Friday, July 24, 2015

Triumph of the Trump

I'm traveling again, and staying in a motel, so I'm seeing more TV news than usual.  The Donald Trump campaign has been getting a lot of attention.  Even the Chinese restaurant in my home town had their TVs tuned to Fox News, featuring Trump at the border, trying to look like a regular guy in a baseball cap.

I liked what Amanda Marcotte had to say about the whole depressing spectacle.
At this point, there is no doubt that the ongoing love for Donald Trump on display by the Republican base really says something about said base. Certainly, it makes it that much harder to buy the generous argument that the conservative base is a bunch of white people who have been manipulated through genius trickery into voting against their own economic interests, and makes it clear that we’re looking at bullies who would rather burn the country to the ground than share it with people they hate for utterly irrational reasons.
This gave me something to think about, however.
[Trump] is saying “forbidden” things that the “liberal elite” hates. Indeed, that structure pushes their buttons so hard that the actual content of the “forbidden” things hardly matters. All that matter is the “liberal elite” hates them and that other Republicans—deemed cowards—speak out against him. He could be screeching incoherent nonsense and as long as it seemed hateful and the “liberal elite” hates it, the base will love him.
It occurred to me, and not for the first time, that if the "liberal elite" really wanted to frustrate Trump, let alone to counter him, the sensible thing would be not to react to him as they do.  Oh, how can you say such awful things!?  is a perfectly idiotic way for liberals, or anyone, to respond to right-wing provocations.  In the first place, it's just the reaction that Trump, Coulter, O'Reilly, and their ilk hope to inspire; why give them what they want?  If liberals are as much smarter than right-wingers as they love to believe they are, why not come up with clever retorts that will frustrate them, instead of gratifying them?  (There is, of course, a whole line of posts in the liberal blogosphere that tout someone giving some dumb Republican his comeuppance -- Person X Shreds / Destroys / Disembowels Conservative Y With One Well-Chosen Word -- but the ones I've seen don't amount to much.  But even if they were better, my point is that that's how liberals should always respond.

In the second place, I think that liberals like reacting as they do.  It lets them feel morally superior to the awful, awful, conservatives.  And then there's the satisfying, soul-cleansing rush of the ragegasm, an addiction of many all over the political spectrum.  I don't mean to rule out emotion altogether, but throwing a tantrum -- especially a tantrum that delights your opponents because it's what they hoped to produce, as proof that they're right -- is not a constructive, let alone intelligent or rational, way to deal with conflict.

In the third place, I suspect that one reason for the emotional reaction is that many liberals, deep down inside, are attracted by people like Trump and Reagan and Bush and Goldwater. It was instructive, right after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, to see how many liberals used him as a human shield, moving toward the right and saying that it was okay because they weren't as bad as Reagan, but you had to admit that some of what he said made sense. Which it didn't, of course.  There was some of the same self-congratulatory pleasure in (believing that they were) going against the grain, boldly defying the (supposedly) conventional wisdom about war, poverty, race, feminism, reproductive rights, gay people, and so on.  Which is why, when Bill Clinton became president in 1992, he could work for Reaganite policies as a Democrat.  Obama is another example of the syndrome.

About 90% of what I see about Trump from my liberal and progressive friends on Facebook is in that vein: He's so awful! He's so stupid!  His hair is stupid! Though they aren't quite sure why he's awful and stupid.  Wouldn't it be nice if there was a Democratic candidate equivalent to Trump -- and I don't mean the cautious and moderate Bernie Sanders -- who could perform the same service for liberals?  Is there a significant segment of the Democratic base that would go wild for a clown who called for stringing up capitalists and priests from every lamppost?  And would the corporate media give as much attention to such a person as they give to Donald Trump?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

In the Beginning Was the Word

Maybe I overuse the "X for me, Not-X for thee" template, but it encompasses so much bad faith that it's hard to resist.  Yesterday a queer friend of mine posted one of those "Labels are for cans, not for people" memes.  I have at least two reactions to this slogan; one is that you can't really have language without labels; the other is that the people who claim to dislike labels actually like them quite a lot: first for other people, but also for themselves.

For other people there are labels like: homophobe, transphobe, bigot, Bible-thumper, so-called Christians, redneck, and so on.  That leaves aside the more straightforwardly abusive neologisms, often constructed with the -tard suffix: theotard, Republitard, Reichtard, and so on.  These latter have their right-wing counterparts (libtard, etc.), but for the moment I'm talking about people who'd consider themselves liberal, rational, compassionate, loving, open-minded.  More labels, of course.

