Monday, July 24, 2017

An Enemy of the Sheeple

Someone I know posted this meme to Facebook the other day.  The best part of it, of course, is the irony of someone bitching about social media on social media, denouncing those who won't look up from their screens while keeping her eye glued to the screen to search for memes to show how woke she is.  You can never go wrong attacking kids for real or fancied Internet abuse; it goes viral even after it's been debunked -- and who makes it go viral?  People with smartphones, of course.

A close second is that the supposed Orwell quotation is not actually by Orwell.  According to Snopes, it's cobbled together from some passages in Nineteen Eighty-Four for a 2017 stage version of the novel.  The reference to people looking up from their screens is a giveaway, since Orwell's telescreens were on the wall, like today's flat-screen TVs.  Whoever adapted it changed it to make it into a reference to smartphones.

I pointed this out to the friend who'd posted it.  Though she didn't get pissy over the correction, she replied that she hadn't checked the accuracy of the quote, she just posted it because she "liked the sentiment." 

While the attribution is not unimportant, it's more important to me that the sentiment is bogus. The Internet, cell phones, and social media have often been used to organize resistance to unjust systems: from the Sanctuary movement to the Arab Spring to Occupy to the movement that helped bring down President Park in South Korea this year. True, many people just watch cat videos and such, but if they didn't have smart phones they'd be watching soap operas or reading Harlequin Romances and dime novels, or playing Candy Crush, or going to bear-baiting and public floggings.  Many people probably watch cat videos, etc. and organize to smash the state; they're not mutually exclusive.

I don't mean to exaggerate the extent to which people use electronics for activism, let alone to celebrate social media as "new forms of language production" that will turn us all into awesome post-human cyborgs.  I have no idea how much screentime is spent on political activism compared to celebrity watching, or what the proportion ideally ought to be.  My point is just that people are responsible for the uses to which they put their phones and their social media.  Many people aren't happy about that thought, of course: they have their priorities, following college and pro football trumps informing themselves.  But most Americans have never had much interest in informing themselves.

And don't forget that governments don't regard smartphones and social media as the opiate of the people: that's why we have mass surveillance of these media, shutting down Internet access when the natives get restless, etc. Our rulers and owners would be happier, it's true, if people were as passive and manipulable as this meme pretends; and that's one reason for smug top-down propaganda like this -- which is obligingly spread by people who fondly believe they're better than the brainwashed Sheeple.  The friend who shared it is apparently a Democratic loyalist; I doubt she was bothered by Barack Obama's attempt to harness the Internet to keep activism against his policies in check, or by the vacuousness of much of the liberal #Resistance to Trump's election.  (We've known each other for a couple of decades, but didn't become friends on Facebook until the past few weeks. What she has posted in that time has been consistent in its politics, so it's probably better for both our blood pressure that we weren't friends during the 2016 election campaign.)  I'm going to make a meme of my own using a photo of a bunch of young people staring at their phones: there will be a thought-bubble coming from each one's head, as they think: "Gee, I'm glad I'm not shallow and stupid like all these dumb people who never look up from their screens!"

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Safety Exit

I just read The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957).  Originally published in Italian in 1958, it was promptly made into a prestigious epic motion picture by Luchino Visconti, with Burt Lancaster as the lead.  I decided to read the book before I watched the film, but now I wonder if I should follow through on the latter.  For one thing, I generally dislike dubbing, and the original version had Lancaster dubbed into Italian; a shorter version made for US release apparently has Lancaster's own voice speasking English, but I presume everyone else is dubbed.  For another thing, I suspect Lancaster was miscast physically: his character, Prince Fabrizio Corbero di Salina, has a "vast expanse of" belly under "his waistcoat" (7),* which doesn't sound like Burt.
Not that he was fat; just very large and very strong; in houses inhabited by common mortals his head would touch the lowest rosette on the chandeliers; his fingers could twist a ducat coin as if it were mere paper; and there was constant coming and going between Villa Salina and a silversmith's for the mending of forks and spoons which, in some fit of controlled rage at table, he had coiled into a hoop. But those fingers could also stroke and handle with the most exquisite delicacy, as his wife Maria Stella knew only too well; and up in his private observatory at the top of the house the gleaming screws, caps, and studs of the telescopes, lenses, and "comet finders" would answer to his slightest touch [7-8].
I find myself picturing someone more like John Goodman, if the actor must be American.  I don't quite believe any Hollywood actor, especially of that era, could play such a character convincingly, especially amid a mostly Italian cast.

But the main reason I'm now reluctant to watch the movie is that Lampedusa's prose (as translated, quite beautifully, by Archibald Colquhoun) carries the book.  It hasn't much of a plot, though I can understand why the vivid descriptions of people (aside from the Prince, his future daughter-in-law is described so sensuously that even I wanted to caress her), food, buildings, and Sicilian landscapes would have tempted Visconti.  Everyone who writes about the film mentions the forty-minute-long ball scene, based on the one in the book, which I'm sure will be visually gorgeous, but I doubt it can convey Lampedusa's voice and tone.  That's always a problem with omniscient narrators, which is why every film or TV adaptation of Jane Austen I've seen falls flat.

Austen's on my mind right now because, inspired by a book group discussing Pride and Prejudice on the bicentennial of her death, I'm rereading all her work.  Film and video can give you the costumes, the landscapes, the architecture and the decor, which, along with Colin Firth in a wet shirt, are what most people take to be what these stories are about; it's much harder for them to convey the author's attitude to his or her story.

Like Austen, Lampedusa was an observer, often acidly satirical, of his social world.  (Lampedusa was himself a prince, and The Leopard is based on his grandfather.  It's said that he began writing the novel -- the only one he wrote -- after the family palace was destroyed by bombing during World War II. He died of cancer shortly before it was published.)  So, for example, we are told of a Sicilian peasant:
In fact with his low forehead, ornamental tufts of hair on the temples, lurching walk, and perpetual swelling of the right trouser pocket where he kept a knife, it was obvious at once that Vincenzino was a "man of honor," one of those violent cretins capable of any havoc [202].
I think it was the word "ornamental," so carefully and meaningfully placed, that first made me think of Jane Austen in connection with The Leopard: it's the kind of touch she often employed.  Though she would never have written as Lampedusa did, of the young ladies at the ball:
The more of them he saw the more he felt put out; his mind, conditioned by long periods of solitude and abstract thought, eventually, as he was passing through a long gallery where a populous colony of these creatures had gathered on the central pouf, produced a kind of hallucination; he felt like a keeper in a zoo set to looking after a hundred female monkeys; he expected at any minute to see them clamber up the chandeliers and hang there by their tails, swinging to and fro, showing off their behinds and loosing a stream of nuts, shrieks, and grins at pacific visitors below.

Curiously enough, it was religion that drew him from this zoologic vision, far from the group of crinolined monkeys there rose a monotonous, continuous sacred invocation.  "Maria! Maria!" the poor girls were perpetually exclaiming.  "Maria, what a lovely house!"  "Maria, what a handsome man Colonel Pallavicino is!"  "Maria, how my feet are hurting."  "Maria, I'm so hungry, when does the supper room open?"  The name of the Virgin, invoked by that virginal choir, filled the gallery and changed the monkeys back into women, since the wistiti of the Brazilian forests had not yet, so far as he knew, been converted to Catholicism.

Slightly nauseated, the Prince passed into the next room, where were encamped the rival and hostile tribe of men ... Among these men Don Fabrizio was considered an "eccentric"; his interest in mathematics was judged almost a sinful perversion, and had he not been actually Prince of Salina and known as an excellent horseman, indefatiguable shot, and tireless skirt chaser, his parallaxes and telescopes might have exposed him to the risk of being outlawed.  But he was not talked to much, for his cold blue eyes, glimpsed under their heavy lids, put questioners off, and he often found himself isolated, not, as he thought, from respect, but from fear [222-3].
Lampedusa wrote about his era in retrospect rather than from within it, as Austen wrote about hers.  The social worlds of balls, crinolines, hunting, palaces, are very similar, though fifty years after Austen, the Prince knows that the order he represents is in decline. If she had lived a century later, and felt free to write about sexuality and politics (most of The Leopard is set in the mid-1800s, during Italy's transition to a unified "modern" state, and several of its characters play significant roles in that transition), and if she had lived long enough to write about old age from experience, Austen might have produced something like The Leopard.  But Lampedusa did produce it, and I'm very glad to have gotten around to reading it at last.

