Sunday, January 28, 2018

Hold That Thought

I"ve begun reading Louise Erdrich's new novel Future Home of the Living God (Harper, 2017), which so far appears to be a satirical speculative-fiction novel worthy of (now late) Ursula Le Guin, only with a sharper edge.  I love much of Le Guin's work, though I don't think she ever made me even chuckle, and at times she could be obnoxiously pompous.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, I'm not casting the first stone.

But I digress.  It's a pleasure to see Erdrich, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa, skewering some fantasies about Native Americans, starting with her narrator, a twenty-six-year-old adoptee named Cedar Songmaker who learns that her biomom back on the reservation is named Mary Potts, Senior.  Cedar goes to meet her birth family, and muses on the End Times material she sees along the way.  (Something big is happening to the world, that's the speculative-fiction part, but just what hasn't been explained yet.)  I'm taking this as part of the satire, please Jesus:
Perhaps all of creation from the coddling moth to the elephant was just a grandly detailed thought that God was engrossed in elaborating upon, when suddenly God fell asleep.  We are an idea, then.  Maybe God has decided that we are an idea not worth thinking anymore.
Hold that thought.

A week ago, a Facebook friend from high school who's lost the struggle with Christianity posted a link to an online preacher's video dedicated to the proposition that in Scripture, Every. Word. Matters.

Now, this is of course absurd.  I posted a comment pointing out that if every word matters it would have to be words in Greek or Hebrew, and because of textual variation in the New Testament especially, you can rarely be sure what the exact words are.  Few of these variations make any difference in overall meaning or doctrine, but that's just the point.  In that previous sentence I could have written "seldom" rather than "rarely" and the meaning would have been roughly the same, but the exact word would not.  My friend replied that he knew all that, that he subscribes to the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration, and every word of the Bible testifies to God's love and care for us.  We left it there, with me giggling in the eternal silence of the Internet, but the exchange sent me back to James Barr's fine 1977 book on fundamentalism.

Barr pointed out that most fundamentalists officially distance themselves from "dictation" theories -- the idea that the Holy Spirit told the biblical writers exactly what to write, word for word -- but plenary verbal inspiration is mainly an attempt to have a dictation theory without calling it one.  Lay believers like my friend who don't know any language but their own have trouble grasping the problems involved in translation, the difficulty of finding equivalents in one language for the words of another, or the problems raised by textual variation. The phrase "plenary verbal inspiration" ought to include "of the original manuscripts," a late nineteenth-century attempt by Professor B. B. Warfield of Princeton University to make sense of the phenomena.  This inspired more critical scholars to joke about "the Princeton Bible," compiled from the (non-extant) original manuscripts.

Conservative scholars who hold to plenary verbal inspiration have a rough time of it.  In Fundamentalism Barr quotes numerous examples of their efforts to maintain the Bible's freedom from error, for example:
We move to yet another venerated conservative publication, The New Bible Dictionary (Inter-Varsity Press 1962), and J.  A. Thompson there tells us (pp 271f.): “[Genesis] I has an artificial literary structure and is not concerned to provide a picture of chronological sequence but only to assert the fact that God made everything.’  Only that God made everything!  How are the mighty fallen! and how ridiculous a mouse has the mountain of fundamentalist interpretation brought forth!  What radical ‘liberal’ or wild ‘modernist’ did not believe ‘only’ that God had made everything? [Fundamentalism (Westminster Press, 1977), 41-2] 
But it isn't only fundamentalists who resort to such feeble expedients.  The highly sophisticated, non-fundamentalist, ostensibly non-theist philosopher Mary Midgley, drawing on Origen and St. Augustine, wrote that
the Genesis story simply describes the total dependence of all creatures on a ruling benevolent spirit and does this through a myth: an imaginative vision that is the most appropriate way of bringing such vast and mystifying facts within human comprehension.  The details of the story are merely shaped to make this central point clear [The Solitary Self (Acumen, 2010)].
The total dependence of all creatures on a ruling benevolent spirit!  Of course there is no such being, certainly not the god of the Bible, and even such a vaguely platitudinous "central point" is not necessarily or obviously what the writer had in mind.  No doubt he also believed it, but as Barr went on to note:
In fact the only natural exegesis is a literal one, in the sense that this is what the author meant.  As we know from other parts of Genesis, he was deeply interested in chronology and calendar, and he depicted the story of creation in a carefully and deliberately arranged scheme of one week.  As Kevan, cited above, rightly sees, the ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ phraseology clearly indicates that he thought of a day such as we understand a day to be; but that is only one of the multitudinous details of the story which show that the seven-day scheme is essential to his way of describing the creation [42].
In other words, the author of Genesis, though he or she probably would have agreed with Midgley about the dependence of all creatures on their creator, had other fish to fry.  All those multitudinous chronological details aren't there as mere ornament, they have a function, and it won't do to brush them lightly aside.  The irony here is that though Midgley, the daughter of a parson, despises fundamentalists, she interprets the Bible like one.  Or vice versa -- as Barr shows, fundamentalist scholars often interpret the Bible as if they were liberals.  The same is true of the message my Facebook friend finds in Scripture.  I don't believe it, either as a governing principle of the universe or as "the" overarching message of the Bible, but it's a doctrine that the most liberal, even wildly modernist Christian could agree on.  You wouldn't even have to be a Christian to believe it; such platitudes are beloved of theists of many stripes.

