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.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Que Sera, Sera...

This will be brief, I hope.  I'm thinking through a post on another larger subject and don't know when I'll feel ready to start writing it.  For now, then...

This week Dan Savage answered a question from from a man who's erotically excited by being cuckolded, and wondered why that should be.  The answer, with expert input, was a lot of admittedly unfounded speculation, but I was intrigued by Dan's closing remarks:
The erotic power of doing something that seems antithetical to the heteronormative and/or vanilla-normative expectations heaped on us by culture, religion, family, etc. should never be underestimated. While not everyone is turned on by the thought of transgressing against sexual or social norms, a significant percentage is. So long as our normative-busting transgressive turn-ons can be realized with other consenting adults, we should worry less about the “why” and more about the “when,” “where,” and “how.” (Now, in private, and safely!)
A few weeks ago, Dan fretted about white people who "fetishized" people of different "races."
It’s a good idea to ask ourselves whether our “types” are actually ours and not just assigned to us by conventional standards of beauty (white, slim, young) or a thoughtless/fetishizing reaction to those standards (a desire to transgress with nonwhite, larger, or older folks).
The new column raises some interesting questions about these strictures.  Suppose someone is turned on by a person of different skin color because it's transgressive.  In the real world, it's impossible to know that for sure anyway, but it seems likely to me that the erotic power of transgression also holds with "interracial" liaisons, even with same-sex eroticism. (For that matter, dating people outside one's comfort zone as a conscious strategy to broaden one's horizons is a kind of fetishization too, but it's likely to be anti-erotic in practice.)  I'm not sure it's necessary, or ethical, to inform a potential partner for a transient encounter that one is turned on by the prospect of transgressing against sexual or social norms with him or her; but then, he or she might just reply brightly, "Oh, that's okay!  I feel the same way about you!  Now quit talking and let's start transgressing."

But once again what I see here is Dan's own confusion about erotic ethics and values.  Is erotic transgression okay or not?  It seems that he draws the line at gender- or "race"- related transgressiveness, like many other people who fantasize that there is some pure, untainted erotic feeling that has nothing to do with real bodies.  I suspect that this fantasy -- or should I call it a fetish? -- is most common among people with very limited erotic experience, but the worldly Dan Savage really should know better.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

W for Wank

I've been working my way gradually through Chasing Danny Boy,* an anthology of stories about "Celtic Eros" -- apparently referring only to "Eros" between males.  The first story, "Puppydogs' Tails," was raunchy enough to draw me in, though most of the rest have been less appealing.

Eventually I came to the ninth story, "Dublin Sunday", by P. P. Hartnett.  It's about a middle-aged gay man, musing on his life: "It was another beautiful summer sunset, making him feel pretty bloody awful."  Luckily he has a full supply of "Oil, nipple clamps, dildo, magazine collection, videos, poppers, and Caverject" (loc 1351, Kindle edition).  Or maybe not so luckily.
His left hand was fingering the deep wrinkles in his forehead. He knew exactly how he’d pass the evening. He wasn’t really in the mood for what he was going to put himself through. But it was in his diary. W. Inked in: W for Wank

He wasn’t getting any younger. Who’d have him when he left sentences hanging? Who’d help him when he couldn’t be bothered with food anymore, or washing? Who’d be the first to make him a bowl of clear soup, tidy his bedclothes, do his laundry, help him to (and from and during) the lavatory? Who’d attend to his needs, day and night? Answer: no one. 

Just thinking about his life was enough to render him immobile, paralysed by regret and indecision and ruminations on what might have been. The purposelessness of it all, not to mention the incompatibility of pheromones, phobias, and fetishes.
Oooookay.  In case you're wondering, this passage is representative of the entire piece, right up to the ending sentence.  "He'd feel better after a good night's weep huddled in the far back corner of his wardrobe, chin on knees, sobbing for the humiliation and, worse, for the loss of he wasn't sure what" (loc 1622).  This is a believable picture of some aging men's situations, but what is it doing in a collection of stories about Eros?  It comes across as more of a cautionary vignette, propaganda from an anti- or ex-gay organization, and the protagonist is the kind of person who, disappointed or frustrated in lust, becomes a monastic dedicated to the extirpation of all pleasure -- not just for himself but for everybody else.

That bit about "Who'd attend to his needs, day and night?" particularly annoyed me. A lot of people have this attitude towards marriage, and I've been asked "What are you going to do when you get old?" myself.  So I should find an unpaid body servant to wipe my butt for me when I go gaga?  That's highly ... spiritual.  Whose needs would he attend to, I wonder?  Aging and its attendant debility is unpleasant and scary, but this is the mindset of someone who thinks only of himself, and supposedly in couplehood if not marriage the caregiving should go both ways.  If P. P. Hartnett wrote this story as an exhortation to gay men to find boyfriends, he chose a repellent way to do it.

I'm sixty-eight years old, and have been single for almost all my adult life.  As I told a friend not long ago, I know that there will be a last time I have sex, though I probably won't know it's the last time until long afterward.  I view this with something like detached interest.  I still take delight in human beauty, and am comforted by nonsexual physical contact.  (When I join others in singing Christmas carols at area nursing homes each year, I notice how important hugs and handholding and other touching are to the people there.  I give them as much as I can, which started out being difficult for a shy person like me who's timid about initiating affection with strangers; but I'm getting better, thanks largely to the example of our organizer, who's very good at it.)

I'm inclined to be snarky about people for whom sex is the central focus of their lives, though to be honest I'm a bit skeptical about their existence.  I don't think I know of any such person in reality.  In Andrew Holleran's later writings, the protagonists are older men who are either still trying to keep up with what Holleran dubbed "fast-food sex" or have given up on it.  But Holleran, who seems to be his characters' model, is a writer, and he evidently has an inner life that finds expression in writing, reading at least.  His portrayal of aging gay men is therefore highly skewed, editing out everything else that might give a life meaning or interest.

I'm not denying the value of sex.  It's probably not possible to distinguish altogether between the pleasure of erotic interaction and the pleasure of affectionate physical contact, but I'm certainly glad I've had numerous sexual partners, far more than I anticipated as a young gay kid who found it hard to believe anyone would ever want him.  At the same time, many other pursuits give my life meaning: the arts, intellectual interests, friendship, food, travel. When sexual opportunities or capacity dry up, these and more will I hope remain.  This isn't a boast: so far I've been amazingly lucky in my life, and I know it.

But assume that there are people who only find meaning in copulation. That's fine, I don't care if  people have different priorities than I do. The trouble is that the protagonist of "Dublin Sunday" doesn't find meaning or fulfillment, or much pleasure, in sex.  When that's the case, it's time to try to remember if there's anything else that can give you meaning, or fulfillment, or pleasure.  If there are people like the protagonist, their situation is dire.  I can't see  "Dublin Sunday" as a story of Eros; I think it's a horror story.

*Edited by Mark Henry (San Francisco: Palm Drive Publishing, 1999).

Monday, July 15, 2019

Faithful and True

I don't know why I decided to pick up Gainsborough Pictures' 1945 melodrama The Wicked Lady from the display shelf at the public library, but it turned out to be a good choice.  It's an astoundingly raunchy film for the period, featuring adultery, highway robbery, multiple murders, gender transgression, plunging necklines and more.  Before it could be released in the US, several scenes had to be reshot with more modest costuming of the ladies, which shows the idiocy of censors: the glimpses of bosom are the least of The Wicked Lady's transgressiveness.  The title character, Barbara Skelton, steals her cousin's fiance, takes up robbery to get back a jewel she'd carelessly gambled away, finds she likes crime, has a wild affair with another highwayman, kills two people, and eventually is shot dead, dying alone as she crawls piteously on the floor of her lavish boudoir.

The Wicked Lady was based on a best-selling historical novel by Magdalen King-Hall. Lady Skelton is a semi-fictional character derived from the real-life Katherine Ferrers Fanshawe (1634-1660), celebrated with prurient delight in late nineteenth-century folklore.  In the introduction to a recent reissue of King-Hall's Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2016), Rowland Hughes shows that there's no contemporary evidence that Ferrers actually did any of the exciting things King-Hall describes, and it's likely she died in childbirth in London rather than of a bullet wound in Hertfordshire.  The legend of the Wicked Lady seems to have appeared full-blown two centuries after her death, ripe for exploitation by King-Hall and Gainsborough Pictures.  (There's also a 1983 remake starring - Faye Dunaway?)

