Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hollywood hypocrisy

I have never considered the Academy Awards to be a valid indicator of excellence in film. Most of the movies I admire were never even nominated. (See my Profile--sidebar--for favorites.) The voters for the awards are, many of them, untalented hacks, with predictable middle-brow tastes. Commercial and ideological considerations overrule aesthetic quality as criteria.

The ceremonies themselves are deplorable--incredibly lengthy extravaganzas of kitsch in which Hollywood reveals the embarrassing face of its collective narcissism.

Sean Penn gave a fine performance as Harvey Milk, though nothing supersonic. I was cheered by his comments about gays--that is, until I thought a bit about the matter. Hollywood loves homosexuals in the abstract, but is unwilling to follow through by casting them in major roles.

Most of the artists understand this, and stay completely in the closet, or impose their own glass ceiling. An exception, a very rare one, is the charismatic Rupert Everett, who is thoroughly out.

Openly gay, Everett was once denied a major Hollywood role by a studio boss who called him a "pervert." The MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING star was the first choice of the film's director and leading actress Sharon Stone, but the executive refused to permit casting Everett purely because of his sexuality. The actor considered taking legal action after the studio boss made the defamatory comment about him in public, but ultimately decided it wasn't worth his time and effort. As he stated, "Sharon wanted me to do it and I went to meet the director and he wanted me to. The director rang up the head of the studio and he said, 'Oh no, he's not playing that role - he's a pervert.' "He said this in front of lots of people. My agent and lawyer got worked up and we went into battle. Sharon was on the phone to me saying, 'We can close this movie down. This is your civil rights.' "I was moving towards a fight with the studio on this one. But in the end those kinds of battles are to exhausting to fight ... and I didn't."

Yes, Hollywood loves us gay people. As long as there is no need to do anything about it.


Bill Moyers, homo-hunter

Unlike my fellow residents of the Upper West Side of Manhattan (and other citizens of the People's Archipelago of Politica Correctissima), I have long found Bill Moyers' sanctimoniousness on PBS to be insufferable. It is not just his continuing air of self-righteousness and smugness, but the way he always seems to have his finger on the scales. To be sure. he does not achieve Mary McCarthy's ultimate in which everything the person says, including "a" and "the," is a lie, but the material is so insidiously filtered as to make him an unreliable narrator.

Now, according to Jack Shafer in Slate, Moyers has been revealed as doing some filtering regarding his own career.

"Bill Moyers took it in the shins this week after the Washington Post's Joe Stephens, drawing on FBI files liberated by a FOIA request, reported the liberal lion's role in hunting suspected homosexuals inside the Lyndon Johnson White House.

"The Post story's primary focus is on the FBI investigation of presidential aide Jack Valenti's sexual orientation, an investigation OK'd by President Johnson. It also reports that Moyers, then a special assistant to the president, asked the FBI to investigate two additional administration figures thought to have homosexual tendencies.

"These weren't the only Moyers White House homo-hunts. On Commentary's blog, Jason Maoz quotes former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Laurence Silberman, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2005 that weeks before the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater election, Moyers "was tasked to direct [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover to do an investigation of Goldwater's staff to find similar evidence of homosexual activity. Mr. Moyers' memo to the FBI was in one of the files."

"The Wizbang blog continues the Moyers bashing by quoting from CBS News correspondent Morley Safer's 1990 autobiography, Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam. Safer writes:
[Moyers'] part in Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover's bugging of Martin Luther King's private life, the leaks to the press and diplomatic corps, the surveillance of civil rights groups at the 1964 Democratic Convention, and his request for damaging information from Hoover on members of the Goldwater campaign suggest he was not only a good soldier but a gleeful retainer feeding the appetites of Lyndon Johnson."


Monday, February 23, 2009

The ethnic cleansing of Palestine

The New York Review of Books for March 12 contains a useful review of three recent books on ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Those horrors, at least, are over, and some of the war criminals who were responsible have been prosecuted. Not so with another instance of ethnic cleansing, which began sixty years ago and is still going on, with the unwavering support of the American government. Let me begin with a brief case study.

Al-Tantura was a prosperous Arab fishing village of some 1200 inhabitants, located on the Mediterranean 28 kilometers south of Haifa. In 1948 Tantura lay within the area the United Nations had allocated to the Jewish State in its ill-advised Partition Plan.

It was Tantura’s fate to be singled out as the starting point of the “Coastal Clearing Operation” to be carried out by a Hagana force. Code named Namal, the incursion took place on the night of May 22-23. That night Tantura was attacked and occupied by the the Alexandroni Brigade, which launched its assault under cover of darkness. There was no prior expression of readiness to suspend the operation in exchange for surrender.

The night attack started with heavy machine-gun fire, and was followed by an infantry attack from all three landward sides, even as an Israeli naval vessel blocked off any chance of escape by sea. By 0800 hours on May 23 the battle was over. The village had offered little resistance.

While the number is disputed, many adult males of Tantura were simply killed by the Israeli attackers. The rest of the inhabitants were driven away, and the village was ethnically cleansed.

A Ministry official, Ya’akov Epstein, who submitted a report after visiting Tantura shortly after the operation, reported seeing bodies '”in the [village] outskirts, in the streets, in the alleys, in village houses.” In 1998 a former resident of the village, Mahmoud Yihiya Yihiya, published a book on Tantura recording the names of 52 dead.

The occupation of the village was followed by looting. Some of the items the Hagana recovered included “one carpet, one gramophone ... one basket with cucumbers .... one goat.” Because of the number of rotting human and animal corpses, the area became a health hazard.

In 1964 the IDF (the Israeli Army) released an official history of "The Alexandroni Brigade in the War of Independence" in which eleven pages were devoted to Tantura; it makes no mention of any expulsion. However, in 2004 Alexandroni veterans finally acknowledged the forced expulsion.

The name Tantura was erased, replaced by the Hebraic name Dor; the old Arab village was bulldozed. This obliteration of the historical memory of Arab history is commonplace, and indeed ubiquitous. Today the Jewish residents are vehemently opposed to any exhumation of a possible mass-grave site.

This assault on Tantura was not an isolated event, but faithfully reflected a policy determined by a command group known as the Consultancy, headed by David Ben-Gurion. On May 11, 1948 this group decided to "expel or subdue" the villages of Kafr Saba, al-Tira, Qaqun, Qalansura and Tantura. The decision taken at the meeting was confirmed in a letter to commanders of the Hagana brigades telling them that they must not be distracted from their principal task. According to an entry in Ben-Gurion's diary: “the cleansing of Palestine remained the prime objective of Plan Dalet.” More on the Plan later.

Over the decades it has been difficult to establish the truth regarding the Tantura attack and expulsion--essentially because of official Israeli obfuscation.

Long consigned to the Orwellian memory hole, the devastation of Tantura became visible as the result of the research of a courageous Israeli graduate student, Theodore Katz. In his master’s thesis for the University of Haifa, Katz alleged that Israeli forces had killed 240 Arab civilians from the village of Tantura in 1948. Katz himself did not use the word massacre, although other scholars have concluded that that was what it was. Faced with a libel suit, Katz initially withdrew his allegation, However, he retracted his statement almost immediately. His mentor Ilan Pappe continues to stand by Katz and his thesis. The well-known historian Benny Morris acknowledged that while he is unsure whether what happened in Tantura was actually a massacre, he is now convinced that atrocities, rapes, and killings were committed by the troops.

Proposals in 2004 to exhume bodies from a site believed to be a mass grave never materialized. Local residents are opposed to an exhumation, an exhumation that is jointly supported by Katz, the Tantura refugees, and the Alexandroni veterans. The Alexandroni veterans contend that the grave holds only 70-75 bodies, while Katz believes that 200-260 bodies lie under the car park. Even if we accept the low figure of 70-75, it is clear that a mass execution took place.

At all events the destruction of Tantura was part of a larger pattern. Devised by Ben-Gurion’s Consultancy, Plan Dalet was a comprehensive blueprint for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. In keeping with this Plan, hundreds of Arab villages were erased. These occurrences were premeditated.

In his most recent book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” (2006), the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe pulls no punches. Pappe was born in Haifa in 1954 to German-Jewish parents who fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s. Author or editor of ten books, he was a professor at the University of Haifa for a number of years. In the face of threats and unremitting hostility, he found it prudent to exile himself to Britain, where he now serves as a professor at the University of Exeter.

In his new book Pappe flatly accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity beginning with the 1948 war for independence, and continuing through the present. Focusing primarily on Plan Dalet, finalized on March 10, 1948, Pappe demonstrates how ethnic cleansing was not a circumstance of war, but rather a deliberate goal of combat for early Israeli military units led by David Ben-Gurion, whom Pappe labels the "architect of ethnic cleansing." The forced expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians between 1948-49, Pappe maintains, was part of a long-standing Zionist plan to manufacture an ethnically pure Jewish state. Framing his argument with accepted international and UN definitions of ethnic cleansing, Pappe follows suit with an excruciatingly detailed account of Israeli military involvement in the demolition and depopulation of hundreds of villages, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arab inhabitants.