For themselves, the labels proliferate.  I was recently invited to give a presentation on LGBT history in the area, and while putting it together I was struck by how many labels were coined in the late nineteenth century -- invert, Urning, Uranian, homosexual, androgyne, third sex, etc.  These were words that sex/gender nonconformists invented for ourselves, or adopted for our use.  When I was newly out forty-some years ago, gay men were fond of labeling sexual acts and roles: French active/passive, Greek active/passive, and an older man laid out for me a full list of nationalities linked to sexual practices.  We were also fond of constructions based on "queen": chicken queen, closet queen, opera queen, and (my favorite) fish queen.  (I liked "fish queen" not because of its misogyny but because it incorporated straight men into its taxonomy, classifying them as homosexuals so twisted that they were queer for women.)  Lesbians of the period had their own system: butch, femme, butchy-femme, soft butch, and so on.  I don't know how much of this is still current, but similar self-labeling is certainly going on today: pansexual, asexual, demisexual, genderqueer, transman, transwoman, and so on.

Just a few weeks ago, Caitlyn Jenner's "I am a woman" pull quote was all over the media, and none of the anti-label people got on her case for labeling herself: indeed, they celebrated and defended her.  In this case too, the label is a moving target: "man" and "woman" are meaningless social constructions on one hand, and pre-existent, pre-social benchmarks that define who one is.

I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing.  It's the hypocrisy, the doublethink, of those who claim to reject labels but use them anyway that I'm criticizing here.

I'm presently working my way through a collection of stories by Vincent Czyz, Adrift in a Vanishing City (Vanishing Mountain Press, 2015).  In one story, the French narrator reflects on another character who's labeled a pédé (location 2061 of the Kindle edition):
We French also say pedale, homosexual, tante, de la jacquette flottante – he whose jacket blows lightly behind him – not much else.  It is not the big deal of snow to the Eskimos who have 50 or 60 words for it to distinguish between wet, powdery, crusted, high drifts and so on.  Americans must hold most sacred of all the homosexual since they have any number of words for it – fairy, fag, tinkerbell, queer, three-dollar bill, limp-wrist, homo, fruit, pansy, queen, flit – imagine if my English were up to date.
(I wonder how true it is that French has relatively few words for men who take it up the butt; I doubt it, but my French isn't good enough for me to say. I do know that Spanish has a rich supply of such labels, rivaling what we have in English.)  Even if it were true that Eskimos "have 50 or 60 words" for snow, the variety of American terms for queer men wouldn't be the same kind of thing.  They aren't a taxonomy to enable fine-grained distinctions between varieties of homosexual, they're a ragbag of epithets for the same supposed species.  Some are abusive epithets used by ostensibly heterosexual culture cops, others are self-classifications invented and used by queers ourselves, some moved from one side to the other and back again.  As I mentioned above, though, queers are fond of proliferating labels for ourselves, which sometimes distinguish and sometimes lump us all together.  Unless you're still an adherent of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis -- and I think a lot of laypeople are, especially in its more deterministic forms -- I don't think there's much to be learned from the existence of all those terms.

On the other hand, I think the linguist Tim Machan's reflections on language change are interesting.  From Language Anxiety: Conflict and Change in the History of English (Oxford, 2009, digital edition):
Indeed, as Labov has noted, language actually points to conclusions that oppose natural selection: ‘the major agent of linguistic change – sound change – is actually maladaptive, in that it leads to the loss of the information that the original forms were designed to carry’.  More generally, change and variation are responsible for a great many socially debilitating situations.  They produce mutually unintelligible languages and their attendant barriers to communication, the communication, the communicative obstacles that even regional variation can present, and the sociolinguistic drive to instruct generation after generation of students in the details of spelling, punctuation, and usage, which are never internalized and transmitted to subsequent generations in some Lamarckian fashion.  In view of the tumult of history and the blame placed on inadequate communication, I would venture that if there truly is a general drive to optimal communication, it has failed miserably.
Back to the desirability of labels, then.  It could be argued that labeling impedes communication, but it seems to me that the people who refuse certain labels (while, remember, embracing others) aren't really worried about that.  Inventing new labels in the name of rejecting labels is hardly an improvement in the communication department.

Take the rejection of the label "gay," which I've written about before.  I'm fascinated by the reasons people give for rejecting it.  They may see it as a pejorative, which is understandable but not so much when they want to replace it with something like "queer."  Again, from the way such people talk, they seem to believe that the word "gay" is inherently and essentially negative, which it wasn't always; sometimes they claim to prefer "queer" because it's somehow indeterminate, though given the negative baggage that attaches to it historically, this explanation makes no sense.  It sometimes is expressed precisely as a refusal to communicate, because of the supposed indeterminacy of "queer": I have my own personal special-snowflake definition of what it means, which I might or might not share with you.  Well, to each his or her own.  Take the African-American graduate student I mentioned in another post, who rejected "gay" because in his mind it referred to two "cis" men together; presumably he thought "queer" doesn't have this denotation.  But "gay" doesn't mean that: its use during most of the twentieth century involved a lot of gender nonconformity and gendered division of sexual labor.  The same goes for "homosexual," which (conflated with "gay") supposedly involves "two individuals who are of the same sex and the same gender," though in fact gender nonconformity is associated with homosexuality both at the popular and at the academic level.  (There's also the notion of "a (postmodern) gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation."  This, as I've argued before, involves a basic confusion about the "ideology.")

