Monday, October 31, 2016

Some Things Just Don't Change, I Guess

It's been annoying enough to see all the babble about the Chicago Cubs going to the World Series -- did I get that right? I really don't pay attention to these things -- though I admit, having so many of my Facebook friends distracted from posting stuff about the election campaign made online life a little easier for a while there.  And now it's over, which I know because the express bus I rode to Seoul this morning played the final game* live on its video screen, with commentary from a couple of Korean sportscasters on location.

But yesterday one of my Facebook friends, formerly a resident of the dorm where I worked for thirty years and now a journalist somewhere, posted a link to an article that included this graphic.
For context: the Fox sportscaster Joe Buck has been vocal in his admiration for the Chicago Cubs player Kyle Schwarber, "the heroic slugger who is almost certainly the first professional athlete to return to play after suffering a tragic knee injury."  Apparently he ran on until it began to annoy some sports fans, some of whom expressed their annoyance by constructing memes like the ones sampled above.  Some fans also started a wedding registry for Buck and Schwarber -- no, two of them, with proceeds from one allegedly to go to Cleveland Indians Charities.

I looked it over for a while, then commented that I was trying really hard, but I couldn't find a way to read it except as good old-fashioned fag-baiting.  No reaction, either from my friend or from any of his friends.  This morning I added a comment: "I give up -- it's fag-baiting." Still no response, but when I looked for the post tonight to grab the collage of images, it was gone.  So maybe I made an impression, though not the impression I'd intended to make.  (It took me a while to find another article with the same graphic; I was unable to find the article my friend had linked to.)

This could be an answer to the question I posed myself a few days ago: whether there were images that would offend me to the point that I'd demand their suppression and removal.  Now, I did not and do not call for the suppression or removal of my friend's post, or of the article he linked to.  What I do want is a response.  It seems to me that these images are the equivalent of images of Barack Obama as a chimpanzee or as an African witch-doctor with a bone through his nose, that no nice liberal would admit to being amused by; but as I've noticed before, nice liberals -- especially males -- despite their lip service to and even sincere belief in Equality and support for gay marriage, still harbor homophobia in their hearts that now and then will come bursting out in fag jokes, uncomfortable references to buttsex, and pictures like the ones above.  And if you have any doubt that antigay bigotry is involved, consider this tweet, just one of numerous ones that make it explicit.

One right-wing commentator complained that Buck's admiration for Schwarber, which she also called a "man crush," "is getting annoying, if not borderline creepy."  "Creepy"?  Well, I haven't listened to Buck's commentary, nor am I going to bother doing so.  What is creepy, to my mind, is the persistence of this kind of grade-school mockery -- Joe and Kyle / Sitting in a tree -- among nominal adults of any political persuasion.  Where's the liberal hand-wringing about how this sort of thing will drive young Homo-Americans to suicide?  Again, I'm not calling for suppression, even on that rationalization, just wondering what runs through people's heads when they make and share images like these.

P.S. Something else funny here, in more than one sense of the word.  Remember how distraught many straight people (and some gay people too) get about supposedly "modern interpretations" of manly friendship and admiration that cast the manly men involved as homosWriting about this before, I distinguished between
what I'll call a homophobic (or gay-baiting) interpretation -- which detects eroticism in same-sex bonding in order to mock and discredit the people involved, while furiously denying the possibility of eroticism in pairs whom the homophobe does not want discredited -- and what I'll call a homoerotic (or gay) interpretation, which sees eroticism in same-sex bonds as positive and desirable.
Homophobic / gay-baiting readings have always been acceptable in the mainstream; it's pro-gay / homoerotic readings that arouse indignation there.  What we have in these images is clearly gay-baiting, and an example of how gay-baiting is used by straights (mostly by men, but by women too) to shame and control each other. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick pointed out somewhere (I think in Epistemology of the Closet) that it's impossible to draw a sharp line between "innocent," "platonic" male friendship and Sodomitical vice, but this is a feature, not a bug: men can never be sure that they haven't crossed the line between the former and the latter, which fuels anxiety that can be redirected into mockery and hostility against other men, as we see in these images.  The fag-baiting of Buck and Schwarber is comparatively harmless, unlikely to hurt either man, but it shows that, although homophobia may be declining, the anxiety Sedgwick wrote about is still lurking in many men, ready to surface in harmless and harmful ways.

*Evidently it wasn't the final game.  You see?  I told you I don't pay attention to these things.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Me, Myself, and I: Three's a Crowd

I've been rereading Doris Grumbach's Fifty Days of Solitude (Beacon, 1994), about an extended period she spent alone (more or less) while her partner Sibyl Pike was away on a long book-buying trip.  The two had relocated to Maine years before with their bookstore from Washington DC.  It was the winter of 1993, and Grumbach was 75 years old.  (She's now in her late nineties, still alive and still writing.)  Grumbach hoped to work on a novel she was writing, and limited her interaction with the world to mail, the radio, recorded music and movies, and books, though at times she had to talk to people, as when she went into town to pick up mail.  Since I've been known to fantasize about living alone in the countryside and watching snow pile up outside, I found her situation attractive and read the book soon after it was published.

As I recall, I liked it better the first time I read it.  It's interesting to compare Fifty Days of Solitude to May Sarton's early journals, when she was living alone in Maine, though she was just as connected to other people, neighbors and correspondents, as Grumbach is.  As with Sarton, I'm most pleased by Grumbach's reflections on aging, since I'm ten years younger than she was when she conducted this experiment and wrote about it.  But many of her comments bug me.  She's prone to complain about the horrors of "the world today," for example, though those horrors have always been there, but Americans lacked electronic media to report them to us.  I sometimes believe that if there is such a thing as information overload, it lies more in the pileup of atrocities, disasters, and general human misery that the news media collect and deliver.
The radio news, in a single day while I was alone: Disastrous floods in southern California.  Two trains collide in Gary, Indiana, and six persons are decapitated.  One hundred fifty miles from Ankara, Turkey, an entire village is buried in snow.  The United States and its allies bomb Iraq, killing many civilians.  An Estonian ship breaks up near Finland, spilling two hundred thousand gallons of oil.
... and more.  But such things have always happened.  If an epidemic wiped out a village in northern India in 1770, say, the news wouldn't have traveled far or fast, and North Americans wouldn't have seen video footage on TV.  If a farmer in North Dakota in 1890 went mad from anxiety over a bad harvest and cut his family to pieces with a scythe, the crime would have been reported in local newspapers, but probably wouldn't have made it to Sargentville, Maine.  Even in Grumbach's and my lifetimes, the newspapers have been full of such stories, but people tend to forget them.  When I see summaries of the news from the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, I'm struck by how many terrible things were happening and recorded then; but I'd forgotten about them.  Evidently so did Grumbach.

The same goes for her lament about youth.
For the young: To be left alone with themselves when they are too unsure to respect the self they have been persuaded by the world to dislike, those who feel unworthy in the eyes of their families, what a terrible condition that is.  The dismayingly high number of suicides among young persons attests to the consequences of such destructive isolation, that is, to their insurmountable loneliness.
I'm skeptical about this.  The number of suicides is hard to know for sure, because so often they are ambiguous or covered up.  It's even harder to know why kids (or adults) kill themselves.  Is it because of "insurmountable loneliness"?  I don't know, and I don't think Grumbach knew either; nor do I think that the self becomes more "sure" with age -- it certainly doesn't seem to be so for Grumbach at 75.  There was a flurry of panic in the early 90s about youth suicide in the US, and it was never clear if more teenagers were killing themselves than previously, why they were killing themselves, or whether diminished media attention to the problem meant that the numbers were smaller or that the media had moved onto the next Shiny Thing.  But I grew up in rural Indiana pretty isolated, a gay bookworm, and though I often felt lonely I never contemplated suicide, nor did I feel that bad most of the time.  And right now I'm reading George Eliot's 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss, set in rural and village England a few decades before it was written.  I gather it is largely autobiographical, and its depiction of a young girl's alienation and isolation shows that the problem is not particularly new.  Eliot's depiction of the superficially better-adjusted folk around her doesn't make them enviable either: they are mostly half-educated, indifferently religious, obsessed with propriety, and fall apart when life doesn't go their way.  I would expect the same to be true of many of Doris Grumbach's Maine neighbors.

