Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Quotation of the day

"The 13th-century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that material things were good in themselves. It is good that there are cobras and garbage cans around the place. This, to be sure, is a hard doctrine to swallow when you come to the existence of Donald Rumsfeld."

This observation is from Terry Eagleton in the New Statesman for June 22. Raised as a Catholic, Eagleton became a Marxist. Now, in his well balanced remarks about religion, he seems to be "deviating toward sense"(as Jonathan Swift put it in a different context).


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Victory for same-sex marriage

As everyone (just about) now knows, last night same-sex marriage became a fact in New York State, where I live. While I am "in a relationship" I don't think that we will take advantage of the new provision. I rejoice though that those who want it will be able to take this step.

It is important to note that even the new provisions do not provide "full marriage." That is to say, many federal benefits, including those pertaining to immigration and social security, are lacking. What needs to be done now is to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, and then have the federal government extend the federal benefits in the states that have SSM.

Absent a favorable Supreme Court decision, I fear that full gay marriage in all fifty states will be a long time in coming. In fact the SSM-movement may have an unwanted side effect of reinforcing the red state-blue state dichotomy, as most of the red states will continue their rejectionist stance.

During the 1990s I belonged to a discussion group, including a number of thoughtful writers and "boldface" names, which was generally enthusiastic about gay marriage. In fact it was just about all they talked about, making me weary of the whole issue. Some of these advocates fervently backed what amounted to a "social-engineering" measure: it would curb promiscuity among gay men. Various incentives would serve to herd us into the state of monogamous matrimony. This notion offended against my libertarian instincts. SSM should be a way of widening choice and individual options, and not of narrowing them.

More fundamentally, it seemed to me that gay intellectuals like Gabriel Rotello and Jonathan Rauch were seeking to repeal nature, by eliding a fundamental aspect of human males that has deep ecological roots. That is, sexual pluralism. One can urge that people exercise care and discretion, but to propose monogamy for every man is simply not realistic. I realize, of course, that there are individuals like Gary Wills who have had sex with only one woman, their spouse, throughout their lives. As Kinsey showed, however, these people are not common, and their experience must not be decreed for everyone.

Even for those who believe that they are destined to achieve a pair bond with one person, some experience in cohabitation, possibly with several partners in sequence, is of tremendous help in finding out if one is suitable for monogamy.

So I say: two cheers (but no more) for gay marriage.

Some background is appropriate. The first discussions of the possibility and prospects go back to ONE Magazine in the 1950s. That's right, the 1950s. However, the current movement was sparked by the gay lawyer Evan Wolfson, who has received far too little credit. I was delighted to see Wolfson on Chris Matthews last night.

An early recruit to the cause was Andrew Sullivan, for some years a prolific poster on The Dish (now at The Daily Beast). Here are some excepts from his commentary this morning. --

"The fact that New York State has just become the sixth (plus DC) to grant gay citizens the civil right to marry is a BFD ("Big ** Deal"). I say that having observed and participated in this process for two decades.

"It's a BFD because a Republican-led State Senate passed this law. Yes, the partisanship is massively lop-sided, but the conversion of a few Republicans is what will have made this possible. The credit for that goes to one of the most determined, consistent, professional and impassioned campaigns we have ever fought for marriage equality. Going outside traditional Democratic party lobbies to appeal to those on the other side who are open to our arguments was essential. Yes, Tim Gill, take a bow, wherever you are. Bill Smith, you remain my hero. Governor Cuomo, by all accounts was magnificent at the politics and Mayor Bloomberg and critical Republicans and Democrats and all factions and groups in the gay movement - even HRC! - pulled together. That the most passionate opponent was a Democrat and the most powerful were Republicans helps scramble the attempt by the Christianist right to coopt conservatism for their reactionary theology.

"It's a BFD because it also insists on maximal religious liberty for those who conscientiously oppose marriage equality. [I'm not so sure that this compromise was a good idea.-- WRD) A gay rights movement that seeks to restrict any religious freedom is not worthy of the name. And it makes me glad that we largely avoided anything that looks like that strategy, and that last-minute negotiations were flexible enough to strengthen the protections for religious groups, churches, mosques, synagogues and the like. The gay rights movement is about expanding the boundaries of human freedom - and that must include religious freedom if it is to mean anything. We have come such a long way from the 1980s when religious groups were always seen as enemies, rather than as potential allies.

"It's a BFD because the public leadership of this campaign was heterosexual.

"By all accounts, governor Cuomo has been a magnificently crafty, determined, clear and decisive supporter. Mayor Bloomberg, who just lost his beloved mother, also used his influence with Republicans to move the needle. Cuomo's national reputation and potential career in national politics will be enhanced by this - a sign of how radically the political landscape has changed.

"It's a BFD because it doubles the number of Americans with the right to marry the person they love, even if they are gay. That is one hell of a fact on the ground. It will almost certainly help in California. It will reveal even more profoundly that this does not mean the end of civilization, but is, more prosaically, a modest reform to strengthen the family, integrate the marginalized and enlarge our moral universe. And it cannot now be undone." END OF SULLIVAN QUOTATION.

I certainly agree that it is a "modest reform," not the Messianic transformation that Sullivan and some others had been hailing some years ago.

I understand that Governor Cuomo will lead the Pride Parade tomorrow. As the Australians say, Good On Him!


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Prescient quote

After learning of Al Gore's complaint that Obama has been lagging in efforts to combat global warming, I was moved to exhume the following prescient paragraphs written by Walter Mead Russell in The American Prospect last year.

"For better or worse, the global political system isn’t capable of producing the kind of result the global warming activists want. It’s like asking a jellyfish to climb a flight of stairs; you can poke and prod all you want, you can cajole and you can threaten. But you are asking for something that you just can’t get — and at the end of the day, you won’t get it."


"The death of global warming (the movement, not the phenomenon) has some important political and cultural consequences in the United States that I’ll be blogging on down the road. . . . The global warming meltdown confirms all the populist suspicions out there about an arrogantly clueless establishment invoking faked ‘science’ to impose cockamamie social mandates on the long-suffering American people, backed by a mainstream media that is totally in the tank. Don’t think this won’t have consequences; we’ll be exploring them together as the days go by."

Russell doesn't doubt that global warming is occurring. Nor do I. But the likelihood that any real steps will be taken to curb it has drastically declined. This debacle has happened for two reasons: 1) overhyping by the green faction; 2) lack of political will.

So it is time to close that chapter, and take up Bjorn Lomborg's advice that we learn to manage global warming, instead of flailing about with futile schemes based delusional prospects of reversing it.


The Nozick controversy

Together with a small circle of friends here in New York City, I was electrified by reading the book Anarchy, State and Utopia by the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002). Illuminated by vivid examples (the Wilt Chamberlain one is famous), the book was a sharp defense of the principles of individual liberty. It stood over against the work of another Harvard thinker, John Rawls, so very tedious and overrated.

A few years after reading the book, I was delighted to meet Robert Nozick at a gay conference in Boston. He was not gay, but had come to the event in order to learn. I will never forget his graciousness in responding to some questions I somewhat brashly raised He died prematurely of stomach cancer in 2002.

Just now Nozick’s work has been attacked in a prolix piece by Stephen Metcalf (“The Liberty Scam”; I am glad to say that this screed has been refuted by a number of writers. I won’t attempt to summarize the arguments here. Just Google Metcalf + Nozick.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Faux gay?

When I was in college in the 1950s my best friend C. became my mentor in all things gay. Though I outgrew some of the lessons he taught, I remain grateful to this man for taking me under his wing. At all events, C. had belonged to a coterie of nine young college men, who called themselves "the entourage." Marvin, a straight boy, had attached himself to the group, which gave him fellowship and, he felt, a certain sense of identity. But he was never admitted to full membership in the group. Once, C. told me, they all went out for a night on the town. "Here we are," Marvin happily remarked, "ten gay guys together." Then one of the group unkindly corrected him: "No, Marvin, it's nine gay guys."

This was my first introduction to the gay wannabe phenomenon. It has certain affinities with other types of "aspirational identity," as with those who claim, on very slender evidence, to be American Indians. Reportedly, in a decade or so the Indian population of the US has "doubled."

I though of poor Marvin when I read a fascinating piece by the gay journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis in today's New York Times Magazine (June 19). The story concerns Michael Glatze, who had worked closely with Denizet-Lewis on a publication for gay youth in San Francisco. Since then Glatze (now 36) has become a kind of poster boy for the "ex-gay" movement.

Michael Glatze was born in Olympia, Washington. His mother was a non-denominational Christian and his father was agnostic. When Glatze was 13 his father died of a heart condition; his mother died when he was 19. Glatze earned a B.A. degree at Dartmouth College.

While working at XY Magazine in San Francisco, Glatze met a young man named Ben. The two would remain a couple for 10 years. They later co-founded their own publication, Young Gay America magazine (YGA Mag).