*Quoted from the 2007 edition published by Pantheon Books.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Public Office Is a Public Lust

(If I recall correctly, the title of this post comes from an Edward Sorel cartoon published during Richard Nixon's first term as President: it was the caption accompanying a drawing of Nixon, dressed like Napoleon, admiring himself in a full-length mirror.)

Last week I was leery of part of a post by Janine Jackson, in which she criticized the corporate media for their failure "to fulfill their obligation to serve the public interest."  I asked how anyone knows what the public interest is, and who gets to decide whether a given news organ is serving it or not.  If anything, the whole rationale of freedom of the press is to protect expression from government imposing an official line on what is said or published.

So I was a bit startled this morning when Democracy Now! played a clip of James Buchanan, a right-wing economist popular among Republican ideologues.
JAMES BUCHANAN: There’s certainly no measurable concept that meaningful—that could be called the public interest, because how do you weigh different interests of different groups and what they can get out of it? The public interest, as a politician thinks, it does not mean it exists. It’s what he thinks is good for the country. And to—if he would come out and say that, that’s one thing. But behind this hypocrisy of calling something "the public interest" as if it exists is—that’s—that’s what I was trying to tear down.
Should I be upset that I agreed with some of this diatribe?  The guest Nermeen Shaykh was interviewing, historian Nancy Maclean, was quite upset by it.
NANCY MacLEAN: ... I just want to underscore for listeners those words: "That’s what I wanted to tear down," the idea of a public interest. You know, when we try to understand the mayhem that’s unfolding all around us, the ugliness that’s out there, the gross, you know, aspersions on people’s character who are trying to, you know, help people in our society—right?—and make a better country, that’s where this comes from. So that was Buchanan’s idea, yes, is that we’re all just self-interested actors, and nobody is telling the truth.
I'm not so sure about this.  For one thing, Trump also pretends that he cares about his subjects, that he wants to take care of them, to protect their jobs; he promised not to cut Medicare or Medicaid.  He pretends that he wants to protect the Homeland from internal and external enemies.  So do most of the Republican leadership.  They pretend that they want to replace the Affordable Care Act with something that do a better job of providing them with affordable health care.  They're lying, of course.  But then so are the Democrats, who've not only shown their willingness to undermine the well-being of most Americans in favor of corporate elites, but have been no less busy than Trump indulging in ugliness, casting aspersions on people's character, and so on.  So Professor MacLean is being less than fullly candid herself.

I think the first truth that ought to be recognized is that while we can honestly talk about the good and the interests of varying pluralities and majorities, it is probably impossible to satisfy everyone.  There will always be a tradeoff between the good of some and the good of others.  To speak of the public good or the public interest is disingenuous unless the speaker acknowledges that one person's good may not be so good for another.  In that sense Buchanan is quite right.

But to be fully honest about the interests James Buchanan and Republican and Democratic elites want to advance and serve would lead to problems.  I think that one reason politicians and corporate elites talk glowingly about the public good is that even they don't want to see themselves as the rapacious greedheads that they are.  Still, they often let their utter selfishness slip.  Which is fine, but they are always surprised when other people's selfishness is poised to clash with theirs.  Capitalists want state -- which is to say, public -- support and subsidy, not to mention immunity for the crimes they commit.  They want, in other words, other people to take care of them.  And by Buchanan's criteria, why should we do so?  Why should I care whether Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Jamie Dimon makes another billion dollars?  When pressed, they often splutter that they aren't just thinking of themselves: they resort to the dogma that while entrepreneurs may be selfish the free market (another fiction as mythical as "the public good") is good for everybody -- that the public good is served by their greed, that a rising tide lifts all boats, and so on.

I'll gladly abandon the concept of the public good, if the capitalists will.  But they won't: it's a smokescreen they find very useful.  Nor will they abandon the myth of the market.  I think we can -- or we had better -- find ways to talk about the needs and wishes of most people, to discuss public policy in meaningful ways, while remaining honest.  If not, there's no reason why the majority of people should let Buchanan, Trump, the Clintons, or all the other corrupt elites enjoy their ill-gotten gains.  That would probably lead to chaos and horrible destruction, but so, it seems, will the path Buchanan would prefer that we follow.  That will lead us to a plutocracy, a kleptocracy, even worse than the one that currently rules the country.  The rich can buy (and have bought) their own private police forces and armies; they can and do run their own propaganda agencies.  It's hard for those with other interests to match their clout.

And those who want, despite everything, to talk about the Public Good had better be as specific as possible about exactly which public they mean, and why other segments of the public aren't included.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Some Good Questions

And then this question of intelligence, -- are we too much, too readily impressed by mere articulateness?  I mean, is Raymond really a more intelligent person than the subaltern here who has commanded Indians all his life? How would Raymond come out of it, if he were suddenly put into a position of responsibility and authority?  How would his appreciation of the finer shades serve him then?  And which is the more important?  Or is it merely a question of difference, not of degree?

Besides, so far as feeling goes, I suspect there is as much feeling in the terse remarks of the subaltern, -- "Jolly day, -- jolly the mountains look, -- topping view," --as in any amount of verbiage.
-- Vita Sackville-West, writing to Virginia Woolf from Tehran, 23rd February 1927

[The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska (Morrow, 1985), p. 178]

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Question of Priorities

I mostly agreed with this piece by FAIR's Janine Jackson up until the last couple of sentences.
... And that’s the thing to remember: Every person you see on air is there because someone chose to put them there, and is taking the place of someone else who might be there.  So when they, say, trot out the “n-word” and say it’s less “a race thing than a comedian thing”; when they ask an Indian-American spelling contest winner if she’s “used to” writing “in Sanskrit” because they’re “joking”; when they lament a commemoration of the now, they care about pop music and going to the beach”—the thing to keep in mind is that Orlando Pulse shooting being used to agitate for gun control because “most gay people aren’t political. Most gay people, you know, they care about pop music and going to the  beach" -- the thing to keep in mind is that freedom of speech is not the same thing as a guaranteed right to a megaphone. It is always appropriate to ask media outlets why they have chosen these people over others to fulfill their obligation to serve the public interest.
I think it's at least arguable that freedom of speech is the same thing as a guaranteed right to a megaphone.  Having the "freedom" to say whatever you like while you're alone in a soundproof room, or to write whatever you like as long as no one but you ever sees it, is not what I'd call freedom of speech or the press.  This has always been a problem with the implementation of freedom of speech, and the proprietors of today's commercial media would, I think, basically agree with Jackson here: Sure, you have the right to say whatever you like, but we're not obligated to give every tinfoil-hat wacko a soapbox and a megaphone for his crazy ideas.  So buy your own megaphone!

It was the part about the media's "obligation to serve the public interest" that bothered me first, though.  I agree that it's appropriate to challenge the media over the criteria by which they choose the people they provide with a megaphone, not because they aren't entitled to put anyone they like in front of the microphones and cameras, but because the corporate media posture as much about their responsibility to the public as Jackson could wish.  Even the most degraded and reactionary of our media claim to be telling the public what it wants and needs to know.  They wave the flag and prattle about their sense of duty to Truth, and their eternal quest for Objectivity.  It would be better to acknowledge that all media are partisan, that the corporate media report the news "through the eyes of the investor class" as another writer at FAIR put it very aptly a few years ago.  Non-commercial media are often no better: I happened to hear BBC commentary the morning after the recent UK election, and it was pretty appallingly partisan: even the pundit from a nominally Labour paper was upset by Labour's victory, saying younger voters voted for Labour because Corbyn had simply promised to give them money, and the woman from a Conservative women's website kept giggling about how Corbyn was like ninety years old, even after she was corrected.

The question is, what is the public interest?  Who knows it, and how do they know it?  Again, the corporate media would protest that they do so serve the public interest to the best of their  ability.  The principle underlying liberal, Enlightenment mandates like freedom of the press is that no one does know where the true public interest lies, so it is important that as many viewpoints as possible be available.  This may be invalid -- a surprising number of liberals and progressives jeer at it -- but if so, we should just repeal the First Amendment.