But also stuff like this:
When I lived in cities, surrounded on every side by people, served by them constantly, I never knew the names of the person who sold newspapers at the corner, delivered them to the door in the early hours of the morning, collected the garbage, waited on me in the grocery store, delivered UPS packages and the mail.  Rarely did I see their faces, or if I did, they were still, somehow, invisible, a part of the anonymous fog of the overpopulation that pushed upon me from every side.

Here, now, I knew the names and life histories of everyone who had ever come to the house, to plow after snowstorms, ... [etc.]
I can relate, but I suspect that in Grumbach's case, as it certainly is in mine, this was her hangup, not an inevitable part of city life.  I'm getting over it as I get older, and I wonder if it wasn't also true for Grumbach, aided by the move to a new environment.  Right now I'm in a very large city, Seoul, and despite my linguistic deficiency, I recognize and am recognized by the people I buy hot chocolate from each morning, the people in the restaurants where I have lunch, the person at the convenience store across the street, some people in the neighborhood, and elsewhere.  Names are good, and I'm learning them, but I don't think they're absolutely necessary; recognition is.  The same is true in the mid-sized city where I live, by the way.  As I get older my shyness is, thankfully, wearing away.

Cities have their disadvantages; so do small towns and rural areas.  But wandering around Seoul impresses me again with the achievement that big cities are.  They don't just happen, they must be organized and kept working by intense human intelligence and physical effort.  I think this achievement is often slighted.

Speaking of George Eliot, Grumbach quotes from Middlemarch: "There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it."  Grumbach comments:
Determined = formed? or, directed?  But not, I thought, forever.  There may be a time, as now, when the search for the inward being cuts it away from determination by others, frees it for the moment from direction from the outside, gives it stasis, and more than that temporary peace.
I disagree very strongly.  Even shut up alone in her house, and even if she'd stopped listening to the radio or reading her mail, Grumbach would have been connected to and sustained by other people, such as those "who come to the house, to plow after snowstorms, to put up gutters and rototill the garden, to mow down the meadow and to fix the plumbing, the electricity, the telephone, the antenna and the steps."  She knew this.  That she was limiting direct, face-to-face contact with others for fifty days didn't change it.  For that matter, Eliot wrote of "what lies outside" the creature.  That means not just people but the house, the land, the weather, the air and water and living things that inhabit the environment.  I don't believe we are ever freed from direction (which is different from control) from the outside, no matter how fondly we imagine that we've achieved it; or that we ever achieve "stasis" while we live.  Grumbach has a curiously material sense of the self, as if it were a physical organ somewhere inside her, and that's odd, given what she has to say about Christian and Buddhist spirituality as part of her practice in her solitude.

Fifty Days of Solitude isn't a bad book, though; like many books I disagree with, it gives me something to push against, and poses questions I can then answer for myself.  There's no reason why Grumbach and I should have the same answers.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Watched Pot

I'm curious about this: "[Trump]’s given up trying to expand his appeal to women, minorities and college-educated Republicans. Instead he’ll tear into Mrs. Clinton in an attempt to demoralize her voters and motivate his." Does that really work? Will Trump's attacks "demoralize her voters," or will it just get their backs up? Is this a damned pro-wrestling match? (Well ... yes, I knew that.) Is that how voting works? (Well, yes, I guess I knew that too.) How damn hard is it, one you've chosen your candidate, to go to your polling place, sign in, get your ballot and cast your vote? How much morale does that take? 

It seems to me that if anything is "demoralizing," it's the endless media coverage that treats the campaign as a horse race, and of course the hysterical babbling of the partisans, which we can now hear / see every day on Facebook and other social media. If I find anything demoralizing (but don't worry, I've already voted -- absentee), it has been the vicious, almost demented squabbling of the Democrats I know. I already knew that Republicans are vicious and demented, and to be honest, I knew from past elections how bad the Dems were. But it's even worse this year, truly.

Here's another example of what I'm talking about. The SF writer and blogger and Twitterer John Scalzi wrote today that this election cycle has hurt his productivity because he spends so much time reading election coverage, including and the polls. Many of his readers agree: it's the polls. I can't think of anything less useful than following the polls. It's like thinking that the stock market is a sign of economic health and watching the Dow Jones when you're not even an investor.

For example, this commenter:
It’s so distressing that Trump has even been considered a serious candidate that I’m constantly checking my Google Now feed to see if he’s made any new stupid or damning statements, and when he does, I check in hopes of seeing his estimated chances of winning dwindle some more.
Or the guy who wrote that he doesn't "have time to read all the comments because I’m too busy jumping back and forth to 538, HuffPost Pollster, TPM Polltracker, and RCP." All this seems to me like picking endlessly at a scab to see if it has healed yet.

One person commented as follows: "... it was because the opposition to my personal ideals was making me physically ill." I think I know what she's talking about, but knowing that there is opposition to your personal ideals is the price you pay for living in a more or less free and pluralistic society. I think a lot of Trump fans could say the same thing, though: even knowing that there are people who don't share their beliefs makes them ill. I sympathize with both sides, but in this case they are the problem, not the people who oppose their personal ideals.

Similarly, a commenter wrote "I gather that Muslim is a very uncomfortable thing to be, just now" -- as if the past 35 years hadn't happened. Yeah, Trump's campaign has probably made things worse, but Muslims (and people mistaken for Muslims) have been under attack in this country at least since the fall of the Shah in 1979.

Personally, I agreed more with another commenter:
It has been a serious distraction. On the positive side, all the research I’ve done to rebut fallacies seen on social media has made me a better informed person (as if I wasn’t already) with a much more complete set of data source bookmarks and reaction gif memes.
A number of the commenters (like the one who's physically ill) have written about the fear they feel. Some are immigrants, some are trans, some are trans immigrants, some are Muslim or ethnic/racial minorities. They have good reason to be afraid, but Scalzi and most of his commenters don't fall into any of those categories. Something else must be going on.

In the early 1990s, a study of media coverage of the First Gulf War found that the more people relied on TV news, the more misinformed they were.
While most respondents had difficulty answering questions about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, 81 percent of the sample could identify the missile used to shoot down the Iraqi Scuds as the Patriot. That media consumers know facts relating to successful U.S. weapons but not about inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy, the researchers argued, “suggests that the public are not generally ignorant—rather, they are selectively misinformed.”
"Selectively misinformed" is ambiguous.  Since people are not merely passive receptacles of information, even from the media, I think it's fair to suspect that people selectively misinform themselves, choosing what they want to know.  Where a war is happening, the events that led up to it, even that the people on the receiving end of our bombs and missiles are people with interests of their own rather than mere obstinate obstacles to American interests, just don't interest most people.  "Facts relating to [more or less] successful American weapons" do.

You can see this not just in supposedly uneducated, emotional Trump supporters but in supposedly educated, rational Clinton supporters.  Mention Libya to a Clinton loyalist, for example, and they will immediately assume you are talking about Benghazi, not about the validity of the NATO bombing itself.  The Podesta emails are both obvious forgeries and trivial reminders that a Clinton presidency will be business as usual -- nothing to see here, folks, move along.  What is important is that, contrary to the sinister Putin-funded corporate media conspiracy to try to convince you that she's unlikable, Clinton is really cool, adorable, and progressive.  Voters are idiots who know nothing about the issue and care less, while elite Democrats care about important issues like hot and dreamy Barack is, and how "he and Michelle really adorn the White House. As a couple they are just...well...magnificent"; the gnarly old Rethuglicans are just jealous.