I enjoyed The Wicked Lady and intend to have a look at Gainsborough's other "wicked melodramas."  What I'm interested in today, though, is what it implies about faith, especially now that liberal Democrats and Republican NeverTrumpers are wrestling with Robert Mueller III's apparent failure to vindicate their faith.  A popular motif in atheist / secular attacks on religion is the gullibility of people who believe in supernatural "fables told by Bronze Age goatherds." But there's nothing supernatural about what Russiagate believers hoped would be revealed, or about many other beliefs that people cling to without evidence or in defiance of evidence.  It's tempting to dismiss such faith as religious (or perhaps religion-like?), and I've been to known to succumb to that temptation myself, but I think it would be more accurate to turn it around: I think that "religious" faith is a subset of the way human beings think about and discuss the world, and it's not different in any important way from other beliefs -- even well-supported beliefs.  That latter is the scary part.

I just finished reading archaeologist J. M. Adovasio's The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology's Greatest Mystery (Random House, 2002), about the controversies surrounding the first human settlers of the Western hemisphere.  Its core is the "Clovis bar," the belief held by many archaeologists that "Clovis man" was the earliest inhabitant, arriving about 12 to 13,000 years ago.  Adovasio's excavations at Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania during the 1970s were the first strong evidence that Clovis culture had predecessors, and he details the debates that raged over the issue.  He depicts his opponents as driven by an irrational refusal to change their position, though they don't see themselves that way: they see themselves as rational critics, doing the necessary work of Science.  He gives an exhausting account of a scientific summit held in Chile to evaluate another possibly pre-Clovis site, and while I'm basically sympathetic to the pre-Clovis position (for not particularly rational reasons), I can only rejoice that neither faction had the power to do more than hiss at each other.  Though apart from the scientific questions, there are real-world matters at stake: research funding, professorships, publications, etc., nobody was put to the rack or burned for heresy.  Given the very high emotional temperature Adovasio reports (and embodies himself), though, I wouldn't assume that torture and execution wouldn't have happened if the parties involved had the power to inflict them.

The conventionally religious will reject my suggestion as fiercely as the conventionally non-religious.  Both sides want to see religious faith as a special case, distinct from all the others and privileged.  One reason I don't see it that way is that religious believers, especially but not limited to Yahwist monotheism, lightly dismiss the religious beliefs of other believers, even other members of their own sect.  If faith is so sacrosanct, beyond rationality and question, why don't believers respect other believers' faith?

Sunday, July 14, 2019


I don't think I'll continue reading Walt Odets's new book, Out of the Shadows (FSG, 2019).  Right after the passage I discussed last week there came this:
For gay men, sexual attraction to other men is only one expression of something more formal, more fundamental, something that might be called a gay sensibility.  As I am using the term, gay sensibility describes the man's internal experience of himself, and his characteristic external expression of self to others.  Together, the two constitute "a sensibility," and a gay sensibility is often different from that of heterosexual men.  Sexual attraction is not the cause of gay sensibility, although it may influence and inform it; nor is the simple idea of the homosexual an adequate characterization of that sensibility.  The question I am raising -- whether or not gay men are homosexuals -- is not at all intended to dismiss the importance of gay sexual lives.  Sexuality is of central importance in all human life, whether acknowledged or not.  What it means to "be gay" has for too long been defined by others, and too much of that imposed definition has been incorporated into gay self-experience.  Being gay offers important opportunities that can only be realized if gay people can free themselves from the conventional idea of the homosexual.  Freed from this narrow characterization, gay people have lives that are, in some ways, like heterosexual lives and, in other ways, appreciably different.  Lives that express such complexity are often better, fuller, more authentic lives [20].
Odets might possibly make an interesting and useful case from this mess, but right now I don't have enough energy or curiosity to find out.  He allows that gay men are different from each other, but I can't see how to reconcile that acknowledgement with the notion of a "gay sensibility."  If erotic experience is only one expression of this putative sensibility, it would seem to follow that a gay male sensibility could express itself in erotic interaction with women as easily as it could with men, and that a man could have erotic experience exclusively with other men without having that sensibility.  In that case, it's hard to see why that sensibility should be called "gay."

This same problem arises in attempts to make sense of gender.  The psychological traits that are stereotyped "masculine" or "feminine" are really found in both / either sex most of the time, so it makes no sense to gender them.  Doing so just keeps people, whether they are professionals or laypeople, confused.  My sensibility is gay, not because I possess some indefinable gay essence, but because I am gay, so whatever sensibility I possess is a gay one.  In that I echo the "woman-identified woman" who asserted that whatever she wears, be it a gown or an army-surplus coat, it is by definition women's wear.  I am different from many straight men, but I'm also different from many gay men.  (I wonder where bisexual men fit into Odets's schema.)

I still disagree with his characterization of "the homosexual" as a concept consisting purely of sex.  In fact "the homosexual" has always been an incoherent conception, but it has always been more complex than Odets allows.  Foucault was correct when he wrote: "We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized ... less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself" (History of Sexuality, 1:43).  Gayish men had a good deal of input into the construction and elaboration of "the homosexual," not just as case histories but as thinkers and writers.  Perhaps Odets will take this history into account as he proceeds, but I'm not going to find out in the foreseeable future.

But I also object to Odets's stereotyping of heterosexual men.  It's not news that the social construction of heterosexuality has been restrictive and destructive of men's lives, as well as women's.  Nor should it be news that heterosexual men are as varied as gay men, and that there are large differences between cultures in the official definitions and limitations imposed on straight men.

For example, last week as I headed downtown I passed a group of about twenty international students being shown around.  They were all black Africans, mostly male, and two of them were holding hands.  They looked a bit uneasy, almost defiant, but they held on.  I presume they had been told that in America, men holding hands is taken as a sign of homosexuality.  Even many if not most gay men would make that mistake.  In many cultures, even quite homophobic ones, people of the same sex hold hands in public.  But in the US, any public display of physical affection between males is a fraught business.  (That 'affection' in that phrase generally is a euphemism for eroticism says a lot about our moral impoverishment.)

Even within a culture, manhood is an incoherent concept.  For an easy example, consider the attempts to limit artistic expression to males, to defend it as an inherently male capability, at the same time that male artists' manliness is often suspect.  For another, consider male bonding: men are supposed to be heterosexual, but they are also supposed to form powerful, even intimate bonds with other men -- yet they can never be sure they haven't gone too far and crossed the line into homosexuality.  Freed from the narrow and self-contradictory characterizations that constitute gender, everybody has the opportunity to build lives that are better, fuller, and more authentic.  I don't believe that a "gay" or a heterosexual sensibility is necessary for doing so.

The quip that gay people are different from straight people except for what we do in bed has been attributed to more than one gay sage, but I've never seen a good enumeration of what the real differences supposedly are.  Harry Hay was one of those sages, and I think it's significant that he not only wanted to define a gay spiritual sensibility, he based it on a biological-determinist theory of our origin and nature.  Odets objects to the born-gay dogma; I wonder if he realizes that Hay believed we are born fairies. For that reason I feel free to reject the claim, which feels to me like one more attempt to force us all into boxes instead of encouraging us to explore and own our complexity and richness.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Mortal Kombat in the Heavens

The dirtbag Right loves to wave religion around, which doesn't particularly distinguish them from many liberals and progressives and leftists.  So of course I've been seeing numerous liberals scolding the Right for, as they see it, "distorting Scripture."

Daniel Larison, whose work I mostly like, praised this article by Bonnie Kristian attacking Mike Pompeo for "misrepresenting the Bible to gin up war with Iran."  The article is a rebuttal worth reading, it contains some important arguments, but it falls down here and there.  The author focuses on Pompeo's use of the biblical Book of Esther, which she says "is a story of different kinds of courage, of God working in unexpected ways, of assurance of eventual justice for the downtrodden."  The trouble here is that Esther is notorious for not mentioning God, or his working, at all.  The only other biblical book that doesn't mention God is the Song of Solomon, which is about sex; of course that hasn't stopped theologians, Jewish and Christian alike, from interpreting it as an allegory of God's boner for Israel, or Christ's for the Church.

