Friday, October 13, 2017

A Hundred Selves

Through the windy night something
     is coming up the path
     towards the house.
I have always hated to wait for things.
     I think I will go
     to meet whatever it is.*
I should probably avoid sites like The Neglected Books Page; it's not as if I need to learn about more books that I might want to read, after all.  There are hundreds of books piled around my apartment that I want to get to, and I hardly need to add to them.  Or do I?  I think that is really a metaphysical speculation, so I'll leave it there.

The fact remains that a couple of evenings going through Neglected Books's archives pointed me to several books that I hadn't known before, and was glad to have discovered.  Isabel Bolton's The Christmas Tree, for example, originally published in 1949, with a gay man as a key character.  And I just finished reading Elizabeth Coatsworth's Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, which pleased me even more.

I've long been interested in books about aging, by aging people, whom I see as pioneers advancing before me into the country of Old Age -- less and less before me as I get older myself.  May Sarton's journals were the first for me in this genre, if genre it be; then Jane Rule's writings, both fictional and autobiographical, about old age.  I've also returned to books by older women writers who were well-known in the mid-twentieth century but are less well-known now.  I tend to think of them as "lady" writers, which I've come to realize is unfair.  Many of them have rather old-fashioned styles, but when I become accustomed to their manner I find that they are more realistic, hard-headed and honest than most of their male contemporaries.  Coatsworth (1893-1986), probably most famous for her 1931 Newbery-Medal children's book The Cat Who Went to Heaven, led quite a life.  She traveled around the world from an early age, usually with her sister or her mother, and didn't slow down much even after she married (rather late) and became a mother.  She and her husband -- also a writer -- settled in Massachusetts and Maine, which puts her close to some other interesting writers, like Sarton, Ruth Moore, and Marguerite Yourcenar.

Personal Geography was Coatsworth's last book, though she lived another ten years after it was published.  It's a collection of short pieces that cover parts of her life from childhood to her years of widowhood.  I was struck by her travel descriptions, some of which took place a century ago, in Europe and Asia very different from what they later became; since she lived into the 1980s, she saw many changes and paid attention to them.  Nor did she idealize the past too much:
I loved China the most.  At that time it was half ruinous, with the especial sadness and poetry that hang like a mist over ruins; I doubt if I should care much for communist China, though it may be a better place to live in [89].
I did not know travel at its dawn, as Marco Polo might have claimed, though he, too, had many predecessors.  But it was at my dawn, and the early light lies on my memories.  We never went on tours, or by schedule: we followed our whims stayed for a day or a week or a month in one place, or struck off at a tangent when someone told us of some wonder.  Only once did some pilgrims to the high Buddhist monasteries of the Korean Diamond Mountains look at us in wonder as the first white people they had seen (and examined our clothing almost to our skin) but we traveled at a time when all ports did not look alike and when people, East and West, wore the clothes their ancestors had worn. I should never feel such joy traveling in today's homogenized world [181-2].
To each her own!  I'm even more impressed by Coatsworth's travels when I consider that this was before air travel, cheap international telephone calls, credit cards, bullet trains, to say nothing of the Internet.  Nor was the world in those days necessarily safer.  I get a lot of joy from traveling in today's homogenized world, and I think I'm too much of a sissy to dare what she, her sister, and her mother dared to do.

Like Ruth Moore, Coatsworth appreciated her rural neighbors but wasn't sentimental about them:
When a lightning storm begins after dark, the farmers and their wives always dress, to be ready to save the stock if the barn is struck.  Fire, the unknown -- one begins to fear the things that the farmer fears.  And one understands more and more their helplessness before bad neighbors or tramps.  Each man is so isolated.  He does not dare make enemies: someone may dig up his potatoes, but the farmer does not dare voice his suspicions; someone may carry away one of his sheep, but he does not dare rouse bad blood, that may end in a burning barn or a fire in his woods [128].
Ah, the good old days!  And she's matter-of-fact about her aging, failing body.
I forget words (the other day I came to a full stop because I had lost "button" from my mind), and generally use a synonym because I know that any word is better than none.  I forget names, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that I have always forgotten them.  The long-ago day comes back to me when a stranger asked me my name -- I was perhaps six -- and the sudden quesetion drove it entirely from my mind.  I still remember the bewildering feeling of "I don't know who I am"; and perhaps I still feel it [157].

These remarks are necessarily self-centered, but not by intention.  They are written primarily for people of my own age or for those who are approaching it, to discuss honestly the problems which we all face.  It is my good fortune to have inherited, nothing so dashing as courage, but acceptance of what cannot be changed, and a willingness to enjoy the small gifts of life which still are so plentiful if one will look for them [158].
She's good company.  I'll hang on to this book, as I have to May Sarton's journals, and refer to it now and then as I catch up with her.
*Elizabeth Coatsworth, Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography (Brattleboro VT: The Stephen Greene Press), p. 183.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Conspiracy Theories for Me ...

Guess who said this:
Much of this is being carried out stealthily, in closed sessions, with as little public notice as possible. Other Republican policies are more open, such as pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, thereby isolating the U.S. as a pariah state that refuses to participate in international efforts to confront looming environmental disaster. Even worse, they are intent on maximizing the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous; dismantling regulations; and sharply cutting back on research and development of alternative energy sources, which will soon be necessary for decent survival.

The reasons behind the policies are a mix. Some are simply service to the Constituency. 
Noam Chomsky, of course.  It's an excerpt from his next book of interviews with David Barsamian of Alternative Radio, due to be published in a couple of months.

I'm an admirer of Chomsky, I've read most of his books on politics, and I've learned a lot from him.  I also have some significant disagreements with him.  Like just about everybody, he's critical of conspiracy theories, but when I read this excerpt it occurred to me that if you took it out of context, you could easily accuse him of being a conspiracy theorist.  (He often has been accused of just that, particularly his discussions of the media.)  Especially the coy epithet "the Constituency," referring to "the Constituency of private power and wealth, 'the masters of mankind,' to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase," but also the dark references to the Republican agenda being pursued and enacted out of the public view.  This is, of course, exactly what is being done in Congress, as with the Obamacare repeal bill -- though also, as Chomsky knows, with Democratic initiatives like the Transpacific Partnership "free trade" pact: when legislators know that they are working on a highly unpopular bill, they will want the populace to remain safely ignorant of what they're doing.

As I've said before, conspiracies do happen, and dismissing theories about them out of hand is dishonest.  The question is the quality of the theories, which is often difficult to assess when you're dealing with secretive activity.  As Richard Seymour wrote (via) earlier this year, one sign of invalid conspiracy theories is their "assumption of omniscience": the conspirators know in advance how their opponents will respond, and have already prepared countermoves to exploit and defuse the efforts of the Resistance.  They are also, in Patricia Roberts-Miller's sense, demagogic: the theorist is the good Us, the conspirators are the wicked Them.

Chomsky isn't a conspiracy theorist, but I think that this interview shows how difficult it is for even a careful thinker like him to avoid adopting the tone and rhetorical tactics of a conspiracy theorist.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Freedom of Expression for Me But Not for Thee, One More Time

A friend posted this tweet by Billie Jean King this morning:

I suppose that King meant "public condemnation" to imply "public condemnation by the President," but even if so, she's wrong.  And since she left out the specific case, I'll begin with the more general statement she actually made, since many people would agree with it.

Freedom of expression does not mean that a person may not have to face public condemnation.  If you express unpopular views, or just views detested by a large number of people (who may not be the majority), you can expect to be condemned publicly.  Liberals and progressives are just fine with this principle for views they detest -- Republicans, Bible thumpers, white racists, Donald Trump.  In many cases they demand not just condemnation but the suppression of such views by the State.  It's only when opinions they agree with encounter pushback that they become more purist, though they are ready to demand the suppression of the views of their critics, as King did.

