Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Slums of Jerusalem?

I just read Arundhati Roy's new book, The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste (Haymarket Books, 2017), about the debate on caste in India between Mohandas Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar, an important Untouchable activist educated at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, who wrote the Indian Constitution. 

There's a lot of history and politics to assimilate from Roy's account, and I don't feel I can comment on most of it because I don't know enough about Indian history and culture.  But this paragraph brought me up short:
Perhaps because the Western Christian world was apprehensive about the spreading influence of the Russian Revolution, and was traumatized by the horror of the First World War, Europeans and Americans vied to honour the living avatar of Christ.  It didn't seem to matter that unlike Gandhi, who was from a well-to-do family (his father was the prime minister of the princely state of Porbandar), Jesus was a carpenter from the slums of Jerusalem who stood up against the Roman Empire instead of trying to make friends with it.  And he was sponsored by big business. [location 1243 of the Kindle version]
That last sentence is a swipe at the support Gandhi received from Indian industrialists, especially G. D. Birla, who "paid him a generous monthly retainer to cover the costs of running his ashrams and for his Congress party work [location 1183]."  For now I'm concerned with Roy's characterization of Jesus, which is at best debatable.

Jesus was certainly not "from the slums of Jerusalem," but from the boondocks of Nazareth in Galilee, a week's journey away from Jerusalem.  I wonder where Roy got this; I can't recall ever having seen Jesus assigned to Jerusalem before.  Roy grew up in a Christian community in Kerala and attended something called the Corpus Christi School for part of her schooling, so she must have been exposed to Christian lore.

As for Jesus' social status, it's impossible to say anything sure about it.  The famous Nativity stories set in Bethlehem are absent from Mark, which was probably the first gospel to be written, and from John, which may have been the last of the four canonical gospels.  In Mark, Jesus is known in his hometown of Nazareth as "the carpenter, the son of Mary" (Mark 6:3); his father is unnamed, but he has several brothers and sisters.  Tektōn, the Greek word translated as "carpenter," refers to a woodworker as opposed to a metalworker or stonemason.  Jesus' neighbors' dismissive reaction to him in that verse indicates that he wasn't anyone very special, certainly not a Torah scholar or scribe, let alone a priest.  But he probably wasn't a slum-dweller either.

The gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy claiming Jesus' adoptive father Joseph as a descendant of King David, but there must have been quite a few of David's descendants around, so I don't know how exalted a status that gave Jesus.  The gospel of Luke has a similar (but different) genealogy for Joseph, and also depicts Jesus' mother Mary as a relative of the wife of a priest in the Jerusalem Temple.  We'll never know whether these stories were meant to boost Jesus' social status; one would think that being the incarnate Son of God would be distinguished enough.  I  don't think they have any historical basis at all, but that's something that will never be settled.  But if they do, Jesus' family compared well to Gandhi's in their class status.

Jesus' stance with regard to the Roman Empire is equally uncertain.  What is certain -- as certain as historical facts can be -- is that he was crucified, which means that he ran afoul of the Roman authorities who controlled Palestine in those days.  According to all four gospels, Jesus' cross bore the legend "King of the Jews," so it is likely he was executed as a political offender.  But from the gospels it's impossible to tell what his offense was.  This, like Matthew and Luke's genealogies, is understandable as an attempt by literate early Christians to make Jesus less scandalous and more respectable.

We also have Jesus' famous saying, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."  Asked whether Jews ought to pay taxes to the Roman Empire, Jesus asked his challengers to show him a coin, which bore Caesar's likeness, and delivered that clever, evasive reply.  That it was evasive is shown by the many different interpretations it has inspired.  It wasn't enough to prevent his capture and execution by the Romans, but then according to Christian doctrine it wasn't supposed to. 

All four gospels show Jesus being just as cagey when he was brought before the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.  It's unlikely, of course, that Jesus' followers had any accurate information about what happened between his arrest and his crucifixion.  These stories were probably invented to show how Christians should behave when they were hauled before Jewish or Roman authorities.  But they don't show Jesus 'standing against' Rome.  Remember that Jesus was, according to the gospels, an end-times preacher, not a political activist.

As for "sponsored by big business," the gospels also agree that Jesus had some well-off followers who supported him financially, such as Joseph of Arimathea and  "Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance" (Luke 8:3).  Luke also has the story of Zacchaeus, a "chief tax-collector" who was so impressed by Jesus' cold reading of his background that he became a follower and supporter.  This story too may be an invention meant to instruct converts, but we know from Paul's letters that there were some well-to-do Christians in the early churches whose donations helped support the apostles and "the poor."  Like many religious leaders, Jesus' relation to the wealthy and to the state appears to have ambivalent.

