Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Land of the Skree and the Home of the Slave

It has been entertaining to watch the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who refused to stand for the National Anthem.  After seeing the predictable frothing reaction by white racist jingoes, I'm half-inclined to agree with Donald Trump that Political Correctness is killing America: Kaepernick was just speaking his mind, telling it like it is, refusing to let Political Correctness stifle his thought and opinions, and all these whiny Social Justice Warriors got their delicate sensibilities in a bunch.  They want professional sports to be a Safe Space, and they'll accept no trigger warnings -- they want total conformity to the Politically Correct thought police.

This morning I met a friend for lunch at a bar, which of course had a TV tuned to ESPN.  The big question of the segment was Rodney Harrison's celebrity-style apology for claiming that Kaepernick is not black.  I say "celebrity-style" because, as is typical of the genre, Harrison's apology groveled without actually saying something or even acknowledging that, or why he was wrong -- he just hadn't meant to offend or hurt anybody.  A self-identified "Caucasian person" on the panel of commentators, also predictably, lamented that Harrison shouldn't be "humiliated" for making an honest mistake.  The other commentators did better, though.

But I have a question. The cartoon above got a lot of traffic among liberals and progressives a few years back, when Brendan Eich, Alec Baldwin, Duck Dynasty and some other people got in trouble over some antigay and racist remarks and actions. The point was that as long as the government isn't censoring them, it's okay for them to be fired, to lose their contracts with their media overlords, and for millions of people to throw virtual caca at them on the Intertoobz -- because it's only censorship if the government does it. Corporations and other private entities are not bound by the First Amendment. This can be argued, and it was.

So here's my question: why does this cartoon not apply to Colin Kaepernick? Or does it? Should the NFL show Colin Kaepernick the door for being (as he is, in many people's opinion, though not in mine) an asshole, whose bullshit they don't want to have to listen to?  I have no particular opinion myself, I'm just curious to know what other people think.  It seems to me that this case confirms my oft-stated belief that freedom of speech almost always comes down to which asshole and which bullshit is on the block.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

There's been a flurry of attention over the weekend to a "welcome" letter sent to incoming freshmen by the University of Chicago, advising them that the institution's
commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
This set off a predictable storm of praise and criticism.  I'm going to focus on the criticism, though I might return to the praise another time.  (Or maybe I don't need to: John Scalzi wrote a pretty good post about it.)  I've written here before at length about "safe spaces," and will try not to repeat myself too much today.  But the criticism that I've seen has mostly been dreadful: intellectually and morally dishonest.

I'll begin by saying that I have reservations about Chicago's rejection of "the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."  As long as they're not explicitly called "safe spaces," such places are normal in intellectual circles.  I think that much of the panic about Creationism and Intelligent Design represents a desire to establish classrooms as just such "safe spaces," but for the Good Guys.  In practice, of course, certain ideas and perspectives are ruled out in advance in every classroom, if only because teaching the conflicts takes a lot of time.  But the phobic reaction of many secularists to religious ideas (or what they believe to be religious ideas) suggests that something else is going on, something less exalted, something like the very narrow-mindedness, fear of difference, and authoritarianism such people fondly assume themselves to be free of.  Roy Edroso posted on Tuesday about an antigay bigot's dismissal of "the 'born-this-way' myth," and rather quickly got tangled in his own rhetoric.  (I quit reading the comments after one regular jeered, inaccurately, at the Bible as a supposedly 4,000 year old work of Middle Eastern shepherds; they only got worse after that.)  Of course it's simply not debatable in Edroso's safe space whether sexual orientation is inborn, any more than the reverse is true in David French's safe space; and rationality quickly goes out the window if you question it.  But there are good reasons to question it, starting with the fact that the science doesn't work.  A reader wrote that despite everything, the idea that he was born gay has an emotional appeal.  I'm not sure what the appeal of the belief is, but whatever it is, it's emotional not rational.

But I digress.  I suppose I should do some investigation of whatever science is involved with emotional triggers, but a cursory look indicates that there isn't much, and what there is doesn't really conflict with the University of Chicago's stance as set out in their letter.  The people who are attacking Chicago seem to be using "trigger warning" extremely loosely at best.  This piece at the Huffington Post, for example, by their "Deputy Healthy Living Editor" (a title that alone inspires absolute confidence), relies on innuendo rather than reason:
In other words, students who may be susceptible to mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder or panic disorders, are undeserving of a warning that a lecture or guest speaker may aggravate those issues or traumatic experiences.
Actually, no.  It could be argued that the letter itself is a trigger warning, that a liberal-arts education may "aggravate those issues or traumatic experiences."  But the writer offers no real evidence that such aggravation can be avoided by trigger warnings.  She claims that "research clearly shows that atmospheres that promote negative stereotypes can act as barriers to treatment, furthering stigma and causing additional psychological trauma."  The page she links to, however, doesn't really address what she says it does and doesn't support her argument (I'll be generous and call it that, though it's stretching the word absurdly to do so).  Later she writes:
Trigger warnings are potentially lifesaving for people who have dealt with traumas like sexual assault, hate crimes or violence. Eliminating these advisories and zones on campus suggests that someone should have to listen to someone who questions their humanity or experience.
No links there, and no evidence to back it up.  The inflationary rhetoric ("potentially lifesaving") doesn't help, and is no substitute for evidence.  As she then admits: "There is not much research on the effectiveness of advisories, but some experts do recommend that professors at least alert students of the content if it could be triggering."  Let me repeat that: There is not much research on the effectiveness of advisories; "some experts" recommend them anyway, but some experts can always be found to recommend anything you like.

Again:
Nearly 30 percent of students in 2014 reported experiencing a psychological health issue that negatively influenced their academic performance. Sexual assault ― which can lead to PTSD, among other conditions ― is also a prevalent issue. Approximately one in five women and one in 16 men will be sexually assaulted while in college.
And:
Research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness shows more than 60 percent of college students who dropped out did so because of a mental health issue, which includes cases like PTSD and trauma.
I've seen similar sloppy use of numbers in other posts about this matter.  Are trigger warnings needed by all those 30 percent of students?  Probably not.  "Psychological health issue" casts a very wide net. Sexual assault can "lead to PTSD" -- I don't doubt that, but how often does it do so, and how often will trigger warnings in class be "effective"?  How many of the "more than 60 percent of college students who dropped out because of a mental health issue" -- also a very wide net -- were actually affected by PTSD and trauma?  But 60 percent is a nice big number, very impressive if you don't care about anything but making an impression.  It's a very irresponsible piece of work, this article, and it's typical of the complaints and attacks I've been seeing about the U of Chicago today.

In the comments under John Scalzi's post, a pattern emerged: numerous people wrote about what they "thought" a safe space is, in their opinions.  (The same is true of "trigger warning."  Scalzi noticed what I had, that the U of Chicago letter was itself, effectively, a trigger warning, as are movie and television and other rating systems, according to the commonsense meaning of "trigger warning" these folks are working with.  I'm not sure, however, that they are the same thing.)  The trouble is that there is considerable agreement about what a safe space (or a trigger warning) is or should be. As the therapist Walt Odets wrote (In the shadow of the epidemic: being HIV-negative in the age of AIDS [Duke UP, 1995]: 274f.):
In any well-run group, safety can only mean one thing: any expression of feelings or thoughts will be received and tolerated by the group, and an attempt will be made to honestly respond to it. This will be done without physical violence or undue emotional hurt to other members, and without abandonment of the group. This essential objective is most easily accomplished in a professionally facilitated therapy group, because the group leader will have the necessary skills to mediate and limit conflict to a safe and constructive level. When the idea of safety comes to mean, as it often does in poorly constructed therapy groups and many support groups, that members be polite and "non-judgmental" toward each other, then the prime therapeutic objectives are undermined. Interpersonal interaction -- as opposed to social form -- necessarily involves feelings and judgments about others, and unless they can be expressed and discussed truthfully, the group can provide neither insight nor the meaning that comes of bearing witness....
The function of a group is not to make members "feel better when they leave than when they came in," as one poorly supervised peer facilitator has routinely billed his weekly support group for San Francisco gay men. It is the function of a therapy group, like individual psychotherapy, to help people attain the insight that allows them to make themselves feel better.
As Odets's own complaint shows, though, his idea of safe space is not the only meaning in current use, even among professionals.  Whoever wrote the University of Chicago letter is evidently foggy about the meaning of the term, as of "trigger warning." When you factor in non-professionals, the sky is the limit.  (The same is true of other terms that have transitioned from jargon to mainstream discourse, like "microaggression.")  To me that's evidence that demands for trigger warnings and safe space tend to come from people who don't know what they're talking about.  It becomes pointless to argue about the "real" meaning of these terms when no one knows what they do mean, so one must look at what people think they mean by them, and what conditions and practices they are calling for.  The Huffington Post article, which is unfortunately typical of the critiques I've seen, indicates that there is some truth in the charge that advocates of "safe space" want to shut down intellectual freedom altogether (except for themselves of course).  They talk about "civility" (the word is in the U of Chicago letter, in fact) and "respect," but those qualities are conspicuously absent from their discourse.