Kristian is right that Esther "is not a lesson on the longstanding malfeasance of the Iranian people. Esther offers no commentary on Islam, which did not exist when it was written. It is not included in the Jewish and Christian scriptures to tell us Iran is bad."  If anything, it depicts Persia/Iran as a haven for Jews after the bad guys who conspired to harm them were exposed and punished.  But that's something else Kristian papers over, what this article calls "the bloodthirsty bits": Haman, the royal official who led the plot against Esther's people,
was hanged, or more likely impaled; the Jews were given permission to "destroy, kill and annihilate" their enemies, with their women and children (8:11), a permission of which they took full advantage. Esther asked for an extension of the bloodletting (9:13) and for the impalement of Haman's 10 sons; 800 men were killed in the capital Susa and 75,000 elsewhere in the empire. The Jews were saved, Mordecai was promoted and the events have been celebrated on the Feast of Purim ever since.
That's presumably what Bonnie Kristian meant by "eventual justice for the downtrodden."  It's probably the part that Pompeo likes best, and that inspires his agenda on Iran.  I wouldn't accuse Kristian of misrepresenting the Bible, exactly, but she certainly de-emphasizes to the point of erasure the part that most resonates spiritually for Pompeo and other right-wing supporters of Israel -- including the Israeli government -- who'd like to treat Iran as Esther did.

Lest someone complain that Esther is the Old Testament, for chrissake, and the New Testament is about love, it's not full of hate and vindictiveness and judgment like the Old -- that's just not true. The New Testament is full of bloodthirsty fantasies of "eventual justice for the downtrodden," from Jesus' constant threats of eternal torture to the extravagant blood-in-the-streets-to-the-height-of-the-horses'-bridles visions of the Revelation.  And as I pointed out recently, the video-game ultraviolence of the Revelation is perpetrated by the good guys, the servants of the Lamb, not by Satan's minions.

Kristian's piece on the abnormality of the Pledge of Allegiance is much better.  But she, no less than Mike Pompeo, can't seem to represent the Bible in all its messy complexity.  It's not necessarily invalid to use stories, ancient or modern, to comment on current events and controversies, but one should at least try to get the details and the context right.  I'll be having more to say about this soon, perhaps including Bonnie Kristian's well-meant but inadequate attempt to resolve the role of religion in American political life.  But I have numerous other examples by other writers who dwell on the specks of biblical misrepresentation in their brothers' and sisters' eyes, while ignoring the beams in their own.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

What's in a Name? (Quite a Lot)

At first I thought this was just a minor quibble, but then I realized it was more important than that.

Dan Savage answered a letter this week from a gay man who likes what might be described as "destruction porn" (look at the column for more information), and finds that there's a lot of online manga porn in that mode, but its protagonists are depicted as "giant prepubescent boys."  Does this count as pedophile porn, even though he's not attracted to prepubescent boys?  Dan provided a definition of pedophilia: "Pedophilia, according to the best and most current research, is a hardwired sexual orientation—one that can never be acted on for moral and ethical reasons."

I've argued before that "sexual orientation" is the wrong word for pedophilia, first of all because the term refers to which sex one is erotically attracted to, and children are not a sex.  This is a consequence of the ambiguity of "sex," which can refer to the configuration of one's reproductive organs or to copulation.  Off the cuff, I propose something like "erotic fixation."  "Erotic" refers specifically to desire, so it's less ambiguous than "sexual," and "fixation" has the virtue of implying that the condition is fixed, not easily mutable if at all.  "Orientation," despite what we are often told does not have such an implication.

But, second, the problem isn't a purely semantic one.  When my city tried to add "sexual orientation" to its human rights ordinance in the 1990s, religious bigots objected that it would protect pedophiles as well as homosexuals.  They could, and I believe did, point to statements in the sexological literature which declared pedophilia a sexual orientation.  Whoever wrote the proposed amendment had forestalled this by defining sexual orientation as referring to homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual.  The amendment passed, but was overruled by a state law prohibiting municipalities from adding to the state human/civil rights law.

I submit that it would be a good idea to stop referring to pedophilia as a sexual orientation because of the confusion generated in many people's minds by the term's ambiguity.  This confusion extends not just to the ignorant and uneducated, but to educated people who are in a position to make policy, including judges and sex researchers.  (I winced at Dan's remark about "the best and most current research," because so much of the best and most current research on human sexuality is wrong-headed and just plain wrong.)  In the long run it could be used as a weapon against civil rights protection, and if you think things couldn't go in that direction, you haven't been paying attention for the past few years.

It's timely to bring this up because of Jeffrey Epstein's arrest, which has generated a predictable shitstorm in the Force, with many references to him as a pedophile.  I've noticed that when people are challenged on the accuracy of that word with regard to men who pursue adolescents, they often defend themselves by admitting that they're not using the word accurately but like who cares?  I think they like the clinical feel of the word while getting off on its emotional boost.  It's not necessary to label Epstein a pedophile to see him as a vicious abuser who should be behind bars.  But as with the rape of adults, there's a lot of outrage that I find suspicious.  Everyone will be furious about rape and the abuse of children in theory, but in actual cases they lack conviction.  The Roman Catholic coverup of priests' abuse of children is a prime example: the Church is second to none in denouncing immorality, but when it came to a paradigm case (thousands of them, in fact) of conduct it officially condemns in the strongest terms, it couldn't follow through.  The Penn State scandal of recent memory is similar: devoutly Catholic men in positions of responsibility simply seemed to sleepwalk when confronted with the abuse of children.

So I was pleased to read this tweet last night, criticizing a "class analysis" of the Epstein case: "we non-rich have our shares of pedophiles among us and plenty of families without epstein money have found ways to bury sexual abuse without a powerful prosecutor at their disposition".  She's exactly right.  The radical feminist movement of the 1970s paid a lot of attention to the sexual abuse of children, with many women reporting their own horrifying childhood experiences, encountering a wall of denial from the adults around them, including parents, when they tried to complain.  It was largely and predictably ignored by mainstream society.

Much of the reaction by commenters to vanessa bee's tweet was just as clueless, basically: wait, what? what are you talking about?  Bee continued trying to explain: "yes, the scale, the SCALE, obviously. i’m just saying poor & working class people do this shit, too. and put other things ahead of their class, partisanship, or safety of kids, in order to cover up other people’s abuse."  Children are blamed in the same terms as adults, too: seductive little Lolitas who've been "sexualized" by their mothers, etc.  As the Epstein case proceeds, we'll certainly see more attempts to blame the victims.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019


I went to San Francisco last month for a meeting of the gay men's discussion group I like to attend when I can.  The topic this time was "Life After Pride."

It took me awhile to realize that "Pride" referred to the accumulated apparatus of Gay Pride observance, not to the individual, non-institutional pride in being gay that is the primary sense of the term for me.  When someone says that they're gay and proud, I don't take it as a pledge of allegiance to the Human Rights Campaign and to the corporations for which it stands, or as a cheer for Our Team and its merchandise, but as a rejection of the shame that our society has always insisted we should feel.  My understanding played no role in the discussion, either as the organizers planned it or in what we talked about that afternoon.  The subject was the institution of Pride parades.  That's a valid topic, to be sure, and we found plenty to say about it.

I've always been ambivalent about "pride" as the word for a stance of LGBTQ affirmation, and I know I'm not alone among gay people in that, but I think I am in a minority.  In choosing the word, the movement followed the example of Black pride, which involved the same rejection of shame by people of color in a racist society.  I doubt it would have caught on, though, if many of us hadn't found it agreeable.  At the same time, association with the institutional manifestation of the annual Pride parades assured that its meaning would drift to refer to floats, marching bands, parade marshals, and flag-waving.  Which are not bad in themselves, perhaps, but they're not the point.

The increasing involvement of corporations was predictable, and probably unavoidable in a capitalist country.  We are Americans, after all, and we're used to everything in our lives being commercialized, branded, bought and sold.  And why shouldn't our institutions tap into the same mechanisms of sponsorship, trademarks, and endorsement that pervade every other American institution?  For most gay people, there's probably no conflict in the idea, though it's also American to lament the commercialization of Pride, no less than we lament the commercialization of Christmas at the same time we participate eagerly in it. What could be more assimilated than that?

