Thursday, March 27, 2008

Misleading sobriquets

A few years back. a friend referred, ironically, to Ellen "Degenerate." He is actually an admirer of the TV personality, but couldn't resist falling into this little trap. "Oh, if only she were degenerate," I replied. "She is just too bland and wholesome. If only she could channel some of the kick ass spirit of Rosie O'Donell. Now there's a real dyke for you, not some plastic simulation."

I feel somewhat similarly about a noted English composer of somewhat earlier times. According toe the TLS, the sesquicentennial of Sir Edward Elgar's birth has been marked, quite variously, by the publication of five new books.

When I lived in England in the sixties, sophisticates referred to him as Sir Edward "Vulgar." Alas, the man was incapable of any lifegiving vulgarity. If only he had borrowed a thing or two from his Austrian contemporary Gustav Mahler, who actually quoted from the comic song "Ach du lieber Augustin" in one of his symphonies.

With a couple of Elgar CDs on hand, one need never bother purchasing sleeping pills. The only problem is what the ensuing hyperdullness might do to one's unconscious, as the relentlessly earnest melodies keep flowing in through one's ears.

Apparently Elgar had never even heard of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He declined to meet with his Finnish opposite number, Jean Sibelius, another insufferable bore. They share the feature of using banality to capture, or so their admirers assert, the national spirit of their respective nations. And wouldn't you know, there is a Sibelius revival underway now too.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Love Govs

We in the tristate area are blessed with no fewer than three lov govs, one in New Jersey and two in New York State. Can Connecticut be far behind? At all events, the travails of New York's Eliot Spitzer have received the fullest national coverage.

My own view is that Spitzer need not have resigned. Much as I dislike aligning myself with such boors as James Carville and Alan Dershowitz, I do believe that his extramarital sexual adventures constituted a victimless crime--that is, a crime in law only. A good deal has been made of Spitzer's apparent hypocrisy in that he went after prostitution rings when he was a prosecutor. As I understand the matter, though, the gravamen on the charges fell on matters of coercion, violence, and trafficking. By utilizing the high-priced services of the Emperor concern, Spitzer may have been able to assure himself that these sordid--and indeed criminal behaviors--would not come into the equation. As far as I know, "Karen" (aka Ms. Dupre) has not made any such allegations. She and Mr. Spitzer (and presumably the other pleasure specialists he consulted) were engaging in a good, old-fashioned capitalist transaction. A bit pricey, to be sure, but many people these days pay a lot for things they care about.

The real reason for Spitzer's resignation may have been that it offered a way out from the impossible task he had undertaken of reforming Albany's neanderthal politics.
This situation seems beyond repair.

By contrast with Spitzer, our current governor David Patterson is a cheapskate. He chose to take his paramours to a decidedly basic hotel on the upper westside of Manhattan. This was not very classy of you, gov!

There is also a new chapter in the life of James McGreavy, a self-proclaimed "gay American" who used to be governor of New Jersey. It seem that Jimbo and his wife Dina Matos McGreavy were accustomed to unwind on Friday evenings in threesomes with the governor's nifty driver, the personable Teddy Pedersen. Apparently, Teddy would, at the invitation of his boss, penetrate Dina, while (on some occasions at least) she administered a BJ on her husband's engorged member. Oh, that lucky Dina! Still, this was what some would call homosexuality by proxy.

And what, moreover, of the feelings of Jimbo's true love, Golan Cipel? He wasn't invited to join the fun.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

John Gray on militant atheism

In an opinion piece in The Guardian (UK), John Gray, the political thinker, has superbly articulated the reservations that I (and some other nontheists) have about the current wave of militant atheists. The piece is a preview of a forthcoming book, which promises to be a definitive statement on the issue.

Here is one of the key paragraphs (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan):

"Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living - their own, suitably embellished - is right for everybody. To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion."


Sunday, March 16, 2008

A connection that needs to be made

These days the media showers us with gloomy reports and predictions about the economy. Some accounts, looking to a new Depression, seem alarmist. But no one knows for sure.

I am experiencing the situation personally in two ways. First, I have had to give up my trips to Europe, normally occcurring once every two years. The dollar is just too weak against the Euro. Then there are well-warranted fears about my income. Much of my pension is tied to the stock market. The current downturns on Wall Street will take a big bite out of my monthly checks.

Another issue now being canvassed is the cost of the Iraq War. Joseph Stigler's estimate of the total tab is three trillion dollars. Even if we adopt a somewhat lower figure of two trillion, the amount is almost beyond belief.

There is clearly a causal relationship between these two phenomena. We have not been asked to pay for the war in the conventional way, through direct taxes, so we are paying for it by seeing the wrecking of the dollar and the economy.

We hear nowadays that the economy is the main issue in the election, pushing aside the War. But they are the same issue!

By and large the presidential candidates are sidestepping the connection, even as they rally to addressing the lamentable state of the economy. It is understandable why John McCain, an inveterate war-monger, and Hillary Clinton, a long-time chearleader for the war, should want to change the subject. By why have John Edwards and Barack Obama largely ignored this fateful connection? After all, Edwards has forthrightly owned up to his mistake in supporting the war. Obama criticized it from the start. Far worse is the craven conduct of "our leaders" in the Democratic Congress, who have turned out to be Bush's leading enablers. According to the Constitution, Congress holds the purse strings. To all intents and purposes, the congressional Democrats could have ended the War in 2007, by simply refusing to vote to fund it. Out of cowardice and political calculation, they did not.

It is all a great puzzle--and scarcely an academic one. This appalling, unnecessary war has made us all poorer. But still it goes on.

