Sunday, January 26, 2020

I Believe in Scientists, I Just Don't Trust Them

I recently read Eileen Pollack's The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club (Beacon Press, 2015), which is mostly a memoir of the author's struggle to become a physicist -- she
got as far as a BS, summa cum laude, at Yale before she switched to the humanities -- but also discusses the exclusionary tactics that still keep women out of the sciences.  I didn't know what to expect when I picked it up, expecting a less personal book like Julie Des Jardins's The Madame Curie Complex (Feminist Press, 2010) or Margaret Wertheim's Pythagoras' Trousers (Norton, 1997), but I ended up enjoying and respecting Pollack's work.  For one thing, she was able to contact and interview most of her high-school science teachers and college professors, which provides an interesting perspective on how the field has changed -- or not.

But this anecdote, from her account of a summer job at Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee while she was in college in the late 1970s, cast a valuable light on the culture of scientists:
I also grew disillusioned with the us-versus-them mentality of the lab’s employees. “We” were solving the energy problem; “they” didn’t have a clue what a neutron cross-section was. “We” knew nuclear power plants were safe; “they” staged emotional protests, holding up the construction of new facilities. I grew tired of hearing the engineers ridicule the “morons” who thought it possible that a reactor might go critical (this, a year before Three Mile Island), even as they told stories about the janitor whose rubber boot had slipped off and gotten sucked into a pipe that fed a cooling tank, or the guys who had shielded a new reactor, only to run a Geiger counter along the road and find a spot so hot they scratched their heads in bewilderment—until someone pointed out they had neglected to shield the roof.

Our first week, we were required to attend a safety session where someone from Health Physics demonstrated how to detect radiation spills. As he passed his Geiger counter over the “suspected surface,” the machine chattered a warning. But the demonstration was far from over. “Several radiation sources have purposely been hidden around this room,” the man told us. “I want each of you to take a counter and see how many spills you can locate.”

I said I would rather not play the game.

“Why?” he asked. “Are you afraid of the radiation? You don’t honestly think we would expose you to harmful levels, do you?”

As a child, I had undergone a lot of unnecessary X-rays, and I didn’t want to absorb even one millirem more than needed. But with everyone watching, I gave in and agreed to play the Huckle Buckle Beanstalk Radiation Game. I am sure the exercise added little to the level of radiation I received that summer. But I am equally sure it added little to my ability to detect a spill.
This reminded me of the biologist and Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, who dismissed concerns about genetic engineering in very similar terms.  He assumed that critics of the field feared 'mad scientists' driven by a lust for power and a fondness for destruction, and assured his readers that scientists were sane - quite sane - and only sought knowledge in order to serve humanity.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that sane scientists might also fuck up through ignorance (which is always greater than knowledge) or carelessness.  I mean, "Oops, we forgot to shield the roof? Sorry 'bout that"?

Some of that arrogant carelessness seems related to Boy Culture, fortified by youthful fantasies of invulnerability, though I'm also reminded of the stories Dave Barry likes to pass along, of guys who do stupid things on dares, usually under the influence of many beers, and end up impaled on various implements of destruction.  Famous Last Words: "Hey - Watch this!"

If you want to focus on scientists, remember the male nuclear physicists at Los Alamos who let off steam while building atomic bombs by playing with conventional explosives, a pastime that continues to the present day.
This is not the first time that Los Alamos has fallen short when it comes to safety and security matters. In early 2009, it emerged that the nation’s major nuclear weapons lab had misplaced at least 67 computers sensitive information, and others had been stolen from a lab employee. The facility has also come under fire in recent years for, among other things, failing to properly protect nuclear materials and shipping a deadly radioactive package by Fedex.
'You don't honestly think we would expose you to harmful levels, do you?"  Why, yes, I honestly do.  Not deliberately or maliciously, maybe, but just for shits and giggles, out of sheer boyish high spirits. And bear in mind that I'm not writing about cranks here but about credentialed professionals with advanced degrees, who know so much more than we excitable proles.  The philosopher (and physicist by training) Paul Feyerabend argued for scientific democracy, more input and supervision of scientists by the public.  (Whose tax dollars, remember, pay for these diversions.)  This of course infuriated his critics, and I admit I sometimes thought myself that his recommendations were more theoretical and principled than real.  But he knew firsthand what he was talking about.  I would rather not play the game either.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Inappropriate Appropriation

I'm not sure why this cheered me up, but it did.

It seems that Elizabeth Warren's campaign recently announced an "Interfaith Advisory Council" made up of religious leaders of various stripes, and almost immediately took it down.  Even the Wayback Machine can't seem to find the original tweet, but the press release yet lives.  It drew criticism and mockery because the list included fourteen Christian clergy, a rabbi, and a partridge in -- no, a Zen Buddhist teacher from North Carolina.

The thread I found on Twitter included a lot of boyish tittering because the Buddhist sensei is an apparently white American woman.

I don't know if that reply is accurate or just a snarky allusion to Warren's now-abandoned claim of Cherokee ancestry, but it doesn't matter, because Buddhism, like most religions, is not a race or even an ethnicity.  (Guess what, guys - Roman Catholics are not all, or even mostly, Roman!)  Buddhism isn't racially homogeneous even in Asia, and though it originally came to the United States with Asian immigrants in the 1800s, by the twentieth century Buddhist missionaries were coming here to bring enlightenment and salvation, yea, even to white people.  Before long they were ordaining clergy among the "natives."  (Just as Christian clergy in Asia are now usually Asian.)  The assumption that Buddhists aren't white is racist to the core.

