Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Off the Old Bat

I picked up a copy of Against Equality's Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage (Against Equality Publishing Collective, 2010), and I look forward to reading it.  One thing I noticed right away: the recurring theme that "same-sex marriage is an essentially conservative cause" -- an odd claim from an anti-essentialist writer like Walter Benn Michaels, whose cover blurb I just quoted.  But leaving essentialism aside for the moment (I'm pretty sure I'll be returning to it), I think it's time to problematize the term "conservative."

Like many other go-to terms -- "moderate," "extreme," "skeptical" and "agnostic" come to mind right off the bat -- "conservative" shouldn't have any content, but is often treated as if it did.  It connotes a relation between two or more terms.  Think of William F. Buckley's definition from his 1955 mission statement for the fledgling National Review:
A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
Of course there's some stupidity here, in the self-pitying and dishonest clause about "a time when no one is inclined to do," since there are always people who are inclined to try to stop history.  Liberals are just apt to claim that they stand alone, or defy the tide.  But the definition makes sense, in referring to a relation between people and the present: someone wants to conserve something, but might very well want not to conserve something else.  It would apply, as numerous people have pointed out, better to a New Deal Democrat trying to preserve the legacy of FDR than to someone like Buckley, Barry Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan, who wanted to dismantle the American system then in place and replace it with something radically different.  Those who claim to wish to return to bygone days seldom really want to; they generally are historically illiterate, and don't know what the bygone days were like.  What they dislike is the present.

Consider a 1986 PBS documentary called The AIDS Show, about a revue staged by a San Francisco theater troupe.  I quote from memory: a group of gay men are sitting around talking about how AIDS has affected their lives.  When someone mentions safe sex, one of them bursts out, "I'm tired of hearing about safe sex!  Look: I like to get drunk, take drugs, and go out and have sex with strangers.  You can call me old-fashioned, but that's what I like." That character's position should qualify as conservative, even essentially conservative, in the context of gay men's culture.  So, for that matter would be the closet, leading a double life, marriages of convenience, gender transgression (from men referring to each other as "she" to drag), diva worship, and so on.  Indeed any appeal to culture, be it queer or gay or lesbian or what have you, is likely to be a conservative if not reactionary move: thus far and no farther!

Despite my reservations about the whole project, I'm not so sure that gay marriage is an essentially conservative cause.  Nor is it essentially progressive.  It can be seen as either, or neither.  The first thing you have to notice is that those who are usually called conservatives in the US political map have not exactly rushed to embrace the idea.  Neither, for a long time, did those who were usually styled liberals, though it's certainly legitimate to question whether the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton should be called liberals.  As Nancy Polikoff pointed out, the gay marriage movement seems to be dominated by people with otherwise reactionary views on marriage that they hold in common with the right-wing marriage movement:
... [S]ame-sex marriage supporters borrow from flawed marriage-movement arguments that further a political agenda historically out of line with the gay rights movement.  For example, psychology professor Gregory Herek argues for marriage rather than civil unions by referencing that “heterosexual cohabiting couples do not derive the same advantages as married couples from their relationships.”  But critics of the marriage movement point out that such claims are based on bad science, reflecting “selection effect” and assuming a causal connection that cannot be proven.  Similarly, cultural anthropologist Gilbert Herdt and psychiatrist Robert Kertzner assert that because “marriage supports mental and physical health,” the ban on same-sex marriage “compromises the well-being [of lesbians and gay men], that of their children, and the well-being of future generations.” …

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders has expressed the belief that the marriage of lesbian and gay couples will strengthen the institution of marriage, not weaken it, as though strengthening the institution of marriage, on the terms that rhetoric is usually deployed, is an unqualified accomplishment.  When the marriage movement speaks of strengthening the institution of marriage it is always in a context that asserts the superiority of marriage [Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, Beacon Press, 2008, 99].
Of course, if these views are "historically out of line with the gay rights movement," rejecting them is the conservative thing to do.

Marriage might well be "conservative" for heterosexual couples and "progressive," even radical, for same-sex couples.  A conservative stance on homosexuality would entail that gay people remain invisible, silent, closeted.  Conservative gay people, the kind I met and argued with in the 1970s and after, would agree.  Why do you have to advertise your sex life? they'd ask peevishly, much like their heterosexual counterparts: My private life is nobody else's business.  Legal marriage, which entails putting your couplehood on public record, registered with the state, entails leaving the closet, and I've often been amused by closeted people who nonetheless wanted a marriage license: to get that piece of paper, they'd have to declare their sex lives publicly.  Even if they didn't take out a wedding announcement in the local paper, the issuance of a license would be published.  If you're married, that person you're living with can no longer be euphemized as your friend, your longtime companion: that person becomes your spouse, and it's been revealing how many gay people who want the social and historical baggage that comes with marriage are queasy about the social and historical baggage that goes with husband and wife.

