bernanos didn't really know more than his characters did.  Leaving aside the narrator's own theological ramblings, there are long monologues by his wise mentors, on the theme of the Church's steadfast survival against the onslaughts of modernity and mere human weakness.  I think it would be too kind to dismiss these even as platitudes.  Yet it's clear from the testimonies I've seen that many people find them reassuring.  Well, platitudes can be just that, reassuring.

Also recently I finally got around to reading the Dhammapada, a Buddhist scripture consisting of  versified sayings of the Buddha.  In form it resembles the non-canonical gospel of Thomas: the sayings stand alone without context or explanation.  Indeed there's a much later commentary, the Buddhaghosa, which purports to describe the situation in which Gautama delivered these teachings. but I haven't read that.  As I read the Dhammapada, it occurred to me that most of the sayings were platitudes, not unlike Polonius' infamous homilies in Hamlet: Do this, but sometimes do that; be moderate yet extreme; and so on.  Maybe they weren't cliches when they were originally uttered, but I wondered even about that.  I'm sympathetic to the Buddhist worldview, which in the Dhammapada is non-theistic, but I don't believe that it required a miraculous, earth-shaking Enlightenment to come up with these sayings, nor that following their teaching will bring Enlightenment.

So, back to church today.   The pastor sermonized on a few verses from the first letter of John, which also were platitudes.  Love God, love others (though as I know from the rest of these letters, one need not love "false," i.e., dissenting Christian teachers and their followers, but one may throw a hissyfit if they treat one as one means to treat them); follow God's commandments, which are not "burdensome" (though Jesus set very stringent -- probably impossible -- requirements, and commanded his followers to take up their crosses, which are burdensome almost by definition); believe steadfastly that Jesus is the son of God, and you will "overcome the world."  Again, these are platitudes.  They could only be useful to someone who's already in the organization, but then such people are the intended audience both for John's letter and for this sermon.

One funny thing: the pastor used a sermon illustration about two American Civil War soldiers who, returning home at war's end, found themselves in conflict.  One wanted to go to church and give thanks; the other wanted to go to a saloon and get drunk.  They went their respective ways, and the the drinker sank into sin and degradation.  But twenty years later he heard that his pious comrade, Grover Cleveland, had become President of the United States.

Now, never mind that Grover Cleveland didn't serve in the Union Army: he paid a substitute to take his place, as many did.  During the war he stayed in New York state and built his resume "as assistant district attorney for Erie County."  Never mind that one well-known military drunk, Ulysses S. Grant, became President of the United States; use that in a sermon!  These parables aren't meant to be true. Like the equally bogus story of young Albert Einstein giving an atheist professor his comeuppance by "proving" the existence of God, the people who tell them don't care whether they're true.  They're "true in a higher sense."

What I think is significant about this story is that the reward for faith and piety turns out to be thoroughly secular.  What could be more worldly than becoming head of state?  I often have encountered this sort of apologetic move.  One traveling evangelist for Campus Crusade for Christ liked to tell how, before he was saved, he didn't want to be a Christian because he believed all Christian girls were ugly and the guys were nerds; when he found out they were cute and cool, he converted.  But what if they weren't?  George Bernanos would have been appalled by this appeal to lust and the herd instinct, though he'd probably have been secretly gratified by its confirmation of Protestant perfidy.  The promise of secular success is biblical -- Jesus promised his followers "a hundredfold" rewards in this life for what they gave up for his sake -- though probably false far more often than it turns out to be true.  But again, no one much cares.

Maybe this sort of thing has more meaning for people who've hit bottom in their lives.  I never have; I've had my ups and downs, but (so far) never to the point that I couldn't carry on.  Eventually, of course, that is bound to change, if only when I die.  I don't know how much such teachings actually help them; Christian lore is chock-full of stories about people who fell off the wagon repeatedly and died in the gutter, leaving their families to beg for pennies and eventually die of hunger, cold, and consumption, because God needed another angel in Heaven.  But what difference does it make, really?  Does anyone have any better comfort to offer?  Saying that doesn't make religion any more attractive to me, and I'm frankly baffled by what does console so many other people.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Road to a Greater America, If You Know What's Good for You

Well, this is disappointing, very disappointing, terribly disappointing, right? But let's remember, you and I are not your typical American voters. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and if you demand a perfect candidate, you won't be able to vote for anybody. So Mr. Trump made a couple of little mistakes, not very big mistakes, big deal. Anybody can make mistakes on obscure subjects like the Constitution. So you shouldn't withdraw your support for Mr. Trump over such a little issue. The Constitution was written to benefit rich white men anyway, it's just a piece of paper and does nothing for the real Americans, so let's leave the sectarian sniping behind and get behind this candidate, this genius candidate, this epic candidate.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Paul, Paul, Why Persecutest Thou Me?

I think I've written about this before, but, well, we're in another campaign season and the same old apologetic slogans keep being deployed.

Someone linked to Rolling Stone's 2014 celebration of President Obama, I suppose because we're not getting enough propaganda and must recycle the old stuff; also because you can never adore the Leader too much.  It doesn't hurt that the author of the piece, Paul Krugman, had formerly been blind but now he sees.  This kind of ranking game is a waste of time in any field, but it probably does less harm in sports than in politics, and even in politics memories are short, so who will bother to remember Krugman's panegyric of Obama after next January 20?