Gradually, though, doubts began to intrude. In 2005, Glatze was quoted by Time Magazine saying "I don't think the gay movement understands the extent to which the next generation just wants to be normal kids. The people who are getting that are the Christian right."

Glatze turned toward Christianity after a health scare due to heart palpitations.

Glatze has written two pieces about his change which appeared in the online media outlet WorldNetDaily. He has garnered media coverage in other publications and blogs, culminating in today's piece by his friend Denizet-Lewis. Glatze is now studying at a Bible college in Wyoming. He asserts that he is now straight.

According to Denizet-Lewis, during the time they worked together Glatze had steeped himself in Queer Theory, internalizing its message of fluidity of identity. It may be, the journalist suggests, that Glatze never was gay, but had convinced himself that he was--not unlike Marvin before.

This explanation may be correct. Yet it is vulnerable to the accusation that it is--if you will--part of the gay party line, which holds that people who claim to be ex-gays either relapse or never were gays in the first place. Quite a few years ago I had a friend, a gay psychotherapist, who offered $10,000 to any person who had truly changed his or her orientation from homosexual to straight. Privately, my friend confided that he would never have to pay up, because he would always insist that the converted individual never had actually been gay; hence no conversion had taken place.

It is, of course, perfectly true that a number of prominent persons in the ex-gay movement have "slipped" on occasion. Some have resumed a gay lifestyle, suggesting that for them the conversion to heterosexuality was superficial--perhaps even faked in order to gain approval or monetary gain. Some "ex-gays" concede that just as alcoholics always remain alcoholics, they will always be gay; they will just be nonpracticing.

I wonder, though, if it would not be too much for the official wing of the gay movement (assuming that this exists) to acknowledge that a few individuals actually have changed in this way.

Certainly, though, it is hard to follow the tortured reasoning this lost sheep, who now claims to have found himself is advancing. In agreement (perhaps) with President Ahmedinajad, Glatze seems to think that there are no homosexuals. We are all heterosexuals, but some of us (adulterers, patrons of prostitutes, same-sexers, and many other categories) foolishly yield to evil impulses. Now it is true that Kinsey thought that the word homosexual should not be used as a noun, but he held the same view regarding the word heterosexual. We are all (even though Kinsey did not use this expression) human sexuals. But Glatze says there is no such thing, only heterosexuals, some of whom are not strong enough to follow the Christian Gospel and refrain from sexual sins. Where though, reading the Bible in the original languages, does it say that we are all heterosexuals?

In a radio interview given last year to the anti-gay crusader Peter LaBarbara, Glatze sought to explain himself in the following terms: "I’ve said before in recent years that the actual culmination of Queer Theory is that there’s no reason why anybody shouldn’t just leave homosexuality and be a heterosexual – if you actually follow it through with the entirety of your logical thinking. But, our logical thinking is stilted by the enemy, who wants us to not think clearly. The Word of God allows you to think clearly.


"Gore Vidal, the famous gay guy, you know, the American writer, once said, “there are no homosexuals; there are only homosexual acts.” And, he is echoing the viewpoint of the Queer Theorists that say, “well, sexuality is fluid. Everybody is open to any possibility.” And, of course that echoes 1 Corinthians 10:13 where God says any temptation is common to man."

One thing seems clear. Even in a remote corner of Wyoming Michael Glatze has an unquenchable hunger for attention. The piece in the Times Mag, which seems to be going viral, should please him.

Glatze has archived some of his interviews at In German by the way Glatze means "bald spot"; more than a spot, I would say.

PS Apparently the underlying condition can be combated by a Chinese product against hair loss. Its German marketer recommends it in this way: Fabao 101G gegen Glatze und Haarausfall ! Nie wieder Glatze! ... Well said.

UPDATE (June 20). In retrospect I find that in writing this piece I failed to do justice to the broader issues. Of course, there is the personal tragedy (in my view) of a brilliant, charismatic young man who went so far astray.

However, there is a much broader context. Let me go back to my personal history. In my teens I struggled to understand my homosexuality. At the time I accepted the notion that a psychiatrist would be able to make me "convert," that is change my orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. I felt that if I were to come out I would be pressured into undergoing this treatment. I didn't want it. I had two main problems: I had no confidant or support group; and I kept falling in love with unsuitable persons. But I didn't want to stop being gay.

In the fifties and sixties, psychiatry, especially Freudian psychoanalysis, had achieved a pinnacle of prestige in the US. Sometimes gay groups like Mattachine invited psychiatrists to appear at our meetings: they sternly lectured us on overcoming our "immaturity." After 1969 this all changed. A few years after homosexuality was removed from the DSM, the official diagnostic list of mental conditions. It was not a mental illness, and therefore not treatable as such.

Still one might want to change for practical reasons. Many gay men, as is well known, have close friends who are women. Would it not be appropriate to become het and marry one of these worthy people? Of course such a change is not so easily accomplished.

In the seventies we became increasingly aware of individuals, supposedly firmly heterosexualized (often through lengthy and expensive programs of treatment), who "lapsed," resuming their former gay lifestyle. Others reported that they were able to abstain from same-sex relations, but the desire for them persisted, without a comparable heterosexual desire being affirmed. In short the treatment did not succeed in replacing same-sex desire with opposite-sex desire.

Other assumptions were also common in the seventies and after. Even though most of us were willing to acknowledge that, in various forms, bisexuality existed, we still kept to the notion that there was a basic het-homo dualism. It was either-or; in practical terms tertium non datur.

Largely under religious auspices, efforts to convert young men from homosexuality to heterosexuality seem to have increased in recent years. In some cases the family virtually coerces the hapless young person to undergo such brain washing. Critics of the ex-gay movement are right in protesting against these invasive procedures. A friend terms it "soul murder," and he is not far off the mark.

This being said, I can't help wondering whether there is not a real cohort, fairly small in numbers to be sure, who have made the transition to genital and emotional heterosexuality. Why must one reject this possibility a priori?

Well, one could say, how about asking some people to transition in the other direction--from heterosexuality to homosexuality? Why does that never happen?

In fact it did happen--in a certain way. During my activist days I encountered several "political lesbians." Their interpretation of feminism fostered the belief that sleeping with men was abetting the patriarchy. Conversely, by sleeping with women they could affirm and consolidate their sisterhood. Did this behavior cause role strain? I don't know because I lost touch with the women I once knew in this category.

In conclusion, though, it seems dogmatic to insist that beginning perhaps at the age of five sexual orientation is so firmly fixed that it is impossible to change it. I do not find Michael Glatze's path (fideistic Christianity) inspiring. But we need to consider more carefully the possibility that he and a few others have changed for good.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Sullivan and the strange death of conservatism

Andrew Sullivan is a thinker I admire very much, not least for his ability to change his mind, as in the matter of the Iraq War, which he once fervently supported. Of more fundamental importance, perhaps, has been his agonizing reappraisal of what conservatism has become in this country,

Here is a portion of something he said in this regard a couple of years ago: “I cannot support a movement that claims to believe in limited government but backed an unlimited domestic and foreign policy presidency that assumed illegal, extra-constitutional dictatorial powers until forced by the system to return to the rule of law. I cannot support a movement that exploded spending and borrowing and blames its successor for the debt.”

Once upon a time it was said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. And what is a conservative who has been mugged by reality? Not a liberal, I think; perhaps a post-conservative.

Here are some remarks Sullivan made this morning (June 17) at The Dish (andrewsullivan.the daily

“ . . . The core reason I became a conservative was government over-reach in my native land [Britain]- try a 98 percent top tax rate and direct government ownership of entire industries and nearly every hospital. I thought this violated a core fact about human nature: that collectivism fails to generate the dynamism that individual freedom and ownership do.

“But as I studied political philosophy more deeply, the core argument for conservatism was indeed that it was truer to humankind's crooked timber; that it was more closely tethered to earth rather  than heaven; that it accepted the nature of fallen man and did not try to permanently correct it, but to mitigate our worst instincts and encourage the best, with as light a touch as possible. Religion was for bishops, not presidents. Utopias were for liberals; progress was not inevitable; history did not lead in one obvious direction; we are all limited by epistemological failure and cultural bias.

“So on taxes today, a conservative would ask: what have we learned about the impact of lower rates over the last two decades - now the lowest as a percentage of GDP since the 1950s? In health care, what have we learned about the largely private system the GOP wants to preserve? A conservative would look at home and abroad for empirical answers, acknowledging no ultimate solution but the need for constant reform because society is always changing. On gay rights, a classic social change, he'd ask what a society should do in integrating the emergence of so many openly gay people, couples and families. On foreign policy, he'd move on a case by case basis, not by way of a "doctrine."

“On these terms, today's GOP could not be less conservative. I'd insist it's less conservative than Obama. It does not present reality-based reform for emergent problems. It simply reiterates dogma and ruthlessly polices dissent or debate. . . .

