Thursday, December 6, 2012

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Fairer Sex

(Fair warning:  it’s about to get personal.)

I had a somewhat superstitious driving instructor.  He was a smart guy, funny too, and a Navy veteran and amateur bow hunter.  But there was a peculiar policy at his driving school.  If during the course of a lesson we came across three car accidents, the class would be immediately cancelled and refunded.  “Just something in the air,” he said was reason enough to get off the road.
This stuck with me, probably because I once came within one accident of getting a free lesson.  At the very least my teacher was right that three data points are needed to indicate a trend.  So it's with that in mind I mention that I’ve seen three wrecks in the past few months and it is time to point out that there is something very nasty afoot.
Fender bender number one was a GOP pile-up.  Congressmen Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock and former Senator Rick Santorum made sure that I was going to be pissed off for the entirety of Decision 2012.  Mr. Santorum, the Oprah of not having sex ("You don’t get to have sex!  You don’t get to have sex! NOBODY gets to have sex!”), sees no difference between birth control and abortion.  Mr. Akin believes God intervenes on behalf of rape victims – but not until after conception.  Mr. Mourdock helped hash out that theological question, implying that God intends some pregnancies to result from rape.  It was shocking to hear these old tunes getting airtime again.
Then Fox News spun its tires until the wheels fell off.  An article on Foxnews.com published last week declared all of us combatants in the “war on men”.  Comedienne Alise Morales, a Twitter friend of a friend, said the article can “fill you with such feminist rage your vagina would close up.”  Most outrageous was that it was a woman who wrote the article.  What's the root cause of the war on men, according to Suzanne Venker?  “Women aren’t women anymore.”  I gaped at that sentence like it was an overturned tractor-trailer.
The third wreck happened in my own city.  Temple University’s John Corrigan wrote his jubilee advice column about his “PMSing” girlfriend and what a boner-kill menstruation is.
There’s something in the air.

My fascination with the “Men’s Rights” movement began only about a year ago when I wallowed on the Internet for too many late nights.  I found these people on Reddit, a website which bills itself as the “front page of the Internet” when it’s really a labyrinthine array of darkened alleys.  Follow one dingy backstreet and you’ll get to a subreddit filled with the most unabashed women bashing imaginable.

There are three types of poster from what I could tell.  There are the daddy-versus-mommy child custody battles, which are genuinely unfortunate.  There are endless complaints about girlfriends, which are tedious.  And there is an unbelievable level of sexual frustration, which inflates itself with some very ugly gender stereotypes.
Message boards can be a great community for people who need a kind word or who maybe genuinely need relationship and dating advice.  I wish those people would seek advice elsewhere.  Because while there aren’t any insidious plots unfolding on these web forums, there is a roiling, pressurized resentment against women visible on every page.  At the time of writing, the front page of r/mensrights a poster mocking anti-rape PSAs that says “Just because he has anerection doesn’t mean he wants to fuck.”  The most “upvoted” link is titled “Women are the victim, no matter who the victim is!”  And, incessantly, these guys refer to women as “females” as if they were observing them in a nature documentary.
It grosses me out, but I find it hard to get spooked by adolescent Internet communities.  That is, until I start hearing this stuff in daily conversation, in political advertisements, and on Temple University’s op-ed page.
John Corrigan did what none of these Reddit posters was capable of.  He wrote the Men’s Rights Manifesto.  And never before has it been so concisely written.  In fact, Mr. Corrigan is not a bad op-ed writer.  Having previously learned my lesson on Internet Irony the hard way, I went back and read his other ‘male advice’ columns to make sure he wasn’t the greatest pro-feminist troll of college journalism.  To my disappointment, I found thisinstead:
“Women have always had advice columns where men are perceived as either the enemy or the elusive goal.  Psychiatrists, professors, and doctors have been stirring the sugar-free male ‘haterade’ for years, leaving women with a couch, a crutch, and Lorena Bobbit thoughts.  Guys need an advocate.”
He's wrong on every point.  Firstly, women have not always had advice columns.  The first one started running in 1691, and writing of its kind was “arch, knowing, and chatty” according to Jessica Weisberg of the New Yorker.  It wasn’t until the advent of the feminist movement that these columns actually started giving any substantial advice.  “Women stopped thinking about how they should do something – cook a meal, prepare for a holiday – and started considering why they did so at all,” says Weisberg.  Presumably Corrigan thinks that pre-feminist columns dealt with men as “the elusive girl,” and then afterwards women writers thought of us as “the enemy.”  That’s just a fundamental misunderstanding of the movement and its history.
Then with the broadest possible brush he implies that all of academia, all of the medical community, and all of the psychiatric community have been preaching the gospel of man hate “for years”.   But it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that “hysteria” stopped being used as a medical diagnosis for troublesome women.  Richard Dawkins, Oxford’s Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, recently belittled a podcast host for describing her discomfort after being followed into an elevator and solicited.  His compatriot, journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote on the subject of “why women aren’t funny” in Vanity Fair and said in a 2010 interview that “no woman of mine has to work.”  These aren’t academic nobodies.
And while women have perhaps gained access to a comfy couch and a steady crutch, the real struggle is over wages and safe passage through our city streets.   It’s only been in the last few decades that women have had the franchise to advocate for their own health, and this – at least in the mind of Mr. Akin, who sits on the House Committee on Science – is still an ongoing argument.
And with that Corrigan yields to a half-joke about how women all want to cut off their husbands’ genitalia.  I’d be more likely to laugh if he didn’t just recommend that guys “accept that you will be automatically loathed simply because you are a man” when women are menstruating.