When I've pointed all this out, the reactions I get told me that they hadn't really thought through the implications of their position.  The same was true of those who said they wanted government to get out of the marriage business, ignoring the fact that a marriage license and all the benefits and privileges it bestows are the result of government getting into the marriage business.

True, a lot of gay people seem to think that legal marriage will prove to straights that we are sober, responsible, respectable people, just like heterosexuals.  But the right-wing backlash to the drive for same-sex marriage has shown how naive such a belief is, so it's strange to see that a self-styled queer vanguard seems to share it.  And of course there's a lot of hypocrisy among the advocates of same-sex marriage.  As a group we probably are  as sober, responsible, and respectable as straight people are, as a group -- which isn't very.  But hypocrisy, defined as the homage vice pays to virtue, is a very conservative practice.

I've mentioned before Duncan's First Law of Gay Respectability, which holds that if gay people want to have a “respectable” public life, we have to have a “scandalous” private life, and vice versa. The exact content of a respectable public life and a scandalous one has changed over the past few decades, thanks to generational changes in straights' attitudes toward homosexuality.  I've also observed that presenting ourselves so as to please straight people is a hopeless exercise, since some straights are more comfortable with gender-compliant (not "stereotypical") gays and others are more comfortable with gender-noncompliant ("stereotypical") ones.  No one approach will work across the board, so I've been skeptical for decades about buzzwords like "assimilation," "transgressive," "conservative," "liberal," and "radical."  It's not always possible to avoid using them, but they are mirages that recede as one pursues and tries to capture them.

It's essentialist to posit that gay people should be "outlaws," just as it is to claim that we should be respectable citizens.  Like straight people, we aren't by nature anything.  Human sexuality is expressed in many different ways, some of which are invalid and other of which aren't.  I see many prescriptions about what sex and love should be for; some I agree with and others I don't, but none of them is universal or mandatory.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Divine Whimsy and Darwin; or, The Madman Theory

In the fall of 1971 I moved into a dormitory room at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University.  Before that I lived for a year in a house I shared with other students in South Bend, Indiana, during my second year attending the regional campus there.  I was very ambivalent about the move, because in South Bend I had for the first time in my life a circle of friends among whom I felt I belonged; but I also had wanted to live in Bloomington ever since my first visit there as a high school senior in 1968, and I wanted (but also feared) the resources for gay life that I knew Bloomington had.

As I settled into life in Bloomington, I noticed something odd: I was using the word "home" to refer to three different places -- my dorm room, the house I'd shared in South Bend, and my parents' home in the country outside South Bend.  I realized that they all felt like home in their ways, so it was proper to use the word, but only context could tell someone else which home I had in mind when I'd saying I was going home.

This might have something to do with why I'm uncomfortable with some of the arguments in Nelson Rivera's The Earth Is Our Home: Mary Midgley's Critique and Reconstruction of Evolution and Its Meanings (Imprint Academic, 2010).  Nelson Rivera (who shares a name with a Salvadoran footballer who died young) is a theologian who teaches at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.  The book is as a whole a disappointment; it reads rather like Cliff's Notes on Midgley for ministers who might not otherwise venture to read a philosopher, even one sympathetic to religion as Midgley is; but also like an attempt to appropriate her for the faith, as theologians like to do.  Aside from references to a few stray articles by her that I hadn't seen before and might track down, like this one, I didn't get much from Rivera's discussion that I hadn't already got from reading Midgley herself.