With its graphic detail and blunt phrasing, this book is sometimes stomach-turning. Yet the history that Pappe has doggedly and expertly recovered is an essential one.

In his preface, Ilan Pappe describes the "Red House" in Tel-Aviv that became headquarters for the Hagana, the dominant Zionist paramilitary organization during the British Mandate period in Palestine between 1920 and 1948 (when the Jewish state came into being). He shows how David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, met with leading Zionists and young Jewish military officers on March 10, 1948 to complete their plans to ethnically cleanse Palestine. This undertaking unfolded in the months that followed, featuring "large-scale (deadly serious) intimidation; laying siege to and bombarding villages and population centers; setting fire to homes, properties and goods; expulsion; demolition; and finally, planting mines among the rubble to prevent any of the expelled inhabitants from returning."

The final master plan was called Plan D (Dalet in Hebrew) following plans A, B, and C preceding it. It was to be a war without mercy complying with what Ben-Gurion stated in June 1938 to the Jewish Agency Executive: "I am for compulsory transfer; I do not see anything immoral in it." Plan Dalet became the blueprint of how to do this. The goal was simple and straightforward: to create by any means necessary an exclusively Jewish state devoid of any significant Arab presence.

Once begun, the whole ugly business took six months to complete. The steamroller expelled about 800,000 people, killed many others, and destroyed at least 531 villages, as well as eleven urban neighborhoods in cities like Tel-Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem.

Even with the British still in charge of law and order before the Mandate ended, Jewish forces managed to expell about 250,000 Palestinians, using tactics that the occupying power did nothing to stop. The devastation continued unabated because when neighboring Arab states finally did decide to intervene, they did so without conviction. They came belatedly and with only small, ill-equipped forces--no match for a superior, well-armed Israeli military that easily prevailed.

Nonetheless, Ben-Gurion manipulated world opinion by suggesting that a “Second Holocaust” was about to occur. One should be cautious about casual use of the term holocaust, yet it would seem that in this case the Israelis were the perpetrators, not the victims--whatever the process may be termed.

David Ben-Gurion’s goal was Jewish sovereignty over as much of ancient Palestine as possible, achieved the only way he thought feasible--by forceable removal of Palestinians from their land so that Jews could resettle it. He wanted the maximum of territory with the fewest possible Arabs. To attain this aim, he and other Zionist leaders needed a systematic plan to cleanse the land for Jewish habitation. Their efforts began with a detailed registry or inventory of Arab villages that the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was assigned to compile. The JNF was founded in 1901 as the main Zionist tool for the colonization of Palestine. Its original purpose was to buy land used to settle Jewish immigrants that by the end of the British Mandate in 1948 amounted to 5.8% of Palestine or a small fraction of what Zionists wanted for a Jewish state. Early on, Ben-Gurion and others understood that a more aggressive approach was needed for their colonization plan to succeed.

An essential tool was the Arab-village inventory completed by the late 1930s. This inventory included the topographic location of each village with detailed information including husbandry, cultivated land, number of trees, quality of fruit, average amount of land per family, number of cars, shop owners, Palestinian clans and their political affiliation, descriptions of village mosques and names of their imams, civil servants, and more. The final update culminated in 1947 with lists of "wanted" persons in each village targeted in 1948 for search-and-arrest operations, with those seized summarily shot on the spot.

Ben-Gurion was determined to make Jerusalem the Jewish capital. He intended the final borders of the Jewish state to remain flexible, so as to include within them as much future territory as possible. Ben-Gurion decreed that the borders would "be determined by force and not by partition resolution [of the United Nations]."

The Zionist leaders wanted 80% of Mandatory Palestine, that is, over 40% more land than the UN allotted. This land was to be taken forcibly from the Palestinians. To obtain the territory they coveted, the Zionists colluded tacitly with the Jordanians, effectively neutralizing the strongest Arab army by buying them off with the remaining 20% of the territory.

In December 1947, the Palestinian population numbered 1.3 million of which one million lived in the domain of the future Jewish state. The Jewish minority stood at 600,000. Zionist leaders needed a way to dispose of this huge mass of undesirables. They wished to clear the land for Jewish habitation only. To this end, the Israelis began a campaign of state-sponsored terror against a near-defenseless population unable to withstand the onslaught unleashed against it. Tactics of choice included threats and intimidation, attacking villages while their inhabitants slept, shooting anything that moved, and blowing up homes with their residents inside. Especially at risk were fighting-age men and boys who might pose a combat or resistance threat.

As the events unfolded, Ben-Gurion exulted with comments like this. "We are told the army had the ability of destroying a whole village and taking out all its inhabitants; let's do it." On another occasion, he explained: "Every attack has to end with occupation, destruction and expulsion." He meant that the entire population of a village had to be removed, everything in it leveled to the ground, and its history erased. In its place, a new Jewish community would be established as part of the new Jewish state he and others in the Consultancy believed required a mass ethnic cleansing involving the relocation of the Palestinians living there. This aim was achieved by terrorism, intimidation, and selective killings.

Pappe details what he calls the "urbicide of Palestine" that included attacking and cleansing the major urban centers in the country. They included Tiberias, Haifa, Tel-Aviv, Safad, and what Pappe calls the "Phantom City of Jerusalem" changed from the "Eternal City" once Jewish troops shelled, attacked, and occupied its western Arab neighborhoods in April 1948.

The urbicide continued into May with the occupation of Acre on the coast and Baysan in the East on May 6. On May 13, Jaffa was the last city taken two days before the Mandate ended. The city had 1500 volunteers against 5000 Jewish troops. It survived a three-week siege and attack through mid-May, but when it fell its entire population of 50,000 was expelled. With its fall, Jewish occupying forces had emptied and depopulated most of the major cities and towns of Palestine.
Ilan Pappe shows that all this happened between March 30 and May 15, 1948 "before a single regular Arab soldier had entered Palestine (to help Palestinians which they did ineffectively when they finally came)." His account demolishes the Israeli myth that Palestinians left voluntarily before or after Arab forces intervened. Nearly half their villages were attacked and destroyed before Arab countries sent in any forces, and another 90 villages were wiped out from May 15 (when the Mandate ended) untill June 11 when the first of two short-lived truces took effect.

Other sources deal with the ongoing Israeli attempts to demoralize, restrict, and humiliate the Palestinians. Today all Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are subject to a harsh regime of control There are roadblocks that include checkpoints and curfews, with violators shot on sight.

In many West Bank villages the residents are prevented from building on their own land, or from grazing their flocks in the pastures nearby, due to the severe restrictions imposed on them by the Israeli army and police. In order to succor the ever-expanding network of Jewish settlements, more and more land is annexed under the guise of erecting "security zones," effectively strangling the natural growth of the Palestinian communities, and destroying their livelihoods at the same time.

The current policy has been aptly described as "ethnic cleansing by stealth," the ultimate aim being to make life so tough for the Palestinians that they hold their hands up in despair and relocate elsewhere. For those holding the reigns of power, where the hapless victims go is immaterial--just so it's far enough away for the vacated land to be redistributed to a new generation of settlers.
This kind of low-level bullying is neither sensational nor violent enough to merit regular headlines in the media, but its effects are no less harshly felt just because the methods employed are less extreme than the deployment of all-out brute force. Erecting roadblocks at the entrance of villages to force the residents to take long detours; taking no action against settlers who routinely beat and harass Palestinian children on their way to school; demolishing shelters built in the middle of the desert on the pretext of curbing security risks--in all these ways the army's actions play a huge part in making the impoverished Palestinians' difficult lives ever harder.

Once the unwanted Arabs are gone, further steps are taken. Places under Israeli control must undergo campaigns to rename them so as to obliterate the centuries of history they signified. Archaeologists and biblical experts have volunteered to serve on an official Naming Committee to "Hebraicize" Palestine's geography. The goal is to de-Arabize the lands, erase their history, and use the territory for new Jewish colonization and development, as well as to create European-looking national parks with recreational facilities including picnic sites and children's playgrounds for Jews only. Hidden beneath the surface are the remains of destroyed Palestinian villages deleted from the public memory but not from that of people who once lived there. This is the process that Pappe aptly terms “memoricide.”

In all likelihood this hideous story is not yet over. According to a recent poll, sixty-eight percent of Israeli Jews favor the expulsion of the million or so Palestinians who are actually citizens of the state of Israel. The steamroller of ethnic cleansing rolls on and on.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Liberalism's quandary, continued

The more liberals seek to dig themselves out of their cognitive muddle the worse it gets. Now the academic and pundit Alan Wolfe has taken a turn. Here is a brief summary from Kwame Appiah, a fellow traveler.

“[As Wolfe argues] in this engaging new book, The Future of Liberalism, liberalism is more than a temperament; it is also a political tradition with substantive commitments—a body of ideas—and it has, as well, a dedication to fair procedures, impartially administered, legitimated by the consent of the people. Temperament, substance, procedure can all be liberal, and understanding liberalism requires a grasp of all three and of the connections among them. Wolfe's distinctive claim, however, is that the key to liberalism is a set of dispositions, or habits of mind—seven of them, in fact, each of which gets its own chapter.”

