Thursday, October 31, 2013

Our Pitiful Helpless Savior

One of my right-wing acquaintances (RWA3 for future reference), someone I knew from high school, posted to Facebook today that her and her husband's insurance policy had been canceled because of Obamacare.  This is a person I don't trust to tell the truth; she has established a pattern of dishonesty even about matters that pertain to her, let alone to others.  She and her husband were among the right-wing Republicans who responded to Obama's election in 2008 by demanding (to the wind, of course) that because they had voted against Obama, he should do what they wanted him to do.  But another high school friend, whom I trust more, said that his and his wife's policy had been canceled too.

There have been a number of reports of this happening because the Affordable Care Act raises standards for basic coverage, and the policies they had no longer were adequate.  According to an article quoted by a FAIR blogger,
The law requires policies sold in the individual market to cover 10 “essential” benefits, such as prescription drugs, mental health treatment and maternity care. In addition, insurers cannot reject people with medical problems or charge them higher prices. The policies must also cap consumers’ annual expenses at levels lower than many plans sold before the new rules. 
There's some dispute about exactly how many policies are going to be canceled.  But I don't see any reason to doubt that Obama's insistent promise, that whose who like the policies they have would be able to keep them, is false, and has been false since 2010.  While Fox News picked holes in one Florida woman's story about the high cost of the replacement plan she'll have to get (via), the fact remains that her original policy was canceled and she will have to pay more for a new one.  For her own good, of course.

In comments under RWA3's complaint, my liberal law professor friend, who also attended my high school, mounted a brave but dishonest defense of the ACA and Obama.  I considered joining in, but then it occurred to me that I could think of no reason why I should defend Obama, or the ACA.  The website debacle, Obama's misrepresentations of what the law would require, his blocking even of discussion of a public option let alone a single-payer alternative in favor of a deal brokered with Big Pharma and the insurance industry -- all these are reasons why the President should be allowed to fend for himself, even if he hadn't done plenty of other terrible things.

Periodically over the past year I've received form letters from the Obama organization, imploring me to reassure the President that I've got his back.  I don't, of course.  Though I've criticized Obama many times over the past five years, I've wasted time defending the man against right-wing misrepresentations, simply because I think truth and rationality are important.    But why bother?  Truth and rationality are no more important to him, or to his lackeys and apologists, than they are to the Right.  Maybe the ACA will work out in the long run, but its incompetent management by the Obama administration so far is a bad sign.  Obama's approval ratings have dropped to a new low according to an NBC/WSJ poll (though once again, so have approval ratings of the Republicans).  Does Obama think he can do whatever he wants, simply because his enemies are hated even more than he is?  No matter.  If anything, he seems determined to torpedo his second term.  Let him fall, brought down by his own arrogance and incompetence.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Propagandists and Anti-Propagandists

The most useful part (for me, anyway) of Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (Seven Stories Press, 2013), another book of interviews with Noam Chomsky, though by Laray Polk rather than Chomsky regular David Barsamian, is the appendices, which take up almost the last third of the book.  Appendix 1, for instance, is a declassified 1945 dialogue between two US Army brass who want to squelch reports from Japan about the effects of A-bomb radiation on survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima.  They're especially indignant because one of the sources is an American, not just the "Jap scientists" they can easily dismiss as "propagandists."  Appendix 4 is an open letter from a Marshallese magistrate to the US military doctor who'd been waltzing in irregularly to study the effects of radiation from nuclear testing on the islanders in 1970s.  "We've never really trusted you," says the writer.  "So we're going to invite doctors from hospitals in Hiroshima to examine us in a caring way" (105).  There's also material on the use of chemical weapons by Iraq in the early 1980s, and more I haven't gotten to yet. 

Readers unfamiliar with Chomsky's political writings could do worse than begin with this book, especially those with a special interest in the environment.  Since Chomsky is in his eighties now and has been concerned with politics as a dissident and writer for more than half a century, he provides a long view that shows the continuity in US policy and practice over that period.  For example:
It should be remembered that when he escalated the attack on South Vietnam fifty years ago from support for a murderous client state [installed by his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower] to outright US aggression, President Kennedy authorized the use of chemical weapons to destroy ground cover and also food crops, a crime in itself, even apart from the dreadful scale and character of the consequences, with deformed fetuses to this day, several generations down the line in Saigon hospitals as a result of persistent genetic mutations [36].
This conversation took place before President Obama's manufactured indignation over the use of chemical weapons in Syria this fall, which nearly led to another war in the Middle East.  It's good to be reminded that the US' own record with chemical warfare would (if we applied our own standards to ourselves) require a "humanitarian intervention," or invasion, to clean up our act.

Chomsky also talks about the symbiosis between academia, the military, the government, and corporate interests in the post-WWII period, which fits with David F. Noble's account in Forces of Production.
The actual US economy since the colonies has relied quite substantially on government intervention.  This goes right back to the earliest days of independence, and for advanced industry in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  The American system of mass production, interchangeable parts, quality control, and so on -- which kind of astonished the world -- was largely designed in government armories.  The railroad system, which was the biggest capital investment and, of course, extremely significant for economic development and expansion, was managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.  It was too complicated for private business [56].
Later Polk quotes a right-wing Christian radio pundit who said that Christian voters "would love to see a false smarty pants decapitated [!] by a real intellectual... He [Newt Gingrich] would tear Obama's head off."  Chomsky comments:
When we look over the record of famous debates, we find that they are not "won" on the basis of serious argument, significant evidence, or intellectual values generally.  Rather, their outcome turns on Nixon's five o'clock shadow, Reagan's sugary smile, lines like "have you no shame" or "you're no Jack Kennedy," etc.  That's not surprising.  Debates are among the most irrational constructions that humans have developed.  Their rules are designed to undermine rational interchange.  A debater is not allowed to say, "That was a good point.  I'll have to rethink my views." ... I don't know who Richard Lund is, and if he regards Gingrich as a "real intellectual," I don't see much reason to explore further [68].
Here I part company with Chomsky somewhat.  I think he's using "debate" in a narrow, tendentious way, referring to public spectacles like the candidates' debates staged during the American presidential campaigns.  Maybe we need another word for those performances, because it's true, they have nothing to do with "serious argument, significant evidence, or intellectual values generally."  They're gladiatorial combat, political sports events for people who are watching to cheer on their team, not to learn anything.  But that's not all there is to debate, as Chomsky knows, being a fierce, even bloodthirsty debater himself, whether about politics or about linguistics.  I have the same difference with him over his use of the word "intellectual," which he uses to refer to paid functionaries of the state and of business, not people who are interested in working with ideas.  But as with so many terms, I'm not going to harp too much on terminology: it's not the words but what they refer to, and there I agree about the function of argument and the proper role of those interested in ideas and evidence.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Way It Really Went Down, Sort Of

[I'm posting this to try to whittle away at the backlog in my Drafts folder.  I'm going to post it more or less as I left it; maybe sometime I'll go back to the Amazon reviewer I mention and review his reviews, as I meant to do.  Meanwhile, this is my take on prurient British schoolboy novels and their Greek forebears.]

One of my more reliable time-gobblers is reading reviews at Amazon.  I'll notice a reviewer who's especially sensible or deranged -- usually the latter, I confess -- and read their other reviews.  Most of the depressing ones have hundreds posted, and it's interesting to try to get a handle on their worldview by seeing the range of things they share their opinions about.

Today [actually back in July, but it was "today" when I started this] Band of Thebes has a post about a new English novel of precocious pederasty at Eton, but from the point of view of an eromenos.  In classical Greek pederasty, you got your eromenos or lover, and you got your eromenos or beloved.  To simplify slightly, the former is supposed to be the older partner, the latter is the younger.  Officially the eromenoi were supposed to be pursued by the erastai, and in a curiously Victorian manner, all the desire was supposed to be on the side of the lovers.  This produced a genre of "love" poetry in which men complained about heartless boys who wouldn't respond to their gifts and groping, taking delight in their suffering.  I stopped regarding Hellas as a utopia of manly love when I read some of these poems; clearly, the Greeks were as stupid about love and sex as we moderns.  The idea that if I'm attracted to you, it's because you are sending out sex rays that draw me to you like a tractor beam, is as ancient as it is modern.  If I stalk you, it's all your fault: why don't you turn off your tractor beam and let me go?  (This thing, it gets hold of us ... I wish I knew how to quit you.)

