Thursday, August 23, 2018

You $@#!&% Kids Get the #%&! Off My Mother#@%&* Lawn!

I keep worrying that I'm getting old, partly because I am, but you know what I mean.  These two tweets this morning from someone I follow, who will remain anonymous for now:
If y’all can name me five poor or working people that give half a fuck what [first name of prominent journalist] fucking [surname of prominent journalist] has to say about anything I’ll kiss your ass.

Got grown motherfuckers on the left "[first name of prominent journalist] you're being dishonest!!" Like the fuck did y'all expect? Quit pining for the approval of these limp dicks and damn sure quit assuming best intentions in their coverage.
These were in response to a Bernie Sanders tweet chiding the journalist for spreading misinformation about Medicare for All.  Now, my first impulse was to ask what I would have to do for them not to kiss my ass.  (First prize, one week in Philadelphia; second prize, two weeks in Philadelphia.)  My second reaction was that while they had a point -- one should have a decent skepticism about the corporate media and their works -- at the same time it is perfectly legit to point out when corporate media figures promulgate falsehoods about important issues.  I'm a working person, and I give at least a quarter of a fuck what anchorcritters with vast platforms have to say about such things, because thanks to their elite positions they influence what most people believe.

Imagine asking, say, who cares what Donald Trump has to say about anything?  No sensible person would take Trump's word on anything, or pine for his approval or assume best intentions in his ravings.  But I don't think Sanders was doing any of these things.  He was trying to correct misinformation that might, either directly or through trickle-down, affect poor or working people's opinions of a good system for providing health care in the United States.

My third reaction was, as noted, to fret that I'm getting old in a bad way (oh no, I'm sounding like my mother!), because it bothers me when people think that putting a bunch of fucks, motherfuckers, and shit into their discourse makes it somehow more persuasive -- or makes me pine for their approval, assume their best intentions, or believe that they're commentators I should take seriously.

This person doesn't always resort to naughty words in their Twitter output, so I've been trying to figure out why they did it here.  I listened to one of their podcasts once: it was heavily peppered with fucks. The participants were mostly male; the one (?) female joined in, but it was, like Chapo Trap House, basically a boys' club in manner and content.  So my first guess is that they think they sound Street, which incidentally is cultural appropriation: white kids trying to sound like black kids.

At one time saying "fuck" a lot could have been defended as breaking a taboo.  I remember how thrilling it was when Jefferson Airplane sang "Up against the wall motherfuckers," on a major-label album, but that was almost fifty years ago. And it's a lousy song.  Ditto for the Sex Pistols, forty years ago, though they did it better.  Certainly many people would still regard "fuck" as taboo, but not the audiences this person is addressing.  If anything, it's conformist, safe, boring. yet irritating. The two can go together: think of a mosquito buzzing around your head when you're trying to sleep.

I could probably overlook the fucks on the grounds that it's a generational thing, if not for all the British rock stars older than I am who also season their speech with fucks.  As the examples of Pete Townshend, Jefferson Airplane, Johnny Rotten and others suggest, this kind of talk is now old people talk: your grandma talking salty.  When certain people misuse "literally," I wonder what word they use when "literally" is the right word to use.  And when wannabe Internet celebrities talk nasty for street cred or fitting in with the cool hipster guys, I wonder what they'll do when "fuck" loses what is left of its obscenity.  It still has it in boy culture, of course, when somebody tries to be macho by saying "Fuck the Republicans," and that's not a sign of wokeness either.  It's the opposite of being edgy, bold, independent.  It's a way of showing you belong.  And much of the time it's a substitute for substance, as in the tweets I quoted here.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

An Army of Non-Conformists Cannot Lose!

I've been reading numerous fascinating books about the history of "religion" as a concept and social phenomenon, which I should have written about here before.  Currently I'm in the middle of Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), edited by professors Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin.  It's intended as readings for college-level courses, and draws on the same scholarship that has taught and clarified so much for me.  The writing is meant to be accessible to undergraduates, so it's probably a good introduction for anyone who's interested in sorting out what religion is.  That question interests me as an atheist, and ought to interest other atheists as well as theists because so much discussion of atheism vs. religion makes assumptions about what religion is or isn't.  If you're a champion of rationalism and critical thinking, you should be concerned that your own assumptions are correct, no less than your opponents'.