“Four of these dispositions will be quite familiar: "a sympathy for equality," "an inclination to deliberate," "a commitment to tolerance," and "an appreciation of openness." We're used to the portrayal: liberals as talky, tolerant, open-minded, egalitarians. It's not surprising, then, that these types are at home in the garrulous world of the academy—or that bossy preachers, convinced they have the one true story, do not care for them much. But Wolfe's sketch of the liberal adds three unfamiliar elements to the picture: "a disposition to grow," "a preference for realism," and "a taste for governance."

So far, Appiah on Wolfe

Let’s look at these purported criteria one by one Almost everyone will find “a sympathy for equality” a desirable attribute--especially if it means that one doesn’t have to offer anything but sympathy. For generations billionaires have felt sympathy for the plight of their lackeys, while continuing to exploit them. Like courtesy, sympathy costs nothing. And as Stanley Fish would say, a good thing too.

And then there is “an inclination to deliberate.” For a considerable period, starting with Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre conservatives have shown an almost obsessive inclination to deliberation. In fact, many bewail that fact that in the era of Sarah Palin and Joe the Plummer, this disposition has been lost. Something important has indeed disappeared, or at least gone into hibernation. That absence shows that liberals have no particular claim on deliberation. Yes, Rush Limbaugh doesn’t show much talent in the deliberation sweepstakes, but neither do Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow.

Tolerance? Well, liberals can be about as intolerant as any other group. One reason I’ve stopped going to Manhattan dinner parties is the abundant intolerance that reigns there. With just about everyone. “openness” is characteristic of one’s own opinions; closedness with those who disagree.

To be sure, Appiah, Wolfe’s ally and explainer, concedes that first quartet is pretty banal. But then there are the three “unfamiliar” elements, which seem to evidence fresh thinking. That’s a relief. Except that it isn’t.

Who isn’t in favor of personal growth? And of course we are all sure that our personal point of view is informed by “realism.” Finally, notice the weasel wording of “a taste for governance.” One doesn’t actually have to favor big government, or much government at all. All one needs is a “taste for governance.”

So there we have it. Seven little dollops of intellectual tofu. Edible I suppose, but with no flavor or nutritive value.

Those who are seeking to resuscitate liberalism as a vibrant political philosophy must do much better than Wolfe and Appiah.

From a somewhat different angle comes a new argument from film critic David Denby. In “Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation,” Denby traces the antecedents of the verbal nastiness he sees embodied in snark back to the drinking poets of ancient Greece, the first authors (to our knowledge) to make an art out of insult, and to Juvenal, the satirist of classical Rome. Despite Denby’s seeming erudition, nowadays it all seems to come down to who the target is. Attacking Al Gore or Hilary Clinton is a prima facie instance of snark, while John McCain and Sarah Palin are fair game. Liberal snarkers like John Stewart and potty-mouthed Sarah Silverman don’t even merit a wrist slap. It seems that these liberals are engaging in “irony” and not snark. How can we tell the difference? Well, for one thing, some people value “growth” and others don’t.

The common denominator of Wolfe and Appiah, on the one hand, and Denby, on the other, is that liberalism is reduced to a matter of temperament and habit. The goody-goody liberals are plentifully endowed with excellent qualities--or so they believe. Lacking these, their wingnut opponents are simply “mean.”

Such vague and self-congratulatory notions reveal a lack of hard thinking, as any serious political theory would require. What are examples of a serious political theory? Here are three: Burkean conservatism, the Libertarianism of Hayek and Freedman, and Marxist historical materialism. In all three cases there is a core set of beliefs. From these, various consequences or principles flow. Of course the political philosophies of Burke, Hayek and Freedman, and Marx are not doing very well these days. Yet the retreat of such serious bodies of theory has left a vacuum. That vacuum will have to be filled by something other than Wolfean self-congratulation.

The test of real political principles is whether they lead one to uncomfortable conclusions. Thus I give high marks to conservatives who went against the grain and opposed the Iraq War. By the same token a liberal who says that we must distinguish between legal and illegal immigration is putting it on the line.

A case in point comes from an op-ed in today’s New York Times, written by the liberal William Saletan, Slate’s national correspondent. Saletan does not think that abortion is benign. He makes an argument for increasing contraception as a way of reducing the number of abortions. “For liberals, that means taking abortion seriously as a argument for contraception. We should make the abortion rate an index of national health, like poverty or infant mortality.” Clearly, Mr. Saletan has done some hard thinking and decided not to support the knee-jerk feminist-progressive view that abortion is always just fine.

Let me give an example that touches me personally. A major conference will take place in Budapest this spring on the law and sex. As a veteran of the sexual revolution of the sixties, I have long held that laws regulating sexual behavior should be reduced to the absolute minimum. Provided it takes place between consenting adults, sex is good, and everyone should have access to it. Accordingly I have favored the end of laws against prostitution. After all, it is a victimless crime. But is it? In recent years we have heard of many well-documented cases where inexperienced young women, usually from Eastern Europe and Asia, are lured away from their homes to be brutally trafficked to clients in affluent Western countries. The conditions to which these women are subject are appalling. They are surely victims. Consequently, the harm principle requires that the law step in to stop, or at least reduce this dreadful situation.

As I have noted, such circumstances call for hard thinking, not platitudes. In this there are no prizes for “openness,”“realism,” and “a taste for governance.”

UPDATE (Feb. 24) Here are some sharp comments from Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, about Denby's snotty book:

"David Denby offers his view of the Internet's weakness:

--No one goes on the Web to somberly, soberly complain about his neighbor, or so-and-so’s love affair, or the guy down the dorm hallway who’s a closet homosexual. It all snarkily written.--

[Sullivan]: "So it's ok to complain about someone's closetedness as long as you do it soberly and somberly, but not if you add some vulgar epithet to spice it up. Would you wanna live down the hall from Denby? It does seem to me that distilled snark, or writing that does very little but snark, wears on the nerves after a while and dulls the brain. But removing snark from contemporary writing, or from blogs, in some lugubrious patronizing effort to maintain a respectable tone, would be a horrible denouement for the web, and mercifully, cannot happen. The tone police do not have the leverage in the blogosphere that they used to have in the dusty, elevated corridors of the old New Yorker. Power now is bottom-up, not top-down.

"One should never forget how the Internet has robbed writers like Denby of a great deal of exclusiveness, status and power. They're angry and confused, which is why they write diatribes as stupid as Denby's. Walter Kirn [in the NY Times Book Review] says everything else that's necessary - but the factual errors, commission of sins he denounces in others, sad attempts at ginning up controversy on the Internets, and tedious, arch, poseur-ish title headings round out the picture.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Gaybe question

Five years have gone by since the publication of “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln” by the late Clarence A. Tripp. That book argues that, in sentiment and action, the homosexual element was the dominant strand in the sexuality of Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States. Tripp was my friend for many years, and we frequently discussed his project together. In the end, though, I was unable to subscribe to his arguments, some which were indeed ingenious.

Since 2004 Tripp’s thesis has not exactly died, but it is certainly not in good health. Discussions occasioned by the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth tend briefly to mention the question of Lincoln’s sexuality, and then pass on to other matters. The new watchword in Lincoln studies seems to be complexity. His views about race, American destiny, and God--to name just three topics--were highly nuanced. Yet the more capacious bounds of this new complexity seem to have no room for direct affirmation of a gay Lincoln, or “Gaybe” as some put it for short.

As far as I can tell, not a single accredited Lincoln scholar has spoken out in support of Tripp’s thesis. These scholars are legion: an estimated sixty books are scheduled to appear to mark the bicentennial. Gay observers often say that since most Lincoln scholars are heterosexual, it is natural that they would resist the truth that Tripp has unveiled. One may readily grant that some of these scholars are homophobic, while others simply cling to old ideas. Still, nowadays the frequency of mention of the hypothesis of Lincoln’s homosexual (or rather bisexuality) is noteworthy. On the whole I am struck by the even tone of these citations. There is no indignation that our sixteenth president has been “besmirched” by being labeled a “fag,” but rather a quiet acknowledgment of the question, combined with an enduring skepticism.

After five years of discussion, it would seem that the jury is in with regard to the Gaybe question. Not so, a friend remarks: there has not been enough time. How long then will it take to know? A point made by Chou En-lai is not encouraging. When asked whether the French Revolution was a good thing, the Chinese leader averred that it was “too soon to tell.”

Let me pause now for a brief thought exercise. Consider the following statements:

Jesus passed most of his early years traveling in India and China.

Copernicus was black.

Lord Byron was the true author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The discoveries ascribed to Albert Einstein were actually made by his first wife, Mileva.

Hitler was a Zoroastrian.

The Vatican was behind the destruction of the World Trade Towers on 9/11.

In the eyes of most observers, these assertions must seem unconvincing, to put it mildly. Yet their supporters (assuming that there are some) may respond: how can you know? When it comes to evaluating the truth of X, further research and reflection may demonstrate that an idea that once seemed shocking, even bizarre is actually true. See Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” for many instances.