But also from their opponents'.  As Scalzi tweeted (and quoted in his post), "The conservatives gloating about @uchicago's No' Safe Spaces' policy don't appear to think it will apply to them, too, the dear wee lads."  The reactions he got to that one from conservatives confirmed his point, though it was hardly news.  But that is one area where conservatives and non-conservatives stand together: Freedom of Speech for Me, But Not for Thee!

The HuffPost writer complains: "The problem with this interpretation of trigger warnings is that it presumes all participants have the same level of privilege."  "Privilege" is another of those wiggly, gaseous terms that gets misused a lot, I'm afraid.  I noticed when I first wrote about safe spaces that a lot of the discourse around them presumes levels of class privilege.  So, for instance, a young gay teacher-to-be denounced the word "gay" as "vulgar," and asserted that he wouldn't tolerate it in any class he taught.  Suppressing the "vulgar" means imposing a privileged, white middle-class standard of language.  Privilege isn't a simple linear scale of higher and lower, it's extremely complex and muddled: one can be privileged along one axis and de-privileged in another.  There's been a lot of criticism of the word "privilege" in some recent discussion, asserting that, say, working-poor whites in West Virginia don't have white privilege.  Of course they do, however much privilege they don't have.  But a college-educated person who presumes to lecture such people on their white privilege ignores his or her own privilege: privilege is always relative to your status and the status of the person you're dealing with.  If you want to communicate with and educate others, you will try to frame your message in such a way that they'll be able to hear it -- or to put it another way, speaking of white privilege to poor white trash sets off various triggers for them, and those who wave around "civility" and "respect" must be aware of and curb their own privilege first.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Apples and Surrogates: The Revolving Door

I don't have regular access to TV, but an Internet-connected Blu-ray player with a Youtube app has been easing me back to the medium.  Last night the CNN celebrity newsperson Anderson Cooper visited Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, and in the course of "hugging it out" together he acknowledged something that in a better universe would have been embarrassing.

To be fair, it looks to me as if Cooper was embarrassed: he almost seemed surprised by what he had just admitted.  Maybe it really had never occurred to him before.  Colbert didn't press him very hard, but I think he knew what a gem he'd just unearthed.

Colbert had asked about various Trump campaign people Cooper had interviewed lately.  Cooper volunteered the name of Trump's former campaign manager Cory Lewandowski.
COLBERT: Who now works at CNN.  [pause while Cooper confirms it with a nod and a gesture] He works for you guys. [pause] Does he still get any money from the Trump people at the same time?

COOPER: I believe -- I read he gets a continuing severance from Trump.

COLBERT: So you all are paying him and Trump is paying him but he's still on your show doing analysis on a man he still gets cash from.

COOPER: Pretty much. I guess that's one way to look at it.

COLBERT: And you still respect his opinion, too?

COOPER: We have people from all the campaigns.  We have campaign surrogates for Hillary Clinton on.

COLBERT: What is a surrogate, by the way?  I have heard that term a lot.

COOPER: It's somebody who represents the campaign.  They're often paid by the campaign.  They just -- I don't know, you know, Katrina Pearson, I think, is one of those people you see on cable news a lot.  She is a surrogate for the Trump campaign.  There are a lot of surrogates. The campaign can't be everywhere so they have people out there speaking for them.
At this point Colbert abruptly changed the subject to Trump's recent "pivot" attempting to present a kinder, gentler image to minorities.  Which, it turns out, Lewandowski has something to say about too, in his capacity as a cable news journalist / commentator.

Cooper was being disingenous here, to put it nicely.  I presume that the various campaign surrogates are not paid by the news programs on which they appear, any more than the candidates themselves are -- though who knows, I could well be wrong about that.  But Lewandowski's role on CNN is not, supposedly, as a campaign surrogate: it's as someone who, as a former insider, should know what hard questions to ask the surrogrates.  Since he's still being paid by the Trump campaign, there's at least the appearance of a conflict of interest in his case, and his defense of Trump's reluctance to campaign in communities of color reinforces the suspicion.

I wonder, too, if Colbert would have brought up the point if a former Clinton campaign manager had been snapped up by CNN after being fired by his boss.  I doubt it, since Colbert has largely followed the Clinton line since before she officially won the nomination.  Also last night he did a segment on "tinfoil hat" conspiracy theories, referring derisively to a couple from the Republican side but neglecting any from the Democrats.  Oh well, maybe it was just time limitations.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Campaign 2016: Race to the Bottom

One of the stories on Democracy Now! this morning was about Donald Trump's "alt-right" connections, exemplified by his hiring of Breitbart's Stephen Bannon to run his campaign on top of his Birtherism, his appeal to white racists, and so on.  DN anchor Amy Goodman asked the reporter Sarah Posner (at about 56:50 in the video):
GOODMAN: Some are saying that this whole presidential election that he is involved with is actually a strategy for developing Trump TV, that he is consolidating a media leadership here, with Bannon, with Roger Ailes, who is now forced out because of sexual harassment allegations by more than twenty women, from Fox, and now reportedly advising Donald Trump.  How significant is this possibility?

POSNER: ... If this is something that Trump does, in fact, have in mind, the fact that he's asking Roger Ailes for advice, and was asking Roger Ailes -- he was in regular contact with Roger Ailes even before Ailes was forced out of Fox over the sexual harassment lawsuit, and the fact that he's hired Bannon, and combine that with how throughout his campaign Trump has been so disparaging of the mainstream media, the way he calls out individual reporters at his campaign events, calls on his rally attenders to turn around and scoff at and disparage the media that's covering the rally from a press pen, all of this points to -- and also how he talks about the unfairness of the way the media covers him, and almost setting the stage for blaming the media if he loses.  So if you put all of this together, regardless of what Trump actually does organizationally, in terms of creating a media outlet if he were to lose the presidency, after the campaign, it seems pretty evident there's a lot of sowing of discontent about the mainstream media, and of bolstering of these alternative media sites that have been supportive of Trump and supportive of the alt-right.
This is not insignificant, but Posner's answer made me laugh almost as much as Trump's running mate Mike Pence laughed when Fox News asked him about Trump's prospects with African-American voters.  Posner seemed genuinely indignant that anybody would disparage the mainstream media, would sow discontent about the mainstream media, would bolster alternative media sites to counter the mainstream media -- while she was appearing on an alternative media site that regularly disparages the mainstream media, to plug an article she had written for Mother Jones, an alternative media outlet.  The mainstream media provide many good reasons to disparage them, every day.  That being said, Trump and his supporters are no happier with the coverage he gets in the liberal and left alternative media.  It's not really about alternative vs. mainstream, but about fawningly pro-Trump vs. anti-Trump.

