Friday, November 26, 2004

New York Times: Caveat Emptor

Like most intellectuals in this country I am a reader of the NY Times. Over the years, though, I have become alert to instances of bias, manipulation, and sheer sloppiness.

All three are in evidence in today's edition, which has an editorial called "The Real Environmental Mandate." This editorial properly challenges an assertion by Michael Leavitt, who heads the Environmental Protection Agency. Leavitt claims that on Election Day the voters had delivered a clear mandate for President Bush's environmental policies. According to the Times, what the voters "really said" was just the opposite.

To justify this claim, several pro-environmental votes are cited. Yet there is not a word about the spectacular victory of anti-enviromentos in Oregon, one of our bluest states. There the citizens voted 60-40 for a major overhaul in that state's land-use policies. The law requires the state to pay compensation for land with restricted use, or allow the restrictions to be modified. This news story, which contradicts the sweeping claims of the editorial, appeared on p a g e o n e of today's Times.

While the bias at the Times is usually liberal, sometimes it is not, as in the inadequate critiques of the Administration's policies leading up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Nontheless, many in the heartland have learned to distrust it, together with much of the legacy media. This distrust, based on the well-established fact that reporters are Democrats nine-to-one, is fueling the demand for more conservative commentators. In addition, many are coming to accept the notion, originally advanced by political radicals, that there is no such thing as objectivity. Eventually, this may lead to the perception that there is no such thing as true news--just the spin given by a particular tendency. In my youth, I witnessed this split in Italy, where there was one set of facts for Christian Democrats, another for Socialists, and a third for Communists. I fear that we have advanced far down this road.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Liberal hubris in academia

Two recent studies offer further confirmation of the political imbalance prevalent in American academia. The are cited in the NY Times for November 18: “Republicans Outnumbered in Academia.”

Professor Daniel Klein (Economics, University of Santa Clara) found that at Stanford and Berkeley Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-1. A national survey of 1000 professors revealed a pro-Democratic ratio of 7-1.

Moreover, this imbalance is increasing, as the cohort of younger professors shows an even greater liberal bias. The dominant liberal faction in most departments sees no problem in their becoming more so. And many who are conservative or middle-of-the-road decline to apply, sensing that even if they are hired they will not receive tenure. Two years ago there was a prominent case of this sort at Brooklyn College, when a highly qualified, much published conservative historian was only saved from canning by the intervention of the chancellor of the university.

I am not a Republican but a libertarian. So I have no dog in this fight. As a professor of art history, I am not called upon to comment in the classroom on contemporary political matters. For many students and colleagues, silence indicates consent. I am, many assume, one more soldier in the universal academic liberal army. A few colleagues, though, sense that “something is not quite right.” Perhaps I am harboring some dangerous heterodoxy—I might even be a fascist! Some academic liberals, mystified as to why the larger society has not embraced such eminently sensible ideas as theirs exhibit a touch of paranoia.

For someone like myself, who has spent 35 years in college teaching, the imbalance causes uneasiness for two reasons. 1) Having one side so clearly dominant tends to reduce the liveliness of discussion. Where is the diversity liberals claim to be seeking? 2) The present situation tends to erode public support. The general public does not share the orthodoxy that most liberals in academia cherish, and is increasingly resistant to funding it.

The piece in the NY Times elicited some correspondence from liberals defending the imbalance One writer offered a kind of compensation theory. That is, since Republicans dominate in big corporations, why not Democrats in academia? This is to compare apples and oranges. Corporations exist to make money. Those of us who are lucky enough to teach in the universities, ostensibly not for profit, are supposed to encourage a forum for the exchange of ideas.

As one insider recently remarked, at one time universities were islands of tolerance in a sea of intolerance. Now they are redoubts of intolerance in a generally tolerant society.

Liberals, we are told, are more logical, they are smarter. Yet what is logical about supporting affirmative action, especially when only lip service is required? There is no chance of a liberal white male who is tenured being fired and replaced by someone with a different background. These jobs, the last refuge of feudalism, are for life.

Liberals in universities believe that all cultures are more or less equal. To be sure, when reminded of Aztec human sacrifice or African genital mutilation today, they will back down—but only briefly. Cultural relativism is their default setting.