“Guys need an advocate."

There’s a fair, if controversial, comparison to be made here.  Imagine me saying, “White people need an advocate.”  Or, “Straight people need an advocate.”  In order to think this you have to willfully ignore all historical context.  Public advocacy for any non-straight, non-white, non-man is a recent phenomenon.  In fact, civil, gay and women’s rights are linked at their inception – partly because feminists have been consistent advocates for the cause of LGBT and African American equality.
I think this line of argument must stem from a juvenile sum zero approach to human dignity.  Yes, all you men’s rights people, of course we should be fighting for the rights of everyone.  Pointing out that women at a disadvantage does not derail the cause for universal human rights.  It’s like saying we can’t specifically campaign for gay marriage because the unemployment rate is hurting everyone.
And, like most advice columns, Corrigan flaunts essentialist gender roles with abandon.  Remember that when you are talking about women you are talking about half of the population.  Except maybe for questions about general anatomy, any broad statement about the essential characteristics of men and women will misfire.  But like homophobes and racists, Men’s Rights advocates couch their stereotype in pseudo-biology.  ‘Women were meant to tend, men were meant to provide.’   Prove it.  And then explain all the other ancient social roles you mean to impose on us because you can’t wrap your head around the genetic fallacy.
My sister made a very good point about this.  “[Men’s Rights people] seem to forget that women are people.  Instead, they’re strange beings with differently-programmed brains that can only be figured out with certain stratagems.”  As if half of humankind operates on universal rules, and you can read all about them in The Game by NeilStrauss.
And essentialism always ends up unfair to women.  Public figures like Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton still has to deal with skepticism of her lack of “femininity” while the question of a male leader's “masculinity” goes unmentioned.  I really hope that some day people will be as shocked when they hear someone described as a “frigid woman,” or “stoic woman,” or “ambitious woman” as they are shocked by “angry" or “uppity" black man.

I don’t think John Corrigan is a bad guy and I don’t know him well enough to smear him with the label of “Men’s Rights Advocate”.  I just think he’s not being very thoughtful.  Would he change his tune, I wonder, if he learned that not all women experience menses the same way or that –gasp – not every woman gets postmenstrual tension in the clinical sense?
This is not just some passing frustration I have with a fellow writer.  I am very concerned about the rising popularity of “Men’s Rights” and the simultaneous abandonment of feminist pride.  There’s an alarming confluence of neuroses at work, namely sexual frustration, self-pity, and unemployment.  In any culture, at any time, the first sign of this axis is a rising tide of resentment towards women.  Unemployment means depression and feeling useless.  You pity yourself when you’ve been single and jobless for too long.  Sexual frustration sets in and provides the perfect target for listless, horny, young men.
So let me live up to my disclaimer and lend you a bit of essentialism of my own.  Men’s Rights advocates are undersexed, self-pitying women-haters.  They must be right that guys have lost their balls because these guys don’t have the balls to call themselves what they really are:  chauvinists.  And for a group of surly, flippant men they sure do whine a lot.
It remains to be seen whether Corrigan’s article is just a minor shock piece that will get bounced around angrily on Facebook or whether it’ll provoke an interesting discussion.  Rather telling, however, is a letter to the editor published in the Temple News on Wednesday.
“Stand tall.  This article has been misinterpreted by “critics” who have never read Mr. Corrigan’s past articles and probably have not even heard of Temple News.  The ignorance they have shown thinking that an article comparing periods to Pokemon Stadium is serious in nature is just incredible.  College is about experimentation.  Those who have voiced their cynical comments are either jealous of the freedom college brings or angered they do not have the power to publish such a clever piece of work.  They are obviously not aware of Mr. Corrigan’s wittiness and unique style of writing, which should be applauded, not trampled.  He is the voice to men everywhere and I thank you, John, for producing such a truthful column about one of the great wonders of the male world.  I cannot wait to see what you have up your sleeve for next semester.”
Matthew Doyen of Reading, Pennsylvania tries to have it both ways.  Corrigan is just a witty writer who isn’t to be taken seriously.  He is also “the voice to men everywhere.”
Well, I have read Corrigan’s past articles and they only make me more concerned about the creeping reassertion of women hatred.  If this was satire, I applaud it for its astoundingly apt assessment of the “Men’s Rights” movement.  But I doubt that very much.
And by the way, I’m not trying to speak on behalf of women.  I have no grounds to do so.  I’m not trying to defend their unguarded flank.  They’ve got it covered.  I’m writing this because there are people like Mr. Corrigan and Mr. Doyen who try to speak for me.  They do this without my consent.  “He is the voice to men everywhere”?  Not for me.  Not for a second.
You see?  Now it’s personal.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Censorship by the People, for the People


Fourteen years ago today, Matthew Shepard’s body was buried in Casper, Wyoming.  He was twenty-one years old when two men beat and tortured him, and died of his injuries two days later in hospital.  During the funeral, Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church came to Wyoming to hold up picket signs in front of Shepard’s grieving friends and family.  The signs read “Fag Matt in Hell,” “No Tears for Queers,” and their famous motto, “God Hates Fags.”

