Saturday, October 22, 2016

This Time for Sure: A Kinder, Gentler Bigotry

When bullies lose their edge, they often try to save the situation by presenting themselves as reasonable.  I once read about a gang of queerbashers, driven from their victim by a community self-defense group, who found that they couldn't get back to their car, and began negotiating by saying, "Hey man, we don't want no trouble."  Of course they wanted trouble, but only as long as they outnumbered their victim and could do whatever they wanted to him.

In the US, antigay bigotry has lost much of its legitimacy, and the hard core of bigots, though still quite numerous, no longer can appeal to a general social consensus that homosexuality is abominable and homosexuals should be outcasts.  So, some of them are trying a different tack, trying for a superficially reasonable approach.  I happened on such a person in a year-old article at The Atlantic Monthly's website, after reading a eulogy for the late William F. Buckley as an exemplar of the supposedly moderate and sensible right-wing Republican racist/bigot.  I have no use for Buckley, who is seriously overrated as an intellectual, but he's not my topic today.  The article recommended this equally fatuous piece on conservative evangelicals and homosexuality by the same writer, Emma Green.
In a new book, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers a third way: stand up and debate, even on issues that seem to be moving toward an ever-firmer cultural consensus. In some ways, Mohler neatly fits the stereotype of an evangelical leader who has taken up a stand against queerness. He’s white, he’s male, he’s Southern; he makes no apologies for his view that homosexuality is intertwined with sin. But he could also probably ace a Women and Gender Studies seminar. (He even once wrote an essay for The Atlantic on the Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.) In his book, We Cannot Be Silent, he cites sociologists like Jürgen Habermas and discusses television shows like Modern Family. He explores the difference between gender and sex and transgender and intersex.

It’s a somewhat novel approach to being an evangelical in public life: engaging debates about sexuality on their own terms. As Mohler himself admits, this hasn’t always been the case. “While Christians were secure in a cultural consensus that was negative toward same-sex acts and same-sex relationships, we didn’t have to worry too much about understanding our neighbors,” he said. “We did horribly oversimplify the issue.” Now that norms around LGBT issues are changing, evangelicals can no longer afford that kind of glibness, but it’s tricky to balance civility with steadfastness. Mohler said he’s not “trying to launch Culture War II,” but he also doesn’t want evangelicals to back down on their beliefs. “Christians have not had to demonstrate patience, culturally speaking, in a very long time. The kind of work and witness we’re called to—it could take a very long time to show effects.”
"Fatuous" might be too mild a word.  Green is impressed, or wants her readers to be impressed, because Mohler cites Habermas and TV shows.  But Habermas is trendy among cultural conservatives, and allusions to popular culture are old hat among evangelicals hoping to show they're not hopeless old fogies.  (I see that one of Mohler's earlier books is called He Is Not Silent, which sounds like an allusion to the Presbyterian apologist and controversialist Francis Schaeffer, who had a lot of influence on the Reagan administration.  Schaeffer also referred to popular culture and philososophical heavyweights, usually inaccurately.)  That The Atlantic published an article by him means little, since they have given space before to bigoted cultural reactionaries.  The Atlantic regular Conor Friedersdorf has been hunting for non-bigoted antigay spokespeople for some time now, without success.  Could Mohler "ace a Women and Gender Studies Seminar"?  Going by her own superficial account of sex and gender a few paragraphs later, I don't think Green is qualified to say.  I'm in South Korea right now, but I'll try to get Mohler's book from the library when I return in November.  For now, I'll examine the quotations Green offers from him.

Notice that Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  The Southern Baptists, you may recall, split off from other American Baptists largely over the issue of slavery, which the Southern Baptists supported (as well they should have -- it's a biblical value, like polygamy).  Nor did they especially distinguish themselves on civil rights issues a century later.  I mention this not just to harp on the past but as a reminder that far from being moral leaders, conservative Christians have often been flat wrong.  The Southern Baptists have apologized for their previous opposition to slavery; I'd like to ask Mohler why I shouldn't also anticipate another belated apology to gay and trans people a century or so down the line.

Green stresses that Mohler is "white, he's male, he's Southern," without ever noticing in her article at it's possible and indeed not uncommon to be white, male, Southern, and gay.  The whole article puts "evangelical Christianity," which Green tends to confuse with Christianity as a whole, in opposition to "queerness," accepting the antigay Christian spin that only secularists are pushing for a change in Christian views of homosexuality (or of sexuality generally).  You'd never guess from Green's account that Christian churches have been debating these issues internally for decades.  This also is important, because Mohler and his ilk are not just tilting at secular society, but at a large number of their fellow Christians.  As with slavery and other embarrassments, why should I believe that Mohler is right this time?