I could go on, but it is unnecessary. Unthinking support for the whole megillah of PC positions is not a sign of logical thinking or intelligence; it indicates a herd mentality.

But that is not the way the academic liberals see themselves. For any thinking person, they hold, the views they entertain are inescapable. They are simply the way things are. There is no need to ponder any alternative to the liberal orthodoxy in academia. “We are smart, they are stupid.” That is all one need know. What hubris! A system of thought that bars any serious consideration of other views is sometimes termed an ideology. It might also qualify as a religion.

It may be then, that as currently practiced, hegemonic liberalism in the universities is indeed a religion. As such, liberal dominance in publicly supported colleges ought to be forbidden as contrary to the First Amendment.

There is no need to go that far. All that is needed is an injection of the diversity academic liberals claim is so dear to them. This means not only seeking out persons to appoint with a different outlook, but taking what is for these folks a revolutionary step: seriously confronting ideas different from their own.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Kinsey, the movie

Now playing in many theaters is the film "Kinsey," directed by Bill Condon and featuring Liam Neeson in the title role. This film accomplishes two things. First, it details the aims and techniques of Kinsey’s sex research, set against the somewhat improbable background of Indiana University in Bloomington. Then the movie tells a series of stories, the overarching one being that of Kinsey’s marriage to Clara McMillen.

An an entomologist, Kinsey (1894-1956) specialized in gall wasps, a subject he pursued with monumental determination, showing a capacity for total commitment that was to serve him well in his main career, which turned out to be sex research. "Prok" (as Kinsey was known on campus: Professor Kinsey) entered this field when in 1938 he began giving a popular marriage course at the University. While he was shortly obliged to give this course up, it led to the start of his project to collect as many sex histories as possible, with a view toward producing a comprehensive study. He was also genuinely concerned about the way that young people were harmed in those days by sexual mythology and ignorance. The 0-6 scale, with complete heterosexuality as zero and complete homosexuality as six, duly appears.

The film shows how careful Kinsey was to put his subjects at ease through body language. The interviewers recorded the data on coded charts, enabling an extraordinary condensation, while assuring confidentiality. The “trip wires,” devices for spotting whether a subject was not being truthful are noted, though not illustrated. I believe these safeguards to have been effective, so that the individual profiles Kinsey collected from his sex histories are remarkably reliable. Not so, I fear, are his statistical methods of integrating the data. This jury is still out on the matter.

As James H. Jones has noted, Kinsey "looked for subjects in places that would determine what he found. Kinsey did a great deal of interviewing in prisons, where the incidence of homosexuality was higher than in the general population." Moreover, outside of prisons "Kinsey targeted gay people, becoming the first scientist to study in depth the nascent gay communities in large urban areas and elsewhere. In city after city he tapped into gay networks, using the contacts he made with gay subjects to generate introductions to their partners, lovers, and friends. This practice enabled Kinsey to collect a large number of gay histories, but, in conjunction with his prison interviews, it also skewed his data in the direction of overestimating the percentage of gay people in the American population."

Inevitably, the issue of Prok’s personal homosexuality raises questions. His youthful disciple Clyde Martin (ostensibly a true bisexual) is shown seducing Kinsey, when it must have been other way around. This produces the interesting paradox of the teacher taught—yet I doubt that it happened that way. From the start the professor had the pupil in his sights. And he took action: he saw, he conquered, he came. In fact Clyde seems to have had reservations about the matter from the beginning, and only cooperated to please his boss. Later Kinsey encouraged Clyde, ever charming but horny, to have sex (quite a bit of it) with his wife Clara. All three seemed to have viewed this perfect triad as a way of controlling the other two.

After Clyde Prok never had another grand passion. But had a good deal of homosexual experience. In fact this “outlet” (in his curious jargon) became exclusive in Kinsey’s later years. This transformation the film does not show. It ends with a sentimental walk in the woods with Clara, implying that the gay part of his life was just a parenthesis. So this film is a kind of aba symphony in three movements: het, homo, het. In reality the researcher’s life was a grand march to the status of Kinsey 6: het, homo, HOMO.