This is a sore point with me, that I've written about before: educated, intelligent people who make remarkably misinformed claims about religion.  Jesus' politics are, as I've tried to indicate, open to considerable debate, but placed next to "the slums of Jesusalem," I don't find Roy's comparison of Jesus and Gandhi compelling; it seems to me that they may have been more alike than different.  Since I'm not a fan of either man, this isn't a problem for me.  Nor does it have a big impact on Roy's account of the enduring harm of the caste system.  It's just another of those curious lapses about religion that afflict many politically progressive writers.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

For the Win!

Katha Pollitt has a new column at The Nation chiding those who use the word "McCarthyism" with regard to concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.  She makes some valid points, mainly that the power of the State is mostly not involved this time; indeed, as she says, "this time around, the state is firmly in the grip of the supposed victims of the witch hunt. Donald Trump isn’t a high-school teacher who once subscribed to The Daily Worker; he is president of the United States."  True enough, and I'm not worried about Trump or the members of his administration; nor, I feel sure, are the writers she's criticizing.  (P.S. Though she omits the small detail that McCarthyism 1.0 began by targeting people -- alleged Communists -- in the State Department, including the Secretary of State himself.  Then-President Truman, who in 1947 had instituted loyalty oaths in the Federal government on the same rationale, replied during a press conference that McCarthy was "the best asset that the Kremlin can have.")

She overlooks some things, though.  I think they're important.  "But why," she asks rhetorically, "is it unbalanced, overwrought, irrational, or crazy to suspect that Russia hacked the DNC?"  It's not, and while I haven't read every writer she's criticizing -- they're mostly regulars at The Nation, which I hardly read anymore -- those writers I have read concede willingly and explicitly that it's not unreasonable to have "suspicions," and have called for a serious, nonpartisan official investigation into the accusations. " Which, she admits, "indeed, The Nation has called for in an editorial, albeit one that mostly debunks the possibility that anything happened or, if it did, that it mattered."

The trouble, which she doesn't address, is that the accusations surfaced in articles in the corporate media, almost all of which all turned out to be false and were retracted as soon as they were published, only to be replaced with new falsehoods.  Journalists who pointed this out were accused by Democratic loyalists (who seemed to have forgotten that the USSR hadn't existed for over twenty years) of being in the pay of Putin.  Having suspicions is one thing, unfounded attempts to smear critics are another.  Did that Nation editorial debunk "the possibility that anything happened," or the manufactured panic over the possibility?  I'd bet the latter, and that is entirely reasonable.

Pollitt can hardly be unaware of all this, so she must be conveniently forgetting it.  She dismisses the claim by some of her targets that the fuss has been a "distraction"
that focusing on Russia distracts Democrats from accepting the blame for Hil
lary Clinton’s defeat and appealing to voters by attacking Trump’s terrible policies. But why can’t we do both? Even Bernie Sanders, no apologist for Hillary, has asked what Russia might have on Trump.
Again, this is less than fully candid, as shown by Pollitt's characterization of Clinton's campaign.  Of course "we" can do both.  The trouble is that the Democrats haven't been doing both.  Focusing on Russia has allowed them not to attack Trump's terrible policies Because Putin.
In fact, alleged Russian interference in the election has been a pretty successful issue for the Dems. A Quinnipiac poll at the end of March found that 66 percent of Americans support an investigation by an independent commission, and 65 percent think the alleged Russian interference is “very important” or “somewhat important.” Keeping the heat on the issue has also helped destabilize the Trump operation—Manafort and Flynn are gone, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from any investigation into Russian meddling, as has Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, a Trump ally and chair of the House Intelligence Committee. I wouldn’t call that distracting; I’d call it fighting to win.
This tends to support, not refute, the suggestion of distraction.  Like The Nation's editors and other thought criminals, I also support an investigation by an independent commission, which is not the same as accepting that the accusations are true.  I notice that Pollitt doesn't mention the poll which found that 50 percent of Democrats believed that the Russians had hacked the American vote in November to give Trump the victory.  "I wouldn't call that distracting; I'd call it fighting to win."  Really?  What do ordinary Americans, to say nothing of ordinary citizens of other countries targeted by American bombs, get from this "win"?

Pollitt's tone is more reasonable than that of media hacks like, say, JoyAnn Reid of MSNBC or Keith Olbermann, but I think that's superficial.  (Never mistake moderation of tone for moderation of content.)  She tiptoes around the core questions, and is not quite honest about the position of the colleagues she criticizes.  She used to be one of the main reasons I subscribed to The Nation; now she's one more reason I don't.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Hm, They Left Out a Few Things Here ...

