Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Pride and Prejudice

Someone I know passed along this meme, and since I didn't have commenter privilege on that post I shared it, with my commentary, and then checked out the proximate source.  The comments there were a mixed bag, though it was clear that for many people who liked the meme, antigay bigotry was a significant factor in their opinion.

There are many things I could say, but I think it's best to address this idea directly.  First off, I am not surprised that many Homo-Americans have sunk to the level of our worst enemies in reacting to this meme and the whole notion of "straight pride."  (One commenter wrote: "Are you Christian? Kill yourself".  That's showing your moral superiority!)  Haven't we been saying for decades that we're just like straight people except for whom we love?  Well, unfortunately, it's true.

I considered pointing out that an analogous "white pride" meme would also go down like a Zeppelin, but then I remembered that people who say they need to celebrate straight pride are likely to the same people who ask peevishly why there isn't a white history month, so never mind.

However.  I'm all in favor of straight pride manifestations. We've had a few "straight pride" events here at IU over the years, though not recently.  They were all organized by right-wing groups who were known to embrace antigay bigotry, but since they were not known for thoughtfulness or more than minimal intelligence, this didn't bother me; they were too dull to understand what they were proposing.  Again, not all that different from many of my fellow homosexuals, unfortunately.

I love my straight friends and relatives; I don't look down on them, because I know they can't help themselves; they deserve pity and sympathy, not censure. Love the sinner and hate the sin! So whenever I encounter someone talking about "straight pride" events, I tell them that, and I offer to help them organize the "gay allies" contingent. Just as gay pride celebrations routinely include straight allies, often with straight allies as parade marshals, a straight pride celebration should welcome the support of gay allies. I haven't received a very welcoming response when I've made this offer, for some reason.  I think it's long past time to organize the first branch of Parents and Friends of Straight People. It sounds like they really need the support!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Mote and the Beam

There's a post (via) at the "progressive Christian" blog slactivist which deals with an interesting religious-freedom case that came before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The plaintiff was an evangelical Christian who refused to submit to "biometric hand scanning for time and attendance taking" at his job with an coal and energy company, because he saw the scan as a fulfillment of Revelation 13:16-17:
16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
The complainant's employer refused to make a reasonable accommodation with his religious belief, and the EEOC ruled in his favor.  As the blogger points out, this resolution has the effect of disproving, to some extent, the complainant's belief that those who refuse to wear the mark of the Beast will be persecuted.

Fine with me.  What I want to address, however, are the following remarks by the blogger.
Religious liberty, if it is ever to mean anything at all, must include the freedom to be wrong. It cannot matter, legally, whether or not a religious belief is orthodox, or coherent, or part of a longstanding established tradition. Protecting religious liberty means protecting the right to believe in the implausible, the idiosyncratic, the offensive, the stupid, the factually insupportable, the demonstrably false. Otherwise we’d wind up putting the state in the position of adjudicating between legitimate and illegitimate religious beliefs.

And that, we should have learned by now, never ends well. That’s a recipe for inquisitions and for sectarian violence. That reduces religious liberty from an inviolable human right to a privilege contingent on the religious perspective of the current regime.
Again, fine with me.  This is the basic rationale for freedom of religion as it's conceived in the US.  But I was struck by the irony of a Christian writer mocking another Christian's beliefs as implausible, idiosyncratic, offensive, stupid, factually insupportable, and so on.  It's possible that that string of adjectives is merely rhetorical, and that the writer doesn't necessarily mean them to refer to the EEOC plaintiff's beliefs.  However, elsewhere in the piece Clark calls the man's beliefs "ludicrous," "absurd," "weird, Barnum-esque folklore," and refers to him as "a devotee of the pseudo-Christian folklore promoted by the likes of Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, and Jack Impe."  

Leave aside the fact that most New Testament scholars today would agree that Jesus himself taught precisely such weird, Barnum-esque folklore, and that it permeates most of the New Testament.  (Ironically, it is fundamentalist scholars who try the hardest to argue that Jesus didn't mean that the End was near, or that he would return on clouds of glory before the generation of his first followers passed away.)  There's a great deal of resistance to admitting this, and has been ever since Albert Schweitzer made the classic case for Jesus as an end-times preacher more than a century ago.  Laymen of all stripes try to evade it, first through ignorance of the scholarship, and second by displacing the embarrassing doctrine onto the book of Revelation alone.  They also try to forget that Jesus, far from being a cool, hip Enlightenment philosopher, is depicted in the gospels as a wandering faith healer, exorcist, and hellfire preacher, quite apart from his end-times teaching.