The movie claims that Clyde Martin was a Kinsey 3—as much homosexual as heterosexual--when the sexual relationship with Kinsey began. I wonder if this was so. The reason for this assertion, I fear, is to preserve a bedrock of heterosexuality in Kinsey (especially as personified by the manly Liam Neeson). To be sure, the movie concedes that Kinsey desired men. But it implies that if it weren’t for the advances of the young, lustful Clyde quite possibly he would never have done anything about his proclivities. In reality Kinsey was the one in charge.

When he produced the male volume half a century ago, Kinsey did not understand the dynamic of penetration among straight-identified males, especially those of the "lower socio-economic strata." In that era (and still today in our prisons) as long as these men did the penetrating, they did not regard their masculinity as compromised. In one terminology the “catcher” is the pervert, the “pitcher” is normal. Not infrequently, though, the catcher does not ejaculate, but simply services his partner.

The problem is this. Kinsey’s term "outlet" tends to count the penetrator as having had a homosexual experience, the partner possibly not. Culturally, this is not right for the period, where the opposite conceptualization was dominant. The formula may also have distorted the figures for the incidence, or at least the personalization, of homosexual contacts.

The term outlet encapsulates two problems with Kinsey’s method. The first is the obsession with counting. Love can’t be counted, so it doesn’t figure in Kinsey’s universe (a point the film makes). The second issue has to do with the behavioristic reduction of human conduct to simple mechanisms.

Some of Kinsey’s followers assume that his findings are universally valid—across time, across cultures. Yet he tacitly admitted that, as presented, they are not even entirely valid for American society in the middle of the 20th century. After collecting a good many sex histories from African Americans, he decided to omit them from his Reports. The Reports deal only with Caucasian Americans. He left out the African Americans because his findings indicated that their sexual proficiency was greater than that of whites. Since he expected (and received) attacks for “exaggerating” the prevalence of sex and sexual anomaly, he did not wish to attract further attention by, in effect, telling it like it is. Some years after his death, the African American data was published, but it received little notice.

I did not know Alfred C. Kinsey. Yet beginning in the 1980s I was mentored by one of his closest collaborators, the New York psychologist C.A. Tripp. Not completely in synch with the other associates, Tripp held that the Kinsey heirs in Bloomington had downplayed the more controversial findings of the Institute after the Founder’s death. Possibly this shift in emphasis was intended to secure funding, which was uncertain at best. Tripp even alleged that they had thrown out valuable primary material, including personal letters with homosexual content.

While I learned much about Kinsey and his findings, Tripp (who died last year) kept to the understanding among the associates not to reveal Kinsey’s sexual anomalies. This news would, they believed, undermine the acceptance of his scientific contribution. Most of us learned of the full extent of Prok’s foibles only from the controversial James H. Jones monograph of 1996. By then, it seemed, it was too late for the revelations to undermine Kinsey’s work. Setting aside the occasional moralism, Jones’ information is basically correct. Jones deals not only with Kinsey’s increasingly exclusive homosexuality as he grew older, but with his autoerotic practices, such as puncturing his foreskin and inserting a toothbrush into the urethra. Nonetheless, there is no justification at all for today's scurrilous campaign claiming that Alfred Kinsey was a pedophile. If anything, in his later years he became more and more interested in o l d e r men.

Coming out in 1948, Kinsey’s blockbuster cut through miasma of American sexual hypocrisy. Together with the female volume (1951) it was perhaps the most remarkable body of work ever produced by an American social scientist.

The operative word is “American.” In this light some comments by my other guru, the late Warren Johansson are appropriate. I conclude by summarizing his observations from some years back. "Kinsey had become accustomed to a mid-Western ethos that was distrustful of 'fancy' Eastern intellectuals (often Jewish and European). Like Henry Ford, Kinsey believed in facts and numbers. Once he was satisfied with a case history, it became a simple fact, one of the many bricks he used to build his edifice. In its more intellectual version this approach is known as pragmatism. Kinsey was probably not interested in exploring such theoretical foundations. His was a can-do approach.