Maybe it's just because I'm old, but I don't see the appeal of British schoolboy fiction; I don't think I ever did.  (I also don't get the appeal of one of BoT's other fave genres, hustler fiction, almost always from the viewpoint of older men's trials and tribulations trying to make it work with much younger trade.  But that's another post, I think.)  Though the book BoT is boosting today, Alexander's Choice "by the pseudonymous Edmund Marlowe," is being taken as a roman a clef, with Old Etonians "trying [to] identify who the people in the book might be in real life", I'm skeptical.  The premise, a "brazen" thirteen-year-old aristocrat who pursues older boys and one of his teachers, sounds like someone's wish-fulfillment fantasy.  As BoT describes one episode:
The randy Eton student sneaks into his favorite male teacher's sitting room, strips naked, and rolls himself up in a rug, leaving beside it a note saying 'This birthday gift is for you to enjoy in any way you can think of.' He's thirteen.
You see?  They want it.  They all want it.  It's not the ephebephiles' fault, it's all these randy pubescents who throw themselves at you.  They may pretend they don't want it, but they're only playing coy to drive you crazy.  They know what they're doing to you.  The drool in the reviews BoT quotes is practically audible.  (This reminds me of the episode from the controversial Secret Gospel from Mark, where the rich youth comes to Jesus at midnight, wrapped in a linen shroud.  Many readers, both openly gay and homophobic, get very excited just imagining that scene.)  It's reminiscent of Nabokov's Lolita, which is commonly misread as the story of a brazen overdeveloped twelve-year-old hussy who forces herself on a hapless European in his thirties, though the novel makes it quite clear that Humbert is the aggressor, that Lolita herself doesn't want him, and tries to get away from him.  What does it say about sophisticated literati that they got it so blatantly wrong?  (Susan Bordo has a good discussion of this in The Male Body [Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999]; see the chapter "Humbert and Lolita.")

Anyway, BoT concluded his post with a recommendation: "for a factual account of how it really went down with the ancients, get the Lammy winner The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson."  I clicked through, looked at the book description and the customer reviews.  Publishers Weekly liked it.  One customer reviewer savaged it, referring to a review by another academic classicist who raises some serious objections to Davidson's work, including misrepresentation of other scholars and mistranslations of the Greek primary sources.  But even if this weren't so, I'd be skeptical of any claim to provide a "factual account of how it really went down with the ancients" in just about any arena -- the more so because for BoT, "it" refers to "teacher-student relations," which are only a small part of ancient Greek pederasty.  "The ancients" refers to many different cultures spread out over two continents over a thousand years and more.  Those cultures changed, and we have only limited evidence about "how it really went down" for any one culture at any time.

But back to the customer review, which complained of "the author referring to Greek love in terms which came straight from Hillary Clinton."  I have no idea what Hillary Clinton has to do with it, so I'm not even sure what the writer meant.  The opening pages of the book, available on Amazon preview, don't clarify the Clinton allusion for me.  Someone has an axe to grind that has nothing to do with James Davidson.  In the comments under the review, as in Hubbard's review, there's a lot of ranting about "pc" and "political correctness," always a sign of stupidity and, in this context, misogyny.  I thought I recognized the reviewer's name from other Amazon reviews, so I clicked through to see all his work. Oh myyyy, as George Takei would say.

[To be continued ... maybe.]

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Worst Tomboy in the Village

I finished reading Two-Spirit People Thursday night, and I'll have more to say about it soon.  But I noticed something interesting when I came to the final section, which is the transcription of a conversation among several of the academic contributors to the volume and several mostly non-academic two-spirit Indians.

One of the academic participants was Sabine Lang, whose paper I wrote about a couple of days ago.  She wrote, you'll remember, that "In Western culture, a homosexual relationship is defined as being between ... two individuals who are of the same sex and the same gender." I objected that there is no single definition of homosexuality "in Western culture," and argued that the idea of homosexuality as a relationship between two individuals of the same sex but different genders is prevalent in the West, as in much of the world.

At one point in the conversation, Sabine Lang says:
I am what my culture defines as a lesbian.  I do not think I ever had to cope with a lot of internalized homophobia; growing up as a child who was different from other kids in a number of ways.  When I was ten I read scientific books on human evolution and dinosaurs long before dinosaurs became popular; I was the worst tomboy in the village; when all the other teenagers were having wild parties, I devoted my evenings to the creation of watercolors and oil paintings and my weekends to the composition of short stories.  The discovery that I was a lesbian did not really come as a shock to me. It was just another aspect of being myself.  As it turned out, it was also no surprise to those close to me [305; boldface added].
Now, maybe I'm making too much of the words I put into bold type.  It might be that Lang meant to say that being a "tomboy" is merely one of the ways she "was different from other kids", and didn't mean to emphasize that one aspect of her difference as relevant to being a lesbian.  But it still seems to me that she thinks of gender difference as playing some role in her homosexuality, as many gay people do, no matter what their politics.  When Chastity Bono came out as lesbian and published her book Family Outing she wrote, "[A]s a child, I always felt there was something different about me. I'd look at other girls my age and feel perplexed by their obvious interest in the latest fashion, which boy in class was the cutest, and who looked the most like cover girl Christie Brinkley. When I was 13, I finally found a name for exactly how I was different. I realized I was gay."  (Later, of course, Bono came out as transgendered.)  The strongly feminist lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, in her memoir Fun Home, wrote about her coming to recognize her lesbianism mostly in gendered terms: she was always a tomboy, in conflict with her feminine, closeted gay father, who wanted her to be the little girl he wanted to be himself.  Her boyishness is described in detail; her desire for other girls is simply there.

Once again: I have no idea what relation gender actually has to sexual orientation, partly because I don't know what "gender" is.  I'm just objecting when Western academics pretend that our culture defines homosexuality apart from gender, when in fact it mostly does not -- and their personal experience conforms to a gendered model.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Persistence of the Closet

Just a tidbit: I'm traveling this weekend, so I have a television in front of me, tuned to Jimmy Kimmel's talk show.  One of his guests tonight is a young actress named Kerry Washington, who's very civic-minded and involved in anti-bullying organizations.  She mentioned that today is Spirit Day, an anti-bullying event, though she didn't mention it was sponsored by GLAAD or that its focus is on the bullying of GLBT youth. 

Then she mentioned that she's going to do an event with GLSEN, "another ... anti-bullying group."  There was a tiny hesitation in the middle of that phrase, which suggests to me that she knows better.  GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, is concerned with bullying, but also with curriculum -- how to acknowledge that there are gay people, including students, in school and in the world at large, from the first years of school.  Washington's hesitation, indicating she knew she was talking about a gay organization but chose not to mention it.  I can understand that, I guess, but it's a sign of how far we still have to go that this small closeting still happens, on quasi-sophisticated late-
night television.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

And Never Mark Twain Shall Meet

I've finally begun reading Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality,* after owning my copy for fifteen years.  (I have other still-unread books I've owned longer.)  It's a well-known book, collecting work by Indian and non-Indian writers, most but not all of them academics, and it's often cited in other works, so it's long past time I read it myself.  So far it's interesting, but of course I still argue with some of the writers' assumptions.

Co-editor Sabine Lang's "Various Kinds of Two-Spirit People: Gender Variance and Homosexuality in Native American Communities," for example, draws on the literature and on Lang's own fieldwork.  She begins by disavowing the term "berdache", which was long used by anthropologists to refer to "alteratively gendered people of either sex" in favor of "two-spirit," and to her credit she announces her intention, that whenever "talking about gender variance in a particular tribe, the terms existing in that tribe will be used" (100).

Lang points out that, though "the role of womanly, two-spirit males in Native American cultures (i.e., American Indian and Inuit-Eskimo) has long been viewed as institutionalized (male) homosexuality", "quite a number of reports mention 'berdache' males living with women or who had sexual relationships with women," and these reports have "been downplayed or overlooked by most writers."  She reminds the reader that "(to my knowledge) most anthropologists who collected data on the lives and sexual relationships of 'berdaches' never talked to a two-spirit person but interviewed members of a given tribe who were knowledgeable as far as their tribe's culture was concerned and were willing to cooperate" (102).  (This failure to talk to two-spirit Indians was already changing by the time Two-Spirit People was published in the 1990s: Lang, Will Roscoe, Sue-Ellen Jacobs and other anthropologists met and interviewed two-spirit people.)

So Lang argues, for good reasons, that
the traditional two-spirit roles ... are apparently not defined in terms of sexual preference; they are defined in terms of gender according to the way a given Native American culture constructs gender and gender roles, as well as appropriate sexual behavior relating to those roles.  Cultural constructions of gender and gender roles varied, and still vary, widely in Native American cultures given the diversity among these cultures. ...

Thus, in many native American cultures there existed -- and in a number of instances still exists -- three or four genders: women, men, two-spirit/womanly males, and, less frequently, two-spirit/manly females.  In each Native American culture that acknowledges multiple genders there also exist specific words to refer to people who are of a gender other than woman or man. ...

