Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Doing a Joyful Jig

Jon Schwarz has a new article at The Intercept about a fascinating short documentary film about a pro-Nazi rally in New York City's Madison Square Garden in 1939.  Jon gives the historical background in the article, and links to the film so you can watch it from there.

I'm not nearly as horrified by the film as Jon says I should be.  For one thing, I am pretty sure I'd heard of this "Pro-American Rally" before, and I'd certainly heard of the pro-fascist Roman Catholic priest Father Coughlin, whose wildly popular radio program publicized the rally and helped fill the Garden.  I also know something of the popularity of Nazism in this country: of the stalwart working Americans who would rather have lost the war than work next to Negroes, and of the leading American politicians and business figures who found fascist dictators strangely alluring, both before and after World War II.  More recently I can hardly help being aware of white Americans who are not at all bothered by neo-Nazis' draping themselves in Old Glory and the Stars and Bars along with the swastika, defending Confederate memorials in the name of the White Christian Reich.  The people who do so probably wouldn't call themselves Nazis, but they're clearly willing to make common cause with them, just as their grandparents were.  Or maybe not -- I don't know how their grandparents felt.  But these people are standing now in the American Nazi tradition, which goes back to the 1930s.

I have a few quibbles with Jon's article, though.  At one point he writes:
This is a ferocious, simian exhilaration that can only be felt by someone who is emotionally a child. But there are always many chronological adults waiting for someone to give them permission to lay down the burden of an individual adult’s consciousness. To tell them: We’ve located the culprits causing all your frustration and pain. They look like us, like humans, but they’re not. They’re wearing a disguise. Dissolve with us into this howling mass of protoplasm, and you will be responsible for nothing.
Whether Jon or I like it or not, those people are human -- that's just the problem.  And he knows it, since in the very next sentences he write, he says: "This has happened, at various scales, innumerable times in our species’ history. It’s more profoundly a part of us than anything we think of as “politics.”  So it's not only human, it's "profoundly" human.  And pretending otherwise is not only demagoguery, it's racist: Othering human beings by denying their humanity is how racism works.  As Walter Kaufmann wrote, not only is the criminal like you, you, alas are like the criminal.  We've located the culprits causing our humiliation and pain: they were in Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939, in Charlottesville in August 2017, and so on.

Acknowledging my common humanity with Nazis doesn't mean that I don't oppose them, that I won't criticize them, that I don't see them as dangerous.  (Nor does defending their right of free speech mean that I support them, as many crypto-fascists on the left will claim.  It's the same claim made by fascists on the right, of course: if you defend the rights of homosexuals, you must be a homosexual; if you defend the rights of black citizens, you're a nigger-lover.  Yet both factions see themselves as fundamentally different from each other.)  It means that I know I can't defeat them by assuming they're not human.

The passage I quoted above refers to an incident at the rally:
Then one man, 26-year-old Isadore Greenbaum, rushes the stage. Kuhn’s uniformed minions immediately and beat him. At some point, as the New York police grab Greenbaum and hustle him offstage, his pants are pulled down. Kuhn [the main speaker at the rally] smirks, and the audience erupts in glee...
Perhaps the central moment of “A Night at the Garden” is a shot of a young uniformed boy on stage. He is maybe 8 years old, and part of the Bund youth; he appears smaller and slighter than the others. As the crowd humiliates Greenbaum and drags him away, the boy looks around for affirmation that he is not alone. Then he does a joyful jig, rubs his hands together, and performs his dance again.
This is repugnant, of course, but I couldn't read about it without thinking of liberal Democrats indulging in similar eruptions of glee when some right-winger gets his comeuppance, or even when some smirking hack like Stephen Colbert makes a fag joke about Donald Trump.  Or when a white racist, arrested for assault, or even just fearing arrest, bursts into tears -- if his pants had been pulled down, there'd be joyful jigs by liberals and progressives all over social media.  As there are today, over the first indictments handed down by Robert Mueller, by people who are overestimating how significant they are.  But it doesn't matter: what matters is Bam! Boom! Oh, burn!  As if politics were a spectator sport, our team against their team, which I have to admit it is.  And when they think a right-winger has been humiliated, eviscerated, shredded, why not dance a victory jig, even nothing has been achieved.

Which is why, although I'm disgusted by the mistreatment and humiliation of Isadore Greenbaum, I question his good sense in jumping up onto the stage.  As I've asked before about protestors who fantasized that they, one man or woman, would take Trump down by speaking out at one of his campaign rallies, what did they think they were going to achieve if no one had molested them?  It's another resort to politics as pure spectacle.  Would Clinton fans have felt that she had been decisively defeated if some Trump fan had jumped up onto the platform of one of her campaign rallies?  Far from it: they'd have been outraged by the white patriarchal assault on a strong woman, and on all women.  If someone depantsed him as he was dragged away, there'd be joyful jigs all over social media.

