Friday, July 9, 2021

... So Please Come In and Use Our Internet!


The Champaign Public Library passed along this graphic today on Facebook, and it's what the kids call a self-own.  Any public library worth its salt will have Internet access and probably a computer lab, because the Internet is a vital source of information and communication.  So the best I can say about this meme is that it's ungracious.

On top of that, the image reminds me of some memes I saw more often a few years ago, of church marquees with snarky or funny pronouncements on them, that turned out to have been made from image-editing software templates. This meme might have been made with just such a tool.  The word LIBRARY in this one is a giveaway: wouldn't a real library include its name on a sign like this?

But of course, not everything in a library is true either, even if you leave the Internet out of it.  Numerous commenters pointed to fiction, and others argued that fiction is labeled as such.  Usually, yes.  But in the non-fiction section you'll find various religious scriptures and commentaries thereon, books on the paranormal (UFOs, telepathy, the occult, etc.), political polemics (my local library has plenty of Trumpian and other right-wing propaganda, which greatly outnumbers its left-wing counterparts), dubious popular science, and so on and on.  That you find something in your public library's stacks is no guarantee that it's true.  Despite some people's claims that librarians are gatekeepers, they don't and can't vet everything they acquire for truth or accuracy.

And as I keep insisting, the Internet makes it easier than it ever has been before for users to check facts.  Most people don't, but the Internet didn't create the problem.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

It's Witchcraft


A Facebook friend, who's something of a butterball himself, shared this meme on Facebook, with the caption "No es brujería, el problema es que ustedes viven del físico."  (It's not witchcraft / sorcery, the problem is that you all live on the physical plane.) 

I think the photo is sweet, though it would have made its point better if the young woman were also overweight.  (The younger working-class Mexican men I know seem to be happy to date women who not only are heavier than they are, but taller as well.  Autre pays, autre moeurs.)  I've pointed out before that when people complain that everybody nowadays is obsessed with looks and won't look at the inner person, they generally exempt themselves: it's only other people who must look for inner beauty, they are entitled to the attention of supermodels, beauty queens, and porn stars. Anyone who looks at this photo and congratulates (or envies) the gordito for having scored such a hot girlfriend still vive del físico.

But that misses the point, because it still assumes that sexual attractiveness consists solely of a certain look, and if you miss the mark but manage to get laid anyway, it's because someone saw your inner beauty and decided to overlook your outer ugliness for some reason.  Or you bewitched them somehow.  I don't believe that, if only because so many people express attraction to a wider range of people than the official commercial model accommodates.  And there's considerable social pressure against it, which I don't put down to media brainwashing but to ordinary human narrow-mindedness and stupidity.  I've always pushed back against it, even when I was young: if I wasn't going to give in to pressure to be heterosexual, I damn sure wasn't going to give in to pressure from other gay people trying to police my attractions.

I don't know what goes on in people's minds when they select sexual or romantic partners.  Maybe some do ignore looks for the inner person, though from what I observe they often don't do any better on that basis than if they went by the physical exterior. If we could see the inner person, would we judge any better than we do the outer?  I suspect that if they claim to be looking at the inner beauty, they're deceiving themselves.  I sometimes have thought that my tastes in men were wider than most other people's, but getting onto Grindr disabused me of that notion: I was surprised to find that I was only interested in a small minority, though most of the rest were sure they were hot.  Well, fine, to each his own.

Myself, I'd be happy to smooch the gordito in the picture my friend posted.  Not because I'm free of the physical, but because his physicality appeals to me.  I don't know what his girlfriend thinks about his looks; the looks of heterosexual men notoriously are said not to matter to women, but there's ample reason to doubt that.  I'm attracted to the men I'm attracted to, not because I live on the spiritual plane, but because I like their looks.  Sometimes an attractive man turns out to be a jerk, in which case he becomes less attractive.  (Similarly, if a cute guy I'm admiring takes out a cigarette and lights up, he becomes less attractive.  But some people fetishize smokers and smoking.  Go know.)

It's good to encourage people to recognize the beauty of people who aren't movie stars, but I don't think it's good to put it in terms of inner/outer beauty.  It's a false dichotomy anyway, but I think we need to encourage them to recognize the desires they already have.  From what I see around me, it's not really that much of a stretch in practice; I just want to improve the quality of the discourse.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Whole World Is Spinning!


This tweet was an attempt at irony, I guess.  I saw it because a liberal historian I follow retweeted it, and that's even more disturbing.  The irony goes a lot deeper than Seth Cotlar can grasp.

The Declaration of Independence is not an anti-colonialist document.  It was written by settler-colonialists to announce that they would carry on their colonialist project without interference from the British government. Which they did, from sea to shining sea, and when they had stolen as much as they could, the United States extended its tentacles around the world.  They certainly weren't opposed to colonialism; it was their brand.  (This distortion of history has been used before, by the way.)

As for "liberation," millions of Native Americans and African slaves might beg to differ.  It's one of the ironies of the drive toward American independence that the slave-owning rebels complained that they were being enslaved by the British Crown.  Even if their analogy were valid, they had no ground for objecting to being enslaved.  If it was acceptable for them to enslave others, then it would be acceptable to enslave them.

One commenter, a teacher, quoted Pink Floyd's "The Wall": We don't need no education / We don't need no thought control... Hey teacher, leave those kids alone!  This was presumably intended to mock the right-wing opponents of anti-racist education. Again a certain cluelessness was in evidence: the Floyd's diatribe against state indoctrination of the young was aimed at teachers like the commenter.  You were supposed to agree that kids don't need "education" as schools practiced it, and sing along with the chorus. If the Right appropriates that rhetoric, so much the worse for the rhetoric.

Of course I agree that schooling-as-indoctrination is a bad thing, and that students should be taught how to think critically about any orthodoxy.  I don't really get the impression that liberals and even progressives are comfortable with that idea, however.  I've seen a lot of pushback from liberals against teaching the conflicts and critical thinking, which they strategically misunderstand just as the Right stategically misunderstands Critical Race Theory.  This indicates that they want to replace the old orthodoxy with a new one, and even if I'm sympathetic to the content of their orthodoxy, it's not education.

Being anti-slavery doesn't mean "Hey, don't enslave me, enslave those people over there"; it means that no one should be a slave.  Anti-colonialism doesn't mean "I'll take over the job of stealing a continent from the people who already live here, just stop telling me how to do it"; it means you don't take over other people's land. Apparently a good many liberals can't understand that, and that's worrisome. They're perfectly happy if teaching American history makes other people uncomfortable, but their comfort is not to be disturbed.

As the educator Deborah Meier wrote* years ago (via):

There are plenty of liberal-minded citizens who are uncomfortable with Central Park East's stress on open intellectual inquiry and would have us leave young minds free of uncertainties and openness until "later on" when they are "more prepared to face complexity."  First, some argue, "fill the vessel" with neutral information and easily remembered and uplifting stories.  But such compromises will neither satisfy the Right nor prepare our children's minds for "later."

There isn't any "neutral information" where history is concerned.  Liberals (and others) confronting the Right need to be ready for some messy debate.  I don't believe that liberals in general know what Critical Race Theory consists of, or that they'd be happy if they did know.  I just reread Derrick Bell's 1989 book And We Are Not Saved (Basic Books), an exploration of what came to be known as CRT written for a general audience, and it made me uncomfortable. The book consists of dialogues between Bell and the fictional legal scholar Geneva Crenshaw, debating legal and movement strategy against racism.  I'd forgotten how effectively white supremacist resistance had blocked the gains achieved by the Civil Rights Movement, using those same gains for the benefit of whites.  Given what we've seen in the thirty years since it was published, Bell's recommendations seem far too optimistic.

Seth Cotlar's stance in the tweet I copied here is classic Ingsoc: Colonialism Is Anti-colonialism.  Slavery Is Liberation.  He's not as far from the Right as he likes to think.


*The Power of Their Ideas (Beacon Press, 1995, 2002), p. 81.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Sí, Don Diego, That Ees Right

I've been an admirer of the great playwright, critic, and polemicist George Bernard Shaw since I first stumbled on his writing in high school.  Since then I've become more aware of his limitations as well sa his brilliance, but I've also learned that many of the criticisms that have been leveled at him reflect willed misreading by people who hope to diminish his stature by any means necessary.  The American critic Eric Bentley produced an excellent study of Shaw, originally published in the 1940s, that effectively answered many of those critics.  I reread Bentley's book while I was slogging through Michael Holroyd's four-volume Shaw biography, which reinforced my sense that Holroyd, though a competent researcher, was in his judgments mainly recycling received attacks on Shaw.

One of those cliches was that as a playwright Shaw lacked emotion, and that his plays were primarily didactic intellectual contraptions, his characters mere ventriloquist's dummies for his ideas.  Reading all six volumes of his collected plays a few decades ago disabused me of that notion.  Seeing some of his plays performed confirmed my opinion.

But I also simply enjoy reading Shaw for his style.  I'm amazed at how prolific he was, producing not only many plays but the notorious prefaces to the published plays, plus political pamphlets, some fiction, music criticism (collected in three big volumes) and theater criticism (four volumes), and correspondence, collected in at least four volumes.  (I'm not sure yet if the collected letters include his correspondence, which had been published separately decades earlier, with notable ladies of the theater.)  He did all this without word processors, and probably without a typewriter.*  How did he do it?  (But then T. S. Eliot seems have produced even more letters, and he didn't live as long as Shaw.)