As has been observed with regard to the Gaybe question, it is impossible to prove a negative. On these grounds it is safe to predict that 200 years from now some individuals will still insist that Abraham Lincoln was gay.

All things considered, this prospect does not seem alarming--or even very interesting. As I learned many years ago from my teacher Karl Popper, all our truths, even scientific ones, are merely probable. Some, though, are more probable than others. In my view the probability that Lincoln was gay or bi has not significantly increased in the last five years.


Friday, February 13, 2009

Islam reconfigured

For many of us the events of 9/11/2001 served to concentrate the mind on the problem of Islam.. As an art historian with an affinity with abstract art, I had long been attracted to Islamic art and architecture. I possess many handsome books on these subjects, which I often consult for the pleasure of their illustrations. However that may be, the Islamic question is not primarily one of aesthetics.

Prior to the last decade I had accepted the conventional view of the origins of the Islamic religion, namely that it arose in the full light of history in the seventh century CE, equipped from the start with a very clear set of doctrines. Of course I was aware of the Sunni/Shia split, but had not paused to reflect on the further ramifications (which, of course, our disastrous invasion of Iraq had brought into clearer focus). At all events, perusing some of the more probing recent studies has made me question much of this conventional wisdom.

More generally, it seems to me that there are two problems with Islam. The first has to do with the concern that growing Muslim populations in Western Europe will erode the traditions of tolerance and liberalism that have won at great cost there over the centuries. I will not seek to assess this present-minded literature here.

The second problem has to do with the nature of Islam, the character it assumed at the time of its formation and in the course of the first conquests in the Middle East.

Responses to this question belong to two factions, which I tentatively dub the Rodney King School (he of “can’t we all just get along”); and the I’m from Missouri School, which challenges the claim that Islam is fundamentally a religion of peace and tolerance. Members of the first school run the risk of being dubbed cheer-leaders and naive apologists, while those of the latter persuasion can seem grim, prosecutorial, and relentless. As we shall see, the latter group is also commonly termed “right-wing.”

By common consent, the dean of the pro-Islamic faction is John (Louis) Esposito (born 1940), who is a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, where he is also the director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Esposito also works as a Senior Scientist at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, where he co-authored “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” published in March 2008. His establishment status has been confirmed by his service as editor-in-chief of a number of Oxford University Press reference works, including "The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World," "The Oxford History of Islam,” “The Oxford Dictionary of Islam,” and the five-volume “Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World.”

Critics allege that Esposito’s career tracks Edward Said’s ideas, as seen in the fashionable, but highly flawed book “Orientalism” of 1978. Disregarding recent critical scholarship, Esposito swallows whole the official account of the origins of Islam, even though many of its claims cannot possibly be true. He also tends to construe the nature of Islam as peaceful, tolerant, malleable, and accommodating, downplaying many textual and historical evidences to the contrary. He believes that Western fears of Islamic extremism and terrorism are exaggerated. For example, Esposito claimed in 2001 that "focusing on Usama bin Laden risks catapulting one of the many sources of terrorism to center stage, distorting both the diverse international sources and the relevance of one man." His overall vision is one of cooperation and even fusion of Islam and the West.

Esposito’s polar opposite is Bat Ye’or (Hebrew for “daughter of the Nile”), the nom de plume of Gisèle Littman, née Orebi, a British independent scholar. Born in Cairo into a middle-class Jewish family, she and her parents were forced to leave Egypt in 1957 after the Suez Canal War, arriving in London as stateless refugees. She attended University College, London, and the University of Geneva. There is no doubt that her difficult personal narrative, and her grief at the destruction of the venerable Jewish community in Egypt, have shaped her point of view.

In 1971 she published her first historical study (writing under the Arabic pen name. "Yahudiya Masriya," meaning "Egyptian Jewish woman"), “The Jews of Egypt,” in which she chronicled the history of the Jewish community in Egypt.

Bat Ye’or is best known for two coinages: “dhimmitude” and “Eurabia.” In a series of books beginning in 1980 she provided extensive documentation of the theological and legal texts regulating the state of inferiority to which non-Muslims have been relentlessly subjected in Islamic lands. These facts incontrovertibly expose the fable of Islamic tolerance as just that.

Bat Ye'or has characterized dhimmitude as the "state of fear and insecurity" that is the lot of non-Muslims in Islamic countries, who are labeled infidels and required to "accept a condition of humiliation." She holds that "the dhimmi condition can only be understood in the context of Jihad." The jihad policy, she argues, "was fomented around the 8th century by Muslim theologians after the death of Muhammad and led to the conquest of large swathes of three continents over the course of a long history." She states: “Dhimmitude is the direct consequence of jihad. It embodie[s] all the Islamic laws and customs applied over a millennium on the vanquished population, Jews and Christians, living in the countries conquered by jihad and therefore Islamized. [We can observe a] return of the jihad ideology since the 1960s, and of some dhimmitude practices in Muslim countries applying the sharia law, or inspired by it. I stress ... the incompatibility between the concept . . . expressed by the jihad-dhimmitude ideology, and the concept of human rights based on the equality of all human beings and the inalienability of their rights.” In this way, Bat Ye’or views jihad and dhimmitude as complementary and inseparable.

While the historical record is clear, many would question her claim that there is a serious danger of Muslim clerics and their supporters imposing dhimmitude on Western Europe today. Bat Ye’or’s recent book “Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis” explored the history of the relationship from the 1970s onwards between the European Union and the Arab states, tracing what she saw as connections between radical Arabs and Muslims, on the one hand, and fascists, socialists, and neo-Nazis, on the other, in what she perceives as a growing influence of Islam over European culture and politics. While she did not invent the term “Eurabia,” she has popularized it as part of her campaign to raise the alarm about growing Islamization (as she sees it) in Europe.

Among those who have aligned themselves with Bat Ye’or are the historian Robert Spencer; the gay scholar and activist Bruce Bawer; Steven Emerson (author of “Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the US”); the late Italian journalist Orianna Fallaci; and, most imposingly, Ibn Warraq, who has written and edited a number of probing volumes on the history and nature of Islam. I strongly recommend the books of Ibn Warraq, whom it was my pleasure to hear speak recently at Columbia University

Moorish Spain is a venerable touchstone of the “romance of Islam.” This rosy view informs a new book by David Levering Lewis “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215.” Lewis has been previously known mainly as the biographer of the black leader W.E.B. Dubois and a scholar of the Harlem Renaissance. The historical background of the culture extolled by Lewis may be briefly stated. Beginning in 636 CE the Arab armies marched against the Eastern Empire of Byzantium, and shortly thereafter against the Persian Empire, which they annihilated. After other Muslim conquests had crested, Tariq ibn-Ziyad guided his small but highly disciplined force to land at Gibraltar in 711. Western Europe seemed doomed to fall under the Islamic yoke--to be reduced, in short, to dhimmitude. And indeed most of Visigothic Spain (renamed al-Andalus) fell to the invaders. Yet when they sought to extend their dominion into France, the Moorish armies were defeated by Charles Martel at the battle of Tours (or Poitiers) in 732.

Despite this repulse, Lewis insists that the Islamic culture of al-Andalus decisively shaped that of Western Europe, very much for the better. In fact, David Levering Lewis has attempted something very ambitious: an alternative history of medieval Europe. While Charles Martel and Charlemagne figure as founders of the oppressive class structure of feudalism, Abd al-Rahman emerges as the ruler of a tolerant, multiethnic realm which mentored Europe’s intellectual flowering in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

While such raptures may seem extreme, they mesh with a current trend to hail Muslim Spain as the domain of “convivencia,” a Spanish word that Lewis glosses as the “cultural and civic collaboration among Muslims, Jews and Christians in al-Andalus.” Again we hear the old refrain of “Islamic tolerance.” In reality, Christians and Jews were required to pay a special tax or jizya. Other religions, such as that of the pagans surviving in remote areas, were not allowed at all.

And of course “convivencia,” such as it was, did not last. The warlord known as al-Mansur marched against the surviving Christian enclaves, sacking the holy city of Santiago de Compostela in 997. The Christian Reconquista, which eventually ensued, was a response to the violent Islamic implementation of jihad. In the meantime, of course, al-Andalus had fallen victim to the Islamic fundamentalist regimes of the Almoravids and Almohads.

Truncating this later history, which is inconvenient to his purpose, Lewis makes bold to compare the brief Moorish “Golden Age” to Christian Europe. “The new Carolingian order,” he writes, “was religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive. Measured by these same vectors of religion, culture, class and prosperity, Abd al-Rahman’s Muslim Iberia was at least four centuries more advanced than Western Christendom in 800 CE.”

Then why did it fall behind? This problem is a subset of the larger issue of Islamic decline by comparison with a supposedly far-inferior Christian Europe. As I have noted in a previous posting, this is a pseudo-problem, induced by Wunschbilder of Islam’s splendor, combined with unwarranted disparagement of the genuine accomplishments of medieval Europe.