Lest someone try to say so, this is not about "moral equivalence."  The principle of free speech is not about the moral content of your speech, though people all over the political spectrum have immense difficulty grasping this elementary idea.  You can, and should, criticize the content of other people's speech -- though you should also be self-critical about your own.  Freedom of expression makes no guarantees that what is said will be good.  If anything, it guarantees that much of what is said will be bad.  It just means that the State is not allowed to to regulate it.  (We badly need some legal limits on the power of private entities to regulate speech.)

One commenter complained in that direction: "With your rhetoric on shutting down nazi events surprised you don't condemn Isadore Greenbaum, Jewish man who rushed the stage".  Well, that's the question.  If it's okay for him to do it, or for a woman to shout "Black Lives Matter" at a Trump campaign rally, then it's okay for a Trump supporter to yell "Hitlery" at a Clinton rally.  The issue is consistency: what one side is allowed to do, the other side must also be allowed to do.  If liberals condemn the Right for fostering a climate of hate, they are not allowed to foster a climate of hate themselves.  Boasting about your own hypocrisy is even worse: it's exactly what Trump supporters do, so you're congratulating yourself for sinking to their level.  I don't "condemn" Greenbaum; I just don't think he was very smart.  I don't believe he was thinking, and we can't afford not to think -- not in 1939, not now.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Our Atrocities Are Not Atrocious Because Our Motives Are Good

The danger of Trump is, everybody looks good by comparison, everybody can stand up and look like a hero, I mean, I live in Canada, right? So I know.  So I think the logic needs to be, we're not gonna give you a pass because you're better than Trump. We're gonna demand so much more of you, because of Trump...
There's been some attention to a recent Economist/YouGov poll which found that 51% of Democrats have a favorable view of former president George W. Bush, compared to 42% who do not.  A new Fox News poll "puts Bush at 48/46 among Dem voters, 50/43 among Clinton voters."  Predictably, politically correct haters in the pay of Vladimir Putin, like Glenn Greenwald and myself, were displeased.

The Blogger Formerly Known as IOZ argued, sensibly enough, that "This reveals exactly nothing useful about people's political leanings or attitudes except that they are mercurial", because "People have recently heard some okay things about GWB, who they've barely heard about in 8+ years. So, okay, they 'approve.'"  I'd agree more if so many Democrats (including pretty much all the ones I know on Facebook) haven't been defending and justifying this change in attitude.

The usual response, unsurprisingly, is that Bush wasn't as bad as Trump. "No doubt due to a comparison." "It's simple a lizard looks pretty cute and harmless next to Tyrannosaurus Rex." "This is only because we're now dealing with pure crazy in the WH. Even Bush looks ok next to Trump. Sad."  Or: Bush lied to us more elegantly.  This one is particularly funny because Dubya infuriated Democrats back in the day by his often incoherent speaking ("Is our children learning?", "nukular"), his Commander-Codpiece posturing, his clumsy and offensive humor ("Some call you the elite; I call you my base"; "No WMDs over here"; "'Please - don't kill me'")

One of Greenwald's critics wrote, "So I guess we have to hate him for the rest of our lives. No one gets a break at the Intercept right?" (It isn't "have to," it's "get to.") This was a common lament of liberals I know after Bush's recent speech sort-of-denouncing Trump: C'mon, can't you accept that people change? If liberals want to slobber over Bush's probably ghostwritten discovery of high Amurrican ideals, that's their lookout and their right under the Constitution.  As it says right there, The Intercept shall make no law restricting liberals' right to slobber on war criminals.  No one has to hate him if they don't want to.  What's significant is that they are indignant if someone else does hate him.  Let's have some freedom of hatred around here, okay?

And, as I've said often before, "hate" is irrelevant.  Making it personal is a handy distraction from attending to policies and actions.  I believe I've mentioned the young college student I once knew who refused to discuss Bush's policies and actions because she had once attended a dinner in the Governor's mansion when Bush was governor of Texas, and she liked him. That was very nice and all, but what does it have to do with -- just picking an example off the top of my head -- lying in order to start a few wars that cost hundreds of thousands of lives?  As Greenwald wrote years ago, "'trust' is appropriate for one's friends, loved ones, family members and the like -- but not for politicians."  Most of us have no personal connection to politicians at the national level anyway; we shouldn't evaluate them by our reaction to their simulacra on TV and computer screens, but by what they do. What Bush did as President, much of which stands condemned by his speech, should be judged harshly -- all the more so because he has not faced any accountability for it.