Which brings me to my subject for today.  I've owned the first two volumes of Shaw's letters, edited by Dan H. Lawrence, for some time without having read them, and decided it was time to get the second two and begin reading them. 

Volume three (Viking Press, 1985) arrived in the mail last week.  Flipping randomly through its pages I happened on this 1919 reply to an American named F. V. Connolly, who had asked Shaw, "Do you for instance think an all black company could depict Shakespeare, Shaw or Archer, or would they be limited by their colour to portray Comedy."  Now Shakespeare and Shaw, at least, wrote comedies as well as "serious" dramas, so Connolly must have been using the term to refer to "low" comedy.  Shaw's  response is short enough that I'm going to quote it in full:

Negroes act very well, usually with much more delicacy and grace than white actors.  The success of [Bert] Williams and [George] Walker in London was a genuine acting success.  Their powers of physical expression are very effective on the stage.

So far... not bad, but not really good either.  The next paragraph, however, delighted me:

The notion that there is anything funny in a man or woman being black is as childish as the notion that there is anything funny in being white, though no doubt the first white men in Africa must have elicited shouts of laughter from adults, and terrified the children into convulsions. The only difficulty about performances of Shakespear by negroes is that his characters are white Europeans, except Othello and the Prince of Morocco, neither of whom are negroes.  But as English actors have never been prevented from playing Romeo and Juliet by the fact that they are not Italians, and nobody's enjoyment is spoilt by the fact that the play is not written in Italian, so a performance by a black company would be just as enjoyable as a performance by a white one if the acting were equally good.  And the chances are that it would be better, as a black company would hardly venture on the play without some special qualifications for it.

The ideas expressed here are, I think, advanced even today, a century later.  It brings to mind the objections that actors playing Romans in English-language movies should speak with British accents, not to mention the convention that Anglophone movies set in foreign parts should speak English with foreign accents.  I first noticed this in the old Disney Zorro TV series, set in Spanish California, in which all the characters spoke broken English with Spanish accents.  (Imagine a production of Romeo and Juliet in which the actors spoke with stereotypical Italian accents!  Could be fun, but it would probably infuriate almost everybody.)  

But just today I saw a trailer for a Chinese martial arts film, in which the characters speak stilted English with a faint Chinese accent.  And of course we've seen many complaints about straight actors playing gay, Caucasian actors playing Asians, cisgender actors playing transgender, and don't even think about white actors playing black.  (Or vice versa -- didn't Kenneth Branagh cast Denzel Washington to play an Italian in his film of Much Ado About Nothing? Why yes, he did.)  There are real issues at stake here, because the objections can cut both ways: it's considered bigotry when someone argues that a gay actor shouldn't play a straight character, for example; how about a trans actor playing a cis character?  Should Americans play Brits, or vice versa?  Should Yankees play Southerners?  Why or why not?

But as usual our normal discourse on race/ethnicity stinks to high heaven.  Shaw cut through the confusion effortlessly over a hundred years ago.


P.S. I glanced through volume 4 of Shaw's letters, which arrived in today's mail, and noticed that in his later years at least he refers to his typing.  So he did use a typewriter, but even so I marvel at his productivity.

Friday, June 25, 2021

The Problem of the Body

The Washington Post published an excellent op-ed the other day, by the gay African-American writer Brian Broome.  Broome objected to the slogan "Love Is Love," which is just one of several vacuous, tautological slogans that have been spreading like a radioactive virus across social media and public demonstrations.  When he first saw it, he says, he thought it was sweet and unanswerable.

But as I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to think that this message, in and of itself, occludes the real issue of what people are protesting when they object to the lives and freedoms of gay people. Love isn’t the problem. I don’t believe that homophobes object to whether same-sex couples love each other.

No, it’s not the love. It’s the sex.
I agree, and along with some other gay people I've been saying so for years.  For that matter, antigay bigots know this and have been rebutting the focus on love all along: Love is fine, they say, but why do you have to express it sexually?  One might ask them the same, and one has.  Heterosexual copulation isn't even necessary for reproduction anymore: artificial insemination enables humanity to carry on by bringing sperm and egg together in a scientific, sanitary manner instead of gross animalistic grunting and sweating.  As Yeats wrote, echoing ancient Catholic sages, "Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement."  I am so yuck, y'know?

Many heterosexuals try to forget the old in-out in-out too.  It's not so bad if you refuse to talk, and as much as possible, to think about it.  Because of this I don't feel singled out: heterosexuals would prohibit man-woman coitus too, if they could. As the gay Catholic scholar Mark D. Jordan wrote in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago, 1997, p. 173):

Most Christian moralists have regarded celibacy as the higher calling, the fullness of Christian response to God. Marriage was permitted, though not recommended, for the continuation of the species and as a concession to human weakness in the present day. But no such concession needed to be made for same-sex love, so the entire force of condemnation – including the surplus of force left over from the concession to marriage – could be brought to bear on it. The irrational force of the Christian condemnation of Sodomy is the remainder of Christian theology’s failure to think through the problem of the erotic.
I want to stress that this squeamishness about the body is not caused by religion: religious teachings are caused by human squeamishness about the body.

It helps that "love" is such an ambiguous word, used for a wide range of relations between people, between people and other animals, and even the inanimate and the nonexistent.  This enables the squeamish to insist that love and sex are totally separate.  But if you look at how the word is actually used, what we now call "sex" was called "love," not only in English but in other languages as well.  I wonder if "love" first and primarily referred to copulation and the desire to do it, and generalized to non-erotic desires.  But the ambiguity is so old that it probably can't be resolved.

I part company with Broome in his conclusion, though.

Because of this, I believe that LGBTQ rights aren’t a matter of love. They’re a matter of bodily autonomy — the right to do what you want with your own body, as long as you’re not causing harm to others. The right to dress it how you want, present it how you want. The right to be sexually intimate with the consenting adult of your choice.

Love is love. Love is beautiful. And heaven knows there isn’t enough love in the world. But when it comes to slogans, “Love is love” is a bit misleading. I like “Your body is yours. Period.”

My conclusion is that we should all be wary of slogans.  Their simplicity is their selling point, but it's also their failing.  "Your body is yours. Period" has already been adopted by the right-wing anti-mask, anti-vaccination Right.  Any simplistic principle is going to run up against complexity.  Slogans are useful for organizing those who agree with you, but useless against your opponents.  Yes, your body is yours - but you live among other people and your sovereignty stops when it comes up against their safety.  Yes, love is love - but the people who love that slogan are quite sure that some loves are not love, and they want to have the power to disqualify loves that offend them.  

When there's a clash between competing autonomies and competing definitions of love, it's necessary to make judgments.  The judges must justify their judgments, which the gatekeepers of love and autonomy refuse to do.  It's all very well to wave around sloganeering placards, but if you can't also discuss and defend your position, you're not very different from the opponents you despise.  Not only will that make it harder to take on the Right, it will lead to confusion and division on your (our) own side.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Dishonor System

There was an excellent op-ed in today's newspaper on mask-wearing as the COVID pandemic starts to wind down.  I say it's excellent, of course, because it largely agrees with me, especially this bit:

I am astonished that the CDC and local and state health departments are explicitly depending on the honor system for unvaccinated people to continue mask wearing. When did personal responsibility become an effective public health strategy? Public health officials have never relied on people to act responsibly or prudently. That’s why we have public health regulations.

The people most eager to get rid of masks and to attack vaccination requirements are people without honor: people who produce fake vaccination cards, people who make fake legal arguments about discrimination, people who harass and even assault workers in businesses that require masks, people who tried to force the country to re-open even at the peak of cases last year, people who wanted to force others back to work without safety requirements in jobs that were heavily hit by the pandemic.  In my state, Indiana, they included Republican legislators who tried -- ultimately successfully -- to hobble public health measures, and who now want to cut short extra unemployment benefits in order to force (or so they hope) reluctant workers back to low-paid, unsafe jobs.  And, of course, there's considerable overlap between this stance and the claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

Many people, including me, drew analogies to other public health measures, such as the regulation and inspection of food establishments.  As it happens, a South Bend restaurant was recently closed by the board of health after longstanding multiple violations of the health code, culminating in two cases of food poisoning.  It emerged, however, that over the past couple of years the board of health had cut back on inspections and largely stopped public hearings on businesses with major violations.  The rationale was that they wanted not to subject the offenders to bad publicity that might hurt their business - which is, of course, the whole point of public hearings.  Despite all their fine talk of "choice," this policy had the effect of preventing the public from making informed choices.  It might have been defensible if the board quietly brought the offenders to compliance, but as this case showed, they quietly let the offenders continue to disregard the health of their customers.  It's not certain whether this case, emblazoned on the front page of the paper, will produce a return to transparency.  What is certain is that the push to eliminate public health protections isn't limited to infectious diseases.

As low as my opinion is of such people, I admit that I find their positions baffling.  We know that many of them remained steadfast in their denial of the seriousness of COVID-19 even when they got sick themselves -- even when they died of it, or when people close to them died.  But no matter.  Those who claim that they're entitled to disregard the health of others are wrong, both morally and legally.  They don't have the right to lie about their vaccination status.  They don't have the right to spread infection.