Mourners anticipated an appearance from the Westboro Baptists.  If you’ve seen The Laramie Project, you’ll know that the inspiring counter-protest came to be called ‘Angel Action,’ whereby costumed defenders elegantly and thoughtfully drowned out the bullies.  With outstretched ‘wings’ the Angels made a sort of human barrier around the picketing Christians.  There was no violence.
But a law was passed this summer that partially outlawed both Angel Action and Westboro Mischief.
In August, President Obama signed the “Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012”.  It’s a pretty decent piece of legislation that, among other things, expands veterans’ access to housing and mandates new measures for the reporting of sexual assaults on military bases.  But Alaska’s junior senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, included a proviso in the law that says
“While ensuring the freedom to protest, but protecting the rights and the honor of the families of the fallen, those wishing to protest military funerals, or at national cemeteries, shall be subject to restrictions, and if violated, protesters shall be punished by criminal or civil action.”
I hate to have to be the one to point this out but, regarding “freedom to protest” and the “rights and the honor” of military families, only one of those things is actually protected in the Bill of Rights.  Honoring veterans’ families is a decent thing and protecting them from demented hecklers at the time of their burial is admirable.  But the right of assembly is sacrosanct.  Despite what this section of the law claims, no one has the “right” to avoid being offended, upset, or outraged.
The compromise goes like this:  no one can assemble and demonstrate within three hundred feet of military funeral, five hundred feet if it’s at a family member’s home.  It’s also illegal to protest two hours before or after the ceremony (which in my mind makes the physical boundary redundant).
Why the Westboro Baptist Church does what it does is irrelevant.  Any agitator, noble or otherwise, reacts to this kind of legislation the same way Fred Phelps’s daughter Rebekah did on Twitter:  “There’s usually some prime real estate at 301 ft.”  (She added a smiley face.)  These people religiously abstain from violence at their demonstrations and tend to comply with local laws.  So wouldn’t they just immediately go to Kinko’s to get some bigger posters?
That’s the first problem for anyone who tries to shut other people up.  How do you do it?  For those who agree that the Church should be barred from picketing military funerals, first ask yourself how exactly this law is supposed to be enforced.  Is somebody supposed to pull out their cell phone when they see picketers at the cemetery and call the police?  Would the police then arrive on the scene and make arrests as the memorial service is taking place – and might that not be a worse distraction?  Would the mourners instead arrange for a police escort in advance, as the authorities already have already been monitoring the Westboro’s online presence, perhaps keeping an eye on the Twitter accounts of the Church’s members?  Or – before I get carried away – is this law just another attempt at prior restraint?
If you take the line that these Westboro picket lines don’t constitute free speech, but rather a breech of the civil peace, consider the tremendous penalty this law mandates.  Protesting a military funeral can now land you up to a year in prison and a fine of $50, 000.  But a typical ‘disturbing the peace’ citation calls for ninety days in prison and a $400 fine.  And why, if these demonstrations fall outside the realm of peaceful assembly, does the law make pains to accommodate them with measly boundaries?  We’re talking about a distance of less than a football field.
The Camp Lejeune Act obviously can’t target the Church specifically.  So now any protest at military funerals are illegal.  That means no one can assemble to protest the war that killed our soldiers, or, for that matter, to voice support for the war.  If you wanted to protest the very fact that an individual was receiving military honors – say it was someone who escaped judgment for their involvement in Abu Ghraib torture – that would not be legal.
Basically, President Obama and Congress have granted military families the right to prosecute anyone who offends them – albeit, within a certain amount of time and within certain distance.  The Westboro Baptists are still free to picket any civilian’s funeral; Matthew Shepard’s family would not have been shielded from offense by this law. 
It’s a legal protection against nuisance.  And it is a nuisance; don’t get me wrong.  Any regular reader of mine knows that I find myself in unfamiliar territory defending an extreme Christian fringe group.  They’re hateful, annoying, and offensive.  But we’re grown ups.  Part of living in a society requires that you come into contact with people whose ideas offend you.  Even at a hero’s funeral.
But let’s be realistic, too.  This was one section in a law that otherwise did very good things for veterans.  It’s a chance for members of Congress to look like they cooperate with each other.  It’s something Mr. Obama can tell veterans before Election Day when they ask what good he’s done.
I just think it’s important we remember that any censorship campaign will first target unpopular opinions, never popular ones.  The speech that no one agrees with is the speech that requires defending from censors.  Even if it seems like the censorship had good intent, like defending the honor of military families, we should treat any abridgement of the First Amendment with contempt.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

How to Tear Down a Statue

Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos

Tek Young Lin is an eighty eight year old retired English teacher. Earlier this summer he admitted that during his tenure at Horace Mann School in the Bronx, he made inappropriate sexual advances towards his students, and raped and molested at least three of them. He was unrepentant despite this admission. He said the times -- presumably the 1960s -- were different then. As a covert criminal, Lin bamboozled the staff and faculty, betrayed his responsibility to the students, and, by all accounts, was a pretty good English teacher. The English department chair at Horace Mann was named after him.