When Greenwald wrote with bitter sarcasm, "Stop being so judgmental and purist. They were well-intentioned war crimes. And W jokes with Obama and Ellen", someone took a different tack.  "Question," wrote a user called muddletoes. "Hypothetically speaking, do you see no moral distinction pertaining to the motives which lead to a war crime? Is a G. W. Bush as culpable as a Bashar al-Assad?"

Greenwald didn't reply as far as I saw.  I and some others took the question on.  "I absolutely believe that many sides in many wars are completely indifferent to whether or not they are 'right'. I think that it's a mistake to assume that an equivalent moral calculus exists on both sides," muddletoes wrote. "That's actually the crux of my question to GG. Granted the premise that the US under GWB committed war crimes, and were mistaken to believe that their actions were moral, does it make no difference that a requirement of their reasoning was that their actions be moral?"  The remarkable aspect of per questions is the assumption that the Bush regime believed that their actions were moral, and that, say, Assad does not.  (There's also an assumption that everyone in the Bush regime had the same beliefs on that score.)  When I declared that Bush's actions were amoral, muddletoes brushed that objection aside: "There are contexts in which you could argue that, but on the other hand it doesn't seem like a very useful summation when comparing their actions to, for instance, any of the genocides of the 20th century."  The trouble is that Assad's crimes don't really compare to other genocides of the 20th century either; certainly muddletoes offered no calculus for deciding.

I don't know how muddletoes knows Assad's motives, which in the final analysis are probably as unknowable as Bush's.  This al-Jazeera article probably tells as much as anyone can:
We know from his semi-regular longform interviews that he sees himself as carrying the flame of Syrian unity against a conspiracy of foreign actors looking to destroy Syria.

We know that he denies the existence or use of barrel bombs as he does reports of his government blocking aid to Syrian civilians around the country.

We know that his consistent line is that he is fighting against terrorists and his future will be decided by the Syrian people and nobody else.
In other words, Assad denies that he does bad things, and appeals to noble values like fighting terrorism, appealing to the judgment of the Syrian people; essentially the same rhetoric used by Bush (or Obama) to justify their wars.

I have a question of my own about this, which I've asked in various forms before: If the Bush gang had such noble motives, why did they choose to lie about the reasons for invading Iraq?  They knew perfectly well they were lying, as shown by their evasions, and those of their apologists, when the lies were exposed.  The use of lies to generate popular support for unjust wars is commonly invoked as one of the characteristics of the genocides of the 20th century, which would put Dubya in their camp rather than distinguish him from them.  One must also ask whether high ideals can ever justify aggression, attacks on civilian populations, torture, disappearances / rendition, abrogation of civil liberties at home and abroad, etc.  It's precisely such actions which discredit any pretensions to moral purity.  muddletoes complained that person was being accused unfairly of making an "endorsement of Bush."  I don't think it's unfair at all; I think that trying to ameliorate Bush's crimes by a purely fanciful claim that he acted out of a concern for justice is, if not an endorsement, certainly an apologia for him.

I wrote that I consider such questions a distraction, one beloved of apologists for American crimes.  "Is a G. W. Bush as culpable as a Bashar al-Assad?" is like ranking football teams, making a list in order of your favorite Beatles songs, or asking whether the Predator or the Terminator is more badass.  These are popular American pastimes, but they're irrelevant to the serious problems we face; certainly they're not an acceptable response to them.  Even if Bush deluded himself about the criminality of his actions, that doesn't make him less culpable; or if it does, it might at most shorten his appropriate prison sentence from, say, one hundred consecutive life sentences to ninety.  In the absence of reliable information about the innermost thoughts and motives of either man, it's impossible to compare them, and unimportant.  Assad is not an American ex-President, and Bush is.  As an American, Bush is my business in a way that Assad can't be.

It's also hard for me to see how Trump could make Bush look any better, if one isn't dedicated to a willed amnesia that erases Bush's actual offenses, which aren't limited to the invasion of Iraq or the "war on terror."  Many Democrats clearly are.  His economic policies, for example, were disastrous both for American citizens and for people around the world.  If he now attacks Trump without acknowledging his own culpability, he's just throwing up a smokescreen; if Democrats let him get away with it, they discredit themselves.  Certainly their judgment, their conviction of superior knowledge and rationality compared to the stupid Rethuglicans, is open to serious question.  That's not news, of course; it's just continuity.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Fake News in the Seventeenth Century

I just finished reading The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading (Cambridge UP, 1994) by David R. Olson, which I happened on at a library book sale and turns out to be even more interesting than I expected.  It's one of those wide-ranging books that casts light on many matters.  Not only does it address the psychology of reading and writing, it puts them in historical and cross-cultural context, with forays into their relation to modern Western science and art.

