Wednesday, December 11, 2019

If I Dood It, I Get a Whippin'...

I was on Twitter today when I came across this:


Whereupon this came instantly irresistibly to mind:



Am I saying that all reactionary Catholics are screaming queens?  Of course not -- only most of them, like their Protestant counterparts.  But if they came out, they'd stay just as reactionary.  We've often been told how radical and revolutionary screaming queens are, and in a narrow domain they may be.  But outside of that repressive gender order, my experience says otherwise.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Caress, Fondle, Nuzzle the Hair of Your Feelings

The American Civil Liberties Union is supporting four atheist students in Smith County, Tennessee who are resisting the imposition of Christian belief and practice by teachers in their high school: "school officials promoting Christianity through official prayers, Bible distributions, religious posters, and even a giant cross painted in one of the school’s athletic facilities." Three of the students were interviewed for the ACLU blog, and right off the bat they made it clear that their own understanding of the issue at stake was deficient.
What has your school environment been like for you?
Harleigh: Overall, it’s really uncomfortable. You feel like you don’t fit in at all.
Leyna: To be honest, it’s kind of awkward having to deal with everybody making it seem like you have to believe in one thing, just like them.
Pyper: Mostly it’s just uncomfortable and feeling like you don’t fit in.
I hope that their ACLU team has explained to them that their feelings are not the issue, and won't be helped if they win their lawsuit.  (It's likely, in fact, that their school environment will become even more uncomfortable in retaliation for making trouble and hating on Jesus.  Conservative Christians are very loving toward people who interfere with their theocratic aspirations.)  But maybe the ACLU doesn't know either, since they previously defended a student's suit to block official prayer at their high school commencement because "'They just wanted to be able to attend their commencement without feeling like an outcast,' ACLU NC legal advisor Chris Brook said."  Most of the comments under the ACLU's Facebook post were dispiriting in their historical and political ignorance, subliteracy, and mindless sloganeering.

I've complained about this kind of misunderstanding before, but as Christian Slater said in Heathers, I'll repeat myself.  The First Amendment doesn't guarantee that your sensibilities won't be offended, either by stray dissidents or by the majority of society.  It doesn't guarantee your god-given right to feel like you fit in.  Very much the opposite.  Nor is there any reason why it should, and I think that's most important.  If you adopt and express an unusual, let alone unpopular opinion, you're likely to find yourself on the outs with numerous groups in your vicinity: your school, your church, your family.  This probably won't be pleasant, but it goes with the territory.  It's not a secret: there are many role models, historical and fictional, religious and secular, for individuals who defied the crowd.

And with the best will in the world, the crowd isn't necessarily going to be able to reassure you much.  If everybody else in town is going to church and you refuse to, you're going to be left out, an outsider, a weirdo.  Even if the majority are nice about it, which may happen, you're going to be marginalized, because you marginalized yourself.  (They're certainly not obligated to stay home from church so you won't feel like an outcast.)  All the First Amendment does is protect you against official, government penalties for being a weirdo.  That may not seem like much, but it took many centuries for civilization to get to reach that point.

Worse yet, one of the kids complained "I respect other people’s religion, and I would like it if everyone else would respect my beliefs."  Does she, now?  She "respects" beliefs that, by definition, she regards as false and unfounded?  I think that, like many people, she doesn't know what "respect" means.  We are obligated to respect other people's right to hold their beliefs, but not to respect the beliefs themselves, nor are we entitled to demand that others respect our beliefs.  And if, in a small-town Christian-nominated high school full of adolescents, the worst she has to complain about is a lack of respect, she's pretty lucky. 

"Belonging" seems a rather iffy notion anyhow.  Isn't it subjective?  People often feel that they don't belong even when there's no evident exclusion going on.  Think, for example, of all the gay people who claim that they always knew they were "different," even before anyone else around them knew.  Perhaps they were right that if others knew their secret, they'd be ostracized, but not always.  In my adolescence I myself felt more alienated than was warranted.  When I graduated and started hanging out at a regional campus in a nearby city, I found a group of people among whom I felt as if I belonged for the first time in my life: the university club that ran a small coffeehouse near campus.  I was still a weirdo, but it didn't seem to matter.

When I moved to the flagship campus two years later and came out, I found that I didn't feel I belonged in the gay community there.  Partly this was encouraged by some of the gay people I met, but I also found I didn't care, because I wasn't going to let other people define and regulate gayness for me.  But all of this took place apart from First Amendment issues, because belonging is not a function of the state.

Something similar occurred to me as a writer.  I took a couple of writing classes, first at the regional campus and then at the main one.  I "belonged" there because I'd signed up for the classes.  At the main campus, I tried to get my poems published but without success, though I don't think that's why my writing dried up.  Several years later, I began writing poetry again, and made some inroads in whatever poetic community could be said to exist around the campus and town.  But I didn't fit in, and the exclusion was mutual: other poets didn't seem to know what to do with me, nor did I.  I realized that I wasn't interested in being one of the gang, at least not theirs. This again wasn't anything that the ACLU could have helped me with.  But it wasn't traumatic for me.  I had friends and community of my own anyhow, including a couple of doctoral students in English who praised and encouraged my work.

Later, as I learned and thought more about these matters, I found that atheists were as varied a bunch as gay people, and that I'm not sure I belong among atheists -- except that we aren't, for the most part, organized and there's no one to force an atheist orthodoxy on me. Which doesn't mean I haven't encountered atheists who would like to excommunicate me, but at worst I find it puzzling.  I also wonder if I ever really expected that there was a warm, welcoming atheist community where everyone agreed about everything; I may have, on some unconscious level, but not seriously.  Some atheists are dogmatic, but they have no power over me as atheists, and I don't need their respect.

If these high school atheists in Tennessee expect to find an environment where their beliefs are respected, they are going to be sorely disappointed.  Being a dissident in any domain is not likely to be comfortable, and the First Amendment will only take you so far.  The rest you have to negotiate for yourself.

Amusingly, the religious-right pundit Rod Dreher has been complaining again about the lack of respect "traditional Christians" get in America, and I'll try to write about that next.  The general situation is not unlike what these kids in Tennessee are facing, except that I have even less sympathy for the likes of Dreher.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Conan Goes to Washington

You may have to click through to see this short video:
 I'm not sure how much can safely be read into a fifteen-second video clip, but it does look to me like Willis is right.  As someone who gets along very well with cats and not all that well with dogs (though some dogs are friendly to me anyway), I'm not unsympathetic to Trump in this situation.  Not exactly sympathetic, of course.  And the Secret Service would have had to shoot Conan if he'd gone for the President of the Free World; bad optics!.

The responses to Willis's tweet were predictable.  Quite a number were variations on this theme:

Oh, really?  If dogs can detect humans' evil character, how could Mike Pence stroke Conan's ear without losing a finger or two?  One other commenter raised this point; no one so far has responded.

This one, however:
Ah, the stink of liberal homophobia on a mild November afternoon.  "Weird, no?"  No.  "Such an intimate gesture for a man to make to another man?"  Not particularly intimate, and anyway, I watched the clip again: Pence touched the handler's back only fleetingly.  If he'd lingered, caressed, maybe slipped his hand under the man's jacket, Persistent Woman would have had a point.  And I wouldn't be surprised if Pence, like so many antigay fundamentalists, did have something to hide.  As it is, her reaction says a lot more about her than about Pence.