“. . . we hear actually nothing about gays, our existence or our lives. We hear a tautological irrelevance: "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman." What do they propose positively for this emergent social reality that men like Burke or Lincoln or Disraeli would have seen as an opportunity for conservative reform? Nothing. No civil unions, no civil marriage, no military service ... just nothing, but a piece of doctrine: gay is bad. On health care, have you yet heard a single practical proposal to help the uninsured? Or assist seniors with health needs in ways that don't break the bank? Nope. But in a society that won't let people die on the street, these are real and tough problems we cannot just wish away. The Ryan plan solves the problem the way leftists used to: by a radical ideological shift. It just cuts off aid at a certain level and says government is not responsible for the rest. This will never get past the public and would never actually cut costs. It simply places an arbitrary marker on when the government tells you you are on your own. Again, this works as dogma but not as politics."

Before continuing with Sullivan, I trust that I may be permitted to interject a personal note. Back in 1973 I was lucky to be invited to house-sit in a San Francisco apartment owned by a very intelligent woman who had stocked it with libertarian literature: lots of Hayek, von Mises, and Freedman, but nothing by Ayn Rand. It was a bit like a kid finding Dad’s stash of bondage porn: I looked at the stuff with horror and fascination. By the end of the month I was ready to ask my friend for a reading list. I had become a libertarian. A few years later I read some conservative writers--I emphasize s o m e--and found that there was a lot of sense there. Andrew Sullivan is a bit younger than I am, but he captures the excitement of that moment:

“Back in the 1980s, conservatism was a thrilling empirical, reality-based challenge to overweening government power and omniscient liberal utopianism. Today, alas, it has become a victim of its own success, reliving past glories rather than tackling current problems. It is part secular dogma - no taxes, no debt, more war - and part religious dogma - no Muslims need apply; amend the federal constitution to keep gays in their place; no abortions even for rape and incest; more settlements on the West Bank to prepare for the End-Times. Although there were inklings back then - Stockman was right; Iran-Contra should have been a warning - they were still balanced by empiricism. Reagan raised taxes, withdrew from Lebanon, hated war, and tried to abolish all nuclear weapons on earth. The first Bush was an under-rated deficit-cutter and diplomat, a legacy doubly squandered by his son.

“Now it's . . . either total freedom or complete slavery and a rhetorical war based entirely on that binary ideological spectrum. In other words, ideological performance art: brain-dead, unaware of history, uninterested in policy detail, bored by empiricism, motivated primarily by sophistry, Manicheanism, and factional hatred. This is not without exceptions. Douthat, Brooks, Zakaria, Bacevich, Bartlett, Frum, Manzi, Salam, Lomborg, MacDonald, et al. are still thinking. It's just that many of them are now deemed - absurdly - to be liberals. And none will have or does have any real impact on the base of the party.”

Yes, I profit from reading some of the writers mentioned by Sullivan above, and a few others, but I don’t find that they add up to anything like the coherent body of doctrine I discovered in that apartment in SF (of all places) so many years ago.

PS. One minor caveat: I think it's time to retire the crooked-timber metaphor that Isaiah Berlin purloined from Kant. Since the introduction of modern sawmills in the 1840s, timber has not been crooked. Resorting to stale metaphors is, as Orwell noted, usually an indicator that more careful thinking needs to be done. Since Sullivan and I agree that there can be no playing of "Happy Days Are Here Again," no return to the old pieties of standard-issue liberalism, it appears that really A LOT of thinking is called for. This old brain boggles, but I would hope that others will come forward to address the task.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Greece and the Near East

A few years back I wrote a piece on the debt of ancient Greece to pharaonic Egypt. While I did not go the full nine yards with the Egyptocentric Martin Bernal, there are so many significant borrowings as to make the conventional view of the parthenogenisis of Greece (the “Greek miracle”) untenable. This essay is available at my ancillary site: Dynegypt,blogspot,com.

At the time I promised to produce a similar study on the Mesopotamia-Greece connection, which is perhaps even more important than the Egypt-Greece one. Until now the press of other business has prevented my from fulfilling that vow. I will make a stab at doing that here.

First, what is ancient Mesopotamia? The word stems from the Greek for “[the land] between the rivers,” and serves to designate the area comprised today by Iraq and parts of eastern Syria, together with southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran.

Ancient Mesopotamia included Sumer and the Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires. During the Iron Age, it was controlled by the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires. The indigenous Sumerians and Akkadians (including Assyrians and Babylonians) dominated Mesopotamia from the beginning of written history (the late fourth millennium BCE) to the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE, when it was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire. It fell to the Macedonian Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, and after his death it became part of the Greek Seleucid Empire.


The Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer (1897-1990) produced a popular volume (History Begins at Sumer, first ed., 1956) in which he undertook to catalog a series of “firsts” that should be credited to ancient Sumeria.

Among the items Kramer listed are: the First Schools, the First Case of Juvenile Delinquency, the First "War of Nerves," the First Bicameral Congress, the first Historian, the First Case of Tax Reduction, the First Legal Precedent, the First Pharmacopoeia, the First Moral Ideals, the First Animal Fables, the First Literary Debates, the First Love Song, the First Library Catalog, the First "Sick" Society, the First Long-Distance Champion, the First Sex Symbolism, and so on.

Some of these items, such juvenile delinquency and the notion of a “sick society,” seem dated, reflecting as they do the Cold War atmosphere in which Kramer lived. Others are cases of parallel invention, as the innovation crops up in Egypt at about the same time.

Perhaps most significant of all such advances is the invention of writing. It used to be thought that Mesopotamia was somewhat ahead of Egypt in this realm. However, recent discoveries in the Nile Valley place the inventions at about the same time, in the closing centuries of the fourth millennium BCE.

What then of the links with ancient Greece?


As early as 1966 in his edition of Hesiod's Theogony, the English classicist Martin L. West acknowledged the dependency of early Greece on the Near East. With remarkable persistence and energy, he stuck to the task, and some thirty years later produced a magisterial study comprising 662 pages: The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry.  

West begins with a bird's-eye view of commonalities of Near Eastern and Aegean cultures--commonalities that can only be explained by direct transmission or a shared origin. Such common elements include a substantial store of loan words. Because of the importance of trade many of these words designate commodities. Yet others pertain to social institutions such as kingship with its complex accoutrements and rituals. The treaties negotiated by Aegean and Near Eastern kings are replete with similar formulas. Methods of accounting, counting, and weighing are similar or identical. Musical instruments are much the same in East and West, as are styles of luxurious behavior. At the top of the Greek pantheon, Zeus is a god of storms and high places, and so was the Semitic Baal; both were honored with the same kinds of sacrifices performed in the same way.

Then West turns to the literature of Western Asia, still too little known. The emphasis is on epic and myth, but the author also describes Sumero-Akkadian wisdom literature, hymns, disputations, and royal inscriptions. Of particular interest is the Bronze Age literature from Ugarit (Ras Shamra), a north Syrian port which ranked as a virtual gateway to the West. The Hebrew Bible also figures in this equation. Then there are the Hurrians of north Syria, whose kingdom was called Mitanni, who transmitted Sumero-Akkadian traditions to the Hittites. The Hurro-Hittite stories about the storm god Teshub's conflict with the older god Kumarbi served as a model for Hesiod's Theogony.

Another feature is the idea of the assembly of the gods, familiar to us from Olympus. In fact the notion of the organization of heaven, presided over by a company of gods at which stands a powerful patriarch, seems to have been invented by the Sumerians. This powerful idea was copied by the Akkadians, Hurrians, Hittites, West Semites, and finally the Greeks.

Many other parallels are cited, some perhaps too general to command universal assent. However, West is on firm ground with the poetry of Hesiod, about which he is the leading expert. He also discusses Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, where he finds a number of revealing parallels in the heroes, incidents, motifs, and expressions. There are many other borrowings in the general realm of mythology.

Finally, West turns to the complex matter of how Eastern traditions might have passed to Greece. He pinpoints two historical periods in which such transmission was likely to have taken place: the Late Bronze Age and the 8th-7th centuries BCE. Here writing is obviously key.


The special role of the Near East during one particular period of Greek art and culture has long been recognized. In fact, this era is conventionally termed the Orientalizing period, lasting from about 750 to 650 BCE. That phase saw a shift from the prevailing Geometric style to a style with different sensibilities, which were inspired by the East. During this period the Assyrians advanced along the Mediterranean coast, accompanied by Greek mercenaries, who were also active in the armies of Psammeticus in Egypt. The new groups started to compete with established Greek merchants. There were various shifts in population. Phoenicians from the east coast of the Mediterranean settled in Cyprus and in western regions of Greece, while Greeks established trading colonies at Al Mina, Syria, and in Ischia, an island off the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy. These changes constituted the background of an intense penetration of Semitic cultural traits into Greece.

Massive imports of raw materials, including metals, and a new mobility among foreign craftsmen led to the introduction of new craft skills in Greece.