I have to admit, though, that some of those articles included information I was happy to get.  In one, for instance, Midgley says that "for most important questions in human life, a number of different conceptual tool-boxes always have to be used together.  And unfortunately, there is no single law showing us how we have to combine them.  We simply have to keep on doing this carefully as the necessities of each case dictate until we reach a result that appears satisfactory" (quoted by Rivera, 179).  I agree completely, and I'm pleased to see someone else saying this.  And again:
According to Midgley, when it comes to the assertion of a personal God within the framework of a scientific view of the world, there we confront some problems.  She thinks, for example, that the notion of a personal cosmic will, which is typically found in an anthropomororphic religious creed, is basically hostile to science.  There is no place in natural science for it.  She thinks moreover that this notion is not consistent with conceptions of order, so vital to our understanding of the universe (as cosmos).  It is order, and not a personal arbitrary will, that the human mind seeks to penetrate with the tools of science [209].
Here Rivera cites an article and Midgley's Evolution as a Religion, page 70.  This interests me, because usually Midgley hedges on issues like this; she's apt to use "religion" to refer to her donnish, twentieth-century philosopher's notions of what religion should be, rather than to what it means to theologians, clergy, and lay believers.  And yet this reminds me of something I wrote a few years ago, arguing that belief in a personal God does not support a lawful ordered universe but rather an arbitrary, disordered one.  Reading some of Rivera's remarks about the role of randomness and chance in the genetic variation that is the raw material of evolutionary change, it occurred to me that randomness, far from setting natural selection at odds with religion, might actually make it more compatible: the variation among individual organisms could be interpreted as Yahweh's idle fiddling around to stir shit up, or as he put it in an old rabbinic story I quoted, "Be still, that is how it entered my mind."  Or, as Terry Pratchett put it, more wisely than he knew, we are in the hands of a madman.

But back to the question of the earth as our "home."  Rivera concludes:
As I hope will be clear through these pages, evolutionary theory is not necessarily incompatible with religious belief.  On this matter I side with Mary Midgley when she states that one of Darwin's major contributions to philosophy, and I would add to theology as well, is the conviction that we belong down here, that we belong to the earth, that we are part of creation, not under or above the whole of the biosphere.  Darwin's common sense [!] has brought our attention back down here from up there.  Most importantly, when the theory is properly assessed, it becomes quite a corrective to human arrogance, and to any religion that forgets where our proper place is: down here, with every other creature.  In this sense, the theory could be said to contribute to a spiritual if not a religious view of how things really are, us included [129].
Midgley has (correctly) criticized scientific dualism, but she sometimes forgets that the belief that human beings are not part of nature, that we are not at home in the world, was a religious doctrine first -- it is, in fact, an important part of traditional Christianity (see Philippians 1:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:1) to seek escape from this world and this body of flesh to the heavenly mansion where the believer will live with Christ.  Rivera does cite some material -- again, mostly not from her books -- which shows Christian theologians indignantly claiming that Christianity is so into ecology!  But the main evidence they seem to have for this claim is Saint Francis, the exception who proves the rule, and the concept of "stewardship."  As Rivera admits, "But even this notion of a steward [Midgley] finds somewhat patronizing.  And I may add, it has been mixed with notions of 'dominion' over the earth, as in the end of the first account of creation in the Book of Genesis" (203).

What interests me here, though, is the concept of home.  I agree that human beings are part of nature, and that we "belong" on this planet, in this biosphere that produced us.  But "home"?  A home is something I construct from a place I'm in, a feeling I have about a place -- it's not something inherent in the place itself.  Any place can become a home; any home can cease to be a home when I leave it.

Homes don't exist in nature; people (and depending on your views, other animals) construct them by altering the space they occupy.  The location of a home isn't determined by where one was born; often people travel long distances to create a home, and often they meet resistance from those who are already there, who may tell the newcomers to go back where they belong.  Those predecessors may not be "natives" themselves; if not they, then their parents or grandparents.  Human beings have always been wanderers.  If we could leave this planet with a viable destination, some of us surely would -- and then the new planet would become home.  I felt at home in Bloomington the first time I visited here, but I've felt the same way about other places.  Home can be an aspiration, not something that already exists.

The connotations of "home" as a secure place of love and care, which I think Midgley and Rivera are invoking here, are also doubtful when applied to the earth.   Rivera says that for Dawkins and for evolutionary theory generally, "Nature seems to be rather indifferent to pain and suffering" (143).  Rather indifferent!  The same is true of gods, including the Christian god -- except when they aren't indifferent but actively and gleefully inflicting pain.  Conventional religion doesn't get rid of these problems, it just shifts the blame around.  At least "nature" is indifferent, not sadistic, though some non-theists can't resist anthropomorphizing natural disasters as punishment in a very religious manner.  Like certain early Christians who fantasized that they would view the suffering of the damned from the bleachers in Heaven, such people think of other people's suffering as a spectator sport.  I think that Midgley is cheating by using sentimental appeal if she wants us to view "nature as home, as a nurturing experience, as garden and not just the context of our tears and sweat" (166).  Perhaps it can be viewed that way, but Mother Gaia also hurts and kills us, starves and burns us out, creates our tears and sweat.  Our home, yes, but we're not necessarily at home here.