... You know, things like: war criminal, trampler upon civil liberties, Deporter-in-Chief, and unbelievably sanctimonious asshole.

And now the former President, hot upon interfering in another country's elections yet again -- even though he's not in office anymore! -- joins the ranks of Wall Street beneficiaries.  There's no need to miss him; he will be with us always, even unto the end of the age.

Monday, April 17, 2017

My Psychological Research Orientation

I'm not sure of the ethics of posting this material, so I'm going to err on the side of reticence.

This morning I received e-mail from the person who now runs the GLB Speakers Bureau I ran for a quarter-century, announcing a visit to campus by a distinguished academic psychologist who does research on gender, gay youth, and suchlike.  The visitor will be giving two presentations, one tailored for undergraduates and another for graduate students.  Copies of flyers for the events were attached.  Here's the description for the grad students:
Scientists and laypeople have recently taken great interest in sexual orientation, especially if the person is a parent, friend, or romantic partner. Despite the common belief that assessing sexuality is straightforward, it is a difficult construct to assess. The most traditional method is self-report. Alternative, tech-oriented methods have recently evolved to correct complications: genital arousal, implicit viewing time, fMRI scanning, eye tracking, and pupil dilation. These are briefly reviewed with consensus findings. However, they fail to distinguish sexual from romantic orientation and to assess the full spectrum of sexuality. Thus, the real lives of individuals are misrepresented. A new sexual identity, mostly straight, is used to illustrate.   
So, "great interest in sexual orientation" is "recent"?  I wonder what timescale he's using; I wouldn't call a century and a half (at least!) "recent" myself.  And that's only if you limit that interest to the modern European medicalization of sex.

The syntax of the first sentence is a trainwreck: where does "the person" come in?  Is a person equivalent to his or her sexual orientation?  Are scientists and laypeople all heterosexual?  By "sexual orientation" he seems to mean homosexuality only, as if heterosexuality were not a sexual orientation.

I wonder about "the common belief that assessing sexuality is straightforward."  That belief is evidently common among scientists as well as laypeople, given the amount of research that relies on self-report for classifying the sexual orientation of subjects.  Since there is no other way to "assess" a person's sexual orientation, I wonder how "tech-oriented" methods can be any better.  If, for example, someone's pupil dilation appears to be at odds with his or her declared sexual orientation, what does it mean?  Do pupils only dilate because their owner is erotically aroused?  Should a person be required to re-arrange his or her erotic life to conform to such data?  Given the very limited state of knowledge in this area, I'd be very wary of putting too much weight on these methods.  It's odd, at the very least, that scientists should believe (or be said to believe) in the ease of assessing sexuality, almost seventy years after Kinsey demonstrated just how difficult it is.

The visitor seems to have similar reservations: these methods, he says, "fail to distinguish sexual from romantic orientation".  Unfortunately he misunderstands the term "sexual orientation," which refers to the sex of the people one desires erotically.  Since "romantic" love involves erotic interest and desire anyway, it makes no sense to distinguish it sharply from the erotic.  (Of course, none of these terms are particularly precise, and the professionals who use them generally fail to define them with any clarity for their research or other purposes.)  If a person is "romantically" drawn only to people of his or her own sex, the sexual orientation of his or her "romantic orientation" is homosexual, or same-sex; and so on.

Unluckily, or maybe luckily, this presentation will be taking place while I am at work.  It would be interesting to see if this psychologist makes any more sense in person.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Social Injustice Warriors

A strange article at The American Conservative today: George Hawley, billed as "an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama," takes on the question of White Guilt.
One of the most persistent tropes on the racial right is that the major cultural institutions in the United States aggressively push a story of white guilt. The media and the education system—from pre-K to postgraduate—are the most frequent targets of this accusation, though increasingly churches are also charged with being strongholds of the “Social Justice Warriors.”

According to this narrative, white Americans face a constant barrage of derision, persistently hearing about the evils of their white-supremacist ancestors and the unfairness of their current unearned privilege. They are told that their racial sins can never be truly washed away, but they can achieve partial atonement by signing onto various progressive causes, especially generous immigration policies and policies designed to uplift African-Americans...

I do not challenge the veracity of any of these stories, though I am not sure how one would objectively, numerically, and conclusively demonstrate that the leading cultural institutions in America are pushing an anti-white message. People who attempt to do so typically just gather collections of anecdotes, and that is a game that both sides can play. The left, after all, has long argued exactly the opposite, proclaiming that white supremacism is pervasive throughout society.
Hawley then cites one study, which finds "only a minority of white Americans admit to feeling any kind of guilt about race ... This was even true of young whites that supported Bernie Sanders."  This susprises him: "even though I believe that most white Americans do not really feel guilty about race, I did expect more to at least pretend to do so."