American society is diverse.  Of course some are, but not all straight men are homophobically chary of physical affection with other men.  From what I've seen, there's a lot more affectionate touching between them than is officially supposed to happen.  But also, homophobic societies are likely to permit a great deal of affectionate same-sex touching, going far beyond Pence's gesture in this video. I'd rather encourage it than discourage it, but people like Persistent Woman, by fixating on it and mocking it, however lightly, are not going to discourage it.  I prefer to discourage homophobia.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Smarter Than Mayonnaise

I'm caught up with pretty much everything except reading (which I'll never catch up with), so I've run out of excuses for not writing.  Then the Subway where I ate lunch was tuned to a broadcast of one of those Nuremberg rallies we call American professional football, one of the broadcasters announced that people would stand for the National Anthem, a lugubrious basso began singing it badly, and I had the impetus I needed to push me to the keyboard.

A few weeks ago, the notorious Fasco-American provocateuse Tomi Lahren attempted to mock US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by tweeting that she -- that is, Lahren -- was going to dress as Ocasio-Cortez for Halloween.
Sensibly, Ocasio-Cortez wasn't offended by Lahren's costume.  She drew attention to Lahren's attempted slur, "former bartender."  Lahren backed down while pretending not to back down:
Responding to critics, a seemingly unphased Lahren refused to back down, tweeting: "I mean this truly and sincerely, being a former bartender is the best and most admirable thing about @AOC."
She lied, of course.  Like most Republicans, she believes that having been a service worker somehow discredits Ocasio-Cortez. But then, so do right-wing Democrats. Numerous AOC fans and supporters pointed out that though elites pretend to care about working people, putting us in our place is one of their go-tos.  They'll usually back down, as Lahren did, when they get called on it, but if they didn't believe it, their ids wouldn't spew out the contemptuous dismissals in the first place.  What it amounts to is that while they value proles in our place, we had better not get too big for our britches by, say, getting elected to Congress.

I've often come up against versions of this pattern myself, from my liberal law-professor friend who refused to recognize that mocking college dropouts was not only invalid, it included me.  "It didn't refer to you," she protested, "You're not a newscaster."  But I am a college dropout, so it did refer to me.

I came up against this same mindset several times earlier, on a university-owned BBS in the 1990s, which was open to university staff, students, and faculty.  Someone would dismiss my opinions by pointing out that I was a dishwasher, what did I know?  Usually some of my friends would defend me as being real smart anyway, and the offender would backtrack and protest that he (it was always a he) totally respected me and would be proud to have me teach his children.  This was still irrelevant, and I don't think I ever got an answer to my follow-up question, which was why, if these people respected me so much, why did they begin with a pointless ad hominem dismissal?  The important thing, I take it, was that they should never actually have to engage with a rational argument.  That's a right guaranteed by the Constitution, you know.

The worst thing about social media, as far as I'm concerned, is not the right-wing loonies, toadies, and thugs who populate it, but the liberal and left loonies, toadies, and thugs who populate it. That's a personal reaction, since both do equal harm to rational discourse, but it bothers me more because the liberals and leftists are supposed to be on my side, my allies and shields against the Trump threat, defenders of reality-based, fact-based discourse in a post-truth world. 

Take my liberal law-professor friend, who posted authoritatively on Facebook just last week that hate speech is not Constitutionally protected.  She was either ignorant or lying, and in either case I'm concerned for her students, just as I am for the students of right-wing bigots who teach in public universities.  Even in the red state where she teaches, even in law school, she may encounter people who disagree with her from the left, the kind of people liberals hate even more than they hate Donald Trump.  I don't know that she'd fail a student who corrected her factual errors, but I'm confident that she'd try to pull rank based on her education and authority as a professor. 

That doesn't work on me: she can't hurt me by giving me a low grade, and I don't even give her the benefit of the doubt anymore.  But it could intimidate her students, and that's not good.   I hope none of them have worked as bartenders, table servers, or in other low-class jobs.

Friday, November 1, 2019

There Was an Old Woman Who Traveled the World

I just read Patti Smith's new book, Year of the Monkey (Knopf, 2019), a memoir of her seventieth year.  I've been following Smith's career since she wrote record reviews for Creem magazine in the early 70s, when she was a poet and not yet a singer, and while I'm ambivalent about her, she's made some great records and I find her very interesting.

Year of the Monkey begins with Smith in San Francisco for a New Year's Eve performance.  She and her guitarist Lenny Kaye had intended to work with their old friend and colleague Sandy Pearlman, but Pearlman didn't show up and they only learned later that he'd had a stroke and was in the hospital in a coma.  (He died the following summer.)  Smith hung around in the Bay area for some time, staying in a motel by the ocean, fretting over Pearlman, trying to work.  As the book goes on, she returns to her home in New York City, prepares for a tour; spends time in Kentucky with the playwright Sam Shepard, who was dying of ALS, helping him to edit the manuscript of what turned out to be his final book; mourns the election of Donald Trump, observes her seventieth birthday.  She recounts dreams and visions and internal conversations with the sign of the Dream Motel, keeps running into a pompous drifter/shaman called Ernest - whose literal existence I somewhat doubt, but hey, Smith is a poet.

Year of the Monkey is an interesting book, though I find her prose unsatisfying. I can't quite put my finger on the problem.  Somehow she writes in such a way that she seems less intelligent than she obviously is.  But what I mainly took away was the realization that Smith was writing as an old woman, a widow with two grown children as well as an artist with decades of achievement.  It says something positive about the changes of the past fifty years that a woman of her age could write about drifting around, staying in cheap motels, finding rides, walking through the desert -- it's the kind of itinerancy that Jack Kerouac dreamed of, but that was traditionally a guy thing, especially a young guy thing. 

Of course Smith is also a settled, financially comfortable adult with an apartment in New York; she's not a hobo, but she has the freedom of movement that is not conventionally associated with women.  It's a picture of an old woman very different than what I find in other old women writers like May Sarton or Doris Grumbach.  I can't imagine either of them packing for a European lecture tour "six Electric Lady T-shirts, six pair of underwear, six of bee socks, two notebooks, herbal cough remedies, my camera, the last packs of slightly expired Polaroid film and one book, Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg" (page 98).  Aging isn't what it used to be, and what a good thing that is.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry...

I'm just too lazy to write at any length, but this might be worth noticing:
As numerous people pointed out to O'Brien, the Dante quotation is bogus.  It's the opposite of the case in fact, though Dante didn't know any more about what happens after we die than anyone else does.  But if you are going to cite fiction, you should at least get its details correct.

As I thought about it, however, it occurred to me that highly placed Republicans, including Trump himself, are anything but neutral about the impeachment inquiry: they are attacking quite fiercely the process and those who are carrying it out.  So I guess they'll be going to Heaven, right?  If anyone has tried to maintain neutrality, it's the Democratic Congressional leadership, notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who did her best to block and retard impeachment until her neutrality became untenable.

There's also dear Barack Obama, last seen being moderate and neutral and reasonable about "cancel culture."  (It should be remembered that he's always been dismissive of those who don't stop with clicking on the Intertubez, but organize and mobilize and take to the streets  -- especially in opposition to his policies.)  But I'm not being quite fair, because Obama isn't neutral: he's ready to act in support of the people who share his values.  