Some homes become places you need to leave.  There are reasons why people feel alienated from the earth, the world, their bodies, their lives.  Some of them may not be particularly good or rational ones; some are probably internal to the person and others the result of experience; and the fantasy is unrealistic, but it seems to me that many people (including me, including Midgley) dismiss it too easily, as a perverse, even wicked refusal to face reality.  Maybe we need to think more carefully and sympathetically about those reasons. 

P.S. I've done some rewriting, adding, and rearranging in this post, and I can't decide where to put this, so I'll put it here for now: It seems to me that although Midgley knows better, she seems to fall from time to time into the nurture/nature, environment/genes error.  Some molecular biologists are beginning to abandon the environment/genes distinction altogether -- see Evelyn Fox Keller's The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture (Duke, 2010) for a dense but brief discussion of this.  It also appears that the very concept of genes, selfish or not, is in trouble: what a gene is has changed drastically ever since it the concept was first proposed.  It was more a placeholder than an actual thing for a long time, and it maybe that the placeholder has begun to outlive its usefulness.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Beware of Wishing for What You Deserve

I'd seen this meme before, but today when someone passed it along I figured out how to say what is wrong with it.

That girl you called a slut may not be a virgin; she may in fact sleep around quite a lot.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully her.  The pregnant girl may not have been raped; she may in fact be a "slut."  But that doesn't entitle you to bully her.  That boy you called lame may not have to work hard every night to support his family.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully him.  That girl you pushed down may not be getting abused at home, but that doesn't entitle you to push her down.  That girl you called fat may not be starving herself; she may be binging on Hostess Twinkies every night.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully her.  That scarred old man may never have worn a uniform; maybe he got his scars in a fight in a bar over some trivial squabble he was too drunk to remember afterward.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully him.  The crying boy's mother may be perfectly healthy; he may be crying because he didn't get the new Xbox he wanted.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully him.

Implicit in this meme is the suggestion that it's only bad to bully people who don't deserve it, and that it's okay to bully people who do.  Who gets to decide who deserves it?  Insofar as I'm right about this, whoever composed this meme is not really against bullying: they just don't want the 'wrong people' to be bullied.

For example, I found this in a book* by a supposed expert on bullying, telling how to prevent it.  Here's one of the author's supposed successful cases:
Claire had very long hair and a low fringe.  No-one could see her face.  All the other girls wore headbands and called her ‘shaggy-dog.’  The moment she wore a headband and had her fringe cut, the teasing stopped [176].
I'll admit that making such a change may be an easy way to stop oneself from being bullied.  But it's hard to imagine a more classic example of blaming the victim, while leaving the bullies free to police others. Bullies may try to hide behind the bigotry of the communities they live in, justifying their behavior by claiming that their victims deserve it.  Just being different in some trivial way is seen many people, including adults, as a punishable offense.  The aim of the meme I'm dissecting is to try to get rid of difference, to persuade bullies to see the sameness in people they might pick on.  (I'm probably being too generous, though: the meme's last sentence shows that it isn't really directed at bullies, but at people who are "against bullying" -- and aims to bully them into re-posting it.)  That, from everything else I've read on the subject, completely misunderstands the psychology of bullies.

Here's one of the same author's recommendations:
Get fit:  Many targets look weak and wimpy.  Don’t spend your free time in a library or hidden inside a computer.  You need to play outdoors, exercise, go to the gym, play sport or dance.  Even walking for 20 minutes five times a week makes a difference.  Then you can gesticulate, duck, run quickly or protect yourself physically [217].
Sure, exercise is good and important.  But as one who spent his free time in libraries as much as possible as a kid, and still does, I object to the implication here that people should deal with bullying by appeasing the bullies, adopting their supposed values, and becoming like them.  The key words here might be "look weak and wimpy"; bullies pick on people they think are safe targets.  And you can't always get away from bullies by running or ducking, especially if they gang up on you.  Again, this recommendation blames the victim and justifies the bully.  So what if a person looks "weak and wimpy"?  That doesn't entitle anyone to bully them.

Even many people who'd never think of picking on a child seem to think there are people who deserve to be picked on.  Fat-shaming is a very popular pastime among adults of all political persuasions, for example; so is shaming the old, or the sexually active, or the insufficiently gender-compliant.  (Many people also seem to think it's okay to post bigoted stuff on the internet, because they aren't doing it face to face.)  They might indignantly and self-righteously denounce those who bully one group, but they're glad to find people they think it's all right to persecute.  (Even children aren't really safe.  In Alfie Kohn's newest book, he shows that a disturbing hatred of children is widespread and acceptable among liberals and conservatives alike.)

