Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Meet the New Year, Same As the Old Year

A friend posted a version of this meme on Facebook today, and my heart sank.  Something was wrong with it.

So I did a search for the quotation - the alleged quotation, I mean.  The first couple of pages of results came up dry which is to say that there plenty of hits, ascribing the quotation to Williams, but none of them told where or when he'd said it.  That's usually a sign of a bogus quotation.  And then I found a Wikiquote Talk page of unsourced quotes ascribed to Robin Williams, including the specimen my friend had posted.  As I've found before, several of them were lines he'd spoken in this or that movie, and many people figure that everything an actor says in a movie is his or her own creation.  Not this one, though.  In either case, it's probably bogus.

But that, as dispiriting as it is, wasn't why I felt so bad when I saw this meme.  If it expressed a genuine truth, even Robin Willams's truth, I could give it some credit.  But as I thought it over, I realized that I don't think it's true, and if I can't have a valid attribution I at least need some evidence to support it.  From my own milder experience of depression, and from what I know of others' more severe experience, depression just sucks all the life out of a person.  It doesn't drive you to make others happy; it makes any kind of action almost impossible.  In my observation, the saddest people often try to drag everyone else down with them.  Overall, this meme stinks of the Culture of Therapy's false psychology / spirituality, and I say the hell with it.

For all of that, I'm seeing out 2019 in a pretty good mood, although this meme and writing about it were a light kick in the slats.  But on the whole I'm good, and I hope you are too, dear reader.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Vagabond Scholar's Jon Swift Memorial Best of 2019

Once again, Batocchio has posted his annual Jon Swift Memorial Roundup, carrying on the good work of the late Al Weisel, alias Jon Swift.  Bloggers choose their own favorite post of the year, and Batocchio posts them.  I'm in there, of course, but so are a good many other writers you might not have heard of.  Take a look and see what you think.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Antisocial Media

Let me begin by saying that Marques Brownlee is one of the most beautiful men on this planet, but I would watch his tech-review videos even if he weren't.  Not all of them, because some are about high-end toys that are of little or no interest to me.  But this is one of his best: not just for the "Gen X Mets Old Tech" angle but for the interviews with older people (Millennials?) who remember the introduction and marketing of the Walkman, an even older person (Boomer?) who worked on the original development team -- and then a comic bit about trying to repair a broken one. 

A couple of things I want to quibble with, however, partly because I've heard one of them before.  One is the idea that the idea of "portable music" that shut out the rest of the world was completely new.  When I was a sprout, there was something called a "transistor radio."

True, there are differences. With a radio you have little control over the music you hear, except by changing stations. There was no stereo radio in 1961, so you only needed, and only got, one earbud, and the world was not completely shut out.  As I recall, though, there were adults who claimed it would allow teenagers to isolate themselves, cause juvenile delinquency, and bring about the end of Western civilization.

Brownlee's video wants to give the impression that boomboxes, the previous stage of portable music, were "social," in that you "shared" your music with those people lucky enough to be around you.  Perhaps; but they were also notoriously antisocial.

I haven't encountered many boomboxes on public transportation in the past decade, but I have found people (usually old enough to remember boomboxes and the Walkman) who play their smartphone music loudly enough to annoy, loudly enough to be heard at the front of the bus from their seats in the back.  Oddly, it's been rare that I've noticed kids do it.  That may not be courtesy, it may just be a lack of interest in sharing one's music with strangers; it's a very private thing, after all.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

And so, when you return to the environment from which you came -- which you left behind -- you are somehow turning back upon yourself, rediscovering an earlier self that has been both preserved and denied.  Suddenly, in circumstances like these, there rises to the surface of your consciousness everything from which you imagined you had freed yourself and yet which you cannot not recognize as part of the structure of your personality -- specifically the discomfort that results from belonging to two different worlds, worlds so far separated from each other that they seem irreconcilable, and yet which coexist in everything that you are.
-- Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims (Allan Lane, 2018), page 12

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Squirrel Took My Ice Cream

I have a lot of respect for Daniel Larison of The American Conservative, whose writing is useful not only as a reminder that not all conservatives are feral hydrophobes but for its own sake as a counter to the misinformation spread by mainstream media.  But sometimes I disagree with him, though even in this case his main thesis is basically correct - it just doesn't go far enough.