Another common factor in the rejection of "gay" or any other label is stigma: people will look down on me if I say I'm gay.  Another student who preferred not to label himself on a recent classroom panel explained that he called himself "gay," or even "bisexual," people would misunderstand and think things about him that weren't true.  He didn't specify what those untrue things were.  Of course if he didn't label himself, people would also think things about him that weren't true.  They might believe him to be exclusively heterosexual, for example, or they might label him "faggot" or "punk," no matter how many women he also dates.  And often the trouble with those "misunderstandings" that people worry about is that they aren't misunderstandings at all.  I sympathize completely with the ambivalence other people feel about adopting a stigmatized identity; though they often refuse to believe it, I felt exactly the same way before I came out.  But the only way I know of to counter these misunderstandings is to face them and counteract them, as best we can.  If someone has stereotypes about gay people (and let me remind you, gay people also have stereotypes about gay people!), you won't get them to give their stereotypes up by pretending to be straight.  To add to the fun, many of the people who fear "misunderstandings" involving stereotypes do their best to embody the stereotypes when they do come out.  I can understand and sympathize with that too, but it's a consequence of the prior denial.

Labels can be misused, and I argue that this historical ignorance and self-serving, inconsistent rejection of labels constitutes misuse, because of the confusion that it engenders, probably by design.  There's no foolproof way to avoid confusion, stereotyping, historical baggage, or the limitations of labels; you just have to try to deal with these matters as best you can, in conversation with others, educating yourself and them as you go.  You won't get anywhere by refusing to use labels, because people will go on using them around you, like it or not.  So you must engage with others -- and don't assume that you already know everything and they know nothing.  As human beings using labels, we can't avoid using them altogether; we must learn to use them as well as we can.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Comes a Watchman; or, Mockingbird Rations Have Been Raised Again

How intriguing.  Now that Go Set a Watchman has actually been published, all I'm seeing is a bunch of posts and articles explaining why it should never have been published, that it's unfinished, that Lee never wanted to publish it, that the poor old lady was pressured or coerced into publishing it, and so on and on.  Which may well be true.  But just a few days ago -- right up until publication day -- I was seeing nothing but how exciting it was, how it was going to shed a whole new light on Scout and Atticus, it was going to give us whiter whites and brighter teeth and OMG isn't it wonderful that we're finally going to get a new novel from the mysterious and selfish Harper Lee?  Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia!

(Am I going to read it?  Probably not anytime soon.  I have stacks of books around the apartment that need my attention first.)

Friday, July 10, 2015

As Easy as Stepping on a Rake

I'm a firm believer in the usefulness of debate.  One of its uses is to help figure out what the issues are.  It's easy to become so obsessed with the formulation of a question that you develop tunnel vision and forget that the question can be asked in different ways, and that there are more than two sides in an important disagreement.  This is why the audience of a debate is at least as important as the debaters themselves.  As I've often said, the purpose of a debate is not for one of the debaters to persuade the other that his or her position is wrong, but to inform the spectators, so that they can better evaluate the controversy.

I had it in mind to apply this point to the current controversy over the Confederate battle flag, but then I read a post on same-sex marriage -- or rather, on marriage in general -- by Amanda Marcotte at Rawstory.  Marcotte tries to administer a dope-slap to reactionary opponents of same-sex marriage:
Basically, their real concern is that people are going to stop seeing marriage as a miserable duty to be endured and instead start thinking that love, happiness, and companionship should be what marriage is about. The marriage-for-love mentality is no doubt especially threatening to some of your more sexist men. There’s already a lot of fear that women prefer singleness to being with a man who isn’t loving and supportive. That’s what all that hand-wringing about single motherhood and singleness generally is about—anger that women might actually have standards and not just marry the first guy who will take them.
She then quotes Mike Huckabee speaking on CNN:
“Regardless, heterosexual marriage is largely in trouble today because people see it as a selfish means of pleasing self, rather than a committed relationship in which the focus is on meeting the needs of the partner,” he said. “That sense of selfishness and the redefinition of love as to something that is purely sentimental and emotional, has been destructive.”
Marcotte then denounces
this bleak view where marriage is about cosmic duty, not about being happy. In fact, there’s a suspicion of happiness underlying this, a belief that if you’re enjoying your relationship, you must be doing something wrong.
Jeez, where did Marcotte ever get the idea that marriage is about love and happiness?  She really should check out the century or more of feminist analysis and critique of marriage, and then all the research that found that the only people less unhappy than married women are unmarried men.  This research was cited by mostly male reactionaries to attack feminism (women totally owe it to men to sacrifice their happiness to propping up the male ego!), but that doesn't discredit the evidence.  This article sums up First Wave feminism's take on marriage, though it probably stereotypes Second-Wave feminism unfairly.  The best-known Second Wave critics of marriage are probably Shulamith Firestone and Ellen Willis.  The situation has changed slightly as married women gained more autonomy and have had their own outside-the-home jobs, and could control their own money -- which, perhaps oddly to this mindset, means that having a job makes you happier.