This one too:

So, Matt, how about those Korean and Japanese Catholic bishops?  Are they "appropriating" Western culture?  (Of course not: they're just dupes of the imperialists!)  How about "Asian" Americans who speak English?  One person had the sense to point out: "I don't know who she is, but if she was legit ordained by a Zen master she has more right to wear those clothes than the average Japanese person."  This led to more discussion among people who don't know that "Christian name" used to, and sometimes still does refer to the new name converts adopted on baptism.

Or think of Malcolm Little, who first changed his surname to X when he joined the Nation of Islam, then adopted the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after his pilgrimage to Mecca.  Adopting a new name for religious reasons is not exactly an obscure practice, even in the US.  Of course a atheist like Matt LP may not feel it important to know such superstitious drivel, but I think that an atheist who wants to comment on religion should be at least as knowledgeable as his targets - especially an atheist who claims that "Constructive criticism and knowledge is my forte. A better world is possible if we fight for it. #NotMeUs".  (Notice: not his aspiration, but his "forte.")  It would also be good not to be bluntly racist, but that's probably too much to ask of an American.

Yes, it is hilarious that Warren's campaign rolled out such a half-assed initiative.  One would think that a little more thought would have gone into a project by a well-funded, professional organization made up of educated people; I thought white liberals had tokenism down to a science.  Instead Warren got something like Pete Buttigieg's ill-starred attempt to inflate his support among African-Americans in North Carolina without bothering to consult the people whose names he, um, appropriated.  But then some of Warren's critics made equally big fools of themselves.

P.S. This was yesterday, but it fits:

As Jake and several commenters chortled, quite a few of those canonical Western artists were not straight.  (Many of the names named are 'known' to have been gay by gossip, not history, but never mind.)  Nor were the famous Eyetalians, at least, white by modern scientific-racist standards.  But aside from that, even as a canon-revisionist myself, it occurs to me that much of the attitude alluded to in that quotation is wrong-headed.  Yes, students should be exposed to and instructed about art from outside the Western traditions, and an introductory survey is one good place to do it.  But would they criticize, say, a class on Japanese art history for being overwhelmingly Japanese, let alone male?  As the Feminist Press found when they assembled textbooks on writing by women outside the West, they encountered not just resistance but outright denial that Chinese, Indian, or East Asian women had ever written anything.  And I don't think it was only because the indigenous academics involved had often been trained in the West.  A lot of culturally-sensitive discourse turns out to be as knee-jerk uninformed and blinkered as the traditions it opposes.

The Bach Door

The Netherlands Bach Society has a whole bunch of videos of performances of Bach's music on Youtube, and I put one on now and then when I'm in the mood for that old-time rock and roll.  This one came up in my recommendations today, and since I like the Cello Suites I clicked through.

I like the design of the video, the small audience sitting impassively in the darkened background, the cellist's concentration under the light.  But then I noticed the cello itself: I obscurely expected it to be shiny, new-looking, but it looks old, much-used, perhaps antique.  It's not important - I was only half-watching it as I listened - but it pleased me.

Contrast this clip from the same source, of a young man - a boy, really - playing the Third Cello Suite on a different but still banged-up-looking instrument.  There's no audience, the room he's in has large windows overlooking today's Amsterdam so you can't forget that you're in the twenty-first century.  Also interesting, not just a recitation of Bach's music but a comment on it.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Stuart Middle

The blogger Ampersand, aka the artist Barry Deutsch, linked to this New Yorker article on E. B. White's Stuart Little last week.  The article is even older than last week -- it was published in 2008 -- but I hadn't seen it before, it's about one of my all-time favorite books, and I learned a lot about the writing of the book, the state of children's literature in the mid-twentieth century, and other matters of interest to me.  It's well worth reading.

One thing bothered me, though.  Jill Lepore, the author of the article, doesn't like the ending of Stuart Little, and she boosts her dislike as if it were an objective fact about the book:
“Stuart Little” leaves you in doubt, a good deal of doubt, really; it doesn’t exactly end so much as it’s just, abruptly, over.  In Chapter VIII, Stuart falls in love with a bird named Margalo, and when she flies away he goes on a quest. In the book’s last chapter, he stops his coupe at a filling station and buys five drops of gas. In a ditch alongside the road, he meets a repairman, preparing to climb a telephone pole. “I wish you fair skies and a tight grip,” Stuart says, thoughtfully. “I hope you find that bird,” the repairman says. Then come the book’s final, distressing lines:
Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.
Stuart Little isn’t Gregor Samsa. He’s Don Quixote, turning into Holden Caulfield.
Lepore mentions Gregor Samsa because the critic Edmund Wilson told White that he "was disappointed that you didn’t develop the theme more in the manner of Kafka."  (Samsa is a man who turns into a giant insect in Franz Kafka's tale "The Metamorphosis.")  But Stuart isn't Don Quixote or Holden Caulfield either; I think Lepore is as deaf to nuance as Wilson or the librarians who objected to the book's blurring of fantasy and reality.

Lepore found the ending of Stuart Little "distressing," and I wouldn't be surprised if many child readers agreed.  Lepore quotes with delight the 'happy' ending written by a fifth-grade girl in 1946, which is well-done for a child that age but just as wrong for the book as Wilson's suggestion.  I can only report my own reaction when I first Stuart Little, on my own, in third grade, around 1960: I loved the ending.  It was, I suspect, the first unresolved ending I'd ever encountered, and it taught me something about what stories could do that I never would have learned if White had chosen for Stuart and Margalo to be "married back in New York and [raise] a family of half mice and half birds."  Lepore loves this; I don't; many people hate unresolved endings, it's a matter of taste.  But millions of copies of Stuart Little have been sold, and I don't believe that all of its young readers rejected White's ending.  Lepore is entitled to her distress, but I for one am glad that White ended the story as he did.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Twitterverse of Hysteria

On Friday Donald Trump delivered himself of another rambling word salad to CNBC's fawning Joe Kernen.  As usual, there was little substance in his remarks, but the closing upset a lot of people, particularly people who hadn't read it.  Or people who can't read; take your pick.

