Monday, October 25, 2021

The Trouble with Normal

As I've gotten older, I've worried about my memory.  As far as I can tell, it hasn't gotten much worse.  I've always had trouble with some names, and when I catch myself fretting I remind myself that in my 30s I sometimes made large to-do lists that I'd tape up on the door before going to bed so I'd see them as I left my apartment each morning.  I don't feel the need to do that now.

If anything, I think other people need to worry more about their memories.  I quoted this in a post on this blog eleven years ago, for example:

At "Mechanical Devices, which supplies parts for earthmovers and other heavy equipment to manufacturers such as Caterpillar Inc., part owner Mark Sperry says he has been looking for $13-an-hour machinists since early last year," the Journal reports. Thirteen dollars an hour, 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year—that comes to an annual salary of $26,000. (In the adjacent Peoria, Ill., metropolitan area, per capita income was $39,965 in 2008.) Or take Emirates Airlines. When it held jobs fairs in cities like Miami and Houston, only about 50 people showed up, "compared to a global average of about 150 and as many as 1,000 at some events in Europe and Asia." The jobs don't require much in the way of education, and they come with benefits, free accommodations, and a starting salary of $30,000. But you'd have to move halfway around the world, to Dubai—an alien and expensive place. Would you uproot yourself and your family for $30,000 a year? Don't you think both of these employers would find many more interested applicants if they offered higher wages? 

That should sound familiar.  We're hearing roughly the same complaints about lazy Americans who "don't want to work" right now, from media and individuals who think that society owes employers not just a living but ever-increasing profits.  The pandemic blew a huge hole in people's mental space, and I keep hearing talk about "returning to normalcy" almost every day.  They have evidently forgotten a theme that even the corporate media played before 2020, about Americans "living paycheck to paycheck," that a sizable minority didn't have enough savings to cope with a thousand-dollar emergency, or even less.  Sometimes those concerns still surface in news reports, but always as artefacts of the pandemic and its effects in the economy, rather than issues that have been with us for decades.

Just a few weeks ago I was talking to a local bartender in her 30s.  She complained about the shortage of service workers in town, adding that people don't want to work, and blamed it on the additional unemployment benefits of the pandemic.  I pointed out that those extra payments had ended a month before, and reminded her about the paycheck to paycheck theme from before the pandemic; she said she remembered that, and looked thoughtful.   I told her about the great increase in people starting their own businesses in 2020, the increase in retirements, and so on, which she hadn't known about. 

Myself, I also remember that in the 1980s, after Ronald Reagan drove unemployment up to Great Depression levels to stop inflation, I heard breathless reports about the jobs recovery and dropping unemployment rates.  It was less often acknowledged in corporate media that the new jobs were mostly low-wage no-benefits gigs, often only part-time, so that many people were working two or more jobs to get by.  When it was admitted, it was usually in the context of an end to the fat, entitled post-World War II years, that American workers had become spoiled and took for granted that a man could support a family on his wages alone.  In fact wages had been stagnating since the 1970s, but Reagan, and Clinton after him, accelerated that trend.  It continued through the Bush, Obama, and Trump years until the COVID pandemic arrived.

That, I suppose, is the "normal" we're supposed to return to.  I'm glad that so many people remember it, and don't want to go back.  I'm not very surprised that corporate news media, whose job it should be to remember the recent past, have forgotten it; a lot of people never knew it, but the media reported the facts now and then.  That's why I rely on left media, who do the job so much better.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Literalism on the Left; or, Let Them Eat Squid

Alan R. MacLeod has done a lot of good work.  His book Bad News from Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting (Routledge, 2018) is an excellent expos√© of American and British elite media propaganda against Venezuela, and his articles for Mint Press News are a very useful resource.

But nobody's perfect.  Sometimes his Twitter posts sink into schoolyard humor -- not that I'm in a position to cast the first stone -- and today he misread a corporate-media op-ed in a way that he'd pounce on if the roles were reversed.

MacLeod's target was a Washington Post piece by Max Boot, whose right-wing hackery has often been dissected by Daniel Larison among others.  "How," MacLeod thundered, "could anyone watch Squid Game and think 'the message of this is that the system is working well?'"

 
The article is paywalled, and even my university library account couldn't get me past it, but I was able to sneak a look at the first two paragraphs.  Boot acknowledges that Squid Game is a dystopian satire of unrestrained capitalism.  His point is not about the content of the series, but about the corporate machinery and international policies that made it available to US viewers. I suspect that MacLeod wasn't able to read the entire article either, but he doesn't even have the excuse that he failed to read past the headline, which states Boot's point explicitly; he just read sloppily, and wrote dishonestly.
 
That's not a defense of Max Boot.  Without being able to read the entire piece, I can't analyze his argument in any detail, but "free trade" is not what made Squid Game available in the US; not even "globalization."  The process of bringing a Korean TV drama to English-only US audiences doesn't seem to have involved "trade" at all: Netflix is an international corporation, so like much of what is called free trade, Squid Game was simply moved around within the company.  Promotions had to be repackaged and of course English subtitles had to be provided, but this is normal; Netflix must also subtitle its US products in Korean, for example, for audiences there.  Most Korean movies and TV dramas get English subtitles for DVD release, even or especially those with no US distribution deal.  There have been fan-driven organizations which subtitle TV dramas in English and other languages, including Asian languages for access throughout the continent.  Korean entertainment is very popular in China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia. This process involves negotiating the complications of international copyright law -- remember that copyright, though defensible, is anti-free-trade -- and a huge company like Netflix has a taxpayer-supported advantage there.
 
As for "globalization," that's generally as much of a misnomer as "free trade."  Dividing the planet up and selling it off to huge corporations is something else, more like the Pope dividing the American mission field between the Spanish and the Portuguese.  Too many writers on the ostensible left forget this, often distorting the issue and letting the Right frame the discussion in a pre-emptive surrender.  We need to do better.  I just wonder if we can.

Most of the comments on MacLeod's tweet followed his mistake.  That's not entirely the commenters' fault, since MacLeod led them astray to begin with.  But that doesn't excuse the person who wrote that "The show literally proves that money is poison to friendship, just to name one of the things it has shown".  Fiction doesn't prove anything, certainly not "literally."  This has been a peeve of mine ever since I was assigned to write in high school English about how Silas Marner 'proved' that Good always triumphs over Evil.  (That commenter blocked me for pointing it out.)
 
MacLeod wasn't the only person who was confused, though.  Another commenter linked to a German media report on a labor demonstration in Seoul, in which union workers dressed as masked Squid Game employees: "They said they identified with the characters in the dystopian Netflix blockbuster."  So they identified with the executioners?  This is like anti-imperialist protesters dressing as Imperial Storm Troopers from Star Wars, and declaring that they identified with them.  Seriously, some hospitals bring in volunteers dressed as Imperial Storm Troopers to walk with children cancer patients when they go to chemotherapy: that's tone-deafness on a similar galaxy-brain level.

Then there were the Netflix executives who dressed in green Squid Game jumpsuits -- which are worn by the player-victims in the game -- for a Zoom call.  It's like Marie Antoinette and her court ladies dressing up as milkmaids, with whom they also no doubt "identified."  I know that many proles identify with the rich and brutal, from Donald Trump to Bill Gates and Elon Musk, which is part of the problem.  Maybe some in Squid Game's audience do identify with the executioners, who knows?  Americans, even progressives, don't want to identify with losers.  On the other hand, everybody -- no matter how rich and powerful -- loves to identify with victims.