These terms do not refer to sexual behavior even though certain kinds of sexual behavior may be considered sexual behavior may be considered culturally appropriate for an individual belonging to any gender category [103].
This is all good, and should be known by people of varying backgrounds who still, to this day, equate gender variance among American Indians with homosexuality or gayness, or who talk as though all Indian cultures had the same pan-Indian concept of two-spirit.  ("Two-spirit" is a new word, coined around 1990 by Native American sex/gender variant activists as a substitute for berdache.  Like any such blanket term, it has an unfortunate tendency in use to erase historical and cultural differences.)  But there are problems.

Lang implicitly contrasts the various two-spirit "roles" with other constructions of gender and erotic variance, especially "homosexual," "gay," and "lesbian."  But many of the terms used by European Americans to refer to people who relate erotically to others of their own sex do not "refer to sexual behavior" either.  "Gay" and "lesbian," most obviously, but also older terms popular and clinical: "invert," "pansy," "dyke," "fairy," even "queer."  The older terms especially are based on gendered behavior first, with erotic behavior at most implied, just as Lang says of in the Native American terms she lists.  The pansy or fairy was characterized as an effeminate man, given to certain styles of dress (including but not limited to cross-dressing) with a tendency to work in certain occupations (hair-dresser, interior decoration, shop clerk, hairdresser, etc.) and a tendency to want to be penetrated by a "normal" male.  The dyke is a masculine woman, characterized by her manner of dress and her hairstyle, likely to work in male-associated jobs like truck-driving, and drawn to feminine women.  Even the cliched description of the invert, the soul of a woman in the body of a man, refers primarily to gender and not to sexual behavior, and has spiritual connotations not so different from those that supposedly characterize the two-spirit.

So, when Lang goes on to say that
In Western culture, a homosexual relationship is defined as being between two men or two women -- two individuals who are of the same sex and the same gender [104]
-- she's flat wrong.  Her use of the blind passive ("is defined as") is a giveaway: Just who is doing the defining?  I'd really like to know.  Just about the only people I know who define homosexuality in these terms are Western or Western-trained academics like Lang, and they do so solely to distance themselves from that definition.  She can't mean biologists or psychologists, since they overwhelmingly conceptualize homosexuality in terms of inversion.  At the grass-roots level, most American gay people I know of agree that there's some kind of connection between homosexuality and inversion.  The respectability-minded gay people I call Homo-Americans, when they're in public-relations mode, insist that we are and should be gender conformists -- but when they want to raise money for their organizations, they put on drag shows.  And remember the gay male clone who told the gay sociologist Martin Levine, "Darling, beneath all this butch drag, we are still girls."  So it's hard to be sure, when some avowedly manly gay men throw tantrums over figure skaters, that the same guys don't have a Dolly Parton costume in their closets for those private moments, or enjoy lip-synching with Dianna Agron.  William S. Burroughs "was notoriously dismissive of pansies, fags, and swish" and once raved to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac that "All complete swish fairies should be killed, not as traitors to the cause of queerness, but for selling out the human race to the forces of negation and death"**  -- but in the 1980s documentary Burroughs Allen Ginsberg affably reminisced with Old Bull Burroughs about their youthful drag personae; I believe Burroughs was The Countess.  But maybe he wasn't a complete swish fairy.

So what could Lang have meant?  My point is not that homosexuality really, essentially does equal inversion, it's that there is no such thing as the Western definition of homosexuality: there are several, and they coexist, however uneasily.  But the inversion model is prominent among them, and probably dominant (or hegemonic, as they say).

A few pages later, Lang writes,
Because most anthropological researchers classified relationships between two-spirit males and men and two-spirit females and women as homosexual, when doing fieldwork in North American cultures they failed to look for relationships involving two persons of the same sex and the same gender.  Thus, hardly anything is known about the way homosexual relations in the Western sense were seen in Native American cultures at a time when two-spirit roles were still largely intact and about concepts of homosexuality that may have existed in American Indian cultures before the massive impact of Western influences.  It seems, however, that there was generally no way to acknowledge a sexual relationship between two men formally, or between two women formally, the way various kinds of heterogender relationships (woman and man, male two-spirit and man, or female two-spirit and woman) were acknowledged formally [106-7].
If non-Indian anthropologists defined homosexuality as sex between two individuals of the same sex and same gender, then why did they classify relationships between a two-spirit male and a social man as "homosexual"?  On Lang's assumptions, they should have regarded it as something totally foreign to their culture, looked (apparently in vain) for homogender homosexuality, and concluded that there was no "homosexuality" in American Indian cultures.  Instead, Lang says, they looked at two-spirits and classified them as "homosexual."  This makes no sense, on Lang's assumptions.  It makes plenty of sense, however, if we recognize that the dominant "Western" model of The Homosexual was the invert, and the model of "homosexual" relationships was heterogender.  Indeed, Will Roscoe has shown*** that the doctors who constructed the European medical model of inversion drew on American Indian "berdaches" as one of their historical inspirations.

Suddenly Lang is concerned to discover evidence of homogender homoeroticism among the Indians.  I think it is a safe bet that social males did sometimes have sex with one another and even form enduring bonds with one another, as did social females.  This also happened in the West despite the dominance of the inversion model.  But homogender relations were, as Lang admits, rendered invisible by a conceptual model that refused to admit their existence, and other writers in Two-Spirit People offer evidence that homogender sex was usually proscribed among the Indians, whether between social males/females or between same-gender two-spirits.

Lang herself writes that among the Shoshoni, "The only sexual relationship that is considered inappropriate is between two taina wa'ippe [i.e., two-spirits].  Such a relationship seems to be viewed as incestuous because at least male taina wa'ippe regard each other as 'sisters'" (106).  But the rejection of sexual relations between inverts is worldwide, with terms like "incest," "lesbianism," and even "cannibalism" used to express their abhorrence of the very idea.  Annick Prieur reports in her study of Mexico City vestidas that she has "also heard jotas comment with disgust at the sight of two mustache-wearing men kissing each other, seeing it as something "abnormal." ****  Yet Mexico is a "Western" culture.

Despite all the evidence of variety and difference within cultures, even dissident anthropologists and sociologists have an amazingly difficult time recognizing that societies aren't uniform or monolithic.  I don't know what to do about this resistance, but it's a problem: it distorts not only their understanding of other cultures, but of their own.


* Edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

** Quoted in Barry Reay, New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America (Manchester, 2010), 171-2.

*** In Roscoe, "Was We'Wha a Homosexual? Native American Survivance and the Two-Spirit Tradition," GLQ (1995) 2(3), 193-235, esp. 215.

**** Annick Prieur, Mema's House, Mexico City: On Transvestites, Queens, and Machos (Chicago, 1998), 149.

Monday, October 21, 2013

From the WTF Department

From a new post at the Atlantic:
Perhaps most important for Republicans judging [Rand] Paul's 2016 viability and his potential to turn enthusiastic fans at rallies into GOP votes at the polls is this: At a time when Americans despise the notion of more foreign entanglements, he has somehow made President Obama and his Democrats look like interventionist hawks. "The thing that could transform our country and transform the youth vote and transform a lot of votes would be if, all of a sudden, the Democrats become the party of war. I think they really essentially are now," Paul said in an interview. Young people "fight all the wars," he said, and might look to the GOP "if there were a Republican Party that were more reluctant to go to war."
The sentence I put into boldface just doesn't parse.  It's President Obama and his Democrats, of course, who have made themselves look like interventionist hawks, by being interventionist hawks.  Rand Paul isn't engaging in some mysterious political sleight-of-hand for Paul to make them "look like" it.  Where he falls down is in fantasizing that there could be a Republican party that was more reluctant to go to war.  But both parties have a long history of warmongering; there's no realistic likelihood that either will break with tradition.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Real Jesuses Don't Sparkle

My friend the ambivalent Obama supporter linked to an amusing article on Rick Warren, the right-wing antigay Christian minister whom Obama invited to give the invocation at his first inauguration.  Warren offended a lot of Asian-American Christians by posting
a photo of a Red Guard, the young Communist cadres that policed their communities during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. The poster showed a smiling, rosy-cheeked young woman in the drab gray uniform the Red Guard typically wore.

His post (since taken down) said "The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day."
Many Asian-American evangelicals "were not amused," and after first berating them on his Facebook page ("It's a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really shouldn't be following me!"), Warren issued a patently insincere, pro forma apology -- you know the drill:
"If you were hurt, upset, offended or distressed by my insensitivity I am truly sorry," he wrote. "May God richly bless you."
I commented that if Warren wants to be funny, he should have a poster showing Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary (maybe a screengrab from Mel Gibson's torture-porn movie) with the same kind of caption -- "One of our volunteers after a typical day." I wonder how well that would go over with his constituency.

But maybe it would go over well: Christians are supposed to take up their cross and follow Jesus. Besides, Warren's style of Christianity is the kind that comes up with slogans like "Jesus loves you so much it hurts" or "This Blood's for you."  My friend, who's a serious Christian, admitted that I'd made him laugh.