So back to the passage I quoted above from Louise Erdrich.  I hope it's satire, though I fear it's the kind of vacuity that even the bitterest satirists will come up with to show that they're really big softies at heart.  Once again I'm disappointed by the conceptions of gods that people who reject conventional religion come up with: in this, a deity who nods off at its station, allowing his creation to fall apart.  Cedar's musings would be better reversed, I think: If God has lost interest in us, that doesn't trump our interest in ourselves. God is an idea, an idea we should decide is not worth thinking anymore.

Friday, January 19, 2018

It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know

I understand perfectly the human tendency to get deeply involved with fiction.  When you're talking about a story, it's natural to take the background conditions as given.  But this fangirl post on Star Wars, by Emily Asher-Perrin, from crosses a line.  The title is "The Rebellion Won Because They Treated Their Droids Like People."
The Separatists, the Empire, and the First Order all have poor track records when it comes to treating any non-human with even basic decency, to say nothing of empathy. The Empire in particular has a track record of enslaving other races, so it’s hardly surprising that they would fail to view droids as worthy of consideration. But the detriment of this philosophy becomes plain as binary sun daylight when you realize all it has cost them ...
Admittedly, in the interest of balance Asher-Perrin admits that "Even the heroes have their own prejudices to overcome in this regard."  But she concludes:
There’s still no question about it. If the “bad guys” of Star Wars actually bothered to think of droids as sentient beings worthy of attention and consideration, they’d have won every single war. It wouldn’t have been difficult either; just let their own droids develop personalities and treat them like crew and soldiers and operatives. Listen to what they have to say, particularly when they make note of some weird droid hanging around a datacore.
Guess we should just be real grateful that they never thought of that.
I won't ask who "we" are, who should be grateful that the bad guys were so clueless about the droids.  I have no stake in the outcome of these movies, other than that of any spectator following a storyline.  The issue is that Rebellion won because their creators, the writers of the franchise, wanted them to, just as the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation triumphed over the nasty, uppity blacks because their creators wanted them to.  Imagine someone writing that the blacks in Birth of a Nation were crushed because of their obvious moral faults, their rebellion against American Christian values: if you want to beat the Klan, don't lust after white women.

Birth of a Nation, of course, is based loosely on American history.  It sides with the resurgent white racist reaction that rehabilitated the Confederacy for most white Americans, hence its immense popularity; it was in box-office terms the Star Wars of the first half the twentieth century.  (Another big hit, Gone With the Wind, inhabited the same American imaginary; I take it that's no coincidence.)  Star Wars is a completely imaginary world, which frees it even more from the constricting bonds of reality.

Am I saying that Star Wars is the same as Birth of a Nation?  Of course not.  I'm saying that what happens within a fiction proves nothing about the real world, and that a different story can prove the opposite.  The droids in Star Wars have roughly the same dramatic function as the house-elves in the Harry Potter series.  The Wizards treated the house-elves badly, but they still beat Voldemort.  What does that prove?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Embracing The Barbaric Yawp

I've been reading a number of satirical novels about academia lately.  It started by chance, but then a friend, an academic, mentioned another one to me (Robert Grudin's Book), and I began thinking about the genre a bit.  I may or may not write on this topic at length, but I'm near the end of David Lodge's 1975 novel Changing Places now, and found a passage that I feel compelled to quote.