But as I say, leave that aside.  I don't know the details of this blogger's Christian beliefs, but since he is a Christian it is reasonably certain that he holds some absurd, factually insupportable, idiosyncratic, etc. beliefs himself, either in terms of what he believes about Jesus or how he evades the problematic parts of Jesus' teachings.  But he feels free to jeer at the beliefs of other Christians with different absurd beliefs.  Whatever else can be said about this, it flouts one of the few teachings of Jesus that I respect -- the one about attending to the log in your own eye before you complain about the speck in your brother's.

A few years ago a Christian minister named Barbara R. Rossing published a book called The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Westview Press, 2004).  With considerable Christian love she attacked evangelicals who believed in the Rapture.  It got a fair amount of attention and praise from people, Christian and otherwise, who didn't know much about the New Testament or Christian history, but knew what they liked.  I read it a decade ago and found Rossing's scholarship wanting, to put it politely.  That matters because Rossing is not merely a minister but professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.  Ever since then I've been meaning to reread her book and take more notes than I did the first time; maybe I'll finally get around to that this year.  But two things still stand out in memory for me.  One is Rossing's mean-spiritedness as she pointed out the speck in her brothers' and sisters' eyes.  Soon after reading The Rapture Exposed, I read a couple of other books that Rossing had cited, though she was unenthusiastic about them because their authors, though critical of their subjects, were less sure than she that Rapture-believing Christians were not really Christians: Heather Hendershot's Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (Chicago, 2004) and Amy Johnson Frykholm's Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford, 2004).  The other thing I remember is that Rossing herself declared explicitly that she believes that Christ will return, just as he promised to do in the gospels and in the book of Revelation.  Since Jesus promised to return within a generation, that belief falls under the absurd, factually insupportable, stupid, and demonstrably false headings -- but it didn't seem to bother the people who trumpeted Rossing's book, like this writer whose post appeared at the same site, Patheos, as slacktivist.  And why should it?  Many of them probably had not actually read the book, just heard that Rossing put the bad fundamentalists in their place.

Do I include myself in these strictures?  Of course I do.  As an atheist and a homosexual of my generation, I know how important the principle of freedom of belief and expression is.  The gay movement relied on it for a long time.  There was a time, not really so long ago, when the idea that homosexuality was not a criminal aberration but a valid variation of human sexual expression, was counted absurd, factually insupportable, offensive, demonstrably false.  In this sense I'm a liberal, as Paul Feyerabend described the type:
A liberal is not a mealymouthed wishy-washy nobody who understands nothing and forgives everything, he is a man or a woman with occasionally quite strong and dogmatic beliefs among them the belief that ideas must not be removed by institutional means. Thus, being a liberal, I do not have to admit that Puritans have a chance of finding truth. All I am required to do is to let them have their say and not to stop them by institutional means. But of course I may write pamphlets against them and ridicule them for their strange opinions.
I'm also used to being dismissed in slactivist's terms by liberals and conservatives alike, who don't know what's wrong with my statements but are sure they're crazy.  As long as I can rebut them, without having to worry about being penalized by the state for doing so, I'm fine.  I don't need for everyone to agree with me.  So when one Christian attacks another Christian for holding absurd beliefs, what can I do but giggle and point and make rude noises?

Jesus himself didn't claim to be reasonable; he recognized that he wasn't, and blessed those who were not scandalized by him.  Paul exulted in the offensiveness of a crucified Messiah, a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Greeks.  Whatever the slactivist blogger's personal, idiosyncratic version of Christian belief, I doubt he regards Jesus or Paul as marginal figures.  Nor do I, but luckily I'm not a Christian, so I can freely regard their teachings as absurd, factually insupportable, and so on.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Fake Barry Quotes

Well, this is ... interesting.  One of my right-wing acquaintances from high school posted it to his wall last night, and I was immediately suspicious, but I don't own a copy of The Audacity of Hope, and it wasn't available as an e-book from the library, so I just made a note to check in the morning.

I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been totally fabricated, but it wasn't, not quite.  But it's still a lie.  Here's the actual passage from The Audacity of Hope, page 261, with the key passage emboldened.
Of course, not all my conversations in immigrant communities follow this easy pattern.  In the wake of 9/11, my meetings with Arabs and Pakistani Americans, for example, have a more urgent quality, for the stories of detentions and FBI questioning and hard stares from neighbors have shaken their sense of security and belonging.  They have been reminded that the history of immigration in this country has a dark underbelly; they need specific assurances that their citizenship really means something, that America has learned the right lessons from the Japanese internments during World War II, and that I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.
That's Senator Obama, before he became President, talking about interacting with some of his constituents, Arab-Americans and Pakistani-Americans but evidently citizens, who were understandably nervous that their government might stick them in a concentration camp and confiscate their property as it did American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II; or disappear them and send them to be tortured in other countries, as it did do with some Americans during the War on Terror; or just stand by while they were lynched by their Christian fellow citizens.  Obama wanted them to know that he would stand by them if "the political winds" blew in that direction, though I don't know how much his word on that was worth.