Recently Bodhipaksa at Fake Buddha Quotes noted that "some Buddhists are preferentially drawn to Fake Buddha Quotes. When they do blog posts based on the Buddha’s sayings, or when they quote the Buddha in an article, they’re far more likely to post fake quotes than those found in the scriptures."  I've noticed this too, and not just among Buddhists -- you'll have seen this coming of course -- but in discussions of US politics; and not just among the drooling masses but among the wise elites whose job it is to be informed.

I'm with the commenter who jeered "You guys are going to make Trump TV really popular…"  Yup, and he was addressing people who oppose Trump.  Even after the election, even after Trump has been defeated, people will still obsess.  Pick that scab.  And after it's healed despite your best efforts, keep scratching at it until you've opened it up again.

Unraveling Offense

I think it was in Mary Midgley's book Wisdom, Information and Wonder (Routledge, 1989) that I first encountered the idea that real-world thinking -- rationally, critically -- is not like building on a firm foundation, but more like unraveling a huge tangle of yarn: you pick away here and there, making some progress here and then moving to another area until you can't go any further there.  After you've done that awhile, you may find that something comes loose and you suddenly have a large section that comes free.  After that, however, it's back to picking away at it.

I had an interesting little exchange online that worked this way.  Someone linked favorably to a Facebook post, illustrated with a photo, by a nursing mother who defended the right of women to breastfeed uncovered in public if they're comfortable doing so.  (She also defended the right of women not to do so, to use a cover if they're more comfortable doing it that way.)  One woman commented on the repost:
I'm from a different generation. I cannot condone nursing in public. That's what breast pumps are for. Have a little consideration for those around you who may be offended. Think about what you wouldn't want to see exposed in public. How would you like it if men were allowed to just hang all out in restaurants? Before you say It's not the same thing -- it really is. Common decency dictates that we are respectful of others. This is disrespectful of people like me. I would walk out of a restaurant that allowed this.
I replied:
It's not the same thing. It's fascinating that you believe it is, though. How far do you demand that we take "consideration for those around you who may be offended"? People get offended by just about anything. The book you're reading. The way you wear your hair. The cross you're wearing, or the headscarf. And so on. People need to learn that being offended doesn't give them the right to throw a tantrum and attack the person who offended them; and this applies to everybody, not just Christian rightists.
Maybe I should say instead that people do have the right to throw a tantrum when they're offended -- but others have the right to regard it the way they regard any tantrum, with tolerance but distaste.  This woman has the right to walk out of a restaurant that allowed a mother to breastfeed, of course, but it doesn't put her on the moral high ground.  Someone who stormed out of a restaurant that served a same-sex or interracial couple or a woman in a hijab would have the same right, but fewer and fewer people anymore would agree that the person's sense of outrage was justified.  Go, most people would think or say, and don't let the door hit you on the way out.

I also wondered about her conviction that it would be dreadful if men "were allowed to hang all out in restaurants."  For one thing, her wording, which seems at once euphemistic and raunchy.  More important, the penis and testicles are not analogous to women's breasts.  Men are allowed to go bare-chested in many environments, while women are not.  And I am baffled by the widespread belief that the sight of a penis, even a flaccid one, is horrible and traumatic, at least for women.  No doubt many men like the idea that exposing themselves gives them power over women.  It's interesting that a woman would claim that the sight of a woman's breast, or part of it, should be equally traumatic; I can imagine that if she lived in certain Islamist societies, she'd say the same of a woman's naked face.  Even granting that, however, women who breastfeed aren't trying to provoke a reaction, not trying to shock: they are feeding their infants.

At around the same time (this was several months ago -- I'm rummaging around in my drafts folder again), a relevant excerpt from an essay by the political philosopher Michael Walzer was posted at Alas, a Blog.  I have my differences with Walzer, but I thought he had an important insight here.
In multicultural politics it is an advantage to be injured. Every injury, every act of discrimination or disrespect, every heedless, invidious, or malicious word is a kind of political entitlement, if not to reparation then at least to recognition. So one has to cultivate, as it were, a thin skin; it is important to be sensitive, irritable, touchy. But perhaps there is some deeper utility here. Thin skins are useful precisely because the cultural identities over which they are stretched don’t have any very definite or substantive character. People are right to be worried about cultural loss. And because identity is so precarious in modern or postmodern America, because we are so often so uncertain about who we are, we may well fail to register expressions of hostility, prejudice, or disfavor. Thin skin is the best protection: it provides the earliest possible signal of insults delivered and threats on the way. Like other early warning systems, of course, it also transmits false signals–and then a lot of time has to be spent in explanation and reassurance. But this too is part of the process of negotiating a difficult coexistence in a world where difference is nervously possessed and therefore often aggressively displayed.

Despite all the misunderstandings generated by the mix of nervous groups and thin-skinned individuals, there is something right about all this. Social peace should not be purchased at the price of fear, deference, passivity, and self-dislike–the feelings that standardly accompanied minority status in the past. The old left wanted to substitute anger at economic injustice for all these, but it is at least understandable that the actual substitute is the resentment of social insult. We want to be able and we ought to be able to live openly in the world, as we are, with dignity and confidence, without being demeaned or degraded in our everyday encounters. It may even be that dignity and confidence are the preconditions for the fight against injustice.

So it is worth taking offense–I am not sure it is always worth feeling hurt–when demeaning and malicious things are said or done. But a permanent state of suspicion that demanding and malicious things are about to be said or done is self-defeating. And it is probably also self-defeating to imagine that the long-term goal of recognition and respect is best reached directly, by aiming at and insisting on respect itself. (Indeed, the insistence is comic; Rodney Dangerfield has made a career out of it.)….People do not win respect by insisting they are not respected enough. ("Multiculturalism and the Politics of Interest," in David Biale et al., eds., Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998], 89-90).
Walzer was talking here primarily about black/Jewish relations, but I think his point extends to other groups as well, and he knew it.  I recognized the struggle the gay movement had in the 70s and even afterward to get gay people to be offended by public displays of bigotry, partly because they often agreed that as a despicable minority, we should be grateful only to be insulted rather than killed or expelled.  We had to learn to be offended.  (Feminists faced the same resistance from most women: why was she out walking by herself at night, in that neighborhood?  Shouldn't good jobs be reserved for men, who have families to support?  And so on.)  It took me, at least, a long time to realize that it wasn't enough to be offended, you have to learn to judge what offenses really matter, and what to do about them -- and that is not an objective question.

In general we don't consider our opponents' feelings of offense and "cultural loss" to be valid, because they aren't ours, and because they block our getting the change that we want.  But if being offended is a bad thing from which we ought to be protected at all costs, and many people evidently believe it is, then all offensive displays must be forbidden -- and I think I'm right that this is impossible, partly because almost any behavior you can name will offend someone, and partly because offenses clash, and sometimes we do need to suck it up and learn to live in a world where we aren't always comfortable.  Being offended is often a sign that we need to begin educating ourselves further.

At Indiana University there have been a few cases over the past few decades where students' and others' complaints of offense were overridden.  One involved a New-Deal-era mural by Thomas Hart Benton, from a series in a lecture hall, that depicted (among other subjects) Ku Klux Klanners burning a cross.  African-American students complained that they shouldn't have to see such an image in a classroom: "Students report feeling uncomfortable by the depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. Some find it difficult to attend lectures and others report difficulty focusing on exams."  Myself, I was surprised that the objection didn't come from right-wing white students complaining that the mural stereotyped whites as racists; that we heard nothing from that faction was, I thought, significant, but not reason enough to remove the mural.  And couldn't the hootchie-cootchie dancer to the right of the Klansmen be seen as 1) a problematic image of women and/or 2) distracting to students taking exams?  In the end the murals remained in place.