And then there's the "marriage equality" movement itself, which has made a big deal about all the zillions of "rights" that married people get.  Special rights, of course.  Right after the latest Supreme Court ruling I had an educational exchange on Facebook with a marriage-equality devotee who flatly angrily denied that the movement was about anything but Love!  Like, what part of "Love Wins" didn't I understand?

Marriage is not about equality: it's about inequality.  It privileges certain couples -- those who are registered with the State -- over other, unregistered couples, to say nothing of single people.  Marriage is, and always has been, about property, not about love, and certainly not happiness.  From what I see, most of my younger acquaintances, especially the gay ones, are really interested in having a wedding.  Preferably a big expensive spectacle of a wedding, like in the movies.  Preferably in a church, which is going to frustrate them when they learn that they can't force a church to be the soundstage for their spectacle.  How are they supposed to get a viral Youtube video and website out of their wedding if they can't have it in a church?
"We loved the T-Mobile advert spoof of Wills and Kate's wedding," [NIna, 28, the bride] said.

"Ever since I saw that I've always fancied giving it a go."
Back in the Seventies when I first began to realize that I preferred being single, I was bemused when to find that my coupled friends (mostly lesbians at the time) were saying that they needed to find me a nice boyfriend, so I'd be happy like they were.  When I replied that being in a couple hadn't made me happy, they would change their tune: Well, you're not supposed to be happy!  Being in a relationship is hard work!  You'll be miserable, but it's good for you! You're just selfish! ... and so on.  Bear in mind, they weren't talking about legal marriage (not available then to same-sex couples anywhere) or civil union or domestic partnership, but just about having a boyfriend.  Ironically, they succeeded in confirming my sense that being coupled was not for me.  For them, maybe, but not for me.  (A few years later, all those would-be matchmakers had broken up with their partners.  They found new ones, of course.)

Since then I've often observed that people to tend to stay in relationships long after after those relationships are making them miserable -- for fear of being thought a quitter, or immature, or selfish, or a failure -- or for fear of being alone.  Again, the propaganda that pervades the Culture of Therapy encourages those fears.  It isn't only old fundamentalist males who say this stuff.  And civil marriage makes getting out of a bad relationship even harder, as it's meant to.

Not only does marriage not equal love, love doesn't equal marriage.  I love many people; I'm not even theoretically interested in marrying most of them.  (My niece, my friends, my grandnephews, etc. -- but not my sex partners either.)  "Love" is a multivalent and confusing concept in many cultures, not just ours; often it's an outright euphemism for erotic desire or for copulation.  Equating love with marriage is propaganda, as is linking it to happiness.  One reason so many marriages fail is that people have unrealistic expectations about the institution -- again, it's not just old religious people who say this, it's a staple of the Culture of Therapy.   But what are realistic expectations?  Inflating the importance of marriage or even just of couplehood, making romantic love a prerequisite for happiness, is patriarchal propaganda.

But all this is the easy part, I think.  It's easy to mistake Amanda Marcotte for a radical: she's brassy, confrontational, and she talks dirty.  But confusing tone with content is usually a mistake. Her stated position here makes it explicit that she stands in the liberal tradition of the atomized individual.  "There is no such thing as society," Margaret Thatcher infamously said, "there are individual men and women and there are families."  Obviously Thatcher drew different conclusions from that premise than Marcotte and many other liberals do: that doctrine can be used to rationalize a wide variety of positions.  Mike Huckabee would probably be shocked to learn that Christianity as represented in the New Testament is an individualistic (though not liberal) cult, as religions of salvation usually are.  Jesus' teaching focused on the safety of the individual, who must be prepared to break and defy with all the institutions of his society -- family, marriage, religion, state -- in order to get into the Kingdom of Heaven.  As the Confederates found with their doctrine of states' rights, the early Christians had to contain this doctrine immediately if they were to survive as an institution themselves: the apostle Paul's letters show him balancing the freedom of the individual against the rest of the community (conceptualized as the Body of Christ), under his authority as Christ's deputy.  But the early Christian communities could only be built by taking individuals away from already-existing communities.  It's worth remembering that although most early Christians probably married, Jesus' and Paul's exaltation of sexual abstinence encouraged and empowered many people to reject marriage -- especially women.