Myself, I still put on a mask when I enter businesses and other enclosed spaces, even though I've been vaccinated.  The more infectious, more virulent Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in 37 states so far.  If we don't get another big wave of infections, wearing a mask won't hurt me and it won't hurt other people either.  As other people have observed, wearing a mask will probably also protect against the routine illnesses -- colds, flu -- that tend to spread in the fall and winter; it's why many people in East Asia have routinely worn masks for years.  The pandemic isn't over yet, but it's not all we have to worry about: the right-wing attacks on the public health system are partly meant to ensure unpreparedness for the next pandemic, but they aren't just about COVID,

Friday, June 11, 2021

Your Department of Redundancy Department

Someone put this headline on a syndicated column in an area newspaper today.  I got used to such gaffes from the student paper at Indiana University, but thanks to venture capitalists cutting costs, professional journalism seems to me to exhibit them more and more.

It happens on TV and radio too.  In particular I've noticed what I think of as wandering adverbs, where modifiers stray from where they weirdly ought to be, to my inner ear anyway.  (My placement of "weirdly" is meant as an example of the tendency.)  Maybe it's just a case of language changing; I don't know.

In the same issue of today's paper, there was a story about sexual harassment in the Fire Department.  Several women firefighters sent a letter to their administration, declaring:

We come to work expecting a workplace free of harassment and violence, yet when it occurs it is treated like a slap on the wrist, even when the accused captain freely admits to the actions ... and this was his first offense!

This probably is a case of language changing, where the writer doesn't really think about the cliche she's using; if enough people make this mistake, it may become the standard form.  I presume the writer meant that the offense is punished with a slap on the wrist.  And I'm not judging -- I've garbled a figure of speech or two in my day.  But when it appears in print, it's especially jarring.  

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The End Times May Be Upon Us

Ah, NPR, you even make Pete Buttigieg look good.  Today Morning Edition had him talking about the end of Biden's negotiations on an infrastructure bill with Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito.  The only real information that emerged is that other Republicans are stepping up to negotiate in her stead; from the headlines I see, you'd think it was totally over.  But host Rachel Martin and Buttigieg kept referring to the Republicans as "bipartisan," as if there were more than one party in the GOP.  You could make a case, I suppose, that the party is divided between moderate Republicans and the Trump fanatics, but that would be mere propaganda at best; and anyway, it is still one party.  So far.

Buttigieg impressed me mildly today, though.  Not enough that I'd ever vote for him, but as a party apparatchik he's improved.  He stayed on message with none of his usual tone-deaf platitudes, and -- something I can't remember having heard anyone do before -- every time Martin tried to interrupt, he bulldozed smoothly over her before she could get a full word out.  The transcript isn't up yet, but I doubt it will show her inchoate starts and stops, so I commend the audio for your pleasure.

Martin finally managed to get out the question she seemed to think most important: Will Congressional Democrats resort to reconciliation to get the bill through the Senate?  Buttigieg seemed to think it was important too, because he refused to simply say Yes, though that was the upshot of his reply: It's got to be done.  He might have borne down harder on the fact that Biden's programs are popular, and supported by a majority of voters in both parties.  I've seen a number of notices like this one, reminding us that numerous important bills passed without bipartisan support; it's sad, perhaps, but partisan obstruction is never an excuse.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

My Five-year-old Could Do Better Than That!; or, Don't Be A Dick, Dawkins!

Dawkins strikes again!  I feel guilty for giving this tweet attention, but I'm procrastinating very hard on a more serious post, so I beg your indulgence.

Worse yet, Dawkins is deliberately trolling here, just trying to get a rise out of people like me: it's a mistake to take his remarks seriously enough to rebut them. 

I'll begin by saying that (to my shame) I have not yet read Kafka's "Metamorphosis."  That means I have no stake in defending its excellence, but then I don't think anyone could get a rise out of me by attacking the value of any work of art, even those I know and love very well.  You disagree that such and such a work is great?  Fine, go be somewhere else now.

I imagine that Dawkins has somewhere told us which works of literature he considers great, and I'd bet they're unrelentingly middlebrow.  His reference to Animal Farm here is all I have to go on.  I'm very fond of Animal Farm, which I first read on my own in fifth or sixth grade, but I don't consider it a great or "major" work; I'm not sure what those words mean in this context, but I think it's a minor work, very teachable, and the sort of story that people who don't care about literature are apt to like.  People love to find correspondences and secret messages in art, from biblical apocalypses to Dylanologists and those who believe that the Beatles' later work is full of coded references to the death of Paul McCartney to The Da Vinci Code to The Lord of the Rings.

The same might be true of "Metamorphosis."  It's reasonable that the premise - an ordinary man wakes up one morning to find he's been transformed into a giant bug -- would grab the ordinary reader's imagination. It's hard to see why even Dawkins would miss that.  Some commenters on his tweet replied that it's an allegory of a low-level clerk's life, which is a fair guess from what I've heard.  Even if that's true, however it doesn't confer greatness on the tale.  And pardon me for not believing that Dawkins has put much effort into understanding the "scholarly answers."

It happens that I just finished reading David Lodge's novel Nice Work (1988), about a feminist literary scholar and a Thatcherite businessman who are thrown together and learn to look beyond their respective fields.  Like the previous two novels I've read by Lodge, it's characterized by a humane generosity that is conspicuously absent from the writings of Richard Dawkins. I'm also working my way slowly through John Rodden's The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of 'St. George' Orwell (1989), of which I may have more to say later.  So far Rodden is summarizing the often contradictory meanings people have found in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, and in the word "Orwellian," which he notes "constitutes a supremely ironic instance of doublespeak" (34).  That's less because of Orwell's literary brilliance than his nose for the Zeitgeist, but maybe that's what makes a literary work "major."

So far it doesn't appear that Dawkins has posted again to scold Twitter for failing to understand the "obvious" intention that he hid very well in the original Tweet.  It's always entertaining to watch him digging himself in deeper.  Don't let me down, Dick!

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Lesser-Evilism in Peru

NPR continues to wake me up in the mornings with predictably skewed "news" coverage.  Today Morning Edition's summaries twice claimed that in Peru's upcoming presidential election, voters must choose between "two unpopular candidates."  That was all: they didn't even name the offenders.  I suppose they are saving real coverage for the coup that will surely ensue if the left-wing guy wins.  It's odd, though, because NPR, like US mainstream news in general, prefers to report on what hasn't happened yet; why aren't Steve Inskeep and Noel King asking some corporate think-tanker "what we can expect" in Peru if the Commie is elected?

Left-wing guy?  C'mon, it was obvious: left-wing candidates and (worse) winners have been troubling the sleep of US and Latin American elites for some time now.  And when I looked it up, sure enough, the current front-runners in Peru are Keiko Fujimori, the far-right-wing daughter of a famously corrupt former President -- think of her as the Ivanka Trump of Peru -- and Pedro Castillo, a former schoolteacher who "attained prominence as a leading figure in the 2017 teacher strike in Peru" according to Wikipedia.

Fujimori and Castillo emerged as the front-runners in a field of seven, which included a member of Opus Dei who scourges "himself daily to repress sexual desire" and "a former goalkeeper for the Alianza Lima football club".  Castillo came in first on April 11, but without a majority, hence the runoff.

NPR's characterization of Fujimori and Castillo as "unpopular" is dubious at best.  It may accurately describe Fujimori, with her baggage as the scion of a vicious right-winger, but Castillo came more or less out of nowhere, from only about 2% in the polls in March to the front-runner, ahead of candidates with a lot more name recognition.  (That Fujimori only made it to the second round with 13% of the vote confirms that she, at least, really is unpopular.)  According to Jacobin's article, he didn't even have a Twitter account, and "So unlikely was Castillo’s first round triumph that CNN failed to locate a photo of the candidate in time to announce his victory."

Unfortunately, like many on the Latin American left, Castillo embraces a "pronounced social conservatism".

Castillo opposes the legalization of abortion, same-sex marriage, and policies promoting gender equality — a stance unremarkable on its face given those same positions, in one form or another, are common to many of the region’s progressive leaders.

But Peru is also, along with Brazil, one of the Latin American countries where religious fundamentalism has made the biggest inroads into national politics. Rafael López Aliaga of the Popular Renewal party almost made it into the second round by branding himself the “Peruvian Bolsonaro,” and Peru is home base for the “Con mi hijo no te metas” campaign, a continent-wide propaganda movement that incites hatred against women and the LGBT community.

This is not good.  (Remember, though, that US liberals and progressives rallied deliriously around an antigay Democrat in 2008.)  Read the whole Jacobin article for details and nuance; it's much better than the usual suspects.  Even if you're not sympathetic to the left, left-wing media tend to do a better job of covering the news than the respectable corporate media.

"Two unpopular candidates" is what I'd expect from NPR.  Aside from the probably unconscious echo of the 2016 presidential race in the US, what it means is that Castillo is unpopular among those who really matter: wealthy Peruvians and US political and media elites.  I'm not sure why they wouldn't like Fujimori, though.

Sunday, May 30, 2021


I thought of pre-dating this post, because I missed taking notice of the blog's fourteenth anniversary on May 21, in part because I'd hadn't posted since April.  I bring this up because an acquaintance from many years back checked in with me by e-mail, concerned that I hadn't posted in over a month.  I reassured him that I'm all right, my health is normal, don't worry.  (A couple of months ago I got email from someone who was worried about the blogger Arthur Silber, who's been inactive without explanation since 2019.  Since I had Silber in my blogroll, my correspondent hoped I might know how he's doing.  I don't know.  I have far fewer readers than Silber, but I'll try to give some kind of alert to you if I can when I stop.)