A major theme in last month's discussion was that Pride had once been principled, political, and now it's just a big raunchy party.  I argued then that this is at best simplistic and unhistorical, and I wish I'd come prepared with evidence.  But it's a common complaint among the gay men I talk to, and like most nostalgia it's just amnesia turned around.

Luckily, I found a book that gave me some of the evidence I needed: The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History (NYU Press, 2019), edited by Marc Stein.  It assembles contemporary reports of the Stonewall uprising and the changes that it inspired in the gay movement, along with the first commemorations on both coasts.  You don't need to trust historians' reconstructions of what Pride used to be, you can see how it looked at the time.

From Document 184, Kay Tobin Lahusen's report for Gay magazine, 20 July 1970:
The flyer from the umbrella committee of sponsoring groups stated: "We are united today to affirm our pride, our lifestyle and our commitment to each other.  Despite political and social differences we may have, we are united on this common ground.  For the first time in history, we are together as The Homosexual Community." ...

The thousands of marchers filed into Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, moving past two gay couples at work (?) breaking the world’s kissing record. . . . The only planned activity in the Park was sponsored by Gay Activists Alliance, which provided an abundance of body contact by conducting sensitivity games in the soft grass of the meadow. Their gay love pile—composed of dozens of warm, wiggling bodies in one fantastic heap—let forth the most spontaneous, if inarticulate, yelp for liberation heard all day. Throughout the meadow, gay couples cuddled, kissed, laughed, and listened to themselves being described by announcers across the band of their transistor radios. Television cameras ogled at the open show of gay love and affection and solidarity. The Gay-In went on until well after sundown, after which GAY’s reporter was told love knew no bounds.
From Document 185, "1200 Parade in Hollywood, Crowds Line Boulevard, The Advocate, 22 July 1970:
Over 10000 homosexuals and their friends staged not just a protest march [my emphasis], but a full-blown parade down world-famous Hollywood Boulevard.

Flags and banners floated in the chill sunlight of late afternoon; a bright red sound truck blared martial music; drummers strutted; a horse pranced; clowns cavorted; “vice cops” chased screaming “fairies” with paper wings; the Metropolitan Community Church choir sang “Onward Christian Soldiers”; a bronzed and muscular male model flaunted a 7 1/2–foot live python. 

On and on it went, interspersed with over 30 open cars carrying Advocate Groovy Guy contestants, the Grand Duchess of San Francisco, homophile leaders, and anyone else who wanted to be seen, and five floats, one of which depicted a huge jar of Vaseline, another a homosexual “nailed” to a cross. ...

Laughter and applause also followed the Gay Liberation Front Guerrilla Theatre entry, a gaggle of shrieking “fairies” wearing gauzy pastels and being chased in all directions by stick-wielding “cops” sporting huge “vice” badges, the “Vaseline” float also entered by a GLF group, the several clowns in costume and white-face, and a nodding and bowing “witch doctor” in grass robes and African mask entered by the Society of Pat Rocco Enlightened Enthusiasts.
As I argued in the group, there was plenty of raunchy partying going on in Pride at its origin (or should I say "Nativity"?).  The same sort of crude, shameless, offensive behavior that offends many now was present in 1970, and given the lower visibility and harsher repression that had characterized gay people's lives up till then, it would have been even more shocking at the time.

Which isn't to say that these marches weren't also "political."  The turnout for the first Christopher Street West Parade was smaller than it might have been, for example, because of "the long battle to get a Police Commission permit, which was finally resolved only two days before", according to the same report.  They had political overtones and ramifications simply by virtue of being open, uncoded, massive LGBTQ public events.  They were not, however, "political" in the same way that demonstrations and protests against discrimination and repression are; but they weren't intended to be.  They were intended, first and foremost, to be fun.  It was just that gay people having fun in public -- not just in bars subject to raids and other harassment, but in the streets and parks in broad daylight -- had an inseparable political dimension.  That considerable numbers of gay people reject fun as a political goal just indicates how assimilated we are.  What once defined Puritanism -- the fear that someone somewhere might be happy -- is something that many of us can relate to.

People sometimes ask if we still need Pride.  On one hand it doesn't matter: Pride celebrations under whatever rubric are almost half a century old.  (Though they commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969, they began a year later, in 1970.)   They're popular events, they have a lot of mainstream support, everybody enjoys a party.  And it's no small achievement that a cultural creation of one of the most despised groups in America in my lifetime become a highly visible, taken-for-granted feature of American life.  If the observance is shallow in many ways, among gays no less than among straights ... well, so is the observance of Christmas and other holidays.  It seems to me that the press/media coverage, including the reporting of the history, is on the whole better than the coverage of Christmas, maybe because it's still more contested.  If people are open to knowing the history, it's easy to learn each summer.  Need it or not, Pride is not going to wither away in the foreseeable future.

In the sense I prefer, we certainly still do need pride, though maybe the co-optation of the concept by Pride Inc. would make it worthwhile to find a better word for it.  But young LGBTQ people are still struggling and suffering; alcohol and other drug abuse, depression and other problems are widespread among LGBTQ people of all ages.  Whatever you want to call it, many or most of us still need to feel good about being gay.  Pride marches may hold out the promise of something better somewhere, but they aren't enough by themselves.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't have them, but we do need something else, something more, as well.

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Soul of a Man Trapped in the Body of a Man

I've begun reading Walt Odets's Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men's Lives (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019).  Here's how the first chapter, "What Is a Homosexual?", begins:
There are two different perspectives on what makes a man a "homosexual."  The first -- the heterosexual perspective -- is that homosexuals are "men who have sex with men."  The gay man's perspective, is that he s "attracted to other men."  The difference between the two descriptions is important: the heterosexual identifies a single, objective behavior, the gay man an entire internal life of feeling.  While the straight man may feel support, indifference, fear, or contempt for the idea of "the homosexual," the gay man has more complex feelings, in part because the term has historically been used to stigmatize ... The majority of gay-identified men do have at least a marginally conscious sense that being gay is about more than sexual attraction or sex; but many gay men have been swayed by the heterosexual definition and have accepted the narrow, behaviorally defined identity.  In today's gay assimilationist politics, gay men often explain themselves to heterosexuals with the idea that they are "attracted to men, but otherwise just like you."
Like most binaries, this one has some value, but it breaks down pretty quickly.  I think that heterosexuals also think of male homosexuals as essentially female by nature and in mentality. This conception certainly typified a great deal of professional and clinical discussion from the late nineteenth-century onward, which focused not only on sexual behavior but on the postulated feminine nature of the invert.  It's a concept shared by many gay men even as they resist it for public-relations purposes.

One reason for the binary Odets advances here is the difference between how I see myself and how others see me.  It's the old subjective/objective divide, which I thought had mostly been abandoned as oversimple and inadequate.  I'm reminded of Graham Shaw's comment on the New Testament stories of Jesus' disciples breaking rules of Sabbath observance, that these stories
also portray a fundamental contradiction in the religious viewpoint they convey.  For paradoxically the refusal to conform to demands for public religious observance is itself intensely visible; so that the criticism of religious visibility acquires many of the characteristics of exhibitionism.  Repeatedly they attract hostile attention to themselves and their master.  Invisible spiritual religion thus proves to have a highly public face.* 
Contrariwise, observant Jews could feel their deep sincerity in keeping the Sabbath, while Jesus and his crew could only see the shallow exterior conformity.  So I don't think that Odets's point has specific relevance to gay people.  The same divide turns up internally to the community, as respectability-minded gay people deplore the shallowness of leathermen gyrating drunkenly on Pride parade floats, though those leathermen are probably perfectly respectable bankers and businessmen who think of their behavior very differently in their minds, perhaps as healthy role models in contrast to all the screaming nellies.  But if you're a gay man who's just been voted salesman of the year by your real estate company, why not celebrate with an amateur drag performance?  It's the gay thing to do!  In our day a gay man can celebrate making lots of money for his bosses by expressing his true, authentic self!  I'm not sure how that fits into Odets's classification.