Some apologists for capitalism did try to twist Squid Game's content into a condemnation of communism, but that's not what Max Boot did (this time, anyway).  MacLeod's rhetorical question, "How could anyone watch Squid Game and think 'the message of this is that the system is working well'?" has an easy answer: No one did.  At least, MacLeod hasn't shown me any.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Vrooom!

Marquess Brownlee produces the best electronics reviews I've seen.   They're so good that I'll sometimes watch them just to see what he has to say, even when I have no interest in the products he's discussing.  It has been over forty years since I owned a car, and the chances of my buying this vehicle are nil. If I had $70K to throw around I might consider it, though I'd probably wait for the upcoming SUV. 

I'm being only slightly snarky when I say that Brownlee's comments here about how quiet the Rivian R1T is offroad made me wonder if that's a negative for many (mostly male) potential buyers and owners of electric trucks. Every day I'm reminded that revving the engine, making lots of noise, and blowing out clouds of toxic black smoke are part of the pickup truck experience for many owners. The EV company that finds a way to include those features as an option, which could mostly be software, run through the kind of speakers shown for this truck in this video, will conquer the world.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Why We Can't Have Nice Things

I'm feeling cranky today, which means it's time to get started on this one.

NBC News reported on Thursday that a school administrator in Texas told schoolteachers who worried -- "terrified" was their word -- about the state's new "guidelines" regarding controversial issues in the classroom:

"Just try to remember the concepts of [House Bill] 3979," [Gina] Peddy said in the recording, referring to a new Texas law that requires teachers to present multiple perspectives when discussing "widely debated and currently controversial" issues. "And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust," Peddy continued, "that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives."

"How do you oppose the Holocaust?" one teacher said in response.

"Believe me," Peddy said. "That’s come up."

Oh, I believe her.  This is America, after all, and that is Texas.  There's a lot of Holocaust denialism in this country, so I'm not at all surprised to hear that some parents have objected to their kids being taught about the Holocaust.  I'm concerned that these teachers don't know it, just as so many good liberals are determinedly ignorant about a lot of things they don't want to think about.

The rest of the article is mildly entertaining, in a horrible kind of way.  The meeting where Gina Peddy said this was recorded secretly, so the reader gets to watch numerous Texas officials and politicians scrambling to do damage control, and doing it badly, because that's the American way.

Just as bad, and possibly worse, is the way liberals react to bigotry: by panicking.  For example, this "Journalist & historian. Pub musician. Dad. Husband. I also do dishes" posted on Twitter:

It’s important as a historian to help people understand why and how people in the past understood themselves and made decisions. It is important to understand antisemites and racists and genocidaires and slavers. But not to teach as opposing and equal views, as controversy.

Yeah, no.  I've seen numerous attempts to solve the problem by definition, as here.  The word "controversy" doesn't remotely mean that the views at issue are "equal," let alone equally valid, as I think David M. Perry wants us to believe.  Nor does "opposing" imply it, as Perry seems to assume.  It just means that there's a disagreement going on.  (For example, the pronunciation of "controversy," but I'm not going to go into that.)  I wonder why Perry gets that so wrong -- no, actually, I don't.

The real trouble with "opposing," I'd say, is that it implies that there are only two sides involved.  Usually there are more, and often all of them are arguably wrong.  For example, in American controversies over slavery, not all white abolitionists wanted emancipated slaves to be free and equal American citizens: there was widespread sentiment, including in high places, for relocating them to Africa. Many white liberals have found this fact unsettling and have tried to suppress it, because it made history less simple and more confusing.  To insist on telling the historical truth is not even close to saying that resettlement is an "opposing and equal" position, and one should be suspicious of anyone who tries to end a dispute by pretending otherwise.

I'm not saying that teachers should keep books denying the Holocaust in classroom libraries.  I'm saying that teachers had better be prepared to refute Holocaust denialism among their students.  The same goes for erasure of American white supremacy; of Creationism and Intelligent Design; of opposition to masking and vaccination to contain COVID-19; of antigay bigotry; of anti-Islamic bigotry; of any and all historical or scientific distortions, because sooner or later they will come up.  That has always been my answer, in speaking to classes, when students ask why elementary school kids should be taught about LGBT issues: because the kids themselves will hear about them in the media, from parents and other adults, and from other kids, so teachers should be prepared to address them. Take the current hullabaloo over Critical Race Theory: it's not really teachers who are ensuring that students will have questions about the topic, it's right-wing racist media and parents.

As the teachers told Gina Peddy, they are frightened for their jobs, and they have good reason to be.  I don't believe Peddy when she told them that she and school administrations would fight with them: some will, I suspect most will not.  That means that teachers will need allies among parents and students.  Unfortunately many liberal parents sit out school board meetings, even before Joe and Kammy took office and those parents announced their determination to take a four- (or better, eight-) year nap free of concern about politics.  It seems, for example, that when Central York district in Pennsylvania "essentially banned" anti-racist books, parents did nothing until the students mounted a protest.

What really baffles me is that there's an obvious response to right-wing initiatives demanding "differing perspectives" on controversial issues.  I'm all for differing perspectives, and liberals pretend (as right-wingers also pretend) to want them too.  If your school's curriculum teaches that slaves were mostly contented and well-cared for by their kindly masters, demand that differing perspectives be given a fair hearing.  Demand that your state-approved textbook be supplemented by the differing perspective of the 1619 Project.  If your school's curriculum teaches Intelligent Design, demand that the differing perspective of Darwinian theory be taught as well.  If your school teaches that the USA is a Christian nation, if your school teaches Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, if your school teaches abstinence from all sexual expression until marriage, there are differing perspectives, and these laws and "Academic Bills of Rights" actually require that they be made available to students.

Of course this all means more work for parents and teachers and administrators and students.  I've acknowledged before that there isn't time to teach all the conflicts.  (Note: when liberals and progressives sneer at the idea of "teaching the conflicts," remember that they are authoritarians at heart and really don't care about freedom, including your freedom to disagree with them.)  Exploring complex issues will take time away from the standardized testing that right-wing authoritarians have imposed on our educational system, precisely and often knowingly to take time away from classroom time for actual teaching.  That means we have to get rid of those standardized tests, no small task.  

But there's a lot of bad faith in liberal objections to teaching the conflicts.  Some of it comes from simple authoritarianism, as just noted.  Some of it comes from ordinary human laziness and ignorance. Do those liberals who oppose right-wing objections to their beliefs do so because they've examined the evidence and arguments themselves?  Almost never as far as I have observed.  Often they're actively misinformed, as with avowed Darwinists who are really Spencerians or even Lamarckians, rejecting actual Darwinian theory unawares in favor of scientific racism.  And in general, like their opposite numbers, they have no idea how to debate: they can declare their beliefs and principles against their opponents, but neither side knows how you proceed after that.  (This is why I'm critical of Noam Chomsky's strictures on debate: Yes, many or most people do it badly.  The remedy is not to refuse to do it at all, but to learn to do it better.  One could say the same thing about thinking.  Chomsky's somewhat hypocritical, since he himself often debates, and not always very well.)