Then today I decided to see what Rod Dreher has been up to at The American Conservative, and lo, he had just posted "Jesus Means Business," based on another Christian blogger's post about popular contemporary images of Jesus. who called the painting of Jesus in robes shaking hands with an American businessman in a suit "the most awkward Jesus painting I've ever seen."  Dreher was embarrassed by it too, though I can't see how it's more disturbing than many other more respectable images of his Lord.

Some commenters at both sites lamented the depiction of Jesus as a "white" northern European, a complaint which has become a cliche by now.  I'm not sure we really know what first-century Galilean Jews looked like; it's a mistake to assume that they look like modern Palestinians.  Since no one has any idea what the historical Jesus looked like, it's not surprising that people projected their own assumptions about him into the images they created.  So the earliest known image of Jesus, from Syria around 235, shows Jesus as a beardless Roman youth.  This was a convention in the catacombs too.  But there are pictures almost as old that give Jesus a beard.  There evidently wasn't a standard image then, and there was considerable opposition in the church leadership to any images of Jesus at all.  Worrying about how Jesus should be depicted begins to resemble the "Real Vampires Don't Sparkle" hissyfits that some have indulged since the success of the Twilight series.

Are these images any more wrong than, say, Black Jesus?  For example, do hipster-wannabe youth ministers write snarky blog posts about depictions of Jesus as a sub-Saharan African?  I'm not particularly interested in the popular question of whether there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth, but the Jesus of Christianity is a largely imaginary character, barely defined even by the gospel accounts, even among "traditionalist" Christians.  It's not the Jesus of first-century Galilee whom Christians worship, it's the risen and exalted Christ, who sits in the heavens at his Father's right hand, but (behold) is with his faithful followers always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  So, how do people think he should be depicted?

Someone like Rod Dreher, or even the presumably somewhat less "traditionalist" Zach of The American Jesus, can hardly object to contemporary Christians believing that Jesus Lives and is with those who believe in him, no matter where they are, no matter what they're doing.  They're embarrassed by the painting that shows the conventional (white, long-haired, bearded, robed) Jesus sitting in the Garden of Eden with a naked, nipple-less Adam and Eve, and sure, it takes a heart of stone not to giggle at that one.  But as one of Zach's commenters patiently explained, the picture is based on the orthodox, Biblical teaching that Jesus, the Word of God, always existed, and participated in the Creation (John 1:1-4).  Maybe it is seeing that sublime theological doctrine naively literalized that embarrasses them; but how are these pictures any worse than, say, conventional depictions of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which literalize another tangled metaphor from the gospel of John?  Jesus may or may not have been a carpenter (the Greek word usually translated that way, I gather, is not so specific), but he doesn't seem ever to have been a shepherd.  I suppose it's one thing to see Jesus anachronized as a Renaissance European, and another to see that same Jesus in a twenty-first century corporate office or hospital room, let alone preparing for a ménage à trois in Eden.

Maybe their embarrassment arises also from the shock of seeing themselves as others might see them: the difference between a more sophisticated (so he likes to think) Christian and the more naive believers who are willing to shell out $1500 for a painting of Jesus in the executive suite is a difference of degree rather than of kind.  It's easy to laugh at these pictures, but what if you begin to suspect that some of your settled beliefs are just as laughable to someone else?  One remedy, I suppose, would be a thoroughgoing iconoclasm, refusing to tolerate any images of God or Jesus at all, but it's a bit late for that.  Another might be to fall back on the New Testament teaching that of course the worldly will laugh at Christians' simple, humble, scandalous beliefs; the believer should brush their laughter aside, knowing that their repayment awaits them in Hell.  But that would imply that Dreher and Zach and others who laugh at these pictures are worldly too, siding with the heathen, and their own salvation might be in doubt.

I wonder how literally the people who like (and buy) these pictures really take them.  Probably they do believe literally that Jesus is with them, some of the time anyway, even if they can't feel his presence.  And how else are you going to show that belief visually, if not by taking the conventional image of Jesus and plopping him down in the present, robes and beard and long hair and all?  Once again, it seems to me, it's the antiliteralists, the people who'd insist on a non-literal approach to the Bible, who are taking these pictures more literally than they were intended.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Dating Plan for Broadening Your Horizons

The primary reason I went to San Francisco in August was to attend another meeting of the Gay Men's Salon.  This session, the third I've attended, was on race, racism, and diversity in the gay community.  About forty men attended, and the discussion was wonderful.  It's a credit to the organizers that they were able to structure it so as to give people a chance to speak seriously about a touchy subject.  This was the second meeting dedicated to this topic, and it looks like there will be more.

There was a divide between those who thought of the problem in terms of individuals -- fear, ignorance, resistance to change, avoidance of difference -- and those who thought in terms of systems.  I tend to stress the latter myself, but I recognize that they're ultimately inseparable.  Among the many problems we touched on was the question of "interracial dating" -- not only between whites and non-whites, as one participant pointed out, but between different groups of non-whites.  This is certainly an important matter, especially in a multiracial city like San Francisco, and the discussion was at its best when we were talking about the problem, telling each other our experiences, and listening to each other.  Since I know I'm prone to talk too much, I worked hard to listen to the other men in my subgroup, and I learned a lot, some of it profoundly depressing; maybe I don't want to move to San Francisco after all.

But it bothered me toward the end of the meeting, during the concluding summaries, that some of the other discussants put dating at the forefront of ways to deal with racism.  A couple of people urged everyone to date outside your comfort zone, learn to accept difference, broaden your horizons, and so on.  This was the gospel they thought we should carry to the world outside the discussion group.  (Since most of the men present were, almost by definition, already aware of racism as a problem in American society -- including gay male San Francisco society -- and had come to this meeting specifically to move outside our comfort zones, this advice was mainly preaching to the choir.)

I've heard this kind of advice before, and maybe, when I was much younger, might have given it myself.  But some of the men who offered it last night were my age and older.  Do we really want someone to date us in order to broaden his horizons?  Hi, I'm going out with you as part of my personal journey to become a better person by accepting change, overcoming my fear, and rubbing up against difference; so please hold still for a few minutes while I suppress my discomfort enough to rub up against your difference...  Many of us -- gay white men, as well as people of color -- have had the experience of being used by others to educate themselves, not to mention showing others how evolved and enlightened they were: See? I have homosexual / Negro / Oriental friends, I am not narrow-minded and prejudiced.  See how exotic / graceful / witty they are!  This is an old problem that has been worked over for at least a century.  (I recently read the first volume of the Library of America set of Harlem Renaissance Novels, and got to see white allies of the Negro again through the eyes of their proteges.)

I have mixed feelings about being used like this; in some ways it bothers me less now than it did when I was younger.  It is one way of getting through barriers that otherwise might remain in place.  We all need education, gay people as well as straight, and those who are willing ought to do the educating.  But while friendship, dating, romance, sex, and so on are helpful, they aren't enough.  You also need to educate yourself.  One advantage of being a reader, promiscuous or not, is that you can learn a lot and prep yourself for dealing with real people without making a fool of yourself too much.  You can learn the history, and Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog posts at the Atlantic are an easy, accessible, excellent source for that as he shares his reading on American race history with his readers.  This post is a good place to start; then maybe this one.  (I don't know of anyone who's doing this kind of writing about gay people.  Maybe I should try.) You can learn in advance what not to say, what ten greatest well-meaning liberal faux pas to avoid.  If you're lucky enough to have a friend or friendly acquaintance who's willing to educate you, fine, but it's only considerate not to push their indulgence too far.

Of course, people who see interracial romance as one path to the end of racism mean well.  They surely don't mean (do they?) that we should grit our teeth, maybe take some Xanax, and spend a lousy evening trampling on each other's (metaphorical) toes from clumsiness and resentment at having to do this.  It doesn't have to be this way.  The second man I dated was African-American.  (The first, a white boy from deepest Southern Indiana, was almost as different from me as his successor.)  I didn't respond to his overtures to broaden my horizons, but because he was beautiful and he wanted me.  We saw each other several times in my first year away at college, but we never got to know each other all that well; my fault primarily, or if not I'm willing to take all the responsibility.  But I didn't see it as his responsibility to teach me anything (except to kiss, which he did very well).  If he had talked about it, I'd have listened -- despite my own love of talking, I'm a good and interested listener -- but I don't remember it ever coming up.  When I've dated Asian men, they sometimes asked me "Do you like Oriental men?", but it seemed more a flirtatious than a serious question, since I was after all dating them.

But this is why I insist that people have the right to date, and have sex with, and have relationships, those people they want.  Desire isn't rational.  As I've said before, no one has to have a "good" (rational?) reason not to want to have sex with me, nor do I have to have a "good" reason not to want to have sex with someone else.  But this doesn't excuse bigotry.  I've had weird discussions with gay men who would attack, for example, "stereotypical" men in the most hostile, even bigoted terms.  When I or someone else called them on it, they would say hypocritically that they were sorry, they just weren't attracted to such men.  That wasn't the problem, however, because what they'd been saying up to that point had been more about attacking such men's mere existence.