Despite this horrible revelation, imagine if I were to say, "Well, yes, he's a serial statutory rapist but you should have seen those kids' book reports on Gatsby." What would you think of me if I were to say that? I'm embarrassed even to have to illustrate the point.

For the Penn State apologists out there, what you need to understand is that this is what it sounds like when you whine about Joe Paterno's legacy. I truly hope that most of you can't help but raise a skeptical eyebrow when you hear someone tirelessly insisting on all the good he did for the Nittany Lions. (Do your best to refrain from piping up with, but Joe Paterno raped no one! The point outlives the mismatched metaphor.)
Joe Paterno tricked you. You all thought he was a decent man who used his influence to better the university. You were wrong. Why are you angry at Louis Freeh, and not the man who squandered your admiration?

Some people, it has to be said, have been shamed at least into distancing themselves from his name. Beaver Stadium's tent city was renamed "Nittanyville". Gotta give it up to the tailgaters' sense of public relations.

What of Beaver Stadium itself? What was a certain answer before is now a 'certainly not'. There will never be a 'Paterno Stadium'.

One of the ironies in this story is that Nike had to change the same of its child care center, quietly retreating from the name of Jerry Sandusky's ally.

And as I write this the university is circling Paterno with jackhammers.

The toppled statue is just one of many Paterno symbols to get rid. Each of these honors speaks to his power, specifically his excess of it. The coach had the board of trustees by the jockstrap ever since he realized he could threaten not to raise money when his will was challenged. This doesn't come as a shock, as across the country college sports have too much power over universities.

Paterno's biography could have been the story of a man who benevolently wielded this fundraising power. But with that influence, what qualities of leadership did the head coach display? When given the chance to employ the full might of Paterno Power, what did he do with it? He obfuscated, obstructed justice, and protected a known child rapist.

If it sounds like I'm piling on, that's on purpose. The Paterno cult deserves a controlled demolition. We ought to tear down the countless monuments dedicated to the patron saint of college ball. His downfall is a lesson in judging your saints more harshly than normal folks. A lesson in knowing when your veneration was misplaced.

So I have no patience for all these lamentations about the man's legacy. (For what it's worth, obsession with 'legacy' is just vanity by proxy, and deserves little of your attention.) The anger is reserved for his detractors, not for him. That's where the apologists make their big mistake.

What is Joe Paterno's legacy?

P.R. stuntman and million dollar fundraiser?

Obstructor of justice, protector of Jerry Sandusky, who broke the law for the sake of a profitable sporting club?

Or football coach?

No morally serious person can claim that Paterno's sporting career is the most important thing he did. When the time came for real leadership, he dithered. He steered his ship stern-first into international waters with an outlaw in his custody. He lied. Shamefully so.

Bob Costas said of Paterno that his good deeds are good, but they are overwhelmed by his evil ones.

If there's any comparison to be made with another shadowy clergy, manipulating investigation from behind the scenes, it comes two-fold. One is the priority set on institution over child welfare. The other is the pathetic whimpering of apology by everyone who still dares to defend the men who did it.

An independent student paper, the Daily Collegian, ran an article parroting former university president Graham Spanier's lawyers. They claim the Freeh report unfairly indicted him even attempted to discredit the former FBI director's investigation: "Mr. Freeh's conclusions are not judicial or law enforcement pronouncements." It has to be pointed out that should the report have vindicated the Penn State clergy, this non sequitor would not have appeared in print. Instead, the Daily Collegian opted for the Catholic League approach and continue to assume a priori that their guys are the good guys.

Of passing interest is the parallel disgrace of two elderly Italian Catholics who ducked out before earthly justice could be rendered. If there was a hell for them to go to, Coach Paterno and Cardinal Bevilacqua would be shackled together.

I ask again, what is Joe Paterno's legacy?

Is it something worthy of a statue, a prominent memorial on campus? Or does he deserve the whispers of scandal, forever murmured in the halls of Pennsylvania State University for the rest of time?

Some will no doubt say that the guilt over all this is what killed Joe Paterno. Lung cancer is more likely. Shame, history has showed time and again, is not a lethal condition.

One fewer statue means one fewer plaza where you have to bend a knee to puffed up saints. It's one fewer ape whose smoothly sculpted monument reveals no character flaw. Given enough time, any man will shame the people who cast him in bronze.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Prime Time Democracy

Start preparing yourself for that tiresome exhortation: this election year is important. You have to vote – and you should, don’t get me wrong – because 2012 will be a battleground election, a referendum on the incumbent. The most catalytic election since…

It’s as true as it is vapid. Footballers just try to play one game at a time, actors’ work is hard but rewarding, and elections are important.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already feeling campaign coverage fatigue. We have two more seasons to slog through. What’s worse, I inadvertently plagued my household with pre-recorded campaign messages because I disavowed partisan allegiance in back in 2008. ‘Independent’ translates as ‘undecided’ in political parlance.

But there is something redeeming about the next five months. We’re situated interestingly in history, the only period of time when people don’t know whether Obama is a two-term president. Doubt will give way to certainty in November.

I comment on it only because the perception of this first term will be different in retrospect. As I watched the results of the 2008 election filter in, I remember thinking how familiar ‘President-elect Obama’ sounded, as if any other outcome were impossible. No matter which party succeeds this time around, it’ll make perfect ex post facto sense.

