Monday, August 21, 2017

I Was Born Ignorant, It's in My DNA

This was posted as a comment on 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 vioence, 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.

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 aimed 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.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

At Least He Didn't Live to See Reddit ...

I saw this image posted to Twitter yesterday when Daniel Larison retweeted it, though it turns out it was posted to Reddit a couple of days before that.  The guy who posted it remarked, "Carl Sagan wrote this in 1996, and now I think he’s either a time traveler or a witch."  Well, that tends to confirm Sagan's totally cliched forebodings about superstition.

I don't remember what, if anything, I thought about this passage when I read The Demon-Haunted World twenty years ago, but this doesn't make me want to reread it now.  On the whole I remember liking the book, though there were some things, like a stupid denigration of pre-literate people's intelligence, that annoyed me.

As usual with apocalyptic "predictions," Sagan was describing his present and recent past, especially the Reagan regime.  I was about to say that the panic over Donald Trump has wiped out memory of Ronald Reagan's ignorance, superstition, racism, and appeal to the Common Clay, but then I remembered that the human historical memory has always been short, and Reagan was rehabilitated by Barack Obama.  I"ve been wondering if I"ll live long enough to see Trump, like George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, embraced by liberals: hugged by Michelle Obama, schmoozing with Ellen DeGeneres.

Do I need to point out that the US has been moving towards a service economy since the 1800s?  (And what's wrong with an information economy?  Why did Sagan hate Science?)  Like many of his generation, and mine as well, Sagan may have thinking of the brief manufacturing boom during and just after World War II; that was a blip, not the normal state of US economic activity.

The stuff about dumbing-down is also standard, and speaks badly for Sagan, because it's mere demagoguery in the sense Patricia Roberts-Miller described and criticized in Demagoguery and Democracy.  I immediately thought of another critic's remarks about a 1932 lament over the emptiness of Popular Entertainment In Our Time, that I've quoted before: "It is surely a great deal better to like the trashiest fiction than to enjoy seeing a witch burnt, or to go to the silliest cinema than to soak in an eighteenth-century gin-shop."

But maybe Sagan had a point.  I like his science popularizations well enough, and I still remember fondly his appearance on a TV panel after the original broadcast of the 1983 nuclear-war movie The Day After: the political pundits who participated with him were in a state of panic and nearincoherence, and Sagan was sardonic but sensible.  Or so I remember it; I just found that the broadcast has been reconstructed and posted to Youtube, but I haven't re-watched it yet.  Maybe it will disappoint me when I do.  But compare Sagan to some of his science-for-the-masses predecessors: Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein.  There were giants in the earth in those days!  And then think of who followed him: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye.  Maybe we are going downhill.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Blood Will Tell, Roots Will Show

I'm reading a fascinating book by the anthropologist Circe Sturm, Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century (Santa Fe: School For Advanced Research Press, 2010).  It's about controversies over who is and isn't Cherokee, mainly involving the federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma and North Carolina on one hand, and other tribes elsewhere, some of which are state-recognized and some of which are self-recognized.  These latter, who often claim Indian ancestry but can't always document it, are generally considered "wannabes" by federally recognized (or "citizen") Cherokees, and Sturm spends some time explaining the complicated categories involved.  She doesn't pretend to resolve any issues; what she seeks to do, and does very well, is talk to people on all sides, trying (in words she quotes from Clifford Geertz) to "figure out what the devil they think they are up to" (14).  She's not afraid to point out the contradictions and inconsistencies in everybody's positions, and to recognize how inextricable they are - not just due to bad faith, though they are often that as well.  I was deeply gratified, for example, when she criticized one Cherokee informant's gleeful account (pages 113-114) of his viciously misogynist takedown of a white woman who'd claimed to be a descendant of "a Cherokee princess."  To do this takes some guts, and my respect for Sturm went way up when I read that passage.