At around the same time, there were complaints about decorated tiles in the entry to what was then the Physical Education building, which was built in 1917.

Some of the tiles bore swastikas, which in 1917 was a Hindu and Buddhist symbol.  The Nazis didn't adopt the swastika until years later.  Some students, unaware of the historical and religious background, called for the tiles' removal.  This call was also unsuccessful. This case raises interesting questions: when a symbol or image is ambiguous for historical or other reasons, should it be suppressed because someone fastens onto one of its possible meanings and ignores the others?  Also, Jewish students among others have good historical reason to be disturbed by the sight of Christian crosses; should they be kept out of public view?  Should people on a state-supported university campus be forbidden to wear them?

I've been trying to think of analogous images that might offend me as a gay man, to the point that I'd demand their removal and suppression.  I imagine there are some, but I can't think of any offhand, and I'd have to have a concrete example before I could evaluate it.  I might very well point out that a certain image was offensive, even disturbing, but probably only to try to get people to think and talk about it -- which, of course, most people don't want to do.

I think the distinction Walzer draws between "being offended" and "being hurt" is a useful one, and his account of the pitfalls of deliberately cultivating a thin skin largely agrees with my opinions.  I think, however, that many people reject the distinction: you've offended me, therefore you've hurt me, and I demand recognition, reparation, and protection against any further offense.  But sometimes people who are trying to get a discussion going will be accused of wanting suppression first, by people (usually from majority or other privileged groups) who want to suppress the discussion because it offends them.

I don't see any clear solution to this problem.  Each case has to be examined on its own merits or lack of them.  I think, though, that it would be a beginning to recognize the limits of offense.  "I'm offended by that" is where you start; the first response should be, "And ...?"  What to do about your offense, or my offense, isn't immediately obvious.  In many cases it's likely to be nothing.  In others it'll be a firm suggestion to educate yourself further and then consider submitting your complaint again.  In others you and your feelings of offense might be the problem, as in this item, purportedly a letter from an African-American law professor to white students who objected to his wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on campus.  I'm a bit suspicious of its authenticity, but this is one case where the content is what counts: it answers real complaints and accusations made against BLM, and answers them well.  Its arguments would be as valid in response to the students who complained about the Benton murals and the swastika tiles.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

This Time for Sure: A Kinder, Gentler Bigotry

When bullies lose their edge, they often try to save the situation by presenting themselves as reasonable.  I once read about a gang of queerbashers, driven from their victim by a community self-defense group, who found that they couldn't get back to their car, and began negotiating by saying, "Hey man, we don't want no trouble."  Of course they wanted trouble, but only as long as they outnumbered their victim and could do to him whatever they wanted.

In the US, antigay bigotry has lost much of its social legitimacy, and the hard core of bigots, though still quite numerous, no longer can appeal to a general social consensus that homosexuality is abominable and homosexuals should be outcasts.  Some of them are therefore trying a different tack, trying for a superficially reasonable approach.  I happened on such a person in a year-old article at The Atlantic Monthly's website, after reading a eulogy for the late William F. Buckley as an exemplar of the supposedly moderate and sensible right-wing Republican racist/bigot.  I have no use for Buckley, who is seriously overrated as an intellectual, but he's not my topic today.  A sidebar recommended this equally fatuous piece on conservative evangelicals and homosexuality by the same writer, Emma Green.
In a new book, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers a third way: stand up and debate, even on issues that seem to be moving toward an ever-firmer cultural consensus. In some ways, Mohler neatly fits the stereotype of an evangelical leader who has taken up a stand against queerness. He’s white, he’s male, he’s Southern; he makes no apologies for his view that homosexuality is intertwined with sin. But he could also probably ace a Women and Gender Studies seminar. (He even once wrote an essay for The Atlantic on the Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.) In his book, We Cannot Be Silent, he cites sociologists like Jürgen Habermas and discusses television shows like Modern Family. He explores the difference between gender and sex and transgender and intersex.

It’s a somewhat novel approach to being an evangelical in public life: engaging debates about sexuality on their own terms. As Mohler himself admits, this hasn’t always been the case. “While Christians were secure in a cultural consensus that was negative toward same-sex acts and same-sex relationships, we didn’t have to worry too much about understanding our neighbors,” he said. “We did horribly oversimplify the issue.” Now that norms around LGBT issues are changing, evangelicals can no longer afford that kind of glibness, but it’s tricky to balance civility with steadfastness. Mohler said he’s not “trying to launch Culture War II,” but he also doesn’t want evangelicals to back down on their beliefs. “Christians have not had to demonstrate patience, culturally speaking, in a very long time. The kind of work and witness we’re called to—it could take a very long time to show effects.”
"Fatuous" might be too mild a word.  Green is impressed, or wants her readers to be impressed, because Mohler cites Habermas and TV shows.  But Habermas is trendy among cultural conservatives, and allusions to popular culture are old hat among evangelicals hoping to show they're not hopeless old fogies.  (I see that one of Mohler's earlier books is called He Is Not Silent, which sounds like an allusion to the Presbyterian apologist and controversialist Francis Schaeffer, who had a lot of influence on the Reagan administration.  Schaeffer also referred to popular culture and philososophical heavyweights, usually inaccurately.)  That The Atlantic published an article by him means little, since they have given space before to bigoted cultural reactionaries.  The Atlantic regular Conor Friedersdorf has been hunting for non-bigoted antigay spokespeople for some time now, without success.  Could Mohler "ace a Women and Gender Studies Seminar"?  Going by her own superficial account of sex and gender a few paragraphs later, I don't think Green is qualified to say.  I'm in South Korea right now, but I'll try to get Mohler's book from the library when I return in November.  For now, I'll examine the quotations Green provides from him.

Notice that Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  The Southern Baptist Convention, you may recall, split off from other American Baptists largely over the issue of slavery, which the Southern Baptists supported (as well they should have -- it's a biblical value, like polygamy).  Nor did they especially distinguish themselves on civil rights issues a century later.  I mention this not to harp on the past, but as a reminder that far from being moral leaders, conservative Christians have often been flat wrong, and have actively supported evil.  (Returning to Buckley for a moment, remember his famous definition of a "conservative" as "someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.")  The Southern Baptists have apologized for their previous support for slavery; I'd like to ask Mohler why I shouldn't anticipate another belated apology, to gay and trans people a century or so down the line.  The SBC has shown itself to be anything but a prophetic voice in the wilderness on moral issues.

Green stresses that Mohler is "white, he's male, he's Southern," without ever noticing in her article that it's possible and indeed not uncommon to be white, male, Southern, and gay.  The whole article puts "evangelical Christianity," which Green tends to confuse with Christianity as a whole, in opposition to "queerness," accepting the antigay Christian spin that only secularists are pushing for a change in Christian views of homosexuality (or of sexuality generally).  You'd never guess from Green's account that Christian churches have been debating these issues internally for decades, or that LGBT religious groups have been major parts of the movement since the 1960s.  This also is important, because Mohler and his ilk are not just tilting at secular society, but at a large number of their fellow Christians.  As with slavery and other embarrassments, why should I believe that Mohler is right this time?

The same goes for another of Mohler's complaints:
He laments that American teens are surrounded by a “peer culture more committed to tolerance than any other moral principle,” which highlights another fundamental tension: He believes self-derived morality is not sufficient, and that Christians have a moral obligation to guide the acts of others.
Maybe Americans are too tolerant.  Maybe religious groups that try to control ("guide"!) the lives of others should simply be squashed, as they were in old Europe.  The trouble is that they were squashed by other religious groups who wanted to control the lives of others.  That's why religious freedom and tolerance are founding, core principles of our government and our society.  They're not the only principles we have, but they're important ones.  Mohler should remember that before religious toleration was established, many Christians were as outraged by the idea that people with the wrong beliefs -- Baptists, for example -- should be allowed to run around loose, worshiping as they saw fit, and even proselytizing for their sects, as they later were about black men marrying their white daughters, or homosexuals recruiting their sons.

