Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Imagine There's No Countries

A regular reader of this blog wrote in e-mail that yesterday's post and the work of another blogger had "demolished any tiny shred of patriotism and hero worship left."  I think his remark was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but hey, I'm always happy to be of service.

The media fuss over a Malian (undocumented) immigrant who climbed a Paris apartment building to rescue a four-year-old child reminds me just how skeptical I am about "heroes."  I think that Mamoudou Gassama probably qualifies as a hero if anyone does, but of course you can't stop there: he's a superhero and the media have dubbed him Spiderman (though Spiderman wouldn't have climbed, he'd have swung up on his web in one go).  French President Macron promised Gassama that he will be fast-tracked for naturalized citizenship, so of course the media are reporting that Gassama is already "made a citizen."  And so on.

One trouble I see with the concept of the Hero is that it reduces a person to a geometrical point, and almost no one will bear the kind of scrutiny a point receives.  First, though I hope I'll be proven wrong, I predict that Gassama will turn out to be less than a perfect role model in some way (if being black and a Muslim weren't enough); maybe he'll turn out to have a criminal record in Mali, maybe there'll be drugs or domestic abuse or something of the kind, and the media and the French government will turn on him as quickly and easily as they fawn on him now.  Second, maybe he'll turn out to be a total Boy Scout, but his squeaky clean perfection will be used as a club to beat every other undocumented immigrant in France and elsewhere because they aren't superheroes, just ordinary schmoes looking for a better life away from poverty or violence.  Heroes are like saints: the concept is constructed to foster unrealistic expectations of the hero/saint, who can then be trashed gleefully when he or she turns out to be human after all, and serves to deprecate real human beings.  The best hero or saint, of course, is a dead one, a plaster idol who can be merchandised, a brand beyond criticism or question.

I've often been asked angrily by hero-worshipers who've idols I've slighted if I have any heroes, or even anyone I admire.  There's a big difference between having a hero and admiring someone.  As I've written before, there are many people I admire; that doesn't mean I'm unaware of their flawed humanity, or that I care.  Mamoudou Gassama's heroism in climbing a building to save a child would not be diminished if he turned out to be very seriously flawed; but it also would not excuse those flaws.  The hero-worshiper stumbles on this point.  Any flaws must be denied, and if they can't be denied they must be minimized, explained away, and forgotten as soon as possible.  I don't worship anyone or anything, though I confess that when I was younger I could be pushed into a defensive posture about people I admired; I think I've learned better over the years.

So, for a relatively easy example, I admire Bree Newsome, who climbed a South Carolina statehouse flagpole to take down a Confederate flag that was flying on it.  That took some courage.  But she's a religious nut, and has said numerous things that I disagree with.  I feel no big dissonance about this, partly because I've never met her and probably never will.  But if I did, the admiration I feel for her courageous act in Charlotte wouldn't deter me from disagreeing if she said something I thought needed to be disagreed with.  It's not an either/or thing, and it speaks badly for those who think it is.

As for patriotism, I've had many entertaining and instructive exchanges about it over the years.  One of my go-to catchphrases is that patriotism is the first refuge of scoundrels.  The more I argue with liberals who want to preserve or reclaim the term, the more I'm sure it's an empty word and has no positive uses.  My progressive Diversity Manager Friend, for example, has denounced the NFL's decision to punish athletes who take a knee as protest before football games as unpatriotic, the real un-patriotism.  He has declared that patriotism isn't coercive, doesn't involve forcing people to sing the anthem or genuflect to the flag, so the NFL bosses are the ones who are really unpatriotic.  One could play the No True Patriot game, I suppose, which is the only way his claims make any kind of sense.  It seems to me that, in standard culture-of-therapy fashion, he's trying to reduce patriotism to an individual trait, the way that the born-gay claim isolates homosexuality as a geometrical point in the psyche of the homosexual, or bigotry as hatred harbored in the hater's heart.