The same goes for another of Mohler's complaints:
He laments that American teens are surrounded by a “peer culture more committed to tolerance than any other moral principle,” which highlights another fundamental tension: He believes self-derived morality is not sufficient, and that Christians have a moral obligation to guide the acts of others.
Maybe Americans are too tolerant.  Maybe religious groups that try to control ("guide"!) the lives of others should simply be squashed, as they were in old Europe.  But religious freedom and tolerance are founding, core principles of our government and our society.  It's not the only principle we have, but it's an important one.  Mohler should remember that before religious toleration was established, many Christians were as outraged by the idea that people with the wrong beliefs should be allowed to run around loose, worshiping as they saw fit, and even proselytizing for their sects.  With that in mind, one realizes that what Mohler and his ilk present as a new problem for Christianity actually goes back to the founding of the United States, and the conflicts that led up to the passage of the Bill of Rights.  Ironically but predictably, Green later paraphrases Mohler's concern that "Courts are facing new questions of how to balance LBGT rights with religious freedom," which are not new at all.  I see that a few months before this piece, Green published another piece, "Gay Rights May Come at the Cost of Religious Freedom."  I haven't read it yet, but the title says so much.  Bear in mind that not only the struggle for racial justice in this country but the struggle for religious freedom had its cost in the freedom of bigots to persecute other Christians on religious grounds.  But wait, there's good news:
In Utah, for example, lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting LGBT housing and employment discrimination while allowing certain exemptions for religious groups, the result of a collaboration between LGBT and faith organizations. As more cities and states consider this kind of statute, Utah could serve as a template.
Whatever those "certain exemptions" were in Utah, they are also nothing new in civil rights law generally.  I don't know whether it's Green or Mohler who's outrageously ignorant in this matter -- both, most likely, because statements like this are so common in the discourse -- but it shows just how low the level of debate is from evangelicals and their sympathizers.  "Conservative Christians, so long represented among advisors to presidents, and powerful public voices and those who readily embraced discrimination, might seem unlikely recipients of either compassion or intellectual generosity," Green opines.  They'd better do their homework if they want to be taken seriously.  Green clearly hasn't, and it doesn't sound like Mohler has either.

But back to Mohler and his concern about "self-derived morality," which he evidently ascribes to youth "peer culture."  That seems to be a contradiction, and as far as I can tell, the "tolerance" Mohler objects to (for others, not for himself) is neither self-derived -- it's exercised in a framework that comes from outside the individual, from peers, from adults (including parents), from teachers and diversity managers in the universities --  or indiscriminately tolerant.  It's especially risible for Mohler and Green to natter on about excessive tolerance when the dominant view of young people nowadays is that they are brutally intolerant of dissent beyond the narrow ambit of their fanatical Political Correctness.  There is evidently more tolerance of various sexual and other life choices than there was a few decades ago, not just of homosexuality and gender-variance, not just cohabitation and "hookups," but of divorce, single parenting, and interracial coupling -- again, sore spots for Southern Baptists.

When the article gets down to Mohler's views on sexuality and gender, he seems to have little to offer that is new or particularly deserving of respect.  "'We must admit that Christians have sinned against transgender people and those struggling with such questions by simplistic explanations that do not take into account the deep spiritual and personal anguish of those who are in the struggle,' Mohler writes."  This is a familiar setup to anyone who remembers the Southern Baptists' mealy-mouthed and long overdue apologies for its heritage of racism.  If Mohler really means it, he needs to take an aggressive stance against the virulent falsehoods that evangelicals have spread about LGBT people; but it appears that he's more interested in spreading them further.

A case in point: Green mentions "the death of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen from Ohio who committed suicide this year, citing frustrations with the religious expectations of her parents."  She does not mention gay and trans kids and adults who've been murdered, beaten, thrown out of their homes.  As often as not their assailants got away with it.  I've often asked antigay bigots what proposals they have to counter bullying and gay-bashing.  Never have they had anything serious to offer.  The usual evangelical response to anti-bullying initiatives has been to oppose them, claiming that they would encourage homosexuality in some obscure fashion.  Unless Mohler not only distances himself from this stance but denounces it, he's part of the problem.