Anyway, an acquaintance of mine commented on the article, recalling Obama's many crimes (which no doubt Krugman would consider among his successes): "Me, I curse the war criminal, that what passes for his soul burns forever in the fires of the missiles he causes to rain down on innocents. I curse him to silent pain and darkness until the end of time and space. So be it."  He's a neo-Wiccan, I believe, hence the style of his rhetoric.)

The person who'd linked to the article replied predictably.
Then you better curse pretty much every president we have ever had. We have been pretty constant with the wars, illegal actions, genocide, and more in this country. I think the office of presidency has always had blood on it's hands. And let's not forget the war criminals of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield, Haliburton and all.
My acquaintance replied equably, "I do. Obama is nothing unique or special in this respect."

Now, it seems to me that the Democrats have mostly forgotten "the war criminals of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Halliburton and all," just as this person has conveniently forgotten Obama's and Clinton's crimes. A well-controlled memory is so important in today's world!

What interests me here is that this defense of  Obama (and Clinton) is just as applicable to any Republican president or candidate, and indeed to any tyrant anywhere in the world.  Bush's wars were among his gravest offenses in the minds of liberal Democrats in 2008, but once they became Obama's wars they ceased to be of any concern; the same goes for just about everything Democrats had pretended to condemn in Bush's record: his economic policies, his assault on civil liberties, his hostility to "entitlements," you name it.  Obamamania has always been at war with Bushistan.

Does this apply to Trump?  Of course it does, as it did to McCain in 2008 and Romney and 2012.  The perfect is the enemy of the good, and if you demand a perfect candidate you won't be able to vote for anybody.   Probably you don't want anybody to vote, they should just stay at home on election day and hand the victory to Clinton.  Clinton is terrible, so we've just got to hold our noses and vote for Trump.  He may not be perfect but he's practically perfect, he's almost a progressive who'll fight the elites and the special interests on behalf of ordinary Americans!  (Yes, Trump's partisans do say this sort of thing.)  Besides, Trump has to say these kinds of things in order to get elected -- once he's in office he'll show his real self, and meanwhile he offers "a reasonable measure of hope."  (And change, don't forget change.)  Trump's playing eleven-dimensional chess with the libtards!  And with the rich elites that have driven our country into the ground!  And with ... you, O Trump fan.

When Donald Trump used a teleprompter recently, I tweaked my Right Wing Acquaintance Number 3, since "teleprompter" was one of her totem words to throw at Obama.  She has always declined to answer when I asked her how she felt about George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan using the things, but this time she said that it was okay, because he wasn't going to rely on the teleprompter.  As far as I know, Obama doesn't rely on the teleprompter either.  There are many times when he has to extemporize, as when he's fielding questions at press conferences.  Besides, Bush and Reagan relied on the machine at least as much as Obama does.  RWA3's response shows again that partisans care about isn't principle but persons: what matters isn't what is said or done, but who's doing it.  If my guy does it, it's a glorious example of America's greatness; if your guy does it, it's because he and his supporters hate America and the Constitution.  Which is why elections change nothing much except the names of the perpetrators.  Obamamania has always been at war with Trumposlovakia.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Learning to Drive

One summer in Vermont approximately twenty-five years later ... he told me he really wanted to learn to drive.  Would I consider giving him lessons?  Recalling our initial attempt, I had him sit on the driver's side and acquaint himself with the various controls.  He assured me that he had been studying Kenward at the wheel, and by now had a pretty good idea of how things worked.  "O.K.," I said, "let's start at the beginning.  First, put the key in the ignition.  No, it goes the other way.  Good.  Notice that the gearshift is in park, where it should be.  Now turn the key clockwise and when the engine starts, give it a little gas -- I mean push gently on the accelerator."  Joe turned the key, but the engine would not start.  How could that be?  Kenward's car always started easily.  Joe tried again.  Rrruh rrruh rrruh.  Nothing.  "Let me try," I said.  We changed places.  Vroom, the car started right up.  I shut it off.  We changed back.  Joe turned the key again.  Rrruh rrruh rrruh.  So I reached over and started the car and told him to hold down the brake pedal with his right foot and to shift into reverse.  Fruump,the engine died.  Joe, with a look of total dismay, said, "I think we had better try again later."  As in never.*
I found this story in Ron Padgett's memoir of his lifelong friend, the artist and writer Joe Brainard.  It is a beautiful, moving, and loving book, often quite funny, and well worth reading even if you don't know anything about Brainard or Padgett.

The reason I wanted to quote this passage here is that it made me think of all people who have trouble learning.  Brainard was not "stupid" (though he was simple in the best sense of the word, a direct and honest person) nor was he disabled physically.  He was a very fine draftsman and craftsman, capable of drawing beautifully and of assembling intricate objects on scales raging from the very small to the large.  Padgett's memoir gives plenty of examples of Brainard's artistic dexterity.  So why couldn't he learn to drive?  Plenty of less intelligent people who couldn't draw a straight line can do it; but confronted with a modern (mid-1980s) car with automatic transmission, Brainard became helpless.  The lesson here is that we should not be surprised when ability, even great ability, in one domain isn't matched by even minimal ability in others.  That seems obvious enough, but many people, myself included, tend to forget it.

* Ron Padgett, Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004), page 278.