Sunday, July 31, 2005

Satire: Do the French exist?

Recently, the NY Times had a story about a new study of sexual orientation conducted by a group of researchers in Chicago and Toronto. The most startling finding is that bisexuals may not exist. Only twenty-two self-declared bisexuals were included in the study: all seemed to be shamming. They were "really" gay or straight. This conclusion was reached by attaching a kind of peter meter to their genitals. Lack of engorgement was supposed to demonstrate absence of erotic interest. Later I will comment on the study more fully.

Some observers explain this presumed nonexistence of bisexuals, by claiming that a "true bisexual" has to be 50/50. That is to say, the person must maintain equal receptivity to both genders at all times. While I am not bisexual, in talking to such people and reading the literature it has become clear that this is not generally the way the matter works. Bisexuals are attracted to the sexes for different reasons. At different times they may be more attracted to one or the other. It is unreasonable to demand that they always adhere to the Woody Allen standard—being bisexual doubles your chance of a date on Saturday night.

There is reason to believe that those who maintain this restrictive definition of bisexuals do not like them. Insisting on the rigid 50/50 criterion was, I thought, a way of defining bisexuals out of existence. A neat trick, but one that will not work. To expose the fallacy of this methodology, I wrote the following satire "from a comparative point of view."

The French: Do They Exist?

The name of France derives from medieval Francia. In turn, this word derives from the Franks, a Germanic tribe that settled in Roman Gaul in the fifth century CE. The Franks were powerful but few, and they dominated the country from their country estates. In time they came to form a rural aristocracy. This point has been established by one of their descendents, the Count de Gobineau (1816-1882). The Count is also known for his more general theories of racism, diffused by Richard Wagner (not French). At all events, this core group claiming pure Frankish lineage constitutes the only body of individuals who can be termed truly French.

The French Revolution especially targeted the decadent aristocrats of Frankish descent. Those that did not emigrate were hunted down and executed. Today this group survives in such small numbers that it may be reasonably said not to exist.

This point has now been conclusively established by a team of researchers, based in New Zealand and Patagonia, who have found no less than twenty-two subjects who claim, improbably enough, to be French. The subjects were recruited from ads in Gourmet Magazine. These claims were assessed through an infallible tool, the sensor known as the Francometer, which is attached to the tongue, the seat, or so they claim, of the gastronomic prowess of these imposters.

None of the subjects passed the Francometer test. This finding replicates those of numerous previous studies—though, curiously enough, no one has been able to cite them.

This is truly good news. As everyone knows, the French are hateful people. Or they would be--if they actually existed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Canaan resurgent

In a recent post I reported some preliminary findings from the group of scholars of ancient Israelite history known as the minimalists. At the time I felt that the jury was still out on their findings. Not so. Their demolition of early Israelite history as narrated in the Hebrew Bible finds increasing acceptance among centrists—even if they do drag their feet on some aspects. This does not mean, however, that the texts as we have them are as late as the second century BCE. That very late date probably goes too far. It suffices to demonstrate that the texts are appreciably later than has generally claimed, so that they present a mythical rather than historical image.

The crucial finding is that the account presented in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible is an ideological fabrication, probably assembled after the return from captivity in 539 BCE. That means that the accounts of the exodus, conquest, and settlement presented in the Pentateuch, the Book of Joshua, and the book of Judges are highly unreliable. Moreover, in a thorough review of the evidence (1992), the Egyptologist D.B. Redford has found no evidence at all for the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt.

Television is still peddling these Bible stories for a gullible public. Yet in all likelihood these events never happened in the way that we are told. The beginnings of Israelite history lie in what may be termed Greater Canaan, an area most of the protagonists never left.

The upshot is that almost of millennium of Biblical history—from ca. 1400 to 539 BCE has been mostly erased. This period spans the Late Bronze Age, the Iron Age and the so-called Monarchy period. In all likelihood, the First Temple era—wasn’t. Or rather the Second Temple era, after 539, was the First Temple era.