And it's not as if mainstream or left-liberal alternative media are more rational or responsible than alt-right media -- look, for just one example, at the ginned-up hysteria over Putin's alleged influence on the Trump campagin.  If, as Posner and Goodman mentioned, Breitbart publishes vitriolic attacks not only on liberals and Democrats but on right-wing figures who are insufficiently supportive of Trump, certain popular liberal and alternative media, such as Daily Kos, have become cesspools of center-right clickbait, posting material of minimal content whose sole purpose for production and publication (aside from getting site traffic) is to whip the faithful into a frenzy of ragegasms against Trump, the Republican Party, and the right in general, using many of the same tactics (slut-shaming, fat-shaming, racism [the evil of China is a point of agreement between center-right and far right, for example], religious bigotry).  The comments sections aren't as bad as right-wing comment sections -- yet -- but many of the commenters seem engaged in a race to the bottom with their fascist counterparts.  Many of my liberal friends and acquaintances on Facebook obsessively scratch the itch of Trump-loathing with meme after meme, clickbait post after clickbait post, embellished with remarks like "UGH", "SICK," and the like; the accusations of mental illness and/or mental retardation echo the same accusations from their fascist counterparts.  Factual accuracy and critical reason are optional, and indeed conspicuous by their absence. The 2012 campaign season, as bad as it was, looks almost like a paradise of sweet reason and love by comparison.  No doubt 2020 will continue the trend.

I still see a tendency among liberals to imagine that all this is something new.  It's not; it's a regular, ongoing feature of American political life.  I don't see any prospect of change.

Monday, August 22, 2016

It's All Fun Until Somebody Loses an Eye: From the "No One Could Have Foreseen This" Casebook

It looks like the US had another one of those "Oops!" moments in Syria recently.
The Pentagon warned the Syrian government Friday not to strike U.S. and coalition personnel in Syria, a day after the regime carried out airstrikes in an area near American special operations forces, prompting the U.S. to scramble jets to protect them.
Daniel Larison, who wrote about this incident, pointed out that the longer US troops remain in Syria, no matter how "non-combat" their role supposedly is, the more likely it is that the protection will fail and an incident will turn into an excuse to invade.
When the U.S. backs proxies in a foreign civil war and puts U.S. forces on the ground with them, it opens the door to new and unexpected conflict with other armed groups in the country. By extending protection to U.S. proxies in Syria, the U.S. could find itself drawn into yet another conflict in Syria. Anti-regime groups would have a strong incentive to put the U.S. in that position. The more U.S. forces that are sent into the country, the greater the chances of an incident that could lead to a wider war, and Clinton is on record in favor of sending more special forces into Syria. This episode underscores the absurdity of the administration’s many statements that U.S. forces aren’t in combat in Syria, and it reminds us how quickly a supposedly “limited” intervention could spiral into something much worse.
I wonder again: what are US forces doing in Syria -- a country which is neither our client nor our ally, with whose government we aren't even nominally friendly, but with which we are not, supposedly, at war either?  Suppose that some foreign government, Russia for example, were to station its troops in the United States in order to extend protection to its proxies here.  Suppose that some other country were to decide that white supremacists, say, were its proxies in the United States.  Suppose that Mexico decided to station some of its troops in the US to protect its citizens here -- in a purely advisory, non-combat role, of course.  Would most Americans, regardless of their party affiliation, consider such intervention and presence a sign of that other country's disinterested commitment to peace?

It's tempting to speculate that US troops are in Syria as bait, with the conscious intention that some of them will be hurt or killed by the bad guys so that the US can invade and kill lots of civilians, including children.  (The recent viral photo of a little boy outraged so many Americans -- nobody gets to hurt or kill Syrian kids but us!  When that picture turned up on my Facebook feed last week with much lamenting about the sadness of this world and the badness of people, but what can you do, I pointed out the US' support for Saudi Arabian killing of civilians in Yemen, which Americans could do something about by pressuring our government to stop its participation in the atrocities.  The reaction (or rather, non-reaction) was predictable.  It's so much more satisfying, as Noam Chomsky has been pointing out for decades, to weep about the crimes of our official enemies than to notice the crimes of our friends.)  If Hillary Clinton wins this election, it's a good bet that US intervention will escalate; but very possibly Trump would do the same if he's elected.

Still, going by the US' record, our leaders aren't thinking that far ahead; they are, on the evidence, too stupid to do that.  It never occurs to them that if they put American troops in hostile territory, someone will shoot at them.  I recently saw an item about US troops in Ukraine a couple of years ago, where some of the locals threw stones at them.  Again: what were US troops doing in Ukraine?  One can't expect grunts to have a realistic idea of what they're getting into, I know, but the Wise Leaders who sent them there should have known better.  It wasn't the Existential Danger Donald Trump who made these blunders, it was a Democratic administration -- but Republican politicians and pundits have been agitating for a US invasion of Syria for years too.  But no one could possibly have foreseen that anything would go wrong.  We are America, after all, and nothing ever goes wrong on our watch.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Their Glory Is Their Shame

I imagine you've heard about the statues of Donald Trump in the nude, with miniscule genitalia, that appeared in several US cities this week.  Rawstory ran a story headed "NYC Parks & Rec pulls down naked Donald Trump statue - then brilliantly mocks him in a statement."  The statement in question was "“NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small."

I don't see any mockery of Trump in that NYC P&R statement. Y'all are getting desperate, I think, and it's not like you really need to be.  The schoolyard aspect of the Trump hate is not attractive: We keep making fun of him, and he still won't go away!  What is wrong with the guy?  It mainly serves to show that certain segments of the anti-Trump population are not very different from the pro-Trump population, in this respect at least.

That being said, I'm not displeased by this action; Trump is eminently and deservedly mockable, and it's far better to do it this way than to try to slut-shame his wife. Any halfway feminist person should recognize that attacking a woman to get at her husband is a no-no, but I've been surprised at how many feminists are ready to jettison their principles in the cause of Democratic supremacy.  (Not to mention the glorious project of putting a woman in the Oval Office!) And while, again, mocking Trump is a good thing, I see again how many people after a century and more of feminism and anti-sexist activism still haven't figured out that having testicles (or not, or having small ones or big ones) is not a moral trait. To say nothing of fat-shaming anybody.  Yeah, I'm sure Trump thinks so, but he's not the authority around here -- let alone a role model.

Oh, and PS: "The Emperor Has No Balls." Trump isn't the Emperor. Barack Obama is. Shall we talk about his balls?  If you want to play on that level, let's discuss the kind of huevos it takes to joke on TV about killing some pop singers with predator drones if they look upon his daughters to lust upon them.

And PPS: I fully expect to be accused of "political correctness" for pointing out these issues.  Well, go for it, bitchez!  We all know that Political Correctness is destroying this country ...

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Useful Geniuses; or, Resistance Is Futile

To my half-surprise this meme turned out to be authentic.  It's from Huxley's Brave New World Revisited, published in 1958, when his 1931 novel Brave New World had become a classic and a watchword.  (The passage originally began: "Under the relentless thrust of accelerating over-population and over-organization ...", which I think changes its import a bit, and not for the better; and "a new kind of totalitarianism" read "a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism" [italics added].)  It's the kind of supposed prophecy that appeals to a certain set of mind.

Yet despite all this mind-manipulation, Donald Trump is the Republican candidate for President, and Bernie Sanders came very close to beating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Brexit passed in the UK. Most citizens disagree with most of the corporatist agenda in the US. Governments around the world are losing legitimacy, the consent of the governed that makes it possible for them to rule at all. Our would-be rulers are not pleased. The Sheeple aren't as manipulable as they like to think -- or, oddly, as wise truthtellers such as Huxley like to think.

None of this means that I think the People are necessarily wise, or always right.  Trump's success, like the Brexit vote, has various causes, some of which are edifying and others not.  The point is that "the ruling oligarchy" and its technicians are not as omnipotent or competent as they and this meme would have you believe.

