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 likely 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 use 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.

Monday, March 15, 2021

There Is No Fate But What We Make


I've seen versions of this story numerous times over the years.  For those who aren't familiar with it who who don't want to watch the video (and I sympathize with that), Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek's Lt. Uhura, tired of her very limited role and decided to resign after the first season.  She preferred the stage, and had lined up a role in a play that was going to Broadway.  Gene Roddenberry, the producer, asked her to think it over for a few days.  That weekend, Nichols was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr., who proclaimed himself and his family big fans, and that his daughters loved the show and her character.  Nichols told him she intended to quit, and King urged her not to, that it was vitally important for his daughters and other black girls to see that there could be black women in space.  So she changed her mind, and says she never regretted it.

It's very moving, and it speaks well for Dr. King that he recognized the importance of black women in media.  Other black leaders would have supported Nichols's decision, since it would mean a black man could get the job in her place, and anyway, a Black Queen should be at home having babies.  I give King credit for his openness.

But on viewing this clip right now, something else occurred to me: everyone, including King, Nichols and Roddenberry, plainly assumed that there was only one black actress in the universe, and that if she left, she'd have to be replaced with a white performer.  Or a guy in an alien suit.  A Trekker friend of mine declared that Nichols was irreplaceable.  In one sense that may be true.  For fifty-odd years there has been only one Uhura, so of course I can't imagine who might have taken the comms seat on the Enterprise either.  But suppose she'd left after all, and Roddenberry had found another young black actress who ultimately became as much an icon as Nichols has.  We might now be saying how irreplaceable that actress was, and how fortunate that Nichelle Nichols had moved on to become a goddess of the Broadway musical instead.

A friend of mine, a graduate student in sociology in the 1970s, posted on her dorm room door this meme: Sexual equality is not when a female Einstein gets a beaker-washing job in the lab; sexual equality is when a female schlemiel gets promoted as fast as a male schlemiel. Many people objected when I quoted it favorably: why should a schlemiel of either sex be promoted at all?  I don't know, but male schlemiels do get promoted, and view it as their birthright.  If a woman gets promoted, they complain that men are being punished for past inequities.

It has been a long since since I watched ST:TOC.  The Enterprise had a large crew, and many uncredited people strode purposefully through its corridors in every episode.  How many of them weren't white?  I don't remember; maybe I should check out the DVDs.  It's important that there were people of color with regular speaking parts in the series, but in a truly open future society, they wouldn't be the only people of color on the ship.  I'm aware of the resistance Roddenberry faced from the industry in going even as far as he did, so I'm not blaming him personally: what I'm talking about here is that popular meme "systemic racism," which gets talked about but not always understood.  After all, it took me years to recognize the problem in this particular case myself.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Just the Fact Check, Man

Joe Biden just signed the American Rescue Plan, his $1.9 trillion COVID bill, into law today.  I meant to write about this yesterday, but my computer was recalcitrant; but I figure we're in for more of the same pattern that inspired this post, so here I go.

Morning Edition ran a segment about the ARP yesterday, featuring a Republican Representative who denounced the bill in familiar terms.  Host Scott Detrow began by asking Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri:

Appreciate you being here. Let's start with this - the president's overall COVID response is pretty popular so far. This bill is popular according to polls. Why do you think that is?

SMITH: It's because the bill has changed so many times throughout the process that once the American people see everything that's in it, the popularity will not be there. It - as what I've said all along, it's the wrong plan at the wrong time. If this bill was about direct payments to people and putting shots in the arms and vaccines, you would have strong bipartisan support across this Congress, across this country. But less than 9% of the entire spending in this bill actually goes to crushing the virus and helping distribute vaccines and putting shots in arms.

DETROW: And I want to get to some of the details that you would rather see in the bill in a moment...
It doesn't seem that they did get into such details.  Smith had a lot of complaints, which were familiar from other right-wing Congressional Republicans, but they were rather insubstantial.  He kept digressing to matters like California's $10 billion deficit, bipartisanship and the danger of a Green New Deal.  Detrow was a crummy interviewer, like most of NPR's team, and I noticed that he let Smith's statements go unchallenged.  It took NPR, like most corporate media, years to get to the point where they dared to point out Trump's lies and the false conspiracy theories about a stolen election, but having done that, they seem to have exhausted themselves.  I had the impression that Smith was spraying out a smoke screen of GOP talking points.  I kept waiting for Detrow to fact-check him, but no dice.  And fact-checking is part of a reporter's job.  Every sentence Smith uttered should have been scrutinized; but of course, it wasn't

I poked around on social media and the web, but couldn't find anything helpful.  My usual liberal and progressive and leftish sources were focused on the progress the bill was making through Congress: it passed the House on Wednesday and the White House announced that Biden would sign on it Friday.  As it turned out, he did it today, ahead of schedule, which is fine.  But I couldn't find any fact-checks of Republican objections to the bill.  Maybe I missed something, I don't know.  I presume, of course, that Republicans lie about such things, but then I also presume that Democrats lie.

