Thursday, July 26, 2018

This Is Fine; or, Mnyeh - It's a Living

Roy Edroso's alicublog is still a useful resource for keeping up with the antics of the American Right, and I admire Roy's fortitude in following their media, performers, and apologists so that I don't have to.  I don't condemn him for avoiding whataboutism with respect to what is laughingly known (or should be) as the center.  He's got his mission statement, it keeps him busy, gives him an audience; nobody can cover everything.  Whataboutism with respect to the center, the right, and the left is, or should be, part of my mission statement.  But now and then he drifts close to the precipice of Demon Doubt, as he did yesterday:
Conservatives have been asked to believe nonsense for a long time -- that tax cuts for the rich trickle down and pay for themselves, that we'll be greeted as liberators, that there's no more racism, etc. These were tough lifts, but they had the help of intellectuals, or magazine writers who passed for them, to give them a line of gab that made these things sound reasonable, at least to themselves.

Recent years have not been kind to these beliefs, and Trumpism kind of blew the whole scene -- not just by being so mind-bendingly, outlandishly at variance with observable reality, but also by  presenting them with unitary Republican control of the government, thus making American politics a perfect playground for their fantasies.
True enough; I don't dispute his analysis.  But that little Duncan with horns, pitchfork, and red suit on my shoulder whispered in my ear: Not meaning to make trouble, you know, but suppose you substituted a few terms for Roy's in there?
Liberals have been asked to believe nonsense for a long time -- that Barack ended the wars, that Hillary was the most qualified, progressive candidate in human history, that when Bill Clinton lied nobody died, that Barack's election dealt a death blow to racism, that voting will bring about change, etc. These were tough lifts, but they had the help of intellectuals, or magazine writers who passed for them, to give them a line of gab that made these things sound reasonable, at least to themselves.

Recent years have not been kind to these beliefs, and Obamamania kind of blew the whole scene -- not just by being so mind-bendingly, outlandishly at variance with observable reality, but also by presenting them with unitary Republican control of the government, thus making American politics a perfect playground for their fantasies.
Make some substitutions of your own; it's fun.

The liberal Democratic fantasies that are most current today are Russia Russia Russia, all Trump all  the time, Trump is Putin's boyfriend, and so on and on.  I long ago recognized the absurdity of the liberal claim to be reality based, but it used to be a little funnier.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

But What About the Whataboutism, Huh?

Here's my position at the moment.  (If you don't like it, I have others.)

I take it for granted that Russia (the whole country, every dang one of 'em!) meddled in the 2016 US elections.  Probably all states meddle in other states' affairs, and the US is no exception.  It's like spying: every country does it.  When they catch another country's spies, they expel or punish them, which is fair enough; it's the pretense of violated innocence that I find insufferable.

What effect, if any, Russian meddling had on the outcome of the election is another question, which most commentators, professional and amateur alike, seem not to recognize; they evidently assume that if not for Russian interference, Clinton would have beaten Trump. On that question I'm agnostic.  Given the myriad of factors that affect electoral results, I don't think it's possible to isolate just one -- if you're really interested in understanding why Clinton lost and Trump won, that is, or in preventing such interference in the future.  I don't believe that most of those who are presently obsessed with Russia and Putin are interested.  As Seth Ackerman wrote recently at Jacobin:
Despite ubiquitous demands to “take the threat seriously,” none of these voices has plausibly explained what the US ought to do about it. Democratic senator Chuck Schumer demanded that Trump “cancel his meeting with Vladimir Putin until Russia takes demonstrable and transparent steps to prove that they won’t interfere in future elections.” And how exactly would that work? ...

It seems clear that the current Beltway panic isn’t really a reflection of the magnitude of the perceived threat from Moscow. It reflects panic that someone like Trump could win an election in the United States. If Russia’s actions did, in fact, shape the outcome — and I doubt they did — it was by changing a tiny, marginal number of votes in what would have been a close election anyway. Russian meddling is not the reason Trump was a viable presidential candidate.
Ackerman also wrote:
Think of it as “the expressive function of the Russia freakout.” Just as there is what Cass Sunstein called “the expressive function of law” — “the function of law in ‘making statements’ as opposed to controlling behavior” — there’s a purpose served by the constant keening over Putin. It conveys liberals’ sense of bewilderment and disorientation at a country they no longer recognize — a feeling not so different from that which motivated the Right’s manifold freakouts in the Obama era.

On both sides there’s a sense of loss about a bygone America that no longer exists: for the Right, the white, middle-class utopia of the Eisenhower years. For liberals, the upright decency of the Jed Bartlet administration. The problem with these fantasies is neither of them ever existed.
So it's easy enough to see why the most popular riposte to criticism of the Russia Freakout is an accusation of "whataboutism."  I've been seeing it used more lately -- which does not mean that it's absolutely more common, of course, only that I am seeing it more.  It's bipartisan, too: my Never-Trump Right Wing Acquaintance uses it just as Democratic loyalists do.  Of course, he's engaged in whatboutism himself many times, just as they have; indeed, many accusations of whataboutism are accompanied by more whataboutism.  Whataboutism is only bad when the wrong people use it. 

The first time I remember encountering whataboutism online was in the late 1980s, when a College Republican, defending the Reagan/Bush support for death squads in Central America asked me Whatabout the Sandinistas' human rights violations in Nicaragua?  (Which were, though real, much less severe than those in El Salvador or Guatemala.)  I don't think I missed a beat; I replied that the US should cut off all military aid to the Sandinistas.  I was being snotty, of course, because the US wasn't giving military aid to the Sandinistas: we were waging a vicious proxy war against Nicaragua, killing and wounding thousands of civilians.  I don't recall that my interlocutor had an answer to that; the home office hadn't provided one.

Whataboutism is much older than that, for reasons I'll get to presently.  It was a common response to US propaganda against the Soviet Union, both by the USSR and by apologists in the West. But the US propaganda was itself whataboutist: sure, things aren't perfect in the US or in our client states, but whatabout the terrible conditions behind the Iron Curtain?  (It's related to the popular parental response to kids who won't eat their spinach: Whatabout the starving children in India who'd love to have that spinach?)

But once you start to pay attention, you'll find whataboutism everywhere.  When American racists threw tantrums because the Kenyan Usurper was putting his big dirty feet on the sacred Oval Office Desk (a gift to America from Queen Victoria!), the usual and entirely proper rebuttal was to point out that his predecessors had done the same thing, and more.  When I pointed this out in a whataboutism thread on Twitter, one person indignantly replied that those rebuttals were just stating facts, they weren't meant to insult and mock the people they were rebutting (as the case we were debating allegedly did).  It must take quite a bit of determined effort to miss the scorn and mockery in the article I'd linked, but a partisan will make that effort.