"Moreover, Kinsey downplayed his debt to his Central European predecessors, going back to Richard von Kraff-Ebing (1840-1902), who (though he clung to the normal-abnormal dichotomy) pointed the way to exploring vast realms of sexual behavior that human beings actually engaged in. In Berlin Magnus Hirschfeld accumulated a monumental collection of case histories.

"The Europeans employed a cosmopolitan approach, grounded in thorough familiarity with the Greek and Latin classics. Although Kinsey arranged to have some of this material translated, he did not know how to make use of it. In the end, the Indiana sage was like most of us: bound by the imperatives of his place and time."

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Exit Queer Theory

Some years ago Larry Kramer, the noted AIDS activist, proposed to give a large sum of money to his alma mater, Yale University, to foster the study of male homosexuality. Even though there are now thousands of women’s studies programs throughout the land, the authorities at Yale chose to reject the proposal as “sexist.” After some negotiation, an understanding was achieved. Thanks to the generosity of Kramer’s brother, a new arrangement was made, yielding the Larry Kramer Institute (LKI), which exists on the New Haven campus today.

However, the institute was vulnerable to takeover by Queer Theorists (QT), who, in Kramer’s judgment, substituted their exercises in arcane postmodern jargon for genuine scholarship. As a young man Kramer had suffered from confusion and self-doubt stemming from his sexual orientation. For this reason he held that the LKI should help other young people, who as Yale undergraduates make up a considerable portion of the group served. Yet the pretentious jargon of QT was shutting out everyone except those already committed to this academic fad.

This emphasis has not gone down well, as the QT fad is indeed declining. Moreover, it is not suffering this fate in solitude, as parasitic on postmodernism and deconstruction in general.

As QT fades it is reasonable to ask what other models are available for research in gay studies. During the 1980s, the late Warren Johansson and I proposed a classic solution: use the traditional critical tools of scholarship, which have been flourishing since they were introduced in the Renaissance by such figures as Lorenzo Valla and Desiderius Erasmus. As with so many other realms of inquirty, these tools can illuminate many still poorly understood aspects of same-sex experience. Worldwide, this experience is much more varied that a present-minded focus on current North American styles and interests would suggest.

Johansson and I pointed out that there is a vast existing deposit of this work in German gay scholarship stemming from the 19th and early 20th century. To this day, most of this material remains unexploited. For example, in 1911 a German scientist, Ferdinand Karsch-Haack published a wonderful tome on same-sex behavior among tribal peoples. Except for the tireless Stephen O. Murray no recent scholar has made use of this treasure trove.

Accessing this body of information takes work—far more that the six weeks or so that it takes to acquire a veneer of the postmodern patter language, with its talk about transgression, indeterminacy, semiotic slippage and so forth. Seriously pursued, though, the older method achieves solid results. A magnificent example of this is Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization (Harvard University Press, 2003). Unlike the “breakthrough” works of QT, Crompton’s monograph will be consulted for decades to come.

Another available model stems from the social sciences. For some years a body of research reports has been accumulating from sociologists and psychologists regarding attitudes and behavior. However, most of the subjects are college students, who may alter their attitudes and behavior in later life. Those conducting these studies have not always shielded them from their own political preferences, casting doubt on the reliability of the result as a whole. For this and other reasons, the social sciences are losing traction in academia today.

There are alternatives to QT. Which one will take the lead it hard to say. Yet maybe we are not going to go “back to the future.” That is, a new model may emerge from contemporary reality, that is, the proliferation of sites on the Internet. As scholars roam the net from the privacy of their homes and offices, even prestigious research libraries note huge drops in attendance. Researchers are more and more resorting to the ‘net. To be sure, there are problems of reliability and completeness (both often compromised) in these venues. Awareness of these limitations, though, allows one to compensate for them. This development is ongoing, though, and it may yet yield important fruits.