The premise is that two professors of English literature, one English and one American, take each other's places in their institutions.  The story began slowly, but became much more engaging as Lodge developed some entertaining complications.  It even made me laugh aloud a few times, which these novels almost never do.  What I'm going to copy here isn't one of the laugh-aloud passages; it is, I think, more interesting than that.  The Brit, sitting in a coffeehouse toward the end of his American stay, suddenly has an epiphany:
He understood American literature for the first time in his life that afternoon, sitting in Pierre's on Cable Avenue as the river of Plotinus life flowed past, understood its prodigality and indecorum, its yea-saying heterogeneity, understood Walt Whitman who laid end to end words never seen in each other's company before outside of a dictionary, and Herman Melville who split the atom of the traditional novel in the effort to make whaling a universal metaphor and smuggled into a book addressed to the most puritanical reading public the world has ever known a chapter on the whale's foreskin and got away with it; understood why Mark Twain nearly wrote a sequel to Huckleberry Finn in which Tom Sawyer was to sell Huck into slavery, and why Stephen Crane wrote his great war-novel first and experienced war afterwards, and what Gertrude Stein meant when she said that 'anything one is remembering is a repetition, but existing as a human being, that is being listening and hearing is never a repetition'; understood all that, though he couldn't have explained it to his students, some thoughts do often lie too deep for seminars ... [195 of the 1978 Penguin edition].
Reading this passage in the context of the novel, I understood it too.  It's a notably generous insight to give a protagonist in an academic novel, most of which are extended sessions of Ain't It Awful.  Lodge is, unlike most of the authors of such books I've read, smarter than his characters, yet he doesn't look down on them.  He's written more academic novels, and I think I'll end up checking them out too.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

How to Be Good

I was about to start bitching yesterday about the reports that Oprah Winfrey plans to run for the US presidency in 2020 -- just what America needs: another uber-rich celebrity President with no political experience, right? -- but then I started reading Betty Smith's 1963 novel Joy in the Morning (Doubleday) and cheered up remarkably.

Smith is best known for her autobiographical first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, published in 1943.  I knew of it only because the title featured in so many Warner Brothers cartoons, though I finally read it three years ago and was impressed enough to want to read more of her work.  I picked up a copy of Joy in the Morning at a used book sale not long ago, and yesterday I took it out of one of the piles of to-be-read books on my living room floor.  I was a bit wary of it, I admit, because as fine as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was, it was fairly grim, depicting a childhood of grinding poverty in early twentieth-century New York.

But Joy in the Morning lived up to its title.  Set in 1927, it's the story of Carl and Annie Brown, newly married and relocated from Brooklyn to an unnamed college town in the Midwest.  Carl is twenty and studying law, Annie is eighteen and had to leave school at fourteen, but loves to read and wants to write.  Contrary to the assumption of all the adults around them, they are not marrying because Carl got Annie pregnant: in fact, they are both virgins at their (civil) wedding.  Carl knows about contraception and is determined that they won't become parents right away.  Not too surprisingly, the best-laid plans don't work out in that department.

Smith periodically switches viewpoint to Carl and other characters for a page or two, but Annie is the focus of the novel, and it is she who cheered me up.  She's positive without being bland or syrupy, and that I think is no mean achievement.  She isn't sure of herself, she feels inferior next to Carl because of her lack of schooling, she has her blind spots and prejudices, but she overcomes these weaknesses through conscious effort and a determined refusal to let herself be treated as less than a person.  So, for example, there's this scene, where Annie recalls her mother's reaction to being told that Annie was going to marry and move away:
"I can't wait, Mama.  I got to get married."
"You got to?  Did you say you got to?"
"It's not what you think, Mama."
"Tell me what I think.  Tell me."
"You're hurting my arm, Mama."
"I said, tell me!"
"It's better that you don't know."
"When was your last period?"
"Don't say ugly things, Mama."
"Don't you tell me what to say, you ... you tramp!"
"Mama,  if you say that again ..."
"You went too far, Mama."
"How dare you raise your hand to me!  When I think ... when I think how I suffered bringing you into the world, the sacrifices I made for you ... " [7]
The only indication that Annie offered physical resistance to her mother's violence is that "How dare you raise your hand to me!"  I don't know whether to read it to mean that Annie hit her, pushed her away, or simply took her hand off her arm.  The important thing is that it shows that despite her lack of self-confidence, there are limits beyond which Annie will not be pushed, even by her mother.