Another classic example of whataboutism I've been citing comes from Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech (emphasis added):
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action. But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
When someone accuses me (usually accurately) of whataboutism, I reply demurely that if whataboutism was good enough for Dr. King, it's good enough for me.

As this example indicates, whataboutism is really a basic component of critical thinking.  That emerges in Walter Kaufmann's formula for his canon, quoted here:
Confronted with a proposition, view, belief, hypothesis, conviction -- one's own or another person's -- those with high standards of honesty apply the canon, which commands us to ask seven questions: (1) What does this mean? (2) What speaks for it and (3) against it?  (4) What alternatives are available?  (5) What speaks for and (6) against each?  And (7) what alternatives are most plausible in the light of these considerations?

Now it may be objected that doing all this is rather difficult.  But has it ever been a condition of virtue that it required no great exertion?  On the contrary.
Patricia Miller-Roberts' discussion of demagoguery and debate is also helpful, if only to show that Kaufmann's formulation of critical thinking isn't unique to him.

Another entertaining example of whataboutism went viral recently when a young Anglo-Asian journalist yelled "I'm a communist, you idiot!" at Piers Morgan on a British talk show.  Morgan had been hectoring her about the protests greeting Donald Trump's visit to the UK, asking why there hadn't been any protests when Barack Obama came to call.  Now, in fact, there were protests during Obama's visits to the UK; it's hard to tell under the cross-yelling, but I think Ash Sarkar tried to say so.  Morgan finally referred to Obama as Sarkar's "hero," which prompted her now-famous reply.

Morgan did have a point, one that Obama's critics on the left made repeatedly during his time in office: people who objected to George W. Bush's policies and actions suddenly tolerated or celebrated them when they became Obama's policies.  Antiwar activism diminished during Obama's presidency, for example.  But not all activism disappeared: protests against Obama's immigration policies were big and troublesome enough to push him to try to disarm or appease his critics.  It doesn't matter what Morgan's intentions were, he raised a valid question, and Sarkar tried to answer it.

Whataboutism criers claim that whataboutism is intended to stop debate.  It can be, but so is the accusation of whataboutism.  (More whataboutism -- whatever shall we do, wherever shall we go?)  One reply to this objection would be that whataboutism can also be intended to start debate.  The trouble seems to be, as I've noticed before, that most people have no idea how debate works, what to do once their opponent make a first rebuttal.  They know their talking point, which they got from a meme on Facebook, but it stops there.  They've seen that this or that liberal hero/ine EVISCERATED or DESTROYED the Rethugs with a single well-chosen word, and they think they can do it too.  But those Rethug targets, far from being destroyed or eviscerated, are still in good health and at large.

The proper use of whataboutism is to find out how consistent someone's position is.  If they are outraged by Obama's feet on his desk, did they object to (or even notice) Bush's feet on the desk?  If Bush's surveillance of American citizens was outrageous, did it stop being outrageous when Obama did it?  Remember, though: a responsible critical thinker will ask him or herself such questions before an opponent raises them: not to win debating points, but to test whether he or she has a sound position.  As Nietzsche said, "A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!!!"

When I point out the US' record of interfering in other countries' elections, I'm not trying to stop debate: I want to start it.  I have some relevant and important questions for the Russiagaters.  For example, should other countries respond to US interference as they want the US to respond to Russian interference?  One difficulty is that it's not at all clear, as Seth Ackerman and Lyle Jeremy Rubin pointed out, how they want the US to respond.  As with liberals' vaunted concern over Syrian atrocities, they are upset and want everybody to know they're upset, but they don't know and don't much care what should be done.  Concrete suggestions, on the rare occasions when they were offered, consisted mainly of a US war against Syria.  As Ackerman pointed out, there's similar vagueness about what we should do about Russia.  There's a lot of posturing and xenophobic grandstanding, but little substance. Some measures for better cybersecurity have been enacted, but they are mostly not being implemented; Ackerman linked to a Politico story which reported that although millions of dollars had been appropriated to help states improve voting security, little of that money has been used.  But, I suppose, it's whataboutism to bring that up.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

For There Is More Joy Over One Sinner Who Repents

Someone recently recommended Janina Bauman's A Dream of Belonging: My Years in Postwar Poland (Virago, 1988) in a way that piqued my interest, so I checked it out of the library.  Bauman was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust; she and her husband, the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, moved to England from Poland in 1971.  A Dream of Belonging is a sequel to a previous memoir, Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl's Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond; as the subtitle indicates, the newer book recounts her life in Poland after the war ended.

Bauman worked for several years in the Polish film industry.  She tells of one of her coworkers, who, although he was (like Bauman) a member of the Communist Party, was not trusted by his superiors.  Eventually he told her why. During the war he had risen in the Polish army through distinguished action:
After two years or so, he was suddenly demoted, deprived of his rank, and discharged from the army  The reason for such a severe punishment seemed unbelievably trivial.  Before the war Marek had as a child belonged to the Polish Scouts.  After the war this organization was blacklisted by the new regime.  Marek had never thought of mentioning his youthful involvement to his superiors.  So, when they somehow dug it out, he was accused of concealing his political past.  And this was a very serious sin.  This was the skeleton in Marek's cupboard for which he was to be punished till the end of his life, it seemed [112].
This mirrors the purges of premature anti-Fascists and other leftists in the West after the war ended.  But the last sentence I quoted reminded me of some defenses I've seen of George W. Bush by liberals, such as "So I guess we have to hate him for the rest of our lives. No one gets a break at the Intercept right?"  This refers to criticism of Bush by people who aren't impressed by his recitation of anti-Trump boilerplate, which, accompanied by his appearance on Ellen DeGeneres's TV show and a hug from Michelle Obama, signaled Dubya's rehabilitation in the eyes of the Party.  (The Democratic Party, you understand, which puts a whole other color on the phenomenon.)

I shouldn't make too much of this (just try to stop me, though), but it seems to me that at least some Democrats are unconsciously echoing stories like Marek's, the lament that it's just not fair that some poor guy should be punished and hated for ever just for a little mistake in his youth.  In Marek's case, I agree, but I lived through eight years of Bush's presidency, and Bush is no Marek.  Marek's "offense" was buried in his personal past, and more than balanced by his heroism during the war.  Bush's offenses were committed in the public eye, with worldwide publicity.  Marek belonged to an organization that was not proscribed at the time he belonged to it.  Bush committed terrible crimes (aggressive war, torture) that were known to be crimes, which he celebrated publicly.

Nor has Bush ever expressed any contrition for his crimes -- let alone been held accountable for them.  He didn't even suffer the minimal accountability of being voted out of office: he served two terms and retired to Texas to paint pictures in comfort.  Just attacking Trump for doing much the same things he himself did (while never acknowledging the continuity) is not contrition.  I might be too strict, but I wouldn't take him seriously unless he presented himself to the International Criminal Court as a war criminal, ready to stand trial; but needless to say, he hasn't even begun to acknowledge his crimes, let alone accept responsibility for them.  And I think it's significant that so many liberal Democrats are willing to forgive and forget, even though Bush has never bothered to ask for forgiveness -- and really, it's not for them to forgive him anyway.