So, for example:
[O]nce a representational format had been developed for factual description, as exemplified by Boyle, for example, that form could be exploited for literary purposes.  Jonathan Swift’s A modest proposal gives no indication that it is irony; it adopts all of the features of an honest proposal.  Even more impressive are the imaginative accounts of imaginary voyages such as those of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Fiction is a new kind of allegorical writing in which literal meanings, that is meanings which normally report truth, are used to report things known to be false.  Medieval allegorical writing, such as Pilgrim’s Progress, made prominent the fact that the writing was allegorical by providing characters with names like Pilgrim and Envy; the story never pretended to be factually true.  Fiction, on the other hand, often pretends to tell the truth.  There is nothing in the fiction to indicate that the account is not factually correct.  Fiction remains allegorical in the sense that the reader comes away thinking he or she has learned something about reality but the reader knows that, counter to its appearance, it is not a factual narrative report.  Consequently, some literary sophistication is required to see truth, now allegorical truth, not factual truth, in fiction; to the uninitiated it appears to be a lie … [229]
Similarly, right into the school years [children] continue to have difficulty understanding irony.  Sarcasm presents less difficulty presumably because it is marked by a strong, sneering intonation.  Sarcasm without intonation is irony.  Children tend to take ironic utterances either as literally true or as lies … To interpret an utterance as ironic requires that the listener or reader grant both that the utterance is not true and that the speaker does not believe it to be true nor want the listener to take it as true and yet that it be taken as informative [252].
As Olson also points out, many adults continue to have difficulty understanding irony.  On reading these passages I thought of the confusion many adults exhibit about satire.  Many people resent it, because they "take ironic utterances either as literally true or as lies."  I think of Harvey Fierstein's grumpy indignation when he learned that the meme he'd posted of Ted Cruz endorsing businesses' right to discriminate on religious grounds was actually satire: "Maybe I'm just tired, but I don't find that kind of crap at all amusing.  These are people's lives and reputations."  I don't believe that he doesn't find such "crap" amusing, as long as it mocks people he wants to see mocked, or that he cares about Cruz' reputation.  (Or was it his own reputation he was worried about, since he's a comic actor and writer revealing that he has no sense of humor?)

I also think of the Clinton Democrats who took an Onion piece at face value, although it was clearly from the Onion and they knew full well that the Onion does satire.  And I think of all the people who have trouble recognizing satire and irony, while fancying that they're smarter than illiterate, ignorant Rethugs.  Learning to recognize irony doesn't come naturally or easily, and Olson goes on to discuss the failure of most schooling to equip students to deal with the complexity of the things they will read -- not just rarefied literary material, but day-to-day stuff.

Not many people had access to the Internet when The World on Paper was published twenty-three years ago, and far from hampering literacy the Internet has made tougher demands on readers' abilities to make sense of what they read.  Much of the fuss over "fake news" springs from confusion about the different kinds of text and video purporting to be news that people will encounter: there's satire like the Onion, which imitates the format of print and TV news for pointedly humorous purposes, there's fraudulent material like the dishonestly-edited videos put by organizations like Breitbart, and there's supposedly real news by respectable institutions like the New York Times or CNN that ranges from the honestly erroneous to the disingenuous to fraudulent stories like Judith Miller's articles that laundered Bush-regime propaganda about Iraq into news (or "news"), which might just as well have come from Breitbart.  And more, none of it really new.  So it's hardly surprising that most people, whose education in literacy was intended to prepare them to read newspapers, fill out forms, and follow recipes, not to to evaluate what they read, have trouble applying their skills in the stormy media seas.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee (Slight Return)

As numerous people have warned, efforts to ban "hate speech" are going to backfire; indeed, they already have.  Today Glenn Greenwald linked to an article about a Canadian Muslim university student who's being disciplined by her school for "for supposedly 'hateful' FB post about Canadian history."  He added: "Lesson here for the left: implementing hate speech penalties will be used against you. For the right: much censorship is against the left."