I'm not happy with the sex / attraction distinction here either.  "Attraction" in this case means erotic attraction, the desire to have sex with someone.  Some gay apologists have tried to de-emphasize sex in favor of some other essential gay quality, but at best it's disingenuous, at worst it's collaborating with bigots -- agreeing that buttsex is nasty, but trying to claim that real, decent homosexuals just stay at home and crochet antimacassars.  Even the people who advance this position don't really believe it; at best they're engaging in doublethink.

Perhaps Odets is trying to see the heterosexual position as an assumption that "men who have sex with men" do so without desire or affect, for some mysterious reason.  But many gay men share that assumption, at least where other gay men are concerned: I'm a free spirit, you're just a slut!  I suppose it's all right to draw the sex / attraction line as long as "attraction" is defined so as to exclude copulation completely; unfortunately, its advocates seem to have trouble avoiding such a definition.

I've noticed myself that "we're just like you except for being attracted to men" backfires by reducing gayness to sex, a stereotype those who use this claim are trying to reject.  But I object to it because it also assumes that all straight people are alike and all gay people are alike.  I strongly reject any attempt to define for me the right way to be gay: there are many right ways to be gay.  I'm also a bit uneasy about Odets's reference to "assimilationist gay politics," since I don't think that "assimilation" is a coherent idea or strategy.  I don't agree with people who advocate some kind of gay assimilationism, because they have an unrealistic idea of what straight people are like, and equally unrealistic ideas of how prejudice works.

Well, I'm only on the first page of Out of the Shadows.  I've liked Odets's previous writings, so I'll read on and see where he takes his argument.
* Graham Shaw, The Cost of Authority, Fortress Press 1982, p. 246.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

You Know You Want It

I've been thinking more about Dan Savage's remarks on sexual attraction, and I realized that I couldn't make any sense out of the final clause of this sentence:
But instead of reconsidering their ideas about attractiveness, a dumb fucking white person—even one from a liberal background—is likelier to say something stupid like “I don’t usually find Asian guys hot, but your Korean friend is attractive,” rather than rethinking their assumptions about their desires. 
As I wrote before, it seems to me that the statement he made up to attack represents someone rethinking their assumptions about their desires.  But then I wondered what "assumptions about their desires" are involved here.  Specifically, I wondered what Dan's assumptions about anyone's desires were, because I don't think he knows anything about the assumptions of the person he's criticizing.

Does he believe that she was already attracted to Asian men but simply, wickedly or fucking dumb whitely, refused to acknowledge it, even to herself?  Because Dan was expressing an assumption, he didn't need to express it clearly, even in his own mind. 

The reason I'm wary of the concept of sexual orientation is that it assumes that human beings contain a mechanism or an organ that responds erotically to a sex, male or female or both.  But as far as I can tell, most people are attracted not to males or females but to some males or some females.  Which ones often changes over time, probably based on experience; not just overt copulatory experience, because for most people the number of people we might want to copulate with is far greater than the number we do copulate with.  But we can still look, fantasize, dream, wish, and we do.  Some people do this more than others, but I doubt that anyone never does it.

People often talk about sexual fluidity, but they don't seem to really mean it.  If your desires aren't genetically, immutably rooted in your being, they don't really count and needn't be respected.  Which I think plays a role in the idea that discovering you're attracted to someone or members of a group you hadn't been attracted to before must be "fetishizing" them - if you weren't aware of it from the age of five, it's not authentic and is probably wicked and exploitative.  So, by Dan's assumptions, what does it mean that I wasn't attracted to fifty-year-old men when I was twenty, but I am now, at sixty-eight?  Was I really, genetically attracted to them already?  Should I have gone to bed with them even though I wasn't attracted to them, because I might be attracted them forty years later? If this case isn't comparable to being attracted to men of a specific "racial" category, how is it different?

There also seems to be a widespread assumption (which may coexist in someone's mind with other, contradictory ones) that our erotic partners are people who rock us to the core.  From what other people have written or said (listening to the stories of other volunteers on the GLB Speakers Bureau has taught me a lot), a significant number of people accepted erotic overtures from people they weren't particularly attracted to, with a "Why not?" attitude, especially but not always when they were younger and less experienced.

One of our volunteers from a rural background recounted how, when he was in high school, he met another gay kid his own age.  They came out to one another and became friends, and discussed whether they should have sex.  Neither had any experience up to this point, and didn't know how long it would be before they had another opportunity.  In the end they decided not to, because they weren't especially attracted to one another.  The instructor of the Psychology class we were addressing became uncomfortable at that point and reassured her students that not all gay men would have sex with just anyone, as if it were unreasonable for two people with few options to get together faute de mieux.  The situation isn't only a gay one; it's the premise of all the man-and-woman-on-a-desert-island cartoons I saw in magazines when I was growing up.  It's also the premise of arranged marriages, where erotic attraction is low on the list of priorities for the matchmakers.  What is important in any erotic situation is that both partners must have the right to say no.

Dan Savage seems to be assuming in this case that they don't have the right to say no, to not be attracted to people for irrational, even petty reasons.  But all erotic desire is irrational: it's not based on a fact-based evaluation of the possibilities.  No one needs a reason to desire another, or to refuse another's overtures.  I'm pretty sure Dan doesn't believe that it's illegitimate for him not to find women "hot."  I know that consent is one of the touchstones of his erotic ethic.  What I don't understand is why he thinks that he's justified in dumping on someone for not being attracted to any other people.  Not being attracted to someone of a given "race" is no worse, and no better, than not being attracted to them on any other basis, and no one should have to justify not being attracted to someone, even someone who wants them very badly.

There's also a difference between not being attracted to a person and choosing not to copulate with them.  One might decline for any number of reasons: being in a monogamous relationship at the moment, not wanting to copulate with anyone at the moment, having religious or other principled reasons for abstention, not being in the mood right now, not wanting to copulate without being in a committed relationship with the other, etc.  Someone I knew years ago, a white Southerner with pretensions to gentility, acknowledged the beauty of a young African-American man we both knew.  But then my acquaintance became uncomfortable: "Oh, Ah couldn't," he said repeatedly, "Ah just couldn't, Ah couldn't."  So, I said, don't.  But he couldn't seem to let it alone.  Maybe he eventually rethought his assumptions about his desires (though his desire in this case was clear enough) and his criteria for an erotic partner; it didn't come up again.  But should he have decided to bed this young man because he had hangups about sex with black men?  What assumptions are we dealing with here?

"Race" is not the only issue.  As I've mentioned, sex/gender is another, and it's not clear why it's privileged -- why Dan Savage shouldn't consider himself a dumb fucking gay man for not wanting to have sex with women.  One reason I object to the bogus claim that we're all basically bisexual is that in practice it's often used to try to nag someone who into having erotic experience they're not interested in having because not being bisexual is so uptight.  Even if I were bisexual -- a "perfect 3 on the Kinsey Scale" as some doofuses have put it -- there would still be plenty of people of both sexes I wouldn't be attracted to.

There has also been some controversy because some lesbians refuse to copulate with transwomen.  Whether that refusal expresses prejudice ought to be irrelevant.  If it is, who would want to get naked with someone prejudiced against them?  I happened on a blog post on this matter a couple of years ago, and some commenters denied that anyone was saying that lesbians must have sex with transwomen - but very quickly some other commenters made it clear that that was exactly what they were saying.  You can argue with the rationalizations that some have given for not copulating with transwomen, they might be prejudiced or bigoted, but none of this overrides the principle of consent: everybody's right to say no and to have that decision respected.

One of the ongoing themes in discourse about human sexuality has been the attempt to justify negating consent: why someone should not be allowed to say no.  Sometimes it's just personal petulance -- I want you, why don't you want me, you have to give me what I want because I want it. But even then, the nagger may try to invoke larger principles.  Almost everybody pays lip service to consent, but in practice, they're not so sure.  I still don't know why Dan Savage thinks that people should be shamed or coerced into acknowledging desires they don't in fact have.  If you're not consciously aware of being attracted to someone, you're not attracted to them.  Maybe that will change, but for now, it's not there.