But all these are social, cultural phenomena first, and individual traits as a distant second.  Patriotism too is the product of a system, situated in an imagined community called the nation.  Further, my friend's own actions show that while a True Patriot sitting alone may not be coercive, the moment he comes into conflict with others, the demand for patriotism and the accusation of un-patriotism are meant to reward and punish others.  My friend doesn't have the political or economic power to punish the NFL directly, but he hopes to shame them, and to encourage others to shame and coerce them into changing their policy.  Fine with me; I think that coercion is not itself a bad thing, that sometimes we must coerce people to stop their harmful behavior.  But we shouldn't deceive ourselves about what we're doing when we do so.  

Further, he wants to coerce the NFL in the name of America, in the name of True Patriotism, and there I part company with him.  The key point is that he undermines his own assertions about the non-coercive nature of patriotism, a word whose history is written in blood and terror.  I suppose that given time and much care, the word could be detached from its history and made wholly positive, though I doubt it, but that history must never be forgotten, and that is what I think my friend (and the many like him) is trying to do.

Am I saying, then, that no one should love America or any other country?  Far from it; I'm very tolerant of people's fetishes and kinks, as long as no one gets hurt.  Maybe I can draw a useful distinction and say that love is one thing, infatuation another.  But call it what you will, when you choose not to see the flaws in your beloved, when you become indignant that others don't share your tunnel vision, then you've crossed the line and are perpetuating the cycle of abuse.  And all too often, love of one's own country slides over into justifying the subordination of other countries.

If I don't like it here, then why don't I leave?  Someone is sure to ask that.  But I do like it here.  I know that compared even to many other Americans, I'm very well off.  I don't see why that should stop me from criticizing my country, and it is mine no less than anyone else's.  As Corey Robin wrote and I agreed a few days ago, we must share this country with each other.  But that necessity doesn't mean that I shouldn't object when my country harms the citizens of other countries, or some American citizens harm other American citizens.  The whole function of patriotism, I contend, is to distract us from making our country better.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Worst and the Dimmest

This morning Democracy Now! rebroadcast part of their 2006 interview with the late Daniel Berrigan.  I've mentioned that interview before, to pick on Berrigan for hanging on to a juicy quote from Robert McNamara until the next day so he could ask a secretary to write it down in shorthand.  But for Memorial Day I want to return to the context of that quotation, which was the US invasion of Vietnam, then reaching its peak of aggressive violence.

Berrigan met McNamara
at a social evening with the Kennedys in about '65 and after this very posh dinner, which was welcoming me home from Latin America. One of the Kennedys announced that they would love to have a discussion between the secretary of war and myself in front of everybody, which we did start. And they asked me to initiate the thing, and I said to the secretary something about, “Since you didn't stop the war this morning, I wonder if you’d do it this evening.” So he looked kind of past my left ear and said, “Well, I’ll just say this to Father Berrigan and everybody: Vietnam is like Mississippi. If they won’t obey the law, you send the troops in.” And he stopped. ... And this was supposed to be the brightest of the bright, one of the whiz kids, respected by all in the Cabinet, etc., etc., etc. And he talks like a sheriff out of Selma, Alabama. Whose law? Won’t obey whose law? Well, that was the level at which the war was being fought.
McNamara has come to be treated as a tragic figure by the American mainstream, which always treats US aggression and terror as blunders, mistakes by a well-meaning giant: war just keeps following us home until we keep it.  But the glimpse into McNamara's mind in the remark quoted by Berrigan is fascinating, both in his dismissive contempt for dissent and in its moral monstrosity.

Let's extend McNamara's analogy and compare Vietnam to Mississippi.  Who can forget how, when Mississippi refused to obey the law, Washington promptly overthrew its more-or-less elected government and replaced it with a brutal dictator who staged sham elections, threw white supremacists into prison to be tortured and murdered, and when popular resistance emerged, carpet-bombed the state with a fury not seen since World War II?  Who can forget the shocking photograph of a white Mississippian being shot in the head by a member of the occupying regime?  Or the heart-rending photograph of white Mississippian children as they ran, naked and screaming, from a US napalm attack on the cotton fields of Jackson County?  But if you won't obey the law, you pay the price; that's America.