In 1992 the German scholar Walter Burkert offered a new interpretation of this trend (The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age). Burkert described the new movement in Greek art as a revolution: "With bronze reliefs, textiles, seals, and other products, a whole world of eastern images was opened up which the Greeks were only too eager to adopt and adapt in the course of an "orientalizing revolution.” Depictions of Greek myths that were destined to become standard types originated from attempts to naturalize foreign visual formulae stemming from the East. As has been noted in the previous section some of the myths themselves appear to be imports from Mesopotamia.

In addition, Burkert emphasizes the role of migrating seers and healers, bringing their skills in divination and purification ritual along with elements of their mythological wisdom. Surely the most outstanding contribution of this period was the invention of the Greek alphabet, based on the earlier phonetic Phoenician writing. This change caused a great leap in literacy and literary production, as the oral traditions of the epic began to be transcribed onto imported Egyptian papyrus and other media..

In Attic pottery, the distinctive Orientalizing style known as "proto-Attic" was marked by floral and animal motifs; for the first time specific religious and mythological themes appeared in vase painting. The new style fostered a narrative clarity that had previously been lacking.

In 2004 Walter Burkert published a book seeking to integrate these findings into the larger picture: Babylon Memphis Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture (2004).
In general Burkert adopts a moderate position on the question of Greek indebtedness to the Near East and to Egypt, the claims of the latter of course being famously challenged by Martin Bernal, who is not at all moderate. Concerning the Bernal controversy, Burkert remarks: "Vigorous debates have ensued: yet while many details of Bernal and his followers' statements are open to argument, polemics are not worthwhile. One ought to look for further evidence and new perspectives, and to work out more equitable judgments,”

Burkert has taken on a big assignment, attempting to create a balance sheet of our knowledge of the how, why, and what of cultural influences on Greece from the Near East, Egypt, and Persia, mainly during the Archaic and Classical Periods. He attends to the historical and geographical contexts of cultural transmission: trade between Greece and the East (a push fueled by the Greek search for metals), politics (diplomacy, war, and conquest), to be sure, but also factors such as roads, libraries, schools, and writing materials (e.g., the switch from clay tablets to perishable materials with the Greek import of the Phoenician alphabet). Allowing for the possibility of “creative misunderstanding," Burkert seeks to discern a dialectical process of give and take on all sides.

In my view, he has not entirely freed himself from the bonds of Greek exceptionalism, as when he flirts with the hoary contrast of Oriental prerationalism and Greek rationalism. A somewhat wistful nostalgia transpires from the following statement: “Philosophy has largely tried to follow such an ideal of truth. It threatens to become obsolete, though, with the onset of relativity and deconstruction within the more modern trends in the social sciences and humanities. It is still to be hoped that the Greek heritage will not be totally lost.” We may be critical of modern relativism, but surely it is not necessary to go back to ancient Greece to oppose it.

In Chapter Four Burkert offers a case study of religious syncretism, involving the 6th-century Greek identification of Dionysus with Osiris. In his view, mystery rites promising a blissful afterlife provide the strongest basis for the association of the two gods. From Dionysus one can easily move on to Orpheus and the question of putative Egyptian influences on Orphic religion. This matter is made difficult by the fact that, despite intriguing new discoveries, we still know little about Orphic religion. All too often, assertion outruns the evidence.

Still, Burkert hazards the following conclusion: Orphism can be situated within a general family of teachings guaranteeing renewed life after death through the performance of ritual; such rituals or mysteries were associated with Orpheus as well as with Dionysus and taught by itinerant teachers. In this way Egyptian influences in the 6th century BCE were probably of prime importance for the transformation of the Mycenaean Dionysus into the Dionysus of mystery rites. The centrality of the afterlife to the Egyptian world view needs no underlining.

For the period after the Persian War, Burkert notes two religious ideas, both apparently Persian imports to Greece. The first is the concept of the ascent of the pious dead to a better life in heaven, an idea that replaces the uniformly bleak picture of an afterlife held by first millennium Greeks, Mesopotamians, Syrians, and Jews. There remains the problem of the dating of the original Zoroastrian texts, A more familiar issue is well-accepted Iranian homeland of the principle of dualism, which emphasizes a persistent battle between good and evil forces. This vein of thought finds several Greek avatars, the first perhaps being the philosopher Empedocles' depiction of a war between Love and Hate as the driving cause for natural processes.

In his careful way, Burkert joins forces with the current interest in hybridization. Cultural mixing is not only a fact, but it is a positive force. "Culture, including Greek culture, requires intercultural contact" Our stereotypes of an isolated Greek miracle developed as the result of a historical accident: "Greek culture had the good fortune to find successors who established a heritage and took care of it continuously, while neighboring civilizations fell victim to the ravages of time and to the victory of either Christianity or Islam.” Still, Burkert is not altogether happy with the recent dethronement of Classicism, which for him betokens an abandonment of standards. "Classicism presupposes and confirms recognized standards or norms -- but these are disappearing from our multicultural world and will not be recovered easily.”

Burkert’s final position is somewhat that of a mugwump; he recognizes the important catalytic role of the Eastern models, but still believes that there is something unique and exemplary about Greek culture, which he holds has determined the shape of “world civilization.” India and China are apparently of no account.


In one sphere it is generally agreed that the Greek contribution is unique--democracy. Is that strictly true?

Using Sumerian epic, myth and historical records, the noted scholar Thorkild Jacobsen has identied what he calls primitive democracy. By this he means a government in which ultimate power rests with the mass of free male citizens, although "the various functions of government are as yet little specialized, the power structure is loose." In the early period of Sumer, kings such as Gilgamesh could not command the autocratic power which later Mesopotamia rulers wielded. Rather, major city-states had a council of elders and a council of "young men" (probably comprising free men bearing arms). These collective bodies possessed the final political authority, and had to be consulted on all major issues such as war.

Although Jacobsen advanced this idea as early as 1943, it has not received the discussion it deserves. Some critics assert that the same evidence also can be interpreted to demonstrate a power struggle between primitive monarchs and the nobility, a struggle in which the common people act more as pawns than the sovereign authority. For a recent study, see B. Sakhan, “Engaging ‘Primitive Democracy’: Mideast Roots of Collective Governance.” Middle East Policy, 2007.

UPDATE (July 1). I have just acquired an important new book, which facilitates a reconsideration of the problems discussed above. This is "When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East" by Carolina López-Ruiz (Harvard University Press, 2010). This book offers two important perspectives. First, we should no longer think of the Near East-Greek nexus as simply one of donor-recipient in which the older cultures of Western Asia simply exported ideas and motifs, which were then reframed by the Greeks. Instead, she believes that one should speak of a larger koine, in which these elements freely circulate. This model would imply that there are components which started in Greece and moved eastwards (in addition to the more familiar reverse process). Thus far the components of this kind that have been detected are few, at least prior to the Hellenistic period. But one may expect to find more of them.

Secondly, she emphasizes the pivotal role of the Ugarit (Ras Shamra) and the Phoenicians--the northwest Semitic area in what is now western Syria and Lebanon--as a a kind of laboratory or entrepot in which the culture mixing took place. Hitherto the greatest emphasis has been on the Hittites and Hurrians (in Asia Minor) as transmitters. That northern route was still important though, and since the Hittites and Hurrians were Indo-European, it serves to remind us that the matter is not a simple contrast between Indo-European Greeks and Semitic Mesopotamians. In the transmission of myth, language was probably not as important as usually assumed. We must also expect that a good many bilingual individuals were involved.

The author also provides valuable references to recent research, and some indication of new contributions that we may expect shortly.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Islam: the goody-two-shoes version

Like most people who grew up in the 1940s and 50s, I went to the movies a lot. One film I found absolutely riveting was the lavish Alexander Korda version of The Thief of Baghdad (1940), featuring the child actor Sabu. Subsequently, I never missed a chance to view other “Arabian” films. I was also intrigued by the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which even now I go back to from time to time as a touchstone.

In some dim, childish way I imagined that medieval Islam was some sort of paradise of sensual enjoyment, including sexual freedom. Despite the disillusionment occasioned by the realities of politics in the Middle East, and Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, some of this Arabian Nights romance clings to the contemporary wave of Islamophilia that is found almost everywhere in liberal circles.

Individuals who would be the first to condemn Biblical literalism in Christianity and Judaism are just fine with the exaltation of the Qur’an that is de rigueur among Muslims. Of course, few of these bien-pensant individuals have read the latter Holy Book, or attempted any serious study of Islamic history.

The central problem with Islam--all of Islam, and not just the “extremist” fringe--is as follows. More than the other Abrahamic traditions, Islam fuses spirituality and politics into a total system for life. Yet central to the liberal approach, I would have thought, is distrust of systematic views of the world--stand-alone systems of belief that purport to explain all of life through one prism. At one time Christianity aspired to this status in the West, but the time has long passed when it could do so.