Whoever produced this meme wanted people to believe that Obama had pledged to side with Muslims elsewhere in the world, and to think of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS as the Muslims he'd side with.  I've noticed a number of my right-wing acquaintances having ragegasms (a word I swiped from Joan Walsh, writing on another topic) over what they view as Obama's refusal to do anything about ISIS.  It takes a very well-disciplined memory to believe such a thing, given the thousands of foreign Muslims whose blood is on Obama's hands, given his characterization of ISIS as a "vicious death cult," given his bombing of the areas that ISIS now controls, and given his request for a new resolution from Congress authorizing him (and his successor, whoever it turns out to be) to wage war against certain Muslims in perpetuity.  They wouldn't be satisfied, I suppose, even if he personally disemboweled every single Muslim in the world, because really their rage has nothing to do with what he actually says or does -- it's about the Barack Hussein Obama they've invented and nurtured in their minds.  Sure, racism has a lot to do with it, and it feeds their derangement, but they'd hate him almost as much if he were white.  His real crime is being Not-a-Republican, but even there I'm baffled by the intensity of their anger.

Such people are not, I think, anywhere close to being a majority of Americans, or even of American voters.  But there are a lot of them, and it's scary being in the same country, the same world with them.  They love fantasizing about certain people being slaughtered as messily as possible -- preferably brown- or olive-skinned people, preferably non-English-speaking, preferably dressed differently than Real Americans dress, but again this is not mandatory, just more fun.  You can see them frothing at the keyboard in the comments sections of many local newspaper websites, because they think someone got away with something, and they want that person torn to shreds on live TV.  I remember a couple of years ago, for example, some kid ran out onto a professional sports field during a game; he was grabbed, restrained, removed, and probably arrested.  The newspaper site where I saw this story exploded with enraged comments from people who wanted that kid dead. Even a fairly liberal man I know personally huffed to me about the danger the kid allegedly posed to somebody by doing what he did; he didn't want the kid publicly burned alive, but he still was more upset by the event than I thought strictly reasonable.

As I say, being non-white isn't required to be a the target of this free-floating frenzy of hatred.  Nor is this phenomenon restricted to elderly Republicans.  All you have to do is "misuse" the word "hopefully," or misspell a word, or say "nukular" instead of "nuclear," or commit any number of other linguistic crimes against humanity, and liberal / progressive / left people will go completely bonkers.  The flip side of the GOP ragegasms is the ragegasms of liberals, who are flooding Facebook with memes and articles about the stupidity and subhumanity of people who watch Fox News, or commit other atrocities, like having "too many" children.  Or showing insufficient adoration of POTUS, Blessed Be He.  Jeb Bush made a poor showing in his recent national security speech, stumbling on pronunciation and getting facts wrong.  To those on the same team, this shows what an unaffected, regular guy he is -- as when Obama starts dropping g's and pronouncing oil as ole; to those on the other team, it shows he's an idiot.  Daily Kos sends out daily e-mails of their own "recommended" stories that I rarely click through, especially as they consist mostly of clickbait that fits the pattern I'm describing: titles like "Hilarious full page ad in NYT skewers Boehner" and "Hilariously stupid Fox response to Bill Reilly's lies."  As I've said before, just because Republicans are stupid doesn't mean Democrats are therefore smart.  If anything, it looks to me like Democrats are getting dumber as they obsess over the dumbness of the Rethuglicans.  And not only does this not make Republicans (or Democrats) any smarter, it seems to make things worse as more and more political "discourse" is adapted to this mode.

(One milder version of the syndrome, but I think it's part of it nonetheless, are the people who comment simply "ugh" or "Disgusting" on what they disapprove.  They're just getting warmed up.)  I remember well from the 1960s the fury inspired in many Americans by the hippies, which I think was plausibly explained as their resentment that other people were getting away with refusing to join the rat race as they had done, to live an unhappily constrained, boring, frustrating life as they'd consented to do; of course they wanted to see the slackers and rebels punished.  Why this carries over to Obama, as it carried over to Bill Clinton, I don't know, but it seems to be the same pattern: the Two Minutes' Hate.  The important thing is that the target is on the Other Team, and so those on Our Team are free to do and say whatever they like.  Especially if you know in advance they won't (or can't) fight back.

