Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Great Divide

As yet not far advanced into the 21st century, we in the US have experienced momentous changes in the quest for sexual equality. The sodomy laws, DADT, and DOMA are gone. For all time, we trust, a stake has been driven through their hearts. 

To be sure, there is more to be accomplished by way of extending same-sex marriage throughout all the 50 states and establishing trans rights, but we can look back on this brief slice of time in the 2000s with some satisfaction. And there is more, for our gaze must not be restricted to our own nation. We are joining a vast swathe of countries--comprising Western Europe, Canada, Latin America, Australasia, and Japan--where sexual enlightenment has come to prevail. To their credit, the great nations of India and China seem to be joining the ranks of this great comity.

Over against this fortunate array, however, stands the rejectionist bloc, comprising the Muslim-majority states, much of sub-Saharan Africa, and some Caribbean nations. In all these lands, same-sex behavior is severely sanctioned, sometimes with the death penalty. In some countries efforts are underway to increase the penalties.

In this way, there has arisen a Great Divide, two diametrically opposed ways of understanding same-sex love, which perforce must characterize our understanding of world culture. It is in this perspective, I believe, that the current Russian efforts to curb “homosexual propaganda” must be understood. Uncomfortably, even freakishly, Russia seeks to straddle the boundary between the two camps. It is uncertain how long this mugwump stance can be sustained.

There are four significant causal factors in this rejectionism: 1) Islam and sharia law; 2) evangelical Christianity; 3) survivals of British sodomy laws in some Commonwealth and ex-Commowealth countries; 4) survivals of Marxist puritanism in ex-Communist states. Of these factors. Islam is the most obdurate.  While much of mainstream Christianity has "graduated" from its traditional homophobia, by and large Muslims have not. 

ADDENDUM.  A further question is this.  Why have the "original" British dominions--Canada, Australia, NZ, and South Africa--have been so successful in discarding the baneful English legacy of the sodomy laws, while more newly enfranchised Commonwealth states have not?  India is (recently) an honorable exception. I think that the answer lies in two factors: 1) the evangelical Christianity that thrives in the Caribbean and parts of Africa (sometimes allying with bigoted elements of Anglicanism and Catholicism); and 2) the false sense that same-sex behavior was not indigenous to Africa, but was imposed by imperialists as an act of humiliation. The campaign against homosexuality is thus seen, insidiously, as part of the decolonization effort.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looking back at my career realistically, I have to acknowledge that the major phase of my gay activism and scholarship lasted from about 1970 to 1990, when the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality appeared.  At the end of this period the ground began to shift, first with the rise of Queer Theory and the LGBT complex, and now with other factors.  The following piece represents a preliminary effort to grapple with this latest set of changes.

It pains me to say this, but I fear that we are all living in the past with regard to sexual diversity as it has come to be refracted in the early 21st century.  The general understanding of these matters is being fundamentally transformed by two factors: intersectionality and the trans perspective.

A)  Intersectionality emphasizes the overlapping, if you will, of minority statuses and experiences.  What does it mean, for example, to be both lesbian and black?  To be undocumented and a drag person?  In this view, racism, heterosexism, nativism and so forth do not operate independently but overlap and combine.  This is a multiculturalist approach. 

Some discussions of intersectionality are quite technical, and I do not pretend to understand them very well myself.  Yet three aspects seem to be salient. 

1.    Anticategorical complexity.  This approach assumes the deconstruction of categorical divisions. It argues that social categories are an arbitrary construction of history and language and that as such they contribute little to understanding the ways in which people experience society. Furthermore the anticategorical approach postulates that, "inequalities are rooted in relationships that are defined by race, class, sexuality, and gender." It follows that the only way to eliminate oppression in society is to eliminate the categories used to section people into differing groups. This analysis claims that society is too complex to be reduced to a set finite categories.  Instead, a holistic approach is needed.

2.    Intercategorical complexity. This approach to intersectionality begins by addressing the fact that inequality exists within society, using this recognition as the basis of its analysis of intersectionality. According to intercategorical complexity, "the concern is with the nature of the relationships among social groups and, importantly, how they are changing." Proponents of this methodology use existing categorical distinctions to document inequality across multiple dimensions and measure its change over time.

3.    Intracategorical complexity.   The intracategorical approach stands at the midpoint between the anticategorical and intercategorical approaches. It recognizes the shortcomings of existing social categories, questioning the way in which they draw boundaries of distinction. Yet, this approach does not completely deny the role of categories as with the anticategorical approach; rather the intracategorical approach recognizes the relevance of social categories to the understanding of the modern social experience. Moreover, it attempts to reconcile these contrasting views by focusing on people who cross the boundaries of constructed categories, in an effort to understand the ways in which the complexity and intersectionality of the human experience unfold.

B) Issues pertaining to trans people are increasingly central.  This concern reflects a sense that identity (to the extent that there is a such a thing) is fluid and changing.  Instead of trying to put people in boxes, we should welcome their efforts to understand themselves in new, complex ways.  This emphasis on fluidity has been expounded by such theorists as Judith Butler and Jasbir Puar.  At  the same time there is a new stress on the need to secure the legal rights of trans people.  Now that
the sodomy laws and DADT are gone, and gay marriage is on the way to full realization, the trans issues loom as the most important ones we face.