This scene does show one of Annie's weaknesses: she is comfortable enough in her body, she enjoys marital sex with her husband, she's fairly non-judgmental about other people's lives -- but she is intensely uncomfortable talking about these things.  She knows that Carl uses condoms, for example, but considers it nasty for him to say the word.

Similarly, when Carl defends his mother's misjudgment of Annie:
"She said she was sorry."
"An easy thing to say after she had the fun of telling me off.  Does she think 'sorry' is a word like a rubber eraser she can use the rub out the dirty way she thought of me and the things she said?" [17]
And when Carl tells her never to change over their wedding dinner:
"Oh, I couldn't give you a guarantee on that.  No."
"Why not, Annie?"
"Well, the world is full of people."
"No kidding!"
"And people are persons."
"You mean individuals."
"All right.  Individual persons.  Persons change.  A person gets old and old makes him different.  So he changes whether he wants to or not."
"I ask you a simple question, my girl, and you go all away around the mulberry bush."
"All I'm saying is, persons have to change.  I am a person.  I will change." [21]
Annie is mostly outgoing, curious about the world and the people in it, determined not to be limited by her lack of schooling or class status.  So she makes friends, reads omnivorously thanks to the university library (to which she has access through Carl), eavesdrops on and finally audits classes, and begins writing plays.  Until I was about three-quarters of the way through the book I was afraid that she was going to be punished somehow, and not until I finished was I really sure she wouldn't be.  The novel ends with the birth of their first child, their first wedding anniversary, Carl's graduation, and Annie's nineteenth birthday.  Initially I'd thought that Smith had set Joy in the Morning so far in the past so she could follow them until the time of publication, and I'd have been happy to see that; but it ends in early 1929 -- a few months before the Great Crash, just as some gay male fiction is set to end just before the arrival of the AIDS epidemic.

One reviewer on Amazon called Annie "petulant."  I can see why she'd annoy a certain kind of person -- someone like her mother, say -- but it's definitely the wrong word.  I liked her because despite her intense desire to be liked, she won't let anyone abuse her, not even her husband, which I think is what that reviewer objected to.  She has a core belief that people, starting with herself, shouldn't be treated badly.  Carl is also quite likable, by the way, and though he's a fairly conventional middle-class boy in many respects he is ready to put aside his expectations and adjust to Annie, just as she adjusts to him.  I've said before that one shouldn't look to fiction for a reliable guide to the workings of relationships, but I thought that Joy in the Morning provides a plausible account of how a happy marriage might work.

It also reminded me of something the critic Marvin Mudrick wrote in a review of a book on Chaucer from the 1970s, which has stayed with me ever since I first read it.  (In fact this passage was quoted in a review of Mudrick's book, Books Are Not Life But What Is? [Oxford, 1979], and it led me to buy and read it.)
Howard has a fund of jazzy generalizations, as when he defends the dull Parson against the fascinating Pardoner: "If goodness is dull in literature -- if Milton's Satan is more interesting than God, Iago more exciting than Desdemona -- this is a fact not about goodness or about literature but about ourselves.  Take someone to the zoo and he wants to see the snakes."  But it doesn't occur to him that nothing in life or literature is more interesting and exciting than goodness: that Troilus, Criseyde, and Pandarus are all both good and wonderfully interesting; so too Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Elliot, Sophocles' Antigone, Pushkin's Tatyana, Trollope's Plantagenet Palliser, Lawrence's Tom Brangwen; so most of all the character Chaucer in Chaucer's poems, who is the best human being on record and marvelously interesting.  And when someone takes me to the zoo I want to see the swans [184].
I still basically agree with Mudrick, though I think there's some sloppy, lazy thinking on his part here no less than on his target's.  I do agree that nothing in life or literature is more interesting and exciting than goodness.  I can quibble about some of his chosen examples of literary goodness, but who couldn't? Most of my favorite characters are good people, and I don't think I can think of any favorites who aren't.  (The bit about God also reflects less on God than on Milton, I should think, but I've also complained that given the opportunity to invent good gods, people always seem to invent monsters.)  I believe I was bothered slightly by the snakes/swans contrast from the beginning, though: snakes are not evil, and swans aren't good.  I don't think that moral goodness applies to non-human animals, and certainly not to entire species.  But Annie and Carl are good without being goody-goody, and wonderfully interesting, which is very much to Betty Smith's credit.  I'm grateful to her for giving me a hand out of the Slough of Despond today.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

He Do the Donald in Different Voices

Okay, I'm having an existential crisis here.