(Notice, by the way, that in the interview I linked to above, Nancy Pelosi theatrically begged Bush's pardon for confusing him and Trump.  I'm sure a Christian man like Dubya would graciously grant her pardon for the blasphemy.)

It's as if they don't realize just how serious his crimes are.  Starting two wars on false pretenses, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, the injuring of many more, and the turning of millions into refugees -- and that's only a partial list -- are not petty traffic offenses to be wiped from his record lightly after he undergoes probation and counseling.  But then most Americans never consider such peccadilloes to be serious crimes, as long as American presidents commit them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Where Do Credentials Come From, Mommy?

On to other matters. David Sirota posted this a couple of days ago:

Sirota's a smart journalist, and I take him seriously.  But in this case -- no, I don't think so.

First, I thought polls showed that most people hate the media because they see them as too adversary, too hostile to wealth and power. Judging from what I hear from people I know and those I read on social media, that belief probably divides along partisan lines, as when Republicans believe that the media just make up stuff about their President.  I noticed that many Democrats believed that Hillary Clinton lost because the Lying Media misled the public about her.  So it seems to me that many people want the media to be loyal to wealth and power as represented by their own party.

Second, I question the word "ideologically."  Most people don't know what it means anyhow, and I don't think that loyalty to wealth and power is usually ideological.  Rather it's opportunistic ("I've got mine and I want to hang on to it"), personal (because a person likes and identifies with the wealthy and powerful, hoping that some of the goodies will trickle down), and self-interested.

Third, a 2016 poll
found respondents valued accuracy above all else, with 85 percent of people saying it was extremely important to avoid errors in coverage. Timeliness and clarity followed closely, with 76 percent and 72 percent respectively saying those attributes were imperative among media sources.
“Over the last two decades, research shows the public has grown increasingly skeptical of the news industry,” the report reads. “The study reaffirms that consumers do value broad concepts of trust like fairness, balance, accuracy, and completeness. At least two-thirds of Americans cite each of these four general principles as very important to them.”
That's moving and inspiring, only -- how do respondents know whether a news source is accurate?  From what I see, for many people "accuracy" means that the news tells them what they want to hear.  How often do most people pay any attention to the corrections department of their newspaper?  The meaning of terms like fairness, balance, and the like are disputed in the press, and I don't see any reason to believe that news consumers are any clearer about them than the professionals.  I see many people who dismiss news sources lightly -- ah, they'll print anything if it'll make them money, they're just trying to divide us, etc.  Again, all very well, but they still seem to trust some sources, usually Fox News or Breitbart or Limbaugh or Mike Savage or Rachel Maddow.  If they trust them, it isn't because they've carefully examined the facts (wherever they would get facts in the first place) and subjected them to rigorous scrutiny, and decided that their preferred network or commentator is reliable.

Interestingly, though, those who are cynical about "the media" in general tend to trust local news sources, which isn't a bad idea except that local news sources are increasingly non-local in ownership and control.  It's like public education: many people are sure that Our Schools across the nation are failing miserably, but they like and trust their own local schools.

Which makes this column from last December, by the Washington Post's media columnist Margaret Sullivan, interesting.  She found that when they were allowed to discuss the question at length, instead of replying to narrow poll questions, people (she talked to several dozen, outside the Beltway) had a much more nuanced understanding of the news.

But not that much more nuanced.  She heard a lot of complaint about "bickering" in the media, for example from this "young Trump voter":
"I wish the bickering would stop," he said, referring to commentary by pundits. He listens to Fox News Radio on SiriusXM, and he compares what he hears there with what's offered on CNN and other news outlets, like NBC News, which he watches some evenings: "There's a pretty stark contrast between what they report." So he weighs them against each other. "At this point, I'm pretty tired of it all," he explained, saying he wants reporting presented straight — just the facts, with less opinion attached. "It's called the news — it's not supposed to be about their agendas." Journalists, especially cable pundits, he said, "need to grow up."
I doubt very much that the bickering will stop, at least not until people stop listening to it.  I've run into numerous people with the same complaint, and I've begun asking them why, if they hate the bickering so much, they continue listening to it.  At best they stop for a while, and then they tune back in.  But panels of pundits aren't all there is to the news media, as this guy seems to realize.  I almost never listen to such roundtables, having quit decades ago when I realized how useless they mostly were -- and in those days the emotional temperature they exhibited was a lot lower.  It happens that I recently watched the now-notorious "I'm a communist, you idiot" segment from Good Morning Britain on Youtube; after watching Piers Morgan's antics, I can understand why people would object to this sort of thing -- so why do they watch it at all?  Many clearly do; what do they get from it?  It can't be for the information.  I was amazed at the utter lack of professionalism Morgan displayed; if he gets away with it regularly, someone at ITV must like him. I prefer reading text, largely because it filters out grandstanding like Morgan's.

Wanting the news to report "just facts" seems no less quixotic to me.  It's true, the line between "news" and "commentary" is blurred, but it always has been.  When I see old (Sixties or Seventies' vintage, say) news stories from the New York Times, I'm constantly struck by the amount of commentary that found its way into them.  But even leaving that aside, which facts an outlet chooses to report, which stories it finds significant, which stories it ignores, what facts it leaves out, who it talks to -- all these factors put a slant on the "news."

Sullivan puts heavy stress on the claim, which I don't dispute, that reporters almost never make up stories.  I bet she'd be surprised to find out that a harsh press critic like Noam Chomsky not only agrees with her, he regularly commends the professionalism and competence of most mainstream reporters.  He directs most of his criticism at the institutions: the companies, the corporations, the publishers, the editors.  The Herman-Chomsky Propaganda Model, contrary to the fantasies of many of its critics, is not a conspiracy theory but a theory about institutions and their interests.  I'm less bothered by the fact that many media/press people mistake it for a conspiracy theory -- that's a natural human defense mechanism -- than that many of Chomsky's fans make the same misreading.

Like many people, Sullivan is concerned that so many Americans get their news from Facebook or other social media.  She reports that a Bernie Sanders supporter is "aware that some of what's on social media has been fabricated."  The thing is that neither Facebook nor Twitter nor any other social media outlet I know of produces its own news: I don't "get news from Facebook or Twitter," I get references and links and recommendations, which point me to reports and stories and essays I may decide to read at length.  I know not to believe everything I see there; what I find fascinating is that so many of the same people who are vocally cynical about the media are also extremely credulous, shocked to learn that The Onion just makes stuff up and you aren't supposed to take their stories as fact.  They have even more difficulty understanding that there are people who really do make stuff up and post it in order to fool people -- the piteous photos, for example, of little children in hospital beds, if you give them an amen and a like then Facebook will donate a dollar to their medical fund.  Cynicism and credulity are highly selective.