Kernen approached his quarry cautiously:
JOE KERNEN: Do I dare-- one last question.


JOE KERNEN: Entitlements ever be on your plate?

PRESIDENT TRUMP: At some point they will be. We have tremendous growth. We’re going to have tremendous growth. This next year I-- it’ll be toward the end of the year. The growth is going to be incredible. And at the right time, we will take a look at that. You know, that’s actually the easiest of all things, if you look, cause it’s such a--

JOE KERNEN: If you’re willing--

PRESIDENT TRUMP: --big percentage.

JOE KERNEN: --to do some of the things that you said you wouldn’t do in the past, though, in terms of Medicare--

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, we’re going-- we’re going[,] look. We also have-- assets that we’ve never had. I mean we’ve never had growth like this. We never had a consumer that was taking in, through-- different means, over $10,000 a family. We never had the kind of-- the kind of things that we have. Look, our country is the hottest in the world. We have the hottest economy in the world....
Some people on Twitter have suggested that Trump doesn't know what "entitlements" are.  That's plausible, but it seems more likely to me that he just wasn't listening, and he didn't let himself be diverted by Kernen's attempt to drive him the way he wanted him to go.  Trump didn't take up the subject of entitlements, and Kernen gave up on it.

However, some on Twitter panicked; I'm not sure why.  One business journalist, Pedro Nicolasi da Costa, said flatly "Trump told CNBC he wants to cut Social Security."  I imagine he does want to, but he didn't say so to Kernen.  For backup he retweeted a tweet from something called The Bridge Project: "realDonaldTrump admitted he’s coming for your Medicare and SocialSecurity at the 'end of the year.'"  No, he didn't, but who cares?  We've got an endless election campaign going on here, and there can be no lily-livered white-feather conscientious objectors.

Two main themes emerged in replies.  One was that Trump and the GOP want to get rid of Social Security and Medicare, and his base of old white people are stupid to support him because he's taking away their money and OMFG we have to vote Democrat in November!  It's true that the GOP wants to get rid of Social Security, Medicare, and your little Medicaid too, but so do elite Democrats.  The current Democratic favorite among older voters, Joe Biden, has been trying to cut these programs for forty years.  How will voting for Biden benefit me on this issue?  I spent some time pointing this out, and the few people who answered me said that Trump must go and they will Vote Blue No Matter Who so don't bother me with this trivia.  

They simply ignored the little problem of Biden, though I liked the person who wrote: "Interesting some claim Joe Biden is for cutting Social Security but ignore that Trump AND [McConnell]have been saying it for months and ARE CUTTING SSDI & EBT now. They openly say they will cut SS if they win the 2020 election. It should be a major scandal but is ignored!"  "Some claim" - that's funny, because Biden's record on cutting Social Security is well-documented, but his campaign claims that the videos have been misleadingly edited and are Fake News.  Even such Trumpian tactics are acceptable when Democrats use them.

Not only that, but Barack Obama wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare, blaming them for the deficitHe failed because the Congressional GOP was so determined to block him that they wouldn't accept a gift they'd long wanted.  (One person answered me, claiming that yes, Obama wanted to, but he failed and he realized he was wrong, so it doesn't count.  First, it's not true, Obama never changed his position; and second, this is exactly the argument Trump's defenders have made: that yes, he wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine, but he didn't get the investigation he asked for, and he released the aid in the end, so it doesn't count.  Again, it's okay to use such a worthless defense for Obama, but not for Trump.)  Trump's willfully blind base have nothing on these people.

The other theme was the familiar one about how Social Security and Medicare are not "entitlements," they're "earned benefits," and anyway, it's our money that we worked for and paid, so they are entitlements and we are entitled, so there, too!  If you don't like it, I want my money back!  You'll remember the suggestion that Trump doesn't know what "entitlement" means?  Well, neither do Democrats.  (To be quite honest, I'm not sure it's only Democrats who say this; pro-Trump Republicans do too, if they think a Democrat wants to put his government hands on their Medicare and Social Security.)

But really, the worst part -- both hilarious and terrifying -- is the claim that Democrats will protect our Social Security and Medicare so Vote Blue No Matter Who.  What Obama tried to do is down the memory hole, if they ever noticed it -- and it's not as if Obama weren't open about it and it weren't covered in the mainstream media.  Bill Clinton also tried, but was blocked by his impeachment.  But what must not be cannot be. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Cute War Criminal Pictures

I'd already seen these pictures online when a friend posted them on Facebook, gushing that you should leave politics out of it, they are just beautiful HUMAN BEINGS!  A couple of her friends gushed along with her.  I mentioned that Obama is a war criminal, and pointed out that Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was a human being too, but my comment has disappeared, along perhaps (I haven't checked) with the photos.  I'm impressed that my friend didn't unfriend me, but I think I was moderate to a fault.

After all, the people in the wedding parties Obama droned were human beings too.  So were the people in the hospitals he bombed.  So were the people in Libya killed by his NATO bombing campaign.  So were the Yemeni adults and children killed by the weapons and support Obama gave Saudi Arabia to wage war against them.  So were people in various countries on which he imposed sanctions.  So were the Central American refugee kids he callously sent back to danger and death in the countries they fled.  But their humanity doesn't begin to balance the sublime beauty of Barack and Michelle, and it's "politics" to remember it.

It would be one thing if Obama's cult acknowledged his murderous record but honestly declared their support for it.  It would still be heinous, but it could be engaged with.  But accurately describing a politician's (a Democratic politician's, anyway) record is a smear, racist, sexist, whatever.  What most appalls me is that they are unaware of his record.  Even when the stories were covered in the corporate media, they just slid harmlessly off the teflon brains of Obama loyalists and went down the memory hole.