The First Amendment, and the general principle of freedom of expression, assume that there will be public debate, without making any assumptions about the quality of that debate.  (And a good thing, too, since the level of public debate is generally not high.)  What is important is that someone should be able to express a highly unpopular opinion without being silenced -- by the State or any other force.  Someone who wishes to express a highly unpopular opinion had better expect to encounter hostile responses; one very annoying tendency visible among liberals is that, for example, they should not be made to "feel like an outcast" (via) for taking an unpopular stand.  This would be bad even if they didn't feel that no such consideration need be extended to those whose opinions they hate.

It's to their credit that the athletes themselves, as far as I've seen, don't seem to be demanding that they not be criticized.  Perhaps because most of them are black and are therefore closer to political struggles of the recent past, they knew from the outset that standing up against the majority would make them lightning rods for hostility. 

Now I'll address what I take to be King's more specific reference to President Trump's attacks on the athletes who protest against American white supremacy, while generally supporting American military aggression.  It's true, as the friend who posted the tweet on Facebook argued, that the words of a President carry more weight in the public sphere than those of most citizens, though not (as she also argued) that they take "the form of law."  Admittedly, partisan fans of a president will want to see them that way.  But my friend, like so many Democratic loyalists, wasn't nearly as concerned about (for example) President Obama's prejudicial remarks about Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, let alone Obama's general war on whistleblowers.  Privately, she probably would have agreed with them even if they had the imprimatur of a president she admired, but like most Democrats she ignored them or minimized their impact on the well-being of people who'd been accused of crimes.  Nor, if I recall correctly, did she object to Obama's public criticism of Fox News, though right-wing partisans reacted to it in much the same panicky way that Democrats are now reacting to Trump.

Though I agree that a President's public statements will carry a lot of weight, it struck me funny to see my friend making the claims she did just as the owners of the NFL, and the NFL commissioner, struck back at Trump's demand that protesting athletes be fired.  Former NFL coach Rex Ryan, who'd campaigned for Trump, announced that he was "[bleep] off."  (Presumably bleeped by ESPN, where he appeared, rather than by Democracy Now!, who quoted him.)  Pushing back against the Leader of the Free World is harder than pushing back against a single football player, but it can be done, and it's being done.  (I'm with "former NFL player Donté Stallworth," who also appeared on DN! this morning, and warned against letting Trump hijack the protests into a controversy over himself, though that already seems to be happening.)

P.S. When I pointed out some of this, my friend replied that I should "tell it to the Joint Chiefs of Staff" in connection with Trump's announcement via Twitter last summer that transgender troops would no longer be allowed to serve in the military in any capacity.  This was a notably ill-chosen rebuttal, because, first, Trump sent that tweet as a declaration of policy, which was not the case with his denunciation of the NFL protestors; and second, because the Joint Chiefs did not accept the tweet as having the "form of law."  They announced that until a policy had been worked out formally, they were going to ignore Trump's announcement and transgender troops would continue to serve.  Until Trump signed a memo implementing the ban, it wasn't law.  The tweet itself did nothing.  This case also supports my general distaste for the hopelessly inadequate way liberals have been responding to Trump's provocations.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Those Were the Days!

The rally concluded, and people began strolling to the buses we had chartered to take them back to their cars.  Suddenly dozens of squad cars appeared, as if from nowhere.  They had been carefully concealed behind buildings surrounding the rally.  We counted hundreds of police from five different agencies.  Many of the squad cars displayed shotguns and contained six police officers in full riot gear, something most people there had seen only in television.  The Redwood City police department and the San Mateo County sheriff's office had prepared an elaborate ambush, and they were obviously disappointed that they had not found a chance to "teach you some patriotism," as one cop yelled at the protesters from a car window.

Only local newspapers reported that the march and rally had taken place, and they underestimated the size of the crowd, reporting that most citizens of Redwood City were hostile to such activities.  Bruce Brugmann, the Redwood City Tribune reporter who had been covering the napalm campaign, became so disgusted by the blatant censorship and and rewriting of his stories that he left to found the radical weekly newspaper the Bay Guardian.  Even a mere twenty miles away, the press and radio in San Francisco imposed a total news blackout.  This did keep many people in ignorance.  But it also educated tens of thousands about the role of the media.  Almost everyone in the area knew that an important event had taken palce and could not help but wonder why it was not reported and how many events from other areas were not being reported to us.
The above text is taken from the historian H. Bruce Franklin's account of a rally against napalm production in the Bay Area in 1966, in his book Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (Massachusetts, 2000), pages 87-8.  The book as a whole is very informative.  I decided to read it today after seeing a critique of the first episode of the new Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War for PBS.  The critique mentioned that
in the 1990s historian H. Bruce Franklin found that most college students recognized the famous image of a prisoner being executed by a man firing a pistol inches away from the victim’s temple. But most of the students believed the shooter was a communist officer, rather that General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese national police, an American ally.
This didn't surprise me; it fit with so much else I knew, such as the long and largely successful propagnda campaign to cast the United States as the victim in Vietnam, rather than the victimizer.  Franklin also quotes an amazing speech on the Vietnam war by Barack Obama's role model Ronald Reagan in which, as Franklin points out, "not a single sentence ... is accurate or truthful" (29).  I've seen a similar falsification about the post-9/11 war on terror; it's as if the structure of the scenario is embedded in people's minds, and they need only to insert the names and dates to sit the situation.

But the reason I wanted to quote this particular passage has to do with other misrepresentations of history that I see among many liberals and progressives, including those who are old enough to know better.  The militarization of the police that is presently under way, for example, and the treatment of peaceful dissidents as enemies of the nation who must be crushed, is not as new as many people seem to want to think.  The 3500 or so white, clean-cut, middle-class folks who gathered to object to the production of napalm for use against Vietnamese civilians weren't attacked and beaten by the police that time, though it's clear that the police were hoping for an excuse to do just that.  Later on the police were less restrained.

The other point is the suppression of news of such a rally outside the local newspapers.  Many liberals fondly believe that the mainstream media took an adversary stance toward the government in those days.  That's simply false, though as always even their customary collusion was never abject enough to suit the mighty.  Whatever the flaws of the Internet (and they are many), it makes it much easier to spread information about such actions now.

This greatly offends the sensibilities of the high priests and priestesses of the cult of Expertise.  I've begun grappling with the dreadful apprehension that I may actually have to read Hillary Rodham Clinton's new book.  At first I was skeptical of the brief excerpts I saw online, which were so badly written and downright stupid that they were hard to credit: surely they weren't representative of the whole?  But the more I saw, the more I had to believe that they were.  (See Sam Kriss' account of his own ordeal reading the book here.)  And this bit, widely circulated, is symptomatic:
This is what happens in George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, when a torturer holds up four fingers and delivers electric shocks until his prisoner see five fingers as ordered. The goal is to make you question logic and reason and to sow mistrust toward exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves.
This Moebius strip of a sentence (well, two sentences) seems not to be atypical of What Happened.    Every quotation I've seen that features a literary allusion shows that she (or her ghostwriters) don't really understand the material they're invoking.  Orwell certainly hoped that his readers would mistrust "our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves."  (Ourselves?)  For that matter, doesn't Clinton want us to mistrust our Supreme Leader Donald Trump, the press that made people dislike and distrust her, and ourselves if we find that we disbelieve Hillary Clinton?