In a piece that went up on Monday, "Remembering the Invasion of Panama", Larison declares:
The invasion of Panama was the first regime change war of the last thirty years. No one realized it at the time, but it marked the start of an era of hyperactive militarism that has not ended yet. It is the first U.S. war that I can remember, and it is sobering to consider that the U.S. has been engaged in hostilities somewhere in the world almost every year since then.... It was the first in a series of wars against small, outmatched countries that posed no threat to the United States.
Um... no.  Those first two sentences are strange.  It is true, I suppose, that Panama was the first regime change war of the last thirty years; but it was also the latest in a long series of such wars that the US waged from at least the end of the Indian wars.  A better point to place the beginning would be the 1898 War with Spain, which was a war of regime change that set off a wave of hyperactive militarism that has not ended yet.  I suppose that that wave includes the Indian wars and the Mexican war and the American Civil War too, but the point is that the US has been engaged in hostilities somewhere in the world for most of its history.  (Daniel Immerwahr's How to Hide an Empire [Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019] fills in the gaps very well.)  But also, think of Reagan's invasion of Grenada, eight years before Bush's invasion of Panama. 

There was a brief interlude between the US withdrawal from Vietnam and the attack on Grenada, thanks to what is known as the "Vietnam Syndrome," when American troops were supposedly not on the ground except as "advisors," but even then the US was underwriting and supporting escapades like the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, starting the year we left Vietnam.  As Madeleine "YASSS SLAY QUEEN" Albright complained to Colin Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

But notice the closing sentences of the paragraph I quoted.  In fact, the invasion of Panama was the latest of a series of wars against small outmatched countries that posed no threat to the United States.  It's why Panama was picked, as Grenada was, because it would let Our Boys get the taste of foreigners' blood at minimal risk to themselves.  Korea and Vietnam were also small outmatched countries that posed no threat to us; as with Noriega in Panama, the threat had to be manufactured.  The difference was that the Korean and Vietnamese wars turned out not to be the cakewalks our rulers expected them to be, which is why they now refer to them as "tragic blunders" and the like.

Larison reminds his readers of how terrible the US invasion was for Panamanians, and that's valuable and I'm glad he did it.  I'm quibbling about the way he frames it, as some sort of watershed; I don't think it was.

Note: The title of this post comes from here.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Dog Ate My Research

Someone I went to high school with posted this meme on Facebook in mid-October, getting War on Christmas season off to an early start.  I meant to write about it then, but of course I procrastinated.  Better late than never, though:

This salvo combines the usual self-pitying whining about embattled Christianity with a version of a legend about "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  Snopes discussed another version that has circulated since the 1990s, which claimed that the song encoded these details of Christian faith for persecuted Catholics in Anglican England.  The Snopes writer quotes a Roman Catholic priest who promulgated the story:
“I’ve got all kinds of people writing me demanding references for my work,” he said. “I wish I could give them what they want, but all of my notes were ruined when our church had a plumbing leak and the basement flooded.” Meanwhile, he said, his copy of the original article is on “a computer floppy disk that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it, anymore.”
Snopes links to a Catholic Information Network web page on which Stockert explained where he got his information, but alas, the secularists seem to have gotten to it, because now all it says in support of the interpretation is:
P.S. It has come to our attention that this tale is made up of both fact and fiction. Hopefully it will be accepted in the spirit it was written. As an encouragement to people to keep their faith alive, when it is easy, and when any outward expressions of their faith could mean their life. Today there are still people living under similar conditions, may this tale give them courage, and determination to use any creative means at their disposal to keep their faith alive.
"The spirit in which it was written" was that it's okay to make stuff up in order to keep Christian faith alive, which is a traditional Christian spirit.  It's odd that a religion which touts itself as based in history should have such a cavalier attitude toward historical accuracy, but there you go.  Stockert's peevish attitude toward people "demanding references for my work" is common among people who get caught in fabrication, and not only about religion.