With that in mind, one realizes that what Mohler and his ilk present as a new problem for Christianity actually goes back to the founding of the United States, and the conflicts that led to the passage of the Bill of Rights.  Ironically but predictably, Green later paraphrases Mohler's concern that "Courts are facing new questions of how to balance LGBT rights with religious freedom," which are not new at all.  I see that a few months before this piece, Green published another piece, "Gay Rights May Come at the Cost of Religious Freedom."  I haven't read it yet, but the title says so much.  Not only the struggle for racial justice in this country but the struggle for religious freedom had its cost in the freedom of bigots to persecute other Christians on religious grounds.  But wait, there's good news:
In Utah, for example, lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting LGBT housing and employment discrimination while allowing certain exemptions for religious groups, the result of a collaboration between LGBT and faith organizations. As more cities and states consider this kind of statute, Utah could serve as a template.
Whatever those "certain exemptions" were in Utah, they are also nothing new in civil rights law generally.  I don't know whether it's Green or Mohler who's outrageously ignorant in this matter -- both, most likely, because statements like this are so common in the discourse -- but it shows just how low the level of debate is among evangelicals and their sympathizers.  "Conservative Christians, so long represented among advisors to presidents, and powerful public voices and those who readily embraced discrimination, might seem unlikely recipients of either compassion or intellectual generosity," Green opines.  Compassion should be extended to all, but you'd better do your homework if you want to be taken seriously on an intellectual level.  Green clearly hasn't, and it doesn't sound like Mohler has either.

But back to Mohler and his concern about "self-derived morality," which he evidently ascribes to youth "peer culture."  That seems to be a contradiction, and as far as I can tell, the "tolerance" Mohler objects to (for others, not for himself) is neither self-derived -- it's exercised in a framework that comes from outside the individual, from peers, from adults (including parents), from teachers and diversity managers in the universities --  or indiscriminately tolerant.  It's especially risible for Mohler and Green to natter on about excessive tolerance when the dominant view of young people nowadays is that they are brutally intolerant of dissent beyond the narrow ambit of their fanatical Political Correctness.  There is evidently more tolerance of various sexual and other life choices than there was a few decades ago, not just of homosexuality and gender-variance, not just heterosexual cohabitation and "hookups," but of divorce, single parenting, and interracial coupling -- again, sore spots for Southern Baptists.

When the article gets down to Mohler's views on sexuality and gender, he seems to have little to offer that is new or deserving of respect.  "'We must admit that Christians have sinned against transgender people and those struggling with such questions by simplistic explanations that do not take into account the deep spiritual and personal anguish of those who are in the struggle,' Mohler writes."  This is a familiar setup to anyone who remembers the Southern Baptists' mealy-mouthed and long overdue apologies for its heritage of racism.  If Mohler really means it, he needs to take an aggressive stance against the virulent falsehoods that evangelicals have spread about LGBT people; but it appears that he's more interested in spreading them farther.

A case in point: Green mentions "Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen from Ohio who committed suicide this year, citing frustrations with the religious expectations of her parents."  She does not mention gay and trans kids and adults who've been murdered, beaten, thrown out of their homes.  As often as not their assailants got away with it.  I've often asked antigay bigots how they propose to counter bullying and gay-bashing.  They never have anything serious to offer.  The usual evangelical response to anti-bullying initiatives has been to oppose them, claiming that they would encourage homosexuality in some obscure fashion.  Unless Mohler not only distances himself from this stance but denounces it and makes some positive proposals of his own, he's part of the problem.

In what Green calls one of his "moments of tonal derision," Mohler "recommends using the term 'homosexual,' rather than 'gay,' because it 'has the advantage of speaking with sharp particularity to the actual issue at stake.'"  I can't be sure, but I strongly suspect that the "actual issue at stake" is buttsex; I imagine that Mohler likes "homosexual" because it contains the word "sex," and if so, he misunderstands it.  (No A in Gender Studies for Mohler, then, but then many gay people make the very same mistake about the word.)  I'm not greatly concerned about what word Mohler prefers, and I'm not one of those gay people who want to pretend that we don't have sex, we only Love.  But it's good to know where he's coming from.
In his book, Mohler suggests that people who continuously struggle with same-sex attraction should maintain lifelong celibacy, becoming a “eunuch for the kingdom.” That’s a huge personal decision, one that would radically define a person’s life. Even with all his answers, Mohler did not have straightforward advice for how churches should deal with a transgender person who wants to be saved in an evangelical church but has already undergone gender-reassignment surgery. (“Would surgery now be pastorally required or advisable in order to obey Christ? … Pastors and congregations should consider age, context, and even physical and physiological factors when determining a course of action,” he writes.)
Again, there's nothing new here.  Sexual abstinence for queers has been advocated for a century or more -- including some of the invert/Uranian writers -- and it's the official position of the Roman Catholic Church today.  I'll have to read Mohler's book to be certain, but at this remove his use of Matthew 19:12 is derisory, to put it far more kindly than he deserves.  What I mean is this: it's absurd -- no, make that "obscene" -- to tell homosexuals that we must choose celibacy if you're not going to make the same demand of heterosexuals, who have the option of a licit sexual outlet, in marriage.  It's also unbiblical, since in context, Matthew 19:12 is directed to heterosexuals.  Jesus' disciples conclude from Jesus' prohibition of divorce and remarriage, "If such is the case with a man with his wife, it is better not to marry" (19:10, NRSV).  To which Jesus responds by extolling those who become eunuchs for the kingdom.  Heterosexual marriage is not the New Testament ideal.  But it seems from Green's account that Mohler ignores this.

"Continuously struggle with same-sex attraction" is a giveaway; it's the language used by Christian hucksters to color themselves sympathetic to the people they're trying to scam.  What about people who don't struggle with same-sex attraction, but rather embrace and celebrate it as heterosexuals do theirs?  Don't forget, that includes Christians as well as unbelievers.  From Green's account it would seem that Mohler has nothing to say to any of us.  (His waffling on post-op transsexuals is no more helpful.)  If that's the case, he has a long way to go before he can expect to be taken seriously as a discussant on the role of conservative Christians in contemporary society.

But, Green says,
[Mohler] also recognizes—mildly, mildly—that there is wisdom to be drawn from questioning traditional norms of sexuality. Even though he firmly agrees that men and women should embrace the gender identity that matches their sex, "We do understand that a part of that is socially constructed," he said. "And not only that, in a fallen world, there can be exaggerations and corruptions of what it means to be a man and a woman. There are some very brutalistic corruptions of masculinity, and there are some very trivial and hyper-sexualized understandings of the female that the Bible would clearly reject."
"Mildly, mildly"?  Jesus might have had something to say about that.  However, "Mohler ... believes 'we find wholeness and resolution only in being the man or the woman that God meant us to be, or made us to be.'"

How nice; but how do we know what kind of man or woman God made us to be?  It sounds as if Mohler is ignorant about the Bible, which is a lot more complex about sexuality and gender than today's American Protestants believe.  He could begin by reading Jennifer Wright Knust's Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, published by Harper Collins in 2011.  (He also doesn't know what 'socially constructed" means, though that doesn't distinguish him from most of his opponents.  So much for that A in Gender Studies.)  "Become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven" is the least of it; even if Jesus only meant it figuratively, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 shows that literal eunuchs could be accepted into the church.  (Think again of Mohler's equivocation about post-op transsexuals.  One might wonder why, in a story so full of miracles, Phillip didn't simply restore the eunuch's testicles.  Jesus said explicitly that his followers would have the power to move mountains.  He himself restored a withered hand and restored the dead to life; reparative healing of a eunuch should be doable.)  Look at Jesus' hostility to biological families, including his own, or his extolling of a young woman who left her household chores to listen to his teaching.  Look at the wildly varying views of marriage the Bible embraces, from brother-sister and first-cousin marriage, polygamy and concubinage, to abstinence and becoming a eunuch for the Kingdom.  Look at the depiction of Yahweh as a violently jealous and abusive husband with performance anxiety.  The Christian scholar James Barr wrote that the trouble with modern fundamentalist teaching about sex is not "pathological prurience" but that it is "childishly naïve in a pre-1914 schoolboy-idealistic manner" (Fundamentalism [Westminster Press, 1977], 331).  It looks to me like Albert Mohler is no exception.