Oh, it's true that Americans have come to distrust our government and other institutions over the past half-century.  H. Bruce Franklin reports the results of a poll that tracks the growth of this distrust since 1958: "In 1958 ... over three fourths (76.3 percent) of the American people believed that the government was run for the benefit of all, while only 17.6 percent believed that it was run by a few big interests" (43).  By 1994 the numbers had flipped: "76 percent expressed this profound distrust of the government, while a mere 19 perccnt still clung to the belief that they lived in a representative democracy" (46).  This is bad news -- how long can a country survive when its citizens have so little trust in their government? -- but for people like Hillary Clinton, the remedy is more trust in our national institutions; it is unthinkable that those institutions should be more trustworthy.  Instead we citizens must believe in our leaders' probity, which is not much more plausible than that five fingers are four.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Those Who Manufacture History Get to Repeat It Over and Over

Something to keep in mind amid all the Trump administration's ranting about North Korea: Iran entered into an agreement with the US to ensure that they would make no nuclear weapons. Iran hadn't in fact been making nuclear weapons in the first place. US propaganda consisted largely of references to Iran's "nuclear program," which most people, often including the propagandists, heard as "nuclear weapons program."  The GOP and some Democrats opposed the agreement, for unclear reasons. The agreement is now in place, and Iran is in compliance with it, but the warmongers still are trying to portray Iran as a nuclear threat to the US.

Now imagine that North Korea agreed to get rid of its (still very few) nuclear weapons, and kept its promises, as Iran has. Does anyone believe that the US would lay off, would stop threatening North Korea and presenting it as an existential danger to American security? Or would the US continue to lie, as it does about Iran and its compliance with the agreement that the US forced on it?

You don't have to imagine very hard, because North Korea made such an agreement with the US in 1994, and kept to it.  The US broke it.  I think it's reasonably clear that these media campaigns have nothing do with peace, stability, or even American security -- not least because our hawks are doing everything in their power to diminish our stability and everyone else's. They're not even about oil or other resources that our plutocrats crave; Iran has oil, but North Korea doesn't have much we could want.  The issue is domination, the demand that nowhere in the world should there be any nation that isn't under US control.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

And Don't Hold the Guacamole

There are writers who are known as writers' writers: they are appreciated more by their colleagues than by the general reading public, because of their technical expertise and willing to experiment with their art.  I was interested in "experimental" artists when I was a kid, though I was generally liked and appreciated their theories and their lives more than their work.  Now I see experimental art as an attempt to appropriate the prestige of the sciences for the arts.  At best, to support the metaphor, an artistic experiment should confirm an artistic theory, and in my opinion they rarely do.  When a writer I respect recommends such work, I often follow through, but I'm usually disappointed.  That probably reflects badly on me, not on the work, but there you are.  I'm not, I think, a naive or unsophisticated reader, but maybe I'm the wrong kind of writer.

Carol Emshwiller seems to be such a writers' writer.  Wikipedia, for example, refers to her fiction as "avant-garde", and she herself calls it "experimental", though she adds: "Now I'm passionate about what I think of as postmodern. (I've read all sorts of conflicting definitions of postmodern, so I'm not sure I'm right about what I think it is.)"  She's never won a Hugo (science fiction fans') award, but she has won a Nebula (the Science Fiction Writers of America -- hence, a writers' writer).  I believe I got interested in her work because Ursula K. Le Guin wrote some appreciations of it.  At some point I found her 2002 novel The Mount at the library, and found it impressive but rather icy and inhuman, which was probably intentional.  Then last year I read a Le Guin essay which mentioned Carmen Dog (1988), and I've been meaning to get to it ever since.  Finally, yesterday, I did so.

In Carmen Dog, women are turning into other animals and female animals are turning into women.  Emshwiller tells the story mostly from the viewpoint of one of the latter, Pooch, a family pet who's turning human while retaining many of the traits of her breed.  When one of her owner turns into a huge snapping turtle and bites its baby, Pooch runs away with the baby into New York City, where she almost becomes an opera singer, is captured along with other changing creatures by a male scientist who believes that they can be forced to revert if proper discipline is imposed on them, and then by a group of male scientists who want to recover motherhood for men, since women have in their view failed to do the job properly.  These are all familiar tropes in feminist science fiction, which Emshwiller exploits, turns on their heads, and otherwise plays with.  She's very much in control, and her writing is tight and ironic, with a satirical edge reminiscent of Jane Austen.

For example:
All those creatures that have been kept relatively germfree in the doctor's basement are scheduled for artificial insemination the day after tomorrow.  The Academy uses only the best genes in the nation, those belonging to governors, generals (three star or above), atomic scientists, as well as those of the directors of nuclear reactors, presidents of the largest corporations, oil magnates, and so forth.  The men picked are splendid, tall, and for the most part blonde.  All earning well over $100,000 a year, not counting perks. Of course it has taken time for these men to achieve status in their fields, so most of them are by now paunchy and bald.  (Since the imagination is suspect particularly at present, artist' and poets' genes are not used.  Besides, it is hard to tell where artists come from.  Some have dreadfully wizened little parents) [210-11].
Looking again at this passage out of context, I realize that it sounds like a cliche, thinking perhaps of various eugenic fantasies about breeding a master race, of scientists caricatured as soulless control freaks who mock the arts and humanities and so on.  Unfortunately, such fantasies and scientists are still with us, promoting themselves and very much in the public eye.  But it works in situ.  Let's try another passage, about Pooch's encounter with a sinister figure who manipulates her into a three-way with another changer:
Pooch does learn a lot, though, that she had not even suspected before.  Knowledge that may stand her in good stead later on, though she hopes she will be able to use it with someone for whom she had some real feelings.  She had not been aware until now, for instance, of the exquisite sensitivity of the breasts, and especially had not been aware that the nipples of the male are, or so it seems, as sensitive as those of the female; nor had she realized the potential of the backs of the knees, not to mention the toes and the bottoms of the feet.  She had also not realized the many ways that music, ribbons, belts, pepper, and guacamole could be used [143-44].
Better, eh?  "Guacamole" is a fine, Austenish touch.

In addition to The Mount, which I think I had better reread, I've also read Ledoyt (1995), Emshwiller's non-science-fiction novel about a young girl growing up in the American West.  She has several other books, which I'll get to before long.  Carmen Dog drew me in.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Endless War

According to the Associated Press, about a hundred self-identified anarchists entered an anti-racist rally in Berkeley, California, where they proceeded to beat up several people.
The group of more than 100 hooded protesters, with shields emblazoned with the words "no hate" and waving a flag identifying themselves as anarchists, busted through police lines, avoiding security checks by officers to take away possible weapons. Then the anarchists blended with a crowd of 2,000 largely peaceful protesters who turned up to demonstrate in a "Rally Against Hate" opposed to a much smaller gathering of right-wing protesters.
"No hate" -- don't you just love that?  The hypocritical piety is practically Christian.  Even better, these goons went after isolated individuals they could gang up on with minimal risk to themselves.  Better still: the first guy they attacked is Japanese-American, which makes their assault a racist attack -- a hate crime.  (Or a "no hate" crime, which makes a big difference, I suppose.)  Luckily, almost miraculously, the police didn't seize the opportunity to attack the rest of the crowd, which is the normal police response to such incidents.

It has been educational to watch liberal and left reactions to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As I've noticed before, many of them are blurring the already vexed line between speech and violence, and eager to give the Trump administration the authority to decide what speech is acceptable and what isn't.  (I'm being slightly disingenuous there, since of course they fantasize that they themselves will make that decision; which shows that they're delusional, given existing historical and political realities in the US.)  They also exploit an ambiguity in the word "fighting," which can refer metaphorically to any kind of organized effort (including sports) against something, or to actual literal violence.

So, for example, I've often heard it said that Heather Heyer was fighting hate (or fascism or racism or Nazism, or fighting for what she believed in, whatever) in Charlottesville when she was killed by a white supremacist who drove his car into the crowd of people she was in.  Fighting (literal) doesn't seem to have been Heyer's style.  In any case, she was killed as she crossed a street at an intersection during (I think -- the chronology is muddled) the counter-protest.  I don't say this to minimize her death or its significance, only for clarity's sake.  That she wasn't clubbing down neo-Nazis makes her murderer even more cowardly and despicable.  While simply pepper-spraying and chasing a non-resisting individual isn't in the same class of evil (except perhaps metaphorically) as driving a car into an unarmed and nonviolent crowd, it's also cowardly and despicable.  Like this.