Becoming Indian is relevant not just to Native American cultural conflicts, but to most confusions and squabbles over "identity," drawing boundaries and gatekeeping.  I was struck by one citizen Cherokee of the Eastern Band's take on the role of "blood" and upbringing in the debate:
Consider, for example, what [Robert] Thompson said about interracial adoption: “Let’s just say I found this little white baby, and I fell in love with this little white baby and raised him as my child, and I spoke to him in Indian, and I told him the stories, and he knew my whole family history.  He played with his so-called pseudo-cousins.  When he’s all grown up, don’t tell me he’s not a Cherokee” (October 22, 2003) [144].
In an endnote, Sturm remarks:
In this hypothetical example of interracial adoption, the baby who becomes Cherokee through a family’s love and devotion begins life as white, not black or some other explicitly marked identity, such as Hispanic or Asian.  Not surprisingly, white seems to operate as the default normative category, second only to Cherokee [228 note 14].
But something occurred to me.  "Interracial" adoption is a vexed issue in many contexts, and much of the controversy involves the notion that a baby has not just an explicitly marked identity but an explicitly marked essence.  A baby is already "Hispanic or Asian" or "white" or Indian by "blood," and it's raised outside of its ancestral culture, it will feel alienated and displaced as it grows up.  This is a recurrent theme in Becoming Indian, after all: many of the wannabes, no matter how little Cherokee ancestry they had, felt lost in white culture; and felt that their "blood" called them "home." The citizen Cherokees, no matter how dismissive they were of wannabes and "Thindians," tended to agree that if these unfortunates did have Cherokee blood, they would certainly have felt that something was wrong.  In another context, Sturm tells how, when confronted by some very white-looking Cherokee claimants at a public event, many in the audience clucked, "Well, if you've got the blood, it'll call you home" (150).

From this standpoint, wouldn't it be wrong for Robert Thompson to raise a little white baby in a Cherokee environment?  Surely when he grew up, his blood would call him back to his real people, no matter how hard Thompson tried to assimilate him.  Wouldn't that be just as wrong as taking an Indian baby and raising it white?  I don't think so, because of my white, European, postmodernist, homosexual values, and Thompson seems to be less obsessed with blood than most of the Cherokee Sturm talked to, but the idea of blood as an almost sentient racial essence runs through most of the debate about Indianness in this book, among both the wannabes and the citizens.  But so does culture: it's not enough to have the blood, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk.  Part of Sturm's achievement is that she bears down very hard on the contradictions.  (Does this remind anyone else of the debates over whether Barack Obama, who had a black father but was mainly raised by his white grandparents, was "really" black or African-American, because he wasn't a descendant of slaves and hadn't grown up in a black community?)

Yet I do have a bone to pick wth Sturm.  Early in Becoming Indian she writes:
Although the term “queer” is often [!] used simply to denote same-sex desire and sexuality whether lesbian, gay, or bisexual, in this instance I borrow Eve Sedgwick’s (1993:8) definition: “The open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” If we apply this definition to the case of racial shifters and examine the way in which they narrate and construct their own Cherokee identities, then we can see how their very refusal of normative definitions of Cherokeeness might be considered queer.
I decided to look at the context of Sedgwick's "definition," which Sturm quotes from Tendencies (Duke, 1993).  First I noticed that what Sturm quotes is "one of the things 'queer' can refer to" (Tendencies, 8); there are a couple more.  Then I noticed that Sedgwick referred to "the constituent elements of anyone's gender," etc.  Which means, for everybody, pretty much all the time: Everybody's queer, including me and thee.  I believe Sedgwick was aware of this. I'm not sure any human category signifies monolithically: the differences within a category are almost always more numerous and more significant than the average differences between categories.  Having invoked queerness, Sturm never mentions it again, and I think that's just as well.  Some of the wannabes / race shifters refuse normative definitions of Cherokeeness; others want their definitions to be normative, even though they may be more inclusive than those of citizen Cherokees.  The final question might be where those normative definitions (of Cherokeeness, or of any human group) come from.  As Sturm shows, the citizen Cherokees know that their definitions don't really have a firm indigenous foundation, especially insofar as they include being recognized by the white Federal government.  The blood quantum was originally imposed by the whites, too.  As for walking the walk and talking the talk, the Ojebwe/Dakota scholar Scott Richard Lyons wrote in his brilliant X-Marks (Minnesota, 2010):
That is precisely the “problematic” part of the peoplehood paradigm.  If you do not conform to the model – land, religion, language,and sacred history , ceremonial cycle, and so on -- if you happen to live away from your homeland, speak English, practice Christianity, or know more songs by the Dave Matthews Band than by the ancestors, you effectively “cease to exist” as one of the People [139].
According to Sturm, some Indian scholars are now trying to resolve this conundrum by describing "Cherokee identity politics as 'a battle over sovereignty'" (181). The Cherokee anthropologist Michael Lambert, whose discussion of sovereignty she quotes, argues that "A sovereign people [does] not have to meet any cultural expectations" (ibid.).  I think that's a good point, but I wonder how many Cherokee will agree with him.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Books for Industry! Books for the Dead!