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Fighting Middle-Aged Skater Who's Not Afraid to Talk to the Young in Their Own Language

The laundromat I used to use had no televisions, because a lot of college students used it and wanted to study there, not be distracted.  Remarkably, the owner chose to cater to them.  I'm not sure whom the owner of the laundromat in my new town is catering to, but this one has televisions on every wall so that the clientele can feast on CBS fare.  I can sit where the screens aren't visible, but the sound follows me everywhere.

Among the riches available today on CBS Sunday Morning was a human-interest story by a 42-year-old podcaster on the supercool skateboard his wife surprised him with on his birthday.
Without a doubt, it was the best present I'd ever gotten, and also the one that most necessitated me updating my will. Because you see, while inside I felt like a kid again, outside I remained very much a middle-aged man with a sense of balance that could only be described as intermittent.

I didn't let that stop me, though, and despite more than a few falls I felt like it was coming back to me.
So far, not bad; I thought it was rather sweet.  But then it turned pathetic:
Heck, I even skateboarded past a bunch of teenagers one time and I swear I heard one of them say, "That guy is cool!" 
Then he encountered this well-known meme:

And behold, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, and "I knew it was time to hang up my skateboard."

Until he happened to meet the celebrity skater whose name his new skateboard bore.  This man is fifty years old, and still skates daily, though he feels "nervous before jumping his board 30 feet in the air and completely rotating it two-and-a-half times."  Our guy immediately felt better!

I suppose everybody has their own philosophy about aging.  Some want to be a young among the young again.  They can't do that, but try to stop them from trying.  My feeling is that if you're fifty and you want to do something, whether you did it as a kid or are only taking it up, you should go ahead.  Don't expect your fellow kids to embrace you as one of them, and don't cringe or retreat if you overhear them sneering about the old guy or gal trying to relive his or her youth.  If you're fifty and you want to skate, skating is a middle-aged thing.

It's like gender in that respect.  I keep citing the "woman-identified woman" who,
at the 1971 Council on Religion and the Homosexual symposium, was challenged by someone in the audience because of her apparently masculine attire. But Lynda explained, “This short haircut, because it is mine, is a woman’s hairstyle. These so-called men’s boots, because I am wearing them, are women’s boots. This pipe, because I am smoking it, is a woman’s pipe. Whatever women wear is women’s wear. It is a matter of individual choice – and comfort.”*
Your skateboard, because it's yours, is a forty-two-year-old's skateboard.  Or a fifty-year-old's.  You do what you want to do, and you don't worry if it's somebody else's idea of age-appropriate or not.  If any kids want to claim that it's like totally theirs, and you're engaging in cultural appropriation, they're wrong.

Gender is also a good analogy because skateboards were originally a boy thing, and girls encountered pushback when they took them up.  Ditto for electric guitars, but that's another story.  So now there's a group for girls and women based in Venice, California, with a worldwide online presence and regular group outings:
"You don't have to, like, rip. You don't have to do tricks. We're just asking to kick push. We're there to, like, support you in it. The whole idea is we're trying to make this less intimidating for women," Osinski said. "When you're a woman alone on a skateboard, it's very different. When you're a woman together, with all these other people… you really create girl power. Girl power is real. You can change things in your community."
But there shouldn't be any need to gender skating, or to tie it to age or subculture.

Of course, I hope you'll wear protective gear, as serious skaters do.  And when you fracture your hip in a fall, then it may be time to hang up the board.  (Not necessarily, though: some people bounce back from such injuries.)  I've written before about the bodily realities of aging.  At 57 my body had begun to slow down; now, at 68, my age is written on my flesh more than ever, and it's not going to be erased.  Still, as much as possible I negotiate between my body and my mind.  If I want to do it, and I can, then it's what an old person does.  This old person, anyway.

*Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons, Lesbian/Woman (Bantam Books, 1972), page 81.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Believe on the Name of Mr. Rogers and Be Saved

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks's biopic of Fred "Mr." Rogers will be released in November, and I'm wary of it.  Meanwhile, numerous people are using the movie and Rogers to push religion.  That's not unfair, since Rogers was a Christian and a Presbyterian minister.  But this sort of thing annoys me:

The article itself isn't any more nuanced, which is troubling given that the writer touts himself as "a scholar of American religion, politics and popular culture." Sure, Rogers saw his program as a ministry, and his religious beliefs as important.  But did his beliefs determine his ideas about children and television, or was it the other way around, so that he molded his "faith" to reflect what he thought was good and important?  Given how unusual he was both as a person and as a teacher, I think the latter is much more likely.  How many other white American Christians were shaped by their faith to take similar stands and set a similar example?  Not many.  They too let what they believed and wanted for other reasons shape their construction of Christianity.

As an atheist, I prefer Rogers's version of Christianity to that of (say) Pat Robertson or Billy Graham.  But as an atheist, I don't see any reason to believe that Christianity made him the person he was.  Rather, the person he was constructed a Christianity that suited the person he was.  The Bible itself -- never mind two millennia of church tradition theological torturing of the source material -- can be, and has been, mined to support pretty much any belief, value, or action one likes.

One thing that worries me about Tom Hanks as Rogers is Hanks' well-known tendency to avoid uncomfortable truthsThis review of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood reinforces my worry.  According to the reviewer, it "isn't about Rogers himself" but about the troubled young journalist sent to profile him, who is redeemed by being bathed in Rogers's goodness.
"A Beautiful Day" portrays Rogers as a guardian angel of sorts, not pushing Lloyd to do the right thing but using his secret sauce, that relentlessly good heart of his, to ease him down the right path. The film is really about a man finding that his own way, by listening to an elder who teaches him about forgiveness the same way he taught kids for decades about friendship, war, divorce and everything else they might need in their little lives.
I suspect that if Tom Hanks had been given the opportunity to create a children's TV show, he would have just left out the hard parts that were the most important to Rogers: the antiwar material, the grappling with violence and death, the provocative spit-in-the-eye to white racism.  Now that I've seen all of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, last year's documentary on Rogers, and read Michael G. Long's book Peaceful Neighbor: The Countercultural Mr. Rogers (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), I'm even less inclined than I was before to see Rogers as a simple feel-good guardian angel for adults who regret having grown up, and more inclined to see him as a tough campaigner with iron in his soul and ever-decreasing patience with those who collaborated with the status quo and tried to make things worse.

According to Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Rogers grew up in a family and environment that discouraged the expression of anger.  I think this explains the tension that I always felt underlay his beaming, sunny TV demeanor.  He used his puppets as proxies to express feelings that he couldn't let show in his own person.  But I got the impression that like many people, as he got older he outgrew some of his repressive upbringing.  There were two bits from the documentary that impressed me in this regard, though the entire film is impressive.  First, that after the September 11 attacks Rogers became more visibly angry, because he felt that no one had been listening to what he'd been saying for so many years.  Initially it would be easy to see his anger as prideful, as if he alone could have changed American culture; contrariwise, his fans would read it as evidence that everybody else had failed the Great Teacher.  I believe Rogers had more sense than that.  I think what made him angry (but also, at times, despairing) is that so many of his fans had failed to learn the lessons he'd been teaching.