So when Ted Rall posted on Facebook last weekend that, "Considering the history of fascism, the debate over whether the antifa movement should resort to violence seems, well, quaint", I wasn't terribly surprised, though I was a bit disappointed.  I generally like his cartoons, and thought his book on Afghanistan, After We Kill You We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests (Hill & Wang, 2014), was excellent and important.  But he got things wrong this time, starting with the cartoon itself, which depicts a French couple at a cafe as Nazi troops march by in the street.  The Frenchman says, "Violence? But that would make us as bad as them!"

This is disingenous.  First of all, it's not as if the centrist liberals in Trump's America who call themselves The Resistance have renounced the use of violence in advance: the name they've chosen for themselves deliberately invokes those who fought against the Nazis in occupied France, though so far they haven't done anything much more strenuous than wear pink pussy hats and make memes mocking Trump.  (Plus, the actual French Resistance was dominated by Communists, and if there's anyone liberal Democrats hate more than Trump, it's a leftist.  Unless it's a Jewish leftist.)

Second, debates in the US over the use of violence by minorities and dissidents have always been inadequate at best, and I haven't seen anything to suggest that things have changed.  The increasing boldness of white racists since Trump's ascendancy has been met with a lot of chest-thumping rhetoric about fighting Nazis in the streets.  I'm not objecting to the use of violence myself; I am, however, concerned with other questions, such as: Who's going to fight the Nazis?  When and where?  Who will lead?  Who will choose the leaders?  Who will determine strategy and tactics?  The neo-Nazis are organized and armed; how will "antifa" (a term I find about as annoying as The Resistance) violence be armed and organized?  These are not idle questions.

This weekend a video began to circulate online, which showed a white supremacist in Charlottesville trying to shoot a black counterprotester who'd made himself an impromptu flamethrower by igniting the spray from an aerosol can and aiming it at the racists.  By amazing luck, the kind of luck that convinces me there is no god, the would-be shooter had forgotten to disable the safety on his weapon, which slowed him down, and when he did fire, nobody was hurt.  The guy with the gun is being sought by the authorities, as they say.

What I find interesting about this scene is that ever since Trump made it clear he was appealing to a white-racist base -- hell, ever since Obama attracted racist hatred as a candidate and as President -- there has been a lot of agitation about how extremely dangerous white supremacists are, how they're the new Nazis and if we aren't ceaselessly vigilant there will be a replay of 1930s Germany here in the Homeland.  I don't dismiss these concerns, but I find it extremely interesting and significant that many of these same alarmists nevertheless seem to believe that white supremacists are not really dangerous at all, that because Antifa's heart is pure they need only to chant some slogans and the Fascists will collapse and surrender; the Fascists' bullets will either bounce off Antifa's Breastplate of Virtue, be repelled by Antifa's wristlets of power, or simply dissolve into the air.  There were many warnings about armed neo-Nazis, with heavy-duty weapons, gathering in Charlottesville, intent on mayhem.  It appears that even so, the Antifa mostly didn't consider them a real, serious threat, and those who did brought some homemade weaponry that would have been useless if the threat turned real.  Since we're not pacifists here, I can say that I wouldn't have been felt much sympathy if the guy with the aerosol can had gotten shot, because he was putting his unarmed anti-fascist comrades in danger, presumably without their consent or planning.

Or he was giving the police, who everyone assumed were on the racists' side, an excuse to stomp some hippies. (In a real Resistance situation, he'd likely have been court-martialed and shot by his own organization for such stupid criminal recklessness.)  Emptywheel pointed out last weekend that Trump's pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio was intended to send a message to his real base, the police, who supported him during his election campaign and support him still.
So while feeding his explicitly racist base with hateful rhetoric is important, it’s even more important to ensure that the cops remain with him, even as he fosters violence.

There is no better way to do that than to convey to police that they can target brown people, that they can ignore all federal checks on their power, with impunity (this is probably one key reason why Trump has given up his efforts to oust Sessions, because on policing they remain in perfect accord).
There is no better way to keep the support of cops who support Trump because he encourages their abuses then by pardoning Arpaio for the most spectacular case of such abuses.
The history Rall appealed to isn't reassuring.  There were street battles between Communists and Nazis in Germany during the 1930s; they didn't impede Hitler's rise to power.  Historians can probably explain why; I confess I haven't read enough about the period to have an opinion.  But whatever the reasons, street fighting didn't work for the Left; only for the Nazis.  In general, that has been true in the US as well.  In principle I fully endorse and support the right of African-Americans to defend themselves against police and government violence; but those who did, in the 1960s, seriously underestimated the power and ruthlessness of their adversaries.  And that leaves aside intra-movement violence, among the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, for example.  And yet many antifa sympathizers, in between attacking the police (sometimes justly), believe that when push comes to shove the police will protect them from that Bad Ol' Nazis.  They should, of course; but the historical precedents indicate that they won't.

As you can see, I don't mean to suggest that violence never works.  After its defeat in 1865, for example, the Confederacy used violence very successfully to establish white supremacy all over the South, and eventually managed to sell most white Americans on their Lost Cause myth of elegant Southern heritage violated by the brutish Union.  As with the successful use of violence by the Nazis, I don't know the history well enough to explain why with any certainty, but I feel sure it's at least partly because most white Americans in the North (including educated elites) were racist, and weren't at all uncomfortable with white supremacy as ideology or practice.  There was a brief blip of anti-racist action in the 1950s and 1960s, and though some gains were made, white-supremacist resistance, violent and nonviolent, never ceased, and many of those gains are in danger of being lost again.

But this reminds me of an anecdote in a book I read a week ago, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won't Save Black America by Stacey Patton (Beacon Press, 2017).  It's about the popularity of violence against children by African-American parents, and it's flawed but overall very valuable.  Many black parents, like many white parents, believe that beating children is the only way to keep them out of trouble and turn them into responsible adults.  There's an anecdote toward the end, told by an African-American woman, a single mother and a parent trainer:
Alvarez says she gets the "usual bullshit" from other parents who criticize her for not hitting her son.  "Spare the rod ... yada, yada, yada ... ain't nobody here for that.  My son, my rules.  As a parent trainer, when I hear parents swear by whupping kids, I ask, "How many here were whupped by parents?" Most will raise their hands.  Then I ask, "How many were whupped twice?" Most raise their hands.  Then I say, "So then maybe it's not that effective.  If it were, we'd only have to get beaten once to get the message" [214].
I feel the same way about violence aimed at stopping white racism: the most horrific war in history up to that point didn't stop it -- it barely slowed it down, and only briefly at that.  Maybe other avenues need to be considered.

I've also been thinking of something Noam Chomsky wrote about political violence about fifty years ago, and published in American Power and the New Mandarins (Pantheon, 1969, pp. 398-399):
It is quite easy to design tactics that will help to consolidate the latent forces of a potential American fascism.  To mention just one obvious example, verbal and physical abuse of the police, however great the provocation, can have only this effect.  Such tactics may seem "radical" and, in a narrow sense, justified by the magnitude of the infamy and evil that they seek to overcome.  They are not.

