Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Clap Your Hands If You Believe in the Ferryman

I've begun reading For the Ferryman: A Personal History (Chelsea Station Editions, 2011) by Charles Silverstein, a psychologist who played a significant role in the gay liberation movement.  He presented an argument to the American Psychiatric Association's Nomenclature Committee that contributed to the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973, and went on to write pro-gay books on numerous subjects that many gay people nowadays would tell you were impossible to write about positively in those ancient times.  One was A Family Matter (1977), on dealing with parents and other family members; another was Man to Man (1981), on the management of committed gay male relationships.  Most famous, probably, was The Joy of Gay Sex, co-written with Edmund White, which first appeared in 1977 but has gone into three editions, the latest in 2009.  I could have sworn I'd heard that Silverstein died twenty years ago, but Google tells me he's still alive at 85, which pleases me a great deal.

I'm about a hundred pages into For the Ferryman; it's not great literature, but it's a good read and a significant document of the post-Stonewall era, and there are a couple of passages I want to pass along.

One involves the Gay Activists Alliance, the second and longer-lived gay activist organization to emerge in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall rebellion.  GAA's headquarters was a former firehouse, which supported its activities with weekly dances that drew crowds of a thousand or so every Saturday night.  (There's a scene in the movie Parting Glances set at the Firehouse during one of those dances.)  GAA was an avowedly anti-capitalist organization, but:

On the other hand, GAA had to pay rent and the phone bill and buy beer for dances.  Therefore, we charged an admission fee of two dollars for the dances.  The result of the conflict of values was an irresponsible accounting system.  The first year the treasurer was caught with his hand in the till.  Unwilling to trust the police and the courts, GAA held its own trial and ended up the treasurer's membership.  (The former treasurer threatened to run for president in the next election, saying that stealing the money was our own fault because we let him [95-96].

And the name of that treasurer was... Donald Trump! -- No, not really.  Unfortunately, antisocial behavior among LGBTQ people is still sometimes excused on the grounds that the offender suffered under heterosexism and can't be held responsible.  It occurs to me now that charging admission to the dances as a fundraiser to cover expenses wasn't capitalism, but people had the same trouble defining their terms that they do now.  Besides, many GAA members at the time were probably still influenced by the hippie ethic, which held that everything should be free; but it was still necessary to get money for necessities even for nominally free stuff.  GAA could have called the admission fee a "donation," and maybe they did.  It's not capitalism unless you're accumulating capital and making a profit.

The next bit has bearing on an issue that's still very much with us:

The word "homophobia" is another example [like "gay"] of using words to reinterpret the world.  It has very little meaning from a psychological perspective, especially because of its use of the word phobia.  It was a brilliant political conception first publicized by the psychologist George Weinberg and used so extensively that people believed it to be a significant psychological term.  Its political function was to attack institutions or people who depreciated gays.  The people who who beat us on the streets or called us fags were no longer merely prejudiced.  They suffered - and here is the brilliance of the term - from a mental illness called "homophobia." We provided a medical diagnosis to balance the scale that had previously been tipped to our detriment.  "Homophobia" was as effective in going on the offense against discrimination as the word "racist" was to the Black Liberation Movement and "sexist" to the Women's Liberation Movement [96-7].

Now, that's interesting, but even though Silverstein was on the ground at the time, I don't believe it.  It has been many years since I read Weinberg's Society and the Healthy Homosexual, but I don't recall any sense that he was using "homophobia" as a political conception.  As late as 2012 he was arguing in all seriousness that it should be entered into the next revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is a bad idea all around.  Far from casting "homophobia" as a political tactic, Weinberg insisted that it must be an illness because people did bad things to gay people. It makes no sense to call a majority attitude (as antigay bigotry was in the 1960s and 1970s) an illness.  Among those who "believed it to be a significant psychological term" were the many LGBTQ people who went into the helping professions after Stonewall, so whatever political sting the term may once have had, it's long gone now.  Also, "racist" and "sexist" are not pseudoclinical terms, so they're not comparable to "homophobic."

Oh, one other thing, on the same page.  Silverstein says of the first Gay Pride Marches that

we did not call them "parades" as they do now.  Parades have a celebratory air about them, suggesting a time for fun and frolic.  We were not celebrating, we were marching for our civil rights, exhibiting ourselves to a shocked heterosexual audiences and shouting for other gay people to come out of the closet.  This was not accidental.  GAA did not want their marches to deteriorate into the parades they have now become [97].

I've written about this before.  If GAA didn't want their marches to "deteriorate" into celebratory parades, they shouldn't have included celebratory, carnivalesque elements in the very first march.  But the marches' tone was out of their control almost immediately, even just in New York, let alone all the other cities that quickly followed their lead.  In the beginning, the celebration had a political edge, because those shocked heterosexuals had never seen such goings-on outside of New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  Silverstein tries to play down those aspects, summing up the first march with "We greeted each other with friendly kisses and 'Happy Birthday,' as if we had started life anew at the Stonewall" (97).  (N.B.: Silverstein wasn't at the Stonewall, as he informs his readers himself - see page 87.)

Harumph, harumph!  Ah well.  Silverstein's perspective is worth having, and I look forward to the rest of the book.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

I Was Just Funnin' With Ya, Little Lady ...