The Muslim totalist approach that fuses spirituality and politics finds its fullest expression in the Sharia, Islamic law. The idea that there could be an entire body of law laid down by God for all eternity, able to provide answers to all of life's questions, is simply unconvincing.

Most Westerners are accustomed to the separation of church and state. Liberals in particular insist on this, and rightly so. Yet few of them seem willing to grapple with a very different reality, the fact that in a large part of the world the state enforces the idea that there is a correct “Islamic” way to approach all aspects of life, no matter how mundane.

In this country the conventional wisdom in PC circles is that Sharia law can never gain a foothold here. Yet in some urban districts in Britain--the source of our Common Law--vigilante imitators of the religious police of Saudi Arabia patrol the streets, looking for instances of non-Islamic behavior. And the Archbishop of Canterbury has even endorsed the introduction of Sharia law, in certain instances, in the United Kingdom.

No one in this country has heard of a certain Mohammed Hasnath. Apparently few in Britain have heard of his either, but his behavior, and the token punishment administered for it, are revealing. (I owe the following information to Peter Tatchell, the courageous gay activist who is based in London.)

In a court case, Hasnath, aged 18, was found guilty of posting homophobic stickers in London's East End. The stickers declared the area a "Gay Free Zone," advising "Arise and warn...And fear Allah: Verily Allah is severe in punishment." .

Clearly Hasnath was acting as a vigilante in the sense I described above.

It is not surprising that Hasnath has fundamentalist sympathies. On his Facebook page he lists Sheikh Khalid Yasin as one of his interests: Yasin is on record as abusing "homosexuals" and saying they should be put to death:

At all events Hasnath was fined a mere £100. Pertinently, Tatchell observes: “If the stickers had declared East London a Jewish, black, Catholic or Muslim free zone Hasnath would have been almost certainly convicted of a racially or religiously aggravated hate crime and jailed. Why the leniency? Why the double standards? It looks like judicial homophobia.”

Tatchell believes that the authorities dragged their feet in investigating the matter, deliberately ignoring the possibility that others, not apprehended, were behind Hasnath’s campaign.

To be sure, this conviction raises issues of freedom of speech. Still, if hate-crimes legislation exists, as it does in Britain, it needs to be enforced with an even hand.

This is not happening in the United Kingdom. As Tatchell further notes, “[t]his is what happened to members of OutRage! [a gay-rights group] when six of us protested against 6,000 members the Islamist group, Hizb ut Tahrir, outside their mass rally at Wembley Arena in 1994.

“They called for the killing of gays, apostates, Jews and unchaste women. They were not arrested but we were. Our crime? Displaying placards that condemned Hizb ut Tahrir's incitement to murder. Although our placards did nothing more than factually expose the fundamentalist's violent homophobic agenda, it was deemed that they were distressing and offensive.” 

Regardless of one’s opinion of the law that was used in this case, one would expect that the liberal media would at least denounce this bigoted behavior on the part of an Islamic zealot. Yet few signs of this critique have appeared in the mainstream media in the British Isles, and (needless to say) none in the United States. To be sure, some in the GLBT community did take notice. However, this is contrary to their usual custom, when far worse outbreaks of homophobia in the same area of East London have stirred hardly a murmur of protest. Again, Tatchell: “I don't recall any campaigns by LGBT groups or anti-fascist organisations in response to the wave of horrific queer-bashing attacks in the East End. Surely this actual physical violence - which left at least one gay man permanently disabled - is much more deserving of protests than a few stickers? Where is the LGBT outcry over homophobic assaults?

“Nor can I remember any protests when the East London Mosque / London Muslim Centre hosted a series of virulently homophobic speakers, including Uthman Lateef and Abdul Karim Hattim. The latter gave lecturers in which he invited young Muslims to "Spot the Fag."

“The East London Mosque / London Muslim Centre helped create the atmosphere of hatred that has poisoned the minds of many Muslim youths, probably including Hasnath  who worshipped there. They have never apologised for hosting homophobic hate preachers and have never given any assurances that they will not host them again in the future. Apart from OutRage!, no LGBT groups have publicly demanded that they do so. Why the silence from LGBT organisations that are supposedly dedicated to fighting homophobia?

“Equally, there were no protests when Abdul Muhid openly incited the murder of gay people in East London and when the Crown Prosecution Service refused to bring him to trial. In my opinion, encouraging murder is many times more serious and dangerous than calling for a Gay Free Zone. Again, no protests by LGBT groups.”

Tatchell rightly pinpoints why this is so. “Many LGBT campaigners are now terrified of . . . false, malicious allegations of racism or Islamophobia. To avoid such smears, they shy away from robust responses to homophobia when it comes from religious and racial minorities. This inaction is de facto collusion with homophobia.”

Well said.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Carl Gustav Jung

The Swiss psychologist and thinker Carl Gustav Jung died fifty years ago at the age of 85. A few years before he died, when I was in college, I acquired a paperback collection of some of Jung's essays. I read them because I was then much preoccupied with the problem of creativity. The only thing I remember from this perusal is the banal observation (since abundantly proved experientially) that we have different goals in the second half of our life than the ones that guided us in the first half.

In those days Jung was at the height of his fame. The Bollingen Foundation was issuing a sumptuous 21-volume set of English translations of his writings. Many artists and writers acknowledged his influence, and some found Jungian therapy helpful.

In his early years, before his association with Sigmund Freud, Jung did some important work in academic psychology. He posited a series of personality types, coining the term introvert for an individual who needs quality time on his/her own, and extrovert (although Jung spelled it "extravert") for the person who never feels better than when in a crowd. Later personality tests, such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, draw on these distinctions.

Gradually, though, Jung seemed to drift off into mysticism, finally falling off the deep end, as one can see from the recently published facsimile of the Red Book, a personal illuminated manuscript that he created to exorcise (or perhaps reify) his demons. The facsimile is beautifully produced, and should be acquired as a kind of splendid artifact.

Jung's followers hold that his central contribution lies in his detection of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. There are five main archetypes: the Self, the Shadow, the Animus, the Anima, and the Persona. These primary archetypes have innumerable avatars, including the Great Mother, the Wise Old Man, the Trickster, the Apollo, and so forth. As far as I can tell, no one has ever devised tests that might demonstrate the objective existence of these purported psychic elementals.

Jung's ideas about alchemy are fanciful, to say the least. In some ways he seemed to be a late product of the speculative side of German romanticism.

During World War I, however, Jung made an important discovery when he noted the similarity of certain diagrammatic drawings made by his mental patients to the South Asian mandalas of Buddhism. Since the patients could have no knowledge of these artifacts, the similarity seems to attest something fundamental about the human mind. Ever since learning of this parallel, I have been fascinated with "mind maps."

UPDATE (July 4). In a six-part series appearing in the British paper The Guardian, Mark Vernon offers a sympathetic view of what Jung accomplished, and what it may mean for today. Here are some excerpts on the archetypes:

"The theory of archetypes is controversial, and Jung did not help himself in this respect. For one thing, he is not very consistent in his definition of archetypes – though he can perhaps be forgiven as he explicitly called himself a "borrower" of models and insights from other fields of knowledge, in his attempts to grapple with his own. Archetypes have also variously been accused of being Lamarckian and superfluous, on the grounds that cultural transmission provides an adequate explanation for the phenomena that Jung would put down to psychic universals.

"That said, striking parallels to archetypes have emerged across a number of fields since Jung's own formulation. Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote of "unconscious infrastructures" that shape common customs and institutions. Noam Chomsky calls the basic forms of language "deep structures". Sociobiology has the notion of "epigenetic rules", laws of behaviour that have evolved over time.

"In fact, the possibility that Jungian archetypes might be commensurate with biology was implied by EO Wilson [the Harvard sociobiologist] in his book Consilience. He raised the possibility that science might make them "more concrete and verifiable". Following Wilson's lead, the psychiatrist Anthony Stevens sees archetypes at work in ethology, the study of animal behaviour in natural habitats. Animals have sets of stock behaviours, ethologists note, apparently activated by environmental stimuli. That activation is dependent upon what are known as "innate releasing mechanisms". The fungus cultivated by the leafcutter ant ensures the ant only collects the kind of leaf that the fungus requires. The emerald head of the mallard drake causes the mallard duck to become amorous. Other characteristics from maternal bonding to male rivalry might be called archetypal too.

"What interested Jung was not just the mechanisms involved but the experience these creatures have when behaving in such ways. Of the yucca moth, he speculates: "If we could look into the psyche of the yucca moth, for instance, we would find in it a pattern of ideas, of a numinous or fascinating character, which … compels the moth to carry out its fertilising activity on the yucca plant." The thought reminds me of David Attenborough gazing at spiders, in his programme Life in the Underground, and wondering about their apparently varied characters.