You can't have individuals without community, or a community without individuals, and social history can usefully be read as an account of the tension between those poles.  Propaganda for same-sex marriage has cited the importance of social recognition and acceptance of Our Relationships.  Which, ironically, confirms the complaint of many opponents of SSM that ratifying same-sex civil marriage forces not just them but everyone to endorse those relationships against their religious principles.  You can make an argument that this isn't so, but the proponents of SSM tend to flipflop after having done so, and demand social acceptance and support from everybody for their marriages.  Civil marriage isn't about individual happiness, it's a social and political construct social order, and it can enable or obstruct individual happiness.

Individual choices are not (necessarily) determined by social or cultural forces, but they are pressured and limited by them.  The choices we make are limited by the options available, the rewards for compliance and the penalties for noncompliance.  So the question still has be asked, quoting Ellen Willis quoting Rosalind Petchesky: Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?  I agree with Marcotte's insistence that women have a right to choose their partners and relationships, to draw lines within their relationships to preserve their autonomy, and that men have no right to demand that women make all the concessions and provide all the service.  But she should consider the question whether (especially civil) marriage civil marriage, despite the reforms that have been enacted in parts of the West, is a gateway or an obstacle to personal happiness.

But, you know, if Firestone and Willis are too radical for you, there's always Nancy Polikoff's excellent and moderate Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage.  Simply negating the demands of the religious patriarchs isn't the only way to refute them, and such negation has a tendency to snap back and hit you in the face.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Around Cape Horn at Seventeen

Last week I read quite a good book.  In fact I think Ruth Moore's The Walk Down Main Street (William Morrow, 1960) is one of the best books I've read this year.

I found out about The Walk Down Main Street from a mention in one of May Sarton's late journals.  Sarton also lived in Maine for many years, but she apparently didn't know Moore or her work until she picked up this one near the end of her life.  Sarton said she "had not been so taken by a novel in ages."  By the time I finally got around to the book, I'd completely forgotten why Sarton's description had appealed to me.  It is, she said,
about the wreckage in a small town when the basketball team in the local high school wins a local championship and goes on to a bigger test, how the boys become arrogant and obsessed, and the men take to betting on the game and become more and more involved, a corrupting process.
This accurately describes the occasion of the novel, but doesn't really do it justice.  Certainly the novel's criticism of basketball hysteria has a lot to do with why I enjoyed it -- it fit in my comfort zone -- but it has more going on than that.  While Moore is unsparing about Boy Culture, it's not only "the men": the women in the town are also gaga over the team's success.  They're pushed to the sidelines, but they give what support their role allows them.  There are exceptions in both camps, of course: the science teacher, for example, who is more concerned with getting his students into college for academic reasons than because of success in sports; and the chief protagonist, a widow whose son has become the star of the team when he runs a hot streak in one game, along with a knee injury that the local doctor (another booster) treats with novocaine so that the boy can continue to play while aggravating the tissue damage.  It's also not the basketball fever that is responsible for the corruption, arrogance, and betting; rather it's an outlet for them.  Moore shows that they've always been present in the community.

The widow I mentioned, Susie Hoodless, married a sweet but rather feckless Coast Guardsman from Arkansas, who drowned in a pointless accident at sea.   The town, and her father Martin in particular, has never really forgiven her for marrying a "foreigner."  (Ironically, Martin himself had married a real foreigner, a Swedish woman.)  Racism is pervasive among the townspeople: the science teacher, also a "foreigner," is Jewish, and there's a lot of eagerness to classify all "foreigners" as black, either by blood or by mystic essence.  There's an extended flashback about Susie's honeymoon with her husband Brant, when they traveled to Arkansas so she could meet his family.
[Brant's father] said nothing at all.  He stood there, looking at Brant; his hands on the rifle might have been carved out of wood.

Brant said, "I got married.  This here's my wife."

The old man didn't move his head, bu the slits of his eyes flicked a little, flicked over Susie, flicked back to Brant.

"Whar she come from?" he said.

"She come from where my Base is," Brant said.

"What to hell kind of foreign country is that to come from?" said Brant's father.  "She white?"

Susie couldn't help it.  It was so exactly like Martin Hoodless, here she and Brant had crossed practically the whole United States to listen to the exact same thing.  Susie laughed.

She said, choking, "When Brant and I got married, Mr. McIntosh, my father said, 'Where's Arkansas?  Who ever heard tell of it?  What to hell kind of foreign country is that to come from?'"