Now let's get serious.  Washington's response to Mississippi's resistance to the law was considerably milder than its response to Vietnamese defiance -- which was not, in fact, disobedience to "the law"; that would better describe the US trampling on a full range of international agreements in order to impose its will on Southeast Asia.  In general the government was basically sympathetic to white supremacists, and intervened only half-heartedly against racist obstructionism and terror; think of Dwight Eisenhower's remark to Justice Earl Warren that "white southerners 'are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.'"  (Actually Warren "sanitized" the quotation, which didn't keep it from pissing Eisenhower off; what the great man actually said was "big black bucks.")  For those too young to remember, here's actual photographic evidence of one of those big black bucks (in the foreground) and some of those sweet little girls.

Generally, what concerned the US government was not racists' defiance of the law, nor white supremacy itself, but that American racism made us look bad in the eyes of the world, and would give the Communists fodder for propaganda.  These worries weren't enough, however, to keep the government from dragging its feet and hoping the problem would go away by itself it the government ignored it long enough.

Another point about McNamara's response to Berrigan: it seems to count against Jon Schwarz's claim that conservatives aren't as good at constructing analogies as liberals are.  There are those who would argue that McNamara was No True Liberal, but as Berrigan suggested, McNamara was one of the Kennedy team marketed as liberals, The Best and Brightest, both at the time and in today's liberal hagiography.  I'm not saying that conservatives do construct accurate analogies, only that liberals aren't very good at it either.  Nor, since McNamara probably thought he was making a funny, are liberals any funnier than conservatives, except as targets of laughter rather than makers of it.  Effective humor, and certainly effective satire, Goes Too Far.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Whatever Happened to the America That Never Existed?

It's a strange thing, or at least it seems so to me, the very popular tendency to cast everything in terms of decline from a better past.  Even when the writer knows better.

One of my favorite examples is the late Molly Ivins's lament from 2007:
What happened to the nation that never tortured? The nation that wasn't supposed to start wars of choice? The nation that respected human rights and life? A nation that from the beginning was against tyranny? Where have we gone? How did we let these people take us there? How did we let them fool us?
Every assertion she makes in that paragraph about the better America that used to be is false.  I just reread her first book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She (Random House, 1991) which contains numerous references to American crimes past and present, so I know she was not as ignorant as she presented herself in 2007.

So, for some more recent examples, last week I got into a little dustup on Twitter with some guy who called for the "end to the American Empire and the Reinstatement of our authentic American Republic."  Now, the authentic American Republic limited the franchise to property-owning white males, compromised with slavery, and was from the beginning dedicated to driving the Indians into the sea.  I don't really think the other guy wants to "reinstate" those features either, but he refused to admit them.  All bad things, he insisted, started with the beginning of the American Empire in 1945 -- ignoring the Spanish-American War a half-century earlier, with its avowed imperialist aims.  Indeed, the period is referred to in history texts as the Age of Imperialism.  The Founders of the Republic, in fact, referred to America as an empire.  And so on; the discussion went nowhere.  This guy could hardly be accused of being uncritical of American foreign policy; he just refused to extend his critique to the period before 1945.

More innocently, perhaps, there was "Sign of the times: you actually fail to read books, but still have loads of unfounded opinions about them."  Yes, indeed, that only ever happened in the age of Trump.

The recent revelations of horrifying abuse of refugee children by US Immigration officials were often deplored in similar terms.  Many people failed (or chose not) to notice that the criminal mistreatment described in the article happened during the Obama administration, though they continued under Trump.  This was a continuation of Obama loyalists' refusal to recognize their god-king's repressive immigration policy and activity.  So, a writer who pointed out that "When people say that the Trump policy of separating children from their parents at the border is 'un-American', they forget or do not know or pretend not to know that the practice is deeply American and has a history" got predictable pushback.