A Facebook friend from my schooldays passed along this meme today, and I was torn whether to comment on it.  I almost thought she was being ironic, because just a week ago she announced that she'd lost her car key, which had house and other important keys on the same ring.  She spent two or three days looking everywhere while her other friends commented that they were praying for her and made helpful suggestions where she should look.  At last she gave up and replaced the key, at some expense.  The very next day she was working in the garden, and there she found the Prodigal Key.  That's not a Waymaker, it's a Divine Practical Joker.

But I refrained, partly because her husband, who's had major health issues before, was recently diagnosed with cancer.  It appears to be treatable, but it's going to be iffy, and I can understand why she'd want to tell herself that the Divine Practical Joker is on her and her husband's side.  I wonder if she's ever read C. S. Lewis' A Grief Observed, written as he mourned the death from cancer of his wife.  She'd nearly died of cancer once but had a remarkable remission - and then the cancer returned.

It's easy to see why Lewis first published A Grief Observed under a pseudonym, because he went pretty far in venting his pain:

What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H. and I offered and all the false hopes we had. Not hopes raised merely by our own wishful thinking, hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle. Step by step we were ‘led up the garden path.’ Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.

He backed away from the precipice in the very next sentence, but he never really came to terms with his dilemma.  He did recognize that he'd been glib on the subject in his much earlier book The Problem of Pain, because he hadn't really had his nose rubbed in suffering before.  Though he submitted formally by the end of A Grief Observed, his submission seemed forced; his wife's awful death broke him, and he never really recovered from it.

So even though I haven't really suffered like this yet either, I held my virtual tongue about my friend's post - on Facebook anyway.  But I still thought about it, because the claims in that meme are simply false.  The incident of the keys that once were lost, but now are found, underlines their falsity.

There's another issue here: prayer.  A couple of weeks ago, an order of nuns posted in their Twitter account that prayer is not for asking or persuading God to give you something, it's opening yourself to whatever God chooses to give you, including anguish and pain.  This is a common apologetic move to cover the problem that prayers so often go unanswered, but it's callous and false.  It's rooted, I think, in Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane the night before his death, asking Yahweh to spare him from the cross - but 'Not as I will, but as you will."  The trouble is that at other points in the gospels, Jesus assured his followers that all they had to do was pray, and God would give whatever they asked for.  This teaching is a stumbling block for many Christians, and Lewis himself asked a meeting of clergy about it in a talk that was eventually printed in one of his posthumous collections of essays.  He had no answer to the dilemma, because there isn't one.  During his lifetime he published a short piece around the standard apologetic answer, that prayer isn't for nagging God for goodies.  Jesus shut off that escape route, but Lewis pretended he hadn't - for public consumption, anyway.

So, what about all those people praying that my friend would find her keys?  I'm sure that they'd agree in another situation they'd have fallen back on the apologetic excuse, but how interesting that they immediately jumped to pray for a comparatively trivial matter.  It doesn't stand alone: they've also prayed that their grandchildren will be allowed to have a public graduation ceremony, that their grandson's high school football team will win the big game, and so on.  Other people shouldn't noodge the Lord, but they can.  Or at any rate they do, with rather charming unselfconsciousness.  If cornered, I imagine they'd argue that it does no harm to tell God what they want, but even that isn't true according to the nuns, to C. S. Lewis, and very likely their own pastors.  They are testing God by making these frivolous prayers.  I wouldn't want to be in their shoes on the Day of Judgment; I'm going to Hell anyway, I'll see them there, we'll do brunch.

One shouldn't judge religions by their worst adherents, says Marilynne Robinson - but who are the worst, who are the best, and who are somewhere in between?  I wouldn't say that these ladies are the worst Christians, though several of them are pretty bad (racists, Trump supporters); but like Lewis and Robinson, they do reaffirm my atheism.  That meme up there gets my back up with its dares, but mainly it's a pack of lies, on its own terms.

I understand why religious professionals would want to discourage petitionary prayer: contrary to what some of my fellow atheists claim, religion isn't detached from reality.  A practice that is regularly falsified is bad PR for the sect, and it violates many believers' sense of what is reasonable.  But faith endures under disappointment, as believers in science know: even though science often fails, its believers hold fast.  Believing in "aliens" is safer than believing in the power of prayer, because we will never know for sure that there isn't life on other planets.  The persistence of petitionary prayer is assured partly by its prominence in the Bible and in tradition, and it shows that believers aren't "brainwashed" by their leaders.  Like it or not -- and more intellectual believers (and unbelievers) don't like it -- laypeople have minds of their own.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Clap Your Hands If You Believe in Aliens!

Today Ryan Knight, a young leftist writer and activist, posted excitedly on Twitter about a report that water -- "multiple 'water bodies'" -- has been detected on Mars: "The fact that there is water on Mars means they very well could have had or have alien life on Mars."  Uh, who's "they"?