Hawley's argument seems thoroughly muddled to me.  

1) Right-wing propagandists claim that Social Justice Warriors want white people to feel guilty. 
2) Some rather spotty evidence suggests that white people don't feel guilty.  
3) Therefore the SJWs have failed in their quest to make white people feel guilty, Q.E.D.

Since Hawley's major premise is at best dubious and probably false, he has no argument.  It's worth noticing other strange moves he makes: what do "generous immigration policies" have to do with white guilt?  Most anti-immigrant policies in the US have historically been directed at people we'd now consider at least kind-of-white: Italians, Greeks, Jews.  The Middle Easterners that racists are now trying to keep out of the country are as "white" as those groups.  The bit about "policies designed to uplift African-Americans" is also revealing.  The primary aim of the Civil Rights movement was to stop racism; racial "uplift" was supposed to come from within the "race."  I suppose Hawley has affirmative action in mind; if so, he doesn't understand that policy.

Notice too the false equivalence of "The left, after all, has long argued exactly the opposite, proclaiming that white supremacism is pervasive throughout society."  I think one can make a better case that white supremacism is pervasive throughout American society than the "opposite," since after all white supremacy was enshrined in law and other institutions for most of our history, and attempts to de-institutionalize it met with intense organized opposition that hasn't stopped to this day.

But even if this position were false, it isn't the "opposite" of the "racial right" claim that the Social Justice Warriors hate white people and want us to feel guilty.  Hawley couldn't even phrase his straw man to include the term "guilt."  Invoking guilt is, as I said, a distractive move.  The white racist denunciation of collective guilt in this case is amusing, given their own fondness for assigning collective guilt to their opponents, real and fancied.  Blacks, Muslims, feminists, liberals, homosexuals, Social Justice Warriors are faceless collective entities.  Only straight white males are atomistic individuals with no connection to each other.  Any similarities between the behavior of one straight white male or another (or millions of others) are purely random and coincidental.

One of the commenters who agreed with Hawley (not all did) declared that "the Christian notion of original sin has been transposed by secularism from something that is common to all humans to the property of white, straight, males."  Blaming "secularism" is odd, given the prominent role of Christian ministers from conservative denominations in the Civil Rights movement.  Whether this transposition happened or not, I take it that the commenter accepts the notion of collective guilt -- except for straight white males, who are responsible for nothing, especially not their own attitudes or behavior.  Racism is just part of original sin, I suppose, and nothing can be done about it until the Kingdom comes and we all have new, resurrected spiritual bodies.

I'm a 66-year-old white male of leftish politics.  As far as I can remember, the Civil Rights movement never aimed to make white people feel guilty.  Nor did the women's movement.  I myself have never been asked to feel guilty for being white or male.  (That's not to say that it has never ever happened in all of history; movements for social justice have their share of irrational doofuses, just as movements for social injustice do.)  What the Civil Rights movement asked for was an end to racism.  White racists and apologists for racism often reacted by trying to characterize this as a demand for them to feel guilty, which would of course have been a useless demand since they have no conscience.  But it was a distractive move, whether conscious or unconscious.  I don't want them to feel guilty, though: I just want them to stop.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Cooler Than Me

I spotted The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band (PM Press, 2016) on display in the window of a hipster bookstore in San Francisco last year, and made a note to look for it when I got back home.  I found it in the public library and just got around to reading it.  It's by Michelle Cruz Gonzales, former drummer of Spitboy, a female punk band that, I confess, I hadn't heard of before, though they got around a lot, touring most of the US, Europe, and Japan in the early 1990s.  Spitboy didn't consider themselves part of Riot Grrl because "we had formed Spitboy in the Bay Area [as opposed to the Pacific Northwest where Riot Grrl spawned] during the early days of their movement [therefore independently of Riot Grrl], we didn't endorse separatism, and we didn't want to be called girls" (10).  She's now married and a mom, and "teaches English and creative writing at Las Positas College" (135).