If Obama wins, it’ll be said that he masterfully planned his ducks and parries, got as much done as he could to win a second term. He’ll be considered a cool, calculating political operator who guided the country out of a recession while securing his re-election. The next comeback kid, someone will say, a student of the Clinton school. His first term will be a lesson for future presidents.

If he loses, he’ll look like an ineffectual and bewildered amateur, hated by the paranoid right and scorned by his base. He’ll have been making it up as he went along, unmoored and unprincipled. Obama will be the executive who sure did like looking like a historic president, without doing all that much to earn the distinction. We’ll understand his first term as a blunder.

Kind of exciting to put it that way – we don’t know what we’ll be told to think yet. I find that simultaneously comforting and liberating. In other words, we should decide what we think of Obama’s presidency before history makes up our mind for us.

Right now we’re able to evaluate the first term without any spoilers. It’s like watching The Empire Strikes Back without being able to perfectly mimic James Earl Jones’ patriarchal reveal. Once you know, you’ll never doubt the outcome again.

Stretching the pop culture analogy for just a moment longer, I ask whether Obama’s presidency will end up like The Avengers or Lost. In both cases there was a lot of expectation for how they’d pull off the conclusion. Year after year since Iron Man was released, the studios teased us with movies meant to culminate in the ultimate super hero ensemble. I complained of the endeavor that it was all just a billion-dollar marketing scheme for a half-baked film premise. When I watched The Avengers, I ended up respecting for Thor, of all things. Somehow, the filmmakers knew what they were doing all along and created a worthwhile product. It was a pay off that colored my opinion on the previous movies.

The corollary is applicable, too. With Lost, viewers picked over every confusing, nonsensical decision with enough trust that things would make sense in the end. It didn’t. Lindelof, et al were making it up as they went along. Fans were rightly upset that they’d wasted close to a decade anticipating an epilogue that was hastily thrown together.

I think back and can hardly believe that Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. (Does anyone have the energy anymore to mention this distinction in a sentence discussing the Syrian rebellion?) The expectations were high from the beginning. Does the Obama presidency have enough substance to be picked up for another season? How many Obama initiatives are smoke monsters and polar bears? Could it be, on the other hand, that there is masterful planning at work waiting to repay our loyalty?

Is the country waiting to see how it all turns out? If this analogy holds, it’s because of a tremendous flaw in our democracy. We behave like, and view ourselves as, spectators. Howard Zinn explains the problem in terms that I wouldn’t dare paraphrase:

“There's this paradox, it seems to me. That we live in a country which prides itself on its democratic heritage, on something called democracy. And yet we behave towards our leaders as supplicants, just eager to hear ever word that they utter, eager to watch every thing that they do. And it's as if our role is a passive one. Our role is to observe … As if we are not active participants in the democratic process, not active participants in the making of policy and deciding what is done in the world and the United States. We always have to hang back wait and see what is being done to us and for us, and that is our role. To me, that is a very puny definition of democracy, that the supreme act of citizenship is to go to the polls every two years or four years and pull down those little levers, and that's it. To have this enormous opportunity to choose between two candidates, neither of whom we like. And then to go home and turn on the television and watch what they do and gossip about what they're doing. That is a very mealy approach to democracy, it seems to me.”

In contrast, consider the recent minor victory for gay rights; the movement is successful enough to flip the President of the United States. I see it as a moral rather than tactical success, but it’s enough to celebrate. The pre-condition for Obama changing his mind was: more people think gay marriage should be legal than not, the tide was changing in the African American community (if this hadn’t already occurred as a pre-condition for Obama’s switch), and most importantly, liberal donors were willing to threaten Democrats into changing their mind. Money made him talk.

(And let me briefly confront an argument that’s become something of an apologist reflex. If I say Barack Obama changed his position on gay marriage because it was politically expedient, he’s a cynic, not me. Some of his supporters, grown more petulant by his term of torpor, are reduced to the ‘I know you are but what am I’ line of argument. It has a rather grating effect, like being called ‘na├»ve’ by Second-Shooter theorists.)

It’s a testament to the success of the LGBT movement, but reflects poorly on Obama. Either we take him at his word -- that his position was evolving and he came to the right side eventually -- or assume that he’d been lying because he thought it would help his career. In the latter case, he’s more cynical than I previously imagined, the true Clinton dauphin. In the former case he’s a dopey zealot, and neither sort deserves your respect.

But no sooner had we rounded the victory lap than Andrew Sullivan arrived on the scene to stick his leg over the track. He negates all agency of the movement, of which he was a part, with the absurd proposition that Obama neglected us into action.

“This, by any measure, is an astonishing pace of change in one presidential term. In four years Obama went from being JFK on civil rights to being LBJ: from giving uplifting speeches to acting in ways to make the inspiring words a reality. And he did so by co-opting the forces of resistance—like the military leadership. He fooled most of us much of the time, our outbursts often intemperate—I went on CNN at one point to say that the president had betrayed the gay community on the military ban. We snarked about the ‘fierce urgency of whenever.’ Our anger built. And sometimes I wonder if he goaded us into ‘making him do it.’ If he did, it worked.”