In what Green calls one of his "moments of tonal derision," Mohler "recommends using the term 'homosexual,' rather than 'gay,' because it 'has the advantage of speaking with sharp particularity to the actual issue at stake.'"  I can't be sure, but I strongly suspect that the "actual issue at stake" is buttsex; I imagine that Mohler likes "homosexual" because it contains the word "sex," and if so, he misunderstands it.  (So much for that A in Gender Studies.)  I'm not greatly concerned about what word Mohler prefers, and I'm not one of those gay people who want to pretend that we don't have sex, we only Love.  But it's good to know where he's coming from.
In his book, Mohler suggests that people who continuously struggle with same-sex attraction should maintain lifelong celibacy, becoming a “eunuch for the kingdom.” That’s a huge personal decision, one that would radically define a person’s life. Even with all his answers, Mohler did not have straightforward advice for how churches should deal with a transgender person who wants to be saved in an evangelical church but has already undergone gender-reassignment surgery. (“Would surgery now be pastorally required or advisable in order to obey Christ? … Pastors and congregations should consider age, context, and even physical and physiological factors when determining a course of action,” he writes.)
Again, there's nothing new here.  Sexual abstinence for queers has been advocated for a century or more -- even by some of the invert/Uranian writers around 1900 -- and it's the official position of the Roman Catholic Church.  I'll have to read Mohler's book to be certain, but at this remove his use of Matthew 19:12 is derisory, to put kindly.  What I mean is this: it's absurd -- no, make that "obscene" -- to tell homosexuals that they should choose celibacy if you're not going to make the same demand of heterosexuals, who have the option of a licit sexual outlet, in marriage.  It's also unbiblical, since in context, Matthew 19:12 is directed to heterosexuals.  Jesus' disciples conclude from Jesus' prohibition of divorce and remarriage, "If such is the case with a man with his wife, it is better not to marry" (19:10, NRSV).  To which Jesus responds by extolling those who become eunuchs for the kingdom.  Heterosexual marriage is not the New Testament ideal.  But it seems from Green's account that Mohler ignores this.

"Continuously struggle with same-sex attraction" is a giveaway; it's the language used by other Christian hucksters to color themselves sympathetic to the people they're trying to hustle.  What about people who don't struggle with same-sex attraction, but rather embrace and celebrate it as heterosexuals do?  And don't forget, that includes Christians as well as unbelievers.  From Green's account it would seem that Mohler has nothing to say to them.  (His waffling on post-op transsexuals is no more helpful.)  If that's the case, then he has a long way to go before he can be taken seriously as a discussant on the role of conservative Christians in contemporary society.

But, Green says,
[Mohler] also recognizes—mildly, mildly—that there is wisdom to be drawn from questioning traditional norms of sexuality. Even though he firmly agrees that men and women should embrace the gender identity that matches their sex, "We do understand that a part of that is socially constructed," he said. "And not only that, in a fallen world, there can be exaggerations and corruptions of what it means to be a man and a woman. There are some very brutalistic corruptions of masculinity, and there are some very trivial and hyper-sexualized understandings of the female that the Bible would clearly reject."
However, "Mohler ... believes 'we find wholeness and resolution only in being the man or the woman that God meant us to be, or made us to be.'"

How nice; but how do we know what kind of man or woman God made us to be?  It sounds as if Mohler is ignorant about the Bible, which is a lot more complex about sexuality and gender than today's American Protestants believe.  "Become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven" is the least of it; even if Jesus only meant that figuratively, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 shows that literal eunuchs could be accepted into the church.  (Think again of Mohler's equivocation about post-op transsexuals.  One might wonder why, in a story so full of miracles, Phillip didn't simply restore the eunuch's testicles.)  Look at Jesus' hostility to biological families, including his own; his extolling of a young woman who left her household chores to listen to his teaching.  Look at the wildly varying views of marriage the Bible embraces, from brother-sister and cousin marriage, polygamy and concubinage, to abstinence aecoming a eunuch for the kingdom.  Look at the depiction of Yahweh as a violently jealous and abusive husband with performance anxiety.  The Christian scholar James Barr wrote that the trouble with modern fundamentalist teaching about sex is not "pathological prurience" but that it is "childishly naïve in a pre-1914 schoolboy-idealistic manner" (Fundamentalism [Westminster Press, 1977], 331).  It looks to me like Albert Mohler is no exception.

I'm fully in favor of the debate Mohler calls for.  I think I'd enjoy taking him on myself.  But Green's article, and the sampling she gives of Mohler's ideas, remind me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about the notion of a "conversation on race."
One of the problems with the idea that America needs a "Conversation On Race" is that it presumes that "America" has something intelligent to say about race. All you need do is look at how American history is taught in this country to realize that that is basically impossible.
The same, I submit, is true of the conversation Emma Green would like us to have on sexuality and gender: she presumes that America, and conservative Christians like Albert Mohler in particular, has something intelligent to say about those topics. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's impossible, but the wrong people are puffing themselves up and claiming they're qualified to tell the rest of America what is going on, how to think, what to believe, and how to live.  On top of that, they want everyone else to feel sorry for them, because they're in a dwindling minority and don't have the cultural clout they used to have.  There too they've embraced the Culture of Therapy, with the idea that dissidents shouldn't be made to feel like outcasts -- though they've never adopted that attitude for others, including dissidents in their own ranks.  Yes, being at odds with the society you live in can be uncomfortable; I know that very well, from personal experience.  But aside from the fact that it's also part of the Christian heritage -- something else Mohler and Green want to forget -- being uncomfortable is not the worst thing that can happen to you.  You cannot, in a free and pluralistic society, demand that your views be accepted uncritically just so you won't feel bad.  You don't have to feel bad for being different in the first place, and Christians have always defined their difference as a sign that they had the Truth in the second.  Mohler's agenda is the normalization (or rather, re-normalization) of bigotry.  Debate, by all means, but if Mohler wants evangelicals to be taken seriously in the discussion, he clearly has a lot of work to do first.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mnyeh, Typical