Into this vacuum two things have come in. First, is a renewed study of the Ugaritic documents found at Ras Shamra on the coast of Syria as long ago as 1928. Unlike the Hebrew Bible these are authentic texts of the second millennium BCE. Spanning a range of genres, from administrative and cultic documents to poetic and mythological narratives, the Ugaritic texts present a vivid picture of polytheism, ritual religious observance, and governmental intervention. As the language in them is close to Hebrew, specialists read them with some ease, noting the many parallels with supposedly Israelite uniqueness. At all events, the Ugaritic texts belong to the second millennium, while the opening books of the Hebrew bible do not.

The second body of material that has been summoned to fill the vacuum consists of archaeological finds, which attest cult sites and home shrines, as well as what appear to be images of deities. Unlike William G. Dever and Ziony Zevit, two leading researchers in this era, I am less confident of our ability to sort out the meaning. For example, Dever and others think that the masses of female figurines represent the goddess Asherah—or even the mythical "Great Mother." But why must these little images be deities at all? Archaeologists have concluded that many of the similar figurines from prehistoric Europe and Crete are not necessarily deities. They may be worshippers. Some may even have been dolls for children. Other finds are clearly the equipment of household shrines and cult sites in the "high places." Worship was going on there, but it is rarely clear which particular deities were honored. In short, archaeological data are not mute, as some skeptics claim, but their voices are muffled.

All this material, though, suggests a religious koine in the northeastern Semitic area, embracing Ebla, Ugarit, the Amonites, Moab, and the ancient Israelites. In this context Israelite religion is but a branch of a larger whole. Scholars are now beginning to examine this phenomenon in this context.

Some more specific findings may be noted.

First, the Israelites did not start with a primordial monotheism brought intact from Sinai under the auspices of Moses. This monotheism was not "corrupted" by polytheistic intrusions as the Hebrew Bible suggests, with the shining purity of ethical monotheism being recovered by the work of the prophets and just rulers. Instead, there were centuries of coexistence of a number of deities, Yahweh among them. The victory of the Yahweh-Alone party was only complete after 539, when such exclusivity was needed as an ideology to establish the fragile unity of a much-troubled people.

Moreover, while early Israel was polytheistic, it had a somewhat skimpy pantheon. As we know from the Ugaritic documents, the Canaanites acknowledged over 200 deities. Ancient Israelites had seven main ones: El, Baal, Asherah, Yahweh, and the sun, moon and stars. Still, that pleiad sufficed to demonstrate polytheism, not monotheism. Moreover, with further archaeological work, the presence of other deities may come to light.

The third point is the demolition of old idea of Canaanite religion as a licentious fertility cult. This notion has attracted a certain prurient interest, but its main function has been to contrast the self-indulgent Canaanites with the noble, self-denying Israelites, who bequeathed to us the supreme gift of ethical monotheism. As Dennis Pardee remarks: "The fertility cult so dear to the heart of the older generation of Hebrew and Ugaritic scholars shows up clearly in neither corpus; the sexual depravity that some have claimed to be characteristic of the Canaanite cult in general has left no trace in any of the Ugaritic texts"—at least those that have been edited and translated.

A fourth finding, however, seems hard to sustain. For several generations of biblical scholars the kedeshim, or holy ones, have been assumed to be male cult prostitutes.

Some feminist scholars are uncomfortable with any discussion of prostitution. Yet the Hebrew Bible luxuriantly documents the custom, which provides, among other things, a major metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh. A prostitute, Rahab, played an important role in the tale of Joshua’s conquest. Another married the prophet Hosea. The bible is saturated with the phenomenon. Yet one feminist scholar has gone so far as to claim that the female counterpart, the Kedeshot, were the equivalent of vestal virgins! Others settle for the designation of functionary.

Oddly, those who advance such notions accuse the inventors of the older idea of Canaanite licentiousness of "prudery." Instead, prudery seems to infest the anti-prostitution camp.

Let us look at two pieces of textual evidence. In chapter 38 of Genesis, Judah couples with Tamar, thinking her a common prostitute (zonah). Later, he refers to her in a somewhat more dignified way as a kedeshah, traditionally rendered as a cult prostitute. It does not seem likely that he was claiming that he had sex with a "functionary." Let us take a modern example. At a drinking party a womanizer might boast of an encounter with a hooker. The following day at the office he might assert more tactfully that his companion was an "escort" or "model"—certainly not a bureaucrat. In short Judah’s verbal substitution makes no sense unless both terms refer to sexual services, though those of the kedeshah are of a higher class. This interpretation finds support in the cognate Mesopotamian term qidishtu, which refers to a cult prostitute.