Noam Chomsky has used the analogy of ants: when he (or anyone) walks down the street, he probably steps on and kills numerous small insects.  This isn't because he hates ants; they just aren't important enough to him to impel him to watch out for them.  Similarly, my friend and other Obama fans don't hate Afghan wedding parties or hospital patients or Yemeni children: their lives simply don't matter to them.  They might care a little more about Yemeni children now that it's Donald Trump helping Saudi Arabia to kill them, but not much more from what I see, and they didn't care at all when Obama was in charge.  It's like the "When Clinton Lied Nobody Died" bumper stickers I saw for a few years during the George W. Bush regime: many innocent people died because of Bill Clinton, but they were nobody, and Clinton's defenders easily brush aside any attempt to remind them of what happened to nobody.  Another friend was surprised when I recounted Clinton's record to her at length.  She didn't remember any of it, though she is my age and was sentient and conscious between 1992 and 2000.  I fear she's forgotten it again since then, and we haven't discussed Obama.

Are the lives of nobody "politics"?  I'm not sure.  I don't think one can or should separate politics, whatever that means, from recently-former Presidents.  Now that Dubya himself has been taken under the shelter of the Obamas' wings, his crimes forgiven and forgotten, so that liberal Democrats consider it unfair to bring them up, what are we allowed to remember?  I doubt that they'll grant the same amnesty to Trump when he's out of office, however he leaves.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Rage of Consent

I stumbled on a strange sex-advice column at Slate the other day.  A "22-year-old autistic queer woman who has never been sexually active" reported that she's periodically told by
friends—even progressive, feminist friends—who are older than me and try to take on a bit of a “mom friend” vibe, about whether women and gay men under 25 are able to consent to sex. I am told, at least once every couple weeks, that if you’re under 25, you’re incapable of consent because your “frontal lobes are still developing.” When I point out they suspiciously only apply the argument to women and gay men, they either tell me I am too young to understand, too inexperienced to understand, or too autistic to understand. 
The columnists - a man and a woman who write the column together - came down on what I consider the right side of the question: the friends are condescending and flat wrong.  They consulted various experts who confirmed that while some parts of the brain may continue to develop until the age of 25 (though women usually mature faster than men), there's no evidence that those parts have anything to do with a capacity to give consent to sexual interaction.

It's hard to see how they could, because "consent" is such a muddy, muddled concept in the first place.  As a legal concept it's a fiction: remember that in the not very distant past, American white women of any age couldn't consent to have sex with black males; men of any age could not consent to anal sex with other males in the US; at various times, no one of any age could consent to oral sex with anyone, and so on, no matter how developed their frontal lobes were.  Contrariwise, women who had once given consent, especially in marriage, could never withdraw it afterward. "Marital rape" was a hotly contested concept for just that reason: a husband might respect his wife's reluctance to let him exercise his marital rights, but he wasn't obliged to.  A good many people confuse the legal definitions of consent with what might be called the 'common-sense' definition (and you know what I think of 'common sense'), partly out of ignorance, partly because they find it convenient to do so.

I suspect that Underage's older, progressive, feminist friends set the bar at 25 for "women and gay men" because of penetration, which Andrea Dworkin hinted was inherently violent in her 1987 book Intercourse.  When this notion was challenged, Dworkin's defenders denied that she had actually said so, because she'd cannily relied on innuendo and rhetorical questions.  Plausible deniability, in other words, which was odd because Dworkin was not renowned for indirection.  But see this essay by Nona Willis Aronowitz (Ellen Willis's daughter), which I might give more extended attention sometime.  Aronowitz is, in my opinion, wrong about numerous matters, especially when she claims that "the pro-sex side had won" the war for the soul of feminism.  That's an oversimplification at best, as Underage's complaint shows.  But then, unlike Aronowitz, I actually read Dworkin's work from Woman Hating through Intercourse, and to a lesser extent beyond.

I also suspect that if Underage's friends got their way -- suppose that the legal age of consent for women was raised to 25 -- they'd soon find reasons why it should be even higher.  And then they'd argue that because the brain, having finished developing, promptly begins to deteriorate, no one over 25, or 30, is competent to give consent either.  Since their strictures aren't based on any actual evidence, but just their personal (and yet shared, which is the disturbing part) hangups, it's fair to suppose that they don't want anyone to seek erotic pleasure: so much can go wrong.  Except themselves, I presume.

It would be interesting to ask them at what age straight men and lesbians become capable of consent.  What are straight men under 25 supposed to do for sexual partners?  Older women?  Older gay men?  What about erotic play between children of more or less the same age?  I suppose that 'progressive, feminist' women of a certain age would simply consider that to be abuse.  My late Tabloid Friend on Facebook declared dogmatically that any child who is interested in playing with another child's body must have been abused already, and was simply continuing the cycle of abuse.

I don't think that Dworkin led feminists astray: she spoke for many women - feminist, non-feminist, anti-feminist.  From what I've seen, many women, often but not always older, white, and educated, shared her disgust for sex.  Aronowitz quotes Dworkin to the effect that men must "forgo their 'precious erections' and 'make love as women do together.'"  This is disingenuous, because Dworkin also wrote about lovemaking between women as grinding misery.  (Again, I have the advantage over Aronowitz of having read a lot more than the one-volume selection of Dworkin's work that she reviewed.)  Dworkin liked to walk both sides of the street, as it were, in a way that later came to be known as "triangulation."