"The idea is that the greater the complexity of the organism, the more intricate the archetypal behaviour and the richer the associated experience. When it comes to human beings, the archetypes are not only associated with patterns of behaviour, and powerful experiences of allure, but with meaning and significance too. Hence, human beings are subject to archetypes that Jung was to name the hero and the shadow, the animus and anima, alongside many others.

"How far you might want to follow Jung along this path is moot, as it is among contemporary Jungians too. The shadow is a useful concept to many, as that side of our character which is often buried and sometimes, suddenly emerges, in behaviour from road rage to crimes of passion. The notion of the animus and the anima, say, are more contested."


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The grotesque ideology of Whiteness Studies

An amusing fad is the popular site Stuff White People Like ( This notion embraces a wide variety of categories. Some are social activities, such going to farmer’s markets, recycling, Halloween, film festivals (especially those favoring “indie” items not likely to appear at the local multiplex), Facebook, and the TED Conference, There are favored TV shows, such as Conan O’Brien, Sarah Silverman, Arrested Development, Glee, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Mad Men. Other preferences are National Public Radio, The Onion, the Sunday New York Times, and David Sedaris.

Then there are products, such as scarves, sweaters, New Balance Shoes, Ray Ban Wayfarers, vintage clothing, bumper stickers, Moleskine Notebooks, Vespa scooters, and the Toyota Prius.

Musical tastes include pretending to like classical music and favoring black music that black people don’t listen to anymore (e.g. Bob Marley). People in this class are wont to try to learn a foreign language, but get testy when you try to speak it to them because they haven’t learned it very well.

And of course there are comestibles, such as hummus, sea salt, expensive sandwiches, Asian fusion food, sushi, wine, microbrewery beverages, vegan and vegetarian eating, and things bought at Whole Foods.

And one mustn’t forget support for the ideological principles that are deemed to hold all this stuff together: diversity, “awareness,” hating corporations, threatening to move to Canada, having gay friends, and knowing what is best for poor people.

Of course I share some of these tastes too. However, the main point is that those who rally to these enthusiasms are not the broad category of white people as such. Instead, they make up a subset of individuals who are generally well-educated, fairly well off, and as a rule inclined to adopt politically correct views. Archie Bunker types would definitely not go for much of this stuff.

Not covered, at least so far, at the site is one interesting characteristic: these folks commonly express white guilt. The advantage of this tactic is that it permits one to be thought of as self-critical, without requiring any real action in order to improve the status of minorities. Indeed, it is usually unnecessary to go to the trouble of having any close friends of another race.

Recently a discipline or pseudodiscipline has arisen in academia called “whiteness studies.” Emerging in the early 1990s, this tendency purports to study the cultural, historical, and sociological aspects of people identified as white, and the "social construction" of whiteness as an ideology tied to social status. As usually practiced, though, it differs fundamentally from other examinations of ethnicity. Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Latino culture, women's studies celebrates women, but whiteness studies decries white people as selfish oppressors whose chief aim is the perpetuation of their own privileges and sense of superiority. Even the slightest hint of “white pride” is anathema to the adepts of this trend.

Pioneers in the field include Ruth Frankenberg (White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, 1993), author and literary critic Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 1992), historian David Roediger (The Wages of Whiteness, 1991), and, most recently, the Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter (The History of White People, 2010).

As of 2004, according to The Washington Post, at least 30 institutions in the United States including Princeton University, UCLA, the University of New Mexico and University of Massachusetts Amherst offer, or have offered, courses in whiteness studies. This number has grown since that time. Teaching and research around whiteness often overlap with post-colonial theory and orientalism. One source for the trend has been the questioning of the “canon” in literature departments, critiquing the fact that most authors traditionally studied were the dreaded DWEMS (dead white European males). Typical sites are departments of sociology, literature, communications, and cultural and media studies. In addition, the preoccupation has come to infest the fields of music history, art history, dance history, humor studies, philosophy, linguistics, and folklore.

Inspired by postmodernism and historicism, whiteness studies foregrounds the origins of the concept of racial superiority, which is said to have been concocted in order to justify colonialism, imperialism, and discrimination against non-whites. Yet herein lies a paradox, because for a long time now, “enlightened” opinion has insisted that race is a phantom consisting of a series of pseudo-categories. Yet if race doesn’t exist, how can whiteness, that horrible thing, exist? Logically one might assume that those who cherish their whiteness are delusional. Yet the theoreticians of whiteness know that in most cases this is not so.

Academics engaged in the critique of whiteness address such issues as the nature of white identity and of white privilege, the historical process by which a white racial identity was created, the relation of culture to white identity, and possible processes of social change as they affect white identity.

A particular low point in this realm is found among those who openly proclaim race treason. As a vehicle for their views, they have founded a periodical named Race Traitor. Proponents hold that as a marker of a social status within the United States whiteness is conferred upon people in exchange for an expectation of loyalty to what is considered an oppressive social order. Ostensibly, this loyalty has taken a variety of forms over time: suppression of slave rebellions, participation in patrols for runaways, maintenance of race exclusionary unions, participation in riots, support for racist violence, and participation in acts of violence during the settling of western North America. Like currency, the value of this privilege (for the powerful) depends on the reliability of "white skin" as a marker for social consent. With a sufficient phalanx of "counterfeit whites" resisting racism and capitalism, the writers in this vein argue, the privilege will be withdrawn or will splinter, prompting an era of conflict and social redefinition. This vision recalls the “helter-skelter” preached by the serial killer Charles Manson. Without such a convulsive period, these race-treason folks argue, progress towards social justice will be impossible. This must not happen; one must adhere firmly to the conviction that "treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity."

Once upon a time, Susan Sontag put the view very concisely: "White people are the cancer of the human race." Later she retracted this generalization, but others seem to agree with it.

As the basis for their proposed actions, the Race Traitor folk cite a call by African American writers and activists—notably W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin--for enlightened whites to break solidarity with American racism. Since that racism involves the awarding of various forms of white privilege, some have identified a principle of universal contamination. Every white identity is drawn into the prevailing system of privilege, and is necessarily complicit with it. Only identities which seek to transcend or defy that privilege, they argue, are effectively anti-racist. This argument echoes Baldwin's declaration that, "As long as you think you are white, there's no hope for you.”

Race Traitor advocates have sought to identify role models of race treason by whites in American history. One hero consistently claimed is John Brown, a Northern abolitionist of European descent who used violence to battle slavery in western territories of the United States, ultimately leading a failed but dramatic raid to free slaves and create an armed anti-slavery force at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

The looniness of these views is best explained by group psychology.

A classic account of the consequences of internalizing contempt for one’s own group was Theodor Lessing's 1930 book Der Jüdische Selbsthass ("Jewish Self-hatred"). In Central Europe, the origins of this concept have been traced to the mid-nineteenth century feuding between German Orthodox Jews of the Breslau seminary and Reform Jews. Each side charged the other with betraying Jewish identity, with the Orthodox Jews accusing the Reform Jews of identifying more closely with German Protestantism and German nationalism than with Judaism. There was also discord between German Jews and those residing in eastern Europe. For some German Jews, the Eastern European Jew was stigmatized as the "bad Jew." To some extent this conflict was transferred to the United States as established Jews of German origin became aware of cultural differences separating them from the new arrivals from eastern Europe. For some, Zionism, instilling a new sense of pride, was the answer to these problems of identity.

Today the epithet of “self-hating Jew” is sometimes applied to individuals deemed insufficiently supportive of the state of Israel. Those who are so stigmatized, such as supporters of the group known as J-Street, rebut this as a false charge; they are fully supportive of Israel, but believe that the policies currently being pursued under conservative governments there are actually undermining the long-term interests of the Jewish state.

Some Jewish individuals, or so it is said, prefer to date and marry non-Jewish people. Embarrassed by this proclivity, they may even to seek psychiatric counseling to address it. Perhaps they need not be so concerned. This preference can be explained by citing the anthropological evidence for exogamy--the fact that people in many cultures tend to marry into outgroups.

Kenneth Levin, a Harvard psychiatrist, ascribes Jewish self-hatred to two causes: the Stockholm Syndrome, where "population segments under chronic siege commonly embrace the indictments of their besiegers however bigoted and outrageous," as well as "the psychodynamics of abused children, who almost invariably blame themselves for their predicament, ascribe it to their being ‘bad,’ and nurture fantasies that by becoming ‘good’ they can mollify their abusers and end their torment." The first view seems plausible, the second less so.

At all events parallels have been found in other groups. Historically, black people have tended to decry the Uncle Tom type, an individual who sycophantically identifies with white people. Today some hold that a fear of “acting white” is hampering the educational efforts of young black students.

Members of other ethnic groups, such as Italian-Americans, Polish Americans, and French Canadians in the US, have sometimes changed their surnames in order to blend in more effectively.

For a long time, many gay activists would argue, gay and lesbian people have short-sightedly sought to “pass” by remaining in the closet. Whether through camouflage or conviction, some of these individuals have expressed dislike of “obvious” fags and lezzies who are letting the side down by their purportedly outrageous behavior. Each year in June, the discomfort of these individuals, those who are left, is rekindled by the exhibitionistic displays of a few participants in the Pride Parades.