 As a gay white man, with a sensibility honed by the gay-liberation struggle of the 1970s, I am not altogether comfortable with these new emphases.  To be frank, some aspects of them seem scary.  But who can deny that the times are a-changin?

The bumper-sticker version of my remarks is this.  In advanced industrial societies, which are also to a significant extent multicultural societies, the idea of homosexuality is obsolete.  We have moved on--at least many find that we have moved on--to a more complex understanding of the issues, one that recognizes the salience of intersectionality and fluidity of sexual orientation.

Ironically, however, there are several large blocs of nations where this not true--where the idea of homosexuality still prevails, though in a negative sense.  I refer to most of the nations in Africa, the Islamic world, and parts of the Caribbean.  Not only do sodomy laws persist in these countries, but homophobia is virulent and increasing.

There is thus a global fault line that separates the seemingly post-homosexual group of advanced industrial societies and others of Western heritage, on the one hand, from the anti-homosexual bloc, on the other.  In this situation are we not obligated to help our brothers and sisters in the rejectionist nations?  Whatever we may now think about these matters, those courageous people still wish to live fulfilling lives based on same-sex love.  And so they should.

PS  A friend remarks that the fault line occurs in the US as well, where same-sex marriage has yet to be secured in 37 states.  Homophobia is rampant, and not just in those "neanderthal" heartland.  Still, the sodomy laws, DADT, and DOMA are gone, so that even in the as-yet unenlightened states we are far from the sorry situation of Iran, or even Russia.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

As much as I could, I tried to ration my consumption of material on the Zimmerman trial.  Now I find myself incredulous about the supposedly momentous conclusions to be drawn about the case.  Soon the hype will die down and, for better or worse, things will pretty much return to what they had been before.  Here, though, is a piece that in my view offers a useful corrective:

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Justice for all (?)

"[I]n extending gay men and lesbians the rights and benefits it has reserved for its dominant culture, America would confirm its deeply held vision of itself as a morally progressing nation, a nation itself advancing and serving as a beacon for others--especially with regard to human rights. The words with which our national pledge ends--'with liberty and justice for all'--are not a description of the present, but a call for the future."

So writes the gay-rights theorist Richard D. Mohr, in his book The Long Arc of Justice.  The title, of course, reflects a metaphor advanced by Martin Luther King.  With reference to the civil-rights movement, King’s expectation seems to have been borne out, at least up to a point.  More broadly though, in the sequel some groups seem to have fared better than others.  The hope is an optimistic one, but is it likely to prove true across the board?

A more realistic view stems from the views of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) on crime and deviance.  Durkheim rejected the conventional wisdom on criminality, which views crimes as simply the ensemble of acts that are harmful to society. He pointed to the enormous variations among societies with regard to the classification of the acts, which cannot in consequence be simply taken as manifestations of some abstract, transcultural norm of social evil. The only feature applicable to crimes in general is that they are socially proscribed and punished.

“The only common characteristic of all crimes is that they consist... in acts universally disapproved of by members of each society... crime shocks sentiments, which, for a given social system, are found in all healthy consciences.”

The punishment of offenders serves to mark out the moral boundaries of a community, reinforcing attachment to it. Contrary to common belief, the function of punishment is not deterrence, rehabilitation, nor retribution. Punishment strengthens social solidarity by reaffirming moral commitment among the conforming population who witness with satisfaction the suffering of the offender.  In this way a fundamental contrast between the majority and the marginal element excluded from it is constantly maintained.

Durkeim challenged the conventional view that crime represents a social pathology that must be eradicated.  Instead it is a normal and inescapable phenomenon which can play a useful part in fostering social cohesion.

Yet the defining marginal groups need not be consistently the same over time.  What is important is the continuity of the function, not its specific content.  Society is flexible in this regard.

In modern industrial societies such as America these groups are constantly changing. A hundred years ago business leaders like Henry Ford were excoriated; then for a while in recent decades they were lionized. Now they are out again. Forty years ago cigarette smoking was de rigueur; now smokers are increasingly marginalized. Not so long ago same-sex marriage was considered an impossible dream; now it is mainstream. Yet "promiscuity" is out.

A particularly interesting shift is that concerning transpeople and boy lovers.  Thirty years ago it was established doctrine in the gay-lesbian movement that drag queens were abhorrent: they were mocking women.  Even more unpopular were transsexuals.  A friend who was a M2F transsexual sought at one time to play a role in the lesbian movement in the Bay Area.  After her history became known she was forced out.  By contrast advocates of intergenerational sex were more or less accepted in those days (sometimes with reservations to be sure). 

Now this contrast is reversed.  Trans people are increasingly lionized, while boy lovers are almost universally detested and shunned.

Perhaps the best metaphor for this pattern is one of those old-fashioned clocks with two little doors: as one figure emerges from the inside the other must retreat.  All this suggests that the “long arc of justice” is not likely to deliver for all groups at all times.  I take no joy in noting this conclusion, but it is difficult to avoid.