Sullivan continues:
Much worse was my conversation with Jason Carr of Green Bay, Wis., a middle-aged member of the Oneida Nation who was visiting his girlfriend in western New York. Wearing a "Born to Chill" T-shirt and sitting behind the wheel of his Ford F-150 pickup truck in a KeyBank parking lot, Carr told me that media reports strike him as nothing but "a puppet show" that is "filtered and censored" by big business. He buys into the conspiracy theories that the United States government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that the 2012 massacre of Connecticut schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School was staged. Carr didn't vote in the presidential election and said there's nothing the news media could do to earn his trust. "I don't believe anything they say," he said. "They get paid to be wrong." I left the conversation shaking my head, knowing that, as is clear from the huge following of sites like the conspiracy-promoting Infowars, he's far from alone in his beliefs.
My question for Jason Carr, if I could ask one, would be which sources -- media, that is -- he gets his information from, and why he trusts them over other media.  He didn't invent the "conspiracy theories" he believes; he got them from somewhere, and he trusts those sources.  Why them and not others?  Sullivan, I suspect, would regard Carr's sources, whatever they are, as untrustworthy because they're uncredentialed.  But where do credentials come from?  Even in the good old days before the Internet, anyone could start a newspaper, and most of the newspapers in the US used to be independently owned and run.  It was not uncommon for even small communities to have two newspapers, a Republican one and a Democratic one.  So which one was real news, which one was trustworthy?  How did you decide which source to trust?  The same way you do nowadays on the Internet: by exercising your critical faculties.  It's good to bear in mind that corporate media tend to report the news from the point of view of the stockholder class; but there is no source that has no point of view.  There is no magic crystal ball that will bring you the Truth, allowing you to shut off your mind.

This doesn't mean assuming that the media are out to lie to you; it means assuming that the news is produced by fallible human beings with biases, and with the best will and intentions they won't always be right.  Their stories will be partial, both in the sense of incomplete and that of biased.  So I (and you) need to be aware of that, as well as of our own limitations and biases.  It's not always easy, though it gets somewhat easier with practice -- and then one day you find that your bullshit detector failed spectacularly and you fell for an amazingly bogus story.  Whereupon you pick yourself up and go on, chastened and ready to continue learning.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Tea for Two, and Two for Tea

A final note on Toni A. H. McNaron's Poisoned Ivy, which I finished reading over the weekend.  Overall, it's a valuable, useful book, thanks to the breadth of McNaron's experience and the material she received from the respondents to her questionnaires and interviews.  It's somewhat out of date by now, twenty years after it was published, but it provides a snapshot of that point in time; I might look to see if anyone has done more recent work of the same kind that would indicate how much has changed in the late 1990s.

What I'm commenting on here, then, is not the book as a whole, but the occasional moments that made me sit up and wonder, "Now, where did that come from?"  Like this one, quoting one of her respondents.  Parenthetical remarks (in brackets) are McNaron's.
A second instance [in which the administration tried to force a faculty member to leave] was [around] 1962-63.  The man this time was in the discipline of art.  He also joined the faculty the same year as did I.  He was arrested with several others at a local "tea room."  [In English gay parlance, "tea room" became the name for a place where one could meet other men.]  [155]
Whoa!  A "tearoom" -- I've usually seen it written as one word -- is not "a place where one could meet other men," which could mean a bar, a party, a social circle in someone's home.  A tearoom is camp slang for a public restroom where men go to seek quick anonymous sex.  The term is American, not "English" (in the sense of British) as far as I know; in England such sites are known as "cottages," and gay men go "cottaging" when they fancy a quick one.  It passed from in-group code to academic awareness after the sociologist Laud Humphreys published his research on tearoom trade in 1970.

Considering the notoriety of Humphreys' work, I find it hard to understand how McNaron got this wrong.  Since she's never cruised a tearoom herself, I presume she got the information from someone else, who misled her, perhaps through euphemism.  And none of her advance readers, no one at Temple University Press, caught the error.  Again, this doesn't mean that Poisoned Ivy is worthless.  I'm just concerned, because strange errors creep into academic publications, which may confuse or mislead others who read them, especially students.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Usual Riffraff

As I hoped, Poisoned Ivy got better once I was past the preliminaries.  I like the way Toni McNaron used her own experience, the experience of people she knew, and the experiences reported by responded to her questionnaires.  I'm still not happy with her writing, but I can overlook that.

In the chapter on university administrators, she quotes a 1978 article on research similar to hers, by gay academic Louie Crew (he's still alive, bless him):
The following comments come not from the minds of the usual riffraff, but from the graffitic imaginations of persons distinguished by being chairpersons of departments of English in colleges and universities across the United States, writing with anonymity in the margins of a questionnaire.

"Gay Persons" -- do you mean queers?
This is the damndest thing I have ever seen!
Returned with DISGUST!
God forbid!
Tell me, Louie, are you a daisy?
Your questionnaire has been posted on our department bulletin board and has been treated as a joke.
That was forty years ago; Poisoned Ivy was published twenty years later, twenty years ago.  There has been some progress since those days, and few senior academics in the US would write or say such things aloud anymore.  And do you know why?

Because of "political correctness," that's why.  They know that if they said such things aloud, intolerant leftist heresy hunters would start screaming postmodernist, relativist abuse at them.  So they've learned to repress and hide their traditional values, for fear that they'll be attacked as "bigots," even monsters.  America has so far abandoned civility (which, as you can see, is fully compatible with the kind of schoolyard abuse those highly educated men scrawled, while leaving off their names) that these respectable and basically decent academics must cower in fear that the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy will call the drones on them.

Of course I'm (half) joking; but only half.  I'm exaggerating in my parody of civility fetishists, but not by much.  They'll tout the inarguable progress we've made over the past half century, while conveniently leaving out that that progress was made, not by civility (by which they basically mean hunkering down, keeping quiet, and hoping that bigots will change all by themselves), but by rocking the boat, making waves, complaining, agitating, and demanding that bigots and bigots' enablers change their behavior.

As the examples I linked to show, mainstream sympathy for the most vicious homophobic frothers isn't a product of the Trump era.  Excuses will always be made -- bad excuses, but that I suppose is better than no excuses at all.  What is inexcusable is getting in these guys' faces and telling them that they're bigots.  It doesn't really matter how humble, how civil, how incremental you are: any criticism at all is too much.  Remember the amazing candlelight vigils that, week after week for months without violence, helped bring down South Korean President Park Geun-hye?  It turns out that the South Korean
Defense Security Command (DSC) drew up plans last year to mobilize hundreds of tanks and thousands of troops to quell candlelight protests against then impeached President Park Geun-hye, a civic group claimed Friday.

