Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Americans (TV series)

Tuesday night I watched the last episode of what has been, arguably, the best show on US TV for some six years. It is ironically titled The Americans, about a gifted pair of Soviet spies In the Reagan era, who have cunningly assumed an almost impenetrable American identity and operate out of Washington, DC. 
At first it seemed that the couple was going to go back to the Soviet Union, because the stress was too great; then they seemed to decide to stay. 
This series resonated on a number of levels. First, there is the ever-fragile sense of identity. Are we who we appear to be? Can it be that we are actually imposters, uncertain of how long we can sustain the masquerade? 
Then there is the trip back to the Cold War era (the creators of the show have denied that it has anything to do with the current fuss over Russia). 
Finally, I related to the show, based on my personal experience. In the 1930s my stepfather had joined the Communist Party, converting my mother (and me for a time) to his beliefs, Working for the US government as he did, my stepfather judged it prudent to let his CPUSA membership lapse. But we kept the faith by carefully reading the party organ The Daily Peoples World, which was Stalinist through and through. 
As with Paige in the TV series, my parents instructed me to say nothing to my schoolmates about these beliefs - somewhat hard because my best friend was also a red-diaper baby. At length I emancipated myself from my parents' allegiance. 
In retrospect this was a useful lesson in skepticism regarding all such projects for social utopianism.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


My culture-vulture tendencies were already evident as a teenager, when I sought to supplement the somewhat meager offerings of my high school by reading the classics. Among the Greeks it was natural to start with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Then I progressed to Xenophon's Anabasis. 
Coming from a non-military family it did not mean much to me at the time. But recently I have been pondering this text again. In fact Xenophon created a whole new genre of literature' the soldier's tale . 
Although a general, Xenophon served in the front lines and had a comprehensive picture. Eventually this tradition bifurcated into two types. There were the accounts of generals, such as Grant, Sherman, and Eisenhower, who operated of necessity from the safe redoubts of their headquarters vs. the countless memoirs of common grunts, who reported from their front-line experience. The latter tradition achieved early classic status in Stendhal's deliberately confusing account of Waterloo.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Gender Conundrum

Here are some paragraphs of a text I am working on regarding gender theory. --- After I published The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality a quarter of a century ago, some of my colleagues began to speak of my commitment to gender studies. While I suspected that they were experiencing some discomfort at embracing the expression “gay studies,” I welcomed the implication that I was participating in a larger endeavor, one that included all orientations.
The World Health Organization states that "'[s]ex' refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women," and "'gender' refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”
Initially then, the distinction between sex and gender seemed useful. But gradually the term gender expanded so as to reduce biological sex to a subordinate - possibly unimportant - role. In this way the distinction between the two terms has become blurred.
In this usage the term gender is relatively new. It stems from realm of grammar. French and Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic, for example, have two genders, masculine and feminine, while German and Latin observe three, masculine, feminine, and neuter. (I note parenthetically that these two big language families, Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic, are the only linguistic stocks that recognize gender.) 
Unconsciously perhaps, the trichotomous model became dominant in the extended use of the term, as gender theorists tended to focus on intermediate states. There is also an old term “epicene,” referring to a noun or adjective that could function either as masculine or feminine. The epicene designation may rank as the first bridge from grammar to people, as an epicene man was one perceived as effeminate.
Central to the view of many theorists is the idea that gender is not so much assigned as achieved. This approach has been traced to Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that one is not born a woman, but becomes one - a principle that can be applied to all people.
This line of thinking extends to the idea that such specifications are constantly in flux, a postmodern idea. In its turn, this concept fuses with such current distinctions as that between cis and trans people - though it is not entirely clear whether those ensconced in the cis status can readily transition to the other.
At this point I should make it clear that I do not subscribe to this line of thinking, as I maintain that biological sex remains fundamental and cannot be erased by invoking currently fashionable theories. To be specific, I do not believe that, without surgery, a person with a penis can claim the status of a woman. Such individuals remain men.