Monday, July 01, 2013

False Consciousness

When I was an undergraduate some fifty years ago, the field of sociology enjoyed great esteem, eliciting my curiosity.  Over the years, though, most of what I read in that line has faded from memory, reflecting my sense of the discipline's general decline.  "Thou shalt not commit a social science," W. H. Auden admonished sternly.  Well, maybe occasionally.

I still think highly of  Ideology and Utopia, a 1936 book by Karl Mannheim, a Hungarian thinker who settled in England.  In that work I learned of the concept of “false consciousness”  (p. 94 ff. of the paperback edition).  False consciousness is the tendency to assemble a series of beliefs that serve to mask reality from the gaze of those who entertain them. Mannheim traced the phenomenon to medieval theology.  Although coherent as a system, this theology in his view did not correspond to reality. 

In the 1920s the idea of false consciousness assumed a major role in the Marxist analysis of ideology.  Its pedigree in the thought of the founders Marx and Engels is skimpy.  Nonetheless, the idea served to explain why the proletariat in Western Europe had, by and large, failed to developed a revolutionary consciousness, a transformation that had been confidently expected prior to World War I.  The answer was that the workers were being manipulated by the capitalist-controlled media, which sought to divert the readers' attention away from the actual material and institutional processes that were holding them in bondage. Among other illusions, false consciousness encourages a belief in upward mobility, implying that with effort anyone can become well off.  Another distracting feature, still rampant today, was the endless flow of gossip about film stars and other celebrities, as well as blather about the royals in countries like the UK.

Following the Hegelian tradition, Karl Marx sometimes discussed the matter of consciousness (Bewusstsein).  He also denounced the malign influence of ideology.  However, he never seems to have used the expression “false consciousness.”  Yet in his 1893 “Letter to Mehring” Friedrich Engels wrote: “Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker. Consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.”  There follows a not very helpful discussion of Luther, Calvin, Hegel and others.

Today, few commentators speak explicitly of false consciousness.  However, the idea found a place in some feminist discussions of the 1970s. These writers excoriated the ideology of patriarchy, which had in effect colonized the minds of many women by inducing them adopt views and expectations contrary to their own interests.

The idea of false consciousness seems also to be present in some current left-wing analyses of the media. where increasing control by a few conglomerates is said to be excluding any alternative view.  Appearing from time to time, this preoccupation disregards the insurgent role of the social media, which in countries like Egypt and Turkey has fostered a series of counter-narratives that are hostile to the power structure.  We are seeing this resistance today in advanced Western nations, where the revelations about surveillance being spread by Assange, Greenwald and others have opened a window to the not-very pretty picture of what the authorities are doing.

Still, some people seem to be under the sway of false consciousness, or what appears to be such.  This is seen in their belief that “all is well,” and the government is just protecting us from terrorism.

PS. In the discussion section below I have made reference to the solution of the problem by Jonathan Haidt, which I find convincing.  Readers may find the following link helpful.

UPDATE (July 10, 2013).   Let me see if I can, on reflection, summarize my conclusions on this contentious issue.

The theory of false consciousness emerged among leftist intellectuals in Central Europe  in the 1920s.  Although an exiguous Engels paternity has been claimed, it was essentially a new invention designed to cope with two pressing issues that had emerged in post-WW I society: 1) the rise of the mass media, especially the tabloid press, appealing to the lowest common denominator in the popular mind; 2) the fact that at the beginning of the war the socialist leaders in the various countries had deserted their purported internationalist ideals and voted war credits, followed by the readiness of the masses to come forward as cannon fodder in the war.

Despite these time-bound origins, the theory proved hardy, thriving in some quarters of the left in America and Europe to this day.  In reality it is hard to demonstrate the actual mechanism whereby the masses are corrupted by being inoculated with views that are ostensibly contrary to their own interests.  One reason for this, of course, is that the media lords cannot be expected to be forthright about what they are doing.  It is unlikely that one will catch out Rupert Murdoch, say, in openly admitting that he is simply handing out pabulum to the yahoos who are too stupid to know any better.  It is also possible that the Murdochs and Roger Aileses have, in effect, hoodwinked themselves into believing their own propaganda.

Whatever the evidence for the assertions of false consciousness may be, it is clear that it serves as an exculpatory device for true believers on the left.  How is it, they must ask themselves, that socialism, clearly the best solution for society, has not succeeded?  The answer, they seem to believe, is that the failure stems from an insidious media conspiracy--a conspiracy once personified by William Randolph Hearst and the Mellon family, and now by the Koch Brothers and Fox News.  Absent these malign influences, virtue would clearly have triumphed by now.

That is pathetic.  It is simply a “just-so” story,

Lurking in the woodwork is the hubris of "progressive" intellectuals who say in effect: “We are the ones who know what the true interests of the common people are,  Those boobs are are just too dumb to understand how much they are deceived and kept down.”  As I pointed out, Jonathan Haidt has effectively challenged this top-down view, suggesting that the views of the "boobs" are in fact perfectly consonant with their interests as they understand them.