I recently read H. Bruce Franklin's M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America (Lawrence Hill, 1992), in which he described how the Nixon administration, hoping to raise domestic support for its war in Vietnam, concocted the fantasy of thousands of American troops being held prisoner by the North Vietnamese.  Enlisting the participation of families of soldiers who were missing in action, Nixon's people were fairly successful in selling the fantasy -- but when they found it an impediment to negotations and ending the war, they were trapped by their own invention.  The families and their supporters, understandably, felt betrayed; unwilling to accept that they'd been sold a bill of goods and used so cynically, they clung to the myth and turned on Nixon.  When even Ronald Reagan, several years later, accepted that there were no American POWs alive in Southeast Asia, they denounced him too.  As Franklin said, the long-term result was the rise of a politically reactionary group of Americans, officially patriotic but bitterly hostile to their government, constructing a paranoid mythology of bold Rambos trying to free large numbers of captive Americans but undermined and stymied by government bureacrats.  M.I.A. was originally published almost a quarter century before Donald Trump declared his candidacy, but his supporters clearly live in the alternate universe built by the Nixon gang.  The "ruling oligarchy" has only very limited control over the tigers it unleashes.

It's a mistake to think that that oligarchy or its technicians really know what they're doing.  Today I was looking at the chapter on political lying in Hannah Arendt's Crises of the Republic.  Writing of the processes that led to a major American war, Arendt refers to
the strange fact that the mistaken decisions and lying statements consistently violated the astoundingly accurate factual reports of the intelligence community ... The crucial point here is not merely that the policy of lying was hardly ever aimed at the enemy ..., but was destined chiefly, if not exclusively, for domestic consumption, for propaganda at home, and especially for the purpose of deceiving Congress [14].
Arendt was writing about the Pentagon Papers, the internal history that revealed how U.S. interference in Vietnam had been "planned" -- though that word is probably far too generous -- but she could just as easily have been describing the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  The same is true of what follows: 
Of even greater interest is that nearly all decisions in this disastrous enterprise were made in full cognizance of the fact that they probably could not be carried out: hence goals had constantly to be shifted.  There are, first, the publicly proclaimed objectives -- "seeing that the people of South Vietnam Vietnam are permitted to determine their future" [in reality, this was the last thing the US was interested in] or "assisting the country to win their contest against the ... Communist conspiracy" ... The same flexibility marks tactical considerations: North Vietnam is being bombed in order to prevent "a collapse of national morale" in the South and, particularly, the breakdown of the Saigon government.  But when the first raids were scheduled to start, the government had broken down, "pandemonium reigned in Saigon," the raids had to be postponed and a new goal found.  Now the objective was to compel "Hanoi to stop the Vietcong and the Pathet Lao," an aim that even the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not hope to attain.  As they said, "it would be idle to conclude that these eforts will have a decisive effect" [15].
And so on.  Those who, like me, are old enough to remember the promulgation of the War on Terror and the invasion of Afghanistan (to say nothing of the First Gulf War, which also fit this pattern), will remember how the goalposts were moved repeatedly for propaganda purposes.  The manipulation of public and Congressional opinion was scattershot: rationales generated almost randomly and thrown at audiences in hopes that one or more would stick.  Far from controlling events or the public, our rulers and their publicists were careening along in panic, and the results were far from what they had hoped.  (Not that either group has ever taken responsibility or accepted accountability for their blunders and crimes, of course.)

The corporate media gladly gave Donald Trump plenty of free publicity by their diligent coverage of his every blurt and mindfart; now that he's the Republican candidate, they're horrified: this is not what they meant at all.  Non-corporate media, not to mention liberal Democrats, are equally fascinated by him, and can't seem to tear their fascinated gaze from the trainwreck his campaign seems to have become.  But Trump and his supporters dismiss and denounce the "lamestream media" as readily as his opponents do.  On Brexit, liberal commentators here and in the UK tended to line up with the Establishment Right; they usually missed the irony.  So did right-wingers, usually contemptuous of the Mob, who suddenly but briefly became populists -- on Brexit, though not on Trump, whom they tried to repudiate.

And yet many people who believe themselves to be smarter than the canaille want more control -- laws (for example) that would require the press, or politicians, to tell the truth, on pain of State punishment. (Who do they think would decide what is true and what is false?) Again I find myself wondering why so many people who suppose themselves to be the sapient elite, mysteriously free from the control of the Bad Guys, sound so weirdly complacent and smug when they inform the rest of us that Resistance Is Futile. Whose side are they are on, really?

Terracentrism

I've been trying to decide whether to buy Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, an anthology in tribute to the late Octavia Butler edited by Walida Amarisha and adrienne maree brown, published by AK Press in 2015.  I like Butler's work, and I've seen positive remarks about this collection lately.  So I took a look at the preview on Amazon.

In the foreword, Sheree Renee Thomas writes,
Octavia E. Butler wrote in her novel Parable of the Sower that our "destiny is to take root among the stars." The activist [Martin Luther King Jr.] and the artist ... embraced a shared dream for the future.  Their work is linked by faith and a fusion of spiritual teachings and social consciousness, a futuristic social gospel.  In its essence, social justice work, which King embodied and Butler expressed so skillfully in her novels and stories, is about love -- a love that has the best hopes and wishes for humanity at heart.
I feel like a Scrooge picking on a passage so full of warm fuzzy sentiments, but Thomas seems not to have read Butler's work, the brief quotation notwithstanding.  I know that can't be true, since Thomas is the editor of an important anthology of science fiction "from the African diaspora," Dark Matter; but that means she's deliberately misreading and misrepresenting Butler.  What she says may well be true of Butler the person, but Butler's work, while not devoid of hope or love, is anti-utopian and harshly pessimistic.  (The Patternmaster series is often as violent as Mortal Kombat.) That's particularly true of her late works Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. which are set in a near future that resembles the worst of the world we know.  Even when Butler writes about love, it's ambivalent, as in her short story "Bloodchild," which she insisted was a love story.  It's about human refugees on another planet, who must maintain a symbiotic relationship with the people there, which involves implanting the latter's eggs/larvae to gestate in the earthlings' bodies.  It's also "my pregnant man story," Butler added, "a dramatic story of a man becoming pregnant as an act of love."  Butler's love stories are extremely anti-romantic, exploring the prices we pay for binding ourselves to others and them to us -- which is a good thing, but far from Thomas's huggyface-kissybear tone.

In the Parable books, it seems to me, Butler allowed herself some romanticism.  She wanted to write several more books in the series, but was unable to work out how to do it.  The projected third novel, Parable of the Trickster, was to be set on an another planet that people from the earth had colonized:
an alien world where [the protagonist] and most of her fellow Earthseed colonists are saddened to discover they wish they’d never left Earth in the first place. The world — called “Bow” — is gray and dank, and utterly miserable; it takes its name from the only splash of color the planet has to offer, its rare, naturally occurring rainbows. They have no way to return to Earth, or to even to contact it; all they have is what little they’ve brought with them, which for most (but not all) of them is a strong belief in the wisdom of the teachings of Earthseed. Some are terrified; many are bored; nearly all are deeply unhappy. Her personal notes frame this in biological terms. From her notes to herself: “Think of our homesickness as a phantom-limb pain — a somehow neurologically incomplete amputation. Think of problems with the new world as graft-versus-host disease — a mutual attempt at rejection.”
One of the many things I disliked about the published Parables was the protagonist Lauren Olamina's affirmational verses: "the poetry that drives the Earthseed religion actually mirrors the style of the daily affirmations, self-help sloganeering, and even self-hypnosis techniques Butler used to keep herself focused and on-task."  I'm not a fan of affirmations, and the one Sheree Thomas quoted is particularly noxious.  It's at odds with Butler's general pessimism about humanity, for one thing: she believed that what she thought of as our innate tendency toward "hierarchy" would probably be the trait that dooms us.  But as a lifelong sf fan, she apparently bought into the delusional fantasy of interstellar colonization as human "destiny."  If science teaches us not to see ourselves as the center of the universe, not the crown of creation, then we ought to recognize that we are already rooted among the stars.  The earth is among the stars, a miniscule planet circling a nondescript star in one galaxy among billions in the universe, and we human beings are rooted here.  Where else would we be?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Universalize Me, Daddy, Infinity to the Bar

While wasting time this evening I came upon an Amazon listing for a book of essays that had garnered one brief review: "This solipsistic writer thinks he is extremely liberal, but tho he claims all religions are valid, he secretly hates Christians."