Jews Sans Frontieres has several good new posts up, dealing with accusations of anti-Semitism against Jeremy Corbyn and his section of the Labour Party.  It happened that I read these a day after a Facebook friend linked to an article warning of newly increased anti-Semitism. These are important and contain valid information and arguments.  But I noticed something that bothered me here.
If you look at the way the Zionist movement is throwing its weight around in the UK ever since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, it's not an edifying spectacle. I mean it must be causing antisemitism given the unjust and unfounded nature of the allegations. 
And here:
Sadly it also has the effect of making ill-informed people subscribe to the old antisemitism because of course Dave [Rich, author of a book accusing the left of anti-Semitism] and others like him, including now a Home Office Select Committee have decided that Jews and Zionists are the same thing.  All very sad and very irresponsible.
I agree that many, probably most people react to the bad behavior of a few people by ascribing it to all members of the group they associate with the bad actors.  So, for example, I captured this specimen a year ago after the Paris attacks, in comments at another blog:
And yet yesterday evening I found myself thinking “what the f*** is wrong with those people”, and I’d be lying if said I meant just the murdering a*******. I should know better. I DO know better. And yet… I don’t know any muslims. It’s so easy to slip into that lazy, wrongheaded thinking, even when you know better. 
Since it's so easy to slip into that lazy, wrongheaded thinking, I think it's important that everybody be vigilant against it, in themselves and others, and challenge it whenever you encounter it.  It's not something that occurs only far away; it happens all around us.

I disagree with JSF and the commenter, though, that this tendency has anything to do with being ill-informed, or knowing any members of the group being demonized.  For one thing, even scholars fall into it: though they are generally very well-informed, they can't or won't apply the knowledge they have.  And contrariwise, anytime someone hears about some bad behavior and asks themselves "What's wrong with those people?", meaning not the specific perpetrators but their country, their religion, their political party, they need to stop and catch themselves.  You don't need to be informed, beyond the knowledge that no group is completely homogeneous.  You don't need to know any Muslims.  The burden of proof, and it's a heavy one, lies on anyone who claims that They are all like, They are all responsible.  The variety within groups is always enormous.  (Think of the old Jewish proverb Two Jews, three opinions.)

In particular, if someone is angry about what members of the IDF, or settlers in the Occupied Terroritories, or members of ISIS or al-Qaeda have done, and then decides to beat up (or worse) the Jew or Arab or random brown-skinned person in their neighborhood in revenge, the legal penalty should be heavy, but more important, they should be shunned and generally given a hard time by everyone in their neighborhood.  If such a person tries to justify their violence by pointing to crimes committed against the ocean, the penalty should be even stiffer.  If only because such thinking and behavior lessens the safety of everybody in the vicinity, it needs to be nipped in the bud, killed before it spreads.

P.S. I forgot to mention that in a review of Dave Rich's book that JSF quotes approvingly, the reviewer says:
Clearly, insofar as some remarks are antisemitic they need to be confronted. Conspiracy theories, e.g. that Israel founded Isis or that Jews escaped 9/11, should be dismissed out of hand. 
People keep using this word, I do not think it means what they think it means.  Those aren't "conspiracy theories," they're simple falsehoods.  They may be used in conspiracy theories, but that's not quite the same thing.  But the important thing is that Dave Rich and the constituency he's writing for are conspiracy theorists, accusing the British left of deliberately fomenting anti-Semitism in order to bring down Israel.  As I've pointed out before, conspiracy theories are a thoroughly acceptable feature of mainstream political discourse, as long as they name the "right" conspirators.

But do read JSF's new posts.  Though they are about Britain, the same tactics are being used in the US.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Sleep of Monsters Engenders Reason

The latter half of Ursula Le Guin's Words Are My Matter consists of book reviews, which are well-written and sympathetic, pointing me to several books and writers I want to check out.  (Just what I need, as I sink slowly but inexorably in an ocean of unread books.)  One, on Salman Rushdie's 2014 novel The Enchantress of Florence, harks back to some of the cliches Le Guin recycled in her discussion of literature more generally.