According to the article Masuma Khan, a vice-president of the Dalhousie Student Union, responded to a criticism of a DSU decision not to participate in Canadian 150th Anniversary celebrations by posting on Facebook that "white fragility can kiss my ass. Your white tears aren't sacred, this land is." The university investigated, and "Khan said she was given the option to undergo counselling and write a reflective essay after the Halifax-based school conducted an investigation into a complaint about her online comments, but she says she refused."
"It was really offensive, to be honest, for the university to tell me that they're going to teach me how to talk about racism in a more collaborative way, when racism is very harsh … there's no nice way to talk about it," the 22-year-old Muslim woman said.

"We're going to do everything we can to let Dalhousie know that this is not OK and it's not appropriate."
I'm not sure how far to believe Khan's account about the restorative justice measure offered to her; according to the article, it appears to have been a first, informal step before the university held a formal hearing.  And I don't think I do particularly trust her word.

The funny part is, by the criteria of those who want to suppress hate speech (probably including herself), Khan's post was hateful.  If someone had written a post addressing her in those terms, I can imagine the fuss that would have ensued.  Khan's complaint about her punishment sounds exactly like a whiny white guy complaining about Political Correctness running amok, right down to the claim that she was just telling it how it is, that's how she rolls.
​"I'm not apologetic for voicing my opinion and using free speech to tell my support systems on my own social media how I feel," Khan said.
"There's a lot of folks that feel that racism doesn't exist anymore, but I think I'm here to be frank and say, 'Hey, that's not reality.'"
As the article quotes her, she stopped just short of accusing the University of Political Correctness before reverting to Culture of Therapyspeak.
Khan said she doesn't regret the online post, but recognizes that it may have hurt some people. That wasn't her intention, she said; she was simply trying to reflect her own experiences dealing with racism.
Nor did it occur to her, evidently, that she herself is just one more Old World colonialist occupying "sacred" lands.

It's hard to decide where to come down on this story.  Like Greenwald, I think college students should be allowed to express their views without being punished for them.  The trouble is that so many college students (like their elders) believe that they should be allowed to express their views freely, but others, those they disagree with, should not.

Can Khan dish it out but not take it?  Would she insist that a white racist should be allowed to respond to her in the same terms she feels justified in using?  I'd bet she can't, and wouldn't.  But even if she can, and would, I would criticize her for her post.  Like so many of our supposedly Internet-savvy youth, she evidently thinks that what happens on Facebook stays here.  If her post were posted privately where only her "support system" could see it, she would have a case, but the article doesn't say, and I suspect the fact that it resulted in this disciplinary action indicates that it wasn't restricted.

But that's not really the issue.  I've addressed the question of civility around here numerous times, and in particular the significance of people venting on social media.  Replies to Greenwald's tweets took on the issue of what online speech should be regulated and suppressed.  Harassment and threats, for example.  The trouble here is that harassment is somewhat subjective, and stopping it requires that some third party adjudicate whether it took place.  Even threats.  Gamergate led to some discussion of the horrific threats directed to others online, and those are what I'd call clear cases.  But what about less clear cases, like the nice Christian liberals who said on Twitter that they wanted to commit violence (via) against Paul Ryan for his icky views about poor people?  I feel pretty sure that if Rethugs had declared the same desires about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, those same Christian liberals would have been infuriated.  In order to decide what constitutes a threat, or harassment, someone has to make a judgment, and not everyone will be happy with those judgments.  There is no way to delegate that job to computer software; there is no mechanical procedure for evaluating the complaints.  From what I see, Facebook's software produces plenty of false positives, that is, it finds harassment and threats and bad thoughts where human beings do not.  But the Internet is too big for human beings to monitor it.  And do you want Facebook employees -- probably overworked and underpaid to boot -- reading everything you post?

Since Khan's obnoxious post wasn't meant as a contribution to debate, let alone dialogue, I can't judge it or her too harshly.  But her attempts to dismiss, let alone justify it as if it were meant for her opponents' eyes suggest to me that she wouldn't do much better in a public forum.  "There's no nice way to talk about [racism]," she told the CBC.  I don't know about niceness, but in public debate one must restrain -- or better, redirect and channel -- one's anger and focus on what is being discussed.  In an important sense, that is what Khan is at a university to learn, and Dalhousie is not out of line in disciplining her to do it properly.  It's not easy, it's not always pleasant, and even many highly credentialed intellectuals fail to do it adequately.  But just throwing feces at one's opponents isn't rational debate.  I'm not saying Khan should be silenced: she is.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Nobody Expects the Politically Correct Inquisition

(I should have written about this a week or two ago, but don't worry -- more of the same kind of material will circulate for as long as Trump is President.  P.S. And I was right: today one of my liberal friends liked a post about Putin defending Trump, which had the added remark: Putin's standing up for "his girlfriend.")