In fact, it is senseless to speak -- as many now do -- of tactics and actions are being "radical," "liberal," "conservative," or "reactionary."  In itself, an action cannot be placed on a political dimension at all.  It may be successful or unsuccessful in achieving an end that can be described in political terms.  But it is useful to remember that the same tactics that one man may propose with high conscience and deep commitment to radical social change may also be pressed by a well-placed police spy, bent on destroying such a movement and increasing popular support for the forces of repression. Consider the Reichstag fire, to return to a day that is less remote than one would wish. Or consider the act of a seventeen-year-old Jewish refugee from Poland just thirty years ago -- of Herschel Grynszpan, who assassinated a German official in Paris in November 1938.  It is difficult to condemn this desperate act, which set off violent pogroms throughout Germany and helped entrench more deeply the Nazi regime of terror; but the victims of Nazi terror would offer no thanks to Herschel Grynszpan.  We must not abandon the victims of American power, or play games with their fate.  We must not consent to have the same repression imposed on still further helpless victims or the same blind fury unleashed against them.
It seems to me that those who want to use violent tactics against the racist Right need to make very clear how they intend to use those tactics, why those tactics and not others.  So far I've seen a lot of grandstanding and posturing by people I wouldn't follow ... well, anywhere.  It's not as if there isn't a long history of political violence from which to learn, but I haven't seen any indication that the advocates of violence today have paid any attention to it.  Advocating violence, even or especially against fascists, without showing that you know what you're talking about doesn't establish your gravitas; it makes me suspect that you've played too many video games, or watched too many action movies, and mistaken them for reality.  I don't have the answers myself, and I'm not ruling out violence altogether; but I need better rationales for violent action than I've been hearing so far.  The burden of argument lies not on those oppose the use of violence, or starting a war, but on those who want to initiate it.  It's certainly interesting to hear nominal leftists using the rhetoric of the Bush administration when it insisted that we must invade the existential threat of Iraq now.  They are trifling with human lives, and if (or more likely when) it blows up their face, they won't accept responsibility, let alone accountability.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Poor You Will Always Have With You, So Let Them Suck It Up Until I Come

A Dominican nun, Erica Jordan, asked Paul Ryan at a CNN Town Hall meeting how he reconciles his economic policies with his Catholic faith.  His predictable answer was that social welfare programs have failed the poor, but his "small-government" budget-cutting programs will succeed, so "For me — for the poor that’s key to the Catholic faith. That means mobility, economic growth, equality of opportunity."  According to ThinkProgress, he told the audience:
We have to fix that, by making sure we can customize these before the to help a person get to where she is to where she wants and needs to be…The model I’m talking about is the Catholic Charities model.  Cristo Rey parish has cafeterias that do an amazing job, in spite of government, doing wrap around visits for the poor to making sure they get to where they need to be. If government will help do that I think we can go a long way in fighting poverty.
ThinkProgress said this was an "awkward" response, though they went on to point out that it was also dishonest:
Moreover, Catholic Charities doesn’t do its work “in spite of” government. It relies on it: Catholic Charities USA gets nearly half of its operating budget from the federal funds, as do scores of other faith-based charities. When Ryan championed president Donald Trump’s budget proposal—which slashed welfare programs—earlier this year, an anti-hunger faith group released a study estimating that every religious congregation in America would need to raise $714,000 a year for 10 years to shoulder the burden of caring for the poor.
Ronald Reagan could be similarly "awkward":
One day in the 1980 campaign, Reagan visited the Santa Marta Hospital in a Chicano area of Los Angeles.  He told the institution's staff that he had asked a nun there whether the hospital got "compensation from Medicaid or anything like that."  According to the candidate, she answered "no."  "I appreciate your pride in that," he told the group.

A "puzzled senior administrator" later informed supporters that 95% of the patients at Santa Marta Hospital were subsidized by either Medicaid or Medicare.  (Time, 10/20/80)*
I have mixed feelings about this.  There's an American tradition of demanding that Roman Catholic politicians remain independent of the Great Satan in Rome, instead of letting its dogmas guide their decisions.  If a Catholic religious were to confront a straying Catholic (or even non-Catholic) politician for failing to conform to Catholic doctrine on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, or gender, I would certainly not cheer them on.  That I might agree with Sister Erica's opinions in this case doesn't mean that I think the Church has any authority in matters of morality or public policy.

What amused me were some of the reactions to the story on Twitter.  Quite a few said they wanted to commit violence (that one has a Ph.D.!) against Ryan.  That's how you know they're real Christians.  They're not the reason I'm an atheist, but they certainly do reaffirm and enhance my faith.  I've been to known to indulge in such rhetoric myself at times, but I'm not a Christian and I don't claim to be guided by a Higher Love.

I myself was reminded of Barack Obama's answer, at one of his town halls in 2010, to an African-American supporter who told him she was "exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."  Predictably, she was attacked for undermining her President, for being a spoiled privileged brat, for letting herself be used by the Lying Media "to create a meme and narrative pertaining to African American dissatisfaction with President Obama."

Speaking of Obama, there were several references to Ryan's "smirk" in those angry tweets.  I can relate to their anger about that issue too.  Obama also has an infuriating smirk when he's condescending to the victims of American power (some of whom are American nuns, killed with US government collusion), dismissing their concerns as mere "suspicions."

I doubt, however, that Obama would agree with either Sister Erica Jordan or the angry folks who attacked Ryan in social media.  After all, Obama appointed Ryan, along with a bipartisan array of deficit hawks, to a commission on reducing the national deficit, aka the Catfood Commission.  It was actually somewhat surprising that this handpicked group was unable to agree on recommendations; maybe, as with some Republicans' refusal to vote for Trump's repeal of the Affordable Care Act,  they thought the plans weren't cruel enough.  But not to worry: the chairmen of the commission submitted their personal wish list as a memo to the President, which he and the media accepted as if it were an official report of the commission itself.  In the 2012 debates, Obama declared that he and the Romney-Ryan ticket had a "somewhat similar position" on Social Security.  As late as 2016, the Washington Post was touting the substantial agreement between Obama and Ryan ("For two men of goodwill, this is a bridgeable divide") on addressing poverty.  All this had gone down the memory hole long before Donald Trump became President.

If Jordan had asked Barack Obama the same question she asked Ryan, would his answer have been very different?  I doubt it.  Most likely she'd be attacked for undermining POTUS by the same people who cheer for her now.

* Mark Green and Gail MacColl, Reagan's Reign of Error: The Instant Nostalgia Edition (Pantheon, 1987), p. 86.

Monday, August 21, 2017

I Was Born Ignorant, It's in My DNA

The following comment was posted under a meme that opposed the removal of Confederate monuments. The writer is my age and went to the same high school I did, so you can't blame the amazing ignorance displayed here on Our Crappy Schools today:
Yes American should remember the history off our great nation when people fought to make are country a better place to live for all of are people do think people of our older generations would put up with the bullshit that's going on in our country?? I think not!!
I posted a comment pointing out that the monuments being removed are not memorializing Union soldiers, but Confederate generals who fought to make this country a worse place to live, and were willing to tear the nation apart for that cause.  I'm of "our older generation" too, and you can be sure I'm not putting up with this bullshit.

I admit I was stunned at first by the Orwellian transvaluation of values in that comment.  Though it's also possible that this person identifies with the Confederacy, like many Americans all around the country, and believes that slavery and white supremacy "make are [sic, but the misspelling is the least of it] country a better place to live for all of are [sic] people".

Also this morning, a friend linked to this article. The article itself is good enough; it was the title, "How America forgot the true history of the Civil War," that bothered me.

People should learn accurate history, of course. But there are, as always, a couple of problems. One is that history, real history, is almost always contested: there's disagreement among historians over just about everything more complicated than someone's date of death. (And even that can be uncertain.) Which is why history must be taught with that in mind. Teaching the conflicts, as Gerald Graff puts it.  And I find it intriguing that so many liberal pro-science rationalists object to his suggestion.   As I've written before, most people "want students taught propaganda, not accurate history or Civics.  It's so much easier and safer to inculcate flag worship and to regard the Constitution as Holy Writ than to teach the complexities of American history and the controversies over the meaning of the Constitution."