While looking for more information about this myth, I found an excerpt on Google Books that shed a little more light on it.  According to But Do You Recall? 25 Days of Christmas Carols and the Stories Behind Them, written and apparently self-published in 2018 by Brian Scott, the idea that "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was a catechism teaching tool "first appeared in 1979 in an article by Hugh D. McKellar entitled 'How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas.'"  Scott says that McKellar, "a Canadian music teacher and hymnologist," cited no documentary sources, claiming that "he had interviewed elderly Canadians with roots in northern England, and they provided him with the information" (pages 116-117).  Scott doesn't say where McKellar's 1979 article appeared, but a Wikipedia article on the carol cites a 1994 article by McKellar from a Texas-based journal called The Hymn.  In that article McKellar admits:
In any case, really evocative symbols do not allow of definitive explication, exhausting all possibilities. I can at most report what this song's symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades, hoping thereby to start you on your own quest [page 31].
In other words, McKellar invented the correspondences he says the song contains, and his article is merely a springboard for the reader to invent his or her own.  Whether Stockert saw McKellar's article, I don't know.  The timing of his own mythopoesis is about right.

But it doesn't matter, because as Snopes and other critics have pointed out, the pillars of Christian faith McKellar and Stockert read into "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are not specifically Catholic but generically Christian.  There's nothing here that would have needed to be secret in Protestant Catholic-persecuting England.  And if, as the Catholic Information Network claims, the aim is to remind believers that there are Christians suffering for their sect today, and encourage them to keep their faith alive, why not tell them true stories -- there can hardly be a shortage -- instead of false ones?

Here is what this evocative story suggests to me: many people love to find mysteries and secret messages in unlikely places, not necessarily because they are valid or mean anything but because it's exciting to think that one has uncovered secrets that one wasn't supposed to know.  Of course religious believers do this, and the practice turns up in Judaism and Christianity.  The book of Daniel, for example, includes numerous coded puzzles which the writer invented so that he could decode them for the believer.  In the New Testament both Jesus and Paul are depicted revealing secrets, hidden from eons past, to their followers.  And so on.

But what I'm talking about here isn't limited to religious texts.  As I've written before, fans of popular music also enjoy decoding songs they love, or inventing secrets, such as the supposed death of Paul McCartney and his replacement by a double. Having or creating secrets is power; decoding them is also power.  Finding hidden religious meanings in a secular counting song not only gives one the pleasure of knowing what was hidden, it also makes the world seem intelligible.  What are all these random gifts in this song? Gather round, children, and I'll let you in on a very old secret...

This brings me to questions about the meaning and function of mythology, which have been raised by a number of books I've read in the past year or so.  Now that I've finally written this post, I can move on to those questions.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Spare the Child and Spoil the Rod

I'd be very interested to know what the right-wing Christian Rod Dreher would have to say about this incident.  The supposed persecution of Christian conservatives is one of his recurring themes.  Would he defend a teacher who, apparently because of her religious beliefs, attacked a child and the child's parents in the classroom?

For the benefit of those who, like me, dislike sitting through videos, what happened is this: a young boy was excited and proud because after going through five foster homes, he was finally being adopted.  The adoptive parents are two gay men.  When he talked about this in class, the substitute teacher in charge berated him: why would he be happy and proud about being adopted by homosexuals?  The boy didn't want to make trouble, despite his anger, so he didn't talk back, but some of his classmates did.  (That, for me, is the best thing about the story, that other kids stood up for him.)  They went to the principal, who removed the teacher, and she was subsequently fired by the agency that employed her.