I don't know why I'd stopped writing here for so long.  I had numerous ideas for posts, but I let them go past me.  At 70, I have somewhat less energy, and in fact I've been somewhat less active on other social media too.  Part of the problem may be lethargy brought on by the comparative isolation caused by the COVID pandemic.  It may be a low-grade depression such as many people have suffered in the past fourteen months; I thought I'd escaped it, but maybe not. 

Maybe it's connected to the opening up we're seeing now.  You might think that the euphoria of having made it through, of being vaccinated and feeling relatively safe, would have given me new impetus to write; but maybe it doesn't work that way.  In some ways it's the opposite: yes, we can interact with people again -- in fact I just returned from a five-day visit to Bloomington, where I saw numerous friends face-to-face for the first time in over a year, and it was wonderful.  But at the same time, like many people, I've felt that we're in a kind of limbo.  Is it over?  Will it ever be over?  Is it safe?  Where should I wear a mask, and where don't I need to?

At any rate I'm still here.  My friend's nudge may have been what I needed to get moving again.  Thanks to him, and to those who are still reading me.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

You Have a Right to My Opinion

One of my right-wing Christian acquaintances posted this meme today.  I've noticed that a lot of right-wingers (which includes a lot of liberal Democrats, unfortunately) express this attitude, and it needs to be slapped down harshly.  (In fact, a liberal Dem FB friend also put a Like on this meme.)

The assumption seems to be that if they get pushback for posting viciously bigoted crap, as they love to do, it's because their critics don't "like" them.  Very often the pushback comes from family members who actually love them, but disagree with their opinions.  As Christians, they should be able to understand the difference -- "Hate the sin, love the sinner" is another of their cliches -- but they prefer to make it all about them.  It's an easy way of denying responsibility for their actions.

"Like" her?  I barely know her.  This woman went to the same high school fifty-plus years ago.  All I know about her now is what she posts on Facebook.  If you post stuff urging your fellow Christians to lock yourselves indoors and pray so that God will spare you from COVID (hah!), while all the unbelievers outside get sick and die, of course I'm going to call you out on it.  If your grandkids call you out on it, of course I'll back them up.  Get used to it.  Bigotry and lies do an enormous amount of harm, and you and your buddies have gotten away with it for far too long.

I don't mind when others disagree with me, even forcefully.  Really, I don't.  That's another story.  Well-meaning liberal friends have told me that I shouldn't be surprised if people get angry when I disagree with them.  I'm not surprised at all.  The surprise seems to be all on the part of people who've never had to face disagreement from people they know.  They just throw tantrums and cast themselves as victims of Cancel Culture (or whatever it's called this week).  It's common to speak of Trumpies as if they were totally distinct from the rest of the population, but they aren't.  They're our neighbors, our coworkers, our parents and grandparents, they're people we went to school with.  Of course, if they are nasty enough, we may decide not to "like" them after all.  But that's a result, not a cause of the disagreement.

Another Facebook friend from the same school and of the same vintage replied to my remarks: "I am glad I read your explanation because as a recovering people pleaser I may have interpreted this differently until I read on."  I'm glad she replied, because I'd overlooked that aspect of the meme.  Many older women have expressed similar sentiments.  But the original poster and I have frequently clashed over the content of some of her posts, especially since the rise of Donald Trump.  Now older right-wing women have claimed the freedom and power to be bigoted scum - though in reality they always found ladylike ways to do it before.

But that's oversimple: as I indicated, the person who posted the meme loves to post stuff that's hostile to everyone outside her bubble -- for example, at the peak of the pandemic she was posting memes about Christians locking themselves in and praying while everyone outside died. (In the real world, it was just the opposite.) Like many right-wingers of both sexes, she alternates between kissyface-huggybear memes about God's Love for All and hateful memes about those who do not love God and America Donald Trump. 

Men learn to submit to more powerful men while dumping on those they think are safely below them.  Heterosexual women are on the same hierarchical scale, below their fathers and husbands and above their children and anyone else they can look down on.  Trump's women supporters are standing under the protection of his leathery wings, feeling free to bash all the subordinates they couldn't make to suffer enough before 2016.

The deeper problem is that most people have no idea what to do when someone disagrees with them. At best they think that debate means that I state my opinion and you state your opinion and it stops there, because Everybody Has a Right to Their Own Opinion. (In fact that's where debate begins.) At worst they think debate means the shouting matches they see on CNN or Fox News, which isn't debate either.
A lot of people say there's no point in debate because you'll never change the other person's mind, and they'll never change yours. That's usually true, but I'm not trying to change my opponent's mind. I hope that people watching/reading the exchange will see what the arguments are and judge for themselves. Most of the time most people don't even know that there is another side to a question.  The function of the corporate media is to limit acceptable alternatives in order to exclude any others.

For example, this news clip about an anti-Biden flag flown by a Phoenix homeowner begins with one of the anchors asking rhetorically, "Is it vulgarity or political free speech?"  This is the kind of false antithesis centrists love.  "Fuck Biden" is both "vulgarity" and "political free speech."  (In my day, "fuck" was an obscenity, not a vulgarity.  And it turns out that the flag in question doesn't spell out the obscenity anyway, though I gather other versions being flown around the country do.)  The comments under the clip are educational too, with Trump fans exulting that they've shown how much smarter they are than "libtards" who say "Fuck Trump" by ... adopting their tactics.

But that's an old story, and in many ways I'm grateful to the Right, who make acceptable subjects and discourse that the media would prefer to censor quietly.  Does anyone else remember Anita Bryant? Her antigay crusade in the late 1970s enabled the mainstream media to cover subjects they were too cowardly to cover before. Bryant said that the Bible forbids fellatio because semen "is the most concentrated form of blood." No radical gay activist could (or would) have said that on national TV, but a reactionary Christian woman could. Thanks to Bryant for opening the floodgates to Queer as Folk!

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

False Dichotomies, Cultural Baggage, and Nuclear Families

I was doing some thinking about identities today, with an eye toward doing another post on the subject, and got sidetracked when I reread this passage from an article on sexual attitudes in Mauritania.*

But I have come to understand that the statement "We don't have homosexuals in Mauritania" means something else altogether to the people who say it.  Western television and movies are widely available in and watched here.  Via these media, Mauritanians see American and European gay people demonstrating in the streets for their equality, petitioning their government for the right to marry, leaving their extended families, and setting up house together so they can live independently as a couple.  That is what "being gay" looks like to people there.  When homosexuality is portrayed in those terms, the Mauritanians are right -- they don't have (those kind of) gay people here!
Among the many things wrong with these remarks is something so obvious that I forgot to spell it out in the post I wrote around it.  There are numerous reasons why American and European gay people would marry, leave their extended families, and set up house together so they can live independently as a couple.  One very important one is that gay people here have traditionally been expelled from their families, whether by force or by insistent pressure.  But another is that it's what American heterosexuals do.  American heterosexuals rarely live in extended families, though it may have become more common lately, with the COVID pandemic exacerbating the effects of the crumbling American economy so that they can't afford to live independently of their families.  It's this pattern that Dennis Altman referred to as the homosexualization of American culture, and it helped make room for gay people to imagine their coupled arrangements as normal, since in American terms they increasingly were.

Still, the much-vaunted "American dream" is built around the nuclear family, living in the suburbs in a house with a white picket fence with 2.4 children, with white-haired Grandma and Grandpa living in the picturesque countryside to be visited on occasional holidays.  It was always exaggerated, since many heterosexuals chose to live near their parents if they could; gay people frequently could not.  It's also an exaggeration to suppose that people live in "their" extended families in other cultures: in traditional Confucian Korea, for example, a bride left her parents to live with her husband's extended family, and visited her parents only rarely for the rest of her life.  Some family connections, in other words, are made to be broken even in traditional cultures, but they don't count.

If I were trying to explain American gay people to Mauritanians who'd been seeing gay political activism in the news, among the many other misconceptions I'd have to correct was their misunderstanding of heterosexual family arrangements in America.  (Another would be the fantasy that all American gay people spend all our time marching in the streets.  If we did that, we'd never have time for the eternal cavalcade of non-stop, mind-blowing anal sex for which we are justly famed worldwide.)  As I've said many times before, it's true that Americans have cultural baggage of which we tend not to be aware - but so do people in every country and culture.


*Jay Davidson, "It All Began with Mamadou," in Gay Travels in the Muslim World, ed. Michael T. Luongo (Harrington Park Press, 2007), p. 8.  Is a "gay travel" a travel that wants to get married to a travel of the same gender?

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

I Don't Mean to be Judgmental, But ...

The local newspaper carries the venerable advice column Dear Abby, and the first letter in today's column struck a chord, or a nerve.

DEAR ABBY: I am a senior male. I understand I may have some beliefs that others find old-fashioned. However, I consciously try to be tolerant of others’ feelings and beliefs. That said, my problem is with my younger brother, who is a homosexual. I have always tried to ignore that side of his life and, consequently, we have always had a good relationship. He lives in another state, so we only talk on the telephone.