I want to stress that I'm not telling women, or anyone, of any age, that they must enjoy sex, or engage in it at all if they don't want to.  Erotic/sexual freedom means the freedom to say no, to abstain, to set limits.  It's the traditionalists, actually, who reject nuance and the right to say Yes to this person or at this time, and No to another person or at another time: if you say Yes once, you can never say No again, and if you say Yes but have a bad time, you brought it on yourself and deserve no sympathy.    I don't know how far Underage's older, progressive feminist friends would go in that direction, but I bet they'd go pretty far. When ostensible progressives take traditionalist positions, they need to be challenged and shut down.  Like Dworkin, who was apt to vilify women who claimed to enjoy intercourse as (Aronowitz quoting her again) "'left-wing whores' and 'collectivized cunts'".  I'm old enough to remember the lesbian/feminist sex wars of the 1980s, where such epithets and more were hurled by older, progressive feminists at other women.

Underage's story stuck with me because it fits with other symptoms of reaction I've noticed: panic about nudity, panic about touching.  I realize that my Sixties-generational optimism about a better, freer, less screwed-up sexual world was naive, but I couldn't understand why anyone would want to police other people's sex lives.  I later realized, and learned, that sex is scary.  Especially for heterosexual women, for reasons that are well-known.  But for men too.  Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976) taught me so much about why people distrust, even hate the body: it can't be relied on to feel pleasure or give it; it fails us, it breaks down, it disappoints, eventually it sickens and dies.  So I don't blame religion, or feminism, for what looks to me like resurgent prudery in many corners of society; I see it as part of our human nature and heritage, which needs to be examined and criticized and resisted, especially when people mobilize bad science to try to frighten and restrict the sexual lives of other people.  If freedom means anything, it means the right to say No, but also to say Yes; and clearly many people don't think we should say Yes.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You Propaganda

A few days after his skirmish with the Iranian ambassador to the UN, NPR's Steve Inskeep interviewed Trump's National Security Adviser, Robert O'Brien.  It's instructive to compare the two.  Inskeep put his foot in it immediately, asking O'Brien about the briefing about the assassination of Qasem Soleimani he gave to lawmakers the day before.  O'Brien noted that it wasn't he but Mike Pompeo, Mark Esper, Joseph McGuire, and Gina Haspel who gave the briefing.  Inskeep's full response: "Right."  O'Brien went on:
I've heard from a lot of people that it was a fantastic briefing. So there's always mixed reviews on those, depending on what people's viewpoint is on the subject matter. Mike Lee's a friend of mine, and someone who I greatly respect and the president really respects. And so I was disappointed to hear that he wasn't happy with the briefing. But I've also heard from other senators, including Chairman [James] Risch of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — he thought it was one of the best briefings he'd ever had. So I think there's there's always mixed reviews on these things.
I think these claims should be taken with a grain of salt.  It wasn't only Mike Lee who was displeased with the briefing, quite a few other Senators were unhappy.  If James Risch thought well of it, he should say so publicly.

O'Brien, it should be remembered, is the fellow who tried to help Trump cover for Anne Sacoolis, a US diplomat who ran over a young Englishman, by tricking his parents into meeting with her.
The Dunn family blames National Security Adviser O’Brien for the misstep. “It struck us that this meeting was hastily arranged by nincompoops on the run and in particular Mr. O’Brien, who appeared to be extremely uptight and aggressive and did not come across at all well in this meeting which required careful handling and sensitivity,” [Dunn family spokesperson Radd] Seiger wrote. “The family remain open to the possibility of meeting Mrs. Sacoolas one day in the future but in a neutral and appropriately controlled environment.”

In other words, not in a reality-TV setting. 
More recently, O'Brien got attention for his apparent belief that the family name of the leader of North Korea is "Un" rather than "Kim."  To be scrupulously fair, numerous better-informed individuals, such as the lefty journalist Amy Goodman, have made the same blunder.  But O'Brien's gaffe fits so well with the general level of professionalism in Trump's White House that it deserved the whoops and cackles he got for it.  (And really, "the most notorious dictator in the world"?  More notorious than Mohamed bin Salman, Sisi, and other US buddies?)

O'Brien basically bullshitted his way through the interview with Inskeep, who was not totally subservient (just mostly) but still collegial as his subject repeated Trump / US propaganda.  It's different when a bold journalist is shooting the breeze with one of our guys.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Ministry of Truth Explains It All to Iran

I decided last night to write something about the crisis of US involvement in Iraq, leading to the current standoff between the US, Iran, and Iraq.  And then this morning I heard a sort of interview between NPR's Steve Inskeep and Iran's Ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi.  Inskeep was trying to be an adversary journalist, holding Ravanchi's (and by proxy, Iran's) feet to the fire, but as usual with elite US media personalities, he came across as an obnoxious, clumsy buffoon.  I don't remember who introduced the segment, but he advised listeners to pay attention to the tone of Ravanchi's remarks, not to take his words at face value.  This reminded me of some ancient Doonesbury cartoons from the early days of the Iranian revolution, depicting an Iranian student during the hostage crisis. A voiceover balloon reminded the viewer that "this could be propaganda."

First Inskeep asked Ravanchi, "Is Iran's retaliation against the United States finished?"  Presumably he was referring to reports, including a statement by Ravanchi himself, that the retaliation was indeed finished.  Inskeep tried to play "gotcha":
When you said you don't take responsibility for the actions of others, that raises a question because there was an Iraqi militia leader who was killed in the same U.S. drone strike as Gen. Soleimani. So far as we know, no revenge attack has been taken out for him. Are you saying it is entirely possible that Iraqi militias aligned with Iran could still lash out and Iran would not accept responsibility for what they're doing?
It seems to me that if anyone might want to take revenge for the killing of an Iraqi militia leader, it would be the government of Iraq.  And, of course, the US constantly tries to dodge responsibility for
the actions of its proxies, but it wouldn't do to go into that.  Ravanchi replied fairly directly, disavowing responsibility for the actions of anyone but the government of Iran.