The above cartoon began to circulate after Mike Pence walked out of a football game to make known his displeasure to NFL players taking the knee during the national anthem.  Liberals made much of the fact that the action was planned in advance -- like the players' protests weren't -- and cost the taxpayers perhaps a quarter of a million dollars, which is chump change in the Federal budget.  The same complaint could be made about any president's official visits to disaster sites, or other symbolic gestures, but of course when it's Not Your President or Vice President who's doing it, it's completely different.  The Democratic outrage that ensued was a bit odd, considering how many of these people claim that they regard Pence as a lesser evil that they can deal with when Trump is impeached.  I regarded it all as yet another distraction from the actual purpose of the protests, by making them all about Trump.

But then several people I knew, liberals all, passed along the cartoon above.  It too is far from the worst thing in the world today, but it infuriated me anyway because of the people who thought it was funny.  As with Stephen Colbert's "cock holster" quip, it's not really funny; there's no wit about it, it's just a crude and juvenile homophobic taunt, which means it's not the sort of thing liberals should be spreading.  But evidently they thought it was so hilarious that they had to share it.

Ordinarily I respond to homophobic rhetoric on the Internet with sarcasm -- how nice of woke liberals to show their superiority to Rethuglicans by indulging in homophobic attacks, that sort of thing -- but not this time.  I was direct: it really pisses me off when liberals show how woke they are by indulging in homophobic or misogynist attempts at humor -- which generally fail, as this one does. If you spread crap like this around I don't want to hear any bullshit about how much you care for equality and everybody getting along together. You're not an ally.

A few weeks earlier, Mel Brooks complained in an interview with the BBC that "political correctness is 'the death of comedy'.  He said Blazing Saddles, his Western spoof about a black sheriff in a racist town, could never be made today."  This is bullshit.  Blazing Saddles couldn't have been made just a few years before Brooks made it, not because of "political correctness" but because of the Hollywood Production Code, which was the result of the movie industry appeasing religious (especially Roman Catholic) reactionaries.  (I imagine that it couldn't have been made before the Code was adopted either, because of its flamboyant profanity.)  And even after the Code was replaced with a rating system, Brooks encountered resistance to making and releasing the film.  As I recall from the commentary track on one of the DVD versions, some of the actors Brooks wanted refused to speak the naughty words, and others were understandably uncomfortable about spewing racial slurs on camera.  ("Understandably," because of the well-known tendency of audiences to confuse actors with the roles they play.)

Contrariwise, movies full of racial slurs and profanity are reasonably commonplace today, especially when black filmmakers produce them.  But has Brooks never seen, say, Pulp Fiction, which contains plenty of both?  The racist material in particular seems to be there more simply for the taboo-breaking frisson rather than any dramatic or, as in Blazing Saddles, satirical reason.  I don't believe that "political correctness" is preventing such movies from being made.

Brooks went on to declare piously:
But there is one subject he insists he would not parody.
Referring to World War Two, he said: "I personally would never touch gas chambers or the death of children or Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
"In no way is that at all useable or correct for comedy. It's just in truly bad taste."
However, he says that is the "only thing" he would avoid. "Everything else is OK."
This is passing strange, because one of the sources of Brooks's notoriety was Blazing Saddles' predecessor, The Producers, about a couple of sleazy Broadway impresarios who stage a musical, written by a diehard Nazi, celebrating Hitler.  It's just in truly bad taste.  I've never been able to get through the entire film myself, not because I'm offended but because it's not all that interesting: as in Pulp Fiction, the "humor" comes from the breaking of the taboo.  Brooks has never disowned The Producers, and indeed in his dotage made it into a very successful stage musical.  At any rate, he has his own personal "political correctness," the line he won't cross.

Even more obnoxiously, Brooks tried to exalt comedy, especially his kind of comedy, into a virtually spiritual vocation exempt from criticism.  "Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. It's the lecherous little elf whispering in the king's ear, telling the truth about human behaviour."  Numerous critics pointed out that Brooks was wrong about the jester's traditional role here.  I certainly agree that comedy, like art in general, can and should take risks, even if it offends; but those who are offended can and should speak up.  Traditional racist, sexist, homophobic &c. comedy wasn't meant to take risks, quite the opposite: it afflicted the afflicted while comforting the comfortable.  It couldn't have been made if it had done otherwise.  Because of the ambiguity of art and entertainment, many of such comedy's targets turned it around and found some kind of affirmation in it.  But to pretend that Sambo shows, for example, were intended to "tell the truth about human behavior" is dishonest.