Anyway, this (and a Twitter poll on whether we "believe in aliens") set off a long thread of terrifying prattle about the "absolute" "100%" "statistical certainty" that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, with some people arguing that we couldn't see life on other worlds because our eyes can only detect light in a narrow wavelength, the usual jokes about how there's no intelligent life on Earth anyway, and the ever-popular declarations that it would be so dumb if we were alone, and that it is "insane," "ignorant," "selfish," "egoistic" not to believe that the universe is full of potential extraterrestrial BFFs who'd like to meet us but they think they'd blow our minds.  Several people quoted a line from the movie Arrival, that if there is no life out there, the universe is a terrible waste of space.  None of this is particularly surprising; it's just terribly depressing.

There were numerous claims about the certainty that there must be gazillions of habitable and indeed inhabited planets out there.  They were presumably based on the Drake formula, invented in 1961, which postulates imaginary percentages to "stimulate scientific dialogue at the first scientific meeting on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) ... It is more properly thought of as an approximation than as a serious attempt to determine a precise number."  The people who referred to it mistook it for a serious attempt, and seemed to believe that it proved anything, which it doesn't.  Only a couple had heard of the Fermi Paradox, which argues that there probably are no civilizations out there.  The people who dogmatically asserted the huge numbers of intelligent ETs in the universe seemed to forget them when they tried to explain why we haven't detected them, though some of course declared that the ETs have already found us but the Dang Gummint has suppressed them, or they decided we were too feral to deal with, or some such.

If there is life on Mars, it won't be "alien," it will be native Martian life.  We Terrans, if we go there, will be the aliens.  If anything is egoistic, it's demanding that the universe sprout ETs so we won't feel alone.  And even if there were oodles of inhabited planets out there, the universe is so unimaginably large that you could still call it a waste of space if you're a real-estate developer.  People have seen too many sci-fi movies and TV shows in which space travelers move from galaxy to galaxy in no time, but even without them we can't visualize the distances involved -- even within the Solar system, let alone interstellar space

Since Knight is a left-wing activist -- he goes by the screenname ProudSocialist -- I presume that he and most of his followers think of themselves as pro-science, smarter than the ignorant masses who don't believe in evolution.  It was painful to see just how ignorant, misinformed, and downright tinfoil-hat wacko almost all of the comments in these threads were.  I shouldn't be surprised, and I probably am not, I just didn't care to be reminded today.  Knight probably jumped on the story to have a chance to talk about something other than the current electoral campaign.  I sympathize with him, but this was no improvement.

If you ask, I'm agnostic on the question: I neither believe in extraterrestrial life nor disbelieve in it, because we have no evidence of its existence yet.  That means we can't concoct statistics for now because we have only one datum about life, on this planet.  The media keep stirring up interest with reports of water on Mars, or fart gas on Venus, which excite many people, as they're intended to.  But none of these reports are evidence of life on those planets, let alone elsewhere.  Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and these people have a lot of faith.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Poetry Friday - thick air

thick air.  tonite
I got no prospects
& I’m spinning slow
in this silky cocoon
hot damp & soft as
somebodys address
& phone no. you
held clenched in
your hand too long.
queens on stilts
wade through the dark
marshy streets.  the
stars are pale and misty
like far-off streetlights,
the trees sweat &
droop in the milky haze.
I am drawing from
life if you care to
call it that.  tonite
I will be hard to
please.  honey
I wouldn’t have you.
cool & deliberate i
stand & dust off
my jeans for the
swim home.  tonite
it’d take more than
that to faze me.
thick air.  thick air.


[Written on a humid night in the summer of 1977.]

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Too Beautiful for This World

I saw this trailer for a recent (well, 2018) Russian film called T-34 today.  It's about some Soviet POWs captured and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II who for some reason were given a damaged tank to play with and used it to escape.  "BASED ON A LEGENDARY STORY" says one title card, which of course means it's fiction but who cares, it's got lots of explosions and shit.  I decided to look up some reviews online and maybe I'll check it out, the local library has a copy.

This bit from one of the reviews was hilarious, I thought:

... this is a film, not unlike several that have come out of China lately, which may appeal more to those with appropriately nationalistic backgrounds (i.e., Russian in this instance) than to the general (Western) filmgoing public.
I've seen some of the Chinese films he refers to, and personally I find it refreshing to see self-aggrandizing nationalism in entertainment from other countries.  It's not like "(Western)" war movies aren't nationalistic.  I can't quite tell whether the reviewer realizes this and is just warning his target demographic (presumably 12-year-old American gamers) that T-34 has a different perspective than they're used to, or he really believes that only Russian or Chinese or Korean, etc. audiences think that their countries are the center of the universe.  If so, he should see some British or French WWII films -- those countries are Western too.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

If the GOP Replace RBG Now, I'll Rip Their Lips Off!!!

Liberal and left reactions to Trump and Senate Republicans' expressed intention to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court do not make me feel that the American future is in good hands.

For example:

Do tell.  Who is "we"?  Is Aslan speaking for the People's Liberation Front of Judea here?

CNN pundit Don Lemon had to walk back a remark about "blow[ing] up the system", explaining that it had been taken out of context.  He's almost certainly being paid far too much to be shooting off his mouth carelessly on cable, don't you think?  I do get tired of being told that we must take the corporate media seriously, because they are responsible, objective news professionals, unlike all those crazy bloggers and nutcases on Twitter.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a little more cautious, but not much.