Briefly, the scholarship I've been reading shows that there's a specifically modern, historically and culturally contingent concept (or definition) of religion that, if it didn't originate in the Christian "West," became normative here at around the time Europe was coming into contact with other cultures it hoped to conquer and colonize.  There was considerable debate as to whether these culture had "religion" that should be respected, or mere "superstitions" that could be replaced (by force if necessary) with True Religion, viz. Christianity.  The case of Islam, which had achieved enough temporal power that it couldn't be so lightly dismissed, had also provided fodder for debate as to its nature and status.  At around the same time, the rise of Protestantism raised questions about the status of religious dissent within Europe.  Up till then, "religion" was an inseparable part of one's culture, not a freely chosen lifestyle from a smorgasbord of possible "faiths."  By the time the US forced its way into Japan in the late 1800s, demanding "religious freedom" (meaning the freedom to missionize) for its nationals there, the question had to be addressed because "religion" and "religious freedom" had to be translated into Japanese for inclusion in treaties, and the Japanese had no equivalents for those terms.  Conflict and confusion over the meaning of "religion" persists down to the present day.

This summary oversimplifies, of course, and I refer interested readers to such works as Timothy Fitzgerald's Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (Oxford, 2007) and Jason Ananda Josephson's The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago, 2012).  I'm glad I read them before I got to Stereotyping Religion, because it seems to me that most of the contributions, while drawing on their scholarship, also get some things wrong.  One recurring motif is a tendency to blame the formation of "religion" as a concept on Protestantism and its associated "individualism."  I think this is mistaken, because it tends to reify Protestantism in much the way that "religion" reifies religion.  For one thing, the nature of religion would have had to be sorted out anyway, just because of European imperialism and the need to deal with different beliefs and practices in the places Europe sought to dominate.  For another, there had always been "religious" dissent in Christian Europe; Protestantism got a foothold and survived by aligning itself with political trends that weakened, undermined, and eventually broke down Roman Catholic hegemony.  But Protestants didn't originally see theirs as a separate "religion" -- they accepted the prevailing conceptions.

After all, Christianity originally emerged as a cult of individual salvation, hostile to established institutions of Family and State, and there are precursors of arguments from individual conscience in early apologetics; it only became Religion after its competitors had been effectively eliminated.  Something similar was true of, for example, Buddhism, which required individuals to split off from their families and conceptions of holy thought and practice.  Remember, for example, that when Buddhism got a foothold in China, traditionalists attacked it for its rejection of traditional values.
Judged by these standards, the ideal monk presented a disturbingly flawed picture of aberrant manliness.  He abjured marriage, renounced fatherhood, was ill positioned to care for parents, did not own property, declined public office, deprecated secular learning, mutilated his body (a gift from his parents) by shaving his head, and rejected orthodox manners and rituals for an alien set of rites.  According to the masculine standards of the time, how could such a person even be called a man?*
Here you can see how new, imported "religious" practices were characterized as attacks on a culture assumed to be natural, the mandate of Heaven.  In time, Buddhism became part of the Chinese landscape, and what had been outrageous violations of common sense became acceptable variations. (Though it may be that Buddhism also compromised on some matters to conform to Chinese culture.)  As with Christianity, one asserted "individual" rebellion by appeal to higher authority, that of the Buddha or of Christ.  This tactic was also used by the early Christians against Judaism.  In the gospels, for example, Jesus defends his innovations by asserting that they are the law of God rather than the law of men, by which he meant the supposedly God-dictated Torah.  Religious dissenters within Christianity used the same tactic centuries later.  (I'm not a rebel, you're a rebel!)  But a standard approach by traditionalists trying to refute rebels appealing to a higher authority is to define them as selfish individualists.