I think that consumers / users of media also need to take responsibility for their choices.  Everything you see on media is something you've chosen to watch or listen to, and it means that you're not listening to or watching something else.  There are many options available, probably more than ever before.  Even better, there are media criticism resources like FAIR, and unlike the media generally, they show their work: why is this statement dubious, what could this story contain that it doesn't, and so on?  No one can really do your thinking for you, so you have to evaluate the information you take in.  No media source is infallible, and every media source must be used critically.  If you prefer not to do that, it isn't the fault of the media (as a whole) if you end up misinformed.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Feverishly Patriotic and Irrational Effusions": Fake News in the Eighteenth-and-a-Half Century

I recently read Benjamin Franklin, Politician: The Mask and the Man (Norton, 1996) by the late Francis Jennings, a historian whose work has been very instructive for me.  The book is a relatively brief, revisionist (though not hostile) take on Franklin's rise to prominence before the American Revolution; Jennings dug around in the archives and found some information that hadn't been taken into account before.  It describes the history of the colony of Pennsylvania, which was a relative enclave of religious liberty in that period, complicated by mismanagement both of its founder, Wiliam Penn, and his son Thomas.

I especially liked this passage, about an attack on the colonial government written by a young Anglican priest, Thomas Barton, a protege of William Smith, who was in turn a protege of Franklin's.  Franklin didn't know that Smith later spied on him for Thomas Penn.  In 1754 Smith wrote anonymously "an incendiary pamphlet, entitled A Brief State of the Province of Pennsylvania, intended among other things to "induce the Parliament to take measures for the future security of this Province by excluding the Quakers from the Legislature."  The pamphlet "aroused a great future in Britain" (99).
Barton brought copies of [William] Smith's Brief State pamphlet, already in circulation in England, attacking the Assembly, the Quakers, and the Germans. It made such a "prodigious Noise," and was so far-reaching in its intended and unintended effects, that it deserves in some detail.  Its title page describes its author as "a Gentleman who has resided many Years in Pennsylvania."  This set the keynote for the pamphlet's deceptions; Smith, at the time of writing it, had visited Philadelphia for several weeks in 1753, and had resided there less than eight months in 1754.

The pamphlet opens with a brief review of population statistics on the generous side, and lays down maxims of government.  Popular government is all right for infant settlements, it says, but as communities grow their government should become less popular and more "mixt."  Pennsylvania has become more of "a pure Republic" than at its founding.  A "speedy Remedy" is needed.  The province has too much toleration: "extraordinary Indulgence and Privileges" are granted to papists.  (They were allowed to celebrate mass openly.)  The Quakers conduct "political Intrigues, under the Mask of Religion."  (As all the organized religions did, in England as well as America.)  For their own ends, the Quakers have taken "into their pay" a German printer named Saur, "who was once one of the French Prophets in German, and is shrewdly suspected to be a Popish emissary."  (Saur was an Anabaptist, fiercely independent.)  The "worst Consequence" of the Quakers' "insidious practices" with the Germans is that the latter "are grown insolent, sullen, and turbulent."  They give out "that they are a Majority, and strong enough to make the Country their own," and indeed they would be able, "by joining with the French, to eject all the English inhabitants ... the French have turned their Hopes upon the great body of Germans ... by sending their Jesuitical Emissaries among them ... they will draw them from the English ... or perhaps lead them in a Body against us."  The Quakers oppose every effort to remedy this evil state of affairs, attacking all "regular Clergymen as Spies and Tools of State."  Thus the Quakers hinder ministers from "having Influence enough to set them right at the annual Elections."  The greatest German sect is the Mennonites -- people like the Quakers.  A quarter of the Germans are "supposed" to be Roman Catholics.  (Even Thomas Penn understood that there were only about two thousand Catholics in the province.  But he did not make that knowledge public.)  [106-7]
Smith's diatribe should sound familiar to observers and consumers of American political discourse today: furriners who refuse to learn our language are taking over, to impose Canon law on decent Christians. and pacifist surrender-monkeys not only want them to succeed, they are actively in the pay of Putin!

The other day someone shared this meme on Facebook:

It turns out, surprisingly enough (it's a meme spreading like a radioactive virus on Facebook, after all) to be a genuine quotation.  One commenter called it "prescient," which was, um, stupid since Bonhoeffer was not talking about the future but about Nazi Germany in his present and recent past.  I pointed this out, and the commenter replied that he didn't mean it "foretold" anything, which was probably a lie, or to put it more nicely, apologetic invention; he proceeded to tie himself in knots trying to justify it.  It was as if he'd found a passage where Bonhoeffer referred to sunrise, and kvelled that the sun came up this morning, so Bonhoeffer was prescient about that.

Of course it's a common and "natural" human tendency to take literary or other material from the past as not just relevant to the present as well, but as a specific reference to the present: Christianity, for one major cultural force, was built on such appropriation of the Hebrew Bible.  And like the ancient Christians, today's American liberals think of all history as a prelude leading up to themselves, the crown of creation and the fulfilment of all human hope, as foretold in the scriptures.  Liberals love to jeer at fundamentalists for thinking like this, but they are treading the same path every time they claim that today's Right is completely unprecedented.

The reason why the Bonhoeffer quotation should give Americans pause is not that he was foretelling American's future, but that he was describing a problem that was current then, had a long history worldwide, and has not gone away since then.  Thinking otherwise helps foster the dangerous illusion that things used to be different, the media used to tell the Truth, people used to be good to each other, America was the land that didn't torture, Barack ended the wars, etc., and all the Democrats need to do is take America back.
But it's also dangerous to think of "stupid people" as the Other.  I am stupid, you are stupid, we're all stupid here, or we wouldn't be here.  I told another liberal commenter on the Bonhoeffer meme that I too have given up on talking to stupid people, but that was just rhetoric.  It's always important to answer, rebut, and try to refute positions and statements we think are stupid.  True, we probably won't convince the people we're criticizing, but we might persuade someone else who reads what we've written.  That's the point of debate -- to persuade not our opponent, but our audience.

So that's why I liked Jennings's book and the passage I quoted here, though I suppose it could just as easily make people feel hopeless: if people have always been dishonest and irrational, then why even try to oppose them?  It's a question I don't have a good answer for, especially since dishonesty and irrationality so often win.  But it's possible to make them lose too.  If we remember how persistent they are, though, we won't be surprised when they bounce back.  We might even be able to think of ways to resist and stop them before they get the upper hand again, instead of wailing, "Oh no, this is unprecedented, where did these people come from, why are they being so mean?"

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Cart Before the Horse

This tweet made me feel a twinge of despair.  What I think we need is not hope but reason for hope.  And there is some of that, in the wake of Labour's resurgence in last week's election.  But this confusion of the word with the thing itself is magical thinking, the kind of linguistic determinism I associate with the Culture of Therapy, and the reponses to the tweet indicate that I recognize it correctly.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Human-Caused Climate Change

It's going to take time to sort out everything about today's shooting of several people at a Republican Congressional baseball practice by an apparent Bernie Sanders supporter and volunteer, and I could use that as an excuse not to write about it now.  But one thing seems clear to me.  For the past year and more I've been watching liberals, progressives, and leftists fantasize aloud about and even endorse violence against Republicans and other right-wingers, from the video clip of a football player tackling a Trump lookalike (shared on Facebook by my friend A, who unfriended me soon after I called her out on it) to the widespread kvelling over the punching of Richard Spencer.  Whatever the facts about James T. Hodgkinson turn out to be, I think it's indisputable that liberal Democrats have been energetically fostering what they call a "climate of hate" when it's fomented by the Right.

They'll do their best to evade responsibility for their words, of course, just as the Right did after the shooting of Gabrielle Gifford.  They'll try to claim that Hodgkinson was mentally ill, a lone nut, and that the vitriol liberals and some leftists have been spewing in public for the past year -- and especially since the election of Donald Trump -- had nothing to do with his crime.  Maybe so, maybe not: Hodgkinson died in the hospital after he was shot by police, so he can't speak for himself; but apparently he had a rather vivid social-media presence.

I believe that we are responsible for our actions and our words, and that words mostly are not actions.  We can't be held responsible for everything that happens after we've acted or spoken, because it's not always certain whether something like this crime was a consequence of public rhetoric.  But it's notable that liberals and progressives have insisted often that the Right's rhetoric made such crimes more likely -- that "climate of hate" -- while giving themselves a pass for their own intemperate and often hateful rhetoric.  The denial that is so by many liberals, like the person in the photo that heads this post, is not only illiberal but a declaration of war on the principle of free speech.  I've often told liberals who claimed that "hate speech" isn't constitutionally protected that they should be glad it is, because otherwise they themselves would be in deep shit.