For example, "True, but just as slavery is part of our history, and is not to be forgotten, we don't now hold it up as an American ideal, an aspiration to reach for, or a standard to measure present conduct by."  There's the question: does "American" mean "an American ideal" or "an American reality"?   People who denounce what they dislike as "un-American" rely on this ambiguity, though they often deliberately blur the line by assuming that what they dislike didn't exist in the past; whatever they like is ancient tradition. The same is true of "Christian" and "normal."  It's also known as the No True Scotsman move: if Americans (or "so-called Americans") did it, they weren't Americans.

It has always been thus; I'm not pushing nostalgia for the glorious days when people didn't try to erase the past.  In his 1973 book The Country and the City the historian Raymond Williams described how writers have been lamenting the good old days when an honest farmer could earn a fair living from the land, though in those supposedly better days nostalgia-mongers had made the same complaint; he traced this pattern back to Greek antiquity.  More recently, Jason A. Storm showed in The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago, 2017) that the trope of Disenchantment, the Disappearance of Magic From the World, has equally ancient roots: in the days when fairies and other magical Little People supposedly communed with Man, they were already being mourned as long gone.

I wrote this particular post because I began asking myself why so many people find it necessary and natural to situate their complaints about the present in fantasies about the past.  I don't have an answer, I'm just wondering.  I suspect that it's an example of what the anthropologist F. G. Bailey calls "the moral mind," in which one establishes one's bona fides through a controlled outburst of passion.  While that describes what people are doing, however, it doesn't explain why the outburst takes this particular form. It doesn't serve any real purpose, any function in an argument; if anything, it's a distraction.  But it's like a tic of some sort, that bursts into the the discourse irresistibly.  And it fills some emotional function, as nostalgia does.

I suppose too that acknowledging the grubby, sordid side of one's team's history makes it difficult for many people to work up moral indignation when that history spills over into the present.  The only way they can condemn official crimes in the present is to cast those crimes as an aberration from a glorious tradition.  And not without reason, since one response to these denunciations is some form of "Well, this is the way we've always done it; why weren't you this angry during the previous administration?"  I believe that it's possible, and not really so difficult, to put together a criticism of present-day misconduct that doesn't rely on misrepresentation of the past.

Since many of these people, such as Molly Ivins, know their history quite well, the cognitive dissonance probably becomes painfully intense, though I don't see how tying themselves up in knots makes it any better.  Is it really so hard, though, to refrain from writing "now" or "nowadays" as if what you're criticizing hasn't been around forever?  I guess it is.  For me, though, knowing that there's hardly anything new under the sun is somehow reassuring; if anything, it's an impetus to attacking Evil right now.  If not now, when?

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Oceania Has Always Been at War with the Fascists

Corey Robin, whom I've begun following lately, posted this on Facebook yesterday:
Every time I hear of one of these lowlifes, from Trump down, telling an immigrant or a Muslim or a protesting football player that they don't belong in this country, I think of these words from Arendt: "And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you." Because the people who say these vile things to immigrants, Muslims, and protesters are my fellow citizens, my fellow residents of the earth, I have no choice but to share the country, and the earth, with them. But if they can't embrace others in a positive and welcoming way, I wish they could at least reconcile themselves to the presence of others in the way I have reconciled myself to the presence of them.
Someone called Art McGee commented:
"Because the people who say these vile things to immigrants, Muslims, and protesters are my fellow citizens, my fellow residents of the earth, I have no choice but to share the country, and the earth, with them." Actually, you do have a choice, but the implications of that are not something you want to grapple with. We used to kill Nazis and fascists, now we want to understand and reason with them.
Robin replied:
If you're serious about that program of killing Nazis and fascists in this country, you should be making the case for it, ceaselessly, and organizing for it, in real life, and not just troll people like me with false accusations that what I want to do is "understand and reason" with Nazis and fascists. Otherwise, it just seems like a bit of grandstanding.
I'm not able to comment on Robin's posts on Facebook, so I'm going to do that here.  