These parallels notwithstanding, the element of internalized contempt found in some proponents of whiteness studies seems to go farther in embracing a belief in a kind of world-historical conspiracy of domination.

Perhaps this grotesque ideology is ebbing. I certainly hope so.


Weiner and company

The matter of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s naughty tweets is still developing. However, the cases of the love children of ex-Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger and ex-Senator John Edwards, together with the problems of Senator John Ensign of Nevada, who had an affair with the wife of an assistant, suggest a more general pattern.

Two of the above named individuals are Democrats and two are Republicans. So we can dismiss the special pleading of partisans of either group who try to portray the failings as the special province of their adversaries. In truth, everybody does it.

Once when I was being questioned at a voir dire in the Supreme Court of Manhattan about my qualifications as a juror, I was asked if I had any children. Since I was under oath, I responded, “Not to my knowledge.”

Why then are politicians under such special scrutiny? One answer is that they have such enormous power that they should expect that some renunciation be practiced on their part. Another point is that the rules have changed. Because of modern means of communication and surveillance, all sorts of things come to light that might not have before.

A curious cross-light on the problems of US politicians is cast by a case from Canada.

Svend Robinson (born 1952) is a former Canadian politician. A stalwart of the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), he served in the Canadian House of Commons from 1979 to 2004. He represented a district in British Columbia.

To his credit, Robinson was openly gay. However, many Canadians were turned off by his rude and self-righteous interventions from far-left positions in Parliament and at public meetings. He made many enemies.

In the year 2004 temptation overcame him at an auction sale when he pocketed a $50,000 diamond ring that did not belong to him. The theft was recorded on a video camera, and the evidence was forwarded to the police. Once arraigned, Robinson plead guilty. In a familiar, meaningless assertion Robinson stated “I will not seek to in any way avoid full responsibility for my actions should charges be laid in these circumstances.” 

In circumstances that are not altogether clear, Robinson escaped prosecution. His attempt to resume a political career failed. Yet politicians tend to protect their own. Following his retirement from politics in 2004, Robinson was employed by the British Columbia Government and Service Employees Union as an advocate on behalf of public sector workers. He also served on the NDP's federal executive and as co-chair of the party's LGBT Committee. Robinson took a position in 2007 with the Public Services International based in Ferney-Voltaire, near Geneva in the French Alps, where he moved with his partner Max Riveron.

The lesson seems to be that if politicians wish to become involved in edgy issues, they must be squeaky clean in their personal lives. Some seem slow to learn this lesson.


Sunday, June 05, 2011

AIDS thirty years on

Today, June 5, 2011 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the date when the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of AIDS. Of course it was not called that then, and very little was known about the condition, except that gay men were disproportionately affected.

As I sensed the approach of this anniversary (I knew in a general way that the reports had surfaced in 1981), I decided to attend the Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's eviscerating play The Normal Heart. I had been putting this visit off for a reason that will shortly become clear. Featuring Joe Mantello in the title role, the revival is superb. I cried.

Thirty years ago I was something of a gay activist. I ran the New York City chapter of the Gay Academic Union (GAU), a once-vibrant organization that has been defunct for some years now. Yet for some of us GAU provided the graduate education in gay studies that one could not get in universities in those days. Nor even now, I fear, can one learn the essentials in academia, as all sorts of faddish pseudo-disciplines have come to dominate the field. But there are plenty of good books available.

At all events as 1981 advanced, I became informed about the menace posed by the new disease--I regularly read some 20 gay newspapers from the US and abroad. From this perusal and conversations with my peers I realized that I needed fundamentally to change my behavior--apparently successfully, as I have been HIV negative ever since.

At the time, my associates and I debated whether we should follow the lead of the Gay Men's Health Crisis and commit ourselves completely to the issue. Most of us concluded that it would be better to keep on with what we were doing, as that was where our skills and training could be best applied. And so I did, resulting in my books Homosexuality: A Research Guide (1987) and the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (1990).

Yet I have sometimes wondered what would have happened had I thrown myself into the fray. That is why I approached the prospect of seeing the Kramer play with a certain dread--which turned out not to be warranted at all.

Well, that was the path not chosen, and in retrospect I think that I was right, for I might not have been able to make much of a contribution to AIDS education. Other people have. As it is, though, I am satisfied with what I have been able to accomplish in my own area, modest though the harvest may be.

Towards the end of the play, which is very much a' clef, Kramer tells of how he was driven out of his own organization, GMHC. One could say that in this tremendously powerful play Larry Kramer had the last laugh. Yet he would be the first to disagree, as he does in an open letter distributed to the Broadway audience as they leave the performance. He points out that in many parts of the world HIV/AIDS is still raging. This is truly scandalous.

I am told that Larry is putting the finishing touches on the shortened version of his enormous manuscript on the history of the USA from a gay standpoint. I can foresee that academic scolds like me will find much to criticize when the book is published.

Absit! Nothing doing, as the Apostle would put it. For I trust that I will be able to refrain: Larry Kramer is a truly heroic figure.


Friday, June 03, 2011

A motley crew

REVIEW: Michael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States (Beacon Press).

The Salon des Refusés--or “exhibition of rejects”--was a phase of the Parisian art world that began with the first such event in 1863. In that year artists took direct action to counter the rejection by the official Salon’s jury of more than 3,000 works. This provocative assemblage included such now-famous paintings as Édouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) and James McNeill Whistler's Girl in White. Subsequent Salons des Refusés were mounted in Paris in 1874, 1875, and 1886. In due course the rejects (that is, the progressive artists) became the mainstream, while their academic counterparts, previously dominant, gradually lapsed into obscurity.

This Umwertung der Werte--or inversion of values--to use Friedrich Nietzsche’s phrase, was confined to the realm of aesthetics. Could there not be, though, a more general reappraisal in which the outcasts of an entire society come to be perceived not as marginal, but as actually c e n t r a l to that society? This conceptual shift is what the Boston-based writer Michael Bronski has boldly attempted to accomplish.

Bronski’s endeavor is not entirely new. He owes a large debt to the late Howard Zinn (1922-2010), the left-leaning author of the problematic A People’s History of the United States (1980). In fact, Bronski’s is scarcely the first such Zinnian offshoot. Among his predecessors in this realm are A People's History of Australia from 1788 to the Present, edited by Verity Burgmann; and A People’s History of the World, by Chris Harman--both of general import. Then there are volumes addressing more specific groups, such as A People's History of Sports in the United States, by Dave Zirin; A People's History of the Supreme Court, by Peter Irons; and A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks, by Clifford D. Connor.

Bronski’s undertaking seems to fall between the two Zinnian stools. Like the last three volumes, it foregrounds a specific group, or rather a cluster of groups. At the same time, though, through the device of “queering,” a kind of free-floating signifier, it aspires to universality. The latter aim is, in my view, unsuccessful. What remains is, to put it bluntly, a collection of fruits, nuts, and sluts.

Even in its specific focus on LGBTQ people Bronski does not break fresh ground, for he has purloined many of his examples from Jonathan Ned Katz’s fundamental collections, Gay American History of 1976, and Gay/Lesbian Almanac of 1983.

Put briefly, Bronski’s ambition is to elevate the XYZ roster of conventional American history--comprising a motley crew of cross-dressers, assertive women, gay-male littérateurs, entertainers, sex workers, political activists, advocates for people of color, anarchists, and other outsiders--to the high rank of the ABC. The last, it seems, shall be first. But if the formerly abnormal types become the new normals, what is to happen to the certified members of the establishment’s A-List? Perhaps this reversal means that such hateful creatures as the president of the Stock Exchange, economist Larry Summers, Phyllis Schlafly, and the late Reverend Falwell--duly relegated to the lower depths--must take their place as the new queers. This is an interesting paradox.

The names of many Americans, some familiar, others less so, pass in review through Bronski’s pages. To qualify for inclusion it helps if the figure happens to be a woman or a person of color; white males are less welcome. Some folk are scarcely heroic: “San Francisco’s Jeanne Bonnet was repeatedly arrested for cross-dressing and petty theft; at the end of her short life she organized prostitutes to leave their work and make a living [sic] shoplifting.” (p. 42).

Photographs of five heroes adorn the book’s dust jacket: four are women, one is a person of color (Bayard Rustin). This selection is affirmative action, but is it history?

At the heart of the book stands Chapter Five (“A Dangerous Purity”). The account begins with a succinct but apt characterization of the 19th-century Purity movements, which ascribed various social ills to the unbridled exercise of male lust. Sodomy--male homosexuality--was of course one egregious outcropping of this lust; as such, it had to be firmly suppressed. Yet Bronski fails to note how the malaise of the Purity quest resurfaced in the latter decades of the 20th century in the antipornography invectives of such feminist scolds as Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller. Pornography thus ranks as a wedge issue that divides one set of Bronski’s favorites--gay men and men of color; that is, people who consume porn--from another privileged set, comprising many women and a few censorious men who are porn haters. This is but one of several divisions that prevent his motley crew from coalescing into a cohesive social and political force.