A couple of months ago while we were talking, the subject of sexuality came up, and I told him I find the fact that he is gay “disgusting.” I know it was a poor choice of words. I merely meant to say that I, myself, am and always have been totally heterosexual. I have never had any sexual interest in members of my own sex. I never meant my comment to be judgmental of my brother or anyone else.

I left several messages apologizing for anything I said that he found objectionable. Now, when I try to contact him, he doesn’t answer my phone calls.

Abby, I miss my brother. I truly love him, and I don’t want to lose all contact with him. If you have any advice for me, please give it to me. I’m desperate and can think of nothing I might be able to do to restore our relationship. — FEELS LIKE A FOOL IN WASHINGTON 

Abby was refreshingly unsympathetic, which is in keeping with the Dear Abby brand.  Her mother, the original Abby, was pro-gay before it was cool, and before her sister "Ann Landers" shed her own old-fashioned views on the matter.  In one famous 1972 column, she slyly told an inquirer who asked how to improve their "once-respectable neighborhood" after a gay couple moved in: "You could move."

My take on today's letter takes a wider view.  Bigots of whatever stripe like to see themselves as merely "old-fashioned," unable to understand why others get indignant when they refer to Negroes as monkeys, to women as whores, to gays as a form of bestiality.  Indeed, another syndicated column in today's paper, by an elderly white man, began by declaring that none of his best friends are black, then explaining that he was just being provocative, but jeez, people have gotten so sensitive about race "in the past couple of years."

For me the key to "Feels Like a Fool in Washington"'s letter was this paragraph:

A couple of months ago while we were talking, the subject of sexuality came up, and I told him I find the fact that he is gay “disgusting.” I know it was a poor choice of words. I merely meant to say that I, myself, am and always have been totally heterosexual. I have never had any sexual interest in members of my own sex. I never meant my comment to be judgmental of my brother or anyone else.
I have no doubt that he had been obnoxious to his brother many times before and that he'd been wanting to use the word "disgusting" for decades, so it's not surprising that it finally popped out.  And though he pretends to be remorseful, he proceeds to try to justify himself: "I merely meant to say..."  Sure he did.  There's no reason why his supposed total heterosexuality requires him to be disgusted by his brother's homosexuality, but again, this is what bigots say when they blurt out something reprehensible.  They merely meant to say that as white people, as men, as Christians, as Americans, as whatever, they naturally loathe those outside their granfalloon.  I remember talking with a young gay man who declared that older gay men should not have sex with anyone at all, not even each other, because it was sick and unnatural and disgusting, they should be kept out of sight: he wasn't being judgmental, he meant them no harm, but he just wasn't attracted to them.  I've heard the same line applied to 'stereotypical' gay men.  But "Feels" never meant the word "disgusting" to "be judgmental."

I also doubt very much that the two had "always had a good relationship."  It's a safe bet that his brother had put up with expressions of this man's bigotry for decades, and finally drew a line.  Even now, "Feels" tries to put it all on his brother: there was nothing really wrong with what he said, but his hypersensitive cancel-culture brother "found it objectionable" anyway.  I wouldn't take his phone calls either.  What Sarah Schulman wrote about a conflicted lesbian student applies here too: "I know that her parents do not love and do not support her.  All they care about are themselves.  They do not see her as real.  And for now, she agrees with them."  The brother may have tried to persuade himself that "Feels" loves and cares about him, but it appears that "Feels" finally persuaded him he was wrong.  "Feels" cares only about himself.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Wills Are Made to Be Broken

The pandemic drags on, with deaths declining and illnesses rising across the US.  My home state of Indiana is now lifting most restrictions, with masks recommended rather than required at the state level; even before the order was lifted, I saw increased numbers of people shopping without masks on.  Municipalities can continue their own control orders, but good luck enforcing them. The county next door wrestled with the problem, and a newspaper story reported that a councilman opposed a mask mandate on the ground that "people don't want to be told what to do."

That's probably true for many, and I initially fumed inwardly because such people think of quarantines and protective gear as something Authority does just to keep them from having fun: they don't take the virus seriously, until they themselves get sick or die.  It isn't, I believe, because the reasons for the restrictions haven't been explained to them, because they have.  I think they react reflexively, like a two-year-old saying "No" automatically and without thought, and it probably helps that most of the time they face no serious penalty for refusing to cooperate -- not even being sent to their rooms with no TV.

Then I happened to reread an older post of mine about boys' and young men's reflexive resistance to rules.  (Large numbers of the older adults we've seen throwing tantrums over having to wear a mask in stores have been women, so it turns out that this reflex isn't exclusively or even mostly male.)  I've noticed before that the same young men who feel oppressed by grownups and their rules also "aspired to join the military or professional sports", which feels odd to me: don't they realize that they'll be forced to conform to far more encompassing chickenshit rules, many of which really are there just to provoke them to disobey, so that they can be slapped down with far more brutality than they ever encountered in school?  It used to be, and still may for all I know, that judges would give boys who kept clashing with the local law a choice between jail and joining the service.  Either way they were going to be beaten, more or less literally, into submission.

(This syndrome wasn't limited to stereotypical bad boys: it was also common among young scientists who chafed at Mom telling them to carry out the garbage or clean their rooms, and retaliated by making stink bombs in the basement. They sought freedom in places like Los Alamos, where they could play with explosives for the fun of it.)

The fantasy was that the process would "make a man out of them," which might be true if "a man" is someone who's been beaten into mindless obedience.  And that's the opposite of what the bold anti-masking brigades claim for themselves.  A similar conflict seems to motivate much of the Trump base: they talk trash about authority, but they also love it, though only as long as Trump tells them what they want to hear.  Maybe that's what they wanted, though, to be taken in hand, their heads shaved, kept in barracks, hemmed in by barbed wire, and forced to comply with a maze of chickenshit regulations?  Maybe all the resistance to masks, distancing, and restrictions on public gatherings was really a cry for help, a plea to be forcibly conscripted into Pandemic Boot Camp for some Tough Love.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Forward Into the Past!

Several books have been published in the past couple of years about straight-identified men, mostly young, who have occasional sex with other men, but don't consider themselves gay or bisexual.  This morning I looked at the Amazon page for one of them, Mostly Straight: Sexual Fluidity Among Men, by Ritch C. Savin-Williams, published by Harvard University Press in 2017. 

Here's the blurb for Mostly Straight:

Most of us assume that sexuality is fixed: either you’re straight, gay, or bisexual. Yet an increasing number of young men today say that those categories are too rigid. They are, they insist, “mostly straight.” They’re straight, but they feel a slight but enduring romantic or sexual desire for men. To the uninitiated, this may not make sense. How can a man be “mostly” straight? Ritch Savin-Williams introduces us to this new world by bringing us the stories of young men who consider themselves to be mostly straight or sexually fluid. By hearing about their lives, we discover a radically new way of understanding sexual and romantic development that upends what we thought we knew about men.

Today there are more mostly straight young men than there are gay and bisexual young men combined. Based on cutting-edge research, Savin-Williams explores the personal stories of forty young men to help us understand the biological and psychological factors that led them to become mostly straight and the cultural forces that are loosening the sexual bind that many boys and young men experience. These young men tell us how their lives have been influenced by their “drop of gayness,” from their earliest sexual memories and crushes to their sexual behavior as teenagers and their relationships as young adults. Mostly Straight shows us how these young men are forging a new personal identity that confounds both traditional ideas and conventional scientific opinion.
This is wrong on just about every point.  Do "most of us assume that sexuality is fixed"?  Maybe, but it also looks to me like most of us assume that "everybody's a little bit gay," that "sexuality is a continuum," that "Kinsey proved most people are bisexual with just a few exclusively gay or straight at either extreme."  "Sexual fluidity" is a very common buzzword.  At the same time, I concede, many or most people believe that sexual orientation is genetically determined and immutable, and many people refuse to admit even the reality of bisexuality, denouncing bisexuals as closet cases who need to get off the fence and choose a side.  (This last generally comes from people who throw tantrums if they think someone has said that being gay is a choice.)  The human capacity for doublethink is impressive.

Further, the idea of sexual orientation as a spectrum is not new; it's over seventy years old, maybe older, and it's associated with Alfred Kinsey's work on human sexuality.  Certainly it's the conceptual environment in which Savin-Williams and almost everyone studying human sexuality these days grew up.  "How can a man be 'mostly straight'?" the blurb asks rhetorically.  That's easy to answer: a mostly-straight person would map anywhere from 1 to not-quite 3 on Kinsey's continuum, a zero being exclusively heterosexual and three being equally heterosexual and homosexual.  I've noticed that many professionals get the Kinsey scale wrong, which baffles me: it ain't rocket science.

Even before Kinsey came along, sex researchers were aware of the phenomenon Savin-Williams and others are writing about.  When the inversion model reigned supreme, it meant that inverts had to seek partners from the "normal" population.  Many of these partners were younger men, and their sexual orientations had to be "fluid" enough that they could play the insertive role with other males.  It was, I believe, less often noticed that many older men did the same thing, and trade who took the receptive role were an anomaly that had to be ignored.  All this was something of  a stumbling block for conventional ideas of sex and gender, but with enough doublethink all things are possible.  Kinsey provided an alternative conceptual model which most researchers adopted officially without really believing it.  In any case Savin-Williams isn't describing a "cutting-edge" "new world" at all.