Now let us turn to the male equivalents. In Deuteronomy 23:18 the matter is laid out with exemplary clarity. "No Israelite woman shall be a kedeshah, nor shall any Israelite man be a kadesh. You shall not bring the fee of a zonah (whore) or the pay of a kelebh (dog) into the house of the Lord." We have noted the kedeshah/zonah linkage. The kadesh/kelebh one parallels it. There is independent evidence that such kelebhim were male hustlers; at all events, dogs in the ordinary sense do not generally receive fees.

If one adopts the minimalist idea that the texts were written much later than they purport to be, one could dismiss this kadesh/kedeshah material as another invention. Since, however, it finds parallels at Ugarit and in Mesopotamia, and in any event is discreditable to the Yahwist party, it seems likely that these texts retain a kernel of unpleasant truth.

A possible solution begins with a suggestion by Dennis Pardee. He holds that the kedeshim of Ugarit were indeed important religious functionaries—in effect priests. Over time, however, they came into conflict with another such corps of religious servants, the kohanim. Eventually the latter, the Cohens if you will, triumphed, degrading their opponents, the kedeshim in status. Perhaps, to preserve any role, they took on the office of cultic male prostitutes. Perhaps it happened this way. Unexplained, though, is the fact that the female counterpart, the kedeshot, always seem to have offered sexual services.

As this last matter shows, there is much that remains to be settled. Along the way, we will note, as always, ideological preferences that need to be overcome if a truer picture is to emerge.

[A faithful reader asks that I append some bibliographical notes. These follow.] The best thing to start with is a good version of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. I have found the Jewish Study Bible (eds. Berlin and Brettler; Oxford UP) to be beyond praise. The notes and essays encompass a wide variety of points of view, from traditional rabbinical interpretations to the latest iconoclastic theories (or some of them at least--there are some limits). While (in my view) not strictly sound on a historical basis, the rabbinical material does help to explain aspects of Jewish ritual and piety. This volume even discusses the hypothesis that Ham sodomized his dad! Apart from the historical question, there is clearly much wisdom in the Tanakh: in the Prophets and the Psalms, in Job and Ecclesiastes. For this reason the Hebrew bible will always remain a major presence in Western civilization. The JSB volume is worth far more than its modest price. I consult it on an almost daily basis.

Now to the more specific references. There are two branches of study: the textual (using mainly the Ugaritic texts) and the archaeological. For the first, I started with Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism (2001). Despite the title, the heart of this book is a reconstruction of the Ugaritic pantheon. Another useful book is Dennis Pardee, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit.

The advantages of the archaeological method are forcefully argued in several works by William G. Dever, a convert to Judaism. A recent one is Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? To go further one can really open one's wallet and acquire Ziony Zevit's monumental The Religions of Ancient Israel. This encyclopedic work would be an honor to any field of research. Zevit can be used in tandem with another big work: Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel.

As an art historian I must own that the figurines unearthed in Israelite territory seem poor things compared to the Egyptian and Mesopotamian masterpieces. However, iconography cannot rely solely on masterpieces. Still, with relatively little textual confirmation, the identity of the pieces cannot be established as easily as Dever (eg) claims.

It must be remembered that the ancient Israelites (whoever they were) stood at the conjunction ot the two great tectonic plates of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the founders of our civilization. This whole cultural complex needs to be seen as a unit.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Retrospect of a gay scholar

While I had long had a variety of interests, until the early 1970s I regarded myself as a card-carrying art historian. I completed my dissertation, sought to establish myself as a teacher-scholar in several major universities, edited a periodical in the field, and so forth. After Stonewall in 1969 though the emerging field of gay studies started to engage my attention. The potential of this field became evident in working with my best friend, the late Jack Stafford, on a bibliography of the subject, conducted under the auspices of a committee of gay librarians. Then I joined the Gay Academic Union, which I first thought of exclusively as a civil-rights organization. Fairly soon, though I saw that this work could have a scholarly component.