In the greater scheme of things, though, hate and love, extremism and moderation are beside the point. The satirist Andy Borowitz wrote ironically today:
Critics Rip Obama's Refusal to Fight Hate with Hate
WASHINGTON - A rising chorus of Congressional critics are blasting President Obama for what one of them called "his stubborn refusal to fight a war on hatred by using additional hatred." According to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), "Islamic terrorists are fueled by hatred, and the only way to end that cycle of hatred is by adding more hatred." Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) agreed with Cruz, adding, "The United States of America is blessed with enormous reserves of hate, and President Obama is willfully refusing to tap them." Graham also ripped Obama for "pointlessly seeking the root causes of hate," adding, "No problem was ever solved by finding out what was causing it."
I think Borowitz missed the deeper irony here; like his right-wing opposite numbers, he thinks Obama is, if not a pacifist, then at least really nice.  In the real word, Obama intends to fight hate with Christian love, as the Bushes, Clinton, and Reagan did: he will bomb you, incinerate you, kill and torture you and your children, starve you, drive you into exile -- all in a spirit of Christian love! Praise Jesus!  Christianity is a religion of peace!  I'm sure the dead, charred, maimed, orphaned and widowed will feel so much better to know that they were done in, not by a hateful Republican Bible-thumper, but by a loving Democratic Bible-thumper.  Love makes all the difference.

There are those who, like Obama, want to distinguish between some supposedly pure, pristine ur-Christianity or Islam and the bad impure "extremists" who are trying to steal these religions from their true, moderate owners.  Even if you set aside Jesus' parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which Lazarus watches the torment of the damned in Hades, the teachings of Jesus are full of what should by now be a very familiar wish to see certain people get what's coming to them, namely the worm that is not sated and the fire that is not quenched.  For all the talk of love in the gospels, it's exactly balanced by the fantasies about punishment, punishment without limit, punishment that makes eye-for-an-eye look absurdly benign by comparison.
I'm sure I needn't point out that this is neither new or an American (or for that matter Christian) invention.  Think of Christians killed in the Roman arenas.  Think of the American Indian torture of captives for "spiritual" reasons, in public, for the edification of the audience.  Not everyone went to public torture or executions, but many did, and they were the spiritual ancestors of those who publicly call for the blood of those they consider it safe to hate.  And you don't really need to go see the actual executions: you can sit at home, yelling at the TV, posting vindictive garbage on your Facebook account. To quote again Walter Kaufmann's paraphrase of Freud, "Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal."  I'm not excluding myself here.  I suppose one reason I'm so disturbed by the murderous fury of these people is that I recognize myself in it too.  But it can be, must be, resisted.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

It Gets Worse

I've complained before about the disappearing of history, including GLBT history, by people who lived through the period in question and should know better.  I've also complained that the people who appoint themselves our leaders and defenders against bigotry are too often ignorant about our lives and our history, but imagine that their professional credentials somehow qualify them anyway.  Ignorance isn't a bad thing, but pretending to know more than you know is.

So I'm slogging through Standing Out, Standing Together: The Social and Political Impact of Gay-Straight Alliances (Routledge, 2005) by the sociologist Melinda Miceli. The book has some value as an account of American gay youth's struggles since (roughly) Stonewall, but it exhibits the same willed amnesia that I mentioned before.  I hope to address that problem in another post, but for now I want to point to an example of the second problem, of ignorant professionals.

One of the earliest official initiatives to help gay youth within a US school system was Project 10 in Los Angeles, founded in 1984 by Virginia Uribe, a lesbian teacher who'd been approached by some gay and lesbian students with their experiences of harassment in school.  Project 10 was approved by her principal and proceeded successfully for two or three years, working throughout the Los Angeles school system, before the Christian right learned about it and tried unsuccessfully to abolish it.  Uribe told Miceli in an interview:
I didn't realize the power of the right wing at that time.  This was twenty years ago and I was basically naïve about the political implications of all this at that time [97].
I realize that a teacher doesn't have as much free time as I did at that time to follow gay politics and controversies.  But -- really?  In 1984 Uribe had never heard of Proposition 6, known as the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 ballot initiative which "would have banned gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California's public schools"?  Perhaps Uribe could have missed the repeal of a gay-rights ordinance in Dade County Florida, thanks to a campaign led by the Christian-right singer Anita Bryant in 1977; it was at the other end of the country, after all, though Bryant's crusade got national news coverage.  But the Briggs Initiative was in California, and would have affected Uribe personally if it had passed.  It nearly passed, but thanks to a statewide grass-roots and the (very surprising) condemnation of the proposition by former California Governor Ronald Reagan, it was defeated.  (It's another sign of how much the Right has caved in to the Politically Correct Gay Agenda that this 2009 article from the far-right American Spectator tries to give Reagan most of the credit for the defeat of Proposition 6.)