The other side of this is what's often referred to as "fetishizing" race.  Yeah, it happens, but it happens in all directions, intraracially as well as interracially.  (Tom of Finland's drawings are the visual equivalent.)  People often talk in fetishlike terms about the people they find attractive and romantic.  Clearly I'm not the only person who finds this practice unappealing, but a lot of people use it to excite themselves and, hopefully, the people they're pursuing.  I don't know how often it works, but if it turns a man on to do it, he probably doesn't care much whether it excites the man or woman he's courting.  On the other hand, I presume it works sometimes; maybe some people are excited by that kind of approach, or maybe they simply figure that someone who uses it is horny, easy, and easily disposable afterwards.

For example, in the mid-1990s a gay Asian-American academic quoted this e-mail message he'd received "from a self-described 'rice queen'":
Hi, they say opposites attract, so I am looking for an unabashed snow queen with nice patties!  To rest upon my snowey [sic] slopes ... I have written to over fifteen Asians on this BBS but none of them has replied.  Can you give me some helpful hints?  Don't worry, I can take critisisms [sic].*
When I showed this note to a white heterosexual female friend, she snorted, "They should see what men say to women!"  As I already said, such language is common in human courtship rituals and discourse about sexuality, interracial and intraracial. When Terrance Dean and E. Lynn Harris write about black men who desire other black men, the style is similar, or at any rate analogous.  Gay male bottoms fetishize gay male tops, lesbian femmes fetishize themselves, black men fetishize black women, and gay Asian-American men fetishize "white knights" until they decide to become "sticky rice" and fetishize other Asian men. (Imagine someone asking you "Are you sticky?" as a conversational opener.)  Something of the same kind must have been involved in classical Asian male homosexualities, such as the cult of cross-dressed boy actors in Japan and imperial China: both countries produced moist verse celebrating the charms of boys in drag.  And the clumsy, offensive come-on is a staple of heterosexual comedy.

Notice that the "rice queen" acknowledged that his approach wasn't successful: "over fifteen Asians" had already ignored his overtures.  Even leaving politics out of it, you'd think that a minimally sentient adult would figure out that his line wasn't working.  If you want something from someone -- access to his or her body or mind, say -- isn't it obviously prudent to try to treat them with respect and interest, even if you have to fake it?  Evidently not, though the rice queen may have thought he was behaving respectfully.  But so much of human courtship behavior seems to be based on aggression and insult, on the assumption that a prospective partner must be tricked or harassed into complying.  ("You've got something I want, therefore I hate you, so you should give it to me.")

The recipient of the rice queen's missive goes on:
Why are Asian males the subject of desire of so-called rice queens?  A Japanese American I met on the board wrote in his short-lived print newsletter, Daisuki-Men, that there are three reasons: China Doll syndrome (i.e., Asian males are seen as feminine); perception that Asians are submissive; and the rice queens' obsession with things Asian (as indicated by decorating their residences with Asian knock knacks).
As usual in complaints about the rice queen phenomenon, the possibility that desire plays a role -- that Asian men might be sexually attractive to Caucasian men -- isn't considered.  The gay Asian men I've known uniformly and derisively dismiss the notion that rice queens are all tops looking to penetrate submissive Asian males.  Even Richard Fung, the author of a widely circulated paper on images of Asian men in gay pornography, admitted that when he talked with other gay Asian men "of what actually happened when we had sex with white men", they discovered "that we don’t play out that [submissive] role and are very rarely asked to." **  There's a lot of racism and homophobia in this discourse: racism, in the (barely) unspoken assumption that people of different races could not possibly desire each other sincerely, but only work out scenarios of dominance and submission between them; homophobia, in the idea that all sex between males involves the abjection of the receptive partner by the insertive one.  There's an obvious contradiction here between the corollary that gay men should stick to their own "race," and the result that Asian men will then be degrading each other sexually instead of being degraded by white men. 

I haven't seen as much discussion of the "rice queen" in the past few years.  I suspect that as a generation of American-born Asian gay men has come of age, they've found their way into gay communities of their age peers, and struggled to mainstream themselves.  That doesn't mean racism isn't still a problem for them, but it does mean there are more of them in the community, so they're less of an exotic anomaly there, and being culturally American they're a bit harder to stereotype.  But I'm speculating here, from too little data.

A reader of this blog has asked me to write about interracial dating, especially between Asian and Caucasian men, and I've put it off partly because it's such a big subject on the one hand, and seems like a no-brainer on the other: of course people of different "races" should date each other if they want to.  Culture is a bigger obstacle to getting along, as well as different experiences with racism.  If a relationship lasts, the partners surely will learn from each other, but I don't know if that's a good reason to get involved in the first place.  On the other hand, people don't have to date interracially if they don't want to either.  This post isn't my official Interracial Dating post, though; I hope to write that before too much longer.

The queer anarchist writer Paul Goodman wrote forty-odd years ago:
I recall when Growing Up Absurd having had a number of glowing reviews, finally one irritated critic, Alfred Kazin, darkly hinted that I wrote about my Puerto Rican delinquents because I was queer for them.  Naturally.  How could I write a perceptive book if I didn't pay attention, and why should I pay attention to something unless it interested me?  The motivation of most sociology, whatever it is, tends to produce worse books.***
I loved this when I first read it, just as I loved the passage from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus where one character informs another that interest is a greater emotion than love.  I was young and naive then.  Later I learned that sexual desire doesn't necessarily inspire interest in its objects: for many people it seems to block interest, as the lover plugs the beloved into his or her fantasies.  Besides, interest can stand alone, without Eros to drive it.  There's always friendship, for example, and neighborliness.  I think that interest in the experiences of other people, without an eye toward possible rewards for ourselves, would go a long way toward ameliorating and even eradicating racism in America, but it must include intellectual interest and curiosity, not just the sexual or romantic varieties.  That also means recognizing that being nice to each other, and interested in each other, while good things in themselves, won't eliminate the systematic institutional racism that permeates American society and does so much harm.

* Daniel C. Tsang, "Notes on Queer 'N' Asian Virtual Sex," in Russell Leong (ed.), Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience (Routledge, 1996), p. 159.

** Richard Fung, “Looking for My Penis.” In Bad Object Choices (ed), How Do I Look?: queer film and video (Seattle: Bay Press, 1991). Reprinted in Russell Leong (ed.), Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience (Routledge, 1996), where this quotation appears on p.  194.  Fung's paper is cited and his analysis of the depiction of Asian men in gay North American pornography is quoted in virtually everything I've read about gay Asians, but this passage, which undercuts his argument, is never quoted.  I'll say more about that if I ever finish my big post on the subject.

*** Paul Goodman, "Memoirs of an Ancient Activist," originally published in WIN magazine in 1969 and reprinted in varying versions over the years.  I quote the version in Len Richmond and Gary Noguera (eds.), The Gay Liberation Book (Ramparts Press, 1973), 28-29.  I later tracked down Kazin's review of Growing Up Absurd, curious to see what "darkly hinting" looked like, but I can't find any such insinuation, either in the original magazine review or in the book republication.

It Starts Earlier Every Year!

It's not even Halloween yet, and this meme turned up on my news feed tonight.  My first reaction was to comment "What do you mean 'we,' paleface?"  The friend who posted it replied:
Do we really need to be politically correct all the time. Christmas has always been called Christmas, to remind you of Christ birth (Christ-mas). Now people want to say, "Happy holidays". You could say that of every holiday! I want to be politically correct with relationship of women in "men's" fields. Firefighter, and such but fisherman, policeman, and some others have not changed.
I replied:
That's what I was going to ask you, because this meme is Political Correctness run amok.

"Christmas" has not disappeared, nor is it threatened by "Happy Holidays." If there's an American church that refers to December 25 as "Holiday" and never calls it "Christmas," I'd be interested in knowing about it.

"Happy Holidays" has nothing to do with "political correctness." It's about good manners, and living in the real world, and the real America, where not everybody is a Christian. Since there are several holidays at the end of December -- Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, New Year's Eve -- "Happy Holidays" raises the odds that the person addressed will be celebrating at least one of them. If not, they'll probably at least be getting a holiday or two from work. Christmas wasn't always an important Christian holiday, and for many Christians it still isn't. For Orthodox Christians, Epiphany (January 6) is at least as important.

I'm not offended when someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas" (or at least I didn't used to be, which I'll explain a little later). Nor are most non-Christians offended. We take the kind thought behind the wish, and accept it. But it's also a kind thought when someone wishes us "Happy Holidays" and doesn't assume that we're Christians. It caught on for this reason, but also for good business reasons: I'm not offended when a cashier wishes me "Merry Christmas," but I'm pleased when they wish me "Happy Holidays." I know it isn't their decision, but their employer's, who doesn't want to alienate customers and wants to make money from everybody.