One of my favorite pastimes is observing people online who misread satirical posts, often from self-labeled parody or satire accounts, by taking them at face value. This is often known as being Waltered, in honor of the great account Walter(OwensGranp.  Admittedly, actual responsible media are generally beyond parody, which may make it difficult to tell if New York Times Pitchbot's "Whether it's liberals wearing masks outdoors or conservatives teaching opposing perspectives on the Holocaust, both sides have an extremism problem" is real or Memorex, but damn it's fun to watch people who can't parse sarcasm.

To be fair, sarcasm puts a lot of strain on cognition.  It takes young readers years to learn to recognize it, especially in writing where they can't hear the tone of voice that may signal it, and many adults never do. But it's a very common tactic on social media, especially Twitter, and even after it has been explained to them many times, many adults persist in take posts from the Onion as straight news.

Is it unfair to expect adults to recognize satire and irony?  I say it's not only fair but obligatory that they learn.  I've noticed that even scientists seem to dream of a world where all problems will present themselves neatly and cleanly, so that they can be solved like the most basic arithmetic problems.  (Though they also like to congratulate themselves on seeing past Nature's sneaky attempts at deception.)  Even when there's no attempt to deceive their opponents, debaters will often deceive themselves.  Critical thinking involves learning to recognize fallacy and error, even or especially when they aren't deliberate.  (It also involves learning to recognize fallacy in your own beliefs and arguments.)

So when liberals demand that satire and sarcasm be labeled for them so they won't get confused, they're not only undermining public discourse, they're announcing that they're too dull to read for comprehension above a first-grade level.  (I single out liberals here because everyone knows that this is true of conservatives.)  Yet these same people often congratulate themselves on their power to see past the lies and escape media brainwashing, which you can't do if you expect the media (let alone other people) to tell you in advance when they're lying or joking.  And don't right-wingers delude themselves that they have seen past the media lies?  If you read Twitter, or the New York Times, in the expectation that you can take it all at face value, you're going to fall on your face regularly.

An old friend, a graduate student in philosophy, used to chide me for being skeptical of religious claims, saying that she felt I was 'afraid of being fooled.'  As if that's an unreasonable fear, even if she were right about me.  It's a very common fear expressed by Christians, historically and in the present.  But that can only be part of it.  More of it is a self-critical desire not to be mistaken about the world I live in.  I'm not afraid of being mistaken, I want to learn from my mistakes, and I know that takes effort.  I can't think of many more valid and interesting pursuits for any human being, and I remain unable to understand why a philosopher of all people would consider that aim discreditable.

In any case, if you misread a satirical statement on Twitter, there will be plenty of people who will correct you, with varying degrees of empathy.  Most of them, whether they'll admit it or not, have been Waltered themselves at some point, and will be again.  And that most definitely includes me.

All this, I think, casts some light on why so many liberals are eager to suppress free discussion about disputed (I won't say "controversial") topics.  It's a desire they share with the Right, because they don't know why they believe what they do and don't know how to think about it.  The possibility that someone might disagree with them, rightly or wrongly, makes them very uncomfortable.  They don't mind making others uncomfortable, but they must never experience the discomfort of uncertainty or knowing they're wrong about anything important.  When they say that learning history should make you uncomfortable, they don't include themselves, just as when Trumpies say "Fuck your feelings," the operative word is "your."

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Standing Tall in a Kneeling Position

While I was downtown on Saturday I saw an elderly man (five or so years older than me, mid- to late 70s) shuffling along in a t-shirt that said:

I STAND for the Flag 

I KNEEL for the Fallen

So he kneels for Satan, the Fallen Angel? Or maybe he wants to insult our Fallen Heroes, because kneeling is an insult according to the racist Right?  Yeah, I know, the meanings of kneeling and standing are variable and context-dependent.  It's the racist Right that overlooks this, but that's not really it either: the racist Right deliberately chooses to ignore what kneeling athletes were saying.  No surprise there.

That leaves aside the fact that Colin Kaepernick and other athletes are kneeling for the fallen: George Floyd, Michael Brown, so many more.  The elderly vet doesn't care about them, of course. My question is not whether to mock people like him; it's how to mock them the most effectively.

Monday, October 11, 2021

"I Personally Vaccinated The Star of Bethlehem Against COVID-19!" Says Noted Expert

 Someone local shared this meme on Facebook today:

I recognized right away that it was about last year's much-publicized planetary conjunction, and indeed the original post was dated December of 2020.  The person who re-posted it didn't bother to look at the date.  But that's normal on Facebook.  Whenever someone posts a missing-person notice, I count it as a positive if it's less than five years old, and in almost every case the missing person was found a day or so after the original alert went out.

So I wrote a comment explaining what was wrong with this meme: not only was it out of date, but the conjunction of 2020 was not what it was cracked up to be in the first place.  Contrary to the gushing of some science correspondents, Jupiter and Saturn were never going to look like one spot of light, let alone "slow dance" or "kiss."  That was one alarming aspect of the whole thing, not only that religious hustlers were misrepresenting the event but that devout believers in Science, including some scientists, were doing so.

Why would they do such a thing?  I still don't know, but I suppose that it was partly a misguided or condescending attempt to show that Science and Religion are not necessarily enemies.  I don't happen to agree that misrepresenting the science is a good way to win over religious believers, but I'm not a scientist.  Or, just as likely, it was an attempt to market Science to the masses, again in a condescending way. What could show more contempt for laypeople than promising them that a highly exciting planetary pole dance was going to dazzle them and their children in the night sky?  (Maybe announcing that one had personally vaccinated Santa Claus against COVID comes close.)

A few other people pointed out that the meme was a year old, and I got a screengrab just before the poster deleted it, after she commented "Oh, darn, I was really hoping it was true!"  I really wanted to ask her why she hoped that, even apart from the fact that the announcement was a year out of date.  If the Star of Bethlehem appeared in the night sky in 2020, nothing happened.  Did she think it was a harbinger of the Second Coming?  If so, why didn't Jesus return when it happened in 1226?  In fact the same conjunction occurs roughly every twenty years, but rarely is it as close at it was last December (not very), and often it happens during the day so it can't be seen.  Maybe she just wanted to see this big sky spectacle, I don't know.  I was about to ask her when the post and all the comments disappeared.

As I reread my posts on the conjunction from last year, another thought struck me.  As I pointed out then, the Star of Bethlehem as it's described in the gospel of Matthew is a moving, low-hanging object that leads the Magi to the very house in Bethlehem where the baby Jesus and his parents were staying.  A conjunction couldn't do that; nor could the other popular "scientific" candidates purporting to explain the Star, such as a comet or a supernova.  The astronomers who've offered these pseudo-explanations don't believe that Matthew was remotely describing actual events, they're just promoting scientific authority to interpret the Bible. And that indicates that despite their valorization of Facts, they don't care very much about facts after all.

What's odd is that so many Christians are willing to play along, which brings me to something else I've noticed among conservative believers.  Okay, scientists may not notice that their speculations don't fit the biblical stories, but shouldn't Bible-believing Christians notice it?  Very often apologists trying to defend the reliability of the Bible distort their own sacred text in the process.  They don't really care that much about the inerrancy of the book they claim can't be broken.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Doublethink for Liberals

 

There's a genre of social media posts like this one, which depict right-wing media frantically giving free publicity to programs that in reality are very popular, among Republicans as well as Democrats.  It generates plenty of self-congratulatory snickering by liberal commenters, which is fun and fine.  In these dark times, we have to get our fun wherever we can.