In the chapter of Stereotyping Religion I'm now reading, the authors, Andie R. Alexander and Russell T. McCutcheon, discuss the popular "I'm Spiritual But Not Religious" (SBNR) position adopted by many people in the US today.  Alexander and McCutcheon see SBNR as a modern, individualist stance, though their argument is that those who adopt it are mistaken in seeing it as such: any individualist, they argue, doesn't really stand alone:
[W]hat do we make of someone who comes along and says: “I’m spiritual but not religious”? For, as already suggested, this claim (at least as understood by some who make it) seems to signify that there exists something pre-social, something this person (and not that—the one who simply identifies as being religious, we guess) possesses or experiences that is more deeply significant because it is outside of (i.e., preexisting) all institutional constraints. While our commonsense way of understanding ourselves might suggest that such a claim is sensible—lots of people seem to think it sensible to say it—the excursion we just took into an alternative way of thinking about meaning now suggests that such assumptions are rather problematic, inasmuch as they seem to take the social work and thus institution-specific setting of all meaning-making as invisible, as if it wasn’t even there [loc 1879 of the Kindle version].
They then ask rhetorically (and don't you love rhetorical questions?):
What is it about our age that prompts some members of our society to understand themselves as existing apart from it, despite using the same language, economic system, and so forth as those from whom they feel alienated? [loc 1889]
As I've already suggested, it's not really about "our age" or "our society" but about the felt necessity of defending a minority position in any society.  The apostle Paul, for example, like other early Christians, characterized his sect as in the world but not of it, despite his reliance on the same language, culture, economic system, and so forth as those from whom he felt alienated.  Alienation too is not "natural" but constructed and maintained.  Rhetorical details vary in emphasis, but the overall picture hasn't changed much.  I also think that this question caricatures the SBNR, leaving out some important features that I'll return to in a moment.

Alexander and McCutcheon conclude:
For if we instead start from the standpoint that it’s, well ..., standpoint all the way down and that there is nowhere to stand that isn’t situated, that isn’t invested, that isn’t implicated, that isn’t part of a prior conversation that we didn’t start ourselves, and that isn’t therefore part of a social and thus institutional world, then those who talk as if their private, true, or authentic self somehow trumps the so-called derivative forms that other people’s lives take will be seen by us as fascinating players in an ongoing contest, working with what’s at hand, to give their position a competitive edge [loc 1898].
This is true enough as far as it goes.  As a whole, this part of the book makes many important and valid points.  But as here, the writers omit to recognize that the proponents and defenders of "social and thus institutional world" against which SBNR define themselves are also individuals: they seek to pretend that they stand on solid ground, that it isn't "standpoint all the way down," and that the absolutes they espouse weren't created and perpetuated by people like themselves.

What occurred to me while I was reading this material was that people who present themselves as SBNR do not always claim that their "private, true, or authentic" selves trump the forms that other people adhere to. They generally draw on a buffet of ascended masters, spiritual teachers, cultural icons and other sources as authority for their personal versions of spirituality -- even though many of those figures are associated with Organized Religion themselves. They also frequently find community in study groups, classes, shops of spiritual paraphernalia and merchandise, and the like; they rarely stand completely alone.  As Alexander and McCutcheon point out, standing alone is a tactical claim, not a reality. We are all both individuals and members of collectivities; these are aspects of ourselves, and neither one represents us completely.

And then I remembered that in the previous chapter of Stereotyping Religion, Steven W. Ramey had argued against the belief that "religions are mutually exclusive," that people can and should be classified as belonging to one and only one religion.
This cliché, though, is far from universal, as people in other parts of the world often have different conceptions. Many people in Japan, for example, participate across a lifetime in practices associated with both Buddhism and Shinto, seeing them as addressing different aspects of human existence. Some people understand all religions to be doing the same thing, allowing people to employ whatever practices or beliefs that they find beneficial. Within the context of South Asia, praying at the shrines and temples associated with different religions provides opportunities to access supernatural power or wisdom, without undermining a person’s identification with one religion. For example, Qutb Ali Shah, whose followers in British India identified him as a Muslim Sufi, did not require his followers who identified as Hindu to convert to Islam. In fact, he incorporated deities and practices commonly seen as Hindu in his own activities (Gajwani 2000, 39–41), and Hindus and Christians who claimed a high social status often participated in each other’s festivals as an expression of their higher status while excluding others who identified with the same religion from participating (Bayly 1989, 253, 289–90). Many people who identify as Chinese do not identify as a follower of any particular religion but follow practices that we commonly label Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, and folk traditions. In fact, it is common for temples in Chinese communities to incorporate a range of figures that we commonly identify with different religions [loc 1428].
This is true and important, though Ramey overlooks similar attitudes and practices within European and American Christianity: think of the welter of "pagan" elements in European and North American celebrations of Christmas.  Rabbinic Judaism has been trying to root out magic and "superstition" among lay Jews for millennia.  (But also think of New Atheist Sam Harris, who practices his own version of Buddhism, trying to convince himself that there's no conflict.)  Christianity itself is a syncretistic mix of Judaism and Greco-Roman religion and philosophy.  Which didn't mean that the early Christians didn't refuse to conform to Jewish or Roman demands for conformity that they found objectionable (burning incense to an image of the Emperor, for example), or to represent their sect vis-a-vis Judaism and "paganism" as mutually exclusive.