Still, Lewis is enthralled by his counterfactual fantasy that Europe’s fate would have been a better one had the Moors triumphed at Tours/Poitiers in 732. In his view, the actual outcome was a sad portent, whereby “the peoples of the West were obliged to accept the governance, protection, exploitation, and militant creed of a warrior class and clerical enforcers, an overlordship sustained by a powerful military machine and an omnipresent ecclesiastical apparatus. The European shape of things to come was set for dismal centuries following one upon the other until the Commercial Revolution and the Enlightenment molded new contours.”

This conclusion is wildly overstated. The concept of feudalism has been subjected to keen analysis by historians. It is not unproblematic. To the extent that the notion of feudalism is valid, the institution may be detected in many cultures, from medieval Japan to contemporary Islamic states themselves. Surely Lewis is not trying to maintain that contemporary Islamic feudalism is an import from the West.

Medieval Western Europe was much more vibrant and creative than Lewis admits. Despite the supposedly crushing hegemony of “feudalism,” it was Western Europe that created the basis for a civil society that is governed by a balance of powers and the rule of law. Where is the Islamic equivalent of the Magna Carta of 1215? Of course there is none. Arab states today are still struggling to escape the burden of tyranny. Despite a considerable program of translations from Greek, Aristotle’s “Politics” was never rendered into Arabic until modern times. This neglect is unfortunate, as that foundational text would definitely have helped.

Quite soon Western technology took the lead, entering into paths where Islam could not follow. As late at the 17th century, as Bernard Lewis (no relation to David Levering Lewis) has noted, Muslims were puzzled by Western mechanical clocks. They saw no need for such devices. In fact, as historians of technology such as Jean Gimpel and Lynn Whyte have shown, the achievements of medieval mechanics are the indispensable precursors of the Industrial Revolution.

Eyeglasses were invented in Venice about 1300 CE. This discovery created the basis for two further inventions: the telescope and the microscope. We owe them much of our knowledge about the cosmos. These creations were not bequeathed us by Islam.

The antidote to Lewis’ fantasies has now appeared. It is a brilliant French-language book by Sylvain Gouguenheim, “Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne” (Paris, Seuil, 2008). A professor at Lyon, Gouguenheim directly confronts the hoary cliché of an enlightened Islam, transmitting westward the knowledge of the ancient Greeks through Arab translators and opening the path in Europe to mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and philosophy. "This thesis has basically nothing scandalous about it, if it were true," Gouguenheim writes. "In spite of the appearances, it has more to do with taking ideological sides than scientific analysis."

His book boldly challenges the notion that we in the West owe a vast debt to the “Arabo-Muslim world” dating from the year 750. This claim ascribes to Islam an essential part of Europe’s identity. (While the view is currently fashionable, as we have seen with Lewis’ book, it has roots that go back to the 18th-century Enlightenment, when the idea was floated as a device for the disparagement of Christianity.)

Rejecting the broader claim that there is an ongoing clash of civilizations, Gouguenheim holds that Islam was impermeable to much of Greek thought, By and large Arabs never learned Greek, utilizing translations that were mostly the work of Arabic-speaking Syrian Christians. With refreshing and convincing originality, the French scholar demonstrates that a wave of translations of Aristotle began at the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel in France fifty years before the Latin versions of the same texts appeared in Moorish Spain. These renderings were conducted under the leadership of James of Venice, an accomplished Greek scholar.

Gouguenheim attacks the thesis of the West's indebtedness advanced by such historians as Edward Said, Alain de Libera, and Mohammed Arkoun. He says that it replaces formerly dominant notions of cultural superiority professed by Western orientalists with "a new ethnocentrism, oriental this time" that sets off an "enlightened, refined, and spiritual Islam" against a brutal West.

At the hands of our own apologists of Islam, contemporary Europe has been plunged into a sea of self-denigration. Yet as another writer (E. de Brague) notes, “curiosity about the Other is a typically European attitude, rare outside of Europe, and exceptional in Islam.”

Gouguenheim also exposes the falsity of the legend of the “great Islamic universities” of the Middle Ages. He notes that the scope of the Bayt al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom, said to be created by the Abassids in the 9th century, was limited to the study of Koranic studies, excluding philosophy, physics and mathematics, as understood in the speculative context of Greek thought.

He asserts that much of Aristotle's work was disregarded or unknown to the Muslim world, being basically incompatible with the Koran. Europeans, he says, "became aware of the Greek texts because they went hunting for them, not because they were brought to them."

Gouguenheim terms the Mont Saint-Michel monastery, where the Hellenic texts were translated into Latin, "the missing link in the passage from the Greek to the Latin world of Aristotelian philosophy." Apart from a few exceptional thinkers--Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Abu Ma'shar, and Averroes--Gougenheim avers that the "masters of the Middle East" retained from Greek teaching only what did not contradict Koranic doctrine.

Needless to say, Gouguenheim’s arguments do not sit well with Western enthusiasts for Islam, who accuse him of right-wing leanings. His appendix, however, preemptively blunts that accusation. He offers his book as an antidote to the approach to Islam's medieval relations to the West exemplified by the late Sigrid Hunke, a German polemicist, who has been described as a former Nazi and friend of Heinrich Himmler. Fawningly, Hunke evokes a pioneering, civilizing Islam to which "the West owes everything." In his telling analysis, Gouguenheim asserts that her slapdash work from the 1960s continues as a hidden reference point that unfortunately still "shapes the spirit of the moment."

As with Bat Ye’or’s findings, an effort is being made to reject Gouguenheim’s book because it supposedly aids the Right. Instead of hurling such ad feminam/ad hominem charges, these critics need to look more carefully at the evidence. Are these two insurgent scholars right? My considered conclusion is that in the main they are.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Liberalism is still incoherent

In a recent posting I deal at some length on the unbridgeable difference between classical liberalism (of 19th century vintage) and social liberalism (mainly 20th century). They are radically opposed, and consequently incompatible.

Hope springs eternal, however, and some who claim the liberal label are still seeking to erase this difference with vague generalities. A case in point is Stanford professor Joshua Cohen, who recently made the following remarks at a conference.

"In his book Political Liberalism, John Rawls offers a general description of a liberal political outlook. He intends the description to cover views ranging from the classical liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, arguably in the tradition of Locke and Adam Smith, to the more egalitarian liberalism of his own "Theory of Justice." Rawls writes, “the content of a liberal political conception of justice is given by three main features:

1. a specification of basic rights, liberties and opportunities (of a kind familiar from constitutional democratic regimes);

2. an assignment of special priority to those rights, liberties and opportunities, especially with respect of claims of the general good and perfectionist values; and

3. measures assuring to all citizens adequate all-purpose means to make effective use of their liberties and opportunities.

These [three] elements can be understood in different ways, so that there are many variant liberalisms.”

Oh, yeah? All three of these alleged unifying principles could have been endorsed by Joseph Stalin. Ignoring the red herring of "constitutional democratic regimes," Stalin would have said that indeed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has specified the basic rights, liberties, and opportunities afforded to Soviet citizens. The menu may seem a bit restricted, but that is beside the point. Priorities? Of course our people's democracy has priorities. And our devotion to the principle of perfectionism is sure to lead to the Shining Heights of Communism. And, Stalin would say, we are certainly prepared to adopt the appropriate measures. Go over to Lubianka and ask Comrade Dzherzhinksy.

Stalinism is then a "variant liberalism." QED

As this exercise shows, Cohen's list is so vague that it is virtually meaningless. It fails to pass the Popperian criterion of refutabity, since it is hard to imagine any modern regime--liberal or not--that would fail to meet these criteria by its own lights.

Void for vagueness. then.

However, we still have not addressed the real issue. That issue is the b a l a n c e or proportionality of these widely diffused components. Liberty and equality are opposites. An increase of one means a diminution of the other. But fantasists like Cohen assume that one can have a maximum of both--that one can eat one's cake and have it at the same time.

POSTSCRIPT (Presidents' Day, Feb. 16). Some readers are probably shaking their heads and saying what does it matter if liberalism is not "coherent" according to your standards, Dynes. Isn't the genius of the Anglo-Saxon political system that it operates with coalitions and fuzzy sets of doctrines? Pragmatism in short. By contrast we know of some other systems, such as fascism and Stalinism, that were all too consistent in welding principles into a coherent, airtight whole.

Not to make any invidious comparisons, in our own country Libertarianism has prided itself on the internal consistency of its body of doctrines. One of the consequences of this set of priorities is deregulation. And deregulation is currently decried as one of the reasons for the housing meltdown, and consequent economic crisis. As many suspected, Libertarian prescriptions have nt worked out very well in practice. Even Lindsay Graham says now that we should nationalize the banks. Considering his generally rightwing orientation, that would seem to be a sterling example of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism.

There is, I think, a practical reason why we should be concerned about the failure (as I see it) of liberalism to achieve coherence. That is this. The present return of the Democratic Party to power may prove ephemeral. Such are the depths of the present crisis that this decline may be inevitable anyway. But the danger of incoherence at the present juncture is that it may prepare the way for another George W. Bush. Just one was almost enough to sink the Republic. Think of the damage that another would do.