Am I running on too long about a minor issue?  I don't think so.  Variations on this issue are surprisingly common.  Most attention has been given to defending people's freedom to have the kinds of sex they want; less has been devoted to defending their freedom not to have sex they don't want.  It's interesting how easily asserting the first turns into denying the second.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Political Correctness of the Center

I hate-listened to The 1A on the road to northern Indiana this morning, which at least kept me alert during the three-hour drive.

Today being Friday, the program covered the week's news in summary, which may account for the rushed, breathless pace at which the commentators had to work.  As usual, today's commentators were from the corporate media and the Beltway.  They weren't stupid, but neither did they have anything to say that you wouldn't be able to hear on CNN or MSNBC.  (On the other hand, I heard that the historian Kevin M. Kruse, who's been correcting right-wing historical discussion to great effect on Twitter, appeared on The 1A earlier this week; I'll have to listen to that segment.)

The dominant topic during the domestic segment was immigration.  I don't intend to dissect the discussion in any detail.  It stayed well within the bounds of the mainstream, framing the issues in terms set by the Republicans: if you want to "decriminalize" crossing the border, for instance, you're in favor of "open borders."  The commentators were, I think, aware that this is a false dichotomy, but they didn't have time to explain why, so they just quoted it.  Noam Chomsky's strictures on concision were confirmed once again: if you aren't given time to explain complex issues, soundbytes and slogans are all the audience will get, and then you can dismiss the masses as brainwashed sheeple incapable of understanding, unworthy of having input.

I noticed that the people being held in our concentration camps were almost always referred to as "migrants."  One of the commentators called them "asylum-seekers" once, but returned to "migrants" after that.  I realize that journalists seeking the phantasm of objectivity have a difficult time with terminology, and I suppose that "migrants" is the best our corporate media can do.  It seems to have become the word of choice all over the media, from what I can tell, so it would be surprising if The 1A strayed from the consensus.

But "migrant" isn't the right word for people who are fleeing from intense economic and political misery.  True, many such people do migrate in search of work and/or safety; the first Mexicans I encountered in Indiana were migrant farm workers who came north in the summers and returned south, even back to Mexico, when the work was done.  (It's worth remembering that most Mexicans who came north returned home periodically until undocumented crossing was criminalized during the George W. Bush administration: that had the effect, not of keeping them out, but of keeping them in.)  There have also been American migrants, most famously the Okies who fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s (see Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath), and African Americans who fled southern poverty and Jim Crow to the north at around the same time.  Internal migrants, as both those precedents remind us, are not more welcome, or treated better, than refugees from abroad.

"Asylum-seekers" is more specific and accurate for the people who are crowding the US/Mexico border now, but "refugees" is also specific and accurate, and I don't believe it was used once today.  (Nor do I recall encountering it often in most respectable media coverage these days.)  "Refugee" has emotional connotations and might generate sympathy, so of course objective journalists shy away from it, but the disinclination to use it is also a choice -- what could and should be called the Political Correctness of the Center.

Once I noticed this, it was easier to notice that "migrant" was the word of choice by a different batch of commentators in today's international segment for refugees from Africa and the Middle East trying to reach Europe.  I believe "refugee" was used more often for such people before, during the Obama administration; why "migrant" has replaced it, I don't know, but it does seem to have happened.

Among numerous other matters that annoyed me was the discussion of the power-sharing agreement that has just been reached in the Sudan between the military junta currently in charge there and the civilian opposition.  The main question for The 1A's team was whether it would last.  It's a pointless question, because no one can answer it -- certainly none of them really tried.  So why waste time on it?  Because it's the kind of question that such people love to chuckle over.

At that, The 1A wasn't as bad as a BBC segment I heard earlier this morning: the newscaster interviewed one of the civilian negotiators, and tried repeatedly to badger him into saying on the air that he didn't trust the military to hold up their end of the agreement.  The negotiator did his best to evade the question, but even to ask it was irresponsible; I could hear the smirk in the newscaster's voice as he pressed for the answer he wanted, which would have been a handy excuse for the military to accuse the civilians of bad faith, and even put the negotiator in danger.  We're talking here about a country struggling to emerge from decades of one-man rule, in which the military has killed over a hundred civilians recently to, um, "restore order" I think the term is.  Whatever happens, it won't happen to James Copnall.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The Four Freedoms for the Twenty-First Century

I got a mailing from my Congressman today, composed of a column he published in a newspaper somewhere.  The subject line was "America: Worth Fighting For."

It begins with the standard blather about ordinary Americans having cookouts with their families on the Fourth, and how my Congressman hung out with veterans who fought to keep our country free before returning to Washington DC where there are apparently no veterans; and then a Thomas Paine quotation: "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value."  (I wonder if my right-wing Republican Congressman knows what a radical anti-Christian Paine was.)
Our country has always been fought for, and we must ensure it is always worth fighting for. Every generation of Americans has bravely faced threats from abroad and challenges from within. Today, our troops are fighting for peace in the face of terror, and back home we are grappling with how to ensure the next century is an American one. Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day in the name of the very words we celebrate today: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This boilerplate posing is so familiar that one hardly pays it any attention.  But it's a tissue of pernicious lies.  Notice, for example, "how to ensure the next century is an American one."  Almost certainly that's an anti-immigrant dogwhistle, though it could also be about economic competition with China.  Maybe both.  The real internal "challenge" comes from the racist Right, and the wealthy oligarchs who believe that they should run the country and the world.

It's false that every generation of Americans "has bravely faced threats from abroad."  The United States has been an aggressor at least often as it had to defend itself, and since the end of World War II we have not fought a single war of self-defense.  The same goes for the claim that "our troops are fighting for peace in the face of terror": our endless war is a war for domination of the entire world.

Which doesn't mean that there aren't things about America that are "worth fighting for."  If we were attacked from without, defense would be completely proper.  Defense, even retaliation, was not out of place after the September 11 attacks; the wretched irony is that Bush chose to retaliate against everybody except the attackers.

In that light, we should remember that the American continents were worth fighting for, for the pre-Columbian peoples; Korea was worth fighting for, for Koreans; Vietnam was worth fighting for, for Vietnamese; Cuba was worth fighting for, for Cubans; Palestine is worth fighting for, for Palestinians; Afghanistan is worth fighting for, for Afghans; Iraqis thought that Iraq was worth fighting for; if it comes to that, Iranians and Venezuelans and Koreans once again will hold their countries worth fighting for.  But this can't be admitted by patriots: there is only one country worth fighting for, as far as they can recognize.  They are indignant when the citizens of another country defend it against a US invasion.  If you really want the ratification of Americans' love of country, however, you have to grant the validity of other peoples' love of theirs.

In a broader sense of "fight," many Americans have fought for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: abolitionists, runaway slaves, opponents of US wars of aggression, the Civil Rights Movement, the defenders of civil liberties, working people, women, gay men and lesbians and transgender people -- everyone that people like my Congressman would rather forget about, and certainly have no interest in celebrating on the Fourth.

What followed made my eyes bug out:
That’s why, in Congress, I work every day to ensure our country’s policies reflect the values that our men and women in uniform are fighting for:

    freedom to spend your hard-earned paycheck for your family, not give it all to the government;
    the opportunity to turn an idea into a Fortune 500 company, not be limited by government overreach;
    the freedom to think differently from your neighbor without persecution or stigma;
    a doctor-patient relationship without the government signing your prescription.

Essentially, it is the ability of every American to pursue their American dream.