Apparently The Enchantress of Florence is a quasi-historical fantasy centering on the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor Akbar I, whom Rushdie uses as a ventriloquist's dummy for his own views.  As Le Guin describes it:
Akbar is the moral center of the book, its center of gravity, and provides its strongest link to the issues which have concerned Salman Rushdie in his works and his life.  It all comes down to the question of responsibility.  Akbar's objection to God is "that his existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves."  The curious notion that without religion we have no morals has seldom been dismissed with such quiet good humor.  Rushdie leaves ranting to the fanatics who fear him.
This is another example of an attitude that has long baffled me as an atheist.  Since God does not exist and is a human invention, he could hardly have "deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves."  (If God did exist, perhaps it would be a different situation, but I'm not sure Akbar-Rushdie would be right even so.)  In fact, human beings did "form ethical structures for by themselves," and since they couldn't really prove that they had any authority, they invented God and ascribed those structures to him.  But it isn't necessary to invoke God for this evasion of responsibility.  People can also claim that Logic or Reason or Science tells us what is right, and the humble servants of those principles will gladly ask as their spokespersons and enforcers, asking (as Woody Allen once said of the religious) only a small contribution to cover their time and paperwork.

Le Guin (who, for someone who claims to dislike preaching and didacticism in literature, sure seems to tolerate a lot of it in Rushdie) continues:
Some boast that science has ousted the incomprehensible, others cry that science has driven magic out of the world and plead for "reenchantment."  But it's clear that Charles Darwin lived in as wondrous a world, as full of discoveries, amazements, and profound mysteries, as that of any fantasist.  The people who disenchant the world are not the scientists, but those who see it as meaningless in itself, a machine operated by a deity.  Science and literary fantasy are intellectually incompatible, yet both describe the world. The imagination functions actively in both modes, seeking meaning, and wins intellectual consent through strict attention to detail and coherence of thought, whether one is describing a beetle or an enchantress.  Religion, which prescribes and proscribes, is irreconcilable with both of them, and since it demands belief, must shun their common ground, imagination.  So the true believer must condemn both Darwin and Rushdie as "disobedient, irreverent, iconoclastic" dissidents from revealed truth.
I'm sympathetic to some of this.  After all, I once wrote:
Personally, I’m tired of hearing believers in various kinds of spirituality sneering at atheists like me as humorless, literal-minded killjoys who want to reduce the mystery and beauty of the universe to a mindless, soulless machine. As far as I can see, it is the believers who hate mystery: they have to an explanation for everything, and their explanations have all the poetry and beauty of the Los Angeles phone directory. They spit on the loveliness of the human body because it isn’t eternal – when it is beautiful precisely because it isn’t eternal. They despise the material world because they can’t see the soul in it. And their attempts to find an underlying justice in the tragic fragility and brevity of life end up reading like operating manuals for a concentration camp.
And I stand by that: I was, like Le Guin, describing a real problem.  But I made the same rhetorical mistake here that Le Guin did: equating "religion" and "believers" with one aspect and faction of religion and believers.  Religion (like science) is a complex historicial and cultural phenomenon that contains opposites tendencies.  Religion also includes "literary fantasy," also known as mythology, from the epic of Gilgamesh to Homer to the Mahabarata to the Hebrew Bible and the fan fiction of the New Testament gospels.  It can also involve "strict attention to detail and coherence of thought," as in the Talmuds, some of the Hindu scriptures, or Thomas Aquinas.

Contrariwise, scientists often demand obedience to their authority, and massive public funding for their pastimes.  Just a few billions for their time, their toys, and their paperwork.  They proscribe and prescribe, and "disobedient, irreverent, iconoclastic" troublemakers arouse their wrath just as it arouses the mullahs'.  (Cf. Edward O. Wilson's "multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism," and Richard Dawkins's complaint that the philosopher Mary Midgley had been mean to him: her "highly intemperate and vicious paper" was "hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic."  Like any indignant archmandrite, Dawkins indulged in a wee white lie, claiming that Midgley hadn't read The Selfish Gene before she wrote about it.  Scientists also indulge in what might be called "literary fantasy" if you're feeling charitable.  No, not all of them do all these things, but those who do seldom get into trouble for it.  And neither do all religious believers do these things.

Whether we work in literature or other arts, science, religion, or philosophy, I think we'd do best to recall the simile ascribed to Isaac Newton:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Religion, science, literature, and ethics are not distinct, sharply bounded domains.  They overlap.  What we don't know may not always be vastly greater than what we do know, but we're in no danger of reversing the proportions in the foreseeable future, and we'd do well to keep that in mind.  Twenty years ago a writer named John Horgan wrote a book, The End of Science, arguing that there would be no further "great 'revelations or revolutions'—no insights into nature as cataclysmic as heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity, the big bang."  He still believes this, as he explains in a blog post for Scientific American.  I was intrigued but not really persuaded by the book, but it is interesting to consider the possibility that human brains have limits that will forestall learning much more than we know now.  If nothing else, the storm of hostile responses Horgan received shows the limits of many scientists' rationalism.

What is going on here, I think, is a version of what Walter Kaufmann called the exegetical fantasy, though it could be called God (or Nature or Law or Mughal emperor) as sock-puppet: one reads one's ideas or beliefs into the universe, and gets them back endowed with authority.  If you've got good arguments and evidence, you don't need authority, and if you don't, no amount of authority will be enough.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Running Government Like an Artist

[P.S. I've made some big additions in the middle of this post, which I hope clarify and improve it.]