Another example of Mohler's and Green's historical ignorance (or missionary dishonesty) is the claim that Mohler's doing something new.  His approach is really as traditional and familiar as Good Cop / Bad Cop.  Antigay bigots, secular as well as theocratic, have long claimed to be moved not by hatred of Sodomites, but by love and compassion for us.  The same goes for racism: back when Bob Jones University forbade interracial dating and declined to admit African-American students, Bob Jones III (quoted in this post) strenuously denied that he was racist, and claimed that "We love the Negro people. Some of the finest Christians I've ever known were Negroes. In fact, they put me to shame. And I have looked at several Negro Christians and wished to God I could be as Christlike as they are. And among Christian Negroes there is no strife between them and us -- we are brothers in the Lord."  But: " Until we have our redeemed, supernatural bodies in Heaven we're not going to be equal here, and there's no sense in trying to be. Here's what I say. The Negro -- and I'm not, it's not my own feeling -- but a Negro is best when he serves at the table, when he does that, he's doing what he knows how to do best."  The Bad Cop is always there, tazer at the ready, to put you back in your place.

I'm fully in favor of the debate Mohler calls for.  I think I'd enjoy taking him on myself.  But Green's article, and the sampling she gives of Mohler's ideas, remind me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about the notion of a "conversation on race."
One of the problems with the idea that America needs a "Conversation On Race" is that it presumes that "America" has something intelligent to say about race. All you need do is look at how American history is taught in this country to realize that that is basically impossible.
The same, I submit, is true of the conversation Emma Green would like us to have on sexuality and gender: she presumes that America, and conservative Christians like Albert Mohler in particular, has something intelligent to say about those topics. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's impossible, but the wrong people are puffing themselves up and claiming they're qualified to tell the rest of America what is going on, how to think, what to believe, and how to live.  On top of that, they want everyone else to feel sorry for them, because they're in a dwindling minority and don't have the cultural clout they used to have.  They've also embraced the Culture of Therapy, with the idea that dissidents shouldn't be made to feel like outcasts -- though they've never adopted that attitude for others, including dissidents in their own ranks.  Yes, being at odds with the society you live in can be uncomfortable; I know that very well, from personal experience.  But aside from the fact that it's also part of the Christian heritage -- something else Mohler and Green want to forget -- being uncomfortable is not the worst thing that can happen to you.  Nowhere is it written that you (or I) must be comfortable. You cannot, in a free and pluralistic society, demand that your views be accepted uncritically, and others with different views be silenced, just so you won't feel bad.  You don't have to feel bad for being different in the first place, and Christians have always defined their difference as a sign that they had the Truth in the second.  Mohler's goal is the normalization (or rather, re-normalization) of bigotry.  Debate, by all means, but if Mohler wants evangelicals to be taken seriously in the discussion, he clearly has a lot of work to do first.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mnyeh, Typical

Jews Sans Frontieres has several good new posts up, dealing with accusations of anti-Semitism against Jeremy Corbyn and his section of the Labour Party.  It happened that I read these a day after a Facebook friend linked to an article warning of newly increased anti-Semitism. These are important and contain valid information and arguments.  But I noticed something that bothered me here.
If you look at the way the Zionist movement is throwing its weight around in the UK ever since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, it's not an edifying spectacle. I mean it must be causing antisemitism given the unjust and unfounded nature of the allegations. 
And here:
Sadly it also has the effect of making ill-informed people subscribe to the old antisemitism because of course Dave [Rich, author of a book accusing the left of anti-Semitism] and others like him, including now a Home Office Select Committee have decided that Jews and Zionists are the same thing.  All very sad and very irresponsible.
I agree that many, probably most people react to the bad behavior of a few people by ascribing it to all members of the group they associate with the bad actors.  So, for example, I captured this specimen a year ago after the Paris attacks, in comments at another blog:
And yet yesterday evening I found myself thinking “what the f*** is wrong with those people”, and I’d be lying if said I meant just the murdering a*******. I should know better. I DO know better. And yet… I don’t know any muslims. It’s so easy to slip into that lazy, wrongheaded thinking, even when you know better. 
Since it's so easy to slip into that lazy, wrongheaded thinking, I think it's important that everybody be vigilant against it, in themselves and others, and challenge it whenever you encounter it.  It's not something that occurs only far away; it happens all around us.

I disagree with JSF and the commenter, though, that this tendency has anything to do with being ill-informed, or knowing any members of the group being demonized.  For one thing, even scholars fall into it: though they are generally very well-informed, they can't or won't apply the knowledge they have.  And contrariwise, anytime someone hears about some bad behavior and asks themselves "What's wrong with those people?", meaning not the specific perpetrators but their country, their religion, their political party, they need to stop and catch themselves.  You don't need to be informed, beyond the knowledge that no group is completely homogeneous.  You don't need to know any Muslims.  The burden of proof, and it's a heavy one, lies on anyone who claims that They are all alike, They are all responsible.  The variety within groups is always enormous.  (Think of the old Jewish proverb Two Jews, three opinions.)

In particular, if someone is angry about what members of the IDF, or settlers in the Occupied Terroritories, or members of ISIS or al-Qaeda have done, and then decides to beat up (or worse) the Jew or Arab or random brown-skinned person in their neighborhood in revenge, the legal penalty should be heavy, but more important, they should be shunned and generally given a hard time by everyone in their neighborhood.  If such a person tries to justify their violence by pointing to crimes committed against the ocean, the penalty should be even stiffer.  If only because such thinking and behavior lessens the safety of everybody in the vicinity, it needs to be nipped in the bud, killed before it spreads.

P.S. I forgot to mention that in a review of Dave Rich's book that JSF quotes approvingly, the reviewer says:
Clearly, insofar as some remarks are antisemitic they need to be confronted. Conspiracy theories, e.g. that Israel founded Isis or that Jews escaped 9/11, should be dismissed out of hand. 
People keep using this word, I do not think it means what they think it means.  Those aren't "conspiracy theories," they're simple falsehoods.  They may be used in conspiracy theories, but that's not quite the same thing.  But the important thing is that Dave Rich and the constituency he's writing for are conspiracy theorists, accusing the British left of deliberately fomenting anti-Semitism in order to bring down Israel.  As I've pointed out before, conspiracy theories are a thoroughly acceptable feature of mainstream political discourse, as long as they name the "right" conspirators.

But do read JSF's new posts.  Though they are about Britain, the same tactics are being used in the US.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Sleep of Monsters Engenders Reason

The latter half of Ursula Le Guin's Words Are My Matter consists of book reviews, which are well-written and sympathetic, pointing me to several books and writers I want to check out.  (Just what I need, as I sink slowly but inexorably in an ocean of unread books.)  One, on Salman Rushdie's 2014 novel The Enchantress of Florence, harks back to some of the cliches Le Guin recycled in her discussion of literature more generally.