The second bit, which confirms my reading of Rogers's anger, was an interview with one of Rogers's public-television colleagues.  She recalls the time Rogers told her that in the face of tragedy was that "part of Fred's answer was always to tell children that we, the parents, would take care of them."
Sometimes I found that a difficult message myself as the parent of a young child.  Sometimes I felt I was lying.  I knew that there were things in this world that I couldn't protect my child from.  
Of course, and Rogers knew that as well as she did.  But we have to try anyway.  (Perhaps we could begin, proactively, by not glorifying the child-killers among us, by not arming child-killers elsewhere in the world, by not tearing children from their parents' arms as they flee from the child-killers in our pay.)  What annoyed me when I first saw reactions to Won't You Be My Neighbor? was the adults who wanted Rogers to protect them.

As Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center, says in the documentary,
"What would Fred Rogers do"? It's not a question that you can answer. The most important question is, "What are you going to do?" 
That, it seems to me, is exactly the question many of Rogers's adult fans would prefer not to be asked.  They wish he were still with us, so that he could make them feel better in a scary world.  They want him to say, Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.  It's a very Christian sentiment, but it rejects everything Fred Rogers worked for.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

They Don't Brainwash the Sheeple Like They Used To

The way that "brainwashed" is used in this tweet, and by many other people from all over the political spectrum, annoys me.  The notion of brainwashing went viral during the Korean War, as a horrible thing that the Chicoms and the North Korean Commies did to Our Boys whom they held prisoner for no reason at all, just invading their country.  The scare was bogus, but the idea was useful, though almost always it's applied to other people, the brainwashed sheeple who swallow whatever lies the Mainstream Media ram down their throats.

Strictly speaking, brainwashing supposedly is done in a totally controlled environment, such as a prison camp for captured enemy soldiers.  In such a place, the information the victim is given can be restricted by his or her captors, and he or she can be held in isolation, which breaks down the ability to resist.  (Which is why solitary confinement is regarded as torture when it's done by our official enemies, though not when we, the good guys, do it.)  Despite the power of such a situation, it's not clear that such brainwashing was ever very effective.

The corporate media do not have that kind of power, nor are their audiences as isolated as POWs.  If an American encounters only one side of an issue, it's because he or she chooses to.  True, many people do choose to, but they aren't being held captive by Evil MSM, they have the cell door (as it were) locked from inside.  (Another pet peeve of mine is people who confuse "manufacturing consent," the Herman-Chomsky Propaganda Model of Media, with brainwashing.  It's really the opposite, but more on that another time perhaps.)  And even before the Internet came along, there were abundant alternatives available to the corporate media, and nobody was going to throw you into a lightless cell for using them.  If people didn't use them, and most didn't, it wasn't because they were brainwashed.  And if you did turn to alternative sources, sensible moderate people would caution you that you needed to listen also to the "other side" - as if they ever did.

Perhaps the crowning irony, which indicates that Retired Man is less free of media control than he likes to believe, is that despite decades of media propaganda on the evils of Socialized Medicine, most Americans consistently favor some form of government-run healthcare (the private insurance lobby's term of art, picked up by their beneficiary Pete Buttigieg), just as they consistently hold other opinions that are Truly Politically Incorrect according to the all-powerful mind-controlling media: higher taxes on the rich, say, or less military spending.  I've noticed that most liberals and progressives who denounce the Sheeple for opposing these commonsense policies seem to accept the corporate-media line that they are unpopular, when in fact they are quite popular.  So who's brainwashed here?

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Cancel My Subscription, Sir or Madam!

Of course, this is nothing new. But for me the important part is that many people, not just on the wacko Right, believe that if you're rich it means you're smart. Whatever it means, it doesn't mean that, and I'm not talking about Donald Trump, who's an easy target. I mean also people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the Clintons, Barack Obama, the entire Bush Crime Family, Howard Schultz, Michael Bloomberg, and Warren Buffett. Among others. The rich aren't smart; it might even be that having all that money makes them dumber, because it insulates them from the consequences of their stupidity.

Read some of the replies in the thread, which point out that not only does Australia have universal healthcare, they have a 45% capital gains tax, a $19 minimum wage, etc. It's common to try to refute these little details by pointing out that Australia isn't all that rich or powerful compared to the US; but I'm not the person who hopes to escape Socialism in the US by emigrating to Australia, this billionaire is. Except that he's lying, like almost everybody who says they'll emigrate if Bush or Obama or Trump becomes President.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Apologetics for a New Millennium, Same as the Old Millennium

It's fun to peek from time to time at the present state of fundamentalist Christian apologetics.  I've begun reading Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture's Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ by Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace (Thomas Nelson, 2010), and it doesn't seem that much has changed in the past fifty years -- longer, really.

Bock and Wallace are both academics, professional scholars, but they begin Dethroning Jesus with some rather lazy arguments.  Bock recounts how he debated John Dominic Crossan "in front of a packed house at Southern Methodist University" (page 2).  Crossan, a member of the notorious Jesus Seminar, told the audience of a study of college students who were asked where they were the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up, and were asked again three years later.  Not only did their memories change, but:
Afterward, the students were asked to compare their testimonies and choose the one they liked best. The study noted that most students preferred the description they gave three years after the event rather than the initial account they gave immediately after the event. [Crossan's] point in citing the study was to say that memory becomes distorted over time [page 2].
I notice that we're already getting some distance between the original study and the account I've quoted here: we have Bock's memory of Crossan's description of the study.  No reference is given for the study itself, and though I've heard of similar research that led to similar results, I'd like to be able to have a look at the actual report.  Because memory can indeed become distorted over time, and as we'll see, Bock doesn't actually dispute this, it would be nice to have some backup.  (A cursory search on Youtube didn't bring up anything, but I'll look again.)

Here's how Bock remembers his rebuttal of Crossan:
I noted that two very important points were missing from his discussion of the experiment at Emory. First, it took place in a culture that has developed distance from the use of memory. We have video footage and computers now. Second, those who were asked at Emory had no stake in what was being recalled. I raised the question of what might have happened had the NASA astronaut corps been asked to go through the same exercise, since their lives would be at stake in the shuttle’s fate. The analogy was that those who followed Jesus paid a great price for their belief. Their families probably disowned them. Many even lost their lives for their faith. They likely would have been marked by such an event, and thus their memory was likely to be better. Quite a gap existed between college students and NASA astronauts when it came to the shuttle. The astronauts were more like the martyrs of the first generation of faith.
This is a standard fundamentalist move, brought up-to-date for the space age: because the early Christians suffered, "even lost their lives for their faith", their account of Jesus is trustworthy.  If you accept this argument, however, one must ask about non-Christians who lost their lives for their faith, often at Christian hands.  Many Jews chose martyrdom rather than convert to Christianity, so by Bock's logic, this counts against the truth of Christianity and for Judaism.  Further, most Christian martyrs had no personal memory of Jesus' ministry, so their tenaciousness can not be explained by fidelity to what they had seen and heard and touched.  And what of those Christians who chose life over martyrdom, probably outnumbering those who chose to die?  Notwithstanding its enduring popularity, Christian martyrdom is not an argument for the truth of the New Testament.

More could be said about Bock's attempt to recast the focus to the "astronaut corps" instead of the students.  The astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster could hardly repeat the experiment, since they were dead.  (The same is true of the Christians who died for their beliefs.)  In the absence of evidence about the other astronauts' memories of the disaster, this move can only be seen as an attempt at distraction.  (I'll try to find a study I read about, of children who'd survived school shootings; as I remember it, if they were near the shooters, they remembered that they were far away from him; if they were not near, they remembered being closer and in greater danger.  There are obvious parallels to some of the gospel material here.)