McGee was repeating, perhaps cut-and-pasting, a common claim from "antifa" hangers-on, that "we used to kill Nazis and fascists."  I've seen it used often. That he was merely parroting a party line is clear from the fact that he chose to misunderstand Robin's reference to "fellow citizens."  I'm not aware of a time when "Nazis and fascists" in the US were killed by their fellow citizens.  If anything, it was the other way around: American fascists basically ran the country.  That's one reason why it was difficult to get the US into the war against Nazism: there was very widespread sympathy and even allegiance to fascism at home and abroad among Americans.  American businessmen were happy to do business with Nazis and fascists in Europe, whom they rightly saw as their allies against working people and democratic freedoms, but many ordinary citizens shared their attraction to swarthy men in uniform trampling on uppity wogs.  World War II was really a blip in that respect.  After it was over, the US went back to business as usual, rehabilitating and protecting Nazis and fascists around the world.  You can deplore this, as I do and Robin does, but to ignore it, to pretend that the situation was otherwise, is at best to broadcast your ignorance in public, and at worst to engage in a whitewashing of history.

This is why I get picky about the use of pronouns.  I'm not being pedantic.  Usually it's "they," but "we" is also popular.  Who's the "we" who killed Nazis and fascists in the US?  Who's the "we" who allegedly want to "understand and reason with them"?  This is just handwaving, intended to obfuscate not to clarify, and as Robin says, it's grandstanding.  McGee isn't thinking, and doesn't want you to think either.  I've come to expect this from the Right, though I criticize it there; I won't let the left get away with it either.  Nor should "we."  I have to share the earth with such people, but they also have to share it with me.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Impacted Aggressions of Sexuality

Philip Roth has died, which has gotten me started on a post I've been dithering over for a couple of years now.

It all started when I stumbled on Promiscuous: "Portnoy's Complaint" and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness (Yale, 2012), by Bernard Avishai.  Avishai was born in Canada and is now a professor of business at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  He was a personal friend of Roth's, and had access to some of the latter's view of his work, including Portnoy's Complaint (Random House, 1969), which is probably Roth's most famous, and certainly his most notorious work.

Avishai's eulogy for Roth can be read here.  It's a lovely personal bit of writing, and I found myself identifying with Roth to a degree.  He wasn't good at romantic relationships and had no children, but he had many friends and enjoyed being a mentor.  His failures as a husband might be different from mine; Claire Bloom's 1996 memoir of her marriage to him indicates that he was even harder to live with than I am, which is always a relief to know.  (I could have been worse!)

But it's Roth's work, not his life, that I'm interested in here, though the work is also problematic to put it mildly.  Avishai is very defensive about it, and indulges in some typical straight-male-supremacist mansplaining in response to feminist accusations of misogyny in Roth's writing.  It's reminiscent of Tina Fey's recent confrontation with David Letterman about sexism in TV comedy.  I've written about this before, wondering if at least some women recognized themselves in Portnoy's wild sexual frustration; of course some did.  Talia Lavin has an essay in the current Village Voice in which she describes how reassuring, if not liberating, her adolescent identification with Alexander Portnoy was.
Nonetheless his prose echoed something I had already begun to feel: the subaltern griminess of my desires, the urgency of my flesh, made me dirty; I was a dirty Jew, in direct contrast to the holy Jews that surrounded me, let alone the unimaginable goyim I saw primarily on TV. I was (I am) small, plump, simian-faced, pursued by a halo of ungovernable frizz; I felt I took up too much space. I looked into the faces of those I desired and imagined what I saw in them to be disgust. Portnoy’s Complaint was disgusting: Alexander Portnoy fucked raw liver. Alexander Portnoy masturbated on a bus. Alexander Portnoy was perpetually at the point of ejaculation. Alexander Portnoy was a dirty Jew. Like me. Portnoy’s Complaint with its beat-up yellow cover was soon added to the small pile of books that felt incontrovertibly mine. “Doctor, doctor,” I recited to myself, in Portnoy’s voice, as I slipped my hand under the waistband of my modest long black skirt and dreamed of familiar figures transmogrified by my lust, “it’s time to put the id back in yid.”
But she recognizes that the identification wouldn't have gone both ways:
In allowing myself to be seduced by the author, to inhabit his viewpoint, I adopted this myopia; to be thrilled by great art, I had to abnegate my own gender. This is, of course, a laughably common experience: to be anyone but a white man and consume the canon, one must thrust one’s own experience willfully back, to see a man in the full and indulgent complexity with which he would never, ever see you. He would not deign to; he did not need to; now, he never will.
That some women identified with Portnoy, or any of Roth's other male characters, is not proof that his work isn't sexist or even misogynist, any more than the fact that some of Roth's best friends were women proves the same about the man.  That Avishai falls into that cliche doesn't speak well for him.