But then the rest of us are in deep shit too, as both mainstream US political factions gleefully drag the country (and the rest of the world) down.  "The creatures outside looked from pig to man," at the ending of Orwell's Animal Farm, "and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

P.S. Yes You're Racist has been active in fostering a climate of hate on Twitter, joining hands with the white supremacists he purports to despise, so this morning's retweet was almost funny:

It is okay to spread toxicity if it gets retweets and favorites on Twitter apparently.  Some of us don't need to "rethink things," though.  A rich white lady got hurt a few years ago, after all -- has YYR already forgotten Gabrielle Giffords and the eighteen other people shot during a constituent meeting in Arizona six years ago?  Six of them died, including a rich white guy and a little girl.  YYR and his ilk are paradigm examples of what so many left writers call "tribalism," the belief that only our side's lives matter.  If it's not okay to spread toxicity, it doesn't matter who gets hurt.

And, of course, some in the liberal media are blaming Putin for Hodgkinson.  Why not?

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other

I doubt it myself: More likely Americans will just hope for a new president they can deify, while demonizing the one currently in office.  Republican loyalists always found it easy to remember that Obama was human, and Democratic loyalists can see Trump's feet of clay without corrective lenses.  The hard part is not to deify the president you support, and most people seem to find it not just hard but impossible.

This meme, whose creator apparently removed it from Twitter after it was criticized, fits in nicely here:

The most obvious point the meme's maker overlooked was that he or she was describing Donald Trump.

I have to wonder whom it's addressed to.  Many liberals and progressives took exactly these points into consideration when they voted for Clinton.  Clinton won the popular vote; she only lost in the Electoral College.  Those who voted for Trump and tilted the Electoral College in his favor were mostly not, as far as I know, liberals or progressives.  So this appears to be just one more party-loyalist attack on the thought criminals who Let Hillary Down, though it's not clear just how they (we) did so. Things have come to such a turn that a loyalist like this could admit, if only rhetorically, that Clinton was not a very inspiring candidate, and so on.  That's of no importance.  More important is that whoever made this still has no idea what went wrong.

Some responses on Twitter indicated that the mememaker, faced with these and other criticisms, has deleted the tweet in which it appeared, saying that all they meant was that we should be good to each other, or some such vacuous prattle.  But this sort of barely passive-aggressive attack on the voters he or she pretends to be appealing to is the exact opposite of being good to each other.

... Posting has, I confess with tears and in sackcloth and ashes, been sparse around here lately, and I'm afraid it's not going to improve much very soon.  I may be moving to a new residence, and while everything is up in the air I'll be even less likely to write.  But I'm still alive and functional, at least in principle.

P.S.  Seth MacFarlane reposted the "Dear Liberals and Independents" meme on Twitter.  Someone replied with a corrected version:
Of course, that won a scolding from a Clintonbot.  Maybe a meaner version of the meme is called for.  I'll give it some thought.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Does Not Nature Itself Teach You That a Woman Should Not Shave Her Pits?

This item appeared in my newsfeed this morning because my Diversity-Manager friend commented on it.  (Names, except mine, are obscured to protect the guilty.)  In a way, his ex cathedra pronouncement was predictable, and of course I myself agree that women shouldn't be required to shave their body hair, any more than they should be required to wear the hijab or cover their heads when they meet a supreme religious leader.

What messed with my mind was DMF's simplistic appeal to Natural-Law doctrine, which I don't think he'd invoke in most contexts, and certainly not with regard to transgender issues.  (He may well not have realized he was doing so: he's not the most careful thinker.)  Quite apart from the fact this doctrine is a mainstay of antifeminist, antigay and antitrans bigots -- though the Born-Gay argument also relies on it -- it can't be applied consistently to human beings.  Nor does anyone do so: I alluded to the apostle Paul's decree that "nature" teaches that women shouldn't cut their hair but men should do so.  The passage is a marvel of incoherence, which is what one usually finds when people invoke Nature for any reason, for any cause (via).  (It's fascinating to me that some arbitrary religious requirements inspire contempt, while others inspire awe, with no criteria for the difference that I can discern.)

People shouldn't be required to modify their bodies in certain ways, but cutting or shaving hair, trimming nails, covering or uncovering themselves, painting or otherwise adorning themselves, are so ubiquitous in human cultures that such practices can reasonably called "natural," though no particular modification should be mandatory.  And anyone who denounces one given modification almost certainly will favor another.  Which practices (if any) should be forbidden can only be decided by deliberation and judgment, not by appeals to Nature or any other fixed rule. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

But Some of My Best Friends Are Cock Holsters!

Just as I was about to let Stephen Colbert's unfortunate "joke" about Trump and Putin sink slowly into the past, various people kept kicking it back to the front of my consciousness.  So, for example, Roy Edroso dismissed US Representative Jason Chaffetz last week as "a little bitch who remained lashed to his great white Hillary whale long after everyone else abandoned ship because pretending to be a tough guy is all he knows how to do."  Edroso got his metaphors a bit mixed up there, but these are troubled times and we've got to do something.  Then, yesterday, Edroso mocked country singer Toby Keith, who performed for an all-male audience in Saudi Arabia during Trump's visit there:
I like to imagine Keith getting a call: "Hey Tobe! It's me, Faisal. How'd you like to pick up a quarter mil easy money? All you have to is change some lyrics -- you know, 'Pellegrino for My Horses, Mango Nectar for My Men.'" Or maybe it's not that kind of relationship, and Keith came wrapped in a rug?
The link goes to a clip from the 1963 Hollywood blockbuster Cleopatra, in which Elizabeth Taylor has herself delivered to Rex Harrison wrapped in a rug, thereby signaling her sexual availability or something.  So Edroso wants us to think of Keith as Faisal's little bitch.

Then this morning liberal tweeter Yes You're Racist invited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to "eat my entire ass."  YYR is a better person than I am; being rimmed by McConnell would just make me feel dirty.  (Or as the lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel had a character say in one of her early strips, "I thought sodomy meant having sex with a Republican.")

These examples, which of course could be multiplied, are useful partly because they disprove the straight-liberal-guy protestation that calling somebody a faggot is not a reference to gay sexual practices, that they are totally cool with gays boning gays, they totally support gay marriage, they just don't like "Servants of power.  You know - faggots."  But as Colbert and Edroso and YYR show, they equate being a servant of power with being penetrated sexually, which they regard with visceral repulsion.  So how do they think of the women in their lives?  I probably shouldn't ask.

Another reason I almost didn't write about all this was that Brandon U. Sutton wrote an excellent piece about the controversy at Progressive Army.  Sutton said most of what I'd intended to say.  For example:
First, and while this may seem churlish, what Colbert said was not even particularly clever or funny. Arguably, it was barely even a joke, since jokes have a certain structure from which they derive some of their humor. Colbert saying that the only thing Donald Trump’s mouth is good for is as a “cock holster” was just an insult that people found funny.
"Funny" is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but I think he's right.  "Cock holster" is the kind of epithet sixth-grade boys consider hilarious: not because they have any personal experience of fellatio from either end, but because they're extremely anxious about bodies.  Which reminded me of a couple of sketches from Colbert's show during last year's campaign, in which a young boy played Trump's "nickname strategist."  It appears that Colbert took the boy on as one of his writers.

That many conservatives objected to Colbert's insult was unsurprising -- not because it was "homophobic," which they would normally consider a good thing, but because it targeted someone on their side.  If, during the 2008-2016 period, some comic had called Barack Obama a cock holster for Benjamin Netanyahu, would liberal Democrats have considered it just a joke?  For that matter, I recall Colbert himself adopting a stance of unironic submission to then-President Obama, who ordered him to get a military buzz cut to show his solidarity with Our Troops in Iraq. "Servant of power" would have been a perfect characterization for Colbert in those days, and depending on whom he's bending the knee to, it still is.