Bock returns to his second point:
Add on top of this the fact that Judaism was a “culture of memory,” for that is how the Jews passed on stories, and the appeal to a modern analogy at Emory looks less plausible. This difference over memory parallels the way Jesus is remembered and discussed today. Some are skeptical about memory and Jesus, arguing that Jesus has been formed largely in the image favorable to those doing the remembering. Others argue that Jesus’ presence and teaching were so powerful that they were well remembered by people who were used to passing on teaching orally. In many ways, this book is about that debate. It is a debate that rages in our culture as people speak about who Jesus was and what he taught.
I'm a bit surprised that a professional New Testament scholar could get so much wrong, but then Bock isn't the first I've encountered.  Judaism in Jesus' time relied on written sources to pass on stories: it was unique among pre-Christian religions in its reliance on Scripture, which means "writing."  Literacy wasn't as widespread in those days as it is now, but reading the Torah in synagogue was a regular part of Jewish worship.  True, the written text was used as a springboard for oral commentary, but that is true today among Christians too, and that commentary could range widely beyond the letter of the text.  There's a genre of Jewish biblical interpretation, haggadah, which retells the written biblical stories with a great deal of variation and invention, but those retellings have also been written down.  And the earliest Christian evidence we have are written documents, the letters of Paul, written a decade or more before anyone bothered to write the gospels.

If you accept the traditional authorship of the gospels, you have to cope with the fact that the evangelists provide as many as four discordant versions of Jesus' life and teaching -- five, if you include Paul's accounts of the first Eucharist and the resurrection.  That "culture of memory" was not all that reliable, even for preserving material that we know was of first importance to believers.  There's been a resurgence of attention to "oral tradition" in New Testament scholarship in the past couple of decades, but it seems to be as much about variation in the church's use of the Jesus tradition as about preserving historical data, and it doesn't give much support to apologists like Bock.

Still, reading these arguments gave me a warm feeling of familiarity: Bock's arguments are invalid, but they bring back memories of other invalid defenses of Christianity that I've encountered over the past forty years.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Not a Son of San Francisco

I just read Lillian Faderman's Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death, published in 2018 by Yale's Jewish Lives series.  It's a smooth read, less detailed than Randy Shilts's The Mayor of Castro Street (St. Martin's Press, 1982), but with a longer perspective.  Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated more than forty years ago, and a lot has changed since then.

I only read Shilts' book once, decades ago, and don't remember much about it, so this is a point he may have covered; but as the series name indicates, one of Faderman's concerns is Harvey Milk's Jewishness.  Though he was mostly non-observant, he reveled in his New York Jewishness (see Faderman, page 4) and often drew explicit analogies between being Jewish and being gay.  I also knew how controversial he was as a San Francisco politician, often with good reason as Faderman shows.  But what you might call the gay Democratic establishment in San Francisco, notably the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club.  It doesn't make much sense to refer to the Toklas club as the Old Guard, since it was founded in 1971, two years after Stonewall and only a couple of years before Milk began running for public office in San Francisco; but their mentality was clearly Old Guard.

Faderman says a couple of times that "major politicos of the gay establishment continued to regard [Milk] as an interloper with a New York accent and a kind of pushiness that they they also associated with New York" (122).  The members of the San Diego Democratic Club "found him loud, 'New-York-in-your-face,' presumptuous, abrasive - a know-it-all who had the audacity to speak for all gays" (189).  I might be overstepping to detect anti-Semitism in this reaction, if only because some of Milk's enemies, such as David Goodstein, were also Jewish, but it seems that most of them were A-gays who thought it was tolerable to be a Jew as long as you had class.  And I couldn't help thinking, as I read this material, of similar criticisms of Bernie Sanders today.  Despite Sanders's long political career, he's still seen as a presumptuous, abrasive, know-it-all upstart by 'respectable' people.  Just a thought.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Stupid Burns in a Screaming Conflagration

I'm opposed to capital punishment, but this made me reconsider.

First, of course, the prattle about "superpower."  People keep using this word, I do not think it means what they think it means.  If you could only have "an innate sense of right and wrong" by being born on Krypton or exposed to Z-rays, then humanity would be doomed.  I'm not even sure what a sense of right and wrong is, to be honest, but it appears to be a normal part of the human endowment.  But the reference is basically empty blather, because people disagree widely about what is right and wrong, and even when they agree they don't always act on it.  Acting on what one believes to be right is not universal, but it's not a superpower either, any more than athletic ability, artistic ability, or (redundantly) singing or dancing superbly.  These are all human abilities, and they are distributed on something like a continuum: individuals have more or less of them, it's rarely if ever either/or.

Second, Sanders has not been right about everything.  To give just one example, he parrots the lies of US propaganda against the legally elected, legitimate government of Venezuela, though he stops short of endorsing military action to bring the regime change about.  There are actually quite a few people who've been better on such matters than Sanders has been, and even they are not perfect.

Now, I agree with Sanders on most issues.  I voted for Sanders in the 2016 primaries, defend him against centrist Dems' false accusations, and will vote for him in the 2020 primaries.  I've made some small donations to his campaign this year.  If he wins the nomination, I will vote for him in the general election as well.  It is possible to support and vote for a politician without indulging in ridiculous fantasies about him or her.  On the contrary, uncritical and delusional support and adulation for politicians or other public figures have a lot to do with the problems we have now.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Pure Journalism

Another quickie.  I just finished reading Kevin M. Kruse's One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015).  It's a fun, informative read, and here's another passage that I wanted to pass along.

In 1954, President Eisenhower signed a bill adding "under God" the Pledge of Allegiance.  Though he was enthusiastic about the new law, he chose not to make a photo op of the signing.  Members of Congress, however, did, with a rally on the Capitol steps.
CBS broadcast the event live on television, with Walter Cronkite leading the coverage of what he called “a stirring event.” “‘New glory for Old Glory’—a wonderful idea,” he said. “Maybe if we all remember to display our flags today and every special day, we will remember more clearly the traditions of freedom on which our country is founded.”
This tickled me, because I see so much complaint about today's news media mixing reporting with propaganda.  Cronkite himself is largely remembered as a role model, except for the one time he expressed doubt about the US invasion of Vietnam.  Not, of course, because he objected to the war itself, but because we weren't "winning" it.  Yet here Cronkite gushed, and nobody seems to have cared.  I bet that it wasn't the only time.

I speculate that the reason this was okay, but complaining that we weren't winning in Vietnam was "editorializing," is that in this case he was supporting US policy, whereas on Vietnam he was criticizing it.  Make sense?

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Will Charlie Brown Get to Kick the Football This Time?

The move is still in progress, but it means I'll be driving a lot.  Yesterday I caught most of NPR's The 1A, and I noticed something again that had been lurking in my mind for a while.  The 1A's anchor asked one his pundit-guests if Donald Trump was going to follow through on something -- the rumored $15 billion for Iran, or the ban on flavored vaping, something like that.  I don't remember the answer, because it occurred to me what a stupid question it was, that it would have been stupid even before Trump became Oligarch-in-Chief, and that a lot of time is wasted on such questions in the news media. 