Here's a mild example that showed up this morning, from a grammar-obsessives' page.

The cartoon is funny in a number of ways, but it relies on some stereotypes about language and language users that really need to be dispelled.  The primitive (or the highly educated and intelligent person, for that matter) who speaks broken English, for one.  In his or her own language he or she will be perfectly articulate -- a real caveman would not have spoken broken English ("What woman have?") but a correct form of his own -- but in a new language he or she can only communicate with difficulty.  (Of course, we have no idea what the languages spoken by Stone-Age cavedwellers were like.)  This is one reason why I think everybody should have to learn a new language at some point in his or her life; it might be that struggling to assemble a proper sentence in a strange tongue will promote empathy for foreigners who've done the same with one's own.  But probably not.

Besides, many modern languages don't have pronouns, or use them differently than English does.  Spanish, for example, has pronouns but doesn't use them as much as English does: verb conjugations convey the information that pronouns do in English.  So in Spanish a sentence without a pronoun -- No hablo ingl├ęs, I don't speak English --is perfectly correct.  I know that the speaker is speaking in the first person from the conjugation of hablar.  According to this Wikipedia article, Mandarin Chinese speakers "infrequently" use first-person pronouns, though "their usage is gaining popularity among the young, most notably in online communications" -- perhaps because of the influence and other languages which use them more.  But I've also noticed well-educated Americans from the middle and professional classes who regularly drop first-person pronouns: "Have to say that this appeals to me a great deal."

So, the cartoon above is harmless in itself, bu it's based on assumptions about people who don't speak Standard English for whatever reason, and in the context of a grammar-obsessives' page it feels less innocent.  After all, people who don't speak or write "correct" are stupid dolts who deserve to be mocked and discriminated against, because they're ignorant and uneducated and probably Republicans.

As the political philosopher Michael Neumann wrote a few years ago, "Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush."  When I quote this to many fine educated liberal people, they don't seem to get it (though yes, some do).  Some squinch up their faces uncomfortably as if they're thinking, But then what random strangers can I pick on?
*Evelyn Field, Bully blocking.  London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ooey Gooey Was a Worm, a Mighty Worm Was He!

I want to go back for a moment to something I quoted from Neil DeGrasse Tyson a few days ago:
If you are one of those people who don't like thinking about astronomy because it makes them feel small, Tyson suggests looking at it a different way ... If you "see the universe as something you participate in — as this great unfolding of a cosmic story — that, I think should make you feel large, not small. ... Any astrophysicist does not feel small looking up in the universe; we feel large."
How many people don't like thinking about astronomy because it makes them feel small?  What does it have to do with science?  As I indicated yesterday, scientists are apt to brag that science is supposed to make us feel small, because religion supposedly makes us feel big -- but much of religion is devoted to quashing pride and reminding us of our smallness and insignificance before the Deity.  (Except when we make him mad -- then we're not so insignificant after all: our sinfulness puts all Heaven in a rage.)

Besides, if you feel large when you look up at the universe, something is wrong, because you are small, whether you're an astrophysicist or a pastry cook.  Tyson is saying that doing astrophysics fosters delusions of grandeur, which if true would discredit astrophysics, rather than recommend it.  Anyway, isn't science supposed to be about Finding the Truth and not feeling big or small?

I've mentioned before the feminist historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller and her book Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death (Routledge, 1992).  Here's another bit from it that interested me, drawn from
the real lives of those contemporary scientists who got their start as boy scientists, producing explosives in their kitchens, bathrooms, or, if they were lucky, in a hand-fashioned basement laboratory.  (A generation ago, a common sideline of these basement laboratories used to be the production of “stink bombs” – ready to be set off by the young scientist whenever crossed by an uncooperative or angry mother.)  We are all familiar with the preoccupation many boys have with explosives, and with the great affective investment some of them show in producing bigger and more spectacular explosions – often indeed, continuing beyond boyhood into student days – but perhaps those of us who have spent time around places like MIT and Cal Tech are especially familiar with such behavioral/developmental patterns.  We would probably even agree that these patterns are more common in the early life histories of scientists and engineers than they are in the population at large.  Certainly, for the great majority of the scientists and engineers who started out life as play bomb experts, the energy invested in such primitive attempts at the resolution of early conflicts has been displaced onto mature creative endeavors that leave no trace of their precursors.  But in some cases, such traces are evident, even conspicuous.  As the result of a handy convergence between personal, affective interests and public, political, and economic interests, a significant number of these young men actually end up working in weapons labs (just how many would be interesting to document) – employing their creative talents to build bigger and better (real rather than play) bombs.  In other cases, traces of earlier preoccupations may be evoked only by particular circumstances – for example, the collective endeavor of a Manhattan Project.  The differences between these adult activities and their childhood precursors are of course enormous.  Yet it seems to me that the affective and symbolic continuity between the two nonetheless warrants our attention [49-50].
Just parenthetically, Keller reports that at Los Alamos, a successful bomb, a "bomb with 'thrust' [was] identified as a boy baby, while a girl baby [was] clearly identified as a dud" (50).