The Spitboy Rule is a good read, with plenty of anecdotes from the life of a female punk band on the road.  It seems to me that Gonzalez downplays the sexism she had to deal with, giving more space to stories of support from male musicians, roadies, and fans; which is fine, it's her book, and it's good to know that so many guys were supportive.  Gonzalez had plenty of other issues on her plate, having grown up brown in small-town California, daughter of a single mother.  So when she encountered punk rock in the late 80s, it inspired her.
Punk rock: the loud, hard, angry, fast music attracts angry people, angsty teenagers, social misfits, kids whose parents are too strict, straight, Christian; ... seemingly normal kids who don't feel so normal on the inside.  Interestingly, punk rock attracts working-class kids, kids who grew up in poverty, and kids from privileged families  [2].
Yet it seemed to me that in many ways, by identifying with punk she jumped from the frying pan into the fire.  She presents punk as a highly conformist (though she doesn't use that word) environment, obsessed with coolness and one-upmanship.  That the movement gave breathing room to kids like Gonzalez is to its credit, though I suspect it was more because it stood on the shoulders of the politics of the 1960s than because many white male punks were all that enlightened.  (The ambivalent politics of punk has often been discussed, inside and outside the movement.)  Kids who'd grown up hearing about feminism and the Civil Rights movement were readier to imitate and build on those precedents. Punk also stood on the shoulders of the economy of the Sixties even as that economy was collapsing.  But there were lots of relatively cheap instruments and other equipment, you could press your own records more cheaply than before, and the cassette made it even easier for DIY musicians to record and distribute their own music.  The proliferation of copy shops facilitated the production of zines.

But punk was a youth movement, so it was simultaneously rebellious and fiercely conformist.  It's not easy to tell from Gonzalez' account how much of her hangups about fitting in were due to the punk scene and how much was due to her personal insecurities -- assuming, of course, that those can be separated.  Gonzalez was poor and dark-skinned, and though "I was never allowed to fit in" (3), fitting in was what she craved.
In the 1990s, before we understood race and class privilege, we just thought it wasn't cool if you grew up in the suburbs.  It wasn't cool to be from Walnut Creek, Concord, or Fremond, but a lot of punk kids who hung around the East Bay Gilman scene grew up in those cities.  It wasn't cool to be from Walnut Creek because that meant you came from money, and it wasn't cool to be from Fremont because that was total suburbia.  But of course not everyone could be from Berkeley, Oakland, or San Francisco.

It wasn't cool, especially in my mind, to be from a small town either.  Small towns were too quaint, not gritty enough, too provincial.  The only person who thought it was cool that I was from a small town, from Tuolumne, was Aaron Elliott of Crimpshine.  He even thought it was cool after I took him there one summer.  I worried that after taking him to Tuolumne that he'd think otherwise, but he didn't... 

Aaron was also the rare guy who thought it was cool to date a girl drummer ... [15-6]
As I read this I kept trying to remember if I'd had the same insecurities about being a Midwestern small-town / rural kid when I was growing up in the 1960s.  I certainly wanted out of that environment, but when I did I don't remember believing that I should be ashamed of my background.  After all, children don't get to choose where or by whom they are born or raised.  (Their parents aren't in total control of those factors either.)  Because of my reading I knew that city people could be every bit as provincial as rural people.  Despite my personal insecurities, I don't think I'd have been intimidated if anyone had sneered at my background, which isn't personal.  Being queer, being smart, being an atheist, being a compulsive reader -- those are personal.  But I don't recall ever encountering anyone who sneered, or worrying about it.

Gonzalez, by contrast, was obsessed with being cool -- which, ironically, means standing out, not fitting in -- so she found the parts of the movement that shared her obsession.
Even though neither the suburbs nor a small down got you punk points, being from a small town like Tuolumne was the opposite of being from a place like Walnut Creek ... Until the age of twelve, we didn't have a TV in the house.  For many years, my mom did not believe in television, an idea she learned from her Bay Area hippie friends.  It was convenient not to believe in something that she couldn't afford.  The first TV we had in our house belonged to her first serious boyfriend after she separated from my sister's father.

Even before the punk points system I was influenced by own set of standards, and for somebody who had become interested in politics and social issues, not having a TV was actually quite a detriment [17] ...

When Nicole, Suzy, and I got to San Francisco inn 1987, everyone seemed so much more sophisticated, so much more punk. We weren't hicks, but we had grown up in a hick town and we didn't want it to show [18].
"Punk points system"?  There's Anarchy for you.  I grew up far from the epicenters of cool in my own generation, and I began to suspect as early as my first years in college that I'd gained as well as lost by that. 

Paradoxically, though, the punk scene gave Gonzalez room to grow in positive ways.  So she was able to stand up (though not alone, she had her band) against an entertaining attack that came from within the scene:
When we released our Mi Cuerpo Es Mio seven-inch, a riot grrrl from Olympia accused Spitboy of cultural appropriation.  The riot grrrl had ties to the Bay Area and she was white.  Maybe she really believed the accusation. Maybe cultural appropriation was a new concept to her, one that she learned at Evergreen College and felt applied to us, or maybe she was just pissed off at Spitboy because we had distanced ourselves from her movement.  She objected to our use of Spanish for the title of our record and accused us of stealing from someone else's culture, in particular the words "mi cuerpo es mio," which translates to "my body is mine."