There were a few lonely forerunners in the US, who operated outside the sphere of academia (then committed to disparaging homosexuality as "abnormal psychology.") ONE Inc. and its scholarly Quarterly were outposts of a sort. In the impromptu courses given at ONE in Los Angeles ten fields, from sociology to literature, were recognized. In New York City Donald Webster Cory operated mostly alone in preparing books on the subject.

By the mid-70s I was aware of the vast corpus of German-language material from 1838-1933. Since I could read German, I sought to assimilate this.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED—after 30-odd years.

1. As a rule feelings of same-sex love in human beings are persistent, intense, and ineradicable. It is not certain whether this commitment in depth is due to a primary biological-genetic component or a constitutional one (the latter encompassing, and perhaps privileging early childhood experience and cultural conditioning).

2. There are significant similarities as well as differences between the experiences of gay men and lesbians. The equation of the two, sustained on political and strategic grounds, is relatively recent (the latter part of the nineteenth century).

3. In addition to many manifestations in tribal cultures, there have been four chief forms in high cultures: ancient Greece, the Far East (China and Japan), Islam, the European West. Islam and the West have absorbed homophobic perspectives stemming from the Hebrew-Christian Bible; the other two did not. This comparison offers a clear dichotomy.

4. The West and Islam are afflicted by a powerful hydra of homophobic prejudices and fabrications. The need to examine these and root them out is ongoing.

5. The West has shown a long history of legal sanctions, reflecting these motifs. These laws and the arguments for and against them display notable residues of thinking and attitudes. The history of law enforcement against those who have fallen afoul of such legislation is a melancholy, but necessary subject.

6. On a worldwide basis, research has revealed a prevalence of two quite different types of same-sex behavior: age-differentiated and gender-differentiated. A third type, the so-called egalitarian one, is relatively rare, though prevalent in modern Western contexts--at least those that are most visible. Survivals of the other two types are undeniable.

7. In most societies that have fostered homosexual behavior, there are patterns of cultural continuity. In American Indian societies, for example, these take the form of traditional roles assumed by the so-called berdache figures. Ancient Greece, the West, and China display complex manifestations of gay and lesbian high culture.

8. Whether this reality authorizes one to speak of a stable gay identity and lesbian identity over time is uncertain. Even more problematic is the hypothesis of a distinct bisexual identity. Nonetheless, many individuals eschew absolute polarization, not restricting themselves either to the other sex or to their own, but have combined the two interests in some fashion.

9. Ethological research has abundantly shown that the old view that homosexual behavior does not occur among animals is false. Yet in many species the behaviors are of limited scope (e.g. mounting; the joint upbringing of young), too narrowly focused to permit a straightforward ascription of "animal homosexuality."

10. Academically an opportunity has been squandered, since most of the tenure-track jobs in our area have gone to Queer Theorists. In general, the hijacking of gay studies by postmodernism has produced little of lasting value.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Dynamic duos

Today there is much distrust of “great man” theories. Yet sometimes they seem unavoidable.

One way of approaching twentieth-century culture is in terms of dueling pairs. For example, a couple of years ago New York’s Museum of Modern Art held a big exhibition entitled Picasso-Matisse. To some extent the contrast runs deep: form (Picasso) vs. color (Matisse), tragic sense of life (P) vs. hedonism (M). However, there was also much interaction, as one artist would play off specific works of the other. Cubism was primarily associated with Picasso, yet Matisse, following him, had a kind of Cubist period as well. For many years Picasso disdained the intense colors favored by Matisse, but in a kind of expressionist breakthrough in the late 1930s the Spanish artist adopted such "couleurs criards."

In the field of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright championed Organic Architecture, a humanistic practice with is roots in the late nineteenth century. Le Corbusier, his great adversary, stood for the severe rationality of the European International Style. One of my last courses at Hunter College was a seminar comparing and contrasting the two. The results were instructive.

In music Stravinsky represented a kind of intuitive modernism, incorporating the vitality of several national influences. Arnold Schoenberg, in this respect recalling Le Corbusier, developed the severely logical Twelve-Tone method.

Proust was the last representative of the great European tradition of the mega-novel. James Joyce, almost equally verbose, adopted a series of radically innovative techniques.