"This is one of the most important times that we have had for everyday people to stand up," Ocasio-Cortez said. "We all need to be more courageous and we all must act in unprecedented ways to make sure that our rights are stabilized. And to Mitch McConnell, we need to tell him that he is playing with fire. We need to make sure that this vacancy is protected, that our election continues and that the American people have their say."
I want to know how Representative Ocasio-Cortez proposes to burn McConnell's fingers.  There are apparently a lot of procedural tools available to Senators to slow and even block action in Congress when you don't hold a majority, but AOC's rhetoric here sounds a bit stronger than that.  So she sounds like her House colleagues, saying how concerned they are, and how they're not going to stand for Trump's naughtiness for one second longer - and then they do nothing.  What happened to the calendar that AOC demanded Postmaster DeJoy deliver to Congress in August?  A subpoena was issued, which is more than the Democrats have done before, but I can't find any updates.  It's all very well to strut and preen and posture about all the tough things you're going to do, but if you don't carry out your threats, you just look foolish, and no one will take succeeding threats seriously.

There isn't very much Senate Democrats can do without a majority, but there's also no point in puffing themselves up and making threats they have no intention to carry out.  Far better to do what they can, and prepare to mock the Republicans when they scream that it's all so unfair.

I don't really expect or want Aslan or Lemon to blow anything up, but all the prattle about Revolution and guillotines and killing Nazis and burning it all down that I see from leftists on social media is embarrassing.  For me, it's all summed up by the guy in Charlottesville who lit an aerosol spray to defend himself against a neo-Nazi with a gun - which, miraculously, misfired.  (Heather Heyer wasn't so lucky that day.)  I would sympathize, because I feel helpless too, but some of the people promising fire and fury, the like of which the world has never seen, are old enough to know better.  But cheering on street violence from the sidelines on Twitter, while other people get hurt or killed, is criminally irresponsible.  And people who think that giving Nazis the bird is effective are no better than the Never-Trump Resistance they deride.

It could be worse, though:

Monday, September 21, 2020

Shame Me Once, Shame on You; Shame Me Twice, Shame on Me!

2020 is turning out to be a replay of 2016, campaign-wise.  Specifically, the Democrats are running another superannuated party hack whose main selling point is that he isn't Donald Trump, and they're furious that voters aren't as enthusiastic about him as they think we ought to be.  Even more than last time, though, they're on the attack against anyone who declares his or her lack of enthusiasm and criticizes the candidate or the party for running a lackluster campaign.  They accuse the dissenters of wanting Trump to win, and their venomous attacks again lack factual truth, rationality, and even good political sense.  Among their targets are Susan Sarandon, Bernie Sanders, former Sanders staffers such Brianna Joy Gray, the journalist David Sirota, and the podcaster and organizer Ryan Knight.  I've been spending more time than I should on Twitter, just for the pleasure of attacking the attackers in turn.  

One thing that has begun to bother me is the term commonly used for the attacks: "voter shaming."  I suppose it fairly captures what they're trying to do, but I don't think it's an effective epithet if, as I've been seeing, they see it as a valid strategy:

Calling it "vote-shaming" lets them know they've scored a hit, and that you don't know how to fight back.  It's another version of the liberal standby, "Oh, how can you say such an awful thing, you're an awful person!"  This never works, and one would think liberals would have figured that out by now, if one didn't know better.

I think that if you want to get the "vote-shamers" to back off, if you want to defeat them, you need to find ways to put them on the defensive.  And I feel a bit uneasy about telling people to grow a spine, but I really think they need to grow a spine.  Why should you be ashamed of doing what you believe to be right?  If you are ashamed of not liking Biden and Harris more, if you are ashamed of wanting substantive policies rather than platitudes, if you're ashamed of being angry at the Democratic Party establishment for waging an inadequate campaign against the most dangerous President of the past century and possibly ever, then maybe you need to pause and take stock.

My preferred term for what these people are doing is "voter suppression."  They clearly are less interested in winning over undecided, let alone opposed, voters than in getting their licks in against people they blame for Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016: Sarandon, Sanders, and the like.  If you really want to persuade people to vote for your candidate, hurling abuse at them is exactly what you shouldn't be doing.  It's not as if this is some extreme-left, avant-garde, postmodern idea: it's the basic principle of canvassing and organizing.  Yet I'm seeing a lot of (admittedly anecdotal) reports of people telling Biden phonebankers that they're undecided, and being blown off, no attempt made to find out why they're undecided and persuade them to vote Biden/Harris.

I have to remember that people feel isolated and so find it hard to stand up to attacks from any direction, and I don't want to attack them myself.  I must have felt much the same way fifty years ago when I was just coming out and forming a left political stance, but although I did get attacked, from the left as well as from the right at times, I somehow kept bouncing back.  I know that within a year or two of coming out I was enjoying attempts by homophobes to try to shame me for being queer, even though there was in those days precious little solidarity from other gay people.  Somehow I felt that I was part of something larger than myself, a network of people who rejected bigotry and bit back at it, even if I knew few of them in my own locale.  I later learned that some of the writers and thinkers I felt connected to didn't live out their own rhetoric very well.  No matter: they gave me the courage to do it. The same was true of politics, though that took me longer to develop.