The teacher is entitled to her beliefs, but not to pick on a student because of them.  I'd feel the same way if a liberal Christian teacher berated a child of the Duggar family, for example.  Or if an atheist told Christian children that their parents should be caged for brainwashing them with fairy stories.  I'm impressed that all this happened in Utah, which for me first comes to mind as the state which banned all extracurricular high school groups rather than allow Gay Straight Alliances.  Orson Scott Card is surely gnashing his teeth in helpless fury nowadays.

If I'm ever tempted to doubt that we have made progress in this country, a story like this one reminds me that we have.  Progress is never final, of course, and there are many people who will work to turn it back.  But as this story shows, there are also many people who will work to block them.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Forward Into the Past!

My Diversity Manager Facebook friend shared this meme the other day.
It annoyed me enormously, because it invokes 1950s sexist stereotypes as gender norms.  I commented to that effect.  My friend said he'd been inclined to agree at first, but then realized that it was about the fact that genitals don't define gender, and said I needed to remember the context.  What?

The more I thought about the meme, the worse it became.  Let's start with the final paragraph.  It assumes that dress, hair, and other visible details define gender, and also tell me whether a person is trans or not.  This fits with the widespread tendency to treat transgender as nonconforming gender presentation rather than subjective gender identity.  That is not only erroneous but harmful, because it favors and promulgates sexist stereotyping.

Consider my Diversity Manager friend himself.  For the three decades I've known him, he has had flowing shoulder-length hair, which in Barbie-and-Ken terms means his gender is female, which tells me that he's trans. He isn't, but that's what his gender presentation says.  In the early 60s when men began wearing their hair longer, they were frequently accused of looking like women, confusing the sexes, and so on, even when that long hair was the only gender-nonconforming trait they had.  And it didn't even have to be that long: when I look at the Beatles' early albums, for example, their hair doesn't seem long at all, yet it drove gender cops mad with anxiety and fury.

Along with their hair, many men in that era began changing their clothing styles, wearing brighter colors that were taboo for males in their parents' generation; some experimented with makeup, many began to pierce their ears and wear earrings.  Before long older men also adopted some of these modes, and soon after those young men became older themselves.  Often these fashions were defended and rationalized as a rejection of restrictive traditional masculinity, though that rejection was only partial.  It frequently coexisted with a very traditional male supremacy, misogyny, and predatory male sexuality.  As Dorothy Dinnerstein recounted in her important book The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976):
Men could assume sweetly open, uncertain postures, carry flowers, adorn their bodies in what their society at large regarded as outrageously feminine style, and still be masculine. But women who dominated meetings by sheer lung-power, or demanded that others type their leaflets and make them coffee, would have been unsexing themselves. A roomful of male students of mine during that period, decorative and gentle-looking, charmingly tentative in their style of speech, full of aphorisms of the “Kids are beautiful” and “Where you are is where it’s at” and “Like, you know, like, I had this feeling” genre, laughed explosively at the following riddle: “Why won’t [name some plain-spoken, forthright female head of state, or congressperson, or controversial author] wear a miniskirt? Because she’s afraid her balls will show!”
This clinging to masculine status and privilege helped to fuel second-wave feminism.  Effeminate gay men are often ferociously misogynist, as are many MTF transsexuals.  In his book on sex changes, Patrick Califia documented MTF transsexuals who criticized women for not being feminine enough: womanhood, they complained, was wasted on them, and should be reserved for those who appreciated and knew how to do it properly.  More recently, I've noticed that critics of so-called TERFs (women who refuse to accept the legitimacy of transgender identities) tend to fall back on misogynist abuse that reminds me of Gamergate in its monkeys-throwing-feces abandon.  But of that, more in another post.