This turned up in my Facebook feed today:

I immediately thought, "Wait! Aren't millennials too busy staring at their smartphone screens to use a library?"  Of course, this item turned up in my feed because it had been shared by the same person who posted the bogus Orwell quote to that effect a couple of weeks ago.

And since when are libraries an "industry"?

It's All Fun Until Someone Loses an Election

Happily, there's another newly-published book that does what Brooke Gladstone failed to do in The Trouble with Reality: Patricia Roberts-Miller's Demagoguery and Democracy (The Experiment, 2017). Roberts-Miller is Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of a couple other books that I'd like to read.  Though she's an academic, you mostly wouldn't guess that from the way she writes; she uses little jargon and defines clearly what she does use.  And though she's surely a liberal, probably a liberal Democrat, she's not interested in pandering to her side.  Though she recognizes and deplores the current state of political discourse in the US, she also recognizes that instead of providing an alternative to it, most media and public figures have gone along with what the cool kids are doing:
It’s a commonplace that we live in an era of demagogues, and it’s a commonplace that demagogues are successful because they mislead dupes and “sheeple”with what is obviously pandering, dishonesty, and irrational rhetoric. Demagogues sucker them. We’re all agreed on that point. We just disagree with them, since those benighted fools think we’re suckered by demagogues! Of course we aren’t. That accusation just shows what mindless Flavor Aid drinkers they are. Our leaders are honest (even if sometimes mistaken), well intentioned, and authentic. Theirs are lying, malevolent, and manipulative. And we are in a terrible situation now because our political scene is dominated by their demagogues. 

The underlying narrative is that our political culture has been damaged because a demagogue has arisen and is leading people astray. If we accept this narrative (one that doesn’t actually hold up to scrutiny), then we try to solve the problem of demagoguery in ways that worsen it: We call for purifying our public sphere of their demagogues, often in very demagogic ways. That narrative misleads us because it reverses cause and effect. We don’t have demagoguery in our culture because a demagogue came to power; when demagoguery becomes the normal way of participating in public discourse, then it’s just a question of time until a demagogue arises. So, this book is not about a demagogue but demagoguery—how it works, how to describe and identify it, how good people can find themselves relying on demagoguery, and what we can do about it [1].
For Roberts-Miller, "Demagoguery is about identity.  It says that complicated policy issues can be reduced to a binary of us (good) versus them (bad).  It says that good people recognize there is a bad situation, and bad people don't; therefore, to determine what policy agenda is the best, it says we should think entirely in terms of who is like us and who isn't" (7-8).  One can dispute Roberts-Miller's definition of demagoguery, which she admits is "not the conventional view" (7); but as she shows, the conventional view is part of the problem.  She mentions the first-century essayist Plutarch, who "insisted on an absolute distinction between demagogues and statesmen": demagogues are greedy hustlers just trying to make money off the gullibility of the masses by appealing to their emotions.  Since it focuses on the (alleged) character of the demagogue, rather than the truth or rationality (or lack thereof) of his claims, this approach is itself demagogic.

That Donald Trump's style is demagogic is obvious to his Democratic enemies; that their response ("orange," "tiny hands," "narcissist," "hateful," "in the pay of Putin") is also demagogic is, unsurprisingly, not.  The tricky part is that by adopting a demagogic stance, Brooke Gladstone's The Trouble with Reality will appeal to a good many more people than Roberts-Miller's book will.

Of course, there's nothing new here.  It fits with Noam Chomsky's discussion of the importance of concision in corporate-media news coverage, for instance, and with any number of accounts to critical thinking.  It's easy to see too that many invocations of freedom, rationality, critical thinking, and the like are framed demagogically: We are rational, reality-based; They are credulous, superstitious; We support science and evidence; They are Flat-earther Creationists, "climate deniers."  Why even bother to try to have a serious, rational discussion with such idiots?  And very quickly, since anyone who disagrees with one's construction of truth and reason is obviously an idiot, no serious, rational discussion is necessary at all.