In creating Relativity, Albert Einstein produced a new, unified world picture. Yet Max Planck, in laying the foundations for the quantum theory, upset Einstein’s synthesis. The contrast between the two approaches still troubles the world of physics.

In politics Stalin and Hitler came to personify the stark choices of the 1930s. In 1937 the opposing German and Soviet pavilions at the Paris World’s Fair symbolized their rivalry. Fortunately this was one case where a stark choice proved not necessary. Today, both models have been fortunately retired—or so we must hope.

The remainder of this piece concerns a rivalry of this kind in philosophy—that of WITTGENSTEIN and POPPER.

An instructive and amusing book, Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (2001), by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, sets the scene. In the austere Cambridge of 1946 two Viennese Titans met for one duel in Cambridge, England. At this encounter did Wittgenstein threaten Popper with a hot poker? To this day the facts remain in dispute. What is not contested is the fundamental difference between the two: are there genuine philosophical problems that must be addressed, as Popper maintained, or are there simply puzzles that must be dissipated (Wittgenstein's position).

Though they had found a haven in England, both Wittgenstein and Popper shared a common Continental background. They were both assimilated Jews formed by an especially creative period of Viennese cultural history. One need only think of Mahler and Schoenberg, Freud and Kraus, Klimt and Loos. During the 1920s Wittgenstein was to build a house reflecting Adolf Loos' ultramodern ideas.

Not everything in the Vienna of those days contributed so harmoniously. In the case of Wittgenstein one must reckon with the bad influence of Otto Weininger, a self-hating Jewish homosexual, not unlike his more famous admirer. During the 1930s Wittgenstein recorded a number of observations, which can only be termed anti-Semitic, under the influence of his unfortunate Viennese guru. As late as the 1940s Wittgenstein was still commending the noxious magnum opus "Sex and Character" of this author to his friends. In fact there was a powerful irrational and illiberal streak in Ludwig Wittgenstein. Other influences that go against the picture of Wittgenstein's work as strictly logical are Schopenhauer and Spengler, the dubious philosopher of world history.

Unlike Wittgenstein, Popper was never a member of the Vienna circle. In fact his first major book, Logik der Forschung (1935), demolished their cherished principle of verification, replacing it with the more daunting criterion of refutability. Shortly after this book appeared, Popper succeeded in emigrating, going first to New Zealand. While in exile in that remote land Popper wrote his masterpiece, The Open Society and Its Enemies. This book contrasts the open societies of democracy with their totalitarian opponents. Popper spends little time attacking the usual targets, such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, though they clearly come within his crosshairs. He analyzes the contribution of such major thinkers as Plato and Hegel to totalitarianism. Equipped with a certainty, wholly unjustified, that they understood the groundplan of history, these thinkers created the basis for the repressive polities of the twentieth century. Naturally, Popper’s critique, especially of Plato, produced an outcry. This massive work in two volumes was intended as a contribution to the war effort. Yet its beneficial effects far outlasted the victory of 1945. The book produced its most imposing effect during the closing decades of the twentieth century, when it made a major contribution to delegitimizing Communist tyranny.

Apart from Austria, the two paladins of philosophy shared another country, England. Wittgenstein went there to live permanently (in Cambridge) in 1929. Popper received an appointment at the London School of Economics in 1946. Thus, apart from Austria, the two shared another country. The self-effacing triviality of English middle-class life ("What would happen if I dropped the tea tray?"), together with the common-sense philosophy that went with it, proved seductive to Wittgenstein (though he sometimes groused about Cambridge, where he actually had it good). Popper always struggled against the more complacent aspects of the English life, encouraging his new compatriots to make more strenuous efforts.

In both countries, the unifying thread of Wittgenstein’s work is concern for language. It is generally thought that he created two important philosophies, one during World War I and the second, which drastically amends the first, in the 1930s and 40s.

Wittgenstein's Tractatus (the only book he published in his lifetime) was written while he was a soldier in the Austrian army during World War I. This book seeks to state the criteria for meaningful statements as against those that are not meaningful, in effect nonsense. As such it was taken as the charter for the Logical Positivism of the Vienna Circle, with its claim to be working towards a purely scientific philosophy, which would relegate traditional concerns with metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics to the dustbin of “meaninglessness.” Further consideration suggests that they only understood one side of the Tractatus. In addition to its attempt to demarcate one type of statement from another, identifying a strain of mysticism. This mystical, indeed irrational tendency became more pronounced as Wittgenstein grew older.