It overlooks something important, though: ostensibly liberal corporate media have exactly the same take as Fox News on these programs.  It's why they boost right-wing Democrats like Joe Manchin as "moderates," who are merely concerned about how "we" are going to pay for these crazy socialistic pipe dreams.  (Meanwhile, they happily vote for even more expensive and wasteful military spending.)  It's why such media and pundits try to make it seem that a small hard core of communist Congressional progressives are trying to bully those reasonable "moderates" into accepting these very popular programs, and why those media were shocked when President Biden backed the progressives and stabbed the "moderates" in the back.

Noam Chomsky used to say that accusations against "liberal media" are very useful to the liberal media themselves.  They're perfectly happy to be regarded as the leftist extreme, because they see themselves as gatekeepers: we go as far as reasonable, responsible news media can go, and any farther is insane, irresponsible conspiracy-mongering extremism.  It makes them feel courageous.  And that's fine with me, because I don't have to accept their framing of the issues.  I know that they cover the news from the perspective of the investor class, which makes their positions entirely understandable.  Understandable, but dishonest and simply wrong.  Left-wing media, as I learned as far back as the 1960s, aren't always right, but their track record is much better than the corporate media's, and even if you aren't left-wing, you need to pay attention to the information and analysis they provide.  Most of the journalists I rely on aren't particularly left-wing anyway: they just look so by comparison to the "liberal" media.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Baby Please Don't Go

In an NPR interview this morning, the singer-songwriter Dar Williams recalled that in 1987 she took a class that introduced her to the concept of "global warming."  "And we were like, Noooo," she chuckled.  Was this because she and her fellow students thought of a world that stays forever the same and never changes?  I get the impression that many people think so, even environmentalists, and that is weird to me. As a fifth-grader in the early 1960s I read books on science that told me about the Ice Ages, among other things, how the glaciers had come and gone, and were still receding right now.  Not long afterward I read that the length of the day and the year had changed over time; I also read about the long geological and evolutionary timelines, not to mention continental drift: changes in the environment that happens over thousands, even millions of years.

None of this made me anxious.  I was an unusual child, of course.  But I found those books in the school library, in a small three-room rural school, and as I remember they had clearly been read before.  So maybe I'm not all that unusual after all.

Imagine my bafflement, then, when an algorithm led me to this article in The Atlantic, a classy magazine for smart people.  "The Moon Is Leaving Us," says the headline, "and we can't stop it."  You can't blame writers for the headlines their editors come up with, but the author of this piece, Marina Koren, set the overwrought tone herself.

Each year, our moon moves distinctly, inexorably farther from Earth—just a tiny bit, about an inch and a half, a nearly imperceptible change. There is no stopping this slow ebbing, no way to turn back the clock. The forces of gravity are invisible and unshakable, and no matter what we do or how we feel about them, they will keep nudging the moon along. Over many millions of years, we’ll continue to grow apart.

She's a bit defensive.

Given this rather melodramatic description, you might wonder: Don’t you have better things to think about than the moon? Well no, not really, because I’m a space reporter and it’s my job to contemplate celestial bodies and write about them. And also because a representation of this phenomenon recently played out in China during festivities for the Mid-Autumn Festival, which marks the full moon closest to the fall equinox. A giant balloon designed to resemble the moon, craters and all, broke free and rolled into the street. Video footage of the unscripted moment shows two people running after the massive moon as it tumbles away. Bye!
I don't think I'm being too harsh to say that this is magical thinking: the Chinese balloon is an omen of the heartless moon abandoning us.  It isn't a space reporter's job, I would have thought, to anthropomorphize natural phenomena and celestial objects: "'lunar retreat'—a delightful term, as I’d prefer to imagine the moon enjoying itself at a relaxing getaway, bending its rocky body into various yoga poses, rather than slowly ghosting Earth." But maybe that's why Marina Koren is a staff writer for a prestigious magazine and I'm not.

Of course scientists love to attack science writing for the ignorant masses, but they also love to try to frighten us, as they frighten themselves, about the runaway moon, the sneakiness of Mother Nature, the heat death of the universe, and the yawning depths of infinite time.  Koren warns her readers:

Someday, about 600 million years from now, the moon will orbit far enough away that humankind will lose one of its oldest cosmic sights: total solar eclipses. The moon won’t be able to block the sun’s light and cast its own shadow onto Earth.

OMFG, like really? What am I going to do for excitement on a Saturday night when there are no more total solar eclipses?  It's highly unlikely, to the point of certainty, that "humankind" will still be around in six hundred million years anyway.  But that doesn't mean we can't work ourselves into a snit about the existential loss.

Koren concludes her piece by telling about the first time she ever looked through a telescope, thanks to a neighbor who set one up on their building's roof -- "this weekend."  Okay, she's probably a city kid, never had the chance before, maybe she lived in a city with no planetarium or observatory or school astronomy clubs or any other public resources.  But still: a science writer, a "space reporter," never sought out an opportunity to look through a telescope until the past few weeks?  (I shouldn't overgeneralize from myself, but by junior high school I'd managed to beg a small, relatively cheap reflector telescope from my parents for Christmas or my birthday, and read books about grinding a mirror for a bigger one.  Which I never managed to do, but my opportunities were limited and I managed to use them.  Kids these days...)

Human-accelerated climate change is real, as is the incrementally growing distance between the moon and the earth.  But reading stuff like Koren's article makes me wonder how much of many people's concern about global warming comes not from the evidence but an apocalyptic panic generated from within.  The time is fulfilled, and the end of the world is only 600 million years away -- repent while there's still time!

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Fool Me Once, Shame on You; Fool Me Seventy Times Seven, Shame on Me

I agree that social media are an abundant source of misinformation.  Take this meme, shared to Facebook last week by a friend.

I commented that it's odd, because despite relentless propaganda campaign over many decades, most Americans favor all those things by a solid majority. Who exactly has been propagandized? It seems to be whoever made this meme.

Someone replied:  "the ~35% of the population (a majority of whom identify as Republicans and evangelical/Christian) that believe it's all socialism, but are somehow the only portion of the population the GOP caters to?"

I replied: "
Like I said, you've been propagandized very effectively. I'm surprised at how many liberals and even leftists have been convinced that 35% of the American population is a majority."

Someone else, presumably a friend of the first responder, wrote: "no one said anything about that being the majority. And he's also not wrong. The right is so lost and confused because they blame the left for everything when we actually fight for most of the things they complain about not having."

It went downhill from there, though I suppose it was my fault for being sarcastic.  I still think it tells a lot about the mindset of many liberal Democrats that they see a 35 percent minority as an insuperable obstacle to instituting polices that most Americans want, or say they do.  At least that person acknowledged that it is a minority, not most Americans, who oppose universal healthcare.

In terms of public support and approval, the struggle for universal healthcare and those other programs and policies has already been won: comfortable bipartisan majorities support them.  It's worthwhile, I guess, to try to persuade right-wing opponents of such programs to support them instead, but I don't think it's where most of our energy should go.  I doubt they could ever be persuaded, though I also believe that once those programs were in place they would use them and support them, as they do with "socialist" Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  (Remember the line "Keep your government hands off my Medicare"?)  Republican politicians who voted against Biden's stimulus payments and other big-spending acts are already trying to take credit for them, because they know how popular they are even with Republican voters. 