On the other hand, I have sometimes thanked clerks and cashiers for saying "Happy Holidays" to me, and asked them to pass my thanks on to their bosses, because it takes a little bit of courage nowadays to say "Happy Holidays" now that the choice has been turned into a battle in the Culture Wars. The bloated and inflamed assholes who invented the War on Christmas have tried to make it a political issue whether to say one or the other. When someone wishes me "Merry Christmas," I usually can't tell whether they genuinely mean well or are puffed up with thinking about how they're better than people who say "Happy Holidays," so I give them the benefit of the doubt. It would be as stupid of me to throw a tantrum over "Merry Christmas" as it is when Bill O'Reilly's shock troops have a hissyfit over "Happy Holidays." But when someone makes it explicit that they are saying "Merry Christmas" as part of the right-wing Republican Christian fundamentalist jihad against everyone who isn't a right-wing Republican Christian fundamentalist, of course I give them a hard time. So go ahead, post memes like this if you like -- it's a free country -- but think for a minute about the message you're sending about yourself. And thanks for getting the War on Christmas Season off to an early start!

P.S. It's kind of funny that despite the BS -- and it is BS -- about the importance of making it clear that Christmas is about Christ, this meme uses a picture of Santa Claus, not of Jesus. Whose birthday is it again?
Soon to come: the first sighting of the traditional "Obama Bans Christmas Trees from the White House" myth.  It just wouldn't feel like Christmas without it!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

When He Was Good He Was a Very, Very Good God, But When He Was Bad ...

I'm nearing the end of Mary Midgley's The Solitary Self, and I'm bothered by her handling of religion.  For example, I mentioned yesterday her invocation of something called the "traditional theological idea of an immanent God."  Later in the book she quotes Charles Kingsley, a contemporary and friend of Darwin: "It is just as noble a conception of Deity to believe that he created primal forms capable of self-development ... as to believe that he required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which he himself had made" (95).  She then comments,
Thus, as Kingsley and many other Christians have looked at it, if God is present, he pervades the whole process of evolution as its creator and is immanent in all of it.  He is not an outside operative, a retired clockmaker or visiting in to adjust the nuts and bolts.
I'm not well acquainted with Kingsley's writings and ideas, so I can only go by what Midgley quotes from him.  But I can't see that Kingsley was referring in that sentence to an "immanent" God, as she claimed.  He seemed rather to have in mind an "outside operative" who wound up the "primal forms" and let them chug along without further intervention.  An immanent deity who "pervades the whole process of evolution as its creator" would be more like another theological concept of god, as the creator and sustainer of the world.  That would perhaps be compatible with Darwinian theory, just as it's possible in principle to think of natural disasters both as "acts of God" and as events describable and explainable by the physical sciences, but Midgley seems to have things exactly wrong.  The notion of god as "wholly other", an outside operative as it were, is also part of the "traditional theological idea" Midgley referred to -- which isn't really a single idea but numerous ones.

Midgley continues:
There should not, then, really have been a serious clash here.  The only difficulty -- and of course it has proved a serious one -- is that it means the biblical account of creation cannot be taken literally.

That news ought not really to have shocked Christendom.  As it happened, the Church Fathers, notably Augustine, had very early seen the need to treat some biblical stories as metaphors or allegories, and had often advised this.  Origen pointed out that the sun and moon could not literally have been created "on the third day," because there could have been no days before they were present.  This, he said, did not matter because the symbolic meaning was always the real message.  Thus the Genesis story simply describes the total dependence of all creatures on a ruling benevolent spirit and does this through a myth: an imaginative vision that is the most appropriate way of bringing such vast and mystifying facts within human comprehension.  The details of the story are merely shaped to make this central point clear. 
Since, however, the truth of the symbolic story was so important, people naturally often did assume that biblical stories were factually true as well ...
I can't tell where Augustine leaves off and Midgley begins in this passage, but it isn't philosophy, it's apologetics -- and fundamentalist apologetics at that.  (Bear in mind that fundamentalists do not 'take the Bible literally' -- they take it very figuratively in order to preserve its inerrancy.)

Where to begin?  Well, allegorical readings of scripture began earlier than the Church Fathers.  Apocalyptic books often involved allegorical visions which were decoded for the seers by heavenly guides.  Jesus gives his inner circle of disciples an allegorical interpretation of one of his own parables in the fourth chapter of Mark's gospel; I doubt it's authentic, but it's at least as old as the gospel itself (around 70 AD).  In chapter 4 of Paul's letter to the Galatians, centuries before Augustine, he wrote:
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, 24 which things are symbolic. For these are the[d] two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar— 25 for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children— 26 but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.
This is some rather fancy footwork: Paul equates Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, with Judaism ("Jerusalem, which now is, and is in bondage with her children"), and Sara, the mother of Isaac, with the followers of Jesus, dwellers in "the Jerusalem above [which] is free".  This is doubly ironic since in Galatians Paul was not addressing Jewish Christians, but Gentile converts who were, he insisted, free from the law of Moses.  I bring this up as a reminder that allegorical or metaphorical interpretations don't always reveal "the truth of the symbolic story" -- they can be thoroughly dishonest.  Bear in mind that this allegorical reading is not marginal but canonical, in a New Testament document of crucial importance for Christian theology.  (It's also typical of New Testament use of the Hebrew Bible, in yanking passages out of their original context and giving them wildly inapt readings.)

Further, allegorical, typological and other non-literal forms of interpretation weren't applied only to certain biblical passages: they could be applied to everything in the Bible, and to non-Biblical writings besides. After all, a book breathed by God himself must have many layers of meaning.  Jewish and Christian interpreters borrowed the approach from philosophical interpreters of Homer.  Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Paul, also applied it to the Hebrew Bible, with very different results of course.  Allegorical and other non-literal readings don't uncover the "true" meaning encoded in a text: they allow the interpreter to impose his own agenda on the text -- as Walter Kaufmann put it, to read their ideas into a text and get them back endowed with authority.

As for "myth," that's a word with many different meanings too, even on the literal level.  No one knows what the writer (or writers) of Genesis 1 and 2 thought their work meant, but the interpretation Midgley gives -- "the total dependence of all creatures on a ruling benevolent spirit" -- isn't even reductive, it's platitudinous.  She also forgets (surely she must know) that there are two different creation stories in Genesis, with different sequences of creative acts and, therefore, presumably different meanings.  She also knows that myths, though powerful, aren't necessarily true or valid, as when she refers to "social atomism" as "the prevailing myth of the time" (116).  Genesis 1 and 2 might have been the prevailing myths of their time, but we don't know what they were meant to convey except in very broad outline.

Nor can the god of Genesis 1 and 2 (or the rest of the Bible) be categorized as an "immanent" deity who created the world, set evolution in motion, and then sat back to watch it play out. Yahweh is, as many modern theologians have said, a god who "acts in history."  He isn't immanent, he sits on a throne in the heavens, watching his creations go through our paces; but sometimes he comes down to walk in a garden, or to hang out in the mountains and flash his behind at his prophets. Whatever the meaning of such mythology, it can't be reduced to Midgley's account without severe violence to the texts. Midgley's reading requires her to take the first chapters of Genesis out of their literary context and ignore the larger narratives.  That's not a matter of not taking the Bible literally, it's using it as a foil for her own agenda.  Midgley is entitled, of course, to hold whatever cockamamie conception of god she wishes; but to read it into the Bible and get it back endowed with authority is intellectually dishonest.  (There are some intriguing similarities between Midgley's position and that of Terry Eagleton, who says that Yahweh is "not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design ... but an artist, and an aesthete to boot," and "[u]nlike George Bush, not an interventionist kind of ruler.")

Midgley refers again to Darwin's rejection of "the rather simple Christian faith in which he had been brought up, but he never embraced simple, confident atheism either" (93).  She quotes a passage from his autobiography in which he wrote of "the extreme difficulty, or rather impossibility, of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man, ... as the result of blind chance or necessity" and concluded that "I deserve to be called a theist" (93, italics added by Midgley).  It may be that it's impossible to conceive of the universe as uncreated, but that's not evidence that it was created; it may be evidence of the limitations of human thought.  The revivalist New Atheists whom Midgley is attacking presumably accept the Big Bang theory, which many scientists have interpreted as a creation myth to replace Genesis.  (It should be remembered, just in passing, that Genesis wasn't the only creation myth even in antiquity.  There were lots of them, even in the Near East.)  Again, this may be evidence for the human mind's inability to imagine or think about a universe without a beginning, or that came into existence without some kind of impelling force, but it's not evidence for or against any theory.