I've begun reading Ursula K. Le Guin's new collection of nonfiction, Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016).  Much of it I like, but some of it makes me want to throw it against the wall, which I can't do, because I'd wreck my tablet.*
A poet has been appointed ambassador.  A playwright is elected president.  Cosntruction workers stand in line with office managers to buy a new novel.  Adults seek moral guidance and intellectual challenge in stories about warrior monkeys, one-eyed giants, and crazy knights who fight windmills.  Literacy is considered a beginning, not an end.

... Well, maybe in some other country, but not this one.  In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order.  Poetry and plays have no relatiion to practical politics.  Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don't work.  Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples.  Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions.  I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses.  It beats the opposable thumb.  I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.
That's the opening of "The Operating Instructions," the first piece in the book, which was originally a "talk given at a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002."  She continues the flood of cliches throughout the essay, though she does say some good things as she proceeds ("Home isn't where they have to let you in.  It's not a place at all.  Home is imaginary").  She even quietly contradicts some of her original claims, but on the whole she sticks with them.

Come now.  Construction workers did stand in line with managers to buy each succeeding Harry Potter novel, ostensibly for their kids but as often as not for themselves.  Do we really want a poet in government?  And by that I mean a person who has pursued poetry as a career, a vocation, rather than as an amateur sideline.  Ezra Pound, say?  I don't see how a poet or other artist would be any better as an ambassador, let alone a senator or president, than (to pluck an example at random) a reality-TV star would be.  This reminds me of the people who respond to anyone who says one thing they like by clamoring for that person to run for President.  The last time I saw it, they were responding to a meme featuring the late George Carlin.  Just because someone has a good imagination, it in no way suggests that he or she is up to interacting with people as a government official must, to educating him or herself about the world and how people have tried and failed to run it, with millions of human lives hanging in the balance.  Given the petty internecine envy and jealousy that have always characterized artistic communities, I think it would be madness to put a poet, or a composer, or an abstract expressionist painter into the Oval Office simply because of his or her artistic prowess.  Some artists might be good at politics, but only insofar as they transcended being artists.

Sure, imagination is important.  But as Le Guin insists, it's not an end in itself.  Politics is a means to an end.  Every human endeavor involves the use of imagination to some extent, of course, but applying imagination to politics or business requires different capabilities and skills than writing poetry or sculpting marble or composing a sonata.  What creeps me out about Le Guin's marshalling these tired, sentimental cliches about the imagination is that they also imply an aggressive know-nothingism that is the mirror image of the Philistine who looks at a modern painting and sneers that his three-year-old kid could do as well: here it's the artist saying that he or she could run an embassy as well as someone who's had the kind of training and experience one needs to be an ambassador, simply by virtue of being imaginative.

To some extent Le Guin realizes this, for she goes on:
Small communities with strong traditions are often clear about the way they want to go, and good at teaching it.  But tradition may crystallize imagination to the point of fossilising it as dogmas and forbidding new ideas.  Larger communities, such as cities, open up room for people to imagine alternatives, learn from people of different traditions, and invent their own ways to live.

As alternatives proliferate, however, those who take the responsibility of teaching find little social and moral consensus on what they should be teaching -- what we need, what life ought to be ... It's a lot to ask of a child to find a way through all that alone.

Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone.
Just before Le Guin admitted the limitations of small communities, she'd declared that we need stories that teach us who we are, culminating in "We are the people who live at the center of the world.  A people that doesn't live at the center of the world, as defined and described by its poets and storytellers, is in a bad way."

Le Guin has a number of things wrong here.  One is that children don't need to be taught that they live at the center of the world: they begin with that conviction, and unlearn it as they grow.  Another is that while stories may indeed teach children their societies' beliefs about the world, many of those beliefs and "definitions" are false -- even harmful -- and must be unlearnt as they come into contact with the world outside their families, tribes, insular communities.  (An example of a false, harmful belief taught by stories is that toothless old women are witches who cook little children in ovens for their supper.  I know Le Guin knows that one, and knows it's harmful.)  Le Guin talks as though stories encode true lessons that can be extracted and taught.  (P.S. I just remembered that Marilynne Robinson has said some very similar things, and is equally wrong.) That, as she knows very well, isn't true, and shouldn't be true.  It's a fundamentalist, inerrantist approach to stories, which only works in the least interesting cases.  Luckily, children are pretty good at orienting themselves in larger worlds; the complexities and novelties that disorient adults are easy for children to assimilate and digest.  The world is always changing anyway, and it's children who adjust to it and sometimes must help their parents and grandparents to get by.  (Le Guin surely knows about immigrants and their children and grandchildren.)  Luckily, people in larger communities don't have to "really do anything very much, really, alone."  They have each other.  But it's not a neat, orderly process, and it never ends.

