Sunday, September 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 16, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

Ned goes on: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Food of the Gods

 Jon Schwarz recently tweeted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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