Ramey even acknowledges that
One trait of what people sometimes call New Age religion is the adoption of practices associated with different religious traditions, which becomes a point of critique for some people opposed to New Age practices. A similar issue arises in the language of “spiritual but not religious,” which rejects institutional forms of practice for an individualized selection of practices ... For example, in the British colonies that became the United States, those identified as Christian incorporated astrology and similar practices despite the common Puritan teachings that such practices were not acceptable for people who identified as Christians [locs 1584, 1594].
So I think there's a contradiction here: "Spiritual But Not Religious" is not a modern, Euro-American, Protestant, individualist deviation (even if some of its adherents may defensively present themselves as such); rather, it fits comfortably into traditional, almost universal cross-cultural practices of people around the world and throughout history.  Attempts to purify a particular tradition are not inherent in religion, but represent minority, usually elite efforts to construct regularized systems that appeal to them aesthetically and intellectually.  Most people construct the constellations of meaning that they use to structure their lives ad hoc, opportunistically; the "Cafeteria Christian," as objectionable as he or she may be in many ways, is simply being religious in a normal, traditional manner, the way most believers have always been religious.

*Bret Hinsch, Masculinities in Chinese History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), p. 50.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

I Don't Care What Yahweh Don't Allow

According to this article, the resident artiste of the Masterpiece Cakeshop is suing his state government, alleging harassment and persecution for his deeply held religious beliefs.  This is due to another suit accusing him of discrimination for refusing to bake a cake for a transgender person's transition. There aren't enough details in the article for me to discuss that case; anyhow, what I'm interested in now are the remarks of the person, Brent Sirota, who linked to the article in a tweet.  He's an academic, a "Historian of sacred and profane things" according to his profile, with a focus on "Disenchantment operations, mostly."  I follow him because he often shares useful information, including recommendations of several books that I have found very useful.  But his complaints today made little sense to me.

I simply don't see the bottom to this. Any number of prejudices can be and have been swathed in theological garb--many quite recently, historically speaking: against interracial marriage and integration, antisemitism, anticommunism.
This is true as far as it goes.  What's missing is an acknowledgment that it's not only "prejudices" that have been "swathed in theological garb."  His use of "prejudices" is tendentious and disingenuous.  Just about any position at all can be and has been tarted up in theological drag.  How is anyone supposed to tell which positions are legitimate and which are merely prejudices?

One example of this came up a couple of Christmases ago when I criticized a liberal/progressive Christian reading of the Nativity stories that cast the Holy Family as "refugees."  I pointed out that there were other ways to read the texts, based on the narrative and indeed theological framework of the New Testament itself.  I was advised to study some theology by someone who was unaware that I've spent many years doing that.  What my reading had taught me was that the meanings of biblical stories and the doctrines Christians constructed were manifold, and largely determined by what the interpreter wanted to find: theologians work backward from their conclusions to get the texts to mean what they want them to mean.  (This is not true only of theologians, of course.)  The irony was that my critic assumed what he accused me of believing, that each story has only one meaning.  You couldn't prove that from a reading of theology; rather the opposite.

Sirota continued: 
Eventually, this will make the state the arbiter of orthodoxy. Courts and legislatures will have to determine that transphobia is a legitimate application of Protestant doctrine, but opposition to "race-mixing" or "popery" is not.
I can't see anything in the article that supports this overwrought claim.  Perhaps the courts and legislatures will take it on themselves to decide Christian doctrine, in defiance of the First Amendment, but there's nothing in the article or the case that obliges them to.  If anything, Sirota seems to want the courts to determine that transphobia is an illegitimate application of Protestant doctrine, which isn't acceptable either.  (I don't quite understand why he specifies "Protestant" here, since Catholic doctrine is also anti-trans.  I suspect he's alluding to - and misusing, in my judgment - scholarship which traces religious pluralism and toleration to the rise of Protestantism; but of that, more some other time.)