Anyway, this passage reminded me that even a sissy like me was fascinated by explosions when I was young.  I never built a basement lab to cook up my own explosives, but I loved cap pistols and fireworks.  Keller allows that many, perhaps most such boys outgrow their early fascination with things that go boom for "mature creative endeavors," though some move on "to build bigger and better (real rather than play) bombs."  I'm sure I recall a later passage in the book where, I thought, Keller mentioned that at Los Alamos, the physicists would relax on weekends by going into the desert to play with conventional explosives, but I can't find it now.  Looking around online, though, I found this more recent story:
Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico accidentally blew up a building on December 16 with a Civil War-style cannon. According to an occurrence report [pdf], which was first reported by the Project on Government Oversight, the lab's Shock and Detonation Physics team was testing a large-bore powder gun when they heard a "loud unusual noise."

About 20 minutes later, the researchers ventured out of their bunker to see what had happened. Upon further investigation of the facility’s Technical Area 15, the team discovered that Building 562 had been blown apart. Two doors were "propelled off the structure" and concrete shielding blocks were blasted off the walls. Parts of the cannon were also found lying on the asphalt nearby. The Facility Operations Director declared a "management concern" regarding the explosion. No-one was hurt, but sources told POGO that damages could cost $3 million. The lab reported that it has conducted a "critique" of the incident.
The reports give the impression that these "accidents" -- there are evidently quite a few of them -- occurred during regular research, but why would scientists at Los Alamos be working with, "testing", a "large bore powder gun"?  I suspect that they were just playing around and that a "loud unusual noise" was the aim of the exercise, not an accidental or unwanted side effect. Well, boys will be boys, eh?

The probability that many scientists were driven by a desire to make big booms and big stinks before they started seeking Truth doesn't in itself discredit science, but it does undermine their pretensions to being above the irrationality of the stupid masses.  While I was working on this post I stepped into my local video emporium and saw that Neal DeGrasse Tyson's remake of Cosmos was playing.  Coincidentally (or was it?) I walked in on the segment on the Big Bang Theory that he'd told NPR about.  Tyson spoke slowly and sententiously, his big liquid eyes as full of staged sincerity as any televangelist's -- but then, that's what he is, a tv preacher bringing us the Good News according to Hawking and Darwin.  And his god (created, like all gods, in his own image) is a kid cooking up a Big Bang in the basement, so that he'll feel big.

A Brief for the Prosecution

An old friend, a poet herself, linked today to this poem.  Just the part of it that showed in the preview pressed certain buttons in me.  After acknowledging "Sorrow everywhere.  Slaughter everywhere", the poet declared "But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants."  No no no, I thought.  Not today, not this week, not this year, not this century, I will not let this one pass unchallenged.  So I took a deep breath and commented: "'Defense' of what? I'm sorry, ---, but that thing is vile."

(And that was before I'd read the lines "If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down / we should give thanks that the end had magnitude", which confirmed my contempt for the performance: if the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, there's no magnitude in our end, we're just one more caterpillar on the tracks.) 