I don't want Colbert fired.  I just want to name what he's doing.  His liberal defenders have had to resort to right-wing insults against his critics, such as "virtue signalling."  But virtue-signalling is Colbert's stock in trade.  One Colbertista on Twitter responded to me in those terms: "Thanks for another example of our virtue signaling culture where everyone is perpetually offended."  To which I replied, "I'm not 'offended' by his homophobic insults; I'm a faggot, they just roll off. They just undercut his signalled virtue."

But there's another thought: one reason we're not supposed to say such naughty things is that they'll drive gay kids to suicide.  So why does Colbert get a pass on it?  Because he's on Our Side, one of the Good Guys, and anyway, liberals are happy to use homophobic / misogynist rhetoric against their enemies.  (Don't imagine that kids wouldn't hear about what Colbert said, even if it weren't freely available the next day on YouTube.  That's another right-wing fantasy, that children will know nothing of homosexuality if we can just keep Teh Gay out of the media.)  I'm not seriously worried about Colbert affecting youth-suicide rates, of course: I'm just savoring the smell of hypocrisy in the morning.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Milestone

The first post of this blog went online ten years ago today.  Just saying.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

These Snowflakes Don't Melt!

There was a TV tuned to CNN while I was standing in line at Subway yesterday, and I noticed that Van Jones was on.  I see that Jones is now a CNN commentator, the role he was born to play, which means that somewhere along the line this "grassroots insider," who was briefly a "White House insider" and became a grassroots outsider again, is now a corporate insider.  Only in America!

Thanks to closed-captioning I could follow what Jones was saying.  HuffPost provides a partial transcript:
“When he ran he was this tough guy,” Jones said Thursday night on “Anderson Cooper 360.” “This guy who’s going to get things done, this great negotiator.”

He continued:

“He was Trumpzilla. He was going to make Washington bow down. He was going to drain the swamp. Now he’s President Snowflake. Everything he says, ‘Oh, they’re mean to me, and they don’t like me, and I just don’t understand it and it’s not fair.’”

Jones said that kind of talk might appeal to Trump’s base, but to everyone else, “he looks increasingly bizarre.”

“It turns out you don’t have Trumpzilla,” he concluded. “You’ve got President Snowflake."
Jones is still cute, and still dumb.  I doubt that he remembers his own snowflake moments of a few years back (via):
What you saw going on was a right wing in sheer panic mode. They threw out the rule book. And you had provocateurs like Glenn Beck, Breitbart, Andrew Breitbart, now the late, stepping forward and basically taking a relatively advanced information system and firing into it lies, smears, viruses, for which we had no antibodies. So they bug-zapped me. They bug-zapped ACORN, and knock out the entire Democratic Party "get out the vote" operation with one video. They go after Shirley Sherrod. And for several months, the body politic does not know how to react to this virus. Finally, with Shirley Sherrod, a line gets drawn, and people begin to realize, "Wait a minute, it turns out you can have people on national television saying crazy stuff like that and getting away with it." And eventually, with the advertising boycott, he gets pushed off the air. But there was a moment when the White House itself was rocked back on its heels, because we had an information system that was very advanced, but a wisdom system that had not yet caught up to what tricksters like Beck and Breitbart could do. And so, that’s the moment that we were in.
As I remarked at the time, the Obama administration's failure to anticipate and recognize right-wing hostility (which began as soon as Obama became a national figure, long before he became President) was a crucial failure of competence: they just didn't understand it and it wasn't fair. What Jones calls "panic mode" was also typical of right-wing media during the Clinton administration and earlier; but this sort of convenient tactical amnesia is common in mainstream political discourse: whatever happened to civility?  Of course that kind of talk appealed to Obama's base, so he didn't have to indulge in it himself very much; his devotees took this line and ran with it.  Since Obama threw Jones and Shirley Sherrod to the sharks, the Democrats have largely decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and moved into full-blown panic mode themselves.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Well Done, Thou Good and Faithful Servant!

An excellent article on XPOTUS Barack Obama's legacy.
You can usually judge a person pretty well by their friends, and nobody who voluntarily spends his free time with Bono should be trusted.
Sorry, I couldn't resist quoting that; the Devil made me do it.  Ahem:
The most important aspect of the story is not that Obama accepted Cantor Fitzgerald’s offer, but that the offer was made in the first place. Indeed, it’s hard to escape the impression that certain powerful interests are now rewarding the former president with a gracious thanks for a job well done. Rather than asking whether Obama should have turned down the gig, we can ask: if his administration had taken aggressive legal and regulatory action against Wall Street firms following the financial crisis, would they be clamouring for him to speak and offering lucrative compensation mere weeks after his leaving office? It’s hard to think they would, and if a Democratic president has done their job properly, nobody on Wall Street should want to pay them a red cent in retirement. Obama’s decision to take Cantor Fitzgerald’s cash isn’t, therefore, some pivotal moment in which he betrayed his principles in the pursuit of lucre. It’s simply additional confirmation he has never posed a serious challenge to Wall Street’s outsized economic power.
Of course it's too early to pronounce on the legacy of the new POTROK, Moon Jae-In, but his beginning has been promising.
It has only been five days since the presidential election, but the government has already agreed to convert irregular workers at Incheon International Airport to regular status before the end of the year, lifted the ban on sing-alongs of “March for the Beloved” (a song associated with the Gwangju Democratization Movement), recognized the short-term teachers who died on the Sewol Ferry as having lost their lives in the line of duty, and temporarily shut down aging coal plants to deal with fine particle dust air pollution. These are some of President Moon Jae-in’s swift actions. President Moon is attracting attention by carrying out the promises he made during the campaign one after another, making personal visits and starting with the promises that only require an executive order or the revision to an enforcement order.
Once it was clear he'd won the election, Moon made an appearance in Gwanghamun, the site of the candlelight vigils in Seoul, showing solidarity with the popular movement that agitated for the removal of former president Park Geun-Hye from office. (He'd participated in the vigils almost every week for months, in fact.)  No wonder there's so much concern about Moon in American elite media. And of course it's important not to exaggerate his liberalism. (You want cynicism? That article is cynical.) I remember all too well the dashed hopes among my Korean friends over Roh (or Noh) Mu-hyun, also a former human rights lawyer who became president of South Korea.  (Moon worked in Roh's election campaign.  It's a small country.)  The extraordinarily corrupt Park Geun-hye was an easy act to follow; Moon is going to have to do more than coast on not being Park.  But hey, he has a hot bodyguard; that should keep criticism at bay for a while.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

An Example to Us All; or, Just Say No

I don't know about you, but I don't need this kind of negativity in my life.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Blood and Pleasure

Glenn Greenwald and a few other malcontents have been poking at the outrage expressed in respectable circles over President Trump's alleged "affection for totalitarian leaders [which] has grown beyond Russia’s president to include strongmen around the globe."

Very entertainingly, the Washington Post article by Philip Rucker I just linked has been altered, adding the words in bold type to make it somewhat less obviously absurd: "Every American president since at least the 1970s has used his office at least occasionally to champion human rights and democratic values around the world."  As Greenwald says, it's still not true.

But then, these claims shouldn't be taken literally.  Nor should most mainstream political discourse.  They are declarations of faith, pledges of allegiance.  In the anthropologist F. G. Bailey's terminology, they are examples of the moral mind at work.  By paying tribute to America's high ideals and practice, one establishes one's bona fides and qualification to participate in serious commentary.

Even non-mainstream commentators feel the need to say such things.  I've often referred to the late Molly Ivins's lament from 2007:
What happened to the nation that never tortured? The nation that wasn't supposed to start wars of choice? The nation that respected human rights and life? A nation that from the beginning was against tyranny? Where have we gone? How did we let these people take us there? How did we let them fool us?
Ivins certainly knew better than this.  (Which probably can't be said for Phillip Rucker.)  I daresay she'd have turned her considerable powers of mockery on any Republican who'd said such things.  But before you can oppose a war, or criticize your President's fondness for dictators, you have to wave the flag.  So too Katha Pollitt felt compelled to assure her readers that she's "never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World" before criticizing US policy in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.  (This ploy never deflects the criticism from jingoes, of course.)