Now, it's true that probably most Americans (including their elected representatives) don't understand the First Amendment, largely because they don't see why it should prevent them from imposing their beliefs on other people, at their expense.  I've mentioned before some gay Christians I know who, not content with a mere civil ceremony, wanted the government to force their churches to provide them with a church wedding.  They didn't care that this would violate the First Amendment: they wanted it, and thought they were entitled.  (As white middle-class Christian-American males, of course they were!)

There are other ways of understanding this issue, of course, but it seems to me that even if a doctrine is a legitimate application of Protestant doctrine, it can still be regulated or forbidden by the state.  Slavery was held to be theologically legitimate for centuries by Catholic and Protestant divines, and though most people don't realize it, the American Civil War and Emancipation did not change that.  Even if your church still considers slavery to be in conformance with the will of God, it is still illegal for you to own other human beings.  The same can be said of polygamy: there is nothing in the Bible to forbid it, and it appears that Christianity abandoned the practice not for theological reasons but because Roman society disapproved of it.  (Oh ye of little faith, letting the World determine doctrine for you!)  If Protestants want to burn papists, or vice versa, because of their sincerely held theological doctrines, tough luck.  Nor is the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy acceptable because the Church hierarchy refused to do anything about it.  Because the United States does not, thanks to the Bill of Rights, have a state religion, we are not at the mercy of theologians in deciding public policy.

Sirota concluded:
And that was precisely Madison's complaint in the Memorial and Remonstrance in 1785, that such policies imply "that the Civil Magistrate is a competent judge of Religious Truth . . . an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages."
James Madison certainly did not mean that churches should be given free rein, however.  Remember that he opposed tax exemptions for churches and a chaplain in the Congress.  He was correct that the Civil Magistrate is not a competent judge of religious truth; I would only add that neither is the theologian, as shown by their contradictory opinions in all ages.  No one is.  Happily, as I've already said, the magistrate need not judge religious truth; he or she only needs to keep the arrogant pretensions of churchmen and believers from disturbing the public peace.  "Only" is probably not the right word here, because it's no small task to balance the competing claims of religious freedom, which usually involve one religion's freedom versus another's.  Even if believers could agree on what their gods require, their gods have no authority in this country.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Still Gotta Get Out of This Place

I've been listening to numerous versions of this song today, led there by the imminent reissue of this one.  It's one of my absolute favorites from the mid-60s: Brill Building pop given a rough edge by some scruffy Brits, a great vocal by Eric Burdon (a major crush of mine at the time).

I had no idea it had been covered by so many people, though I'm not really surprised.  Turns out it was popular among US invaders in Vietnam, but it's also simply a great song.  I also found at least three "original" Animals versions on Youtube, but I'm faithful to the US single, to which Burdon listlessly and probably drunkenly lipsyncs in this clip.  I bought the sheet music myself and tried to work out an acoustic version on guitar, just for the satisfaction of singing it, but couldn't make it work. But Richard Thompson could.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

People Keep Using This Word, Etc.

David Sirota is a fine journalist, so I'm not picking on him specifically here.  I've seen a lot of other people do the same thing:
Modest proposal: if you took over a political party & then oversaw that party losing Congress & most statehouses, and then you additionally oversaw it losing the presidency to a reality TV star, you’re no longer in a position to lecture anyone about electability or effectiveness.
I agree completely with the substance of this remark.  It's the "Modest proposal" part that bugged me.  I take it to be an allusion to Jonathan Swift's satirical tract of that title, published in 1729, in which he proposed to fatten Irish babies for English tables. If you're following Swift's example, a "modest proposal" is sarcastic in the first instance -- you know it's outrageous -- and in the second, you do not actually mean that your recommendation should be followed.

I presume that Sirota, by contrast, is quite serious in proposing that the Democratic Party leadership STFU. So there's no sarcasm here, no satire.  It's as tone-deaf as Hillary Clinton's use of George Orwell's 1984 in her apologia pro snafu sua What Happened.  Yet Sirota is not a stupid man.  As I've said, I've seen other intelligent people announce modest proposals that they mean unironically.  How does this happen?

