Friday, October 27, 2006

Cat meat

Australian Muslim leader compares uncovered women to exposed meat | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited: "Sheik Hilali was quoted as saying: 'If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... without cover, and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat's? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab [the headdress worn by some Muslim women], no problem would have occurred.'"

Demeaning to women, offensive to cats...but also insulting to men. The idea is that men have no real intentionality, that they will of course pounce reflexively at the first piece of red meat they see and that they are so far from being rational, autonomous agents that they cannot be blamed. Without external constraints men will of course run amok.

Where does this come from? It's at the heart of traditional "shame cultures where there are no internal forces governing behavior, where people merely respond to external constraints and social approbation. This works fine in the village where most people play by the rules most of the time and see to it that their neighbors do likewise, where everyone is caught in a net of kinship and mutual obligation, shame and honor. In the anonymous city, without the village watching you at every turn, in a world of strangers, there is no reason why you shouldn't run amok. Of course if a tempting piece of meat comes your way you will pounce. The only way to stop you is either to restrain you physically or to hide the meat.

The gears grind whenever villagers move to the city and wherever the Third World meets the first. When people who are bound and constrained break free there's crime, corruption and social chaos. It happens to colleges too, when students away from their families and childhood rules, drink themselves sick because they can and don't show up for class because no one is taking the roll. Most figure out how to behave in a year or two, sometimes longer if they don't wash out first.

Lakoff is wrong: the cut isn't between the Strict Father and Nurturing Parent--code for the stereotypical masculine and feminine. It's between those who believe that men are cats and women are meat or, more generally, that people will run amok if not embedded in family and village, bound by custom, constrained by shame, honor and the fear of God, and those of us who believe that left to their own devices people can, and will--even if after harsh experience--grow up. I guess really that's why I got into philosophy--beyond the taste for fighting and puzzle solving, I do believe in reason, sweet reason, splendidly powerful and always benign.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Yup. We Lost

The Observer | World | How Iraq came home to haunt America: "For months doubts over Iraq have risen along with the death toll. Last week a tipping point was reached as political leaders in Washington and London began openly to think the unthinkable: that the war was lost"

It was tough to admit during the war in Vietnam and it's tough to admit now: we lost. We took out the local tin pot dictator and prised the lid off a cauldron of cultural diversity. Now, predictably, the tribes are beating up on one another and warlords who can muster street gangs of lower class youths from the urban slums, dignified as "militias," are having the time of their lives.

However all is not lost: I have a plan.

(1) Declare an independent state of Kurdistan and promise Turkey admission to the EU if they'll recognize it.

(2) Require the independent state of Kurdistan to recognize a right of return for Kurds outside its borders comparable to the right of return Israel recognizes for Jews. If Turkish Kurds, affirming their ethnicity, prefer living in a Kurdish state to living in an EU country jolly good--I doubt that the Turks will miss them.

(3) Give educated, middle class, non-tribal Iraqis green cards and airlift them out to the US. We trashed their country and destroyed their lives--we take responsibility.

(4) Leave the tribal, lower class Shiites and Sunnis to fight it out amongst themselves over oil, land, women, goats or whatever it is they traditionally fight about until they manage to kill one another off.

How's that? Remember, you heard it here first.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

David Kuo's Tempting Faith

It's hard to believe, but Bush does disdain evangelicals: Kuo's book creates cognitive dissonance for liberals. Conspiracy theories about theocracy have haunted liberals for the last few years, and, if you believe that religious conservatives lead Bush around by the nose, evidence to the contrary is impossible to absorb. Everyone on the left 'knows' that the faith-based initiative is a slush-fund, a jackpot for religious conservatives. If it turns out instead to be a political sham that produced only 1 percent of the new funds it promised for faith-based organizations, liberals need rethink their theocracy-phobia...Evangelicals have become increasingly disillusioned with the Bush administration and the Republican Party in general over the last two years. While 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for Bush in 2004, only 57 percent approve of the job he's doing now, and only 52 percent say they are likely to support Republicans in the November elections...evangelical support has plummeted in large part because they, along with other religious conservatives, have begun to suspect they've been played by Republicans--used for their votes and then ignored.

Hard to believe??? Of course elite conservatives are as contemptuous of conservative Christians as elite liberals are. The American elite, whether conservative or liberal, is secular and most members have little sympathy with the socially conservative agenda that the current administration has pretended to promote. No surprise here.