Today, on the Fourth of July, I’m reminded that our American values, the freedom and independence we declared 243 years ago, are always worth fighting for.
This, I presume, is the right-wing Hoosier version of FDR's Four Freedoms.  Yeah, that's what Tom Paine cared about: his right to pay no taxes on his Fortune 500 company.  That's what the Second World War was about, the freedom to be a Nazi without persecution or stigma.  And that's what our men and women are fighting for today: the right to go bankrupt from medical bills, assuming you can afford a doctor-patient relationship in the first place.... Since solid majorities of Americans, even Republicans, want a government-run healthcare system and higher taxes on the rich, my Congressman has to be delusional.  But he doesn't stand alone: the Democratic Party leadership shares his delusions, no less than the Republican elites.  Joe Biden would be happy to reach across the aisle to him.  There must be something hallucinogenic in the swampy water of Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019


Dan Savage has struck again.  Answering a letter from a liberal white guy about his girlfriend's sketchy comments about the attractiveness of black and Asian men --
The position that I’ve always held is that we’re attracted to individuals, not types, and it’s wrong to have expectations of people based on race—especially when it comes to sexualizing/fetishizing people. I think we should date and have sex with whomever we want and not carry prejudiced expectations into our relationships. 
The woman's remarks, as he reported them, were perhaps sketchy but not outrageous: she "has a thing for black guys" and found a Korean-American friend "handsome despite not typically being attracted to Asian guys."  It seems to me that people tend to fall back on cliches in talking about their attractions and sex lives, because that's what we learn from our culture and few people bother to think it through.  If someone is often attracted to people of color, "I have a thing for them" is likely how they'll express it in casual conversation, partly because that's how other white people will phrase it to them.  "You have a thing for black guys, huh?"  And that question expresses all sort of malignant assumptions about whom a white person should be attracted to.  I've never been asked, "You have a thing for white guys, don't you?" even though most of the men I've dated have been white, just because of the law of averages in the American Midwest.  Dating non-white men inspires comment in a racist society.  If I don't feel it's noteworthy myself, plenty of other people will make it their business to enlighten me.

Since the letter-writer has no information about how she actually treats the black men she dates, it's premature at best to say that she's fetishizing / sexualizing (!) in a way that would bother them in face-to-face, pelvis-to-pelvis interaction.  (I threw in the exclamation point because when you're attracted to an individual, you are "sexualizing" them by definition.  Liberal discourse on sex is impoverished in its own way.)  The liberal guy goes on to blurt out, all unawares, some significant "prejudiced expectations" of his own, for which Dan rightly called him out.

But Dan also wrote:
But instead of reconsidering their ideas about attractiveness, a dumb fucking white person—even one from a liberal background—is likelier to say something stupid like “I don’t usually find Asian guys hot, but your Korean friend is attractive,” rather than rethinking their assumptions about their desires. Declaring one Asian guy an exception allows someone like your girlfriend to have her racist cake (“I don’t find Asian guys hot”) and eat it too (“But this Asian guy is hot”).
I think that saying something stupid like "I don't usually find Asian guys hot, but your Korean friend is attractive," is how a person begins to rethink their assumptions about their desires.  (Except for "hot," a label that has always grated on me.)  It may not come up to Dan's or Liberal Guy's standards of enlightened discourse, but then both of them have their own cliches for discussing attractiveness.  I don't see anything racist even in Dan's (and it's his, not her) supposedly stupid way of putting it.

Dan went on:
I have to say, though, I disagree with you on one thing: People do have types, and there’s nothing wrong with having types.
This starts off well.  I agree that people have types, and there's nothing wrong with having types, though this also means that it will inspire comment when people are attracted by someone who isn't their type.  But I also agree with Liberal Guy that we are attracted to individuals.  After a certain amount of experience with attraction, however, one may notice (or others will notice for one) that some of those individuals have some traits in common, so one may speak of having a type.  That can be a box one uses to limit one's reactions and experience, though people have the right to do so; or it may just be a mildly interesting fact one has deduced from one's experience.  There are those who humblebrag that they are only attracted to a vanishingly small number of people, one more of the many ways people find to rationalize and exalt their own tastes.  I learned early on that I was pleased, even delighted, when I was attracted to someone who wasn't one of my types.  I'm also intrigued when I'm not attracted to someone who 'should' be my type.  But in both cases, it's of intellectual not practical interest.  However you react to such a discovery, there is no obligation to follow through on it, and of course (except that many people forget this) there is no guarantee that the person you're attracted to will be attracted back.  Even if you're attracted to types, you will be interacting with an individual -- an individual with his or her own types and desires, who may not be attracted to you.

Since many are fascinated by the origins of desire, it's fair to ask where these types come from.  No one knows, any more than anyone knows where the type that is standard -- sex/gender -- comes from.  Is a type a master category encoded in me, an unconscious filter that determines who I'll desire?  Is it in my genes?  Was I born with it?  I doubt it very much.  I think it's something learned, based partly but not predictably on early experience, but also shaped by later experience.  When I was eighteen, for example, men of forty seemed old and I was almost never attracted to them.  Now I'm sixty-eight, and men of forty seem young, and I'm often attracted to them.  But I'm not attracted to all forty year old males, nor to all white men, nor to all Asian men, nor to all black men.

Which brings me to Dan's peroration:
It’s a good idea to ask ourselves whether our “types” are actually ours and not just assigned to us by conventional standards of beauty (white, slim, young) or a thoughtless/fetishizing reaction to those standards (a desire to transgress with nonwhite, larger, or older folks).
I agree, it's a good idea to ask these questions, and I have the only correct answer: "Yes," to both.  Our types are both ours and assigned to us by conventional standards.  The categories and language ("hot," for example) we use to think or talk about them come from society, but we aren't absolutely bound by them.  Where did those standards come from, anyway?  We know that they change over time and vary from culture to culture.  And not everyone conforms to the assignment; probably no one conforms in every particular, or all the time.  Nonconformity produces cognitive dissonance, and people will try to explain to themselves as well as to others, why they like someone they're not supposed to like, or don't like someone they should.  Most people will do a crappy job of it.  But it's not important to do it much better.  What is important is treating the people we're attracted to with respect, which seems obvious to me (if you want something from someone, shouldn't you ask nicely?) but clearly isn't obvious to everybody.

I think these problems arise partly because erotic desire produces anxiety: it's not under conscious control, and people hate that.  We try to get control by rationalizing our desires, which won't work because they aren't rational.  So you get Liberal Guy's cliches about fetishizing/sexualizing, which he got from society but adopted, or Dan's about conventional standards and whether they're ours or society's.  Yet Dan thinks more about these questions than most people; it's his job.  The wrench in the works is that heterosexuality is both something assigned (to everybody) by society, and yet it feels like one's own.  That's what social construction means: what we have learned feels as if it's "natural." 

Notice that Dan writes as if he assumes that desire for non-whites, older or heavier folks comes from a "desire to transgress" instead of being one's own authentic wish.  (What are non-whites in America supposed to do?  Society tells them that only whites are desirable, but society also tells them they shouldn't desire whites.)  That's certainly an assumption assigned by society - I can't count the times I've been told that I'm gay out of a desire to rebel against society, not from genuine desire for males.  One reason it's absurd is that so many gay people are utterly conformist.  Another is that rebelling is hard work, and if I had sex with men in order to rebel, it would eventually get tiresome, and I'd get less and less pleasure from it.  I wouldn't be surprised if some people try to deal with disapproval of their desires by rationalizing them as rebellion, but who knows?  Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?  And if we're going to talk about assigned desires and types, heterosexuality would be more suspect than any other fetish.  Homosexuality would be a close second, even though it's officially disapproved, but then it falls under Dan's proscription of rebellion.  It's very telling that someone like Dan, who believes that sexual orientation -- fetishizing one sex or the other -- is inborn, also believes that it's so malleable under social pressure.

Underneath Dan Savage's rebellious, foul-mouthed exterior there beats the heart of the Catholic conservative he was raised to be.  The function of his strictures, regardless of his conscious intention, is to keep people corralled within the boundaries of conventional standards.  You're white and attracted to a non-white person?  First make sure you aren't fetishizing them - and you can never really be sure you aren't, so play safe and fetishize only white people.  Apparently you needn't worry about fetishizing them.  Some years ago, Dan was celebrating his own fetish (which he delicately called a "bias") for slim, hairless, athletic young guys in "tighty-whities" (a variety of fetish underwear), to the point of inviting readers to send in photos.  As he pointed out, "Because it's my column, and when you've got a column you can get away with that sort of shit. (If Miss Manners can do it, why can't I?)"  Or maybe it wasn't a fetish, because it was Dan's.  Fetish for thee, bias for me.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Let the End Times Roll

I just finished watching Good Omens, the Amazon Prime miniseries based on Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's 1990 fantasy novel about the Antichrist.  I was never a fan of the novel, which I began reading with rather high hopes that were soon dashed, and I don't understand why so many people love it.  The miniseries is a competent adaptation, with an excellent cast and decent production values.  It seems to be pretty faithful to the book, though I should probably wait until I've reread it to say that.  And, of course, it sparked a rather limp controversy when a fundamentalist Christian group started an online petition begging Netflix to cancel it, sparking amusement in the secular humanist media.