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

First We Take Tahiti

I just reread Jack Douglas's The Adventures of Huckleberry Hashimoto (Dutton, 1964), for the first time in at least forty years.  Douglas (1908-1989) was a radio and TV comedy writer, a buddy of Jack Parr (who makes a cameo appearance in this book), and the author of numerous books that permanently warped my sense of humor when I was in middle school: such classics as My Brother Was an Only Child (1959), Never Trust a Naked Bus Driver (1960), and A Funny Thing Happened to Me on My Way to the Grave (1962).  All of which were in my small-town public library; they weren't obscure under-the-counter samizdat, they were published by a respectable house and went into mass-market paperback.

I don't remember at this remove in what order I read them.  It's possible I read Huckleberry Hashimoto first and then found the earlier books.  The first two were basically comedy routines that couldn't have been performed on TV; Huckleberry Hashimoto was an account of Douglas's 1963 trip to Japan with his (third) wife, Reiko and their rambunctious sixteen-month-old son Bobby.  They went by way of Tahiti and Hawaii, largely by ocean liner.  Bobby was, Douglas informs us,
sixteen months old when we started out.  Reiko was twenty-seven and I was forty-eight.  When we got back home he was nineteen months, Reiko was still twenty-seven, and I was a hundred and three [9-10].
In fact, Douglas seems to have told a little white lie here.  According to his Wikipedia entry, he was born in 1908, which would mean he was 55 in 1963.  (According to her obituary in the New York Times, Reiko was born in 1936, so she was 27 when they went on that fateful trip.)  But the marriage seems to have been successful -- they remained together for the rest of Douglas's life.

I enjoyed the book this time around, and was surprised by how many of the situations and gags had stayed with me.  What I noticed on this reading was the number of references to homosexuals.  It's been a frequent complaint of many homophobes that although we are a small minority, we still insist on talking about ourselves all the time - you know, the "the love that dared not speak its name" routine.  There is some truth about this, though we're not any more obsessed with our sex lives than heterosexuals are about theirs.  But what I find interesting is how obsessed with homosexuals many heterosexuals are.  Douglas is not terribly bad, really -- he doesn't fuss and fume hysterically, he sticks to the neutral term "homosexual" for the most part -- but he does keep mentioning us, more than our minuscule numbers would seem to justify.

For example, early in the voyage Douglas catalogues some of the characters he saw on board:
... I saw Miss Ethel Murdock and Mr. Peter Corbin enjoying a glass of beer (their eighteenth) under a rear table in the Outrigger Bar.  (Miss Murdock is a forty-five-year-old third-grade teacher, with more than just a suggestion of a moustache, in search of "new experiences."  Mr. Corbin is a homosexual who didn't realize that Miss Murdock wasn't Pancho Villa.) [27].
Then, on the way to Tahiti:
This particular deck steward also told me that if I was going to write anything about Tahiti in my new book, to check up on the stories concerning a certain movie actor, who had made a picture there.  The stories all pertained to the fact that he was a homosexual.  I told him that that's what they said about everybody in show business, that they were either homosexuals or communists.

He said, "Jesus -- I didn't know he was a communist, too!"

I said, "I didn't say that -- besides, what proof has anyone got that this actor is a homo?"

He said, because all the Tahitians called him a "mahu" which is Tahitian for "faggot" and also this actor in making this movie (which was about Tahiti) insisted that all of his "boys" be in it, and when he didn't get his way he stamped his sandaled foot and swished off the set into his thatched hut where he sat around in his muu-muu and sulked and pouted and moued for three days.  Something had to give, so finally the producer agreed that his "boys" could appear in the trailer for the film, if not in the film itself.  This seemed to satisfy the movie star and he emerged from his hut, his lip still a little Jackie Cooperish, but more or less ready to continue making the movie.  In all fairness to this movie actor, I did check up on him when I got to Tahiti and the consensus was unanimous -- he's a fag [47-48].
It's hard to sort out Douglas's commentary from the steward's in this story, so I'm not going to try.  I think Douglas was a bit more sophisticated than he let on, for once he got to Tahiti he reported
the penchant the Tahitians have for sensational gossip, one facet being that according to everybody on the island everybody else is queer.  Also, everybody that comes to the island is either queer or double-gaited -- or both.  (For those of you who are not familiar with the term "double-gaited," it means a homosexual who is happily married and the father of six children, but who is madly in love with the boy next door.)  [90]
I found this pretty funny, actually.  It reminded me of the stories Mark Padilla told in his book on male hustlers in the Dominican Republic, who would mention "to me that one or another of their peers was known to 'dar el culo' (give their ass) on occasion, which often produced much hilarity on the part of the storyteller."  Padilla didn't draw the connection himself, but he also reported that some of the same young men who told him that other guys would steal from their clients, turned out to be thieves themselves.  I suspect, then, that at least some of the Tahitians who gossiped -- no doubt with "much hilarity" -- about the predilections of their fellows and of tourists were sounding him out to see if he might be available and interested.  (The same might have been true of the steward.)  Douglas may even have realized it; who knows?