In Trump's case it's always a tossup whether he'll remember to do what he says he will anyway, so it seems especially useless to ask such a question about him.  But the trouble is bigger than one senescent, blustering buffoon.  The mission of news coverage, it seems to me is to report what has happened, not to "predict" what might.  That's not just because media fortunetelling is usually wrong, remarkably so since there are a lot of pundits out there and one or two of them ought to come up with an accurate prediction just by accident.  There's also no accountability for their predictions.  Indeed, elite media get very pissy if anyone questions them about spectacular failures, like those involving the financial crash of 2008 or the 2003 invasion of Iraq or Hillary Clinton's 2016 electoral defeat.

I'm sure this sort of pointless prediction is nothing new, and I don't know whether it's more common than it used to be, but I have no doubt that it's a waste of time, especially when the standard of actual news coverage is so low.  The worst examples turn up in discussion of our endless election season, but as the question about Trump shows, it's not limited to electoral politics, and it's most wasteful when the question is basically unanswerable, as most predictive questions are.  I wonder what would happen to a pundit-guest who declined to answer such a question and declared it useless; I suppose such a person would not be invited to return, but then such a person would probably not be invited on in the first place.

As a side note, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power paid The 1A a visit earlier this week.  Power is a vile opportunist, of course, and an apologist for the crimes of the US and its clients, which is why The 1A billed her as an "idealist."  I haven't listened to the segment but will try to.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Placeholder

I'm not sure why I have resisted writing all month -- I mean, really, have you seen the news? -- but I'll try to do better.  One excuse is that I'm about to move to a new apartment at the other end of the state, after twenty-six years in the same place, and as the big day approaches my stress level increases.  But I am still alive, and I've been wasting a lot of time to keep my mind off the coming cataclysm.

Among my diversions has been Youtube, and I recently discovered what I can only describe as the Beavis and Butthead of Classical Violin: Brett and Eddy, two Chinese-Australian violinists, who have gained millions of viewers as they trash their own field and, indeed, the world.  They have a line of "merch" and their slogan is Practice practice practice but given the amount of time they must spend before the camera and editing the results, I wonder how much practicing they actually do. 

Why Beavis and Butthead?  Because that's their sensibility, down to Brett pulling his hoodie over his head.  Maybe not in this one, which I post for the sensibility.  Despite my personal lust for geekboys, I have to admit, I rarely make it all the way through their videos; this is one of the shorter ones, though it's still kind of excruciating.




This one is actually entertaining, because their guest is more engaging than they are.



So... that is probably it for September, unless I surprise myself very pleasantly.  But I'll be back.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

I'm So Excited!

This is something I want to remember as the Endless Campaign continues, and I think you should too.
In case you don't know, Neera Tanden is "the President of the Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization in Washington, DC" and "a member of Hillary Clinton's 'inner circle' of advisors" during the 2016 leg of the Endless Campaign.  Since Trump's election, she has been fighting the good fight, which includes taking gratuitous swipes at Susan Sarandon for having supported Jill Stein against Clinton

But her call for Democrats to "excite the Democratic base" is odd, because for at least the past twenty years Democratic loyalists have been sneering at voters, berating them harshly for not being inspired by Democratic candidates. I thought that Democratic voters who want to be excited and inspired by their candidate are just a bunch of whiny entitled Bernie-bro Jill-Stein-loving whores of Sarandon? It's all tangled, because at the same time they insist that candidates like Walter Mondale, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden are totally inspiring if we would only look at them with the eyes of Faith.  Tanden thinks of voter excitement, I suspect, as something like popping corn: you immerse the voters in oil, apply heat, and presto! they get excited and go bouncing all over the place.  If they don't, it's because they're faulty kernels, not because the Party did anything wrong.

Given the outcome in 2016, I'm a bit surprised to see Tanden interrupting the Two Years' Hate by calling on the party to excite its voters.  Depending on who wins the nomination, and our shadowy Democratic National Committee Overlords are throwing their considerable weight behind Joe Biden, she and her ilk will switch back to voter discouragement in 2020.  I suppose she thought it was time for some cheerleading.  Or maybe, as someone commented, by "base" Tanden meant the donors.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Friendly Strangers

The historian Kevin M. Kruse has attracted some attention for his Twitter exchanges with the convicted felon and right-wing propagandist Dinesh D'Souza, as well as his educational threads on American history in general.  After following him for a while I decided to read some of Kruse's books, and began with One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015).  Before beginning to read it, I looked around in the index and found references to the Gideons, the organization that gives away Bibles to hotels, hospitals, and (at least formerly) to public schoolchildren.

The Gideons prepared a special edition for distribution on the streets and in schools, consisting of the New Testament and the book of Psalms from the Hebrew Bible, later augmented by Proverbs, in the Authorized (King James) Version.   In the early 1950s they began to encounter some unexpected resistance to public school distribution:
While other religious innovations [such as adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance] had been relatively uncontroversial at the time of their creation, the Gideons' ministry to schoolchildren sparked a contentious debate.  Religion in the schools had long been considered a local concern.  Communities dominated by one faith traditionally instituted sectarian prayers or Bible reading to classrooms with little complaint.  More diverse locales often tried to avoid the issue of religion entirely, but the Gideons brought long-simmering tensions to the forefront.  Jewish leaders protested any effort to place the New Testament in public schools, while Catholic officials objected because canon law forbade members of their faith from using the King James Version.  "Most children will accept anything free," noted a priest in upstate New York, and thus they would inadvertently sin in taking the gift. In Boston, it became such a widespread problem that the archdiocese instructed priests to order all Catholic children who had accepted Gideon Bibles to return them immediately [166].
Catholic objections to use of the Authorized Version weren't idle nitpicking.  It was produced as Protestantism replaced Roman Catholicism as the official religion of England, and the translators were expected to make translation decisions that would support Anglican doctrine against Rome.  These decisions were subtle enough that most readers today wouldn't notice them, but among the AV's intended functions was that of anti-Catholic propaganda.  For more information on this, see for example God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins, 2003). 

This controversy paved the way for the 1962 Supreme Court ruling on official school prayer, which Kruse also discusses.  He reproduces this Herb Block cartoon from the period:


Whenever I get the chance, I ask advocates of official public school prayer why they don't think parents should be responsible for their own children's religious indoctrination.  Generally they'll say that many parents neglect that task, though why they trust the Dang Gummint with it is a problem.  In the end they admit that they want to get at other parents' children.

But back to the Gideons.  Once people began to think about the encroachment of evangelical Protestantism on public institutions, more and more spoke up.  In Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1951,
Mrs. E. K. Ingalls, for instance, reminded the board there had been a similar controversy in their high school over the state-mandated practice of Bible reading during morning assemblies.  Catholic students there had refused to read from the King James Version and were castigated by the principal.  Was it "good teaching," she asked, for a school to say "you will read the St. James [sic] version or else?"  The superintendent recognized "the right of each child in the Public Schools to use the religion of his choice" but maintained that the board had done nothing wrong [167-8].
Ah, the Saint James Version!  I wonder if Mrs. Ingalls was Catholic and knew the King James Version only by reputation.  Although there were several English versions of the Bible available in the US in those days, the KJV's dominance among American Protestants was overwhelming.  The Revised Standard Version was published in 1952, but it was controversial.  Among Catholics, who weren't encouraged to read scripture anyway, the Douay was supreme; the Jerusalem Bible wouldn't be published until 1966.  (Interesting trivia: J. R. R.Tolkien participated in the production of that version.)  Not until 1978 would the New International Version challenge the KJV's supremacy among conservative Protestants, and English versions have proliferated since then.