The old man didn't even look at her; he was looking at Brant, and Brant's face was wooden.

"You ma'ied a Yankee," the old man said [90-91].
On the trip back to Maine, Susie realizes that the immiserating poverty that at first shocked her in Arkansas is also present at home, though its familiarity there had kept her from noticing it before.  I noticed that small-town Maine is not importantly different from the small-town Indiana where I was growing up when The Walk Down Main Street was published.

Susan's father Martin is another holdout from the basketball fever, but for different reasons.  He wants to keep his family, including his basketball-playing grandson Carlisle, at home and under his control.  (We're told that all his daughters save Susie married and moved far away from him as soon as they could.)   There's an amusing exchange between Martin and one of the town fathers, who objects to Martin's saying that Carlisle can work his way through college:
"What's the sense of that?  Why put a young kid that far behind the eight-ball?  You work him too hard, you'll warp his whole future.  Why, a young kid, he ain't ready for too much rugged stuff, Mart."

"Hell's pink-whiskered, blistered bells!"  Martin said.  "Carlisle's great-grandfather took a vessel around Cape Horn when he was seventeen."

"Different time, Mart, different times.  Nowadays, thank God, a kid don't have to get out and hustle.  I wouldn't want my boy to have to work the way I did, the way his grandfather did.  It don't make sense.  What I want for him is the best there is, and in this world, Mart, thanks to you and me, there's some pretty good things.  By gum and by gosh, my kid wouldn't take a ship around Cape Horn.  Be damned if I'd let him!"

"Well, another thing," Martin said.  "Your kid couldn't."

A slight flush came into the pale skin over Jed's temples, but he went smoothly on [261].
Moore knows all the cliches of reactionary bullshit, but she plays around with them for her own purposes.  On the next page Martin reflects:
If there was any reason, he thought, for an educated man to talk like a hick, it was just to show you that he was on your side, he was a hick, too.  On jury duty, which Martin had had a good many times, he had run into the same thing, and it had always annoyed him.  The lawyers, addressing the jury, at times would drop so far into countrified speech that the jury themselves had difficulty in understanding them.  Jed was an educated man, a college man.  Why in hell didn't he talk like one? [262]
If he did, Martin would despise him for that, of course.

Moore subtly but clearly depicts school and town politics, and treats all of her large cast of characters with empathy if not sympathy.  The town "eccentrics" provide some comedy, as usual in regional fiction, but they also have some complexity and surprises in store.

To add an extra fillip of pleasure, though I didn't learn this until after I'd finished the book: Moore's longtime companion from 1940 until the latter's death in 1981 was Eleanor Mayo, also a novelist.  Were they lesbians?  I have no idea, but clearly they weren't heterosexuals as we think of them today.  I just got hold of another of Moore's novels, Speak to the Winds, published in 1956, and will probably track down the rest of them. 

Monday, July 6, 2015


I stumbled today on a news story about a volunteer fireman in Minnesota who's been suspended for flying a Confederate flag on a city firetruck during a Fourth of July* parade.  He's not racist, of course, because he says so.
“I’m sick of the politically correctness, because they are trying to change too much in the United States,” Nielsen told KARE 11. “Me raising that flag had nothing to do with slavery. It had nothing to do with disrespect towards our vets. It was more of a statement against the PC. I’m sorry that I hurt my city and hurt the fire department. It was my decision and I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but boy was I wrong.”
He says he'd do it again, "just not in a public vehicle."  It was cruel of KARE to quote Brian Nielsen's inarticulate babble so exactly.   It would be interesting, and not only because I'm a cruel person (though I am), to ask him why it's "chang[ing] too much in the United States" to object to the display of the flag of a defeated enemy that waged war against the United States, a flag that has been used to symbolize resistance to the equal treatment of all American citizens.  If Brian Nielsen really wanted to show the "politically correctness" how truly bold an independent thinker he is, why not fly a North Vietnamese flag, or an ISIS flag (a real one, not a parody), or -- damn the torpedoes and Godwin's Law -- a Nazi flag?  I'd love to see Nielsen yatter about political correctness  to the people who'd dogpile him if he did such a thing, in a Fourth of July parade no less.  It's a mark of how corrupted the American collective memory is that there are many people who can't see what the CSA battle flag has to do with slavery, white supremacy, or "disrespect towards our vets."

I suppose it would be understandable for a twelve-year-old to want to do something just because somebody somewhere said it shouldn't be done, but not for a forty-three-year old "father of one."  (Notice, by the way, that the Colorado teenagers who included guns and a Confederate flag in their prom photograph did so with the support, and in the presence of their parents.)  But I'm being unfair to twelve-year-olds.  Brian Nielsen thinks like a two-year-old.