"Today there are more mostly straight young men than there are gay and bisexual young men combined."  That's interesting, because it would require a vast research program on the scale of Kinsey's to support this claim, and no such work has been done.  But Kinsey found more "mostly straight" men than gay or bisexual men (depending on how you define "bisexual"), and given how widespread the queer/trade model was before Kinsey, it's likely that it was always so.  So, again, there's nothing new here.

The difference between a "mostly straight" man and a "bisexual" man depends on who's doing the labeling.  The amount or ratio of same-sex to other-sex experience could be the same.  As I said before, much depends on how you define "bisexual."  Many people claim it means a precise 50/50 divide between one's same-sex and other-sex partners, which is probably pretty rare.  One Amazon reviewer said that one experience with a man doesn't make a man bisexual, which is true except in a narrow technical sense.  But Savin-Williams is writing about young men who have sex with other men on an ongoing basis.  If they reject "bisexual" as a label, it isn't necessarily because it's inaccurate.  At most, "mostly straight" is a subset of "bisexual," not a distinct phenomenon.

Savin-Williams specializes in the sexual lives of young men.  Fair enough, but I can testify that sexual fluidity isn't limited to men under 30.  (Thank goodness.)  What might be new is that such men are more willing to talk about their homosexual experience than they used to be.  When I ran the local LGB speakers bureau, we had plenty of bisexual women volunteers, but very few bisexual men.  It certainly wasn't because there weren't men on campus or in town who were having sex with men and women; I suspect the stigma of homosex was still more than most bisexual men could handle.

Reality -- that "buzzing, blooming confusion" William James ascribed to babies' perception, not quite accurately -- doesn't map as neatly as scientists and others want it to.  That's not news, so I'm baffled by their refusal to take it as given.  "Fluidity" isn't a much better concept.  I've sometimes thought that "plasticity" would be better, but probably not.  The real problem isn't the word used but people's attempt to cling to it monogamously, to insist that reality conform to their definition.  It might be that concepts and terms are like walls and fences: they must be checked regularly to make sure they haven't fallen down -- the more people use a word, the more its meaning will drift -- but also that the plants and livestock they contain haven't jumped over to or from the other side.  Nature doesn't respect barriers, physical or conceptual.

I'd be very happy if the stigma attached to homosex were to disappear, so that people wouldn't feel compelled to take a pledge of allegiance to either homo- or heterosexuality because of whom they're dating or having sex with this week.  If it happened, defensive quasi-identities like "mostly straight" or "bicurious" (gag me) would also go by the wayside.  Human beings are language-using animals, though, and I expect that we'd just come up with new ways to describe ourselves badly.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021


I just read an interesting book, UFO Crash at Roswell: The Making of a Modern Myth by Benson Saler, Charles A. Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), which tries to trace the development of the myth around a supposed UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The authors try to establish what really happened there, but are more interested in the way the story was modified over time by believers in extra-terrestrial contact, documented through publications and interviews with some of the mythographers.  I want to return to this subject in a future post, but I was strongly affected, and amused, by an excerpt reproduced from a "newsletter" to members of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims for the Paranormal.  It looks more like a fundraising spiel to me, or more likely a subscription pitch for Skeptical Inquirer, CSICOP's magazine:

By repeatedly showing the public a television world where psychics can see the future, where astrologers read the stars to make important personal and business decisions, TV programmers make possible real life nightmares.  How about the scandal in Orange County, California, where treasurer Robert L. Citron allegedly drove the county into bankruptcy -- and used psychics and mail order astrologers to predict interest rates!  How about "financial astrologers" who charge up to $10,000 for one consultation? Need more proof of the harm media-driven credulity can do?  The United States government spent $20 million on a program called Stargate. "Psychics" and "remote-viewers" were paid to use their "powers" to find ships carrying drugs off Florida, spy on nuclear testing in China and the Soviet Union, and look for a kidnapped American general held hostage by terrorists.  Yet today the federal government repeatedly shuts down over budget battles and funding cuts for Medicare, Medicaid, education, and social services.

The overwrought tone here reminds me of mailings I have gotten from other magazines, usually liberal or left-wing in my case, but also of mailings sent out to the faithful by the late Jerry Falwell to warn of the threat from Militant Homosexuals. Rationality is all very well, but it doesn't sell magazines.

I used to read Skeptical Inquirer and found it useful, though I don't recall that I ever subscribed, and I was and remain sympathetic to their goals.  But I noticed that CSICOP had some serious blind spots; I think I remember that they bought into biological determinism, especially where homosexuality was concerned, and I gradually stopped looking through it at the library.  Which doesn't mean I started believing in psychics, astrology, or flying saucers; they just became less of a concern to me.

On UFOs, I'm firmly agnostic.  I don't doubt that people have seen things moving through the sky that have never been identified or explained, but that doesn't mean they necessarily came from outer space.  There has always been considerable ambivalence among scientists about UFOs: they know how great the odds are against these objects being visitors from other planets, but they really want to believe that human beings aren't, as the saying has it, "alone in the universe."  They also want to believe that human beings will someday be able to travel to other solar systems, and colonize other worlds.  The scientists who want to believe these things are not cranks but highly regarded, often media-savvy figures like Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Stephen Hawking.  Astronomy hobbyist magazines try to be responsible, but they know their readers will snap up issues that deal with the possibility of space flight, so they skate close to the edge of fantasy.

What really jumped out at me from the quotation above was its focus on hucksterism, and while I'm dubious about some of the examples it gives, I agree that astrologers and psychics make a lot of money off the credulous.  But they are pikers compared to the respectable institutions of Wall Street, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.  The really destructive economic disasters are not brought about by "financial astrologers" but by the financial speculators, aided by rationalists like Alan Greenspan, who nurture bubbles in the belief that they will never break, or failing that, can be managed to collapse gently with minimal damage.  I always think of Jim Cramer, the CNBC personality who assured his audiences their money was safe right up to the 2008 crash; one would think his failure to see the coming catastrophe would have had consequences, but aside from some brief embarrassment it didn't, and he's still on CNBC.

Aside from finance, there's war.  Astrologers and psychics didn't invade Iraq in 2003, nor did they develop weapons that have killed millions of people.  (Not that they wouldn't if they could, I'm sure.)  Wartime always spurs interest in the paranormal, from protective medals to communication with the spirits of the dead; bogus, no doubt, but what does Science have to offer the bereaved?  And maybe I shouldn't harp on scientific racism, but though it has done a great deal of harm, it's still respectable.  So while yes, I'm concerned about commercial media's exploitation of occult mysteries, I'm even more concerned about the spokesmen for Science with a strong media presence who defend the worst of science along with the best.  CSICOP has rebranded itself as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry; I should see what they're up to these days.

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Terminators

I've always neglected local news, to my eternal shame, but reading the newspaper in my hometown may nudge me onto the right path.  Today it featured an article about a bill that has been introduced into the Indiana state legislature to terminate the year-long COVID-19 public health emergency.  There's been some squabbling over who's in control for most of that period, with legislators claiming they'd been shut out of decision-making and Governor Holcomb claiming they'd shown no interest in doing so.

Today's story reported that the resolution would empower the legislature to "terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time and specifies that, if the legislature terminates a state of emergency under the statute, the governor shall issue and executive order or proclamation ending the state of emergency."  That seems fair enough, and the only odd thing to me is that such measures weren't in place already.  I've heard numerous radio reports in the past year of legislators fussing about Holcomb's supposed overreaching, but I wonder why, if they were so upset, it took them so long to come up with this resolution.

There's more, though: 

The general assembly finds that Hoosiers have been living with the realities of COVID-19 since March 2020 and have access to sufficient information to decide what actions should be taken by themselves and their family members. 

The general assembly recommends that Hoosiers be respectful of others and the different levels of personal comfort that Hoosiers have [and] that Hoosiers continue to use caution in their daily activities.

The general assembly finds that vaccinations are now available for law enforcement officer, and other first responders, health care professionals, and Indiana residents who are at least sixty-five years of age.

The general assembly needs to update their resolution: the vaccine age requirement has been lower than sixty-five for weeks now, and was just lowered to forty.  But to be fair, this is presumably the form that was read and referred on March 1.  Holcomb is quoted in the article declaring that it's too soon to lift the emergency, let alone the mask mandate.  The bill hasn't passed, and I suspect it won't.  It's just some legislators throwing a bone to the more rabid of their constituents.

They do talk pretty though, don't they?  Bear in mind this is the same Indiana General Assembly where, just this February, some white Republican members booed and mocked black members during a debate and in the hallways afterward.  But they maintained decorum, they left their robes and hoods at home.

Hoosiers, like the rest of America, have had "access" to information about COVID-19 for many months now, and though most of the people I see are wearing masks when they should, a significant minority don't give a shit about "the different levels of personal comfort that Hoosiers have" and are already jumping the gun.  One sign is that Marshall County, where I live, had achieved the lowest (blue) level of new cases for a couple of weeks, and then slid back a notch to the yellow level.  With spring coming, people are busting out all over, and I don't blame them -- I find I'm increasingly restless with each mild day.