The second problem follows from the first. Imagine the headline "How America forgot the true history of the Iraq War." That war is pretty well documented, of course, and most Americans now alive can remember it personally -- but how many Americans knew what was going on at the time it was happening? As usual with wars, even when the Bush regime and their defenders weren't simply lying in their teeth about why we must invade, they kept changing their story. Most Americans could probably have told you why we were going to war, and most of them are still alive today to remember it (badly, of course), but different Americans would have told you different things, and would have told you different things at different times.  The same is true of the Vietnam War; most Americans I've talked to have no idea how the US got into it, or when; the US propaganda during the war changed as our leaders found it expedient to gin up support.

Now, imagine a time without radio or TV or the Internet, when newspapers were frankly and openly biased in their news coverage, and political discourse was even less civil than now; when most Americans were barely literate and a sixth-grade education was a considerable achievement. The Confederacy was grinding out lots of contradictory propaganda on the issues that motivated it (and Southerners had been doing it for decades), and so was the Union. As always, the aim was to motivate the base, not to inform them. So, Americans didn't "forget" the true history of the Civil War -- they never knew it in the first place, in large part because no one did.

Noam Chomsky wrote about the problem towards the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, in For Reasons of State:
The government does not really hope to convince anyone by its arguments and claims, but only to sow confusion, relying on the natural tendency to trust authority and to avoid complicated and disturbing issues.  How can we be sure of the truth?  The confused citizen turns to other pursuits, and gradually, as the government lies are reiterated day after day, year after year, falsehood becomes truth.

The mechanism has been perceptively described by James Boyd in connection with the strange story of Dita Beard, Richard Kleindienst, and ITT.  The evasions were “transparent and ridiculous,” but that is irrelevant: “The idea is to bring the public to a point of bewilderment. …”  The lawyer seeks “not to convince, but to confuse and weary.”  In the same manner, the state is content to lose each debate, while winning the propaganda war.

Shortly after the Pentagon Papers appeared, Richard Harwood wrote in the Washington Post that a careful reader of the press could have known the facts all along, and he cited cases where the facts had been truthfully reported.  He failed to add that the truth had been overwhelmed, in the same pages, by a flood of state propaganda.  With rare exceptions, the press and the public finally accepted the framework of government deceit on virtually every crucial point [xxv-xxvi].
This doesn't mean that Chomsky was "prescient," of course; he was describing what was happening at the time.  That we face the same flood of government lies obfuscating the facts is probably not surprising; it's business as usual.  And that's one reason why history is so difficult to get right.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Hedge Fund Manager Shall Lie Down with the Miner

I generally only listen to NPR when I'm driving, and since I only drive when I rent a car to travel, that's not all that often.  Yesterday was one of those times, and I was reminded why.

A fund-raising spot on the Indianapolis affiliate I was tuned to featured a young woman (some managerial person at some other station) who gushed that NPR includes everybody, hedge-fund managers and miners!  It reminds us that we're all in this together! ... A laudable sentiment, but how often do miners appear on NPR?  Not very often.  NPR has at least one program devoted to "business," but none, as far as I know, to Labor.  That would be showing favoritism to special interests, I suppose.

It was easy for me to think of this, because I'd been listening for more than an hour to one of NPR's main morning news programs, 1A, which I'd heard before on other trips.  Not only were no miners on hand for the discussion, all of the discussants were from commercial media: the New York Times was well-represented, and one was a former Olympic Gold Medalist who's now an "ESPN analyst."  I always thought that one purpose of public broadcasting was to provide an alternative to the Usual Media Suspects; instead the corporate media have been colonizing the alternative.  FAIR has documented this repeatedly over the years.  News sources like Democracy Now and The Intercept aren't perfect, but they do provide alternative viewpoints and voices, with DN especially hosting people who'd never be given space on NPR.

1A let me know from its opening seconds that Charlottesville would be discussed, but aside from the Times reporter, who'd actually been present at the violence, no one had much of substance to say about it.  One guy, an NPR White House correspondent named Geoff Bennett, was the only person who addressed the historical issue, that the Confederate memorials were erected as part of a campaign to rewrite the history of the war and as propaganda for white supremacy after Reconstruction.  There was no followup to his remarks, though: mostly the discussion was about how the controversy would affect President Trump.  There was a brief bit about Heather Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, and her denunciation of Trump.  Good for Trump?  Bad for Trump?  You decide.

A surprising amount of time was devoted to the two police pilots who died when their helicopter crashed as they returned to headquarters after the rally.  According to one report, the helicopter had been damaged years before, and this was thought to have some bearing on its failure.  There doesn't seem to be any connection beyond the chronological between the Nazi rally and the policemen's deaths, but the framing seemed to be intended to cast them, along with Heather Heyer, as victims of white nationalism.  Typical journalistic balance, I guess.  But while their deaths were tragic for themselves, their families, and their colleagues, the pilots were not martyrs, except perhaps to cost-cutting measures.

The second, international, hour of 1A was more of the same.  It was the morning after the terrorist attack in Barcelona, which also involved driving a vehicle into a crowd, so that was the lead story.  Once again the aim seemed to be to fill time, with relatively little substance, and the substance revealed the usual tunnel vision. The Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiya rightly spoke of the horror of families being targeted while they were just out enjoying a summer evening.  It wouldn't have done, I suppose, to notice parallels to families in other parts of the world being killed by US missiles and drones while they were celebrating a wedding, or children killed by drones while they gathered firewood on a cold day.  It's one thing to compare the Barcelona attack to the Charlottesville attack, and quite another to notice that killing innocent families living their day-to-day lives is standard operating procedure for the American imperium and its allies and clients.

There was also a disapproving reference to Trump's fondness for dictators.  There was no acknowledgment of President Obama's fondness for dictators and military coups, let alone the long history of Washington's fondness for dictators and military coups.  It wouldn't do to notice that; NPR never has.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

I Knew I Shoulda Taken That Left Turn at Albuquerque

I have always secretly admired people who could read a newspaper while eating.  It bespeaks co-ordination, dexterity, and automatic digestion, none of which attributes I seem to possess.  It also gives one an air of being a man of affairs, and I long ago abandoned the attempt to look like a man of affairs.  I even find it difficult, some mornings, to look like a man.
-- Robert Benchley, "Read and Eat"
So I was reading Robert Benchley's 1936 collection My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew tonight while I ate dinner, and I was amused by his references to his foil and imaginary friend Mr. MacGregor, who always seems to be handy though Benchley carefully states that "he doesn't sleep here."  On the other hand, Benchley complains that MacGregor always leaves "a lot of work undone (I am always the fall guy who ends up by doing the work around the house)".  I began to muse on subtexts.  I don't know (or care) anything about Robert Benchley's innermost desires, though I know he was heterosexually married; I'm talking about the milquetoast persona he created in his humorous writings.  I'm sure "Benchley" and MacGregor were just good friends, homosocial as could be.

So I switched to my old posts on the Birth of the Modern Homosocial, and the rather overwrought defenses of various historical and fictional figures' Kinsey Zeroness.  Which in turn reminded me that I'd heard reports that a recent biographer had suggested that Franz Kafka might have been That Way.  I did some searching to see if there was any substance to these speculations and found a few reviews of the historian Saul Friedlander's brief biography Frank Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt (Yale, 2013), which told me what evidence lay behind Friedlander's speculations.

