Sunday, September 30, 2012

I have never been an enthusiast for the work of the leftist historian Howard Zinn, though I grant that he has been influential.  In October the New Press will bring out a biography by a fellow leftist, Martin Duberman.  The Kirkus review is not kind:

A star-struck biography of the prominent historian and activist.

“Howard Zinn (1992–2010) is best known as the author of the controversial A People’s History of the United States (1979), written to counteract a perceived bias toward the wealthy and privileged in standard history textbooks by highlighting the contributions of those conventionally omitted. Though as unbalanced in one direction as Zinn felt the standard texts were in another, it has been widely influential in affecting the content of a whole generation of textbooks and course syllabi. Zinn presents a challenge for a biographer. During the 1960s, he worked courageously in the civil rights movement and against the Vietnam War; he was closely associated with such prominent figures as Stokely Carmichael, Tom Hayden and Daniel Ellsberg. His emotional life, however, is inaccessible; Zinn disliked discussing emotions and ruthlessly purged his archives of anything touching on feelings or relationships. Apart from an increasing attraction to anarchism, Zinn’s political philosophy never evolved much beyond the conventional socialism he adopted in adolescence. Nor did he move on from the issues of the ’60s to newer causes like women’s and gay rights or globalization. Throughout a long academic career, he confined himself to discussing racial and labor issues and opposing various American military interventions. Consequently, little remains to a biographer but a succession of demonstrations attended, books and articles written, and feuds with two college presidents. By way of context, prize-winning author Duberman (History Emeritus/CUNY Graduate School; A Saving Remnant: The Radical Lives of Barbara Deming and David McReynolds, 2011, etc.) includes summaries of contemporaneous American history presented from a tendentious leftist viewpoint. While Duberman may criticize some of Zinn’s writing as simplistic, one-sided or impractical, he clearly has no interest in challenging its fundamental political underpinnings.

“Recommended for readers already smitten with Zinn.”

Another historian, Michael Kazin, effectively assessed Zinn's failings in 2004:

Saturday, September 29, 2012

This weekend I have been attending the sessions of the New York Conference “Radically Gay: The Life and Visionary Legacy of Harry Hay.”  This year marks the centennial of the birth of Hay, who started the modern gay movement (now morphed into the LGBT movement) in Los Angeles during the years 1948-51. Since there are many panels that occur simultaneously, even an assiduous participant can only glean a partial concept of the totality of the proceedings.  That will change when the energetic videographer Tim McCarthy posts the videos.  More on this when they become available.

Harry Hay was not only an activist, he was a thinker.  Largely self-taught, he read widely and sought to perfect his ideas over the years.  In the view of many, Harry’s central insight is his contrast between two types of human relations: subject-object and subject-subject.  In Hay’s view many people (especially, he thought, heterosexuals) are limited because they regard their partners as simply things, made available for their gratification.  Gay people, he believed, were more likely to be characterized  by the subject-subject dynamic in which the partner is treated as having equal personhood.

This concept was examined in two important presentations on Friday afternoon at the panel “Interrogating the Ideas of Harry Hay.”  First, Jay Michaelson offered a comparison with Martin Buber’s influential concept of the I-Thou relation.  He was followed by Jesse Sanford, who has sought to practice Hay’s ideas in the context of a faery collective in San Francisco.  Yet the charismatic Sanford is no blind follower: he questioned the coherence of the subject-subject assertion.  Those who knew Harry, as I did, recognized that he had a strong authoritarian streak, and he not infrequently sought to belittle those with whom he disagreed, treating them as objects and not subjects.

The opening keynote presentation on Thursday night was by Will Roscoe of San Francisco, who knew Harry well and edited a collection of his writings.  Forcefully presented, his talk generated highly vocal enthusiasm.  Yet I couldn’t help but feel that had won the crowd over by rearranging certain facts about Hay.  He repeatedly referred to Hay’s community as “LGBT.”  While it is commonplace now, this expression goes counter to Hay’s thinking.  He always viewed gays as a unit, not as part of come congeries or constellation.  Moreover, Harry felt that we were truly a people, one with fundamental differences separating us from heterosexuals.  Today this view, integral to Hay’s thinking, is generally rejected as essentialist.  Will Roscoe simply danced around this issue.