As a gay goy boy I also recognized myself, or thought I did, in young Alexander Portnoy, though his predictable use of mom-obsessed gay men on Fire Island as bogeymen was not helpful.  On the other hand, it inspired me to write a short play during my senior year of high school, which had a gay character.  (A hairdresser, duh.)  The play was also influenced by Albee's The American Dream, dosed with Theater of the Absurd.  This must have been in 1969, so what I'd read of Portnoy at the time would have been the excerpts published in New American Review before the book was published.  I'd also read The Essential Lenny Bruce and Bruce's autobiography, which had a voice very similar to Portnoy's.  I'm amazed that I composed such a thing at that age, and I wish I could read it now, but I lent the only copy to my high school drama teacher (what was I thinking? well, I could hardly have shown it to my mom), who never returned it.

Avishai does a pretty good job in Promiscuous of distinguishing between Portnoy and Roth.  (As Gore Vidal once remarked, even though people fantasize about sex far more than they engage with its reality, they tend to believe that no writer about sex ever makes anything up, but regurgitates straight autobiography onto the page.)  But one thing struck me very forcefully as I read and reread Promiscuous (it's very readable, and not very long) that has less to do with Portnoy or Roth himself than with certain stresses and faults in the culture that produced him.

In teaching notes he prepared for a college class he was going to address on his work, Roth wrote: "Masturbation, which seems to have made the book famous, was the least of it.  It was the aggressive rage, the ingratitude, the hatred that was the most shameful secret" (page 8 of the Kindle edition).  Exactly, and on some level I recognized that as a teenager on my first reading.  But for me as for so many readers (including, as you can see, Talia Levin), Portnoy made an impression as adolescent rebellion against repression, especially sexual/erotic repression.  Another motif, intimately intertwined with the erotic, was rebellion against the pressure to be a Good Little Boy or Girl, which was a common theme in mid-century American literature.  The villain, of course, especially in those days, was Mom, always trying to mold you into a submissive good citizen.

Though I didn't see it that way at the time, as a young homosexual I was at least as repressed.  I couldn't have challenged adults about it then, because almost no one thought that gay kids (or adults) had a right to sexual expression or love.  Which didn't keep me from daydreaming about it, but I couldn't really imagine it either.

Then it suddenly occurred to me to quote again the remarks of another Jewish writer, Joanna Russ, about the scapegoating of mothers:
Every women’s studies teacher, for example, knows the female student who comes into her office and announces defiantly that she’s going to get married – the world is still full of girls who think that heterosexual alliances with men represent a form of rebellion against sexless Mommy. How do these young women imagine their mothers ended up where they were? Yet the hope persists that heterosexual activity (a little wilder than stuffy Mom’s) will provide access to the men’s freer, wider world. Mother’s function as the forewoman who polices Daughter’s sexuality, in many American families, gives some color to this notion – that an alliance with men is an alliance against Mother – and yet these girls must have at least the suspicion that Mom made the same bargain. And surely they know that heterosexual alliance can’t confer membership in the men’s world but only a place (Mother’s place, in fact) on the sidelines. But they don’t. And so they end up married, leading the same life as Mother, or – if unlucky – a worse one with less bargaining power. And their daughters repeat the process.*
But what, I began to ask myself as I read Promiscuous, would be better for kids?  Alexander Portnoy's daydreams of sexual expression are as stunted as mine were, maybe more so: he can only imagine a fantasy girl he calls Thereal McCoy, an insatiable minx who begs him, "Give it to me, Big Boy! Give it all you've got!" as he pulls his pud.  If mom's repression was magically removed and Alex were free to do what he wanted sexually, what would have satisfied him?  The trouble wasn't that masturbation is unsatisfying; so is copulation with a partner -- you have to, or get to, do it over and over again.  He was a teenager right after World War II, though we know that people, including adolescents, were sexually active in those days far more than they were supposed to be.  Their activity led often enough to unwanted pregnancies and shame.  Imagine an erotic utopia; I've been trying to do so, and it's not as easy as I thought.  Nowadays, when kids can get access to accurate sexual information and often to contraception, it's still difficult for many of them, because they don't necessarily know what they want, or they want what (or whom) they can't have.  Eroticism, like other human emotions, isn't rational.  It's messy.  A lot of what people say about it is mistaken, confused, self-defeating.