A bit later, Inskeep asked:
Ambassador, you're correct that Iraq's parliament did vote to expel forces from Iraq. But we should be clear, they didn't vote to expel the United States from Iraq. They voted to expel foreign forces from Iraq. And that leads us to note that Gen. Soleimani, a member of Iran's military, was in Iraq when he was killed. What was he doing there?
Strictly speaking Inskeep was right, that the vote called for the removal of US, "coalition" and other foreign forces.  The catch is that Iran claims to have no forces in Iraq; the US can't make the same claim.  There are Iranian "technical advisors" in Iraq, a term that covers a multitude of sins, but as Ravanchi replied to Inskeep more generally, the burden of proof lies on the US.  Soleimani, he said, was in Iraq to fight "terrorists," a mission to which the US can hardly object; because of his successes against Daesh, aka ISIS, he was popular in Iraq and in the region.  And, as even Inskeep must be aware, the resolution against foreign forces in Iraq was passed after and as a direct response to Soleimani's assassination.

Inskeep pressed on:
[Inskeep:] As you must know ambassador, the United States asserts that General Soleimani was plotting attacks against Americans, against the United States. Are you able to say if he was plotting such attacks?

[Ravanchi:] It is, it is the duty of the United States to to to prove otherwise, I mean, to prove that he was he was, in fact, plotting to to kill Americans. Because --

[Inskeep:] But I can also ask you, was he plotting to kill Americans?

[Ravanchi:] No, as I said, he was there in order to help the Iraqi government to better, I mean, fight terrorists pure and simple.
We should be as skeptical of an Iranian government representative as we should be of any government's representative.  But Inskeep here is parroting the claims of an administration that has been shown many times to be a gang of liars, and this particular claim has already largely been discredited as a typical Trump fabrication.  But that's NPR for you: when Trump announced the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on a Sunday morning last October, NPR's anchors treated his fantasies with total credulity.

As I've said before, the loud laments over public distrust of the media are hard to take seriously when the media work so hard to be worthy of distrust.  (Which probably isn't why many people distrust them, I realize.)  Inskeep's little clown show this morning was just embarrassing; or would be, if NPR had any shame.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Scripture and Karen Armstrong

I'm aware of Karen Armstrong's books on religion, but it hasn't been a priority for me to try to read them.  Armstrong is a former Catholic religious who broke with (lost?) her vocation and turned to writing popular inspirational and historical books on religion.  Her newest book, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, published last month by Knopf, caught my eye and I decided to get the Kindle edition sample file and see what it looked like.  Since the entire book is over 600 pages long, the sample is fairly extensive.  I'm not going to spend $15 on the whole thing, and for some reason it isn't available in the public library, but I think I now have some idea of Armstrong's position.

This passage, I think, encapsulates her take on scripture:
Our modern society, however, is rooted in "logos" or "reason," which must relate precisely to factual, objective and empirical reality if it is to focus efficiently in the world: logos is the mode of thought characteristic of the brain's left hemisphere.  But just as both hemispheres are necessary for our full functioning, both mythos and logos are essential to human beings - and both have limitations. ... [Kindle sample loc 314]

The prevalence of logos in modern society and education has made scripture problematic.  In the early modern West, people began to read the narratives of the Bible as if they were logoi, factual accounts of what happened.  But we will see that scriptural narratives never claimed to be accurate descriptions of the creation of the world or the evolution of species.  Nor did they attempt to provide historically exact biographies of the sages, prophets and patriarchs of antiquity.   Precise historical writing is a recent phenomenon.  It became possible only when archaeological methodology and improved knowledge of ancient languages enhanced our understanding of the past [Kindle sample loc 314]
Ah, I thought, I see what she's doing here (aside from all the numerous factual errors and distortions): she's cheating.  (I could have said "equivocating", but better to call a spade a spade.)  Armstrong has an arguable point about "scriptural narratives," but narratives are not all there is to scripture.  About half of the New Testament, for example, is exposition, as with the letters of Paul, Peter, John, James, and Jude; and the letter to Hebrews.  Then there's the Revelation, which is neither narrative nor exposition.

The gospels contain a fair amount of non-narrative material, such as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' apocalyptic discourses, and the long theological rants in the gospel of John.  The narratives (primarily the gospels and Acts) have some funny aspects too.  They refer constantly to the Hebrew Bible, quoting passages yanked out of context to legitimize the Christian proclamation.  In a few cases they're simply made up.  This use of scripture, within scripture itself, doesn't really fit Armstrong's narrative.  And that's not because attention to context and authorial intention weren't known in those primitive times: the first-century Rabbi Hillel is credited with principles for interpreting Scripture that include attention to context.  These are all what Armstrong calls left-hemisphere approaches to interpretation, and they long predate "the early modern period."

There's a deeper problem with Armstrong's position: she claims that "the prevalence of logos in modern society and education has made scripture problematic."  Ancient education was largely rote memorization, which was hardly opposed to what she calls "logos."  But her claims rely on a dichotomy between "historically exact biographies" or "precise historical writing" and scriptural narrative that, on her assumptions, would have made no sense to the ancients, since what she sees as the necessary tools for such precision did not exist then.  Historiographers have been wrestling with this problem for many years, and when I began studying Christian origins in the 1980s there was a large and useful literature available on this subject.  It seems to me that if Armstrong is aware of this literature, she has oversimplified it for apologetic purposes. 

It happens to be false that ancient historians didn't understand precise historical writing.  The Greek historian Thucydides began his History of the Peloponnesian War, written in 431 BCE, by addressing the very problem that, according to Armstrong, he could not have conceived:
Having now given the result of my inquiries into early times, I grant that there will be a difficulty in believing every particular detail. The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever...

