Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Whole World Is Spinning!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Sí, Don Diego, That Ees Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, June 25, 2021

The Problem of the Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

I part company with Broome in his conclusion, though.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Dishonor System

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 11, 2021

Your Department of Redundancy Department

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The End Times May Be Upon Us

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

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

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

Sunday, June 6, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Lesser-Evilism in Peru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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