Monday, February 09, 2009

"Education Is All in Your Mind"

This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Yet some academics, lost in the Sargasso Sea of PC, still don’t seem to have absorbed the message that heredity counts.

One such is Richard C. Nisbett, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times of February 8 (“Education Is All in Your Mind”), he optimistically cites a few scattered studies that seem to suggest a remarkable effect: making certain changes in the format of examinations can very significantly raise the performance of African Americans on test scores. In this way, he implies, the gap between African-American and white performance on these tasks can be closed.

Nisbett is not an unbiased observer. In a recent book “Intelligence and How to Get It,” he claims to offer a “bold refutation of the belief that genes determine intelligence.” Following in the footsteps of the Marxist scientist and popularizer Stephen Jay Gould, Nisbett asserts that intellect is not primarily genetic but is “principally” determined by societal influences. Clearly this is a new example of the venerable argument that culture rules, and biology has no significant role to play (note the weasel word “principally”).

I turn now to the op-ed. As an instance of his claims, Nisbett cites what the social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson characterize as “stereotype threat,” which ostensibly hampers the performance of African-American students. Nesbitts comments: “Fortunately, stereotype threat for blacks and other minorities can be reduced in many ways. Just telling students that their intelligence is under their own control improves their effort on school work and performance. In two separate studies, Mr. Aronson and others taught black and Hispanic junior high school students how the brain works, explaining that the students possessed the ability, if they worked hard, to make themselves smarter. This erased up to half of the difference between minority and white achievement levels.”

The University of Michigan professor also makes the following claim: “Black students also perform better on an exam when it is presented as a puzzle rather than as a test of academic achievement or ability, another study has shown. These are small interventions that have big effects.”

Nesbitt goes on to give other, purportedly telling examples of the “Obama Effect.”

If only it were so simple. It is widely recognized that the performance deficits of African-American students reflect a variety of factors, including poverty, discrimination, poor health, lack of emphasis on academic achievement in the home, and quite possibly heredity. How can these influences, which are deep-seated, be erased overnight? The answer is that they cannot.

Over many years industrial psychologists have undertaken various pilot studies to improve productivity in the workplace. In one study a small group of employees was told that they had been selected for such a study. The psychologists then increased the amount of light, and lo! productivity increased. At another plant similar conditions were induced. In this case, though, the amount of light was reduced. Again, productivity increased. Afters the study was over, the workers’ productivity returned to normal, the change in light notwithstanding. The researchers made two conclusions. It was not changing the light that caused the improvement in productivity, but the eagerness of the workers to perform in the study.

A more recent study in Orlando, Florida, concluded that improving temperature improved productivity. From this we might conclude that moving factories closer to the Equator is the best thing to do. It is, of course, if the owners want substandard sweatshops, but it seems unlikely the productivity will be improved by this change.

To return to our starting point, then: it is likely that the improved performance of minority students on these tests is an artifact of the intervention. For this reason, it will not prove lasting. This is not a matter for congratulation, far from it. But after so much wishful thinking in past decades, it is time for some sober realism.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Sullivan on necons

Every day I check out the Daily Dish blog of my friend Andrew Sullivan. When the Iraq war started in 2003 I told him in no uncertain terms that he was mistaken in offering fervent support to the enterprise. Gradually he has found his own way to a better understanding of this, and a number of other matters. Contrary to the usual impression people do learn.

But one must reckon on brickbats. For his pains Andrew is now undergoing the same penalty that I and other forthright commentators have suffered: the allegation that he is an anti-Semite. (The assertion is more damaging to him, a member of the media establishment, than it is to me, just a franc-tireur.)

Of course the position of Larry Summers, Alan Dershowitz and others of their persuasion is that any criticism of the state of Israel is prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism. If this is the case, Andrew and I are in the same boat as billions of other people. With our controlled media, of course, one would never know that Israel has, deservedly, become a pariah state in most of the world.

Perhaps I should not be too quick to name Andrew as a fellow thinker. At all events, here is his brief statement from a couple of days ago.

"I took neoconservatism seriously for a long time, because it offered an interesting critique of what's wrong with the Middle East, and seemed to have the only coherent strategic answer to the savagery of 9/11. I now realize that the answer - the permanent occupation of Iraq - was absurdly utopian and only made feasible by exploiting the psychic trauma of that dreadful day. The closer you examine it, the clearer it is that neoconservatism, in large part, is simply about enabling the most irredentist elements in Israel and sustaining a permanent war against anyone or any country who disagrees with the Israeli right. That's the conclusion I've been forced to these last few years. And to insist that America adopt exactly the same constant-war-as-survival that Israelis have been slowly forced into. Cheney saw America as Netanyahu sees Israel: a country built for permanent war and the "tough, mean, dirty, nasty business" of waging it (with a few war crimes to keep the enemy on their toes).

"But America is not Israel. America might support Israel, might have a special relationship with Israel. But America is not Israel. And once that distinction is made, much of the neoconservative ideology collapses."

Parenthetically, I would note that the neoconservatives do not accept that America is not Israel. They assume that the interests of the two countries are always in accord. This means in practice that American foreign policy is a prisoner of the Israel's. See my previous posts.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

"Dude. You're a Fag"

Several years ago a New York City college student was conducting a group of high schoolers from various parts of the country who were thinking of coming to the city for their university training. In due course a pleasant young woman asked the guide what he was studying. “Journalism,” came the reply. “Oh, but that’s so gay,” the young woman said disapprovingly. Whereupon the guide said that he must take exception to anyone criticizing his orientation. “Oh, I wasn’t talking about sex,” came the reply, “I just think that planning to be a journalist is kind of lame.”

When some twenty years ago I undertook to examine the terms of the homolexicon, I was not prepared for this development. For many young people now the term gay has been largely desexualized, while remaining a term of disparagement. The new meaning (which, despite the young woman’s explanation, has not fully supplanted the old one) is “lame, stupid, dorky, uncool.”

Another unpleasant term, “faggot” (or fag), has also undergone an evolution. I have little sympathy for Ann Coulter’s ravings. When she called former senator John Edwards a “faggot,” the allegation seemed bizarre. As we now know, at the time Edwards was carrying on a torrid extramarital heterosexual affair--not the sort of behavior one would expect from a faggot in the traditional sense. Coulter claimed that her epithet was nonsexual, and referred to her perception of Edwards as a wimpy, spineless individual (or something of the kind--I haven’t looked up her exact words). It transpires that Coulter’s gloss on the meaning of her term (as distinct from her weird allegation) was not so far out. In fact it seems to accord with current usage in high schools. That is unfortunate, but it seems to be so.

We can perhaps better understand the recent metamorphosis of these two slippery terms--gay and especially fag(got)--through reading C. J. Pascoe’s new book “Dude, You’re a Fag” (University of California Press). Its racy title notwithstanding, this book is a serious sociological monograph, based on the writer’s fieldwork conducted over a year and a half at “River High School.” “River City” (the name of the town, like the names of the interviewees, has been changed) is a medium-sized community that seems to be near Sacramento, California. The book stems from Pascoe’s dissertation at the University of California. The author believes that River High is fairly typical of the general run of US high schools, so that her findings are broadly applicable.

In my own high school days, half a century ago, homophobic epithets were rarely heard. In part for this reason, their deployment could be searing. In the ninth grade a girl publicly and loudly called me a “queer,” the term of choice in those days. Of course, this public shaming could not have “made me” a homosexual. But it damaged my self-image, encouraging a retreat into the closet (not a very practical course in my case, but I did my best). In this matter, the now-neglected labeling theory has much to offer.

By contrast, at River High the “fag” slur is almost ubiquitous. At Pascoe’s high school, and we must assume at many other such institutions, the word serves to stigmatize an individual perceived as weak, timid, and non-macho.

Although Pascoe tends to elide the dichotomy, It is clear that the boys think that there are two kinds of faggots. Some of them “can’t help it.” Through the working of biology and/or upbringing, this is simply the way they are. These unfortunates are unable to correct their deficiency; as such, they belong to the broader category of the handicapped. Yet while it is taboo to ridicule a blind or paraplegic student, for many boys faggots are still fair game. Significantly, though, some of the more sensitive regular guys say that one should not insult these boys: after all, they can’t help their condition.

There are others, though, who could and should grow up to be real men, but through laziness, cowardice, or bad influences find themselves tempted to follow this lesser path. Evidently, the goal of policing this second group serves to rationalize the taunting rituals. Of course these ugly performances also give the “normal” boys a reassuring sense of superiority. Among other things, they serve as markers whereby the regular, more-or-less macho boys reassure themselves of their own masculinity, an invaluable possession that places them far above the “untouchable” faggots. Hence the rituals. Inadequates are humiliated, even as the standing of the majority is affirmed.

As I have noted, the majority of the boys subscribe to a dualistic theory of faggotry. Some are that way by nature; others by choice. Yet Pascoe will have none of this. Nature has nothing to do with the question; it is all a matter of social conditioning. She believes that masculinity is “produced” by a kind of sinister alliance between the institutional norms of high schools and the popular-culture trends dominant among adolescents.