The Military Human Rights Center for Korea disclosed what it claimed was a DSC document drawn up in March last year to outline ways to impose wartime martial law in case the Constitutional Court rejected the National Assembly's impeachment of Park and kept her in office.

According to the civic group, the DSC suggested responding to candlelight protests by declaring garrison decree first in light of the negative connotations of martial law. If the situation deteriorated further, martial law should be considered, it said.
It's not clear why these plans were abandoned, as they fortunately were.  But you see, even the most civil, best-behaved protests are unacceptable to the powerful.  So we mustn't allow ourselves to be gaslit by apologists for the powerful and the bigoted who try to explain that they wouldn't mind our criticism if we'd just be nicer about it.  They regret the changes that have occurred, and would like to turn back the clock to the Olden Days, when the lowly who weren't meek enough could be thrown out on the street, jailed, or killed.

*"Before Emancipation: Gay Persons As Viewed by Chairpersons in English," in The Gay Academic, ed. Louie Crew (Palm Springs CA: ETC Publications, 1978), p. 3.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Dude, I'm a Gay and Lesbian Academic

It's been a busy couple of days, and I'm already feeling swamped by topics I should write about.  So I'll be sneaky and do what I hope will be a quick and easy one.

I found a copy of Poisoned Ivy: Lesbian and Gay Academics Confronting Homophobia (Temple UP, 1997) by Toni A. H. McNaron at the library book sale the other day, and it looked interesting, so I bought it.  McNaron, who began teaching in 1964 at the University of Minnesota, surveyed a generational sample of LBGTQ with questionnaires, and I'm always interested in seeing what people have to say about their experiences.

But once I sat down and started to read the book, I was frustrated by McNaron's writing.  Like so many academic writers (though not only academics, I concede) she thanks various friends and colleagues and editors for assiduously going over and improving her prose.  I can only wonder what it looked before they worked on it, and with that in mind I too must thank them for their efforts.

More important, though, I keep stumbling over strange errors that apparently no one caught despite the numerous hoops that academic writing must jump through.  For example:
In 1973, the American Psychological Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its catalogue of diseases, reducing its classification from psychosis to neurosis [17].
This is a mess.  First, it was the American Psychiatric Association (APA) that in 1973 removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  It's easy to confuse them with the American Psychological Association, since they have the same initials; many people do, I've done it myself, and so does Google, which brought up this New York Times article on the American Psychiatric Association when I searched for the American Psychological Association.  Even the organizations themselves get confused: this American Psychological Association page says that the APA has opposed stigmatization of homosexuals since 1974, while this one says 1975.

Second, while homosexuality was removed from the DSM-II, there was enough dissension among psychiatrists that a new category replaced it: sexual orientation disturbance, which meant that if you felt bad about being gay, a practitioner could take your money to make you feel better about it.  Given the poor results of most psychotherapy, I wonder how effective such treatment actually was.

Third, I can't find that homosexuality was ever classified as a psychosis by either APA, though some individual practitioners may have done so, if only as a term of abuse.  As far as I can tell, then, McNaron's claim that homosexuality went from psychosis to neurosis is false.  It also conflicts with her own statement that homosexuality was "removed" from the DSM; if it was simply reclassified as a neurosis, it was still a "disease" and so was not "removed."  Since both of us are old enough to remember that period, I wonder where she got this interesting misconception.

Next, McNaron writes:
Since much queer theory argues against identity politics as being too solipsistic and narrow to be helpful in understanding a post-modern world, it has become possible for a faculty member to conduct and publish research about gayness or lesbianism without necessarily being gay or lesbian.  To the extent that this new field of inquiry provides a protective umbrella for some faculty who might otherwise refrain from integrating their sexual orientation into their work, it can only benefit students and faculty alike.  To the extent that it runs counter to the ideas of an older generation or academic era, those who continue to advocate for greater visibility in asserting the existence of intimate and unavoidable connections between the personal and the intellectual, queer theory runs the risk of diluting gains made at great risk to individual faculty members [18].
My objections to McNaron's analysis here are perhaps less factual than interpretive, but there are still facts she leaves out.  (However: "solipsistic"?  It's a much-abused word, but ...)  First, before the rise of openly gay and lesbian scholarship in the 1970s, academics took for granted that only heterosexuals could be impartial and objective about homosexuality, so gay and lesbian academics who wrote about the topic didn't reveal their personal connection to their material because to do so would have discredited them in their profession.  An example that comes to my mind is Laud Humphreys, the sociologist whose controversial observations at sites of gay men's anonymous sexual encounters, published as Tearoom Trade (Duckworth Overlook, 1970), nowhere revealed that Humphreys (who was heterosexually married) was himself gay, though he did acknowledge it later.  Two decades before Humphreys, Alfred Kinsey presented his research team as married heterosexual males, though he and some of his team weren't exclusively heterosexual; but the reason was the same, to comply with professional and cultural norms of objectivity.  One of the motives of openly gay and lesbian scholars was to demolish the notion of objectivity; it's not just a "post-modern" concern.

When openly gay and lesbian scholars began to emerge and publish in greater numbers in the 1970s and afterward, they took different approaches to this problem, though this was, again, controversial, flouting professional norms of impersonality.  Some, influenced by Second Wave feminism, wrote more personally, but most continued to produce professional work that left the observer out of the discussion.  Often personal revelations were confined to prefaces and introductions.  I've seen some disagreement about the extent of this greater personalization, but this is how I perceived it as an interested observer during that period.

As for queer theory, the distinction between it and "gay and lesbian studies" was never well-defined or -maintained.  The textbook The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (Routledge, 1993), for example, contains many contributions which, properly speaking, are queer theory, including an important excerpt from Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick's ovarian queer-theoretical The Epistemology of the Closet (California, 1990).  Sedgwick was also controversial because though she at times would accept the label "queer," she was heterosexually married, and both gay-and-lesbian-studies and queer-theory types disputed whether she really was queer and whether she should be doing queer theory if she wasn't.  Identity politics has been disavowed by queer theorists, but they have their own identities and their own politics about them.  The younger queer scholars I've read or met don't seem interested in excluding their queerness from their  work; they have other fish to fry.

So, whatever effects queer theory may have had on academics, McNahon's claims seem dubious to me.  One effect of greater gay visibility was, in my opinion, that it made it harder for scholars to do work on homosexuality while dodging questions about their own sexual orientation.  Older scholars, who'd grown up in a time when homosexuals were expected (under great coercion) to pretend, as much as possible, that they were not One of Those People, even when everyone around them knew otherwise, no doubt found it difficult to adjust.