There were a couple of passing references to homosexuals later in the book (see page 122 if you ever read it), but you get the idea.  Douglas wasn't complaining about homosexuals everywhere, trying to take over, which puts him ahead of many his more highbrow peers in those days; he was just showing how worldly he was.  And to give him credit, he was also genuinely interested in Japan, got along with Reiko's family, and picked up more Japanese than most gaijin who married Japanese women seem to have troubled to do.  His account of staying with Reiko's family -- her father was a Buddhist priest, by the way -- in Hiroshima is pretty sensitive for the era.  He gets comedy out of their stay in Japan, but no more than he does of everything else, and I liked him overall.  There were other books by other writers that I read in those days that disturbed and frightened me by their handling of homosexuality; but Douglas' treatment made no impression on me, and I went on reading his books happily for years afterward.

So let me conclude with a story that I found rather charming:
The last thing I remembered as I drifted off that first night was the incident of the dignified little old Japanese gentleman and the electric-eye door at the hotel in Kyoto.  Every time he left the hotel or entered it, the electric eye would fling open the door for him.  And every time he would stop and bow to it [166].

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Price of Liberty

I watched this movie last night on DVD, and it was very good -- better than I expected, given Korean movies' increasing Hollywoodization. Which could mean that American audiences might like it! It's streaming on Amazon and Youtube and probably elsewhere, so chances are you can find it if you're interested. Korea has been in the US news more than usual lately, so Americans should take the opportunity to inform themselves. Besides, this is a good movie -- entertaining, well-made, and fairly accurate historically.

1987 is about the events that led to the fall of the military dictatorship in South Korea, set off by the murder by waterboarding of a student activist, Park Jong-chul.  A prosecutor blocked the coverup, the press ran with the story, and after huge protests all over the country, the government allowed open elections to take place. Still, it took several more years for something like democracy to be established, and as we saw with the recent plans by the military to save ex-President Park's regime by declaring martial law, it's still not safe. It never is, anywhere.

The film was directed by Jang Joon-hwan, whose Save the Green Planet! (2003) was a sort of science-fiction allegory of the persistence of South Korea's repressive past.  1987 is only his third feature. (I haven't yet seen his second, Hwayi: A Monster Boy [2013].)  It's a much more mainstream work than Green Planet, though still tricky in its structure -- not in ways that would confuse an audience, necessarily, but in the way the narrative keeps adding on characters who turn out to be surprisingly significant.  (According to Darcy Paquet of, only one of the characters is entirely fictional.)  It's like watching a juggler keep adding objects to keep in the air.  For Korean audiences, it probably helped that numerous well-known actors played cameos; this was a prestige project, after all.  The screenwriter, Kim Kyung-chan, has one previous credit, Cart (2014), about a strike at a Korean big-box chain store, so he has experience handling political content involving a big cast of characters; I should watch Cart again to see how it compares.

The narrative circles back on itself, rhyming the killing of another student activist whose death galvanized the democracy movement even more, with Park Jong-chul's death, and culminates in a recreation of the huge protest marches that took place all over the country. This must have been a big budget production, given the thousands of extras who participated, the need to get costumes and hairstyles right, to find locations that looked like the 1980s in the 2010s. 1987 is a spectacular logistical achievement as well as good entertainment and a powerful history lesson.
My favorite scene, by the way, is when a young woman, played by Kim Tae-ri, gets caught up in a demonstration near her university, though she herself wasn't one of the activists. The police grab her, punch and club her, and start to drag her away -- but a handsome (of course) young activist rescues her. They run through the alleys trying to escape, and manage to frustrate the cops, one of whom is knocked out. The young woman starts to run, but then turns around to kick him in the head before she escapes with her new friend. (The cop she kicks is one of those who hit her earlier, by the way: he deserves it.)