Widely influential though it remains, Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is to me incoherent. Wittgenstein busied himself on such questions as "If it if three o’clock in Cambridge, what time is it on the sun?" and "If a lion spoke to us, would we understand him?" Wittgensteinians suggest that concentrating on such statements is a caricature—that these questions are only the outer husk of a profound series of inquiries about the mind and language. At all events Wittgenstein left a lot of loose ends, making considerable work for his exegetes. Some of the profusion of secondary writing that surrounds the thinker’s own works represents an effort to clarify what he said—or rather what he might have said, had he been able to think more clearly.

Of course the general public does not see the matter in this way. For those who know only a few tags from his work, Wittgenstein remains a fascinating character, a mystic and ascetic, who inspired fanatical loyalty. Even his tormented homosexuality (still downplayed by the exegetes) seemed to contribute to the enhancement of his status as a mythical figure.

Popper was by contrast a workaholic rationalist. He certainly was not endowed with tact. He could be very cutting, as I found when I briefly attended his London School of Economics seminar in 1964. But he could claim to have changed the world with his masterwork, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper has been honored in Eastern Europe for bringing tyranny down. In this way his ideas helped make life better for millions of human beings. Perhaps even now Popper's beneficial influence is beginning to take hold in Africa and other places where the residues of totalitarianism persist.

The authors of the Wittgenstein’s Poker book suggest that Wittgenstein was ultimately victorious in the long-running contest of the two men for philosophical influence. They report the claim, to me bizarre, that one professional survey ranked Wittgenstein as one of the top five philosophers in the history of the world. Hans Sluga's observation seems more just: "It is more likely that, like Pascal and Nietzsche, he will remain an uneasy presence in philosophy."

By contrast Popper’s work transcended the realm of thought, spilling over into the real world. As has been noted, his writings are credited as having wrought change in the real world, as seen in his influence in Eastern Europe, especially during the 1980s—and perhaps in Africa today.

Given the natural limits on the time allotted to us for such study, which philosopher is the more rewarding?. While The Open Society and Its Enemies is a big book in two volumes, it is relatively easy to assimilate, as are Popper’s other well-written and argued books. With Wittgenstein there are, in addition to various posthumous printed volumes, at least 4000 pages in the Nachlass. In much of this material, Wittgenstein seems struggling to make his thinking clear, but does not always succeed. It is of course possible that if one were to devote the huge blocks of time required, one would achieve enlightenment. Similar claims have been made for the opaque works of Jacques Derrida. Without having made this commitment, one cannot be sure. So most fall back on their image of Wittgenstein as a great philosopher, perhaps even a mystical guru, taking pleasure perhaps in the “poetry” of his oracular writings.

I never knew Wittgenstein. When I was an undergraduate in California in the fifties I struggled through the Philosophical Investigations, the central work in his later thought. Despite the fact that I understood very little, I still cherished the illusion that Wittgenstein’s later thinking was THE philosophy of our time. If one could just understand it, we could see the world as it is. In due course this conviction faded. It had garnered little reward. Then, when I lived in London in the sixties, I actually attended Popper’s classes at the London School of Economics on a few occasions. I then read everything I could by him. Popper offered a comprehensive view of the philosophy of science, which I still feel is the most vital remnant of that embattled discipline. Moreover, I felt that Popper had helped me to reach creative solutions to the issues presented by my dissertation, which I was working on at that time.

Perhaps the difference can be put this way. Popper held that through the use of the tools of reason bequeathed to us by Western Civilization we can work together gradually towards achieving a better world. By contrast, Wittgenstein held that philosophy was merely "therapeutic." To avail oneself of this therapy, which seems even less certain in its benefits than Freudian psychoanalysis, one must master a vast and growing mass of fumbling, oracular statements, as every last scrap of Wittgenstein’s graphomania becomes available, to be pondered by his adepts.