What I've read of Poisoned Ivy so far confirms this.  One of McNaron's informants describes how a closeted colleague torpedoed his appointment to a choice position by tattling about his erotic past to the college president.  "He was obviously afraid I would expose him as a closeted gay," the informant writes (16).  Really?  There are other ways to read the incident.  One is that the informer exposed him partly to divert attention from himself: by fingering someone else, he could prove his own normality. Another is that while he was aware of his own vulnerability to exposure, he disapproved of anyone but himself being queer: he was different, a respectable academic, and this young upstart a disreputable perv.  It's impossible to say for sure in this case, at this distance in time, but I have known people with this attitude, and the trashier their own private lives were by their own standards, the more outraged they were by others.

I've peeked ahead in the book, and there is more to come.  Still, I hope to learn something by reading on, so I will.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The R-Word

I'm rereading Molly Ivins's You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You, a collection of her writings from the 90s. (Once again, if you've forgotten what was going on in those days, or are too young to remember, Ivins's books are a fun, relatively painless way to jog your memory.) This struck me funny, in a 1995 piece on Timothy McVeigh and the novel that radicalized him, The Turner Diaries:
The funniest part of this book is that Turner keeps getting indignant when 'The Enemy,' which intends to turn us all into 'a swarming horde of indifferent mulatto zombies,' calls the Order 'racist.' When the Order is decried by the media in this book as 'racist and anti-Semitic,' Turner considers it unfair.
That of course is how you know the book is fiction, because in the real world the media would never call an American fascist "racist and anti-Semitic"; they'd call him "the rough-hewn, articulate regular guy who's challenging PC orthodoxy" or something like that. But what I liked was the reminder that racist snowflakes get all indignant when they're called racist. This baffles me at the same time that it amuses me. They come up with all kinds of PC euphemisms ("race loyalist," "racial nationalist," etc.) to try to ward off the R-word.  I suppose eventually they'll try to reclaim it, but really, what is the problem?  You can call them almost anything else and they'll laugh it off, but "racist" somehow gets to them.  All the more reason to use it, then: the right tool for the job.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Where Do You Draw The Line?

I want to return to the culture-wars, civility, etc. topic from what I think is a slightly different angle.

What I have in mind is a story that recently spread, about Jimmy Latulipe, the white co-owner of a bar in South Carolina who reassured a white hipster musician who might perform there that "he shouldn't worry about playing there because [the owner] is going to keep the 'nigs' out of his place."
“I was dumbstruck and thought I must have misheard him. I incredulously asked him to repeat himself. I believe my exact words were ‘What the F- did you just say??’” [Don] Merckle continued. “And [bandmate] Brian, sure of what he heard, immediately told him that was NOT ok. Jimmy, sensing his error, immediately tried to back pedal. He apologized then added ‘…but you know what I mean.’”
I think that everyone interested in the issue should ask the civility purists they know what Merckle should have done.  Was it uncivil for Merckle and his bandmate to tell the guy that his racism was "NOT ok"?  Should they have simply swallowed their virtue-signaling Social Justice Warrior heresy-hunting, let the guy retract his words, and agreed to play at the Main Street Public House anyway?  With or without the black member of the band. Should they have gotten all snippy and uptight and Politically Correct and insisted on bringing him along for the performance, or should they have chilled out and let Latulipe have his traditional Southern business values?  But noooo, Merckle spread the incident on Facebook.  (Sarcasm alert, please note.)

I'm laying it on pretty thick here, despite my efforts to be restrained, but this is the issue: just how civil am I expected to be to racists and other bigots? Do I have to do business with them, lest I be uncivil?  Must I let them come to a party I give in my home, ignoring the discomfort they may cause to my other guests -- let alone to me?  (Back in the days when I gave regular parties, I sometimes had to tell friends not to bring with them individuals I knew to be bigots.)  Must I vote for them, lest I be a New McCarthyist, punishing them for disagreeing with me?

There's already too damn much of this kind of "civility" around, both in private and public life.  We're taught not to challenge our bigoted older relatives, no matter how foul the opinions they express.  We're not supposed to Make Trouble, not supposed to Upset Anyone at family gatherings -- a consideration that doesn't apply for some reason to the bigots.  (For some time now I've been pointing out that many of the white people who are supposedly too old to have heard that racism is bad in fact grew up during the Civil Rights era, and must have been aware of it.  If they are still racist after the past fifty or sixty years, it's because they like being racist.  Let them see if they can go on liking it when they get in trouble for it.  And what about those, like me but also many many others, who are the same age, lived through the same era and rejected racism?  Age is not an excuse.)  We're taught that religion, sex, and politics are improper topics at genteel gatherings, and never mind that bigots are mysteriously exempt from that prohibition: just shut up, swallow your objections, and hope that they'll either doze off or pass out before long.

In the public sphere, for example, it's extremely bad form to call a racist a racist, a bigot a bigot.  It's not how they see themselves, it's truly hurtful, it's just not who they are, the accusation of racism is one of the worst things anyone can call you in public life so even if it's true it's completely unfair to say it and only a bad person would do so.  Or: so a distinguished surgeon equated homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia, why not just laugh it off because he's really quite a nice bigot, they don't make homophobes like they used to?  Or: in the eyes of  many decent people, same-sex marriage is a religious issue not a civil-rights issue, so they should be allowed to demand that everyone else see it as they do, it stings them to be considered bigots.  Or: so a nice liberal gets mad and spews out a bunch of antigay swill, am I defending the indefensible if someone attacks those who call him a homophobe?  Or: it's tolerable if a reality-TV star indulges in antigay rants because a lot of people believe as he does, but it's not tolerable if the same guy indulges in nostalgia for the days when the Colored were contented in their subordination.

One noteworthy thing here is the way that civility fetishists equivocate, with dazzling facility really, between denying that a bigot is a bigot on the one hand, and conceding on the other that the subject is a bigot but why make a big deal about it?  And if you're going to make excuses for bigots, why not be even-handed and make the corresponding excuses for people who are mad at bigots? But no, our social norms are set up to protect bigots, and to inhibit anyone from expressing disagreement with them, confronting them, opposing them.  I've mentioned before the gay-bashers who, when blocked from beating up their victim by a self-defense group, and unable to get to their car, protested, "Look -- we don't want no trouble."  Ganging up on a solitary faggot wasn't "trouble," but stopping them from doing it, and stopping them from escaping, was.

Yet these distracting tactics have surprising viability even in liberal discourse.  I just reread Molly Ivins's Nothin' But Good Times Ahead (Random House, 1993), and it includes this: "To understand the fears of fundamentalists is to understand their foolishness. But they get precious little understanding, not to mention empathy or sympathy, from those who pride themselves on their compassion" (213f).  There is a tiny point here; I've often noted that the gay and liberal Christians who denounce the supposed "preaching hate" are big haters themselves.  In the rest of that article Ivins engages in some sloppy and ill-founded stereotyping of "fundamentalists" herself; maybe I should devote a post to that.