That condescending bit about "the rather simple Christian faith" in which Darwin was raised is a sore point for me; I'm not sure what symbolic meaning Midgley intends by it.  I don't know about Darwin's upbringing -- it's time to read some biographies! -- but was nineteenth-century Anglican Christianity really that simple?  What really annoys me is the apparent implication that a more complex or sophisticated Christian faith would have been superior.  Midgley's own contortions to produce a more sophisticated reading of Genesis don't inspire any confidence in me, at least.  And the labyrinthine complications of academic theology are not obviously better than the simplicities of a little church in the glen.  The former Pope Benedict's version of Christianity, for example, is surely sophisticated enough to satisfy even Mary Midgley, but it's not a religion that I feel obliged to respect on that account, or any other.  It allowed him to participate in the cover-up of sexually predatory clergy, while attacking gay people and feminists, and (as Grand Inquisitor under John Paul II) siding with military dictatorships against their "simple" people.  No, sophistication is not desirable in itself.

My own atheism is "simple", in that it starts by not believing in gods: not by denying their existence, but by requiring theists to explain what they mean by gods in the first place, and to give good reasons for believing in their existence in the second.  This starting point makes no assertions about the origins of the universe, or the nature of morality, or the uniqueness (or not) of human beings in relation to other animals.  The world is, I agree, mysterious, and I'm very aware of my ignorance about most important questions.  Midgley dismisses at one point those people who use "agnostic" as a euphemism for atheists, but what I mostly see are self-identified agnostics who use agnosticism as an excuse to buy into "spiritual" movements and teachings that they'd sneer at if they were associated with Christianity, but can accept in the exotic guise of "Eastern" or "indigenous" philosophies.  I don't see much humility in such people, or for that matter in many mainstream religious believers.  The function, if not the intention, of their "faiths" is to eliminate mystery: they always seem to have answers for every difficult question -- the inspirational memes that clog the Internet are full of cheap, easy platitudes.  Whatever floats their boat, but it doesn't work for me, and I wonder how well it really works for them.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Meaning?

I knew I shouldn't have started reading a nonfiction book today!  I got bogged down taking notes and thinking about writing a blog post, instead of finishing this fairly short book and moving on to some of the others that are piled up around the apartment.

The book is The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene (Acumen Publishing, 2010) by the philosopher Mary Midgley.  I was thinking about the online dispute about atheism I'd joined on Facebook the other day, so I began looking up some useful resources, and Midgley came to mind.  I hadn't read anything new by her in some time, so I decided to see if she'd published anything recently.  She is, after all, ninety-six years old now, but she's gone on writing.

Richard Dawkins has long been one of her targets, and one reason I like Midgley is that she once provoked him into yammering that she was mean to him: her "highly intemperate and vicious paper" was "hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic."  I'd say that Dawkins needs to get out more, but of course the irony lies in his own attack-dog manner: he loves to dish it out but he can't take it.

At any rate, The Solitary Self is a brief discussion of the importance of sociability in nature, and in particular among human beings.  Midgley accepts Darwinian evolution, but holds that Darwin didn't imagine all life as engaged in cutthroat competition: he recognized that cooperation was at least as important as competition, but this aspect of his theorizing got much less attention as natural selection came to be thought of as the sole driver of change in species.

Maybe I'm jumping ahead, but I was struck by Midgley's remarks in the book's introduction that she will begin by "turn[ing] to the vast topic of cosmic meaning":
Dawkins, Peter Atkins and others present the claim that the universe is meaningless as something factual, scientific and, more specifically, Darwinian.  Their ground for considering the biosphere -- or sometimes the whole cosmos -- to be meaningless is that it is ruled by natural selection, which they present as simply a form of chance or, as Jacques Monod put it, a lottery.  From this they conclude, as Steven Weinberg did at the end of The First Three Minutes, that "this is an overwhelmingly hostile universe ... The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless" ...

Darwin, however, made no such claim.  Although he abandoned the rather naive Christianity of his childhood, he remained deeply impressed by cosmic order and still saw that order as akin to mind.  Questions about the transcendent still struck him not as meaningless, but as genuinely mysterious.  He did not think we could expect certainty about them.  And, of course, this view fits well with the thought that our faculties have largely been evolved for more modest uses.

But his tentative attitude also fits well with that of many physicists today who are struck by the coincidences that are emerging in the cosmic order: quite specific arrangements, like the cosmological constant, for which no reason can be given.  .. Randomness is not, after all, something that could ever be scientifically established.  Taking it for granted it is more a matter of temperament and intellectual fashion than of reasoning [11f].
I don't think I consider it "factual" that the universe is meaningless.  I do think that I'd need pretty good reasons to accept any meaning that someone dreams up and offers.  Walter Kaufmann talked about what he called the exegetical fallacy, which consists of reading one's own ideas into a text and getting them back endowed with the text's authority; I think this fallacy is also at work when people claim to have found "meaning" in the universe and try to impose it on everyone else, because, like, the Universe told them!  Finding meaning in the universe is like seeing a cloud that looks like an owl: the owl isn't there, it's in our heads.  I don't think the universe's lack of meaning is a problem, though, because there's no reason it should have a meaning, or a purpose, or a point.  Human beings are meaning-makers; we give ourselves meaning, we have purposes.  Where we get them from is an open question, but if a god existed, where would it get meanings and purposes?

What bothered me about this passage was the false opposites.  Randomness is not the opposite of meaning, for example.  But like all opposites, it has meaning only because its opposite (whatever you think it is) exists.  Order relies on disorder; meaning needs meaninglessness.  The universe exists prior to meaning, so in that sense you can reject both claims of meaning and meaninglessness, just as you can reject claims that the universe loves you and that it hates you.  The universe isn't hostile, but neither does it care.  It's not apathetic either, since apathy implies that it could care but doesn't.  There's no reason I know of to assign intention to the universe.  That could change with new knowledge, but for now the burden of argument lies on those who want to ascribe meaning to the world apart from human interests.

Mysteriousness is just fine with me, but again, that says more about us and the limitations of our minds than it says about the universe.  Given the common human tendency to convince ourselves that we know more than we actually do, a becoming humility is in order.

Midgley goes on say:
Thus, in the organic as well as the inorganic world, matter itself seems to contain tendencies to develop in one way rather than another.  No extraneous, engineering God on the seventeenth-century model is needed to make this possible, although the traditional theological idea of an immanent God, pervading and animating the world, is perfectly compatible with it [13].
More false opposites.  Before there was an extraneous, engineering God there was an extraneous craftsman God, making Adam out of dust.  Or an extraneous magician God, creating by declaration: Let there be light, and there was light.  The "traditional theological idea of an immanent God" has its own problems.  It should not be confused with "traditional" ideas of God as a kind of all-powerful person.  A theological, immanent God, it seems to me, is the result of rejecting traditional ideas of deity but wanting to hang on to the name.  I also have this feeling about Process theology, for instance: much of it makes some sense to me, but I see no reason to call the processes it describes "God."  For one thing, it is bound to lead to confusion, not only when trying to talk to philosophical laymen but when philosophers talk to each other.  I've noticed that they tend to equivocate between different conceptions of gods, without realizing that they're doing it.  One of the more egregious leaps of this kind was used by Thomas Aquinas in his proofs for God's existence: "And this," he would conclude, "all men understand to be God."  But they don't, not really, because his philosopher's god was not the god of popular, "traditional" theism.  It seems to me preferable to leave talk of gods out of serious philosophy, if only to avoid this kind of confusion.  I'll consider reintroducing the term provisionally if it serves some useful purpose, but so far I haven't seen any cases where that was true.  The burden of argument, again, lies on the advocate for God-talk.

I think Midgley's remark about "the rather naive Christianity of [Darwin's] youth" also indicates something gone wrong in her discussion.  Whose childhood religion isn't naive?  Midgley certainly knows more than I do about Darwin's life and intellectual development, but what I've read about him indicates that he rejected Christianity and theism pretty thoroughly as an adult.  He didn't adopt a more sophisticated Christianity, whatever that would be.  Though Midgley herself is not a Christian, she reminds me of Richard Seymour in her tendency to cut Christianity too much slack.

Monday, October 14, 2013

We Are All Gay-Married Now

It looks like the same-sex marriage debate is moving into a new phase of misinformation, ignorance of history and other relevant matters, and irrelevance.  Business as usual, in other words, only with different hot buttons and dog whistles plugged into the arguments.  Right now, as many opponents concede that they've lost and it's only a matter of time until we're all gay-married, the question is how much of a threat same-sex marriage poses to religious freedom.

Last week the blogger and Greek Orthodox convert Rod Dreher wrote a post for The American Conservative on just that subject.  The title under which it appeared, "Does Faith = Hate?", was an exercise in bad faith all by itself; probably he's not responsible for the title, but the following content is not better.  It's a somewhat milder, more reflective, less panicky version of what he wrote immediately after the Supreme Court's DOMA decision last June.