This morning I saw on Twitter that Ro Khanna had scoffed at Republican claims about the ARP, but again, without details, and I wanted details.  The comments on his remarks were almost all cheerleading, of course.  Then someone posted a pie graph of the distribution of money under the bill.   The graphic was sourced to the Congressional Budget Office, but without a link. So, to the search engines.  I found a couple of articles that included the graph, but without a link to the CB for more information.  Here's an example from Common Dreams:

So why can't I find a version of this graph on the mainstream news sites?  Why aren't they analyzing the bill and addressing the Republicans' claims about it?  Scott Detrow, for instance, could hardly have been unprepared for Smith's remarks.  All I've heard on NPR the past few weeks has been horse-race stuff: the filibuster, reconciliation, will Biden reach out to the GOP?  Will John and Mary find true love? Can this marriage be saved? As usual, they waste a lot of time asking what might happen, what we can expect, what the future might bring. This is what the responsible, respectable mainstream news media have to offer.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Cue the Laugh Track

Richard Dawkins, the Clown Prince of the New Atheism, is at it again.  I suppose he's always at it, but I don't follow him on Twitter and only notice some of his wackier performances.  This past weekend he posted this:

Followed a day later by this one:

The first thing to notice about these tweets is that they are not examples of "science's truths," not produced by the Scientific Method <genuflect>, not science or scientific at all.  They're just Dawkins in his familiar idiotic hawker mode, ranting about issues he doesn't understand.

Let's begin with the first tweet.  Typically for him, Dawkins equivocates.  "Science" does not only mean "science's truths."  It means science, and for Dawkins that means Western science, which is a historical and social construct that did not always exist and may not always exist in the future.  Western science originated as a form of magic, seeking not only knowledge but personal power for the practitioner.  Notoriously, some crucial figures saw Nature as a woman to be forcibly disrobed, her private parts probed.  (The metaphor of Nature as the [male, of course] scientist's female adversary, trying to keep her secrets covered, is still very much with us.)  As a historical phenomenon, Western science has often been wrong.  Far from being disinterested seekers after "truths of the real world," scientists have always served the state and the military.  None of this has any eternal, independent existence: it's shaped by human (again, mostly male) hangups and other limitations.

A day after the first tweet, having realized or been told that he hadn't made his point well, Dawkins returns to the fray.  "OBVIOUSLY", he begins, proceeding to pontificate things that aren't obvious at all.  And then he talks like a religious apologist, which is what he is: you can't blame Science for what are now considered bad doctrines, they are the result of human frailty and error.  The trouble with those "scientific beliefs during any particular era - phlogiston, etc." is that in their era they were not "beliefs" but "science's truths," "objective reality."  And scientific progress is not impeded only by religious institutions, perhaps not even mostly by them; it's resisted by scientists, like the Ptolemaic astronomers who rejected Copernicus, or the biologists who rejected Darwin; partly for scientific reasons, such as his lack of a theory of heredity or the fact that his theory required longer periods of time than science's truths at the time allowed.  Another reason for scientific resistance to Natural Selection was that many biologists wanted to believe in evolution as a linear, goal-directed process rather than the messy non-linear one Darwin theorized.  Einstein's resistance to quantum mechanics didn't even pretend: he just didn't like the kind of universe it presupposed.

That's why that bit about "the truths about the real world that science aspires to find" is so funny: Dawkins is canny enough to qualify his claims a bit, and he knows that the "truths" scientists claim to have found often turn out to be false.  (By the way, there is no "science," only scientists.)  Even when scientists' claims hold up for a while, it is never certain that they won't have to be rejected later.  But more important, and more unsettling, it's never certain that the truth about the real world will be found.  Take the extinction of the dinosaurs: the theory that it was caused by an asteroid striking the earth looks pretty good for now, but there are other candidates.  We may never know what happened, and it's not science's truth until science has actually found it. I'm reminded of the "Princeton Bible" postulated by certain Biblical scholars a hundred years ago: the text of the original autograph manuscripts of the Bible, which are irrecoverably lost and therefore can't be appealed to.