The issue here is "the fears of fundamentalists."  I do understand their fears.  I also know, as Ivins does, that not all fundamentalists are bigots, and that many non-fundamentalists are bigots.  So I don't equate fundamentalism and bigotry.  I criticize fundamentalism when it's relevant to do so, when religion itself is the issue, but I attack bigotry when bigotry is the issue.  And that's considered unfair.  When religious bigots are criticized for their bigotry, they tend to defend themselves by claiming that they're being criticized for being Christians.  Antigay bigots claim that they're being criticized for being heterosexual, racists claim that they're being criticized for being white, male supremacists claim that they're being criticized for having a penis, warmongers claim that they're being attacked for being Americans.  This tactic often works, if only by distracting the critic for a while.  We need not to fall for it.

Yes, bigots do have fears.  Corey Robin wrote in The Reactionary Mind (Oxford, 2011), "Loss—real social loss, of power and position, privilege and prestige—is the mustard seed of conservative innovation" (location 3585 of the Kindle edition)  Their targets also have fears.  Why are the bigots' fears privileged in mainstream discussion?  Because the bigots represent the status quo. Of course opposition to them is upsetting, not just to the Right but to much of the Center, which is why liberals are as hostile to "political correctness" as conservatives are.  It's okay to silence antiracist activists, feminists, gay liberationists, labor activists, etc. -- because they're troublemakers, upsetting the apple cart; it's not okay to silence bigots, because they're the norm.

The trouble is, we also need norms.  Almost nobody wants a totally unstable society, though some pretend they do. What I believe most people want is stability that lets them earn a living, raise  a family, and plan for the future.  This is a stability that has always been denied to large numbers of people, and it's always under attack.  I've always believed (though I could well be wrong) that there is enough wealth in the world to allow that stability to everybody, not just to some; some might end up with more than others, but nobody would or should have less than they need to thrive.  (That belief is what was always touted as the American Dream, right?)  If I am wrong about this, then we need to figure out some way to arrange things so that no one has to go without the necessities, because allowing large numbers of people to live in misery is not a recipe for stability for those who have enough.

So the next question is, how should people of good will and determination counter bigots and celebrants of injustice generally?  It should be clear by now that countering them will distress and infuriate them.  They will deny that they are racists, even as they confirm it in their next sentence, and there are many other people who will defend their right not to be distressed.  This will require a good deal of careful thought and organization, but one of the starting points is certainly that we must reject the claim that we are behaving illegitimately when we speak up against them.  We must continue to challenge them firmly, and organize to constrain them from hurting others.

After that we have to use good judgment, and be ready to discuss options, accepting some, rejecting others.  For many people all over the political spectrum, this takes all the fun out of being woke.  Identifying someone as the opponent is a license to go hogwild.  In this they're the mirror image of the people they're attacking, and they use the same distractive tactics the bigots use: What, you're telling me I shouldn't call those reichtards up and make death threats?  You're saying I shouldn't burn their house down and drive them back in when they try to run out?  You must be secretly on their side; you must think they should just be left alone to spread their hate.  You want them to take over!  I don't hate anybody, I am full of love!

For example, under the article which reported that the Main Street Public House has closed temporarily while things are getting sorted out, someone commented:
Tangent to this incident: There is a Divine Street Publick House located in the same city and it’s catching Hell online for what the Main Street Public House did. They are not affiliated at all. The Red Hen in DC is still catching shit for what the Red Hen in Virginia did to Huckabee.  I just want people to @ the right places to troll.  
Oh well, too bad, but let's partayyyyy, right?  Does anyone else remember how, right after the murder of Trayvon Martin and the arrest of George Zimmerman, Spike Lee posted the phone number of Zimmerman's parents online?  Even if you believe it's okay to take out the terrorists' families, there was a little glitch: Lee posted the wrong number, so somebody else got all the abuse and death threats.  And get this: Lee "got in hot water" and was "cast as a villain" in his elderly victims' lawsuit against him!  Oh, the humanity!  Even though he apologized and paid for the costs of their having to leave their home, he was still made out to be the bad guy, for an honest mistake that anybody could have made!

Lee told Oprah (who else?):
"I don't know what my intention was," Lee told Winfrey. "But angry is not a justification for stupidity.

"There's nothing I can say that can defend what I did. It was stupid."
That was at least better than the usual bogus apologies made by public figures when they've fucked up seriously.  But First, do no harm remains a valid principle, not only for doctors but for activists who want to build a better world.  Lee would have been stupid even if he'd posted accurate contact information for Zimmerman's family.  I think that what the commenter above called trolling -- anonymous attacks by phone, letter, or electronic media -- is cowardly and despicable, as most people realize when they are the target.  Confronting bigots face to face, especially bigots we know personally and/or are related to, is harder, scarier, but it's how change gets made.

The same goes for the people who play the "Why don't we kill fascists now, like we did in World War II?" card.  Leaving aside the fact that Our Boys killed fascists overseas, not here, at home we put innocent citizens in concentration camps because of their ancestry.  It wasn't that the government or many American citizens hated fascism, it was that Japan and Germany had the poor judgment to declare war on us.  I suspect that if that hadn't happened, we and our business community could have continued to co-exist with the Axis for a good long time.  But I don't see how starting an internal war now would solve our problems.  We know how well that worked out a century and a half ago, with no long term resentments and hatreds afterward.

So I hesitate to make specific recommendations about how to stop bigots now.  The Civil Rights movement used large-scale nonviolent means in the fifties and the sixties, with some backup from armed defenders, and were demonized as Communist troublemakers.  They made some gains, which are now being rolled back.  The various Black Nationalist groups took up arms, and ended up largely dead or in jail.  Their long-term effectiveness is still being debated.

Still, I feel pretty confident that people confronting people -- friends and families and co-workers -- which made some progress for gay people in the 70s and after, is a viable approach.  By coming out to those around us (as well as publicly in media) we changed the way Americans and others saw and treated us.  That struggle is far from completed, let alone won, but then no struggle is ever completely won.  As Don Merckle decided, though, white people have to stop letting racism slide.  Everyone needs to stop letting bigotry slide.  Merckle says he was stunned to find that Jimmy Latulipe took for granted he was a fellow racist, simply because he was white.  I find this tremendously naive, and I'm not alone in that (see the comments under the first article).  But the important thing is that he decided to let Latulipe know he'd made the wrong assumption.  Everybody needs to do that when we can, and not let ourselves be intimidated into continuing the collaborative silence that protects and perpetuates bigotry.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Gonna Wash That Past Right Out of My Brain

Recently I wrote about my bafflement that many people feel that in order to criticize some present-day problem, they must claim that it is completely new and unprecedented.  This includes well-informed people as well as the people of the land, the common clay of the New West.