Glenn Greenwald himself has come a long way, since he wrote in 2008:
Yes, I'm well aware that the U.S, like all countries, was deeply imperfect prior to 9/11, and that many of the systematic excesses of the Bush era have their genesis prior to 2001. The difference (a critical one) is that what had been acts of lawbreaking and violations of our national values have become the norm -- consistent with, rather than violative of, our express values and policies.
And this was in a fine post detailing and condemning Bush-era crimes.  At that time Greenwald still was a bit nervous about going too far out on the political spectrum; he's become much more comfortable since then, following facts and principles where they lead even if it infurates self-styled moderates.  He's posted a good article today on US support of dictators since World War II, though the policy is older than that.

Something else should be remembered, though: mainstream commentators, including (or especially) liberal ones, have always seen human rights as a bargaining chip to be used with "authoritarian" regimes rather than something desirable in themselves.  As Stephen Walt put it early in the Obama administration, "No U.S. President--not even Jimmy Carter--was ever willing to spend a lot of blood or treasure solely to advance human rights, and Obama isn't going to be the first."  This was quoted with approval (via) by Eyal Press, a writer at The Nation.  Notice the bit about "blood and treasure," a virtual Homeric epithet that tends to turn up when someone wants to pretend that doggone it, the US has just been too idealistic about defending human rights at home and abroad, and we can't afford to do it anymore.  Expending blood (of dusky foreigners) and treasure in the service of suppressing human rights, however, is just fine.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Slums of Jerusalem?

I just read Arundhati Roy's new book, The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste (Haymarket Books, 2017), about the debate on caste in India between Mohandas Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar, an important Untouchable activist educated at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, who wrote the Indian Constitution. 

There's a lot of history and politics to assimilate from Roy's account, and I don't feel I can comment on most of it because I don't know enough about Indian history and culture.  But this paragraph brought me up short:
Perhaps because the Western Christian world was apprehensive about the spreading influence of the Russian Revolution, and was traumatized by the horror of the First World War, Europeans and Americans vied to honour the living avatar of Christ.  It didn't seem to matter that unlike Gandhi, who was from a well-to-do family (his father was the prime minister of the princely state of Porbandar), Jesus was a carpenter from the slums of Jerusalem who stood up against the Roman Empire instead of trying to make friends with it.  And he was sponsored by big business. [location 1243 of the Kindle version]
That last sentence is a swipe at the support Gandhi received from Indian industrialists, especially G. D. Birla, who "paid him a generous monthly retainer to cover the costs of running his ashrams and for his Congress party work [location 1183]."  For now I'm concerned with Roy's characterization of Jesus, which is at best debatable.

Jesus was certainly not "from the slums of Jerusalem," but from the boondocks of Nazareth in Galilee, a week's journey away from Jerusalem.  I wonder where Roy got this; I can't recall ever having seen Jesus assigned to Jerusalem before.  Roy grew up in a Christian community in Kerala and attended something called the Corpus Christi School for part of her schooling, so she must have been exposed to Christian lore.

As for Jesus' social status, it's impossible to say anything sure about it.  The famous Nativity stories set in Bethlehem are absent from Mark, which was probably the first gospel to be written, and from John, which may have been the last of the four canonical gospels.  In Mark, Jesus is known in his hometown of Nazareth as "the carpenter, the son of Mary" (Mark 6:3); his father is unnamed, but he has several brothers and sisters.  Tektōn, the Greek word translated as "carpenter," refers to a woodworker as opposed to a metalworker or stonemason.  Jesus' neighbors' dismissive reaction to him in that verse indicates that he wasn't anyone very special, certainly not a Torah scholar or scribe, let alone a priest.  But he probably wasn't a slum-dweller either.

The gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy claiming Jesus' adoptive father Joseph as a descendant of King David, but there must have been quite a few of David's descendants around, so I don't know how exalted a status that gave Jesus.  The gospel of Luke has a similar (but different) genealogy for Joseph, and also depicts Jesus' mother Mary as a relative of the wife of a priest in the Jerusalem Temple.  We'll never know whether these stories were meant to boost Jesus' social status; one would think that being the incarnate Son of God would be distinguished enough.  I  don't think they have any historical basis at all, but that's something that will never be settled.  But if they do, Jesus' family compared well to Gandhi's in their class status.

Jesus' stance with regard to the Roman Empire is equally uncertain.  What is certain -- as certain as historical facts can be -- is that he was crucified, which means that he ran afoul of the Roman authorities who controlled Palestine in those days.  According to all four gospels, Jesus' cross bore the legend "King of the Jews," so it is likely he was executed as a political offender.  But from the gospels it's impossible to tell what his offense was.  This, like Matthew and Luke's genealogies, is understandable as an attempt by literate early Christians to make Jesus less scandalous and more respectable.

We also have Jesus' famous saying, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."  Asked whether Jews ought to pay taxes to the Roman Empire, Jesus asked his challengers to show him a coin, which bore Caesar's likeness, and delivered that clever, evasive reply.  That it was evasive is shown by the many different interpretations it has inspired.  It wasn't enough to prevent his capture and execution by the Romans, but then according to Christian doctrine it wasn't supposed to. 

All four gospels show Jesus being just as cagey when he was brought before the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.  It's unlikely, of course, that Jesus' followers had any accurate information about what happened between his arrest and his crucifixion.  These stories were probably invented to show how Christians should behave when they were hauled before Jewish or Roman authorities.  But they don't show Jesus 'standing against' Rome.  Remember that Jesus was, according to the gospels, an end-times preacher, not a political activist.

As for "sponsored by big business," the gospels also agree that Jesus had some well-off followers who supported him financially, such as Joseph of Arimathea and  "Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance" (Luke 8:3).  Luke also has the story of Zacchaeus, a "chief tax-collector" who was so impressed by Jesus' cold reading of his background that he became a follower and supporter.  This story too may be an invention meant to instruct converts, but we know from Paul's letters that there were some well-to-do Christians in the early churches whose donations helped support the apostles and "the poor."  Like many religious leaders, Jesus' relation to the wealthy and to the state appears to have ambivalent.

This is a sore point with me, that I've written about before: educated, intelligent people who make remarkably misinformed claims about religion.  Jesus' politics are, as I've tried to indicate, open to considerable debate, but placed next to "the slums of Jesusalem," I don't find Roy's comparison of Jesus and Gandhi compelling; it seems to me that they may have been more alike than different.  Since I'm not a fan of either man, this isn't a problem for me.  Nor does it have a big impact on Roy's account of the enduring harm of the caste system.  It's just another of those curious lapses about religion that afflict many politically progressive writers.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

For the Win!

Katha Pollitt has a new column at The Nation chiding those who use the word "McCarthyism" with regard to concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.  She makes some valid points, mainly that the power of the State is mostly not involved this time; indeed, as she says, "this time around, the state is firmly in the grip of the supposed victims of the witch hunt. Donald Trump isn’t a high-school teacher who once subscribed to The Daily Worker; he is president of the United States."  True enough, and I'm not worried about Trump or the members of his administration; nor, I feel sure, are the writers she's criticizing.

She overlooks some things, though.  I think they're important.  "But why," she asks rhetorically, "is it unbalanced, overwrought, irrational, or crazy to suspect that Russia hacked the DNC?"  It's not, and while I haven't read every writer she's criticizing -- they're mostly regulars at The Nation, which I hardly read anymore -- those writers I have read concede willingly and explicitly that it's not unreasonable to have "suspicions," and have called for a serious, nonpartisan official investigation into the accusations. " Which, she admits, "indeed, The Nation has called for in an editorial, albeit one that mostly debunks the possibility that anything happened or, if it did, that it mattered."

The trouble, which she doesn't address, is that the accusations surfaced in articles in the corporate media, almost all of which all turned out to be false and were retracted as soon as they were published, only to be replaced with new falsehoods.  Journalists who pointed this out were accused by Democratic loyalists (who seemed to have forgotten that the USSR hadn't existed for over twenty years) of being in the pay of Putin.  Having suspicions is one thing, unfounded attempts to smear critics are another.  Did that Nation editorial debunk "the possibility that anything happened," or the manufactured panic over the possibility?  I'd bet the latter, and that is entirely reasonable.