During the same period, women appropriated styles that had been considered male property.  Even in the 50s, when I was a kid, there was criticism of women who wore trousers.  That seems to have pretty much faded away, and women can wear skirts or trousers as they find convenient: they can even change their "gender" from day to day. Women have also taken on jobs that men had previously monopolized.  Gender reactionaries who insist on the immutability of sexual difference have to forget that the current state of gender affairs should not, on their assumptions, exist: women and men have changed their behavior and presentation in areas that were claimed to be set in stone.  Better still (in my opinion), what replaced the 1950s gender order was not a new conformity but freedom.  At the university where I worked for four decades, students now wear a variety of hairstyles, costumes, uniforms, and they don't seem to view them as mandatory for all.

Perhaps, as I've suggested before, we'll never have equal proportions of men and women in some fields; no one knows.  But the thing to remember is that in the past, we were assured that there would never be any women scientists or CEOs or rabbis, because women were biologically unsuited to those jobs; and that no men at all would attend childbirth, or do early childcare.  If we're still at, say, a 70/30 ratio of men to women in math or physics, remember that in the Good Old Days, 99/1 was defended as God-ordained and biologically inevitable.  It took considerable thought control to ignore that in fact such unicorns already existed, but the eye of faith is generally blind.  (Remember: faith means knowing what you know isn't so.)

So we can see that gender presentation does not equal gender identity, and that we can't know whether people are trans or cis by the way they dress or carry themselves.  What the Sixties produced was a rejection of that assumption.  Gender stereotypes and norms didn't disappear altogether of course, partly through cultural inertia and partly because of conscious resistance to these changes, but overall, the boundaries have been moved much farther than their defenders said they could be, and there's much more variety and freedom in gender presentation than there was in the 1950s. That's why the equation of 1950s sex stereotypes with "gender" in the meme above annoyed me so much: I think it represents a rejection of the breakdown of gender stereotypes that I and many other people welcomed.  I didn't foresee that the progress we've made would have to be defended not only against religious fascists but against people who promote those stereotypes as an advance, even as liberation.  Well, you live and learn.

More on this soon.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Representation Without Representation

Someone using the screen name "Jean" posted a very strange comment on a Youtube video recently.  The video was a clip from the current season of Will and Grace, and numerous viewers remarked that Sean Hayes, who plays Jack in gym togs in this episode, was more muscular than they'd realized.

Some of the comments were foolish -- it's Youtube, after all -- such as "Those arms belong to a top for sure" and "Where was Jack's husband tonight I like him in those tight clothes".  Then someone complained: "This show was funny but it didnt help at all with breaking stereotypical mentalities. If anything, it perpetuated them."  Jean seconded the complaint, referring to Jack as a "stereotypical flamer."  This sort of thing is a sore point with me, and I remarked, "Stereotypes are people too. There's nothing wrong with being a 'stereotypical flamer,' but there's plenty wrong with attacking them."

Jean replied:
When someone acts in an insultingly stereotypical manner, do you think that's helpful to the community they are seen to "represent"? I don't think so. Isn't the whole point of being gay that you're a MAN who is attracted to MEN -- not ridiculous imitation women? If a gay man sounds like and acts like a woman, why bother? Isn't it easier to just settle for a real woman instead? There are plenty to choose from..... And just what exactly is "plenty wrong" with saying so? When there are so few gay men portrayed on TV (unless of course they're dying of AIDS or have just been gaybashed!), don't you find it insulting that most of what's on there is a cartoonish mockery of what being gay means? Nowadays, there are lesbians in nearly every show -- and nowhere do they seem to be depicted in such stereotypical terms. In fact, my lesbian friends snicker at the "lipstick lesbians" they see all over, with the big hair, the long nails, and the gobs of make-up -- because the shows' producers know that clueless straight guys (who evidently haven't thought it through properly) will somehow think they're hot. 
Wow!  I haven't encountered this particular flavor of homophobic bigotry in some time: so many cliches, so much stupidity, packed into a few sentences.