My lack of enthusiasm for Good Omens comes partly from the thinness of the story.  It's basically a parody of The Omen, a horror-movie franchise about the life and hard times of the Antichrist.  (According to the Wikipedia article, the authors didn't seem to recognize the similarities.)  I saw it with friends when it was released in 1976, and hated it because its scariness relied on shock editing: I'd be frightened for a moment, then disgusted for being manipulated.  When a friend made me watch it again thirty years later, I liked it no better but noticed how little sense the story made on its own terms.  It relied on the New Testament mythology of the end times, and the title character's supposed fulfillment of end-times "prophecy."  But there's no real suspense when the prophecy you're fulfilling ends with your ignominious defeat.  The biblical Antichrist is just a cog, not an agent, set up to be knocked down.

Gaiman and Pratchett took The Omen's premise, the son of Satan born to ordinary human parents, and switched him at birth so that both the angelic and demonic hosts lost track of him for eleven years. Because he never gets the training in Evil he was supposed to get, he grows up to be a normal boy, and the heavenly Plan goes awry.  The main characters in the story are the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, who've been working on the same cases since the Creation and have become buddies if not exactly friends.  Both are alienated from their Organizations and go native, becoming so fond of human culture and foibles that they decide to try to stop Armageddon from happening, and (spoiler? nah) succeed, so everything turns out all right.  The world is saved.

I had a creepy feeling as I watched the final episode that it left space for a sequel, which seems not impossible since Amazon has already turned Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle into a multi-season series.  Not impossible, but not likely since Pratchett's dead, and Gaiman wouldn't want to mess with a classic - would he?  I don't think the fans would object, though, to seeing more of Aziraphale, Crowley, and Good Omens' other lovable characters; Adam the Antichrist is only eleven years old, and has a lot of growing up to do (Young Antichrist in Love - His First Kiss!); the angelic and demonic hosts have been frustrated in their wish to destroy the world, but not really defeated.  Yes, lots of room for a sequel there.  Luckily for me, I'm not a fan, and will have little interest in watching it if it ever is produced.

I have other quibbles with Good Omens' ... well, call it theology.  An old friend shared this meme on Facebook yesterday, of some screengrabs and dialogue from the program.  Azirophale and Crowley are at the foot of the cross:

This might not annoy me so much if other people hadn't come up with similar takes. Kurt Vonnegut, if I recall correctly, wrote something similar in Slaughterhouse-Five.  It's ironic, though not at all unusual, when clever people who despise fundamentalists for their ignorance get something so fundamentally wrong.  Of course Pratchett and Gaiman were entitled to make up any Jesus they find appealing, but it's significant that their Jesus is such a cliche.

For what it's worth, according to the gospels Jesus was not crucified for telling people to be kind to each other.  He was crucified because it was God's plan, determined before the creation of the world and leaked to the Hebrew prophets, that he should die for the sins of humanity.  That's the story, and Pratchett in particular was very aware of the importance of stories, though he tended to forget it when he had an ax to grind.  It can be argued that the Romans who executed him didn't know they were puppets on the divine hand, but fairness demands that we attend to what they thought the reasons were.  The gospels give us that, and it's plausible in light of what crucifixion was for: all four canonical gospels agree that Jesus' cross bore the legend "King of the Jews."  According to Matthew, that was exactly what he was, and Pontius Pilate, Caesar's agent in Judea, was supposed to keep little Anticaesars in check.  It's not clear, though, where the charge came from; it's not mentioned in any of the gospel accounts of Jesus' trials.  Certainly "He said we should be kind to each other" didn't figure when Jesus was brought before Pilate.

Remember the story, set just before Jesus' arrest, of Jesus' witticism "Give Caesar what is Caesar's, and God what is God's." Many interpreters have been sure they knew what secret message Jesus meant to send with that ambiguous bon mot.  It's common to argue that he couldn't have said straight out to defy the Roman occupation of Eretz Israel because the Romans would have arrested and executed him as a rebel.  But they did arrest him and execute him as a rebel, and that was, after all, his mission: to be crucified.  The exact charge was almost immaterial.  Perhaps, going by the motif that "his time had not yet come," Jesus didn't want to be executed yet: he had to die, as the gospel of John has it, as the sacrificial Passover lamb, and not a minute sooner.  (Unfortunately, the other gospels have a different chronology.)

Nor did it come up earlier, when Jesus was brought before Jewish officials for interrogation.  According to the gospel of Mark, there were false accusations (which may have been true) that Jesus had threatened to destroy the Jerusalem temple.  Finally the High Priest asked Jesus point blank, "Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed?"  Jesus replied, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of Heaven."  The High Priest tore his robes, denouncing Jesus' "blasphemy," and the council agreed that Jesus deserved to die.  Like most of the Passion story, this makes little sense: as far as we know, claiming to be the Messiah was not blasphemy, nor was it an offense in Judaism, let alone a capital one.

There are other possible reasons for Jesus' execution, such as the conflicts between him and other Jewish teachers on aspects of Torah, which would have stirred up a lot of bad feeling but were normal in first-century Judaism, and not capital crimes either. But teaching love and kindness -- which was where Jesus and other Jewish teachers agreed -- never comes up in the gospels as a reason for his death.

Something else that occurred to me as I watched Good Omens was that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were depicted as agents of Satan, sent by him to initiate and lead the forces of Evil against the Hosts of Heaven in their final conflict.  That seemed off, so I looked at the Revelation of John, which is the source for most of this mythology.  Sure enough, the Four Horsemen are agents of Heaven rather than Hell, sent by the Lamb to soften up the earth by slaughtering millions. Only after a third of humanity has been killed will "the beast that comes up out of the abyss ... make war with them" (Revelation 11:9).  Admittedly the chronology here is confused, but it seems that the Antichrist hasn't even been born yet.

Not that Pratchett and Gaiman were obligated to follow John's convoluted narrative.  But it's significant that they decided (if they were even aware they were making a change) to change the  Four Horsemen's team colors.  They also tried to distance the angels (depicted as soulless, vicious bureaucrats) from God, who narrates the TV version as the wise, soothing voice of Frances McDormand.  Maybe, they suggest urgently, all this Armageddon stuff isn't God's ineffable plan after all but just the mischief of Her underlings who have somehow slipped the leash?  Devout Christians, trying to exculpate their omnipotent, omniscient deity of all responsibility for his actions and those of his organization, could go along with that.  And it does leave room for a sequel, the which may Hell forbid. 

Think, for some more examples, of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, in which it turns out that the guy everybody thought was God wasn't God after all but some elderly loser.  The same copout is used in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, featuring a quest for God at the center of the galaxy; once again, the being who claimed to be God is a fraud, not the real God. It's an admission of inability, which is reasonable enough, to imagine how human beings would engage with, let alone defeat, an omniscient, omnipotent being.  But it's still a copout, a step away from "And then he woke up and it had all been a dream."

It's a familiar pattern to me: ostensible unbelievers still insist that as bad as his followers have been, Jesus was a really nice guy who just wanted us all to get along and be nice to each other.  Maybe he was; nobody knows.  But there's no basis, except some sort of strange wishful thinking, for dogmatically declaring so.  More important, it seems to me, is a powerful desire to imagine themselves on the side of the really good guys, and to be able to look down in safety on the eternal torment of the really bad guys. And that's no improvement on the hatefulness of standard Christianity; it just reshuffles the name tags of the players.

This is why Good Omens disappointed me when I read it almost thirty years ago.  I'd really like to see some fiction which radically reimagined Christian mythology without trying to save some remnant of orthodoxy, and challenged unbelievers (including me) as much as it challenged believers.  I'm not calling for a negative, villainous Jesus (though I'm fine with that in principle), but for a neutral one.  I doubt such fiction would go over well with the people who like books like Good Omens, though.  They (fans and, I think, the authors) want to dispose of the God and the Jesus of orthodox Christianity, but they still want to believe that there's a fond sky Daddy who's on their side against the world, and who'll protect them from all harm.  They're entitled to wish for that, but I'm not obligated to give their wish any more respect than I give other forms of religious belief.