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other. The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.
Was Thucydides typical of writers in his own time?  Of course not, but neither are today's logos-saturated historians.  By the time the New Testament came to be written five centuries later, the author of the gospel of Luke followed Thucydides' example.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely [or; accurately] for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-oph′ilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed [Luke 1:1-4].
Most Christian scholars see this writer as claiming a place in the tradition of Greek historical writing, which distinguished between "romance" and the application of "severe and detailed tests" as Thucydides put it.  It's entirely proper to be critically skeptical of Thucydides' and Luke's results, of course, just as one should be with modern historians, but it's misleading to claim that the ancient world didn't distinguish between story and "the way things really happened."

That distinction was also recognized in the gospel stories of Jesus' death and resurrection.  The author of Matthew, for instance, informed his readers that although the Jerusalem authorities claimed that Jesus' followers had sneaked his body out of the tomb so that they could claim he was risen from the dead, Pontius Pilate had at their request placed a guard of soldiers to ensure that the tomb wasn't disturbed (Matthew 27:62ff).  The soldiers trembled and fainted when an angel of Yahweh appeared in an earthquake and rolled away the stone, but they still reported what had happened to the temple priests, who paid them to spread a false story.  "So they took the money and did as they were directed; and this story has been spread among the Jews to this day" (28:15).

On Armstrong's assumptions about scripture, none of this fancy footwork should have been necessary: the early Christians should simply have declared that they weren't writing a precise historical account for Chrissakes, they didn't have rigorous archaeological methodology or knowledge of ancient language, they were composing a beautiful right-brain narrative to express a Higher Truth.  What this tale makes clear is that both sides thought it made a difference whether the resurrection of Jesus was a sublime myth or a fiction.  It doesn't matter to me whether the story of the guard at the tomb is factually correct or a fabrication to shore up a fiction (though of course I believe it is the latter); whether Matthew just made it up or interviewed eyewitnesses to ascertain the facts, he wanted his readers to believe that the church was telling the literal truth and "the Jews" were lying.

The literal truth and a Higher Truth were not mutually exclusive, though: since Yahweh was in control of history, real-world events were suffused with spiritual meaning.  Armstrong's position relies on a false dichotomy, and the odd thing is that according to her historical claims, that dichotomy shouldn't be necessary.  Getting rid of it, though, would undermine her approach to scripture and the nature of religion.

Incidentally, there's a similar kind of scholarly folklore around the question of Biblical authorship.  Apologetic scholarship maintains that ascribing new writings to ancient authority was normal and accepted in those days. We shouldn't fuss too much over whether Paul actually wrote the letters to Timothy according to them, whether the disciple John wrote the Fourth Gospel, and so on, because the modern idea of authorship didn't exist in those days (sound familiar?) and nobody cared.  This claim is undermined by the fact that the ancient world was fully aware of false authorship and forgeries; Paul, for example, warned that letters purporting to be from him were circulating in some of the churches, and his followers should not be fooled by them.  But it's okay, because at least some of the genuine fake letters of Paul were "quite inspired by the Holy Spirit and very much enlightened as to the nature and character of Christ."  So that's all right then.

I also think that what Armstrong treats as ancient, pre-modern spiritual wisdom is as modern as today's news.  Did Parson Weems believe that young George Washington really cut down a cherry tree and confessed the truth to his father because he couldn't tell a lie?  (Weems evidently could, however.)  Do the people who spread what have come to be known as "urban legends" really believe that a young Alfred Einstein proved the truth of Christianity to a know-it-all liberal college professor, or that Marine Todd punched another (or the same?) liberal professor to prove God's existence?  Sure they do, but if you challenge them they'll just say that they don't care, they just like the message, but it totally could be true.  That's Karen Armstrong's position right there.  Medium calls Marine Todd "the internet's true folk literature," but he's really the Internet's Scripture.  Modern logos-driven, left-hemisphere scoffers just don't get it.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

I Think My Biggest Problem Is Being Young and Beautiful

ARNOLD: It's my biggest problem because I've never been young and beautiful.  Oh, I've been beautiful, and God knows I've been young, but never the twain have met.
-- Harvey Fierstein, Torch Song Trilogy
I just reread Erica Rand's Barbie's Queer Accessories (Duke, 1995), an excellent book not only about popular culture and how consumers use it, but about how to think about such matters.  It is even better than I remembered, in fact, and that's unusual.

Here's something that I thought was worth dwelling on.  Toward the end Rand quotes a poem by the late gay African-American poet Essex Hemphill which uses Barbie as a sign of white supremacy.  The lines
Barbie never told Black girls they are beautiful.
She never acknowledged their breathtaking Negritude.
are repeated several times as a refrain.

The trouble is that Barbie never told white girls they are beautiful, either.  Only Barbie is beautiful, the platonic idea of Beauty, and no human being can look like her.  Rand discusses several of the official Barbie stories, in both print and comic-book form, that Mattel licensed and produced, and this was a recurrent theme: Barbie has numerous friends who are pretty and talented, but they all come in a distant second to Her Barbieness.

That's leaving aside the fact that Barbie can't tell anybody anything: she's a doll. As an object she signifies, but as Rand shows, what she signifies is complex, and different people read her differently.  People read messages into her like a Median mage reading portents in entrails. I know, this is a poem and I shouldn't take it literally.  But granting that, and recognizing that Barbie in that couplet is a synecdoche for white America, my objection still stands, because white America throws most girls and women under the beauty bus.  Despite a few token big-boned white women in mass media, most of whom are comedians, the ideal beauty is still skinny with cheekbones you could cut yourself on, and breasts by ... Mattel, courtesy of breast implants.

Black America seems to do a little better by black women, but skinny women still stand out in music videos and film (see this video for some background), and conspicuous consumption with lots of expensive clothes and other accessories sets the standard.  Big buttocks are often fetishized, and that says it right there: a fetishized woman is not a person but a sex doll.