I know where I stand now. Popper’s works and some commentaries on them stand beside my bed, ever ready for consultation. Not so Wittgenstein’s corpus. It has been relegated to a dusty corner of the room.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Cartography of Political Correctness

A friend who resides in Norway recently communicated some disturbing information about legal steps to restrict freedom of speech in several Western European countries, based on presumed offenses to ethnic sensibilities. It might be thought that we manage these things better in the United States. To the extent that the First Amendment to the Constitution provides a protective bulwark, that may be so. However, these trends in Europe reflect our own accumulated repertoire of political correctness. In others words, the rhetoric and rationale for these unfortunate European developments are "made in USA."

Since the sixties America has served as the great laboratory of Political Correctness. To be sure, the ingredients stem from several sources, and their trajectory can be quite complex. The French term *chauviniste stems from a fictional character, a Napoleonic soldier noted for his exaggerated nationalism, or jingoism. Denouncing "Great Russian chauvinism," which favored the dominant group in their country, the early Bolsheviks gave the c-word an ethnic twist. Through left-wing channels the epithet made its way into our repertoire of feminist invective: "male chauvinist pig."

Let us note some other examples. In Spanish, the term *macho simply means "male"; in borrowing the word we gave it the meaning of an exaggerated male assertiveness, replacing the rather tame "he-man." The term "multiculturalism" is an import Pierre-Eliot Trudeau’s Canada. Yet much of the material comprising these rich linguistic resources is native, including that insidious weasel wording "affirmative action," a euphemism invented in 1965. All these things came together in the United States as a byproduct of the efforts towards social change that emerged in the sixties: the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay and lesbian movement.

A good place to test this symbiosis of American origination, on the one hand, and European copying and adaptation, on the other, is the French-language sphere, which presents elements of resistance as well as acceptance. In other words, if the made-in-America version of PC can succeed in France, ever wary of "Anglo-Saxon" domination, it can succeed anywhere. Before embarking on the jolly tour that lies ahead, note the following features. First, there is French linguistic purism, which seeks to replace imports with naive equivalents (thus *olduc for pipeline; and *ordinateur for computer). As we shall see, this resistance is breaking down--though it remains a potent factor in some quarters. Moreover, until recently the French have been reluctant to admit that they had any ethnic minorities, despite a large and growing Muslim population from North Africa (the *Beurs). As la Grande Nation came tardily to this recognition, much of the French rhetoric of ethnic assertion and sensitivity inevitably assumed a plumage borrowed from North America. As regards women, though, the French pioneered their own version with the writings of such figures as Simone de Beauvoir and the lesbian theorist Monique Wittig. (Significantly, the latter lived in the US for a number of years.)

As a rule, words with Latin and Greek roots have an easier time making their way across the Atlantic (*patriarcal, *ethnocentrisme ). Sometimes, though, defying injunctions against *franglais, the English expression is purloined just as it is, as in *DWEM and *PC (pronounced pi ci).

We may start with some dos and don’ts. Ever acknowledging that we live in an ethnic *saladier (melting pot), we must resolve to be *politiquement correct at all times. Ever sensitive to *différence, one must positively embrace *diversité. More than sentiment is required. One must practice, as much as possible, *discrimination positive (affirmative action, though French law grants it less scope).

The list of prohibitions is much more extensive. As in North America *harcèlement sexuel (sexual harassment) has expanded to include glances interpreted as hostile and “inappropriate laughter. Travel for its own sake is frivolous, though *écotourisme in to be commended.

*Sexisme was an early import into French, now supplemented by *hétérosexisme. *Ageisme is another no-no, as is discrimination against *les handicapés, who are, luckily for them, "personnes dotées de capacités différentes."

*Machisme, reflecting its naturalization in the US, appeared in 1971.

*Homophobie (invented in North America, 1972) is the most prominent of the phobias. Some of us, it appears, are guilty of *homophobie intériorisée. Above all, we must encourage *les gays dans leur *coming out.

The French are said to suffer less from obesity than other nations, but they have their share of the weight-challenged. In dealing with such people one must avoid any temptation to *grossophobie.