Speaking of that ISIS dildo flag that confused seasoned CNN commentators during a Pride parade in London in June, the guy who made it is not a lot more clear-minded than Brian Nielsen.  He wrote an article for the Guardian explaining what he thought he was doing.
Previously, I’ve attached dildos onto postcards from each country where homosexuality is still illegal to point out that the laws of these places regards its gay residents as mere sex objects. Previously, I’ve attached dildos onto postcards from each country where homosexuality is still illegal to point out that the laws of these places regards its gay residents as mere sex objects. 

The decision to make the flag was a simple one: a sense of outrage at Isis’s brutal advance across North Africa, Libya, Syria and Iraq. Medieval ideologies and barbarism were being spread and recorded through that most modern of expressions, social media, with that flag ever-present. It has become a potent symbol of brutality, fear and sexual oppression. If I wanted to try and stimulate a dialogue about the ridiculousness of this ideology, the flag was key.
I see.  Leaving aside the artiste's stilted diction and uncertain syntax, how do "the laws of these places regards its gay residents as mere sex objects"?  I don't think Paul Coombs understands what "sex object" means.  The term refers to treating another person solely as an object to be used for one's own sexual pleasure -- which is not what Islamist regimes are doing to their gay citizens.  (Nor is it how the sodomy laws on the books of numerous US states until 2003 regarded gay men. Am I reaching far back into "medieval" times if I also mention Britain's antigay laws, repealed in 1967 but brought back in other forms by the Thatcher Regime?  Or Germany's infamous Paragraph 175, finally repealed only in 1994?  Perhaps the scientific "treatment" of gay men like Alan Turing, dosed with "female" hormones for the crime of having sex with another male.)

I too am outraged by ISIS' "brutal advance across North Africa, Libya," etc.  But I can't forget the brutal advance of the United States and Great Britain over Africa and Asia, whether in the past (India's law against gay sex, for example, was imposed by the English, though it's still in force after independence) or in the present: hundreds of thousands dead, wounded, tortured, driven into exile, while the coalition of the willing set up and propped up Islamist regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere.  (Hamas, you'll remember, was assisted at first by Israel -- which also means by the US -- in hopes of undermining the secularist PLO.  The best-laid schemes. like satire, gang aft agley.)  The US and Britain are currently supporting Saudi Arabia's brutal advance through Yemen, with great loss of life already and much more to come.  Given the limits of our time and energy, we have to choose what we'll yell about, but it's far too easy to condemn an official enemy like ISIS from afar while ignoring what one's own government is doing.

Satire is difficult, of course.  A single object, like Paul Coombs's dildo flag or Brian Nielsen's battle rag, is especially ambiguous and easy to misunderstand.  Yet so many would-be satirists take for granted that their brilliant and complex, many-layered symbolism will be instantly understood by their audiences, no matter how many times they learn otherwise.  Some people simply can't grok satire.  Coombs, however, is too easily satisfied:
On a message board someone posted: “Whenever I see the Isis flag anywhere, all I can see is dildos!” Mission accomplished.
Yeah, ISIS, take that!  Gay Brits won't be fooled by your sinister secret agenda.  It won't help the people being slaughtered by your tanks and bombs, or by American bombs intended for ISIS but going just a bit off target, but Paul Coombs laughs you to scorn.

*Actually, a "Third of July" parade, according to the article.  I have no idea why.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Capitalism Helps Those Who Help Themselves

I've been reading David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle's The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools (Perseus Books, 1995), which is good but slow going since it contains so much useful information.  The part I was reading today addressed the American myth of individualism and self-reliance and its role in hostility to public schools.  But that myth has influence in other important areas of public concern as well, and I think I noticed something about it that the authors didn't.

They write:
Americans tend to assume that most social outcomes are generated by the characteristics of individuals -- rather than, say, by unfair laws, structural forces in the society, industrial greed, accidents, or divine intervention.  And we also believe that schools are given broad responsibility for molding individuals so they are more likely to experience positive outcomes.  This is all very well, but what happens when social outcomes are negative?  And what happens when, as in the past twenty years, social problems escalate in America?  What happens when American industries lose out to foreign competitors, when more and more people lose their jobs, when crime rates soar, when the country must deal with high rates of violence and drug addiction, when the divorce rate shoots up, or when Americans suffer in increasing numbers from sexually transmitted diseases?  By extension of the above logic, the individuals experiencing those social problems are (obviously) responsible for their fates, the schools those individuals attended have (obviously) failed in their missions, and those schools should be brought to account [152].
Not very surprisingly, research finds that
beliefs about individual efficacy were weaker among people who were most likely to have experienced economic failure or discrimination -- namely, those who were young, black, female, impoverished, or from poorer sections of the country.  The researchers commented. "The picture of the prototypical believer in the [myth of individualism that] emerges quite clearly and, perhaps not coincidentally resembles Ronald Reagan: an older, white, male, Westerner with a relatively high income" [153-5].
Believers in individual efficacy can rebut this easily enough, by saying that of course losers will try to blame someone else -- the system, society -- for keeping them down, while winners will modestly and correctly credit themselves or their innate genetic superiority for their success.  And (though I don't agree as a general principle) it's quite plausible that people prefer to blame the System, or other people's malevolence, instead of their own shortcomings for their failures; who hasn't known people who do just that?  I'll return to this in a moment.