Then, today I followed a link to an article by Corey Robin about the same phenomenon, which offered an explanation for it:
When Trump became a contender for the White House, I saw him as an extension or fulfillment of the conservative movement rather than a break with it. Almost everything people found outrageous and objectionable about his candidacy — the racism, the contempt for institutions, the ambient violence, the hostility to the rule of law — I’d been seeing in the right for years. Little in Trump surprised me, except for the fact that he won.

Whenever I said this, people got angry with me. They still do. For months, now years, I puzzled over that anger. My wife explained it to me recently: in making the case for continuity between past and present, I sound complacent about the now. I sound like I’m saying that nothing is wrong with Trump, that everything will work out. I thought I was giving people a steadying anchor, a sense that they — we — had faced this threat before, a sense that this is the right-wing monster we’ve been fighting all along, since Nixon and Reagan and George W. Bush. Turns out I was removing their ballast, setting them afloat in the intermittent and inconstant air.
That sounds about right. It goes beyond Trump, of course. I'd noticed that when people complain about what's happening now, they often talk as though nothing like it has ever happened before -- even when they are old enough to remember when it has happened before.  I first noticed it when I read articles that cited some disturbing current statistic as evidence that Things Are Getting Worse, but without providing evidence that things had been different before.  (And symptomatically perhaps, the web page that linked me to Robin's article described it as "one of the better articles I've read about the current climate".  Am I misreading that, or does it contain the assumption that "the current climate" is a change from the past?  Maybe not.  But the article refers to the current climate only to situate it historically.)  I understand that history is hard (let's go shopping), but I'm talking about memory. Convenient forgetting seems to be a powerful defense mechanism. Contrary to Orwell's 1984, forgetting yesterday comes easily, naturally, to most people -- it doesn't need to be imposed by force. But I don't consider that an excuse.

It reminds me of the way nice liberal people I know reacted in the 90s when I showed them parts of Manufacturing Consent, the documentary about Noam Chomsky.  It wasn't surprising that it made them uneasy, since they had mostly never heard of most of what it described, the interpretation of American history it presented. What interested me was that they often complained that it sounded like Chomsky blamed America for everything wrong in the world, and that he thought we should be invaded and conquered and punished.  They were, I believe, projecting, because that's how they are used to thinking about other countries, especially officially designated enemies.  The same kind of projection went full-bore after September 11, 2001: any attempt to contextualize the attacks was condemned as a justification of them, and anyone who objected to the American retaliation (against countries and people who had not in fact attacked us, mind you) was accused of thinking Osama bin Laden a noble freedom-fighter.

I've probably called this sort of reaction "ahistorical" myself, but that may not be the right word.  It's not necessarily a rejection of history, it's an embrace of false history.  But it is the expression of a wish to simplify moral problems by framing them in black and white, in caricature.  It's not easy to learn to think historically, not least because there's so much opposition to teaching students how to do so, but it's a skill that can be learned.  Not everyone can be a historian, but most if not all people can learn something of the processes involved, and they should. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

"I Do Not Remember It," Said O'Brien

For those who are too young to remember the Reagan/Bush years or those who are old enough but  have mercifully/conveniently forgotten them, an easy, enjoyable way to brush up is to read Molly Ivins's collections of her journalism and commentary from those days.  I recently reread Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? (Random House, 1991), and today I'm halfway through You Got to Dance With Them That Brung You (Random House, 1998).  As you can see, I'm out of sequence, but it's okay because of these passages I found.

Describing Berkeley, where she'd taught a journalism class, she wrote:
Diversity is such a political buzzword these days that you can forget what it actually means until you spend time in Berkeley. A stroll across campus or along a Berkeley street is like some PC lesson in multiethnic, multicultural diversity. Black, brown, Japanese, white, Chinese; ashrams, sari shops, Tina Turner Buddhists chanting ram-rom-om, bagel shops run by Pakistanis, croissant shops run by Vietnamese, the Black Muslim Bakery; gay and lesbian knitting classes, Little League teams that look like a junior division of the United Nations, Saint Joseph-the-Worker Elementary School featuring Roman Catholics of every nation, skaters with turquoise hair and rings in their noses; God Hill, where all the theological seminaries are clustered.
This was originally published in 1997, but it should sound familiar today.  I realized after I'd read it that, while it sounds like a pleasant environment to me, conservatives would find it revolting. This passage could almost be used as a diagnostic for what Corey Robin calls "the reactionary mind." To be sure, not all conservatives would be repulsed, and some liberals would feel at least a twinge of repugnance; some others might say delicately that they understand why some people might feel that way.  But it is surely a litmus test for the GOP base.

To be fair, though, those who desire cultural purity would also object to mongrel Berkeley as Ivins described it, and they aren't all white Republicans.  They turn up among American Indians, for example, and I wince whenever my Mexican friends claim to be 100% hecho en Mexico, especially since a 100% Mexican is most likely a mongrel, just like a 100% American. You find it among LGBTQ people, like the gay men's baseball team that wanted to exclude bisexual men.  These are people who might not think of themselves as conservative in the same sense as Donald Trump or William F. Buckley, but they have a very important trait in common with them.

Someone on Twitter asked me if I wanted to see America become "darker."  Yes, I said without hesitation.  He (or someone else -- there was a chorus of them and I didn't bother to try to tell them apart) asked if I didn't agree that a "browner" America was at odds with freedom.  I replied that I didn't think so, but that history seems to show that a whiter America is at odds with freedom.

Next passage from Ivins, following directly on the first:
The right wing, ever behind the cultural curve, is now accusing the left of fostering “identity politics,” which means a pernicious harping on one’s ethnic heritage. Berkeley is well beyond identity politics. For one thing, everyone seems to have more than one affiliation. Japanese Hispanics, gay Lubavitchers, Finnish acupuncturists, Irish-African-Americans (that’s quite a Saint Paddy’s Day party). I am told by administrators at UC-Berkeley that the student body is 60 percent “other.” Mostly you have to guess. Samoan? Goan? Aztec? At faculty parties I brag that I have a student from Nebraska whose mother makes casseroles with Cheez Whiz.
Conservative?  Even more so!  This sort of blurring boundaries bothers the Right a great deal. (Though not, as I noted above, only the hard core GOP base; panic over porous boundaries turns up in groups that would ordinarily be counted as anti-conservative, even Left.)  Race-mixing, confusing genders, the failure to maintain and protect borders or boundaries is according to them the kind of degeneracy that brought down the Roman Empire.  If you want to believe that differences are "natural," whether because a deity laid them down or because they're in our DNA, it's unnerving to find people prancing insouciantly past the boundaries you thought were immutable and impenetrable.  Unnerving, but not any kind of natural law that needs to be respected.