Apparently my body was invisible [86-7].
This isn't the best rebuttal, as it dodges several issues.  Gonzalez knew very little Spanish herself, mostly picked up from her grandmother; her ownership of Spanish, mostly acquired by study, is about like mine.  Her anxiety about being brown, the only Mexican in her band and one of few in punk at the time, indicates that for a long time she wished her body was invisible; if she'd been more güera, more able to pass as white, she probably would have.  (She goes so far to say that "there was something self-hating about" the fact she'd "really only dated white guys in bands" before the guitarist José from the Latino punk band Los Crudos from Chicago [117].  Maybe, but the shortage of brown guys in the Bay Area punk scene might have had something to do with it too.)  I'm not sure whether she dismisses the concept of cultural appropriation altogether, or was just scoring easy points against a critic.  But it is funny, and not uncommon, for protectors of cultural purity to run afoul of their own ignorance about the ancestry or other salient traits of people they criticize.

But I like the way that The Spitboy Rule grapples with, skates over, dances around these issues.  I'm glad I happened on it.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

It's the Stupidity, Stupid!

Mehdi Hasan points to some important information and makes a good argument in this article at The Intercept.  The title sums up his claim: Trump voters were motivated more by racism than by the economy.  He's critical of Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and especially Bernie Sanders who've claimed the contrary.

His colleagues Glenn Greenwald and Lee Fang are somewhat skeptical, and Greenwald says that "there's a lot of debate - generally & at the Intercept - about this argument."  That's as it should be, but I think that even if Hasan is right about everything he says, he's accepting and fostering a confusion of issues that is all too common in American politics.

Here's an example from the article:
Both Sanders and Warren seem much keener to lay the blame at the door of the dysfunctional Democratic Party and an ailing economy than at the feet of racist Republican voters. Their deflection isn’t surprising. Nor is their coddling of those who happily embraced an openly xenophobic candidate. Look, I get it. It’s difficult to accept that millions of your fellow citizens harbor what political scientists have identified as “racial resentment.” The reluctance to acknowledge that bigotry, and tolerance of bigotry, is still so widespread in society is understandable. From an electoral perspective too, why would senior members of the Democratic leadership want to alienate millions of voters by dismissing them as racist bigots?
Sanders and Warren might disagree with me, but I don't see a problem here.  I think Sanders was constructing a false dichotomy, but then so is Hasan.  I have no difficulty accepting (if that's the word -- "acknowledging" is more like it) that millions of my fellow citizens are racist, but I don't think it's limited to Trump voters; many Democrats are also racist, and Democratic presidential candidates routinely pander to their racism.  I'm not surprised by Sanders's trying to downplay American racism, since like many Socialists he's always been weak on issues other than the US economy anyway.

It's important to point out, as Hasan does, that much of Trump's base wasn't suffering economically anyway:
Look, if you still believe that Trump’s appeal was rooted in economic, and not racial, anxiety, ask yourself the following questions: Why did a majority of Americans earning less than $50,000 a year vote for Clinton, not Trump, according to the exit polls? Why, in the key Rust Belt swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, did most voters who cited the economy as “the most important issue facing the country” opt for Hillary over the Donald? And why didn’t black or Latino working class voters flock to Trump with the same fervor as white working class voters? Or does their economic insecurity not count?
This reminds me that when Rush Limbaugh first became nationally famous at the end of the 1980s, he and his critics tried to cast him as the voice of disaffected blue-collar American whites, though his audience had an average income of $53,000 (which was worth considerably more then than it is now).  That was no surprise any more than Trump's fans should be now.  Much of the really toxic American Right is at least middle-class and college-educated, like Limbaugh himself, which is another reason to harbor skepticism about the efficacy of a college education.

According to Philip Klinkner, a political scientist whose research is Hasan's main source,
the best way to identify a Trump supporter in the U.S. was to ask “just one simple question: is Barack Obama a Muslim?” Because, he said, “if they are white and the answer is yes, 89 percent of the time that person will have a higher opinion of Trump than Clinton.” This is economic anxiety? Really?
No, claiming that Obama is a Muslim does not equal "economic anxiety," and I'm not sure anyone has actually said it does.  But it's not necessary to confuse these things.  (Especially if, as Hasan claims, voters who expressed concern about the economy, whether or not they were racist, voted Democratic anyway.)  Denying that racists are racists is a popular tactic, of course, and it's alarming when liberals and leftists try to use it.  I have friends on Facebook who are Trump supporters and racists; I challenge and criticize them on both matters as I see fit.  It doesn't seem that any of them are suffering much economically, and most of them are dependent on the Big Government Teat, but it's typical of the Right to poor-mouth themselves.