And, of course, there was also the assassination in San Francisco of gay city supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone in the fall of 1978 by a disgruntled Roman Catholic, Dan White.  White was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, and was paroled after a few years in prison.  (He committed suicide in 1985.)  The Christian Right played a major role in the election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency in 1981, and groups like the Moral Majority gained national attention, taken seriously by the mainstream media.  Even here in the backwoods of southern Indiana, Anita Bryant and the Christian Right were well known among gay people.   By 1987, the Christian Right was also vocal and effective in blocking sensible responses to the AIDS epidemic, then in its seventh year by the usual chronology.

It may be that in retrospect, twenty years after she started Project 10, Uribe had forgotten the national atmosphere of those days.  But I still find it hard to believe.  The events I just mentioned were just some of the most visible evidence of the "power of the right wing" in the early 1980s.  I don't say this to deny Uribe's achievement and contribution in organizing and maintaining Project 10, only to express again my amazement at the ignorance educated, presumably sentient adults can entertain about the society they live in.  I imagine that in twenty years, there'll be middle-aged GLBT people saying that they didn't know about the power of the Christian right in the mid 2010s.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The First Wave

From Louisa M. Alcott's novel Work: A Story of Experience (originally published in 1901; cited from Project Gutenberg electronic text). Some of the divisions within the women's movement clearly go back that far, and I was fascinated to see how Alcott depicted the conflict.
The ladies did their part with kindliness, patience, and often unconscious condescension, showing in their turn how little they knew of the real trials of the women whom they longed to serve, how very narrow a sphere of usefulness they were fitted for in spite of culture and intelligence, and how rich they were in generous theories, how poor in practical methods of relief.

One accomplished creature with learning radiating from every pore, delivered a charming little essay on the strong-minded women of antiquity; then, taking labor into the region of art, painted delightful pictures of the time when all would work harmoniously together in an Ideal Republic, where each did the task she liked, and was paid for it in liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Unfortunately she talked over the heads of her audience, and it was like telling fairy tales to hungry children to describe Aspasia discussing Greek politics with Pericles and Plato reposing upon ivory couches, or Hypatia modestly delivering philosophical lectures to young men behind a Tyrian purple curtain; and the Ideal Republic met with little favor from anxious seamstresses, type-setters, and shop-girls, who said ungratefully among themselves, "That's all very pretty, but I don't see how it's going to better wages among us now."

Another eloquent sister gave them a political oration which fired the revolutionary blood in their veins, and made them eager to rush to the State-house en masse, and demand the ballot before one-half of them were quite clear what it meant, and the other half were as unfit for it as any ignorant Patrick bribed with a dollar and a sup of whiskey.

A third well-wisher quenched their ardor like a wet blanket, by reading reports of sundry labor reforms in foreign parts; most interesting, but made entirely futile by differences of climate, needs, and customs. She closed with a cheerful budget of statistics, giving the exact number of needle-women who had starved, gone mad, or committed suicide during the past year; the enormous profits wrung by capitalists from the blood and muscles of their employes; and the alarming increase in the cost of living, which was about to plunge the nation into debt and famine, if not destruction generally.

When she sat down despair was visible on many countenances, and immediate starvation seemed to be waiting at the door to clutch them as they went out; for the impressible creatures believed every word and saw no salvation anywhere.

Christie had listened intently to all this; had admired, regretted, or condemned as each spoke; and felt a steadily increasing sympathy for all, and a strong desire to bring the helpers and the helped into truer relations with each other.

The dear ladies were so earnest, so hopeful, and so unpractically benevolent, that it grieved her to see so much breath wasted, so much good-will astray; while the expectant, despondent, or excited faces of the work-women touched her heart; for well she knew how much they needed help, how eager they were for light, how ready to be led if some one would only show a possible way.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Constitutionally Incapable

A liberal Facebook friend posted the link to this Daily Kos story about Bobby Jindal, the cute-but-dumb Republican governor of Louisiana, who recently demonstrated his ignorance of our Constitutional system of government:
“We’re a nation of laws, that’s why I said I want the Supreme Court not to overturn our laws,” he said on CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday.

“If the Supreme Court were to do this, I think the remedy would be a constitutional amendment in the Congress to tell the courts you can't overturn what the states have decided.”
The friend who posted the link commented upon it thusly: "He's been drinkin' too much derp-entine. /
derp derp derp derp".  You see why I love liberals: they focus not on personalities but on issues, logic. and evidence.  And how do I know that?  Because they say so, and they wouldn't say it if it weren't true.