A start can be made, I think, with accurate sexual information.  Because I learned how bodies worked erotically long before I got any experience with them beyond the self-inflicted, I had little anxiety about how sex was done.  It took me a long time to realize that not only did many adults not want kids to know about sex, many kids didn't want to know either.  Many clung to shame, mainly so they could try to inflict it on others.  Maybe this is a more or less inevitable consequence of puberty, where what seems gross to pre-adolescents (kissing, my lips touched boy lips -- eeuuuw) abruptly becomes desirable -- while still, often, remaining gross.  No wonder many people are comfortable doing it, but resist talking about it. It might have been easier for young Alex Portnoy if he could have talked honestly about his desires with someone who wouldn't have been freaked out by them, but maybe not.  After all, even as an adult, free (he thought) of religion, free of his parents' strictures, in a comparatively open time and place, he still didn't know what he wanted.  That's the point of the book.

To borrow another metaphor, there can't be a Grand Unified Theory of love and sex that works for everybody, because everybody doesn't want the same thing.  What one person wants is the opposite of what the next person wants, but the same person will harbor contradictory wishes and fears.  Edmund White has said that when he was having sex with hundreds of men a year, he still felt that other guys were getting more than he was, and he wasn't getting enough.  I never had as many partners as that, but I still have had more than any decent person is supposed to have; sometimes I felt frustration, because you can never have everybody you want, and of course some people you don't want will want you.  Nevertheless, as I got older, I found that I was amazed at how lucky I've been sexually speaking, how much good experience I've had with people I really wanted.  How many partners is a decent person, or even an indecent one, supposed to have?  What is the proper place of sex in a person's life?  There's no agreement about that at all.  (There is, however, a widespread and tenacious conviction that a person should have at most one partner, and ideally not even one.)  It was a common belief among the scientifically minded in the early twentieth century that once religion and its associated ignorance and hangups were removed, sex would become unproblematic and rational.  But human beings aren't rational.  Not everybody welcomes openness and honesty; even if you get rid of existing misconceptions and superstitions, people will just invent new ones.  That's how we got them in the first place. 

* From Russ's review of Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976), reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen (University of Liverpool Press, 2007), page 162

Monday, May 21, 2018

Two Words: Accurate Analogies. You Won't Even See Them Coming.

Jon Schwarz returned last week to a subject he's addressed before, the apparent scarcity of conservative comedians:
This is a Weird Opinion, but I believe there's a connection between conservatives' inability to construct accurate analogies and the near-total lack of competent conservative comedians. That's because constructing accurate analogies is a key comedic skill.
Well, um, you know, I don't think so.  First, I don't think that analogies have to be accurate for audiences to find them funny.  Humor is not a rational, evidence-based phenomenon.  I also don't think that, as a group, liberals or leftists are any better than conservatives at constructing accurate analogies.  But the accuracy (weird word, actually) of analogies isn't an either/or matter anyway.

Take what I hope is an easy example; certainly, it was at Jon's blog, A Tiny Revolution, that I first encountered it.