It just occurred to me that when I tried to get involved in local politics, the local party organization had nothing for me to do.  I left my name and phone number at the local Democratic Party office, but no one called me.  Maybe I should have tried harder, but why?  (Part of the problem was that I had an odd, irregular work schedule, and the local party was oriented to people who worked 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.)  The same happened in the 1990s when I volunteered for a new LGBT organization in town: I signed up, no one got back to me.  That organization, as I recall, didn't last very long anyway -- I wonder why!  One of the ongoing problems with left organizing is that it is more oriented to getting media attention, which the groups don't know how to exploit even if they get it, than to welcoming new members.

Then too, even if I'm not a joiner I'm still enmeshed in a network of left media that keeps me informed.  I don't sit around surrounded by hordes of the conventionally political, the inhabitants and devotees of the two-party system, without any sources of information to buttress me against corporate media propaganda.  I tend to forget that most people don't know about alternative media, which is why so many people are flocking to follow Ryan Knight's Twitter account.  But we've been there before: I'm seeing echoes of the exaltation many people expressed to Michael Moore, or Noam Chomsky: At last somebody dares to tell the truth!  They're looking for someone to follow, a hero or heroine who'll tell them what to think; and when they find out that their hero has feet of clay or, worse, doesn't want to tell what to think, he or she would rather they think for themselves, they'll fall resentfully away, looking for the next hero.  I went through something like this myself when I was younger, though I didn't usually reject those who'd taught me: I honored and cherished what I'd learned from them, and added on more teachers.

What to do, then?  I don't know, and I'm not optimistic.  But for now, I'd like people to stop using the term "vote-shaming."  They have nothing to be ashamed of, only the vote-suppressors do.  They also need to remember that you don't learn to do politics, winning politics at any rate, while standing on one foot.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the more inspiring success stories of late, didn't just stand on a street corner, give a speech, win a primary, and then win an election and go to Congress.  She got involved with Justice Democrats, who welcomed her (along with others), trained her, and supported her.  And then she defeated an entrenched, complacent incumbent and won the general and went to Congress.  Ignore the vote-suppressors, don't let them get to you; you aren't alone.  Look at how others are answering them, and work out your own response.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Become the Helper

I just finished reading The Hunt, by Maurice Sachs (1906-1945).  I picked it up, along with Sachs' previous book Witches' Sabbath, after reading about it on the Neglected Books Page.  Sachs was an odd but remarkable character: queer, notoriously charming, amoral, energetic, talented - even brilliant - but unfocused: he began many projects but finished few of them.  Witches' Sabbath was a memoir, fascinating yet exhausting as Sachs ran wildly about, cramming an immense amount of study, scamming, and socializing into his short life.  Like many queer French writers, he wrote openly about his affairs with men, and it's not surprising that Witches' Sabbath and The Hunt drew homophobic fire when they were published in France soon after the war, and in English a decade or so later.  I reminded myself as I read that these books would have been much more shocking then.

The Hunt picked up in 1940, a couple of years after Sabbath left off, as the Nazis invaded and occupied France.  Sachs was Jewish by ancestry, and though he knew the danger he faced, he not only backed away from escaping, he went the other way, into Germany itself.  He left only a fragment of The Hunt, which his publisher filled out with letters he wrote from Hamburg.  I found these letters the most interesting part of the book, especially this one:

The entry for April 23rd, 1860 in the Goncourts' Journal reads as follows: "A vague unease, for no particular reason, and it's pacing restlessly round inside me all the time.  Life is decidedly too flat.  Not two sous' worth of anything unforeseen to be had in the world. Nothing ever comes to me except catalogues, tiresome minor ailments, the same old migraines.  And that's all.  I don't inherit a fortune from someone I don't know.  That pretty house I saw for sale in the Rue La Rochefoucauld will not be presented to me this morning on a silver plate.  And when I look back over my whole past life, it has always been like that, nothing outside the usual humdrum flow of everyday events, and I have the right to call Providence a harsh stepmother.  I have only had one adventure in my whole life: I was in the arms of my nurse, looking at a toy, a very costly toy.  And a passing gentleman stopped and bought it for me."

I could not read this page without sadness and pity. What?  Could Edmond and Jules de Goncourt find no remedy for melancholy of that sort?

Good Lord! what ignorance.  The remedy was to make themselves into the passing gentleman who stopped!*

That reaction seems uncharacteristic of Sachs, who was by his own admission a very selfish person.  Even when he was generous, which was often, it was with the expectation of getting something from his beneficiaries.  Yet here he recognized the importance of being a benefactor, with no evident return.

The passage reminded me of many people today who think of Fred Rogers's exhortation "Look for the helpers" as an invitation to look to others to protect and help them, rather than to help others. I'd thought that this kind of self-pity and sentimentality the Goncourts expressed in the quotation was a much more recent phenomenon, a paradigmatic First World Problem, but there it is, clearly expressed 160 years ago, along with its refutation.


* Witches' Sabbath and The Hunt, translated by Richard Howard, Ballantine Books, 1966, p. 371

Friday, September 18, 2020

Poetry Friday - Saul


This upstart shepherd boy, of no account
except that he is handy with a sling,
presumes too much.  The daughter of the King
he may not covet, much less may he mount

thereby the throne of Judah.  Let him keep
his place!  I have a son.  Let this boy dare
forget his station, I'll return him there:
he may do what he wishes with this sheep.