Because of this, I'm a bit disturbed by Le Guin's "As alternatives proliferate, however, those who take the responsibility of teaching find little social and moral consensus on what they should be teaching -- what we need, what life ought to be."  She seems to disapprove of proliferating alternatives.  And adults who "find little social and moral consensus on what they should be teaching" often hurt children (and other adults) by trying to make them live as if change hadn't happened and alternatives hadn't proliferated.  Do adults really always know "what they should be teaching," even about the social structures they left behind?  Unfortunately, no; even more unfortunately, they often believe they do, even when they don't.

It's possible to live at the center of the world and to recognize that other people, other tribes, other nations also live at the center of the world -- that there are many, infinitely many centers of the world.  Professor Joseph Epes Brown, who taught a comparative religion course that I took during my first year at IU in 1971, declared that it was possible and that indigenous peoples did so, because wherever you are standing is the center of the world.  I like that insight, but I'm skeptical; I think it's a romantic projection.  I think that when you start to encounter larger communities and must live side-by-side with people of different traditions as Le Guin describes it, then you inevitably find it more difficult to locate that "social and moral consensus on what you should be teaching" and learning.  I think people can live happily in such an environment, either without a center or with a conception of the center that is qualitatively different from the traditional conception she extols.  In order to do that, you need new stories, and imagination becomes -- at least in part -- a means to the end of establishing the center.  The trouble is that you can't set out to do so; I believe that artists and storytellers will do it unconsciously, if they let their imaginations work.  But what they produce then has to be scrutinized to make sure it doesn't just revert to fantasies of simpler times when everybody knew where the center was.  As Le Guin knows from her own struggles with gender in her fiction, the imagination can and must be educated, not left to its own mudpies. Over time, people will find new meanings and lessons in the old stories, often believing that the new meanings were there from the beginning. 

In a later essay on genre, Le Guin refers a couple of times to Jorge Luis Borges' dictum that all prose literature is fiction: "Fiction, for Borges, thus includes history, journalism, biography, memoir, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Pierre Menard's Don Quixote, the works of Borges, Peter Rabbit, and the Bible."  I agree.  I would add that it includes the law as well, from the Constitution and Blackwell to court decisions.  It happens that the book I read before beginning Words Are My Matter was Ronald Suresh Roberts's remarkable Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd: Counterfeit Heroes and Unhappy Truths. published by NYU Press in 1994.  Originally written as his thesis for Harvard Law School, where Barack Obama was one of his classmates, Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd is an analysis and critique narrowly of black neoconservatives like Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Randall Kennedy, but more broadly of the nature of the law and the judiciary.

I first read Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd soon after it was published in the 1990s, having stumbled on it in a used book store, and it made a powerful impression on me.  I was just as impressed when I reread it this week.  Among his criticisms of his subjects is that they claim, not always consistently, that they are above politics and the babbling of what Thomas called "the maddening crowd," even above "race," and are simply humble servants of The Law, of facts, of reality.  "A Supreme Court justice," as Suresh puts this doctrine, "is only a funnel through which law expresses itself" (page 84 of the e-book). (By the way, this resembles scientists' equally self-aggrandizing claims to be mere oracles of Nature through whom Truth flows.)  So, for example, Roberts writes:
Judges may be blocked by many considerations, but a thing called law is never one of them.  Much that we call law is merely an ordinary combination of strategic reasoning and value judgments.  This kind of reckoning is certainly a constraint; but it is not the peculiar constraint that the thing called law needs to be.  It is, rather, the same sort of thing that congressional windbags deal with every day.  This kind of reckoning lacks the special leverage law needs in order to wall its empire off from the rule of men.  It fails to give a judge the scapegoat she needs in order to escape ordinary moral criticism.  If legal rules don't bind judges, then legal disputes are like our other disputes.  If legal disputes are like our other disputes -- if judges are like the rest of us -- then we can advance ordinary moral criticism of the work they do" (85). 
I'd noticed this before when considering President Obama's failures as an authority on the Constitution, alongside the offenses of his fellow Harvard Law alum Antonin Scalia.  Obama's liberal devotees trumpet his authority as a Constitutional scholar, while tacitly ignoring that Scalia can claim the same authority.  If the law really did constrain (or "bind," the term Roberts uses) lawyers and judges, then there'd be no controversy over what the Constitution says.  As Roberts shows, self-styled "strict constructionists" disagree vehemently among themselves as to what the Founders' original intent was.  Of course each protagonist insists that he merely explicates the plain sense of the sacred text, while his opponent imports biases and political agendas into his opinions.  But how is the layperson to decide who's telling the truth?  (In reality, both are lying.  Neither is an empty vessel filled with law, both import biases and agendas.)