Reviews like that usually make their targets more interesting to me.  I noticed that it had four comments, so I clicked through and found that the author of the book had riposted:
It has always been my observation that when a book is trashed by fundamentalists it must really be worth reading... especially, I would say, this one, which respects all the great religions and wisdom traditions. Perhaps that's the real problem. Much of the book repeatedly expresses respect for what is universal in Christianity.
Oh, dear.  That made the book less interesting to me.  I decided to see if the reviewer was just a troll; his other reviews indicate that he's capable of intelligent comment, and for what it's worth, I don't believe he's a Christian fundamentalist -- but that makes the review I noticed all the more discrediting to him.  Even if his target hated Christianity, it wouldn't follow that he hates Christians.

The author's reply, however, is not really a defense of his beliefs or attitudes.  "What is universal to Christianity," whatever he imagines that to be, is of little interest.  If I go by what others have meant when they said something like that, what is "universal" in Christianity is a little collection of platitudes -- be nice to people, love love love, and so on -- that don't really mean anything without some idea how to carry them out, and why.  Being nice to people always comes encrusted with exceptions.  (Was Jesus being nice when he threatened the vast majority of human beings with eternal torment?  Was the Buddha being nice when he told a soldier that if he died in battle he would probably be reborn "in a hell or as an animal"?  And so on.)  So does love.  Justice is at least as murky.  And so on.  I don't know if the poet being trashed is Baha'i, but I looked into that sect during the 80s when I was researching religion, and found nothing much there; the poet does seem to be echoing Baha'i doctrine in his remarks, though.  What the various religions have in common probably has more to do with the fact that human beings invented them, and with cross-cultural and cross-tradition borrowing than with any cosmic universals.

The universal is all very well, but I've learned to be suspicious of those who invoke it, whether in art, religion, sexuality, human nature, or most other realms.  Often they seem to be anxious about, if not hostile to, human difference.  From a safe, nose-holding difference, we are all pretty much alike.  But up close, viewed with interest (which is greater and stronger than love), the differences become apparent, and valuable.  If you can't love the differences, then I question the reality or worth of your love, let alone your spiritual wisdom.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Triumph of The Gay

Once again I find myself wondering how certain things find their way into print.  As a warming-up exercise, I'll share with you a passage from a book I read earlier this summer, aimed at a readership of helping-professionals, published by a press that specializes in such material.  I won't name either the book or the publisher for now.
The report states that a majority of the respondents held an undergraduate degree (31.5% of men and 32% of women) ...
It appears that the writer of this passage added together the percentages in order to conclude that they constituted a majority of the respondents.  In reality the respondents of both sexes who held undergraduate degrees constitute a minority, about 31 or 32 percent of the whole.  I couldn't believe that a professional would make such an elementary error, or failing that, that the editor and the referees who vetted the paper wouldn't have caught it.  After reading it repeatedly to make sure I hadn't missed something, I posted the passage to my page on Facebook, asking friends with backgrounds in statistics if I'd missed something.  They didn't think so.

Now, I could make a mistake like this -- but I'm not a professional with a graduate degree, and I write a blog, not for a professional press, presumably peer-reviewed but certainly run by and for professionals.  And the rest of the book is not much better than this, though not as blatantly off.

So, on to what got me started today.  I've begun reading Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China (Minnesota, 2015) by Tiantian Zheng.  It's been getting positive attention, and it's a topic that interests me, so I picked it up.  Unfortunately it seems to have many of the same flaws of most studies I've seen of homosexuality outside the US, and I'll probably have more to say about it when I've finished it.  For today I want to point to a really egregious passage that's indicative of the problems in the book.
Stephen Murray (1992) theorizes Western homogenization as a neo-evolutionary process toward a universal, egalitarian, Western gayness.  He maps out an evolutionary model of homosexuality from unequal relations based on age (ancient Greece), gender roles (modern Mesoamerica), and class (early capitalism) to equal relations.  In Murray's evolutionary model, an increasingly strong gay and lesbian culture, identity, and politics have been diffused little by little throughout the Western world.  Eventually this Western model will be what other countries and cultures will follow [location 126 of the Kindle version].
I was immediately suspicious, because I've read a lot of Murray's work, and Zheng's summary didn't sound like him.  So I tracked down the reference, to his paper "The 'Underdevelopment' of Modern/Gay Homosexuality in Mesoamerica", published in Modern Homosexualities: Fragments of Lesbian and Gay Experience, edited by Ken Plummer in 1992.  The opening paragraph should suffice.
In what has been written about male homosexuality in the world's cultures, three basic social organizations recur.  In so far as changes over history are visible, the types occur in the order (1) age-stratified, (2) gender-stratified, (3) gay.  When and where homosexuality is age-stratified, for instance in ancient Greece, medieval Japan, or the New Guinea highlands until recently, the 'boy' is sexually receptive to an older boy or man who takes responsibility for helping the boy to become a man.  In societies with gender-stratified homosexualtiy, as in the recent past in Northern Europe and North America, contemporary Latin America, and indigenous Polynesia, one partner acts the role of a woman, generally specializing in what is considered 'woman's work' in a society, frequently stereotyping women's dress and behaviour.  The 'gay' or 'modern' organization of homosexuality breaks from assigning one partner to the inferior role of 'boy' or 'wife' and -- without regard to their sexual behaviour -- insists that both are men who should have equivalent privileges, not the least of which is autonomy.  Because the historical succession has been from age to gender to gay, it is tempting to consider this a necessary, evolutionary order.  In this chapter, I will argue that such an 'evolution' is not inevitable, and discuss some of the obstacles to the globalization of an egalitarian (gay) organization of homosexuality even in the relatively industrialized and 'modern' capitals of 'developing' countries [29].
As you can see, Murray very clearly rejects an evolutionary reading of the differing models (or organizations) of homosexuality that he lists here.  I'd go further myself, and point out that differing models coexisted and overlapped, not least in the supposedly developed West.  In Japan, for example, as in China and probably elsewhere, there was a model involving boy actresses (in the Noh theater and Beijing opera, respectively) who were defined as insertees with respect to their older patrons, both because of their youth and because they "stereotyped women's dress and behaviour."  In ancient Greece, the age-stratified model was dominant, but males copulated with each other outside that model, and as John Boswell showed for medieval Europe, in age-stratified relationships the "boy" might be middle-aged and might even be older than the "man."  In Mesoamerica, the model of the vestida (as he's known in parts of Mexico) defines the homosexual, but a lot of (probably most) male-to-male sex involves men who play a "woman's role" only as sexual insertees, not in dress or general behavior.  I've noticed before that when a white gay man visited a gender-stratified gay community in South Africa, both gents and ladies not unreasonably tried to parse him in terms of the system they knew, and gents propositioned him as if he were a lady.

As Murray later remarks:
In Thailand, as in Latin America, the typological system is very simple, with gender roles and sexual behaviour in neat conformity with each other.  But in messy reality, sexual behaviour, gender appearance, and sexual identity are more complex [30].
These templates do not describe behavior and presentation, they prescribe it and are imposed on it.  The same is true of the "gay" model: despite our supposedly "egalitarian" homosexuality, American gay men still talk about "daddies" (insertive) and "boys" (receptive), "men" (insertive) and "twinks" (receptive), tops and bottoms, and the prevailing Western pseudoscientific model of homosexuality is gender-stratified.

Murray does mention class in his paper, but not as an organizing system of homosexuality; I don't know where Zheng got that.  While class can be a factor, it goes all over the map, from the poor cross-dresser hired by a man with more money to the wealthy older man patronizing a younger man from a lower class, to middle-class men hiring working-class trade.  In some cases lower class signifies femininity and penetrabilility, in others masculinity and impenetrability.  It appears from what I've read, not only in Tongzhi Living but in other writings about male homosexuality in China, that a similar variety of styles can be observed there.