The person who'd posted the poem on his tumblr (not the poet himself, who died in 2012), replied in a few minutes:
The poem isn't a defense but a kind of preparation. I don't think it is vile. It admits the world is filled with horrors but says we cannot give ourselves over that entirely, that we have to live and love despite ourselves, despite the awfulness in the world.
I'm not sure what "a kind of preparation" is supposed to mean, but his response strikes me as the lowest kind of apologetics.  (Where, after all, does "the awfulness in the world" come from?  Who fills the world with horrors?  That's why I object to the bit about "the locomotive of the Lord" -- it appears that the poet accepted exactly the kind of theodicy I have no use for.)  I also think he's misreading the poem in terms of his own preconceptions -- what Walter Kaufmann called the exegetical fallacy, reading your beliefs into a text and getting them back endowed with its authority.  I replied:
If it's not a defense, it needs a different title. But what struck me as vile was the line "we enjoy ourselves because that's what God wants." Which god? According to every orthodox theology I know of, and most non-orthodox ones besides, suffering is something that God wants, either because we've brought it on ourselves or because God wants to test us, or because God works in mysterious ways, or other such nonsense. If I want to read good poetry about human suffering, I'll read the Book of Job. Or Marge Piercy, who's written some good poetry on this subject over the years.
To which he replied,
Okay, be angry and carry on. Jack Gilbert is one of the great poets of the 20th Century, and this poem is one of his most beloved. But no one is forcing anyone to read it. --- shared it as many people have today.
Great poets have been known to write great garbage.  They are not above criticism, and indeed it's all the more important to criticize them when say something stupid or evil.

I confess I'd never heard of Jack Gilbert before today. According to his obituary in the New York Times, "Brief for the Defense" (quoted in its entirety there) is one of his best-known poems.  Because I haven't read anything else by him, and I'm not going to start now, I have no context for the statements in this poem, though I find it hard to imagine what context could make them anything but malignant.

Then my poet friend chimed in:
My only comment is to note that the word "risk" is in this poem for a reason.
That's exactly the kind of use of words like "risk" I object to.  (It reminds me of "intervention," which also sets off alarms for me.)  Of course the word is in the poem for a reason; I just don't think it's a good reason.  I think it's posturing, preaching to the choir: like Marilynne Robinson daringly declaring herself a liberal and a Christian, like Greg Louganis telling gay audiences that he knows It's not a choice, like Barack Obama telling his fans that if Wall Street wants a fight, that's a fight he's willing to have, like black conservatives denouncing the Civil Rights Movement in front of white Republican audiences.  Risk without cost, risk without risk.

And what kind of "risk" is involved in "delight"?  I speculate it's the "risk" that it won't last forever but will pass.  Maybe that really does deter some people.

I'm not surprised that the poem is well-loved by the kind of people who sentimentalize the smiles and laughter of the destitute from a safe distance, admiring and praising the big smile of your ragged shoeshine boy before you go back to your comfortable hotel room and, ultimately, to your suburb.

I was amused by her friend's dismissive "be angry and carry on" -- as if anger were a bad thing.  But then a lot of people think it is.  (At least, other people's anger is a bad thing; their own is worn with pride.)

Of course I wasn't forced to read the poem.  But I respect my friend, which means I take what she puts on Facebook more seriously than I do what many other people I know post.  (Except for the cat-related material.)  I'm not saying she should not have posted the poem, but having seen it and read it, I won't be told I should not respond to it.  (And to be fair to her, let me stress that it was not she but her friend who got all spitty about my reaction.)

That's always a difficult question in a place like Facebook.  On one hand, you've got people who have conniptions at seeing anything they dislike.  On the other, you've got people who think that freedom of expression means no one is entitled to disagree with anything they post.  My friend is a librarian as well as a poet, and committed as most librarians are to freedom of expression, even when it's offensive or disturbing or unpleasant.  Most of what I disagree with on Facebook I don't respond to.  When I do comment, I do so carefully and I hope thoughtfully.  Often I decide not to comment after all, and cancel what I began to write; sometimes I bring my complaints here.

According to my friend's friend, it would seem that "Brief for the Defense" is being used to express the feelings of a lot of people lately; perhaps because of Robin Williams's suicide, because of the summary execution by police of a young black men in St. Louis and the subsequent repression of community objections to the slaying, perhaps because of the latest Israeli blitzkrieg in Gaza, perhaps because of the renewed civil war in Iraq, perhaps the combination of all these things and so much more.  It was because of all these things and more that I found the poem a wrong-headed statement, and chose to say so.

I suspect that my reaction to this poem and all that it represents is a matter of temperament.  I would prefer that there's no god, No One out there, rather than Someone watching the world and doing nothing about it except shedding great salt tears.  I know that there are many who'd disagree with me, and I suppose "Brief for the Defense" speaks to them.