Here's part of Roberts-Miller's suggestions for what to do against demagoguery:
There are, loosely, four kinds of things we can do, and no one needs to do all of them, and none of us needs to do any of them all the time. First, we can try to reduce the profitability of demagoguery by consuming less of it ourselves, and shaming media outlets that rely heavily on it. Second, we can choose not to argue with family or friends who are repeating demagogic talking points, and simply give witness to the benefits of pluralism and diversity. Or, third, if it seems interesting and worthwhile, we can argue with family or friends who are repeating demagogic talking points. Fourth, we can also support and argue for democratic deliberation. 

Historically, cultures insist on non-demagogic political processes after a devastating war (consider the rise of arguments for religious tolerance after the English Civil Wars or the marginalization of racialist “science” after World War II). It would be nice if we could find a different solution [94].
Unfortunately, the rise of Trump to the Presidency apparently wasn't devastating enough; many Democrats, including most of the party leadership, have chosen instead to embrace and escalate demagoguery to a deranged level.

Roberts-Miller then proceeds to give a brief course in critical thinking, and concludes:
Notice that I’m not saying you will thereby persuade them they are wrong. After all, they might not be. You might be wrong. You might both be wrong. You might both be somewhat right. You’re trying to persuade them to engage in deliberation, and that means you have to be willing to engage in it, too [123].
But I've already quoted too much from this short book, which has only about 130 pages of text.  It's full of good analysis and information, though, and if what I quote here looks good to you, you should read it.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Unreality-based Community

I recently read The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time (Workman, 2017), by Brooke Gladstone, the co-host of an NPR program called On the Media.  The portentous title fooled me, to my discredit, but once I read a few pages of this short book I realized it was symptomatic of the present state of American political discourse.  Also of every past state of American political discourse.  Gladstone drops a lot of impressive names (Thomas Szasz in the book's epigraph, Philip K. Dick, Arthur Schopenhauer, Walter Lippmann, Hannah Arendt, and -- course -- George Orwell) and indulges in professionally overwrought rhetoric ("moral panic" in the title; Dick was "America's most determined architect and annihilator of reality", [3]) that she seems not to understand very well.  (She uses the term "moral panic" exactly once, near the end of the book, without context or evident meaning.)  So, for example, she quotes a 1978 speech by Dick:
"... because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups ..."
And, he might have added, by science-fiction writers turned gurus. "Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured"?  When didn't we live in such a society?  Besides, "spurious realities" is at best an oxymoron: if it's spurious, then it's not reality.  This is a hustler playing a shell game.
"Very sophisticated people are using very sophisticated electric mechanisms.  I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power.  They have a lot of it.  And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.  I ought to know. ... It is my job to create universes. ... And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later.

"... And in there somewhere is the other topic, the definition of the authentic human.  Because the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly -- as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides.  Fake realities will create fake humans. ... It's just a very large version of Disneyland [3-4]."
Dick claimed that his novels and stories "asked the question 'What is reality?'" All he could come up with was "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."  But, Gladstone says, "he knew we urgently needed a better answer", though I don't see what's wrong with that one.  Dick confused the issue by equivocating between the "reality" that "doesn't go away" and the "spurious realities" that he and other "very sophisticated people" invented; but since human beings only have direct access to the inventions, we do have a problem.

Gladstone then declares:
What Dick saw forty years ago many of us see now, at least of those whose reality embodies liberal values [4].
Later in her book, Gladstone gestures at conspiracy theories, citing research which found that "conservatives [were] more likely than liberals to believe conspiracy theories, especially apocalyptic ones" (31).  It says something that she begins her book by declaring allegiance to an apocalyptic conspiracy theory.

She then unreels a breezy survey of the failings of the media, as if she weren't part of the media herself, and starts explaining how The Demagogue Trump did his wicked work.
Which explains why so many of the rest of us [that is, Not-Trump-Supporters] are still reeling.  We also knew the system was rigged.  But once the bad behavior was exposed, the guilty were supposed to pay the consequences, at least in the court of public opinion.  That Trump's misconduct actually would help vault him to the White House was inconceivable [40; link added by me]
And no, she doesn't seem to recognize the irony in her use of that word.  I admit when she invokes the fantasy that "the guilty were supposed to pay the consequences," it's as a "stereotype" that "those whose reality embodies liberal values" clung to in the face of disconfirming evidence, though I don't think she wants to recognize that American political, business and media elites almost never do pay the consequences.  And then she says that Trump's "system clearly was unmoored to facts" (44)..