True, the corporate media would like us to believe that most Americans don't want universal healthcare, and they give very sympathetic coverage to its opponents.  You'll see plenty of warm fuzzy stories interviewing rabid Trump fans at breakfast in small-town diners, or with anti-vaccination fanatics on ventilators in ICUs; you'll see columnists urging pro-vaccination Americans to sympathize with the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers.  I suspect that many people who are derisive of those stories will still post memes aimed at telling their opponents that they've been propagandized, or better, "brainwashed."   

It doesn't help that so many liberals manage to convince themselves that Democratic politicians like Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg support universal healthcare, despite those pols' explicit and public repudiation of it.  It isn't only Republicans who've been effectively propagandized, and not only on these issues.

Or consider the failed recall vote in California.  Jacob Bacharach cited a corporate-media commentator who claimed that the recall "highlighted the vulnerabilities of leaders who seemed well positioned before the coronavirus pandemic."  Bacharach pointed out that California's system requires "signatures only equal to 12% of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election" to trigger a recall; I suppose such a small number of partisan malcontents can be called a vulnerability, but the commentator mainly seemed interested in inflating the influence of the Right, even though Governor Newsom trounced his opponent soundly.  This sort of thing has been going on too long for clear-eyed, rational liberals to be fooled by it, but they still keep falling for the propaganda -- while blaming the Right for being brainwashed.

I confess I'm a little uneasy about vaccine mandates, another policy that has bipartisan majority support among the public.  Getting injected with anything against one's will is profoundly invasive, and the fact that a majority of one's fellow citizens support it doesn't make it less so.  But those who support a mandate have presumably already been vaccinated.  We're not forcing something on our neighbors that we wouldn't and haven't accepted ourselves -- or that they haven't already accepted for themselves and their children.  (Someone in a local Facebook group angrily denied that schoolchildren have to be vaccinated against numerous diseases to attend school; I replied with a link to Indiana's state requirements.)  Besides, there seems to be considerable overlap between those who refuse vaccination and those who refuse to wear masks, which aren't invasive.  Yet not only do they refuse to wear masks, they attack (verbally and sometimes physically) people who do wear masks.  Whatever motivates them, it isn't a concern with personal freedom.

My critics under the Facebook meme talk as if they believe that unanimity is needed to institute progressive policies.  Maybe they know better, but a third of voters voted against FDR in 1936, at least partly in opposition to the New Deal.  I doubt that any important program has been enacted without that much opposition.  The one-third proportion seems to be stable over time.  Those who feel impotent in the face of such a minority should remember that most elections in this country are won by a simple 51 percent majority; the Presidency is the main exception, because of the Electoral College, but in general no one except a Republican is going to win sympathy by protesting that he or she got 35 percent of the vote.

As bothersome as that hardcore thirty to thirty-five percent of right-wingers are, they really aren't the reason we can't have nice things, and it's a distraction to blame them first. The real obstacle is a much smaller minority of wealthy right-wingers and their collaborators in the corporate media, who either platform them or promote them as the reasonable center.  If the Trump base weren't useful to those elites, they'd be dismissed as easily as the real majority of Americans are.

Someone else posted a meme depicting a flag with the legend "Get Vaxxed and Shut Up!"  An anti-vaxxer complained that it was authoritarian and oppressive.  I commented that I half-agreed: he doesn't have to shut up, but he does have to get vaccinated.  The reactionary -- and authoritarian -- Right minority has had its way for too long.  I don't necessarily want to say to them, "Who cares what you think?" but as long as they're in the minority they don't get to run things.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say Malignantly Idiotic Things

This article from Inside Higher Education appeared in my Facebook timeline today. Overall it's good news that Syracuse University forthrightly defended their faculty's freedom of expression, which so many other schools have failed to do.  

Briefly, a Black assistant professor of political science, Jenn Jackson, posted some provocative Tweets on the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.  She was attacked, the university was urged to fire her, she received threats; the university not only affirmed her freedom of speech but condemned the attacks and demands that she be removed.

Of course, freedom of speech also permits me to point out that one of her tweets was not only wrong, but malignant and idiotic.

In [a] separate tweet, Jackson described the Sept. 11 attacks as targeting the “heteropatriarchal capitalist systems America relies upon to wrangle other countries into passivity. It was an attack on the systems many white Americans fight to protect.”

The 9/11 hijackers, most of whom were Saudi, were nothing if not heteropatriarchal themselves, as is the system of government and the religion in whose name they killed thousands of people, not all of whom were white.  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Islamist states are perfectly comfortable doing business with capitalists even if they don't consider themselves to be capitalists: the Saudi royals' comfortable relationship with the Bush crime family is well known, if commonly overlooked.  Targeting a "system" is like targeting "terrorism": it's an abstraction, and framing the attacks in this manner obscures the use of murderous violence against human beings.

I think it's also a safe bet that the 9/11 hijackers would not appreciate being "defended" by a woman who dresses like a harlot, letting herself be photographed with her face uncovered.  (The popular attacks on Western feminism are pertinent here.)

This tweet should go down in history with its heteropatrarchical sibling, "Suck.on.this."  Like Thomas Friedman, Jackson has the right to say whatever vicious things she likes, and I support her university's defense of her freedom.  But others have the right, and indeed the obligation, to point out that the terrorism she justified led directly to wars that killed over a million people, displaced millions more, and made the lives of most people in the Middle East immeasurably worse.  Which is exactly what they were intended to do: the intention was to lead the US into retaliation that would ultimately destroy us.  It has certainly harmed us, but it harmed ordinary people in the Middle East much more, while US capitalists and their corrupt Middle Eastern clients enriched themselves in comfort.

Monday, September 13, 2021

It's My Culture and I'll Cry If I Want To

In a similar vein, I came across this video clip today, of a famous speech from Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart.  I've actually wanted to write about this speech for a good many years.  It has always annoyed me, and the passing of time hasn't made me hate it less.

Ned Weeks, Kramer's alter ego in the play, declaims:

I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskj√∂ld . . 
Even granting Kramer a shitload of poetic / dramatic license, this is absurd.  The names will be familiar to gay men of Kramer's generation and mine that followed his, the rote list of Illustrious Homosexuals rattled off to prove that taking it in the butt didn't mean you couldn't achieve in other realms. It wasn't entirely an invalid pursuit, because there was a relentless drumbeat of propaganda aimed at erasing non-heterosexuals from history, and it was important to rebut it.  Much of our counterpropaganda was dubious at best, and there were always gay cynics who declared that it should in honesty include famous but less inspiring figures like, say, J. Edgar Hoover. The important point is that these men do not constitute a culture, certainly not in the singular. They come from numerous cultures, and they made their achievements in a heterosexual context.  Kramer's decision to list them is ironic, given his own fierce culture-of-therapy individualism.

Ned goes on: 

Bruce, did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who was as responsible as any man for winning the Second World War? His name was Alan Turing and he cracked the Germans’ Enigma code so the Allies knew in advance what the Nazis were going to do—and when the war was over he committed suicide he was so hounded for being gay. Why don’t they teach any of this in the schools? If they did, maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself and maybe you wouldn’t be so terrified of who you are. The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual.

This is shamefully dishonest on many levels.  Yes, Alan Turing did play a role in breaking the Nazis' secret codes, but he was only one of many people, most of them heterosexual and many of them women, engaged in that great project.  (Kramer was never much interested in women.)  Ned compresses the events leading up to Turing's suicide irresponsibly: Yes, Turing was not just "hounded" for being gay, he was prosecuted and convicted under British law for having sex with another male.  But how would teaching this fact "in the schools" have prevented Turing's suicide (which is how it's written here), or have made Bruce feel better about being gay.  Knowing the history of gay men's suffering is as likely to inculcate despair as "real pride."