As for "objective reality," what is it?  It's one of those terms, like "science," "religion," "truth," or "beauty," that people love to throw around without defining them because OBVIOUSLY, everybody knows what they mean and only "post-modern pseuds" pretend otherwise.  Phlogiston used to be objective reality; so was eugenic sterilization.  I regret having to harp on the latter, but it's still with us, and you may remember that Dawkins recently tried to defend eugenics as a coherent scientific program.  Even if he rejects sterilization of the "unfit", as I suppose he does though for non-scientific reasons, his sputtering efforts to validate eugenics last year showed that he thinks that "improving the species" has some kind of agreed-on meaning, which it doesn't.

I'm a social constructionist myself, though I disagree vehemently with many other social constructionists.  I'd even answer to "postmodernist," for some versions of the term -- it's like "faggot" in that regard, it's meant to refer to people like me, even though it may or may not fit.  But I haven't found that many self-identified postmodernists do any better with the concept than someone like Dawkins does.  But I also concede the validity of "objective reality," as the nutcase Philip K. Dick defined it: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."  The trouble, whether you're a philosophical naif like Dawkins or a quasti-Gnostic mystic like Dick, is that even though "objective reality" is right there in front of us, we can't quite get at it.  Science is, among other things, the attempt to make models of and describe that reality, but models are not reality and descriptions aren't reality either, so they are always incomplete at best.  At best they're good enough that there aren't very dire consequences from using them; but you never know in advance where or when they'll fail you.

The discussion, to put it loosely, that followed Dawkins's tweets was entertaining.  Several of his crew claimed that Science is like Mathematics.  One declared that pi is science, true before the foundation of the world and true after it.  But pi isn't out there in objective reality, like phlogiston or the Selfish gene: it's an irrational number, and that irrationality has always frustrated those who wanted the world to make sense.  The relationship between mathematics and science is contested, to put it gently, but Pythagoras didn't produce his theorem by studying thousands of right triangles in the lab and producing a theory about them.  Mathematical proof is not remotely like science, and though scientists like to concede the point, insisting that scientific proof is totally different from mathematical truth, they find it difficult to remember their concession for long.

Even if Dawkins were right about the nature of scientific knowledge, that wouldn't mean that his statements about society, religion, women, philosophy, or any other subject, should be taken seriously.  None of them are the result of scientific research, and they seem to spring from nothing but his personal neuroses.  From that point of view Dawkins might merit our sympathy (forgive him, for he knows not what he does).  Even in his field he can't be trusted, as in his incoherent use of "selfish" in his best-known work The Selfish Gene.  His popularity in certain circles can't be because he's right, since he isn't.  His burblings must have some emotional appeal, just as religion does.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Political Fluidity

A reader sent me the link to this good takedown of Neera Tanden, posted before she abandoned her quest to be head of the Office of Management and Budget.  He commented (referring to Biden, of course), "He's already worse than you expected :) "

Well, no.  While it's painful to have to admit it, I actually expected Biden to be a lot worse.  That doesn't mean I think he's good: his foreign policy moves have been terrible overall: dragging his feet on re-entering the JCPOA, continuing Trump's murderous support of a would-be dictator in Venezuela (though to be fair, Trump merely continued and escalated Obama's and Bush's policy there), illegally bombing Syria.  I'm unhappy that he let the $15 minimum wage go, and that he lied about the $2000 stimulus payment, and I'm unhappy not only about his patronage appointment of Neera Tanden but of Pete Buttigieg and Anthony Blinken.

But -- and this is a significant but -- he held firmer on the $1.9 trillion "rescue" package than I expected, he's reversed some of Trump's worst executive orders, he endorsed unionization not only for Amazon workers but for all workers.  While he shrank the pool of recipients for the remaining stimulus payments, the payments will not be $1400 per household but $1400 per person: families of four will get $5600.  It looks like the rescue bill could pass this week.  At the moment it looks like we have a chance at the elimination of the filibuster, and Bernie Sanders and others will keep pushing on the $15 minimum wage -- it doesn't seem that Biden is the obstacle on that.