I made a snotty comment on my friend's post: "But then who does read the Constitution? It's old and irrelevant, just for rich white men."  My friend and I went back and forth a few times as he half-defended ("I think an argument could be made that the founders were people of means and the entire system was created to protect those same people")  the dumb slogan I'd sarcastically invoked, until I commented at greater length.

Yes, an argument could be made to that effect. In fact, it has been, quite a few times; I think I first encountered it in Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. The people I was thinking of were college undergraduates who were furious when the blog of a bigoted university professor wasn't shut down by the university because of the First Amendment. Their stupidity was perhaps understandable -- they were too young to remember how the First Amendment had been used to protect the freedom of speech of people like them, and where would they have learned the history? I suspect they'd picked up their position from some graduate TAs who should have known better, but I don't know for sure. And entertainingly, the same people wailed of a projected anti-gay-marriage amendment to the US Constitution that it would be totally unconstitutional. 1) When did they suddenly care about the Constitution, which was for old rich white men? 2) A Constitutional amendment, by definition, cannot be unconstitutional; it changes what is constitutional and what isn't.

I'm not a Constitutional historian, let alone a scholar of its interpretation, but I have read the damn thing, and I know a little of the history. I agree that it was intended to protect the affluent white men who wrote it, though they didn't "create the system", they inherited it, and one thing that strikes me when I read it is how jumbled and messy it is. After all, it was written by committee, and it's marked by numerous compromises. It also is incomplete. It says nothing about banking, for example, although the framers were very interested in that subject. Roger D. Hodge wrote in The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism (Harper Collins, 2010), quite a good book by the way, that "banks were popular inside the [constitutional] convention but extremely unpopular outside it; leaving banks out of the document can be seen as a tactical maneuver, to eliminate a potential obstacle to ratification" (106).

It's true that the Bill of Rights is often ineffective in protecting the rights of the less well-off, though I think things improved in the second half of the twentieth century. (I wonder how one would construct, enforce, and sustain a system which really would protect the rights of those who aren't well-off.) Whatever the framers intended, and I don't think they were all of one mind, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been modified, extended, and used in ways they didn't foresee and probably wouldn't have liked. Ironically, the "oh, it's just for old rich white men" line is a kind of constitutional fundamentalism, not different in principle from the fundamentalism of 'original intent' jurists: the Constitution has an unchanging essence, which can be known, and which binds America forever. And while I do think it would be good if more people read the Constitution, that wouldn't eliminate our problems, just because it has no essence, and different readers will read it differently. (Even highly trained specialists come up with diametrically opposed interpretations, and the much-touted Constitutional scholar Barack Obama has uttered some idiotic howlers about it. So has Antonin Scalia, who like Obama is a product of Harvard Law School, but it's important to remember that they are both idiots, which is why we're doomed.) The Constitution is not only the primal text and its amendments, it is the corpus of laws and judicial decisions built around it over the past two centuries.

The ironies and the humor multiplied when I decided to read the entire Daily Kos article.  The author, one Laura Clawson, commented thusly on Jindal's remarks: "Hoo boy. First, Bobby, the Supreme Court gets to decide if a law is constitutional. That's its job. We're a nation of laws, and the Supreme Court has a role in determining those laws, which is something you might want to look into before spouting off."

I wondered about that, so I did the unthinkable: I read the relevant part of the Constitution, Article III, which sets out the duties and powers of the Supreme Court.
Section. 1.
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
Section. 2.
The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;—to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States;— between a State and Citizens of another State,—between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.
In Ms. Clawson's words, "Hoo-boy."  I don't see anything there about deciding the constitutionality of laws, do you?  As I remember from my high school Civics class, that power, known as judicial review, was asserted by the Supreme Court in 1803 in the case Marbury v. Madison.  Judicial review has been part of the Court's "job" ever since, but it's not in the Constitution itself.  So, Laura Clawson is either lying or has not read the Constitution.

This is not a defense of Jindal, who is just another ambitious Republican clown.  As a writer praised by my Right-Wing Acquaintance RWA1 might point out besides, Jindal is not an Anglo-Saxon and therefore can't be expected to know "the Magna Carta and the freedoms passed down by their ancestors."  But let's not forget something the great Constitutional scholar Barack Obama said during a press conference in 2012: "Ultimately, I am confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress."  Not all that far from Jindal, and equally false; then-Attorney-General Eric Holder was given the unenviable task of backtracking from the claim, and the White House spun the usual web of obfuscation around itself.