Now that is a conspiracy theory for the modern era. This wasn’t our success at all; Obama tricked us into demanding equal rights for gays and lesbians! There’s something like Stockholm syndrome at work here, this cozying up to authority. I can’t shake my mean-spirited impulse to say that it also explains the melancholy paradox of the “gay Catholic”.

(You should notice about Sullivan’s hackneyed JFK comparison that Obama has not even made a speech about marriage rights, but rather shoe-horned his begrudging acceptance of gay humanity into a soundbite. Talk to me when he goes to North Carolina to protest the reactionary legislation passed last month.)

A Clintonoid occupies the White House. When he promises to the left and delivers to the right, we’re told that the opposition is making it too difficult for him to be the liberal he truly is. Read: the unfalsifiable hypothesis of the closet liberal. When he does something patently cynical, we’re told he’s a political realist – we didn’t even know how clever he was! There’s a tautology at work here.

So again in 2012, this crucial election year, the left is facing the Zinn paradox. Do you vote for the Mormon missionary, or the guy who pretends to be a Christian? The ‘conservative’ Massachusetts governor? Or the ‘socialist’ Wall Street defender? One used to oppose gay marriage and now endorses it; the other used to favor gay rights and now cites Leviticus. Somebody will say this is the most important election since who-knows. I say this is the most uninteresting election since 2000: l’absence de choix redux.

Lucky for Obama, a passive audience favors authority.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Responses (Swallowing the Tablets, pt. 1)

Responses to Tom Trinko, Frank Mattison, and John Williamson, whose criticism can be found here.

"First he ignores the fundamental difference between God who created us out of nothing and man.

“Hence the writer thinks it's bad that God declares Himself to be the Boss. Clearly if God made us and sustains us we owe Him something. But the writer just says that's bad. He thinks it's evil that God who gives us everything shouldn't be mocked. The same yahoo wouldn't mock his boss or his wifes parents but thinks it's evil to not mock God.”

I don’t discuss it outright until part three, so I do ignore the fundamental difference between God and man in part one. Spoiler alert: I don’t think there is a difference. Men created God and their prejudice and ignorance come through quite clearly in the Holy Writ.

God shouldn’t have ownership of us because he creates us, no more than a parent owns their children. Kids don’t owe their creators anything a priori, respect has to be earned, not asserted.

A healthy society is contingent on being able to criticize the leader. God doesn’t allow for that. It’s asserted that he gives us everything; why does that immunize him from mockery? Because he says so. I’m not clear which “yahoo” he’s referring to, but I certainly would mock anyone who deserves to be knocked down a few pegs. Bosses, in-laws, politicians, and religious people stand to benefit from a little lampooning.


* * *


“He's ignorant in that he doesn't realize that in the commandment not to kill it's actually do not murder. Hence he mutters some confused things about self defense that are irrelevant.”


As I said, all citations come from the King James Version, which renders 20:13 “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s a shame that so many American Christians read sloppy, “modernized” translations of their own sacred text. The original Hebrew said “kill,” meaning to “deliberately kill”. That criminalizes, for example, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. All I say is that there are ethical exceptions. But God seems perfectly content with deliberately killing people.

* * *

“…If he had shown even the mildest sign that he had put any effort at all into studying the general human history of how tomes like the torah [sic] come about... I would have given him the time for a full read through.”

For the purpose of part one, I was operating under the assumption that the Ten Commandments were written by God. I’m glad we agree that they ‘came about’ in a different way. I welcome any challenge to my reading of the Exodus, but it’s a pretty straightforward synopsis. There’s also an admission here that he didn’t read the entire article.


“I personally find it offensive when an atheist starts his anti biblical arguments by applying judeo-christian morality to the Old testament, and declaring ‘It comes up short.’
This practice is juvinile [sic] to say the least... and generally beneath any kind of response outside of a hearty ‘pishau’.”

Surely you would maintain that Judeo-Christian morality is founded in the Old Testament? I’m not quite sure what you mean when you say I ‘apply Judeo-Christian morality’ to it. What I did do was challenge God on ethical grounds and I come to the conclusion that God is immoral by any modern standard.


* * *

As for who I’m addressing with the piece, it’s simply the people who read my blog. There are believers and non-believers, strident and doubting who check it out. I’m pretty sure this isn’t what you’re implying, but I don’t speak differently with Christians than I do with atheists, even when discussing religion.

My purpose is to outline the argument against the Decalogue, while being a little cheeky. I want to challenge Christians who think their religion is just, and challenge Christian apologists who masquerade as secularists.

It’s long enough as it is, and spending any more time on each commandment would be superfluous. That said, if there’s something that isn’t clear, the debate should be elucidating. As it stands, no one has yet responded to the actual arguments yet, rather my tone of voice.

And if someone’s reaction to the piece is instant dismissal, he wasn’t ready to have a serious discussion about his beliefs in the first place.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Swallowing the Tablets, pt. 1

Ten Commandments comprise a significant portion of Christian ethics. They are said to form the basis of an ethical, holy life, and a sound foundation for any legal system. Christians and atheists can agree on this much at least.

If Christians are right, religious morality must be objectively true – it is divine. God’s law should be perfect, making revision and abridgement unnecessary. It should be universal and should still be applicable to modern civilization. But it’s not. When the Church tethered itself to the ancient Decalogue, they made their first big mistake.