Care must be taken not to designate ethnic groups by “outside” names. Thus *Sami and *Inuit are to be preferred to Lapp and Eskimo. On a hot day be sure to demand an *Inuit Glacée ("Eskimo Pie"). To ignore this rule to commit the fault of *exonomie or inappropriate naming. *Gay(e) is in effect a return import from English, though in French (gai) it never had a sexual meaning. In some cases abusive terminology can be tolerated if it is embraced by the groups themselves; thus *rital (wop) and *prolo (redneck). As with the n-word on these shores, recourse to such words is restricted members of the group so designated.

The English-language import *black is now widespread for French residents of sub-Saharan African origin.

A good indication of the scope of this lexicographic jungle comes from an entry translated from André Santini’s useful dictionary of such expressions. "WESTERN CIVILIZATION: An obscenity designating a system intended to promote bourgeois values, while keeping the victims of oppression—women, children, homosexuals, people of color—in a state of permanent subjection. Western civilization, also termed eurocentrism, relies upon other fallacious notions, such as objectivity, reason, science, and universalism. This system is maintained by the dominance of evil DWEMs."

French feminism has shown some independent linguistic creativity, as *phallocrate (male chauvinist). This may be extended into a general attack on "male" logic: *phallogocentrisme.

A similar demonstration could be undertaken for other major European languages. In any event, the above examples suffice to show that the French have been apt pupils of lessons administered from the other side of the Atlantic.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Red and black

A recent B-movie about winning at Las Vegas made me think about the conventions of the roulette wheel. Apart from the numbers on the rim (which are, appropriately, numerous) there are two binary contrasts: odd vs. even, and red vs. black. The first reflects a fundamental property of mathematics that is, so to speak, built into the universe. Every number must be either odd or even.

Not so the red/black opposition. To be sure, hues may be measured in angstrom units, arraying them in a vast rainbow, but the only contrast that seems objectively valid is between white (total fusion of colors) and its opposite black (the absence of color). And we do speak of black-and-white contrasts. Among other things, piano keyboards and old movies reinforce the perception of this complementarity. However, red is just a hue among countless others, with no objective or necessary companion, except as convention dictates. In traffic lights, for example, red contrasts with green.

Why then the red/black antinomy? The answer goes back to the writing conventions of the ancient Egyptians, whose beautiful hieroglyphs we admire in our museums and libraries. In Egyptian papyri black is preferred for the main body of running text. Red, which occurs less often, is reserved for headings and words that need to be emphasized, italicized as it were.

Among the Egyptians this contrast was in part practical, reflecting the ready availability of black ink (carbon black) and red (hematite, or red iron oxide). There were also symbolic overtones. The Egyptians often called their own country Kemet, the Black Land, acknowledging the rich dark soil brought from East Africa by the annual inundation’s. By contrast red was associated with the desert, a potentially dangerous, but inescapable accompaniment of the Black Land.

These symbolic associations faded, but not the idea that black is to be preferred for main texts, red for exceptional indications. Medieval scribes called the use of red "rubrication." Even today, we use the term "red-letter days," which originally referred to special feasts and saints' days in the calendar. At the beginning of her career, the Theosophist Annie Besant wrote a book on "black-letter saints," worthy figures but not as famous as the red-letter ones.

Today a version of the contrast occurs in bookkeeping, where accountants traditionally enter debits in red. This practice has influenced ordinary language. No one wants to be "in the red," while the assurance that one is "in the black" is calming.
The bookkeeping practice draws on the association of red with danger, which may be biological in origin. In the case of the roulette wheel, however, this association is not present. Given the mathematical nature of the odds, a better would be foolish to avoid red.

In Stendhal’s great novel, Le Rouge et le noir (1831), red refers to a political career, possibly a revolutionary one, while black means choice of the Church. Roughly they correspond to to our Left and Right. The contrast could also occur within factions of the Left. In 1834, if memory serves, two flags were unfurled in Paris: a red one for socialism, a black one for anarchism. Red has continued to be favored in the symbology of Marxist regimes, while some Anarchists unfurl the black flag.

It is a curious fact that a custom that started in ancient Egypt lingers in two realms where the red/black contrast is significant: in gambling and accounting. Perhaps someone should alert the Las Vegas hotel, the Luxor (where I stayed last year). Both types of endeavor, gaming and accounting, figure in the business side of the hotel.