Rand also quotes another poem:
"No Images," written by Waring Cuney in 1926, about a woman whose does know the beauty of her brown body: 

If she could dance Naked, 
Under palm trees 
And see her image in the river 
She would know. 
But there are no palm trees 
On the street 
And dish water gives back no images.
Transpose this into a fantasy of a white woman dancing naked in an ancient forest of Teutonic Germany or looking at her reflection in an icy blue Nordic lake, and you can see it for what it is.  As for "palm trees/On the street," there are palm trees on streets in places where palm trees grow, and women are stuck with the dishes in Africa too.  I might try to find the full poem sometime so I can see if these lines are less offensive in context, but far as I can see it's another man's fetishistic fantasy about women.

My point is not that the beauty Barbie represents oppressed white girls as much as black or brown ones; it's that both Hemphill and Cuney sentimentalize "native" lifeways and models of beauty in exactly the same way white people have often done, a tendency Rand criticizes elsewhere in the book.  Would white girls be better served if they danced around trees in the ancient Teutonic forests?  Are young black African girls free from worries about being beautiful enough?  Ideals of beauty militate against the actual, quotidian beauty of real women (and men), and a politically engaged poet like Hemphill could still believe that the answer is as simple as Barbie telling black girls that they are beautiful.  Not if it just replaces constrictive white models with constrictive black or brown ones.

It's not clear how people are actually affected by the commercial media's marketing of images defined as beautiful, and Rand does a good job on that problem.  I think that many if not most people compartmentalize it: in their actual love and erotic lives they are perfectly content with people who don't look like Barbie or Ken, but somewhere in the back of their minds they feel inferior themselves, and believe that they are making do with second-best in their partners.  This, I think, makes it difficult to combat the media imagery.  But there's little doubt that some people respond in self-destructive ways, trying to make their bodies conform to what they've been told, and agree, they should look like.  Twentieth-century advertising and mass media may have made things worse, but they didn't invent the problem: cases of harmful beauty nostrums (whalebone corsets, belladonna, footbinding, etc.) are much older.

I recall a review of Carolyn Heilbrun's biography of Gloria Steinem which described adult women sighing, "She's so beautiful!" and expressing their bafflement that such a beautiful woman would be a feminist.  Myself, I have never thought that Steinem was particularly beautiful, but what I lament is that grown women should think that a woman's beauty is so overarchingly important.  I don't think that men, as guilty as we are, get all the blame for this belief; I think that women are responsible too.  And how odd that it never seems to occur to them that Steinem became a feminist because she was beautiful.

People are torn between the platitude that everyone is beautiful if you can see their inner beauty (but who cares? what people want is outer beauty), and the desire to be the most ideally, uniquely, beautiful.  This contradiction can't be resolved, and we need to get rid of both parts of it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Top Eleven Posts of 2019

I wrote a few more posts in 2019 than I did the year before, but traffic was down overall.   I hope to be more productive in the year to come; at least not to go whole months without posting at all.

Here are the posts that got the most attention:

11.    The Soul of a Man Trapped in the Body of a Man (240) I'd liked the therapist Walt Odets's older writings on HIV and its effects on gay men, so I was very interested when he published a new book, for the first time in years.  Out of the Shadows turned out to be not just a disappointment but the very kind of Culture-of-Therapy junk I dislike most; I decided not to finish it.  This and one other post explain why.
10.  A Thousand Milliseconds of Peace (241)  I used to feel uneasy about dismissing the importance of political firsts -- the first black president, the first woman president -- because I couldn't be sure whether I'd feel the same way about a viable candidate for the first gay President.  Thanks to Pete Buttigieg, I now know that I do.  It would be nice to have a gay President, but what is important is having a good President, and Buttigieg doesn't fill the bill.

9.  I Am the Only Atheist in the Village!  (248)  On the subtle racism that underlies some Village-Atheist discourse, along with the usual historical ignorance. 
8.  Say It Ain't So, Joe!  (253)  Joe Biden isn't a good candidate either, for many reasons, and his disregard for other people's spatial boundaries is one of them.  But some of the reactions to his grabbiness are excessive, to put it nicely.
7.   In Whose Service Is Perfect Freedom (263)  My review of a book by a North Korean author, perhaps the first North Korean fiction to appear in English translation.

6.    Let the End Times Roll  (263)  My review of the Amazon Prime adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's End-times fantasy Good Omens

5.  It Became Necessary to Destroy the Business to Save It  (268)  Another venerable business, Steak and Shake, is being destroyed by the venture capitalist who bought it in order to gut it.

4.  Who Wants to Be the Last to Go Bankrupt Before Medicare for All Kicks In?  (292)  My first post on Pete Buttigieg.  He has turned out to be even worse than I thought, but he was never very impressive.  Glenn Greenwald has dropped his original approval of the boy, but other older gay men have not, and I think that lust plays a role in their opinion of him.  While lust is good, it's not a reason to vote for anyone.

3.  Nostalgia is Just Amnesia Turned Around  (354)  I think it was Adrienne Rich whose epigram I stole for the title of this post.  The ongoing cult of Barack Obama is an excellent example of its truth.  His fake-compassionate dismissal of young Central American refugees, which gave Trump a precedent, is the sort of thing his devotees not only prefer to forget, they ignored it when it was happening.

2.  The Man of Destiny (459)  It might be going too far to call Pete Buttigieg's juxtaposition of Donald Trump's base and Bernie Sanders's base a false equivalence, but I don't think so.  It was still a repulsively sloppy, demagogic speech, and cemented Buttigieg's status as an aspiring centrist spoiler. 

1.  Fierce Latina Holds Her Fire (462)  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the most promising young politicians at the national level today, even though I think she's made some bad moves.  What this says to me is that those who like, support, and care about her should criticize her, firmly but fairly.