At the closing keynote on Saturday afternoon John D’Emilio told a very different story.  In 1976, when he was still a graduate student, D’Emilio was privileged to have a nine-hour interview with Hay.  He was swept away.  More recently, after reading Stuart Timmons’ biography “The Trouble with Harry,” he changed his mind.  He viewed Hay as having retained a streak of arrogance from his privileged background.  Mincing no words, D’Emilio said that Harry was a bully who “spread dissension wherever he went.”  He faulted him for being a quitter.  After a crucial 1953 meeting went against him, Hay upped and retired to New Mexico for sixteen years.  D’Emilio contrasted his career with that of Bayard Rustin, who despite even more severe obstacles never gave up.

Still, when all is said and done, Harry Hay was a formidable figure.  I had occasion to talk with him several times in Los Angeles in the 1980s.  Once, when we were having a disagreement, he seized me in an iron grip by the shoulders--he was very strong.  Of course, he didn't harm me, and I like to think that he was conferring a blessing on me through a laying on of hands, as a legendary Indian seer had done with him.

Unlike Harry, I am not blessed with a spiritual dimension.  But perhaps there was one occult influence.  In Hollywood I went to the same elementary school. Cahuenga as Harry had been to twenty years before.  Perhaps his spirit lingered on the playground on in the classrooms, to invade my as yet unformed mind.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

I highly recommend a new film, Keep the Lights On, directed by Ira Sachs. It concerns a ten-year relationship between two men in Greenwich Village. Erik is a documentary film maker living precariously on money from his father. Yet through sheer perseverance he succeeds professionally. Paul has a good job with a publisher. Over time, Erik proves the stable one, because Paul is a crack addict who disappears for weeks at a time on drug binges. 
One marvels at Erik's saintly patience, yet in the end one has to wonder whether it isn't his possessiveness that keeps driving Paul away. In short, the film is about the strains that afflict almost any serious, long-term relationship nowadays. 
Unlike the general run of gay films, with their formulaic plots, Keep the Lights On seems like real life. However, a truism holds that art imitates art.  In this case the model seems to be that superb analysis of alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Coptic papyrus find, recently disclosed by Professor Karen L. King of Harvard (a recognized authority) and widely canvased on the Internet, says that Jesus was married. This idea is certainly not outlandish. 
In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Jeremiah is the only prominent figure to have been celibate. Jewish tradition strongly encouraged heterosexual marriage, and admonitions in this regard seem to have been widely, if not universally adhered to. In Jesus' time the only significant exception was a subgroup of the Essenes. Despite some claims to the contrary, Jesus was not an Essene, though John the Baptist may have been. 
Some say that if Jesus was married, why isn't his wife mentioned in the New Testament?  This is an argument from silence, and as such not particularly conclusive.  In all likelihood, all or most of the apostles were married, but in only two or three cases is the fact even mentioned.  The names of the wives do not appear.  
As I say, this omission is not probative.  If, however, we extend our purview to the twenty-five or so noncanonical gospels that have come down to us, it is curious that this would be the only one to mention this marital link. Of course, new discoveries are appearing all the time, and it may be that the mention will be duplicated in one of more other members of this category of documents.
 The significance of the new find, which dates from the fourth century, is not that it definitively shows that Jesus was married, but that it allows us to trace the meme that he was much further back than had been previously thought. Up to now the earliest attestation was an ascription to the Cathars in the thirteenth century.
The idea that holiness requires celibacy is an early Christian doctrine that developed as part of the encratite tradition in the fourth century.  Thus it appears that we have two lines of development starting from this period: one emphasizing Jesus' celibacy, the other suggesting that he was married.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mental health break.