Ironically, though, many Trump-haters are just fine with thinking of his fans as low-rent white trash, often shading into overt racist stereotyping and imagery, and I find myself challenging them as often as I do the Trump fans.  It's not necessary to confuse racism and economic anxiety, but it sure is fun. This comment, for example, was posted on Facebook today under a post by a source one of my liberal friends relies on:
No one ever believed Trump...we know why the ones who voted for him did...Now they are at home looking at the news...chewing tobacco..drinking moonshine...rubbing their cousins and sound...the wealthy ones waiting on the check to clear safe and sound...but people lives were human no matter what status you are life is more valuable than the next...He started with lies he will end because of lies...America is alot more fun...when we aren't divided by race so in the words of a great man......Fuck Trump
Democratic elites are also "waiting on the check to clear safe and sound," but it wouldn't do to remember that.

So, to repeat myself, toothless, cousin-marrying losers need to be able to find jobs and support their families.  They need a roof over their heads. They need health care to fix their bad teeth and good public schools to educate their children.  To say so is not to minimize their racism or other unseemly traits, any more than good economic policy justifies poor blacks' frequent criminality and bad beliefs.  Nor is it to recommend, as the New York Times did recently, that the Democratic Party should reach out to working class whites by pandering to their racism instead of ameliorating their economic plight.  Middle class and wealthy whites also have bad beliefs and are frequently criminal, but they aren't held accountable as poor whites and blacks are.  We have to distinguish between poor whites' racism and their economic and political rights, just as we do between poor blacks' misbehavior and their economic and political rights.  Empathy doesn't entail uncritical approval, just as you can vote for a corrupt neoliberal as the lesser evil while criticizing her relentlessly.  Martin Luther King Jr. knew this, as did black radicals of the late 1960s; if today's white liberals don't know it, and it seems they don't, then they are not part of the solution but part of the problem.

It's possible in principle, and I hope in practice, to push for good economic policy without pandering to white racism or other forms of bigotry.  As I indicated, we shouldn't justify good economic policy by claiming that it will eradicate bigotry.  It won't, but I'm not sure what will.  Without reliable employment, health care, education, and infrastructure, though, the country (and the world) will continue our agonizing slow downhill slide into immiseration; in which case people's energy to fight for a better world will be diffused into so many areas that they'll become hopeless.  Which, of course, is just what the rulers want.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Style of Rhetoric Common to That Subculture

Another placeholder post while I procrastinate.  But it's related to a bigger one I hope to get to soon.

I took the above photo of a notice on the door of a "gender-neutral," single-occupancy restroom in the dormitory where I work.  The point of interest is the comment, "Collins sucks titty milk."  (Collins is the name of the dorm.)  I think it's likely that the graffitist is male, and not a resident of the dorm, though that's not really important.  It's not a truly nasty, incendiary remark; it's just stupid.  But it's what passes for clever repartee, or even rational debate in some circles.

Monday, April 3, 2017

#Resistance Is Futile

The mental and moral decline of American liberals inexorably (and irreversibly?) continues: two of my friends have shared this meme in the past week.

The enthusiastic stupidity of this item boggled my mind.  It's so convoluted that it's hard to get a grip on it to explain what's wrong with it.  Most obviously, Lex Luthor is a fictional character, who does what his writers and artists want him to do; Donald Trump is, unfortunately, a real person, who's dedicated his life to doing what he wants to do.

I haven't followed Superman comics since I was in junior high school, something like fifty years ago now.  So, while I figured that the plot twist this meme referred to wasn't as simple in its significance as its author wanted it to be, I had no idea where to begin to find what its complications were, and didn't care enough to pursue it.  But thank Cthulhu for anal-compulsive comic book nerds, one of whom posted this excerpt from a Wikipedia article on on LexCorp as a comment:
"When CEO Lex Luthor was elected President of the United States, Talia al Ghul took over the company, who donated a large portion of its profits to the Wayne Foundation during Superman and Batmans’ year-long absences.[4] Following his dismissal as president he fired her and took back his place, though she secretly kept a portion of stock."

So no he didn't he just had someone else run it for a while like trump.
Quibbling over the virtually-actual details of the career of a comic book villain is almost as depressing as watching people crow triumphantly at totally destroying Trump with a meme, but it's like quoting the Bible: if you're going to put the discussion on that level, your quotations had better be accurate.