The important takeaway from this story is that objections to religious observance in the US have not come only, or even primarily, from atheists: they've come from Christians of various denominations and Jews who protested being ignored by those who chose to ignore the variety of religious belief and practice in this country.  Atheists and other non-believers should bear this in mind no less than Christians.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

It Didn't Begin with Smartphones...

Most people still went about on foot in Göttingen.  The distances to be traversed inside the city were so short that it would have been hardly worth while to go by car or motorcycle.  Not until after the First World War did students and professors adopt the bicycle and this was a novelty not popular with everyone.  Was it not those leisurely strolls before and after lectures which had so often given rise to the most interesting ideas?  Had not chance meetings at a straight corner or along the picturesque city wall often accomplished more than formal seminars or committee sessions?
-- Robert Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists  (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1958), page 11

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Say It Ain't So, Joe!

Joe Biden has lost the Democratic presidential nomination four times already, so he probably won't mind too much losing it, or the general election, again.  The Democratic establishment (by which I mean not only the Party leadership but the corporate media punditry) seems determined to anoint him, and that means it will be an uphill struggle to stop him, but we're still several months from the primaries and almost a year from the national convention.  A lot can change in that time, as it has before.

There's been some consternation about Biden's handsiness, his irresistible fondness for violating other people's personal space.  It's not the only reason to reject  him, and probably not the most important one, but a good many anti-Biden people have thrown tantrums over it.  People's -- especially children's -- boundaries around physical affection should be respected, but I'm not sure how sincere a lot of the outrage has been.  I'm not defending Biden here, but there are so many double standards in partisan politics that I've become more than a little cynical, and as I say, Biden has a lot worse on his record.

A couple of weeks ago (I've been procrastinating again, sorry), someone posted a video clip on Twitter of Biden at some campaign event, kissing a young woman lightly on the lips, after which she leaves the stage.  I haven't been able to find it again in the bowels of Twitter, but of course a version of it has been posted on Youtube.  The young woman, wearing a Biden t-shirt, turned out to be his granddaughter, and she didn't exhibit any of the discomfort some other people, including young children, have exhibited when Biden caresses their shoulders or sniffs their hair.  The clip was, of course, overanalyzed, so that her serious expression as she steps down becomes a cry for help against her rapey Grandpa, but I don't see it.  My reading is that she's concentrating on not stumbling as she leaves the stage; she might even be thinking Oh, no, people are going to make a big thing out of that.  I doubt anyone but her and her family know, and I wouldn't care to see her interrogated publicly about it.  Pick on Joe, but leave the kid alone.

What I noticed in the comments under the tweet went beyond just hatred of Joe Biden.  It was a remarkable squeamishness about familial affection.  For parents or grandparents to kiss their children or grandchildren on the lips was disgusting, numerous people said.  Not in their family!  Any family that indulges in such behavior is sick and perverted.  One person posted a 2009 photo of Melania Trump kissing her son Barron, who was three at the time, on the lips; he's kissing her back.  The poster was disturbed by the kiss -- parents shouldn't do that, she said.

I don't really have an opinion about the propriety, let alone psychopathology, of family members kissing each other on the lips.  Again, people's boundaries should be respected, but the reactions to the Biden clip and the Melania / Barron photograph went beyond that: even if the kids didn't know it was wrong, it was wrong and abusive and sick.  Now, my own family was not very affectionate; I can't remember the last time either of my parents kissed me or my brothers.  But I know that families differ widely in their practices and attitudes, and I don't know how to draw the line in principle, as opposed to individual comfort.  A child might be traumatized by demands that she kiss an adult relative if he doesn't want to do it, but the harm comes in the coercion, not the kiss, as far as I can see.  And no one, needless to say, justified their strictures: they were just certain that they knew.  If they thought it was disgusting, then it was objectively disgusting, and no one ought to do it.  That, to me, is a sign of something seriously wrong.

Graham Shaw's 1982 book The Cost of Authority: Manipulation and Freedom in the New Testament (Fortress Press) contains much intelligent discussion of community and power, but I've always been dissatisfied with his remarks about the apostle Paul and the controversy over meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8.  (I bring this up not because the Bible has any authority, but to show that the problem I'm discussing now is not new.)  There seems to have been concern among the Corinthian Christians over Christian freedom to eat: meat was usually connected to sacrifice, whether to Yahweh or to the old gods.  "As the false gods to whom food has allegedly been consecrated have no real existence, it might be assumed that Christians are free to eat it. But not everybody knows that the false gods do not exist, and they feel shame in eating such food" page 80).  The Christians in Corinth were not Jews but Gentiles, so they would have grown up eating meat from those sacrifices.  Paul acknowledged Christian freedom - after all, it was a pillar of his teaching - but encouraged his congregation to limit their freedom in consideration of the weaker faith of some of their fellows.  Shaw writes:
Much in Paul's response to the food question has been self-regarding, authoritarian and manipulative, but this should not conceal either the radical nature of his teaching or the sophisticated way in which he permits the conscience of others to limit the freedom of the Christian [85].
This fits oddly with Paul's confrontation with Simon Peter, recounted in Galatians 2:11-21, over the freedom of Jewish Christians to ignore traditional purity rules so that they might eat with Gentile Christians.  Paul brushed aside the conscience of weaker brethren, which he dismissed as "hypocrisy" (Gal. 2:13), to insist on "the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus" (2:4).

Shaw continues:
What seems to worry Paul is not that the other person might remain unenlightened, but that he might be shocked.  Thus he concludes the passage: 'Give no offense to Jews, or Greeks, or to the church of God' ([1 Cor.] 10:12).  The moral sensitivity of other people would seem here to be a constraint on the Christian's freedom.  Paul is trying to avoid a situation where freedom is aggressively asserted without regard to the response of other people [85].
The letters to Corinth are later than the one to the Galatians, so perhaps Paul modified his views in the light of further experience.  But it would seem that he should have restrained himself when Peter suffered pangs of conscience and shame, and stopped eating with the Gentile Christians.  Not only Peter but the rest of the congregation must have been confused, but Paul didn't worry about their scruples; he aggressively asserted his freedom.

This episode is useful because we no longer eat meat that has been sacrificed to any gods, so we can focus more on the principles involved with a minimum of gut-level reaction.  (There are other such controversies in Paul's letters, such as whether Gentile Christians should be circumcised, and the status of women as teachers in the churches.  Paul wasn't any more consistent or clear on these issues than he was on food.)  I see Shaw's point, and even agree to some extent; but I think it works both ways.

Paul and Shaw frame the question in terms of "knowledge" (conflated, perhaps inaccurately, with gnosis) invoked by some Christians to justify their freedom, versus the tender consciences of the weaker brethren.  I suspect this is not quite fair to the freer Christians, especially given Paul's own practice, and too indulgent of the weaker ones.  I think that letting the more restrictive believers set limits on others is how you end up, for example, with women covered from head to toe to protect the "weakness" of men.  There needs to be some restraint on the power of more restrictive members of a community to control others.  Of course the latter will try to present themselves as victims of the former, and to claim that the only alternative to their restrictive position is total, destructive license.  In Paul's case, he declared that if women cut their hair at all, they might as well cut it off entirely.