This upstart, in defiance of the Law
of Moses, came from nowhere to upset
my house.  I know I never shall forget
or banish from my dreams the thing I saw:

My son endured this shepherd's touch upon
his face.  My son kissed him.  He kissed my son.

November 9, 1977
[This is one more poem from my Quadragesima project, a series of poems on subjects related, often tangentially, to religion.]

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Is Your Hate Pure?

Samuel Moyn was referring, I thought, to Democratic loyalists' obsession with Trump and their evident belief that all criticism of Democratic politicians comes from the Right, and is therefore motivated by love of Donald Trump.  People on the left who vote Democratic but still criticize Democratic candidates must therefore love Trump and want him to win in November.

On reflection, though, I had to admit that I don't hate Trump all that much.  I want him out of office, I want him in prison, and he seems to be a completely loathsome person.  Is there anyone who likes him as a human being, let alone loves him?  He seems to have plenty of toadies, hangers-on, people who cling to him in hopes of scoring some money, prestige, or power: but asking whether they like him is like asking whether remora fish like sharks.  That's what a powerful man is supposed to be like, isn't it?

Perhaps since I'm at a safe distance from Trump, I don't feel a personal hatred or loathing for him.  I'd feel a profound satisfaction if he was convicted for his many crimes and spent the rest of his life in prison.  If he caught COVID-19 and died strangling in mucus, I'd feel a detached sympathy for him, but I would still say "Good riddance," and I wouldn't indulge in the eulogies that most people can't seem to resist about the worst human beings on the planet: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John McCain, etc.  I figure there's a good chance I'll outlive him, and after the terrible damage he's done to this country and the world, I'm curious to see if the usual suspects try to paint him as a good man despite everything.  How low will they sink? ... But the point is, I don't hate him the way so many of liberals do, he's not an itch I have to scratch 24/7 until I bleed.  As my mother always said, if you pick at it, it won't get well.

I used to feel the same way about Barack Obama, as evil as he is.  I admit, when I learned he'd been lying about the Affordable Care Act, claiming falsely that "if you like the policy you have, you can keep it," I felt great anger and disgust; but that was about me, because I'd been defending the ACA based on that claim.  In the end I was even angrier at liberal ACA apologists who defended Obama's lies.  But I didn't hate him; to me that would be as absurd as loving him, thinking he's my father and and that he loves and cares for me. 

Until lately, that is.  His interventions and comments on the political scene this past year have been progressively more obnoxious, and last week he gave us this:

Quite a few people quoted Obama's by-now notorious boast:

“You wouldn’t always know it, but it went up every year I was president. That whole, suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas that was me, people.”

This is funny, really: I thought that Obama couldn't do anything, he was totally helpless because the wicked Republicans obstructed him at every turn?  So apparently he could do some things: subsidize fossil fuel companies, open the Arctic to drilling, waffle on the Dakota Access PipeLine, okay other oil pipelines.  Ironically, though, according to the AP article which quotes Obama's boast, many don't agree that he can take the credit for America's increased oil production.

People threw Obama's terrible environmental record back in his face.  One of the pleasant things about Twitter is that you often can get up in a politician's face, or at least his account, and tell him or her off.  You'll almost never get a reply, but it's better than shaking your fist and yelling at the TV. 

I've said before that Obama unknowingly did serious damage to the claim that voting can bring about change.  That ultimately helped to give us Donald Trump, as large numbers of people lost faith in the promises candidates make.  It didn't help that Obama was openly contemptuous of the voters, especially poor black voters, once he was in office, and just as contemptuous of activists who organized to pressure him outside the electoral process.  His wife, friend to war criminals, seconded that contempt this year. 

So now Obama claims that "Protecting our planet is on the ballot."  Is it?  Biden's website (recently and miraculously updated after the actress and activist Susan Sarandon pointed out it had been neglected) promises lofty goals, even alludes glancingly to the Green New Deal.  Will he deliver, assuming he wins the election?  Who knows?  Given his past, I sure don't.  One would have thought protecting the planet was on the ballot in 2008 and 2012, but it didn't quite work out that way.  Like it or not, you're not voting for issues, you're voting for a candidate, and then you're expected to shut up and get out of the way -- until your candidate needs more money.

Now, though, when I see that Obama has tweeted something, I feel a twinge of hatred.  Hatred isn't something I give lightly.  Like a vote, it has to be earned.  And I'm finally recognizing that Obama has earned it.  Which, I admit, with a dollar, will get him on the bus.  But it's a milestone for me.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Return of Poetry Friday - Kismet


Worse things have happened to me, I admit,
than meeting you, and no doubt will again.
I tumble in, I clamber out the pit;
one does need entertainment now and then.

We never do suspect our endings, do
we, from the humble spots where we begin?
How karmically appropriate of you
to come by when you did, and push me in.

-- On metaphysics, though, I shall not dwell.
I clamber out, I tumble in -- such sport!
(And such good exercise for me, as well.)
The pit is deep, the fall is very short.

The fall is very short, but oh, the climb
takes just a little longer every time.