I suppose that Will and Grace constituted some sort of gay "representation" when it first aired twenty years ago.  But even that was mainly in the realm of broadcast television.  There had been a good number of gay and lesbian characters on cable TV by the time W&G appeared.  Perhaps not enough?  I don't know what would be enough, but we are a minority after all.  But one thing I noticed even in the late 90s was that gay people who complained about a lack of gay characters on television were ignorant of many of the gay characters who'd already appeared by then.  I knew, ironically, although I watch very little television, because I'd read about them in gay media.  I also knew that despite all the caterwauling I heard about "stereotypes," most of those characters were vetted by GLAAD for respectability and gender normativity, usually to the point of evacuating them of any human interest at all.  Like some other cliches I've noticed, this one seemed to me to be more parroting of folkore people had heard, intended to express belonging, than an informed opinion.

So: Jack.  Before I ever actually saw the show (thanks to DVDs borrowed from the public library), I'd heard gay men bitching about him.  Jack's supposedly offensive stereotypicality, along with Will's supposed sexlessness, were recurring complaints.  Will, I found, was getting more action than people said, but then so was Jack.  I'm not sure why it would have been such a bad thing if Will hadn't been dating, because gay men have been writing at least semi-humorously about their inability to get a date for gay male audiences long before Will and Grace came along.  It's a hook to hang jokes on.  I suspect, from their discourse generally, that many of the gay men who complained that Will was sexless wouldn't have been satisfied with anything but on-screen penetration; lots of luck getting that on broadcast TV!

The same is true of Jack, who is a big ol' queen all right, but he's also a great character, sympathetic despite his many lovingly dwelt-on flaws.  It's also true of Karen, a divine monster who would be just as intolerable in real life as Jack, Will and Grace would be.  (Is Karen "representative" of rich, alcoholic pansexual women?)  Jack and Karen get the best lines, which are often the cruelest -- because comedy is cruel.  (Remember Mel Brooks' dictum that if I get a paper cut it's a tragedy, but if you fall into an open sewer and die it's comedy?)  Will and Grace took cliches and stereotypes and made great entertainment out of them.

And now we have many more LGBTQ+ characters, situations, and programs on television and the Internet, so Jean's claim that "there are so few gay men portrayed on TV" is laughable.  She'd have a better case if this were 1989, but it isn't.  And if you want to yammer about stereotypes, RuPaul's Drag Race seems a better target than Will and Grace.

As for that stuff about " If a gay man sounds like and acts like a woman, why bother? Isn't it easier to just settle for a real woman instead? There are plenty to choose from....", I have to confess that I've said such things myself -- back in the 70s.  I was younger and hadn't thought as much then, and I was also repeating gay folklore that I'd heard, even from flamingly effeminate gay men.  But I now think it's bullshit.  First, Jack doesn't sound or act "like a woman," he sounds and acts like a certain variety of gay man.  Second, many people -- male and female -- find such men attractive and desirable.  Many straight men want to be penetrated by them, in fact.  The effeminate man is often demonized, but that's because he's so desirable, probably desired by those who demonize him.  Few effeminate gay men have as much energy, joy in life, and wit as Jack does -- but the same is true of masculine gay (or straight) men.

Jean's animadversions against "lipstick lesbians" are strange.  If she's upset about gay stereotypes, shouldn't she denounce butch dykes instead of feminine lesbians?  It's not even clear whether she's talking about TV characters or women in the allegedly real world; by this point she seems to be writing on autopilot, embodying the stereotype of a depressingly insecure gay person (or "ally"?) who thinks only of how gays will look to straights.

But whether or not you're attracted by Jack or by Sean Hayes, such men exist, they are human beings, and vilifying them as Jean did in this comment is vile.  She may not like them, and she doesn't have to fuck them, but she has to share the world with them.  Media are another matter, but compared to what was available when I was young, I think we have a very wide range of images to respond to.  There will always be room for more, of course, but I'm more interested now in quality than in quantity.

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-dominated 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 is supposed to be 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 as an apologetic touchstone, 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 shooter, 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 consider 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.