Just for fun, though, let me begin by dissecting the rhetorical question in that title.  Does "faith" equal "hate"?  Those are both some rather fraught words.  If "hate" is supposed to mean "opposed to same-sex marriage," then the answer is obviously No, since many religious believers aren't opposed to same-sex marriage.  Some of them are gay.  It would be interesting and possibly fruitful to probe Dreher on this.  Does he deny that pro-gay and gay Christians, say, are Christians?  (If so, he has some common ground with President Obama, who has said [via] that "people of faith", Democrats, and gay people are separate mutually-exclusive groups.)  Any religious conservative who doesn't address that point has some explaining to do, don't you think?

As for "hate," the misuse of that word by liberals is a problem.  You can, of course, simply postulate that any position you disagree with is "hate," but as Bertrand Russell said, postulating has all the advantages of theft over honest toil.  Liberals are also prone to deny that people are entitled to hate in a free society, or that "hate speech" (which they figure they'll define) is protected by the First Amendment; I disagree, but if they were right they'd be in trouble themselves.  But I'll return to this, because antigay religious believers are prone to wail that they're hated, or "demonized," as though they or anyone has a right not to be hated.

So, Dreher begins by quoting the ultra-Catholic opponent of same-sex marriage Maggie Gallagher to the effect that "there is an accelerating awareness that the consequence of marriage equality is going to be extremely negative for traditionalist Christians."  Dreher agrees: "the most important goal at this stage is not to stop gay marriage entirely but to secure as much liberty as possible for dissenting religious and social conservatives while there is still time. To do so requires waking conservatives up to what may happen to them and their religious institutions if current trends continue—and Catholic bishops, say, come to be regarded as latter-day Bull Connors ... The threat," he intones, "is real."
Religious schools and charities could suffer penalties such as the loss of government funding or state credentials necessary to operate. They could also have their tax-exempt status taken from them.
In support of this claim Dreher cites a 2007 case from New Jersey, in which a Methodist Church lost its tax exemption for a pavilion it owned, when a lesbian couple were denied permission to use it for their civil union ceremony.
The judge determined that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association breached its agreement to make the pavilion available to the public on an equal basis. The association was also required to make the pavilion public in exchange for a state tax exemption it received that requires equal access on a non-discriminatory basis. Metzger also noted that while the association is free to practice its mission without government oversight, it had never attached any religious ministry to the wedding venue until it received Paster and Bernstein’s application.
“(The association) was not, however, free to promise equal access to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition and then except (Bernstein and Paster),” Judge Metzger stated.
So, the church-affiliated association violated the agreement into which it had entered to get a tax exemption, and lost the exemption as a consequence.  The group had apparently so far abandoned its faith commitment that it was willing to let Papists, Jews, Mohammedans, Hindoos, even Presbyterians use the pavilion, but it suddenly got religion and drew the line at queers. 

Dreher quotes law professor and "religious liberty expert" Susan Fretwell Wilson on the Ocean Grove case: "That tax benefit is one of the most substantial benefits religious groups receive from the government. Although the group had elected a local tax status tied to public access, if state and local governments use this as a guide for how to deal with religious organizations that don’t accept same-sex marriage, that could be a big deal."

Dreher ought to pick his authorities more carefully.  (For one thing, Wilson breezily assures us that "Everybody knows that [church] sanctuaries are going to be out of the reach of same-sex marriage laws."  If only! The idea that little churches in the glen will have gay weddings rammed down their throats still inspires panic in "traditionalist" circles.) There's no reason to suppose that Ocean Grove will be used "as a guide for how to deal with religious organizations that don't accept same-sex marriage", because the principle involved is well-established in other domains of "religious freedom."  Affiliated religious organizations previously faced the same choice between tax exemption and the freedom to discriminate on the basis of race.  The most famous example is probably Bob Jones University, a private Christian college which admitted no black students for many years, and when that policy was changed refused to admit "interracial" (but heterosexual!) couples and banned mixed-race dating among its already-enrolled students, based on the Joneses' religious beliefs.  As Wikipedia tells it:
Under pre-1970 IRS regulations, tax exemptions were awarded to private schools regardless of their racial admissions policies, and Bob Jones University was approved for a tax exemption under that policy. Pursuant to a 1970 revision to IRS regulations that limited tax-exempt status to private schools without racially discriminatory admissions policies, the IRS informed the University on November 30, 1970 that the IRS was planning on revoking its tax exempt status as a "religious, charitable . . . or educational" institution. In response, the University filed suit in 1971 in Bob Jones University v. Schultz.
Which they lost, and with it their tax exemption.  The noted Constitutional scholar Ronald Reagan intervened on BJU's behalf, then flipflopped, but in 1983 the US Supreme Court upheld the denial of the exemption in an 8-1 decision.  (Reagan was a true Christian, it must be noted, turning the other cheek after Bob Jones III denounced him "as 'a traitor to God's people' for the sin of choosing as his vice president George H.W. Bush, whom Jones called 'a devil.'")  In 2000, BJU abandoned its prohibition of interracial dating and marriage, admitting that they couldn't remember what the biblical evidence against it was.

While Bob Jones University is a marginal institution, opposition to racial desegregation was widespread in American Protestant Christianity, notably in (but not limited to) the Southern Baptist Convention.  The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the US, and the second largest Christian denomination after the Roman Catholic Church.  It has come a long way since it emerged in 1845 to defend slavery and white supremacy, having apologized for its racist past and elected its first black President just last year, but it still denounces same-sex marriage with as much conviction as it ever denounced Abolition and Race-Mixing.

Then there are the segregation academies, private schools founded around the United States after the Supreme Court ruled public-school segregation unconstitutional in 1954. Many were explicitly Christian.  Some are still around.  Some manage to get federal funds.  Some get tax-exempt status by admitting one or two token black students.  The point is that the concerns Dreher and Wilson express are nothing new in American life.  Religious doctrine and civil rights have often clashed, and there's no simple way to resolve the conflict.

The rest of Dreher's piece is predictable: Christian bakers who get into trouble because they refused to bake a cake for a homosexual wedding, and of course, "religious conservatives are increasingly demonized for their beliefs about homosexuality."
And not just religious conservatives. In August, Dartmouth withdrew its job offer to a African Anglican bishop hired to run a campus spirituality and ethics center because of his past opposition to gay rights. Though Bishop James Tengatenga, a widely respected and effective advocate for peace and reconciliation in his native Malawi, had since evolved into a gay-supporting liberal Anglican, the fact that he hadn’t always been one cost him his job.
There are a lot of schools in this country that would withdraw job offers to bishops who'd "evolved into a gay-supporting liberal".  (For that matter, a pro-gay Catholic priest in Australia was recently excommunicated by Pope Francis.  I wonder what Dreher would say about that.)  I suspect that Dreher is shading the story a bit to make it fit his narrative, but even accepting his version it's hard to see how he can object to a private school making hiring decisions based on the candidates' values.  Maybe he's ignorant of the heresy trials that have riven hardline Christian schools in recent years.  I recall, but I'm not going to bother tracking it down today, the case of a professor at a Baptist (I think) college in the 1980s or 90s, who was accused of having denied the "once saved, always saved" doctrine of his denomination.  They couldn't hang him or burn him at the stake, but they could fire him, and as I recall, they did.  Plenty of faculty have been fired from conservative schools for being too liberal on gay or other issues.  Surely Dreher recognizes that the autonomy of denominations and their institutions is a pillar of religious freedom.  If he believes that conservative or "traditionalist" religious institutions have the right to be bigoted, he must extend the same right to liberal ones.  I believe in intellectual freedom and have often criticized decisions to fire staff based on their expressed opinions (even when I disagree with those opinions), but I'm not a conservative.

I certainly expect that the spreading recognition of same-sex marriage will produce conflicts with entrenched religious beliefs.  So did the success of the Civil Rights movement; so did the anti-slavery movement; so did the emancipation of Jews in Europe; so did the struggle for religious freedom, a struggle that is far from over yet.  Specific cases are going to be decided wrongly (in my opinion, no less than in Dreher's), but it can hardly be news that freedom -- including religious freedom -- isn't absolute.  Religious freedom doesn't grant conservative Christians the freedom to interfere with the lives of gay people -- or African-Americans, or Jews, or other conservative Christians.  Remember that lovely passage by a Pilgrim Father who wrote that "All Familists, Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other Enthusiasts shall have free liberty to keepe away from us"? And the other who wrote that "Tis Satan's policy to plead for an indefinite and boundless toleration. ..."?  Our founding fathers had to give up the pleasure of torturing and killing each other for the sake of the Gospel in order to build a free nation; indeed, they gave it up voluntarily, to save themselves from being killed and otherwise oppressed.  Some, though, have never quite gotten over the loss of that pristine original liberty.

To be continued...