October 16, 1979

It's been over a decade since I ran out of poems to post here, but I recently had reason to go through my papers, and I turned up a number of poems I was afraid I'd lost.  So, while they last, I'll post them on Fridays.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

By Any Memes Necessary

Yesterday NPR's Morning Edition did a segment on antifa.  Noel King interviewed Mark Bray, a historian at Rutgers and the author of a new book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.  Bray seemed to have his head on straight, and was even able to resist King's repeated efforts to ignore what he said and turn the discussion in a direction she preferred. 

Bray pointed out right away that antifa is not a "singular organization.   It's a kind of politics or activity of radical opposition to the far-right that doesn't have any qualms about physically disrupting far-right demonstrations." King wasn't having it, though: she kept referring to antifa as a "group."  Bray corrected her, but she wasn't listening.

To Bray's report that "the antifa argument is that we need to treat all far-right and fascist groups as if they could be the seeds of a new genocidal regime", King countered: "The rebuttal would be nonviolent protest has a history of working - right? - and no one gets killed."  If I'd been in Bray's place I have pointed out that it's false that "no one gets killed" as a result of nonviolent protest: there's a long list of nonviolent martyrs in the Civil Rights Movement.  She can hardly be unaware of them, so what she presumably meant was that the movement's opponents don't get killed.  This is an attitude typical of US news media, which report that things are "calm" in Israel-Palestine as long as no Israelis are killed, no matter how many Palestinians are killed.  There's a long history of white-supremacist, arguably fascist violence in this country, and right now police officers all over the country are defiantly killing unarmed people, despite the growing backlash against them.  Police are meeting nonviolent protest with batons, chemical weapons, and other violence -- rioting, in a word -- and apologists like Noel King never seem to fret that they're just hurting their own cause.

Does nonviolent protest work?  There is a good case to be made that it doesn't.  Violent white racists succeeded in terrorizing African-Americans and their white allies with impunity.  Only after decades were some of them tried and convicted.  Segregation receded in the South, but it's hard to find a direct connection between the protests of the 50s and 60s and the changes that finally took place.  A combination of factors, including legislation, court orders, and economic pressure played as much of a role as direct mass action, and as we're seeing now, white supremacy just went underground.  The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the iconic action usually cited as proof of the efficacy of nonviolence, has been overstated.  Terrorist violence by whites continued, and hasn't ended to this day.  Rosa Parks -- you've heard of her, I'm sure -- had to leave Montgomery, moving north, to escape threats and retribution.

I recently read a classic work, Negroes with Guns, by Robert F. Williams, a North Carolinian who returned home in 1945 after serving in the Marine Corps, determined not to accept racism anymore.  He joined the local NAACP chapter and moved it in a more militant direction.  He also formed an NRA-chartered gun club to prepare for black self-defense. This led to some exchanges of gunfire with white racist vigilantes, and ultimately to trumped-up kidnapping charges that drove Williams and his wife into exile, first in Cuba, then in the People's Republic of China.  They returned to the US and the charges were dropped in 1975.  Along the way the Williamses became friends and allies with Rosa Parks.  His account of his activities is interesting and inspiring, but I ended up doubting just how successful his embrace of self-defense really was.  Does nonviolent protest work?  Sometimes, maybe; but often not. Does armed self-defense work?  I'm not sure it does, and it certainly doesn't if you don't have local police, state troopers, and the FBI on your side, as white racists did.  As we've seen this summer, they still have the police on their side.

There have been a few more recent, scholarly books on black anti-racist self-defense in the South during the Civil Rights era, and I'll be reading them soon.  As I've said before, I don't rule out violence as a form of protest or resistance, but I don't get the impression that most of those who talk about it have a clear idea how to do it and make it work.  It doesn't help that mainstream voices, like NPR, are so malignantly ignorant and dishonest.  But I'm increasingly convinced that babbling "by any means necessary," a popular slogan of the 60s and 70s, is just posturing.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Were They or Weren't They?

I was procrastinating this afternoon when I happened on an old column by Slate's former movie reviewer David Edelstein.  He had recently reviewed The Return of the King, the final installment of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the vexed question of the bond between Frodo and Sam had stirred up a reaction in Edelstein's email.

Here’s scholar Jeanette Zissell on the tabloid antics of Sam and Frodo: “The intense relationship between Sam and Frodo, for example, is exactly of the same kind as Patroclus and Achilles, or Roland and Charlemagne. These men were extremely close, bonding in situations where their lives depend on each others’ actions. Their relationships read as verging on the homoerotic to a modern reader, and yet fall short of actualizing that tension. In Sam and Frodo’s case, as Tolkein was a devout Catholic, this relationship also reflects the communion between believers, and the respect, self-sacrifice and love they owe to each other. And while such sexual tension may or may not be present in any instance, each has a theme of friendship it is easy to miss. If these were stories of women, would we be so quick to discount feelings of loyalty and sentimental love in this way? As a culture we are often uncomfortable with male sentiment, something medievals had no difficulty in expressing. And while I understand your assertion and to a large extent agree, I would bring attention to the complications of these concepts that modern culture does not understand. We could well benefit from an inspection of that kind of bonding, and to look further at the self-assurance and lack of shame at male feeling that it involves.” Bravo. Gimme a kiss, Jim.