As an adherent of the social-construction variant of postmodernism, the author holds that human character is almost infinitely malleable. The constraints of biology play no part. Armed with this ideological certainty, she fails to attend properly to the mindset of the students and faculty at River High, who are, understandably, much impressed by the tremendous onrush of hormones that teenage boys experience.

Masculinity, Pascoe believes, has almost nothing to do with hormonal and genital maleness. Accordingly, a utopian agenda may be discerned in the underpinnings of her book. If we could only persuade ourselves to discard the bad old ways, we could achieve a very different concept--or concepts--of masculinity, more creative, caring, and diverse than the one that prevails. (And, as she wrily acknowledges, is reinforced by the lyrics of the rap music that most students favor.)

The unspoken hero of Pascoe’s book is Ricky, a troubled young man who wears make-up and crossdresses. He is a trannie in the making. Ricky's presence at public events triggers hysteria. One begins to wonder whether the best theoretical frame for the emotions stirred up by his presence is the Witchcraft Delusion.

To prevent more Rickies from appearing--or so it would seem-- the students enact various collective rituals. Some are affirmative, as in the annual homecoming event and the Cougar Contest to name the most popular boy. Others are negative, and here is where the barrage of fag-baiting taunts comes in.

The fag may be homosexually oriented, or possibly not. Thus the term fag is ambiguous. It can refer to a composite class of individuals whose masculinity is considered tainted or unformed. But it can also be used with the twentieth-century demotic meaning of homosexual. In this way the slur points in two directions. It can designate a kind of teenage milquetoast, an abject, timid soul whose masculinity is muted. Yet it can also mean "cocksucker." This slippage accounts for much of the term's toxicity.

Pascoe criticizes the teachers for their acquiescence in the rituals of heterosexual affirmation (“heteronormativity”), and their tacit complicity in the fag-baiting. Yet she lets the girl students off with a pass. While they do not generally use the term “fag,” they clearly go along with the machismo professed by the boys. They even approve of the misogynistic lyrics of the rap songs that are played at dances and other events.

Pascoe seems surprised that the term fag is never applied to a girl who does not conform to feminine norms. She does not seem to realize that the American folk mentality views lesbianism quite differently from male homosexuality. Renting a few straight porno films would have shown her that lesbian scenes are common: the straight clientele appreciates them. By contrast, gay-male scenes virtually never appear in straight porno--certainly not with an air of titillation and approval

C. J. Pascoe acknowledges that she is a lesbian. An angry Amazon reviewer, citing this fact, accuses her of being simply man-hating. That charge is incorrect, for the evidence shows that she successfully interacted with teenage boys and male faculty members. (The book has appendix explaining how she did it.)

Instead, the problem presented by this ethnography is deeper and more systematic. Pascoe seems to believe that human flourishing requires the overthrow of “patriarchy.” To this end, individuals of the Ricky type must be nurtured. Shunning them is not only harmful to the individual but serves to discourage the flowering of nonstandard sexualities in general. Such diversification is part of the sacred task of “overthrowing patriarchy.”

Implicit rather than proclaimed, Pascoe’s anti-patriarchal ideology stems from the sixties, and now looks increasingly dated. Yet it links up with an older view that is well-entrenched in the academy, especially (I suspect) in the graduate-student subculture in which Pascoe worked on her dissertation. This is the Standard Social-Science Model (SSSM) that holds that human behavior is entirely shaped by conditioning and the environment. Biology plays no part. To suggest that it does is to commit the methodological sin of “naturalizing,” turning a principle that is culture-bound and contingent into a universal rule.

Pascoe’s larger subject is the role of institutions (here the high school) in preserving and moulding subcultures. Yet she seems blissfully unaware of how this hegemonic imperative works in graduate school, in her case at UC Berkeley. The grad-student subculture cherishes egalitarianism as a prime value. Yet a visit to one’s faculty adviser, where almost feudal norms of hierarchy prevail, should erase this illusion. Of course, it does not, because the prevailing PC ideology overrides reality.

Another way in which Pascoe maps her ideology onto River High is her claim that the students are "working class." Most of her subjects would disagree, rightly so. In what other country in the world do children of the working class own their own cars? The American left savors the imported term "working class" (British) because it suggests that the mass of Americans lead narrow, restricted lives: they are oppressed by capitalism.

The most plausible typology of class in the US discerns six strata: the superrich, the rich, the upper middle class, the lower middle class, the working poor, and the underclass. Most of the white students at River High probably belong to the lower middle class, as distinct from those who attend Hillside High--many of these live in gated communities--who are upper middle class. The River High black students, who by and large do not own cars, belong to working-poor families.

Of course the greatest problem with Pascoe's ideology is its underlying conviction that environment is everything and biology is nothing. Looked at carefully, the data from River High gives the lie to the author’s wishful-thinking and hyperenvironmentalism. One need not subscribe to the tenets of sociobiology to recognize that somatic factors are significant and constraining. After all, we are dealing with postpubertal teenagers.

A balanced approach requires acknowledging that both factors, biology and social conditioning, are active. The institution, in this case the high school, working in tandem with the larger society, can shape the emergence of sexuality and the gender identity that depends upon it, but it cannot simply define them a priori. The underlying stratum of biology cannot be simply abolished.

In an article in the NY Times Magazine (Jan. 25), Daniel Bergner states that there is “a cultural and scientific trend, a stress on the deterministic role of biology, on nature’s dominance over nurture.” I would not go as far as that, since I find the term "deterministic" problematic. Be that as it may, the effort to elide nature's role seems increasingly futile.

Reasonable people may differ on the weighting of the factors moulding sex/gender identity among teenagers. By contrast, there should be no rational disagreement in the matter that the ongoing demonization of "fags" in American high schools is deplorable.

How might we begin to correct the problem? First, the high school faculty must be encouraged to abandon their passivity and even collusion with regard to this vicious form of intolerance. They must take positive steps by introducing gay and lesbian role models into their classes--not just courses in sexuality, which still seem to be somewhat taboo, but also courses in literature, history, and art, in the humanities in general. Moreover, as more and more people come out, especially among friends and family, this enhanced visibility will help.

In popular culture all fashions eventually fade. So we may expect that rap music, with its truly hateful lyrics, will eventually pass from the scene. Regrettably, perhaps, Elton John and George Michael are now mainly for the older set. Yet Madonna and Melissa Etheridge retain an appeal that crosses the age spectrum.

As with many high schools, River has a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance. However, this well-meaning organization does not seem able to make much headway in the present oppressive climate.

The atmosphere in colleges and universities offers a wonderfully refreshing contrast. I cannot imagine the kind of public fag-baiting that Pascoe documents thriving in any of the colleges where I have taught.

Can we not reform our high schools by introducing the more humane traditions of college? Even without this improvement, though. it may be that the young people currently caught up in antifag rituals will mature. Developmentally, it may turn out to be a transitory phase of the teenage years, one that is destined to be overcome. This outcome seems likely for those who choose to go on to college. But what about those who do not? That is where the real challenge lies.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Superbowl Sunday a k a Retrosexual Day

My studies of the homolexicon have shown how one term gives rise to another, in a potentially unending stream. For example, “alcoholic” begat “shopaholic” and “chocoholic.” "Peronista," a follower of the Argentinian leader, yielded "Perotista," an adherent of an ephemeral US political movement headed by H. Ross Perot. More recently we have seen the rise of “fashionista” and “frugalista.”

This posting concerns another recent begetting. “Heterosexual” previously gave rise to “metrosexual.” Now the latter term has engendered a kind of opposite: “retrosexual.”

It seems that the phenomenon is all explained in a book “The Retrosexual Manual: How to Be a Real Man” (2008). In fact, I haven’t seen the book. I’m already such a model of the retrosexual ideal that I don’t need it! NOT [Waynespeak, of course].

At all events a comprehensive summary in Britain’s “Daily Mail” tells you all you need to know about the subject. The piece is addressed to the aspiring Retro guy--or maybe he is already confirmed in that status.

“Remember, you have a number of qualities, almost all deriving from your testosterone, which women can't help but admire. For example:

1. Your mind is uncluttered. Consider the female brain, filled as it is with multiple anxieties about its owner's hair, figure, health, diet, clothes, shoes, emotions, digestive transit, sex life, competitive female friendships, multi-tasking duties as a worker/lover/ wife/mother/whatever.
Instead, your mind is focused on the important things in life: sex, beer, football. Women secretly envy a mind like that.
2. You can make decisions on your own. You don't need to talk it over for hours with all your friends, or consult a horoscope, or worry about feng shui.
3. You have strong arms which come in handy whenever bottles need opening, suitcases need carrying, or a girl just feels like gazing at a strong, muscular limb.
4. You do not clutter up the bathroom. No woman wants a man who owns more beauty products than she does [a metrosexual, gasp!]. A man who showers, shaves, then gets out of the way is ideal.”