Apparently The Enchantress of Florence is a quasi-historical fantasy centering on the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor Akbar I, whom Rushdie uses as a ventriloquist's dummy for his own views.  As Le Guin describes it:
Akbar is the moral center of the book, its center of gravity, and provides its strongest link to the issues which have concerned Salman Rushdie in his works and his life.  It all comes down to the question of responsibility.  Akbar's objection to God is "that his existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves."  The curious notion that without religion we have no morals has seldom been dismissed with such quiet good humor.  Rushdie leaves ranting to the fanatics who fear him.
This is another example of an attitude that has long baffled me as an atheist.  Since God does not exist and is a human invention, he could hardly have "deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves."  (If God did exist, perhaps it would be a different situation, but I'm not sure Akbar-Rushdie would be right even so.)  In fact, human beings did "form ethical structures by themselves," and since they couldn't really prove that they had any authority, they invented God and ascribed those structures to him.  But it isn't necessary to invoke God for this evasion of responsibility.  People can also claim that Logic or Reason or Science tells us what is right, and the humble servants of those principles will gladly act as their spokespersons and enforcers, asking (as Woody Allen once said of the religious) only a small contribution to cover their time and paperwork.

Le Guin (who, for someone who claims to dislike preaching and didacticism in literature, sure seems to tolerate a lot of it in Rushdie) continues:
Some boast that science has ousted the incomprehensible, others cry that science has driven magic out of the world and plead for "reenchantment."  But it's clear that Charles Darwin lived in as wondrous a world, as full of discoveries, amazements, and profound mysteries, as that of any fantasist.  The people who disenchant the world are not the scientists, but those who see it as meaningless in itself, a machine operated by a deity.  Science and literary fantasy are intellectually incompatible, yet both describe the world. The imagination functions actively in both modes, seeking meaning, and wins intellectual consent through strict attention to detail and coherence of thought, whether one is describing a beetle or an enchantress.  Religion, which prescribes and proscribes, is irreconcilable with both of them, and since it demands belief, must shun their common ground, imagination.  So the true believer must condemn both Darwin and Rushdie as "disobedient, irreverent, iconoclastic" dissidents from revealed truth.
I'm sympathetic to some of this.  After all, I once wrote:
Personally, I’m tired of hearing believers in various kinds of spirituality sneering at atheists like me as humorless, literal-minded killjoys who want to reduce the mystery and beauty of the universe to a mindless, soulless machine. As far as I can see, it is the believers who hate mystery: they have to an explanation for everything, and their explanations have all the poetry and beauty of the Los Angeles phone directory. They spit on the loveliness of the human body because it isn’t eternal – when it is beautiful precisely because it isn’t eternal. They despise the material world because they can’t see the soul in it. And their attempts to find an underlying justice in the tragic fragility and brevity of life end up reading like operating manuals for a concentration camp.
And I stand by that: I was, like Le Guin, describing a real problem.  But I made the same rhetorical mistake here that Le Guin did: equating "religion" and "believers" with one aspect and faction of religion and believers.  Religion (like science) is a complex historical and cultural phenomenon that contains opposing tendencies.  Religion also includes "literary fantasy," also known as mythology, from the epic of Gilgamesh to Homer to the Mahabarata to the Hebrew Bible and the fan fiction of the New Testament gospels.  It can also involve "strict attention to detail and coherence of thought," as in the Talmuds, some of the Hindu scriptures, or Thomas Aquinas.

Contrariwise, scientists often demand obedience to their authority, and massive public funding for their pastimes.  Just a few billions for their time, their toys, and their paperwork.  They prescribe and proscribe, and "disobedient, irreverent, iconoclastic" troublemakers arouse their wrath just as it arouses the mullahs'.  (Cf. Edward O. Wilson's "multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism," and Richard Dawkins's complaint that the philosopher Mary Midgley had been mean to him: her "highly intemperate and vicious paper" was "hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic."  Like any indignant archmandrite, Dawkins indulged in a wee white lie, claiming that Midgley hadn't read The Selfish Gene before she wrote about it.  Scientists also indulge in what might be called "literary fantasy" if you're feeling charitable.  No, not all of them do all these things, but those who do seldom get into trouble for it.  And neither do all religious believers do these things.

Whether we work in literature or other arts, science, religion, or philosophy, I think we'd do best to recall the simile ascribed to Isaac Newton:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Religion, science, literature, and ethics are not distinct, sharply bounded domains.  They overlap.  What we don't know may not always be vastly greater than what we do know, but we're in no danger of reversing the proportions in the foreseeable future, and we'd do well to keep that in mind.  Twenty years ago a writer named John Horgan wrote a book, The End of Science, arguing that there would be no further "great 'revelations or revolutions'—no insights into nature as cataclysmic as heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity, the big bang."  He still believes this, as he explains in a blog post for Scientific American.  I was intrigued but not really persuaded by the book, but it is interesting to consider the possibility that human brains have limits that will forestall learning much more than we know now.  If nothing else, the storm of hostile responses Horgan received shows the limits of many scientists' rationalism.

What is going on here, I think, is a version of what Walter Kaufmann called the exegetical fantasy, though it could be called God (or Nature or Law or Mughal emperor) as sock-puppet: one reads one's ideas or beliefs into the universe, and gets them back endowed with authority.  If you've got good arguments and evidence, you don't need authority, and if you don't, no amount of authority will be enough.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Running Government Like an Artist

[P.S. I've made some big additions in the middle of this post, which I hope clarify and improve it.]

I've begun reading Ursula K. Le Guin's new collection of nonfiction, Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016).  Much of it I like, but some of it makes me want to throw it against the wall, which I can't do, because I'd wreck my tablet.*
A poet has been appointed ambassador.  A playwright is elected president.  Construction workers stand in line with office managers to buy a new novel.  Adults seek moral guidance and intellectual challenge in stories about warrior monkeys, one-eyed giants, and crazy knights who fight windmills.  Literacy is considered a beginning, not an end.

... Well, maybe in some other country, but not this one.  In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order.  Poetry and plays have no relatiion to practical politics.  Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don't work.  Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples.  Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions.  I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses.  It beats the opposable thumb.  I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.
That's the opening of "The Operating Instructions," the first piece in the book, which was originally a "talk given at a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002."  She continues the flood of cliches throughout the essay, though she does say some things I like as she proceeds ("Home isn't where they have to let you in.  It's not a place at all.  Home is imaginary").  She even quietly contradicts some of her original claims, but on the whole she sticks with them.

Come now.  Construction workers did stand in line with managers to buy each succeeding Harry Potter novel, ostensibly for their kids but as often as not for themselves.  Do we really want a poet in government?  And by that I mean a person who has pursued poetry as a career, a vocation, rather than as an amateur sideline.  Ezra Pound, say?  I don't see how a poet or other artist would be any better as an ambassador, let alone a senator or president, than (to pluck an example at random) a reality-TV star would be.  This reminds me of the people who respond to anyone who says one thing they like by clamoring for that person to run for President.  The last time I saw it, they were responding to a meme featuring the late George Carlin.  Just because someone has a good imagination, it in no way suggests that he or she is up to interacting with people as a government official must, to educating him or herself about the world and how people have tried and failed to run it, with millions of human lives hanging in the balance.  Given the petty internecine envy and jealousy that have always characterized artistic communities, I think it would be madness to put a poet, or a composer, or an abstract expressionist painter into the Oval Office simply because of his or her artistic prowess.  Some artists might be good at politics, but only insofar as they transcended being artists.

Sure, imagination is important.  But as Le Guin insists, it's not an end in itself.  Politics is a means to an end.  Every human endeavor involves the use of imagination to some extent, of course, but applying imagination to politics or business requires different capabilities and skills than writing poetry or sculpting marble or composing a sonata.  What creeps me out about Le Guin's marshalling these tired, sentimental cliches about the imagination is that they also imply an aggressive know-nothingism that is the mirror image of the Philistine who looks at a modern painting and sneers that his three-year-old kid could do as well: here it's the artist saying that he or she could run an embassy as well as someone who's had the kind of training and experience one needs to be an ambassador, simply by virtue of being imaginative.

To some extent Le Guin realizes this, for she goes on:
Small communities with strong traditions are often clear about the way they want to go, and good at teaching it.  But tradition may crystallize imagination to the point of fossilising it as dogmas and forbidding new ideas.  Larger communities, such as cities, open up room for people to imagine alternatives, learn from people of different traditions, and invent their own ways to live.