The larger problem is the mentality (if that word can be applied to such knee-jerk reflexive behavior) that reduces every issue to Our Team vs. Their Team.  Trump's obnoxious behavior on Twitter, ironically, is exactly what Obama and Clinton fans wanted their guys to do: speaking their minds, trashing the opposition with pithy putdowns.  Bam!  Boom!  Oh, burn!  You totally shredded and destroyed those Reichtards!  Remember the "Texts from Hillary" memes?  Some of them were mildly amusing, but it was plain that many Clinton fans thought they were real, because they wanted them to be.  Given Obama's record on trying to be funny and snarky, he'd have been just as embarrassing as Trump if he'd taken to Twitter.  His fans would have been delighted, though, not embarrassed, because he was Their Guy, the Captain / Coach of Their Team.  His enemies would have been appalled and outraged.  It's not the content, ever, for partisans; it's the team.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

And Consequently Meant for Publication

Back in 1921, Dorothy Parker was reviewing Broadway plays.  She panned a musical called The Right Girl, for (among other offenses) featuring "a song which exploits the rhyme:
I wouldn't give five cents
For a marriage license."
I'd thought rhymes like this were an innovation of rap; I guess it's worth knowing that they were sung on the legitimate stage a century ago.

Last night I went to a poetry slam at a local venue, mainly because a friend wanted to go, under the impression that it was going to focus on work by LGBTQ youth, which sounded interesting.  It turned out he was wrong -- the youth slam had taken place elsewhere, earlier in the evening -- and he decided not to go anyway.  Though I've been to numerous poetry readings, professional and amateur, I don't think I've ever actually attended a poetry slam before, so I paid the $5 cover.  (The event was a benefit for undocumented youth, so I don't regret the money I spent.)  I don't like the idea of poetry slams, which seem to be an attempt to win an audience for poetry by foregrounding the worst kinds of macho poetasting, combined with competition: poetry reading as pro-wrestling.  That's a doubly toxic cocktail as far as I'm concerned.  I have watched a video of a West Coast semiprofessional slam, which confirmed my bad impression.  But hey, give the kids a chance.

In a way it was reassuring: bad poetry is forever.  (Or as Christ might have said, the bad poets you will always have with you, and they'll be first in line for the open mike.)  First up was an avowed straight white boy who announced that he usually writes depressing stuff, but had decided to give the audience a break by reading something humorous.  He then warned about content, the poem was about sexual objectification, but it was a joke, right?  He was right: it was a bad joke, the content could have come straight from some asshole's Twitter feed, and you don't get a pass for sexist objectification just because you know what you're doing and admit it in advance.  I was depressed; maybe some of what he thought was his "depressing" stuff would actually have been funny.  But, happily, he did only the one.

Next up was another skinny white boy.  He did two rapid-fire raps of no distinction, and wanted to do a third but the MCs called time on him.  (I must give the organizers credit: the event was well-arranged, and it seemed they were not going to allow the great pitfall of many open mikes: the poet who bogarts the mike to read one dreadful screed after another.)   He surrended the stage readily, to his credit.

Next was a young woman in a buzzcut whose poem, she informed us, was about "trans identity."  (I'm referring to her as "she" because she didn't specify a pronoun, and it wasn't clear whether the poem was about herself -- she left that vague.)  The poem was undistinguished, and could have been written by any of the myriad poet-wannabes I've heard at open mikes over the past five decades.  One innovation: she read the text from her phone.

Finally (for me) a "proud bisexual" male poet took the stage.  His contribution was also a collection of cliches; sincere and well-meant, no doubt, and well-done for what it was, but basically it was MFA fodder.  No doubt he'll go far.  Next up after him was an acquaintance of mine, a local politician around 50 whom I've known since he was in college.  That confirmed my feeling that maybe I should have signed up to read myself -- I could have read a poem from my tablet, since I have most of my work on this blog.  But I had other things to do with the evening, and scooted out, freeing my seat for someone else.

I gather there will be another slam in a month, so maybe I'll sign up for that one.  I would not spend any time introducing my poem, as the other readers felt compelled to do.  That's another cliche of poetry readings that is still evidently with us.  (I began that post with an explanation, because the poem included has confused many people over the years.  It's atypical of my poetry posts here.)  One that wasn't in evidence last night was audience members chattering while the poets read: the audience was quiet and attentive, which was gratifying and a nice change from what I've observed in the past.

So, I'm venting.  But on the whole I was relieved to find that the college poetry scene has not changed, that Sturgeon's Law still applies.  I don't think I've succumbed to old-person nostalgia (which as Adrienne Rich said is just amnesia in reverse), since as I say, only the styles of body ornamentation have changed since the 70s.  Maybe if I'd stayed longer someone would have provided the surprise and revelation that you get when a really good poet, something with something of their own to say, takes the stage.  If I go to another of these, I'll stay for the duration and find out.