John Peale Bishop (1892-1944) was a respected American poet and official, of impeccable reputation.  I don't know what prompted him to perpetrate the acrostic found below.  The poem is lovely--but not if one reads only the first letters of each line.

Famously she descended, her red hair
Unbound and bronzed by sea-reflections, caught
Crinkled with sea-pearls. The fine slender taut
Knees that let down her feet upon the air,
Young breasts, slim flanks and golden quarries were
Odder than when the young distraught
Unknown Venetian, painting her portrait, thought
He'd not imagined what he painted there.

And I too commerced with that golden cloud:
Lipped her delicious hands and had my ease
Faring fantastically, perversely proud.

All loveliness demands our courtesies.
Since she was dead I praised her as I could
Silently, among the Barberini bees.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Elsewhere, I have noted the gradual seismic shift away from the “conventional wisdom” of the official account of the origins of Islam and the Qur’an.  Resistance persists. The response to the findings of the historical-critical school on the part of the traditionalists adheres to the pattern noted long ago by a German scholar: 1) That can’t possibly be so; 2) it is so, but it is not important: 3) we’ve known about that for a long time.  Much of mainstream scholarship is seeking to make the transition from 1) to 2). 

Understanding the shift is complicated by the presence of two contrasting extremes: 1) the gullible popularizations of Karen Armstrong and John Esposito and their ilk who, if they are aware of the new scholarship, prefer to speak of it as little as possible; and 2) at the opposite pole, the inflammatory comments of such anti-jihadists as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, who seek to highlight any defects that may be found in Islam.

At the risk of boring everyone to extinction, I append a very short bibliography of the new scholarship, scholarship that is gradually upending the “just-so” stories of the traditional account.  One need scarcely add that this scholarship is proceeding only in the West, with some authors judging it best to use pseudonyms.  Even to mention such views in Muslim-majority countries is, to say the least, dangerous to one’s health.  All the same, the truth will out.

Crone, Patricia, and Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Hoyland, Robert G. Seeing Islam as Others Saw It.  Princeton: Darwin Press, 1997.

Ibn Warraq, ed. The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Jeffery, Arthur. The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur'an (Texts and Studies on the Quran). New ed. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Lüling, Günter A Challenge to Islam for Reformation.  Delhi: Motilal, 2003.

Luxenberg, Christoph. The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran. Berlin: Verlag Hans Schiler, 2007. (use with caution).

Ohlig, Karl-Heinz, and Gerd R.-Puin, eds. The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research Into Its Early History. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2010.

Reynolds, Gabriel Said, ed. The Qur’an in Its Historical Context. London: Routledge, 2007.
---. The Qur’an and Its Biblical Subtext. London: Routledge, 2010.

Wansborough, John.  The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History.  New ed., Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

With the presidential election almost upon us, I offer the following reflection.

Growing up in California in the 1940s I picked up my parents' fascination with politics.  Fortunately it did not last, or I would have become, horresco referens, a political junkie, obsessed with polls and numbers determining who gets in and who gets out in our dysfunctional Tweedledee-Tweedledum political system.  Back in those days, though, I accepted the truism that people voted according to their economic interest. Working people, especially those who belonged to unions, naturally voted Democrat. Those involved in business, at whatever level, would vote Republican.  We can call this the vulgar-Marxist notion of elections.

A little reflection should have taught me that this generalization was not universally true.  In those days, white people in the South overwhelmingly voted Democratic--even, especially, people of means.

After so many years have passed, though, many keep to the simplistic notion that economic interest is, or should be, the sole determinant of voting in our elections.  That this is not always so perplexed Thomas Frank, author of the widely read book What’s the Matter with Kansas.

In a number of contributions Jonathan Haidt has refuted this long-held assumption.  People vote for a number of reasons, many of them centering on values, which may be ethical, religious, or personal. Some people vote as they do because that is what their family has always done.