It's because I'm restless and tired of the pandemic that people who refuse to wear masks make me angry. If my county stays in the yellow zone, if the state has to remain under emergency, it'll be because of them.  They think that the mean old governor won't let them have any fun, but it's the virus -- in their terms, it's their God.  If they got their way and the mask mandate were lifted, who would they blame when illnesses and deaths multiplied?  They'd blame the Chinese, probably. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Because You Are Lukewarm, I Will Spew You Out of My Mouth

The local newspaper in my small town manages to publish six days each week, which if I remember right was its frequency fifty-plus years ago, before I moved from the area.  That's not bad, given the difficulties newspapers everywhere are having.  Of course the pages are smaller than they used to be, as with most newspapers nowadays, but most of the content is locally produced and relevant.  I subscribe to the digital edition to support a local business, though I still seem to end up reading a print copy at the public library most of the time.

Last week I noticed a big column printed on a gray background, running from the top to the bottom of the editorial page.  It turned out to be a syndicated thing by Michael J. Hicks, a professor of economics at Ball State University, on the subject of the minimum wage, a timely enough topic.  I started reading.  It was strange.

The minimum wage has been much in the news these days, because of Joe Biden's abandoned promise to raise it to $15.  Professor Hicks began by declaring, "it seems wise to treat the issue a bit differently."

Instead of outlining the positive and negative effects of a particular increase of the minimum wage, I’ll offer the best arguments for and against any minimum wage. In so doing I’ll attempt an ideological Turing test, making the arguments so clearly that a reader cannot discern my personal position. By explaining the best arguments on both sides, I hope to achieve two goals. The first is to make clear the need for compromise. The second is to maximize angry comments from readers. Wish me luck.

And that was what he did: he rehearsed some basic arguments for and against having a minimum wage at all.  It reminded me of the late Alexander Cockburn's satirical piece "The Tedium Twins," which mocked PBS's McNeil-Lehrer Report for its dedication to finding two sides to every question, both of them as near a fantasized middle of the road as possible.  It's true that there are people who'd like to abolish the minimum wage, but they aren't like to get anywhere, and abolition is not on the table right now anyway.  So why bother?  It's like going over the arguments for and against giving women the vote: quite irrelevant except for a few cranks, but it does fill up those column-inches, and Professor Hicks expressed his hope that he'd covered the arguments well.

If I have done so, and you, dear reader, are honest with yourself, you must admit that both the argument for and against hold a great deal of truth. I would go so far as to say that both arguments are essentially true.

The policy environment facing functioning democracies is almost always like the minimum wage debate. Both sides offer argument possessed of both supportive facts and truth. Yet, entirely reasonable, educated and well-meaning people still disagree. It is a hallmark of a liberal democracy that our policy debates are dominated by matters in which compromise is not just possible, but necessary. That is largely because we’ve solved most of those problems where compromise is not possible. 

Well ... no.  If I'm honest with myself, the arguments against the minimum wage were actually quite bad.

The best argument in opposition to a minimum wage is that government should not, and cannot, be in the wage- or price-setting business. Government has no role in a great many high-stakes personal decisions. Government cannot tell us what language to speak, what church to attend, who to marry or with whom to form a family.

No government may tell us adults how much alcohol we may consume, whether or not we can smoke tobacco, nor increasingly whether or not we may freely purchase cannabis or other drugs. Government cannot tell us whether or not we may own a gun or what type of house, automobile or boat we may own. Government isn’t permitted to do these things because free people won’t allow government to do these things.

However, free people will allow government to set and increase a minimum wage: a $15 minimum wage is favored by about two-thirds of likely voters, according to Pew, and other pollsters get similar results.  The comparisons Hicks lists -- what language to speak, which church to attend, who to marry, etc. -- are not similar in kind to a mandated minimum wage anyway.  I don't think it's accurate to claim that this argument is essentially true.  Hicks says it's the best one he knows of, and despite his affectation of impartiality, he can hardly take it seriously.  Instead he spent quite a number of column-inches saying effectively nothing.  I would call that irresponsible: as an educator, his role should be to address live issues rather than evade them.

As for "compromise," well...

As Congress commences a debate on increasing the minimum wage, we should view this as a crucial moment for our Republic. We have just passed through the most significant assault on our Constitution since the Civil War. Our ability to overcome that and prevent it in the future depends in part on how effectively we compromise over legislation. We should view the minimum wage as a good place to start.

The fun part of this sort of rhetoric is that you can advocate pretty much any kind of compromise you like if you get to decide where the extremes are.  Professor Hicks sets his extremes as abolition of the minimum wage and having one; compromise in that case would mean cutting the minimum wage, and I don't think a free people will allow that to happen.  The important point here is that those are not the options Congress will debate.  On Professor Hicks's assumptions, compromise would mean raising it to less than $15, or maybe cutting it, depending on where he imagines the Republican position to be.  That is not going to work either.  I'd like to suppose that as a professor of economics, he's aware that the current figure, $7.25, is a poverty wage that hasn't kept up with either inflation or increased worker productivity, which wage increases are supposed in principle to track. 

But to repeat, compromise depends on where you set the extremes, so let me suggest as one extreme that the minimum wage be abolished, and on the other, that the US impose really confiscatory taxes on the richest Americans, and use the new income to institute a guaranteed universal income for all Americans.  While I'm dreaming, let me add the abolition of all business-endowed chairs of economics at state universities.  We could compromise on, say, a $50 minimum wage.  Our future depends on how effectively we compromise on legislation, so let's get to it.

Friday, March 19, 2021

But I Don't Want to Be Angel Food!

Former presidential candidate and New Age profiteer Marianne Williamson tweeted today: "No we should not run this country like a business, we should run it like a loving and functional family."

That's a nice huggyface kissybear sentiment, but it collapses under the slightest scrutiny.  To begin with, who is "we"?  "We" implies that "this country" is something other than those who run it, though that may be partly a feature of language.

However, a family is a hierarchy.  Running a country like a family means someone would be the husband/Father, someone else the wife/Mother, others the children, another the dog.  It's not a model for a country to emulate.  Citizens aren't the children or pets of those who run the country.  At least in a family, children eventually grow up and take over their own lives.  What would be the analogy to that in a country run like a family?

Monarchs have often styled themselves the loving parents of their subjects.  The United States rejected that model, and even though the founders failed to eliminate all the hierarchies, the ideal was a society of equals.  We're still working out what that means and how to implement it.  The founders were ambivalent about capitalism, recognizing that it constituted a threat to freedom and equality.  But so does modeling a country after a family.

This has also been my response to cultural feminists who wanted to restore matriarchy.  We need to be adults, not children.  We need parents (or adult guardians) when we're children, but parents of either sex shouldn't rule our lives when we grow up.  I don't know if there's a word for a society that's neither patriarchal nor matriarchal; I think we need one.

Many of the commenters under Williamson's tweet, whether they agreed with her or not, assumed that capitalism and paternalist charity were the only two options for running a country.  There are others, democracy or anarchism among them, which don't involve hierarchies.  They're hard to realize, but so is every system.  Williamson cheats by positing a "loving and functional family"; but who will keep the parents loving and functional?  In real families, parents often (usually?) struggle to be adults, balancing the needs of their children with their own fears, insecurities, and limitations, trying to protect the children from knowing what is going on.  In a society, adults should not be protected in that way.  A lack of transparency always leads to problems in the long run anyway: it is not for the citizens' own good to be lied to, and politicians who lie are really concerned with protecting themselves, not their constituents.

At times in the past couple of years, in her role as a political figure, Williamson has said some things that were quite sensible, but she always relapses into the mush-brained New Age platitudes that made her famous.  That's what she's doing here. 

(Williamson is the founder of something called Project Angel Food, a food charity.  The name is unfortunate, reminiscent to me of Damon Knight's sf story "To Serve Man" -- "It's a cookbook!") 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

I May Not Know Cancel Culture, But I Know What I Like

The gay men's discussion group I attend (virtually nowadays) took up the subject of "cancel culture" this month.  I considered passing on this one, but it turned out not to be as bad as I'd feared.  It was pretty bad, but I learned something from it.

The organizer/moderator began by sketching out the media flurry over "cancel culture," referring to Dr. Seuss, J. K. Rowling, Potato Head, and some other high-profile examples.  He immediately disavowed any knowledge about any of them, declaring that he was just going by the headlines he'd seen.  Well, great: that discredited him totally - which upset me, since we're personal friends. 

The rest of the group accepted his account, which could be called the official account as framed by the corporate media.  It quickly emerged that all they knew was what they'd picked up on the fly from headlines.  That was significant, but it's notoriously Donald Trump's approach to the news; and ironic, because some of them lamented that other people never read past the headlines of news stories.  These men ranged from about 40 to 70 in age, all are articulate and educated, some are professionals  (The two non-whites in the group were Asian.)  But though all of them agreed that "cancel culture" (or CC) was a big problem, none of them knew much about it -- and I'm being generous there.  They agreed that CC is an existential threat to American society, to democracy, to freedom of speech.

I waded in recklessly, arguing that none of the victims they were concerned about had actually been cancelled, if that means losing their jobs because the Twitter mob had jumped on them.  J. K. Rowling is still rich, still has her social media accounts (in fact she's part of a Twitter mob, labeled TERFs, trying to cancel transgender people), her books are still in print without let or hindrance.  Dr. Seuss is dead, but not because of cancel culture; his estate decided not to keep six of his forty-odd books in print, but they are still in libraries and private collections, no one is breaking down doors to keep these men from reading If I Ran the Zoo to their nephews and nieces.  In fact, the most prominent victim of cancel culture is Donald Trump, who lost his job and his social media accounts as a result of it.  Several of the other men protested at this, but they made no arguments against it.