I wonder what Ms. (or Professor?) Zissell is a "scholar" of.  She ought to know that though Homer's Achilles and Patroclus weren't depicted as lovers, they were widely read as lovers by Greeks just a couple of centuries later.  This was not a confusion engendered by "modern culture," nor was it due to discomfort with "male sentiment."  It was an ancient culture revising its forebears, and since the characters in question are fictionalized if not fictional, it's as much a waste of time to insist that they weren't 'really' having sex as to insist that they were.  She should also know that sentiment and loyalty between women, historical or fictional, makes many people uncomfortable too.

As I've discussed before at length, ease with intense male bonding has coexisted with unease about it through most of Western history.  Even now in our supposedly more enlightened day. there are turf wars over the sexual orientation of this fictional character or that historical personage.  Where Frodo and Sam are concerned, I find it very interesting that so many modern readers devoured The Lord of the Rings without apparently being bothered by their closeness.  Maybe they were comfortable as long as they were immersed in the story, and only got nervous when for some reason they had to think about it.  As Jeanette Zissell's remarks show, even specialists in ancient or medieval literature don't think about it very well.  Maybe I should get around to reading The Song of Roland.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Fall of the House of Kennedy?

Incumbent Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) decisively beat back a primary challenge by Joe Kennedy yesterday, and I very much liked this take on his victory:
Corporate Democrats want to make the left out to be purity-obsessed and unwilling to compromise, but the left rallied around a longtime politician with a mixed record because he actively courted their support and became a champion of one of their major legislative priorities.
Someone else tweeted, before the results were in:
It's not that Markey is some democratic socialist, and no need to revise him as such. It's that he made a bet that the young left would redefine and save him, leaned into it, and so far that bet seems to be paying off. That is validation and power on its own.
Kennedy lost despite Democratic establishment support.  Nancy Pelosi endorsed him, for example, despite her former opposition to Democrats primarying Democrats, so Kennedy's defeat was among other things a rebuke to her, and a sign that her faction is losing its influence.  As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “No one gets to complain about primary challenges again.”

What had Markey done to draw Pelosi's opposition?  Presumably, he'd become friendly with Ocasio-Cortez and the other leftish Democratic newcomers known collectively as the Squad, and adopted some of their policy proposals such as the Green New Deal.  As a result he won support from the kind of activists and workers whom centrists denounce as purists.  You'd think that the Dem establishment would be celebrating their willingness to compromise, but I haven't seen that happening yet.  As someone else commented, "Liberals don't believe in compromise or coalition building or democracy... they want a 'party' that is entirely authoritarian dictates by their favorite oligarchs."

The corporate media have been singing one note about this primary: Kennedy's status as a scion of a political dynasty.  The Boston Globe, for example, called it "an unprecedented defeat to a Kennedy in Massachusetts."  It's the first time in decades that Massachusetts hasn't had a Kennedy in office!  And some backseat drivers have been saying things like "He was impatient. He should have waited", or "Let him wait his turn. There was no need for a change" (this from a "Sports columnist emeritus" from the Globe).  "His turn" implies that the seat was Kennedy's by right, perhaps by birthright, and when the time is fulfilled he can claim it.  I heard similar claims about Hillary Clinton: it was her year.  (There was a funny thread a couple of weeks ago, culminating with "He who can draw this golf club from the bag will be the Rightful Senator from Massachusetts!")  But it's not how a democracy, or even just a republic is supposed to work, and reminding the political establishment of that fact is one of the best things about Kennedy's defeat.

I've said it before: the elites and their sycophants claim that the dumb voters just care about personalities, while they care about issues.  They keep reminding us that we should vote for the guy we'd like to have a beer with, not the one whose policies we support.  Again and again we're seeing the opposite, and I find that heartening.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Without the Bottom of the Pyramid, The Top Is Nowhere

This may be obvious; I think it ought to be.  But I haven't seen anyone stressing it, so here goes.

The outcome of the Presidential election in November is important.  But the downticket races are more important.

If Biden wins but the Republicans keep the Senate and, worse, retake the House, we can't expect much to improve during his administration.  Biden's famous (or notorious - take your pick) for his ability to work with Republicans, but that doesn't bode well for the country.  And I expect that the Republicans consider it one thing to work with a right-wing Democratic Senator, but quite another to work with even a right-wing Democratic President.  Biden has already said he's good with fracking and fossil fuels, he will veto a universal healthcare bill even if it reaches his desk, and his foreign policy is even worse.  A Democratic Congress, especially if more progressive and left members are elected, might even be able to push Biden in a better direction.

If Trump wins but the Democrats take Congress, they will be able to block him.  They might be willing to impeach him again, and possibly remove him.  They might be able to pass halfway good legislation over his veto, refuse to confirm the judges and others he wants to appoint, and so on.

The same goes for all the downticket races around the country: governors, state legislatures, judiciary, city and county governments.  The national Democratic establishment neglected them for decades, with results that everyone can see.  Even this year, that establishment has tried to block progressive and left candidates and officials, by backing corporatist challengers to such figures as Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  That they failed is a very hopeful sign, it seems to me.

I mention all this because, though some candidates and races have gotten coverage, at least in my part of the Internet, I don't see many commentators looking at the larger picture - the necessity of booting out the Republicans who've taken over most of the country, with dire effects.  Dangerous as Trump is, and feckless as Biden is, there is more to our government than the Executive branch.