Pollitt can hardly be unaware of all this, so she must be conveniently forgetting it.  She dismisses the claim by some of her targets that the fuss has been a "distraction"
that focusing on Russia distracts Democrats from accepting the blame for Hil
lary Clinton’s defeat and appealing to voters by attacking Trump’s terrible policies. But why can’t we do both? Even Bernie Sanders, no apologist for Hillary, has asked what Russia might have on Trump.
Again, this is less than fully candid, as shown by Pollitt's characterization of Clinton's campaign.  Of course "we" can do both.  The trouble is that the Democrats haven't been doing both.  Focusing on Russia has allowed them not to attack Trump's terrible policies Because Putin.
In fact, alleged Russian interference in the election has been a pretty successful issue for the Dems. A Quinnipiac poll at the end of March found that 66 percent of Americans support an investigation by an independent commission, and 65 percent think the alleged Russian interference is “very important” or “somewhat important.” Keeping the heat on the issue has also helped destabilize the Trump operation—Manafort and Flynn are gone, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from any investigation into Russian meddling, as has Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, a Trump ally and chair of the House Intelligence Committee. I wouldn’t call that distracting; I’d call it fighting to win.
This tends to support, not refute, the suggestion of distraction.  Like The Nation's editors and other thought criminals, I also support an investigation by an independent commission, which is not the same as accepting that the accusations are true.  I notice that Pollitt doesn't mention the poll which found that 50 percent of Democrats believed that the Russians had hacked the American vote in November to give Trump the victory.  "I wouldn't call that distracting; I'd call it fighting to win."  Really?  What do ordinary Americans, to say nothing of ordinary citizens of other countries targeted by American bombs, get from this "win"?

Pollitt's tone is more reasonable than that of media hacks like, say, JoyAnn Reid of MSNBC or Keith Olbermann, but I think that's superficial.  (Never mistake moderation of tone for moderation of content.)  She tiptoes around the core questions, and is not quite honest about the position of the colleagues she criticizes.  She used to be one of the main reasons I subscribed to The Nation; now she's one more reason I don't.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Hm, They Left Out a Few Things Here ...

... You know, things like: war criminal, trampler upon civil liberties, Deporter-in-Chief, and unbelievably sanctimonious asshole.

And now the former President, hot upon interfering in another country's elections yet again -- even though he's not in office anymore! -- joins the ranks of Wall Street beneficiaries.  There's no need to miss him; he will be with us always, even unto the end of the age.

Monday, April 17, 2017

My Psychological Research Orientation

I'm not sure of the ethics of posting this material, so I'm going to err on the side of reticence.

This morning I received e-mail from the person who now runs the GLB Speakers Bureau I ran for a quarter-century, announcing a visit to campus by a distinguished academic psychologist who does research on gender, gay youth, and suchlike.  The visitor will be giving two presentations, one tailored for undergraduates and another for graduate students.  Copies of flyers for the events were attached.  Here's the description for the grad students:
Scientists and laypeople have recently taken great interest in sexual orientation, especially if the person is a parent, friend, or romantic partner. Despite the common belief that assessing sexuality is straightforward, it is a difficult construct to assess. The most traditional method is self-report. Alternative, tech-oriented methods have recently evolved to correct complications: genital arousal, implicit viewing time, fMRI scanning, eye tracking, and pupil dilation. These are briefly reviewed with consensus findings. However, they fail to distinguish sexual from romantic orientation and to assess the full spectrum of sexuality. Thus, the real lives of individuals are misrepresented. A new sexual identity, mostly straight, is used to illustrate.   
So, "great interest in sexual orientation" is "recent"?  I wonder what timescale he's using; I wouldn't call a century and a half (at least!) "recent" myself.  And that's only if you limit that interest to the modern European medicalization of sex.

The syntax of the first sentence is a trainwreck: where does "the person" come in?  Is a person equivalent to his or her sexual orientation?  Are scientists and laypeople all heterosexual?  By "sexual orientation" he seems to mean homosexuality only, as if heterosexuality were not a sexual orientation.

I wonder about "the common belief that assessing sexuality is straightforward."  That belief is evidently common among scientists as well as laypeople, given the amount of research that relies on self-report for classifying the sexual orientation of subjects.  Since there is no other way to "assess" a person's sexual orientation, I wonder how "tech-oriented" methods can be any better.  If, for example, someone's pupil dilation appears to be at odds with his or her declared sexual orientation, what does it mean?  Do pupils only dilate because their owner is erotically aroused?  Should a person be required to re-arrange his or her erotic life to conform to such data?  Given the very limited state of knowledge in this area, I'd be very wary of putting too much weight on these methods.  It's odd, at the very least, that scientists should believe (or be said to believe) in the ease of assessing sexuality, almost seventy years after Kinsey demonstrated just how difficult it is.

The visitor seems to have similar reservations: these methods, he says, "fail to distinguish sexual from romantic orientation".  Unfortunately he misunderstands the term "sexual orientation," which refers to the sex of the people one desires erotically.  Since "romantic" love involves erotic interest and desire anyway, it makes no sense to distinguish it sharply from the erotic.  (Of course, none of these terms are particularly precise, and the professionals who use them generally fail to define them with any clarity for their research or other purposes.)  If a person is "romantically" drawn only to people of his or her own sex, the sexual orientation of his or her "romantic orientation" is homosexual, or same-sex; and so on.

Unluckily, or maybe luckily, this presentation will be taking place while I am at work.  It would be interesting to see if this psychologist makes any more sense in person.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Social Injustice Warriors

A strange article at The American Conservative today: George Hawley, billed as "an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama," takes on the question of White Guilt.
One of the most persistent tropes on the racial right is that the major cultural institutions in the United States aggressively push a story of white guilt. The media and the education system—from pre-K to postgraduate—are the most frequent targets of this accusation, though increasingly churches are also charged with being strongholds of the “Social Justice Warriors.”

According to this narrative, white Americans face a constant barrage of derision, persistently hearing about the evils of their white-supremacist ancestors and the unfairness of their current unearned privilege. They are told that their racial sins can never be truly washed away, but they can achieve partial atonement by signing onto various progressive causes, especially generous immigration policies and policies designed to uplift African-Americans...

I do not challenge the veracity of any of these stories, though I am not sure how one would objectively, numerically, and conclusively demonstrate that the leading cultural institutions in America are pushing an anti-white message. People who attempt to do so typically just gather collections of anecdotes, and that is a game that both sides can play. The left, after all, has long argued exactly the opposite, proclaiming that white supremacism is pervasive throughout society.
Hawley then cites one study, which finds "only a minority of white Americans admit to feeling any kind of guilt about race ... This was even true of young whites that supported Bernie Sanders."  This susprises him: "even though I believe that most white Americans do not really feel guilty about race, I did expect more to at least pretend to do so."

Hawley's argument seems thoroughly muddled to me.  

1) Right-wingers claim that Social Justice Warriors want white people to feel guilty. 
2) Some rather spotty evidence suggests that white people don't feel guilty.  
3) Therefore the SJWs have failed in their quest to make white people feel guilty, Q.E.D.

Since Hawley's major premise is at best dubious and probably false, he has no argument.  It's worth noticing other strange moves he makes: what do "generous immigration policies" have to do with white guilt?  Most anti-immigrant policies in the US have historically been directed at people we'd now consider kind-of-white: Italians, Greeks, Jews.  The Middle Easterners that racists are now trying to keep out of the country are as "white" as those groups.  The bit about "policies designed to uplift African-Americans" is also revealing.  The primary aim of the Civil Rights movement was to stop racism; racial "uplift" was supposed to come from within the "race."  I suppose Hawley has affirmative action in mind; if so, he doesn't understand that policy.

Notice too the false equivalence of "The left, after all, has long argued exactly the opposite, proclaiming that white supremacism is pervasive throughout society."  I think one can make a better case that white supremacism is pervasive throughout American society than the "opposite," since after all white supremacy was enshrined in the law and other institutions for most of our history, and attempts to de-institutionalize it met with intense organized opposition that haven't stopped to this day.

But even if this position were false, it isn't the "opposite" of the "racial right" claim that the Social Justice Warriors hate white people and want us to feel guilty.  Hawley couldn't even phrase his straw man to include the term "guilt."  Invoking guilt is, as I said, a distractive move.  The white racist denunciation of collective guilt in this case is amusing, given their own fondness for assigning collective guilt to their opponents, real and fancied.  Blacks, Muslims, feminists, liberals, homosexuals, Social Justice Warriors are faceless collective entities.  Only straight white males are atomistic individuals with no connection to each other.  Any similarities between the behavior of one straight white male or another (or millions of others) are purely random and coincidental.