That evidence turned out to be a bit more substantial than I expected, but there doesn't seem to be much of it.  For example, this passage from Kafka's diary, which his friend and executor Max Brod censored in the English translation (the censored bits are in brackets):
Struggle on the road to [the] Tannenstein in the morning, struggle while watching the ski-jumping contest. Happy little B., in all his innocence somehow shadowed by my ghosts, at least in my eyes [, specially his outstretched leg in its gray rolled-up sock], his aimless wandering glance, his aimless talk. In this connection it occurs to me—but this is already forced—that towards evening he wanted to go home with me.
It sounds like Kafka wanted B. to want to go home with him.  Again, this isn't much, but it seems to make clear that Kafka was erotically drawn to another male and knew it.  "There are also," the novelist John Banville wrote in his review of Friedlander's book, "some admiring glances thrown in the direction of a couple of handsome Swedish youths. It is hardly a damning testament. What is perhaps most significant is the fact that Brod felt it necessary to make these quiet elisions, since it suggests he had definite suspicions about his friend’s sexual inclination."

Where on earth does "damning" come from?  The striking thing here is that Banville treats Friedlander's speculations about Kafka's possible bisexuality as accusations.  A decent person would see Kafka's desire for B. and the handsome Swedes as rather sweet, and his "struggle" with it sad, just like his complicated, frustrated desires for women.

Here's another bit from another review, quoting Friedlander:
“Today in the coffee-house with [Franz] Werfel,” Kafka wrote in April 1914. “How he looked from the distance, seated at the coffee table. Stooped, half reclining even in the wooden chair, the beautiful profile of his face pressed against his chest … His dangling glasses make it easier to trace the delicate outlines of his face.”
Hey, can't a bro admire another bro's beautiful profile without somebody making a federal case out of it?  But this isn't all.
Later again, in mid-November 1917, Kafka wrote to Brod about a dream, the ambiguity of which he himself commented on: “If I go on to say that in a recent dream I gave Werfel a kiss, I stumble right into the middle of Bluher’s book. But more of that later. The book upset me; I had to put it aside for two days …” Bluher, a leading figure in the German youth movement, wrote about male erotic bonding in his 1917 work The Role of Eroticism in Male Society.
Ah yes, a manly kiss between normal manly guys.  And it was a dream, waddaya want anyhow?

The same reviewer continues:
Long before these confessions, Friedlander notes, Kafka was writing in his diary about posing for an artist in the nude at age 19 as a model for St. Sebastian. The picture of Kafka the serial womanizer stripping off his clothes in a Prague studio in 1912 and allowing another man to tie him to a post and paste fake arrows on his chest is slightly jarring even in the 21st century (actual pictures would be yet more jarring still – do they exist? If they ever surface, will we claim we were unprepared?). Friedlander shows that he knows this by presenting it all with becoming gravity, and he has a deeper purpose in doing so at all: his contention is that deep sexual ambiguities and doubt form yet another instructive layer in the complex literary gift prudish Brod bequeathed to readers everywhere.
Apparently there was more homoeroticism in Kafka's life (and perhaps his work) than this, but these examples are what the reviewers I found quoted.  Of course some gay writers and bloggers got all giggly about this, and treated Friedlander's speculations as gospel.  (I refuse to link to them.)  I hope I can fit Friedlander's book into my busy reading schedule sometime in the next century, but for now: What Kafka himself thought about his lust for other males isn't clear, and most likely we'll never know.  I think it's important, though, that he recognized what his feelings were, and it doesn't seem to me that he struggled with them quite as much as Friedlander and Banville, among others, wish he had.  Were these little stories really "confessions," I wonder?  On the surface that word is right down there with "damning."  I suppose one would have to read the diaries at length to get a sense of what Kafka meant by recording them, and whether these epithets come from him or represent the hangups of these guys who are writing about him.

Reiner Stach, another recent Kafka biographer, told the Guardian that Kafka's fears and obsessions about sex were "perfectly normal."  I'm not persuaded.  Yes, fear of venereal disease and unwanted pregnancy were widespread, and quite reasonable, and in that sense normal.  Yet those fears didn't stop men from going out and having sex anyway.  There were many brothels in Europe and the US back then, and syphilis and gonorrhea were epidemic scourges.  One might almost call having a sexually transmitted disease "perfectly normal."

Stach said:
“I don’t know why it persists. Kafka had homosexual fantasies, but everyone does. He had a really intense access to his own subconscious, more than we might have, and this is why he is such a great writer. So, he had homosexual, bisexual, sadistic, masochistic and voyeuristic fantasies and all of these appeared in his works, which is typical for writers like Kafka. But you can’t conclude that he was any one of those things himself.”
I think this is nonsense.  Even if "everyone" has homosexual fantasies, that wasn't accepted in Kafka's day, and probably not now.  I'm always suspicious when someone tries to brush aside potentially embarrassing information with "everybody does that."  "Typical for writers like Kafka" is also a red flag: how many "writers like Kafka" are there?  His fans generally treat him as sui generis, and he was certainly very unusual.  I don't know that he had more access to his subconscious than most people, or how that in itself would make him a great writer.  And if someone has, and cultivates, homosexual, "bisexual," sadomasochistic and voyeuristic fantasies, it's not damning or an accusation to say that he was homosexual, bisexual, sadomasochistic, or a voyeur, even if he didn't act them out.  Stach reveals himself here to be, not a sophisticated, cosmopolitan observer, but a rather crude and provincial one.

The idea that it doesn't count if you don't have overt sex is one of the older "defenses" in the book, used by the crudest most bigoted sexual cops when someone they like turns out to be not quite the paragon of purity they want him to be. "You don't have to be one to play one" is also standard.  At least no one -- that I've seen so far -- has invoked "The modern homosexual hadn't been invented yet."  Kafka lived in the milieu of the newborn Modern Homosexual, and he was evidently well-read enough to know it.

I find it depressing that this embarrassment over, yes, "perfectly normal" areas of human experience is still so much with us.  Of course the embarrassment is perfectly normal too.  It's just nothing to be complacent about.  Meanwhile, I'm saying nothing about "Benchley's" confessed relationship with his imaginary dachshund friend Friedel Immerman.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Would You Like a Nice Progressive Punch?

This meme baffles me.  At times I wonder if it was intended as a Zen koan, a saying that deliberately makes no sense in order to frustrate and derail one's logical thinking, and ultimately force one into Enlightenment.  But most of the time I think it's just another glitch in human thought.

I regularly encountered another example of this sort of thing during and after the Sixties, when people would dismiss the hippie slogan that you should do your own thing as long as nobody gets hurt.  Someone would triumphantly riposte: "But what about Altamont?  What about Charles Manson?"  Yeah, what about them?  People got hurt in those and other cases, so they didn't show that it's a bad idea to do what you like as long as no one gets hurt.

I suppose the idea was that someone will always get hurt when human beings aren't policed and regulated and overseen and held in check by Authority.  But even in the most tightly patrolled societies, people get hurt -- often enough, by the Authority.  And who watches the Watchers?  One important lesson of history surely is that people given power over others will often abuse it.  I don't think that "Do your thing as long as nobody gets hurt" implies that there shouldn't be consequences when you do hurt someone, though as we also should know, there are rarely consequences for Authority when it hurts people.  You're just not supposed to notice it.  (What, your unarmed child was shot to death by a policeman?  Oh, look over there -- a Mexican took your job!)

I admit that the Sixties counterculture, at least its rank and file, didn't seem to think much about what consequences should follow from breaking its golden rule.  It's the kind of question that most people don't like to engage, because it involves judgment and gray areas and other messy complexities; the kind of core philosophical question that children ask and adults can't answer, because like most core philosophical questions there is no simple, firm answer.  But in one form or another, that maxim is virtually proverbial.  "Your freedom ends at the end of the next person's nose," for example.

Lately I've been seeing the same kind of diversion being used in the wake of the Charlottesville killing, as people try not to grapple with the limits of free speech.  Apart from the misconception that "hate speech" isn't free speech, people have trouble applying their own limits consistently.  Speech is free as long as it doesn't carry into action that hurts other people -- most people I know agree with that in principle, but their next move is to point to acts of violence.  Violence hurts other people, so it doesn't count as free speech.  Yeahbut the Nazis in Charlottesville pepper sprayed other people!  Yeahso that's violence, not speech -- where's the problem?  There are hard questions that can be raised about freedom of speech, but this isn't one of them as far as I can see.