The Ten Commandments scuttle Christian morality before it even sets sail.


DRAFTING THE DECALOGUE

Criticism of the Ten Commandments requires some preliminary excavation. The verses have to be plucked from the ruins of the Old Testament.

Their first rendering comes in Exodus when God calls Moses to Sinai. God only lets Moses approach, by the way, and makes it quite clear that no other man, woman or beast may step a pace closer: "whosoever toucheth the mount shall surely be put to death."

After this foreboding introduction Moses receives the Decalogue. It’s misleading, because they’re not referred to as the ten commandments until later on, and by my reading, God is handing down more than ten laws. (Admittedly, it wouldn't publish so well as the Thirteen Commandments, the Triscadecalogue.)

God bangs on about the details following verses 20:2 to 20:17. He prohibits the manufacture of gold and silver idols, presumably to clarify what constitutes a "graven image." He details the kosher construction of sacrificial altars, for which earth is preferred but if it absolutely has to be made of stone -- for His sake -- nothing hewn.

The fun really begins when God sets regulations for slavery and slave marriage, ownership of child slaves, the selling of daughters, and the holiest ways to perform executions. We're told an eye must be taken for every eye, and every tooth and foot and whipping likewise. (That brutal law of exchange applies to stubborn animals, as well, which sheds some divine light on what God thinks of us.) Several injunctions about agriculture and food storage follow, then the bestiality ban and, my favorite, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Somehow that commandment always springs to mind when Christians try to display the Decalogue in courthouses.

But then some of the Egyptian refugees mold a golden calf out of old earrings and start praying to it. In a fit of temper, Moses orders their execution and smashes the stone tablets. God chisels a (slightly different) second draft and sanctifies the slaughter of every Canaanite, Hittite, Amorite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite. God’s law is baptized in bloodshed.


DECONSTRUCTING THE DECALOGUE

Christians cull their moral foundation from this violent and tedious old story. But by emphasizing just a few of God’s numerous exhortations, they’ve already shown a predilection for revising and condensing the Word. Why are the first holy verses any more sacred than the next? A modern Christian probably wants to skirt around the blatant endorsement of slavery and witch-hunting. Shying away from the strict separation of dairy and meat was probably better for membership drives, too.

Unfortunately for them, even the abridged version lacks a shred of moral decency.

From the King James Version of Exodus:


20:2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.


The big introduction. The first impression. God tells the former slaves that He’s the one who freed them from the frying pan, and ushers them swiftly into the oven. The Pharaoh had you -- now I do. It’s a bold move to begin a moral treatise by demanding unequivocal submission.

(It might be worth noting that St. Paul conjures up a bit of potential blasphemy when he tells women they should obey their husbands as gods [1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:22-24].)


20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

20:5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.

20:6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.


You can see that this "second" commandment is actually two related rules. Do not make any idols, but if you happen forget that first part, don't even think of worshiping them. This is just vanity, irrelevant to morality, and even comes with a stern threat. If you break this rule, your great-great grandchildren will be punished for it. How's that for ethics, punishing a yet-to-be conceived infant for the crimes of her ancestors? The mobster's strong arm is at work here: ‘It sure would be a shame if anything happened to your kids...’ God is extorting you, demanding subjugation for protection. Idol worship must be worse than any other trespass in God’s eyes, because even the progeny of thieves and killers will not be held unduly accountable.

This is also His first foray into censorship. In Deuteronomy, He specifies that "graven images" include pictures of stars, people, and fish. Anything that God made cannot be artistically reproduced. We've seen what happens when Muslims take this seriously and try to enforce it. Aren’t Christians compelled to do the same? And if the God is serious in his threat, you’re going to hell because your grandmother has a statue of Jesus on her nightstand.

I always thought God’s “jealousy” betrays an uncharacteristic vulnerability. If there really is only one god, what's there to be jealous of? Are there actually other deities that we don't know of? In any case, Yahweh -- like Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather -- rubs out the competition.


20:7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.


In case you forgot, we're reminded here again that we'll be punished for disobedience. The message here is that there will be no criticism of the Lord. Don't even say his name unless you're bowing before him. Like a feckless child king, God makes sure no one can make fun of him.


20:8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

20:9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work.

20:10 But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.

20:11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.


This is another two-fold commandment: check your calendars regularly and remember not to schedule anything at the end of the week. In Exodus (it's different in Deuteronomy) we’re told that because God rested, we have to do the same thing. Why? Because he says so. Which day? More complicated.

For Moses and his ilk, the Sabbath would have been from sundown on Friday until the first three stars emerge on Saturday night. As strident as God seems here, the Council of Laodicea decided that exact day Sabbath is negotiable. In 364 CE, they changed it to Sunday. Their reason? Saturday was too Jewish. "Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday, but shall work on that day," the council ruled. I wonder if we had to re-calibrate when we changed calendars, or did God switch to the Gregorian system with us? Don't even start on Leap Year. It's very possible that we've all been -- gasp -- "Judaizing" by accident.