It seems to me that Le Guin wants "imagination," as she conceives of it, to occupy the same place "law" does for Justice Thomas and Roberts's other subjects or "science" does for Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye: as a pure disembodied force that transcends commerce and politics.  But while imagination is important, just like law and science, it is a human production, "an ordinary combination of strategic reasoning and value judgments."  I'm inclined to see imagination also as a usefully destructive force, for which "imagination" might not be the best name anyway.  It's something like linguistic change, which not only undermines the stability of languages but interferes with people's ability to communicate. It's positive but also negative; we imagine new possibilities even when we might prefer not to, when we're trying to find a reliable center of the world.  The world shifts beneath our feet.  Language changes not because we creatively change it, but it drags us along, bulldozing through the grammars and lexicons we made to try to contain it. The center cannot hold, but contrary to what I think Yeats meant, the center has never held for long.  If nonfiction is fiction, then fiction is nonfiction.  The "warrior monkeys, one-eyed giants, and crazy knights who fight windmills" that Le Guin believes will liberate us from Mammon will soon become fossilized as dogma and forbid new ideas.

*Actually, I wouldn't do it to a print book either, any more than I'd tear out pages or scrawl on the pages with crayons.  Not only because my mother impressed me with the inviolability of books, but because I don't believe in poppet magic -- that you can hurt the book (which is essentially the text, not the marks on the page or the screen) by hurting the physical object.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

My First-Grade Teacher Was a Socialist!

I'm stuck in the airport for a couple of extra hours, thanks to a notice from TSA passed along by my airline, that passengers on international flights should arrive three hours early to get through screening.  I was skeptical, because it's never taken me that long to get through before, but I'd also not received such a notification before, so I decided to play it safe.  That meant getting up two hours earlier than I planned to, to catch the earlier shuttle.  And of course I breezed through security in a few minutes, so here I be.

While I was in line (I've been in longer ones for TSA), a middle-aged white guy remarked loudly that having to stand in line like this was like being in "a socialist country."  Another middle-aged white guy a few people behind him agreed, and they began chatting that it was like standing in line for bread; the first guy remarked that in Haiti, they wouldn't wait in line, they'd just take out a machete, lop off your arm, and take your bread, like they did after the earthquake.  (Presumably taking your arm too, to make a yummy arm sandwich with the bread.)  He worked that theme for a while, declaring that he knew some missionary friends in Haiti, who apparently told him these stories.

I considered speaking up myself, and asking what he'd prefer.  Should the rich be allowed to skip the lines?  It's not quite the same thing, I know, but you can spend a hundred or so dollars and go through Pre-Check, a much shorter line.  Does he think that there's no airline security in other countries, and if so, which non-socialist countries does he have in mind?  Israel, maybe?  Or he could move to Russia, which is a dictatorship now, not even nominally socialist.  I knew I'd get in trouble for that one, but I was tempted.  As for the machetes, I considered pointing out that here in America, we don't use machetes, we shoot each other for bread.  But one chooses one's battles.

Maybe they don't make children line up in elementary schools anymore?  Because it's "socialist"?  My teachers would have been surprised to hear that.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Public and Privates

I'm not surprised by this material, since it's about what I expected from Clinton as the corporatist Reagan Democrat she is. But you can see why she didn't want it made public -- I mean, "There is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives"! I feel their pain.
At the Goldman Sachs Builders and Innovators Summit, Clinton responded to a question from chief executive Lloyd Blankfein, who quipped that you “go to Washington” to “make a small fortune.” Clinton agreed with the comment, and complained about ethics rules that require officials to divest from certain assets before entering government. “There is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives,” Clinton said.

At a 2013 speech for Morgan Stanley on April 18, Clinton praised the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan — which would reduce corporate tax rates while raising the Social Security age. “But Simpson-Bowles — and I know you heard from Erskine earlier today — put forth the right framework. Namely, we have to restrain spending, we have to have adequate revenues, and we have to incentivize growth. It’s a three-part formula,” she said ...

But there are signs in the emails released by Wikileaks that she also took a fairly progressive stance on certain topics, including health reform ...

But during the campaign this year, she again reversed her position, declaring that single payer will “never, ever” happen in the U.S. Audio obtained by The Intercept last week showed Clinton dismissing the idea of free healthcare during another private event with donors.
I've already seen Clintonistas dismissing the new Wikileaks material as no big deal, underwhelming, a letdown. And maybe it is, if you expected/ hoped it would include celebrations of eating aborted babies. And as I say, there are not really any surprises to her critics; just what we expected.

The thing to remember is that partisans will dismiss any criticism of their candidate. Trump fans aren't going to be bothered by the latest video showing Trump to be a vilely sexist scumbag -- Oh please, is that news? Tell us something we didn't already know -- because they know what he's like and that's why they like him. So do his critics, but they enjoy clucking over his awfulness.  The same is true of Clinton, as it was of Obama.  Oh, she's a devout corporatist and warmonger?  Tell us something we didn't already know!  What did you expect, Che Guevara?