Once again I'm impressed by the ability of South Korean filmmakers to make brave political movies about the recent past.  I can't think of any US films that come close, though I admit I've probably missed some, and I hear Rob Reiner's Shock and Awe, about the propaganda campaign legitimizing the US invasion of Iraq, is good.  The most famous US example might be Salt of the Earth, the 1954 independent film about striking miners that was suppressed by a McCarthyist campaign.  But could Hollywood make such a movie?  The usual Hollywood approach is to reduce political struggle to One Man (sometimes One Woman) who Makes a Stand, while ignoring the many people who actually make a movement.  It's a very American blind spot.  One reason I love South Korean cinema is that it shows that you can make exciting, entertaining movies and TV dramas that don't scant the importance of solidarity and collective action.  But you don't have to think about that when you watch 1987.  Just be shocked (by the brutality of the repression), awed (by the courage of the people who resisted it), and moved.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Sometimes the Truth Is Somewhere In Between

Alfie Kohn linked to this opinion piece on TED Talks, and while I'm sympathetic, I have some objections.

"Picture this," Julie Bindel begins. "A darkened auditorium, an attentive, cult-like audience staring ahead expectantly, hardly daring to breathe; a huge screen on which there is an image no one can decipher."  Excuse me -- "cult-like"?  The rest of the article is written in the same lazy style, which is unfortunate for Bindel's complaint that TED "style appears to be given a hundred times more thought than content" and that "the style puts me off devouring the content."  Style is pretty much all there is to Bindel's piece; there's not much thought in it at all.  And I'm basically sympathetic to her position, which is why I clicked through in the first place.

She builds up to her smashing conclusion thusly:
I often give talks to both small and large audiences, and always feel nervous beforehand. This used to bother me, after decades of public speaking, but I then realised that being nervous is respectful of those who are there to hear me. Why would anyone wish to listen to some overconfident, over-rehearsed guru? Why would I want to subject them to a performance?
Um, well, maybe because giving a talk is a performance.  I wonder if Bindel has defined "performance" tendentiously to mean "something other than what I do" -- she doesn't specify.  If that's what she's doing, it's disingenuous and therefore disrespectful to her readers; if not, then she's merely wrong.

I've done a fair amount of public speaking over the years, though rarely on preset topics: usually, as with the GLB Speakers Bureau, I'm up there to answer questions, so what I say depends partly on the questions I'm asked.  But most of the questions we're asked are the same, on issues and topics that I've been thinking about for decades.  When I'm formulating an answer, I'm also conscious that I'm communicating with an audience, and I hope to be memorable, maybe funny, to say my say so as to make an impression that will stay with them.  That's a performance.  Am I nervous?  Not in the panel context.  But I don't think I'm "over-rehearsed" either.

"Over-rehearsed" might be disrespectful to the audience, but then so would under-rehearsed be.  I doubt that Bindel simply stands up and wings it with no preparation at all.  Nor, I hope, does she stand up and draw a blank, gaping open-mouthed at her audience.  That would be spontaneous, natural, "real."  It would also probably generate some complaint from the people who'd shown up hoping to hear her say something substantial.  Spontaneity is, in this context, an illusion.  A performer plans and prepares so as to seem natural and spontaneous; it takes a lot of work and talent to create that illusion.  So for once, it seems to me, the truth lies somewhere between "over-rehearsed" and "under-rehearsed."  The sweet spot can't be specified in advance.

I agree with some of Bindel's objections to TED Talks, but she hasn't thought her position through.  I find myself wondering, for example, about that standard TED Talk style, which I imagine is indeed the result not only of rehearsal but of guidance by the organization.  I find it annoying too, but evidently many people don't.  It reminds me of the conventions of stage acting and indeed of public speaking a century ago, where hopefuls were taught the proper gestures to go with and convey emotions.  The survival of elements of this style is what makes it difficult for me to watch early silent movies.  But that didn't bother most of their original audiences, apparently.  I suspect that the same applies to TED talks, and it's as absurd to speak of their audiences as "cult-like" as it would be to apply that epithet to early 20th century movie or stage or Chatauqua audiences.

Yeah, the TED style annoys me too.  But when I do listen to or watch a TED Talk, it's usually the content that bothers me.  Good content is always hard to find.  In Julie Bindel's case, it's both style and content that bother me.  First pluck the beam out of thine own eye, Ms. Bindel.