What does seem certain is the continued decline of postmodernism, and its perverted child, Queer Theory. Those seem now to rank among the aberrations of the 20th century. Merely to mention these fads in the light of socialism, Communism, and Nazism, shows that they are not consequential aberrations, but they are mistakes all the same.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Islamic origins reconfigured

We hear much of the differences in Islam between the so-called fundamentalists, termed Islamists, and the moderates. Yet both groups concur on a number of established facts marking the origins of their faith. Among these is the datum the historical Muhammad was born in Mecca ca. 570 C.E. of the tribe of Quraish. When he was about forty years he accepted his calling as a prophet of God, to whom the texts known as the Qur’an were confided. In the year 622 he made his hijra, or flight to Medina. He reconquered Mecca in 630. By his death in 632 he had won all of Arabia to his beliefs.

Like their Islamic counterparts, Western scholars have generally accepted this account. Yet a new school of revisionist scholars has challenged most of these ostensibly secure findings. These scholars, who mostly reside outside Islamic countries, base their case on the application of the principles of the higher criticism to Islamic documents. This approach, beginning with Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) and others in 19th century Germany, established the parameters of all serious study of the body of Judaeo-Christian scriptures known as the Bible. The Pentateuch, for example, is not the unitary production of Moses, but a combination of the work of four writers known to scholars as J, E, D. and P. Why should such critical methods not be applicable to the Qur’an and the other foundational documents of Islam?

Some of the findings of the new critical school of Islamic studies appear in The Quest of the Historical Muhammad, edited by Ibn Warraq (Prometheus Books, 2000), an aptly titled volume. For the task these scholars have addressed really does resemble the Quest for the Historical Jesus, as conducted by Albert Schweitzer and others. The results of this new investigation indicate that there is no reliable evidence connecting Muhammad with either Mecca or Medina. The association with Mecca was invented in order to connect the faith with the cult of the sacred meteorite housed in that city, the Kaaba. In all probability the historical Muhammad was a military leader active on the northern border of Arabia, where he came into contact with sophisticated Christian and Jewish ideas. As is well known, the Qur’an has many reminiscences of events recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Another volume edited by Ibn Warraq deals with The Origins of the Koran (Prometheus Books, 1998). The essays in this volume show that the individual suras or segments of the Qur’anic text make up a disparate collection, whose components originated at different times over a long period. They assumed their present canonical form as late as two hundred years after the death of Muhammad. Thus the text we have can in no sense be regarded as a unity, whether delivered by the Archangel Gabriel or not. Many of the events described in this amalgam are of questionable authenticity.

To be sure, the conventional wisdom is quite different. In the 19th century Ernest Renan asserted that “in place of the mystery under which the other religions have covered their origins, [Islam] was born in the full light of history.” Although widely accepted, this view is mistaken. Many adjustments, alterations, and inventions characterized the gradual birth of Islam. In consequence the accepted account ranks as a “just so” story—if you will, a tale out of the Arabian Nights.

Modifying Renan, we may say that there are two types of religion. Organic faiths (e.g. Judaism and Hinduism) developed gradually from time immemorial. Contrasting with this pattern is the historical type, exemplified by Manichaeism (3d century) and Mormonism (19th century). For a long time Islam, its historical foundations firmly anchored, seemed to belong to the latter type. But if it now it resides in uncertain territory—it can only rank as a pseudo-historical faith.

For obvious reasons, it is not healthy to espouse these revisionist views in Islamic countries today. But slowly the results are trickling through, with the Internet giving a big boost. One day, perhaps, a Reformation—so often noted as the missing element in the saga of Islam—will take place.

Demographic changes in Western Europe have helped fuel the aggressiveness of Islamic militants in those countries. Through violent acts they seek to overturn established Western values of tolerance and free speech. In the face of this assault we are urged to be patient, while honoring Islam as a religion of peace.

Islam is not a religion of peace because it divides the world into two parts, the Abode of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the Abode of Warfare (Dar al-Harb). It is the task of Believers to reduce, by whatever measures are required, the latter to the condition of the former. This contrast assures constant strife in those parts of the world that have not yet submitted to Islam. Islamic militants are simply making this underlying situation clear. For this reason, they are not an aberration.

At all events, we should stop handling Islamist fanatics with kid gloves. Their intentions towards us are not honorable, and (as seen above) the basis for their faith is contestable. For these reasons, the term “Islamo-Fascism” is not helpful. The challenge posed by Islam does not derive from Mussolini or Hitler: it is sui generis.