I encountered this clip in a thread on Twitter this morning.

The actor Peter Serafinowicz has done a long series of these videos.  (He's done a few with other voices, like Sophisticated Trump, but there are dozens of Sassy Trumps.)  Part of me loves what he's doing, but most of me was instantly wary, which was confirmed when I found that Stephen "Cockholster" Colbert had Serafinowicz on his show and played this very clip.

I could interpret Serafinowicz' project in ways that wouldn't reflect badly on it, but they're not relevant, because it's a safe bet that most people will read it as a major fag joke, one that liberals can roar over without feeling that debilitating liberal guilt.  They can vent their homophobia on a safe target, a certified Bad Guy.  That's why Colbert picked it up: it's the kind of fag-baiting he likes.  Even if Serafinowicz were gay himself (I have no information one way or the other), he'd be enabling and perpetuating liberal bigotry.

And yet I do find Sassy Trump funny.  Partly because Serafinowicz does it well: he's an experienced voice actor.  Partly because there is an uncanny fit between Trump's facial expressions and body language and the queeny voice Serafinowicz gives him.  My first years in a gay community included the society of many people who sounded just like Sassy Trump.  (It would be an interesting experiment to do the same thing to, say, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, and see if it worked as well.  Or to Hillary Clinton, maybe.)  Partly because I grew up in an antigay society which used gay stereotypes to impugn the masculinity of men it wanted to discredit.  Partly because in the gay community I joined in the early 1970s we did that ourselves, deflating straight men and other gay men whose manly pretensions we wanted to undermine.

If only queens saw these clips, my judgment would be different.  But I don't believe that most viewers will see them as I do, and for young sissies it can't be comfortable to see themselves used as the butt of liberal anti-Trump agitprop.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

If You Don't Know, I'm Certainly Not Going to Tell You!

Two passages from Morality and Expediency: The Folklore of Academic Politics (Blackwell, 1977) by the anthropologist F. G. Bailey.  I've read, enjoyed, and learned from Bailey's work before, but I picked up this particular book because I've found myself reading some famous satirical works on academia lately, such as Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, Robert Grudin's Book, and Frederick C. Crews's The Pooh PerplexMorality and Expediency is based on the English academic Bailey's fieldwork in some American universities, and I felt sure he'd have some useful things to say.  He did, though for me their usefulness goes beyond the Ivory Tower.

The contempt in which a 'popularizer' is held, particularly when he is himself a member of the academic community, comes about for several reasons.  Firstly, he is using the discoveries of other people to make money or reputation for himself: the fact that special talents are needed to market the stuff (so that in fact he does add something), is usually ignored.  Secondly, in the process of popularizing he is likely to dilute and distort: the fact that dilution may be a necessary price for the dissemination of knowledge is ignored. Thirdly, at the back of all this, lies a dominating myth among academics about their own superiority.  Knowledge, for whatever reason accessibly only to the few, is by that very fact superior to knowledge accessible to anyone.  It is all strangely economic: knowledge is valuable in proportion to its scarcity.
In fact this argument is never taken to its logical conclusion, at least by scholars: for the conclusion must be that any sharing of knowledge dilutes it.  But that will not do, since, by definition, knowledge (as distinct from mystical experience or revelation) exists only to the extent that it is disseminated, that is, shared with other people [21].
I don't think I agree with the line Bailey draws here between "knowledge" and "mystical experience or revelation," because revelation, at least, tends to be shared and disseminated, though with the same ambivalence about the process.  On the one hand, the revelation will be polluted by the unclean ears of the many, so must be reserved for the few who have shown themselves worthy; hence the commands in books of revelation to seal up the material until the time is fulfilled, or Jesus' secrecy about his status, to the point of teaching in parables in order to keep "those outside" from understanding and being saved (Mark 4:10-12). On the other hand, the revelation often includes a command to spread the word like seed cast by a sower (also Mark 4), and in the New Testament book of Revelation, the order not to seal the book, for the time is near (Revelation 22:10).