It's probably not out of place to add that I agree with part of the poem, the idea that people somehow find reasons to go on living and celebrating their lives in the face of the horrors they suffer.  Where I differ is in the poet's declaration that God wants them to do so.  I don't believe in gods, but if they exist, their wishes don't determine what I think or do.  If we "risk delight," it's not because of the gods, but despite them.  (The "risk," if any, in most theologies would be that the gods don't want us to be happy, and will punish us for daring to be so.  Compare C. S. Lewis's very orthodox claim that Yahweh makes people suffer because they've had it too easy, and "The creature's illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature's sake, be shattered.")  It would be altogether right to go on living in flat defiance of their wishes, and to curse them and the locomotive they rode in on.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

As Hope and Change Sink Slowly in the West ...

I'd pretty much given up on Pearl Cleage because of her relentless cheerleading for Obama, but then today she posted this on Facebook:
I know it's unrealistic to dream this dream, but a part of my imagination keeps seeing a scene where President Obama goes to Ferguson and walks through the streets, talking to people, reassuring Michael Brown's family that justice will [be] done, being present on the scene, smelling the tear gas in the air, making sense of things,, articulating a vision for the next phase of our national life...
This is pretty mild stuff, but it's the closest to actual criticism of Obama that I've ever seen from her in the past five and a half years. When someone like Cleage lays down her pompoms and faces reality, even if only for a moment, even someone like me finds it difficult to do the "I Told You So" dance. But only for a moment.

At the Tower of Babel They Knew What They Were After ... But I Don't

The sound from a television in the student union was turned up high this morning, so C-SPAN's story on state laws mandating English as an official language caught my attention as I passed by.  They were taking calls from viewers, and the one that started as I came along was from a guy in Michigan who cited the Tower of Babel.  Since I'd recently read Tim William Machan's Language Anxiety (Oxford, 2009), which uses the story of Babel as a unifying metaphor, I stayed to hear how the caller was going to use it.

Alas, the Holy Spirit wasn't helping the caller; he recounted (or probably read aloud) the story, and then lost momentum.  First he started to invoke the Christian-racist line that God had put different peoples in different countries for a reason (which would imply that he himself should go back to Anglo-Saxia, or wherever these people came from), but dropped it for another tack.   He said that he wasn't "afraid" of other languages, he'd studied Latin and German in high school, and, uh... The host cut him off at that point, saying that they wanted to talk to more callers from Michigan.

For your convenience, here's the story from Genesis 11 in the New King James Version:
1  Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Pretty short, isn't it?  The epithet often applied to the Biblical manner is laconic,  and it certainly applies here.  It's always a good idea to look at the canonical versions of famous Bible stories, since thousands of years of use have decorated them with details that are not in the originals, re-shaping them according to official agendas and laypeople's fancies.  Even Machan did this, mixing in post-biblical revisions of the story throughout his book, and I was never sure he knew he was doing this.

When I first took a serious look at Genesis 11 a couple of decades ago, I noticed that Yahweh seemed really to worry that the Tower would reach Heaven.  I found that funny, since a tower of baked clay bricks with tar for mortar wouldn't even get close.  (Those of my generation will recall that many people in the Fifties and Sixties warned that the US space program was analogous in its sinful pride to the Tower, an attempt to usurp God's prerogatives.)   In this, the story resembles Genesis 3, where Yahweh says that Adam and Eve, having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, have become "as gods," just as the serpent had promised them they would, and he drives them out of Eden to keep them from eating from the Tree of Eternal Life and living forever.  This version is very different from the standard Christian interpretation, and it raises interesting questions for Christianity.  For example, the Jesus of the gospels promises eternal life to his followers -- isn't that just what Yahweh didn't want us to have?

Machan recounted how the Babel story has been used by people who were anxious about English from the Middle Ages to present-day America:
From the very different perspective of a native Anglophone, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., protests what he calls the ‘cult of ethnicity’ in modern America but likewise uses the Babel model for non-linguistic purposes.  Mixing literary and biblical allusions with emotive metaphors, he bluntly warns of what will happen if variation is allowed to proceed unchecked: ‘Will the center hold?  Or will the melting pot give way to the Tower of Babel?’  [quoting The Disuniting of America, rev. edn. Norton, 1998, 22]
While I listened to the caller on C-SPAN today, it occurred to me that Babel might not be the most comforting model for English-only cranks, since it implies that having just one language makes Yahweh nervous, and you don't want to see him when he's nervous.  Maybe the influx of foreigners with their foreign languages is Yahweh's way of keeping America from becoming too proud and powerful, just as he did in Shinar a few generations after the Deluge?  It's odd how people who invoke Babel in this context see linguistic confusion as something to be resisted, instead of humbly accepted as the will and chastisement of the Lord.