Aside from the preposterous idea that one day can be more holy than any other, a worldwide Sabbath is a terrible idea. I’ve recently been living in Madrid, and let me tell you, it's rather annoying to live in a place where the Holy Day is enforced by the state. Most of the bars, restaurants, and supermarkets in my neighborhood were closed for three Sundays out of the month. Luckily Spain, like the United States, is on the path to striking down Blue Laws. I'll leave it up to the Christians to decide whether they have to insist on the death penalty for this offense.


20:12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.


There’s an odd promise attached to this commandment. Are we to take it that we should honor our parents because we expect a nice inheritance? That sort of cheapens the idea, which does has merit on its own. But I know people quite close to me who adhered to this commandment, only to be treated quite harshly by their loving progenitors when the will was written. Inheriting the land is far from a guarantee, in other words. Maybe my friends didn’t ‘honor’ their father and mother correctly? What does that involve, exactly?

And should this be an ironclad commandment, sharing the page with prohibitions on murder and theft? What if your mom or dad was a drunk? What if they abused you? Does Elisabeth Fritzl, who was held captive and raped by her father for decades, still have to obey this one? Does she still have to honor her violator? Is she promised to inherit her basement torture chamber? So much for moral absolutes.

And Jesus appealed to his followers that they abandon their families – including dear old mom and dad -- if they weren't believers. Can one still honor the folks if he walks out on them?


20:13 Thou shalt not kill.


It holds up, though one might have to stipulate clearly that this is contingent on certain agreements, mainly that if someone is trying to kill me I ought to be able to stop them. Maybe we should kill if it would stop someone else from killing. At a time when airplanes are used as weapons and predator drones stalk the skies, the only way we'll come to a sound conclusion is through a thoughtful conversation. But debating the divine is not our prerogative.

A few pages after God says quite plainly that we can't kill anyone, and you'll read him just as confidently ordering the genocide of all Moses' opponents. Mass murder is acceptable with divine warrant. So are human sacrifices, if Jesus and Isaac are exemplary. So is the murder of witches and disobedient children. If there were one rule God would be most firm on, you’d think it’d be this one.


20:14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.


Consider how adultery was defined in the time of Moses. A woman has sex with someone who is not her husband? Adultery. A man has sex with an unmarried woman? Not adultery. A man has sex with a slave? Not adultery. A man has sex with a second or third or fourth wife? Not adultery. The odds don’t favor women.

Or should we read this law with a modern definition of adultery? If so, I should ask you by what authority you're updating the Holy Writ. Remember, adultery will land you the death penalty. Men can only break this law by having sex with a married or engaged woman, which is small consolation to my fellow adulterers. Sex between consenting unmarried adults is illegal, but rape goes conspicuously unmentioned. In the Bible here are no prohibitions of rape inside a marriage or out. That's because a women's consent meant nothing in the era that scripture was written. By Biblical standards, rapists walk free.

As is God's habit, He immediately negates whatever value the law has by ordering the sexual slavery of every virgin hailing from an enemy tribe. He condemns all non-Levite young women to terror and enslavement. If Frauline Fritzl were a Hittite, say, or a Jebusite, what her father did to her would be kosher as long as he was a child of Moses. This is the Lord, your God.


20:15 Thou shalt not steal.


Just as no day can be holier than another, no piece of land is more sacred than the plot adjacent. God says you can't take someone else's property, except where territory is concerned you have a divine warrant to grab it. If the Lawgiver hadn’t adulterated this commandment, we would have avoided the Biblical mandate for the most intractable contemporary humanitarian disaster; I refer to the subjugation of Palestinians by people who take the Bible seriously. Instead, they can accurately cite scripture to displace their neighbors. So while a law condemning theft is a good idea, God breaks it himself.


20:16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.


This is a surprisingly clear-eyed and legalistic commandment. God is not outlawing little white lies, mind you. He says more interestingly that you ought not condemn someone for a crime they did not commit. Any civilization must be founded in part on the idea of a measured and inquisitive justice system. Outlawing perjury is required.

But remember that right after this, God appoints us as executioners. Witches must be put to the sword. And because witchcraft isn’t real, you are bearing false witness to accuse someone of it. In order to get out of this contradiction, a Christian has to either abrogate the word of God or affirm belief in sorceresses.


20:17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man servant, nor his maidservant, not his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.


The foremost problem with the last commandment is that wives are tossed in with the real estate and farm animals. Women and girls were considered property at the time the Old Testament was written, and God clearly affirms this view of gender relations. It’s further proof that when God addresses the world, he’s talking solely to men. “Neighbor” must be in the masculine, if neighbors own women and property.

One gets a creeping unease, too, when told that even wanting something is a sin. This isn’t a prohibition on action – theft was already covered – but a prohibition on what you feel. God will hold you guilty for what you feel in your heart. Put another way, the tenth commandment introduces thought crime to the world.

* * *

The Ten Commandments should make anyone of average moral intuition shudder. At the very least one has to maintain that the Decalogue is an incomplete moral treatise. One has to agree that a basic list of prohibitions ought to include rape and child abuse, at the very least. It seems that God has made a rather glaring omission.

Moreover, the Decalogue is primarily concerned with mandatory adoration of God. He gives us the law, which we had no say in drafting, and establishes the penalties for disobedience, which are dire. Part two of this series will focus on an even more sinister undertone of the Ten Commandments, the authoritarian aspect of God.