At all events, however, Bronski is probably correct in regarding the Purity trend as a major precursor of one branch of today’s same-sex marriage movement--the branch that views the change as a cudgel to be wielded against the supposed horror of promiscuity among gay men. Again, though, gay marriage (which our author seems to disdain) is a wedge issue.

At the forefront of Bronski’s miscellaneous army are the trans people, now honored for their seeming defiance of constricting gender binaries. It was not always so. Dating from thirty years ago was the fierce attack feminist Janice Raymond mounted on the “constructed female.” For their part, drag queens were assailed for their supposed mockery of women; I well remember how in the seventies we activists were all instructed that we must toe the line on this issue--or else. By contrast, the boy-love championed by NAMBLA--if not fully accepted (and I have always harbored reservations about it)--was nonetheless understood to rank as an aspect of the sexual revolution that needed to be acknowledged. Yet NAMBLA does not rate a mention in Bronski’s book: some people are apparently just “too queer” for inclusion.

Basically, Bronski’s narrative stops in 1990, but he offers a few comments on later trends in the “Epilogue.” He seems uncomfortable with the assimilationist strategy that has been dominant for the last twenty years, centering on the quest for an end to DADT (discrimination against gays in the military) and recognition of gay marriage. In one muddled passage he seems to suggest that the ideal of equality itself may be suspect, apparently because it serves to advance such reformist causes as those mentioned--instead of the revolution which, it seems, he still privately cherishes as his goal.

So what does it all amount to? The currently popular acronym LGBTQ seeks to weld together several disparate groups in a process that has been called “making up people.” Instead of unifying the disparate components, Bronski (doubtless contrary to his intention) has given us new grounds for questioning the coherence of the construct.

In my lifetime, “homosexual” has yielded to “gay,” gay in turn to “LGBTQ”--and in some quarters to “queer.” Doubtless in due course the latter two monikers will also pass away.


Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Did the New Testament rip off Buddhism?

At my allied site, I expressed the wish (perhaps never to be realized) that I might one day extend my survey beyond the Abrahamic triad, so as to deal with Buddhism, Daoism, Shinto--and perhaps even animism.

There has long been a vein of speculation that seeks to discover connections between Buddhism and Christianity. In 1906 Albert Joseph Edmunds argued that the Gospel of John contained Buddhist morifs. Others have compared the infancy account of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke to that of the Buddha in the later Lalitavistara Sutra (a Mahāyāna/Sarvāstivāda biography stemming from the 3rd century CE). Note the problem of dating: by definition a later work cannot be the source of an earlier one, though some have sought to get around the problem by asserting that the later texts rely on earlier oral tradition. ("Isn't that convenient!" as the Church Lady would say.) Similarities have been noted between Christian monasticism and that of Buddhism, though again the chronologies are hard to establish--and there is always the possibility that the two sets of religious institutions developed independently.

In 1918, in his popular "History of Religions," Professor E. Washburn Hopkins of Yale went so far as to say, "Finally, the life, temptation, miracles, parables, and even the disciples of Jesus have been derived directly from Buddhism." This sweeping--and unprovable--claim concluded a period of four decades in which speculation about the connection was intense. After lying fallow for some time, in recent years the discussion has revived. Why has this renewal happened?

Philip Jenkins has noted that, since the mid-19th century, new and fringe religious movements have been tempted to create innovative images of Jesus, presenting him as a sage, philosopher, and occult teacher, whose teachings resemble those of the adepts of Asian religions. He asserts that the concepts generated by these religious movements share much in common with the images that have been proliferating in the mainstream critical scholarship of the New Testament, especially following in the wake of the rediscovery of the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. He alleges that,in some modern interpretations, Jesus has become a gnostic, cynic or even a crypto-Buddhist, supplanting the traditional concept of the reformist Jewish rabbi.

One tradition claims that the founder of Christianity traveled to India and Tibet during the "lost years of Jesus," before the beginning of his public ministry. In 1887 a Russian war correspondent, Nicolas Notovitch, visited India and Tibet. He claimed that, at the lamasery of Hemis in Ladakh, he learned of the "Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men." His story, with a translated text of the "Life of Saint Issa," was published in French in 1894 as "La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ." Creating a minor sensation, it was subsequently translated into English, German, Spanish, and Italian.

The "Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men" purportedly recounts the travels of one known in the East as Saint Issa, whom Notovitch identified as Jesus. (Issa is the Muslim name for Jesus.) After initially doubting Notovitch, an Indian disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Abhedananda, journeyed to Tibet, investigated his claim, helped translate part of the document, and later championed his views.

Notovitch's assertions proved fascinating. The leading orientalist Max Müller corresponded with the Hemis monastery that Notovitch claimed to have visited; then Archibald Douglas visited the site. Neither found any evidence that Notovitch (much less Jesus) had even been there himself, so they rejected his claims. The head of the Hemis community signed a document denouncing Notovitch as a liar.

Despite the flimsy evidence, a number of New Age and spiritualist authors have glommed onto this data, incorporating it into their own works. For example, in her book "The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus' 17-Year Journey to the East," Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939-2009) still claims that Buddhist manuscripts exist showing that Jesus traveled to India, Nepal, Ladakh, and Tibet.

This is an amusing tale, but we must not trivialize the question: did Buddhism play a major role in inspiring Christianity? After all, Buddhism originated 500 years earlier.

I have just learned about an intriguing, though I fear mistaken new proposal regarding the seeming Buddhist origin of the Christian Gospels. This theory was advanced some years ago by a controversial Danish scholar, Dr. Christian Lindtner [apparently his arguments are only available in full in a Swedish-language book]. Put simply, this theory proposes that to all intents and purposes the Gospels are translations, though with many interpolations and complications, of two key Buddhist texts, the Saddharmapundarika-Sutra [sometimes known as the “Lotus Sutra”] and the Mulasarvastivadin-Vinaya, especially its last section, the Sanghabhedavastu. Lindtner holds that the New Testament reflects Buddhist missionary activity. However, the texts he cites do not seem to belong to the mainstream of Buddhist teaching two thousand years ago, but to certain marginal (though authentic) tendencies. While these doctrines existed in the Buddhist homeland of South Asia, they are unlikely to have been projected westwards.

Lindtner’s ideas have been critically examined by Dr. Burkhard Scherer, a leading scholar of Buddhism. Scherer remarks: “Let me just go into one detail: the resemblance of Romans 3 (the lie of the man enhances the truth of God) and the upaya-kaushalya concept in the Lotussutra, which Christian Lindtner uses as [an] argument for a direct textual relationship, is totally unconvincing, since in Romans 3 Paul engages in a (pre-?)Rabbinic exegesis of a Psalm verse; there is nothing Buddhist about it.”

Scherer continues in a more general vein: “Here we discover a main secret about Christian Lindtner: a deep unwillingness to ponder the Jewish (and Hellenistic) background of the Gospels. In order to avoid going the trodden path of Hebrew and Aramaic heritage, CL wanders on the devious route into Sanskrit. But for almost any textual (as opposed to narratorial) unit which CL quotes in the New Testament, we have to look to the Hebrew Bible or . . . the Septuagint and non-canonical early Jewish scriptures for interpretation. Only if we can’t find any Jewish or Hellenistic explanation for a passage are we justified [in looking] further.”

So Lindtner’a theory presents grave problems--problems that would seem to preclude its acceptance as such. Still, is there no Buddhist influence in the Gospels? In fact, for more than hundred years Buddhist influence in the Gospels has been known and acknowledged by scholars from both disciplines. Voicing agreement with Duncan McDerret, author of a somewhat obscure book “The Bible and the Buddhist,” Dr. Scherer holds that there actually are significant Buddhist narratives embedded in the Gospels.

He would differentiate between narratives (such as parables), motifs (e.g., Jesus walks on water), and some proper names and place names (such as Magad[h]a). These narratives and elements may have been transmitted orally by mercenary soldiers (especially Parthians) traveling along the trade routes, that is, the Sea Routes and the Silk Routes. Crucial is the fact that these tracer elements have a clear contextual or narratological function in the Buddhist sources. Yet they lack this function in the Gospels, where they stand out as alien intrusions. In this limited way, to be sure, their Buddhist origin seems patent. This point must be conceded, even without considering chronological evidence in favor of the priority of the Buddhist texts, or at least some of them. Scherer indicates that he gave some examples in his German-language book “Buddha” (Gütersloh, 2001), not seen by me. He concludes that there is “much Buddhist stuff going on in the Gospel.” But it is not the only source, in fact not even a main source for the New Testament.

This is where the matter seems to rest, at least for the present.