That popularizers are also distrusted, even despised, by scientists no less than other academics, is among other things a sign of the common origins of science, religion, and magic.  On one hand, the rabble are despised for not being willing (or able, depending on the presuppositions of the elitist) to learn the Truth; on the other hand, to attempt to teach them, to let knowledge out of its pen to wander freely in the world, is inevitably to dilute and distort the Truth that only the elect can know.

But this ambivalence also turns up in the arts.  I've mentioned before the composer who despised laypeople for loving the wrong music for the wrong reasons, and speculated that those who make art will inevitably understand it differently than those who consume it.  I first began thinking seriously about this problem, though, when Nirvana's Nevermind became a platinum-selling hit in the early 1990s and I saw people fuming about it online.  They'd been fans before the band signed with a major label, when they could think of Nirvana as esoteric knowledge reserved for the wise few, and they were furious that the masses were going to pollute Art once again with their unclean ears.  I realized that those who see themselves as elites may lament the fact that Artists are despised and rejected (again the language comes from biblical precedents) by the ignorant rabble, but if the rabble suddenly embrace an Artist's work it isn't because their taste has miraculously improved but because the Artist has sold out, gone over to the Dark Side, prostituted himself.  (Myself, I never could hear much difference between Nevermind and Nirvana's earlier work, but then I too am a man of unclean ears and lips, though I have heard the word of Kurt.)

And yet I don't think that the people who were so upset by Nirvana's sudden popularity thought of themselves as elitists; they probably saw themselves as marginalized outsiders, anarchists, the common people trampled on by big business, and they'd thought Cobain and the guys were just guys like them.  The same would be true of the early Christians.  Jesus, after all, had taught that only a few would pass through the narrow gate that leads to salvation, so it couldn't have been only the rich (a small minority in any society) who were going to be damned.

There's a similar confusion among the right-wing Republican base of the Tea Party and of Donald Trump's presidency: on the one hand they are a pitiful minority persecuted by godless brown and black people, transgenders, and extreme liberal media; on the other, they are America, We the People, hear them roar, and the government should govern as they demand.  I also detect echoes of the ambivalence police (also a Trump constituency) have toward the public: on the one hand, a sentimental stance of service and protection; on the other, a paranoid sense that the public misunderstands them, won't support them, blames them first for everything that goes wrong.

Bailey goes on to discuss the conflicting attitudes academics have toward the outside world that supports them.  The University produces and stores Knowledge and Wisdom; it is utterly distinct from and must maintain a wall of separation between itself and the World (the religious precedent again) -- but therefore the public should feel honored to support it; on the other, the public are stupid and can never understand the Truth, so the wise elites of the University are entitled to extract "resources from the outside world without giving anything in return" (40).  These attitudes are also echoed in the arts and sciences.  They are somewhat caricatured, but like any caricature they are recognizable.

The arena [as opposed to the 'elite'] committee tends towards the public model.  The members of the committee are representative of bodies outside, to which they are accountable and to which they must report back, and the awareness of this potential audience will push members towards posturing and the language of principle and policy, and away from a gossip-like exchange about persons.  Furthermore, since altercation has to be contained if anything is to be done, there may be a tendency to develop rules of etiquette, and with that would appear the suspicion that the committee's work is becoming ritual and ceremonial, leaving the real decisions to be taken elsewhere.  In practice, this descent and fall is usually arrested, because the contestants begin to see the necessity for collusion and for concealing from their followers some of the deals they make with the opposition.  The Planning Sub-committee is an example: the crude antagonisms of its earlier days have been softened a little by increased formality but more by a growing camaraderie and spirit of give-and-take among the members [72].
This made me think of government, especially above the local level.  It's a description of an arena committee like the US Congress, for example, no less than of a university faculty Senate.  The public face of the legislature allows for a lot of grandstanding and posturing, and much work must (therefore?) be done out of the public view.  Members of Congress are representative not only of the voters but of non-voters, and of their donors.  I've often noticed that many citizens talk, at least, as though they believe that their legislators should know what they want or need without being told, and should produce laws cut to order when just one citizen (themselves, of course) confronts them and tells them what he or she wants.  This is impossible even in smaller bodies, like a university senate, because as Bailey says, there is no objectively correct way to divide up limited resources: everybody thinks their wishes and interests are most important and should get attention.  So,
in those small committees which are designed to take or recommend action, just because they are nearer to reality than the larger assemblies, the unpncipled business of compromise behind the scenes -- one of the main indicators of the community [as opposed to the organizational] style -- takes place.  This in turn reinforces the need for secrecy, because there are no public principles -- other than 'reasonableness, which means refusal to stand on principle -- by which they decisions can be defended [66].
I also found useful the distinction Bailey draws between "organizations," based on principles and accountability, and "communities," based on interpersonal relationships, where to "ask for accountability is at best a misunderstanding and at worst a wicked perversion  of the true nature of the institution" (12).  Of course every institution is at the same time a community and an organization, and while it must be decided which mode is proper for dealing with a problem, there is no objective (or public) way to decide it.  Reading a liberal Democrat's account of her interaction with Elizabeth Warren through these filters is revealing: on the one hand, the writer sees herself as a member of a community shared with Warren, whom she evaluates as a person, but also as a member of an organization unfortunately dragged down by the proles, because "we [the wise elites, the Party insiders] are always talking policy but the voters are always choosing on personality."  As I've argued, it isn't true that the voters don't care about policy, and certainly this writer chose on personality; some mixture of the two will probably be present in every individual.