Some men bravely acknowledged that CC is not a totally new phenomenon; some were aware of "political correctness," though they accepted the prevailing media account of PC as well.  I was increasingly baffled that these intelligent guys knew virtually nothing about the society they live in, including its history, that they didn't get from scanning headlines and listening half-attentively to the TV.  Maybe "baffled" is the wrong word, though.  "Frustrated" is more like it; it was like trying to reason with Trump supporters.

I mentioned the House American Activities Committee, which had cost people their jobs and fostered -- or benefited from -- a social hysteria about Communists and other dread perils.  Some of the others nodded, because everybody knows McCarthyism is bad and cancel culture, like political correctness, is the New McCarthyism.  One man protested that it wasn't the same, because HUAC was about politics and principles, about anti-Communism not cultural stuff.  I pointed out that among HUAC's targets were homosexuals and Soviet Jews who'd taken over Hollywood and were subverting the minds of the young.  I'd wanted to bring up how major newspapers used to print the names, addresses, and often the employers of gay men caught up in bar raids, but couldn't fit it in.  I should have mentioned the contemporaneous attacks on comic books and Negro music, both depicted as Communist plots to break down Christian morality and foster race-mixing and juvenile delinquency.

The moderator agreed, but declared that what was new was that this time the intolerance was coming from the left, instead of the right.  That is how it's being depicted, I agreed, but that was also true of Red Scares and Political Correctness: the Jewish Communists had taken over Hollywood and the media and wouldn't let Real Americans have a voice, they silenced everyone who tried to be patriotic. The same went for Political Correctness, which was denounced by liberals and the right alike as left-wing intolerance of normal American culture.

Another proposed difference, of course, is social media, and some of the participants were aware that it's been argued that CC represents a democratization of public pressure on certain people and institutions.  I agree with this take up to a point: certainly numerous Establishment media figures have been outraged that the rabble dare to disagree with them directly, in larger numbers than they're accustomed to.  But I think it's at most a difference of degree rather than kind.  Hate mail, including organized campaigns, has been around for a long time.  Think of the millions of postcards the FCC received, imploring them not to ban religious broadcasting as the notorious atheist Madelyn Murry O'Hair had petitioned them to do (except that she hadn't).  As I was mulling over this post, I also remembered the South African novelist Alan Paton's last novel, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful, which included a subplot about a South African anti-apartheid writer receiving a long series of racist hate mail.

It could be argued that the difference social media makes is that the mob can see each other at work, whereas the individual writers of hate mail couldn't see what their peers were writing.  (Except that often, as with the FCC matter, they were writing together, copying prescribed messages.)  That could be relevant, but it can be managed by blocking and reporting.  Discussion isn't really being suppressed in these cases; the targets usually are no more interested in real discussion than their critics are.

The real problem, and possibly the real difference, I argued, is not the Twitter mob but institutions: corporations and others that choose to deal with criticism and bad publicity by throwing those who excited the controversy under the bus.  I reminded the group of Shirley Sherrod and Van Jones, whom Barack Obama had ditched when right-wing media attacked them, even though the accusations were false.  As some in the group pointed out, it doesn't always work that way: the corporate media loved Donald Trump and gave him huge quantities of free airtime.  The CEO of CBS said that Trump had made the network millions of dollars.  Whatever else is going on, the power lies not with the Twitter mob but with the institutions, the elite few who decide who gets the lucrative platforms.  They're the ones who cancel, and they're the real threat to freedom of expression, because they are largely unaccountable.  I mentioned Noam Chomsky's famous remarks about concision in corporate media, and someone asked me to post a link to the video.

The discussion quieted down after the first half hour (the meetings last about an hour and a half).  Someone brought up Amy Cooper, the woman who lost her job after calling the police on a birdwatcher who'd asked her to put her dog on its leash in Central Park.  He was quietly irate that she'd been punished simply for being afraid.  I challenged this: I'd watched the video numerous times, including once in the past week when I happened on it again.  It's not possible to be absolutely sure, but I pointed out that she didn't retreat or cower, she stalked right up in his face, despite his request not to approach him; and she lied during the call, claiming that he was threatening her, though he was not.  Fear can make people behave oddly, but I don't believe she was afraid; she was the aggressor.

Should Cooper have been fired?  I don't have the answer, and that's exactly the trouble.  We don't have any consistent criteria for people losing their jobs for racism or other bigotry, and corporations (she worked for an "investment firm") can fire employees for bad reasons or no reason at all.

We didn't get around to discussing Dr. Seuss.  I'd looked forward to pointing out that children's books have always been heavily censored, with input not only from parents but from librarians and teachers.  Theodore Seuss Geisel worked with his publishers and with educational consultants as his books were in production: he was not a free-spirited artist following his Muse hither and yon.  You might think that the system of children's book production and publishing is a bad one, but you need to have some idea how it works.  It was not the Twitter mob but Geisel's estate, which manages his work, that decided to stop publishing six of his books, which are not only problematic in content but no longer sell very well.  The estate had consulted with numerous academics, psychologists, and child development experts before they concluded that racist caricatures of African tribesmen should be retired.  

There's a postscript to this discussion.  My friend the group moderator is Korean-American, and he posted on Facebook today about J. Mark Ramseyer, Harvard's Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies, who has come under fire for publishing his claims that Korean "comfort women" were not brutalized victims but prostitutes who had voluntarily contracted to supply sexual services to Japanese troops in the service of the Emperor.  My friend indignantly demanded accountability for Ramseyer. I pointed out, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that the attacks on Ramseyer were a clear example of cancel culture: a left-wing Twitter mob dogpiling a conservative academic because he expressed Politically Incorrect opinions.  My friend retorted that it was not, because the accusations against Ramseyer were backed with evidence.  I replied that the same is true of Dr. Seuss: the images in those books are racist, and were declared to be so by academic professionals after long study.  It's also true of Rowling, who is an anti-transgender bigot comparable in hatefulness to antigay bigots, whose bogus arguments she recycles for usage against transpeople.

Personally, I'm wary of the professionals who vetted Seuss's work.  The New York Post article I just linked reports of their study of the books:

“Of the 45 characters of color, 43 are identified as having characteristics aligning with the definition of Orientalism,” the study stated, including 29 wearing turbans.

“Only two of the forty-five characters are identified in the text as ‘African’ and both align with the theme of anti-Blackness,” they wrote, adding that every character of color is also male.

And so on.  It's typical bad academic prose, with a dubious theoretical framework.  "The theme of anti-Blackness"?  I think we have to bear in mind that such professionals in past decades often blocked the publication of children's books that are now regarded as classics (E. B. White's Charlotte's Web is a famous case, but there are plenty of others), and today's academics are just as culture-bound as their predecessors.  Much of the academic work on "race" and "ethnicity" today is just as bad, just as distorted in its assumptions, as ordinary discourse on those subjects.  None of this means that I disagree with the decision to withdraw those six Seuss books, only that I might disagree with some of the reasoning behind it. 

I certainly agree that much public discourse is terrible: not only uninformed but hostile to factual accuracy, driven by emotion and personality cults rather than critical reason.  And I agree that freedom of expression is always under threat, often from those who claim to be its champions. That certainly describes my friend, alas, and most of the men in Sunday night's discussion: on the current controversy they haven't bothered to inform themselves beyond skimming headlines, and on the history of the problem they know very little except cliches.  (Democracy good, McCarthyism bad!)  In these respects they're typical of commercial media and the people who consume them without looking at alternative sources of information.  It's not necessarily dishonesty, it's more ordinary human laziness.  But once again I'm startled to learn that though I feel inadequately informed because I'm too lazy to read widely and deeply enough, I'm still much better informed than most people.

But as I said at the beginning, the discussion helped clarify my own position.  Though many people on the left are as sloppy and (worse) impatient with, even hostile, to rational thought as the right or the center, I'm now sure that "cancel culture" isn't a phenomenon of the left.  The danger to freedom of thought and expression comes from centralized power in corporations, government, and other big institutions, who are hostile to the left but are perfectly happy to use us as an excuse to stifle freedom of thought.  "Cancel culture," like "political correctness," is a term used not to defend free discourse but to stifle it: once you say "cancel culture," no further argument is needed.  Ellen Willis explained it three decades ago, discussing CBS pundit Andy Rooney's dismissal for bigoted commentary:

Yet the real reason Rooney got into trouble was that he violated the media establishment's bland, centrist criteria for acceptable speech.  In demanding Rooney's removal, lesbian and gay activists appealed to precisely those standards of "civility" -- that is, niceness -- regularly used to marginalize their own speech ... Rather than pressuring CBS to throw Andy Rooney off the air, GLAAD should have demanded time on 60 Minutes to rebut him.  In choosing instead to define his speech as an intolerable threat, they merely reinforced the basic assumption of the dominant culture that we can't afford freedom, that all hell will break loose if we relax controls.
And as more recent commentators have argued, the Dr. Seuss fuss has enabled right-wing media to pretend that they care about freedom of expression while distracting attention from issues like Republican attempts to block important legislation in Congress, preserve the filibuster, and suppress voting rights at the state level.  It looks to me, happily, as their tactics aren't working as well as they used to, but it still bothers me that so many liberals and centrists find their siren song pretty effective.