Some time ago a right-wing Facebook friend posted a meme which declared that kids should start reading the Constitution in elementary school, and I agree.  Beginning in elementary school and continuing until graduation from high school would give time and opportunity not just to read the basic text but to learn something about how the courts work, how judicial interpretation builds on the Constition, legislation, and case law, and so on.  Maybe such an ongoing program would make an impression on the students' minds, and they'd be ready to return to the sources when anyone makes a claim about the Constitution and what it says.  But I doubt it.  After all, my right-wing friend and probably my liberal friend had Civics class just as I did; and President Obama studied the Constitution at Harvard (as did Scalia, among others), and they still make absurd, unfounded statements about the Constitution and what it says.  I don't know if there's a remedy, but the problem is clearly not limited to one part or another of the political spectrum.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Who Are We, Really?

"I Just Bought Guilt & Paid Less Than You Are Going To"

-- Robo-ad at

Time flies, doesn't it?  The release of part of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture in December set off a wave of right-wing tantrums not unlike what we just saw in response to President Obama's sermon at the National Prayer Breakfast.  (We never did anything like that, but we had no choice, and we enjoyed it, so there!)  I started writing a post in December inspired by an interesting article at Salon about the history of torture in the US, by one Charles Davis, which made some good points and still worth reading two whole months later.
In a nation-state founded by settler-colonial Protestants, the argument is familiar – it’s what’s deep down inside that gets one up into heaven, not the good or genocidal nature of what one does down here on Earth – and as with any half-decent lie, it’s relatable: as fallible human beings, we’d all rather like to believe that we’re not as bad as we are but as good as we say we would like to be.

As a rhetorical ploy, it’s understandable: Saying the United States has always been garbage is not going to be terribly popular in a nation that still fondly refers to a group of sadistic slave-owners as its “founding fathers” — so politicians savvy enough to know that openly embracing torture is not a good look for the world’s leading state-sponsor of holier-than-thou rhetoric, appeal to a history and set of values that never was and never were in practice, as a way to give political cover to their middling, public relations-minded critiques of the national-security state’s least defensible excesses. It’s entirely false, this narrative of extreme goodness marked by occasional self-correcting imperfection, but it satisfies our national ego to think the American phoenix rises from a store of ethically traded gold, not a pile of rotting trash.
Good stuff, but something bothered me about it.  I soon realized that Davis was engaged in inverted American exceptionalism.  That's not to deny the facts Davis marshals in his indictment, only to say that I had the feeling he was wallowing in them like a Puritan preacher detailing the rot in his congregation's souls and the eternal punishment that awaits them.  Since most Americans prefer to ignore the horrific aspects of our history, this does need to be pointed out, dwelt on, often.  But I kept remembering something I read in a history of the American Indians, a simple statement I haven't been able to find again.  It went something like this: The Indians were not less civilized than the European invaders -- but that's not saying much.

I also thought of this, from Walter Kaufmann's Without Guilt or Justice (Wyden, 1973, p. 49):
In Paul W. Tappan's massive standard text on Crime, Justice and Correction, for example, all ten references to Freud (in seven hundred fifty pages) concern the light he shed on criminals. But Freud ... also turned a searchlight on respectable society, illuminating the unedifying motives that come to the fore in punishment. Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal.
Now, let me repeat: none of this excuses the crimes and atrocities committed by the European invaders of the Americas and their heirs.  Davis is quite correct to rub his readers' noses in the history, to show the yawning gap between the pretensions of Christian civilization and its grubby, shameful reality.  It's not at all unfair to say, as Davis does, that "the United States has always been garbage."  I just want to say, and stress no less firmly, that by Davis's standards so was every non-Christian civilization.  Invasion, massacre, torture, slavery have been business as usual through most of human history, and we must never forget it.

After pondering Davis's article I found my copy of Will Roscoe's The Zuni Man-Woman (New Mexico, 1991), which includes a sobering account of Zuni society at the end of the 19th century.  Roscoe worked closely with Zuni elders and other influential people in his research, and his work is not anti-Indian; indeed, he engages in some of the same sort of apologetics used by champions of white Christian culture.
In 1882, the Zuni delegation touring the East with Cushing made a side trip to Salem, Massachusetts.  Told about the seventeenth-century persecution of witches at Salem, the Zunis became excited.  At a public reception, the bow priest Kiasi “thanked the good people of Salem for the service they had done the world,” and he gave them some advice should witchcraft trouble them again.  “’Be the witches or wizards your dearest relations or friends, consider not your own hearts,’ said he, ‘but remember your duty and spare them not, put them to death!’”  Because the Americans had rid themselves of witches, the Zunis decided, they had become prosperous and strong.  Belief in witchcraft represents a darker side of Zuni life, one that contradicts the stereotype of Pueblo Indians as uniformly even tempered.  While the Zunis had solved various social problems creatively and humanely, theirs was not a perfect society.  Some Zunis, like Nick Dumaka, grew up at odds with themselves, their families, and the community, unable to conform to Zuni ideals and social rules.  As [Ruth] Benedict noted, “Zuñi’s only reaction to such personalities is to brand them as witches.”