I've made similar misreadings of material I've read, and for similar reasons: I had a thesis, and I needed grist for it.  But again, I'm not an academic writing for an academic press, running a gauntlet of editors and referees.  (And when I've found myself, or been caught, in such an error, I try to acknowledge and correct it.)  Zheng seems to have misread Murray's opening paragraph (I wonder if she even read past it) because she wanted to cast him as a Western gay imperialist, exulting in the triumph of "this Western model" over all "other countries and cultures."  That binary, which is beloved of many international, post-colonial scholars of queer life, is at best an agenda-driven oversimplification.  (Quite a few American scholars love it too.)  To recognize the common features of homosexual life in different societies is not, in itself, to impose a "neo-evolutionary" template on them, or to regard one model as "modern" and the others as "primitive" or "undeveloped."  But to refuse to recognize them distorts and impedes understanding of people's real lives, both in the East and in the West.  I'd like to think that in time, this particular bias will be recognized and corrected, but by then there will probably be a new consensus with its own distortions and errors.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Sit Back, Relax, and Leave the Foreign Policy to Us

I've been reading Ben Ehrenreich's new book The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine (Penguin, 2016).  It's a long, grim slog, but worth it, and every now and then there's a touch of comic relief.  Describing the 2014 collapse of talks between Israel and Palestine, mediated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Ehrenreich writes:
Another month would pass before a frank American narrative of what had occurred in Jerusalem and Ramallah hit the press.  In May, the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth's Nahum Barnea published an interview with anonymous senior U.S. officials who, he wrote, had been closely involved in the talks. The story that emerged from what Barnea called "the closest thing to an official American version of what happened" was one of Israeli cynicism and an almost astonishing American naivete.  "We didn't realize," said one of Barnea's sources, that "Netanyahu was using the announcements of tenders for settlement construction as a way to ensure the survival of his own government.  We didn't realize continuing construction allowed ministers in his government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks."  If true, this is a shocking admission: the Americans, with all their vast data-collecting capabilities, did not know waht even the least observant reader of Israeli newspapers had for months understood to be self-evident [262].
The theme of American naivete unto gullibility when faced with conniving Oriental slick dealing is well-worn by now, and makes me suspicious.  American elites have always tried to excuse their short-sightedness and (let's not mince words) incompetence and/or collusion with authoritarian regimes by claiming that they were babes in the woods, outclassed by tc the ancient wiles their opposite numbers deployed.  It's echoed by the Vatican apologists' claim that, confronted with sexually predatory priests, they were so unprepared to deal with such Evil that they could do nothing but send them to new parishes to prey some more.  In either case the defense is unconvincing, and could only be supported by immediate resignation, confessions of incompetence, and departure from public life, except perhaps as garbage collectors.

On the next page Ehrenreich continues:
In the end, the officials pinned the blame for the negotiations' failure squarely on Israel, and on Netanyahu's insistence on continuing settlement expansion throughout the talks: "The Palestinians don't believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when at the same time it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state.  We're talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less.  Only now, after the talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale." 

When I first read that line, I nearly coughed up a small piece of my kidney. "Only now," the unnamed official said [263].
And, of course, six weeks "after the talks collapsed ... Obama sent his secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel," to Israel to pledge eternal U.S. fealty, along with "$3.1 billion per year in foreign military financing, which is not only more than we provide to any other nation, but the most we have provided to any nation in American history" (264).

Which brings me to another bit of comedy.  After the end of the talks, Hagel's opposite number, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, complained to the same newspaper about Kerry's "naive and meddlesome 'messianic fervor' ...'The only thing that can save us ... is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Peace Prize and leave us alone" (234-5).

Of course, Ya'alon doesn't really want Kerry or the U.S. to leave Israel alone, any more than corporate CEOs want meddlesome big government to leave them alone.  Leave them alone -- but continue to send vast amounts of money, stand by them in the United Nations, and make it illegal for any Americans to organize boycotts against them.

The other examples I gave show that this is not a new problem in American foreign policy or diplomacy.  But once again, combined with Obama's (and his fans') feckless responses to domestic opposition, it makes it impossible for me to believe that he or his advisors know what they're doing.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

You Cannot Hope to Bribe or Twist

Avedon Carol's Sideshow continues to be a very useful source of links, but there's less discussion in the comments than there used to be.  I remember having some spirited debates there in 2008, especially.  Her blog is still prominent enough to draw fire from Democratic loyalists, however, and under the latest post is a fine example of the syndrome.  I'm going to quote the whole thing, because comments have a tendency to disappear over time as one commenting platform is replaced by another, and it might be handy to be able to quote this in the future as an example of a well-trained Clintonbot.
Every time the "lesser evil" debate comes up, it bears repeating that we could solve this once and for all with approval voting. And repeating, and repeating. The two-party monopoly is a function of the voting system, and that can be fixed.
Lots of luck fixing that; I can't see Clinton taking any interest in the project, or the party elites on either side.  How would you change the voting system, by the way?  By voting?
In this particular case, I have to say the "lesser evil" question looks pretty easy to me. Clinton has the most progressive Democratic platform ever*, and while she's more hawkish than Obama and that sucks, that would still makes her the second least hawkish president in over 100 years. Her opponent is a narcissist with ADD who's riding a wave of hate and wants to know why we don't just nuke more countries. I voted Nader because I didn't see the difference between Gore and Bush, and I think history has proven that there was one. But there is no doubt at all that, as inadequate to the deeper challenges as Clinton is, she's a damn sight better than Trump.
Nice footwork.  As far as I can tell, there's no need to prove that Clinton is the lesser evil to anyone but a Trump supporter.  If you're addressing a frustrated progressive or liberal who says that everybody must vote for Clinton because otherwise Trump will win, that Clinton is the lesser evil is already given.  The Sanders supporters who don't want to vote for Clinton aren't really interested in the question; they recognize that even if Clinton is the lesser evil, she's still very evil; even if she's not as dangerous as Trump, she's still very dangerous.  So this commenter, whether intentionally or out of standard partisan cluelessness, misses the point completely.

The commenter's defenses are of course debatable.  It's certainly open to question whether Clinton would be "the second least hawkish president in 100 years", especially if (as it appears) the least hawkish president is supposed to be Obama.  I'm not really interested in how progressive the current Democratic platform is, and I see no reason to suppose that this commenter is any better informed on that topic than on Clinton's hawkishness.

On the fabled difference between Gore and Bush, much beloved of Democratic loyalists, no one has any idea what Gore would have done if he'd become president.  I suppose that the commenter has in mind Gore's environmental campaigning after he became a more or less private citizen, but private citizens are much less constrained that elected officials, including American presidents.  (Again, it's funny how partisans oscillate between touting the great power of presidents on one hand, and denying that they can do anything on the other.)   Gore didn't distinguish himself as a progressive while he was vice-president, and I see no reason to suppose that he'd have changed if he'd gained the White House.  It might be pertinent to recall the difference between Jimmy Carter's inspiring behavior and pronouncements since he became a private citizen, and his squalid record while he was in the Oval Office.  For what little it's worth, I voted for Nader not because I thought there was no difference between Gore and Bush, but because the differences were too small to suit me.  Anyone who wants to argue this line should have to address the many continuities between Bush and Obama, in terms of hawkishnness and hostility to civil liberties at home.