As for "a culture that isn't just being sexual," Ned continues:

That’s how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war. Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us. Must we all be reduced to becoming our own murderers?

This is malignant bullshit. First, neither Ned nor Kramer was "one of the men who fought the war" -- any war.  As an affluent, privileged gay man, Kramer had no interest in activism and despised gay activists until AIDS struck.  As the Wikipedia article on Kramer puts it, 

There were politically active groups in New York City, but Kramer noted the culture on Fire Island was so different that they would often make fun of political activists: "It was not chic. It was not something you could brag about with your friends ... Guys marching down Fifth Avenue was a whole other world. The whole gestalt of Fire Island was about beauty and looks and golden men."

Even when he became an activist of sorts, Kramer tended to frame his work in personal terms, especially in attacks on then-New York City mayor Ed Koch, and in denunciations of gay men's sexual culture, of which he was an active participant. It never seemed to occur to him that he was attacking himself.  Like the more conventionally recognizable antigay bigots of the religious Right, his jeremiads described himself as much as others; possibly even more.  In his twilight years he continued and amplified his hypocrisy, attacking other gay men for supposedly engaging in "meaningless sex" while complaining that they weren't having it with him.

Notice that when we know anything about the erotic lives of the men Ned/Kramer extols in his monologue, we know that they mostly consisted of the same kind of behavior he attacked in his contemporaries.  Far from the respectable, soft-focus fantasies Kramer concocted (inaccurately) about the monogamy of lesbians, those men patronized rent-boys, bathhouses, bars, streets, and other cruising places.  Oh, Henry James may have been the exception: it's not clear he had any erotic life at all beyond fantasy.  The rest of his list sometimes found long-term partners, but weren't monogamous with them any more than Kramer was with his.  Ned's speech probably gratified queasy straight audiences with its denunciation of gay sex, but even in The Normal Heart he (like his author) haunted the baths when he wasn't on Fire Island.  But that doesn't count as defining himself by his cock, I guess.  And as we now know, being a real soldier won't protect a man against AIDS.

Throughout history down to the present, most gay-ish men haven't been high achievers, and there's no reason why they should have been.  (If not for AIDS, Kramer himself would probably have gone down in history as a minor playwright and Hollywood scriptwriter.  Not a wasted life, but not Alexander the Great either.)  When I read Ned Weeks's speech again after seeing the National Theatre clip, I was reminded of a similar coattails-riding you'll observe among fundamentalist Christians: they may be barely literate, but they "belong to a culture" of famous, highly learned and accomplished Christians.  They know very little about them, have never bothered to read their works, but they are validated because C. S. Lewis was a distinguished college professor and scholar.

Maybe I should stress that I situate myself in gay history.  I'm aware of my predecessors, and I'm dependent on and grateful to the work of scholars who've broadened and deepened our knowledge of the erastai/eromenoi, arsenokoitai, sodomites, buggers, sapphists, inverts, hijra, llamana, katoey, jotas, maricones, marimachas, toms/dees, and others whose lives make up the history.  It's not a simple unitary history, it's a big hot mess, which Kramer's simplifications dishonor and diminish. He accused queer theorists of erasing gay history, but that's another of his lies: most of the work that has begun to fill out our knowledge over the past forty and more years was done by scholars who at least pledged allegiance to queer theory.  You can no more do justice to our lives by denying our sexuality than by centralizing it -- but then why not centralize it?  Gay people who say we're just like straights except for what we do in bed are reducing us to our sexuality, and also pretending that we are all alike when we are as various as straights.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Food of the Gods

 Jon Schwarz recently tweeted:

As Harry Truman said, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know." I thought of this quote when I found out Richard Pryor and Marlon Brando had sex with each other.

Well, cool.  It's not news that Brando had sex with men and women; he told a French interviewer so in 1976, adding "But if there is someone who is convinced that Jack Nicholson and I are lovers, may they continue to do so. I find it amusing."  (The stilted language presumably comes due to translation.)  Pryor wrote in his late autobiography Pryor Convictions that he once had an affair with a drag queen, "But after two weeks of being gay … I went back to life as a heterosexual."

This doesn't prove that Pryor and Brando had sex, of course; it only puts the story into the realm of plausibility.  Schwarz linked to a 2018 article from the Guardian, which reported that the rumor came from the music producer Quincy Jones, and was confirmed by Pryor's widow (well, one of them) Jennifer Lee Pryor.  She said that Pryor "was always very open about his bisexuality with friends, and documented it extensively in diaries. Jennifer says she'll publish them later this year."  (No sign of the diaries yet.)

Neither Jones nor Ms. Pryor inspires a lot of confidence, however.  Jones reportedly told New York magazine that "He’d fuck anything. Anything! He’d fuck a mailbox. James Baldwin. Richard Pryor. Marvin Gaye."  Ms. Pryor told TMZ, "It was the '70s! Drugs were still good, especially quaaludes. If you did enough cocaine, you'd f*** a radiator and send it flowers in the morning."  Remarks like these are just the flip side of the popular homophobic evasion that goes something like "I don't care if X had sex with men, women, or drainpipes."  Pryor, especially, was openly a heterosexual horndog and an abuser of alcohol and other drugs; he famously burned himself badly when the crack he was smoking blew up in his face. Who can say who got into his pants when he was drunk or high?  But that's not a sign of erotic free-spiritedness, rather the reverse.

The rumor sparked predictable responses.  Pryor's daughter Rain, posted on Facebook (excerpted by People):

“Y’all so thirsty and LOVE THEM but ever know the real source or full story, and you’re gonna wonder how 45 became president? WAKE UP!!!” she wrote.

“So read this, I don’t need you as a fan or a friend. I don’t need anyone in my life that thinks a sensationalized interview is relevant and ‘incredibly well done,’” Rain added. “People who lie or share information to raise themselves up are bottom feeders no matter how much money or influence they have. Wrong is still wrong!!! #GTFOH.”
Yeah, no.  Even if I consider that Rain Pryor was a child in the 70s and is not a knowledgeable source about who her father was having sex with, there's nothing here but ranting.

People also quoted "Miko, Brando's oldest living son": "The Marlon Brando family has heard the recent comments by Quincy Jones and we are disappointed that anyone would make such a wrongful comment about either Marlon Brando or Richard Pryor."  It's not clear how Jones's claim about Brando and Pryor could be "wrongful," given both men's known sexual promiscuity.  It certainly couldn't harm either one of them, even if it isn't true, any more than the many rumors and known facts about their heterosexual activity.

People touted the story as "the rumor rocking Hollywood," and allowed that the idea of a tryst between Pryor and Brando "sounds scandalous."  In 1978, maybe; in 2018, no, except for people who dote and excite themselves on scandal.  Nowadays the news that any two adult celebrities copulated consensually shouldn't be a big deal, except as fodder for masturbatory fantasy, and that doesn't require factual accuracy anyway.

But back to Twitter.  Schwarz's tweet didn't draw a lot of response, but some of the responses were revealing.  One straight male leftist male commented, "I'll take 'Mental images we could do without' for $600."  I presume he wrote "we" when he meant "I," but to each his own. 