Writers from The Daily Show reportedly helped Obama write his routine, so even if you don't consider Obama a liberal (I don't), even if you want to deny that the people who laughed at his performance are liberals  (I don't), I think this counts against Jon's theory.  I'm not even sure where an analogy comes in: the point of contact would be death by predator drone, but aside from that, what?  The Jonas Brothers correspond to American children?  One commenter under the blog post drew an analogy between the Jonas Brothers and a 60-year-old Brit slavering over a teenaged girl at a wedding.  (No permalink; just look for N E, a reliable Obama toady at that site.)  The weakness of any analogy involved didn't keep a lot of liberal Obama fans from finding the gag a kneeslapper, though they've mostly preferred to stuff it down the Memory Hole in years since. 

One commenter on the YouTube video wrote, "It IS a dark joke... but if Bush can joke about not finding WMDs (and thus mocking all the people he sent to their deaths based on a lie), then Obama can joke about this." That's exactly the point: people who criticized Bush for joking about not finding WMDs defend Obama for joking about killing kids with predator drones. It's contemptible. It also says something that the commenter focused on "the people he sent to their deaths", presumably US troops, rather than the many more Iraqis he killed: only American lives count.

Of course there are other examples I could give; Hillary Clinton's "We came, we saw, he died," for one.  Clinton's not a liberal either, but liberals didn't object, either to the terror bombing of Libya (disastrous for Libyans, not so much for the US) or to the lynching of Qaddafy.  The analogy in this one is clear: Clinton is casting herself as Julius Caesar, not a great example of democracy or human decency.

Several responses to Jon's remarks from liberals and leftists struck me as clueless.  Such as this exchange:

"Modern conservatives"?  Like conservatives were any better in the past?  Vastleft's reply is even odder.  Smarter people than I have been trying to discover and explain the nature of humor for millennia, but there's considerable acknowledgment that humor isn't empathetic, it's mean even when it's playful.  As Mel Brooks says: Tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.

Dayv also wrote:

Much depends on who's the target of the satire.  Was "A Modest Proposal" empathetic toward the English?  No; it was savage to them.  And I have plenty of reason to doubt that liberals or progressives understand what satire is anyway.  Personally I think that good satire should make me wince (whether as author as as consumer) as I laugh, but I also think that's a refinement for pansy-ass intellectuals like me or Dean Swift.  The base of satire is mockery, and any empathy involved is used to make the target squirm harder.

As Ellen Willis wrote in 1979, "Humorless [is] what you are if you do not find the following subjects funny: rape, big breasts, sex with little girls.  It carries no imputation of humorless if you do not find the following subjects funny: castration, impotence, vaginas with teeth."  But that's about as predictable as it gets.  Quite a few men, including me, find her definition funny.  Others, like my Right Wing Acquaintance Number One, pull a long glum face at it.

RWA1, significantly, was extremely upset by Michelle Wolf's performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner a few weeks ago.  (Transcript here.) It was tasteless, it was awful, it was going to hurt the Democrats' chances of getting Trump out of the White House.  Concern-trolling again, you see.  It wasn't even his ox that was being gored -- he hates Trump as only an establishment Republican Never-Trumper can -- but I suppose that was the problem: true, she mocked Trump, but she also mocked establishment Republicans and Democrats, Hillary Clinton, the #Resistance, and the respectable media, which was Inappropriate, So Unnecessary, and definitely Going Too Far.  He seemed not to have noticed that the White House Correspondents Association was as unhappy as he was. Personally, I think he was revolted by all her references to lady parts, which always make him queasy.

Does the widespread disapproval of Wolf's performance indicate that her analogies were inaccurate, or that they were accurate?  I thought she was on-target most of the time, but obviously not everyone agrees.  The accuracy of analogies is as subjective, I would argue, as humor itself.

I could also mention the popularity among liberals and progressives of fag jokes about Trump.  If I were feeling charitable, I could suggest that their motivating impulse is at base conservative, but I'm not feeling charitable.  What I think bothers me most about the distinction Jon drew is that it buys into an assumption that "conservative" and "liberal" refer to actual discrete types of human beings, perhaps reflecting innate biological differences: They are fundamentally different than Us.  Their many errors can be blamed on their nature, as our adherence to Truth is due to ours.  Something wrong with that; call it a failure of empathy.

Incidentally, today is the eleventh anniversary of this blog.