PS (March 21). I doubt that anyone in the Obama and Clinton campaigns reads this blog. However, the New York Times today reported that both made a connection between the war and the economy (and not it seems for the first time for either).

However, on closer inspection these remarks turn out to be observations of the familiar money-transfer kind. "If we weren't spending all these bucks on the war, we could spend them on health care, education, and other worthy domenstic causes." This is my view misses the main point, which is that our economy has been devastated by fighting a war that we have not been asked to pay for. Just as with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, it is this imbalance that is driving down the dollar and causing many of the other ill effects.

Yes, if we could end the war in early 2009 (something I believe, by the way, that neither Obama or Clinton will actually do), we could start transferring money in the sense that is being mentioned. Except for one thing: there is no money.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Homosexuals in Iran

Following last September’s confrontation between Columbia University President Lee Bollinger and Ahmadinajad. the Iranian leader, the university arranged a series of lectures offering a variety of points of view on the Middle Eastern nation. The other night (March 5) the topic was “Homosexuality in Iran.” The presenter was Professor Janet Afary of the University of Michigan, a well-regarded scholar in the field of Iranian studies. She did not disappoint.

Afary began with the abundant evidence of pederastic love from classical Persian poetry. Ironically, much the this material is (or was until recently) read by high-school students, who are unaware of the addressees because the Persian language does not distinguish gender in pronouns.

Most of the historical attestation is age-asymmetrical. As in ancient Greece, the luti (active partner) relates to the amrad (adolescent boy). However, there are some instances of age-concordant relations, as the famous bonding between the Sufi poet Rumi and his adult inspirer Shams al-Din.

Prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, this same-sex behavior was generally taken as a matter of course. At least the pederastic form was generally accepted, because of the expectation that the adolescent, the amrad, would “grow out of it,” marrying and begetting children.

Signs of a shift towards a more disapproving stance can be dated to 1905. In that year the first Russian revolution took place, and its social-democratic ideas penetrated into northern Iran, where they helped create the Constitutional Revolution of the years immediately following. These modernizers disapproved of arranged marriages (which often involved very young girls) and homosexuality. It must be remembered that the Western discourse on homosexuality was overwhelmingly negative until the 1970s. In a sense, the current persecution of homosexuality reflects the reception of this homophobic approach--with of course a characteristic time lag. Consequently, one should be wary of assuming that modernization equates with tolerance. Afari indicated that the current regime, despite its archaizing traits, is in fact a modernizing effort. It has, for example, done much to advance women’s education.

The coming of the Internet has opened Iran to all sorts of outside influences, which the regime seeks to curb. The gay e-journal Maha has been shut down. But other currents are evident, and their is hope that a more tolerant approach will emerge. It must struggle against the family orientation prevalent throughout the Middle East. Nonetheless, Afary remains optimistic about the future of Iranian gay people.

To her credit, she opposes the insidious views of Columbia professor Joseph Massad, who holds that the spread of human-rights campaigns, as an infringement on indigenous cultural traditions, should be halted in the Middle East. I asked the speaker whether Ahmadinajad, in his claim that there were no homosexuals in Iran, had been influenced (ironically enough) by queer theory, with its attempt to deny boundaries and specific identities. She replied that she didn’t know. In my view there has probably been a trickle-down effect.

Afary’s findings will be incorporated in a book to be published this fall.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The divine Ms. M. M.

Bart D. Ehrman is one of the most prolific and energetic scholars currently working to disseminate the fascinating findings of research into the early Christian centuries. This research, widening the field to take full account of the great mass of gnostic and other extracanonical writings, has shattered the conventional view of the unity of early Christianity. The orthodoxy that triumphed at the beginning of the fifth century was by no means the inevitable victor in this panoply of religious possibility. I will return to this matter of early Christian diversity on another occasion.

Ehrman reports that he has had frequent opportunity to appear on college campuses, lecturing on several subjects in his field. The topic that attracts the most attention, however, is that of Mary Magdalene. This interest is only partially due to popular-culture success of Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code” and the subsequent film, which subsume the idea that Jesus and Mary M. were married and had children together. As Ehrman points out there is no evidence in any of the sources of such a marriage.

Ehrman does advance a claim that seems to me almost equally odd, namely that Mary Magdalene was the founder of Christianity. How so? Well, according to the gospel report Mary was the first to discover the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter morning, reporting the fact to the other members of Jesus circle. This discovery is the basis for the doctrine of the Resurrection, a central element in the argument for Jesus’ divinity. However, it would not take a rocket scientist to conclude that either the body was stolen, or it was removed by supernatural means. Since the Roman soldiers were guarding the tomb, theft would have seemed unlikely. Moreover, it Mary had not discovered the tomb, surely his mother and/or some of the disciples would have done so. (These considerations appear in his book “Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend,” 2006.)

Ehrman also endorses the idea that Mary was the first apostle. This claim can only be supported by taking the word “apostle” in its broad, lower-case sense, as one who spreads information. The scholar admits that Mary does not enjoy the unique status of the Twelve, who would be specially honored by each ascending to a throne, there to judge one of the Twelve Tribes. In keeping with the patriarchal mores of the time, there was no room for a woman in the personnel staffing this tribunal.

Rightly, Ehrman opines that we must prefer historical truth to the lure of modernizing ancient documents and their message. To be sure, he rejects the effort of some feminist New Testament scholars to show that Jesus was planning a kind of unisex egalitarian paradise. But in the matter of Mary Magdalene he seems to have yielded to the tendency to find some redeeming elements of feminism in the earliest Christianity.