Reading Morality and Expediency, then, reminds me how much I need to learn about real-world politics.  It also fits with what I've been learning about the impossibility of distinguishing science from religion, or the arts from politics, or any number of human institutions from each other: what I, and others, tend to see as specific traits of each turn up in all the others.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Rorschach Snapshots

I'm always reading about how difficult it is to understand text on the Internet, though I insist that the difficulty is inherent in written texts, printed or handwritten, wherever you encounter them.  Reactions to this photograph have confirmed my belief that the same is true of images.

"Nobody can explain exactly why, but it's an incredibly stirring image", Glenn Greenwald wrote when he retweeted it.  The best response I saw was "The juxtaposition of his skin with the clothing of the people behind him. His semi-submergence and awestruck look. Biblical, almost. As if he's undergoing a baptism in stark relief to the selfies and cameraphones behind him."  I suspect that one reason why the image is so stirring is precisely that it defies a simple interpretation.

Aside from that one and a few others, I was entertained by the wildly varying interpretations people put on the boy's facial expression.  "A perfect mix of awe and hope."  "Poor scared and alone."  "I see loneliness, but also a soul open to wonders and beauty."  "Fear of the unk[n]own."  "POOR KID LOOKS SCARED."  "We are all the boy, wet and alone staring at the sky hoping."  And so on.  Some commenters seemed to think that the picture was taken in North America (or thought that Rio was in North America), and said he looked cold.  That's possible, but "Due to the resort's tropical climate, the sea is always warm enough for swimming year-round in Rio de Janeiro."  I haven't been able to find what the temperature was that night, but right now, at 7 p.m. Indiana time, it's 79 degrees Fahrenheit in Rio.

Images -- not just photographs -- give an illusive impression of concreteness compared to written material.  One problem is that a photograph is a slice of time, an instant captured and frozen.  So, for example, some people contrasted the boy with the people behind him taking selfies, and read him as a pure spirit reacting to the beauty of the fireworks.  But it's not impossible that he'd already taken a selfie, or took one later.  I doubt that the photographer would have bothered to circulate this image if the boy had been taking a selfie while he was photographed.  People tend to forget that these powerful images are selected, usually from among many, even if they aren't manipulated in other ways.

People say that A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words, and sometimes it is, depending on what how the picture is being used.  But a picture can generate thousands of words, as people try to interpret it.  As with a written text, interpretations can be tested against the original to some extent: if someone says that this photograph was taken at high noon, that the boy is a white man drinking a Mai Tai in a chair on the beach, those are factual statements that can be corrected or at least disputed.  But what the boy's expression means, what he was feeling and thinking, can't be known simply by looking at the picture.  If he were standing right in front of you, you still couldn't know -- unless you asked him.  And one of the most popular phenomena in human life is to find rationalizations for declaring that another person doesn't know what he or she feels or thinks.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Top 17 of 2017

2018 is off to a good start: my router (or whatever it's called) went out last night, so I have no Internet at home, and no phone either (thanks, U-Verse!).  Luckily my cell phone works, though I'm not counting on it too heavily, because Sprint service went out in my area from Friday evening until Saturday afternoon.  Ah, Technology...  Anyway, a few places with wifi are open on the holiday, so I can try to begin the year with a post. 

I posted even less in 2017 than in 2016, breaking the record I set then.  But I think that traffic went up; it seemed that there were more posts with 200+ views than there were last year.  If so, that's encouraging.  I'll try to post more in 2018.