As alternatives proliferate, however, those who take the responsibility of teaching find little social and moral consensus on what they should be teaching -- what we need, what life ought to be ... It's a lot to ask of a child to find a way through all that alone.

Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone.
Just before Le Guin admitted the limitations of small communities, she'd declared that we need stories that teach us who we are, culminating in "We are the people who live at the center of the world.  A people that doesn't live at the center of the world, as defined and described by its poets and storytellers, is in a bad way."

Le Guin has a number of things wrong here.  One is that children don't need to be taught that they live at the center of the world: they begin with that conviction, and unlearn it as they grow.  Another is that while stories may indeed teach children their societies' beliefs about the world, many of those beliefs and "definitions" are false -- even harmful -- and must be unlearnt as they come into contact with the world outside their families, tribes, insular communities.  (An example of a false, harmful belief taught by stories is that toothless old women are witches who cook little children in ovens for their supper.  I know Le Guin knows that one, and knows it's harmful.)  Le Guin talks as though stories encode true lessons that can be extracted and taught.  (P.S. I just remembered that Marilynne Robinson has said some very similar things, and is equally wrong.) That, as she knows very well, isn't true, and shouldn't be true.  It's a fundamentalist, inerrantist approach to stories, which only works in the least interesting cases.  Luckily, children are pretty good at orienting themselves in larger worlds; the complexities and novelties that disorient adults are easy for children to assimilate and digest.  The world is always changing anyway, and it's children who adjust to it and sometimes must help their parents and grandparents to get by.  (Le Guin surely knows about immigrants and their children and grandchildren.)  Luckily, people in larger communities don't have to "really do anything very much, really, alone."  They have each other.  But it's not a neat, orderly process, and it never ends.

Because of this, I'm a bit disturbed by Le Guin's "As alternatives proliferate, however, those who take the responsibility of teaching find little social and moral consensus on what they should be teaching -- what we need, what life ought to be."  She seems to disapprove of proliferating alternatives.  And adults who "find little social and moral consensus on what they should be teaching" often hurt children (and other adults) by trying to make them live as if change hadn't happened and alternatives hadn't proliferated.  Do adults really always know "what they should be teaching," even about the social structures they left behind?  Unfortunately, no; even more unfortunately, they often believe they do, even when they don't.

It's possible to live at the center of the world and to recognize that other people, other tribes, other nations also live at the center of the world -- that there are many, infinitely many centers of the world.  Professor Joseph Epes Brown, who taught a comparative religion course that I took during my first year at IU in 1971, declared that it was possible and that indigenous peoples did so, because wherever you are standing is the center of the world.  I like that insight, but I'm skeptical; I think it's a romantic projection.  I think that when you start to encounter larger communities and must live side-by-side with people of different traditions as Le Guin describes it, then you inevitably find it more difficult to locate that "social and moral consensus on what you should be teaching" and learning.  I think people can live happily in such an environment, either without a center or with a conception of the center that is qualitatively different from the traditional conception she extols.  In order to do that, you need new stories, and imagination becomes -- at least in part -- a means to the end of establishing the center.  The trouble is that you can't set out to do so; I believe that artists and storytellers will do it unconsciously, if they let their imaginations work.  But what they produce then has to be scrutinized to make sure it doesn't just revert to fantasies of simpler times when everybody knew where the center was.  As Le Guin knows from her own struggles with gender in her fiction, the imagination can and must be educated, not left to its own mudpies. Over time, people will find new meanings and lessons in the old stories, often believing that the new meanings were there from the beginning. 

In a later essay on genre in Words Are My Matter, Le Guin refers a couple of times to Jorge Luis Borges' dictum that all prose literature is fiction: "Fiction, for Borges, thus includes history, journalism, biography, memoir, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Pierre Menard's Don Quixote, the works of Borges, Peter Rabbit, and the Bible."  I agree.  I would add that it includes the law as well, from the Constitution and Blackwell to court decisions.  It happens that the book I read before beginning Words Are My Matter was Ronald Suresh Roberts's remarkable Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd: Counterfeit Heroes and Unhappy Truths. published by NYU Press in 1994.  Originally written as his thesis for Harvard Law School, where Barack Obama was one of his classmates, Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd is an analysis and critique narrowly of black neoconservatives like Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Randall Kennedy, but more broadly of the nature of the law and the judiciary.

I first read Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd soon after it was published in the 1990s, having stumbled on it in a used book store, and it made a powerful impression on me.  I was just as impressed when I reread it this week.  Among his criticisms of his subjects is that they claim, not always consistently, that they are above politics and the babbling of what Thomas called "the maddening crowd," even above "race," and are simply humble servants of The Law, of facts, of reality.  "A Supreme Court justice," as Suresh puts this doctrine, "is only a funnel through which law expresses itself" (page 84 of the e-book). (By the way, this resembles scientists' equally self-aggrandizing claims to be mere oracles of Nature through whom Truth flows.)  So, for example, Roberts writes:
Judges may be blocked by many considerations, but a thing called law is never one of them.  Much that we call law is merely an ordinary combination of strategic reasoning and value judgments.  This kind of reckoning is certainly a constraint; but it is not the peculiar constraint that the thing called law needs to be.  It is, rather, the same sort of thing that congressional windbags deal with every day.  This kind of reckoning lacks the special leverage law needs in order to wall its empire off from the rule of men.  It fails to give a judge the scapegoat she needs in order to escape ordinary moral criticism.  If legal rules don't bind judges, then legal disputes are like our other disputes.  If legal disputes are like our other disputes -- if judges are like the rest of us -- then we can advance ordinary moral criticism of the work they do (85). 
I'd noticed this before when considering President Obama's failures as an authority on the Constitution, alongside the offenses of his fellow Harvard Law alum Antonin Scalia.  Obama's liberal devotees trumpet his authority as a Constitutional scholar, while tacitly ignoring that Scalia can claim the same authority.  If the law really did constrain (or "bind," the term Roberts uses) lawyers and judges, then there'd be no controversy over what the Constitution says.  As Roberts shows, self-styled "strict constructionists" disagree vehemently among themselves as to what the Founders' original intent was.  Of course each protagonist insists that he merely explicates the plain sense of the sacred text, while his opponent imports biases and political agendas into his opinions.  But how is the layperson to decide who's telling the truth?  (In reality, both are lying.  Neither is an empty vessel filled with law, both import biases and agendas.)

It seems to me that Le Guin wants "imagination," as she conceives of it, to occupy the same place "law" does for Justice Thomas and Roberts's other subjects or "science" does for Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye: as a pure disembodied force that transcends commerce and politics.  But while imagination is important, just like law and science, it is a human production, "an ordinary combination of strategic reasoning and value judgments."  I'm inclined to see imagination also as a usefully destructive force, for which "imagination" might not be the best name anyway.  It's something like linguistic change, which not only undermines the stability of languages but interferes with people's ability to communicate. It's positive but also negative; we imagine new possibilities even when we might prefer not to, when we're trying to find a reliable center of the world.  The world shifts beneath our feet.  Language changes not because we creatively change it, but it drags us along, bulldozing through the grammars and lexicons we made to try to contain it. The center cannot hold, but contrary to what I think Yeats meant, the center has never held for long.  If nonfiction is fiction, then fiction is nonfiction.  The "warrior monkeys, one-eyed giants, and crazy knights who fight windmills" that Le Guin believes will liberate us from Mammon will soon become fossilized as dogma and forbid new ideas.

*Actually, I wouldn't do it to a print book either, any more than I'd tear out pages or scrawl on the pages with crayons.  Not only because my mother impressed me with the inviolability of books, but because I don't believe in poppet magic -- that you can hurt the book (which is essentially the text, not the marks on the page or the screen) by hurting the physical object.