The difference between liberal and conservative members of the elite is that conservatives have lied to lower class conservative Christians, played them for fools, taken their money and used their support to promote policies that are contrary to their interests. Somehow Dubya managed to persuade hoi polloi that he was just a regular dumbass, inarticulate guy with a bad accent who cut brush on his "ranch," and to persuade everyone that he really thought that "the jury was out" on evolution. Really? After Andover and Yale--even though his daddy had to buy him into both?

Nothing new. Renaissance Popes frolicked and made their "nephews" cardinal archbishops in their teens, while the pious Catholic peasantry worshipped holy bones. Henry opined that Paris was "worth a mass," while Protestant peasants were convinced that the Pope was the Anti-Christ. Everything changes, everything remains the same. The Republican elite giggled about Mark Foley's silly little flirtations with youths and covered it up lest their redneck supporters on the ground find out.

I don't know how the Democrats could play this one. What should they say to these lower class people who keep the Republicans in power--"look these guys despise you just as much as we do, and are exploiting you to boot"? What should these people do? Pull out of the Republican party and support genuine populists from amongst them--splitting the conservative alliance and guaranteeing a liberal win? Somehow the message has got to be put across: everyone with any money, education or power thinks you guys are stinking shit; anyone you could vote for--Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Green--anyone sufficiently educated and articulate to get on any ticket--detests you. So you may as well vote your economic interests--so that if not you, at least your children can become upper middle class latte-drinking liberals.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Fundamentalism Lite

I debated a fundamentalist minister from a local branch of The Vineyard last Wednesday.
I was supposed to be debating a professional "youth evangelist," one Alex McFarland, on the topic of his talk, Truth Exists--Absolutely!. I'm not altogether clear on the story but apparently, when McFarland found out, the day before the event, that a real, live professor would debate him, he backed out.

So I was left to debate the local guru, the very model of a modern neo-fundamentalist as described in a remarkable NYTimes Magazine story about the Radiant Church of Surprise, AZ some time back.

The guru, big and genial, wouldn't fight and wouldn't bite. He began by asserting that if there was one thing we knew it was that Truth was "relational" and also that Truth was "dynamic." I couldn't fathom what he was talking about but the audience seemed to be following--and approving. The questions from the audience were equally incomprehensible. Somehow, however, he and they had an understanding, though I couldn't grasp what it was about, beyond some vague idea that Truth=Jesus=Love and that loving Truth/Love/Jesus made people happy and morally good.

I was disheartening, not only or primarily because so many of these decent kids were hooked on fundamentalism but because of why they and others were hooked--and not only on fundamentalism. It was the appetite for empty sentimentalities and uplift without content, the boosterism, the unshakable faith in slogans, "training" to teach leaders recipes, pep rallies to "energize" the base, and the vacuous blandness of the whole thing. That I think is characteristically American, and that is why American-style neo-fundamentalism takes hold. It isn't puritanism--long dead. It isn't Elmer Gantry, the promise of heaven or threat of hell--it's the glad-handing, boosterism and sloganeering of Main Street, the slicked up sales pitch, the inflated pseudo-technology of group dynamics, pedagogy, and management. It's the hegemony of Business: salesmanship, marketing and management--professionalized, refined and applied to everything, including education, religion and politics.

What bothers me is the intolerance for anything gritty, unconventional, combatative or simply difficult, the obsession with slick, smooth, and bland, the utter tedium of the whole thing and the waste--the energy people could spend on learning real technical skills wasted on these elaborate techniques of social interaction: management, marketing, "leadership," cultivating the art of likablity so that in the end neither technical skills nor intellectual content matter. That, it seemed, was the draw of this neo-fundamentalism--religion without ritual, symbolism or intellectual content beyond a few theological nuggets swallowed painlessly because to adherents they didn't matter: what mattered were "relationships"--to Jesus, to the affable pastor, and to the "community" of fellow-adherents.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Guardian Unlimited Film | News | Mel Gibson apologises for anti-semitic outburst

Last July, the Braveheart director was arrested on a Los Angeles motorway on suspicion of drunk driving, after being caught speeding. A three-quarters-full bottle of tequila wrapped in a brown paper bag was found on the floor. According to portions of the arrest report that became public, Gibson launched into an anti-semitic tirade, accusing Jews of starting all wars and demanding to know if his arresting officer was Jewish. The incident sparked international headlines, drew condemnation from Jewish leaders and led to speculation that Gibson's Hollywood career had been irreparably damaged. Within days of the incident, Gibson had entered a rehabilitation clinic and undergone treatment for alcoholism.