I liked Blazing Saddles because it turned its satire on white racists, but I suspect that many whites liked it because they thought it gave them a license to say "nigger."  As, apparently, many white schoolkids do with Huckleberry Finn, or rap.  I'd hope that it couldn't be made today, though, at least in its original form, because it's too uneven.  (That is typical of Brooks's films, except for Young Frankenstein, which had fewer comic peaks and more valleys as time went on.)  I wasn't offended by the fag-joke soundstage number featuring Dom DeLuise later in the film, but I never found it funny either; it takes no chances, it's a reprise of the 30s-style Hollywood fag jokes itemized in Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet.  The closest it comes to edginess is having some of the rugged cowboys saunter off arm-in-arm with the queeny chorus boys, and that's not close enough.  (Heathers, and numerous other later comedies, came closer.  Colbert's "cock holster" line and the Pence/Trump blowjob cartoon fall even shorter.)  I think that Richard Pryor, who co-wrote it, probably deserves more credit for Blazing Saddles's virtues than Brooks does, if only because on his own Brooks never again reached those heights.

The proof of the comedy, and the satire, is in the laughter -- and people disagree on what to laugh at.  I think again of Ellen Willis's satirical definition of "humorless": it's what you are if you don't think rape, big breasts, or sex with little girls is funny -- but you're not humorless if you're not amused by castration, impotence, or vaginas with teeth.  And if an artist fails to produce the results he or she aimed for, he or she needs to be told.  Yes, comedy should take chances, but taking chances often fails, and while I sympathize with comedians who don't want to be told, they need to know when they fail.  I might watch a comedy about Nazis, the gas chambers, and all the other subjects Brooks rejects -- if it was really funny.  It's a question that can't be answered in advance.  Blazing Saddles only proved itself by being made.  As Joanna Russ wrote, "To apply rigid, stupid, narrow, political standards to fiction is bad because the standards are rigid, stupid, and narrow, not because they are political."  Like comedy, it's hard to do, and not many bring it off.  Nothing is sacred, including comedy.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Hundred Selves

Through the windy night something
     is coming up the path
     towards the house.
I have always hated to wait for things.
     I think I will go
     to meet whatever it is.*
I should probably avoid sites like The Neglected Books Page; it's not as if I need to learn about more books that I might want to read, after all.  There are hundreds of books piled around my apartment that I want to get to, and I hardly need to add to them.  Or do I?  I think that is really a metaphysical speculation, so I'll leave it there.

The fact remains that a couple of evenings going through Neglected Books's archives pointed me to several books that I hadn't known before, and was glad to have discovered.  Isabel Bolton's The Christmas Tree, for example, originally published in 1949, with a gay man as a key character.  And I just finished reading Elizabeth Coatsworth's Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, which pleased me even more.

I've long been interested in books about aging, by aging people, whom I see as pioneers advancing before me into the country of Old Age -- less and less before me as I get older myself.  May Sarton's journals were the first for me in this genre, if genre it be; then Jane Rule's writings, both fictional and autobiographical, about old age.  I've also returned to books by older women writers who were well-known in the mid-twentieth century but are less well-known now.  I tend to think of them as "lady" writers, which I've come to realize is unfair.  Many of them have rather old-fashioned styles, but when I become accustomed to their manner I find that they are more realistic, hard-headed and honest than most of their male contemporaries.  Coatsworth (1893-1986), probably most famous for her 1931 Newbery-Medal children's book The Cat Who Went to Heaven, led quite a life.  She traveled around the world from an early age, usually with her sister or her mother, and didn't slow down much even after she married (rather late) and became a mother.  She and her husband -- also a writer -- settled in Massachusetts and Maine, which puts her close to some other interesting writers, like Sarton, Ruth Moore, and Marguerite Yourcenar.

Personal Geography was Coatsworth's last book, though she lived another ten years after it was published.  It's a collection of short pieces that cover parts of her life from childhood to her years of widowhood.  I was struck by her travel descriptions, some of which took place a century ago, in Europe and Asia very different from what they later became; since she lived into the 1980s, she saw many changes and paid attention to them.  Nor did she idealize the past too much:
I loved China the most.  At that time it was half ruinous, with the especial sadness and poetry that hang like a mist over ruins; I doubt if I should care much for communist China, though it may be a better place to live in [89].
I did not know travel at its dawn, as Marco Polo might have claimed, though he, too, had many predecessors.  But it was at my dawn, and the early light lies on my memories.  We never went on tours, or by schedule: we followed our whims stayed for a day or a week or a month in one place, or struck off at a tangent when someone told us of some wonder.  Only once did some pilgrims to the high Buddhist monasteries of the Korean Diamond Mountains look at us in wonder as the first white people they had seen (and examined our clothing almost to our skin) but we traveled at a time when all ports did not look alike and when people, East and West, wore the clothes their ancestors had worn. I should never feel such joy traveling in today's homogenized world [181-2].
To each her own!  I'm even more impressed by Coatsworth's travels when I consider that this was before air travel, cheap international telephone calls, credit cards, bullet trains, to say nothing of the Internet.  Nor was the world in those days necessarily safer.  I get a lot of joy from traveling in today's homogenized world, and I think I'm too much of a sissy to dare what she, her sister, and her mother dared to do.