The territory between the two poles can be viewed as a continuum -- or a slippery slope, as it's often called -- and the problem is that there's no obvious point at which to stop, at least in theory.  In practice, a slippery slope is invoked to claim that though a given practice -- gay marriage, say -- may not seem so bad, but if you allow it, why not permit marriage between humans and animals, or incest, or polygamy?  The proper reply is that if these latter practices can be shown to be harmful, then they can be forbidden, but they aren't grounds for forbidding gay marriage.

So, back to grandfathers and granddaughters, or mothers and sons, kissing each other on the lips.  The people who were repulsed by Melania and Barron didn't give any reason for their revulsion; it was just obvious to any decent healthy person that what they were doing was wrong, and if we don't draw the line there, we can't stop Donald Trump from grabbing women by the pussy.  Or something.  But where will we draw the line?  Not so long ago, it was obvious to all decent healthy people (including many gay men) that two men kissing was disgusting, sick, perverted.  Some people are horrified by women breastfeeding infants in public, or even by the mere idea of women breastfeeding: it's barbaric, it's animalistic.  (If we don't stop them, why not let men just "all hang out" in public?)  Many liberals who endorse same-sex marriage are squicked by the thought of cousins, even third or fourth cousins, marrying.  When the movie The Watchmen featured a nude male blue CGI character, many people panicked, and claimed that the trauma of the sight of a penis was equivalent to seeing one's grandparents copulating.  There was also a tendency to claim that the blue penis was on screen for the entire two and a half hours of screentime, which was false -- that slippery slope again.

One thing that especially bothered me was the question of where the anti-kissers wanted to draw the line, what kinds of physical expression of affection between parents and children they considered acceptable.  There have been periods, fairly recent, when expert opinion discouraged parents from being affectionate to children at all.  There was no valid scientific reason for this position; it probably sprang from the hangups of the doctors in question. We know that young children especially need to be cuddled, held, and probably kissed if they're going to grow up healthy, and that people of all ages need physical affection and contact.  Perhaps some individuals don't, and their limits should be respected -- for them; but if they denounce others' affectionateness as sick and perverted, they should be opposed and blocked firmly.

I've considered the possibility that the people who denounced relatives kissing had experienced abuse of some kind themselves; but I don't recall any who actually said they had.  They simply claimed that such kissing was intrinsically sick, harmful and repulsive.  Not everyone agrees, however, so how to resolve the conflict?  I don't think it can be resolved.  It can only be negotiated.  But I think we need pushback against people who try to impose their limits on other people.  Those who draw the line elsewhere should, as Graham Shaw argued, show consideration to others, but the 'weaker brethren' should also show consideration for the 'stronger,' which they don't seem inclined to do.

Now, I'm not claiming that this sort of squeamishness is something new, or even more common now than it used to be.  I have no evidence for such a claim, and don't believe it anyway.  I think it has always been with us, as shown by its long pedigree in religious and other domains.  What surprises me is that it's still so prevalent, and still so virulent.  When I was growing up in the 60s, many (including me) took it for granted that these superstitious hangups were waning and would soon fade away altogether.  I don't think that's going to happen, which is all the more reason why we must resist those who want to impose them on others.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

It Became Necessary to Destroy the Business to Save It

Someone told me over the weekend that Steak and Shake was closing its restaurants.  This didn't surprise me, because two of the three local Steak and Shakes have closed this year.  One was supposedly closed for remodeling, but the building now sports a banner inviting people to take over the franchise.  The other is gone, all brand markings removed, with a realtor's information for the building.

I've never been an S&S regular, but lately a friend and I have gone there for lunch now and then.  My curiosity was piqued, so I poked around online.  Yes, Steak and Shake has closed sixty of its four-hundred-plus locations -- supposedly only temporarily -- since the beginning of the year.  The chain has been losing both traffic and money for a couple of years now.  Shareholders were notified in February:
“Despite our unwavering dedication to product quality and low prices, we erroneously stayed with equipment and kitchen design that was ill-suited for volume production ... We failed customers by not being fast and friendly.”
This rang false to me.  The basic model of the company has evidently not changed much over the years, so I can't see why the equipment and kitchen design should suddenly have failed to cope with the necessity of "volume production."  The service at all three Bloomington locations has been "fast and friendly" every time my friend and I have gone to them for the past couple of years, even when things were quite busy.  I smelled a rat in the business-consultant blather of that newsletter: it's typical to try to blame the underlings for everything that goes wrong.

It turns out that Steak and Shake was acquired by Biglari Holdings Inc. in 2008, joining "a collection of assets that includes First Guard Insurance Co., steak restaurant chain Western Fizzlin and Maxim, a men's magazine."  Maybe there's no connection between the takeover and the slowly declining fortunes of the chain.  But Sardar Biglari, the CEO, makes me suspicious with his assertion at a shareholders' meeting that Steak and Shake could save $1 million a year by getting rid of the maraschino cherries that top the chain's hand-dipped milkshakes, and that:
"He is literally inventing a new milkshake making process — he said at the meeting that this was going to be a patented process — and that is going to speed up service," one shareholder told [Indianapolis Business Journal] . "The shareholders seemed to think this was ridiculous — and I would tend to agree — to think that Sardar, with all his free time, is going to be able to invent a milkshake process to turn the whole chain around." 
One notable aspect of the coverage I found was that it was not only skeptical of Biglari's management, it was hostile. I wondered right away where he got the million-dollar figure; I suspect that like other embattled execs, he probably pulled it out of his ass.  Maybe a patented milkshake machine would cut labor costs a tiny bit, but enough to compensate for a $19 million loss this year alone?

I think he was bullshitting the shareholders, even taunting them with their inability to stop him from doing whatever he wants.  Unlike the CEO of the United States, private executives' power isn't limited by the Constitution.  And the more I read, the more I think that's what he was doing.

According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, drawing on a report by a blogger who attended the shareholders' meeting:
A sore point at the meeting was the $8.4 million that Biglari Holdings paid a Sardar Biglari-owned company last year to manage its investment arm. Repeated questions seeking an explanation of the expense and a justification for it yielded non-answers from Biglari, such as, “The board has perfect visibility into this.”

The Seeking Alpha poster highlighted a range of other dubious expenses, including paying his brother and father as consultants, maintaining an office in Monaco and opening a one-off Biglari Cafe in the Port of Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera, a destination Biglari enjoys visiting.
Biglari's compensation package is also excessive for the head of a company that is hemorrhaging money.  Coincidentally (?), the company was just assessed $7.7 million in total damages for unpaid overtime owed to restaurant managers -- and that was just in the St. Louis area.  But according to the blogger, Biglari mocked shareholders who complained about the falling price of the stock: if you think I'm overpaid and you're unhappy because the share prices dropped, just sell your shares.

Steak and Shake was founded eighty-odd years ago.  In general I bear in mind that businesses, even chains, are not immortal.  But it's one thing for a business to die because of its own inadequacies, and another for it to be killed off by a venture capitalist who has no interest in making it survive, and tosses out absurd and unfounded reasons why things are bad as he loots it to pay his relatives and support his jetsetting.