Even as an anti-Trump jeremiad, The Trouble with Reality is a failure.  Gladstone skims over the weighty history and political theory she discusses, getting them wrong most of the time.  She misses the import of much of it, for example:
"Oddly enough, the only person likely to be an ideal victim of complete manipulation is the President of the United States," said Arendt.

"Because of the immensity of his job, he must surround himself with advisers ... who exercise their power chiefly by filtering the information that reaches the President and by interpreting the outside world for him" [61].
Gladstone applies this to Trump, which is fair, though I wonder if (say) President Obama spent as much time actually watching Fox News, CNN, and other media as Trump seems to.  It also appears that he watches them as most people do, inattentively, only perking up when a buzzword gets his attention, and he doesn't bother to make sure that what he thinks he heard was what was said.  It's not as if he was any better-informed before he went into politics.  He also, as we've seen repeatedly, bullies and fires his advisors when they don't tell him what he wants to hear.  But the point is that Arendt was not talking about Trump; she was talking about all US Presidents.  The quotation appears to come from a 1978 interview with Arendt published in the New York Review of Books, so she most likely had Richard Nixon chiefly in mind.  Barack Obama also entered a bubble when he moved into the White House.  Remember when he jumped to the conclusion that the Supreme Court had overturned the Affordable Care Act, because CNN (and other media) mistakenly said so?

All of Gladstone's polemic is directed at Trump and his reality-challenged base, but her book is clearly written for a liberal-Democrat, NPR and PBS-supporting readership.  Few of them need to be told that Trump is a very bad man, the worst, a big-league demagogue who will destroy democracy if he isn't stopped, who became President because his conspiracy-theory-loving base were (willingly, don't let them off the hook) fooled by his propaganda.  Gladstone's intended readers are in no danger of being fooled by him.  But she betrays no awareness that her discussion of American politics also applies to the Democratic leadership; even when she cites a nineteenth-century critic of the press like James Fenimore Cooper, she does so because of his "eerie prescience" (39), not because his complaints show that the abuses he identified go back to (or even before) the beginning of the Republic.  In short, Gladstone is preaching to the choir, flattering and stroking their fears and prejudices, while believing that she's taking a courageous stand for Truth, Justice, and the American way.

Imagine -- well, you probably don't have to imagine -- that some Fox News personality wrote a book about the peril demagoguery poses to America, citing the same authorities Gladstone does, warning his or her readers not to be fooled by Barack Obama's or Hillary Clinton's manipulations, propaganda, and doggone-it undermining of reality.  Some, even most of their criticisms of the Adversary might well be justified, though that's purely optional.  But like Gladstone, they would never think of turning their analytical gaze on their own side.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Bite Me, I'm a Liberal

Last fall I noticed numerous liberal Democrats posting about the plight of children in Syria; which was fair enough. They cried, "Why don't we do something?", which wasn't. When I asked them what they thought "we" could do about it, some had no idea, others wanted the US to intervene militarily; which would kill and injure many more Syrian children, but that didn't bother them because we've got to do something.  (Some people actually said that.)  Only America, God's anointed nation, can kill the little children, because we do it in a spirit of love!

Next I asked them about the dying children of Yemen, a catastrophe directly aided by the US; the US could do something by cutting off military aid to the Saudi "coalition," and by putting other kinds of pressure on our client. (Syria is not our client.) Of course thinking about this would mean acknowledging then-President Obama's responsibilty for the horror, so I wasn't surprised that none of them ever took up the cause of Yemen, even to post memes about it.  As far as I recall, almost none of them even replied to my comments.

Yet even now, when Trump's the official Satan and it's safe to attack his policies and actions, Democratic liberals are stiill silent about Yemen. (They've also fallen silent about the poor children of Syria, which I think sheds some light on how much they ever really cared about them.) If you want to know why many people don't trust, let alone esteem liberals as they esteem themselves, this is one reason why.

(The title of this post refers to a Facebook group called "Don't Like Liberals? Bite Me."  No, thanks.)

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 Today 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 speaking 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?"