One of the commenters who agreed with Hawley (not all did) declared that "the Christian notion of original sin has been transposed by secularism from something that is common to all humans to the property of white, straight, males."  Blaming "secularism" is odd, given the prominent role of Christian ministers from conservative denominations in the Civil Rights movement.  Whether this transposition happened or not, I take it that the commenter accepts the notion of collective guilt -- except for straight white males, who are responsible for nothing, especially not their own attitudes or behavior.  Racism is just part of original sin, I suppose, and nothing can be done about it until the Kingdom comes and we all have new, resurrected spiritual bodies.

I'm a 66-year-old white male of leftish politics.  As far as I can remember, the Civil Rights movement never aimed to make white people feel guilty.  Nor did the women's movement.  I myself have never been asked to feel guilty for being white or male.  (That's not to say that it has never ever happened in all of history; movements for social justice have their share of irrational doofuses, just as movements for social injustice do.)  What the Civil Rights movement asked for was an end to racism.  White racists and apologists for racism often reacted by trying to characterize this as a demand for them to feel guilty, which would of course have been a useless demand since they have no conscience.  But it was a distractive move, whether conscious or unconscious.  I don't want them to feel guilty, though: I just want them to stop.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Cooler Than Me

I spotted The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band (PM Press, 2016) on display in the window of a hipster bookstore in San Francisco last year, and made a note to look for it when I got back home.  I found it in the public library and just got around to reading it.  It's by Michelle Cruz Gonzales, former drummer of Spitboy, a female punk band that, I confess, I hadn't heard of before, though they got around a lot, touring most of the US, Europe, and Japan in the early 1990s.  Spitboy didn't consider themselves part of Riot Grrl because "we had formed Spitboy in the Bay Area [as opposed to the Pacific Northwest where Riot Grrl spawned] during the early days of their movement [therefore independently of Riot Grrl], we didn't endorse separatism, and we didn't want to be called girls" (10).  She's now married and a mom, and "teaches English and creative writing at Las Positas College" (135).

The Spitboy Rule is a good read, with plenty of anecdotes from the life of a female punk band on the road.  It seems to me that Gonzalez downplays the sexism she had to deal with, giving more space to stories of support from male musicians, roadies, and fans; which is fine, it's her book, and it's good to know that so many guys were supportive.  Gonzalez had plenty of other issues on her plate, having grown up brown in small-town California, daughter of a single mother.  So when she encountered punk rock in the late 80s, it inspired her.
Punk rock: the loud, hard, angry, fast music attracts angry people, angsty teenagers, social misfits, kids whose parents are too strict, straight, Christian; ... seemingly normal kids who don't feel so normal on the inside.  Interestingly, punk rock attracts working-class kids, kids who grew up in poverty, and kids from privileged families  [2].
Yet it seemed to me that in many ways, by identifying with punk she jumped from the frying pan into the fire.  She presents punk as a highly conformist (though she doesn't use that word) environment, obsessed with coolness and one-upmanship.  That the movement gave breathing room to kids like Gonzalez is to its credit, though I suspect it was more because it stood on the shoulders of the politics of the 1960s than because many white male punks were all that enlightened.  (The ambivalent politics of punk has often been discussed, inside and outside the movement.)  Kids who'd grown up hearing about feminism and the Civil Rights movement were readier to imitate and build on those precedents. Punk also stood on the shoulders of the economy of the Sixties even as that economy was collapsing.  But there were lots of relatively cheap instruments and other equipment, you could press your own records more cheaply than before, and the cassette made it even easier for DIY musicians to record and distribute their own music.  The proliferation of copy shops facilitated the production of zines.

But punk was a youth movement, so it was simultaneously rebellious and fiercely conformist.  It's not easy to tell from Gonzalez' account how much of her hangups about fitting in were due to the punk scene and how much was due to her personal insecurities -- assuming, of course, that those can be separated.  Gonzalez was poor and dark-skinned, and though "I was never allowed to fit in" (3), fitting in was what she craved.
In the 1990s, before we understood race and class privilege, we just thought it wasn't cool if you grew up in the suburbs.  It wasn't cool to be from Walnut Creek, Concord, or Fremond, but a lot of punk kids who hung around the East Bay Gilman scene grew up in those cities.  It wasn't cool to be from Walnut Creek because that meant you came from money, and it wasn't cool to be from Fremont because that was total suburbia.  But of course not everyone could be from Berkeley, Oakland, or San Francisco.

It wasn't cool, especially in my mind, to be from a small town either.  Small towns were too quaint, not gritty enough, too provincial.  The only person who thought it was cool that I was from a small town, from Tuolumne, was Aaron Elliott of Crimpshine.  He even thought it was cool after I took him there one summer.  I worried that after taking him to Tuolumne that he'd think otherwise, but he didn't... 

Aaron was also the rare guy who thought it was cool to date a girl drummer ... [15-6]
As I read this I kept trying to remember if I'd had the same insecurities about being a Midwestern small-town / rural kid when I was growing up in the 1960s.  I certainly wanted out of that environment, but when I did I don't remember believing that I should be ashamed of my background.  After all, children don't get to choose where or by whom they are born or raised.  (Their parents aren't in total control of those factors either.)  Because of my reading I knew that city people could be every bit as provincial as rural people.  Despite my personal insecurities, I don't think I'd have been intimidated if anyone had sneered at my background, which isn't personal.  Being queer, being smart, being an atheist, being a compulsive reader -- those are personal.  But I don't recall ever encountering anyone who sneered, or worrying about it.

Gonzalez, by contrast, was obsessed with being cool -- which, ironically, means standing out, not fitting in -- so she found the parts of the movement that shared her obsession.
Even though neither the suburbs nor a small down got you punk points, being from a small town like Tuolumne was the opposite of being from a place like Walnut Creek ... Until the age of twelve, we didn't have a TV in the house.  For many years, my mom did not believe in television, an idea she learned from her Bay Area hippie friends.  It was convenient not to believe in something that she couldn't afford.  The first TV we had in our house belonged to her first serious boyfriend after she separated from my sister's father.

Even before the punk points system I was influenced by own set of standards, and for somebody who had become interested in politics and social issues, not having a TV was actually quite a detriment [17] ...

When Nicole, Suzy, and I got to San Francisco inn 1987, everyone seemed so much more sophisticated, so much more punk. We weren't hicks, but we had grown up in a hick town and we didn't want it to show [18].
"Punk points system"?  There's Anarchy for you.  I grew up far from the epicenters of cool in my own generation, and I began to suspect as early as my first years in college that I'd gained as well as lost by that. 

Paradoxically, though, the punk scene gave Gonzalez room to grow in positive ways.  So she was able to stand up (though not alone, she had her band) against an entertaining attack that came from within the scene:
When we released our Mi Cuerpo Es Mio seven-inch, a riot grrrl from Olympia accused Spitboy of cultural appropriation.  The riot grrrl had ties to the Bay Area and she was white.  Maybe she really believed the accusation. Maybe cultural appropriation was a new concept to her, one that she learned at Evergreen College and felt applied to us, or maybe she was just pissed off at Spitboy because we had distanced ourselves from her movement.  She objected to our use of Spanish for the title of our record and accused us of stealing from someone else's culture, in particular the words "mi cuerpo es mio," which translates to "my body is mine."

Apparently my body was invisible [86-7].
This isn't the best rebuttal, as it dodges several issues.  Gonzalez knew very little Spanish herself, mostly picked up from her grandmother; her ownership of Spanish, mostly acquired by study, is about like mine.  Her anxiety about being brown, the only Mexican in her band and one of few in punk at the time, indicates that for a long time she wished her body was invisible; if she'd been more güera, more able to pass as white, she probably would have.  (She goes so far to say that "there was something self-hating about" the fact she'd "really only dated white guys in bands" before the guitarist José from the Latino punk band Los Crudos from Chicago [117].  Maybe, but the shortage of brown guys in the Bay Area punk scene might have had something to do with it too.)  I'm not sure whether she dismisses the concept of cultural appropriation altogether, or was just scoring easy points against a critic.  But it is funny, and not uncommon, for protectors of cultural purity to run afoul of their own ignorance about the ancestry or other salient traits of people they criticize.

But I like the way that The Spitboy Rule grapples with, skates over, dances around these issues.  I'm glad I happened on it.