So much for generalities. Here is some other advice.

“1. You do not cook anything more sophisticated than Pot Noodles or baked beans. [You would never even think of heating up a quiche.] Cooking is her job.
2. Women like to talk, bless them. So don't try to stop her getting her feelings off her chest, however daft they might be. There's no need actually to listen, however. Nor does she expect, or even want you to express an opinion of your own. A nod of the head, roughly every 90 seconds, combined with a concerned frown, or a cheery laugh, where appropriate, is perfectly sufficient.
3. Of course, you want to have sex. Afterwards, however, it is important to avoid saying 'I love you' or 'I'm sorry, that's never happened before'.
4. She may be interested in commitment. You are not. It is vitally important that you never even acknowledge the possibility that you are in a relationship. The moment she uses a sentence that includes words such as 'wedding', 'children', or 'meet my parents', make your excuses and leave.”

Here are some points to observe while driving.

“1. Never ask for directions, because you are never, ever lost. You're just taking a little longer than expected to get there.
2. Nor do you require sat-nav [a GPS navigation device].
3. The correct speed for a retrosexual is 5 percent above the stated limit  -  at all times.
4. The correct distance between you and the car in front is 3 ft.”

"You have buddies  -  but never Best Friends. Famous pairs such as Starsky and Hutch, Butch and Sundance, Batman and Robin . . . are highly suspicious relationships.

“No matter how tough those men may be, or how straight, the Retrosexual can't help thinking they're all riding a little too close to Brokeback Mountain.

"When dealing with his friends, the Retrosexual sticks to basic, common-sense guidelines:
• NEVER be alone with another man for any longer than is strictly necessary.
• AVOID learning the other man's name for as long as possible and then never, ever use it (a humorous nickname, preferably abusive, may be permitted after many years of acquaintance, or when playing in the same sports team).
• NO ARRANGEMENTS for meeting again are permitted beyond a general 'See you around'.
• HUGS, tears and kisses are acceptable only if both parties are hopelessly drunk, and provided apologies for any indiscretions are exchanged as soon as they have sobered up.” 

The following points concern home arrangements.

“A Retrosexual does not actually have a home, as such  -  not unless he has woken up one day to find that he has somehow got married. Of course, he has to have somewhere to live, but he demonstrates his inherent manliness by his absolute indifference to his physical surroundings.
So, while he may be forced to acquire chairs, tables, a bed and something to lie on while watching TV, he pays no attention at all to what they look like. He may, on the other hand, devote considerable care to choosing his 42-inch widescreen plasma TV, his DVD recorder and his surround-sound home cinema system.

"No Retrosexual ever watches any home-decorating TV show. His notion of a Grand Design is a 6-foot high pyramid of beer cans.

"He does, however, have a number of possible decorative styles at his fingertips. These include:

• MINIMALISM: Nothing in the place but a TV, a bed, a fridge, and a pile of clothes on the floor.

• MODERNISM: Same as minimalism, only with better TV, more gadgets (serious hi-fi, computer, video games, etc), and a large selection of power-tools.

• SHABBY CHIC: In which random styles of furniture, all bought second-hand, are combined to give an eclectic, cluttered charm  -  a pigsty, in other words."

"The key is to tread a fine line between having such an untidy place that any women would run away, and being so clean and tidy that she questions your virility.

"If in doubt, do nothing. Bare walls, lightbulbs and an absence of girly soft furnishings (eg. cushions, tablecloths and even curtains) are safe options. And never, ever light any candles.”

A pretty fair summary, I think--well worth extensive quotation.

In reality,though, the whole phenomenon was first sketched out in a short-lived TV show that aired on the Comedy Channel in 2004. Alexandra Stanley explains:

“''Straight Plan for the Gay Man,'' on Comedy Central , , , , is an inversion of ''Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,'' the hit makeover reality show that started on Bravo and is now also on NBC. Unlike the Bravo show, in which five gay men [the “Fab Five”] help a hapless straight man find his inner metrosexual, these advisers help gay men rediscover their outer alpha male. And like the original, the parody is a one-joke conceit that manages to have legs.

“Sticking closely to the ''Queer Eye'' formula, ''Straight Plan'' is as engaging as the show it mercilessly mocks. It is also funnier, which which is not always the case with satire. Partly scripted, partly improvised, ''Straight Plan'' works because the four straight consultants, all comedians and actors, are engaging; theirs is a deadpan routine reminiscent of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in ''The Blues Brothers.'' The humor never gets too cruel or homophobic; the joke is as much on the straight buffoons as it is on their gay clients, shown as good sports who can often get the last word.

“So far Comedy Central has ordered three one-hour episodes, and each ''man mission,'' as the makeover artists call them (they call themselves the Flab Four) is similar yet just different enough to hold viewers' attention. . . .

“The four advisers are as crude and slovenly as the Fab Five are sophisticated and sleek. Rob, ''the culture guy,'' is a tall, stern taskmaster; this actor and comedian is a former marine. Billy, ''the appearance guy,'' is good-natured and burly. (Jonathan describes him on the phone to a friend as a ''John Goodman type.'') Jonathan says that Kyle, the smooth, leather-jacket wearing ''information guy,'' looks like Shaft. Curtis, ''the environment guy,'' is friendly despite his deer-hunting jackets and hats. Together they ramble around New York in their ''straight mobile'' a black Dodge Ram 3500, making rude noises and telling stupid jokes on their way to teach a gay man how to pass as straight for a day. . . .

“They meet Jonathan . . . in his all-white Upper East Side apartment full of flowers, Lalique and a collection of Limoges teacups. When a French country armoire is opened to reveal an 11-inch television, Rob is appalled. ''Oh, c'mon,'' he hollers. ''They've got bigger TV's on JetBlue.''

“The advisers decide to mold Jonathan into a meatpacker. Each episode includes a mock-documentary. In Jonathan's case the clip is a facetious look at the history of meatpacking in America, illustrated with what looks likes snippets from a 50's industrial film.

“On the second episode the men are charged with helping Steven, a Broadway dancer who poses in pearls and a thong in his introductory video, learn how to pick up women as a straight man would. An important tip, they explain, is never really to listen to a woman when she speaks. ''I'll tell you where you went wrong,'' Rob says after a practice round in a bar. ''You were making friends.'' He spells it out: ''You don't want to be listening. While she is talking, you just play out the rest of your weekend, things like that.''”

PS (February 14, 2009)

On reviewing this piece I find that it was somewhat hastily thrown together. I confess that I do not have much empathy for retrosexuals. They strike me as a throwback to the "vulgarians" who were so vociferously prominent in the 'fifties. The androgynous 'sixties were supposed to have taken us beyond that. As Goethe (I believe) once remarked, there are no new ideas, just varying combinations of old ones.

At all events I failed (as a lexicographer) to do due diligence with regard to the origins of this neologism. (Another term I hope to come back to is "fauxmosexual," someone who pretends to be gay but is not--or at any rate allows this perception to exist. The concept shades over into "gay friendly"--though that is not quite the same.

Here are some notes that I have shamlessly copied from that very useful site, WordspyL

"(ret.roh.SEK.shoo.ul) n. A man with an undeveloped aesthetic sense who spends as little time and money as possible on his appearance and lifestyle. Also: retro-sexual.
—retrosexuality n.

"Example Citations:

";Genuine guys are sometimes known as retrosexuals, to distinguish them from metrosexuals, who are men with the good taste of gay men, only they're straight. Metrosexuals are scrupulous about their grooming and are great consumers of men's cosmetic products. They use hair gel. Retrosexuals are scared of hair gel. Some people think that retrosexuals automatically have Neanderthal views about women, but this is not the case. A retrosexual is simply someone who doesn't know the difference between teal and aqua, and frankly couldn't give a damn.
—Margaret Wente, "I married a retrosexual," The Globe and Mail (Canada), February 14, 2004

"'My mission: to queer-eye myself through a full spa treatment. Friends saw the mission more pointedly: Could a highly-resistant retrosexual be transformed into one of the metro variety?
—Ted Weesner Jr., "For 2004: A metrosexual in the making," The Boston Globe, January 18, 2004

"First Use:

"'Beckham is the uber-metrosexual, not just because he rams metrosexuality down the throats of those men churlish enough to remain retrosexual and refuse to pluck their eyebrows, but also because he is a sportsman, a man of substance — a "real" man — who wishes to disappear into surfaceness in order to become ubiquitous — to become media.
—Mark Simpson, "Beckham, the virus," Salon.com, June 28, 2003

" Notes:
It's entirely appropriate that this sense of the word retrosexual — that is, man as the anti-metrosexual — was first used by Mark Simpson, the coiner of metrosexual. Note, however, that Simpson didn't coin the word retrosexual. The singer Bebe Buell released an album called Retrosexual in 1994. Also, there's another sense of the word that refers to a person who hasn't had sex in a long time:

"Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, I've heard it all before," said my friend Ms M. "Then again, I haven't had sex in so long I'm retrosexual."
—Karen Krizanovich, "Talk dirty to me," The Guardian (London, England), August 10, 1995