17. Those Who Manufacture History Get to Repeat It Over and Over Again.   What would happen if North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons?  Would the US stop threatening war against it?  I doubt it.

16. Eliminate the Fake Tribalism, Give Us the Real Tribalism.  I gripe again about misuse of the word "tribalism" by left and liberal writers.

15. It's All Fun Until Somebody Loses an Election.  On Patricia Miller-Roberts's recent book Demagoguery and Democracy, a fine introduction to critical thinking about politics.  Much better than NPR pundit Brooke Gladstone's attempt to cover the same subject.

14And Don't Hold the Guacamole.  On Carol Emshwiller's satirical fantasy novel Carmen Dog, in which women turn into non-human animals and other non-human animals turn into women.

13. Those Who Think They Remember History.  On liberals and progressives who think they're learning from history but are just repeating past mistakes.  With nostalgia for the right-wing propaganda I grew up on in the 1950s and 1960s. 

12Political Correctness Run Amok Is Destroying Our Country!  Some musings inspired by Donald Trump's Politically Correct complaint about Kim Jong Un being mean to him.

11At Least He Didn't Live to See Reddit.  One of several posts I wrote grumbling about the tendency to treat cultural complaints from decades ago as if they were predictions of the present, rather than complaints about conditions at the time.  This inability to think historically is how believers are able to read biblical material as "prophecy"; the funny part is that the people who are finding Sagan and Orwell prophetic mostly would sneer at people who believe in biblical prophecy.

10One Wants One's Gender-Neutral Pronoun.  This one didn't turn out as well as I hoped, but it still got some attention.  I'm still trying to think through the significance of gendered or non-gendered pronouns and their relevance to current controversies about identity.  Maybe I'll do another draft of this as a new post later on. 

9Theory Bombing.  I hope I'm not mistaken for one of the people who gripe about "theory" in academe; I think theory is just fine. The trouble is that so many people do theory badly.  I recently reread Frederick Crews's famous 1960s takedown of literary theory, The Pooh Perplex, as well as some hopefully satirical novels about academia from various eras.  Probably I'll have more to say on this topic before too long.  Meanwhile, I would be pleased if my new intervention, "theory bombing," were to catch on in theoretical writing.

8#ShesNotWithYou  As it turned out, the activist response to Trump's depredations has been stronger than I expected, and I don't mind being wrong about that.

7Zombie Liberalism.  Or, Slut-Shaming For Me, But Not For Thee.  It's uncanny how closely liberal and progressive political discourse has modeled itself this year on right-wing precursors.

6Christian Gematria.  I'm fascinated by the ways people construct for extracting authoritative meaning from texts and other unlikely sources.  (Also from the methods they find for not getting the plain meaning, or what seems to be the plain meaning, of a text.  But that's another story.)  Facebook is full of this sort of thing, but it's very old and very widespread, found among educated intellectuals as well as simple folk. 

5.  Cut!  This is one of my favorite posts from last year.  I chose it for Batocchio's latest Jon Swift Memorial Roundup.  But it already had gotten plenty of traffic by then.  I'd been meaning for some time to write about attitudes to circumcision, and then a Facebook post by Samuel R. Delany got me started.

4Sometimes I Feel Like This.  Don't bother clicking through on this one.  I shouldn't put up posts which are nothing but embedded Youtube videos, because (as here) Youtube videos have a tendency to disappear.  The clip showed two elderly people trying to walk up a down escalator, so slowly that they got nowhere.

3Faith Is the Substance of Things Hoped For.  This one is mainly a commentary on a good Politico article on how Trump voters feel about him now.  I was struck by how exactly the excuses they made echoes Obama fans' excuses for their guy while he was President.

2It's the Stupidity, Stupid!   One of my contributions to the ongoing debate over why people voted for Trump, inspired by a Mehdi Hasan article at The Intercept.

1Kicking Away Tiny Tim's Crutch Because He Voted For Trump.  This post had far and away the most views, because Naked Capitalism linked to it.  (Another blogger also picked it up -- thanks!)  It's not what I consider my best of the year, far from it, but I'm glad it got the attention.  Liberal pundit Eric Alterman, whom I've discussed here before, posted a shamefully inhumane, Trumpworthy tweet that drew a lot of criticism; I joined the dogpile.