Another person, who turned out not to be straight, complained "Remind me why this is any of our business?"  I replied that Pryor himself had claimed in Pryor Convictions that he walked into the dressing room of a club he was working to find jazz legends Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie making out. Was that our business? Pryor evidently thought so.  Plus Pryor had reported his own supposedly one-time gay affair with a drag queen, let alone his abused childhood and his alcohol and drug abuse.  

The person replied: "It took years for me to be public with life. I also know lots of ppl choose not to. I reflexively protect them. I prbly [sic] always will. I thought I saw it happening." Someone wasn't paying much attention.  Pryor had not been 'private' with his life during his lifetime, and now that he and Brando are both dead it's not an invasion of their privacy to report or speculate about it, any more than it would be to report a sexual liaison between Pryor and a female celebrity.  We can dispute the truth of Quincy Jones's gossip, but as a very wise man* once said, "Gossip is the food of the gods."  We've come a long way since the 70s, but as long as queer revelations still upset closet cases and homophobes, we still have a long way to go.

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*Sutherland, a character in Andrew Holleran's 1978 novel Dancer from the Dance.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

I'm Not a Heretic, You're a Heretic!

I hate unsourced memes, so I looked around to see if Hedges actually said this; he did, so that's settled.

"Heresy" is a meaningless buzzword; it only conveys that the person who uses it dislikes the teachings of the group he's attacking.  It comes from the Greek haeresis, which seems originally to have meant "choice" but came to refer to philosophical schools and religious subdivisions.  

The Greek word was used by Church writers in reference to various sects, schools, etc. in the New Testament: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and even the Christians, as sects of Judaism. Hence the meaning "unorthodox religious sect or doctrine" in the Latin word as used by Christian writers in Late Latin. But in English bibles it usually is translated 'sect.'

Like other neutral words, "sect" and "heresy" became pejoratives, as with Hedges here.  The philosopher Walter Kaufmann tried to reclaim the term in his 1961 book The Faith of a Heretic, but though I understood what he was trying to do I never found his redefinition persuasive or useful.  The thing to remember is that "heretics" almost always consider themselves to be truly orthodox, and their critics to be the true heretics.  Christianity itself originated as a sect of Judaism, and the early Christians quickly claimed to be true Judaism, even after their sect became almost exclusively made up of gentiles. This is the sort of thing Hedges should have learned during his three years at Harvard Divinity School, which was originally founded by Puritan heretics (who'd broken with the Anglican heresy) four centuries ago. Evidently he didn't, and apart from self-righteousness I wonder what he did learn there.

This is a minor criticism.  The major one is that Harvard is an elite school whose function is to train imperialists and captains of industry.  The "worst aspects of American imperialism, capitalism, chauvinism, violence and bigotry" were "acculturated into the Christian religion" long before fundamentalism become a potent political force in the United States, and Harvard-schooled divines were part of that process.  Hedges must know that American Christianity has always been used to justify expansion and imperialism, from the Pilgrim fathers onward.  Before the English arrived in the Western hemisphere, Spanish and other European imperialists claimed it with the blessing of Roman Catholicism.  And before that, Christian imperialism spread by the sword throughout Europe and parts of Asia and Africa.  What you might call Christian spiritual imperialism, the conviction that all nations belonged to Christ, also played a role: once the sect achieved political power, it was hardly surprising that it would "acculturate" state violence according to the flesh into orthodoxy as well.

None of this should be news to Chris Hedges; in another context he'd probably bring up these little matters himself.  But he's on a roll, he's pandering to his audience (note the reactions in the transcript), and no doubt he was full of the Holy Spirit.  (The presenter, Robert Scheer, suggests that Hedges is a "prophetic voice."  It might be true -- prophets aren't known for their coherence or rationality.)  Demonizing your opponents is fine when you're the good guy.

To his credit, Hedges attacked the Christian president Barack Obama many times, even though Obama is not a fundamentalist in Hedges's terms.  Many anti-fundamentalists fawned on Obama, and they'd probably agree with Hedges that fundamentalists are heretics.  But you don't need to be a Christian to attack a bad president, and given Christianity's hopelessly mixed record on most issues, it's really irrelevant.  Hedges' popularity in certain circles, I think, comes from his tell-it-like-it-is, that's-how-I-roll rhetoric, which like most such rhetoric has only a tenuous connection to facts.  What matters to most people isn't factual accuracy but that let's-you-and-him-fight adrenaline rush.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Standards of Beauty

At around the same time I heard that NPR segment about chic headscarves, someone posted this on Facebook:

There's so much wrong here that it's difficult to know where to begin.  I can't argue with "don't be a white supremacist," but the rest is garbage.

Are non-Eurocentric standards of beauty any better than Eurocentric ones?  I don't know any reason to think so.  What would they be, anyway?  The footbinding of Chinese women, ended by the Eurocentric Chinese Communists, was one such, but I hope this writer doesn't want to bring it back.  As for "cisheteropatriarchal beauty standards," the transgender beauties I hear about adhere to them absolutely, and they are celebrated by transgender allies. 

Not that it matters much, because standards of beauty are inherently harmful.  Their only function is to set a bar that most people in any culture, of any gender, will not be able to reach.  As a result people will put a lot of energy into trying to reach them anyway, and when they fail they'll feel bad about themselves.  At best such standards aren't totally unrealistic in that no one could possibly meet them, but most people can't, and there's no reason why they should.

One of the stumbling blocks is the confusion of "beauty" with "sexual desirability," though there is no valid standard of sexual desirability either.  I think I was in junior high school when one of the photographic newsweeklies did a story on the politician Barry Goldwater, who was also a skilled amateur photographer.  The article included a full-page photography of an elderly Native American woman, with a face as wrinkled as W. H. Auden's or Mick Jagger's.  The caption quoted Goldwater's opinion that she was totally beautiful.  

I don't think he meant that he wanted to copulate with her, though who knows?  But the remark made an impression on me: beauty doesn't equal sexual desirability.  People use "beautiful" for everything from sunsets to flowers to babies to old ladies, so that insight shouldn't be surprising, but it seems to surprise many.

I don't remember when I began -- it might have been a result of Goldwater's comment on his photograph -- and I don't believe I made a conscious choice, but when I'm looking at people I try to see what beauty they have on their own terms, rather than measuring them against a standard that is designed to exclude them in advance.  I fail more often than I succeed, but that's the goal.  Erotic desire is only part of it, though it's certainly part of it.

Contrariwise, sexual desirability doesn't equal beauty, though given the elasticity of "beauty," you could argue otherwise.  I do: the men I'm most attracted to aren't conventionally good-looking, but they inspire in me the deep thrill that means "beauty" to me.  Most people who don't conform to white-supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal standards of beauty still find sexual partners who want them, and who themselves may not conform to those standards.  Given that reality, why bother with standards at all?

The gay photographer Tom Bianchi thinks otherwise, and has belabored the point for decades, notably in a small book called In Defense of Beauty (Crown, 1995).  Bianchi has often been criticized for the narrow range of men he photographs.  Among the authorities he cites in his defense are Oscar Wilde, Edmund White, Stephen R. Covey (think The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) and Deepak Chopra.  Bianchi sets out his position early on:

I am no longer surprised when I hear the charge that the people in my pictures are "too beautiful" or "only the most perfect bodies," for I have come to see the mistake in perception from which these comments come. The implication is that I am elitist, or as one friend suggested, the new word is lookist.  But people who find fault with beauty, who trivialize it by assuming a negative quality in it, diminish themselves.  The ability to appreciate beauty in others is a prerequisite to express it in oneself [8].