Berliner and Biddle distinguish between this myth of individual efficacy and the myth of unbounded instructional responsibility, the belief that "schools can and should assist students in intellectual tasks AND political tasks AND economic tasks AND social tasks" (156).  I'd like to rename the second myth the myth of unbounded institutional responsibility, since it prescribes not only for schools but for our society as a whole.

What they (like those they are criticizing) seem not to notice is that these myths contradict each other.  This turns up in the second sentence of my first quotation from The Manufactured Crisis: blame for failure isn't laid solely on the individuals who failed, but on the institution that should have molded them into winners, but for some reason didn't.  This is important because so much of the debate over white and male privilege has focused on individuals: Nobody gave me anything, I worked hard for everything I have, and look at Oprah or other rich minorities -- if the system is rigged against them, how did they succeed if not by pure grit and determination and hard work?  The losers are just making excuses for not trying hard enough.  But if the fault lies with the schools, who failed to inculcate the traits and habits of Success, why blame the individuals?  The fault can also lie with the Dang Government, which has fostered habits of dependency with its welfare programs.  And so on.

The answer, I think, lies in what happens to privileged people when things don't work out as they wish.  "When American industries lose out to foreign competitors," do the corporations and their CEOs admit they didn't work hard enough?  Do they tighten their belts, hitch up their britches, spit in their hands and put their noses to the grindstone?  They do not.  First they vote themselves higher salaries and stock dividends; then they demand that the Dang Government help them, with trade barriers against the foreign competitors, with tax cuts, with subsidies to facilitate the offshoring of production, and if things get bad enough, with bailouts.

Here's a famous example (via), by no means unusual:
In the 1981–86 period, Prestowitz says, [Steve] Jobs and his executives “had the funny notion that the US government had an obligation to help them…. We did all we could, and in doing so came to learn that virtually everything Apple had for sale, from the memory chips to the cute pointer mouse, had had its origins in some program wholly or partially supported by US government money…. The heart of the computer is the microprocessor, and Apple’s derived from Motorola’s 680X0, which was developed with much assistance, direct and indirect, from the Defense Department, as were the DRAM memory chips. The pointer mouse came from Xerox’s PARC center near Stanford (which also enjoyed government funding). In addition, most computer software at that time derived from work with government backing.”

Prestowitz points out that Apple also assumes the US government is obligated to stop foreign pirating of Apple’s intellectual property and, should supply chains in the Far East be disrupted, to offer the comforting support of the Seventh Fleet. “And those supply chains. Are they the natural product of good old free market capitalism, or does that scalability and flexibility and capacity to mobilize large numbers of workers on a moment’s notice have something to do with government subsidies and the interventionist industrial policies of most Asian economies?”
 A few years later (boldface added),
When an Apple team visited, the Chinese plant’s owners were already constructing a new wing. “This is in case you give us the contract,” the manager said, according to a former Apple executive. The Chinese government had agreed to underwrite costs for numerous industries, and those subsidies had trickled down to the glass-cutting factory. It had a warehouse filled with glass samples available to Apple, free of charge. The owners made engineers available at almost no cost. They had built on-site dormitories so employees would be available 24 hours a day.
This didn't keep Jobs from snarling at President Obama that he was on his way to being a one-term president (this man must be a prophet!) because he wasn't "business-friendly" enough, because "regulations and unnecessary costs" made it "difficult" for corporate welfare moochers to squeeze out a few measly billions of dollars of profit.  To repeat: did Jobs blame his own parasitical tendencies and laziness for those difficulties?  He did not; he blamed the system.  Ditto for the Koch Brothers, who admit they are leeches on the American taxpayer, but it's not their fault!  They couldn't "remain competitive" without the government handouts, because everybody does it!  Nothing is their fault!   If they could just get The Man off their back, not only they but everybody would be better off!  American society, especially the investor class and the media that report the news from their perspective, scorns the excuses made by the poor, but is intensely sympathetic to the same excuses made by the rich.

So it seems that the myth of individual efficacy, like many if not most basic cultural principles, is invoked only selectively, when it can be used to justify one's privileges.  That's not surprising.  But how interesting that even such astute critics of the myth as Berliner and Biddle fail to notice the contradiction in its application to American education.