Because the Zunis did not make the distinction, typical of European law, between behavior and intent, the wish to do harm was as bad as doing harm, psychic violence the same as physical violence.  [Well, we’re catching up with them these days.]  Murder, assault, theft, arson, and other crimes were all tried as forms of witchcraft.  However, because the Zunis considered anger, resentment, bitterness, and envy as precursors of witchcraft, sanctions were often applied before overt acts of aggression occurred.  Suspected witches were subject to avoidance and criticism [isn’t that also a sign of anger, resentment, bitterness and envy in the accusers?], and their actions were closely watched.  This is why Zuni appears to have had so little crime.  [Because criminal impulses could be acted out by accusing others of witchcraft!] ...
Prosecution of witches was the responsibility of the bow priests. who tried “to bring them to wisdom.” They seized the suspect at night and took him or her to their chambers.  Witnesses both for and against the suspect, and the suspect himself, could speak.  If the suspect did not confess, however, he was painfully suspended by his thumbs or with his arms tied behind his back.  Hanging, with occasional respite, continued for a day.  Suspects might also be hung in the large plaza, from a beam protruding from the old mission.  If the suspect still remained silent after this, he was taken to the bow priests’ chamber once again, “whence he never comes forth alive.” Witches were not always executed, however.  If the witch confessed, especially with an elaborate story of occult powers, he or she might be released, usually to live in exile [101-103].
Because we have very little reliable information about pre-contact American Indian culture, we can't say whether Zunis dealt with witchcraft in this way before the White Man came.  The method of torture used, for example, is familiar from European practice, and indeed was used to interrogate suspected witches in Salem, Massachusetts.  It's not rocket science, though, and was probably reinvented by various cultures bent on inflicting pain.

Torture was used by other Indian societies, and it won't do to engage in apologetics like "The Christians in Europe tortured to belittle and to demean and to punish. The Huron and the Iroquois tortured each other to honour and possess the power of the enemy."  Let me reiterate that I don't bring this up to justify the European invasion of this hemisphere and its dispossession and slaughter of the Americas' original inhabitants.  If the Islamic State is a "death cult," as President Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast, so is the United State of America.  But to return to Charles Davis, if the US is a "nation of torturers," so were the nations it replaced.  If the US has always been garbage, so were the First Nations.

Before Columbus, there was horrific violence in countries all over the world, too much to list here; I'd like to think that most of us have heard of it, even if we don't think of it much and tend to forget it when possible.  Off the top of my head, I think of the Roman practice of crucifixion, which they picked up from other sources.  Think of roads lined with crosses by the hundreds or thousands, each one with a human body on it, with carrion birds pecking at its tenant's eyes.  It's perfectly correct to denounce Christian violence against "pagans," but not if we forget the violence that "pagans" perpetrated against each other.  Much of human history is written in human blood, human cries of agony, in human bodies stretched out in torment. 

It's difficult to find a balance for denunciation of such horrors.  I follow Martin Luther King Jr. and Noam Chomsky, among others, in believing that people should first condemn the crimes of their own country before engaging in facile condemnation of the crimes of others.  I know I'm not alone in saying that I don't want to see America conquered:
-- not that America is in any danger of being conquered: the US has not fought a war of self-defense in my lifetime. But I don’t want to see any country conquered. People like [Joanne] Barkan get so furious at any mention of American malfeasance because they’ll gladly sic the dogs of war on any other country that behaved as the US has behaved, that killed a tenth as many people as the US has killed, that supported a tenth as many dictators as the US has supported, that harbors the kinds of terrorists the US harbors – so it is they who want to see the US attacked and humbled, if they had any consistency of principle. Those of us who can recognize the faults of our country, by contrast, simply want it to stop hurting people so wantonly.
But where do we go from that point?  What does Davis think is the proper way to deal with human "garbage"?  He concludes:
Torture and total war are not the work of a few bad people, but the product of a system that from its inception treated human beings as property and the right to property as more important than the rights of women and men – it’s who we are, and if we want the violence wrought by our system to end, we must honestly address the systemic cause. 
It is "who we are," but it's also who "they" are.  Davis's use of the singular ("a system") is misleading: there are multiple systems that have perpetrated violence and oppression, and the US is only one of those systems' heirs.  If we're all "garbage," as Davis's logic would require us to conclude, then what?  I think that recognition is a good starting point.  American exceptionalism, whether as the shining city on a hill or as an enormous, stinking mountain of garbage, is not going to get us anywhere.