On the other hand, sucker-punching a Nazi is so good that it's probably protected speech, all peace and love and shit.  So many liberals and progressives squealed with delight when Richard Spencer was punched that I believe their confusion over the boundary between speech and and action (which, I admit is another one of those messy complexities) is willed.  As the philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote, "Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal."

As I wrote yesterday, I could be classified a nihilist in certain realms, like the heat death of the universe.  Choosing, deliberating, and applying principles is hard; but to throw them out altogether at the human level is nihilism at the human level, of the most destructive sort.  Yet the people who are now agitating for further restrictions on freedom of speech fancy themselves principled advocates of justice.  It never occurs to them that the government at all levels is much more likely to suppress their speech than the speech of the Right; that's how it has always played out before. (They disagree with what you say, but they will defend to the death the right of the Trump gang to crush them like bugs.)  They'd be more honest to admit that they want a war of all against all, which (typically) they assume they'll win, and people caught in the crossfire will be glorious martyrs.  No, thank you.

It appears that I've never quoted this passage from Jean-Paul Sartre's essay "Anti-Semite and Jew" here before.  It was written in 1944, just after the Nazis withdrew from The anti-Semite as Sartre analyzed him stands for all anti-rational people, as you'll see:
Do not think that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of these answers. They know that their statements are empty and contestable; but it amuses them to make such statements: it is their adversary whose duty it is to choose his words seriously because he believes in words. They have a right to play. They even like to play with speech because by putting forth ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutor; they are enchanted with their unfairness because for them it is not a question of persuading by good argument but of intimidating or disorienting. If you insist too much they close up, they point out with one superb word that the time to argue has passed. Not that they are afraid of being convinced: their only fear is that they will look ridiculous or that their embarrassment will make a bad impression on a third party whom they want to get on their side. Thus if the anti-Semite is impervious, as everyone has been able to observe, to reason and experience, it is not because his conviction is so strong, but rather his conviction is strong because he has chosen to be impervious [13-14].*
I've encountered such people from the political right -- but also, alas, from the center and the left.  Sartre wasn't being "prescient," of course; he was describing people in the France of his day, who also exist in all countries and eras.

What Sartre described here is also what Patricia Roberts-Miller calls demagoguery.  If it worked as a way to bring about social justice, we wouldn't be in trouble now.

*Anti-Semite and Jew.  New York: Schocken Books, 1948.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

I noticed this poster in the window of a local business I patronize: hip, edgy, liberal-lefty.  Their hours of operation are rather limited, so I couldn't ask where it came from just then.  Most of the stuff in their windows announces events, with institutional or other affiliation included somewhere; there doesn't seem to be any such information on this one.  This isn't any kind of deal-breaker for me -- I'll certainly keep supporting them -- but I am curious.

To be blunt, this poster is pretty damn stupid, a word salad of buzzwords.  I expect better from my counterculture.  Which "lies of the alternative truth" should I reject?  There are so many to choose from these days.  The propaganda use of the word "alternative" is high on my list right now; it's the latest Newspeak for "politically correct" and "doubleplus ungood."

"Believe the evidence of your eyes and ears" is worse: it's painfully obvious that someone wasn't thinking.  Urging the marks to believe what is right in front of their eyes is one of the oldest cons in the book.  (Nothing up my sleeve!)  It's used by the Right ("Obama looks like a terrorist, it's his name") as much as by the Left.  Any political or other ideological position will be based not only on visible evidence but on interpretations and theories that offer to connect the dots, drawing the hitherto invisible lines depicting the Truth that They don't want you to see.

There is a speck of truth here, though: when something looks, feels, seems wrong to you, you should take the intuition seriously.  But that is only the beginning.  From there you must apply the canons of critical thinking.  I collected some of them here; you could begin with the educator Deborah Meier's version, taught over decades to kids at Central Park East Secondary School:
They are: the question of evidence, or "How do we know what we know?"; the question of viewpoint, in all its multiplicity, or "Who's speaking?"; the search for connections and patterns, or "What causes what?"; supposition, or "How might things have been different?"; and finally, why any of it matters, or "Who cares?"
Now I can add a passage I didn't quote last week from Patricia Roberts-Miller's Demagoguery and Democracy:
Trying to be fair in an argument -- enforcing rules, including the rule that the rules are applied to everyone equally -- will lead to arguments about the rules.  And that’s a good sign. Participants often need to argue about how we should argue, what we will count as relevant evidence, what constitutes disruptive behavior or unfair moves, and what “stases”are the most relevant. In fact, arguments about how we should argue most interfere with demagoguery, especially if those arguments concern whether the rules are being applied to all participants equally—if argument by insult is allowed for us, then it is also permitted for them ... We can be mean, angry, vehement, and highly critical, as long as we don't whine if they are just as mean, angry, vehement, and critical with us ... We need to enter the conversation willing to be wrong, willing to admit the limits of our own knowledge, willing to reconsider our evidence, sources, and premises.  That is self-skepticism [15-17].
Of course I realize that this goes against common sense, the evidence of our eyes and ears, the foundations of all civilization.  But common sense, the evidence of our eyes and ears, has brought us to the pass we're in, where we've pretty much always been, unable to see why They (you know, Them) are screwing things up for everybody, when all We want is to just get along.  Why do you have to insist on not letting me and mine have all the goodies? Can't we all just get along? ... No, we can't, until we start looking beyond our clan, our tribe, all our granfalloons, and recognize that they're made up of people too.  What Roberts-Miller, Meier, and others I've quoted and discussed offer are ground rules for moving beyond Us and Them; they can be debated too, but they have to be debated.

Somewhat curiously, someone -- a Facebook friend, whom I don't know at all in the meat world -- commented yesterday on something I'd posted by depositing a verse he'd composed.  (I long ago unfollowed him to keep his smug doggerel out of my feed; I'd forgotten that we hadn't unfriended each other.)  His reaction on the Charlottesville killing was to declare the final supremacy of Us and Them, and if You are Them, you ain't shit.  I disagreed, saying that Us and Them is always an invalid move; he disagreed with me, and declared that we must leave it there.  I agreed, and asked him not to post more of his verse on my page.  He then unfriended me; big of him.

Some readers will certainly conclude that I'm denying that white racists are a threat (much as some of the same people concluded that because I didn't think the US should invade Afghanistan, I didn't consider Al Qaeda a threat).  I'm not doing anything of the kind.  Because white racism is a pervasive, endemic threat, we need to come up with better ways of confronting and blocking it than we have so far.  Some people can't be argued with or compromised with.  But I don't see a "bloodbath," as one commenter on a post at the Intercept argued recently, as a sane way out of our situation.  As usual with wars, the people who initiate the war will probably be among those who suffer least.  We tried that approach in 1861, and even though white nationalists lost on the battlefield, they fought their opponents to a standstill in the years afterward, and took control of America by working within the system.  (It didn't hurt, of course, that white nationalism wasn't confined to the Confederacy.)  We're still living with the consequences.

In the end, I suppose I'm something of a nihilist.  To the universe it doesn't matter whether human beings blow ourselves up, enslave each other in some dystopic system, become extinct through natural selection, or are immolated when the sun goes nova, or an asteroid hits the earth.  There's nothing in Darwinian theory (or in religion) to say that we will have a happy ending, and in the long run we are all dead.  But it matters to us -- doesn't it?  It matters to me, and to some others, how things go while we are still alive.  Frankly, I'm not sure it does matter to most people.  The poster I saw today is, to me, one more slice of evidence that it doesn't: that they can't think ahead any farther than the next ragegasm.