"Her opponent is a narcissist with ADD who's riding a wave of hate and wants to know why we don't just nuke more countries."  I've become increasingly intolerant of Democrats who use mental illness as an accusation against Trump and his followers.  As far as I know, no mental health professional is in a position to diagnose Trump with any condition, so neither this commenter nor I know whether Trump has ADD for example.  Even if he did, mental illness (like mental retardation) is not a moral failing, yet it's clear that these Dems assume that it is.  If Clinton or Obama were known to have ADD or some other condition, their fans and their organizations would be spinning it in terms of a heroic individual's struggle with a cripping disease, and they would assure the nation that the illness would not hinder the candidate's performance in office.  It's especially ironic since a favorite anti-Trump talking point is his mockery of a disabled journalist a few months ago.  The wave of hate that has been directed by Democrats at Trump all along means that they're in no position to cast the first stone.
*Some would say "who cares about the platform, it's all lies." But history shows that, whether they truly believe it or not, presidents try to keep the majority of their promises. Go ahead and discount the Democratic platform by 1/3; it's still light years from Trump.
Would "some" say that?  Maybe.  "Some" will probably say anything you like; it's a big world.  Just how far apart Clinton and Trump really are is hard to say, and I don't see that it matters, certainly not enough to spend much time debating it.  For all that Trump has taken many vile positions, his lack of any real political experience means that he has no record to judge what kind of a president he'd make.  Not that I have any wish to find out, and his record as a businessman inspires no optimism anyway.  But "light years"?  I don't think so.  I guess that if you're one of the Good Guys, as the commenter evidently assumes him or herself to be, that kind of childish exaggeration ("thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis big!") is supposed to pass for rational discourse.  Once again, we see that Democratic apologists won't be satisfied if you recognize Clinton as the lesser evil; you must convince yourself that she's a positive good.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Making Honest Men of Us

The Blogger Formerly Known As IOZ linked to a bizarre essay on gay fiction at the Guardian.  Maybe "bizarre" is too strong: the piece exhibits the same highly selective sense of history that so many gay people cling to, but I still cling to the hope that people will learn.  It seems they never do.

The Guardian titled the piece "It's time fiction reflected gay married life," and that's largely what the writer, Matthew Griffin, is calling for.  After reading At Swim, Two Boys, Jamie O'Neill's fine novel of teen love during the Irish uprising of a century ago, Griffin says,
... I wanted to know what it was like for one man to love another – beyond initial attraction, beyond the passion of youth. At 18, I probably shouldn’t have been so worried about such things, but I’d read a lot of fantasy novels as a kid which ingrained in me a need for love to endure. I’d seen my parents’ marriage do this, but I needed to know if such a thing was possible for me, even if I’d have to call it by another name. And I needed to know what it would cost.

The gay literature I read in the years after that never quite answered my questions. Much of it is rooted not in the drama of long-term relationships but in the sharp pang of sex, in the search for love in immediate beauty and physical pleasure, often moving from one object of desire to another in quick succession.
As examples Griffin cites Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, and (mystifyingly) Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You, which was just published this year and could hardly have disappointed the teenaged Griffin.

Apparently determined not to miss a cliche, Griffin continues:
But the tremendous swell that pushed the marriage equality movement forward is evidence that many gay men want more than a life of sexual freedom and excitement – we want love and commitment and stability, even if we may not all want them in the particular forms our heterosexual friends have created.
He sums up:
Long-term commitment is now a real possibility. This changes the experience of desire, shifting our expectations and the meaning we attach to it. Our literature should account for this.
At least Griffin is clear that by "marriage" he's not referring only to state-recognized liaisons, but to all committed, long-term relations.  But how naive must you be to believe that legalizing same-sex marriage suddenly makes "long-term commitment ... a real possibility"?  On one hand, it was always a real possibility, even in the primitive 1980s; on the other, marriage offers no guarantee that the commitment will last.

One commenter on the article remarked, "You want a book to reflect a particular story, you write it."  Though it's mentioned only as the biographical blurb at the end, Griffin seems to have done just that: his first novel, Hide, will be published next week.  From the description, I'm not sure he's complied with his own requirements and strictures.  That same commenter added, "Literature does not have any kind of responsibility to reflect society, either real or ideal."

I agree with that, but my main criticism is that Griffin's complaint is unfounded.  The key word, I suppose, is "much of it."  True, much gay male fiction has been about "the sharp pang of sex, in the search for love in immediate beauty and physical pleasure, often moving from one object of desire to another in quick succession," but much of it has not.  (And it's not as if "much" heterosexual fiction weren't about the single life, or about courtship ending with the wedding, or about marriages cut short by failure -- the novel of adultery is common -- or tragedy.)  Much gay fiction has been about "the drama of long-term relationships," so much that I hardly know where to begin.  Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City novels, for example.  Michael Cunningham's Flesh and Blood and A Home at the End of the World.  Robert Ferro's The Family of Max Desir.  Christopher Bram's debut Surprising Myself is about a male couple, as are several of his later novels.  Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner.  Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Catch Trap.  Alan Hollinghurst's The Spell, even if it gave John Updike the vapors.  Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man is about widowerhood, so it probably wouldn't satisfy Griffin, but the dead partner is still present in his absence, throughout the story, and that too is a lesson about the drama of long-term relationships.  I recently read Paul Russell's Immaculate Blue, which is about a male couple's wedding, but it addresses the matters Griffin says he wants fiction to cover; besides, the couple in question were Living in Sin for years before they tied the knot, so they've already been living the long-term drama.  Samuel Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders follows a male couple over several decades together, and it's a reminder that long-term coupledom doesn't necessarily exclude sexual freedom and excitement at the same time.  Hell, if we don't limit the list to prose fiction, there's James Merrill's epic poem of life, death, afterlife, and Ouija boards, The Changing Light at Sandover.  Those are just off the top of my head, and I didn't even include lesbian fiction.  If I went over my bookshelves I could list quite a few more.  None of them are what you, or at least what I would call obscure.

So, my first and major objection is that Griffin misrepresents the current and past state of gay male fiction.  The kind of story he demands is and has always been told in some gay fiction; he has, of course, no right to demand that all gay fiction do it.  (I admit that he didn't quite demand that, but then it's not clear what he really was demanding, aside from the actual state of contemporary gay fiction.  Some of the commenters saw the piece as a ploy to promote his own novel, but I don't think so, partly because he doesn't mention it and mainly because the misrepresentation he makes is a staple of pop criticism.  Some of the commenters noticed the falsity of his complaint (at least one, perhaps out of a desire to sell his own kind of fiction, confused stories about marriage with boy-meets-boy romance), but most of them swallowed it whole, and I don't think they were selling anything.

My second objection starts from Griffin's desire to know more about the reality of long-term relationships.  I share that desire, but you won't learn what it's "like for one man to love another" from fiction.  Readers who believe that prose fiction or any other medium will give them reliable information about life will soon be disappointed.  Fiction uses real life as one of its raw materials, but writers aren't bound to depict real life accurately, and they don't.  It's at least arguable that depicting reality isn't what art of any kind is for.  (What it is for is another question, which has no single answer.)  Even when a novel describes a marriage, the description is not an end but a means to whatever artistic end the author is trying for.

If someone wants insight into the process of living for a lifetime with another person, nonfiction is probably a better resource, though it has its own limitations.  We have numerous autobiographical accounts of same-sex marriages, from Jesse Green's The Velveteen Father to Paul Monette's Borrowed Time to Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast to Fenton Johnson's Geography of the Heart.  We have the published diaries of coupled writers -- if Griffin wants an account of the process of two men building a life together, he could read Christopher Isherwood's diaries, which cover most of his thirty-odd years with Don Bachardy.  We have reasonably reliable non-homophobic, un-closeted biographies of gay writers, artists, and other notables who lived in long-term partnerships.  There are also research studies of male couples, starting in the Eighties with Charles Silverstein's Man to Man and David P. McWhirter and Andrew Mattison's The Male Couple, and self-help tomes like Eric Marcus's Male Couple's Guide: Finding a Man, Making a Home, Building a Life.  In sum, fiction and non-fiction already reflect married life, so why is Matthew Griffin unaware of it?

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Unbiased View Lies Somewhere in Between

Ted Rall did this better, but it reminded me of something I've been noticing for a while.  Just as both Americans and South Koreans oscillate between seeing North Korea as a weak, pathetic, ineffectual clown show on the one hand and an existential threat poised to rain nuclear missiles on Washington, D.C., so liberals can't quite make up their minds whether Donald Trump's laughable campaign has been doomed to fail from the beginning or is a sleek, streamlined fascist steamroller that will take Hillary down and impose a Nazi dictatorship on America if we don't clench our fists, squint real hard, and mock him on Facebook a dozen times a day.

Now that I think of it, such doublethink characterized the World War II-era propaganda cartoons that were recycled on TV when I was a kid: Hitler was a terrible threat, but mainly a clown, so we all must join hands and unite to destroy him without breaking a sweat.  One must simultaneously convince oneself of the danger, and deny that there's any danger.  But it gets comical when the contrary ideas are put side by side.