I might concede that Bianchi's critics are wrong about his work, but Bianchi has his own "mistake in perception."  He assumes that the kind of men who populate his photographs -- gym queens, in a nutshell -- are beautiful, with "the most perfect bodies," members of an elite.  He defines "beauty" to mean such men, and only such men.

Now, I disagree that his models are beautiful, let alone "too beautiful."  I don't think that these overmuscled bodies are beautiful or perfect, and their faces (which to me are at least as important as the body below the neck) are quite unattractive, either grimly serious or with tight, anxious grins. This is of course a matter of taste, but that's the point: there is no universal standard of male (or female) beauty.  Bianchi relies, I believe, on the ancient Hellenic model, which is fine, but other cultures had very different ideas about the beauty of men.  In East Asia, for example, sculpted muscles were of no interest, though the advent of European imperialism changed that to a great extent.

Bianchi would probably charge me with "find[ing] fault with beauty," with "trivializ[ing] it by assuming a negative quality in it."  I would deny it, because physical beauty is very important to me, though it's not the only human quality that matters.  I just find beauty in people whose beauty Bianchi would deny, because he lacks the ability to appreciate them.  We could agree to disagree, but Bianchi's stance leaves him no room for greater inclusivity.  Beauty is what he says it is, and nothing else; it doesn't seem to occur to him that it could be otherwise.  He's entitled to his taste, of course, but it seems impoverished to me.

I'm reminded here of the far-right Christian pundit Rod Dreher, who has complained that modern Americans, especially the young, "have more generally lost our receptive capabilities to things numinous."  It would be more accurate to say that Dreher is unreceptive to things numinous from any tradition other than the one he has chosen. Likewise, I'm not not hostile to beauty, only to a narrow conception of beauty.  But I have to admit that I'm not receptive to the beauty of Bianchi's models either; the difference is that I'll recognize that he and other people find them so.  The eye of the beholder, anyone?

Monday, August 16, 2021

We Will End No War Before Its Time (And It's Never Time)

The rapid collapse of the US client government in Afghanistan is getting heavy coverage in the corporate media, and the party line is predictable: Oh my god, they're taking over, how can this be happening, it must be Afghan corruption, what about our helpers, what about the girls and women, it's going to be terrible, whose fault is it, and so on.  

These aren't bad questions in themselves.  I am worried about the safety of the Afghans who worked for the US, and I am worried about what girls and women will face under Taliban rule. As we've seen, the Biden administration dawdled about getting our helpers out, ignoring well-known precedents, and it's probably too late now.  But the Beltway perspective, based in US propaganda about the war with its historical amnesia and the inviolable assumption that the US can do no wrong, dominates most of the reporting and commentary on the Taliban's victory.  The best I can say is that it makes me turn off Morning Edition sooner than I would otherwise.

Except for one segment that aired this morning.  Host A. Martinez interviewed Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who spent years in Kandahar and speaks Pashto.  She filled in the historical background of the original Taliban takeover and went off in a direction that I don't think NPR expected.

And so my question is, what democracy did we bring to Afghanistan, you know? Meanwhile, we're building a banking system during the very same years that we were incubating, you know, the crash of 2008. By 2010, the Afghan banking system crashed because it was a Ponzi scheme. And so I think the painful thing I have to ask myself is American democracy - is that what we brought or is cronyism, you know, systemic corruption, you know, basically a governmental system where billionaires get to write the rules - is that, in fact, American democracy as we are now experiencing it?

"Wow," says Martinez, and that's the end of the segment.  There may have been more, these bits are usually not broadcast live, they're edited, but I'm surprised NPR aired this interview at all.  At that, I wish they'd let Chayes talk a lot longer, but you know: concision.

And by the way: as with so many hot issues, it appears that a solid majority of Americans, including Republicans, support US withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Which, of course, is why the corporate media are trying to scare them.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Are There No Pre-Publication Referees? Are There No Copy Editors?

I'm kinda circling around Nicholas C. Edsall's Toward Stonewall: Homosexuality and Society in the Modern Western World (University of Virginia, 2003).  I've been meaning to read it for some time, and I hadn't realized how long that was until I typed in the publication date just now.  It's intended as an overview taking recent scholarship into account, and it might be that Edsall would have a different take on the essentialist vs. social constructionist controversy with which he opens the book if he were writing it now.  As so often, Edsall seemed to be addressing that controversy dutifully rather than from a conviction that it's all that important, and as so often, he's not very clear on its import.  I intend to return to that issue in another post, to update my own views, but for now I'll look at another topic that trips up scholars: Alfred Kinsey's research on human sexuality.

Edsall devotes several pages to Kinsey, and this passage jumped out at me:

Kinsey's statistics were based on questionnaires gathered from a large, random sample of ordinary people.  (Unfortunately, his report on women, published five years later, was based on a far smaller sample and was not accorded the same authority or fame) [265].

That's a lot of errors to put into just two sentences.  First, "questionnaires" suggests that Kinsey handed out paper forms for people to fill in.  The problems with that method were well-known when he began his research, and Kinsey opted for in-person, face-to-face interviews based on a complex and flexible protocol that the interviewers memorized.  You could call that a questionnaire, but it's really not the correct word.

Second, Kinsey's sample was large but it wasn't random.  He used a method called stratified sampling instead.  There was a lot of public debate about this when the Male volume was published in 1948, and it's hard to understand how Edsall could have missed it.  (I recommend Peter Hegarty's chapter on the controversy over Kinsey's statistical methods in Gentleman's Disagreement [Chicago, 2013], but anything you read about Kinsey will deal with it.)

Third, the Female volume, published as Edsall says in 1953, wasn't based on a smaller sample than the Male.  If anything, the sample was somewhat larger: six thousand women versus the Male volume's 5300.  (In both cases, Kinsey didn't use all of the eighteen thousand histories he and his team had taken.)

Finally, the claim that the Female volume wasn't "accorded the same authority or fame" as the Male volume is pretty obviously false.  The "authority" of both volumes was fiercely contested, but the Female volume outsold the Male, which had moved 200,000 copies in hardcover from a medical publisher; Sexual Behavior in the Human Female sold 270,000 hardcover copies in the first month, and unlike its predecessor was later issued by Pocket Books as a mass-market paperback.  "Infamy" might be a better word than "fame," because Kinsey's claims about the number of American women who had pre- and extra-marital sexual experience outraged "decent" people; the furor led to the Institute for Sex Research losing its funding from the Rockefeller Foundation.  (Ironically, women still were a lot less sexually active than men according to Kinsey, but still too active for the sensibilities of American moralists.)

I've often noticed that writers on human sexuality seem to feel no need to check their facts when they write about Kinsey.  Some of this reflects confusion about "sexual orientation" and its relationship to sexual behavior, and can be put down to differences of interpretation, but much of it is a failure of factual accuracy, as with Edsall.  I suspect it's partly because Kinsey, like Noam Chomsky, is a safe target, and nobody cares about facts; but even Kinsey's (and Chomsky's) fans get him wrong.  And the errors I've found in Edsall's book should have been pretty easy to avoid.  Academic publishers in particular are supposed to care about factual accuracy, but in at least certain instances they don't.