Oh, and he also had some choice remarks for the officer's female partner whom he called "sugar tits." Not to mention the fact that he was speeding down the freeway dead drunk, endangering the public. But who's counting? In the words of my favorite quote from Ghostbusters, when the Central Park horse-cab driver is accosted by a demonically possessed tax accountant in full flow: "what an asshole."

These days alcohol rehab is the respectable way out. So, when Mark Foley got caught flirting with youths, it was only natural that he sign on for alcohol rehab and, for good measure, claim that he was a victim of priest abuse. Clearly priest abuse will become de rigeur in all subsequent cases of this nature. Then there was Ellen Cook, the treasurer of the Episcopal Church who embezzled 2.6 million dollars and made the case that it was a consequence of the intolerable stress of male chauvinism that she faced in her position as the Church's highest ranked layperson. Is it possible that anyone actually takes these excuses seriously?

Why can't ordinary slobs like me (and you, dear reader) get away with this? So sorry I haven't shown up to teach my logic classes for the past week--I was flat on the floor in a drunken stupor--I need a paid vacation in rehab. Holy cow, two years ago a screwy part-timer reported me and my next door colleague for smoking in our offices. I managed to get rid of the evidence, but the dean caught my colleague with an ashtray on his desk and there was hell to pay. Why don't we think of these things--alcoholism, priest abuse, male chauvinism? I suppose that's why we aren't celebrities.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Veiling: Thanks, Jack

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Dangerous attack or fair point? Straw veil row deepens:

Muslim opinion on the streets was not unsympathetic to Mr Straw, but hardly anyone put other communities' feelings before the religious right - duty in the eyes of a sizeable minority - to wear the full veil. A self-employed electrician waiting for the end of lessons at St Nicholas and St John infant and junior school - which is overwhelmingly Asian - said that the roots of social division were much older than veil-wearing.'It's all to do with the way we were treated in the Seventies - I was regularly chased along here when I was a kid by white lads. Other communities just didn't want to know about us - funny that they're all so interested now in things like veils. I was a soldier in the British Army for 11 years and I can tell you very clearly how I couldn't get anywhere because I wasn't white but brown.'

The electrician knows best.

In all the stuff I've been reading for my current project on multiculturalism, with every conceivable theory and speculative fantasy concocted by journalists, pundits, politicians and academics on the table, the remarks of people on the ground--when they manage to be heard above the noise--point in the same direction. Immigrants and people of color face discrimination and exclusion. They can't get into the mainstream so they cluster together. Their children, who expect more than second-class citizenship, take up cultural affirmation and identity politics with the blessing of multiculturalists: better to be Other than under; if you lock us out pooh on you--we've got our own club.

Then along comes Jack--fretting because he can't read the emotion on his constituents' veiled faces. Of course this isn't the issue, any more than Islam, female modesty or female subordination is. The issue is people publicly asserting ethnicity, cultural identity and otherness. That assertion of otherness makes group identity more salient, promotes further discrimination, and sets back the interests of most Others who just want to assimilate, be regular plain vanilla citizens and, most importantly, to be treated as such.

Fat lot of good it does to get women to take off their face veils or otherwise encourage those Others to dress and behave like regular guys if the color of their skin still marks them as Other and they're treated as such. It's not the bus--it's us.

The response to discrimination helps perpetuate it. Bigots who wouldn't dare to say they didn't want brown people around can point triumphantly to veiling and other forms of Otherness to make the case that the problem is the refusal of those people to integrate, their commitment to radical Islamicism or their rejection of mainstream cultural values. There are, of course, Those Counterfactuals: if all those Muslims dropped their veils and converted to industry-standard CofE agnosticism, the bigots still wouldn't want them around. It's reminiscent of anti-semitism in Christian Europe from the get-go to the Holocaust. "We don't want you Jews around because you dress funny, talk funny, reject our culture and reject Christ. Oh, you've assimilated and converted, and don't dress funny or talk funny? Well, we still don't want you around."

Still, it's the state that hasn't kept it's part of the bargain--or at least what I believe the bargain should be: "we'll see to it that you're treated in the same way as other citizens if you behave like other citizens." Shifting the burden to minorities accomplishes nothing. Immigrants and their children can't avoid discrimination and exclusion by assimilating any more than the Jews in Nazi Germany could. Only the state can break the vicious circle by aggressively promoting integration and equal treatment, by affirmative action, by every available means.

But such policies are expensive and unpopular. It's cheaper and easier lob the ball into the Others' court, and then complain that they won't play the game.