Like Ruth Moore, Coatsworth appreciated her rural neighbors but wasn't sentimental about them:
When a lightning storm begins after dark, the farmers and their wives always dress, to be ready to save the stock if the barn is struck.  Fire, the unknown -- one begins to fear the things that the farmer fears.  And one understands more and more their helplessness before bad neighbors or tramps.  Each man is so isolated.  He does not dare make enemies: someone may dig up his potatoes, but the farmer does not dare voice his suspicions; someone may carry away one of his sheep, but he does not dare rouse bad blood, that may end in a burning barn or a fire in his woods [128].
Ah, the good old days!  And she's matter-of-fact about her aging, failing body.
I forget words (the other day I came to a full stop because I had lost "button" from my mind), and generally use a synonym because I know that any word is better than none.  I forget names, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that I have always forgotten them.  The long-ago day comes back to me when a stranger asked me my name -- I was perhaps six -- and the sudden question drove it entirely from my mind.  I still remember the bewildering feeling of "I don't know who I am"; and perhaps I still feel it [157].

These remarks are necessarily self-centered, but not by intention.  They are written primarily for people of my own age or for those who are approaching it, to discuss honestly the problems which we all face.  It is my good fortune to have inherited, nothing so dashing as courage, but acceptance of what cannot be changed, and a willingness to enjoy the small gifts of life which still are so plentiful if one will look for them [158].
She's good company.  I'll hang on to this book, as I have to May Sarton's journals, and refer to it now and then as I catch up with her.
*Elizabeth Coatsworth, Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography (Brattleboro VT: The Stephen Greene Press), p. 183.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Conspiracy Theories for Me ...

Guess who said this:
Much of this is being carried out stealthily, in closed sessions, with as little public notice as possible. Other Republican policies are more open, such as pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, thereby isolating the U.S. as a pariah state that refuses to participate in international efforts to confront looming environmental disaster. Even worse, they are intent on maximizing the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous; dismantling regulations; and sharply cutting back on research and development of alternative energy sources, which will soon be necessary for decent survival.

The reasons behind the policies are a mix. Some are simply service to the Constituency. 
Noam Chomsky, of course.  It's an excerpt from his next book of interviews with David Barsamian of Alternative Radio, due to be published in a couple of months.

I'm an admirer of Chomsky, I've read most of his books on politics, and I've learned a lot from him.  I also have some significant disagreements with him.  Like just about everybody, he's critical of conspiracy theories, but when I read this excerpt it occurred to me that if you took it out of context, you could easily accuse him of being a conspiracy theorist.  (He often has been accused of just that, particularly his discussions of the media.)  Especially the coy epithet "the Constituency," referring to "the Constituency of private power and wealth, 'the masters of mankind,' to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase," but also the dark references to the Republican agenda being pursued and enacted out of the public view.  This is, of course, exactly what is being done in Congress, as with the Obamacare repeal bill -- though also, as Chomsky knows, with Democratic initiatives like the Transpacific Partnership "free trade" pact: when legislators know that they are working on a highly unpopular bill, they will want the populace to remain safely ignorant of what they're doing.

As I've said before, conspiracies do happen, and dismissing theories about them out of hand is dishonest.  The question is the quality of the theories, which is often difficult to assess when you're dealing with secretive activity.  As Richard Seymour wrote (via) earlier this year, one sign of invalid conspiracy theories is their "assumption of omniscience": the conspirators know in advance how their opponents will respond, and have already prepared countermoves to exploit and defuse the efforts of the Resistance.  They are also, in Patricia Roberts-Miller's sense, demagogic: the theorist is the good Us, the conspirators are the wicked Them.

Chomsky isn't a conspiracy theorist, but I think that this interview shows how difficult it is for even a careful thinker like him to avoid adopting the tone and rhetorical tactics of a conspiracy theorist.