This Crazy Little Thing Called Gay Love

I finished reading Queer Wars last night, and I don't want to leave readers with the impression that Altman and Symons accept (let alone approve) the arrogance of Western-trained professional activists.  Their last chapter, "What Is To Be Done?" discusses the problem at length, and quite well.  In general it's a good book, especially for those who want an introduction to international LGBT politics.

There are, however, numerous bits in it that rub me the wrong way, and one of the most annoying was this quotation, on page 62, from another writer about Bangladesh:
Homosexuality is not shunned because of its criminal tag; it simply does not exist in the common mind as a variant of human behavior. This is a highly social culture with large and extended families, friends coming and going, eating and sleeping together at different times—all encased in strong social traditions. So what is this strange thing called gay love? Few have an answer.
The passage comes from a website, so I could go to the source.  It's not much better in its original context, an article called "Gay Life in Bangladesh" by one Richard Ammon.  Ammon has actually spent time in Bangladesh, but the tone of the article is normal Anglo travel writing about colorful natives and their exotic folkways, with a zest of sex-tourist prurience and sentimentality for subtext. 

So why do I object to this passage?  The fantasy of guys so culturally deprived that they have never even heard of Lady Gaga is of course a popular one, especially for those with a missionary temperament; also for urbanites who mistake their boredom with commercial gay culture (usually after spending a few decades immersed in it) for some kind of spiritual fastidiousness, and dream of finding a place untouched by Modern Life -- as long as they can get a good cell-phone signal there, of course.  The promise of untouched, unspoiled destinations is a common sell to tourists generally.  But eventually those other tourists start pouring in, and nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded.

If you identify homosexuality or "gay love" with its twenty-first century urban First-World manifestations (the Foucauldian fallacy), then you can persuade yourself and others that there's no
homosexuality where there are no mod cons -- no discos, no Internet porn, no (gasp!) Grindr.  While there is arguably a valid distinction to be drawn between "homosexuality" as an isolated practice and "homosexuality" as a specific cultural structure with a "scene" and institutions and ideology, most writers who draw that distinction can't sustain it consistently.  But the distinction is never hard and fast.  I can't fathom why Ammon assumes that "a highly social culture with large and extended families, friends coming and going, eating and sleeping together at different times—all encased in strong social traditions" somehow excludes same-sex eroticism and love.  If you put a bunch of males together, eventually some of them will start exploring each other's bodies, and some will realize that they prefer male bodies for this purpose.  (Muslim cultures are certainly aware of this "variant of human behavior.")  Even in cultures so benighted that they have never heard of RuPaul's Drag Race (oh, the humanity!), there are traditions of passionate same-sex friendship and sworn brotherhood.  It doesn't matter if those traditions didn't originally refer to copulation, because they will eventually be interpreted as erotic by people who need a precedent. (The ancient Greek reinterpretation of Achilles and Patroclus as erastes and eromenos is a classical -- pardon the pun -- example of this tendency.)

The capper is that closing rhetorical question.  Who are the happy "few" who "have an answer" to it?  Millions want to know.

Friday, August 5, 2016

You've Been Served: First World Problems, LGBT Activism Dept.

A couple of interesting and symptomatic passages from Dennis Altman's latest book Queer Wars: The New Global Polarization over Gay Rights (written with Jonathan Symons; Polity Press, 2016).
AIDS activism has often seemed inseparable from gay activism, and has contributed to the development of an emerging group of professional and skilled 'LGBT' activists, who have played crucial roles as brokers between communities and international institutions.  Moreover, the priorities of HIV activists, often well connected to an international movement such as the Global Future on MSM and HIV, have sometimes clashed with the needs of those for whom immediate survival is the major priority.  This is a not uncommon problem when well-intentioned activists seek to apply models developed elsewhere [46].
It's depressing that this is still a problem, decades after it was first identified.  I've been reading essentially the same diagnosis of cultural incomprehension by foreign activists since at least the 1980s, exemplified by the Mexican-born (but professionalized in the US) activist Hector Carrillo, who after only a few years away returned to Mexico totally clueless about the needs and hangups of the people he'd come to "help."  Outside of specifically gay or AIDS work the syndrome is far older.  In her 1901 novel Work: A Story of Experience, for example, Louisa May Alcott wrote about clueless "ladies" trying to organize "anxious seamstresses, type-setters, and shop-girls" in a manner that suggests that what she was describing was already a cliche -- and that was within American society, not on foreign shores.  Yet the "professional and skilled" activists are always taken by surprise, which indicates that something is badly wrong with their training.

The consequences can be worse than the embarrassment produced by patronizing ignorance, since as Altman and Symonds point out, there are countries where LGBT activism is highly dangerous for the locals, notably African countries whose governments reject "foreign" influence in the form of the gay movement, but not the equally foreign influence of Islamist and American Evangelical missionaries, let alone the weaponry and training of death squads that the American government has shared so generously around the world.
Writing of Namibia, Robert Lorway argues that the foreign-supported Rainbow Project 'not only inhibited important political possibilities, but sometimes also reinforced social inequalities'.  The emphasis of the project on law reform often seemed irrelevant to young and poor Namibians struggling to survive, while fascinated by a particular identity politics that threatened to alienate them from family and community [ibid.].
Don't these well-intentioned activists ever begin by educating themselves, by asking local workers what they need, and under what cultural and political constraints they must live and work?  For that matter, these American professionals tend to be ignorant of gay people's lives on the ground in their own country.   Professional and skilled they may be, but people skills seem to have been forgotten somewhere along the way, and that's a failure of basic competence.

I'm a bit suspicious about that passage on Namibia, though.  It treats the "young and poor Namibians" as if they were innocent, ignorant savages, just as those foreign activists thought they were: blank slates who need to be carefully taught.  It reminded me of the account of a South African workshop on "real gay" identity, described in the anthropologist Graeme Reid's How to Be a Real Gay, led by a local organizer (tainted, alas, by contact with activists in Johannesburg).  Reid was distressed that this workshop tried "to impose a standard norm on the myriad processes, performances, desires and identities that constituted gay life in the area of my fieldwork?" (Reid, page 154), but on his own account the participants, though not uncritical of the presentation, were fascinated by it.  A second workshop, on gays and the law in South Africa, was run not by a local but by professionals from Johannesburg, bored the queens and drove most of them outside.  That didn't mean they weren't interested in their legal status -- according to Reid, they brought questions with them -- only that the workshop was badly designed by people who didn't bother to learn how to communicate with non-professionals.  The conflict appears to me to be less about "East vs. West" culture clash and more about class, and to repeat, the problem lies in a basic failure of professional competence.

Still, in the West we've come to expect professionals to meet their clients at least halfway: to ask them what they need, and to listen to the answers; to try to explain without condescension what the professional has to offer.  This expectation too is a product of American activism in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically the Women's Health movement, and it's rooted not in professionals (though some professionals participated early on) but in grass-roots organizing by people who were tired of being pushed around and talked down to.  It's also a product of AIDS activism before the movement became professionalized.  That's a model that should be exported to the Third World, though it's probably already there; the Western-trained activists should respect and cooperate with it.

One more bit:
As one activist remarked of South Korea: 'Oppression is real and ubiquitous, yet invisible enough to make calls for advocating homosexuals' rights look "excessive" or "privileging"' [47].
I hope I don't need to point out that resisting oppression is always considered excessive by the oppressors, who regard any diminution or rearrangement of their status and power as an attempt to hang them all up from the lampposts, or at least to shoot a third of them.  Leaving aside the possible merits of such an approach, I've pointed out before that there's no reason South Korean or other Asian LGBT activists must model their movements on American precedents: they should take what they find useful, and leave the rest.  If a rights-based ideology and discourse aren't appropriate in a given country, that doesn't mean that gay people there have no recourse.  Every culture has its own traditions of justice and, yes, activism.  We in the West have often learned from them.  Yet even learned and experienced observers like Altman seem to have trouble recognizing that the influence has always gone both ways.