It occurred to me that a lot of the derision over the idea that progressives would push Biden to the left was misconceived.  Success wouldn't mean that Biden would join the Democratic Socialists, or that his every move would be leftist.  Leftists have been disagreeing vehemently about what they wanted Biden and the Congressional Dems to do, so it's not obvious what a leftist Biden would choose to do. Pushing Biden to the left means pressuring him not to surrender to Blue MAGA / centrist (let alone Republican pressure), and that has largely succeeded.  He simply brushed aside the Senate GOP's "compromise" $600 billion stimulus package. More and more Democrats are recognizing that Biden's bill, contrary to GOP whining, is "bipartisan," for a majority of Republican voters support its provisions even if the GOP elites do not.  He didn't listen to Larry Summers's predictions of doom.  He seems to be supporting the next big Congressional bill to protect voting rights.  I really did not expect even this much from him.

Which doesn't mean it's enough, or that I'm going to relax my attention to his acts.  I'll leave that to Brunch Democrats, who are asleep now anyway, dreaming of Joe and Kamala kissing them goodnight.  I'm going to support the progressive and left members of Congress who are keeping the pressure on him and on their right-wing colleagues, and I'll criticize them when they screw up, as they are bound to do, as I'll criticize Biden.  (I strongly recommend that anyone interested read about Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor, who worked very hard to keep him from selling out the positions and actions that won elections for him.)  But we need to recognize when he does good things, and the rescue bill is going to be one of them.  Let Biden know he's doing what we want, and by "we" I mean the majority of Americans. That doesn't bind us to uncritical support of hm by any means.  It doesn't mean hailing him even as a merely good president; it's too soon for that, and there's no need to do it; but it's fair to encourage him to do more and better.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Cold Hard Facts of Life

It's pledge season on NPR, and the area station I wake up to each morning is having a rough time.  Usually their "challenges," where local businesses and other institutions offer to make a large donation if the station gets a certain amount in pledges or a given number of calls in an hour, are more or less successful.  But so far they're not making it.  I made a donation myself for one of these when I hoped my pledge would get them over the top, with only four more calls needed; but they didn't make that one, and for the past few mornings I haven't heard them getting even that close.  That's worrisome, because regardless of my reservations about NPR this station does a good job with local news and weather reports.  The announcers have voices outside the NPR standard, somewhat quirky, and I like that.  I hope they pull through.

I cringed, though, when they played a few audio messages from people who'd called in their pledge.  A recurring theme was praise for NPR's "fact-based" news coverage.  As I indicated, I'd apply that label to the affiliate's local coverage, but not to Morning Edition or All Things Considered, let alone The 1A.  Like its television sibling PBS, NPR subordinates fact to its self-consciously middle-of-the-road but all-American corporate agenda. Morning Edition, as I've often complained, is obnoxious in that regard: its hosts are not reporters but pundits, often obnoxiously perky or outright smarmy.  They can sometimes stand up to right-wing Republicans, but give them someone a wee bit left-of-center, or just rude to their corporate masters, and they get mean. Before I moved from Bloomington I hadn't listened to these programs for decades, and now I'm starting to hate them.  I loathe the quickies, where the pundit tells an upbeat little item over a perky, rhythmic little tune that ends with a twinkle. And, like most commercial news media, they devote far too much airtime to reading tea leaves, asking "what we can expect": from the President's upcoming speech, from Congress, from the stock market, from the economy, from the pandemic.  I estimate that at least a third of their nominal news airtime is devoted to this kind of speculation.  But hey, it wakes me up each day.

So where do these listener-members get their claim that NPR is "fact-based"?  I suspect they don't really know what it means, and just are just echoing NPR's self-estimation.  Just as the same sort of people gushed over the "competence" of Joe Biden's appointees without knowing anything at all about most of them, NPR's classiness and superiority to Those Other Networks is an article of faith.  It doesn't need to be defended, it just is.

Similarly, one of the pledge crew exalted one of today's Weekend Edition stories, about a young Kentucky punk rocker who'd turned to playing banjo during the pandemic, and tracked down the 90-something craftsman who'd made his instrument.  The story was pleasant, mildly interesting, if shallow, but the announcer held it up as the sort of thing you'd never hear from mainstream news.  On the contrary, similar stories from CBS or NBC are regularly recommended to me by Youtube. It's called Human Interest, and it's utterly standard.